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Queen's Gambit

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 2 of 36

"Xanadu Control, Stannis Clan ships Alamo and Balkis on approach vector 21, requesting landing clearance for warehouse area and maintenance yards." Navtech Brita Rocklin's voice was casual, certain the change would be approved. That was the chief reason for Captain Jenna Stannis's earlier check-in with the Valkyrie; to deal with the trivial routine matters of quarantine, scheduling and inventory in order to speed up their processing into the refit docks.

To her chagrin, the Tower Controller's nasal tones interupted, "Clearance denied, SCSAlamo, Balkis. Your check-in papers are incomplete."

"Incomplete!" The tall, dark man at Brita's side rumbled threateningly. "Jenna flits in 6 hours ahead of us just to get the damned red tape out of the way and it's still not finished!"

"Fleet Captain Stannis received an urgent summons to the Trade Hall, almost as soon as her ship grounded," the controller's voice answered primly. " Cargo manifests are incomplete. Central Records requires the information before you're allowed to offload or accept another consignment."

"Friggin' bureaucrats!" Newly confirmed Free Trader Captain Travis muttered angrily under his breath. "Why do they need six bloody copies of the same forms and invoices?"

Brita gave an exasperated snort but her square competent hands flew lightly across the board, entering the necessary coordinates to bring the two ships to a smooth, uneventful touchdown amid the midafternoon rush of routine port traffic.

After securing her board, she joined Travis and Sarcar, the Alamo's reptilian cargomaster, where they were grinding away at weight and value tables required by the Enclave's Portmaster. Sarcar was phlegmatic and unflappable as his coldblooded nature predisposed him to be, but Travis had the harried, impatient look of a man with a distinct aversion for the number-crunching details of their trading runs.

Out on the Rim, Captain Travis was one of the ablest captains in the Free Trader Fleet--competent, decisive, and not prone to taking reckless chances, unlike some others that she had crewed for. But back on Sanctuary, hemmed in by rules, regulations, and bureaucrats, he was like a caged hawk, apt to lash out at anyone who crossed him.

Raising her hands to halt the spate of curses she could see he was ready to pour equally on Jenna's uncle and the Portmaster, she glanced at the stack of hardcopy Sarcar had already printed out.

"Damn it, Brita. Jenna's the expert on these damned regulations. She could have finished the exemptions in a third of the time."

"I'm sure she could," the Navtech answered brusquely. "But Clan business always takes priority over an individual Captain's desires."

Travis grunted suspiciously, "You mean the First Captain's business."

Her smile took on a hint of a mocking edge. "To Mikhail Stannis, the two are one and the same. You're a former Federation officer, Captain. I thought you'd be used to following orders without question."

His sour expression did not lessen but she could see the hard lines around his mouth soften slightly. "I'll take battle up to my neck in slime and lasers over this maze of paperwork, anytime."

Sarcar's tongue flicked in and out swiftly, the only indication of his growing impatience. "In the time thou has wasted on chit-chat, we could have finished sorting data on the cargo in number three hold."

Shrugging his shoulders in resignation, Travis turned back to the routine logistical data shuffling that no officer, Federation or Free Trader, ever escaped. With Brita's and Sarcar's help, the daunting task was finally accomplished and their cargo speedily off-loaded.

After checking that all three ships had docking slots in the refit yards, Travis left them to the tender mercies of the maintenance crew for the special refit required by their next cargo run. He glanced over crews of the two trade ships, who were fidgeting impatiently to hit the pleasure houses and gambling dens dockside.

"You're port free for the next twelve hours. Don't drink yourselves blind or run afoul of dock security. I won't bail you out. Just make sure you're here at 0600 tomorrow to begin readying the ships for the Lescaux run."

At his curt nod of dismissal, most of the crew quickly dispersed, leaving only Brita and Akema beside him. The brawny engineer glanced down at his shipmate to confirm the invitation, then suggested, "If you'd care to join us for dinner, Captain?"

Travis gave them a brief tight smile, "I appreciate the offer, Engineer, but it seems I have business with the First Captain."

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Alice C. Aldridge

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