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.