13 June 2014

Introduction to Sim

     A lot of people feel it, or dimly suspect it; they know there's something deeply wrong with the world but they can't figure out what it is.  Some people think they know it -- drunks mumble-blurting wild stories about service in a military that doesn't sound like any Movie of the week, asking for spare change, wild-eyed, talking about events and places that don't show up on any map of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iraq (again!) or even that Caribbean island nobody remembers?  Those guys, they probably know.  The guy at the flea market, with the rack of smudgily-printed flyers warning of the Roman Occupation Government, giving tips on burying guns in your backyard (do they sprout?), fretting over flying-saucer overlords, commie Russian plots and the dangers of fluoridated vaccinations?  He probably knows and doesn't even realize he knows amid all the other noise.

     And that's just how it's supposed to work.  See, they've lied to you, lied to you all your life, lied since long before you were born.  Our "precious blue marble?  It's just one of dozens.  First, yes; best, well, certainly the most biodiverse; only?  Nope.

     Interstellar travel has been around for a lifetime.  "Really fast" (if somewhat inaccurate) space travel is even older, and that's where things went wrong: when the United States undertook what turned out to be the second Moon base in the 1950s, the scientists, engineers,soldiers and technicians they sent to build it decided they didn't want to be in a position to bomb the one and only Earth (then) and skipped out.  Families and all.  The decision may have been influenced by their finding the remains of the first Moon base, the one von Braun would  have given his eyeteeth -- and more saliently, the eyeteeth of a whole factory full of forced laborers -- to know about.

     There's the dusty history lesson.  In more recent events, a Lukewarm War between the furtive ex-Moon crew brewed up, gave birth to an entire goofy UFO craze (and official debunking, unofficial PsyOps, etc. etc.) and finally fizzled out in the Agreement of 1989.  Now there's a handful of "Far Edge" worlds (and stranger set-ups) where the writ of NATO does not run, a smaller handful of worlds where it does, a string of weird Russian worlds, some kind of French something, and a (rumored) set of earnest little Chinese settlements they can't even be asked about without letting them know that we know that they know.  Oh -- and fleets of smugglers: the Far Edge still has an edge on us when it comes to the Stardrive and their "independent traders" come and go as they please, Agreement of 1989 notwithstanding.

     With me so far?  We have interstellar travel.  For the Good Guys (that's us, right?), it not precisely exciting; it was aggressively civilianzed after 1989, but it still resembles being locked in a big, rundown, 1960s-futuristic apartment building with no windows, an air-conditioning system designed by paranoid geniuses and maintained by surly experts, with a management composed of retired Air Force officers, while three physics labs run dangerous experiments in the basement and an entire university Mathematics Department tries to figure out what's next.  At any given moment, you're both bored to tears and under imminent threat of lurid death -- trapped in Nowhere, flashed into superheated plasma smeared across a distant solar system any one of three different ways, or drowned under a mass of amateur bureaucrats.

     It's where I work, and I love it.  Me, I'm a "peace dividend" beneficiary, it says so right here, trained up right out of High School by the United States Space Force despite having originally enlisted in the Air Force, taught everything there is to know about the maintenance, repair and proper operation of ever model of Stardrive our side ever flew, drilled, tested, qualified -- and then it was 1989.   I had been the third female to get all the way through Stardrive tech training and I was out of job.  Well, I never much liked saluting anyway.

     There was still some work, and it's not like USSF was going to let anyone go home; trips to and from the "good, green Earth" were few and far between, so we and the Russians could mutually pretend they didn't happen at all.  I got work; it turned out I had a knack for it.

     These days, I'm the Chief Operator and Lead Stardrive Tech of USAS Lupine, a massive "exploratory recon/carrier" turned freight-and-passenger starship over five miles long -- the bigger you are, the faster you go -- a career like living locked in a basement with an amazing view of the Universe.  It's not an adventure, it's just a job--

25 December 2013

Frothup: Christmas

     The topic came up at lunch — a working lunch, in Ben's office at the machine shop.
     "I don't know, Raub," Ben Jones told his co-worker and sometimes accomplice in holiday surprises for the neighborhood children.  "Most of the older kids are already skeptical of Santa Claus, or they think they're too sophisticated.  If we just put the robot we used at Halloween into a red suit, they're just going to laugh at it."
     Raub took the last bite of his sandwich, chewed and swallowed it before replying.  "There's only three weeks left."  He pointed at a little poseable wooden "robot" toy on Ben's desk.  "What're we going to do — dress him up as an elf?"  He laughed.  "That's lunch for me.  Back to the salt mines." And he walked off, whistling a Christmas carol 
     Ben laughed,too.  Later that day, the toy caught his eye again.  It wouldn't take much effort to get it to walk, maybe a pair of servos, and LEDs would make the eyes light up, but just one little robot wasn't much.  Then he remembered the carol Raub had been whistling.  When he left that evening, he left one of the 3-D fabbers turning out plastic versions of parts for the little robot, careful to mark the time and materials to his own account.
*  *  *

     It was Christmas Eve and Jackson Jones had been persuaded — with considerable reluctance,to go to bed only a half-hour later than his usual time.  "Santa won't come if you aren't asleep," his mother said.  He was determined to stay up, but his dark bedroom, and quiet adult talk and cooking smells wafting from the kitchen lulled him off to sleep no matter how hard he fought it.

     Jingle.  Jackson suddenly found himself awake.  Had he heard something?  He shut his eyes and held his breath, heart pounding.  There was a tiny, shuffling sound.  He was sure of it.  It was exactly not the sound of a jolly fat man with a big bag of toys.  Jingle, jingle.  What was it?  Was he dreaming?  There was a little scrape and a sudden creaking sound he recognized: It was the sound of his closet door opening.  The latch was bad and sometimes it just opened if you bumped it.  But what had bumped it?  He opened his eyes and realized there was a dim, shifting light coming from close to the floor.
     He got very awake.  Was there a fire?  A good Cub Scout, Jackson always reminded his Dad to change the batteries in the smoke detectors every Spring and Fall, and helped him do it, too. Surely it would have gone off? He raised up to get a better look—
     And he saw pairs of little lights, low against the wall.  Yellow, blue, green, red, white, orange, each set shifting a little.  He started to yell and then remembered the flashlight Dad had given him when he'd had a bad nightmare.  He kept it on the table next to the bed, just in case.  This was as big an "in case" as he could think of.  He reached carefully, slowly....  The first thing his hand found was his glasses, so he put them on.  The lights got sharper but they still didn't make any sense.  He groped again, found the light, aimed it more-or-less and pushed the button, yelling, "AAAAAAAH!"
     The beam illuminated a half-dozen blocky little robots, all of which took a step back as he yelled.
     He yelled again, "Daaaad!  Robots!  In my room!"
     His Dad, Ben Jones, walked through the door, holding some kind of remote and grinning.  "Yep.  You know what they are?"
     "Um...  No."  He didn't know if he should be relieved or mad, but Dad always said if you didn't know what was going on, you should find out.  "What are they?"
     "'Tiny bots...with their eyes all aglow...'  Just like in the song."  His Dad fiddled with the controls.
     "Aw, Dad, that's awful."  Jackson was watching the little robots.  They all moved at the same time.  "How do they work?"
     "They follow the leader.  See the one with red eyes?  The remote runs him.  Wherever I move him, the others follow."
     "Neato!"
     "Want to try?"  His Dad handed over the remote.  "Maybe you'd better see if you can get them to walk to the living room.  It is Christmas morning, you know, and you've got a few other presents under the tree, too."
END

     ...Though it's been said many times, many ways: Merry Christmas to you from the Hidden Frontier.

26 October 2013

Frothup: The Halloween Bot

     It came lurching and clanking down the road, trailing a thin streamer of smoke in the twilight, two heavy feet scuffing aside the red, brown and yellow-gold fallen leaves along the street-side edge pale-mauve line that delineated the pedestrian, bicycle and small/slow autonomous vehicle lane from the main road.

     Jackson Jones was the first of the kids to notice it. He was playing in the front yard in his costume while waiting for his big sister to come outside and take him  door-to-door, collecting treats.  He looked up at the sound and stood a long while, watching the big object approach though the long shadows.  "Neat-o," he said to himself, and then louder,  "Dad?  Daaad!  You've gotta see this.  Tell Quinnie, too."

     A vague male rumbling from the house replied.

     "No, Dad, you'd have to see it," adding, "Quick!" because by then it was about halfway past the neighbor's driveway, trudging steadily toward the Jones frontage.

     The scuffed trail was vaguely visible back along the tree-lined street, where homes gave way to vacant lots and small industrial buildings.  You could just make out the high, blank fence and higher sign-post where the road came to a T at the back of the sprawling Innovative Machine compound.  The signpost was topped with a silver-painted shape like a streamlined bowler hat, bearing the word INNOVATIVE, turning unceasingly around and around.  It was one of the first long words Jackson had sounded out for himself, and then he'd had to go ask Dad what an I-No-Vat-Ive was.  That was when he learned that Innovative Machine & Repair was "the plant" where Dad worked.

     There might've been a man visible way back at the fence; it was hard to be sure.  Jackson squinted at it, but his attention was drawn back to the shape patiently lurching along.  As it drew closer, he could a gentle squeaking and hissing, the clack-chuff! of valves and the singing of cables under stress under the sharp scritching of leaves  as it shuffled. 

     He took a step and the thing, roughly man-shaped, slowed.  Its head swiveled to face his direction and two huge, goggle-lensed eyes lit up, as sodium-yellow as the streetlights starting to flicker on.

     "Daad!  Mommm!  Quinn!  It's a real robot!"  And so it was, eight feet of shiny aluminum, blued steel, bright brass, copper wire, hoses and tubing and braided cable, walking and wobbling for balance on great broad feet, hands holding a big box shaped like a pirate's treasure chest in front of it.  As it came close to the boy, it slowed and stopped, slowly pivoting his way, body turning to line up with the head.

     Jackson heard a screen door up the road twang open and bang shut, followed by a similar sound from his own house and his Dad's familiar tread, but he didn't dare turn to look.  The robot was right in front of him.

     It stood as still as he was, hissing slightly, leaking a little smoke or steam.  Something inside it went click-click-click and the big yellow eyes blinked out and came back on.  It bent towards him a little, and the arms held the treasure chest-like box out just a bit farther. 

     Jackson wasn't sure what to do.  There were a lot of robots in his world, utilitarian things that lifted and carried, dug and drove, doing the dull or dangerous things that had to be done in a busy society with too few human hands; you kept out of their way, because they stopped cold if people they didn't recognize came too close and then you'd get yelled at by whoever was in charge of them.  None of them were like this wonder, not at all.

     It blinked at him again, and made a kind of offering gesture with the box, holding it out a tiny bit and then back. 

     Jackson felt his Dad was behind him and felt braver because if it.  "Um...hello?"

     The robot blinked and made the gesture again.  What was it trying to do?  Jackson glanced around, hoping for a clue, and saw his sister had come out on the porch in her costume.  Inspiration struck.  He asked the robot, "Trick or treat?"

     It blinked twice, bent down even further, let go of the box at one side (somehow holding it level and steady with a hand at one side) and lifted the lid with its free hand.

     Revealed inside, a king's ransom in candy!  Or, Jackson told himself, at least a prince's — glazed popcorn balls, chocolates in glittering foil, hard candies—  His Dad coughed.

     "Don't take too much, Jack.  That robot's got a long walk tonight and there are a lot of other kids."

     Hans from next door had snuck over, too, and chimed in, "Yeah, share."  He never missed a chance to curry favor with grown-ups but he was right.

     Jackson reached out and grabbed a handful.  Hans stepped forward, reached out, pulled his hand back when the robot swayed slightly,  then nerved up and took another swipe at it, netting a fair amount or, it seemed to Jackson, a little more.  The robot blinked yet again, swiveling his head to look at both boys, then carefully closed the box and stood up, shuffling in tiny steps to face in the direction it had been traveling.

     "Hey, Dad?"

     "Jackson?"

     "Can we walk with it?"

     His Dad made an overly-serious face, fighting a barely-controlled grin.  "I don't know, Jack.  That's an awfully big robot."

     "Aw, Daaaad!"

      Dad lost the battle with his grin.  "I suppose you can — but your big sister has to come along, too!"

*  *  *

     Later that same night, on the phone:

     "Raub here."

     "Looks like our project is a hit."

     "Tell me about it— Hang on, tricky stretch coming up. ....  Okay."

     "Don't you trust the autocontrol?"

     "In a mob of two dozen kids?  You come down here and try driving this thing, watching a dinky screen!"

     "Thanks, Raub.  I owe you big for this."

     "Hey, it took both of us to build it.  Wouldn't have missed tonight for the world.  Any world."
    
30

     (For my nephew Ben and his two kids; they'd love a Halloween robot and of everyone I know, he's the most likely to build one.)

18 October 2013

Things Lost Under Bridges

[Found in the tattered back half of a Far Edge magazine.  Fiction?  Biography?  I have no idea.]

THINGS FOUND UNDER BRIDGES

      For as far back as he could remember, he woke up shattered, understanding flitting away with scraps of dreams.

     The sun woke him long after dawn, nasty brightness streaming under the bridge and through the scrubby weeds that almost hid him from the path along the river.  He woke up on a sandy patch of bare dirt that smelled only faintly of old vomit and fresh urine, shuddering, slammed back into the here and now, groping for eyeglasses he hadn't had since-- when?  Lost the thought.  Of long habit, he sat as soon as he realized he was really awake, jerking upright and, after a breath, to his feet, standing quickly before the pains got his notice.  If the sun could find you, anyone could.

     Coughing, he stumbled to the water's edge and dashed a quick handful over his face had head with dirty hands.  Some remmant of vanity had him smooth his thinning hair without realizing he had.


DARKLY THROUGH GLASS

     He first learned about it standing outside the TV shop, staring from too close through the wavery old glass at the fuzzy, overly-colorful screens, trying to blink sense into the scrolling words under the earnest, blankly-young faces.  Did they say everyone would have to sign up?

     Later: It was everyone.  He puzzled the meaning from a week-old newspaper left on a park bench, shaking finger wavering along the line.  Him, too, him and Slippery John and Jenny Cats and the kids who slept, furtively, in the stubbed-off storm drain, thinking themselves unobserved.  And the Mexedes-driving bastard floating past who threw half a cup of coffee on him, the newspaper and the park bench.  He started to shout, "You, too," but the "ooou" turned into a hacking cough.


OLD MISTER STINKYPANTS

     They said you could sign up at the book-and-thinkmachine hall, but he was turned away at the door.  Not. You. That's what the lady said, lips compressing shut on every word, glancing from him to the poster of faces under the word PROHIBITED stuck to the wall just inside. He stood there remembering the unfortunate day a week or a month or a year ago, when either the dolefood or the dumpster gleanings had waged a horrible war in his gut while he looked at the screen, searching, searching frantically for something he'd since forgot, when the chair turned to sticky, damp heat and he'd moved down to the next.  And the next.  And the next, until a burly guard grabbed his arm, Hey, you!  Out, out! Holding up something that clicked once, twice, on the way to the door.


NO CHECKING THE MAIL

     The billboards said you could get a form at Postal-Serv and mail it in.  The sign said NO BUMS and the green-uniformed kid holding a strange-looking black rifle spared him a wary eye every step of the long stairway until he reached the top, then stopped him with a short, slow back-and-forth of helmeted head.

     No.

     It was a long way back to the bottom.

     Slippery John and the kids didn't have any better luck.


MAIDEN. FORM.

     It was Jennie Cats finally got them all forms.  She cleaned up well enough, especially if no one got too close and she remembered not to smile too broadly.  And the booktenders and think-machine tenders liked her, a little, on her best days.  He had to save out grubby coins for a week — "Print copies are not free, dearie."  Crumpled, a little, and a jelly stain on pages eleven and twelve but it wasn't a bad one; most of the sticky was rubbed off.

     The printing was too small to read under a street light.  It was almost too small at noon.


THE PALMER METHOD

     The pencil stubs were too skinny.  They slipped away from his grasp like the smallest coins.  He had a fatter one but it got too short to sharpen again before he'd gotten any farther than NAME and REG. NUMBER and was puzzling over EMPLOYMENT HISTORY.

     Years earlier: "Here's my essay, professor Jones.  And the lab results."
     "The deadline was yesterday, Miss Howart."
     She smiled.
     He didn't.

     Now: He finally found a fat blue crayon he could hold.  He scrubbed a point on it any place there was concrete.  The workshop man at back of the TV store helped him some with the HISTORY.
      "Geez,  you're really him, hunh?"
     He shrugged.  Words came and went.  They were elsewhere today.
     "I was never sure, you always looked so different-- Man, what happened?"
     He had no idea.
     "My old man, he says you won us the war.  You know that?"
     He tries to remember.  Can't.  So, there was a war?

     Years earlier: "Here are the parameters, professor Jones."
     "I quit yesterday."
     "You can't."
     He couldn't.

     Now: "Doc, I guess that's it.   This place right here was the last reg'lar work you had, I think, back when I started.  There wasn't nothing you couldn't fix back then.  Um, when you was sober.  No offense."

      He takes the forms and mumbles something.  Thanks?  Yes, thanks.


THE RESISTANCE OF MEMORY

    The posters had been warning about a deadline for weeks while he struggled past MOTHER'S MAIDEN NAME and LIST LIVING GRANDPARENTS.  He was almost sure that one only meant his but he listed a few other grandparents he knew about just to make sure.

    He'd lost track of the date.  One morning under the bridge was much like any other, unless the kid gangs had gone whooping along the river-ditch in the dark and he'd had to get out fast before they found him.  Flashing warnings on the TV screens told him, but the shop was locked up.  The Postal-Serve's doors were chained shut and a different young man behind them pointed a rifle at him and waved him away.  He stared for a second, befuddled at the shiny, reflecting patch at the end pointed at him, shiny where he had somehow expected a menacing black void. The man just yelled louder until he turned away.


LOVE WILL FIND A WAY

     There were pigeons in a coop on top of the TV-store building. Six floors up.  He'd seen them, scrounging.

    Same rooftop, sometime later: he tapes the forms to the stolen bird.   Kisses it on sudden impulse, kisses it and tosses it into the air, murmuring "Fly. Fly free."  He tears up and, embarrassed, turns away immediately.

     The form was much too heavy, but it's a pity he'd taped the bird's wings down.


THINGS FOUND UNDER BRIDGES, AGAIN

    He never even woke when it happened.  Later that day, the sun found an empty patch of dirt under the bridge that smelled only slightly of vomit and spilled blood.  There was a darker, damper patch at the center of it.

     Leadership held a press conference in time for the evening pundits.  Everyone was registered now.  It was the start of a new future, they said.   

     There was a glow in the sky.

14 September 2013

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

     It's the actual dial of an actual instrument in an actual panel in the "bridge" -- a coat-closet for two with meters, monitors, keyboards and clutter -- of an actual Far Edge Glocke-ship, a little smuggler's bell.
     They won't let visitors anywhere near the Stardrive core; the Edger bag of 'Drive tricks is still a well-tended secret that no starship crewperson or owner has ever let slip, but aside from that they're happy to do the visiting firemen thing and swap only slightly-exaggerated yarns of close calls and wartime desperation and/or bravery.  But dang--  That's some old stuff.

03 June 2013

Bank Shot

Aboard FCS Contract Tactical Vessel "Billiard," November 1963

     Kwa-FWOPP!  The sound hits with a shock that shakes the whole ship, or at least it feels that way.  That's not the worst part.  Set on auto, the EMP-gun fires any time there's a load ready to go and the targeting crew has lined up on a "valid target," any large-enough radar return lacking IFF. The rising thrumm of the Marx high-voltage generator recharging underpins the ratcheting clank and slam of the "gun" cycling a fouled barrel out and a freshly-loaded one in — the Marx's output driving the exploding-helix first step, helix pumping the stacked-disc EMP generator, ready for their one-and-only line-dance of death — isn't the worst part, either.

     No, what he's come to hate are the moments each side of firing: the dull "clack" of grounding relays ticking over, shutting down or isolating in every system but the trigger, the tiny hiss of the pneumatic-delay briefly audible in the silence left with life-support offline, Kwa-FWOPP! and an instant of shocked silence, waiting for the first few isolating relays to un-isolate and release the rest.  That's the part he can't stand: it always takes just long enough that he starts to wonder if it's not going to happen this time, leaving ship and crew — him — adrift in their primitive "tin suit" space suits, trusting to passive IFF and the clumsy navs systems for protection from pitiless, automated friendly fire.

     Airflow, cooling and commo comes back on okay this time, with an insectile buzz and a pair of warning telltales on the alarm board beside him: the long dielectric wedge in the barrel just cycled out has to be replaced and is, of course, jammed.  As he unstraps and unplugs, the second telltale — "TEMPERATURE ALARM" — blinks and goes out and the buzzing changes pitch.  Already cooled enough to work on, at least in his suit.  The wedge is a weak point but without it, eddy current would melt the barrel to unusability after a single shot.  The system that's supposed to slide the old wedge out and a new one in every five firing cycles is notoriously balky; there's a tradeoff between available replacements and cumulative damage at about four and a half shots — or five, if there's a tech on hand to fix foul-ups.

     In theory, the EMP-gun is locked out as soon as he cracks his tiny pod.  Despite the barrels and "shells," it doesn't send anything solid downrange, just a blast of electronic death that turns most spacecraft into useless junk.  The other side, NATO's Combined Space Forces — primarily the USSF, augmented by the Commonwealth's (Yes, HRH Elizabeth R's very own UK, Colonies, Possessions and ex-Colonials) Space Arm and an increasingly-reluctant French Navy (!) contingent — still hasn't come up with entirely effective shielding and thus, here he is, shooting zaps at them.  Outside the layered mu-metal, ceramic and gold-screen of the pod, the gun he services would stop him even faster and better than it stops NATO spacecraft.  So when he's unshielded, the gun is locked out, mostly.  Mostly: his pressure suit incorporates a lighter version of the same shielding and its standalone life-support is non-electric; the Bridge can override the lockout and he's supposedly protected from at least a single shot.  It's a last-ditch gambit; he worries more that the gun will cycle without firing while he's working on the jammed barrel.

     It doesn't happen this time.  The stuck wedge gives way to pure brute force, three clumsy free-fall hammer swings, thud-thud-thud and it sldes free.  He can feel the heat though his gloves — and to a lesser extent through bootsoles and his legs when he was bracing in place. It adds up but if you're used to it, sweating's not a big problem, natural cooling with the moisture recovered in the rebreather whirring on his back as long as the power's on. He steps through the rest of wedge-replacement manually, not trusting the machinery to pick up where he left off.  Back in the pod once more and — hey, presto! — he's no more than snapped the final latch before there's a multiple clack, an instant's quiet and Kwa-FWOPP!  There's a heart-stopping pause before dim, red pod lights and a reassuring rush of air come back on again, just fine.

*  *  *

     He hadn't set out to be a soldier — who had?  He'd been working maintenance at a station in a small but metal-rich asteroid belt in Peace-and-Prosperity's system when NATO had come in with little warning.  As the "Federation of Concerned Spacemen" fleet scattered and and some planet-bound Far Edgers had managed skip out to meet it, a pair of NATO/USSF Jump-drive carriers were dropping fast armed scouts and steam/fission "teakettle" troop transports near every off-planet source of RF. Reaching his station, they'd taken the still-incomplete "big wheel" that held living quarters, command/control/communications and other activities requiring a definite up and and down, but misjudged the physical size and population of the remainder of the operation.

     The area where he worked, "backside" of a large rock without line-of-sight to the Wheel, had been overlooked.  The last flyable vehicles had skipped out in the confusion, leaving one pilot, four techs and a "Heron" with a bum #2 realspace engine.  The Heron was an awkward little general-purpose spacecraft, modified for up-close use in the relatively-dense asteroid belt.  Originally an underpowered Jump drive had given it limited capability; modified with copies of FCS-recovered WW II German "Glocke" Drive field generators, it could span a solar system in a few hours subjective time.

     Working with desperate haste, power all but shut down, he and his peers had managed to repair a similar but less-damaged engine from the shop's boneyard, wrestle it into place, and ready the tubby little craft for travel.

     Normal crew was three: pilot and navigator/copilot at the nominal top, peering out through windowed turrets, radio/radar/Drive operator at their foot level and room a little cargo or one passenger below and forward of the radio position.  One passenger if he wasn't planning to move around much.  Life support for four days, longer with an added pod.  Fuel for six days.  Four people, max.

     They got five in, awkwardly, depressurized the hanger bay and set Jumped out, interpolating and extrapolating from out-of-date course cards on a best-guess vector, and got lucky: much closer to the FCS fleet than NATO's ships, the electrical racket of their emergence from Jump prompted a tight-beamed challenge on the Edger traffic-control frequency.  Bona fides established, they were given coordinates and met an FCS ship with hours to spare on life support, last spacecraft out of the the system.

     ...And out of friends, home and a job.  Sure, there was always work for a spaceship tech, but the rough-and-ready skills of mining-ship mechanic weren't so good a fit with the huge ships of the FCS Fleet.  For that matter, neither was he.

     When he heard a minor ship-Captain named Filiaggi was setting up a "military contractor" to meet USSF/NATO's aggression with force, he made contact as soon as he could get through, joining a large number of mostly young, mostly displaced Edgers who favored fight over flight.  When the shadowy leadership of what was still more conspiracy than government put out a Notice For Bids to run "reconnaissance and intelligence" missions in Earth-held systems including the Solar System itself, Filiaggi's organization won the bulk of the contracts — and put him to work.

     And now here he was, babysitting an improvised "Pulse Cannon" all of Mark II — or possibly this one was a Mk. III, the changes were slight — shooting and being shot at, all because his father (and several hundred others) hadn't wanted to set up an atom-bomb missile base on Earth's Moon.  He thought the irony of fighting even a defensive war for peaceniks was a little muted when you were wearing a pressure suit, taking fire in an already-hostile environment, living on short rations and at the present moment trying to shake sweat from your eyes; all he wanted, personally, was for the shooting to stop.

     It didn't seem likely to happen any time soon.

04 April 2013

"...A Worm Unknown To Science..."

 [Typed MS, by the look of it a carbon copy and made on a very old machine, discovered in a trunk marked "J. Philli{illegible}" filled with books (mostly by A. Conan Doyle) and old papers purchased in a second-hand shop in Star City on Linden/Lyndon.  I have no idea what to make of it. --RX]

     It's been twenty years and I am light-years away, or so they tell me.  Have been for twenty years and my conscience pangs me yet.

     I don't feel at all guilty about the way I left -- "I'll just nip back in and get my bumbershoot," indeed!  Nor can I see how Mr. Isadora P———, well-known reporter  and duellist of some note could have come to any more humane an end. 

     I regret the finality of it and would that it had not been at my hand, though.  It was in the spring of 18--, in the very last decade of the dear, lost 19th Century, and I had been acting as the Aeroship Company's British factor or agent for the better part a decade, collecting and forwarding all manner of biological specimens, compressed foodstuffs, arcane machinery and whatnot -- not the least of which were popular magazines and even the London papers.  Mr. P——— must have been approached at about the same time as had I, but in his case, the journalist's natural inquisitiveness and a certain degree of what I can only conclude was an innate duplicity, some dark stain of the spirit, led him to learn far more than he should have known -- and to eventually threaten to publish unless paid.

     Had his motive been a pure concern for the truth, I might have demurred the assignment; instead, he had more than suggested that his report could be "lost" were he in receipt of a truly staggering financial consideration.

     The Aeroship Company had lately suffered considerable losses in connexion with their base of operations in California, the so-called Sonora Aero Club; the cause was never entirely clear to me, some sort of fire or explosion, but the extent of the loss was palpably real.  They simply could not have met the cost and telling the blackmailer "publish and bedamned" was completely out of the question.  Even then, the gathering fires of war had convinced the engineer Peter Mennis and Aeroship Company President August Schoetler that their contrivances and vehicles must be kept an absolute secret.     

     Murder was out of the question.  Only one course remained.

     The so-called "darter slug" is unknown to Earth's science, and for good reason.  Neither slug nor insect, it haunts the shallows and muddy banks of watercourses on a distant world, a peaceful world the Aeroship Company has, at great effort and expense, made habitable by Mankind.  Though small, it is a dangerous beast; like the honey bee, it has but a single sting -- but that sting brings immediate, incurable madness on whoever receives it.

   I did it--  I contacted Isadora P——— and gave him the matchbox, promising it contained irrefutable proof of his literally incredible tales of persons commuting to and from a distant star.  I had scarcely left his flat when I heard the terrible groan of his last sane moment.  I could not nerve myself to return and retrieve the darter slug

     Within the week, I had slipped away from my remaining friends in London, through a simple trick and on the slimmest of excuses.  An umbrella?  An escape!  In disguise, I boarded the cutter A—— and when it "vanished" in a cloudbank, I was one of her passengers.  Of course it was a ruse; Aero Dora III lifted the ship whole, we transferred to the pressure hull as she rose and carried the cutter to our destination, where it now sails an unimaginably distant sea.

     I have not returned to Earth since.  The flights have become less and less frequent.  The hazards are too great, especially since Dellschau -- poor, mad Dellschau, first victim of the same species of worm that stung Isadora! -- escaped from a supply trip to Texas.  (Thanks to a merciful providence, he was unable to let the cargo of cattle loose, though there is evidence he tried.)  I may never return in this life, but this letter shall, and I can go on with a clear conscience. 

     And I hope, Mr. W—— and especially Mr. H——, that you will not think too ill of me for having left you three such puzzles.