[This's not my authorial voice but one from the other side of the line, a kind of gossip reporter for an Edger news site.]
I knew he was a glocker crewman the first time I saw him. The skinsuit gives them away; the working stiffs never bother to unfasten their gloves, even in civic pressure or on a planetary surface. He was sitting disconsolate in one of the little bars near the old cargo port on Smitty's World. These days, the big transfers use Newport, thirty miles away, big enough and modern enough to handle Earthside containerized freight in bundles and the fat, fourth-generation bell-ringers our guys use both independently and to carry cargo on and off the huge station-ships. The older ships and the smaller carriers still find it easier to get a spot in the pattern for the old port, easier to deal with the freight-wallopers and, perhaps, easier on their pride, too.
It was just 1900, 22nd December, Greenwich. Like most ships, stations and planets with cycles too far from the human norm, Smitty's kept strictly to Greenwich Mean Time, or as close as they could. These days, with the phase-rotation ansible and modern computational horsepower, that's close as anyone could want.
The bar'd made a few concessions to the calendar in the form of a bedraggled banner draped across the top quarter of the backbar mirror and twinkling little led lights circling the ceiling, sagging markedly in several spots. It wasn't doing anything for the glocker's mood; he sat by himself near the wall, attention on his sippie of station gin-and-water as though all the worry in the world was contained therein. Or perhaps an anodyne to it and he wasn't hopeful of a successful treatment. He looked up as the door -- and on Smitty's, most of them are merely doors -- jangled behind me and I caught the dark curls, hazel eyes and freckles of one of the Materjacks. Clearly not Micki or little Martha but that still left Mikey and Mitchell, Mark and Marvin, the whole lot of them originally out of some little industrial installation doing mining and refining around La-A's star, or maybe it was Otherstone's. They're all well-known among the smaller starships as fair pilots, navigators and captains, starting even before their father and family ship was lost on Ganymede, early during the war. Skiddoo had been serving as a gunship, all the younger family safely elsewhere, but an entire generation of Materjacks had flashed to a ball of steam and molten metal and with it, their legacy.
Stringing for the newssite FreeTradeCetera, I tried to keep up with the shipping news, the lifeblood of civilization, our Edge on the mudballers from old Earth. Oh, that is boosterism; but it is who we are. I had spent the first of the week at Newport and not paid much heed to the small fry.
"You, I should know," I said to him. "You might be the Martian or the Saint, or the young one--"
"Or the oldest," he replied, "And that is me, just old Mitch. But you, I do not know, with the big fine notepad" -- he nodded at my well-worn SlateBook -- "and the talk of a glocksman but you wear no proper suit for working," with a frown at my bared hands. He had my story soon enough, as well as any interviewer could. "So you write about the Free Traders and the big Earth shippers for the webs, is that so? You would know, then, if there were to be any openings for a Captain shortly?"
I demurred. "I know them when they're posted, same as you. Someone you know needs a berth?"
"Me. Just me. They've come and took my Spirit Of Skidoo and here I am, an honest man walking the docks with a lamp in my hand. Spirit is gone."
That pile of patches! It was coming back to me. One of the small ones, a Derby or a Cloche, with an older MOF 'Drive and only enough power and mass for the third-level effect: slow and uncertain. The Materjacks had put it together from salvage thirty years before and run short-haul freight to keep the family afloat. "I'd heard it was lost, bounced into a rock free-trading around Sol?"
"No, no, a rumor. Stove up. Stove up some, was all, and I had to sell my share to get her fixed, but the best Cloche flying is still at it and I was still her Captain. What a beauty! As shiny as a silver dime. Smooth as silk to land and in and out of the Jump. She shouldn't be carrying anything but shareholders and their luggage, you know."
"I'd heard her 'Drive tended to glitch and the boom was off-center?"
He replied with some heat, "It is a lie, a jealous lie. There was never a finer little bell."
"Wasn't she down to half a year per light-year underway?" I asked, just to see if he'd bite.
He leapt up. "Six months? Show me the man who told you that and I will show him six months all right! She goes two months per, and that with a light hold and half power! And a beauty, like to blind you under any light, all the portmasters know her."
"So the stories of air leaks and coolant in the lifesystem..?"
"Not one bit of truth in it. Not one bit. She was a beauty, a real beauty," and he slumped back over his sipper, took a long pull and looked near to tears.
I hate to see a man with years in Jump space and with stripes on his sleeves cry. I inquired how he'd come to lose her altogether before he sprang a leak himself.
"A misunderstanding, really, a misunderstanding. When you come right down to the rivets, it was Dutch's fault, my Navigator, though we both sat Pilot, of course. He was the one took on the 'prentice, though we all should have known better. There we were at Witherspoon's, full up with fuelwax" -- kerogen, that is -- "for The Rind, and he shows up with a youngster in tow. She looked young but she had all her papers; we'd had to leave Jack W., the Third Hand, back at La-A with a broken leg, him having lost an argument with the cargo-jack, and we were plenty tired of hash-and-eggs from Engineer Jo, plus if her precious 'Drives were out of true, why, she'd tell us to sling a packet in the 'wave if we were that hungry! It was a trial. --How I miss that neat, fine galley!-- But the 'prentice, she wasn't a Welles or a Witherspoon or a Faux-Smith and on Witherspoon Processing--"
I nodded. It's not that big a drift and if you're not born or married into one of the three families, you are a rare bird indeed.
"Mind you, those papers looked all right. Jo ran them and the local web said they were jake. 16, uncontracted, Basic rating."
Not unusual. If you're a NATO or Russky mudballer, 16 likely sounds young. We figure if you can claim your majority, you've reached it. Even for an underpowered cloche like Spirit of Skiddoo W-Proc to The Rind could be hardly more than four months, five at the outside, long enough to take a 'prentice's measure, short enough to not be a bother if he falls short. Or she.
"It wasn't until the second night out Dutch heard her crying. Took Jo to find out why. She was no sixteen and no Glocker 'prentice, either. Crystal Smith she was, the very granddaughter of the Smith himself, out to see the world."
A scion of Johnathon Harper Cameron Smith, Smitty, sole proprietor of the non-aligned (and sunless) world that bears his name. I told Mitch that sounded like a pickle, but no reason for a man to lose his command, and he nodded.
"You would think that, would you not? Dutch was sure there was money in it, and wanted to divert to whatever port or drift or station was nearest. Jo cursed our lack of an ansible -- you'd think the owners would have one piped in, her the finest Cloche in the firmament! -- and said we should head on Rind-wards and send a message out with one of those Mad Russian couriers after we'd docked. But that is not my way. No, I told them, no, we must get this little one to home, first and foremost, and keep it quiet to not embarrass her gran-dad. Oh, I was clever, clever!"
He paused in his narrative, drained the last few cc's from his sippie and gave it a significant glance. I was eager to hear how he got from a mission of mercy to a captain without a ship, so I waved the bartender over and got him a fill.
"Was I not so clever. We pushed her hard, my little Spirit; dropped out, reset and made the Jump here to Smitty's in under two months, almost--"
A run the big station-ships will do in a week and Gen Fours solo in a month.
"--And the Smith himself welcomed her back as a prodigy and us as heros. He'd have nothing for us but the best, the very best, the finest accommodations and whatever we wanted, entertainments every night and it was not even two weeks gone by before I got word."
I asked just what that word might have been.
"The owners! When we'd gone overdue at The Rind, they'd put out a circular to all their agents; and when their man here sent back we'd been seen on a drunken carouse for nigh the past week, he rounded up a crew and took her out, my very own Spirit." He returned his attention to his drink, pondered it and emptied the sippie as though its contents were only water. "So if you know of anyone out for a Captain, qualified as navigator and pilot alike, and very discreet, mention my name to them, will you?"
And with that, he turned away, as if he had gone suddenly shy of saying more.
I'm told Spirit of Skiddoo had life-support problems before she could get up enough velocity to Jump out from Smitty's and in the subsequent towing and repair, somehow word of the miscarried justice reached the desk of one J. H. C. Smith, Prop., Smitty's World; I cannot say precisely what happened from there, but I am pleased to report that by Christmas Eve, Captain Mitch Materjack and his crew were back aboard Spirit of Skiddoo with commendations to boot and perhaps the only glockers qualified to keep "the finest cloche in the starry sky" actually in the sky.
Merry Christmas from the Far Edge of the Hidden Frontier!