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.