[TO THE BEGINNING]
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."
"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.
[TO BE CONTINUED]