21 December 2009

Slap-Happy Holidays

I walked into the Engineering Shop to start my shift, only to discover Jonny Zedd was holding forth to Kent Good on the care and feeding of our few remaining multitrack data recorders, using the one Kent had opened up on a service cart as a podium. He went on and on, about how there are no moving parts in the head assembly (wrong), how none of the device-specific mechanical or electronic parts can be had (way wrong; [a major Japanese manufacturer] did grab up the product line long ago but they've continued to support it — and long-time USSF supplier Universal Actives second-sources everything but the front panel.

I listened agog at the depth of misinformation as Johnny wound down and departed on the hour, his shift being over. Kent shook his head, sighed and smiled.

"You're a patient man," I told him; Kent came to us after a couple of decades in Engineering on a smaller ship of the same vintage as the Lupine, which means it would have had the exact same recorders. "Gave you the skinny, did he? Jonny's killed at least a half dozen of those things since I signed aboard."

Kent smiled even more broadly. "I know. I'm into this one after he 'fixed' it. But you stop — Christmas is just next week."

He's right. Merry Christmas to Kent, Handsome Dave, C, Jay, The Chief and especially, Jonny Zed — and f'pity's sake, Jon, don't get too ambitious! Merry Christmas to us all.

Merry Christmas to my readers, too.

11 December 2009

Inbound: Going Bump In The Night

Lupine, a ten-mile-long city in flight Blish never dreamed of, was coasting in zero-g. This is no fun but we'd bounced in a little off-kilter and Navs had so decreed. If you're not susceptible to falling dreams, it's not so bad for sleeping; tuck in the covers and drift off like Little Nemo! I woke up about three-quarters when the alarm sounded and my cabin lights blinked on and then off again. From the phone panel set in the wall next to my bunk: "Final warning! Acceleration in thirty seconds! Take hold!"

It sounded like Navs finally had us lined up for our first inbound course correction.. About time; I was already tired of squeeze-bulb instant coffee. I hoped it was going to be a long burn.

I was still recovering from my brush with death at the hands of a unbalanced Edger -- or a fanatical member of their Home Guard, take your pick; either way, Irene nearly got me. I'd been sleeping a lot and ordering in meals; it's not cheap but even though Dr. Poole himself had cleared me to go back to work (and the Chief was fuming at his restricting me to light duty, or at least faking it convincingly), I was not a hundred percent.

So I just laid there muzzy headed for a few minutes before blinking my eyes into some semblance of focus and palming the lights back on -- there's a handy switch for that, right below the telephone panel -- then took a quick look around. Nothing unsecured but my jeans and they weren't going to hurt anything. It's not like a NASA-front moon shot from the '60s; Lupine ramps up thrust over a period of several hours to get back to our normal three-quarters g, plenty enough to make down stay down. With that happy thought, I drifted back into a big, fluffy gray cloud of sleep.

BA-BUMP! A big double jolt woke me right at the threshold of sleep. I kept my eyes shut, thinking, hoping, probably just a reflexive kick, and drifted back off.

Bzzt. Bzzt. Bzzt. BZZT! BZZT! "BOBBI!" It was later but I had no idea how much. Lights were still on, my pager was bleeping and the telephone was saying my name. I slapped at the big PHONE button, said something and got a worried-sounding reply. "Bobbi? You awake?" It was Kent.

"Mororless... Wha...?"

"I said, are you up?"

"YES. Whaddizzit?"

"I dunno, the 'Drive just dropped off and we can't restart it. Drive Control keeps getting SWR trips. Doc Schmid was here and he said to call you -- he's already headed for the 'Drive compartment."

Lupine's Second Officer is a first-rate Navs boffin and fully-qualified for 'Drive work but it's been a very long time since he slung solder or swung a wrench. Suddenly I was a lot more awake. And it hit me what the double bump had been: 'Drive quits while we're under heavy thrust; we stop bein' so slippery in realspace and the reaction drives throttle up to compensate, almost immediately. "Almost" is what makes it bumpy. The big MHDs downstream of the fusion reactors (all of it tended by the Power Room gang) have significant control lag -- jokingly known as "turbo lag" -- so all the RF-pumped ion maneuvering drives already running on our normal "down" axis were briefly pushed to 120% and then backed off in a not-quite compliment to the MHD starting to roar. All perfectly normal behavior, not that you ever get used to it. I sat up, peeked around the corner to see if I'd left the phone camera off (yes), got up and started digging out clothes. "Tell him I'm on my way." So much for that nice warm bunk and a full night's sleep. "Have you made sure Navs is aware?"

Kemp averred that A) he had; B) the navigators were swearing and C) they wanted our best guess when we'd have the 'Drive online again ASAP. No doubt -- with the 'Drive pulsing away on low, we can cheat at physics; lose it and they're unexpectedly playing at Newton's table. Oh, there'll be one or two what-ifs covering this kind of failure running already, there's a reason most starship navs types are avid chess and Go players, but they've got to get it updated in a hurry and start working up what-ifs based on how soon we get the 'Drive running.

Nice damn timing. An SWR fault, especially at the low power level used for sub-light maneuvering, is about sure to be between the big final amplifiers we were headed in to replace and the CLASSIFIED, or possibly between it and the 'Drive field radiator. Easily-found external evidence of exactly where it might be is unlikely.

One item in our favor I didn't find out about until I got to the 'Drive compartment was we had some extra and very high-zoot test gear; while I slept, Dr. Schmid had received a Mad Rushin' delivery of an elderly but nice Network Analyzer, on loan from the Company HQ, Earthside -- Earthsideish, that is: Farside City on the backside of the Moon. He had decided it couldn't hurt to have a look at the CLASSIFIED and the new combining system using our own gear and ansibled the request right before we dropped back into normal space.

A quick aside for readers not out here on the Hidden Frontier: "Mad Rushin'" or "Mad Russian" is a nickname; the outfit calls itself "Express Delivery Service," only in Russian, and they fly small, egg-shaped FTL vehicles that consist of a hot (in more than one sense) power plant and oversized Stardrive, a smallish cargo bay, a screamin' basic Navs setup and one (1) young, well-trained, enthusiastic and optimistic Russian star-flyer in a ruggedized space suit; there's no other enclosed life-support. Most of the "drivers" were born on the old Red planets, nearly all are former Soviet Space Arm (the real one) and every last one of them is a born gambler. The death toll isn't quite as bad as you might think but nobody's offering them life insurance policies -- and when it absolutely, positively has to be there in four days or less and price isn't a concern, your best (and most often only) option is a Mad Russian, popping in and out of a high-order 'Drive field and taking exactly as many Rads as his employer's medical advisers permit. A difficult-to-read font I assume is Cryllic says "BisPosEtKom"[1] on the olive-and-crimson labels, but in English just about everybody calls it some version of "Mad Rush Shipping," including them. Story is that most of their courier ships have been retrofitted to modern fusion reactors now but nobody's willing to sneak aboard to check and most of the hulls still have "hot" spots, so you can't be sure from a distance. So, now you're up to speed -- and so was I, on a mad rush of my own.

It's a good ways to the closest connection between the crew-level slidewalk system and the ship's only direct maintenance-vehicle connection between the control center and the 'Drive compartment. This is all to the good, as there's no slidewalk in it, just narrow, railed walks along the sides. I jog-trotted that stretch, grabbed wildly at the rail when the deck swayed once, kept moving and was out of breath when I came through the hatch to find Dr. Schmid, Big Tom and four suited-up riggers looking every bit as happy as you might expect guys who'd normally be hitting the bars and/or the arcade about now. Tom looked sheepish and the conversation shortly revealed why.

Dr. Schmid said, "Oh, hi, Bobbi," and as I dogged the hatch,he added, "The Chief'll be here any minute with the adapters and cables."

I looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

Tom spoke up, "Um, I was told was to bring the analyzer; I didn't see anything that looked related near it."

Dr. Schmid managed to look tired and noncommittal at the same time. "Power's up as high as we can make without VSWR shut-down."

I glanced at the control rack display for the 'Drive finals: idling at about two percent peak power, with a duty cycle that should knock our effective mass down to about 85 percent, and asked if the riggers had 'laid hands' on the big coax yet. The crew boss, Dan, shifted uneasily and said, "Nope; we'll have to rig and I figured you guys would want to make with the Big Science first."

"Can you send two guys out with an IR camera, scope the line, and then get started with as much as can be done without shutting down the Stardrive?"

He nodded and glanced at Dr. Schmid, who nodded back and said, "Might as well. We'll watch on the monitor in here, get as many eyes on it as we can. At ten percent..."

"Yeah, we might not see much." The boss rigger turned to his crew. "Randy, Jer, gear up and head on out."

* * *

Sure enough, we didn't see much; maybe a warm spot seventy meters out but zooming in didn't resolve it any better. The riggers packed up the IR camera and began, well, rigging, setting up the lines and winch they'd need if we'd lost a section of transmission line. In the accessway along the CLASSIFIED, Big Tom and I unstowed two spare concentric-line sections (19.35 feet long, 6.125" OD and much too heavy even at Lupine's normal three-quarter g; there's a lot of copper in them) and laid them ready on the deck.

As we ambled back into the 'Drive compartment proper, the Chief arrived carrying a mailbin loaded with books (hey, Starship Company, ever heard of CD-ROMS? Thumb drives?), bright blue precision cables and two big boxes of adapters and calibration ends (shorted, open and cal-lab-accurate 50 Ohms) for the network analyzer, each marked KEEP WITH NET. AN. AT ALL TIMES!!! "Found it under a 50-foot coil of 12/3 cable, the whole thing bungee-netted to the deck," he puffed.

Big Tom looked relieved at this news. I took the bin from the Chief, hauled it around behind the Stardrive final amplifers to the analyzer, sat it down and dug out a book, right volume on my first try; it'd been at least a decade since I'd messed with one of these and the trick we needed to do -- swept bandpass time domain reflectometry, "radar on a rope" -- is not the most obvious mode to set up. If all you remember about a thing is that it was difficult and counterintuitive, it can be a powerful incentive to relearn fast. All the more when your boss and his boss have both walked back to look interestedly over your shoulder.

Chapter 2, INSTRUMENT MODES, page 2-12, TIME DOMAIN, just a brief description of Option 010. Chap.6, MEASUREMENT, page 6-29, pay dirt! Bandpass TDR, yes, yes.... I punched buttons and got into Transform mode, nifty, set Start and Stop and hey-dammit! Can't get the thing pushed out past a couple hundred nanoseconds, not ten pecent of the time (distance) we'd need. I looked around in frustration to see the Chief take his celphone from his ear and make a throat-cutting motion, turned to see Big Tom walk back to the front of the 'Drive finals and heard the big contactors thud open as the Lupine jolted with the ion drives throttling up in transition. The 'Drive was off; Dr. Schmid cranked the manual coax switch knob around, disconnecting the CLASSIFIED and connecting the line to the 'Drive radiator array with the test port; he hooked one of the precision cables to it and leaned over to connect the far end to the Network Analyzer.

I tried setting the Stop limit to the right value: nothing doing. Knew I was overlooking something but there's nothing in the book... Sweep menu? Start freq, stop freq, right across the critical (and, you bet your life, classified!) band, okay. Now, linear or log sweep? H'mm, it's in linear; I toggled it and went back to the the Transform menu and Lo! A shining victory for semi-panicked fobbing-at-controls! I punched the STIMULUS: STOP button, spun the manual-setting knob and walked the end of the displayed 'scope trace out the line... At 95 meters, a small spike, fine; then at 165, pow! Right off the scale! "Got it, Doc!"

"Don't be hasty," he warned me, "You're not even halfway out."

But there were no other big blips, right out to the gentle trailing-off of the 'Drive array. One-sixty-five was our culprit. Dr. Schmid used his phone to dial into suit radio comms and have the riggers give the line a good whack at the proper point (82 and half meters, since the analyzer gives you the there and back distance). I took out my calculator and came up with the flange between line sections 10 and 11 as the most likely and sure enough, slapping that flange made the spike on the Analyzer's TDR trace dance.

It was enough to even convince Dr. Schmid; he smiled and agreed we needed to replace both sections, while cautioning me to be prepared to find even more damage, "...once the big discontinuity is remedied." He's right far more often than not.

Dr. Schmid took the Chief off to one side and started a whispered conversation. I didn't really intend to overhear but caught, "...found it now...might as well go get what sleep you can. You look like hell and you were awake two days straight when we almost lost--" He noticed me not-really-listening, shot me a look that was almost a glare and I decided to see if there was something useful I could do farther away.

Finding the problem is half the repair; with the 'Drive offline, Lupine was still burning through reaction mass at a wasteful rate. The long accessway for the CLASSIFIED ends at the regular airlock the first pair of riggers had used. The hatch between the accessway and the 'Drive compartment is a full airlock hatch, not just pressure-rated, with a second set of indicators and controls for exactly this job, hauling sections of high-power concentric-line out into the Great Beyond. It's an annoyingly large enclosed volume and takes awhile to pump down. As soon as we'd decided to replace the two suspicious sections, boss rigger Dan and his helper Adrian ("He's a new guy -- transferred up from window-washer in the greenhouse." Or maybe he has a Ph.D. Riggers, I never know if they're serious) had sealed up their suits, shut the hatch and started it cycling. You can't scavenge all the air with a practical pump but you can save a lot of it; unfortunately, the amount lost is proportional to the enclosed volume. So we don't use the big lock unless we must; Lupine is huge but this is a negative-sum game.

Dr. Schmid and I passed the time running the network analyzer and showing Big Tom how to use it. I'd called up the suit radio channel on the 'Drive compartment phone and in speaker mode, we listened to Dan and his crew discussing the job, with occasional comments from the safety officer on duty in the Control Room. Eventually, we felt more than heard the outer hatch open; by then, the first two riggers had unbolted the line sections, jacked the line apart and removed them, and were ready for the two new pieces.

The rest is "mere mechanics," as they who don't have to do it say. The riggers dropped the new sections in, bolted them up and we repressurized the line with dry air to 3 psi above ship standard.[2] Meanwhile the riggers gathered at the hatch, killing time. Takes about fifteen minutes to air the line back up and another fifteen to be sure we don't have any really egregious leaks; there's no point cycling them back in 'til we're sure their work has succeeded.

The first part of pressure-testing doesn't take much attention. Much more interesting was the network analyzer display, now minus the big mismatch blips. There were a few tiny wiggles on the display but nothing's perfect. Ten minutes after shutting off the air supply, the gauge hadn't budged a tick down from just-over-three. Doc Schmid cocked an eye at me and said, "Let's apply some power!" He reached up and started cranking the transfer switch back from TEST to NORMAL.

I went over to the phone, picked up the handset, "Dan? You have have your field-strength meters handy? We're going to bring the 'Drive up slowly; if they get even close to yellow, sing out!" 'Drive energy is nothing to get casual about. "Yellow" on the little meters riggers are supposed to carry is well below the danger level: better safe than cooked.

Punched up another line, the hotline to Drive Control. Eric answered. Good; he's nearly unflappable. "Eric? We're gonna try running the 'Drive up to about ten or twelve percent; set it at 20% duty cycle. Match me with the ion drives, okay?"

"Are you callin' Power Room, or should I? They're kind of unhappy since the big glitch."

"I'll leave that to your tact and diplomacy. Five minutes -- you'll see the rig fire up on the remotes. I'll start at zero and bring it up slowly."

He laughed and hung up. Doc Schmid gave me a nod. "Five minutes. You do it."

Fine by me -- brass he may be but he's got entirely too much faith in the goodwill of the universe to suit me.

Our 2/O has an endless supply of anecdotes, a good many for the days when men were men and 'Drive techs occasionally got knocked into the middle of next week, not always metaphorically. This one involved the old City of Louisville, a water-cooled Klystron-like 'Drive final and contaminated cooling water. I really hope it's not true, but it does begin to explain how the Lousy got its other nickname. After five minutes of that, I double-checked the Christmas Tree displays on the front of each 'Drive power amp, green side lit to READY and red all off, and pushed the BEAM ON button. The compartment lights flickered as the high voltage supplies step-started; the 'Drive came up at zero power, standing current only, and then one of the three finals crowbarred to OFF.

I said a Very Bad Word (as is my habit when these noisy little bobbles occur), checked to see that output was indeed zero, cleared the fault and put that final amp back to STANDBY. Quick as it was, the timers were still happy and the READY led lit up in a few seconds. Gave Dr. Schmid a glance, he nodded and I pushed the BEAM button again. The reluctant amplifier came up, stayed on and I started to breathe again.

Time to see what happens next; I tapped on the RAISE POWER button and watched the Forward Power meters for all three finals and the combined output lurch up a tick. One percent, two, three.... The floor briefly felt a bit greasy underfoot, then steadied. Eric was tracking the (apparent) change in real-world mass very closely. He's good at it. Ran power up a little more, inching up to ten percent. Not a wriggle on the Reflected Power meter. This is what we can safely call A Good Sign. I stepped on up to twelve percent and it stayed steady.

A quick word about power: the meters on the 'Drive finals (and the remotes at DQ) are reading peak power; average power is what fiddles with our relationship to the rest of universe. The average power depends on the waveform, which in normal space is just a pulse, with varying on/off times depending on just how skittery Navs wants the ship to be. It gets way worse making a hole in reality and wrapping the ship up in it but Highly Classified Complexity aside, it's still average power that does the work.[3] So who cares about peak power? Engineering does; it's on the peaks that insulators break down, phantasmajector tubes find fun new ways to fail, and so on and so forth. Like the time we proved (by unwanted example) that Tweed's baseplates for the high voltage safety switches tended to absorb moisture from the air, though we had some help from defective E&PP climate-control with that one; but that's another story. Keep notes -- you might fall on hard times and have to work as a 'Drive tech some day!

Meanwhile, Dr. Schmid was already on the horn with the riggers, asking for another IR scan and redundantly cautioning them to mind their field-strength meters. He hung up and turned to me, "Have Eric hand off thrust to the MHD and we'll run 'er up some more. Might as well find out now if it's going to fail." He was grinning. Unusually for the breed, he loves this kind of dice roll. Me, not so much.

Still, he's right. I'd rather find out inbound to a planet than heading for a Jump or part-way through, especially when our destination has repair facilities. Another call to Eric and some discussion of ion thrust hand-off to Power/MHD, 'Drive duty-cycles and peak power later, Drive Control had walked us down to 1% on-time and I was gradually increasing power again. Without the complex modulation that wraps the ship up in a pocket universe and squirts it along at a rate that has outpaced light when we pop back into normal space at the end of a Jump, it's highly predictable but the shorter the duty cycle, the worse the effects if there's any stutter or irregularity. It nearly always goes okay; but even 10,000-sided dice with one bad side still do have that bad side.

On the other hand, every Jump is a dice roll, too, with a lot more at stake than the jars and bumps of abruptly varying thrust. Lupine is huge but resilient; built for battle, her structure bends under stress instead of breaking. I wasn't especially worried but I kept a hand on a grab bar and my toes under the footrail[4] as I ran the output past 70 percent peak power. The rig stayed steady as can be. Not a tick on the Reflected Power meter.

The boss rigger called in to admit their field strength meters were now indeed at the lower edge of yellow, so we held at 70 for ten minutes, fifteen, twenty.... Dr. Schmid pronounced himself satisfied. He had me run the 'Drive back down to ten percent and hand off full control to Eric in DQ, adding, "Have him call up Navs for their latest runcharts and load them in the automation; I have no doubt we'll soon be hearing from Port Control."

As it turned out, he was right.

The riggers were already cycling the lock, having carried the bad line sections in with them. The bad line would have to go off to one of the machine shops for repair. We were back in the starship business once again.

1. "Bistro Postev'tee Etu Kompaniya," something like, "Deliver This NOW Co." Alternatively and with typically-mordant humor, if you catch one of their brave (or shal'noi, loony; most likely both) pilots when he's well-rested, he'll tell you it means "Now deliver (save) this company," profit margins being very slim when your business model is based on what amounts to a nuke-powered top fuel dragster with a cargo bed. Increasing Internet connectivity is helping a lot, since their dispatching and routing problems are, literally, cosmic. It has paid off for them in other ways, too: every Mad Rushin' vehicle carries an ansible, an e-mail node, ginromous RAID arrays and several different versions of normal-space wireless data transceivers. They've got contracts with many planetary ISPs to carry the e-mail but their own traffic comes first.

2. For the nuts'n'bolts types, what we're breathin' is an oxygen/nitrogen mix at less-than-Denver pressure and with a bit more oxygen than they serve in Colorado. We could air up the concentric line with anything nonreactive, as all we're really after is to keep the inner-conductor connectors from vacuum-welding, prolong the life of the PTFE parts and give hot spots a little extra cooling help. In the old days, they used high-pressure tanks of nitrogen, hauled up and aft from E&PP's chemical plant (greenhouse fertilizer, gunk for air, water and sewage processing and on and on), but a pair of nifty little commercial gizmos do the job now with a lot less heavy lifting and a way lower chance of inadvertent cold-gas torpedoes.

3. Well, really it's RMS power, but you either knew that already or don't care. If you ever need the info, you'll learn it.

4. After every stretch of zero-g time, in addition to the usual bumps, bruises and et learning the hard way that mass remains even when weight is imperceptible cetera, the ship's clinics receive a steady stream of patients with sore feet, skinned toes and suchlike; bracing your feet under the toerails when they don't stick to the deck by themselves gets to be a habit but humans're not really built for it.

27 November 2009

Another Day, Part 18


For all my glib jokes about it bein' a long walk home, for all the times I have been in bad situations a long way from help, not until now had I really been convinced of my own mortality.

Irene was going to kill me and I wasn't even sure why. Maybe silence wasn't the best policy. "Irene--" I squeaked, started over, geesh, think, "Irene, how can I make things better?" It sounded fake even to me.

"Oh, do shut up." It hadn't gone over well with her, either. "You grubby people, with your grubby ships and your miserable, uncivilized planets. There is dirt everywhere! You have no idea; Wiitherspoon Processing was clean. It was orderly. Things made sense. This is all chaos and barbarism." She emphasized the important parts by yanking on the lanyard attached to my wrists. "It's a good thing I kept up my militia training. Those contractors--" She meant Mil/Space. The Federation of Concerned Spacemen is as close to a real government as the Edgers get but it's not that close. "--They are good enough for routine but I have always known it was just a matter of time before you people attacked us again."

Right over the edge. I am dead, just as dead as Katrina. "They should have just let your 'Federation of Concerned Spacemen' kite off with an entire Moonbase?" She snorted and gave the lanyard another painful jerk. Geez, I'm so good at this. Gotta calm her down. It was hard to think what to say. "Irene, they pretty much did. All that was over a long time ago. We're all friends now."

"Friends? Friends? You're helping take our Founders back to the dirt and carrying Nazis right beside them, too!"

"Irene, they're all dead. Ashes. Your brother needs you--" Crazy lady tryin' to kill me, I should have been more excited. I sure was sleepy.

"That freak? My brother was rational! He's gone. Hopkins-F destroyed him and all I have left is just a horrible, horrible copy."

My suit was beeping in my ear. I don't know how long it had been beeping but her ranting matched the beat. My heart boomed in counterpoint, louder and louder in my ears and I started to drift off; just as the darkness pulled me under, I heard Irene break off her rant with a grunt and then I was floating away, down down into the dark. Last thing I remembered was thinking with mild regret about all the people and places I'd never see again.

* * *

"Stop struggling! Just lay still, I've got you." I'd know Ivan's unusual flavor of English anywhere but why would one of Sheriff Mike's shift leaders be talking to me that way and especially why would he be in my compartment? "Somebody call the clinic. Doc Poole needs to know she's hypoxic." I was in my bunk asleep, wondering why my helmet was off -- what an odd thought! -- and why it felt like I'd wet the bed. I opened my eyes and Ivan was looming over me, looking worried. The "bunk" suddenly felt cold and hard, too. "Just lie back," he told me, "And hang onto this." "This" was a bottle of air. Someone I couldn't see slapped a mask over my face and the next thing I knew, I was on a cot and being hustled down a passageway.

I'd like to tell you the world suddenly snapped back into focus but it didn't. I fell asleep or passed out before they even reached the nearest maintenance-vehicle tube. I woke next to a different beeping and the hushed murmur of nearby activity. Opened my eyes to dim light and just laid there, looking at the monitor, the dingy divider curtains in their deck-and-overhead tracks and the homey, well-used bulkheads and cabinets of one of the Lupine's main clinic. I was alive. Hadn't expected that.

After a few minutes, a nurse came in, frowned at the monitor, made a note on it with a stylus -- so much for the traditional clipboard -- and smiled at me. "You are awake. You've got visitors. Do you want to see them? They can't stay long. You had been given some kind of CNS depressant and you have been exposed to very high CO2 levels. You need to rest"

I thought about that for a minute. Other than T and Navigator Dave, I don't really have close friends. Shipboard, if crewmates stick around long enough, you'll know them all too well eventually; why hasten the day? On the other hand, part of me was still stuck in that nightmare on the hull. Friendly company seemed like a good idea. Rest didn't; I'd seen quite enough of the inside of my eyelids already, thank you. "Send 'em in," I told her.

To my surprise, the first two were Mike Mathis and The Turk. Mike was oddly demure, a combination of worried and pleased. Turk Turon was just short of jolly, a swarthy Santa Claus. He loomed over the bed and gave me a big and only mildly lecherous grin.

"Safe and sound you are, and all thanks to me!" he boomed.

Mike winced. "Too damn' close for me," he said, and turned to me, "You are okay, right? Doc Poole says you'll be good to go by tomorrow or the day after."

I smiled and nodded. "If he says so, I believe it. I'm just tired. --Mike, what happened?"

He smiled thinly. "I used you for bait."

"It was startin' to look that way."

"If I had thought it would get this far out of hand, I wouldn't have. With little Villy buttoned up -- he's not just on good behavior, you know: he's wearing a tracking anklet -- and his late girlfriend's cheater cardkeys accounted for, you and all my suspects should have been on a tight leash." He looked bleak, then shrugged. "Hey, you wanted to help. I did need a closer look at Welles but once we found his pal Villem, I was at a dead end. I still wouldn't've done it--"

Turk had been puffing up proudly -- Santa with a _pony!_ -- and broke in, "Until I showed him how to track you: RFID!"

Aw, geez. The Starship Company has been pushing that stuff for five years now, but just for inventory control. Stores & Cargo makes extensive use of it and so do the businesses "downtown," where a network of short-range RFID readers can just about retrace your shopping trip; Handsome Dave was a 400-Amp panelboard for three weeks before the Merchant's Association figured out who was hauling the tag around, e-mailed him to knock it off and copied the message to the Chief. I'd thought the rest of the ship was clear of that; most access control uses keycards or ordinary lock-type locks.

I must have looked irked. Sheriff Mike said, "You wouldn't be alive if he hadn't. We'd tagged most of your sweatshirts and almost skipped your pressure suit; Ivan put a tag in your suit coveralls just to be thorough. Anyway, it worked. The smaller passageways aren't real well covered but when our last reader hits showed you near an airlock and then lost you, it wasn't hard to figure out. E&PP didn't show the lock having been cycled; I sent a couple of guys to the lock and they found the damnedest gadget defeating the alarms. I was already yelling at my RFID "expert;" Turk rounded up his riggers and sent them pinging away with portable RFID readers down the port and starboard deck cargo areas until they got a hit from you. By then, your buddies in Engineering had a high-gain directional antenna ready for us and I had my troops suited up."

The Chief had quietly entered my curtained-off compartment behind Mike, started to grin and covered by giving me a grim look. He chimed in with, "We spent time on that antenna we didn't have to spare. And now you've got yourself on the sick list. You and your peers all going to be working overtime to catch up."

"Aye-aye, Boss. Just as soon as the Doc will let me." The Chief looked faintly annoyed at that, which seemed about right.

"Anyway--!" Mike said, "It wasn't easy, since I hadn't planned on having to track you outside the ship. But we made it work. We found you and we found our killer, too; once we got her inside, she started talking and wouldn't shut up. I paid extra for a Mad Russian courier to swap anisble messages with her point of origin."


"And nothing! Nothing useful. Confirmation of her identity as per the '89 Agreement and a demand I return 'our resident' to 'her home.' Denial of all charges."

The Chief looked interested. He loves interstellar law the same way some people love soap operas, though he is loath to admit it. Turk snorted: the only thing Edgers do that he approves of is the way most of their planetary settlements use precious-metal currency. Me, I was worried. "Will you?" I asked. "She's in the brig, right?" My heart sped up.

"What? No! I mean, yes, she's in the brig and no, I won't send her back. It's not my call. If she asks to go, we've got to release her to her home jurisdiction, you know that. It's the Agreement." That is how it works. In theory, the accused is then tried under his polity's justice system. It can get complicated; most of the Far Edge barely even has a real government: FCS reigns more than it rules, at least when it's not dropping Mil/Space troopers to counter organized activity it deems detrimental. Their usual official presence is though a Public Relations agency or a hired representative. Justice is a local option; lawlessness not locally controlled results in an unannounced visit from Mil/Space, rapid, brutal and nearly always effective. Not that I thought all that at the time -- I was just concerned Irene would get another shot at me.

About then, the same nurse as before parted the curtain and gave us all an Intent Babysitter look. "Roberta, you need to rest. Your friends can come back later." She traded looks with The Turk, who nodded, looked even more pleased with himself, grinned at me again and left the compartment, the nurse on his heels. Ooookay.

I was feeling a little dizzy but I didn't intend to close my eyes again for a long time. "I am resting." She rolled her eyes but left. I looked back at Mike. "Sheriff, what's the deal with her? That was way more than just 'crazy.'"

To my surprise, the Chief answered. "That's classified," he said.

I wasn't buying it. "By who? What, I nearly get killed by Aunt Super-soldier and it's classified? I thought we were all friends now!" Except the French, of course, and the Red Chinese.

Mike looked uncomfortable. He shifted his weight from one foot to another as he said, "You know it's not that simple."

The Chief broke in, moving closer. "Some of it is. Roberta, there are matters to which Mike and I are privy as USSF reservists that you cannot be told about." (I knew it, the Chief is ex-Space Force! Prolly ex-NASA before that, too). "Other items are not classified, but are not common knowledge." He gave me a sterner look than usual. "And they are not to become so. Is that clear?"

I nodded.

"The Far Edge ruling body maintains an effective armed force entirely seperate from their Mil/Space contractors. They're like a militia."

Mike spoke up, "We think it started during the War, after Io. It was the first time they really lost and they didn't realize until much later that our victory was nearly as a big a disaster. They started setting up local militias for last-ditch defense. Recruiting was public but it was organized as a covert force, a kind of pre-existing Underground."

I laid there and thought about that. The Battle of Io had been reported as a hard-won victory but Mike was implying it was Pyrrhic. Add in the Edgers working to get a rifle behind every blade of grass -- or a saboteur behind every airlock, more likely -- and it certainly explained why USSF/NATO and our temporary allies had been so willing to negotiate for peace. It didn't make me feel especially good about the courage of our political leadership. "So you're telling me Irene is one of those...commandos?"

Both men spoke at once; the gist was that this was just an interesting set of factiods and if I chose to infer something neither had said, that was my choice. Y'don't say.

My nurse -- well, the nurse; we both get paid by a little interstellar carrier outta Duluth -- returned, fussily impatient. She checked the display again, the same one she can call up at her desk, turned and gave us The Look again. "I really must insist. She must rest. Michael, Ra--"

The Chief interrupted her with, "We're going. Roberta, I'll see you in Engineering as soon as you're cleared." One of these days, I'll learn his first name. Mike nodded at me and they left, the nurse behind them.

Okay, there are still holes in my memory, but at least I wasn't drugged and/or overpowered by an ordinary Far Edge housefrau loonie nearly old enough to be my Mom.

* * *

Three weeks later, Lupine was under thrust in a forced orbit over Frothup. Our squirtboosters were shuttling passengers to the main port, Aberstwyth. Doc Poole had pronounced me good to go (as he put it, "No more brain-damaged than anyone else in your department," which isn't too ringing an endorsement considering some of my nominal peers) after a couple of mights in the ship's main clinic. I'd spent nearly every on-duty moment since in the 'Drive compartment, puzzling over the advance drawings Irrational had sent up for our solid-state 'Drive finals, working with a senior electrician from the Power gang and an Environment & Physical Plant HVAC tech on power and cooling for the new beast. We'd taken it as far as we could while Doc Schmid and the Chief were entertained planetside by Irrational's brass, getting the skinny on the new finals. Now it was my turn; I was headed down to spend a week learning he nuts and bolts at their plant while all the parts and pieces were put through final test, after which it, a couple of their techs and me were going to be installing, testing and documenting the gadget. USSF was supposedly sending an inspector to check it out but he (or she) wasn't due for another couple of weeks.

I was sitting in the departure lounge (think "small-town airport," only more utilitarian), slumped mostly asleep in my chair with a pretty good comic book on my lap, ignoring the passengers and crew milling around. They'd page me when they had a seat and in the meantime, the inside of my eyelids was looking better and better.

Of course someone said my name. I tried to ignore it but he repeated it. Opened my eyes and it was George Welles, sans entourage, dressed like a hiker. He gave me one of his disconcertingly open looks, grinned, said, "Mind?" and sat down beside me without waiting for my reply. I thought to myself, If he's handing out tracts, I'm gonna slap him into next week, but I just smiled back at him and waited for whatever came next.

He managed to surprise me. "I was hoping to find you here," he said. "I want to thank you."

I wasn't buying it. "Sure. Right. Your sister the super-soldier drugs me, tries to kill me and had already killed a Space Marine who was involved with your current secretary in a plot to smuggle the ashes of the Edger ringleaders and the equally-cremated remains of Nazi -- or at least WW II Luftwaffe -- spacemen back to Earth. Now Vill's confined to the ship, your lunatic sister is just plain confined and you are stoppin' by to say 'Thanks.'"

His grin faded a bit but he perked back up. "It does sound altogether grim when you put it that way. But consider," he held up one finger, index if you will, "First: my sister was and is deeply disturbed. She'll be headed home now, under guard, to get the help she needs--"

"And the justice she deserves?" Which if you ask me, would be a short drop at the end of a rope. Or a long drop; whichever.

"As much as anyone ever does."

I gave him a nice You Suck look.

"Truly, I mean that," he protested, "Our ways are not your ways but you may be surprised at the outcome; whatever her mental state, she must make redress, what you'd call civil penalties."

Fat lot of good that would likely do me -- what's the going cross-border rate on drugging and attempted murder? Not much, I'll bet.

But Welles, determinedly chipper, waved two fingers and plowed on, "Second, Katrina and Vill's covert mission or missions have not been stopped. Your own Captain has determined it will do much more good than harm to see it through. Vill is a good man; this may even help his home world find some political-economic stability."

More fat-chancing; Lyndon's been a mess since long before I knew about it. You name the political system, they'll make it go wrong.

Welles, however, was on a roll. He made a sloppy Scout salute, saying "Third, thanks to you I have been reminded that I am still in this universe and I must be more engaged with it, not hiding behind helpers and followers. Hopkins-F isn't crippling, especially not with the latest drugs. I will be stopping off here and looking for a nurse. Your own Dr. Poole has offered let me ride out Jumps in the ship's clinic but I'd rather not; I spent enough time in sickbay when the syndrome first hit me. Besides, this is a an entire planet; perhaps they'll find something in what I offer."

I gave him a skeptical look. "And that would be.... Warmed-over Khalil Gibran? Unprovable stories of The Infinite?"

It didn't faze him. "An idea. An ideal. Perhaps it is just a new gloss on an old structure; I don't know. I do know there is something bigger, better than ourselves. I can't make you or anyone know it but possibly, possibly, I can turn some few away from despair or wrongdoing."

Give him this much, he meant every word of it. "You sure do mean well, George."

About then, the PA announced an impending departure. Didn't call my name but Welles stood up. "That's my bus," he said. "Lord keep you well, Bobbi."

"Thanks," I told him; he may be a nutjob but his heart is pure. It wasn't him tried to do me in. It wasn't even one of his believers. "Thank you but I'm still not buyin' it; a lot of the docs think it could be a brain problem."

"I know you don't believe. That is all right; I'll just have to believe for both of us." With that, he turned and blended into the crowd headed for departure gate, just one more passenger.

I slouched back down in my seat and tried to fall back towards sleep. It's funny how few busy watches it takes to be short on shut-eye yet again. At least George Welles was out of my hair.

Just another day in the starship biz.


(This ends one adventure but another has already begun! Check back here for yet more adventures from I Work On A Starship!)

06 November 2009

Another Day, Part 17

* * *

Bzzt. Bzzt. Bzzt. It happens often enough I should be better at it or at least have better stories: I'm fast asleep and the phone starts buzzing. To add to the fun, I'd fallen asleep with a book on my face (here's to paperbacks!). I fumbled it away and groped for the phone with my eyes still shut. It could be a wrong number, you know.

It was, but not in the way I was hoping. I reached out, whacked the big PHONE switch - I've had to replace the thing twice in the last year - and mumbled, "Whoizzit?"

The voice that replied wasn't especially familiar but the words woke me the rest of the way like a cup of coffee in the face: "Miz --ah-- 'Feynman'?"

Crap. Crap crap crap. Busted. "Wrong number!" I reached for the switch.

"Don't hang up! You are in great danger! We all are."

"Call Security. 999 from any phone or terminal."

"There is no time!" She was sounding more and more panicked but c'mon, could this be more cliché?

Name, name, what was her name? Oh, yeah, "Irene, knock it off. I've seen enough cop and spy movies. Call Security! I'm gonna."

"Oh, no, you mustn't." Despite the crisp accent that sounds irked to most non-Edgers, she was nearly wailing. "What'll they do to poor Vill? Please, please, you must help."

Mike's right and so's the Chief: this is not my job. On the other hand, whose is it? Wake me from a sound sleep, I'm still a tech, so I started to find out. "Try to calm down and tell me what's happened, first."

"He's gone! I went to see him and his door was open and he wasn't there and I found a note."

This is getting tiresome. "Calm! Down! Irene," she hadn't objected to using her first name time, "Irene, I sure can't help if I don't know what's going on. You're on a ship. Where's he gonna go? It's a very big ship but it's not that big and I have reason to know your pal is locked out of most of it." Or so I hoped. It's what T told me and Sheriff Mike had confirmed.

"That's what his note said -- he's in a lot of trouble, he's being watched and he doesn't see any way out."

Swell. He'd struck me as more of a survivor type than that but you never know. I reluctantly agreed to meet her, throwing on clothes and shoving a brush through my hair while we spoke. I thought about dropping an e-mail to Mike, thought about what he'd have to say and changed my mind. Compromised with a short note to T's non-work addy: Exciting developments in our mystery? What've you guys done to Villy now? Mama Irene is all weepy! Update when I find out, c ya, R She's the worst correspondent I know but that should result in a call as soon as she saw it. I grabbed my phone from the charger and charged out the hatch.

* * *

Three hours later, I woke up, flat on my back and even more slowly than usual. Once I'd gathered enough wit to grasp the situation, I reflected that I'd thought I was more of a survivor type, too. I was stuffed into an ill-adjusted skinsuit -- mine, at least -- and any thought that kept me from thinking about horking in my helmet was worth following. My mouth was dry and the canteen was empty. The last thing I remembered was accepting a cup of tea from worried, flustered Irene and then a long nightmare of walking and walking down unfamiliar corridors. It is amazing just how abruptly you can finish waking up when it dawns on you that something has gone terribly wrong.

"Don't fall back asleep on me again, dear." The words and tone of voice were sweet enough but somehow it made me shudder. Irene's voice, just as you would expect, "I'm starting to wonder about you! We've talked and talked for the last twenty minutes but you don't seem to really be quite all there."

Ye cats, I was doing that? Shades of my teen years. I pried a sticky eye open to be rewarded by scintillating darkness rimmed with scary red and yellow lights, otherwise relieved by a few far-off ill-lit shapes. "I'm up," I croaked before considering how much better off I might be to keep silent. I tried to stand and flopped back down, weak and awkward; the coveralls worn to keep from tearing the tight MCP suit (and to provide a place for pockets, not to mention the overwhelming immodesty of a skin-tight mechanical counterpressure suit) were open almost to my waist, pulled down to free the sleeves which -- I twisted to look but couldn't quite see -- were probably what was knotted around my gauntleted wrists. It felt like the whole thing was made fast to something behind me by a short lanyard. I had thought I was ready for a bad outcome but this was way over the top. Looking around as much as I could, there was no question I was on the hull; the light and shadow had that razor-edged look you get in vacuum and my MP suit had the easier feel they get in zero pressure. There was no sign of Frothup's star and down was well underfoot. I retched again and suppressed worse. It appeared I might have misapprehended the situation. Also, I had a pounding headache.

"Are we awake now?" Same sweet, concerned and overbearing Irene. Oh, yeah. "Not feeling well? You know, I think something very bad might have happened to the glockey little widget that removes the CO2 from your air supply." She had to be behind me; I tried rolling to one side but couldn't turn far enough. "Ah-ah! You'll use up your air all the faster!"

Great. Suit training was a long time ago and oxygen consumption is wildly variable. Lose the rebreather with a full tank and you've got, um, at normal exertion an hour not counting safety factor.. If you're not in any way excited or stressed; if you are working hard of frightened, you can burn through an hour's air in fifteen minutes. Add in the reserve-you-are-never-to-plan-on and you can double those numbers, though it'll be pretty thin before it is gone. Nothing like the right kind of fear to induce clarity: other than drills, I'm in a pressure suit three times a year on a bad year, a few hours at a stretch. In a suit with a working rebreather, you've got air enough for a full watch, so I'm never even close to the limit.

There's a PANIC button on all pressure suits, center of your chest, with an anti-oops guard you can reach under or break with a bit more than ordinary force. I tried to bring my knees up to trip it, couldn't quite bend far enough (try it yourself!), and was rewarded with a painful yank on my wrists. Not to mention a chiding admonition, "Lie still! That won't do you any good."

I did as I was told, thinking hard. Why won't it do me any good? The suit's data transponder comes on automatically any time external pressure drops below half an atmosphere (a little higher than Denver, not sea level), lighting up a tally at the EVA monitors in the Control Room and E&PP's console room, streaming physio data and life support status to displays in both locations and into storage. The PANIC alarm uses both the data transponder and an independent UHF system borrowed from aviation. It’s got to work, no matter what

Unless it's deliberately been disabled. "Life support status" includes insignificant trivia like status of the rebreather: before the airlock had finished cycling, my suit should have started screaming to places where it would be noticed. Those hazy red and yellow lights I mentioned earlier are the status displays, HUDed onto the helmet at the edges of your vision and they ought to be mostly dim green and blue. Irene either gimmicked my suit or didn't intend me to last long enough for it to make any difference. Either way, it had to mean she was more than plain crazy.

While I mused, she fumed. "I don't know what you're doing in the middle of this — just some greasy tech. Do you know what George did before this syndrome ruined our lives? He was an engineer, you'd call it industrial automation or some dreary name. He designed the robotic systems at the richest metals-and-materials plant anywhere; we were on the station advisory boardl. I had just been inducted into the FSC council. We were respected. He makes one FTL trip to some filthy ball of mud and everything falls apart!”

For once, I kept my big mouth shut.

“I gave up my career! I gave up everything when he fell sick, I got him the very best healers, the latest medicine and for what? So my brother could be some kind of mystic? And then, then on that miserable place, that dirty, dirty ‘Lyndon,’ our factotum got so sick, they saddled us with that sneaking “Villy” and after all that, after all that, I find out he’s smuggling dead Nazis back to Earth and worse yet, the Federation is colluding to smuggle the ashes of our own Founders there! Back to the mud!” She broke off abruptly. “You were supposed to arrest him for murder, you know.”

For all my glib jokes about it bein’ a long walk home, for all the times I have been in bad situations a long way from help, not until now had I really been convinced of my own mortality.


15 October 2009

Another Day: Inbound To Frothup

(Note: out of sequence, follows highest-numbered part of "Another Day")

In space, sometimes you'd like to just scream.

One nice thing about zero-g you can go to the loo without encountering the unpleasantness of a seat sullied by some helicopter princess; anyone overly squeamish about having to squat where others have sot is either gonna have to bide a wee (ahem), make her peace with the isolation given by disposable gasketry, or learn the hard way that even a gentle pressure differential won't take "ick, no" for an answer. The latter lesson is learned early in one's career but the number of times I've heard surprised squeals leaves me wondering just how well it sticks. —Or is that an indelicate choice of phrase again? How anyone can get through zero-g and pressure-suit training and remain very squeamish is a mystery to me. Not one of the Great Mysteries but still--!

It's small consolation for the zillion-and-one things that weren't property stowed, got bumped and must be fished out of the air filters, let alone queasy passengers and newbie crew or the crummy, bloaty headcold-coming-on feeling as your body redistributes fluids. And nobody ever pretended weightless sanitary arrangements were especially nice or all that convenient. There's the one small advantage and that's about it.

Coming into Far Edge systems (not to mention a good many of our former colonies, nominal allies and one-time enemies, and don't even get me started about the French), you've got no choice; the local version of Port Control wants any incoming "stranger" vessel to adopt their assigned safe vector ASAP and no foolin'! In all but the newest and/or poorest of systems, a "constellation" of little comsats orbit the star 'way out, the same satellites that stream current navigation data to incoming ships, carry a canned message or almost AI with those instructions. Once that's done and it has shed enough velocity to minimize the likelihood of a successful kinetic strike, if they're still feeling even a little suspicious the usual drill is an instruction to kill all thrust while the details of your course and destination are negotiated.

Never mind that all this fol-de-rol is a dogwhistle in the canine-free darkness if the "stranger vessel" is a big hunk of rock arriving at some significant fraction of C, guided by a crew intent on doing harm. It's what the Edgers do to feel safe and it would -- maybe! -- slow down a more-conventional attack if anyone was fool enough to try. Still and all, even the hard-line Soviet worlds are less trouble to deal with.

So there we were, coasting in on a course that, uncorrected, would intersect nothing more than cosmic dust and possibly some tiny rocks, while Navs sweet-talked whoever the Edgers had stuck with port Control this week, and let us all hope it isn't one of their stubborn, barely-supervised near-AIs on the other end of the line. The air system was set on High Volume and "down" was temporarily a matter of mere decor for everything, including dinner.

In Engineering (and every place else outside of passengers and deadweight cargo -- but I repeat myself), being all floaty-sick is no excuse and thus it was when I tried to get out in time to have hot sticky goop on a plate for lunch instead of cold sticky goop in a squeezebag.

"Bobbi," stopped me at the threshold. It was the Chief, leaning out the hatchway to his minuscule cubby. "That external telecomms circuit you were working on is out. Again. Dead."

Commo circuit? Three weeks ago when it hardly mattered, maybe. I shot a glance over at Gale and Jonny Zed, huddled over a dead twenty-year old CRT monitor from a remote-drone control bay more intently than it deserved. No help there and besides, Jonny Zed maneuvers in zero-g like the Hindenberg in a high wind — and often provides his own wind, too. Being elsewhere would be good. "On it, boss," I sang out and headed the other way down the passageway, away from the breakroom where E&PP's Catering crew would have zero-g midwatch food cart for another fifteen minutes and towards the racks instead.

Absent acceleration (or gravity), you can fly but it's best not to fly too fast. Like driving on ice, hurrying in zero-g is a bad idea when you haven't done it in awhile. I'd kicked off at the Engineering Shop hatchway and was sailing nicely along, fingers of one hand grazing the forward-side handrail, when Kent Best popped out fifty feet ahead and made a series of gestures that didn't make any sense to me. I shrugged big and managed to impart a sideways vector, coasting on a long diagonal while he tried again. It still didn't make any sense, I was out of reach of anything, he yelled something and gesticulated and suddenly it didn't seem like I was gonna get stopped in time. I made a frantic left-handed grab at the handrail on that side, brushed it, got a hold and lost it, tucked in and did an awkward skin-the-cat that had me moving feet-first, facing the deck and the rail well within reach on my right. I grabbed it again, swung my legs in and got my feet on the rail, sliding to a stop just short of the hatch as Kent ducked inside the frame, chuckling.

"Whoa, there, Speedy! Navs was just paging you, their link to Frothup Traffic keeps cutting out and they're not happy."

"No, reallllly? Chief just now happened to mention it to me." I got myself untangled, hooked one foot under the toerail and turned to face him.

Kent grinned. "No doubt."

"I've got a quarter -- American! -- says it's one of the A-to-D's flippin' out." The voice link is half-antiquated, a cluster of dedicated rackmount PCs that handle telephony-over-IP in any system that's set up for it and pass it on to our shipboard telephone exchange (freshly upgraded in 1972, IT&T's finest, Ma Bell having bid too high) as four-wire-plus-signaling, which translates from geekspeak as "stone-age analog." (At that, it's cutting-edge compared to the three different all-analog radiotelephone setups we use for close maneuvering and in places where IP -- or at least VOIP -- has yet to arrive). To simplify (ahem) interfacing, audio in and out is consumer digital, S/PDIF, and a frame of external converters knock it down to plain analog like A. G. Bell used to make. ...When they feel like it, that is. No-name custom cards, sourced and installed about the same time USSF scaled back and the big ships ended up in civilian hands, there's no documentation and they have a reputation for flakiness. We have a few spare boards and exactly one (1) alternate unit; Earthside, good A-to-D/D-to-A boxes have vanished from the market, as they're very handy for circumventing Digital Rights Management. (But you didn't hear that from me!)

Back in the racks, there weren't any alarm indications on the converters and all the PCs were, for a wonder, happy. Kent brought up the supervisory displays for the PCs and glided away while I made a quick call up to Navs to learn 'happy' was what they were not: "It sounds like crap! Do something!" At least I found out which line they were on.

The quick fix is force the call over to another converter and I'm lazy and irked enough to do it in hardware, yanking power to the afflicted PC. Hand-over-handed myself around to the back of that row of racks, braced my toes up under the footrail and did just that -- I always end up with sore feet after time spent in zero-g. This "fix" still leaves me with the problem but it made the esteeeemed wearers of the slide rule'n'grid pins actually happy once they'd reestablished the call. It's not like we won't get there if their little confab with the local skywatchers were delayed but I'd as soon the folks who workout our trajectory were not otherwise stressed and that goes double anytime we're on the Far Edge side of the line. So Navs is settled, at least one phone channel not okay, crises averted but problem remains, especially considering where we were. What now?

Power the computer back up and shove test signals though the system, starting at the easiest end, the A-to-D/D-to-A converter. Kent was ahead of me; while the hard-workin' Navs loudmouth spokesman not presently in confab with Port Control (I don't wonder why) was complaining in my ear that nothing Engineering touches ever works right and how were it not for Navs, the rest of us slobs would just be stuck in nothingness (I figure we'd just pull in at the next service station and ask directions and told him so, too), Kent the chessplayer had gone back to the Shop and nabbed the test box. I reached in and grabbed for the audio connector at the PC and it fell out in my hand. Fell out? Um, this is a no-falling zone, right? Free-falling, which comes to the same thing.

Yeah. And if you don't have a QG connector seated until it latches, the springs that normally retain it will, on slight provocation, gently eject it. Darn thing didn't fall, it was pushed.

From the other side of the racks, Kent: "Um, Bobbi?"


"The other four lines just lit up and if I'm readin' this right, it's the Captain, 2/O, Legal and...food service?"

"Crap. You signed on since our last long trip, that's right. Never visited Edger space?"

"Nope. I was USSF, the old C-946, became Nauvoo City. Spent all our time on the Mars - Deseret run, plus Gagarin after the Agreement. No Far Edge out that direction. Got a lot of Russians. Besides, I thought Frothup was on our side of the line now?"

"Just barely. Also, 'Aha.' Betcha your 'food service' is E&PP's pet botanists or worse. Betcha Port Control's bein' finicky. Betcha it's an AI"

"Bet ya we need that other line back, too."

"Should be up now. No activity?" I'm surprised it didn't take off the minute I powered it back up.

"Nup... There it goes. Incoming, PC shows 'em in the phone tree" (We are so Space Age that way!) "and punching for the Old Man."

"I'm guessin', but-- AI gets shirty on our guys when the phone connection goes bad, hangs a go-slow on Navs, calls for full phys. and biological, Cap'n James gets on 'em, AI calls for backup and the nearest Real Live Human In Authority just called back. I'm still takin' bets: Look for his other line to drop, followed by the E&PP Greenies, 2/O and maybe Legal..."

"I've heard it's interesting when an Edger AI get cross.... Captain's hung up his other line. This is too easy."

"They should all be." I took a look at the rack wiring, reseated all the other QGs (latched, the lot of 'em), just about gave myself a foot cramp in the process, winced and shut the rear door of the rack. "I'll take the QBox back to the Shop."

"Say 'Hi' to the Chief for me," Kent said, with just the least trace of amusement in his tone, "I'm pretty sure the remote indicators for RF/reaction need recalibration and that'll take the rest of my shift."

The ex-mil guys know all the good dodges! Wish I'd thought of that.

On the way back to the Engineering Shop, I sort of floated on past to our delightful break area. Food Service was packing up but I managed to get a bowl of very thick beef stew and a roll, along with a reminder to be mindful of the crumbs. As I was mopping up the last of it, parked at one of the table/return-air filter traps (aren't we clever? Yes. We. Are. Right up until they get clogged), the lights dimmed once and the PA system clicked on: "Attention All Hands! Attention Passengers! Normal acceleration will resume beginning in six hours. Secure all loose items. It is now fourteen-thirty, we will begin acceleration at twenty-thirty." Click!

It'll take a couple of hours to get back to our normal three-quarters g. Hooray! Real food for breakfast! Might as well skip dinner and have a head start. Zero-g leaves me a bit unsettled and glue-based stew wasn't helping. Even after less than a day at zero g, the odds are about even we'll have some kind of mad scramble as weight resumes. With any luck, it won't be in Engineering and I can sleep through it.

Finished out the day working through small items left open on TASKER, utterly unromantic but even ancient data recorders and crummy little intercom amplifiers need to be fixed or scrapped for parts, right? Hey, it's a living.

Another Day, part 16

I mingled and chatted, trying to listen more than I spoke, which doesn't come all that naturally. Seemed to a mingling of faiths. even a few sort-of Deist agnostics, all of 'em convinced Mr. Welles' take on being a Glover confirmed their own beliefs. For all I know, they're right; I was interested that he kept it low-key and didn't look to be setting up his own ElRonnange. Drifted back to where he and his were holding court. The blonde was checking his pulse in a professional manner and Vill was looking bored.

"Hey, Villem Braun, right?" I asked, "I think we've got an acquaintance in common."

He perked up a bit. I mentioned T and he momentarily looked annoyed, then decided to brazen it out, "The young lady and I have met, yess."

For some reason, this earned both of us a short, poisonous look from the blonde. Done with Welles -- he was already listening to another eager acolyte -- she turned, shifted closer to Vill and asked a bit too sweetly, "Who's your new friend, Villy?"

"Um. You are?" Still trying to figure out just what I might be up to, he looked beseechingly at me, a cue not even I could miss.

I smiled and stepped up, "Bobbi--" uh-oh, I need an alias, "Bobbi Feynman." Oh, yeah, that'll fly.

She blinked but accepted it. Edgers. Probably thinks I changed it to honor a personal hero or something.

"I'm Irene. George is my brother, my older brother; and I'm his nurse, too. Though some days my Vill takes more looking after." She patted his arm. He essayed something of a smile.

Oh. Like that, is it? Still, she seemed harmless enough. Maybe a bit cloying but you'd think a career bureaucrat'd like that, wouldn't you?

I smiled back and said something inconsequential about men needing looked after -- truth to tell, if they can't take care of themselves, I don't want 'em around -- and she asked after my travels. I passed myself off as a Starship Company tech deadheading back to The Homeworld, a turn of phrase common among USSF and ex-Space Forcers; it's a common practice with outfits flying more and smaller ships and covered my late appearance, since I would have been staying in crew accommodations. (In fact, the Starship Company doesn't allow deadheading; you sign the Articles and you work, or you don't fly. Highhanded? Probably. The overhead on a really big starship, even the two fastest cargo haulers this side of the Far Edge, is staggering. Me, I'd rather have something to do than get a free ride anyhow). Eventually, the conversation wound down and I made my escape.

Sure enough, not five minutes later, Vill found me on the far side of the decorative (fake) rockpile that conceals the park's public facilities. He greeted me with, "That woman!" Not much of a hiya.

I gave him a quizzical look.

"She thinks herself my Mother! But you-- You work for the police?"

"Hey!' I glanced around. I'm subtle like that. "Not so loud. It's Security and I'm just helping out. Also, what's-her-name--"


"Yeah. She sounds more like your wife."

He shuddered. "I'm single, thank you," and gave me the checking for rings once-over (nice try, pal, but I don't wear jewelry; there are enough nine-fingered 'Drive techs already. And my eyes are up here). "But why are you here?"

Geesh, man gets arrested, spends the night in jail, or the last half of it, and simultaneously bein' henpecked and hunting comes first? Bureaucrats! But I smiled, he's no worse than most, give anyone a pack of troubles and they are most likely to worry about the one immediately at hand.

"Mike wanted someone to get a look at your Mister Welles in his natural element and as you so wisely observe, I don't look like Security. 'Cos I'm not."

"George--? You people do not think he...?"

"I don't think anything. I'm out of idea and I've been reminded this isn't what I get paid to think about anyhow. Aren't you gonna be missed?"

It startled him. "Only by her. Mr. Welles is -- You do understand, he is the most gentle of men -- he doesn't keep track of me; it's my job to keep track of him. Appointments, travel arrangements, ansible interviews. He's a good man, you know, a very good man."

"So I'm told. But," I spoke more quietly, "not actually why you're here, hey?"

I hope I have a chance to play cards against him (I do okay at euchre); you could see the wheels spin. "I told your boss. You already know...?"

"I know enough. What'd they do, bump off his original guy?"

He looked offended. "Please. He fell ill. Coincidence. And my government took advantage of it, no more. They offered my services in his stead, a convenient coincidence."

Methinks he protestesth overmuch but, "Whatever, okay. 'Government' of Lyndon. Shouldn't you be better at this?"

I'm so diplomatic. He got a little bit purple, started to speak, thought better of it and started over, "No real thanks to you people! We do have a government, you know, and I. Am. Not. A. Spy." He hissed out that last. Better than shouting; I'd already noticed a few glances our way, despite the almost-crowded anonymity. Still, they had to recognize Vill, confidant of the Mr.Welles. One face looked familiar, but the figure turned away before I got a good look.

"Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to--"

He was ticked. "There has been quite enough not-meaning-to already. Katrina is still dead and all you, you people can do is further harass me? Tell your Mister Mathis I am- - Tell him whatever you wish! Where can I run? What does he think I might do? Good Day!" He turned and stomped off, or as well as anyone can manage in 75% g. It's a little bouncy.

Yeah, that went well. Or not. I felt someone staring, or caught it out of the corner of my eye, anyway, and turned in time to find motherly (smotherly!) Irene looking daggers. She faded back into the crowd again and I decided it was time to get out of the park.
*On the other hand, in most cases the people who stayed on those worlds have made them into nice places to be, or at least no worse than most places. Which just goes to show, though exactly what I'll leave for you to figure out.


24 September 2009

Another Day, Part 15

Dr. Schmid was hazily averring his enthusiasm for our modern age.

"This is an historic opportunity; we are sharing technology, ideas are cross-pollinating, amazing new vistas opening. Bobbi, how have the 'Drive finals been performing?"

His sudden veer to specifics took me by surprise. "Well enough," I hazarded. "I'm sorry it took so long to find the bad connections that were messin' up PA 2. It's been solid ever since, output's starting to fade on 3 a little."

"You've never really liked those Tweed finals, have you?"

The Chief gave me a narrow and hooded look. I'm not especially diplomatic but if there was ever a time to try! "Well... The old tetrode RCAs would run better, with more wrong with them, than any I ever worked with. After they stopped making the tubes for them, though.... The Tweeds are better than I expected, the tube and cavities are good GEC stuff anyway. They've always got us through."

"What would you say to something like the RF sources for the newer ion drives: solid state?"

The Chief blinked, slowly, which is like most men leaping to their feet. I coughed back a giggle, 'cos nobody, nobody is pushin' the kind of power we need through any flavor of transistor at the frequencies the Stardrive needs to make the CLASSIFIED run. We were lucky to do it with external-anode power grid tubes; even the phantasmajector tubes are a little iffy up there.

Dr. Schmid's bland affability is difficult to read most of the time and today his Swiss-Buddha expression was more impenetrable than ever. "There's a company on Frothup that's been supplying silicon-carbide power amps to the Far Edge for at least the past fifteen years. I'm told they even had some kind of connection to Tweed before '89. The Edgers have finally admitted they have this technology and the Lupine is going to be the first Earth-based ship, the first one we know about, anyway, to make the change. I've been arranging details with Irrational; neither of you should count on any time off this planetfall."

The Chief nodded and made a note on his celphone, same as he would if you told him his quarters were on fire or we were going to skim a the photosphere of a star on our next run-up to Jumping. I'm the inquisitive type: "'Irrational?' Um, what kinda name is that?"

Dr. Schmid went so far as to grin. "Irrational Numbers Corporation. Edger names, you know how they are." His grin faded. "Bobbi, haven't you been helping Security some?"

I nodded. The Chief almost sighed.

"This upgrade is big. I'm sure you see the ramifications were we to make an extended stop at a Far Edge world with an unsolved death aboard. The Security Director has already heard from the Captain: this needs to be resolved. Now you're hearing from me: You need to wrap up your part of it. Mike has a staff. We were two weeks out but Captain James is stretching it to three and by the time we're around Frothup, I expect your full attention."

What do you say to that? Don't tell me. I said, "Yessir," and waited to find out if he had more to say, thinking Good-bye, Nancy Drew. Then I thought again: Far Edge world? "I thought Frothup was actually on our side of the line?"

The Chief grunted. Dr. Schmid looked abstractedly over my head, studying the same air vent he looks at whenever he's being evasive. "So to speak. Certainly there are full diplomatic relations, which implies something more like a government... Commercially, though? Their ties to F.E. are strong. Culturally, too. And Irrational's principals are definitely Edger. The economic exchange alone is historic. Historic."

Dr. Schmid being himself, he smiled and threw me a curve: "This an unparalleled opportunity and I want to be certain you will be involved. As I am sure you yourself want to be."

That one's a bit barbed. The Lupine's 'Drive, just like the rest of the ship, belongs to the Starship Company as a matter of law, interstellar Agreement, Company regulations and traditions that go back to when humans first started loading cargo and people aboard large-ish vessels and undertaking long journeys for fun and profit. More directly, every last rivet, wire, gadget and blivit is under the control of Captain Telly (for Telemachis) James as delegated, in the case of all things Stardrive, to Dr. Schmid and through him to the Chief, who could throw any of his minions at fixin'. Withal, those 'Drives are mine. I kept the old gen 2 RCAs running past their prime; when we burned up a power supply off Tsiolkovsky and the ex-Reds got antsy, I was the last person to light up the gen 1 RCA we kept in reserve (with its wacky early CLASSIFIED with a zillion tweaks and fifteen 6166 power tubes in the finals that had to be hot-tuned though twelve hours of high idle before a Jump), maybe the last time one was used, ever. I helped take both of them out and install the Tweed over a decade ago and I've kept it percolating ever since. I wouldn't risk missing this surprise upgrade unless it was a matter of...of life and death.
Which, I suddenly remembered, it kind of was. I ran through the rest of the meeting on autopilot, smiling and nodding. (And I do me auto. Remember that Triennial Inspection I was frettin'? Put off; the final test and acceptance of the new 'Drive finals will replace it and I was too distracted to even feel relieved).

Hey, I've got two weeks and all I need to do is get Sheriff Mike some better intelligence on George Wells and his bunch; maybe he'll just round 'em all up and won't need me at all.

Maybe I'll get a pony for Christmas too -- but it'd probably be on the menu if I did. Gonna be a busy fortnight.

* * *

"Busy fortnight?" Roberta, Mistress Of The Understatement: as far as the Chief was concerned, our Date With Technological Destiny meant it was high time the 'Drive Compartment got a thorough cleaning and every last subassembly, part, manual, bit of software and even tool that was old, worn and/or not immediately applicable would be chucked in the Recycle bins and, if possible, entirely disposed of. Times like these, I am reminded of the persistent rumor that he is one of the very few guys to have made the transition from NASA's oh-so-public grandstanding disinformation campaign to the real deal; his aversion to excess sure fits that profile. He had a point -- we needed to have the decks clear in the most literal manner for our historic upgrade. On the other hand, I'm a packrat. The Lupine is bigger than most towns and while most of that space is given over to cargo, paying passengers and essential functions, we've got room to spare. What haunts my nightmares is not excess mass or volume; it's having what I need when something critical conks out at an awkward time and most times can be awkward when you're outpacing light. There is, as they say, some tension between us and I'd resent it, except the Chief is mostly right; we travel with a full set of spares, two well-stocked general industrial suppliers and an electrical wholesaler aboard, not to mention machine shops (one ours and one commercial): if we don't have what we need on board, we can make it. ...Well, except for the CLASSFIED and there's a spare for every section of it, too. It would be a big nasty job to sweep and retune (but I've said too much already). Yet I still fret over that ten-cent part that goes ping in the middle of a graveyard watch and me without a bobbie pin to replace it -- or the chassis from a 1957-vintage grid modulator to borrow parts from. It's not logical.

All of that is taking the long way 'round to explain that by the time my shift ended, I was tired, a little dusty -- even HEPA filters can only do so much -- and ready to lock up the 'Drive compartment and go directly home.

A-hem. Go directly home. Of course my celphone rang. Of course it was our erstwhile Security Director.


"Nope. Trained panda, here; Bobbi took the week off."

"Right. Look, Welles is gonna be talking to his flock in the park in about an hour; I've got his tour guide or whatever on a short leash--"

"That Vill guy you arrested?"

"T talks too much. Especially to you. But yeah, him. I'm 99 percent sure he's not our killer and I don't want him missed. So back he goes and he'd better toe the line. I'll have some of my crew watching but I want you there, too, up close. Don't do anything, just keep your eyes and ears open, okay?"

I was pretty worn out but I'm nothing if not nosy. "The park, one hour, I'm on it, Sheriff."

"That's what worries me. Don't be too on it."

"Why, Mr. Mathis, I have no idea what you might possibly mean."

* * *

It was much the same crowd as last time, a mixed lot of folks who'd be pretty unnoticed most places on the Hidden Frontier. A surprising lot of Russians this time. I paid more attention, chatted and nary a one I spoke to was from Earth. Some, well, most of the former Soviet worlds were especially appealing as places to be from, so it's understandable that as soon as it was even slightly possible, "from" was indeed the word.* The Park's a nice place, even crowded; fountains were burbling and the scent of green, growing things helped elevate my mood. --So did a dish of gumbo; Georges' place was on my way, after all.

For a wonder, the Great Man was there, and he didn't look to be particularly impressed with his own greatness. His helpers were there, too -- Vill and the woman I had seen last time and assumed was his wife, all of them on one of the park benches. He was talking quietly with a few people, "...No, no, I'm not saying you should believe because of what I have experienced. I know what I felt -- what I still feel, even with the medicines, but I cannot prove to you it is real. I think it is but your faith has to come from you. Maybe it isn't there today; perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps not. There is plenty of practical good for you to do in the meantime..." Didn't sound like any preacher I ever heard but I'm a little tone-deaf that direction.

*On the other hand, in most cases the people who stayed on those worlds have made them into nice places to be, or at least no worse than most places. Which just goes to show, though exactly what I'll leave for you to figure out.

31 August 2009

Another Day, Part 14


Security officers on a starship work in an environment that has more in common with Andy Griffith's Mayberry sheriff than most law enforcement types; while the ship is indeed leaping through the limitless cosmos -- or at least the Earth portion of the Hidden Frontier (less the worlds settled from France and China and, mostly, the two hardline ex-Soviet worlds) -- a starship between planetfalls amounts to a small town with no roads out. Additionally, Security answers to the Captain and ultimately to the Starship Company, not a Mayor and Town Council.

As a result, Security is more inclined to wait situations out and the officers are encouraged to apply logic and common sense instead of no-tolerance rules, to de-escalate instead of arrest, confrontation or other ways of bothering the Security Director. All of which goes to explain why there was not a lot of shouting and shoving; John stepped to one side of the opening through which he'd entered, saying, "Keep your hands where I can see 'em, Mister," adding, "--Alan, hang back," while keeping his attention on the seated man. "All right, whoever you are, we're going to take you out of here. 'S that a problem?"

"'Vill,' please, and I shall come along quietly. Do be careful of the urns."

"Stand up, slowly, hands in sight, do not move until I tell you; it's gonna be a lot easier getting back out if I don't have to cuff you - - Er, '...Urns?'"

"Surely Katrina has told you...? There was a procedure if it was found out."

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Here's my procedure: my buddy will lead the way, I will follow him facing back at you and you will follow me, maintaining our present distance. Got it?"

Through this speech, Vill's expression had changed from one of bemused concern to genuine alarm and he replied, "Yes, but --"

"'But,' nothing. Unless there is an immediate hazard," John gave him a hard look and Vill shook his head, "keep it 'til we're out of here. When we get through that cargo can, you will turn to face it, hands behind you, and you will be handcuffed while we figure this out. Is that a problem?"

Vill shook his head again.

John called out, "Alan, we're movin'," then said more quietly, "Mister, come on. Slowly!"

Their intercom "radio" mikes had been on the whole time and when it comes to comms, Lupine and her sister ships are state-of-the-art: Good communications systems are a life and death matter for any critical ops. Usual operation is in "partyline," mode, in which every live mike is heard by every receiver on the system. So as soon as John set his prisoner in motion, T acknowledged and rearranged the rest of her crew. Alan stepped out and cleared the hatch, moving out of his fellows' lines of fire as John emerged, followed by Vill, who turned and was cuffed according to plan.

T gestured to her Auxes muzzles down, hold position and walked over to John, Alan and Vill, who immediately asked, "You're in charge here? Am I under arrest?"

"It amounts that. --What are you up to, anyway?"

"Didn't Katrina tell you already? Secrecy is moot at this point! The plan was, if either of us were caught--"

"Whoa, there. As far as I know, we haven't caught any Katrinas and all I know is what I see. So, once more: what's going on?"

His eye got very wide, then narrowed: "But-- You don't? The Eld- Um. No. I must not say more."

T was about as impressed as you'd expect, which would be not at all. "Fine, buddy. You're in a lot of trouble and you know it. Okay. Here's the fine print: You are being detained, presently charged with being in an area prohibited to passengers. There may be additional charges against you, of which you will be informed. You have certain rights and responsibilities, to which you agreed as a condition of your travel contract and of which you have already been informed. They may differ from those (if any) established on your planet of residence (if any), so pay attention. Anything you say or do will be recorded for our use. Your location will be monitored at all times and you may be confined if the Captain or his representative finds it necessary. You have right to representation of your choice of your choice as available on this ship and per provisions the Agreement of 1989 you may, for all except capital offenses, request deportation to your home planet or ship in lieu of hearing but you remain liable for any actual damage to this ship. You may not be held in secret. You have the right to know the offense or offenses with which you are charged within 24 hours of their being filed. Do you understand these rights and requirements, which do not include any that may additionally be imposed by your home planet or ship?"

He blinked. "Well, I-- Yes."

T smiled. "Good boy." She turned to Alan, "'Book 'im, Danno.'"

In her ear -- and all the other Security and Auxes -- Mike's muttered "Very funny," was all too clear. Security may make as many as five or six actual "arrests" a year and most of those are crewmembers, for whom the procedure is considerably simpler even after the Agreement came into force.

* * *

T didn't tell me all that at the time, of course; just the broad outline, ending with the arrest. A search of the container found very basic living quarters for one, showing evidence of a long stay by a female occupant, which ruled out Vill twice over. The urns, 378 of them, all but 26 marked with nine-digit numbers, proved to contain ash; Doc Poole took about ten seconds to pronounce it "likely human."

Mike and the Turk had watched the arrest and promptly turned their attention to an argument-discussion about access to the cargo bays and how a passenger had gotten in. Old as Lupine is. large as the ship is and as much as she's been modified since launch, the impromptu conference ended with both men poring over 3-D renderings and blaming one another for the inevitable lapses and overlooked maintenance accesses. Once past the hatches (far too many to suit Sheriff Mike) that separate "downtown" and the passenger accommodations from the working parts of the ship there are, for safety's sake, few barriers that cannot be easily gotten around.

By this point in our tale, it was my morning and, nerve-wrackingly, I'd been called up to Dr. Schmid's office along with the Chief, where things got even more interesting.

So I was sittin' in Dr. Schmid's compartment in Officer's Territory, passing up an offer of coffee and wonderin' what I had messed up. Vill, meanwhile, was taken to the Security office and processed in by Alan, John and the lone officer on duty there. After the whole thing blew up, he authorized releasing the statement he made at that time, so rather than try to paraphrase it, I'll just quote his own words:

"My name is Villem Braun and I am a citizen of Lyndon, resident of the town now called New Alamos. My family has farmed in this area since 1947 or '48, the chronology was a little scrambled; my maternal grandfather was a life-support technician, the life-support technician, on Glocke 38 and I am not ashamed of that. He never spoke of his life before landing, not around me. Of course, my earliest memories are after the Second wave landed, the ones who were abandoned by what you people call 'Far Edge.' The ones who landed didn't call themselves much of anything until the first elections, when they formed the Linden Unity Party . Yes, this is germane to my situation.

"I grew up in the chaos of history: the self-described First Government, when Star City was built to replace the original capital at Limetree, followed by the Panic and the Occupation, and the Second Government, the Rebellion of '63, the Re-establishment and-- but Lyndon's sad history is well-known. I never saw the worst of it. New Alamos is at edge of the coal fields, essential and far enough from Limetree and Star City to miss the mobs. There are farms enough nearby that, other than six months during '75, we never got hungry or had much trouble, at least not compared to Star City, Limetree or Pitty, not even in '73 when the People's Collective seized all the coal and tried to nationalize the mines. That was when Pitty burned and Pitty Under mine is burning still. I was away at Star City by then. I had managed to get a decent education and was working in civil service, trying to make things better and becoming increasingly skeptical of the Collective, when FCS -- the Far Edge -- first contacted me.

"'Federation of Concerned Spacemen' is still what the ruling body of the Far Edge calls themselves. They are often referred to as the Elders and the right word isn't "rule;" the settled planets that side of the line answer to no one and even among the starships, compliance with FCS is voluntary. Custom is, however, strong; unyielding Nature is their highest law and the lessons it teaches are indelible.

"Where was I? 1978 it was, over a decade before the Agreement. There was no official contact between any part of the Far Edge and the settlements that had followed. What we knew, what the governments of Earth at least some of them knew had been learned from people here on Lyndon and Blizzard when they were rediscovered, and from prisoners taken on Ganymede. Still rewards were posted for the original FCS members; by then the Unity people had come forward and been granted amnesty, mostly. Abductions and 'cattle mutilations' were still happening on Earth and even Kansas II. I suppose even Lyndon. So any such contact was...unapproved. Risky.

"And so what? By then even my Post Office job was risky. It was the one good thing we had and People's Commissioners here and Gauleiters there were interfering, opening mail, stopping our carriers, cutting phone lines. What worse harm could come from listening to these shy outsiders?

"The answer was and still is 'None,' I think. I was soon passing minor bits of information to them and inserting messages untraceably into the mails. Things got worse before they got better but improve they did; within five years, the Unity/Social Democrat coalition had ousted both the Collective and the "Sixth Reich" in the hills and even kept the old capital at Limetree from being destroyed. Some criticize the accomplishments of our coalition government but for fifteen years, right until the money collapsed, it was the best my home ever had.

"Like many of us, in the economic troubles I lost everything I had saved for retirement. My involvement with FCS had dwindled after Agreement '89, of course (have I mentioned I am almost certain I carried The Roglaski Letter that started all that?) but I was still in touch; when they contacted me this past September with an unusual request, an unusually _well-paying_ request, I was ready to help. When my own government -- yes, we do still have one, powerless and impoverished though it is -- quietly made it an order, there was no other honorable path.

"...You know of the 1989 Agreement. No one missed the end of worrying that Earth or the Far Side would attack each other. But you may not know of items left unsettled. The most important to the FCS was, their founding leaders were not given amnesty. Your own United States government and their NATO allies refused to consider pardoning the men who stole their Lunar missile base. Ready though they were to forgive their children and grandchildren and so on, ready though they were to ignore the furtive..."borrowings" of genetic material and technology as long as they came to an end, that one thing remained unresolved.

"By last Summer, time had itself solved the problem: the last member of the original conspiracy passed away. They had long wished return home and the current FCS leadership was determined that they should. The increasing amount of cargo shipped between the Far Edge and Earth-based worlds made it simple enough; rather than risk breaching the Agreement by making direct contact, they smuggled the cremated remains of their founders to Blizzard, had their agents assemble it into a series of standard containers with a few...changes and consigned it to Earth. It ended up aboard your vessel, with a 'Space Marine' to stand watch and ensure proper dispersal of the ash upon arrival. Unbeknownst to me, some of the oldest members of the Social Democrats had intelligence of this effort and to it, wished to add the remains of some of our own First and Second groups of settlers. Yes, yes, even the First. Some of them were evil men but they are now dead, dead after privation and risk and even bravery and it is time they went home; and maybe their ilk will bother my world less once they have.

"I digress. Too much history, too many dashed hopes. When your Lupine took the container and half-dozen others, all seemed settled; when you filed new course plans on departure, adding this excursion across the Line to Frothup, there was great consternation. Even now, there is not much trust. What if their cargo was suspected? What if our addition was? And so I found myself, um, activated, revealed, retired, briefed, suddenly on the inside of events within my own government and the Far Edge, helping the Social Democrats -- I have always been a Unity member, all my life -- and prepared to leave the planet. They even had a cover; the, um, facilitator -- and covert observer -- of a touring Edger had fallen ill and I was to take his place. Of course, the "tourist" was George Welles. FCS has a great horror of popular movements of any sort and I have the impression anything resembling a new religion is watched with great care.

"How it was all arranged is mere detail; I will of course outline how I evaded your security systems -- I was provided with the keycard you have taken from me, I do not know how your codes were breached. I boarded, the remains of our First came with other cargo and once the ship was underway, I made contact with Katrina.

"And of Katrina, is she not in your custody as well?"

Sometimes things are simple; Vill identified our mystery corpse from photographs as the missing Katrina -- "Hulinsky, I think."* It didn't help explaining why or exactly how she was killed and if you're not thinking Vill wasn't first-and-only on the list of likely suspects, you haven't been paying attention.

* * *

Meanwhile, up in officer's territory (I said I'd get back to it), all hushed voices and fancy carpet, Dr. Schmid was taking an interminably long time to get to the point. Coffee service was cooling on a corner of his desk, the Chief was sipping from a tiny porcelain cup that looked incongruous in his hand, and the 2/O himself was averring his enthusiasm for our modern age.

* With a long u, as if it were spelled "Hoolinsky."