21 May 2010

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way (revised and completed)

The Lupine had done a particularly rough reemergence into normal space to start my day; the first big jolt had produced an electrical transient spikey enough to throw the primary 'Drive telemetry for a loop and we'd had to fly even more blind than usual while I — more or less assisted by Jonny Zed — reset everything we could get to with the 'Drive running full-tilt. Randall was piloting, of course; he gets it done and nothing rattles him but he figures everyone else is that way, too. Plenty more little things got shaken loose, too and it wasn't any better for the Enviro & Physical Plant crews; even the Power gang had some faults, thanks to the honkin' big spike. By way of comic relief — second-hand, I didn't see it — the XO, riding observer in the Bridge, lost his lunch on the second transition. Man's a pro; they tell me he just grabbed a dropsick bag, heaved horribly, sealed the flap and held on 'til the process was through.

Thanks to some inventive genius in Navs, we'd Jumped long and were decelerating at .9 g instead of the normal .75. You wouldn't think it would make much of a difference but it feels like lead shoes, only all over.

All that and more besides: it was a middle-of-nowhere Navs waypoint to line the ship up for the short Jump to Frothup, revectoring at what the bridge crew were calling "a crummy little star" (Sure: "star," "little." Compared to what? A navigator's ego? A Jump pilot's confidence?). I'm sure it seemed little to anyone who had time to look. We weren't going to get even as close to it as Pluto approaches good ol' Sol.

I had just completed that ugly shift and was weighing shower first versus dinner first when my hatch buzzed. It means visitors, just like it does at your house. H'mm, hadn't considered that option. Peeked through the viewer — also like yours, though pressure-rated — and saw a wall'o'man stepping back. In uniform and not the policeman blue of Security, nor the spiffy Merchant Marine getup of command staff. I turned to the phone — also an intercom — punched the TALK button and asked, "Who izz it?" So sue me; I'm not a big fan of uniformed strangers.

A woman's voice replied. "'It' is Lt. Wu, Sgt. Thomas and Corporal Slin-"

I cut her off, handy ol' TALK button. "Do you have a warrant?" I was pretty sure I hadn't done anything and besides, Sheriff Mike likes me, some. He'd'a warned me. Right? Hey, I was a genuine heroine, I was!

"A warrant? Miz Ecks, I have been tasked with bringing you to a conference room, not arresting you."

"Okay, okay." Security — or any E&PP Emergency Responder — can override doors anyway. I popped the hatch and in they came.

It was an interesting assortment. Sgt. Thomas was as dark a man as I've yet met, self-assured, friendly-looking and mostly plain big. He walked in as if he owned the place and stopped in the center of my cabin. I gave way and sat down on my bunk. Corporal Sl-something (I never did get a good look at her name tape), fanning out on the far side of the room, could not have been more of a contrast, petite and perfectly composed, skin the color of coffee with cream and close-braided hair. Last, Lt. Wu: Eurasian, intimidatingly pretty, sable hair, grass-green eyes and moved like someone who would have landed on her feet if the ship suddenly flipped on one side. She walked over to me — three strides, not much of a walk — and had clearly measured me up and found me wanting by the time she got there. She looked vaguely familiar and when I noticed the "feathered shoe" (a quill and an old-fashioned adding machine) pin on her collar it clicked. "But you're from the purser's office! Hey, I worked all those hours. Ask anyone in Engineering! Ask the Chief!"

"Oh, for pity's sake! There's nothing wrong with your time sheet. As far as I know. I'm not here on Purser's business; I'm also USSF Reserve. We all are. I have no idea what this is about. We were activated and told to fetch you, is all."

They've changed the uniforms since my short stint and the Reserve's are different still, a dark, nearly black brown, off-white and pale gold instead of the Regular-USSF's midnight-blue, silver grey and (gak) baby blue. (There's a perfectly good reason for the distinction, which I may explain sometime). Besides, these days USSF is essentially a kind of space-going Coast Guard, focused on keeping the peace and helping the hapless. It still didn't bode well.

On the other hand, despite her brisk, not-unfriendly manner, Lt. Wu was radiating suppressed impatience and I hoped I wasn't the target. I had a distinct impression the big, happy Sergeant would be just as happy if she told him to palm my skull and start me walking. So I didn't mull long. I stood up smartly and despite being taller than the Lieutenant, she didn't give way. So I smiled (never let 'em know you're worried) and said, "Let's be off, then." Might as well.

She turned without a word and led the procession; I grabbed my zip-up hoodie and fell in behind, turning in the corridor to see Sgt. Thomas shut and dog my hatch, looking older in the corridor lights than I'd first guessed. The "Locked" led flickered on, so I didn't have any excuse to linger. He gave me a stern look, echoed by the corporal; the Lt. cleared her throat and set off again. Down the passageway and then aft, which probably meant they had a vehicle; the nearest access to the central utility route is a couple hundred yards aft of where my cul-de-sac opens onto the slidewalk.

They had a car, one of the generic little golf-carts-from-space. I got to share the back seat with the sergeant; it was a close fit. Not a word from any of them.

* * *

Lt. R. N. "Rannie" Wu was furious. Furious! Someone was going to hear about this. Activate her on an idiotic babysitting job, go pick up a grubby tech who was either clueless why or an outstanding actress. Her status was supposed to be low-profile! Oh, there were layers and layers; her USSF Reserve status was no secret. But as the seventh-ranking member of Space Intelligence on the Lupine — as far as she knew — assignments to routine jobs like this were rare. What a waste! Ship's Security could surely handle this one, even if they'd nearly made a mess of the situation with the Edger lunatic she'd been informed of only after the fact. ...The mess, it suddenly clicked, this tech had been in thick of.... Her anger picked up a tinge of dour amusement. Possibly not as innocent as she seemed, oh?

* * *

In far less time than it takes riding the slidewalk, we pulled up at the very familiar stop below Primary Command/Control/Comms, home to the Tech Core, Drive Control, the Bridge and my home-away-from-home, the Engineering Shop. —And Officer's Territory above all that, which is where we headed, up a flight and through pressure hatches, elevator up three floors, and another short climb and another set of rated hatches to where the carpets are fresh, the bulkheads are paneled and the worries are staggering. Most of that section's a recent — well, ten years old — addition, sharing its hull (though not open access) with the first-class accommodations. Early-evening/Second Watch shift, not a lot of activity; we headed forward, through yet another pair of hatches, into the refurbished-but-original senior officer's section. Stopped just inside, at the entrance to what I'd guess was once a wardroom. It's a smallish conference room now: nice carpet, panelled walls, indirect light, table and chairs occupying the center, coffee (coffee!) service neatly racked in a corner.

Not a large compartment and when I peeked in over the Accounting Lieutenant's shoulder, it was made all the smaller by Captain James himself seated at one end of the table, a large, genial, soft-looking man with very cold eyes. He's a veteran of the War, of course; don't ask me what he did but it left an imprint. Security Director Mathis was at his right and — I should be more surprised — The Chief was at his left. Corporal Sl- peeled off as we entered and stationed herself outside the hatch with that unreadable military non-expression, ready to stand there as long as it took; Sgt. Thomas did the same imitation of furniture inside. Lt. Wu gave me a severe look and turned to Captain James. "Technician Ecks as ordered, Sir!"

He looked at her tiredly. "So I see."

"I presume you wish us to remain, Sir?"

"Incorrect. In fact, you didn't see Roberta, you didn't see anyone here. And neither did the rest of your detail."


"None of us were ever here, Lieutenant."

I ventured a glance at Sgt. Thomas, standing impassively inside the hatch. Without moving any other muscle, he winked at me. I quirked an eyebrow at him but he made not to notice. Meanwhile, Lt. Wu was trying not to look annoyed, piqued or curious and mostly succeeding; or so it looked to me. She managed to limit herself to, "B- yessir."

"Good job. You are dismissed."

She acknowledged the order, turned smartly and departed, giving me another Watch Yourself look and collecting the Sergeant, who managed to give me another wink and the least flicker of a grin before he followed her out and shut the hatch.

This left me looking at a closed door, which didn't seem to be the best idea; I turned around to find all three men waiting. "Sit down," the Captain told me and I sat. "Not at the far end!"

The Chief gave me a semi-baleful look. I got up and sat down next Sheriff Mathis. Maybe I could hide behind him if things got worse.

On the other hand, maybe they're gonna pin a medal on me. A secret medal. Hey, it could happen.

Captain James gathered our attention, using whatever power it is that ship-captains, successful miltary COs and the better managers have, and launched right into it: "Bobbi, do you know why you've been asked here?"

"Umm, no. Some 'ask,' Sir. Er—"

He smiled. That's a good sign, right? "There were reasons. Ahem. It has been brought to my attention that you have a 'blog.'"

I shot a quick glance at Sheriff Mike, who looked innocently back. So I looked across at the Chief, inscrutable as ever. He's never struck me as the net-surfing type. Besides, what's this "brought to my attention" stuff? I filed the forms back when I started.

The Captain continued, "It would be an understatement to tell you the Starship Company is concerned about security. Access to interstellar space is the single most explosive secret on Earth and the allied governments require we closely monitor all communications to the homeworld. Yours is getting close to the line."

"Sir — Captain, I cleared that. Ask Mike. I know what the guidelines are and I've followed them: no details about the Stardrive, nothing about the CLASSIFIED, no real names of stars, planets outside the Solar System or any person, no time/distance numbers, I could quote the whole list."

"Security Director Mathis was first officer I asked. His faith in you is...extraordinary. Our employer's faith, less so."

Aw, rats. And it's such a long way home, or even to Kansas II, which is probably as close as they'll ever let me get. "So I have to stop?"

I don't know about anyone else, but I could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed.

Time stretched and my heart sank. Then his expression relaxed; he almost smiled. "No. Particularly in light of certain, hem, recent events. But I am given to understand that the United States Navy has applied considerable pressure to ensure you stop mentioning the Naval Air Station at Groom Lake."

You may have noticed I lack tact. "What? It's just handy shorthand for 'secret airbase.' I've hardly even talked about Area Fif-"
The Chief hissed, "anh-ah!" at me.
"—Groom Lake NAS. And besides, civilian traffic works out of—"

The Chief gave me a blankly disapproving look and kicked me. Or maybe it was Mike, but I doubt that.

"—Another field. Other fields. And besides, I follow the news from home! The new President's cut NASA 'way back. They're about to go public about us!"

Captain James shook his head. "I think he'd like to. His party could certainly use the boost. But it won't happen. The Russians won't stand for it, the Chinese are threatening and the French—" He broke off. I gave him my best quizzical look. "I can't tell all I know and I don't know much. Something has them badly scared. They've tightened security and are in talks with all the major players, even China." I started to speak and thought better of it; this was all way above my pay grade. "The upshot is, you need to watch what you write and how you write it. Based on the latest from USSF Farwatch Command at NAS Groom, the Starship Company has issued new guidelines for communication — letters, e-mail and all online contact. Everyone will be getting a copy but you are getting one now." He paused and looked stern. "Before you get into real trouble."

Okay, fair enough. —For readers who just wandered in, it goes like this: The NATO/Far Edge war sputtered out a few years before the Cold War Earthside lurched to an end. Nations got out of the "Space Navy" business about as fast as they could; even the blackest of black budgets can only be stretched so far and things were right at the breaking point. As "swords" like the huge carrier/transports Vulpine and Lupine were beaten into plowshares — actually, cargo and passenger carrying behemoths* — civilian ideas like freedom of speech and freedom of association began to spread. There are still real problems stemming from the fact that the Hidden Frontier is hidden and while the effort to keep it so usually isn't intrusive, it is often troubling. How to keep something that big hidden? For the Edgers, it's a culture-wide conspiracy of silence; these are the folks responsible for the few genuine UFO encounters, after all and their ranks include some of the most successful smugglers and black-marketeers humanity has yet produced. The Russians and Chinese simply don't allow anyone in the know (other than a handful of officials) to return to Earth, ever. The Soviet Russians went to extremes, back when: the entire second generation on Stalin Mir were raised unaware of Earth at all. After the USSR fell, the Russian Federation faced a difficult challenge and bobbled it on that world. The Stalinists will trust no one and allow only the most limited contact. At least they're the sole exception among the ex-Soviet worlds, the rest of which are now about as free (or not) as Mother Russia herself. The French FTL fleet is entirely military and under strict discipline; their "colonies" are supposed to be much smaller than anyone else's, narrowly focused on scientific specifics. The U.S./Commonwealth worlds, on the other hand, try hard to keep communications open and available. Between worlds, there are no limitations unless the planetary governments impose them (as has happened, various times, on Linden/Lyndon). Dependent governments and enterprises, like the oil and mining outfits on Blizzard, the U.S. Territory of Kansas II or the Canadians on Vineways can't even impose stricter limits than the allied governments allow. There's Fed/Crown censorship on what goes back to Earth, but it has been pretty relaxed; who'd believe it?

Some, it seems, do. Or USSF and the U.S. Navy think they do, which comes to the same thing as far as it matters to me.

And I was getting the VIP treatment because...? While the Chief was doing his usual impression of the Buddha — the serene one, not the fat, jolly version — and "Sheriff" Mike can do the cop-face all day long, Starship Captains, the successful ones, are political animals. Captain James was more successful than most and proved it now by giving me a conspiratorial smile. "Your blog already had ears twitching. Your little run-in with an FCS agent played well with the Company and the worlds we trade at but it put you right at top of USSF Intelligence's list. I know you like to play the iconoclast; I've seen your service record" — Ouch! It was my bad luck to have enlisted in the U. S. Space Force just in time to learn my trade...and then run headlong into the drastic reductions of the 1980s. Any excuse would do and I was young and entirely too independent: O-U-T, missy, and don't get caught in an air-tight hatch on the way — "and you must understand this is not the time to get your back up."

"Is that a roundabout way to say I have to drop my blog? There's about a dozen people who'd be e-mailing with questions."

He looked impatient. "No. It means you have to follow the new guidelines. I'm sure you can do that; USSF wanted to be sure you took the advice seriously."

"Serious as the walk home, Sir!"

"Hm. See that you are, or you just might have to."

I hoped that was a twinkle in his eye but I think I have learned when not to push my luck. "I shall, sir." I did my best to radiate demure sincerity, failed. "I shall."

He turned to the Security Director and nodded; Mike handed me a manila envelope and said, "There ya go: the rules."

* * *

That was 48 hours ago. Never did get any coffee in that meeting. I've been studying The Rules in my free time since and truth to tell, it's nothing I wasn't already doing. —Oh, I have been getting close to the edge. I really shouldn't have even mentioned the CLASSIFIED, let alone any clues to the size or the hinting at what trades are involved in building one; but good luck assembling your own and even more so considering that the — but never you mind. It's somewhere between the size of a fridge and a Freightliner and when tickled properly it folds up space like your Mom does a bedsheet and that's all you need know.

And I Work On A Starship is gonna stay right here at the usual stand.
* All starships are hideously expensive to operate (though peculiarities of the 'Drive do create economy of scale, especially for the very largest) but an aging fleet of star-jumping warships and their supporting vehicles, with enormous crews, out-dated equipment and little provision for cargo, couldn't be supported for long and kept hidden. Lupine and Vulpine were the biggest of the breed and had required massive refitting for their new role.