12 June 2009

Another Day, Part 11


(The plot thickens. -Ish).

What with one thing and another (especially the SHF control/telemetry dish that hopped a rotational stop which the remote-drone ops ignored 'til the cabling was well and genuinely axle-wrapped, in 3-D), I'd about shelved my own efforts at the puzzle of the stardrive-killed Space Marine -- let alone our H-F.d. visitor -- when I got a call from the Security director a week later. "Bobbi? I think maybe you can help me."

"Really? 'Cos, you know, 'I'm not a cop--.'"

He heaved a sigh. "And neither am I, when you get right down to it. Me and my staff are as close as we've got. But I need somebody who's already got the skinny on the situation and Dr. Poole is too recognizable."

"So what happened to, 'Leave this to the professionals?'"

"Look, Nancy Drew, he knows me and everybody I've got who I'd trust to get this right is up in passenger territory regularly, in uniform, so they're out, too. Like he's not gonna know Miss T on sight? Or Ivan, for that matter?"

"H'mmm, point. But -- 'He?' 'Get what right?'"

"Aw, geez, maybe Doc Poole would be better. This isn't a game!"

"Okay, okay. But what is it?" I was pretty sure I knew already, but I was irked about the "Nancy Drew" wisecrack -- that's the second time this week!

"It's that guy -- George Welles. The Hopkin-F preacher guy. I need someone to see what he's like when he's not being watched."

"What's he got to do killing a Space Marine?"

"Maybe nothing. Maybe— Those "Marines" aren't just soldiers, y'know; they're more like the Mounties or old-time Texas Rangers. So we've got a some kind of a preacher on Far Edge medication, plus a dead Far Edger who's as near as they get to law enforcement and just happened to board at the same stop, which just happens to be a place without a lot of passenger traffic that has a bad history that includes a surplus of self-appointed 'great leaders.' Maybe it's just me but it smells funny."

"With all that, this Welles guy is not gonna think I'm a watcher? What kinda hokey name is that, anyway?"

"I don't know about his name and I'm not asking you to do anything but get curious and keep your eyes open! Besides, how's he gonna know you're not a passenger...?" He went on to explain how his foolproof plan was foolproof. I only half-listened; I was thinking about the mess on Lyndon. Or Linden. Or Peace & Freedom. Or Sunblack II --It's all the same world and the same mess. It's history I picked up in bits and pieces - - a charity drive here, a web page six there, wild rumors and a little time on-planet. It boils down to a mess.

It was the first world the Far Edge ships found after they fled Project Hoplite, the unbuilt missile base on the Moon. And it's the first world settled, too, only not in that order. It was settled in 1946, which is why the Edgers were headed that way. It's not why they skipped out; the ringleaders had decided the Lunar base would be too destabilizing long before they launched and had made their plans and picked their crew accordingly. But what they found when they got there put matters in an entirely different light.

There are plenty of places on Earth's Moon where one might locate a missile base. Some are better than others but it was a matter of chance the three scout ships of Project Hoplite would pick the site they did. That one of the pilots of the 27 ships that followed would notice implausibly regular formations in a nearby crater was not a surprise; inattentive fliers don't last long, let along get far enough along to be where Lt. Farrelini found himself.

The mix of caution and, shall we say, "appreciation of risk" that put so talented a pilot at the controls of a barely prototyped vehicle relying on dangerously-immature technology must have guided his next move. Rather than report his sighting (see how well the conspirators had chosen their rebels?), he noted the location and bided his time. Several weeks later, in his surface assignment as a tractor driver, the Lieutenant wrangled assignment to the survey party headed that way. And proceeded to drive the geologist and surveyor with him right to what proved to be the abandoned remains of a Luftwaffe base.


It's not the sort of thing one would expect. Wild rumors about "The Bell" and preposterous photo-hacks purporting to show flying saucers strain too far at credulity. But there it was, dark, empty and ransacked. One stubby cylinder-shaped vehicle, half-wrecked, stripped of all usable parts [1]; meager pressurizable huts, airlocks gaping; what might have been a solar-powered boiler, engine and generator; collapsed greenhouse-like structures; a few personal possessions and, tucked behind the open inner hatch of one hut's airlock, a stack of thin metal sheets scratched full of closely-packed, tiny writing. The Deus ex machina only goes so far; none of the men could read the language but it certainly looked as German as the faded labels on the doors. Not to mention the stylized eagles clutching an infamous symbol.

That's right. Space Nazis.

There was an abortive effort to keep it hushed up but the cat was soon out of the bag. Translated, the message on the plates told a hardly-believable tale; a secret base planned as yet another "war-winning weapon" proving instead to be one more drag on the dwindling resources of the Third Reich, the warrior-explorers and a small group of "experimental subjects" marooned as the Third Reich fell to the Allies. 'Drive radiation had taken a toll on the group and it was evident Germany was lost; the survivors had reworked the vehicles and planned to flee the inhospitable Moon. Mars and Venus were ruled out after one-way scouting missions to each one resulted in a barely-survived crash followed by reports of insufficient air from Mars and an attempted landing turning to screams from the atmosphere of Venus. In desperation, they'd chosen a long leap to the nearest earthlike star. One man, proud or optimistic of eventual victory, had scribbled it all down in secret on scraps left from the salvage work and left it for those who would follow after.

For the cabal that had hijacked Project Hoplite and the crew they'd recruited, it must have seemed pure serendipity: they had the atomic-armed missiles they wanted to get out of the hands of any government on Earth, the ships, the material and supplies to build a base -- or a mobile space station, a huge ship. They were already planning to disappear and now they had a Mission. A Quest.

I'll just hit the high points: the hurried partial assembly of their vast wheel of a "mother ship" and departure from the Moon, the long, hard, tragic finishing work done in solar orbit, the seizure of one ship by disaffected group members and its disastrous attempt at returning to earth and the consequent premature FTL jump to the indicated star added up to several years. You can imagine the consternation, confusion and re-reevaluation that ensued when they arrived at to find an Earthlike planet that at first appeared uninhabited. Eventually, they found several huddles of hovels: New Germania. And over a hundred very hungry survivors. Compassion won out over caution at first, though at least half the ex-Hoplites wanted to bomb the site from orbit and keep moving. The compassionate faction landed, taking seeds and supplies; this was still when landing was a chancy proposition. It was a one-way trip. The ship, designed for a Moon landing, didn't have enough thrust for a soft landing at the limit of their 'Drive's accuracy and as luck would have, the last hop was overly low. Crunch-down knocked the CLASSIFIED out of alignment, killed both phantasmajector tubes and injured most of the crew. More bad luck followed: sickness raged among the landing party and no further physical contact was allowed. There you have it, Step One of the mess on Linden, the original jackboots-on-planet having been Step Zero. Things improved for a while once the virus had run its course but suspicion and hostility remained on all sides. The ship-bound Far Edge (they'd begun to refer to themselves as being on "the far edge of everything" by then) were settling in to their new life; planet-side, a wary truce prevailed, as the new arrivals had brought seeds, animals and additional tools and expertise. There were even the stirrings of a basic government and steady contact between the planet-bound and space-dwellers.

It was five years after the arrival of the Far Edge when the first ships of the US Space Force arrived, small scout ships streaking through the system on sputtering stardrives, popping in and out of the rational universe, taking photos and making radar sweeps on every emergence into normal space. The Far Edge gathered together and without a word to the planetary civilization, vanished into 'Drive. Call it Step Two of the Mess on Linden. Steps Three, Four, Five and Six would be the subsequent contact, establishment of a military government, settlement by colonists from Earth using newly developed re-entry techniques and the first civil war. It's been forty years since somebody threw out the first incendiary bomb and things have never really settled down; full-on war is rare but no government (or name for the place) has lasted more than five years unless you count the Farmer's Market. The only real sign of progress was when they'd renamed the main port "Star City" instead of "New Germania" and stuck with it.

That's where our "holy man" had been. If peace had spontaneously broken out in his wake, the news hadn't reached the Lupine yet.

* * *

If you're a passenger, a big starship is nearly as class-conscious as an old ocean liner; First and Second class share a dining room and some -- but not all -- of the lounges; Third Class is its own world. It's not as bad as "steerage" on a late XIXth-Century steamship, but it's as basic and crowded as minimum-allotment crew quarters. All passengers and crew have access to the commercial section, our "downtown," at the very bow of the Lupine. First and Second Class passengers make much use of the restaurants, bars [2] and gift shoppes but nearly all those who travel Third have little reason to go there other than the tiny park E&M maintains; it's free, about the only price most of them can afford.

It's quite a nice park, given the constraints of star travel. There are no tall, heavy plants, no large fountains or loose mulch and the koi pond is under glass. Three low "hills" and natural-looking rock walls covered in vines and other plants make the space seem even larger than it is and with a high blue (fake) haze and full-spectrum lighting overhead, it's the next best thing to being dirtside. If that's your thing. Me, I use it as a shortcut to get from the McMaster storefront at one end of district to Swearengen's (an electrical wholesaler based out of Kansas II that I swear stocks everything. All the time.) at the other; sometimes I dawdle or even take lunch there, if I can justify the time.

With this buildup, you know what's coming: our mysterious mystic and his band of followers(traveling Second Class) had taken to gathering in the park a couple afternoons a week and had -- quelle suprise -- started to gather an audience that included no few passengers from Third, Second and one or two from First. Mike proposed I start attending, too, minus my usual collar pin (a lot of us wear 'em; 'Drive Engineering's sigil is the "exploding gear," the lightning bolt and sector gear of Engineering on a starburst, all in gold if you've got the full certification. Not that I'm proud or anything). Of course he had to add that what I usually wear would fit right in, which is both mostly true and a bit of a put-down. Hey, it's a physical job.

It wasn't a terrible idea but I'm not all that anonymous. Plenty of the merchants know me. Security, E&PP workers of various sorts and officers are a lot more widely recognized than Engineering tekkies. Mike's answer to that was "It's unlikely. So what if you are? You're not Security, you're not an officer. Why wouldn't you be honestly curious?"

I wasn't so sure anyone would believe that but I'd've eventually gone to see what the guy was about anyway. Most of my reluctance was for Sheriff Mike's benefit. I agreed.

Nothing's ever easy; the very next afternoon, after a nasty morning, we lost the main stepdown transformer feeding the 'Drive finals, which I described earlier. That gave Mike time to convince the Chief to stick me on the earlybird day watch (gee, thanks) and take me off-call for a couple of hours after my shift on the days Mr. (Rev.?) Welles and company had their shindigs. I was startin' to have my doubts but like it or not, I was a secret agent. Or something.

* * *
1. The cylinder's just the lifesystem; the 'Drive it sits on at rest, and dangles at the end of a long cable from in FTL flight, is roughly bell-shaped. The crudity of the whole assemblage gave rise to the Far Edge slang term "glockey" for a kludge. Hilarity ensued when trade between Earth and the Edge started up and they saw their first Austrian plastic.
2. Sure, we’ve got bars, have a drink! But woe betide the crewmember that shows up for duty noticeably Under The Influence or fails a random alk test.