25 December 2010

On The Far Edge: Captain Mitch And His Spirit

[This's not my authorial voice but one from the other side of the line, a kind of gossip reporter for an Edger news site.]

I knew he was a glocker crewman the first time I saw him. The skinsuit gives them away; the working stiffs never bother to unfasten their gloves, even in civic pressure or on a planetary surface. He was sitting disconsolate in one of the little bars near the old cargo port on Smitty's World. These days, the big transfers use Newport, thirty miles away, big enough and modern enough to handle Earthside containerized freight in bundles and the fat, fourth-generation bell-ringers our guys use both independently and to carry cargo on and off the huge station-ships. The older ships and the smaller carriers still find it easier to get a spot in the pattern for the old port, easier to deal with the freight-wallopers and, perhaps, easier on their pride, too.

It was just 1900, 22nd December, Greenwich. Like most ships, stations and planets with cycles too far from the human norm, Smitty's kept strictly to Greenwich Mean Time, or as close as they could. These days, with the phase-rotation ansible and modern computational horsepower, that's close as anyone could want.

The bar'd made a few concessions to the calendar in the form of a bedraggled banner draped across the top quarter of the backbar mirror and twinkling little led lights circling the ceiling, sagging markedly in several spots. It wasn't doing anything for the glocker's mood; he sat by himself near the wall, attention on his sippie of station gin-and-water as though all the worry in the world was contained therein. Or perhaps an anodyne to it and he wasn't hopeful of a successful treatment. He looked up as the door -- and on Smitty's, most of them are merely doors -- jangled behind me and I caught the dark curls, hazel eyes and freckles of one of the Materjacks. Clearly not Micki or little Martha but that still left Mikey and Mitchell, Mark and Marvin, the whole lot of them originally out of some little industrial installation doing mining and refining around La-A's star, or maybe it was Otherstone's. They're all well-known among the smaller starships as fair pilots, navigators and captains, starting even before their father and family ship was lost on Ganymede, early during the war. Skiddoo had been serving as a gunship, all the younger family safely elsewhere, but an entire generation of Materjacks had flashed to a ball of steam and molten metal and with it, their legacy.

Stringing for the newssite FreeTradeCetera, I tried to keep up with the shipping news, the lifeblood of civilization, our Edge on the mudballers from old Earth. Oh, that is boosterism; but it is who we are. I had spent the first of the week at Newport and not paid much heed to the small fry.

"You, I should know," I said to him. "You might be the Martian or the Saint, or the young one--"
"Or the oldest," he replied, "And that is me, just old Mitch. But you, I do not know, with the big fine notepad" -- he nodded at my well-worn SlateBook -- "and the talk of a glocksman but you wear no proper suit for working," with a frown at my bared hands. He had my story soon enough, as well as any interviewer could. "So you write about the Free Traders and the big Earth shippers for the webs, is that so? You would know, then, if there were to be any openings for a Captain shortly?"

I demurred. "I know them when they're posted, same as you. Someone you know needs a berth?"

"Me. Just me. They've come and took my Spirit Of Skidoo and here I am, an honest man walking the docks with a lamp in my hand. Spirit is gone."

That pile of patches! It was coming back to me. One of the small ones, a Derby or a Cloche, with an older MOF 'Drive and only enough power and mass for the third-level effect: slow and uncertain. The Materjacks had put it together from salvage thirty years before and run short-haul freight to keep the family afloat. "I'd heard it was lost, bounced into a rock free-trading around Sol?"

"No, no, a rumor. Stove up. Stove up some, was all, and I had to sell my share to get her fixed, but the best Cloche flying is still at it and I was still her Captain. What a beauty! As shiny as a silver dime. Smooth as silk to land and in and out of the Jump. She shouldn't be carrying anything but shareholders and their luggage, you know."

"I'd heard her 'Drive tended to glitch and the boom was off-center?"

He replied with some heat, "It is a lie, a jealous lie. There was never a finer little bell."

"Wasn't she down to half a year per light-year underway?" I asked, just to see if he'd bite.

He leapt up. "Six months? Show me the man who told you that and I will show him six months all right! She goes two months per, and that with a light hold and half power! And a beauty, like to blind you under any light, all the portmasters know her."

"So the stories of air leaks and coolant in the lifesystem..?"

"Not one bit of truth in it. Not one bit. She was a beauty, a real beauty," and he slumped back over his sipper, took a long pull and looked near to tears.

I hate to see a man with years in Jump space and with stripes on his sleeves cry. I inquired how he'd come to lose her altogether before he sprang a leak himself.

"A misunderstanding, really, a misunderstanding. When you come right down to the rivets, it was Dutch's fault, my Navigator, though we both sat Pilot, of course. He was the one took on the 'prentice, though we all should have known better. There we were at Witherspoon's, full up with fuelwax" -- kerogen, that is -- "for The Rind, and he shows up with a youngster in tow. She looked young but she had all her papers; we'd had to leave Jack W., the Third Hand, back at La-A with a broken leg, him having lost an argument with the cargo-jack, and we were plenty tired of hash-and-eggs from Engineer Jo, plus if her precious 'Drives were out of true, why, she'd tell us to sling a packet in the 'wave if we were that hungry! It was a trial. --How I miss that neat, fine galley!-- But the 'prentice, she wasn't a Welles or a Witherspoon or a Faux-Smith and on Witherspoon Processing--"

I nodded. It's not that big a drift and if you're not born or married into one of the three families, you are a rare bird indeed.

"Mind you, those papers looked all right. Jo ran them and the local web said they were jake. 16, uncontracted, Basic rating."

Not unusual. If you're a NATO or Russky mudballer, 16 likely sounds young. We figure if you can claim your majority, you've reached it. Even for an underpowered cloche like Spirit of Skiddoo W-Proc to The Rind could be hardly more than four months, five at the outside, long enough to take a 'prentice's measure, short enough to not be a bother if he falls short. Or she.

"It wasn't until the second night out Dutch heard her crying. Took Jo to find out why. She was no sixteen and no Glocker 'prentice, either. Crystal Smith she was, the very granddaughter of the Smith himself, out to see the world."

A scion of Johnathon Harper Cameron Smith, Smitty, sole proprietor of the non-aligned (and sunless) world that bears his name. I told Mitch that sounded like a pickle, but no reason for a man to lose his command, and he nodded.

"You would think that, would you not? Dutch was sure there was money in it, and wanted to divert to whatever port or drift or station was nearest. Jo cursed our lack of an ansible -- you'd think the owners would have one piped in, her the finest Cloche in the firmament! -- and said we should head on Rind-wards and send a message out with one of those Mad Russian couriers after we'd docked. But that is not my way. No, I told them, no, we must get this little one to home, first and foremost, and keep it quiet to not embarrass her gran-dad. Oh, I was clever, clever!"

He paused in his narrative, drained the last few cc's from his sippie and gave it a significant glance. I was eager to hear how he got from a mission of mercy to a captain without a ship, so I waved the bartender over and got him a fill.

"Was I not so clever. We pushed her hard, my little Spirit; dropped out, reset and made the Jump here to Smitty's in under two months, almost--"

A run the big station-ships will do in a week and Gen Fours solo in a month.

"--And the Smith himself welcomed her back as a prodigy and us as heros. He'd have nothing for us but the best, the very best, the finest accommodations and whatever we wanted, entertainments every night and it was not even two weeks gone by before I got word."

I asked just what that word might have been.

"The owners! When we'd gone overdue at The Rind, they'd put out a circular to all their agents; and when their man here sent back we'd been seen on a drunken carouse for nigh the past week, he rounded up a crew and took her out, my very own Spirit." He returned his attention to his drink, pondered it and emptied the sippie as though its contents were only water. "So if you know of anyone out for a Captain, qualified as navigator and pilot alike, and very discreet, mention my name to them, will you?"

And with that, he turned away, as if he had gone suddenly shy of saying more.

I'm told Spirit of Skiddoo had life-support problems before she could get up enough velocity to Jump out from Smitty's and in the subsequent towing and repair, somehow word of the miscarried justice reached the desk of one J. H. C. Smith, Prop., Smitty's World; I cannot say precisely what happened from there, but I am pleased to report that by Christmas Eve, Captain Mitch Materjack and his crew were back aboard Spirit of Skiddoo with commendations to boot and perhaps the only glockers qualified to keep "the finest cloche in the starry sky" actually in the sky.

Merry Christmas from the Far Edge of the Hidden Frontier!

17 December 2010

In Space, The Connectors Are Not Flatulent

The Hidden Frontier comes to Earth: PEI-Genesis offers a full range of space-rated connectors. Outgassed, even, to keep them from failing in interesting and dangerous ways.

Riddle me this, Mr. Detective: if NASA (+.mil), commercial satellite folks, SpaceX, Blue Horizon, Bigelow, Virgin Galactic and the various X-prize contenders are the only market, how're they turning these gadgets out in bulk without going broke? Total up all the known customers and you might use up a week's production at the connector factory to replace every vacuum-spec, low-magnetism, non-toxic plug and socket they're using.

Just thought I'd point that out.

07 December 2010

Lupine's Logo

I've mentioned before, "there's a doggie on the ship's stationary," and on the officer's uniforms, too. You'll find it on people's T-shirts and sweatshirts; passengers can even buy souvenirs. Those versions are mostly plain, dark-blue on off-white. Unlike the snarling wolf's head profile of her warship days, Lupine's merchant wolf is enjoying the ride.

On the sides of the ship's single largest pressure hull, there's this version by a top graphic designer, filling the full ten-story height: Famous graphic designer? Yep. And you know him, too -- Mr. Robb Allen.

Now available on a T-shirt!

16 November 2010

Frothup: Dropping In, Part 6


No cell signal inside the squirt-booster, of course, and it didn't look all that great in the big hanger; I found my way back to the human-sized door and stepped out into the sunlight. It seemed a little warmer already, though clouds were skipping overhead at a pretty good clip.

The Chief was my first call and it works unexcitingly just like calling a business -- dial up Lupine's temporary number and punch my way through the shipboard system. I tried to just stick to the facts, bare description, but he started asking questions before I'd gotten very far. Ended by telling me he was having "Dave, Jay and anyone else on shift" go check out the other boosters, and that he was grounding any we had at the port. Sometimes I think he's paranoid; but that doesn't mean he isn't right nearly all the time.

I went back inside and had about enough time to check in with Raub when his phone went off. Or phone-like device; he was carrying the same kind of gadget his buddy had used at the gate, looking like sort of a Soviet iPhone and it seemed to work just fine in the hangar. Edger tech, overbuilt, probably half of it from parts smuggled off Earth. (This is the galling thing about Edgers; lacking any strong central authority that bothers to do more than the most basic policing, short on population and, at least until recently, many kinds of industrial infrastructure, they regard smuggling as a sort of a game. But that trade runs both ways, as it must; I am convinced the papers that started our side down the path towards stealth technology was based on information sold by an Edger smuggler low on trading fodder who needed bucks for blue jeans or beer — or a roller bearing or a breeding pair of guinea pigs; which reminds me, avoid the hot dogs and lunch meat on their side of the line).

While I was following that train of thought to its unlunchly end, Raub had plenty of time for a semi-mysterious conversation, at his end mostly consisting of monosyllabic questions: "They did? Just now?" "About an hour and a half." "Where?" He gave me a couple of unreadable looks through all that, ended the call and sighed. "Feel like a change of scenery? You and me, we are the 'experts' now."

I tried to look innocent. Failed, as usual. "Which means...?"

"It's off to the port for us — they're hauling all your boosters to the far side of the field and we gotta check them." He turned back to his phone and punched numbers.

I'm not going to detail the trip back to Aberstwyth Port, but there are some aspects worth mentioning. Naturally, there's a more or less direct route to the port from the North side of Southport/South end of Aberstwyth and it's not named after any ancient deities, either. But calling it "Road 215" didn't make bumping up and down through rolling farmland on an unfamiliar gravel road, at a rate of speed and in a pickup truck that appeared to have been "improved" from a collection of random truck-like parts any less, ahem, "thrilling." My driver was revealing a nearly shocking amount of leg and grinning like a fool, clearly after every last erg the drivetrain could turn into speed. I wasn't even sure what the truck had been to begin with. The few labeled controls and indicators were no help, though a lot of the markings looked like Chinese. I was pretty confident the speedo was calibrated in kph but after it passed 100, I stopped trying to read it. Yeah, I hurtle unafraid through hard and hostile vacuum outside of normal reality for a living; I ride aboard a starship as big as a medium-sized city as it plunges into solar systems at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. I even fall to planetary surfaces in landing craft that don't have enough lift or motive power to fly for more than a few minutes, and cheat at physics in order to set down, and relish the experience. But I'm still a chicken in ground vehicles. The landmarks are too close, the other drivers and random critters are even closer and there isn't even any central traffic control keeping tabs on it (most places — ask me sometime what Kansas II has instead of railroads). What would happen if we met up with one of those driverless trucks?

I needn't have worried. The road was wide and smooth; the only other vehicle we saw was a truck headed the other way, a big flatbed with a few tarped shapes in the back. The driver favored us with a cheery wave and as we rushed past, I saw the flying saucer logo on the door and the name INNOVATIVE. Raub noticed me noticing — I wished he was looking at the road — and said, "Yep. We just about own this road. Even do our own grading."

We arrived at the port intact, under increasingly cloudy skies. It was already warm enough I'd struggled out of my sweatshirt in the truck, one more distraction from the drive. Raub checked in at the gate and we followed increasingly-worse lanes around the huge berm. On the far side from the city, there was a series of beat-up concrete pads. Five of Lupine's squirt-boosters were laid in a row there and a funny-looking hauler was bringing another one out.

A fussy-looking gent with a clipboard was waiting as we parked, and trotted right over to the truck. "Which one of you is Mr. 'Ecks?'"

Geesh, another one. "I'm Miz Ecks, Mr.—?"

He held out a clipboard. "Port Control. Sign here."

Man put my back up. "What's this, Mister 'Port Control?'"

The man sniffed. He actually sniffed. "Your bill. For hazardous haulage. Plus fine for operating dangerous vehicles. Additional fees for special storage." He seemed primed to continue.

I made my eyes all big and innocent. The "big eye" part was easy; by then I'd found the total, a staggering sum. "Gosh, I can't sign that. You'll need an officer. Did you Cc Lupine command?"

He looked daggers at me.

Raub had been looking on with a half-smile. Now he leaned in, right hand on his hip, shirts pulled tighter over a shape that could have been a holstered gun; Edgers tend to consider personal protection a do-it-yourself art. "Knock it off, Jim," he said, "At this point we don't even know if there is a hazard. Whyn't'cha let us find out before you total up the bill?"

"But- but-" indignation was warring with fear and just about to lose,"What about the powerplants?"

Raub shrugged. "No moving parts. Jimbo, I went over the one in our shop myself and it's clean. These, we'll find out -- and if it worries you, git."

I wouldn't've put it that way. On the other hand, I don't work for Frothup's main starship repair yard. With a last, schoolteacher-stern stare at me, the port agent turned and tromped off towards the ungainly vehicle that had finished dropping off the sixth squirt-booster.

Raub turned to me. "He's not a bad guy, really. Transferred out here from the Port Admin offices downtown after the Cut & Run crash, though, and he's never really got used to it."

I nodded.

"Hey," he asked, "How many of these things are down?"

A text message had buzzed into my phone on the way but I'd been bouncing too much to risk a close look. I fished the thing out of my purse and had a look. "Eight, counting the one in your hanger. Guess they haven't brought the final one out yet."

"Tellya what -- let's both go through the one in the middle, then split up and work our way out."

It sounded like a plan to me and I said as much, adding, "You won't need my help on the software unlock?"

He didn't turn a hair. "Nope."

The "middle one" turned out to be a bingo, the same MO only with a nice scratch down the the front of the power supply and a little etched spot in the deck. Somebody was after our squirt-boosters and they'd darned near succeeded in creating a nasty incident — and a medium-sized crater. By the middle of the afternoon, under skies gone overcast and climbing temperatures, we'd found three more. Raub had found something else and called me over: scratches and gouges where someone had been trying to get at the power plant of an otherwise unsabotaged squirt-booster, or possibly succeeded. It was the one that'd been hauled out last, after we'd already started checking them out.

I'm not sure how much I can explain about that power source; while if properly handled it's as safe as a Russian lighthouse or even safer, it is a little bit classified and tends to worry the fretful. Individual units are fat cylinders like overgrown LP gas tanks and they're incredibly rugged. Drop 'em from high enough, though— Just about anything will melt and/or splatter, even rocks.

Looked like somebody was a belt-and-suspenders saboteur. Until that find, I was still hoping that it was, somehow, defective parts or some bizarre maintenance mistake.

We stood there, looking at the thing, and I figured I needed to say something. "It could be worse," I ventured, "it could be—"

"Don't say it."


It started to drizzle.


09 October 2010


I have added links to some of the vignettes and story arcs. You'll find it at the right-hand side of this page, under the heading STORIES. Most A few of them link back to my personal blog, which is where I first started telling tales about my job in the exciting, fast-paced star travel industry.

Some of you who arrive via websearches or blog links may not be of the same political opinions as those you will occasionally find me expressing elsewhere on that blog. I hope that won't keep you from enjoying the yarns. Bear in mind that somewhere aboard Lupine, or at least somewhere along the Hidden Frontier, is someone with notions about politics and humanity that are almost exactly like your own.

Update: For those of you who (like me) prefer to read a complete story, everything linked to as a story arc or vignette is self-contained, with one exception: "Adventures In History" has yet to be completed. But it contains a lot of historical background for the Hidden Frontier and doesn't come to a cliff-hanger.

08 October 2010

Frothup: Dropping In, Part Five


He yelled, I stopped. Sure, somebody barks out an order like that, my first impulse is to get my back up — and so's yours, probably. Nevertheless, I stopped and kept my mouth shut. Most of my working life and leisure time is spent in surroundings filled with ways to be killed or injured and when someone says "Stay put!" you stay put and survive to find out why later.

"Why" was quick to arrive this time, as a machine that looked like a cross between a "bobcat" and a forklift trundled by right behind my confronter, carrying a large sub-assembly of pipes, strange modules, high-pressure fittings and fat cable bundles. Farther back, the source of the rumble and squeal revealed itself to be a traveling crane carrying an unfamiliar-looking lander, looking like a streamlined mobile home, slightly burned around the leading edge. The large structure fronting on the street was just the first of a series of big peaked and arch-roof buildings scattered around the vast space. There weren't a lot of people visible for the size of the enclosure but every one of them was in motion, including the guy who'd stopped me.

The forkloader ground on past and he folded his arms, took a step back and gave me a once-over just short of insulting. I looked him over right back, head to toe, a great lump of a man over six feet tall, strong-looking, with close-cropped sandy hair, a slightly prehistoric aspect and as my gaze returned to his face, a very faint and engagingly wry smile. "Okay," he said, "You must have half a clue. Or none at all."

"One or the other," I agreed. "Roberta Ecks. From Lupine. You've got one of our squirt-boosters...?"

His smile got a little wider. "Oh, that thing." He took a gadget like an oversized cell phone from his pocketed and keyed something in. "We put it over in 14-H. This way."

We wended our way through the place, which was a little more organized-looking from inside the maze, to one of the arched buildings. The big doors were closed; he led me through a smaller door next to it. Inside was shockingly...not neat, exactly, but despite a profusion of tools, toolboxes, work surfaces, materiel, cables and hoses, there was a complete absence of junk and debris. It was brightly lit and the very few trip-and-fall hazards were well-marked.

Dominating my view, a well-worn Glocke-type shuttle easily 70 feet in diameter; beyond it, impact bags stowed, swinging from a massive overhead hoist by stout slings through new hoisting eyes in her hardpoints, was Lupine's failed squirt-booster, a long, shiny half-a-boat shape. The big guy headed towards it and I followed.

There was a worktable up against the side of the ship, where a stocky fellow wearing an untucked shirt and sandals was working at a laptop computer with an expression of intense concentration. He must have been wearing shorts, but his shirt-tails were so long there was no way to tell. He turned and looked up as we got closer, shirt swinging open to reveal he was wearing a T-shirt underneath it, also untucked and nearly as long. I still couldn't've told you if he was otherwise clad. For all knew, I was among the sans-culottes. He nodded at my guide and said, "Heya, primitive. She's who they sent from the Earth ship?" The way he said it, it sounded like maybe I had fleas.

The big guy started to say something; I stepped up and held out my hand. "Roberta Ecks. Chief 'Drive Tech, Lupine," thinking, 'Earth ship' me, willya? Some of these guys, you have to get almost toe-to-toe with 'em before they'll even give you a chance to prove you know what you know.

Other than a certain tightening around the eyes and mouth, his expression didn't change. "Okay. I'm Raub. Thought I'd get a head start but the software's, unh, locked up as tight as the hardware." On the screen behind him, the login sequence was, in fact, just finishing; I ignored it and gave him my very best Big-Sisterly, I-know-what-you're-up-to Hearty Grin.

"Great! Glad to meetcha, Rob. And...," I turned but the big guy was already halfway to the door. I noticed he was wearing a glove on only one hand.

Raub chuckled. "It's R-A-U-B. And don't mind him, he's kind of a Neanderthal. Awfully good tech, though. --I've seen the report your pilot filed. Anything else I should know?"

"Breaker trip when we took a lightning hit, not much more to say. Let me finish the software unlock and get the hatches open and we can have a look."

* * *

I started a standard diagnostics routine. As for not actually having had to log myself on, I ignored it and he didn't bring it up but, typical Edger tech, he'd managed to get into ship's systems all right, though there's no serious effort to secure them; that could create a safety hazard. Physical isolation is the primary security. I suspected he could have beat the physical locks, too, but I didn't give him the chance, just climbed up the stingy flip-down foot- and hang-holds and unlocked the hatch. Inside, we made our way to the 'drive module, snugged in at the squirt-booster's center of gravity. It doesn't have to be at the CG but it simplifies things.

Access is via a junior-sized pressure door with a decent lock. Can't have some nitwit mistaking it for the washroom the ship hasn't got! It smelled half-wrong, hot electronics with a whiff of Old Fireplace. We swapped looks; it wasn't a good sign. I gave him a quick, hands-on, hand-waving rundown of what did what; he took it in with a raised eyebrow and a faint smile. Engineering approaches vary between us and the Far Edge and a single squirt-booster has very little redundancy in the 'Drive systems. It doesn't have to; they are never deployed singly. Edgers, at least the ones in space or working on space-travel hardware, still regard it with a mixture of amusement and horror.

I set to work getting access to the HV supply for the 'Drive and asked Raub to check on the diagnostic. There's about enough room for one tech to get the modules out — as long as no one else is in the compartment.
* * *

Some circuit breakers — especially cheap ones — are just fuses with a fancy lever. The first big overload that comes along, poof! They never work again. Believe me when I tell you that's not what they put in spaceflight-rated equipment. No, we get the good stuff. Nevertheless, the breaker on that HV supply sure felt dead. By the time had the module unfastened, wrestled out and nearly opened up, the Edger tech was back, carrying the laptop.

"This can't be right," he said, "it's backwards." And so it was. The lightning transient showed up as a series of overrange indications and false faults — but the breaker had tripped a full two seconds earlier. Sure, it's not very long, but unless you believe inanimate objects can react to future events, it's too long. Still, there's one chance and the Edger came up with it the same time I did: "How's your logging software handle simultaneous inputs?"

I grinned. The Edger term for any software from our side of the border is "flabware." They're convinced it's all flashy graphics over not much substance. "Crudely. But not that slowly." The code is just looking at inputs one after another, tic-tic-tic; if 1 through n go flaky all at once, it still takes finite time to look at 'em and they'll be time-stamped differently. But not by a whole second, let alone two! There are slicker, more accurate ways to do this; for instance, subsystems could latch and timestamp their own data, but it just makes the whole mess more complicated. "Either something went nutty in the log, or the timing's just coincidence."

The possibly-pantsless Edger gave me a long look. "Funny sort of coincidence."

I didn't have any useful reply to that, and for once managed to avoid saying it. I turned back to getting the side panel off the supply. The breaker's right underneath it, top left corner. There was a nasty black smear of soot on the inside panel and the breaker had a nice burned hole in the side; it even looked a bit melted. Which is funny but not amusing: plastics, composites, used in these applications are not supposed to melt or burn very easily.

It didn't look good. If this was a component failure, it was a fleet-grounding defect, at least 'til we figured out why. I said a rude word, earning a surprised glance from Raub. His eyes widened when he got a better look at the breaker. "Jeesh, what're you people making parts out of now?"

For that, I had an answer, "Nothing that should've done that, at least not all by itself."

It really didn't look good. I fiddled the breaker off and on a few times. It just flopped back and forth.

There was a melty spot visible on the front of the breaker in the ON position, down at the bottom. The Edger tech noticed it, too.

I may not be the sharpest spoon in the drawer, but the front of a circuit breaker is just a big chunk of plastic. It's not all that close to the parts that can fail-with-drama. I took another look at the whole mess and then took a mental step back. There was a way to check this out without leaping to conclusions. "Raub, I need to make a call. You guys cool with cell phones?"


06 October 2010

All Part Of The Service

"Engineering to Jump Control. Engineering to Jump Control."

Lupine had completed the long run-up to a significant percentage of the speed of light and was leaping out of Frothup's star system, at long last; it'd been fun but I wasn't gonna miss the place. As is usual during a Jump, all us on-shift Engineering types were hanging out in the Shop, listening to the intercom. We get the "big loop," anyone keys up anywhere in the 'comms, we'll hear it.

This voice wasn't over the intercom but the plain-ordinary dial seven-oh paging system...which is locked out during FTL and maneuvering operations. Locked out, that is, except for the control rooms and a very few other critical locations.

Not that I that that deeply about it at the time; I was nearest the hatch and was already in motion when the Chief said, "Bobbi..." from his vest-pocket of an office. At that, I hit the entrance to Jump Control right behind Gale Grinnel, one of the old-timers and a man who won't let his left wrist tell his right wrist the time of day. He hadn't been in the Shop when he call came in -- must have been closer to Jump Control, though.

I've described the place before, kind of a cross between Mission Control and the bridge of a very large oceangoing vessel; the Star Pilot him or herself sits front and center, at a distressingly tiny set of controls; in the worry seat today was Lorena, Kent Good's spouse, something of a Den Mother to the assorted clutch of a pilots and right hand to Randall, the big boss pilot and head guy in charge. And I have seen her freeze a Navs boffin with a single icy glare after a clumsy remark about "women drivers." To her right sits the Navs Lead, sorting possible scenarios and lining them up for the next move; next row back is a couple of Imaging techs who are mostly sorting the incoming data so that what shows up on the big screens at the front of the bridge is optimally useful, a couple more Navs types straining to stay ahead of what might happen, and Power Room's on-site tech. The back row accommodates E&PP's remote tech, ditto from Stores and Cargo, plus space for trainees and the officer officially on watch. And down in the front row, on the pilot's right, is one more station: Jump Coordinator, in charge of all tasks not directly related to getting into or out of a superluminal condition in one piece. Among other things, he's got the main 'comms console.

That'd be the one he's pointing disgustedly to, while looking daggers at Gale and innocent li'l me. The one with exactly one light on it, instead of the rows and rows of alphanumeric displays and LEDs that shold be lit up.

A lot of Jump Coordinators are retired pilots; not everyone has the nerves to do the the job for year after year. Others are pilots on reduced duty, or picking up extra income working overtime; or they are, to be indelicate about it, cock-ups who might be Genuine Certified Star Pilots but who Randall won't trust in the big chair.

Yeah, guess which variety we've drawn? He's not happy about it, either, and looks even less happy when Gale ignores him, pulls a tiny "green tweaker" screwdriver from his jumpsuit sleeve pocket (he's old school that way), and jabs it in the RESET hole in the primary intercom panel. The last little yellow LED goes out, with a "cluck" from every earpiece that earns us a hasty, annoyed glance from Lorena; then they all light up, a tiny fireworks display, most of 'em go out and come back on one-by-one as proper labels and indicators.

The JC looks flabbergasted. Gale turns and gives me a tiny grin and we both step out into the passageway and start back to the shop. "Darned kids anyway," he mutters, "It used to be just one lousy partyline -- and that didn't work most of the time." Behind us, I could hear the JC start to splutter, think better of it and stop. Even the larger egos have to bend to moment -- there's ten miles of starship, thousands of lives and billions of dollars in cargo riding on every Jump; get it wrong and you're a shooting star in someone's sky -- if you're lucky.

By the time we get back to the Shop, the usual discussion is in full swing: Why Doesn't Engineering Sit Console During Jump? We're in time to hear the Chief's judgment: "You're not operators! Our job is to make their jobs easier -- and to stay out of their way the rest of the time!"

He's right, of course -- half-way to outracing light is no time to start tearing the widgetry apart unless it's absolutely necessary. You don't ask a mechanic to look under the hood of your car while you're headed down the highway!

19 August 2010

Frothup: Dropping In Chapter Four


It was nearly pitch-dark and an unfamiliar alarm was sounding. I slapped at the lightswitch next to my bunk and nearly popped my shoulder, hitting nothing but air. Speaking of air, I couldn't hear the ventilation running! That was enough to penetrate my awareness; I sat up, blinking, slowly remembering I wasn't on Lupine and I had places to be. The "alarm" was my rent-a-phone, beeping and buzzing on the molded-in headboard. I grabbed it, dropped it, picked up, pried it open and mumbled, "IzzEcks..."

It kept on ringing. I said a word I shouldn't and poked at the green button.

"Bobbi?" It was Handsome Dave, before I could even try another hello.

"Yeah." By then I had my feet on the floor and had just grabbed my wristwatch. It's an affectation, an old-fashioned pilot's watch, but it glows in the dark without any maintenance and the glowing hands showed a quarter after four. "D'you realize what time—"

"I do. The Chief asked me to call and there's a long list after you: the Captain died last night, er, tonight."

The words made sense one at a time but not in a row. "The- He what?"

"The. Captain. Is. Dead. Doc Poole says it looks like natural causes."

I didn't have a reply to that. It was like hearing the Lupine itself was gone. Holy cow, now what?

"Doc Schmid is acting Captain. The Chief said you should keep after the repair yard, we need that squirt-booster ASAP — all leaves are canceled."

"I wasn't on leave. Is he canceling my factory training, too?"

"I dunno. Ask him once that booster's running. Have you seen Butch? Um..."


"That came out wrong. He's on my list and there's no ground number. I called the port and they played cagey."

"That's where I saw him last. He didn't turn right around?"

"Doesn't look that way —Look, I have a long list, we're trying to reach crew before rumor spreads." And he hung up on me.

Talk about wake-up calls.
* * *

Twenty years ago, I was slimmer, hungry and desperate to get off Kansas II. I'd bounced there after a very short stint working my way up through the Engineering ranks on the old container-freighter William Howard, my first corporation-owned berth and the biggest starship I'd worked on, a mile and a half from stem to stern. It was also a revolving door; command staff changed often, transferred up to larger, busier members of the Cincinnati Group's fleet or fired for not making the grade. Next level down, changes were nearly as frequent; I was hired in as third engineer and finished as Chief, then managed to get crosswise with a new captain and a 2/O just jumped up from Senior Navigator. As luck would have it, Billy How was orbiting Kansas II at the time; I was "offered" serious demotion and transfer, inevitably to a worse ship. Already irked with Cincy, I asked for a ticket dirtside instead. ..."Asked" might not really be the right word; but perhaps tempers had cooled a bit or one of the Purser's tame attorneys had reminded them of the very serious penalties incurred under the Treaty of 1989 by an officer in command of any spacecraft who ejects crew or paying passenger without proper process and verified cause from a very short list. Or maybe they weren't actually bad guys, just jerks under too much pressure. Whatever; I squirt-boosted down with a mixed batch of managers and support staff from the light-truck division of a major automaker, assorted politicians and three families from some flooded-out one-horse town in the Dakotas: a typical Hidden Frontier bunch.

Junior Jayhawks are proud of their world, proud of the resemblance between the settled sections of it and their namesake and proud of their cultural resemblance, too. Imagine Chinatown or Little Italy; now picture the same strong sentiment about Kansas and you've almost got it. If you grew up in the Midwest, especially any of the thousands of farming-and-light-industry towns, it's a familiar sort of place, give or take the deathwood pollen alerts and a buffalion or twelve. KC2-Squared strives mightily to be as cosmopolitan as the original Kansas City with a quarter the population; I can say they do have fountains.

They've got industry, too. It turned out my 'Drive ticket — not to mention the lightning-bolt-and-gear pin on my collar — opened a lot of doors. Behind one of them, I found a decent job senior-teching for a microwave manufacturer — ovens, that is, not communications equivalent. Behind another, I picked up part-time income teaching night-school Introduction To Radiofrequency Electronics.

I was making good money. I was renting a nice little house, dating nice Jayhawk gentlemen and I didn't have to carry a pager. It should have been the happiest time of my life.

I was miserable. Bored out of my skull. Planetbound. It'll sound crazy but the situation felt claustrophobic — with a whole planet to knock around on! I tried for a ship gig; even a local mining run, with 'Drives only powerful enough to cheat Newton. My last CO, however, had neglected to sign off on my 'Drive operator's license. There's a space for it, and tick boxes for "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory;" all I had was a blank space and an unlikely story. Oh, there were open doors on the ground a-plenty, but nary an undogged hatch for me in the high and airless.

Kept my name on the register anyway, just in case. 18 months after I'd hit dirt, I'd about given up. Lupine — one of the biggest two civilian starships flying — had come in the previous week. I hadn't bothered to check on a payin' berth aboard her; the Starship Company is the biggest and the the first of the private outfits flyin' out of Earth and Lupine and her sister ship Vulpine* are their darlings. I was a hard-luck case 'Drive tech without a fancy degree, just Uncle Sam's best force-feeding of common sense and exotic physics. I didn't stand a chance with them.

I was home grabbing a PB&J on whole wheat when my 'phone rang. K2's got 'phone solicitors just like you do in Duluth or Yonkers, so I went with Disconcerting Response #1: picked it up and announced, "Telephone!"

There was a long pause. A looong pause. Ha, got you, I thought. Then a man spoke, slow and strong:

"Miss Ecks?"

"It's your dime, bucko. And my time's a-wastin'."

"Roberta Ecks?"

"Only one in town, last I checked. C'mon, try'n sell me a vacuum and I'll hang up on ya. I'm in a hurry."

"I believe you have the wrong impression, Miss Ecks. This is Captain James of the USAS Lupine."

"Aw, right. Did the second-shift QC guys at Wessex put you up to this? Tell 'em from me it's not gonna work." And I hung up.

Lucky for me, Captain Telemachus James had a very good sense of humor. Luckier still, he really, really needed a 'Drive engineer, their main tech having tried a shortcut with a high voltage interlock the previous day and lost the bet. He called me back immediately and led with, "Miss Ecks, I am offering you a job aboard my ship. A real job."

It wasn't a joke. I called in "gone" to the community college; eight hours later, I was bounding upward in one of Lupine's squirt-boosters. I sent the Test Maintenance department at Wessex a farewell postcard from orbit.

The Chief was not terribly impressed by my record and not by me in person, either. His tiny office was crammed with both of us in it, even with the top of his desk scrupulously clear and everything shipshape and properly stowed in shelves and racks on the bulkheads. Waving my license, he declaimed, "Captain James says he's got faith in you. I don't know what you've done in the past, I don't care where you worked or who for. You've got a chance — a chance — to reboot. This is my Engineering Department; either you can do the work, or you're out. If you're good at it, if you show up on time and get things done, you'll do well here. If not...." He stopped and gave me a grim look. "Just don't." He handed me my ticket. "See Gale Grinnell, man with black hair there at the bench; he'll show you where to post your license. Ask him what he needs help on. —And get up to speed on the RCA ST75-FH 'Drive exciter, too."

I'd met the Captain in person very briefly when I first came aboard, a big man with a reserved smile and a firm handshake; he seemed, well, fatherly. I didn't find out about his war record until a long time later — served on the man's ship for five years before somebody explained the things his official biography left out — like six months in an Edger prison hull and a triumphant escape, among other things.

For my entire time on Lupine, Captain James had been the calm at the center of the storm. And now he was gone.
* * *

I laid awake thinking back, thinking forward, caught in a loop. The Captain's dead? Eventually I dozed off and woke again in just that somber a mood when my "wake-up call" came through at 0600, a harsh beeping. A hasty shower in that too-familiar Frank Lloyd Wright head -- if he's not related to Orville and Wilbur, howcome is that design so much the prototypical airliner loo? -- followed by brushing the worst knots from my hair (pleasantly, Frothup's water supply seemed softer than Lupine's) and grabbing my hoodie and whatever was on top in my duffle(carpenter's denim dingareess and an "I [heart in a gear] ENGINEERING" T-shirt), I was shivering at the bus stop, sipping at an indifferent cup of coffee. At least it was hot. And I sure wasn't back on Kansas II any more.

The hotel (I'd call it by name but all the sign on the front said was "LODGING") had had printed maps in the lobby, sharing a display rack with various glossy tourist-y brochures, including a restrained one I'd picked up promoting the "Ship-Wreck Impact Site Memorial." It was tucked into an intersection with businesses an all four corners, sharing frontage with a small office building. Across 75th was something calling itself Chemist; I was betting pharmacy rather than ChemEng, but what I could see of the window display could have been either one. The street sign (in a font suspiciously similar to Papyrus. What? I notice these things; it's worse when I'm tired or stressed) confirmed the hotel faced on Thoth Prospect. According to the map I was one block in from Osiris Way, the last major curved street before the city trailed off in a web of lesser roads.

Mass transportation -- when it exists at all -- is a bit idiosyncratic but fair-to-good on most of the worlds of the Hidden Frontier, for a very simple reason: cars are scarce. Trucks are more common but the two- or three-car household is a rarity. What showed up at the intersection snorting and squeaking to a stop only ten minutes behind schedule, looked like a tattooed school bus, not a slick earthside bad neighborhood on wheels, but it was headed the right way. I hoped it was, anyway.
* * *

The south side of Aberstwyth had been pleasantly same-as-before, a cross between suburbia and gentrified cityscape: a few blocks of residences and then a business corner, or an intersection with apartment buildings on every corner, over and again. We went by several bookshops along the way. Even in my distracted state, it looked nice. A model city.

Southport looked more like the boxes it had been packed in. The bus snorted across a bridge, past a collection of the kind of concrete-pile apartment buildings I'd initially thought to find and shuddered to a stop at the "town square," a weedy vacant lot containing a swingset built of what looked like junkyard scrap, a neatly-painted sign (SOUTHPORT welcomes you) and a half-dozen yelling kids, dressed too lightly for the weather. Off the bus, a brisk breeze made me feel chillier.

On the other hand -- the sunlight was plenty bright and there wasn't a cloud in the sky; it was possible, that too much time aboard a starship had made me soft. Or not, I thought as I shivered and zipped my sweatshirt all the way up.

The shipyard was at the edge of town, a couple blocks north and west of the nearest bus stop. It was an unprepossessing place and the walk there wasn't much nicer -- small houses with yards full of this and that, a few small shops and a few that might've been either or both. The 'yard, when I got to it, did sport one of the few actual brand-name type signs I'd seen on a business, a rusting shape like a cloche hat, painted silver with "INNOVATIVE" lettered around the circumference, perched atop a pole: I guessed it was supposed to be an Edger "Glocke" starship lander. Innovative what, I wondered. The main building was a corrugated-metal barn, with no obvious entrance; the rest of the lot was fronted by a tall fence of the same material, badly in need of paint. Something behind it was making a rumble and squeal that spoke of high mass and a slim margin of safety. There was a double gate standing ajar in the wall that looked like my best bet; I edged my way through to behold a chaos of junk, half-assembled vehicles and big equipment in motion. I looked around, trying to make sense of it, when a man the dimensions and approximate size of a glacier-deposited boulder stepped right in front of me and commanded, "You just stop right there, Missy! Not another step!"

Great. I make friends wherever I go.
* It's too good not to share: Vulpine's captain from her first day of civilian service has been one Margeret Fox (R. Adm, USSF, Ret.). Her reputation is nothing short of awesome but skill aside, you have to wonder at the trail of chance and whim that put a Fox in charge of a fox.


26 July 2010


Thanks to the Interstellar-International Postal Union, any stamp is good anywhere, mostly; but I'm still tryin' to figure out if the former stamps of a former government, denominated in their former currency, are worth anything other than "Lookie-kewl" points:Gads, were those people on drugs?

(Scanned in here about 4x life size). It's not like I can send it to my youngest niece or nephew back on Earth; the Feds and other Treaty powers take a dim, dim view of such behavior....

22 July 2010

Frothup: Dropping In Chapter Three

[Story starts HERE]

They could put a bell or a beeper on electric forklifts. They could especially put a bell on the automated ones. Sure, it will eventually drive everyone who works near 'em luridly nutty, but think of the children and innocents it might save. Including me! But even if they didn't do that -- and they don't -- I do not care how talented a programmer of servomechanisms you are, nor how sophisticated they are, the rotten machines should not do a happy little dance after they have nearly hit me and rolled up to their destination.

This one did. I was looking around for the lunatic who'd tackled me when the movement caught my eye, a little tracked vehicle dancing back and forth, cargo platform moving in counterpoint, right next to the bus, where luggage hatches had popped open low along the side. It got lined up to suit itself and started shoving boxes in, all untouched by human hands. Biiiz-arre. The bus driver hopped out and started towards me, a reassuring sight. I was interrupted by a nearby voice: "Lady, are you all right?"

Tactical me; my assailant had come to light not ten feet to my left and was trying to catch his breath. "It almost got you! Did you not see the lane?"

Those "decorative lines" on the sidewalk.... "Umm, no." I was irked. "What lane? Aren't those things supposed to, like, automatically not hit people?"

"Yes, well, it wasn't stopping. Are you okay?"

I thought about it. Looked at my hands, knees, felt my elbows... "Skinned up some. Is that thing yours?" I was gonna have bruises. Oh, yeah.

"The bus company owns it. You are supposed to stay out of the lanes. Um, I'm Findley. Findley Michaels." He grinned at me as if I should like him.

Oh, great. They knock you down, then wanna chat you up. Has someone seen to many "meet-cute" movies? Thing prolly would'a stopped on its own. "I'm meeting someone here. Do you work for this 'Bus Company?'"

He grinned again, one of those guys who sheds ten years when he smiles. "Call me Mike. I work for Irrational Numbers. And you'd be Roberta, then?"

H'mm, and not even a pocket-protector on him. By then the driver had reached us, a little out of breath. "Miss, are you all right? Do you not know to stay out of the lanes?" He had an even stronger Edger accent than Mike and he looked more angry than concerned.

"In order: I think I'm fine. And no, I didn't. Afraid I'll break your robot?"

He looked even angrier. "I thought you might have been hurt."

"Thanks to your buddy here, not much and not by that gadget." Said gadget was in the process of purring towards us with what I thought was arrogant poise, carrying surface empty; yeah, I'm anthropomorphizing, but it sure did sashay after it nearly got me. I watched it wheel on by and through an overhead door, out of sight. The door whirred down and slammed into place, untouched, I supposed, by human hands.

Mike broke in, "She's fine. Lupine tech crew. I'm with Irrational--" and darned if he didn't offer the guy his business card.

The driver gave me an opaque look, his expression suddenly no more revealing than a door closing. Look, things are still strained between the Far Edge and everyone else, no surprise after years and years of mutual suspicion, smuggling, distrust and confusion. Spacefaring Edgers are fussy and a bit odd but we've got a common foe, the vast empty darkness between the tiny places where people can live. Compared to that pitiless vacuum, a Russian, a Frenchman or even the most fanatic Federation of Concerned Spacemen member is a welcome friend and his ship, no matter how odd, improvised or arcane, is a haven. Sure, there's conflict, but in a way, you're all on the same side. The number of planet-bound Edgers I've met is tiny and a skewed sample at that, given that they were all either passengers or crew on Earth-based starships. The only other time I've seen anybody just shut off was once on vacation, when I said something much too much damnyankee in the rural South and I suppose that time, I had it coming. But this? All it had taken was the name of my ship -- and what'd he expect, running a bus to and from the planet's only spaceport?

Whatever, he was done with me. He said to Mike, "You are doing this," and turned away, back to the bus, muttering something that sounded like "Cow-in-the-grass..." He hadn't even reached to take Mike's card. There was already a line of people waiting to board; the driver trudged angrily past them all and back into the bus.

Mike watched him go, then turned to me. "My card?" he offered, with a hint of irony. I took it -- a soft plastic, flexible only along the long axis, the text and graphics were metallic, shiny. It was a circuit board! As my hand warmed it, an array of tiny, multicolored LEDs pulsed, outlining in turn:


J. Finley Michaels
Senior Designer
tel: 32 Green 3478

After that, the LEDs went out and went it back to being merely unusual. Knocked me the rest of the way out of being mad and I chortled in delight. I couldn't help myself. I'm a geekette, okay? I'd stuck a handful of my cards -- the good ones -- in my back pocket when I was packing. Reached and (for a wonder) they were still there, so I handed him one. He read it and grinned. "'Airship Privateer?' How well does that pay?"

"You've got me; nobody ever took me up on it." Geek rapport established, I had to ask, "Um, what's up with--" I nodded towards the bus.

Mike looked at his shoes, back at me. "Holdout, I guess."


"Thinks we should not have aligned with NATO."

Great, politics. I shouldn't've been surprised. I kept my expression neutral, or tried to, and said, "It's not really 'NATO,' you know. Not since '89. Especially not since the Russians signed on in '99."

"Close enough."

True. On paper, there's free trade and freer travel between every starfaring culture except for France and China, who aren't talkin' to nobody nowhow and will deny even that. In practice, there are still barriers -- habit, custom, mutual suspicion. I just nodded; in reply, he asked after my luggage. The excitement and puzzlement of the last few minutes was wearing off enough that I was starting to really feel the cold again. Happy to change the subject and move back where it was warmer, I opined that it should be processed by now and we wandered back into the terminal to find out.

* * *
Not only was my luggage ready, it was already on the bus, thanks to the same snotty little automaton that had nearly run me down. When I gave the ICE clerk -- his nametag read "Port Control Services LLC" over a Dymo-misprint I wouldn't've dreamed of attempting to pronounce -- a surprised and annoyed look, he told me it was S.O.P for all incoming luggage to be loaded on the bus and pointed out, "There is nowhere else to go."

"What if I was going to drive myself?" I noticed Mike kind of brace himself when I asked and wondered just how stupid a question I'd asked.

The ICEman was only too happy to explain. "The Port Authority allows only a few drivers onto Port grounds, all of whom have been cleared and approved. You could neither obtain or operate a vehicle at the Port."

Welcome to the Far Edge, bastion of freedom.... That's unfair, really. If I kept asking, I'd almost certainly find out "Port Authority" was a private business; it always is on Edger worlds and even on a few on our side of things.

By the time we got back outside, the bus was nearly full. The driver gave us a sidelong look but said nothing as we boarded and Mike threw money or a token in the box. I didn't notice which. There are all sorts of monetary and transportation arrangements along the Hidden Frontier, the sales-tax-funded trolley system on Blizzard being among the oddest; they're a special case thanks to the hostile climate. Edger worlds favor hard currencies, usually Earthside conductor-metal coins traded at spot value, but these days Traveler's Checks and PayPal work just about everywhere Lupine travels. The ungainly vehicle lurched into motion before we'd even found seats.

Wasn't all that ungainly, either, once we'd got moving. Out from under the portico, the port's vast berm receding behind us, the road soon changed to well-packed gravel with wide ditches. Thanks to the huge wheels and good grading, it was smooth but noisy. Traffic consisted of our bus and a few containerized-freight haulers in both directions. Other than the road, gently rolling, Iowa-like hills covered with what still looked like soybean fields, the only other scenery was the growing indication of a fair-sized town dead ahead. Mike caught my eye and grinned, "First time here, right?"

I nodded. I've spent enough time shouting over loud machinery.

"It is bigger than it looks." He gestured towards the front window. "Aberstwyth, I mean."

Indeed, with every little hill, the city seemed to take a larger arc of the horizon.

"The Port runs a three-klick exclusion zone. Not much even that close since Cut & Run"

That'd been about fifteen years ago. I'd heard a little about it but forgotten the details if I ever knew them at all, so I gave him an inquiring look.

"Freight-runner, tanker." -- An Edger, then, not containerized -- "They came in loaded with rendered kerogen from the Ladasha* system, had navs trouble and fried their 'Drive finals trying to land. Almost took out the port but they tried to divert. Overshot, overcorrected, landed on the boundary. Hit about midway between the old industrial area and downtown."

Oh, gods. That wreck. "Residential?"


Blamed noisy bus. I spoke up, "Was it a res-i-den-tial area?"

"Mostly warehouses. One apartment building" -- probably a big, modular pile of prefab concrete: quick, cheap and depressing -- "and five homes." He looked bleak.

Call me insensitive but it's the obvious question: "How many?"

"It was a weekday afternoon. It could have been a lot worse; at least twelve on the ground and everyone on the 'runner. Seventeen died in the crash, another ten afterward and nobody knows how many people were injured. There were fires all over town. It-- It splashed."

Dear gods. The highly automated, low population typical of Far Edge settlements would've kept casualties down, with a tiny crew on the ship and people few and far between even in most of the city; but it surely made first aid and fighting fires all the harder.

I must have mouthed the words. Mike nodded with bleak pride. "You never forget where you were when happened -- after's kind of a blur, everyone pitched in." He looked away, out the window.

While we spoke, the bus had chugged loudly over another row of hills. At the bottom, fields abruptly gave way to city. The front had pretty much blown through and patchy, Spring sunlight shone through gaps in the clouds. The road ba-bumped from gravel to paving running between big barn-like buildings, with shiny metal roofs and concrete-block or metal walls, peelingly painted in a wider, brighter assortment of colors than I remember from back home.

"Cheapest storage in town. Even now." Mike was still looking at it. "After we had fought through the worst of it, things were still bad. We asked for help and we got it; we set up the Mayor's Council and an Emergency Recovery Committee, too, but FCS didn't approve. A year after the wreck, they decided it was too nearly a permanent government. Started running ads online, on the radio. TV wouldn't take them, so they set up their own channel."

Geez, Edgers. Who else could've invented a despotic minarchy? The Far Edge's non-government is the Federation of Concerned Spacemen, the same reclusive string-pulling organization that masterminded the subversion of the original atom-missile moonbase in the 1950s. The good news is, they don't exactly rule; they don't make laws or operate courts and their primary mode of interaction is hired ad agencies or commercial reps. The bad news: their basic unit or organization is the ship or station and FCS will tolerate nothing larger. On a planet, that usually means city government are about as big as things are allowed to get. Get too big and first you get warnings; next, some fine day the heavens rain down Mil/Space "marines," and every government center on the planet gets wiped out. It's highly targeted and holdouts who haven't joined the growth rarely suffer; but any innocent or loyal partisan who gets in the way does not stay in the way for long. It's only played out that far twice, as far as I know. Only once on an actual planet and that ended in capitulation after the first wave. But the other occasion, an association of asteroid-belt mining interests, their stations, ships and other facilities, left a system nearly uninhabited. As the news spread, there were courts-martial internal to Mil/Space and highly publicized, and public avowal of general reorganization. There were even public statements by supposed FCS Board members. Then the war heated up and history rolled on -- but was not forgotten. NATO tried to get repudiation of the practice put in the Treaty of 1989; FCS rejected it out of hand as "unwarranted interference in internal matters." At least they did manage to sneak in right of self-determination, a two-edged sword that acknowledged the legitimacy of FCS...and left some wiggle room.

"The Council of Mayors knew they'd better do something, fast; about a third wanted to give in but our Mayor then -- and the Town Council behind him -- called for a vote. Everyone on the planet: ally ourselves, our whole world, with Earth, or stay with FCS." He stopped, looking thoughtful, lost in memory.

"And the ones who favored goin' with Earth won," I prompted.

"Barely! There were fights, even riots some places. Some anti-Earth bunch tried to set fire to the refinery at Southport and nearly succeeded. I think that was what pushed it the other way; nobody wanted another fuel-short Winter." He fell silent again.

While I pondered Edger weirdness, the warehouses had given way to a kind of open-plan strip-mall suburbia. Nothing very fancy, steep metal roofs above a lot of cinderblock, precast concrete and corrugated metal. What looked like siding here and there would probably turn out to be metal, too, or some synthetic. Real wood and reasonable native substitutes are scarce most places; Linden/Lyndon's unusual that way, and exports lumber (or near enough) during good times. Not so Frothup. Oh, trees punctuated the patchy grass in most yards but they were smallish, none more than a couple decades old. Every few blocks there'd be a business of some kind, a KeroGas station or a little grocery or hardware store, or something less obvious. Traffic had picked up a little, more bicycles and motorcycles than I was used to seeing. Bigger vehicles were mostly of smallish pickup trucks, a lot of them unfamiliar models. Then again, every time I visit home, the cars and trucks all look odd and not only because the time spent near C each side of a Jump stretches lives. I was confident the little cars like a couch in a box labelled "Smart" had to be Edger make; no way anyone back home would risk something so tiny on the highway.

On level, paved roads, the bus was a little less loud. Even I felt the conversational gap left after Mike's reminiscences. Thinking back, I picked the easiest tack, "Are winters bad, then?"

"--What? Oh. Not bad for here. But it gets cold and stays cold. And there is a lot of snow." The question had broken his mood, a little, and he smiled again, "I grew up here. Would not want things any different than they are."

* * *
Not only was the sun out, it was almost warm outdoors when we finally reached my immediate destination. By then I'd learned this was typical of Spring on Frothup , a day or two warming, followed by a thunderstorm and sharp drop in temperature.

The hotel I was going to be staying at wasn't downtown, though we'd changed buses there; Edger cities don't have much of a downtown anyway, the passion for decentralization and redundancy that characterizes their stations and spacecraft being reflected in most of the cities as well. But it was (Mike told me) close to Irrational's main building at 56th and Ma'at and only a few minutes from the R&D center. I'd explained about the squirt-booster and probably needing to spend a day or more on repairs. He just asked to know when I'd be ready to see the factory and start learning about the new 'Drive power amplifiers.

My room was ship-simple, a collection of built-ins in a stack of identical units, one wing of a plain little hotel. Mike acted a little apologetic about the place, dropping me off at the lobby, which was automated: feed cards or money into the slot, pick your room type, get an access card with a room number printed on it. Suited me. They had cheaper, a little maze of Japanese-style "sleep cells" off the lobby. I've slept in those but I'd as soon not -- and I prefer 'em split into sections for men and women, which these were not. The hotel had nicer choices, too, "suites" with a separate bedroom and even light-housekeeping rooms more like my quarters on Lupine. What I had was the most numerous type according to the occupancy display, a smallish room with a collection of built-ins that included a bunk more than wide enough for a married couple, the usual desk-and-chairs, basic bath (a modular Frank Lloyd Wright clone -- so common they're almost homey), hardwired 'net connection and mud-color carpet. It was clean and cozy; I didn't see any reason to ask for an upgrade. Irrational was paying for the room, and room service, too, which, once I was settled, proved to be accessed through a terminal/phone (unispaced monochrome display!) built right into the desk and delivered by a dumbwaiter system. Presumably there were humans involved in the process; alas, no Moxie on the beverage menu but I'd made a good sized dent in a tasty bowl of home-cooked-looking chicken stew and about finished my comic book -- oops, graphic novel -- when my phone rang.

The Chief. "Need you at the certified repair service at 0700 tomorrow."

And a good, good evening to you, too. Which I didn't say. There are only so many techs and of that finite number, I was pretty sure to be the only one dirtside. "I figured. Have an address?"

They were in Southport, which I was gathering was the industrial center; refitting pressure-rated cargo containers and squirt-booster repair there made perfect sense. A little fiddling with the room terminal found an ASCII-art map. Aberstwyth was a long, quarter-moon arc embracing the port, North to South; Southport, a blob at the (surprise!) South end. The major long, curving streets looked to be named after the Egyptian pantheon. (Have I sighed, "Edgers..." too often? A peculiar lot, you must admit) Cross streets were sensibly numbered, at least. The Chief had checked out the bus schedule -- he knows I'm not a morning person -- and had the details; I made a few notes after he'd rung off, finished dinner and my book, and fell blissfully asleep. It had been a long day.

I was still asleep at 0200, about the time Doc Poole later determined that Captain Telemachus James, one of the most distinguished captains of the Far Edge War and Lupine's Old Man for longer than I'd been aboard, suffered a massive heart attack asleep in his quarters and died without ever waking up.

[CONTINUED In Chapter Four]
* Yeah, they really did spell it "La-a," after the earthside urban legend but I'm not playing along. Edger names, there's no figuring; I'm told there's a contract outfit that works up astronomical names for the FCS and prevents duplication. They turned whimsical long time ago or started out that way; which gets right back to the Edger sense of humor.

22 June 2010

Frothup: Dropping In Chapter 2

Attitude jets cut in with a sound like a fire hose, a hard shove as he moved the stick and the squirt-booster rolled in line with our vector and on around until it felt as if we were nearly upside-down. Intent on the display, he made a few more fine adjustments to our attitude, flipped a toggle and then just sat there. Presently, another countdown popped up and marched from :30 to :00 and on the zero, we slammed into bumpy grayness and thudded back out again almost a minute later, "falling up" a little off the projected path. Butch looked at it and decided, "Close enough. Y'like that?"

I kind of hadn't - I prefer my excitement predictable - but it didn't seem polite to admit. "Looks like we lost a 'Drive."


"Problem?" (See there, I can do "laconic"). One 'Drive will do for most four-ups, but that's at a hundred-percent redundancy, minimum safety regs allow for flight. Lose one on a full load and once you're down, you'll stay down 'til it's fixed.

"Nope. Might be on the way back, lot of mass on the order."

"We good for techs, groundside?"

"Um. You offerin'?"

There's not a squirt-booster pilot alive who wouldn't prefer to have one of his own tech crew overseeing any work on the vehicles he flies. Airframe (so to speak) work is one certification (aboard Lupine all three of those guys are under E&PP, SOP for anything the Starship Company owns; most other outfits work the same), 'Drive tickets like mine are another. In an unfriendly port or a smaller one, we'd have to provide our own crew for all the work. I'm sure there's a good service company in Aberstwyth but even if it wasn't a Company rule, I'd just as soon be looking over their shoulders myself - maybe lending a hand, if they're not touchy about it. Not only is my paycheck and sometimes my own precious hide being hauled in our squirt-boosters, you don't leave 'em unwatched any more than you would a tactical nuke. You don't have to have visited the Sergeant Snodgrass* memorial crater to understand how much harm a misused 'drive vehicle can do - but it does drive the point home.

While I thought through that, Butch had a quick, quiet conversation with Frothup Bunker (believe me, a tower is the last place you'd want to be) featuring terms like "minor profile deviation" and "out of the turnaround queue T-F-N." When he finished, all I said was, "It's the Chief's call but I wouldn't bet against it -- I'm here and you know how he feels about idle hands." (Or even insufficiently-busy ones).

Butch made an assenting sound, his attention on the controls; I saw another decision point coming up and no more below it - a slick recovery from the 'Drive glitch - so we were going to be doing a bad impression of a genuine rocket ship pretty soon.

Or not so bad an impression; the last hop knocked us back into the real world upside down and at a near-stop over one corner of the landing field. Like the rest of the process, landing can be automated but requires really reliable position info to work properly; most worlds don't have GPS and squirt-boosters rarely carry sophisticated radar. As it was, we had a nice view of lights chasing into the center of the field from the four corners and the squirt-booster's perfectly good radio altimeter. Several of the lights were out in the row most directly beneath us; comforting. Or not. Butch lined up over the center of the field - X marks the spot - as we began to fall, then flipped the squirt-booster rightside up, gray-green land replaced by silver-gray sky and rivulets of rain. Blind but safely atop the four cargo containers we carried, Butch watched our progress on instruments, making small adjustments for drift. The final hard shove of deceleration is automated; the pilot can trip it early but two different systems ensure the rockets will be ignited nevertheless. Landing gear, in the usual form of fat clusters of spherical airbags had deployed already; with a sound like the big brother of all blowtorches, the last push settled us in our seats like someone climbing onto our shoulders and then, with a single hard jar and bounce, we were down.

We'd outflown the heavy rain — "drizzle," like heck — but not by much. As Butch did his post-landing checks and I gazed out at the misty, gray field, sheets of rain swept across it, almost hiding the pair of big-wheeled ATV buses headed toward us through a break in the grass-covered mounds ringing the field. Lighting flashed dimly behind the rain and several seconds later, thunder sounded. Butch hit the release button on his seat harness and grinned. "Welcome to sunny Frothup. You did bring galoshes?" --In a cheesey tour-guide tone.

I faked up my best mock outrage, "I certainly hope you weren't expecting a tip, young man! Not after a ride like that."

"Take it up with your own Engineering department, why don'cha? You give us stuff that blinks out in a storm like a cheap light!"

"Lightning-proofing! Oh, golly-gee, whyever didn't we think of that?" The 'Drive and avionics will take 99.99% of possible hits with barely a flicker. Ninety-nine point nine-nine still leaves plenty of occasions for the dice to come up bad, which is why there's so much redundancy. Pilots know that, but they'll complain anyway.

Butch rolled his eyes and made his way to the hatch, remarking, "I need to make sure none of the paying customers get lost on the way out."

I sat tight, not wanting to stand there in the way playing Junior Space Pilot and annoying the steward. On the other hand - there's usually an incongruous-looking rearview mirror on the middle of the instrument console, it being kind of handy to be able to see who's at the door. I reached out and angled it so I could watch the thrillin' excitement of debarkation. Maybe it had been thrilling, at that; the faces I could see looked a bit greenish and worried. Even the steward look a little frazzled, telling them, "Back rows, I'll get to you as soon as we've got A through F out. The shuttle's lining up now and we'll have the outer hatches open shortly."

* * *

I must have dozed off; it was still spitting rain but a little blue sky was showing through in patches and there were actual shadows in the cockpit. The steward was leaning in the cockpit, saying, "Tech...?" I caught sight in the mirror as he leaned back, replaced by Butch.
"Time's a-wasting! You remember how to do a shut-down...?"

He'd already powered down the flight controls and 'Drive; I shut down the monitoring software and hardware, killed the six breakers for enviro., three more for internal lighting and another two for the main power buses. Squirt-boosters aren't big enough for the fusion-over-MHD systems used on full-sized starships; the primary power supply is.... I'd better not say. But it's safe enough and doesn't take much looking after.

Flippancy aside, Butch watched me run through the procedure and nodded when it was done. I unstrapped, climbed out, accepted my carry-on from the steward and followed them through the hatch and down a short ramp into our ride though its roof, the same high-wheeled ATV bus I mentioned earlier. Oh, the luxurious extras that come with bein' starship crew! I was surprised at how brisk the breeze was; having fallen through a thunderstorm on the way, I expected hotter. As we got our bags stowed and settled into our seats, the ungainly-looking spider crane trundled up to take the assembled squirt-booster off to the docks where it would be taken apart into four passenger/'Drive units and four cargo containers. Butch had already tagged #4; it would report itself in need of service during the routine checkout between unstacking and reassembly into a new stack of cargo containers and by then, Butch would have set our groundside liaison on lining up an outfit to do the repairs.

None of us knew it then but probably just about then, a man was making furtive alterations to a shipping order. This would result, several days later, in an innocent freight hauler taking a dozen crates to a destination other than where they should have gone. A small thing, almost a prank; or so he thought. And a well-paid prank, at that. But none of that, not to mention the perp, came to light until much later

The landing area was a little different from what I'm used to seeing; past the zigzag gap in the high berm, we were in a kind of alleyway between it and another berm even higher. The bus turned into an opening in it and after another zigzag, rolled into a short tunnel that debouched into a very large room and sighed to a stop. I could see silvery daylight through high windows on the far side of a lounge strikingly similar to the one I had departed from. Of course, between it and our ride was a half-wall, a series of tables and three uniformed types who could only be Port Control. There aren't a lot of restrictions on what you can carry, but there are a few. More to the point, you really, really need to have had all your shots. (What if Pernicious Athlete's Foot were to break out, or Morbid Bromodrosis?) Once we'd gone though the usual nonsense — show ID, proof of immunization, all things the Purser's office would have already e-mailed down but which must be matched up to you in person — I rented a phone and checked in with Lupine Commo while Butch went off to make arrangements for the lightning-hit squirt-booster. Cell phone technology trickles out to the various and sundry U.S. and allied worlds; there's no telling just what you'll encounter of if a ship's cellphone will work with it. It's simpler to pick up a phone-in-a-box at the port and let the commo folks upstairs know where to forward your calls. It can get bottlenecked if call volume's high but unless the ship-to-planet links are majorly antiquated, a simple forward never has to pass through the fascinating historical artifact we use for a telephone system analog aboard ship, just up and back down, digital all the way and if the lag's bad, you give 'em your direct number. Easy-peasy, unless the IS guys have one of their rare and infrequent disasters. (Sometime I'll have to tell the story of MTBF and how very very differently it is viewed by those of us who spin wrenches on stardrives compared to the data-mongers; geez, if I accepted what they think is good, we'd be sittin' stuck at the corner of Location Unknown and Bad Guess right now).

Supposedly, Irrational was sending somebody — an engineer — down to meet me at the port. I didn't encounter anyone who looked particularly engineer-ish and/or holding up a sign saying "Ms. Ecks of Lupine" in the terminal building, so I went outside for my first real fresh air in several months.

Oh, man, what a mistake! The air hit me the minute I was through the doors, a wet, chilly blanket. I don't know how cold it was — 45? 40? — but it felt like a fridge. I had a sweatshirt in my bag and I dug it out, but it didn't help much. I thought thunderstorm weather was supposed to be hot! So much for that notion.

There wasn't much to see. A wide sidewalk decorated with variously-colored lines and stripes paralleled an indifferently-paved road, the whole thing under a heavy-looking concrete awing supported by massive pillars (turned out the whole thing was carved out beneath the outer berm). On the far side of the road and a final row of pillars, what had to be farm fields hazed with a little bright green new growth under overcast skies; a suggestion of a smudge on the horizon might have been a city or stormclouds. While I stood there, shivering and wondering what I'd though was so all-fired great about the great outdoors, a high-wheeled ATV bus trundled up the road and snorted to a stop. The destination board flipped through several preposterous-looking choices before settling on ABERSTWYTH. It looked more like Iowa to me.

There appeared to be precisely one passenger on board, a tall, moosey-looking guy who debarked as soon as the driver opened the doors. He looked around, caught sight of me and then his expression changed. Looking grim, he charged right at me and grabbed me on the run before I could muster the wit to step aside. I tried to keep my balance but tripped and fell on the cold, damp concrete; he let go before I pulled him down and I rolled right up by the wall and tried to get to my feet. Something went wooshing by, heading straight for the bus. I stared after it, trying to gather my wits.
* The real first American on the moon. (See earlier episodes). Neil Armstrong would get - and deserve! - the credit even if the incident weren't classified: the way international aviation rules work, it doesn't actually count if you disintegrate yourself and your vehicle in a bungled landing on the return trip, and it doesn't count if you never tell anyone, the way the United States Space Force played it and still does. So the record books are right -- as far as they go. But things went farther, faster, earlier and sneakier: Besides the USSF bases built about the time the Mercury 7 were winning their fight to not be merely "SPAM in a can," Farside City was planned and ready in '69. Construction was hidden in plain sight among the rest of the Apollo missions


30 May 2010

Frothup: Dropping In: New Chapter 1

Blast it, Frothup was cold, at least at Aberstwyth port. You'd expect that on Blizzard or Vineways but it's easy to forget that some planets have seasons. Frothup's are mild enough in the settled regions but when your warmest garment is a zip-up sweatshirt, a blustery 40 degrees — 18 local, a sure tip-off the place wasn't settled by USSF transportees — is cold enough.

I'm ahead of the story already. Times I set foot on the dirt, I usually ride down in a cargo flight, well after all the crash-urgent goods have moved and Engineering has settled into in-port routine. Not today; with new and seriously-different Stardrive power amplifiers to learn, install and get certified, there was no time to spare. Oh, not that they'd actually give up a payin' seat, but I was squirt-boostering down first-available standby, first passenger flight that came up with enough spare mass margin to get me in.

It was still likely I'd have to wait and the first rule of travel is, Bring Something To Read. Despite a couple of interruptions, my comic book was getting interesting; the plucky young hero had just saved the day and his boss, a gorilla, probably wasn't gonna eat him. (And I thought my job had hazards!) In the real world, the slightly scruffy passenger waiting room off Lupine's starboard squirt-booster bay, the PA system went bong and muttered, "Technician Ecks, report to Gate Six. Technician Ecks to Gate Six, please."

Yeah, yeah, sky-blue courtesy phone t'you, too. And I'd finally got myself slouched comfortably, too! I climbed to my feet, hoisted my carry-on bag onto the seat I'd just quit, stuffed the graphic novel in a side compartment, grabbed the bag and started off. Sixth bay of eight and I'd sat down near Gate One, where the slidewalk lets off. The passenger area is not all that big — no more so than a factory town's bus station, Earthside, or maybe a large subway stop — but it is long.

It's airlocks into every squirt-booster and no cheating on the door; E&PP's Safety crew doesn't care if it takes longer, locking through four or five at a time. The seal between the Lupine's lock and the squirt-booster's hatch is only 95% reliable, as they'll point out at great length if you're fool enough to ask; it's rare they'll explain that most failures in that five percent are trivially tiny leaks. The real risk is that they're assembling and moving big, massy transports on the other side of the bulkhead and if the hatch on that side gets smashed, with the airlocks, damage is limited. Or that's the theory. I reached my ride as they were herding the last batch through the lock and squeezed in, making apologetic sounds. Pressure was equal on both sides so it's not that big a deal, one hatch shuts and green lights illuminate next to the blue "air okay" indicators above both hatches; open the next one and the hatch you entered through is locked closed, complete with a big red light that wavers in intensity (long-short, long-long-long) just in case you're both illiterate and color-blind. The fancy lights — LEDs — are a decade-old upgrade; when I signed aboard, the indicators were still direct-reading gauges and mechanical "flags." Either way, it's a social ritual akin to taking a busy elevator; you're closer than you'd like to be and so's everyone else.

No sooner described than done; the hatch opened and we filed across the seal and through another open hatch into the squirt-booster. They're ungainly, unglamorous vehicles, long, skinny shapes with two flat sides connected by a smooth curve, tapering at each end. They're strapped to stacks of cargo containers, or to each other, or just fly solo, depending on need. Passenger versions are set up like a commuter jet, seating three across with luggage racks overhead on the high side, low along the curved face and a narrow walkway that splits each row into a pair and a single.

I didn't even glance at the crowd sorting themselves into the amusement-ride seats; at my left was the hatch to the control room and in it stood Butch-the-pilot, with a toothpick in his teeth and a half-grin on his face. "Well, well, well," he said, "Look who went tourist," and winked at me.

"Like heck," I told him, "I'm headed down for school. Official business."

He nodded and waved me to one of the two "jump seats" up against the bulkhead, nearly as all-enveloping as the passenger seating. "Yep, so they tell me. Sit down close, maybe I'll let you look over my shoulder later."

Not such a bad deal, that; it's highly automated fly-by-wire, with rules of precedence that make the ones for trains look lax, but it's still genuine flying, with an actual view outside. I love it; I enjoy even an ordinary passenger seat. It is, however, not for the squeamish. Even a state-of-the-art squirt-booster is a wild ride; the newest in Lupine's fleet is running hardware and software three years old. Which is another reason they haven't got portholes for the passengers — even the video display is heavily smoothed, just like a fancy camera, and it's a new thing to have it on during even part of the descent. Ascent's another story — blink-blink-blink, with three corresponding lurches and you're up where skies are black and the fallin's easy. Plus or minus a blink; a good navs system can do it in one Jump but the jolt's too rough. Conversely, if it's a tricky orbital match, crummy navs software or just old, there may be quite a lot of Jumping, falling, reorienting and Jumping again. And don't even get me started about the glocke-y, microJumping, mad-German-science jitterbugs the Edgers prefer! No matter the vehicle or the rev of the control/navs software or Drive, it's generally pretty fast: Here to There in under an hour, waiting-for-clearance included.

Landing is different. Squirt-boosters are more efficient grouped and just like locomotives, you only need a driver in one of 'em. Four-up is a typical package: four big cargo containers, strapped together in a diamond (one on top of two on top of one, in set-down attitude), with the longways cucumber-wedge shapes of the squirt-booster strapped in the corners. That would mean two be will upside down and two will be backwards during deceleration and one module gets both...except the seating is modular, normally handled in 3-seat by 4-seat sections with a narrow little aisle. Those can be further reconfigured into columns of four in line, which is what gets slid into the two upside-down wedges — very rarely; passengers dislike it. The "landing gear" is just fat airbags backed up by skids, deployed very late in the landing process. There's been at least one rollover, scary but harmless. (C'mon, people, it gets slammed through the thickness of an entire atmosphere!) Stick a saucer (heat shield) on the aft end of the fat-cucumber assembly and there you have it but for one last, creepy step. Pilot, of course, flies from the rightside-up, forward-facing squirt-booster and the other three are slaved to that one. Copilot gets to fly backwards in the other topside section. Just in case. They tell me it's quite a view.

The cockpit is equipped with two seats nevertheless and plenty of room, making Butch's offer even better than you might think. Another batch of passengers cycled in and filled the remaining seats. Butch told me, "I'll call you once we're foamed up," gave the steward who was sorting them out a minimal high sign and ducked into the cockpit. I was already in the jump seat farthest from the steward's control panel and had the padded bars down and the five-point harness clicked together before you'd read half of my desciption.

Steward was a skinny guy I didn't recognize with an E&PP patch on his coverall and a row of "merit badges" showing specialties underneath. I can't read 'em all but I recognize first aid with CPR and defib training, Fire/Hazmat/Pressure and Security Auxiliary; he had plenty more besides. It's not exactly a serve-drinks-and-soothe job, another place where E&PP's hands-on "general specialists" are found.

I'm going to describe the trip in some detail. The Hidden Frontier is still officially secret and this is supposed to be "fiction," but this is way cool for all it is usually not fast-paced action or even gripping interpersonal conflict (but stay tuned — you'd think just swapping out a 'Drive final amplifier would be cut'n'dried but my job is never that easy).

You're probably wondering about the term foamed up. And that'd be the main reason there aren't any portholes: With the cargo containers and squirt-booster units all strapped together and loaded full, the next step is a big lurch and a short, swaying ride to be covered in ablation material: foam.

Older systems used jettisonable shields and hand-assembled shells; the very first reliable ones ended in a parachute drop and they're still used for small, cargo-only drops to remote locations. For passengers and most cargo, that was replaced by microJumps and clever 'Drive tricks. The last five years, better control software and smaller, more nimble 'Drives incorporating Edger (Glocke-derived) tech have simplified even our more-conservative landers. —Edgers have been jittering in and out of atmosphere for decades now and only rarely leaving big, smoking holes in the landscape; our side of the line, streaking down in a ball of flame might seem worse but for all that it remains a brute-force solution, hundreds of thousands of commercial trips have resulted in only three known accidents, neither on Earth. (USSF? Don't look at me; they don't publish stats. You couldn't get me in one of their early landers at gunpoint, though: getting shot is safer).

Even before the ride down, preparation is unnerving enough when you can't see it. In the cockpit, pilots admit to finding the process claustrophobia-inducing. The display at the front of the passenger cabin shows calm, pastoral scenes but it doesn't fool anyone; the assembled squirt-booster/cargo container bundle swings gently from four "sacrificial" lifting eyes while Our Highly Trained Staff (also known as the riggers who have most irked their supervisors) slap jettisonable covers on the cockpit windows and spray layer upon layer of quick-curing ablative foam over the entire vehicle. A mere 20 or 30 minutes later, they're done and duck out just before your transport gets shuttled into one of the big airlocks; the inflight movie has already started.

I'm joking. Our passenger drops, they play soothing music, mostly to hide the interesting sounds, while the screen at the end of the compartment the passengers face shows a shifting, soft pattern of mostly greens and blues or the formentioned highly-smoothed outside view, once there is one. Any frequent flier aboard is already engrossed in some kind of personal-playback device; while the spraying is getting done, the steward checks to make sure the useful little projectiles are secured. Company policy once banned them altogether — a "personal" cassette player masses enough to do serious damage — but that mostly resulted in greater stealth rather than compliance. Better believe starship crew were early and serious adopters of the no-movin' parts versions and the smaller, the better.

So why did they worry? Why do I, even now, hope the steward's carrying duct tape and knows how to use it? (Yes and yes, btw). See, it's like this: after they stuff our ride into the best-fitting airlock (and play scavenging games with the air left once the pumps have hit their limit), the outer hatch opens and a nifty hydraulic ram pushes the squirt-booster stack on out — and immediately down. It starts out slowly, 'til you're free of the idling 'Drive field and then, ah, then the fun starts.

Big starships take up "forced geosynchronous orbits," with the Drive ilding to keep effective real-space mass low. Essentially, hovering on the big fusion-over-MHD main realspace drives. It's not without risk, anything in actual orbit at that level that intersects is movin' fast enough to make a mess, but it does have some advantages: for instance, as soon as the squirt-booster is clear of the ship and the 'Drive field, it drops just like a rock, heat-shield end first. The feeling is precisely one of being in a vehicle that is pushed off a cliff, which is pretty much what just happened.

I don't care how many times you've done it, it's still a surprise. Into the can you go, the air hammers and hisses away and you wait for final clearance. Then there's a series of mechanical noises, the thing gets slid for what seems a long way (it isn't; the ram is very slow) and, suddenly, the noises stop and you're falling, strapped in a chair, laying on your back in an echoing near silence, broken only by the low thrumming of life support and an occasional tick or thump from the various systems.

It doesn't stay that quiet for long. Once you've "dropped over the edge," the first sound is usually everyone taking a deep breath and if there's an ijit or ijits aboard, they'll announce themselves with a nervous laugh or a whoop better suited to a roller coaster. Didn't have any of those this trip but the inevitable weak tummy didn't take long to make itself known. The steward glanced at an unlabeled annunciator panel facing our seats, where a steady red light had given way to a blinking amber one, unbelted and went to work. The first drop's usually the longest and the gentlest; the pilot's getting his last met and traffic info before things heat up and loading the numbers into his presets, while the steward deals with any messes, or panics and hands out airsickness bags to anyone who looks a bit green. There are usually plenty of takers; I already had that imminent-head-cold feeling of zero-g and was pleased I'd slept too late for breakfast. On the panel, the yellow light steadied up and I heard a quick double knock on the hatch into the cockpit; I looked up and saw the status tally on it change from LOCKED to OPEN.

Don't have to ask me twice. I grabbed a handhold with one hand, popped the latch of my five-point with the other, shrugged out and refastened it (a crummy job one-handed but you can do it) and had the hatch open and myself through. There are good reasons you don't waste time moving aboard a squirt-booster.

Butch was still poking at a touchscreen and frowning; he waved at the shotgun seat and I spidered my way in though the dimness and belted up. The lighting is set to ramp up slowly; by the time the cockpit window covers are popped, it is bright enough to make ease the transition but most pilots prefer to start out in the dark. I think they feel too closed-in otherwise, but it's just a guess — I've never thought to ask. There was finally a little noise other than residual whoosh and hum of lifesupport: a thin, high screech as the upper atmosphere became thick enough to matter. Butch made a last few keyboard entries, shoved it back in its slot, fiddled the covers over the preset buttons on his right and left armrests open and shut, sighed and relaxed. "Don't plan on a picnic," he remarked.


"High overcast and drizzle. If you've been missing blue sky the last three months, don't blink on the way down."

"Mm-hm." I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have; even in these days of glass cockpits and advanced automation, there's a fascinating amount of instrumentation and I don't spend as much time with it as I'd like. A decade back, Handsome Dave decided he'd had enough of the nominal "day" shift old-timers; when a quiet directive was passed around instructing us to treat Jonny Zed "as though he was a valuable member of the Engineering Department," it was the last straw and he very nearly jumped his contract. As it happened, this was just after the Starship Company had started installing Beamtheon Mark IV 'Drives in the squirt-boosters and they had vast and convoluted problems from the outset. I don't know how it was managed but the next I knew, Handsome Dave had a bench in the Vehicle Maintenance shops at the aft end of the starboard squirt-booster bay. He's spent most of his shifts there ever since. Good for him but the rest of Engineering has to work all the harder to stay current. All of which goes to explain why I was starin' at the display when I should have been learning about the weather — not that it would have done any good.

While I stepped though read-only maintenance screens, we fell on. Things were about to the first fun stage; the assorted disconcerting noises had been getting louder, accompanied by increasingly violent shaking. I was starting to feel like my sinuses were clearing, a sure sign of increasing weight. On the main display in front of Butch, a little animation showed our past and projected trajectory, with a little icon at a discontinuity. Next to it, a countdown ticked inexorably backwards, only without the ticking. Butch opened the covers over his presets and got that six-things-at-once piloting look. As the count hit zero, it felt like something picked the vehicle up, slammed us around and all of a sudden, I was weightless again. The shaking changed character and started to slacken but I knew it would be back, worse than before.

If you're Isaac Newton, we just broke an immutable law of nature; the ship wraps itself up in a low-order Jump field, rotates the field projector, and pops back into real space "falling" in an orientation related to the direction the projector was turned. (I can handwave my way through the math but you really don't want me to). Falling any direction but down doesn't last, of course, and it's a huge jolt; but if you have the tummy for it, it sure is fun!

The kicker is, the location where your little private bubble of space-time rejoins the one most folks use is only approximate 'til you actually do it. The smaller and quicker the Jump, the greater the uncertainty. (Contrarily, a very powerful 'Drive field will do you in about like a ride inside a microwave oven, so every Jump a squirt-booster makes has to be small and fast). The closer to the ground you use this trick, the more likely you'll star in your very own crater: air's compressible but dirt and water, not so much. So we travel in a series of "sonic" booms, around half of them the real thing and the remainder the louder thunderclap created when the squirt-booster phases back into real space. The pilot's job is to end up over the landing area, falling at a rate the very limited-burn-time rockets can bring to a gentle landing. A good pilot can set down within a city block or less of his goal. Butch is really good, usually able to land right on the mark. On the other hand, this isn't like an airplane; unexpected wind, bad weather, lousy navs or just plain bad luck can require trading accuracy for a survivable set-down. There's no such thing as a touch-and-go! There's no good second chance; "up" is the safest direction to go but the minimum safe Jump is far enough and deceleration cap limited enough to make a soft landing questionable on the second try and highly unlikely on the third. As a result, "landing fields" for squirt-boosters are very large open areas; a quarter-mile square is a small field and most are between a half-mile and a kilometer square. (Even bigger for Edgers; their pulse-field "bell" shuttles are a lot more maneuverable but have been known to pop into realspace a bit lower than the surface of the landing area. This can be very loud).

—I wasn't thinking of any of that at the time; I was grinning and trying not to shout "Whee!" After the first Jump, we "fell" up awhile, slowed and started down again. It's a strange feeling. The heatshield RFI was down to nothing; there was plenty of time for another position fix from the Lupine. Butch looked at the numbers, satisfied. "Where we should be."

The next drop, we broke the sound barrier, a strange feeling; the shaking gets worse and worse and then — the ride becomes eerily smooth. A bit of that and then another little Jump and vector adjustment; we went subsonic and sped up again. It's deadly serious stuff...and the best roller-coaster ride imaginable.

What was up does come down; eventually we were low enough, slow enough and the ablative foam was sufficiently burned and blown away that Butch triggered the release control, allowing the canopy covers to shred away, revealing the promised blue sky and fluffy clouds.

As also promised, it didn't last. Those clouds were a solid pillow underneath us and comin' up fast.

We fell into the clouds and things grayed up. I was grinning like an idiot; I know I have gone on and on about the process (it's still not quite routine, which is why it's so rarely fatal) but it's big mean fun. "Not quite routine:" I was watching the display as the next hop-point approached, hit, and we dropped out of the here-and-now with a jar and—

And right back in, with a lurch that left the little ship feeling heeled over to my left. Rain lashed across the canopy, obscuring a dim gray limbo beyond, briefly lit by lightning accompanied by a peal of thunder. On the main displays, several icons went red and I looked over at Butch, who was already busy. I called up the basic STATUS display, found an OL flagged red for the #4 squirt-booster unit, "upside down" on the corner below us. I paged through to the detailed info, and it looked like the thing had lost power barely into the last Jump. Back out to the top screen and there 'twas: we were falling at an angle to our intended path, and too fast.
There wasn't much I could do besides keep my yap shut, so I did. Butch was still busy when I glanced over but he looked more annoyed than worried. He punched in some more numbers, reached over to the control stick at his left and said, "Here we go."

[To Be Continued]