"Welcome to the conference room. Please step out of the escort," the mechanized voice said over the radio. Randy complied with resignation. He couldn't repress an excited grin at Utik.

"What?" Utik asked, scowling slightly.

"That was fun," Randy remarked. Utik rolled her eyes and looked away from him.

With a shudder, the cart began recoiling back down the spiral chute and out of sight. There was nowhere else to go. Randy felt a moment's concern. They were more or less trapped.

"You, Ornian and Utik, are responding to the distress call?" the mechanized voice boomed from somewhere within the room. Randy jumped and spent a moment spinning around, trying to locate the source.

"Yes, we are," he answered, darting his eyes around. He could see no speakers anywhere. Utik looked similarly intrigued.

"Then please select from the main screen which repairs you are most qualified to perform."

Randy's wandering gaze found the large screen on the back wall and saw it was displaying a list of options in Common Imperial Calantíne. He moved closer so that he could read it:

Reactivation, replacement and repair of level 16 air and water filtration piping

Regular maintenance of secondary nuclear power generators on levels 04, 05, and 06

Repair and reactivation of infirmary on Level 09

Repair to recycling and trash disposal systems on level 11

Randy considered these options for a long moment. None of them sounded very minor; in the least they weren't very specific. "Exactly how complicated are these jobs?" he asked, still searching half-heartedly for a speaker.

"Replacement parts, tools and certain technical information relevant to each repair will be provided as needed. Chose the repairs you are most qualified to perform," the voice answered.

Randy shot a dubious glance at Utik. "Whaddya think?"

"We can rule out the nuclear generators for a start," she shrugged.

"Agreed." Randy stared at the screen for a moment longer, brushed a stray length of wavy hair out of his eyes (it fell right back), and shrugged. "Let's go with…the first one, reactivation and repair of the air and water pipes. Oh, and we'll do the trash systems, too, while we're at it. Good enough?" he glanced at Utik again.

"Yeah, fine. What about the parts trade?"

"Okay." Randy raised his voice. "Okay, the air and water pipes and the trash systems. We'll do those. And in return—"

"Thank you. Now, please select which compensation packages from the main screen you would like," the mechanized voice interrupted politely.

Randy arched his eyebrows and looked back at the screen. It had changed:

45 loads processed titanium and 16 nuclear fusion rods

04 main mast solar sails and 24 loads silicon

45 loads processed titanium and 24 loads silicon

16 Nuclear Fusion Rods and 04 main mast solar sails

Option 05

Randy was surprised that given the amounts of space trash and mechanical debris that littered the docking bay that the compensation packages weren't more…liberal. His idea of fair compensation was more along the lines of roaming the place finding whatever intriguing bits and pieces he could and squirreling them away on the Master. He wasn't much into peddling ore (the mining corporations were all over that one), and although the solar sails might be worth something, he couldn't get very far with only four and he didn't have the facilities to store fusion rods.

"What's Option five?" Utik wondered aloud.

"Hope it's better than the other four," Randy muttered. "Hey, what's Option five?" he asked loudly. Instead of a verbal response, he saw the screen change:

Option 05: Miscellaneous exchange of technologies

Hmm. That looked a little more promising. "A bit cryptic, no?" Randy murmured. He turned from the screen to address the empty room. "Exactly how—or, what is the nature of this, um, trade?"

"Details will be worked out upon completion of indicated tasks," the voice asked.

Randy exchanged another quick look with Utik. "How do I know you're not going to rip me off?" he demanded.

"You will be compensated based on the quality of your services. I look forward to negotiating with you," the voice answered mechanically.

"Who are you?" Randy asked.

"I am called Vor."

Just then, a cart reappeared at the top of the spiral for them. Randy looked at Utik. She shrugged dismissively and got in the rear seat. Randy grudgingly seated himself in the front. Fine, he'd play along for now, but if this Vor person started getting weird or anything, he'd fire up the Master and be gone like that. He was only putting up with it now because it'd been so long since his last call and he desperately didn't want to spend another three weeks alone with Utik so soon.

Level sixteen was dark, abandoned and full of debris and filth. The cart dropped him and Utik off in a cramped maintenance corridor lined with large pipes, cables and air vents. Broken and scorched pieces of metal, hunks of plastic and large balls of dust and fuzz had collected on the floor. Randy kept an eye out for bugs. It was eerily silent except for the occasional passing of an empty cart along the track. He spotted a large control panel with a screen on one wall displaying a lit map of the pipelines. He went for it and studied the configuration of the panel. It was old; the keys were arranged in a circular pattern of Dulow design, but the symbols on them were Calantíne. Absentmindedly Randy began trying to put a construction date on the panel based on these clues while figuring out what buttons to push at the same time.

For a while he played with the keys until he managed to find a diagnostics program. He pulled up a basic operating guideline for the water and ventilation system on the level and began formulating a plan of action. The systems were more or less operational, save that the filters needed replacing, some of the pipe sections had holes that would require patching and there were various shorts in the circuitry. Most of the systems were mechanically controlled and just needed some lubricating and tightening. Not nearly as tough as he was expecting it to be, though it'd take a while, to be sure.

"Okay, this is all right. Not to bad. Utik, you wanna pop back to the Master and grab the toolbox? Just flag down the next cart or something. This isn't gonna be too hard after all," he said aloud, exploring the other simple programs he could access from here. He heard Utik walk past him towards the cart track.

"Fine. I'm on channel nine."

Randy nodded mutely, absorbed. He was thinking, considering the graphics on these programs, that this station had to be a good twenty years old or so. He was kinda into the vintage computer stuff. This might be fun, not to mention the intriguing salvage possibilities if he could get any of this stuff home. He knew lots of places that'd pay good money for old, functional tech like this. Option Five definitely had some potential. He heard a cart rumble to a stop.

"I want to go to the landing bay, to the Salvage Master," Utik said distantly. The cart rumbled away, leaving Randy alone. He finally quit playing with the computer and, after double-checking the locations of the repair jobs he began wandering down the corridor, fiddling with his Pocket Mechanic. He found the holes in the pipelines and a few pieces of metal on the floor that should make adequate patches. He considered trying a weld with his pocket laser, but reckoned it wouldn't get hot enough to do the job. Might as well wait for Utik to get back with his real tools. He decided to explore some more and soon came across an exposed electrical alcove where he knew from the schematics most of the ventilation system was wired. He crawled in and started idly inspecting the wires and connections, using his Pocket Mechanic for detailed analyses. He was engrossed in this when a freaky sounding echo startled him. It sounded like a heavily distorted voice.

He scrambled out of the alcove, put his other hand on his zapper and looked in both directions along the corridor. Way down on his right another hallway intersected and from there he heard the noise again. This time there sounded like at least two voices, conversing in spats. Randy slunk against the wall and crept towards the intersection. He suspected the ISR team. He took the zapper out of its holster, replaced the Pocket Mechanic and drew up against the edge of the wall, giving him an oblique view down the intersecting hallway. It curved off to the right and he heard the voices again, louder this time, and nearly jumped when several shifting shadows rounded the curve towards him. He had no intention of causing trouble; he was just interested in protecting his territory. He'd only shoot if they saw him. He crouched down.

The shadows stretched and took on the form of people, at least three. Then he saw them. One, two, three, four; four of them. They were wandering down the hallway, chatting it up lively, and looking around curiously. They were too far off yet for Randy to make out their faces or uniforms. He adjusted his position very slightly, but his foot slipped on a piece of loose metal and made a horribly loud skidding noise. He cussed quietly as the four strangers took alarm and flattened themselves against the wall, appearing to draw weapons. Randy shifted his position and stayed where he was. He watched as the four figures crept closer in a typical stealth pattern. As they drew nearer, Randy ducked down behind a large section of defunct piping laying on the floor and crouched there. He heard the strangers' voices and footsteps come ever closer and then seem to pass him.

"Maybe it was nothing," one said. "This place is so scrapped up, probably just something falling or shifting around."

"Yeah, maybe. Might be a homicidal robot, too," a second voice, gravelly and deep, answered.

"Not funny," a third voice, definitely female, and accented, shot back. "I don't trust computers that can run without people."

"Would all of you shut up?" the first hissed. "You'll bring ISR down on us!"

Randy felt a swell of relief. These must be crew from the Mackelvenny ship. He waited until they had passed his hallway, then stood up and crept around the corner. "Mackies!" he breathed loud enough to get an echo. All four whirled on him and one fired. Randy dove back into his hallway with a curse. "God's tooth! Look before you shoot!" he hollered. By the time he'd righted himself, he turned to find four slightly newer, more powerful zappers trained on him.

"Put that toy away," one intoned.

Yes, these were definitely Mackies, Randy noted. One was massively tall and broad, draped in layers of something that looked disconcertingly like snakeskin and over his face was a grotesque Mycoti mask with two massive black eyes, a shapeless nose and slack mouth. It looked for all the world like a real Mycoti head that had been skinned off the skull. Another was wearing the trademark Mackie brown leather suit. He had copious amounts of hair and a beard, both of which were twisted into outrageously long black dreadlocks. A long, hooked nose and glittering little eyes peaked out between the two. The third Mackie was by far the most intriguing. She was muscular with porcelain skin and Tonraj eyes, bald save for a blue mohawk and had a gold chain through her nose, anchored in each nostril with big, round gold beads. She was exhibiting lean, sculpted limbs with a taunt vest and pair of cropped pants that had once been a Mackie suit, the vest showing off a tantalizing bit of cleavage. Randy didn't spot the fourth for a moment, then noticed him down by the knees of the giant with Mycoti skin; he was a midget in a well-fitted Mackie suit, bulky tool belt and boots and had thinning hair in a queue.

Randy wasn't sure which had spoken, but he obeyed, slowly holstering his zapper. He flashed a disarming grin. "Hail, Mackelvenny. I'm Salvage Master."

The midget spoke in a voice that was surprisingly full, deep and commanding. "Hail, Salvage Master. Thought you were with ISR," he lowered his zapper, using it almost as a walking stick. The others followed suit. He stepped forward and bowed with a flourish. "Kyna, boss of the Mackelvenny runner Main Event."

Randy relaxed and bowed. "Ornian Randile, boss of Salvage Master. Randy to friends and allies."

"I've heard of you. You partnered with Duster on the Gellen job, right?"

"I did, actually. Decent folk, the Duster crew. As are yours, Boss Kyna?" Randy queried oh so politely.

"Ah, right. These are Ni-yan, Cuendren and Auk," Kyna said, indicating the bearded man, the giant Mycoti and the woman as he gave their names. Ni-yan and Cuendren bowed, Auk dipped her head. Randy smiled even more broadly at her.

"What brings you to my level, Boss Kyna?" Randy asked.

"Ventilation and air pipes. We're here under authorization of Vor to perform some repairs."

Randy cocked his head and knitted his brow. "I'm taking care of that. And the trash systems. Vor authorized me," Randy explained, still polite, but beginning to wonder whether he'd been screwed by the station already.

"Must be a big job, then, because we were given the same," Kyna responded, sounding similarly strained.

"What? You're telling me I have to share the job?" Randy asked, incredulous, yet growing ever suspicious and defensive of his claim.

"Seems so. The level's pretty big, my crew and I have just finished a preliminary sweep and Cuendren estimated a good three weeks of repair time for both jobs. Vor probably assigned both of us to shorten it."

Randy wasn't sure he believed Kyna. He and the midget stood regarding each other silently for a moment. Finally Randy broke. "Well, if that's the deal, then fine. But we negotiate the trade together. I don't want your people taking credit for mine's work," he countered, deflated.

"Done."

"Hey, what's the deal?" Utik demanded. Randy spun and saw her coming fast, her gun half-drawn, leaving the toolbox sitting beside the cart track.

"It's cool, Utik. They're Mackies. They'll be working with us on this one," Randy greeted her awkwardly.

"What?" Utik glared at him.

"The powers that be gave both of us the same jobs, so we're gonna have to share. This is, um, Boss Kyna of the Main Event." Utik regarded the Mackies with clear distrust and anger, but put her gun away. "Boss Kyna, this is my partner, Utik," Randy introduced the midget, who bowed and proceeded to introduce his crew a second time.

Randy could tell Utik was disgusted about the way things had turned, but he wasn't about to refuse a job just because he had to share. He was starving for work, after all. He worked out an arrangement with Kyna and happily sent Utik off with the bearded Cuendren to start work on the trash systems on level eleven. He, Kyna, Auk and Ni-yan stayed to start on the piping in sixteen. Kyna and Ni-yan paired off, leaving Randy with the alluring Auk for company. After three weeks of crap from Utik, he was starving for some appreciative female attention.

"Well, what'd you find out?" Randy asked, leaning back against the corridor wall.

"About what?" Auk answered in a delicious accent.

"Kyna said you did a sweep. What did you find out about this place?"

"Not much. It's a scrap pile, from what I saw. Looks like it hasn't been worked on for quite some time and there's evidence of severe electrical fires and other structural abuse. And there's no one manning anything, except whoever this Vor person is."

Randy nodded sagely; he was content to let her talk as much as she wanted. She had such a smooth, pleasing voice. "I guess we should start on the job," he remarked professionally.

Auk nodded, all ready with her pocket mechanic drawn and scanning. "Kyna and Yan are looking at the electrical stuff; I suggest we concentrate on fixing these holes and rusted sections."

Randy watched raptly as the muscles in Auk's arm flexed as she moved the mechanic around. This was going to be lots of fun. "Okay, sounds good. I already pulled some pieces that might make good patches."

"Then let's get to it," Auk trilled, extending an arm for Randy to lead the way.

"Yes, lets." Randy obliged and led the way to his work area. From there he and Auk developed a swift partnership of cleaning the holes and patches and welding them in place. It was hard work and Randy was soon sweating. The job was challenging in another way, too; Randy kept trying to find ways to discreetly cop a feel of Auk's tight butt and sculpted arms.

"This section is going to need completely replaced," Randy commented at one point, after tapping and scanning a length of air pipe. It was speckled with rust to the point that it was crumbling in places. He kneeled beneath it to check the underside. Auk slipped in beside him and checked with her own instrument.

"God's tooth, you're right," she moaned, wiping sweat from her scalp and sighing. Randy couldn't help notice her thigh was up against his. She cast him a quick, suggestive glance, then stood up and faced the pipe, looking it over thoughtfully. "Damn, it's really big, too. Think with maybe both of us we could together take it out?" she asked, back to business.

Randy smiled, surprised and pleased. "I dunno," he said, standing up beside her. "We may need reinforcements to budge this thing." They stood there in silence a moment, considering the situation. They'd been working at this solid for five hours and Randy didn't feel particularly keen on hunting down the rest of their party to take out a dusty, rusty, huge piece of pipe, then searching the entire level for a suitable replacement. That would probably take awhile. He had other things he wanted to do, and so far Auk seemed to be on the same wavelength with him on it.

"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm all for taking a break," Auk huffed, striding back over to the pipe and leaning against it slackly. She smiled at Randy in a way he hoped he was interpreting correctly.

"That sounds like a good idea to me," he answered, leaning beside her. He didn't want to risk blowing this; after all, he hadn't been doing so well the last three weeks. Take no chances.

"I have another idea," Auk said after a long pause. Randy jumped. She pinched his butt! He looked at her in mild surprise and smirked.

"Do you, now?"

Auk gave him a prodding, mischievous look. "You had the same idea, no?"

Randy shrugged, playing coy. "Well, you know, I'm only human and it gets kinda lonely on these trips. But I didn't…" he shrugged again and trailed off.

Auk turned, leaning her side against the pipe to face him. "I understand lonely. Kyna is very strict," she said, reaching out a hand and giving Randy's belt a slight tug. He couldn't believe his luck. Then she leaned over and kissed him, pulling his floppy hat off. Randy kissed back.

"That's awful," he said, casually pulling Auk close to him. "You must be itching for some good company, I'll bet."

Auk smirked and began unzipping Randy's work suit. She opened it to his belt, and then began feeling for the latch. She kissed him harder and pulled him around so she was leaning with her back on the pipe. Randy ran his hands over the voluptuous contours of her waist, hips and shoulders. She pulled her lips away as her fingers found the latch to his belt and she took it off and let it drop to the floor. She eased her hands inside his suit. Randy was wearing an a-shirt and boxers underneath, but these didn't seem to present any barriers to Auk, who began exploring his shape with obvious delight. "You are very good company, Randy. The guys I work with…well, you saw them. Even if I could, I wouldn't want to," she responded breathlessly, closing her eyes as Randy unzipped her vest.

For a few moments afterwards they stayed in place, catching their collective breaths. Finally, Randy went about getting back into his work suit. Auk eased off of the pipe and zipped up her shorts, closing her vest. She took a deep breath and wiped her forehead and ran a hand along her spiked hairdo.

"I feel much better, now," she remarked lightly.

Randy smiled and fastened his belt. "So do I. Not nearly so lonely."

"Yes. And we will definitely need help to move that pipe," she added.

"Yeah. It's really on here solid."