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.
"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.
[TO BE CONTINUED]