The Ekaterina’s Pride arrives at its first stop after leaving Ungstir Prime: the rendezvous checkpoint established by the fuel tanker Rucker.

After Meuc Sionnach drops the ship to sublight, he begins to scan the heavens for the tanker ship. “Heading, boss?” he asks, glancing back at Prague.

“Get docking clearance and arrange for the tank top-off,” Prague replies. “Then you and Sharpers can check in with the Rucker’s crew, see what other supplies they might have on hand that we can use.”

“Understood,” Sionnach replies with a curt nod as he sends out the generic request and maneuvers the ‘Pride into position. Once the operation is complete, he squeezes out of his seat and slides down the ladder to the engine compartment. “Sharpers,” he calls as he lands, “Anything we need down here?”

The blonde woman looks over at the caninoid as she closes the equipment locker next to the main generator housing. “A dust mop. And a rudimentary set of engineering alignment tools. I don’t know much about our boss or this ship, but I can tell right away he’s not a ship person and it hasn’t had a decent wrench monkey on hand in a long time. We’re lucky nothing went wrong on the way from Ungstir. We won’t stay lucky.”

“You picked up on that too, eh?” Meuc replies with a chuckle, “Alright, boss says he wants us to head over to the Rucker and see about picking up anything we need from them while we refuel.”

Sharpers nods.  “OK. I’ll tag along. I mean, I could give you a list…but, no offense…”

“Fair point,” the Pyracani replies with a chuckle as he clambers up the ladder and opens the airlock on their side after checking to make sure they have a good docking seal.

In the docking bay of the Rucker, Captain Miranda Lee stands with a couple of crew, going over the current inventory status of the tanker. “We should have enough for the first wave of Operation Outrigger – say, a month. But we’re going to need resupply after that.”

“Permission to come aboard,” Meuc calls ahead cheerily as he makes his way out of the airlock.

The Rucker’s captain nods to the Pyracani. “Welcome aboard,” she says. “I’m Captain Lee.”

Eloise Sharpers follows Sionnach out of the Pride, taking in the surroundings with a scrutinizing gaze that could be mistaken for an engineer’s curiosity.

“Meuc Sionnach,” the caninoid replies, “Pilot of the Ekaterina’s Pride, Project Outrigger. Captain Prague sends his regards. This is Eloise Sharpers, our engineer. She’s got a list of items we need before we head out there. Hoping you might oblige.”

Captain Lee nods. “I’ll take a look at your list. Obviously, supplies are rather limited and we’ve got to stretch out what we’ve got, but we’ll do what we can for you.”

The Pyracani nods to Eloise, then turns back to Captain Lee. “So are we the first ones out here?” he asks, his ears tilted forward in curiosity.

Sharpers transfers the list from her PDA. Captain Lee confirms the manifest transmission, then looks at Sionnach: “Not the first, no. Won’t be the last, either. Vannie ship headed out not too long ago.”

“I guess we’d better move as quick as we can if we want to get out there first,” Sionnach says with a grin.

The Rucker’s captain nods. She waves her PDA. “I’ll get this order together quick as I can. Relax on your ship or take advantage of the community lounge on the Rucker.” She turns and walks off.

“I could use a chance to stretch my legs,” Sionnach says, glancing over at Eloise, “You? The flight couch is clearly designed with humanoids in mind.”

The Pride’s engineer shrugs. “Can’t do much else without the gear I need.” She watches as personnel from the Rucker set to work refueling the Ungstiri transport.

“Sounds good to me,” Meuc says, grinning. The Pyracani begins to make his way into the interior of the tanker, following signs, or asking for directions to the aforementioned community lounge.

Sharpers follows along, keeping an eye on the signs as they go. “Wonder which Vannie ship went out,” she muses. Turns a corner toward the lounge. “Got a friend or two in the military.”

“We’re pretty far out from the Consortium, on Pyracan,” the pilot says as he glances around the room looking for a source of … refreshment. “Fact, we weren’t even sure it was real until pretty recently. True, we had “outversers” popping up every day, but everybody thought they were from somewhere else…”

There’s a coffee maker. A water dispenser. A snack machine that sells Fizzy Cakes.

Sharpers pours herself a cup of coffee. “I’ve heard of those rift people. Never met one.”

“I’ve met a few,” Sionnach replies with a shrug, “They’re just people. Bit confused, obviously, but still people.” A bit disappointed, he nevertheless makes himself a cup of coffee as well, “So, what made you want to rush off into nowhere with Captain Prague?”

The woman takes a sip of coffee. It’s weak, but passable. Perhaps Captain Lee wasn’t kidding about making supplies last for the long haul. Sharpers replies: “Got tired of seeing the inside of an engine room of a void-jumper in Sol System. Decided I needed a change of scenery to the engine room of a ship somewhere else.”

The fighter jock chuckles as he sips at the coffee, not seeming to notice any lack of quality. “Well, hopefully you’re not stuck down there too much. If we’re lucky, they’ll be all kinds of new stuff to see.”

“I don’t care much about that,” she replies. “I’m happy enough with the machinery. I’ll leave the excitement to you and the captain.”

“More fun for me, then,” Sionnach says, laughing, “So how long you been a … what did you call it? Wrench monkey?”

“A few years,” Sharpers answers before taking another sip of coffee. “Before that I was a teacher. It turns out I hate kids.”

“Quite the career change,” says the Pyracani as he glances down at his chrono, “Anyway, they should be just about done. I’m gonna head back.”

“I’ll follow along in a bit,” she says, holding up her cup. “Not going to rush the last decent coffee I’m likely to have for a while.”

“Enjoy,” Meuc says as he disposes of his empty cup. “Let us know when you’re aboard,” he adds on the way out.

Sharpers nods to the Pyracani as he departs. She lingers in the lounge, long enough for her coffee to get cold. She pours a fresh cup. Finally, one of the refueling crew from the Rucker arrives to get his own refreshment. She strikes up a conversation. Even flirts a little bit. Soon enough, she bids him farewell, pours her coffee in the sink, and then walks out of the lounge, tapping out a last message before departing into the unknown. Just two words: “ZHENG HE.”

That done, she wanders back to the docking bay and appears gleeful at the array of gadgets the Rucker team managed to pull together. She gathers her supplies and proceeds aboard. Once inside the airlock, she notifies the cockpit via intercom: “All set.”

“Thanks for joining us,” the quip comes back as the ship begins to whir to life as the pilot prepares to undock.

“OK,” Prague says. “Next stop is Delta Orionis System. Old maps call it Mintaka. Pretty sure the Sorties are going to Alnitak. May as well steer clear of ’em.”

“Sounds good,” Meuc replies, making the requisite calculations, “Setting course for Delta Orionis. Laid in and ready.”

“Off we go then,” Prague says.

Down in engineering, Sharpers starts unloading her supplies. The PDA chimes. Good timing, she thinks. Another few minutes and they’d have left immediate range of the Rucker’s deployed comm sensor buoy – the last outpost for sending messages back to the known worlds until a new network got built outward to the Horsehead Nebula (probably part of the Zheng He’s agenda).

She checks the PDA. The message reads: “CONFIRMED: TARGET ABOARD.” The image of Armand Levante, ensign in the Vanguard, materializes on the holodisplay.

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