[TO THE BEGINNING]
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.
[CONTINUED IN PART 14]