17 October 2012

"Mo" (Frothup -- Vignette)

I stumbled off the bus in the twilight and realized I'd misread the destination: I was across the park from Tweed,  back at the commune/university Finley Micheals had called "R&D."  What the heck; it was as good a place to start looking for Finley and Doc Daugherty as any.

     They'd added a sign on the other side of the main gate from the "Builder's, Crafters and Maker's RULES" poster I'd seen on my last visit (anarchists with rules!  Sheesh, Edgers.).  It looked like a list of sponsors, elegantly lettered and not yet graffitti'ed.  Tweed was the third company listed.  It figured. The large open area under the vast roof was mostly empty -- way over at one side, a group was laughing around a fire and nearby, a larger bunch was eating at a long table.  The walled section on the far side was all lit up, though, so I headed that way.

     The open, office-like entry only had a few people in it, engrossed in work at their desks.  A murmur of voices was coming from down the hallway at the left, so I headed down it.  Classroom after classroom, transoms opened and classes (or something similar) obviously going on from the sound of it.  The only open door was a couple of rooms in, with a sign in the hall next to it:
    
Mo On Programming

TONIGHT

Last Session!  Last Chance!

     Looking in obliquely, I could see the instructor -- Mo? -- from the back, casually seated at a desk facing the rest of the room, speaking animatedly to a rapt audience that had pretty much filled the available seating.  From the looks of the displays and graphics along the visible walls, the topic was robotics and as I came closer, I was wondering if someone in that room had programmed the smart-alec luggage carrier at the Port that'd nearly run me down the day I'd landed.

     When I came up even with the door, I could see more of him.   His voice carried clearly into the hall:  "Out there in the world, I'm in competition with you.  We're going to be after the same job or the same berth and if I'm between gigs, I'm not going to pass up anything that turns up!"

     It got a laugh and no few thoughtful nods.  The lecturer was nearly slouched in his chair, relaxed, comfortable. A slightly stocky man, dressed in a nice suit entirely in hues of olive-green except for a gray stripe in his tie, jacket and overcoat draped over the back of his chair.  He smiled as he spoke, a three-day vandyke beard in contrast to his bullet-shaven head.  Unusually for an Edger, he wore glasses.  He had the over-enunciated Edger accent, all right, and punctuated his words with short, confident gestures.

     He was expanding on the topic of jobs: "...I'd signed up to rewrite NavCorp's UI for the Mark Fours -- while I was still working for Port Authority here -- and then RUR came to me wanting help with their new line of utility machines.  It was a great deal, totally free hand with the software.  The catch was, their deadline was two months away.  And NavCorp needed the UI in six weeks.   I was hacking code at lunch, I was hacking code while people were on smoke breaks and something had to give: Port Authority and I parted company.  Smoke breaks they were okay with.  Software breaks, not so much."

     He talked about the business of free-lancing while I stood listening, mesmerized.  With that level of interest and activity, small wonder the Edgers had such an edge in automation!  I looked down the hall: empty, just a row of closed doors.  I was trying to remember where the boffin's office was where Mike had taken me for a review of 'Drive theory as Edgers knew it (or as much as they were willing to share).  Down a hall that opened off this one or should I go back to the common room and start over?  Start over.  As I turned to head back, another sentence drifted out: "Check out a new ship online, ask around.  Run the search engines; look up the captain and the owners  If they're assclowns online or on planet, they're probably worse assclowns underway."

     Sounded like good advice to me.
*  *  *

     I eventually managed to locate Doc but it took some time; he'd craved out a space way, way back in the dug-out warren of work/living areas the anarchic bandobast (if that's not an oxymoron) had established where a hillside intruded on the roofed-over area.  On our way out -- him talking a mile a minute -- we passed by a group chatting and dining around a fire. I recognized Mo and several of attendees from his talk.  Doc slowed down to greet a friend and was caught up in the edges of  the conversation.  I wanted to hear what the programmer had to say -- sure, I my skills are barely good enough to make a BASIC Stamp do simple jobs, but there's always something to be learned.  He leaned forward, towards an especially fish-out-of-water-looking youngster and laughed, remarking, "Anyone can come together around food!" 
     Amen to that, I thought.  Doc was still nattering.  I noticed a sparkle of light from a tiny cross on Mo's lapel and someone else did too.  You don;t see that much on the Edger worlds.  They're religious enough but it's uncommon for Edgers to be very open personal religious faith or  proselytize, especially after what happened on Trinity (and, as I learned later, the terrible problems aboard Sirius Business that preceded it) and I missed what he was asked but his answer struck me as particularly graceful: "Faith has meaning. You know about the non-profit I'm running?  It's almost a fulltime job!  Sure, I work with hard numbers and harder reality; faith is what's behind the numbers -- and the padding around them, too."

     Poetry, sure, but the kind of poetry that you need in the lonely dark.  --And the kind of poetry that holds a society together.

13 October 2012

The Veteran

[This is another one from the Far Edge and not my narrative voice but that of a kind of a website journalist working on Smitty's World, covering FTL trade news and related topics -- RX]


     You've seen the type.  A little out of sync, too quiet or too loud; unless he's sitting with a bunch of gray heads, he doesn't get the jokes. He doesn't go outdoors when the sun's up and it's no bet that he's wearing a counter-pressure suit right now and the helmet's within arm's reach.  He can't sleep without the comforting hum and clank of machinery and if the air stops blowing, he wakes in the silence, heart pounding.

     Where is he?  It doesn't really matter, not to to him.  Wherever he goes, it isn't home.  It never will be.  Say he's on Smitty's world; that works.  There's no real "outdoors" on the sunless wanderer Captain Johann Cameron Harper Smith claimed for his own, no more than there is on a starship; it's a silent hell of frozen gases, frozen liquids, frozen rocks, frozen metals, kerogen frozen so hard they spend a year slowly warming the excavated rubble before feeding it into the hungry maws of the city's ever-running refineries.

     There are bars and pubs and greasy spoons, gambling hells, flophouses and godowns; there are out-of-the-way corners not too close to the recycling bins and the City Patrol doesn't check that close.  There's plenty of work for a savvy hand, few questions asked; and plenty to drink when the day is done, drink until it all goes blurry dark.  There aren't nearly enough pressure doors, part of The Smith's crazy Defense Initiative that Official Citizens ignore questions about, changing the subject with studied, careful blandness when asked. A man with a temporary "wolf ticket," learning the secondary network of pressurized tunnels by being limited to it as the first step toward full Citizenship, why, he'll do all right even without regular work, if he keeps his wits. He'll even wonder at the wag who kept stenciling "sto pervyy kilometr" on the inside of the 2-level airlocks and laugh, once, after he's looked it up. Sometime it's a little chilly; sometimes it's too warm.  But the air always keeps moving and there's a constant, tiny, comforting rumble and hum wherever you go.  He'd tell you it's fine.

     A man like that, if he glances in the spotted, wavy mirror behind the bar, what does he see?  Not the years he skipped — maybe in the eyes, a little.  The haphazard two-day's growth of a sloppy shave with a tiny windup razor doesn't conceal the grim line of his mouth, or the lines around it, etched in by the shipmates and friends he lost, pushing C in a hastily-built vehicle ducking in and out of reality, men and women who went mad from too long, too close in the glittering gray space of a Goubau-Droscher-Heim 'Drive field, who died slowly behind plastic when the reactor overheated or quickly when their helmet seal failed, or who just went out an airlock, wordless, quietly, just gone one shift-start, leaving a problem for the navigators and stardrive techs.  He sees his posture, balanced, careful, anchored, lessons beat into bones and muscles from lousy Jumps, drifted calibrations, "Bad as an Earthbag," they'd laugh, until there was no humor in it and you'd listen for the strain and screech and pop that meant you'd be latching the helmet on, pulling gloves in place, dreading the bloat and dire farts when the pressure dropped.

     Or does he care to see that much?  Whatever, he won't look long. He knows what he'll see. Too many years, too many and not enough, skimming through the old "home" system (all he ever saw were pictures and those looked fake, who believed in penguins?  Or elephants?) or some USSF/NATO-dominated planetary system ("All four!" his crewmates had jeered, and him along with them, but even one world is so big, so terribly big), listening for any comms, any broadcasting,  photo-analyzing optics, passive RADAR quivering, look and listen and guess, then hop up superluminal, encrypt and infodump, take orders, resupply, repair, upgrade, reposition and do it again.  And again, picking up speed, correcting radio tunings for Doppler, and every time you do it, two months have lept by in a fortnight, and then six months, a year, five, a decade...  The War started in '50 or '51; his war began in '64, when he was a wet-behind-the-ears 21, grown up during the first long Jump to Peace-and-Prosperity and then onwards when Earth's ships showed up.  Landed Trinity where his parents farmed, or tried to, signed up with the the old Jupiter Gang and off before the trouble there really started. '49, 50, or '62, it all dwindled to an end in '89 when he was 30, hair going gray, skin blotchy from low-pressure exposure, soul worn down by too long hemmed in, too many dead. They mustered him out not on Smitty World, oh no, on the world where his parents had settled, survived the troubles, prospered and grown old, dead and gone a decade ago. A hero's greeting for him and a random shipload: grizzled star-sailors, aggressively fit Mil/Space types, familiar strangers gathered across forty years of conflict. His friends, relatives, old playmates, either they went out and served and mostly died, or they were worse, old, old with lives lived, families, grandchildren....  He didn't know them.  He didn't know anybody, not even the people he used to know.
  
          The open sky and lovely landscaped lawns — the troubles were long past, clearing and replanting a shared faith and the region was "eighty-nine percent Earth life," they assured him, as if that meant something — made him feel like a bug on a plate; the farms were even worse and the cities, well, in both of them he just felt like a bug.  It all seemed fake and one fake night — gawd, the nights, a sky full of stars and where's his air helmet? — one fake night he followed one fake drink with another and another and another again in a fake bar where fake people talked into fake phones as brightly-colored and plain-shaped as candy bars, just like their fake personalities, and woke up in a too-bright cell with a very real itemized bill of damages and at least six months of steady work to pay it all away.

     He did it; he took the recommended tranks and the newer drugs that made everything dull, bearable gray, while everyone was so nice, so understanding.  He begged to work nights, he found a basement apartment and painted the windows over and when he had made restitution, he went down to the port and took the first starship that would let him work passage.  Some Bell or Cloche or Bowler or whatever they called them, fast, agile mid-size free-traders developed during the War.  He didn't ask where it was headed.  What difference would it make?

     Falling back up into the sky was like going home; the old tension settled over him like a blanket on the run out to flat space. The vertigo, the nightmare feeling of a too-close, too-strong 'Drive field — damn, the little ships ran it close, even compared to the brilliant, hasty improvisations of the surveillance fleet — was like an old friend returning, or at least a comfortably familiar nemesis.

     Even the "interlaced watch" was familiar — eight on, four off, four on, eight off and overlapped by the "night shift" — right down to alternating fours, semi-skilled helper one day and training the next.  They didn't need a Responder, as his main job on the Wartime zap-ships had come to be known, "Emergency Responder," a job he'd said was like tacking jelly to a bulkhead, do it wrong and everyone got splattered; on a little ship, everyone was a bit of a Responder, as much as was ever needed or so they said. He ran through every job he was remotely qualified for, as far up as Navs Third, his old secondary skill. He'd have got higher, if he'd had less knack for doing the right thing in emergencies, maybe; he'd always loved the order and predictability of the math. Having seen the technology change from the clanking, power-sucking "interpolator" sorting stacks of punch-cards with a fancy slide rule for fine figuring, having transitioned through spooling — spilling! — tape drives and overheating, easily-zapped germanium gates right up though safety-tripled, radiation-hardened microprocessors.  His reaction to the improvements a few years of peace and officially-open trade had already made was the same mixture of frustration and delight he'd felt doing upgrades in the War years — minus the crawling fear during installation and training.  It was like coming home.

     And yet it wasn't.  Like most free-traders, the crew were long-established, all family or as good as.  Even when his Responder skills were needed, it wasn't a crewman gone dangerous from too long in a fragile tin can, speeding though the horrible void.  No, it was the same old fire from the same old "borrowed" Russian design of an oxygen generator, the same old half-a-kludge that had taken out Marty Willson, seven years back or 15, depending how you counted.  Once you'd been through the first one, it was nothing but routine and he was mostly puzzled when the free-trader's crew made much of his actions.  He still didn't feel entirely comfortable, but a guarded friendliness had replaced guarded neutrality.  Still, he spent some years aboard, teeth clenched for quiet when the nightmares got too strong, or when they struck on-shift, walking down a hallway too much like the place where a high-pressure steam pipe popped a bad weld and broiled Carrie Karlson before she really knew, and suddenly he was hearing them again, the sounds she'd made from what used to be her face before falling over like a dropped side of beef.  Or the time in the lights flickered on a difficult transition and he was suddenly back on the heart-stopping supply and crew-exchange run to Cockroach Base on Cuithne when one of the really big USSF starships had popped out of Jump space far too close to the Earth-Moon system for an Earth vessel and screamed inbound decelerating at a g and a half, totally not on the intel predictive.  They'd killed everything — ev-ry-thing — and coasted, hoping to pass as an overlooked blob of rock, a little too hot but maybe, maybe—  It had worked.  It shouldn't have, but it did.  He felt it all again, the heart-pounding fear, and then he was back at his console on the free-trader, soaked with sweat, staring furiously at nothing.
 
     He could have held on -- he was holding on -- but it ended when the Enviro super got married; there really was no job no room for her new husband despite what the Captain — her father — claimed and the long Jump in had been especially hard; he'd found himself missing time, coming back to himself walking down a hallway, loading up a ration tray, staring at a Navs screen.  When the ship emerged from Jump, the hum and mutter at the back of his mind kept on, as it never had before. They were inbound to Smitty's World, fiercely independent, favorably situated, a sunless wanderer found by chance and claimed by a First Fleet ship captain.  Plenty of work for the willing, especially if the willing weren't too particular.  Safely berthed, he gathered up his duffel and signed off the ship, putting down his name in front of a Purser (not coincidentally the bride's mother) who struggled to not look too grateful.

     That kind of man, on a busy place like Smitty's World, can always find work fixing and hauling, packing small items, digging through bad wiring or balky code. He may not eat well or sleep on silk sheets, but he never has to miss a meal, at least not until the noise and nightmares get too damn loud.  Even then, once a Responder, always a Responder: half fireman, half EMT, half policeman and "not quite spacecraft engineer," as the saying went; when alarms rang, he was there, doing the right thing.

     True, there was no work for a Starship Astrogator, especially one with no more certs than scribbled letters from ship captains and Nav Ones.  But there was plenty of work for a man willing to work hard, if he had a feel for technology. Best of all, the settlement was unapologetically what it was, domed over beneath airless, starry skies and dug into the crumbly compressed dust and hard rock, artificially lit, heated and ventilated, as sane and sensible as any starship, or just about.

     He'd even tried applying to join The Smith's City Patrol, "Proctors," police and fire and crisis mediators all rolled into one; and been turned flat down.  "Full Citizens only," they said.  By then it was dawning on him that the complex, changing and by The Smith's executive fiat unmapped inhabitation had layers and lives that visitors and transients never saw, and past that, places no non-Citizen resident would never reach, and beyond that to habs and corridors and courtyard for only the fully-invested among even them.

     But by then his hands were increasingly uncooperative and the nightmares sometimes too loud to down in alcohol; and the work started to get simpler and lower-paying.  He coped.  If words sometimes fled, why, he spoke even less than before; and if drink alone failed to bring unbroken sleep, the exhaustion of hard physical labor helped. He even found a Medico, downy-cheeked and idealistic, who spoke knowingly of 'Drive Field aggravated combat stress; it was then he realized, again, that no one who hasn't been there had even the least clue, or wanted to hear that his war — and most crew's war — was boredom and bad math, not hand-to-hand in the uncaring vacuum or even missiles at extreme range.  He made polite noises, paid his bill and left.  He adjusted.  He coped.  Whatever it took.

     And he still was who he was, who he'd been, who the War had made him into, catching patterns, catching the scent of trouble and dealing with it, no matter how unsteadily.  He had a reputation and no bad one  It came to a head one of his more-lucid days, when a "general labor specialist" spoiling for a fight came into the bar where he was eating a large bowl of thick stew, supper in trade for a half-day's dishwashing.

     He'd gotten pretty shaky by then, swearing at the cooperativeness of his own hands, careful of his gait, each step sometimes a study; but it came and went and damned if he'd go talk again to another nosy medico, they way they got side-tracked into his service time, snootily disapproving or hero-worshipping, irritating either way. So he'd been struggling that day; when the much-larger stranger slammed through the door (and they're nearly all doors on Smitty's; world except for the locks between levels) and lit into a little dockhand drinking at the bar and casually straight-armed a bartender who tried to intervene, everything snapped into focus.  He was up before anyone else and on the aggressor, hand going to a "C-clamp" compliance hold on the other's head. It went slow-motion as guy was turning away from the intended victim with a suddenly-visible knife.  He did as he'd been trained and as he'd practiced: grabbed the knife-hand wrist and pulled in the direction it was going, while moving out of the way.  The aggressor lost balance and he more-or-less rode him down to the deck, hitting with as much force as he could muster.  It worked.  —And then things sped up again and he was sitting on an unconscious fighter on the floor of a bar, bruised and splashed with stew.  The proctors made a big fuss when they showed up.  Seems the knifeman had been slashing his way though all his co-workers and the man at the bar has been the eleventh on his list.  Word made it all the way up to The Smith himself, and word came back down that nothing was too good for such a hero.

     He took full Second Level Citizenship when offered; but he never went back to that bar and rarely ventured into the visitor-and-transient-accessible warrens and domes afterward, either.  He faded back into the shadows and small businesses and sometimes shadowy work, the small unsanctioned, much-wanted things that do little harm. As his condition became worse and worse, he found obscure corners, places out of the way, rarely-used accesses, and kept on.    

     A man like that, as his own body began to betray him, when things stopped making sense, would he search out help as he once helped?  Would his pride let him continue, if he sensed the least pity or condescension?  In the end, it wouldn't matter; there are some battles a man can't win, some emergencies too big to control.

     I'm not sure how he'd've viewed any of this story, his story, or how you see it, either; but if you were stringing for a free-trader website on Smitty's world, keeping track of the more-colorful characters, buying drinks and listening to stories, and you had to wrap up a life lived without citing rumor, speculation or late-night tales that sound too tall when the lights are full on, you'd write it up like this:
     Grey, Stephan, b. ~1950, Hoplite base, Luna; d. Thursday last, 5 October, 2012 (Earth, GMT) Newport, Smithtown; personal age, ~35.  Raised in flight and on Trinity, Grey served aboard FCS "Longreach" surveillance/transport ships during the late conflict with Earth, retiring in 1989 as Astrogator 3rd/Prime Responder of LazyTongs.  He is best known here as the man who stopped the 35-South Slasher five years ago.  He was found dead in a utility corridor in the early hours of 6 October (GMT).  Autopsy revealed advanced brain cancer, probably due to prolonged exposure to cosmic rays and high levels of 'Drive radiation.
    Then you'd look at the screen and swear in frustration at everything you couldn't put in.

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     (In memory of my friend, occasional nemesis and long-ago boss Steve C., who lost the battle last month; and of my Dad, betrayed by his own brain and gamely carrying on, so well we barely noticed as he started fading away; and to every soldier who returned home only to discover home was no longer there.)

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     (In unfortunate synchronicity, horror/noir/thriller writer Tom Piccirilli is recovering from emergency surgery for brain cancer right now.  More info and links to IndieGogo fundrasier; here's a publisher selling his works and passing along 100% of the profit to Tom.)

07 July 2012

Lunchtime Conversation

I denied it at first. As time goes on, I suspect she's right - but it still bothers me. It was during a lunch break from makee-learnee at Irrational Numbers that Jo pointed it out, in her odd take on an Edger accent -- she's got the telephone-operator enunciation, but with a musical lilt and faint accent that sounds like Zsa Zsa Gabor had learned English from leprechauns.

I commented on the way she never leaves the place for lunch if she can avoid it and she countered with the observation that I invariably pick up take-out food from Delta-Vee. "It is habit versus selection, Roberta."

"How so? You haven't been here long enough to have any lunch 'habits,' I'd think."

She laughed. "No -- but I am used to being on ship. Planets have too much distance. And the ventilation feels broken outdoors. It makes me nervous. So I follow my habits. You, on the other hand-- This is why you were chosen."

"You've lost me."

"Reclusion. Everyone knows: persons with reclusive personalities were preferentially picked for USSF tech crews."

I looked across the table at her. Her expressions are hard to read -- Edger reserve, mostly -- but she seemed dead serious. "It's news to me."

She quirked an eyebrow, looking more than ever like she should be hosting a National Geographic Special on the Wonders of India, were it not for that accent. "You were not told?"

"All they told me was, I had the aptitude for several jobs, nothing specific. I thought I was joining the Air Force! Besides, that's ancient history; I was out before I ever had a permanent posting."

"'Civilian' crew ever since. Why do you think that is?"

I snorted. "Because I'm good at it, maybe? Because it suits me?"

She smiled. "See?"

Edgers! A couple of the other students showed up about then and I managed to get her talking about her own life -- like a lot of Edgers, she was adopted out of disaster right on good old Earth, though unlike many, her entire family had been lost and she was barely five years old when it happened. It'd be easy to claim the space-born Far Edge types do that sort of thing out of the goodness of their hearts, and there's a grain of truth in it; the wider truth is, they are much concerned about genetic diversity. Whatever caused the senior of Materjack line, hitting dirt near (and under cover of*) the booming shores of Barisal, to take in a particular starving orphan, we'll never know; her adoptive father was lost at Ganymede. It certainly worked out well for all involved -- "Engine Jo" has a grasp of 'Drive engineering that leaves me working hard to keep up.

But I still think it's a crazy Edger rumor, on a par with the one about USSF/NATO recruiting combat troops from jailed violent criminals. Reclusive? Me?
__________________________________
* A fine old Edger trick. It usually works. Sometimes, not.

11 June 2012

Space Flu

I knew I was sick when I stirred my tea and the teaspoon flew out of my mug. Or so it seemed. The spoon handle, one of those thick ceramic ones, must've caught on the rim and I didn't notice. They call it "gravity flu" or "the teke bug" and while it doesn't really give you psionic superpowers or bend gravity, it might as well: it makes the afflicted unsteady, clumsy and fumbly. You don't know which way is up and you can't hang onto things. So the effect is pretty much the same. First described on that paradise Linden/Lyndon in 1954, it had been affecting residents since the first landing, masked by the far more serious problems they'd brought along or created.

Treatment is pretty much like how you'd treat a cold. Bed rest and fluids -- plus you should avoid anything fragile or complex. Give it a day and a night and you should be back to nornal. "Antigrav flu," hah! Though with my luck, I'd find a way to break my quilt.

24 hours later, I hadn't. Well, not break break. But I don't think those tea stains are gonna come out. Another lovely gift from the Far Edge. Gah.

09 June 2012

It's A Long Way Up. Or Down.

It's a long way just getting there, and that's even before donning the mandated pressure suit. Any time there's only one thickness of stuff between you and the Great Airless Beyond, any time you're out in the nobody's-regularly-there utility and leftover spaces of the vast starship USAS Lupine, the Enviro & Physical Plant safety types require you wear an actual pressure suit, with full tanks and working radio, just like on Buck Rogers. (Which mine kind of is, being mostly a mechanical-counterpressure type, but you wear coveralls over, more to protect it from rips and abrasion and to keep it clean than for modesty -- but it is not much more than a thick leotard and every time I put it on, I resolve to spend more time working out in the ship's gym. Humbling!)

Why suit up, if you can breathe the (stale and dusty) air? 'Cos it would be way too much trouble to go rescue you, all bloated and vacuum-dried, if you managed to, oh, punch through a radar-transparent plastic bubble or trip a fire-extinguishing air dump; they'd rather you were able to yell for help and had some chance of surviving 'til help would arrive, followed by debriefing and a hectoring lecture about what you did wrong.

In the present instance, I'd done nothing wrong but one of E&PP's inspector/cleaners had: he'd managed to flip the breaker for one of the ship's primary radars, the "Ship's Horizontal Axis Search," a/k/a "Arbitrary-H Main" which sits in a handy radome at the very top of a high, tower-like structure, at the very forward end of Lupine, bit to starboard of the centerline. He'd turned it right back on but the damage was done: the High Power Amplifier had cycled back up in "local," the E&PP crewman had not noticed (it's not his job, it's Engineering's) and was much farther along in his appointed rounds by the time the Navs boffins realized they were only seeing returns on the Arbitrary-V Main, which sticks out from the port side at the forward end on the end of a long, tube-like thingie, much like the hollow tower of H Main.

The Chief was out (it happens. Rarely); Dr. Schmid, 2/O, high brass indeed and our nominal big boss was definitely In and delighted to assign me the long walk out to see what the matter might be. He paged me up to Navs -- a warren of cubicles with three bulkheads covered in very large-screen displays, up a spiral stair from Jump Control -- and commenced to enthuse.

"It's probably something simple. Radar Ralph's software can be pretty flaky, though, we might have to shut it all down and bring everything back up in sequence."

I nodded. "Radar Ralph" O'Casey is something of a legend in the starships he's never seen and can't be told about; he's never been cleared for it and from everything I hear, he never will be. But his radars are great; no one does 'em better. He himself, that's a different story; he tried to insist he was the only person who could or should install and maintain his radar designs and the USAF team fronting for the Starship Company had to wave money, a free vacation and a course of therapy before he would relent. Even at that, the documentation is sketchier than I'd like and we've had to reverse-engineer his subassemblies. Since the Search radar do two jobs -- conventional radar-type work in normal space and mapping the shape of our pocket universe in Jump -- we have to have the very best and that means Ralph or the Ukrainians who've built all the high-precision units for the old USSR and current Russian starships and publicly-known space vehicles. Trust me: odd as he is, Ralph's easier to deal with.

A mere hour later, I was suited up and opening the pressure door marked, NO ACCESS. PRESSURE SUIT AND LOGIN REQUIRED PAST THIS POINT. Aw, they do care! A nice, healthy hike though the area our switch-flipper had worked (I could see his tracks) and I was at the hatch for H Main Radar; pop it and I'm in the base of the radar mast itself, with another little compartment where the radar electronics lives dead ahead. To one side and above me is--

A whole lot of UP.You know what we have on the Hidden Frontier they don't have on the International Space Station or even the "starship Enterprise?" Spiders. (Also sometimes mice and rarely, rats or cockroaches). Ew.

Also, I don't know why it is, when I have the whole universe to fall into it doesn't bother me, yet a large enclosed volume gives me the willies -- but it does. So of course, as soon as I had Dr. Schmid on the radio, he asked if I could see the dish rotating. You should just be able to see the yoke glide across the opening where the stairs enter the radome, but I couldn't.

So of course, I had to climb up and make sure. In zero-g, you can just clip onto the steel cable going up the center of the mast and glide; but Lupine normally runs .75 g. It's to keep your bones and muscles from turning into mush and it makes life simpler (mostly) but not easier.

First things first! I checked the radar unit itself: it had defaulted to Local control and was plain off; I set it to warm up but not transmit (there's a "man aloft" safety key you remove and clip to your belt for just that). And then trudge, trudge, trudge, up and around. It's only two hundred feet vertically but you walk at least three times that far.

Up top, the dish was gliding serenely around, all right -- and tilted down as far as it can go, trying to image the steel platform it sits on instead of what's outside the radome (the parareality in between stars just now, a sparkling gray something outlining a more-or-less oblate spheroid). Dr. Schmid tried various things, I carefully read tilt angles off the scribed marks, walking along with the yoke (a good way to get hurt -- Handsome Dave once got knocked flat trying it with the rotational speed just a little too fast, and a darned good thing it took him in the shoulder and not the helmet). Eventually, we got it rereferenced -- it makes my skin crawl to hear the 2/O muse about "dialing in a fudge factor," but Navs boffins (which is how Dr. Schmid came up) are not like you and me: he's talking about a least-practical-increment slippage and, as usual, he was right.

Back down to the equipment compartment -- look at the bulkhead beside you, not across; even down is better than across or up ---- put the safety key back in, and pip! the radar's back up. Dr. Schmid checked his re-cal with the radar target on the fixed portion of the 'Drive mast, seven miles away at the far aft end of the ship, and lo, it was spot-on.

Another day, another $53.77 an hour, or whatever it will work out to. (We get paid for Earth-elapsed, which is like variable-rate overtime, hooray! But only because any other way complicates payroll; aboard ship, you're drawing against pay 'til next time Lupine gets back to the homeworld and they settle accounts).

18 May 2012

3753 Cruithne: Cockroach Base

It was only a nickname, but it stuck; USSF/NATO didn't even know the object was there until three years before the Treaty of 1989 and even then, they thought the nearest occupied Edger location was on one of Neptune's moons. So you imagine the shock and denial when it turned out, post-Treaty, that they'd been at 3753 Cruithne all along.

04 May 2012

Frothup: Dropping In, Part 14

USSF-Reserve Lt. Rannie Wu didn't find the situation nearly as amusing as I did. Efficient as ever, she dismissed my guffaws with an incredulous glance and by the time I had my breath back, she was interrogating Handsome Dave and the two Edgers. We'd adjourned to the mostly-empty storeroom at the end of the hall, containing a haze of smoke, a ridiculously-tiny car and a card table and two chairs where Handsome Dave and the FCS Agent had been sitting, smoking and swapping information. The young assistant fetched additional chairs; by the time I sat down, resolved to keep my yap shut and my ears open, Rannie already had her phone out and was starting to brief Lupine's Security Director Mike Mathis — and through him, someone at Frothup Public Safety.

The Edger Extension Agent was determined to get involved; if I understood what I was overhearing, Mike was uncertain about it and local law enforcement wasn't too happy, either. Despite Dave's assurances, Rannie was deeply suspicious of the Edgers. And speaking of unhappy— as soon as the Lt. was sufficiently involved in her call, Handsome Dave had taken the opportunity to retrieve his phone, moved his chair to the edge of the group and had, though some combination of guilt, masochism and/or a strong sense of duty, managed to get through to The Chief; by my watch, it was well after dinner, shiptime. From the steady stream of quiet "Yessir, nosir" Dave's conversation could have been going better. He seemed unusually willing to take it without trying to explain himself; he's diplomatic but not spineless. Suddenly, he said, "No, she's here, Chief," and handed the phone to me. Ow.

There's no point in my attempting to transcribe the conversation. Suffice to say, I did not get through unscorched and at the end of it, there was no doubt where I would be the next day — in class at Irrational Numbers — or that I would be leaving the investigating to the professionals. I never did get a chance to explain my present involvement was entirely Lt. Wu's doing. It probably wouldn't've helped if I had; the Chief had been blindsided by Dave's abrupt disappearance and he was determined to get all the cats herded, no matter what it took. When he wound down and rang off, I handed the phone back to Dave, with a whispered,"Whew!"

Dave looked surprised. "You know why," he not-quite asked.

I didn't and my expression said as much.

"Oh! ...I don't know how to say it. Jonny Zed had a stroke early this morning and we lost at least three crew yesterday. Supposedly the Chief was in sickbay most of last night — I hear he had a close call."

I nodded, not wanting to interrupt..

Dave went on, "There's nothing official, but this happening, right after Captain James...."

All I could come up in reply was, "Oh, geesh." It seemed unlikely but with everything else that had happened, not improbable.

Twenty minutes later, my fellow Lupine crew members and I were on the road. I was failing to appreciate the back seat of a classic Beetle, while all 6' 4" of Handsome Dave was carefully occupying the front passenger seat.

The situation had ended almost cordially between ship, planet and FCS rep, with the local law agreeing to an FCS "liaison" and Sheriff Mike reluctantly going alone. Lt. Wu hadn't liked that much, nor had she liked the Agent Kimball's cheerful claim that she'd barged in only minutes before he'd been about to have Dave contact Lupine. Once we were crammed into the Bug and underway, she started to lecture Dave and he very diplomatically pointed out that A) she was not in his chain of command B) he'd already been in in contact with his boss and C) she was still not in his chain of command. It was not a happy ride.

I let things simmer for a block or more — at least Rannie wasn't fighting the traffic this time — then leaned forward to ask, "What was that in the hall with the guy?"

Rannie shrugged. "What 'that?'"

"The fight. Or whatever."

"That was a cocky Mil/Space idiot getting set down, was what. He is one, you know -- they always have them at the front desk of these offices. 'Space Marine,' hah!"

"No, I mean — USSF ran me through unarmed fighting and zero-g basics, but I was a tech-spec. Was that some kind of special martial art?"

She snorted. "You've seen too many Bruce Lee movies. It was just normal hand-to-hand, a little more than you'd have been taught. Great exercise, you know."

That last with barely a flicker of her eyes in my direction — I do kind of fight my waistline.

"Yes, but—"

"'But' nothing. I'm quick, I work out — and I do have an advantage on young Tech Huckleston: my training followed 12 years of gymnastics. And none of that kung fu movie silliness!"

I noticed Dave giving her a speculative look. Maybe he finds her personality abrasive but it seemed to me he might be willing to overlook it.
* * *

28 April 2012

Frothup: Dropping In (Fragment)

"'Tar Zany?'" Rannie Wu gave the Edger cop a doubtful look and turned back to the topo map on the wall. "It's not even on this map."

The big man leaned over her shoulder, his artificial leg clicking and humming as he moved. "Tarzany. Right there. On the edge of rice-growing territory."

"Except it's named 'Edgar."

"No one calls it that. --At the peak of the War, Mil/Space built their planetary defense command bunker in the hills outside of town. Dug in almost solid granite. Huge job."

Rannie frowned. Why couldn't people get to the point? "And...?"

He smiled. "It never came to that. You -- USSF and NATO never found us. General Filiaggi's guys were mostly withdrawn and what we did here, was produce food. Rice, soybeans, corn. Stepped production way up."

Geez O Pete, where was he going with this? Rannie reminded herself she was a guest here; 2/O Dr. Schmid had been at pains to point out this was the biggest transfer of tech between a former Edger world and an Earth-flagged spacecraft, ever and that every crew member who hit dirt was a de facto ambassador for Earth. She made an effort to smile back and cocked an eyebrow questioningly at the local.

"Come harvest, the warehouses were full and the bunkers were mostly empty, so the Edgar Co-Op improvised: they took them over. Blasted new entrances, eventually."

"I see," the hell I do, she thought.

"So, they started calling them burrows instead of bunkers, and put up signs so drivers would know where to go..."

Rannie still didn't get it.

Aberstwyth's top cop was mildly embarrassed to explain. "The signs said 'To Edgar Rice Burrows.'"

She couldn't help it. She rolled her eyes. Edgers!

"Before you knew it, everyone was calling the place 'Tarzany.' And that's where it looks like your missing Stardrive parts were taken."

27 March 2012

Just Tell Me It Isn't A Beamed-Energy Weapon (Plus..)

Plus Some Notes On MIL/SPACE, the private contractor that serves (more or less) as the Far Edge's DoD. --An outsider's impression, mind you.

But first, this: Surely it is not what it looks like?

....MIL/Space is odd in not having sergeants. Or any of the lower ranks, for that matter. Instead they've got "Techs," on the notion that there is no such thing as a non-technical Space Marine. They might be right, but that means the guys (and gals) who would otherwise be Drill Instructors are instead DTs -- or HETs, Human-Engineering Techs. I would recommend one refrain from snickering, percussive maintenance being a possibility. The basic Tech skill would be "fighter." Insignia resembles older US types, with one or more symbols between rocker and chevron. (Yes, worn point down. Why? I could guess but I'll go with the semi-official answer: "Aerodynamics.") A Tech is a "general specialist" and all but a raw enlistee or one-striper has at least one area of particular skill besides battle in both shirtsleeves/planetary and vacuum/zero-G environments.

The higher ranks are (slightly) unusual as well, mostly in having a simplified rank structure and insignia and the measures taken to ensure a remarkable degree of exposure to actual combat conditions. Pogues and fobbits are, simply, not part of the system. This has its own inefficiencies, which the enterprise appears quite willing to tolerate.