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
CONTINUED IN CHAPTER THREE