05 May 2015


I. Lines

     Picture a line stretching down the block.  Oh, not a totally grim line -- the weather's good, near seventy, and the people are brightly dressed, contrasting with the concrete and block of the buildings, the gravel and concrete of the streets -- but a serious one.  Picture more lines, many more, a world of lines, a place where if you didn't work for one of the big outfits, or on a robot farm, or at the "School," an occasional missed meal was just how it worked.  But how can you begin to know what it was like if you don't know why and how?

     The world was called Ryall.  It wasn't good for much -- halfway through a glaciation, which meant the temperate zone was a belt around the Equator a little over five hundred miles wide.  But it was warm enough to grow crops and raise animals, the local weeds were neither poisonous nor allergenic, it had metals and fuel, and best of all, it was well behind the straggling, uncertain "front" between the Far Edge refuseniks and the Earth-based NATO forces searching for them.

     Once the Edgers realized they hadn't fled far enough and Earth wasn't willing to let them be, the University of Ryall, until then an otherwise struggling institution that by chance had an excellent 'Drive physics program, was cultivated as a major research institution by grants directly from the Federation of Concerned Spacemen (the shadowy Edger non-government) and its various military contractors, most notably "General" Filiaggi's Mil/Space.

     The population swelled as the War years dragged on, with people looking for a safer place (especially after the disastrous attempt to reclaim "Peace-And-Prosperity," the planet better known as Linden and, later, Lyndon), various professions and trades following work, along with farmers, administrators, manufacturers and the Far Edge's commercial military organizations.  Agriculture struggled to keep up.  Distance made luxuries (smuggled from Earth or P&P, built or grown on Trinity or Frothup) expensive and uncommon and by the time the War idled to a stop in 1989, Ryall was a distinctly difficult place.  Government was small, hard-pressed, and inadvertently oppressive.  Mil/Space and defense contractors dominated employment.  Thirty-plus years of war and rumors of war had left more than a mere mark; FCS was reportedly considering intervention, as it had done twice before elsewhere to rein in too-powerful local governments.

     A decade earlier, it had already been a hard, gray place for a long time, a place more than a world, and one with a job to do and little time or resources to spare for nonsense--


     He recognized her as they both stood on one of the endless lines that had come to dominate life in Landingport, lined up for a chance to purchase onions or cheese, lined up to register or reregister for a work permit or a housing permit or a travel permit, lined up for inoculation or delousing, lined up because you saw a line and didn't want to miss out -- or face arrest for not lining up.

      Even though she was an unperson these last seven years, her poetry deemed wasteful, unnecessary, he recognized her. "Aren't you Sara-the-bard," he asked, but it wasn't a question. Students had called her that, back in the hopeful beginning, before walls had gone up around the School, before passes and air-raid drills and Security. "You're her, you are," he exclaimed, incredulous, delighted.

     She never made eye contact. "I was," she said, almost whispering, and turned away.

III. A Gap In Space

    Mathematics and poetry sound like an odd combination of talents to most people.  Yet they're often found co-existing, happily or not, in the same mind.  Oppenheimer translated Hindu epics; Ada Lovelace struggled to subdue her "poetical nature," and Dodgson, well, you already know him as Lewis Carroll.

     Sara-the-former-Bard was one, or perhaps two, celebrated for poetry, valued for insights into multidimensional physics too abstruse to explain, insights she'd loved for the beauty they revealed, insights applied physics and engineering had turned into windows into terror.  Or so she feared; compartmentalism had slammed down and all she knew of the most recent developments was rumor.

     (This is the opening of a planned novel, set on the same world as my short story, Things Lost Under Bridges.)

19 April 2015

One Evening On Kansas II

    I was living on Kansas II at the time, having parted company with my previous starship under less than auspicious circumstances.  Don said he had a surprise for me, but we needed to be on the road an hour before the sun was down.   Occasionally brilliant and often-annoying Don, who was then my fiancĂ© and now, damn him, is nobody to me, our timelines torn apart by his choice and my travels.  He’s much older now.  I’m not.

     But at the time, our life together was as rosy as the Eastern sky, Kansas II having a very nice magnetic field but the temerity to spin the wrong way.  We were driving more or less south, where wheatfields give way to unimproved Nature at a wide, meandering river.
     The road ends at long bridge across the river.  The bridge ends in a lift section, a nice, ugly Chicago-style bascule drawbridge that normally stays up. There’s a warning sign.  To lower the bridge, you’ve got to put at least hundred kilograms (plus or minus – KS2 runs to 0.98 G) on a sidewalk slab in front of the bridge for ten minutes. 
     They can’t make you read the sign but aside from muddy water below, sky overhead, a long bridge ending in wheatfields behind and raw, rolling, red and green pseudo-veldt on the other side, there’s nothing else to see:
Beyond this bridge, the land remains as it was before humans settled Kansas II. Cross at your own risk.  Persons who are allergic to whirlweed or who have not yet had and recovered from planetary fever should not cross.  Emergency services are not available.  Buffalion, trap-door weasels and all other native animals are not to be molested.  The larger species can injure or kill an unprotected person. BUFFALION TRAILS AND HERDS ARE PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS.  AN AUTOMOBILE WILL NOT PROTECT YOU.  If you encounter a buffalion herd, move away immediately at ninety degrees to their direction of travel.


     It took both of us to start the bridge-lowering process.  I stood next to Don, reading the sign and wondering if he’d decided to take me out here and leave me.
     “Not exactly a friendly place you’ve got here, I told him.
     “What, the sign?  It’s an idiot-filter.  They don’t even keep the numbers updated; those are from two years ago.”  He grinned at me.
     I didn’t find it reassuring.
    My doubts must have showed, since he frowned and continued, “Really, it’s okay.  People come here all the time.  I’m surprised we haven’t seen anyone yet.”
     “And it’s a surprise,” I reminded him.  Can’t you at least hint?”
     His grin returned, impish, charming.  “Nope.  But you’ll like it.”
     I never could resist that grin.
     Once the bridge started down, we got back in his truck – a tiny SUV, a Bonzai or something, I never was very good with the names of cars – and drove on for another couple of miles.  A kind of gray shape started to loom above the rolling grass(like) land, and as we got closer, I could make out some specks or blobs on it.  Eventually the land flattened out more and in the dimming light, I saw it was a huge slab of rock, slightly tilted, rearing up out of the ground, maybe thirty feet high at the highest part.  There were a half-dozen trucks packed close to the steeply-rearing side.  The blobs on top were people, in pairs and one larger group.
     The ride smoothed out.  I looked lower.  We were crossing packed, bare earth – well, Kansas II dirt, anyway.
     “Don, this is a buffalion pathway, isn’t it?”
     “Un-huh.  Don’t worry.  They never get too close to The Slab.”
    We suddenly started getting jostled again, as the ground became rougher.  It stayed bumpy all the way to the very base of the rock, where he parked and turned off the engine.
     “There’s a picnic basket and a blanket in back,” Don said, “Help me carry it up before it gets too dark.”
    “Maybe.  Don, what is this?”
     “This?  It’s a geologic anomaly.”
     “Not what I meant.”
     He gave me that grin again.  “C’mon.  This’ll be fun.”

     We settled down at a relatively level spot, after a tricky scramble up a narrow but well-worn path to the top.  People were scattered across the top with plenty of room between them and for a while, we were busy unpacking dinner and eating.  By the time we were done, it was nearly full dark.  Don checked his watch, a quick flash of light on the dial.  “Almost time.”
     “Time for what, you scoundrel?  Shouldn’t you be telling me at last?”
     “Won’t have to.  Lay back and look up.  See the stars?”  He had laid next to me. Pointing, he said, “There’s the Lion, and just this side of it is the Hexagram.  See how the stars make a pattern of six lines?”
     I did.
     “Okay, watch just to the left of it and up—"
     Already, twinkling stars had started to look odd to me: stars ought to burn steadily.  I kept watching.  Suddenly, a line of light sprang into being almost where I was looking and raced across the sky!
     There was a low murmur from the people around us.
     The first streak was followed by another, and another, and another.  A meteor shower!  It was like popcorn popping; there’d be a few, and then a pause and then more, and then maybe a lot more and then nothing for a time.  With each one, we were oohng and aaahing as if it were fireworks.  In a way it was.
     I was laying there, comfortably snuggled up next to Don, watching the meteors in a kind of dream-like state, when I heard the sounds.  A kind of dull thud, then a bell-like tone and a softer thud. 
    Another set of noises answered, the belling slightly higher in pitch.   Then another, closer and lower: Plop! BONG! Pop.  It was a little worrying, but I didn’t hear anything from the other people around us except the occasional sigh when an especially impressive meteor drew a line of fire on the night sky.
     Overhead, the meteor shower continued, maybe a little more sporadic, while the strange sounds seemed to move around us, each bell in a different pitch, a sonic counterpoint to the light show overhead.
     “Don—“ I whispered.
     He rolled a little, hugged me and whispered back, “It’s okay.”
     I pushed up on my elbows and looked around.  I could barely see the nearest couples and they didn’t seem alarmed.
     Meanwhile, the chorus continued, accompanied by an occasional streak overhead.  I was just relaxing again when a huge, deep BONGGGG! rang out, echoing around the slab, and then the night fell silent.
     I realized I was holding my breath, waiting for the next bell-sound.
     “Bobbi, you can breathe,” Don said, very quietly.  “That’s the last one.”
     “What – was – that?”
     He grinned again. I could hear it in his voice.
     “Trapdoor weasels.  They do that.  Nobody knows why. ‘Bed check,’ I reckon.”
     They’re not weasels at all, but a large, spider-like creature that’s a nasty ambush hunter: they build their burrows across Buffalion runs and open the “trapdoor” after most of the herd has passed, hoping to trip up the young, the old and the weak.   They’re a pest on settled land, sometimes pathetic (their methods don’t work on tractors and trucks) and sometimes not; a new nest of them can do a lot of harm to cattle, horses or even sheep.  They’re about as ugly a thing as you can imagine.  I’d never liked them.
     Until that night.

     Don left me a year later for a younger and, as he by then was devastatingly pleased to tell me, much girlier girl.  Most men don’t like it when you’re better at small home repairs than they are.  It turned out he positively loathed it.  I don’t know if it was rewiring the second-floor bedrooms or replacing the water heater that did it, but somewhere along the way I’d stepped on his mojo too often, too unheedingly, and no amount of my (very good, if you ask me) home cooking and (ahem) native charm could repair it.

     But I’ll always have the memory of the meteor shower and the trap-door weasel belling and your little-boy grin when you shared it with me, Don, you sonuvabitch.

01 December 2014


     It was only a drill.  It felt all too real.  The starship didn't buck and shudder but it certainly sounded as if we were returning to what we still try to claim is "normal space."  To judge from the pops, groans and subsonics, it was a middling-rough transition, something like a high-speed elevator rumbling to a stop while a troupe of luggage-testing primates hammered brand-name suitcases into the sides. It got under my skin even though I'd helped install the speakers that did it.

     The visible-light-plus screens at the sides of the monitor wall in Jump Control flipped from hazy gray through an instant of shocking, multi-hued brightness to a black field with a few lights; a couple of marks lit up in tentative violet as Navs matched observation to expectation.  On the main screen, the Jump emergence schematic was replaced by a three-view of the planetary system with our inbound track highlighted white against flat black, a fading fan of probability trumpet-belling out around it and our destination world's orbit in bright green.  A few more details were picked out in varying hues and degrees of transparency, indicating the trustability, source and age of the data.  Composite radar should be mapping onto it bit-by-bit, or pixel-by pixel, and scrolling numbers at the of the image presumably told the Jump pilot more than mere pictures—

     Suddenly, the main display picked up a red border and a new track appeared in the same shade, much too close, coming sunward in at a shallow angle just off our track and much, much more slowly—

     Alarms sounded and Star Pilot Jennifer "Sunny" Grimm said, "Shit!" in a tone of voice very unlike her usual calm pilot-chant.

     Starship Lupine was fixing to do a Casey Jones.

     I heard a distinct click as Sunny whacked the emergency-avoid button at top-center of her Jump
presets.  A timer came to life at the top of the screen, starting with 00:00:15.00 and began counting backwards, as Sunny's Exec Pilot keyed the all-call: "Jump! Take Hold, Take Hold, Jump in ten seconds..."

    Emergency-Avoid is a non-optimal solution.  Continuously updated by some simple-minded software to bounce the ship as into (and back out of, light-minutes away) Jump on whatever course is nearest to 90 degrees to the resultant vector of any flagged tracks, and overseen and fudge-factored by whichever Navs types have been tapped for the job you hope is never needed, it is a least-bad option, too dangerous to be left to automation.  Human reaction is slow, dreadfully slow but the official line is that anything within the first twelve hours of a typical emergence that's too close or too fast for a human at the controls to avoid and not a near-miss is inherently non-survivable.  We'd never even know, flashed to a cloud of gas in mid-thought.

     This is not a comforting notion. Casey Jones's fireman had the option of jumping.  We've got to make the whole locomotive jump.  Lupine was going to slam her stardrive on, wrapping up in a pocket universe and hammering back out in the time of three or four quick breaths.

       It was only a drill.  I was riding this simulated emergence as the "Engineering Liason," a brand-new innovation from the bulging brains at the Duluth corporate HQ of The Starship Company.  Instead of riding it out with the other on-shift techs in the Engineering Shop fifty feet down the passageway and around a couple of corners, I was sitting in the back row of Jump Control with an alpha-geek from Navs and a couple of low-level Imaging specialists.  Five-way harnessed to a cross between a pilot's ejection seat — minus the "eject" — and a dotcom-millionaire's dream of an office chair, all I had time to do was tense up, push my head against the headrest and wonder how bad this would hurt if it was really happening or if things would just—

     The count hit "00:00:00.00" and the overhead lights came on.  Walt Randall, Lupine's Chief Pilot, slid open the transparent "patio door" hatch in the bulkhead to our left, radiating his usual bear-like bonhomie. "Nice sim!  Nice job, everyone," he said.  "Sunny, okay?"

     She shot him a hurt look.  "I wasn't expecting that!"  She'd run five more sims before that, replays of old, old Jumps and re-emergences from Lupine's extensive files.  This one—  You'd think a near-miss that close would be legendary, at least in rumor, and I'd never heard of it.

     CP Randall grinned.  "You're good but you get way too comfortable.  We're both going to be due for recert when we get to Earth."

     "Or when we reach Kansas Two," she reminded him, "Unless they've changed our course routing?"

     "If so, nobody told me.  Yeah, K2, the U.S. Space Force can recertify us at the base there."  Lupine is civilan starship these days, hauling cargo and passengers in a vast loop from one inhabited system to another, but pilot certification is still handled by USSF.  Most of the officers and crew are as ex-military as the ship, thanks to the "peace dividend" after the end of the Lukewarm War, the prolonged, messy conflict that occupied the first forty years of star-travel.  It's one reason star travel remains classified and the public has been fed a steady diet of disinformation from Kenneth Arnold to TV shows and Air Force "investigations."


     In nominal reality, USAS Lupine was just about at the end of transit from the covert NATO member (and ex-Far Edge) planet they'd tagged "Frothup" to Trinity, a well-settled Far Edge world with a Mil/Space base on the largest of its three moons.  Sure, we're all best pals now. We have been since the Agreement of 1989 between the U.S. (plus the rest of the clued-in NATO countries) and the "Federation of Concerned Spacemen," the latter the not-very-closest thing the Far Edge has to a government, but it doesn't keep me from worrying. Mil/Space is a private company, with a well-deserved reputation for punching above their weight — and without warning.

     In addition to three moons and a nest of Space Marines, Trinity has somewhat byzantine internal politics, the latter thanks to a long-running three-way religious conflict that seethed through most of the years of the Lukewarm War between NATO and the Edgers.  There were cautions on on the ship's Intranet already, warning us to not do anything to provoke the locals — no discussions, no religious symbols on clothing or jewelry, no politics, just stick to neutral topics.  "Smile and ask about the weather," we were advised.  Right. On a starship, "weather" means there's an Enviro problem and it needs addressed ASAP. After twenty years aboard, all I really know about weather is that I don't much care for it, but how much effort does it take to say, "How about those clouds?"

     When The Chief, back to something like his old self after a close call at Frothup, assigned me to "ride liaison" for the actual emergence at Trinity's solar system, I objected on grounds of having sat through four hours of sims with Sunny's crew three days earlier.

     "Exactly why I'm putting you there; you're the freshest.  C. Jay and Gale ran it week before last and the rest of your peers haven't yet."

     I gave it one more try, pointing out that as Chief Stardrive Tech, my proper place was in the Engineering Shop, ready to leap into action if the 'Drive faltered. It fell flat before his skeptical look, raised eyebrow and all.

     "You'll be all of fifty feet farther away in Jump Control, where they won't need you if anything goes seriously wrong with the Drive.  Don't waste my time.  0900 tomorrow, be there."  And he turned his attention back to the display in front of him while I stood up and stepped out of his minuscule cubby, back into Engineering.  As I cleared the hatch, he cleared his throat and said "Don't be late," which was both a zinger and not unexpected.  The clock is not my friend.

     You could go cross-eyed trying to unravel The Chief's motives.  On the one hand, he needed to "show willing" to this notion of sticking an Engineering tech in Jump Control.  On the other, he wasn't all that willing, so why not send me, his department's sole female?  And with the added bonus that I am, slightly grudgingly on his part, the lead Stardrive Technician, meaning if the thing acted up badly enough, I'd be the tech putting on the highly-shielded suit and venturing into where nobody lasts very long when the 'Drive is more than ticking over.  While I like to think of myself as a rose among thorns, The Chief considers me more of a thorn  in his side.  Then again, he thinks of all of us that way.


      0900 is not my usual start time.  The physics of Jump can't be bent to accommodate anyone's schedule; when it's time, it's time, or you don't end up in the right place.  Or, possibly, anywhere else.  That would be bad.

     I wasn't late.  Coffee, toothbrush, hairbrush, low ponytail (you really don't want to be bouncing a knot of hair off your headrest), clothes, and I was down the slidewalk and in my fancy chair in Jump Control, still blinking away sleep.  Walt Randall and his front-row crew of Navs boffin "Jump Co-coordinator" setting up presets and an "Exec" pilot handling all high-priority non-Jump decisions were in place. I was all the way on the back row with the trainees and spare spares, next to a muttering geek from Navs who looked as if he'd slept there and a burly Power Room electrician-reactor tech. The rest of Jump team were belted in by the time I'd set up my intercom panel, listening to Jump and Feeder Pilots plus Power at full volume, Exec Pilot on but faded down so I could tell if he was talking, and a two-way connection to the Engineering shop.  I tested the latter, pressed the CALL button, "Calling all Morlocks!"

     All it got me was an irked-sounding "Ack," either from Gale Grinnel or Big Tom's dead-on impersonation.  I wasn't about to ask and wouldn't've had time to; a light blinked on the panel in front of me as Randall came on the intercom, all-circuits.

     "Good morning boys and girls!  Ready to punch this through?" 

     We all counted off and flipped our go-tallies from off to green, one by one. I had a bit of stage fright as it got to the back row:

     "Kopje, Powerplant Three. We're good"

     "Stockman, Navs Five, in place."

     Missed my turn already.  "Eh- Ecks, Engineering, we're go."

     I don't even remember who finished in Jump Control.  It was green all the way and the final "Go" came down from Acting Captain Cardenas, in his office several decks up. 

     Randall left his intercom mic on and his Jump Coordinator added the all-ship PA, so we heard him in headset and echoed a tiny bit later from the passageway, "All hands, secure for Breakout.  Fifteen minutes. All hands, secure for Breakout.  Fifteen minutes."  The joking tone was gone from his voice. The PA clicked off and Randall kept on speaking, consulting with the Navs lead to his right, setting up the one-button alternatives.  I only heard his half of the conversation; pretty much everyone in Jump Control needs to hear the Jump Pilot but not one another.  Unless you have a for-sure emergency to report, you keep mum; the Jump Pilot calls all the shots. 

     Five minutes on, the Jump Coordinator hit the PA with the next warning, accompanied by passageway lights blinking and punctuated by hoots from the general alarm: "Ten minutes!  Ten minutes to breakout!  Secure all, secure all, secure all."  JC site to the left of the Pilot, handling all the non-piloting command functions, direct liaison between the front row of Jump Control and minor items like Life Support (Environment & Physical Plant) Security and Command Admin (Captain, 1/O, 2/O, whichever one's in the worry seat).

     Beside me, the Navs guy shifted in his seat and muttered something, working the keyboard with one hand and trackball with another.  One channel on his intercom panel lit up red as he keyed his mic and spoke a few words, then laughed and slapped his trackball hand on the console.  For a member of the Navigation staff, this constituted normal-type behavior — he'd probably thought of a joke about an unobvious convergent series or something.  I glanced the other direction to catch Kopje looking daggers at him.  It takes all kinds but sometimes a little distance makes it easier to take.

     Three rows up, Randall seemed happy with his option line-up and the big screens were showing a spiny schematic of our projected breakout process, with a predicted (and equally schematic) three-view of our destination star system down one side.  It would move to the main screen once we'd snuck and bounced our way back into normal space and start filling up with color-coded traffic information as the middle two rows of radar, optical and comms and beacon techs collected and assembled it.  We're moving pretty quick at breakout, aimed for emergence relatively empty and "flat" space, far enough away from the system's star to reduce spacetime flickers and ripples that make the process bumpier, far enough to shed velocity in a nice, easy trajectory — and close enough that it doesn't take a year to reach our destinations world.  Scuttlebutt has it Randall's a truck driver compared to gifted pilots like Sunny Grimm, but he gets the job done and keeps the breakage within reason.

      We were at the five-minute mark now.  The EP gave the warning, accompanied by overhead lights blinking all over Lupine.  Kopje was leaning into his safety belts, intent on the Power Room displays in front of him as he murmured into his microphone to some even more hapless tech manning a distribution board somehwere down among the fusion/magnetohydrodynamic reactors.  The first few seconds of Breakout, the [CLASSIFIED] can draw staggering amounts of current, so the Power gang tries to shed as much non-essential load as they can ahead of time.

     Me, I tried to think of what could go wrong.  Finally hit the switch for RF/Reaction and got — naturally!  — Jonny Zed, replying with a snork that sounded suspiciously like I'd caught him in mid-snore.

     "Re-ax! Wha'cha want?"

     "Hey, Jon.  How're your engines looking?"  There are eight clusters of maneuvering engines around the ship, RF-pumped ion engines that deliver a surprising amount of thrust.  While the Power crews run the big Fusion-over-MHD primary realspace engines that provide a reasonably consistent "down" and power the ship besides, the comparatively-small ion engines, like the Stardrive itself, are Engineering's worry.  I was starting to worry, too, as Jon was taking his time replying.  Breakout was a couple minutes away and the handover from routine-ops Drive Control to Jump Control overrode my intercom:

     "Jump, this is DQ.  You have control, Walt."

     "DQ, I have control.  —Ready for this?"

     Jon's reply to me came in on the heels of Walt's cheerful inquiry, "Bobbi?  Portside, Number Three, it's showing a fault."

     "Have you tried resetting?" I asked.  You don't have to tell most operators but Jonny Zed is a special case.  He has served aboard Lupine longer than I've been alive, ever since she was a USSF carrier — since the first pressure hull was bolted to the first truss section, if you believe him — and his habits run in well-worn grooves.  His motto seems to be the neck that is never stuck out never feels the axe.  Nevertheless, he can be relied on to do the right thing when it is absolutely necessary, if there's no one else to do it. It's kept him around all these; he might be onto something, at that. I talked him through the reset and the little ion-pump's high-power RF source came right back up. Ever since we solid-stated them, the RF sources for the ion rockets have been well-behaved.

     And then it was time.  I'd  been ignoring the steady chant in my headset while working with Jon; fast on the heels of his last words came Walt Randall's, "We're committed!  Stand by for Step One of two....five, four three, two, one—"

     It may not have been one of his smoothest; even strapped in, I felt an instant's float followed by a slam sideways and then back into the padding of my seat.  The visible-light and radar displays lit up like fireworks.  As usual, the initial thumping was followed by an earthquake-like series of aftershocks as the starship's sheer mass and slight flexibility damped the jolt.  This is main reason for Lupine's enormous size; where a smaller ship would rattle like a pebble in a can returning to normal space from such a deeply-folded, unthinkably-fast bubble in spacetime, ours just goes thud a few times and lumbers on.

     There were still a few more unfolding steps before we were back in the shared continuum, but for all they required more skull-sweat from the Imaging and Navs teams, they were comparatively small, mere speedbumps.  The closer our first bump had been to the planned breakout, the smaller they would be and the more quickly they would happen.

     Someone from Enviro started a report on the general intercom channel, something about a broken water pipe that chopped off in mid-word as the speaker realized he'd hit "All-call" on his panel.  The Power tech next to me had been holding his own quiet conversation as we bounced through and noticing that called my attention to my own display.  Sure enough, the "History" graph for the [CLASSIFIED], or part of it and never mind just what, showed a huge power spike, not quite to redline, and incoming voltage had dipped to almost-brownout under the load.

     I hit the button for Drive Control, "Eric, you see that spike?"

     "Sure did.  Hey, I'm just a passenger 'til we get through.  My board's all green; we're looking good."

     I was thinking about waking up Jonny Zed when Randall did it for me on all-call: "Arms and legs inside until the ride is over, girls and boys, we're fifteen away." 

     Behind his voice, you could hear the by-the-book warning, "Take hold, take hold, fifteen for breakout, take hold," and a slightly-delayed echo from the passageway speakers. 

     "Ten, nine — this should be an easy one — five, four, three, two—"

     It wasn't.  The ship bucked and fell, or so it felt, and then shivered sideways.  The optical and radar displays — proxies, really — are stacked on each side of the primary displays.  They'd flared briefly as space got unfolded. Now, in the set that showed visible light, a starfield had replaced the sparkling gray haze of a Heim-Droscher-Goubau pocket universe.  We were back in the real world, a step ahead of schedule.   The Imaging row was suddenly very busy, all purposeful motion and terse conversation.  Comms was staring at a wide-spectrum waterfall display, looking for the local beacons and whatever routine radio traffic there might be.  It would be hours before we heard anything from Trinity proper; the excess energy of Breakout makes a starship briefly one of the brightest (and, at radio frequencies, loudest) objects in a stellar system, second only to the local star or stars, but light crawls along at finite speed.  In the meantime, the automatic beacons would respond to the static of our emergence with the latest data — local time and date, locations of the planets, moons and other orbiting rocks along with whatever shipping was in motion. Time of arrival vs. beacon ID would let Lupine's navigators locate where we were in relation to everything else.  With luck, we'd get the first beacon ping in a few minutes. Behind the noise burst, our own transponder was already streaming data, too — ship name, registry, destination, pilot's name and certification, last Jump starting location, current velocity and vector (if known), a long and largely automated list of items as worked out in the Agreement of 1989; I'm sure working it out had made the diplomats and legal lights glow with pride but really, most of it might as well be noise.

     My screens looked good and if anything was wrong, Eric in Drive Control would have caught it way ahead of me.  Up front, Randall and the Navs lead had their heads together in some off-the-intercom discussion.  I took at look at the displays in front of the Navs back-bencher next to me and saw he was stepping through calculations too fast to follow up.  His face bore the blinkered, half-frowning expression of the deeply geeky at full throttle. 

     The 'Drive-emergence schematic "tree" had dropped off the main monitor, replaced by a "confidence" three-view of single star in glowing white intersected by a pair of hazy discs, the two planes of planetary orbits, along with a white blob on a solid-changing-to-dotted line for us.  It's really just a visualization helper, the actual info is in the various orbital element sets handled by navigators and showing up as a scrolling column of alphanumeric designators and orbital-element numbers at the side of the main display.  You don't so much fly a starship in realspace and real time, you just aim it and look for trouble to avoid while you get where you're going.

     Starships plan Jumps to enter a system well off the plane of the ecliptic; Trinity is one of the places with more than one "plane" but there's still lots of mostly-empty space.  It's that "mostly" that keeps everyone in Jump Control busy long after we're back in normal space.  Any minute now, Randall or the Jump Coordinator would sound the all-clear and the rest of Lupine's crew would return to normal routine.

     Yes, any minute now—

     Comms came on the big loop as the markers of a pair of system beacons popped up with shrinking, hazy globes of uncertainty around them and a new set of numbers appeared, rolling up the right side. "Urgent!  Beacon predicts possible intercept.  Navs has the numbers—"  And the screen got a nice red border, followed by a fuzzy-trumpet vector as Navs turned the numbers into an image.  A crawling known-position vector turned into a dotted extension that became tangent to Lupine's projected course on all three views.  It turned red and the screen picked up a red border.  Then a series of time-stamped points popped up on each vector, confirming the beacon information: Lupine and the object were going to be in the same place at the same time, a little over fifteen minutes from right now.

     The Jump Co-Ord saw it before I did and was already on the PA, three shrill whoops of the collision warning followed by, "This is not a drill.  Stand secure," followed by the siren and the same warning again.  374 crew, nearly a hundred live-aboard contractors and over 250 paying passengers had a whole new set of worries.  At least the passengers had the advantage of not knowing enough to be especially worried.

     Navs and Jump Pilot Randall were already setting up a new set of alternates.   The ship was decelerating at three-quarters G at what, from this far out, was essentially right at Trinity's star.   The realspace propulsion is not rapidly steerable, and if we angled off too far, it could take weeks or months to get back “in the groove,” headed to a timely rendezvous  with Trinity.   Or we might not have sufficient time to change our vector enough; don’t ask me, that’s what they pay Navigators to figure out.  An Emergency-Avoid short-Jump now, headed into the complex gravity wells of a planetary system, outrunning the already lagged information from the beacons, could make a bad situation worse—  It was the kind of problem Jump pilots train to solve and why they generally burn out early.  Present company exempted.

     "Present Company," Senior Pilot Randall, had barely broken concentration to glance up from the screens in the front-row console where he and the Navs Lead were setting up for whatever came next.  The Imaging and Navs techs we all bent over their consoles; Enviro's tech appeared to have a plumbing schematic on her screens and next to me, Kopje was paging through fusor data like he expected an answer to pop up on it.

     All the Stardrive parameters were green except for [CLASSIFIED] magnet temps and they were dropping fast; the stress on them is one of the limiting factors in how rapidly a ship can get back into the shared universe and Randall had pushed it hard, accomplishing in two steps what probably should have taken at least three.

     General Quarters rang out and Randall's voice came over the intercom and PA, "Zero-G in one minute.  Secure all.  Zero-G..."  SOP should have had everyone still secure from Jump and all the more so after the collision alarm, but there are always the few who figure it doesn't mean them, or assume they're as good as dead and if so, why bother to strap in? 

     Freefall is why, and there were always a few people who needed to relearn the difference between mass and weight.  On a ship with as many aboard as Lupine, the medical staff counts on working overtime after any zero-G and the longer it lasts, the more patient's they'll have.  Me, I made sure I was strapped in tight and briefly regretted the little I'd had for breakfast.  Zero-G doesn't agree with me and the feeling is mutual.

     Randall must have started reducing drive before he'd made the announcement because I started to get that falling feeling long before the minute was up.  I found myself yawning and trying it get my ears to pop; it gets my sinuses right away, despite all the doctor talk about "gradual fluid shifts."

     The displays were still filling in.  It looked like we'd picked up another couple of beacons and more traffic details were being filled in.  My intercom pinged in my ear and I looked down to see the button labeled IMG 4 blinking. Time to earn my keep.


     "Ramirez. Is there anything I should know about the forward receive array?  I should be seeing a marker from this blip, according to the info we've got."

     "Not as far as I know, Amy.  You're seeing lots of other RF, aren't you?"

     "I am. It's mostly S-band, though, and the marker is L-"

     I'd brought up SESAG while we talked, Significant Equipment Status at A Glance, and there wasn't anything about any antenna on it.  I closed it and started a search on TASKER, for something small that hadn't got posted.  "Doesn't look like we have any problems listed.  Is it an NDB on the far side of the object from us, maybe?"

     "Could be," IMG 4 sounded uncertain, "But Edgers are usually careful about that."

     I tried to sound reassuring: "I'll check with the guys in the shop and let you know, okay?  Is there anything on L-band?"

     Nobody in the Engineering Shop knew of any undocumented trouble with the L-band forward, either.  IMG 4 rang back to tell me she had a couple of faint markers elsewhere in L-band I told her the array was probably okay.

     While I had worked on that — and tried to ignore my growing headache — the display had been changing, details filling in, projections changing color from the oranges and yellows of uncertainty to greens and pale blues, big no-go zones showing around the installations coded for Mil/Space and a couple marked as orbital mining.  It kept filling in with  traffic-projection data from farther and farther away, reassuring unless you knew how much of it was not real-time, growing like a sped-up field of flowers.  Something else was changing, too; when I got my own display back to the home screen, the tallies for the port/lower and starboard/upper ion engines were indicating gentle thrust. I wondered what Randall was up to. It wasn't going to change our vector without throttling on the fusion primaries.  Not my worry; I scanned the readings and the ion systems were running fine.  Jonny Zed was looking after them in RF/REAX and he might be stubborn, opinionated and prone to the most amazing malapropisms, but after a lifetime of starship tech-ing, he was more reliable half-asleep than most people manage awake.

     Quiet conversations continued around me, half-heard, E&PP still fighting their plumbing issue, made all the worse by zero-G, the Power liaison beside me deep in some technicality about start-up and apparently talking to his opposite numbers in Structural and Cargo.  I heard him say something that sounded disturbingly like, "I don't care if it hare-lips everybody in the distribution room!" and decided it would be politic to see what what happening on my other side—

     The Navs geek, Stockman, was being very quiet, looking raptly at a screen full of nothing but numbers.  Maybe he felt my gaze; he looked over at me and whispered, "Isn't it amazing?  He really is a fantastic pilot."

     I tried to look like I understood, but it wouldn't've made any difference.  His attention was back on the display in front of him.

     Randall hit the all-call and PA once more, "Thrust in fifteen seconds.  Jump in thirty seconds!  ...Ten...five..."  He had the sequence preset but didn't count any more, intent on the display.  Thrust hit abruptly and the passageway lights blinked out, along with some brief, many-voiced chatter on the intercom.  It felt like more than three-quarters of a G but as I was thinking that, there was a burst of static, a nasty jolt, the thrust cut out and we were back in normal space — but where?  The "confidence" three-view had changed but the red border remained, bearing a huge notation: PROJECTED DATA ONLY.

     Thrust died as abruptly as it had begun and my headache came back, too.  Or maybe I'd forgotten about it.  Contrast only makes zero-G worse.   

     The three-view pictures looked backwards compared to how they'd looked before the Jump.  Trinity and its moons had been over _there_ and now—  It wasn't a mirror image.  It didn't make sense.  The Navs guy was muttering to himself over and over, "Come on, come on..."

     What was his first name?  "Tim?  What's up?"

     He kept his eyes on the big screen.  "If it worked, it's brilliant."

     "What is?"

     He sighed.  "Keep watching.  You'll see."

     It was an answer.

     All my stuff was in the green.  The power graph for the [CLASSIFIED] had the usual huge spike and the Stardrive final had had a couple of amplifier modules trip and reset but power out over time was a nice smooth curve up and back down. The summary windows for the ion drives showed port/lower and starboard/upper were on.  Welcome to mirror world.  Me, I just make sure they're ready.

     Kopje had a screen full of red tallies and was working his keyboard; he didn't look worried but he was busy. I punched across the channels on my intercom control, hearing nothing too out of the ordinary.  At least one of E&PP's plumbers appeared to have an unusual command of invective, colorfully applied to a running status report of the former water leak.  I listened with appreciation; it kept me from worrying and he knew a few terms that were new to me.

     Someone in the Imaging row overrode the intercom feed, "We have a beacon — make that two beacons. We're getting data—"

     I love modern computers.  The guesswork warning about "projected data" vanished from the big screen as he spoke and as a whole new jumble of numerical data scrolled up, the relative position of our starship and Trinity's star* adjusted slightly in the three-view.  At that scale, if you can see it, it's pretty far, but given the nature of the Jump, it looked like pretty close figuring.  I turned to Tim the Navigator but he was focused on his own screen, where similar-looking numbers were filling up.  His gaze was blank but he his fingers were intertwined above the keyboard and he was biting his lower lip. 

     On the big board, traffic details were still filling in.  Trinity and its moons were  once again looking busy.  There was a sigh from the front rows as a green bar scrolled up among the numbers and the red border winked out.  Next to me, Tim said "Hah!"

     I wasn't catching it.

     "See?" Tim asked me.  "He rolled going into the Jump and we're one-eighty around Trinity's plane...  

     Suddenly, it made sense.  A little.  "So we're still on track, just from the opposite side of the orbital plane?"

     "Exactly as planned."

     There's a "handedness" rule to vector translation in and out of Jump; it's one of the interesting little twists that sets the bar so very high for Navs staff.  Simple vectors clean up the math, which is why most Jumps start and end out in "flat" space where comets nest, and with the starship headed steady on at constant normal-space acceleration. (Edger starships cheat at this.  Just how is well-kept secret.) A skillful, prepared or desperate pilot can use the effect do some very tricky maneuvers indeed.  That's what Randall had done; the accuracy of his resulting path would show if he'd relied on talent or luck but it knew which I'd bet on.

     There was a quiet cheer up front that cut off suddenly when Ramirez at Imaging Four come on the intercom, all-call, "That's everything?  That's it?  Where's the bogey?.

     Next to me, Tim did a kind of jump-in-place against his seat belts. "She's right."

     Lupine's previous course was on the screen, easy to tell from the other traffic, away from everything but a few fixed beacons, ending abruptly where we'd Jumped, but the intersecting path of the "bogey" was nowhere to be found.  

     "I have a query on it in the queue," Ramirez said.  For whatever good that might do; beacons stream data constantly, system time, known and predicted positions and vectors for everything in the system from planets to research satellites, lists of comms freqs and — Edgers being Edgers — time-stamped market prices for a long list of commodities.  It's automated and the information is as up-to-date as possible.  But inquiries take twice as long at best, and if the servers on the beacon don't have what you need, it gets bounced inwards to crewed installations, where a human being tries to answer. That can take hours or even days. 

     I leaned over to Tim.  "How long to the beacon?"

     "Looks like we're close — call it seventeen minutes."

     We were interrupted by the Exec Pilot on all-call and PA again, "Thrust in two minutes!  Secure all, thrust in two minutes, secure all."  The timer had blinked to life on the main screen and was counting backwards from 2:00:00.

     My board was green, nobody was calling for Engineering to go re-engineer something on the fly.  There was nothing to do now but wait.

     To pass the time, I eavesdropped shamelessly on nearby conversations. Kopje had called up Trinty quotes for various grades of water and was in a conversation with his lot about getting rid of stored high-pressure steam, which didn't make much sense until I considered that MHD-over-fusion balances thrust vs. power extracted from the plume; you don't routinely throttle a fusion plant as such, since shut-down and restart takes days at best.  When Randall had dropped primary thrust, the Power gang had to dump the power somewhere, like turning water into steam. Dumped into the MHD plume downstream, it would add to the thrust, saving power.  A good maneuver, possibly a costly one if good water was expensive in the space aound Trinity.

     The return of weight came as a relief, even though it made my nose run.  Me and a lot of people; there's a a little cubby stocked with tissues between every workstation, and a suction trash receptacle just below it.  It's not there for decoration.   

     Various sound-effects rang out as the Jump Control crew reacted. Despite those TV shows — you know the serieses I mean — space travel is not always pretty.  As the noise died down, one of the comms techs spoke up, "I'm getting the 'Ack and welcome' from our original emergence."  So the Edgers knew we were here; or at least some of their beacon servers did.

    "Time hack?" Randall asked.

    "In the queue —  40 minutes lag, more or less."

     We'd get a better fix on our position relative to the beacons from that datum.  As it was,  the Jump pilot's reaction to the information suggested it was much as he had expected.

     I could see the fuzzy globes and flower-shape of the beacons and a various objects in motion start to shrink and brighten as Navs info built up, looking like a nature film of some strange growth run in reverse.

     Jump Pilot Randall leaned over to the Exec and held a short, off-mic discussion before turning his attention back to the confidence display and the scrolling column of numbers beside it.

     The Exec came on the intercom all-call first.  "We're going to call restricted standby for crew and passengers.  Jump crew, Power, DQ,RF/Reax, you are _not_ released.  Walt wants you on-station until we get our bogie sorted."  He didn't wait for discussion, just clicked over to shipwide PA, "Attention!  Restricted Standby as of now!  Light operations may resume.  All large masses must remain secured.  Passengers, please remain in your quarters for now.   We are safely within normal space, inbound to Trinity but minor maneuvering may be necessary."  He dropped off the intercom and repeated the whole drill on the PA again.

     That's not quite "Restricted Standby" really means.  It's just short of "battle stations," about as close as a nominally-civilian vessel like Lupine gets.  I wasn't surprised to hear the Chief's voice over my headset, accompanied by a blinking PVT marker above his name in a formerly-blank button on my intercom panel.

     "Bobbi, sitrep?"

     "Sir?" (I'm not fluent in Buzzword.)

     "What's the situation?  Jump Pilots don't invoke RS."

     "Randall did."

     The Chief replied with a frustrated sigh.  That's never a good sign. He dropped the connection without saying anything more, which is a definitely bad sign.    

    Time passed.  The Navigator next to me busied himself with some assignment, helping apply the ongoing beacon info-dump and whatever other information was coming in via optics and both active and passive radar to refining Lupine's position relative to our destination at Trinity and the various other objects in the system, from planets to down to, I suppose, loose bolts.  In the front row, a whispered three-way conference between Jump Pilot Randall, the Jump Coordinator and the Navs-Lead "feeder" had ended in him placing a hushed call with an actual and bright-red handset: hotline up to whoever was sitting in Command, presumably still Captain Cardenas
     I've mentioned before that starship Captains are more manager than navigator or pilot; most of them started out as one or the other, every last one I ever served under was a former U.S. Space Force officer and most of them are still USSF reservists.  Calling Command at this point, on top of a declared RS, suggested calamity.

     I couldn't figure it.  We were in the clear, emergency-avoidance successfully averted. Drives were idling, thrust was steady...  I looked at the rows ahead, hoping to catch sight of a blinking red icon on someone's display, but all I noticed was a taped-on sign at one of the Life Support (E&PP) positions that said, "ALWAYS MOUNT A SCRATCH MONKEY BEFORE TESTING."

     I was gnawing on that aphorism when Stockman elbowed me, stage-whispering, "Hey!"

     "Hey what?"

     He stared at his display.  "It's still not there."

     "Um, what's not?"

     "The bogie.  Ramirez is right, it's not on the Traffic feed any more.  And if the beacon on it was occluded earlier, we should be receiving it now."

     "Huh."  I couldn't think of anything else to say.  We were in the clear, as far as I knew, but a vanishing spacecraft or chunk of rock or whatever was worrying.

    The incoming datafeed suddenly sent a lot of blank space, followed by clear text:


     Jump Control got very silent except for Walt Randall's side of his hotline conversation: "You see that?  Those bast-"  He fell silent, then replied, "Yessir.  Understood."  And he hung up the phone.  "Unbelievable."  He hadn't keyed the intercom but his voice carried in the hush. "Unbelievable.  Three-hundred ninety-eight people and they want to run a test?" He was pretty loud by the last word. We all waited to see what he'd say next, but he just handed control back to DQ and has the Exec give the all-clear.

     Edgers!  Lupine was safe and headed in to Trinity.  It had only been a sim.
* You'd recognize the star's name, probably.  Which is why I can't tell you.

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."
     "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."

     ...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?"


     "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."

     (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.]


      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.


     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.


     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.


     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.


     It was a long way back to the bottom.

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


     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 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 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.


     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.


    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.