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Pastry Run

Written by Nancy Fulda
llustrated by Ural Akyuz



It's a killer job, but the old lady pays good.

Charles de Gaulle to the Sea of Tranquility in three hours flat. You can't come late, and you can't bring yesterday's. She tastes the difference.

The air is crisp at 5:00 a.m.

From my seat in the cockpit I can see Chazz coming down the A1 motorway. He's pushing 200 km/h, weaving between cars on his motorcycle. He screeches to a halt at the launchpad and sprints up the stairs with our cargo.

We get the all clear from the tower, and I'm gunning the engines before Chazz finishes strapping in. We lift out of the city skyline, a dark wedge against the brightening clouds.

Back in the old days, they used to fly pastries from Paris to New York every morning in the Concorde. Heck of a grocery bill, but the connoisseurs said it was worth it. A New Yorker just can't make a real French pastry, no matter how hard he tries. It has to come from France.

Madame Rousseau takes the game a step farther. She hasn't eaten an éclair in her life that wasn't made in the pastry shop near her childhood home. The clock starts ticking as soon as Madame's little treasures come out of the oven, and it doesn't stop until we touch down on Luna. If the goods aren't delivered by the time she sits down to tea, we don't get paid.

We're out of French airspace now, up in the lower stratosphere, just a few minutes out from the slingshot. It has a fancy name, suborbital Lunar something-or-other, but what it really is is a floating ring of plasma and metal that plays games with relativity. You fly through the middle and—bang!—your velocity relative to the earth gets a kick in the pants, and you're headed toward the moon at .2 cee. If you aim right, you pass through a second ring at the other end and get speed-shifted back, all without feeling so much as a tap against the hull.

The angle is critical. Come in crooked, and you'll shoot right past the moonside device. Happens every once in a while: some drunk pilot doesn't watch his v-vector and gets booted out past Pluto. Sometimes the ships make it back. The pilots never do.

The whole shebang is owned and operated by the LTS—the Lunar Transportation Society. They run their contraption on a strictly first-come first-served basis, and they don't take bribes, which means you're always stuck behind a line of twenty to thirty lumbering freight ships waiting for a boost to the cheese ball. I suppose if you're just a celebrity or an important diplomat you can afford to kick your heels for a few hours and wait for your turn. But not if you're delivering Madame Rousseau's raspberry croissants.

Up at the ring I see the LTS watchdogs waiting for us, looking like big black manta rays with the fins curled down. Their engines flare sullenly as they pull into formation.

Watchdogs are muscle ships—lots of guns, lots of shield plates—but in the end it's mostly show. The only thing they're allowed to fire at civilians are gobs of circuit-chomping nanobots. I run my fingers across the controls and wait for the fun to start.

Chazz calculates our entry angle for the ring. Today's flight path shows up in blue on my nav board. We'll have to cut pretty tight around the nose of the freighter lining up at the ring, but that's nothing our pussycat can't handle.

A warning buzzer sounds, the nav board flickers and I pull hard to starboard. The corvette jumps like a frightened rabbit. A fine green line on the screen shows me the trajectory of the nanoshot as it rushes past my portside thruster.

A second buzzer sounds, interrupted by a third, and the dance begins in earnest. The corvette darts and spins like a ribbon in a wind tunnel. The stars reel and lurch in time with my stomach, but that doesn't bother me. I'm high on adrenaline, thrilling in the corvette's responsiveness, ears pricked for the next buzzer. It's moments like this when I feel most alive.

When the buzzer sounds again I'm already cutting port before I realize that the pitch is different. I see a flicker of yellow to my left. It's the EM detector spiking in the soft x-ray range; the type of surge that precedes a—

"Solar flare!" I shout, and pull hard about.

Chazz uses one of the words he saves for special occasions.

Flares are notorious for shorting circuitry up here past the Van Allen belts, and since we've stripped our external shielding for extra speed, something busts every time. Not usually a problem; our nanotech lives in a cozy little shield box, and it can overhaul the electronics in a few hours. But right now, everything depends on seconds.

I'm thrusting full on for the nearest freighter, putting a lot more gees on Madame's pastries than the contract strictly allows. Their travel case whines ominously as its acceleration dampers reach maximum power, but I don't slow down. I'm thinking if we can get behind that freighter before the flare hits full intensity, we might not take any damage.

We almost make it. Just as we slip into the freighter's shadow I see a little flicker, and the nav board goes dead. I backthrust until we're drifting at a soft null-v relative to the freighter and tap the nav board's power switch. Nothing.

It's my turn to use one of Chazz's special-occasion words. The nav board is our primary interface with the ship's sensors and computation package. Without it, we're flying blind and brainless.

"Bots are working on nav," Chazz tells me, tapping away at the nanotech controls. "We lose anything else?"

Belatedly, I scan the readouts above our lifeless navigation system. It would be just our luck to lose the oxy pumps, too . . . but the lights all show green.

"No, just the board," I answer. "You got a time estimate on it?"

"I don't even have a diagnostic yet," he says. Chazz hates being rushed. "Half hour, maybe."

I swear again. If we aren't through the ring in less than ten minutes, we'll miss our deadline for sure. I can already hear the sound of Madame's electronic credits slipping through my fingers and back into her bank account. My mouth tastes sour.

"Looks like an abort," Chazz says.

Chazz always did have a streak of quitter in him. I hate to admit it, but I'm thinking this time he might be right. Without the nav board, I have no entry vector for the ring. Without an entry vector, I can't line us up with the moonside device. We'd shoot straight past Luna and out of the solar system. One-way trip. Finis.

Still, it knots me up inside to think of dropping a job.

It's not about the money, really, although I won't deny we need it. It's something else; some sort of stubborn pride. It's the same drive, I think, that pushed Madame to Luna. Folks say she went because of her heart, or because of her osteoporosis, or because she needed a change. But if I know the old lady, it wasn't any of that at all. She went to Luna because it was the only place left where she couldn't tell everyone what to do. She went to tame it.

Chazz clears his throat. I look through the front viewplate and see the first watchdog rising over the freighter like a black moon.

Then I get an idea.

I'm gunning the engines before I realize I have a plan, darting around to the bottom of the freighter to buy some time. I snatch Chazz's scribblepad and slap it on the console in front of him.

"Chazz," I say, "I want you to recalculate that entry vector."

"Using this?" My copilot's tone is incredulous. "Have you ever tried to do complex math on one of these things? It's near impossible. Besides, I'm missing half the base numbers . . ."

"Our comsat still works, doesn't it? Call someone."

Chazz throws me an angry look, but he presses the comsat earpiece to his head and dials a number. "Hi, Sheila? Oh, fine, fine. Hey, listen, I need a favor. Can you pull up the online astronomics database and get me the moon's current RA/dec coordinates? Yeah, it's kind of urgent . . ."

The watchdog is angling around, trying to get a clean shot at us: if he hits the freighter, its pilot is sure to sue. I skim back and forth, doing my best to convince the watchdog that if he fires, I'll dodge like always, and he'll disable the freighter.

A second watchdog pulls up past the side of the freighter, followed by a third, and my life becomes a complex maneuvering game with two teams and four players. Chazz grumbles to himself and taps the stylus back and forth across his scribblepad. The EM detector shows that the flare is dying down.

"OK, I've got it," Chazz says.

"You sure?"

"I'm always sure."

I groan, but there's no point in arguing. Chazz never checks his math. He says it's a waste of time, and I have to admit I haven't caught him in a mistake yet.

He slides the scribblepad toward me and leans back in his chair. "So now you have your number," he says. "How are you going to fly it?"

It's a good question.

On a normal day the nav board does all the work. Our v-vector shows up as a set of real numbers: I just fly a path that makes them match the entry angle for the ring. Working without the board, I could probably eyeball something close to the right vector, but it wouldn't be nearly precise enough to make us hit the moonside device. Half a degree makes a big difference when you're traveling at 384,000 km per hour.

Chazz is watching me with a triumphant sort of expression. He's waiting for me to grit my teeth, bite the bullet, and head home. And that's probably what I'd have done if he hadn't looked so smug about it. I don't think Chazz realizes how many times his pessimism has driven me to new heights of insanity.

I rummage one-handed in the cockpit's junk drawer.

"Here," I say, handing him a broken-off ruler and a nearly inkless permanent marker. "Calculate the height and width of the ring's projection on our viewplate when we're twenty meters out at the correct angle."

Chazz sees where I'm going with this. His eyes brighten with genuine enthusiasm, and he takes the scribblepad back. That's Chazz for you. The first to jump on a new idea as well as the first to bail when the water gets cold.

I play gingerbread man with the watchdogs while Chazz crunches numbers. After a minute he leans across my control board and sketches four little x's on the viewplate. If I imagine a curve running through all four marks, it looks oblong, like a circle that's been squashed and rolled on its side.

"OK," I say, blowing out most of my breath on the word. "Hold on tight."

Chazz grips the side rails as I rev the engine and shoot out from behind the comforting bulk of the freighter, out into the big, wide-open spaces waiting to be filled with nanoshots. There are no warning buzzers to tell me they're coming, so I fly a crazy path, backthrusting, twisting, and corkscrewing like a ladybug in a hurricane. I hope the watchdog pilots are dense enough to keep targeting us and don't just start flooding the area with randomly fired shots. I try to swallow the extra saliva out of my mouth, but my stomach got left several corkscrews back, so it doesn't work very well.

I zigzag in front of the ring until its foreshortened outline matches the x's on the viewplate, just smaller. About twenty meters out I pull to a near stop and nudge the aft thrusters until the ring's glowing silhouette touches the center of each mark. This is the critical moment. A nanoshot fired right now will hit us for sure, but I'm gambling that it will take the watchdogs' gunmen a moment to reorient and realize they've got a sitting duck.

To my relief, no muffled splats sound against the hull.

I murmur a prayer to the gods of higher math, bring the engines to full throttle, and send the corvette from 0 to 520 in .3 seconds. A delicate cellophane crackling and a flicker of orange light mark our passage through the ring.

* * *

One hour later we're gliding over the Sea of Tranquility. These days there's real water in it, and a landscaped coastline with silicon-based no-oxy vegetation. The view is breathtaking.

Madame Rousseau's mansion sits right on the edge of the lake, the best outlook in town. The butler comes out in a pressure suit as we touch down on the space pad. He retrieves our cargo through the airlock and gives us a cheery wave as he walks it toward the security gate. Through the tinted lunar windows, I can just make out Madame's figure sitting down to tea in the top-story sitting room.

We lift off and head home.

Chazz logs into our bank account, grunts, and tells me our pay was docked 30 percent for "damaged merchandise." That's rich people for you. No appreciation for the realities of life.

I hear Madame tried to buy the Louvre last year. She wanted to view the paintings without being annoyed by tourists and students. I can imagine the old woman's face, the wrinkled lips pressed tightly together as she placed bill after bill on some stodgy bureaucrat's desk, trying to get him to sell. Must have been terribly frustrating for her. But hey, it's like they say: money can't buy everything.

* * *

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