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:
"It's your dime, bucko. And my time's a-wastin'."
"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.
[CONTINUED IN CHAPTER FIVE]