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:
IRRATIONAL NUMBERS PARASPATIAL ENGINEERING
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."
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.
"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."
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.