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?"
"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!)