[STORY STARTS HERE]
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?"
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.
[TO BE CONTINUED]