[STORY BEGINS HERE]
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."
"'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.
[TO BE CONTINUED]