11 November 2011

Frothup: Tourist!

Not to impugn the Edger tendency to be...cryptic...this is one of the doors to a bookstore across from my autotel and down a ways:At least I'm pretty sure it's a bookstore, based on the window displays and other signage. So far, it hasn't been open when I've been around.


09 November 2011

Frothup: Dropping In Part 13


Focused on the immediate threat, I forgot all about the approaching car until it squealed up to curb next to us, a bright orange VW Beetle with plenty of years on it. The boys all jumped back and I stepped the other way. The driver's door popped open and Rannie Wu followed it like she was on springs.

She was in full USSF Reserve uniform, with sidearm. She faced my confronters, five and a half feet of stern fury, hand on the Beretta, not quite drawing it. "Gentlemen! So nice of you to entertain my shipmate. But it's time to go now, don't you think?"

They didn't stop to discuss it; they faded back, avoiding her glare.

I've never been happier to see the impatient Lieutenant. She hissed at me, "Don't just stand there, you idiot, get in the car!"

I complied with alacrity. The door groaned shut and I pushed the lock button down. Then, my phone rang. Y'know, Tim might have a point.

Lt. Wu glanced my way. Her phone was ringing, too. "General alert. Ignore it." She looked back at the departing locals, who were far enough away to feel safe shouting "Fascists!" at us.

"Idiots," Rannie remarked. "Thugs." She turned, sat down and had her door shut and the car in gear and moving all in one swiftly fluid sweep. "At least you're not missing. One of your clever little friends has put himself in serious trouble. I might as well get you up to speed."

The gist of her update was simple enough: Of course things had been falling apart while I had been, as The Chief later put it in his usual sensitive way, "frittering away the afternoon on shoptalk." I'd been his last call in search of Handsome Dave. When it turned out I had no idea where he was, either, The Chief had notified Lupine's Security Director, Mike Mathis that we had a crewman missing. Mike had redirected his forces on the ground, which meant interrupting Rannie Wu's intel contacts and rousting T away from her book. They'd both been dispatched to Aberstwyth Admin: City Hall, close enough, and seat of the planetary government; also "police" (Public Safety) HQ, consisting a set of dingy offices, a server for "Peace Alerts" and a cell stacked with paperwork. It wasn't a third the size of Aberstwyth Port Security.

It was more than big enough for Aberstwyth's Director of Public Safety, his assistant, T, and — by phone from the ship — Lupine Security Director Mathis. It was Rannie Wu who made it crowded, despite being the smallest person in the room. —Mind you, I got all this second-hand from Rannie and T (who does love a good yarn); but I've had my run-ins with the USSF-I Lt. before in both of her capacities and I don't doubt T's version in the least.

From Lt. Wu's standpoint, her reaction was understandable; the earlier sabotage had been abruptly followed by an outrageous daylight theft and what looked like a crewman's kidnapping; now she was learning the "planetary police force" consisted of three individuals and a computer bulletin board. That was a quarter the size of Lupine's Security and fewer than the number of known USSF-Intelligence reservists aboard ship.

She was already there when T arrived, angry enough to spit nails. The DPS, a well-padded middle-aged fellow with a complicated-looking artificial right leg, was standing next to his desk, looking harassed; his assistant, seated at the desk, watched with a wary expression. A computer monitor on the desk had been turned so it could be seen from most of the room.

Rannie was standing nearly toe-to-toe with the police chief, hands on hips, every visible muscle tensed. "You're kidding me. You have got to be joking. We've had sabotage, brazen theft and now a kidnapping and you...have done...nothing?"

While Lt. Wu spoke, T edged in the door and stood quietly. The assistant DPS noticed and raised a hand in a "hold-on" gesture. At the same time, T realized her boss was on the monitor: Lupine's "Sheriff" Mike Mathis.

The DPS — he was dressed in the usual shorts-and-loose-shirt, though his were all tan and sported a badge and a nametag reading, simply, "JIM" — eased his weight partially onto the desktop and gained a little space. "Ma'am—" he began, earning a glare, "Loo-tenant Wu, we have put alerts on the server, did so as soon as they came in. Every security service and department that can connect to the web will see 'em. Port Security tells me they are 90 percent sure they know who bollixed your noisy shuttles, Hack at Irrational Numbers is doing all anybody can do to figure out who stole your ship's new engine parts and as for this "kidnapping," your man is only four hours late. I think you're over-excited."

Rannie drew a deep breath and it's hard to say what she might've done or said in reply, because T did what any good ship's cop would do: divert, defuse, deflect. "Hey there, Lieutenant Wu, Mike, um, Jim and—"

Rannie turned towards T. The Assistant DPS demonstrated peace-officer instincts; she stood up and leaned over the desk, right into Rannie's path, holding out her hand. "Arabella. Arabella Washington. And you must be Ta-"

"She certainly is," Rannie said. "And she's late."

That was enough of an opening for Jim to get farther back and Mike Mathis to pipe up, "Lt. Wu, as far as I know, you're the only crewperson on-planet with a vehicle. T got here as fast as she could."

Rannie kind of huffed at that but it shut her full boil down to a simmer. Arabella and T traded wry looks.

Mike continued, "T, I've been bringing everybody up to speed. Our friends here aren't so sure Dave's really missing; they don't know him like we do." True enough; while there's no such thing as a short conversation with Handsome Dave — what we call The Dave Treatment is in large part a natural gift for being a good listener — the man is as dependable as a clock. "I've put a temporary hold on squirt-boosters after the next launch up; we've got eight hours at least. I want you and Lt. Wu to round up your pal Roberta and the two pilots we've got down there, and I want a read on the preacher, that George Wells and his buddies. I was gonna send his sister down on the next drop but DPS McAlheny tells me he's not running a prison."

The DPS leaned in. "'Jim' is fine. All I have is a place to hold folks who get intoxicated and won't go home, idiots who keep fighting, that sort, overnight or a couple days until they can get adjudicated. Somebody rates locked up, and I'm not sure Miss Irene Wells does, you'll have to negotiate for bonded storage."

I'm glad I heard about that after the fact — the last time I'd seen Irene Wells, she was in the process of arranging my death and nearly succeeded. Trained as some kind of Edger last-ditch militia and probably not too tightly wrapped, she'd turned murderous while following her brother on his mission to bring his philosophy to the Hidden Frontier. (See Another Day for the whole story).

Mike looked resigned. "She rates a cell on this ship; she admitted to all charges and invoked the Agreement."

Jim shrugged, "Not how we'd handle it. If she is under charges, all it takes is for her to swear pax and post a surety so she need not be confined; she would be on the next homeward ship or posted forfeit." Aberstwyth might have switched sides but their legal system was still mostly Far Edge: restitutional justice and what strikes me as naive faith a person's word is their bond, at least when backed up by a big chunk of cash they'll lose if they break it. (Edger ship law is different and altogether harsher; instead of jail, they give vacuum-breathing lessons. The offense rate is low but the recidivism rate is even lower).

Mike said, "I know how you'd do it. So she's staying put. I still need to locate my people and I don't care how clean he is, Wells and his merry band need checked out."

Even Jim agreed to that much — "As long as nobody has their privacy invaded." The assistant DPS was put to calling up the public information on Wells, who had a lecture meeting slated for that very evening; T did a follow-up on all crewpersons known to be on-planet, narrowing down an already short list and ending up with one location-unknown in addition to Dave: me.

For reasons that I'm sure must have looked sensible to someone — T just looked at me like I was an idiot when I interrupted her description to ask why — on Frothup, celphone location data is only available if the customer dials 999 for emergency help; lacking GPS satellites, it is localized to the cell level, which information is given to ambulance and/or security providers by the phone company's own call center. Okay, lacking that, they could have simply called me; they could have called my boss, especially since he was the guy who told them Dave had gone missing. Instead, they tried Irrational, learned Finley and I had left and for where, spent a little while finding out there was one (1) listed phone number for the "Co-operative," a telephone answered by uncooperative persons, and sent Rannie to retrieve me.

I guess it worked out. Certainly even with the hyper-efficient, cranky Lt. Wu irked at me, I was happy she found me when she did.

She always makes me feel like I should've spent more time at the mirror; where I'm looking pretty rumpled by the time I arrive at Engineering in the morning and the less said about my hair, the better, Rannie Wu looks sleek, uniform (Merchant Service or USSF-Reserve) perfectly in order, long reddish-black hair pulled back in a ponytail with not a strand out of place, and the kind of skin and coloring that makes makeup redundant. Being annoyed makes her, if anything, look even more poised. That said, she appeared to have reached a state somewhere past simple irk, positively humming with controlled anger. Sitting next to her as she slewed the elderly Bug around and zoomed back towards the main road, I tried to make sense of it. "You think Dave got kidnapped?" was what I came up with.

She gave me a sidelong glance, then looked back at the street ahead, downshifting and passing an automated truck. "I haven't made any conclusion. It could have happened. Your supervisor and Mister Mathis want to locate David. I was supposed to be working with one of the Security shift supervisors, finding how someone got access to sabotage our squirt-boosters in a secure facility, so I was available."

It made sense — Lt. Wu's actual job is inventory control and analysis, a kind of perpetual audit of Stores & Cargo that can make the difference between profit or loss — and, sometimes, between surviving and not. Scuttlebutt has it the United States Space Force had trained her as an intelligence analyst, searching out the effects of Edger smuggling on trade to pinpoint who they were dealing with on Earth and where they were landing, a kind of spy-accountant. When peace broke out, she got RIFfed the same as I did — except that as an officer, they kept her on as a reservist, provided she could find a job in the newly-civilian merchant fleet. You might think "inventory control" was dull routine but in fact, knowing exactly what and how much the ship has of, well, everything at any given time is essential, if Lupine is to avoid coming up short lightyears away from any possible resupply. With T to check the physical arrangements and Rannie going over the records, they'd make a formidable investigative team. She seemed plenty formidable to me, taking the corner on dark yellow (literally yellow fading through orange to red, many of Aberstwyth's traffic lights being plain weird) and very nearly two wheels. I didn't even know an old Bug could do that.

Rannie made a frustrated sound, something between a hiss and a sigh, and got the car around slower traffic and into what passed for a fast lane before continuing, "Since I was the only one who bothered to obtain a vehicle, I was the only choice. Now that I've found you, though—" She broke off as another driverless truck changed lanes in front of us. Another pulled up next to the Bug and both slowed to the speed limit. Rannie frowned and huffed, "Oh, not again."

I tried not to smile. It had that Edger feel: unlikely to be chance and it beat either a traffic ticket or impact-testing the little car.

Rannie had puzzles on her mind other than traffic control."There's something being overlooked. Frothup is allied with NATO and we're all such friends—" (Looking back only a few minutes, you sure could have fooled me about that) "—but FCS still has a presence here and nobody — not the local 'police,' not Mr. Mathis — wants to even notice it. We have a chance to see what they're up to, right now."

I asked, "Hadn't I better report in first?"

She snorted. "Hah! Aren't you even a little curious?"

I wasn't, my previous encounters with avid Federation of Concerned Spacemen members not having been especially safe or, in one case, even sane, but she was driving. Besides, the Purser's Department can make your life pure-dee hell without even trying; getting on Rannie's bad side would not be wise. So I just shrugged.

"The FCS office is only a short distance away. A nice little visit couldn't do any harm."

I had my doubts about every part of that statement, but I wasn't doing the driving.

True to form, she had rented a fancier phone than the minimum the Starship Company will cover and even without GPS satellites, it tracked its own location pretty well on cell triangulation and dead reckoning. She already had the address programmed in.

The place was on the far side of Aberstwyth from the port and a couple of blocks South of us. We were there in ten minutes. FCS Hall was a plain-looking industrial building, with block walls and a sheet-metal facade. Double doors opened into a tiny lobby, with another set of doors directly ahead. A sign on them read "CLOSED," above a list of coming events, some already past. To the right, a ticket window and a door next to it labeled "OFFICE."

Rannie strode through like she was serving a warrant; I trailed after. It looked like the lobby of a small business; a stocky, fit-looking and very blond young man behind a desk started to ask,

"Can I help—?" Then he took in Rannie's grim expression and uniform and stood up. "Hey! You stop right there!" He was armed and his right hand was on the butt of whatever kind of pistol he was carrying. I couldn't tell what it was and I didn't much care.

I'm not brave, or bulletproof either. I sidestepped, hands held out. I remember thinking, irrelevantly, that his eyes were an unusual color, very light hazel, almost gold. He had a laser-leveled flat-top haircut, too. His plain shirt and slacks looked almost like a uniform, right down to a nametape reading "T. HUCKLESTON" over a chest pocket.

Rannie ignored the gun and me as well. She marched right up to the desk, commanding the space disproportionately to her size. "The War ended a long time ago; don't be silly, young man." To my surprise, it worked. He took a step back, uncertain. Rannie put her hands on the desk and leaned across, right into his personal space. "Are you in charge of this office?"

"Um, no. No ma'am. That would be Hank. Uh, Hank Kimball. I am his assistant."

Rannie nodded curtly. "Then fetch him."

"Not until after four! Ah — I mean, he is not here." But the protesting assistant had taken a quick look towards a door in the wall to his right.

Rannie smiled in a way that promised nothing good and said, "You're not much of a liar. Shall we try again?"

The young man set his jaw. "He is not to be disturbed!"

Rannie's smile got wider. "I'm sure he wouldn't find a friendly visit disturbing. Why don't you ask him?"

It's not that she's all that persuasive or physically intimidating; Lt. Wu possesses the kind of tenacity found in bulldogs and IRS agents and when you factor in her propensity to operate in a perpetual simmering snit, she can only be resisted for so long and then you've either got to shoot her or give in. The assistant seemed to be giving the first option serious consideration; he glanced around a bit wild-eyed, but his hand finally left the gun. I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding and made an irrelevant mental note that he had one of those clunky plastic-frame guns. I was trying to figure out which one it was — some of them don't even have a real safety — when Rannie abruptly turned and strode to the door the young man had glanced towards.

"Come along," she said, opening it to reveal a long hallway.

The assistant said, "Hey—!" But he'd lost the initiative; he caught up with her in three long steps and I hurried after, the door closing behind me. He started to put a hand on her shoulder but she spun around, one hand up.

"Ah-a," Rannie chided.

"No, wait, you do not even know where you are going."

"I'm sure you'll rectify that."

He shrugged, started to edge past her and made an abrupt feint, both hands and one foot in motion; Rannie converted her warning gesture into an odd block that involved kicking off from the wall and turning. By then, I'd stepped back; whatever ninjary it was, I wanted no part of it. They froze for a moment and then started trading move for move, evading, blocking, each moving to grapple and never quite connecting, faster and faster. I had no idea what to do — I'd about made up my mind to go grab a chair from the room we'd just left and try to hit the attacking Edger with it, when he began to laugh. Rannie stopped in mid-attack, puzzled. He held up both hands in surrender and tried to say something, stopped and started over, "Okay, lady, no shooting!"

"Why not?" Sure enough, Rannie's hand was on her still-holstered sidearm. Again.

"Pax! I yield. You are no ninety-day wonder, Lieutenant."

Rannie looked daggers at him, "But you just had to try?"

He grinned. "Affirmative."


There's no telling how long they'd've gone on like that, but they didn't get much time. The door at the far end of the corridor opened and a stranger looked out, exhaling a long blue ribbon of smoke. Handsome Dave was looking over his shoulder, a cigarette dangling in his mouth.

"Huck! Technician Huckleston! What is going on out here?" the stranger asked.

The young Edger had turned away from me by then but his body language spoke volumes. And as my fellow Engineering Tech Dave recognized me and then Lt. Wu, his expression took a similar turn: Uh-oh. Or possibly even Ohsh-t!

It had been another long day, even allowing for Frothup's 30-odd hours; they both looked so much like kids caught raiding the cookie jar that I started laughing so hard I had to lean against the wall.


15 July 2011

Frothup: Dropping In, Part 12


As I've said, Finley managed to deflect what looked to me like an outpouring of long-suppressed wrath from the hyperspace engineer and we parted from him on at least neutral terms. Once we were making our way back across the gravelled chaos of the "Cooperative," Finley started to chuckle.

I didn't think it was funny. "What got into him? It's just a telephone."

"It is for you. —There's a reason he's not working over at Tweed. Or anywhere else."


"You ever notice how the best 'Drive people, the top navigators and automation designers, all tend to be a little different?"

I thought about it. Take Lupine Engineering: we're an assorted lot but pretty typical of the genus geek, it seemed to me: at turns hyperfocused and distractable, not always so great with the interpersonal stuff. Okay, not average, but who is? "Not really. But I didn't mean to upset him."

He misread my expression (or did he?) "Ha! You do know what I mean. Your tutor — did Tim ever even introduce himself? — is a real extreme case, is all. Did him good to be reminded some of us have bosses."

We parted company at the park. Finley headed toward the Tweed building and I walked back towards my autotel, keeping an eye out for a bus or a marked stop. (I really should have looked up the returning bus schedule!) The anti-Earth graffiti on the park gate was already starting to blur and fade. Frothup's long days meant there was still plenty of light and so far, there'd been no hint of rain. The corner where I'd stepped off the bus didn't have any of the usual signs. The one by the autotel'd had read...Oh, duh. "Phi-Low Transport Stop 6." I hadn't noticed any barcode nonsense syllables on the bus, though.

I kept walking, figuring I'd come to Thoth Street in a few blocks and walk the rest of the way unless a bus happened by. A big, fading, half-painted over poster on the side of a building three stores high caught my attention. It looked like had shown a row of tractors working vast fields; the text at the bottom was illegible but at the top, I could make out "H..LP FCS...IGHT..." and below that, "...e Food Army...." The Far Edge had been in a bad way right after withdrawing from Lyndon/Linden, the oldest settled planet and the only one with four names: It was their breadbasket. They'd called it Peace-and-Prosperity, which has always struck me as wishful thinking. Still, the settled region is great for farming and the easily-mined coal at Pitty doesn't hurt. After they'd skipped out at Lyndon, they'd had to go with Plan B. Frothup had been one of a pair of worlds found suitable for rapid agricultural expansion. The other one had failed, (rumor says very badly), but things had worked out here. It put me in happier mood — the place didn't have that many people, only a few towns and just one large city; we'd find the stolen 'Drive amplifiers and if some of the people were hostile, so what? Most were not. Weren't. I corrected myself and wondered if I was starting to pick up the accent. Things weren't so bad. Raub and Handsome Dave would get the sabotaged squirt-boosters squared away, I'd finish the class on the new 'Drive amps I was supposed to be taking, we'd check out the recovered units, install them and it's all be back to normal.

Picture me, if you will, strolling along on a fine later afternoon, reading old billboards, gawking at buildings and the somewhat overwhelming arch of blue sky overhead, starting to be dotted with clouds from the direction of the port, the city's hum briefly broken by the distant Ba-bam! pop-pop of a squirt-booster leaving port. I spotted the little exclamation marks of a course and attitude adjustment scrawled high in the sky. I looked for the wavering star of Lupine herself without success; held "parked" at low-orbit altitude on the fusion/MGHD drives, far above the far side of the port from the city, reflectivity reduced by the barely-idling drive that keeps realspace effective mass manageable, it didn't take much of a cloud to hide the ship from view. Closer to sunset, she'd sparkle against the darkening sky but it was still too early for that.

When I looked down, I had company. Three young men — late teens, maybe, or a little older — had arranged themselves on the sidewalk ahead, blocking my path. One wore a dark T-shirt with the circled-A-and-star, and a truculent expression. The shirt hung so long that only the ragged cuffs of denim shorts could be seen between and his legs. His companions looked a little uncertain; both were dressed in dungarees and tan tropical-type shirts, almost like a uniform. All of them had buzz-cuts, grown out to various degrees.

What the heck, I smiled and said, "Howdy," as the distance closed.

The T-shirt wearer gave me an insolent once-over, shrugged. "You are a long way from home, lady."

One of his companions snickered. "Yeah. Long way."

Well, that was true, but it wasn't friendly. I stopped farther away than I usually would and tried to look around without appearing to. Still— "Not as far as you'd think." Nobody else in sight. Two intersections down, traffic came and went, but never turned our way.

He snorted. "Too far, Earth-girl. Nobody wants you people here."

"Hey, look, I'm just goin' where they tell me—"

One of his pals, the guy who'd snickered, "You people are hanging a warship over us!"

The ringleader took a step towards me. "Nearly bombed us by accident, is what I hear. Or was it an 'accident?'"

I wondered who'd been telling tales out of school? Our would-be saboteurs? Oh, there was no winning this one. It was worth a bluff; I stood up straight and gave them my best schoolteacher look. "I don't know what kind of wild rumors are goin' around, gents, but Lupine has been a plain cargo and passenger ship for twenty years, we never park over settled lands and the ship hasn't got any bombs."

He gave me a nasty smile and rubbed his hand over his scalp. "Right. Like Earth would tell the truth. The whole city heard your misfire the other day!"

Misfire? —Right. Butch's seat-of-the-pants corrections on our wild ride down, lower and louder than usual, especially for a port more used to little Edger bell-ships whistling and buzzing down. I looked him square in the eye and lied, "Just the normal sound of normal squirt-booster operations, Mister—?"

"We reject your empty titles! 'Normal?' Do you think we are all deaf?"

He was nearly shouting and way closer than I wanted. Oh, this was going well. I hoped my increasing panic wasn't showing.

The snickerer took a step closer, too. I held up both hands in front of myself what I hoped was a placating manner and thought about pocketknife in my wright pocket. I was wishing for the first time since Linden/Lyndon that I was armed with something a little scarier. Still, you can't let 'em know they're getting to you, right? I smiled, "Not at all. I think you're used to different ships." I took a sidestep and saw a car turn onto the street from the busy crossroad and head our way, a bright speck. I sure hoped they would keep on coming.

The guy in the FCS T-shirt shook his head. "Lies. Nothing but lies." He stepped within arm's reach, his buddies close behind.

Now I really wanted to be carrying a gun. I'm not all that great; I probably wasn't was gonna quick-draw and do an El Presidente against three guys at close range, especially since there was a good chance they were armed, this being a former Far Edge planet. The way things were going, it sure looked like I was about to discover Edgers were not the least bit sexist about administering a curb-stomping and I would rather have some other options.

If I'd been a little smarter — or paid attention in the self-defense classes T and Ian take turns giving — I would have stepped back, increased the distance. As it was, I thought it would make things worse, so I stood my ground. It wasn't helping.


23 June 2011

Frothup: Dropping In, Part 11


Meanwhile, back at the ranch... Really, it was a normal-looking street, as normal goes on Frothup; since the bus lines were in off-peak mode and a couple of those had been diverted to the Port route, the plan was that our guy would meet up with an Innovative vehicle to ride to their yard. Handsome Dave had walked up Thoth Street a couple of blocks to 315 and turned portward, headed towards where the Innovative truck was supposed to find him. At the first intersection (I looked it up — Set Street, of course), a tiny car sidled up to curb directly in his path. The passenger door popped open as it stopped and the driver said, "Get in!"

Dave said something conversational about this not being the kind of truck he expected but the driver merely repeated the command, expression unreadable behind huge, dark sunglasses — and pointed a gun at him. He did as he was told.

Not that I knew anything about it at the time. It was awhile before any of us found out, when Innovative started asking how come our guy couldn't be bothered to show up as planned. Their driver had a schedule to keep; in addition to spacecraft, the company serviced a wide range of large, complex machinery, too varied to leave to even Edger robotics for loading, transport and unloading. He'd waited ten minutes, tried Dave's cell phone (via Lupine) a couple times, notified his co-ordinator and gone on. The usual daisy-chain followed; you can fill in from there.

Eventually, someone at Innovative ended up talking to the the Chief, who informed Lupine Security as a matter of SOP. The ship, after all, has crew on the ground in some interesting places — Linden/Lyndon, the ex-Soviet worlds (except for Stalin Mir, of course), even "safe" planets like Blizzard or Kansas II are not without hazard. So in due course, my phone rang and so did T's.

I'll assume she was reading. Me, I was just inside a kind of a building at the "Technical Assistance Collective," trying to make sense of the place and wondering what I'd got myself into.

One of the kettle-tenders had noticed us, waved and jogged over. "Mike! Man, I hardly see you," he said. He bore a strong resemblance to my native guide.

"I never know when you'll be busy. —They've got you cooking?"

The other man — he looked to be early 30s at most — looked a little abashed and waved a hand vaguely at the fire. "Got stuck. Change of pace. You know. Hey, it's ollapodrida — want a bowl?" He noticed me and waved more widely. "Plenty there."

"We've eaten." Mike looked to me. "Roberta, this disreputable specimen is my baby brother. And possibly the best 'Drive-space theoretician we've got. Call him H.P."

The subject of this praise looked a little flustered. "I guess I do okay. Do better if I could just..." He trailed off and looked distractedly into the distance, lips moving. "Hey! ...Maybe." He looked back to us, said "Um. Nicemeetingyou. Gottagit," and dashed off towards one of the temporary-looking structures some distance away.

Mike watched him go with a half-smile. "We might not see him for awhile. During the War, sometimes he'd... Ah. Well." He started walking towards a different little building and I fell in beside him.

To my eye, neither man looked much older than me. "'The War?' You fought?"
He fell out of reverie with a visible start. "'Drive Tech 1, FCS contract fleet, on Lang's Longhauler. H.P. was in Navs. —How old do you think I am?"

I figured I should guess high. "45? 50?"

"Not by the calendar. Double-Ell spent a lot of time at a large fraction of c. We went in after your lot took 'Linden.' I was thirty-three."

Fifty years ago.

He looked wistful. "After '89, our contracts were released. Our home ship had survived. We went back but it wasn't home any more. Even the people we had known—" He stopped, looking blindly into the distance.

Sure, the '89 Agreement promised those touched by the conflict a trip home. But in a move eventually duplicated by NATO and the former USSR, in the first year of open conflict, the Far Edge owner/captains comprising the contract fleet of Federation of Concerned Spacemen came up with an analog to "Boomer" nuclear missile submarines: "Ghost Ships," running at a high fraction of light speed, transiting a system too rapidly to be intercepted even if it had been located,bobbing into Jump once it was far enough away and re-emerging, several jumps later, lined up for another run. Orders were given by ansible in Jump; on return to normal space, an attack could be launched, deadly and practically impossible to stop because of the extreme velocity. It was risky, a collision with even a small object likely to destroy the ship; but it was a major part of the tottering balance that prevented major destructive attack against inhabited planets and stations. For the crew, at such velocities, time slowed; years passed in the war as months did aboard and every Jump brought unexpected change, news twittering in over the ansible at rates that took sophisticated equipment to catch and slow to readability. They were isolated more thoroughly than any Boomer crew: at the end of a Ghost Ship crew's tour, a year of more of subjective time, family and friends left behind had aged up to a decade; over the course of the war, a lifetime or more had passed in five or six years of shipboard time and short, disorienting leaves.

Most crews stayed on after their first tour, in the company of others likewise adrift in time. Reintegration had been difficult — dour Gale Grinnel in Lupine's Engineering department was a typical Ghost Ship veteran: dour, uncommunicative, competent and distant. And at that, our side only ran such vessels for the last twenty years of the War.

I was taken by surprise. "Geez! I didn't know. Mike, that's lousy."

"Yeah, but at least it was the two of us. It could have been a lot worse. It was for most crew." He shrugged. "we're here. We survived. —Time's wasting. Let us see if we can educate you."
He walked off towards "R&D" and I scrambled to keep up.

The rambling shack we were headed to was farther away than it had looked, with huge windows that seemed to have been pried together from whatever random pieces of glass and plastic the builders had found.

By way of changing the subject, I asked Mike about the oddball structure and the people in it. "It's what FCS recognizes as a Voluntarist Syndicate. You can call it an anarchist commune," he said, "More or less. Propped up by business owners who provided the land and the big roof and still pay baseline utilities. Tweed objected to the contribution Irrational Numbers makes until we took them line-by-line through the ROI: most of our advances come from here, or from people who choose to live here. It's a safety valve for the participants: shelter of sorts, access to a little power and clean water, and a chance to...work at what strikes their interest. Or do nothing, though that's frowned on. We don't have a university-as-such but this is a substitute." He gestured at our surroundings: a scattering of trailers and ramshackle buildings, the graveled floor, the rough, soaring roof and pillars and posts holding it up, lit by scattered skylights, unglazed openings and assorted high-efficiency lights. "Sort of."

Hyperphysics Application House — at least that's what it said over the door — resembled Doc Daugherty's office at Irrational, only on a grand scale. The big windows opened onto a large area with workbenches nearest them, everything from wildly piled to carefully ordered or even completely bare, some with names or warning notes. Past them, an open area with blackboards and groups of chairs and on the far wall, a few desks and a large, old-fashioned corkboard, cluttered with notices and posters and sign-up sheets.

Mike didn't slow down; he made a beeline for the board while I gawked like a tourist in his wake. It was a complete antithesis of shipboard Engineering. It was the Chief's worst nightmare.

"Ha! The very guy," Mike said. "Come on."

And he took off for a door, about the time I'd found a sign-up sheet for time slots on Free Research Vessel Bloater. Oh, appealing name. I doubletimed after Mike through the door. It gave on a hall; rooms opened off the hall and one of them proved to be the office/apartment of another one of Mike's former crewmates, who initially scowled at us but rapidly warmed to a chance to lecture.

I can't go too much into detail about what I was stuck on (plus it's embarrassingly self-evident in hindsight); I'm not teaching a class here and then there's the way if I throw many hints about the Stardrive, I'd end up way back in the outback somewhere like Blizzard with no Internet or calling-out privileges. I've been told I can't even mention this guy's name, thanks to some genuinely addlepated security restriction from our pals at Groom Lake NAS. I will mention my surprise when a very large tan-and-yellow striped cat interrupted by sauntering in, leaping to a chair and announcing, "Sfishes. Naow!" Edgers — they had to go and breed cats for speech.

I learned a lot, though the math kept taking unfamiliar turns. Suffice to say that two hours later when my phone started ringing, I was unstuck and well on my way to seeing where theory and the real world met in a whole new light.

When my phone went off, I was in serious geekspace mode. My purse started bleeping and my host took a a couple steps back. "Gah! Phone!"

I gave him a rueful grin, my very best charming duty-calls look but it didn't help much. He shook his head. "You cannot expect to get much done if any nitwit with a phone can interrupt!"

He had a point, though the caller was hardly a nitwit. The Chief talked right over my "Roberta Eh—"

"Bobbi. Your co-worker Dave, is he with you?"

He had the grimly-intense tone that usually bodes ill for someone. I hoped it wasn't me. "No. Nossir."

"Do you know where he is?"

"Not at the repair yard?"

"Hmph. If you should see him, have him call me. At once."

That was the end of that call. And my update on 'Drive theory, too — my tutor was giving Mike a dark look and saying something about telephones, and self-distracting Earthers. He broke off suddenly when he saw me folding up my phone.

Mike made a show of checking his watch, "Would you look at the time! Better get back to the plant and call it day."

We got.

About then, Handsome Dave, blindfolded, had been driven to an unknown location by his kidnapper. His planned bailing-out at the first opportunity had been immediately foiled by an unwieldy electromagnetic lock that had commenced humming in his right ear as soon as he'd shut the door of the tiny vehicle. His very best efforts to apply the Dave Treatment — his ability to get strangers talking about their profession, hopes and, often as not, trade secrets is nearly legendary aboard Lupine — had met with flat instructions to shut up. After his fourth attempt was rebuffed with a gun barrel to his ribs for emphasis, he took the suggestion to heart.

Likewise, his stealthy efforts to get his rent-a-phone from the holder in his belt were noticed and nipped in the bud: "Take the phone out and drop it on the floor!"

Dave swears he was ready to take a swing at his captor after that and take his chances with a one-sided gunfight in a tiny, moving car, but before he could try, the car swung around a corner, up an incline and stopped. An electric motor rumbled for a few seconds, then fell silent.

"You can take the blindfold off now but don't try anything."

He did, and didn't, and saw the car was inside a large, mostly empty room, maybe a warehouse. He started to turn towards his captor, who was having none of it.

"Stop. My clients have a message for you."

"And they didn't want to call? Certified mail too slow? —Right."

"A message for your ship. For your captain. And they wanted it believed. Your ship is in terrible danger."

Dave couldn't help it; he turned and goggled at his kidnapper and started to laugh.

That's as much of a coherent account as I could peice together afterwards; the upshot is, a couple of hours later, he and the local FCS "Extension Agent," which is something like cross between a hired PR flack and a Farm Agent, were fast friends. From the results, I can only assume The Dave Treatment worked, despite getting a bad start. The gun proved to be an oversized lighter, which dovetailed neatly with one of Dave's favorite vices. The Extension agent proved to be a smoker, too — tobacco's not unknown on the Far Edge but it's not common.

One of the problems with the shadowy "Federation of Concerned Spacemen" non-government is that it has no official existence and few if any of the assemblies and appurtenances of a government. Being something of a conspiracy of ship-captains and the semi-official representatives of town-meetings, wealthy only as the participants will contribute — a staggering wealth in goods and materials by Earthly standards — it can't or won't do the normal government behaviors. The FCS is nowhere mentioned in the text of the 1989 Agreement; the closest thing to it is the amnesty granted all Project Hoplite spacefarers ("and descendents, associates and immigrants") save a small group of named conspirators. Rumor has it ratification on their side of the line was a raggedly uneven affair of ad campaigns, direct voting and a running debate among ship-owners and captains that nearly became open violence. There aren't any FCS embassies and there's no way for any outsider (or, I suspect, most Edgers) to speak directly to the FCS as a body — assuming it even has meetings. There appears to be no single body in charge, at least not in the way the rest of us think; there's just a broad set of generally-agreed-on principles, with ad-hoc enforcement, funded on the spot. What they have are private message boards (the electronic variety), PR reps, extension agents, a scattering of attorneys (at least in NATO-controlled space) and, if all else fails, hired Mil/Space troops. It's unsettling.

The Federation of Concerned Spacemen started out as a conspiracy and it still runs like one.

This time, things had very nearly not worked out. The FCS agent had been trying to contact Lupine command from as soon as we'd tied into the planetary telephone network. Crank calls from lunatics — no, make that eccentrics, the denizens of Farside City having taken "Lunatic" for their own — claiming to speak for the Edger "government" are a common annoyance and on a busy starship, they get shunted to voicemail at best. Lupine CCC was already talking with Aberstwyth Port Control and the Purser's tame legal types had been swapping long e-mails with their opposite numbers in Frothup's Council of Mayors since we first emerged from Jump. Frothup's an Allied world, a covert NATO member, so calls claiming to represent FCS never got much above the noise floor. He'd been trying to reach someone — anyone! — from Lupine in person but without ready access to the port (say what you will about Edger notions of security, you don't get inside the port perimeter without a work ID, a ticket or some other good reason), it was catch as can.

Handsome, loyal Dave had been walking along to meet the Innovative truck wearing an official ship's t-shirt, our smiling-doggie emblem on the front and "ENGINEERING USAS LUPINE" across the back tall and proud. The Agent saw his chance and took it.

By that point in the story-telling, they both got a good laugh from the kidnapping. The Extension Agent, Henry Kimball ("not Hank, please," which Dave didn't get, "or Kinnison, either," which he did) turned serious again afterward.(Think of him as something like the old Ag guys, with their advice and handouts for the struggling farmer, only with a website and a stack of various media featuring titles like "Interfacing With A Fiat-Money Economy" and "Field Assay Methods for Precious Metals" not to mention articles and books on voluntary economies and suchlike; which is the other reason he couldn't get into the port: Frothup's Council of Mayors considers him a suspicious type). "Look," he said, "You — all of you, your ship — you are in danger.

"You said that back when you pointing a lighter at me. What's the story?"

"Do you know who Irene Wells is?"

Dave did but wasn't sure about admitting to it. "Should I?"

"This is not a joke! She's a prisoner on your Lupine — a political prisoner, I am told."

"She's a lunatic." Dave fumbled for his phone to check the time, realized it was still on the floor of the tiny car. "And a murderer, Probably not even aboard ship by now. Last I heard, we were going to hand her over to your local cops, to wait for a ride home. She took the Agreement."

(Under the Agreement of 1989, citizens and residents of the various polities charged with crimes in "foreign" jurisdictions were allowed to choose repatriation for trial under their own legal system. It's not considered ideal by either side, as non-Edgers thus avoid FCS-customary and costly "restitutional justice" but it also means Edgers caught smuggling can invoke the return clause — and on their side of Line, free trade isn't a crime).

Kimball looked dismayed. "Here? In bonded storage, right?"

"All I heard was, she was being handed to the police."

That would be the same 3-person "police" force I've mentioned earlier. The Edger Agent looked even more worried. "That's only going to make things worse."

By the time I found out about it, it already had.


27 May 2011


In my non-palatial autotel roomette, there is a hot air dryer. An insanely powerful, automatic hot air dryer; none of that "press button, receive bacon" stuff. Just hold your hands or even head under it and it starts up like a baby jet engine.

In point of fact, there's only one label on it:What?

I was a little afraid to put my hands under it. Y'know, for a group of people so concerned about clarity they all sound like itinerant elocution instructors, sometimes I have no idea what Edgers -- even the ex- ones on Frothup -- are attempting to communicate.

12 May 2011

Frothup: Dropping In, Part 10


At about that same time, Lupine's first passenger squirt-booster drop was finally cleared and moving toward the boarding locks. T, Handsome Dave and Rannie Wu had first-available clearance, none of that "standby" flying for them. I got the story later, mostly from T. I've filled in the details as best I could.

Dr. Schmid was Acting Captain; in conference with his and the late Captain James' off-watch alternates — high-level Navs boffins to a man but command-skilled, an uncommon combination — along with the Chief, E&PP's Airframe supervisor, the lead squirt-booster pilot (Butch, teleconferenced from Aberstwyth Port HQ) and assortment of Port officials plus the Mayor of Aberstwyth himself (advised by my new friend Raub from Innovative, sitting beside him) had decided to run a full watch of cargo-only squirt—boosters. This despite every last one of them having been gone over by Engineering and Airframe multiple times, all sabotage found and removed and in pristine condition.

I'd've done it, too.

It was a last-minute thing and didn't get communicated down the ranks; T and Lt. Wu found out while in the same waiting room I'd read my comic book. T took the news with a shrug and got comfortable in a seat. Time to nap. Conversely Rannie Wu was furious. Oh, controlled as ever, but T told me later, "You could practically see steam pouring out her ears." Both of them normally work third shift; with the change, they'd lose a night's sleep with no chance to make it up, especially given the time-slip between ship and planetary surface. Handsome Dave was luckier; the Chief hit his pager before the big conference had even broken up and diverted him to the squirt-booster maintenance bay where he usually hangs out, with a reminder to bring his luggage and be ready to report to Departure at the end of his normal shift.

They made port and were clearing what passes for Customs about the time I was cooling my heels in the Irrational Numbers Security office, a windowless cubbie on the second floor at the front of the mu-shaped building. Mike had called them from Final Test immediately, while Doc checked out the empty amplifier cabinets. Nothing had been damaged; the amplifier modules, each one about the size of a file drawer, sixteen to a cabinet, had been simply been unlatched and slid out.

In the Security office, Mike, Doc and the sole Security worker on duty — a skinny guy carrying a disturbingly-large revolver in a low-slung holster — were watching multiple screens on which, over and over, an automated truck painted just like the "Aw Boo Moo Pow" one I'd seen in the morning rolled up to the dock; two shifter-loader robots rolled out, vanished from the picture and popped up a few seconds later on a high-angle image of the Final Test bay, where they proceeded to load themselves full and return to the truck. It took three trips each to empty the cabinets, a little over two minutes total; at the end, the loaders rolled in, the rear door rattled down and the truck drove away. Another screen showed a wide shot of the entire dock area, a u-shape with the Irrational building fronting three sides; the thieving truck went out onto the street through the gate and turned right. Almost immediately after, one that looked exactly like it arrived from that direction, pulled up to a different section of the docks, and robots rolled out from the building to unload it.

"Back it up again," Mike said, "You can about read the door as it turns."

Doc squinted at the screen, "It is not going to resolve the bar code."

Security shrugged. "Best cameras they'll let me buy."

The entire gibberish wasn't readable but by rocking the clip back and forth, they pieced it out. I suspected wishful thinking for a couple of the letters but the three seemed sure: An Bou Moo Pau. Whatever that meant.

Doc must have read my expression; while Mike and Security talked, he turned to me. "It's an encoding scheme; Junior at Phi-Low's runs so many trucks, he's got barcode readers at all his main clients to track them. Scans barcodes off the street traffic, too. He even sells tracking services to the other carriers."

Sounded like good news to me. "So they could follow that truck if we had the code? I mean, the company could have?"

"Still can. Should be all sorted out by this evening. This has got to be some crazy mistake."

I'm sure I looked as confused as I felt. I guessed, "That 'Ah-Boo' stuff?"

"Pronounceable version of the barcode — people can't read the bars. Sometimes they need to."

I wondered why they didn't just number them but about then, the Security guy looked up, frowning. He was on the phone. "Joan? This is Tack. Tack from 'Rational Numbers? Yeah. Is Junior in?"

He must have been; within minutes, Tack was explaining our problem someone at the other end. He read off the code. Twice. Looked frustrated. "Yeah, it could be 'Ah.' Maybe. But the end is bee-ay-you, clear as the sky."

As much rain as I'd seen in Aberstwyth so far, that didn't sound especially clear.
Things were looking cloudy on the phone, too. "Look, I can give you the time stamp. Another truck came in right after this one left." he fiddled with the camera playback, "14, um,14:32:40 and 14:33:25. Can't you check that? Yeah, I'll hold."

He covered the phone mic. and turned his attention to us. "Says the code we read isn't one of his. Wrong sequence. But there's more than one way to skin this snake."

Maybe there wasn't. After a minute, Junior must have come back; Hack said, "Yeah? What?" and looked annoyed. "Surely it read something?" he asked.

It appeared it hadn't. Tack thanked the guy at the trucking company and hung up, exclaiming, "Dammit!"

Other than knowing the truck had been a fake, we'd learned nothing. Or had we? Dr. Daugherty seemed lost in thought. "Tack, don't we get gate counts from that same system?"

"Sure. But it's just time-in, time-out — oh." He turned back his computer, clicked a couple icons and a new screen showed up. "Last three hours, here we go." He scrolled down, muttering times, then stopped. "It's not here."

Daugherty looked unsurprised. "Thought so. —Trick code." It took twenty minutes and another call to Phi-Low Haulage but by the end, even Tack was convinced: the barcode on the fake truck had unwritten itself. Junior had explained the optical reader could be used as a backup input if the normal serial IO failed. "It's for places where access is controlled, that kind of thing." Whoever had done it knew a lot more about internal procedures at Irrational Numbers and the trucking company than seemed possible.

I asked if the police had been notified; Tack leaned back in his chair. "Probably not the way you mean. It's on the Public Notice page on the 'net, but about now, the Director of Public Safety is having a nap, the Assistant DPS hasn't started her shift yet and Ev — he's my cousin, works nights — is asleep. That is 'the Police.'"

Edgers. I must have rolled my eyes or looked frustrated, because he got a little defensive, "We take care of our own problems. All the private security plus a lot of 'concerned residents' follow Public Notices. They've all read my report and by now, they've seen the video, too. I just posted it. We'll find whoever did this."

He sounded confident. But he still looked worried to me.

About then, the arrivals from Lupine were boarding the bus. T was grinning to herself at the back of the group; she'd just watched Handsome Dave doing his charming best to draw Lt. Wu into conversation. After responding curtly to his first two attempts, the attractive officer had leaned close and whispered something. T, a shameless eavesdropped, had only caught a few words: "...Spring Break...Cancun...video...Starship Company computers..." Whatever the details, it worked; Dave had slowly blushed right up his hairline and moved away. "Handsome" is not the same as "saintly."

I don't know if they had the same bus driver I'd had from my trip into town. T said he was curt to the point of rudeness and not at all helpful in sorting out their luggage; the bus had rattled and snorted into town, made several stops before arriving at the same autotel where I was staying, spat all their bags out in a big heap and roared off almost before they'd exited. "See the Egress..." T mused.

Rannie was disinclined to take matters stoically. "What a dump," was her only comment. Like the other two, she'd picked up a rent-a-phone at the port. She took it out, punched "O" and started looking for a better hotel. From what T told me, she found the automated directory assistance wasn't very good with non-Edger accents.

Handsome Dave had his own orders from the Chief. He had made contact with Innovative Mold on the bus trip in; he took his luggage and while T said, "Your buddy just vanished," he'd actually stashed his stuff, all but a box of replacement circuit breakers and assorted small parts and headed out to rendezvous with an Innovative delivery truck; he and my recent acquaintance Raub were going to start repairs with the squirt-booster at Innovative, then proceed to the port as time allowed. That left T with an open afternoon, a private room and nothing to do; she's as addicted a reader as I am and settled in with paperback, expecting a quiet end to a frustrating day.

...She wasn't expecting the peace and quiet to last: "A policewoman's work is never done," and while she wasn't doing it, new items were being added to her to-do list — but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back at Irrational numbers, I realized I'd been putting off a call. Waiting wasn't going to make it any easier. For a wonder, I got through to the Chief on my first try. He was as receptive to diplomacy as ever:

"Boss? Are you sitting down?"


I took a deep breath. "Our new 'Drive finals were stolen."

"The HPAs? How? Don't they lock doors down there?" (The Chief has a pretty dim opinion of most planet-dwellers, Edgers maybe even more so).

"Um. It's a factory. Trucks in and out. Somebody pulled up, yanked all the modules, loaded them into a truck and drove away."

"'Somebody?' They know who?"

"Actually, more like nobody: it was all automated." I had to explain it in more detail. It still added up to "robots" and "We don't know."

He was unfazed. "Fine. How long will it take to replace it all?"
I hadn't considered that.

Mike, Doc and I were still in the Security office; Tack was on the phone again, talking to his opposite number at some other factory, asking after their security cameras and, for want of a better word, bragging about the theft.

While was doing that, I asked the others how long it might take to start over. Mike looked glum. Dr. Daugherty considered it; you could we wheels going 'round and in about thirty seconds, he grinned. "Five weeks. Maybe a month."

Mike shook his head. "Six weeks, minimum. More like eight. Doc, we don't have a crew. And the semiconductor line will have to be cleared and re-set."

I relayed this to the Chief. He came as near to spluttering as I've ever heard. It wasn't more than a little hesitation and a tooth-gritting edge to his words, "Six...weeks? Unacceptable. Bobbi, handle them; I have to take this to Dr. Schmid."

And he hung up on me, just like that.

While all that was going on, Daugherty sat there smiling. "We'll get 'em from R&D. They designed the semi fab line, after all."

Mike snorted. "Oh, sure. They'll help — if they feel like it. If the same ones show up three days in a row."

It didn't sound like any Research and Development group I'd ever heard of. There was a good reason for that.
* * *

Mike and I were back in Dr. Daugherty's cluttered office; Tack had more-or-less diplomatically chased us out, promising updates, "the very first I find anything out."

Doc had no more set foot in the door and started to sit down than he suddenly was reminded of something. He stood right back up, grabbed a stack of printouts and exclaimed, "Class!"

"'Class?'" I asked, but I was asking a dust trail.

Mike smiled. "The class you have now missed a day and a half of. The plan was to take a little more time with the assembled amps, then I'd get you up to speed for Day Three."
We spent a little time figuring out what I needed to pick up. The relevant chapters of Surfing Through Hyperspace are the standard introductory text each side of the Line, of course, and the basics behind ultra-linear amplifiers, even solid-state ones, are a prerequisite of the job. The high-power solid-state silicon-carbide version is a little tricky and they are peculiar to the Far Edge, at least until now. Too, they don't look at the system in quite the same way — partially due to the WW II German tech they have and we lack, plus divergent developments from there — and as a result, the terms and even schematic symbols are quite a bit different.

Eventually, I got tangled up on something or other that I'd lose my Earthside vacation privileges if I got too specific about. I just couldn't quite wrap my mind around the notion and Mike admitted it was something he was a little shaky on himself. Finally, he came to some sort of decision. "Time to take a walk — I know a couple of guys over in R&D who might help."

I thought he was talking about elsewhere in the Irrational Numbers plant. Next thing I knew, I was following him out the front door, across the street and through a gate into Memorial Park. Both pillars were well-stenciled with "EARTHERS GO HOME," "NATO" under the circle-and-slash symbol and "NO MORE CRATERS," in an assortment of eye-searing colors. It looked fresh.

Mike noticed me noticing. He said a word I missed — something "phage" — looking annoyed and embarrassed.


He waved a hand towards the gate. "It won't last. I'm on the Park Committee. A coating on the concrete inhibits crosslinking and it was seeded with paint-eating bacteria. Gone by tomorrow. —Look, they are vocal but they mean no harm. Kids, mostly."

"Not in the habit of stealing 'Drive finals, then?" I asked.

"As far as I know."

"If I was inclined, this place could make me paranoid."

He smiled sourly but didn't say anything in reply. We walked across the park in silence, skirting the crater. On the far side, the rimwall had been graded down and one of the radial streets ran tangent to it. Across the street, the terrain swept down in a shallow swale and in it, a remarkable building with a huge and variegated series of roofs.

As we got nearer, it seemed to be mostly roof, held up by pillars,posts and the occasional short, random-looking stretch of wall. Various smaller sheds and trailers were scattered around in the vast roofed-over space. In the distance, the harsh blue-white glare of a welder stood out; nearer, a delicious cooking smell mingled with woodsmoke where a couple of people tended a huge kettle over an open fire. It wasn't crowded but there were a fair number of people and machines about, most of them looking busy.

A well-worn graveled path led through a pair of telephone pole-sized pillars; on the right-hand one, an ornate, neatly hand-painted sign reading "TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE COOPERATIVE #68" was nailed up slightly askew; a different hand using electric-violet paint had added a large, sloppy question mark to the end and turned the "OO" of "cooperative" into crossed eyes. Below it, a thumbtacked paper labelled "A Codified Set Of The Builder's, Crafter's, Maker's Rules" had been overstamped with a circle-A in a star, the logo of the most rabid association of the FCS; "There are NO RULES" was scrawled across it.

I stopped and looked at Mike. "This is 'R & D?'"

He gave me a crooked grin. "Best on the planet. Only one on the planet. Where do you think Doc lives?"

Edgers: about the time they're starting to seem normal, they do something to remind you they're insane.


09 April 2011

Frothup: Dropping In, Part Nine


Irrational turned out to be mostly something I do know: applied geekery.

A little study over another vending-machine breakfast got me on the right bus in a series of buses and three transfers later, I debarked a couple blocks away from the factory, along the portward-facing arc in the industrial district, just a little north of the city's east-west centerline. There was a pretty park across the street, bright with in early-Spring growth, ground mounding up towards the center. I admired it as I walked along; Lupine's little pocket park and planters along the passageways don't amount to that much greenspace and Enviro & Physical Plant's greenhouses are all Authorized Persons Only, for a number of good reasons.

A sign over the first gateway I passed read "Memorial Park" and the hill or bluff rising at the center, across nearly a block of greensward and low plantings, suddenly took shape as the outer arc of a circular feature: it was the crater left when Cut & Run crashed. Right across from the Irrational Numbers plant and office. It looked too pretty to have been the center of so much suffering.

Nothing is completely safe and though I doubt all the details will ever be known, most infamous disasters have no single cause, no easy villain Instead, they follow the Titanic Rule: the ocean-liner's tragedy was the result of multiple factors. [Too fast for conditions, poorly-equipped lookout, brittle steel, inadequate rivets, "watertight" construction with designed-in failure and inadequate lifeboats, to name a few.]

In most such disasters, take any single item off the list and the death toll drops precipitately. The true wonder is that nothing as bad has happened before or since out of hundreds of thousands of Edger Glocke-ship landings, no few of them surreptitious smuggling at Earth (and probably even now, Agreement of '89 or no, Edger ships not considering themselves party to a contract they didn't sign). Edgers have screwed a few ships right into the ground and so have NATO/Russian crews; but never as badly as here on Frothup.

It was in that somber frame of mind that I climbed the steps to Irrational's main door, just as a large, driverless truck pulled out of a gate next to the entrance, the legend "Aw Boo Moo Pow" on what I guess you'd still call the driver's-side door. Um, "Aw Boo...?" all right, then.

The lobby was unremarkable, if you ignored the far wall, papered in a regular black-on-white pattern of two-inch tall numbers. In front of the wall, a desk; behind the desk, a woman of that indeterminate middle age I still think of as older than me, despite what my mirror reports.

She was on the phone, finishing one call as I entered and switching to another line with a remarkable bray of "Irrational Num-bers," in an accept that combined an Upper Midwest rasp with the slight over-enunciation typical of most Edgers. She gave me a look that implied I was underdressed for the lobby, tucked the handset under her chin and averred, "Deliveries go through the gate, loading dock, South side. Follow the signs," returning her attention to the telephone immediately after.

I just stood there and waited, studying the wallpaper. I found "3.1415" at the upper left and it started to make sense, in a Far Edge way. Finishing her call, she looked up and realized I was still there. "Can I help you?" she asked, in a tone that implied that she couldn't, wouldn't and I was dim for not realizing it.

"Um, Miz...Mandelbrot?" (That's what the sign on her desk said, YVONNE MANDELBROT, OFFICE MANAGER. The Fate's jest or more Edger humor?). "I'm from the Lupine? To meet Findlay Michaels?" Couldn't keep the questioning tone out of my voice. I felt as if I was back in grade school.

She gave me a doubtful look, but only said, "All right," and turned back to her phone. There was some trick to the thing; her voice was barely audible most of the time. I caught "Earth...says she's...Oh." She hung up and gave me a less-unfriendly look. "He says he'll be out momentarily. Please have a seat." And at that, she tuned her attention back to the phone, looking more like Margeret Hamilton than ever.

Findley Micheals showed up to collect me before I'd read the wall halfway (...1134999999837... and who saw that coming?) and led me back through the office-type offices to what was obviously Engineering space, workbenches and parts racks, test equipment arrayed on carts and emptier space past that. On the other side of the corridor, a row of offices.

Mike stopped at a shut door of translucent glass and tapped, then opened it even as someone on the other side sang out, "C'mon in!"

Within was a still-life pandemonium. It was a small office — still three times the size of the Chief's tiny cubbyhole aboard Lupine but where the Chief's extreme degree of neatness and order makes a preposterously-small space look nearly reasonable, this room felt tiny.

Whiteboards took up most of two walls, with jammed-full bookshelves below them; the far wall had floor-to-ceiling shelves, heaped and cluttered with an assortment of books, loose paper, test equipment and unidentifiable electronic assemblies. Overflow was piled in the corners and had spilled onto the floor.

To our left, a desk, and turning from the desk, a merrily-smiling, craggy man, with dark, curly hair and bright blue eyes. He wasn't much over five feet tall but he seemed to fill whatever space was left, leaving barely enough room for Mike and me to stand. "Come on in," he repeated, "You must be the young lady from the Earth behemoth we're improving.!"

Mike grinned. "She is. Roberta Ecks, meet Doc Daugherty. Doc's our chief design engineer for the solid-state 'Drive amps."

Doc beamed even wider, holding out his hand and adding "And systems, don't forget, they're no real good without a combiner."

We shook on it and I said, "Right. Glad to meet you." He didn't seem any crazier than any other RF design type I'd known; in fact, he reminded me a little of the boffin who'd tried to drum the rudiments of Stardrive theory into us at USSF, twenty years ago. That memory was what made his name click. "Just a minute: the Daugherty?," I asked, "The CLASSIFIED Daugherty Shunt?"

He could't've grinned any wider but he ducked his head in a semi-bow. "The one and only. I've always thought it was good of your side to remember my name."

It was like casually running into Marconi, or at least Philo Farnsworth. The Daugherty Shunt doubled bootstrap efficiency of a CLASSIFIED and improved transition stability even more; it was what made huge commercial starships a practical proposition instead of a chancy gamble.

I've even read papers arguing the Daugherty Shunt played as big a part in ending the War as the Agreement of '89. I don't know about that. I do know that by shortening travel times and making it possible for a really large starship to re-emerge much farther into a solar system without shaking itself to pieces, it had simultaneously made large-scale trade much more practical and the War suicidally deadly: imagine a carrier like Lupine popping up well inside the Solar System, launching a swarm of high-velocity attack ships and missiles, and dropping back into a 'Drive bubble. At a significant fraction of the speed of light, the damage would be done practically before Earth could react. Or any Edger system, station or ally — Smitty's World, La-A, Frothup, Witherspoon, whatever.

NATO/USSF had the technology within months of the Far Edge's first use — whether by espionage, a captured or defecting Edger starship or some other means has never been told. —At the time, nobody knew why the Edgers had not struck first. USSF would have been surprised, had they not been too busy capitalizing on their good luck (or clever intelligence work). After the peace, it became clear that even at war, the Far Edge depended too much on technology and "biologicals" — plants and animals — from Earth.

Daughtery didn't stop the war but his innovation had certainly made both sides blink. And there he was in his cluttered, fusty office, a rumpled little guy with a slightly crooked smile, an ordinary-looking engineer. History, right in front of me. I don't know if he noticed but Mike picked up on my sudden awe and stepped in, "We're proud of Doc. Wait'll you see what he came up with for this project." Doc nodded. "I don't know why nobody else ever thought to scale them up."

Oh my life: from awe to befuddlement in two lines. "Scale what up?" I asked.

"Gysels!" they said in near unison.

It didn't clear anything up. That was all they'd tell me at the time; Mike arranged to meet Dr. Daughtery in the final-test area after lunch and took me on a quick tour of the plant. We didn't get into the semiconductor fab wing at all, of course, other than the shirtsleeve QC and a quick peek through three layers of windows and down the line of gleaming white and stainless steel machinery. Not a person in sight — "Fully automated," Mike said, "With one tech keeping watch inside in six-hour shifts; they take a break and do six on the QC console outside, too."

Sounded like a long day to me but with a two-hour lunch and Frothup's plus-size days, it still left plenty of time.

The rest of the factory was nearly as automated, a little less so near the end of the line. Final Assembly still have more machines than people and the overall pace seemed pretty slow. I asked about that too.

"It's not high-volume. We're still supplying three-quarters of the FCS and independent ships, but we still run in batches; past the initial sub-assemblies, one crew follows a 'Drive assembly all the way through."

I asked about spares and replacements — turns out that's done in very small batches, based on maintaining a small stock level. "Things change too quickly to tie up a lot of dead storage." It makes sense if you've got a factory handy; a starship in flight has to be able to fix whatever might go wrong and so we end up carrying a "dead storage" full stock of spares. Even the old Radio Corporation and Beamathon companies worked that way: starships started out with what they needed and restocked-as-used, on their predictable returns to home port. It might be dead storage to the manufacturer; for us, it was the stuff you'd better have if you didn't want to end up dead.

We even got in a quick look at Lupine's new 'Drive finals, a dozen cabinets full of solid-state modules, pushing over 100 kiloWatts from the combiner hidden behind them into a dummy load.

There were a pair of big momentary switches on long, heavy cables, which Mike said were used to simulate transients, and hit one of them. Bang! Half the cabinets cycled off and back on, barely a blip on the power-out meter.

He handed the switches to me and I asked, "Like this?" gave them a simultaneous double-kerchunk-kerchunk. That time, the room lights blinked; but the 'Drive final came right back up as if nothing had happened.

Mike's eyes were a bit big as he admitted, "You know, I've never killed both sides at once; we've never built a final that ran this much power."

I nodded but pointed out, "It's going to take a hit like that some day when we're flying. I'd just as soon find out if there's a problem while it's still down here."

He said he could see my point. He still didn't look especially happy about it.

By then it was lunch time. Mike had a surprise in store for me there, too; we walked to a by-gosh supermarket (what, you thought it was all freeze-dried space food? Didja miss the soybean fields between city and port?) a block and a half away, "Hi-Frontier." Tucked off to one side, just past the deli section, a half-row of hot-food counters and what food! Childhood Sunday-dinner stuff, turkey rolls, meatloaf and pork roast, a lot of rice dishes, corn, soybeans, green beans. We eat all right aboard Lupine, Enviro and Physical Plant's agronomists grow an astonishing lot of tasty veggies and even manage chickens, a few hogs and, yes, guinea pigs (they're actually pretty good), but Hi-Front's lunch counter put them to shame. I stopped Mike half-way into a kind of apology for such an everyday lunch, "...since we had to reschedule at the last minute."

I don't know if he believed me when I told him he couldn't have done better with a month of planning, but it was true.

After a hasty meal by local standards — a little over an hour — it was back to the final test area. Doc Daugherty was approaching from the other end of the hall as Mike opened the door; I was watching him and until Mike said, "Son of a snake!" I didn't look into the room.

When I did, it took a moment to grasp what I was seeing. The cabinets were still there, but empty. All of the amplifier modules were gone. Lupine's history-making solid-state 'Drive finals had been stolen.

Author's note: you will find that sequence of six nines well into pi; as is so often the case, Richard Feynman was there first. I love his plan for it.

09 March 2011

Frothup: Dropping In Part 8


It was still light — light gray and raining — when I got back to my room at the autotel but since Frothup's day runs a bit over 27 hours, it didn't mean it hadn't been a long day. Once we'd been released from not-quite-durance-vile, we'd caught an indifferent meal in what passed for a lunch counter at the port. Afterward, Raub had headed back to his shop to work up alternatives for the sabotaged circuit breakers and I'd caught a bus back into town.

Our run-in with Port Security had worked out better than expected: though Port Control had flatly denied any chance of the sabotage happening while our squirt-boosters were under their care, the not-police had approached the matter with the cynical skepticism of good cops everywhere and worked their way down the list of every Port employee who could possibly have had access to them. A cleaner named Mallory had shown up for his shift while the vehicles were starting to be hauled to where Raub and I had looked them over. He'd stuck around just long enough take in what was happening; gate records showed him leaving shortly after. Port Security had sent an officer to his address of record, which turned out to be a vacant lot adjacent to the crater from the tanker crash. And that, on this still very Edger-like world, was just about that: he'd been hired without references and there's no official paper trail other than voluntary documents. At least for a certain value of "official."

I didn't hear those details at the time but I have my methods. This is, if it counts as "method" that my best friend is the ship's third-shift Security boss. With one of their own looking very questionable, Port Security decided their opposite numbers on Lupine needed to be brought up to speed; they may be a bit too suspicious of anyone from Earth on the Far Edge but in a crunch, Edgers tend to step right up. Part of stepping up involved an Edger custom I'd heard about but forgotten: they post criminals and debtors. Assault someone, skip out a bill, pull a hold up, dodge making restitution for a crime, run out on a trial or your spouse, flee an accident, whatever, it gets posted. They started out doing it literally, "Wanted" posters tacked up on corkboards and the like; you'll still find that for local stuff in small towns and stations, mining drifts and the like, but mostly it's on computer networks now, internet or even Fidonets in some places. Port Security ran a search on the cleaner's name to no avail — and then tried an image search on the suspect's work ID. The software's tricky but it worked better than you'd think. It turned up three possibles and a little more digging elimated two of them: one too young, one known to have skipped the planet. Number three was a bingo. Vandalism, five years back. It wasn't much as I'd count crime, tagging a building with a political slogan, but despite an attitude towards free speech that'd make the ACLU crow with delight, Edgers take property rights very seriously.

And speaking of free speech... There was a pamphlet shoved under the door of my autotel room when I got there, EARTHMEN GO HOME across the front and a wild mix of misinterpreted, misreported Earthside and NATO-space politics and paranoid accusations on the inside. Who knew the Trilateral Commission even knew about the Hidden Frontier? Or that the Kansas II territorial government was run by non-humans? Despite overheated, ALL_CAPS invective, I was pretty confident neither of the George Bushes nor Mr. Obama and Ms. Pelosi were crypto-Rosicrucians; but hey, I just fix Stardrives, maybe they all had me snowed, too.

I saved it for the laugh value; C. Jay has a handsome collection of similar things, everything from Chick tracts to a made-up history text from Stalin Mir, where the old Soviets had very nearly managed to convince a generation born there that they and their "perfect" political system were all there was of Mankind. (It didn't work out, though the endgame probably would have gone on a lot longer had the USSR not. Visit the place now and you'll get no closer than low orbit; they even run their own shuttles. Suspicious doesn't begin to cover it and they're fanatical about self-sufficiency.)

Tried to reach Handsome Dave but he was off-duty and not responding; checked my watch (still on ship's time, CST just like Starship Company HQ) and my only choices for scuttlebutt were Drew or Conan the Objectivist.

The ratty little terminal built into the desk in my room had a blinking "Message" icon that finally caught my eye; navigated to the inbox and there was a note from Lupine's IS boffins with the URL for (limited) access to the ship's intranet. Shipname.ftl, as usual. I didn't expect it to be much use with the available hardware, but there was a text-based browser in the terminal's top menu and I was able to fumble my way to my official ship e-mail account.

A note from Handsome Dave confirmed they'd found a couple boosters with the same sabotage; sure enough, they'd been down and unloaded on the suspicious Mr. Mallory's shift. Ship Security — Sheriff Mike — had insisted on checking every single squirt-booster and Lupine's two de-miled landers (LRV's Hardaway and Snodgrass, better known as "Hard Way" and "No Way"). That was the only damage found other than somebody's forgotten and seriously forbidden ashtray on Snodgrass. Probably the squirt-booster tampering would have been caught on pre-flight and if not, probably it wouldn't have mattered much, no more that the one that made my trip down more exciting than it needed to be. On the other hand, a light load that just happened to mate those two squirt-boosters to a couple of cargo containers could have gone majorly wrong.

Dave added that he'd send us replacement breakers in the first trip down once Port and Lupine had squirt-boosters moving again, "maybe tomorrow." Ever the optimist.

Along with the usual routine stuff — new entries in TASKER automagically get e-mailed to everyone in Engineering, and we're not spared the same kind of work stuff you get, either — I found a note from Finley Michaels at Irrational, asking if I was ready to reschedule with them. I replied that I'd check on it, added the Chief to the recipients, logged off and turned in. It was just about full dark and the rain hissing outside was very nearly as soothing as the normal background sounds of my quarters aboard Lupine. I snuggled under the covers and drifted off.

For the second morning in a row, an unfamiliar alarm was going off and I groped for a light switch that, once again, wasn't there. Frickin' rent-a-phone! I found the lights and said a bad word; grabbed for the phone, knocked it to the floor and said a worse one.

Managed to repeat neither of them answering the phone. It was T. As usual, she started right in: "Hey, do you have contact numbers for Port Security?"


"Didja get their card?"

"Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Breakfast time. End of my shift. You're not up yet?"

"T: Planet. Non standard days."

"So what time is it?"

A fair question. "Just a minnit." There was a clock built into the console on the desk, dim-flowing numbers just visible if I sat up. "Four thirty ayem. Jeez."

"Um, 'oops?'"

"'Oops.' Hey, I'm up now. And I think I have a card with a number for the Port cops."


I winced. It was too early to be that enthusiastic about anything, as far as I was concerned. But it turned out she was bursting with news, more than enough to finish waking me up:

"I'm going to be down there this evening, looking into the saba-toojie. And you'd never guess who Space Force Intel is sending!"

Hmph. Never guess, would I? Watson, a clue! Sleepy isn't the same as stupid; I've only officially met one USSF-I reservist aboard ship. "Rannie Wu?"

"Aw. You peeked."

"You know we've met." Sort of; at the time, I think she'd've been happy to have me tossed out an airlock for being the cause of her wasting time. "She's an investigator?"

"Closest they've got. Intel trained and you know what she does in the Purser's office."

"Not really, what?"

"She runs Internal Inventory! You can't tell me Engineering's never been in her sights."

"Aw, geez, double-eye. I've met her minions, trying to explain how a $57,000 phantasmajector tube is 'consumable supplies.' The Chief got their boss to back down. So that was her, hey?"

T kind of coughed, and went on, "She's sharp. Mike says USSF is sending a Regular Forces team aboard a Mad Russian courier but all he's got is a couple of names and an ETA about 40 hours from now."

That was a mark of just how much attention USSF was giving it — they'd much prefer using their own ships, few though they are. BisPosEtKom -- Russian for "Express Delivery Co." but hardly anyone calls them that -- flies tiny starships, which despite their minuscule mass carry enormous 'Drives and realspace engines and can probably beat anything flying. The huge Mad Russian fleet, started by ex-Soviet Space Arm pilots and techs, means there's usually one headed where you want to go. It wouldn't be much fun for the passengers or pilot; those things are crowded even when they're empty.

"So Sheriff Mike wants to have it all wrapped up before the cavalry arrives?"

T just snickered. That'd be a yes, then. No pressure.

"So why isn't he headed down?"

There was a pause. T was quieter when she replied. "The Captain. He's got to be here for that."

"For what? Are they going to have services already? Here? Why Mike?" Sometimes I'm not as clever as I like to think.

"No — Look, we go way back." She sounded grim. "You've seen a lot of things that aren't exactly common knowl—

"Are you trying to tell me Mike thinks somebody killed Captain James?"

Grim gave way to bleak, "We don't know. Medical says it's highly unlikely but Mike and USSF-I really suspect the timing. And that's all I'd better say."

"And way more than I should have heard. 'Unlikely?' T, it's impossible."

"I sure hope you're right."

While we talked, I'd been logging on to Lupine.ftl; during T's revelations, my e-mail had popped up and for want of a coherent response, I looked at the inbox list. The usual blather from Personnel, Medical, what looked to be routine stuff from Enviro & Physical Plant (Conan the Objectivist claims he's seen a BOIL AIR notice from them but I am pretty sure he's pulling my leg) and...a note from the Chief. He always sets them to ACK back to him and the sooner read, the happier he'd be:

Roberta, Report to Irrational local start of business for walk-through and training. Dave and locals will repair boosters today.

At least it gave me a way to deflect the subject. "Say hi to Handsome Dave, T; I'll bet you lunch money he'll be riding down with you and Lt. Wu."

"No bets; you cheat."

"I just wonder if he's met the Lootenant already? I'm expecting a full report"

T snorted. Dave's quite the ladies man but none too fond of the starchier sort of officers — or of the Purser's inventory-watching, penny-pinching minions. On the other hand, except for that and not being blond, the Eurasian USSF reserve officer fit his usual date profile: smart, not too tall and strikingly pretty. It could be an interesting trip.

I dug out Port Security's card and passed their contact info to T with a "See ya later." We were off the phone before I realized she'd neatly avoided one factoid: if USSF Intelligence was sending Lt. Wu to look into sabotage at Aberstwyth Port, who was running their side of the investigation into the death of Captain James? She'd very clearly said, "Mike and USSF-I." The more I learn, the less I turn out to know.


15 January 2011

War Poster

C. Jay (you would not believe what the C stands for, by the way) has a nice collection of ephemera and books -- stuff from the NATO and Russian worlds and a few things from the Far Edge like this poster, nearly fifty years old now:Nobody who's seen it so far has any idea what the "Star Palace" was. Some kind of Edger venue, but what or where?

06 January 2011

Frothup: Dropping In Part 7


Even before the rain, it didn't look good. Oh, there were some pluses: we had not found the possible major booby-trap by getting ourselves exploded, for instance; and Aberstwyth proper was on the far side of the port's high, hollow-square berm. But blowing a big hole in the ground and spraying radioactives around is something of a social gaffe, even on the Far Edge — and even more so in a place where they have already had an overlarge share of flaming death from above. Run that by the force multiplier of what appeared to be mixed public opinion regarding the NATO worlds and.... What I said before. Didn't look good.

Raub was more hopeful. He wanted to hand this mess over to Port Security and I let him talk me into it.

I knew that Chief would balk at paying some ex-Edger bomb squad — assuming they even had one — ruinous fees for a possible booby trap that, if it was there at all, was probably on a timer or some kind of freefall switch. I didn't want to have to explain the expense to the Chief or the Purser's office, either. But better them than the citizenry of an entire planet who would be left with the mess.

So Raub called the Port Authority's not-cops and gave them a short summary of the situation. They told us to stay right there, then took about half an hour to arrive. We spent the time talking shop and watching the light rain. We'd ducked into the squirt-booster farthest away from the one that had the power plant got at. It was a big passenger double like the one I'd ridden down in; we'd popped the airlock hatch open and sat on the edge. It wasn't raining very hard but it was continuing to warm up and the humidity was rising, a far cry from the cool. clear morning. I commented on it and he looked surprised. "Yeah, this time of year, it rains at least every other day."

"Pretty big temperature swing, though."

"It is? I still think you've had too much shipboard time. This is normal."

It wouldn't've been, back where I spent my growing-up time, but I was saved a dialogue on comparative meteorology by a siren.

Let me explain something: starships don't show up every day. Even at a port frequented by the generally smaller and more numerous Edger ships, it's weeks between ships. Port Control can be a kind of routine affair, with the ancillary business of storage and surface transport predominating and what few full-time staffers there are operating in very narrow and well-worn mental ruts. Shift change had come and gone in the control center without a word and either our presence wasn't logged or the lone controller didn't bother to check when asked. So when Raub called Port Authority Security, they had called the control center, gotten a "Who-what?" response and despite his careful explanation, had taken things a little bit wrong. (I was miffed. What, sabotage to Lupine's squirt-boosters isn't gossip-worthy news?)

Security showed up expecting the very worst. Sure, they're not "real" police, but you'd be surprised how little those details matter when you are looking at the wrong end of what passes for a standard LEO-type weapon on the Far Edge: a copy of the WW II "grease gun," which even the select-fire edition of can ruin your whole day. The one riding — ha! — shotgun had his aimed at us from their little golf cart-looking vehicle from first clear sight.

It helps to be with a local. When the little quadricycle stopped, two uniformed officers hopped off and as the one kept cheap and nasty armament pointing at us, the other hopped out from behing the controls and barked, "Step down from there and put you hands up—"

Which we did.

"—Now move slowly over there — Raub?

He was quick to reply, "Yes, Matt. Um, good to see you?"

"Who's the woman — keep your hands up, Miss! — and what are you up to?"

Raub smiled. I don't know if I'd've been able to. "It's a long story and Port Control should be able to back us up...."

The big one who'd been driving, Matt, shook his head. "No they cannot. I think you two had better come with us."

At least he didn't handcuff us.

The Port Security team were not that different to police officers in your home town: they'd rather be safe than sorry. The good news was, we were going to get in out of the drizzle before it really started to rain. The bad news was, while we weren't quite under arrest, we weren't free to leave, either. They brought us in and abandoned us in the public office of Port Security, tucked in the rabbit-warren of spaces under the outer berm, a cross between a waiting room and a small-town police station, presided over by a cheerful and heavily-armed young woman behind a tall desk. I still had my phone and I made the call I should have made a half hour earlier.

The Chief wasn't answering. Next step was to go up a level — Sheriff Mike, or Dr. Schmid — but I tried the general Shop number first, hoping he'd be out there.

Nope. Handsome Dave picked up. He'd been chased chased out of his lair in the squirt-booster bays by Lupine's Security, who had that section buttoned up vacuum-tight. I gave him a sketchy outline and got as far as the suspicious hatch when he started to laugh.

"Oh, it's darned funny up there, pal. You're not stuck down here!"

"No,no, wait," he snickered. "Did you write down the ID number?"

Darned right I had. I read it off to him and there was a short silence, if muffled chuckling counts as silence.

"Yep, here it is. Power room wrote it up day before yesterday when they had to change out tow units. Latch is jamming. They had to force it."

I didn't have anything to say at first. I was grinning too widely. "You son of a—"
Raub had been chatting with the desk officer, a young-looking woman with a wide smile but he'd sat down next to me while I was talking. He broke in with, "—snake," and I echoed him.

Dave replied, "I'm the snake who just saved your hide."

"As soon as we figure out how to make it official, you mean. I need the Chief."

"Left about ten minutes ago, looking annoyed. I think he's in a meeting. I'll take this to him as soon as he's back."

I tried not to sound desperate when I asked, "Do me a favor: page him with it," thanked him and hung up. Stuck. I guessed I could invoke the Agreement and ask for a lift back but the odds of that working out didn't seem good. Sure did wish I'd brought something to read. The only magazines looked like security stuff, with titles I'd never seen before, things like"SWAT" and "Concealed Carry" and months or more out of date. Still, there was some hope; I figured I might as well smile and gave it a try.

Raub gave me a quizzical look. "Good news?"

"I hope so. Our guys — Lupine's, I mean — bunged that door up."

He looked thoughtfully into the distance. "It figures."

"As soon as I can get hold of my boss, we'll get this straightened out."

"Not him on the phone, then?"

"Unh, no."

He made no reply and the quiet stretched out and hung there. I blinked first. "Hey, what's the deal about snakes?"


"When I was on the phone. And I've heard other people say stuff like that, too."

"Oh! That. It's from the war. It started as a joke and we never stopped."

"Okay, but what, exactly?"

He grinned, worries forgotten for the moment. "Simple. Any expression that refers to a person, place or thing, you substitute 'snake.' Unless it had a snake in it already, then it should be 'cow.'"

I took that in. "Um, why?"

"For fun! Because it confuses dirtsiders— er, sorry. I mean you guys. Old-worlders. No offense."

Old-worlders? Suddenly I'm European? But I caught his drift. "Okay. At least now I know. But if I'm a 'dirtsider,' what's that stuff outside under the grass?"

"Frothup. I guess it's dirt, too, but it's our dirt."

I gave up. Edgers! "Fair enough." I had another question but about then, the officer on the desk — her nametape just said JOANNA — looked over at us while talking into the air (Bluetooth, of course) and gestured us over. "Hey, you two. I think we're done with you."

As I later found out, the meeting the Chief had been called away to was a conference wall with Port Authority's higher-ups about my little mess and Lupine's side of it alone involved him, Dr. Schmid, Security Director Mathis, the Purser and a couple of her tame legal wranglers — and for all I know, a couple of chaplains, too. After Dave's page hit the meeting, we were almost in the clear; the only remaining problem was the curiously methodical damage, where it was happening and who was doing it: pretty much the same mystery we started with.