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."

06 August 2009

Another Day, Part 13

The tale of the inadvertently-crashed card game was good gossip and a good catch for Ivan's guys -- shippers pay us, trust us, darn it, to take proper care of their goods -- but hardly cause for murder and I said as much to T.

She rubbed her palms together, grinned as happily as a child, chortled, "Oh, wait 'til I tell you the rest," and started to relate her side of the lurker sweep.

From here on out, I'll tell T's story as I figured it out later; it'll get too confusing if I stick to only what she or I knew at the time.

Her team's first hit turned out to be a still. (It never fails. The Lupine has no shortage of places to buy all grades of alcohol and yet just like every starship of sufficient size and most of the sublight haulers, too, there is always some crewman who's just got to build a still). They noted it for surveillance and moved on. Another of her teams carefully worked its way up on...a trysting couple. On the clock. But at least they were married, though not to one another. Handed them over to their supervisor; The Starship Company doesn't much care who you sleep with but frowns on so doing on company time. Other possibilities turned out to be false alarms, though one did give Stores & Cargo advance notice of a small chemical leak. It was after that that things started to get interesting and T left the S&C office Mike had borrowed to join her lead team, hanging a little wide-angle pin-camera on her tunic pocket as she left. (I once asked, "What's that badge for?" only to be told, "Watching!" Ah, Security humor).

Of all the shirtsleeve-environment sections of the Lupine, the main cargo bays may be the most foreign to everyday experience, unless you work in a Zeppelin hangar. When the ship was new (long before the present "downtown" and "grand hotel" additions at the bow and upper side), the vast bays at Port and Starboard were hangar decks, where fighters were serviced and large drop-shuttles (replaced many years ago by the squirt-booster(s)strapped to cargo containers method) were stored; the former flight decks, outboard, were the nucleus of our present squirt-booster and ROV bays. Inboard of the five-story-high ex-hangars, the original holds are still in use for smaller items. The battle-ready (though never battle-tested) original configuration called for huge, pressure-rated hatches every 200 feet; these days, every other one is left open and "escape pod" safety refuges are spotted along the bulkheads and down the center line. Pressure suits are still required during cargo ops, when hatches at each end open to vacuum and the first two interior hatches are used as a cargo airlock.

These, least visited in-flight of any holds, were the areas T's teams had started on, using Stores & Cargo's IR-capable monitoring cameras to find the most likely containers. Their first hits were in the more-accessible sections and the process became more difficult as they got deeper and deeper in on each side. The big bays are almost exclusively used for containerized cargo which the shipper has paid a premium to have carried in a controlled environment; the containers are briefly exposed to zero pressure and temperature extremes when loaded aboard and when offloaded at the destination, but for many cargoes, it's an acceptable trade-off. Shippers can spend even more and never have their orchids, prize poodle, high-precision CNC machine or whatever at risk of exposure to heat, cold or vacuum but most don't. In the big holds, the containers are shoved and stacked by the same system Space Force used to move their small fighters, scouts and transports, a powered flatcar system flush with the deck and traveling cranes in each section. Take the fully-loaded deck of a big ocean-going container ship and set it in a huge tunnel, then add the hooks, haulers and other hazards of a cargo port and you'll begin to have an idea. It's a lot more cluttered than the Lupine's version of "deck cargo," racked in vacuum, and much harder to search with IR and chemical sniffers. When T's Security and Aux teams get even a faint hit, they check it out, sometimes having to stand back as Stores and Cargo unstacks and shifts containers to dig down for close examination.

"Hit" number four was looking to go that way but a particularly eager Aux took it on himself to walk the perimeter of the stack and found a container that appeared shut and locked but wasn't, exactly. This came a little after Ivan and company found the card game, so there were a few jokes about bustin' up another as they sorted themselves out and T, already close by from setting cameras on the still (and taking bets the would-be distiller would get word and never return) jogged over to get a first-hand look.

It was neatly done; the usual external latch appeared shut and had the opening not been left ever so slightly ajar there would have been no reason to suspect the container was anything out of the ordinary. There it was, a stenciled rectangular logo for an outfit none of them had ever heard of, "Star Azure." Except it was standing ever so slightly proud of the surface: a concealed hatch. "We got very quiet," T told me. And she sent one of her regulars to place a spare camera at the opening, with a thread-sized fiber-optic lens just barely protruding over the edge. Softly, softly.... Her hand held security monitor showed nothing much except more light than expected and vague shapes. Mike, with big displays in his borrowed command center, described close-stacked pallets sheathed in opaque plastic with barely room to squeeze past and a faint light shining from the far end. After ten minutes without so much as a flicker, T told her boss she was going in, gestured her team to gather and set them for action in whispers.

"John S., Alan--" (the tallest of that pair barely comes up to her shoulders but it's all muscle and plenty quick) "You're going in. There's no room for a dynamic entry and Ivan's the expert on that anyway. Take it slow and don't get fancy. The rest of us will be staged in several locations, ready to cover if you have to back out -- Matt and Abby, down there, the Auxiliaries right here. Clear?" Nods all around. "Do it." They all started to move and she caught the entry team's attention "Wait for my signal. And guys?" John and Alan looked at her expectantly. "Don't get killed."

Alan grinned; John S. just rolled his eyes and catfooted towards the visible end of the cargo container. Alan caught up and at T's gesture, eased open the hidden hatch. Jon drew his sidearm and stepped through. Alan unholstered and, after miming a silent three-count, followed.

* * *

In the temporary command center, Sheriff Mike was being reminded yet again that Stores & Cargo's proud boast of knowing the exact whereabouts of every item entrusted to their care was located was not the same as their knowing the identity of every item in the holds and external storage; the holds are just too vast and the riggers and remote-drone operators who make up the bulk of the S&C cargo-handling staff are focused on maximum stowage with minimum damage to persons and goods. To make matters worse, he was trying to follow T's crew in the monitors and to entirely confound that effort, he was being reminded by S&C's most colorful watch supervisor and one of his longtime Persons Of Interest, Cargomaster Turon, better known as the Turk.

My pal and occasional date Stephen the Navigator points out that the Turk is the Lupine's most dependable source of fresh flowers, that he is the ship's only arms dealer and cheapest ammunition source (except when he's in dutch with Mike and it's been confiscated again) and that his most visible sideline business, a collection of cheap (but sturdy enough to be shipped in vacuum) carnival rides he inevitably manages to get squirt-boostered to and from planetside at the lowest possible rates and has set up and operated by a few of his impressive and mysterious assortment of local contacts during our longer stops, brings joy to children throughout the Hidden Frontier. Not even Stephan can offer cogent comment on the Turk's laser hair removal or claimed camel-rental enterprise on Kansas II beyond, "It must be a needed service." The Turk is, to put it mildly, a go-getter, though going where and getting precisely what (let alone how much) can be a matter for heated debate and/or legal scrutiny. Claiming to hail from "the least known of the 'stans," his backstory is as obscure as most of his business dealings. All that said, he's a dazzlingly effective cargomaster; crews on his watch are among the fastest and safest at the high-risk transferring and stowing freight not just on Lupine but anywhere, though I suppose the highly-automated systems found among the Far Edged are nominally less risky. His honesty, under the strict scrutiny of the Starship Company, has been proven (in administrative hearings!) to be punctilious if a bit more concerned with the letter than the intent. In short, the Turk is...a headache. A highly-skilled headache. He was at his obfuscatively-helpful best with Mike most of the time and this night was no exception. His accent is mild but indescribable, so you're on your own.

"I am telling you, eff— Sir, we have no record of that container; the stack it is in... It should not be that height. I am offended by it. Offended!"

Mike expressed doubt with narrowed eyes and started to ask, "This isn't one of your--"

"Offended and insulted! And misjudged! Do I look like one who would pay inside rates?"

"Don't make me describe your looks, Cargomaster. Also, I don't care. How'd that container get where it is? Did it crawl in when we were between stars?"

The Turk contrived to look innocently saintly and failed, managing an expression between puppyish and hangdog. "It is unknown to me. Another shift's work, perhaps? Could it be nothing shady but a matter instead of....Security? Some, some thing for the Space Forces?"

Mike stopped for a minute at that. "I'd've been told."

The Turk said nothing.

"Probably, I'd've been told. Dammit, Turon, do you not check on the holds?"

"For pilferage? For shifting? For improperly-secured containers, for cranes and carriers unstowed? Yes. Of course, yes. For mystery containers that should not exist? Of how many thousands? This you think I should be doing? Hanh! Do I tell you how to, how to, securify?"

"Yes. Every time we have to have a little talk."

"Hah! I should not help you at all, ever. But, for the sake of long acquaintance.... I can see what we may have from the cameras. It will not be much, after 72 hours, only the proxies are kept, very low-rez, you understand?"

Mike gritted his teeth. He knows about as much about the practical side of security video as anyone aboard and the Turk was hardly unaware of it. The Lupine is just too blamed big to watch every bit of, let alone keep all the images; Moore's Law notwithstanding, whenever data storage capacity gets bigger and cheaper, Navigation and Control are the first to get it, followed by Environment and Physical Plant. Security gets the leftovers. Stores & Cargo is more concerned about immediate issues -- personnel safety, fire and chemical/biological hazards -- and their systems lean heavily to realtime coverage, archiving only for insurance purposes.

About that time, motion caught his attention: T's team taking up position, as seen through her camera. He saw Jon S. step through the opening and held up a hand to silence the Turk.

* * *

John S. had a better view but it wasn't much, just what the camera had shown: a narrow path between opaque-wrapped pallets of lumpy unknowns, meandering just enough to conceal the source of light at the far end. He catfooted down it carefully, feeling a slight shift as Alan stepped in and hoping there was nobody else to notice. He had to turn sideways to clear the heaped cargo on each side but the foot was clear. Closer to the far end of the container than he'd thought, he came to the bend and slowed even more. Ahead, bright light shined through another opening about the same size as the one he'd first entered. He gestured Alan to stop and cover, started to take a deep breath, thought better of it and stepped through, sidearm held close, attention wide for threats.

-- Into a narrow space with -- counters? -- on each side. No, not counters, open-sided crates, counter-height, holding an array of shiny cylinders and at the far end of the aisle they created, a man sat, quietly, watching, with a mildly amused, mildly worried expression. "Well," he said in his softly musical, German-sounding Lyndon backcountry accent, "You got Katrina and now you're here. What next?" It was Villem. George Welle's assistant.