"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.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
*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.