The Zulian Affair

First Contact

"I'm here to buy a ship."

The man behind the neatly pretentious desk looked up from his computer console, slightly confused by the timbre of the voice that just spoke to him. He hadn't even realized someone was in the room with him until her heard the child speak. He tucked his stylus behind one of his long pointed ears and looked vaguely irritated. "Little girl, are you lost?" The man took in the pink-haired girl who looked to be eleven or twelve years old. The Science Academy insignia must belong to one of her parents, he reasoned.

Washu rolled her eyes. "I told you, I'm here to buy a ship. Point me to someone who can show me what you have and I'll get out of your way." She was using her professor's tone out of habit, and also because she hated this crap. This was the sort of thing that kept her on campus most of the time. Everyone there already knew that the pink-haired little girl was not to be trifled with. Professor Washu's classes were both feared and sought after, and pity the freshman who didn't catch on fast enough that this 'child' was the finest mind the galaxy had yet produced. Not to mention the fact that she was significantly older than she appeared.

He raised an eyebrow. "We don't give tours here. Whatever school trip you're on will probably be missing you, hadn't you better get back to your teacher? I don't want you to get in trouble."

Washu's mouth twitched. "I don't appreciate the condescension, Mister-" she eyed his nameplate, "-Berteous. I assure you I am of age, and I have several thousand years worth of savings in my hip pocket. If your superiors would like to make an easy sale, I recommend pointing me in their direction."

Berteous huffed a bit. Just what he needed, a precocious brat with her family's credit card. "So what, you're running away from home? Planning on spending your inheritance before you even get out of grade school? Come back when you're tall enough to reach the console on a runabout; we can help you then." Deliberately he turned his attention back to the paperwork on his console, hoping she'd take the hint and get lost.

The little scientist clenched her fists at her sides. What she ought to have done was whipped out her ID and shoved it at him. Unfortunately that rarely worked either; her date of birth was some ten thousand years back- give or take a few centuries. Most people who didn't know who she was from the Science Academy thought it was a laughable fake. There was a way around this bullshit, but she certainly wasn't going to go through it for a desk clerk. She turned on her heel and left the office as silently as she had arrived, her soft shoes making no sound on the marble floor.

But she didn't go back to the campus. If she wanted she could browse the ship selection via the nets but that wasn't good enough; if she wanted to live on the thing for a handful of years she had to get a feel for it. Her equipment also had to be considered, and catalog dimensions didn't give nearly enough information. So she ventured through the doors into the shipyard itself.

The place was an enormous open-air field, and it only held the craft that were capable of both atmosphere and space travel. Nearest the building were the planetary cruisers, ships meant for wealthy families to make trips to moons and the like. Pleasure craft, in other words. Nearly two miles farther out were the vessels she was more interested in; atmosphere-rated but also with drives capable of carrying passengers and cargo through the vast emptiness between stars. It was far to walk, so she cheated. It was considered rude to teleport on campus, but here she could shave a good deal off her walking time.

A few judicious hops later and she was in the right area. Out here the ships ranged in size from Pretty Big, the size of an office building, to Seriously Huge, the largest that was capable of landing on a planet. There was only one of those here and it was roughly the size of a skyscraper and the city block it would stand on. There was also far less frippery in evidence; at this range the ships were freight haulers and the like. That was the sort of thing she was after, only maybe a couple steps down. She could refit just about anything mid-sized so that no crew would be necessary.

As the little scientist tried to get a feel for which ship would suit her purposes, she heard voices approaching. The incident with the desk clerk had already been pushed aside as Washu focused on the task at hand so they didn't really distract her until they got much closer.

A deep male voice was talking in a crisp, professional tone. "So you see Captain Zulian, our dry-dock services are second to none. We will be able to refit your, uh, lovely ship to like-new in no time."

The woman who responded sounded just a little tired of dealing with sales. "It doesn't have to be lovely, it just has to fly with a full load. Preferably faster than the pirates. If you can manage that upgrade we were talking about, I'll pay what you ask. I am just a little concerned about the suspensors I see in use here. I've been hearing about failures from that model. If your dock drops my ship it'll crack like an egg and I will not be pleased." The speakers weren't in view, having paused to examine the suspensor holding up the massive cruiser Washu was standing in front of.

Out of habit, Washu looked at the suspensor herself. It was a large metal coil mounted horizontally and vibrating slightly as it generated a field of null-gravity. This was the model that had been in the news lately for recall and refit, but Washu could see the compensators had already been installed.

The salesman was being reassuring. "We take the utmost care with all ships in our hands, you needn't worry yourself on that score." Washu thought he could have skipped the condescending tone; what was it with the people at this shipyard? It was the best, which was why the scientist had chosen it, but that didn't mean the attitudes were justified.

Washu silently cheered when the captain refused to take it. "You'll understand if I don't take your word for it. Insurance is nice and all, but I'd rather have my ship. I think I'll be back when I've got something more than words." There was the sound of the woman striding away, or rather towards Washu. The little scientist turned to see who this Captain Zulian was.

The woman who strode around the corner was tall with coal-black hair to her shoulders. The confident walk was almost a strut; a captain's walk for certain. It made the long skirt she wore flow nicely. The ship's jacket she wore was well-tailored as well. There was nothing about the woman that didn't say that she was willful, and successful largely because of that forcefulness.

Captain Zulian noticed Washu but didn't show surprise at the sight of a child in this place, merely nodded politely as she approached. The salesman was not far behind, desperate not to lose the business. He was tall as well, broadly built with a shock of dark blue hair that was calculatedly tousled in the style that was currently the rage for young men.

"Captain, I can get proof for you that our facilities are entirely safe if you'll just allow me-" He ran forward at the sight of Washu standing alone and contemplating ships. "You! Girl! You are not allowed to be here alone, where are your parents?"

"Oh, for… Young man, if your desk clerk had half a brain, I'd be here with one of you lot, buying one of your ships!" Washu was quite losing her patience with this persistent attitude. Small humanoids weren't so uncommon in the galaxy, why was she always getting these hassles? Part of the trouble was that her proportions truly *were* that of a pre-adolescent human. "You don't know Science Academy insignia when you see it either? We do sort of support just about everything on this continent, you know."

Captain Zulian had stopped and was watching the confrontation with interest. Her eyes flicked to the insignia Washu mentioned and an elegant black eyebrow rose slightly but she didn't say anything yet.

The salesman didn't have such reservations. "Stealing a Dean's insignia doesn't give you the right to wander about here unescorted. I'll be staying with you until security arrives to escort you back to the Academy- if that's really where you're from." He turned away from Washu to speak to Zulian again. "Captain, I do apologize for this interruption in our negotiations. I'll take care of this little problem and we can continue."

The captain smiled at the salesman. "I am not the one you need to apologize to. You just accused this woman of being a thief and an imposter. I think that counts as poor customer service to say the very least." She gave Washu a look of amusement, but the scientist could tell the amusement wasn't aimed at her.

Well at least this Zulian person seemed to have good sense. The same could not be said of the salesman. "A child would not be the Dean of Micro-Engineering at the Academy. That office is currently held by Washu Hakubi, and she has been in that post for the last century at least."

"A hundred and fifty years actually, although I'm thinking of changing to Astrophysics when old Carpov retires. I'll have to dust off some skills, but I'll be able to whip that department back into shape in no time." Washu peered at the young man. "Where the hell do you get this information and you *still* don't recognize me?"

He glared at the child. "My father is doing graduate work at the Academy, as if it's any business of yours. But I'm ending this!" He turned away again, pressing a button on the small comm device at his hip. "I need two guards at Pylon 759 to escort an intruder off the property!"

Washu had had exactly enough. Perhaps it was stupid to do this in a fit of pique considering the reasons for the original change, but if it was what it took to finish her business today she'd do it, and she was damned if she was going to be manhandled by security guards. Between one heartbeat and another while the man was turned away, the child Washu was replaced by the full grown Washu. Her uniform had shifted with her and now hugged an extremely well-formed body that could only be described as perfect. Her mysterious genetic heritage, whatever that happened to be, had been very kind. Even so, she had full control over her substance and wouldn't have gone for anything less anyway.

When the salesman finished calling in security he turned back to be confronted not by a petulant child but by a furious woman who was at least an inch taller than he was, not counting her rather spectacular pink spiky hair. This beautiful woman was glaring at him, hand on hip and tapping her foot impatiently.

Captain Zulian chuckled at the dumbfounded expression on the man's face. "Hadn't you better cancel that call?" Her eyes, vivid blue, appraised the altered Washu with admiration. "Or let them come and they can pick up what's left of you."

Washu flashed a smile at the other woman before turning back to the salesman. "*Now* am I worth doing business with? Does this satisfy whatever bullshit criteria you have for selling me a damn ship?" Her voice was now a half-octave lower and she spoke as if she expected to be listened to. This was also true when she was in her child form, but some people took time to be able to hear it. Those people usually flunked if they didn't catch on before mid-term.

He stammered a pale attempt at an apology, but Washu cut him off. "Now that I look closer at you, I can tell. You must be Mr. Beemis's boy Woden, aren't you. You have the same hair and eyes. He's a good man, and he's been a great help at keeping the undergrads from damaging my equipment. I think I'll have to schedule him a little more time off, though. If he doesn't have time to tell stories about his students and professors than he's probably overworked."

Captain Zulian stepped closer, an amused twinkle in her eye. "I do hate to interrupt this dressing-down, but one so rarely gets to meet a legend. I suspected that you were more than you seemed, but I didn't expect that you were truly *the* Washu Hakubi. You designed the station I operate out of half the year." She held out a strong hand.

Washu smiled, genuinely pleased. "Ah, you run out of Central Zed-4? Or Prime Ceti? Not that I take full credit for Prime Ceti, it's just my favorite." The captain's hand was strong, and had seen hard work, but the skin was smooth and warm to the touch.

"Central is my half-home, but I've been to Prime, and I think I know why you favor it. It manages to be elegant at the same time as entirely practical." Zulian didn't relinquish the scientist's hand immediately, holding it in both of hers just a moment longer than a greeting gesture tended to require. When she did let go, she met Washu's gaze with a speculative look that the scientist couldn't quite figure out.

"I thought that myself about the place. The shell was designed by a friend of mine but we both worked on the interior and it came out better than we'd hoped." That look caused Washu some confusion but she let it pass without comment. "And they didn't give me free rein with Central or it would have been nicer."

The salesman was in hurried conversation with someone on his radio and he kept shooting terrified looks at Washu, which she ignored with an air of dismissal.

"Listen, I don't know if this particular yard has anything you've got your heart set on, but I can recommend some others that don't suffer from this place's ideas about itself that could set you up with whatever style vessel you're in the market for." Zulian's lips pursed with distaste. "I'm here because they *claim* to be the fastest and if I don't have a full hold in the sky in the next week or two my crew is going to get very cross with me."

Washu chuckled. "Well I heard your concern about their suspensors, and they have- at least on this level- done the required refit. I can show you on this one if you like," and she waved a hand at the machine humming about ten feet in front of them.

"I'd be delighted to see it," Zulian said. "Not that I doubt your word, but I'm suddenly dying to have you show me." She stepped closer to Washu, taking her arm as they walked over to the device, leaving the now completely flummoxed Woden behind.

Having the other woman take her arm like that threw Washu slightly but she wrote it off to how long it had been since her adult form had been necessary. Being child-shaped and treated with the respect due an adult was one thing, being treated as an adult while *being* one was something else again.

"See here, the coil has the vibration damper fixed firmly to the bottom." Washu's eye caught on something and she grinned. "This one was even assembled by my students and tested by yours truly. See the crab mark?" She pointed to the stylized crab etched into the casing. "I'm sure they're not all ours, there was a high demand for these and I thought it would be a good learning experience for my seniors on mass production and quality control to crank out a couple hundred thousand."

Woden was making a strangling noise and Zulian smirked. "Well that does put my mind at rest somewhat. Now that I know what to look for I can go to any shipyard and tell if they've done the right thing or not. May I show you some other yards, Miss Hakubi?" Zulian took possession of Washu's arm again.

A bit bemused, Washu smiled. "I think I'd like that, since they're refusing to take my credits here." She allowed Zulian to turn her towards the long walk back.

They only got a few steps before Woden threw himself in front of them. "Ladies, please don't go! It was a misunderstanding, a terrible mistake on my part and I humbly apologize for it!" The panicked young man bowed so low he almost tipped over forwards. "I'm young, a-and inexperienced, and a fool! I beg your pardons a thousand times!" He assumed a prayer position. "And don't flunk my dad for it, he'll kill me!"

Zulian spoke before Washu could. "Boy, you just don't know when to stop, do you? First it's accusations of various sorts of thievery, now you accuse her petty vindictiveness? Great Space, call it a day already."

Washu was vaguely aware that her arm was still in the captain's warm grip, but she fixed the begging boy with a withering look. "As she says, I'm hardly that sort. I'm a teacher above all, and people learn by dealing with the consequences of their own mistakes. He will *hear* about it, I'm sure, but not necessarily from me."

A calculating sort of look crossed Zulian's face and she nudged Washu gently. "Perhaps you should still shop here. After all, they do have the largest selection, and I do believe that a herd of managers are approaching, just to make things interesting."

Washu looked farther down the walkway and it was true; several hellishly well-dressed people were walking at a dignified pace towards them. Woden spun around to see and nearly swooned from panic. The scientist nudged Zulian back and feigned indecision. "Well, I suppose I could. I'll tell you what Mr. Woden; if you give Captain Zulian the deepest discount you're authorized to give, I'll stay and smooth things over with the muckety-mucks here. The captain gets her refit, I get to buy my ship, and you keep your job and get the commission for the sale." She grinned at him. "Sound fair?"

Comical tears of relief were streaming from the boy's eyes. "Really? You mean it? Yes, absolutely! Half-off the refit and I'll handle all the docking paperwork personally, Captain, I swear!"

Zulian cocked her head at Washu. "Why thank you, Miss Hakubi. Just for that I'd like to buy you dinner while I'm in town. I-" A small bleeping noise went off inside her jacket. The captain frowned, annoyed. "I've only got about an hour before I have to be back." With apparent reluctance she let go of Washu and offered her hand. "May I look you up before I leave this lovely little dirtball of yours?"

"Of course. My public contact information is in the Academy directory." For some reason she thought she ought to offer her private line, but she didn't want to delay the captain further. They shook hands again, and again Zulian held just a touch longer. "I'll look for a message from you, then I can respond with my direct line." There, that way she could do both.

A mysterious sort of smile lifted the corners of Zulian's lips and that speculative look was back in her bright blue eyes. "I shall send at the earliest opportunity. Until we meet again, Miss Hakubi." Then she turned to Woden. "Let's get cracking on that paperwork, hmm?" She practically led him away, and as they retreated down the walkway the captain took the boy's arm, perhaps not as close as she'd held Washu.

"What an odd thing to notice," Washu mused at herself. Then she sighed and prepared herself to deal with the sort of falling all over themselves that these managers were about to do to have such an influential personage on the property. It was a bore but if it got her a ship she could live with it. And she didn't really want Woden's career to suffer for youthful ignorance and bad manners. The scolding he'd get from his father would more than get her point across.

And at least she'd met Zulian, a supremely interesting person. If there wasn't a message waiting for her when she got home, Washu would look the captain up herself. Just to make sure the boy honored the deal.