25 December 2013

Frothup: Christmas

     The topic came up at lunch — a working lunch, in Ben's office at the machine shop.
     "I don't know, Raub," Ben Jones told his co-worker and sometimes accomplice in holiday surprises for the neighborhood children.  "Most of the older kids are already skeptical of Santa Claus, or they think they're too sophisticated.  If we just put the robot we used at Halloween into a red suit, they're just going to laugh at it."
     Raub took the last bite of his sandwich, chewed and swallowed it before replying.  "There's only three weeks left."  He pointed at a little poseable wooden "robot" toy on Ben's desk.  "What're we going to do — dress him up as an elf?"  He laughed.  "That's lunch for me.  Back to the salt mines." And he walked off, whistling a Christmas carol.
     Ben laughed,too.  Later that day, the toy caught his eye again.  It wouldn't take much effort to get it to walk, maybe a pair of servos, and LEDs would make the eyes light up, but just one little robot wasn't much.  Then he remembered the carol Raub had been whistling.  When he left that evening, he left one of the 3-D fabbers turning out plastic versions of parts for the little robot, careful to mark the time and materials to his own account.
*  *  *

     It was Christmas Eve and Jackson Jones had been persuaded — with considerable reluctance,to go to bed only a half-hour later than his usual time.  "Santa won't come if you aren't asleep," his mother said.  He was determined to stay up, but his dark bedroom, and quiet adult talk and cooking smells wafting from the kitchen lulled him off to sleep no matter how hard he fought it.

     Jingle.  Jackson suddenly found himself awake.  Had he heard something?  He shut his eyes and held his breath, heart pounding.  There was a tiny, shuffling sound.  He was sure of it.  It was exactly not the sound of a jolly fat man with a big bag of toys.  Jingle, jingle.  What was it?  Was he dreaming?  There was a little scrape and a sudden creaking sound he recognized: It was the sound of his closet door opening.  The latch was bad and sometimes it just opened if you bumped it.  But what had bumped it?  He opened his eyes and realized there was a dim, shifting light coming from close to the floor.
     He got very awake.  Was there a fire?  A good Cub Scout, Jackson always reminded his Dad to change the batteries in the smoke detectors every Spring and Fall, and helped him do it, too. Surely it would have gone off? He raised up to get a better look—
     And he saw pairs of little lights, low against the wall.  Yellow, blue, green, red, white, orange, each set shifting a little.  He started to yell and then remembered the flashlight Dad had given him when he'd had a bad nightmare.  He kept it on the table next to the bed, just in case.  This was as big an "in case" as he could think of.  He reached carefully, slowly....  The first thing his hand found was his glasses, so he put them on.  The lights got sharper but they still didn't make any sense.  He groped again, found the light, aimed it more-or-less and pushed the button, yelling, "AAAAAAAH!"
     The beam illuminated a half-dozen blocky little robots, all of which took a step back as he yelled.
     He yelled again, "Daaaad!  Robots!  In my room!"
     His Dad, Ben Jones, walked through the door, holding some kind of remote and grinning.  "Yep.  You know what they are?"
     "Um...  No."  He didn't know if he should be relieved or mad, but Dad always said if you didn't know what was going on, you should find out.  "What are they?"
     "'Tiny bots...with their eyes all aglow...'  Just like in the song."  His Dad fiddled with the controls.
     "Aw, Dad, that's awful."  Jackson was watching the little robots.  They all moved at the same time.  "How do they work?"
     "They follow the leader.  See the one with red eyes?  The remote runs him.  Wherever I move him, the others follow."
     "Want to try?"  His Dad handed over the remote.  "Maybe you'd better see if you can get them to walk to the living room.  It is Christmas morning, you know, and you've got a few other presents under the tree, too."

     ...Though it's been said many times, many ways: Merry Christmas to you from the Hidden Frontier.

26 October 2013

Frothup: The Halloween Bot

     It came lurching and clanking down the road, trailing a thin streamer of smoke in the twilight, two heavy feet scuffing aside the red, brown and yellow-gold fallen leaves along the street-side edge pale-mauve line that delineated the pedestrian, bicycle and small/slow autonomous vehicle lane from the main road.

     Jackson Jones was the first of the kids to notice it. He was playing in the front yard in his costume while waiting for his big sister to come outside and take him  door-to-door, collecting treats.  He looked up at the sound and stood a long while, watching the big object approach though the long shadows.  "Neat-o," he said to himself, and then louder,  "Dad?  Daaad!  You've gotta see this.  Tell Quinnie, too."

     A vague male rumbling from the house replied.

     "No, Dad, you'd have to see it," adding, "Quick!" because by then it was about halfway past the neighbor's driveway, trudging steadily toward the Jones frontage.

     The scuffed trail was vaguely visible back along the tree-lined street, where homes gave way to vacant lots and small industrial buildings.  You could just make out the high, blank fence and higher sign-post where the road came to a T at the back of the sprawling Innovative Machine compound.  The signpost was topped with a silver-painted shape like a streamlined bowler hat, bearing the word INNOVATIVE, turning unceasingly around and around.  It was one of the first long words Jackson had sounded out for himself, and then he'd had to go ask Dad what an I-No-Vat-Ive was.  That was when he learned that Innovative Machine & Repair was "the plant" where Dad worked.

     There might've been a man visible way back at the fence; it was hard to be sure.  Jackson squinted at it, but his attention was drawn back to the shape patiently lurching along.  As it drew closer, he could a gentle squeaking and hissing, the clack-chuff! of valves and the singing of cables under stress under the sharp scritching of leaves  as it shuffled. 

     He took a step and the thing, roughly man-shaped, slowed.  Its head swiveled to face his direction and two huge, goggle-lensed eyes lit up, as sodium-yellow as the streetlights starting to flicker on.

     "Daad!  Mommm!  Quinn!  It's a real robot!"  And so it was, eight feet of shiny aluminum, blued steel, bright brass, copper wire, hoses and tubing and braided cable, walking and wobbling for balance on great broad feet, hands holding a big box shaped like a pirate's treasure chest in front of it.  As it came close to the boy, it slowed and stopped, slowly pivoting his way, body turning to line up with the head.

     Jackson heard a screen door up the road twang open and bang shut, followed by a similar sound from his own house and his Dad's familiar tread, but he didn't dare turn to look.  The robot was right in front of him.

     It stood as still as he was, hissing slightly, leaking a little smoke or steam.  Something inside it went click-click-click and the big yellow eyes blinked out and came back on.  It bent towards him a little, and the arms held the treasure chest-like box out just a bit farther. 

     Jackson wasn't sure what to do.  There were a lot of robots in his world, utilitarian things that lifted and carried, dug and drove, doing the dull or dangerous things that had to be done in a busy society with too few human hands; you kept out of their way, because they stopped cold if people they didn't recognize came too close and then you'd get yelled at by whoever was in charge of them.  None of them were like this wonder, not at all.

     It blinked at him again, and made a kind of offering gesture with the box, holding it out a tiny bit and then back. 

     Jackson felt his Dad was behind him and felt braver because if it.  "Um...hello?"

     The robot blinked and made the gesture again.  What was it trying to do?  Jackson glanced around, hoping for a clue, and saw his sister had come out on the porch in her costume.  Inspiration struck.  He asked the robot, "Trick or treat?"

     It blinked twice, bent down even further, let go of the box at one side (somehow holding it level and steady with a hand at one side) and lifted the lid with its free hand.

     Revealed inside, a king's ransom in candy!  Or, Jackson told himself, at least a prince's — glazed popcorn balls, chocolates in glittering foil, hard candies—  His Dad coughed.

     "Don't take too much, Jack.  That robot's got a long walk tonight and there are a lot of other kids."

     Hans from next door had snuck over, too, and chimed in, "Yeah, share."  He never missed a chance to curry favor with grown-ups but he was right.

     Jackson reached out and grabbed a handful.  Hans stepped forward, reached out, pulled his hand back when the robot swayed slightly,  then nerved up and took another swipe at it, netting a fair amount or, it seemed to Jackson, a little more.  The robot blinked yet again, swiveling his head to look at both boys, then carefully closed the box and stood up, shuffling in tiny steps to face in the direction it had been traveling.

     "Hey, Dad?"


     "Can we walk with it?"

     His Dad made an overly-serious face, fighting a barely-controlled grin.  "I don't know, Jack.  That's an awfully big robot."

     "Aw, Daaaad!"

      Dad lost the battle with his grin.  "I suppose you can — but your big sister has to come along, too!"

*  *  *

     Later that same night, on the phone:

     "Raub here."

     "Looks like our project is a hit."

     "Tell me about it— Hang on, tricky stretch coming up. ....  Okay."

     "Don't you trust the autocontrol?"

     "In a mob of two dozen kids?  You come down here and try driving this thing, watching a dinky screen!"

     "Thanks, Raub.  I owe you big for this."

     "Hey, it took both of us to build it.  Wouldn't have missed tonight for the world.  Any world."

     (For my nephew Ben and his two kids; they'd love a Halloween robot and of everyone I know, he's the most likely to build one.)

18 October 2013

Things Lost Under Bridges

[Found in the tattered back half of a Far Edge magazine.  Fiction?  Biography?  I have no idea.]


      For as far back as he could remember, he woke up shattered, understanding flitting away with scraps of dreams.

     The sun woke him long after dawn, nasty brightness streaming under the bridge and through the scrubby weeds that almost hid him from the path along the river.  He woke up on a sandy patch of bare dirt that smelled only faintly of old vomit and fresh urine, shuddering, slammed back into the here and now, groping for eyeglasses he hadn't had since-- when?  Lost the thought.  Of long habit, he sat as soon as he realized he was really awake, jerking upright and, after a breath, to his feet, standing quickly before the pains got his notice.  If the sun could find you, anyone could.

     Coughing, he stumbled to the water's edge and dashed a quick handful over his face and head with dirty hands.  Some remnant of vanity had him smooth his thinning hair without realizing he had.


     He first learned about it standing outside the TV shop, staring from too close through the wavery old glass at the fuzzy, overly-colorful screens, trying to blink sense into the scrolling words under the earnest, blankly-young faces.  Did they say everyone would have to sign up?

     Later: It was everyone.  He puzzled the meaning from a week-old newspaper left on a park bench, shaking finger wavering along the line.  Him, too, him and Slippery John and Jenny Cats and the kids who slept, furtively, in the stubbed-off storm drain, thinking themselves unobserved.  And the Mexedes-driving bastard floating past who threw half a cup of coffee on him, the newspaper and the park bench.  He started to shout, "You, too," but the "ooou" turned into a hacking cough.


     They said you could sign up at the book-and-thinkmachine hall, but he was turned away at the door.  Not. You. That's what the lady said, lips compressing shut on every word, glancing from him to the poster of faces under the word PROHIBITED stuck to the wall just inside. He stood there remembering the unfortunate day a week or a month or a year ago, when either the dolefood or the dumpster gleanings had waged a horrible war in his gut while he looked at the screen, searching, searching frantically for something he'd since forgot, when the chair turned to sticky, damp heat and he'd moved down to the next.  And the next.  And the next, until a burly guard grabbed his arm, Hey, you!  Filthy bum! Out, out! Holding up something that clicked once, twice, on the way to the door.


     The billboards said you could get a form at Postal-Serv and mail it in.  The sign said NO BUMS and the green-uniformed kid holding a strange-looking black rifle spared him a wary eye every step of the long stairway until he reached the top, then stopped him with a short, slow back-and-forth of helmeted head.


     It was a long way back to the bottom.

     Slippery John and the kids didn't have any better luck.


     It was Jennie Cats finally got them all forms.  She cleaned up well enough, especially if no one got too close and she remembered not to smile too broadly.  And the booktenders and think-machine tenders liked her, a little, on her best days.  He had to save out grubby coins for a week — "Print copies are not free, dearie."  Crumpled, a little, and a jelly stain on pages eleven and twelve but it wasn't a bad one; most of the sticky was rubbed off.

     The printing was too small to read under a street light.  It was almost too small at noon.


     The pencil stubs were too skinny.  They slipped away from his grasp like the smallest coins.  He had a fatter one but it got too short to sharpen again before he'd gotten any farther than NAME and REG. NUMBER and was puzzling over EMPLOYMENT HISTORY.

     Years earlier: "Here's my essay, professor Jones.  And the lab results."
     "The deadline was yesterday, Miss Howart."
     She smiled.
     He didn't.

     Now: He finally found a fat blue crayon he could hold.  He scrubbed a point on it any place there was concrete.  The workshop man at back of the TV store helped him some with the HISTORY.
      "Geez,  you're really him, hunh?"
     He shrugged.  Words came and went.  They were elsewhere today.
     "I was never sure, you always looked so different-- Man, what happened?"
     He had no idea.
     "My old man, he says you won us the war.  You know that?"
     He tries to remember.  Can't.  So, there was a war?

     Years earlier: "Here are the parameters, professor Jones."
     "I quit yesterday."
     "You can't."
     He couldn't.

     Now: "Doc, I guess that's it.   This place right here was the last reg'lar work you had, I think, back when I started.  There wasn't nothing you couldn't fix back then.  Um, when you was sober.  No offense."

      He takes the forms and mumbles something.  Thanks?  Yes, thanks.


    The posters had been warning about a deadline for weeks while he struggled past MOTHER'S MAIDEN NAME and LIST LIVING GRANDPARENTS.  He was almost sure that one only meant his but he listed a few other grandparents he knew about just to make sure.

    He'd lost track of the date.  One morning under the bridge was much like any other, unless the kid gangs had gone whooping along the river-ditch in the dark and he'd had to get out fast before they found him.  Flashing warnings on the TV screens told him, but the shop was locked up.  The Postal-Serve's doors were chained shut and a different young man behind them pointed a rifle at him and waved him away.  He stared for a second, befuddled at the shiny, reflecting patch at the end pointed at him, shiny where he had somehow expected a menacing black void. The man just yelled louder until he turned away.


     There were pigeons in a coop on top of the TV-store building. Six floors up.  He'd seen them, scrounging.

    Same rooftop, sometime later: he tapes the forms to the stolen bird.   Kisses it on sudden impulse, kisses it and tosses it into the air, murmuring "Fly. Fly free."  His eye tears up and, embarrassed, he turns away immediately.

     The form was much too heavy anyway, but it's a pity he'd taped the bird's wings down.


    He never even woke when it happened.  Later that day, the sun found an empty patch of dirt under the bridge that smelled only slightly of vomit and spilled blood.  There was a darker, damper patch at the center of it.

     Leadership held a press conference in time for the evening pundits.  Everyone was registered now.  It was the start of a new future, they said.   

     There was a glow in the sky.

14 September 2013

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

     It's the actual dial of an actual instrument in an actual panel in the "bridge" -- a coat-closet for two with meters, monitors, keyboards and clutter -- of an actual Far Edge Glocke-ship, a little smuggler's bell.
     They won't let visitors anywhere near the Stardrive core; the Edger bag of 'Drive tricks is still a well-tended secret that no starship crewperson or owner has ever let slip, but aside from that they're happy to do the visiting firemen thing and swap only slightly-exaggerated yarns of close calls and wartime desperation and/or bravery.  But dang--  That's some old stuff.

03 June 2013

Bank Shot

Aboard FCS Contract Tactical Vessel "Billiard," November 1963

     Kwa-FWOPP!  The sound hits with a shock that shakes the whole ship, or at least it feels that way.  That's not the worst part.  Set on auto, the EMP-gun fires any time there's a load ready to go and the targeting crew has lined up on a "valid target," any large-enough radar return lacking IFF. The rising thrumm of the Marx high-voltage generator recharging underpins the ratcheting clank and slam of the "gun" cycling a fouled barrel out and a freshly-loaded one in — the Marx's output driving the exploding-helix first step, helix pumping the stacked-disc EMP generator, ready for their one-and-only line-dance of death — isn't the worst part, either.

     No, what he's come to hate are the moments each side of firing: the dull "clack" of grounding relays ticking over, shutting down or isolating in every system but the trigger, the tiny hiss of the pneumatic-delay briefly audible in the silence left with life-support offline, Kwa-FWOPP! and an instant of shocked silence, waiting for the first few isolating relays to un-isolate and release the rest.  That's the part he can't stand: it always takes just long enough that he starts to wonder if it's not going to happen this time, leaving ship and crew — him — adrift in their primitive "tin suit" space suits, trusting to passive IFF and the clumsy navs systems for protection from pitiless, automated friendly fire.

     Airflow, cooling and commo comes back on okay this time, with an insectile buzz and a pair of warning telltales on the alarm board beside him: the long dielectric wedge in the barrel just cycled out has to be replaced and is, of course, jammed.  As he unstraps and unplugs, the second telltale — "TEMPERATURE ALARM" — blinks and goes out and the buzzing changes pitch.  Already cooled enough to work on, at least in his suit.  The wedge is a weak point but without it, eddy current would melt the barrel to unusability after a single shot.  The system that's supposed to slide the old wedge out and a new one in every five firing cycles is notoriously balky; there's a tradeoff between available replacements and cumulative damage at about four and a half shots — or five, if there's a tech on hand to fix foul-ups.

     In theory, the EMP-gun is locked out as soon as he cracks his tiny pod.  Despite the barrels and "shells," it doesn't send anything solid downrange, just a blast of electronic death that turns most spacecraft into useless junk.  The other side, NATO's Combined Space Forces — primarily the USSF, augmented by the Commonwealth's (Yes, HRH Elizabeth R's very own UK, Colonies, Possessions and ex-Colonials) Space Arm and an increasingly-reluctant French Navy (!) contingent — still hasn't come up with entirely effective shielding and thus, here he is, shooting zaps at them.  Outside the layered mu-metal, ceramic and gold-screen of the pod, the gun he services would stop him even faster and better than it stops NATO spacecraft.  So when he's unshielded, the gun is locked out, mostly.  Mostly: his pressure suit incorporates a lighter version of the same shielding and its standalone life-support is non-electric; the Bridge can override the lockout and he's supposedly protected from at least a single shot.  It's a last-ditch gambit; he worries more that the gun will cycle without firing while he's working on the jammed barrel.

     It doesn't happen this time.  The stuck wedge gives way to pure brute force, three clumsy free-fall hammer swings, thud-thud-thud and it sldes free.  He can feel the heat though his gloves — and to a lesser extent through bootsoles and his legs when he was bracing in place. It adds up but if you're used to it, sweating's not a big problem, natural cooling with the moisture recovered in the rebreather whirring on his back as long as the power's on. He steps through the rest of wedge-replacement manually, not trusting the machinery to pick up where he left off.  Back in the pod once more and — hey, presto! — he's no more than snapped the final latch before there's a multiple clack, an instant's quiet and Kwa-FWOPP!  There's a heart-stopping pause before dim, red pod lights and a reassuring rush of air come back on again, just fine.

*  *  *

     He hadn't set out to be a soldier — who had?  He'd been working maintenance at a station in a small but metal-rich asteroid belt in Peace-and-Prosperity's system when NATO had come in with little warning.  As the "Federation of Concerned Spacemen" fleet scattered and and some planet-bound Far Edgers had managed skip out to meet it, a pair of NATO/USSF Jump-drive carriers were dropping fast armed scouts and steam/fission "teakettle" troop transports near every off-planet source of RF. Reaching his station, they'd taken the still-incomplete "big wheel" that held living quarters, command/control/communications and other activities requiring a definite up and and down, but misjudged the physical size and population of the remainder of the operation.

     The area where he worked, "backside" of a large rock without line-of-sight to the Wheel, had been overlooked.  The last flyable vehicles had skipped out in the confusion, leaving one pilot, four techs and a "Heron" with a bum #2 realspace engine.  The Heron was an awkward little general-purpose spacecraft, modified for up-close use in the relatively-dense asteroid belt.  Originally an underpowered Jump drive had given it limited capability; modified with copies of FCS-recovered WW II German "Glocke" Drive field generators, it could span a solar system in a few hours subjective time.

     Working with desperate haste, power all but shut down, he and his peers had managed to repair a similar but less-damaged engine from the shop's boneyard, wrestle it into place, and ready the tubby little craft for travel.

     Normal crew was three: pilot and navigator/copilot at the nominal top, peering out through windowed turrets, radio/radar/Drive operator at their foot level and room a little cargo or one passenger below and forward of the radio position.  One passenger if he wasn't planning to move around much.  Life support for four days, longer with an added pod.  Fuel for six days.  Four people, max.

     They got five in, awkwardly, depressurized the hanger bay and set Jumped out, interpolating and extrapolating from out-of-date course cards on a best-guess vector, and got lucky: much closer to the FCS fleet than NATO's ships, the electrical racket of their emergence from Jump prompted a tight-beamed challenge on the Edger traffic-control frequency.  Bona fides established, they were given coordinates and met an FCS ship with hours to spare on life support, last spacecraft out of the the system.

     ...And out of friends, home and a job.  Sure, there was always work for a spaceship tech, but the rough-and-ready skills of mining-ship mechanic weren't so good a fit with the huge ships of the FCS Fleet.  For that matter, neither was he.

     When he heard a minor ship-Captain named Filiaggi was setting up a "military contractor" to meet USSF/NATO's aggression with force, he made contact as soon as he could get through, joining a large number of mostly young, mostly displaced Edgers who favored fight over flight.  When the shadowy leadership of what was still more conspiracy than government put out a Notice For Bids to run "reconnaissance and intelligence" missions in Earth-held systems including the Solar System itself, Filiaggi's organization won the bulk of the contracts — and put him to work.

     And now here he was, babysitting an improvised "Pulse Cannon" all of Mark II — or possibly this one was a Mk. III, the changes were slight — shooting and being shot at, all because his father (and several hundred others) hadn't wanted to set up an atom-bomb missile base on Earth's Moon.  He thought the irony of fighting even a defensive war for peaceniks was a little muted when you were wearing a pressure suit, taking fire in an already-hostile environment, living on short rations and at the present moment trying to shake sweat from your eyes; all he wanted, personally, was for the shooting to stop.

     It didn't seem likely to happen any time soon.

04 April 2013

"...A Worm Unknown To Science..."

 [Typed MS, by the look of it a carbon copy and made on a very old machine, discovered in a trunk marked "J. Philli{illegible}" filled with books (mostly by A. Conan Doyle) and old papers purchased in a second-hand shop in Star City on Linden/Lyndon.  I have no idea what to make of it. --RX]

     It's been twenty years and I am light-years away, or so they tell me.  Have been for twenty years and my conscience pangs me yet.

     I don't feel at all guilty about the way I left -- "I'll just nip back in and get my bumbershoot," indeed!  Nor can I see how Mr. Isadora P———, well-known reporter  and duellist of some note could have come to any more humane an end. 

     I regret the finality of it and would that it had not been at my hand, though.  It was in the spring of 18--, in the very last decade of the dear, lost 19th Century, and I had been acting as the Aeroship Company's British factor or agent for the better part a decade, collecting and forwarding all manner of biological specimens, compressed foodstuffs, arcane machinery and whatnot -- not the least of which were popular magazines and even the London papers.  Mr. P——— must have been approached at about the same time as had I, but in his case, the journalist's natural inquisitiveness and a certain degree of what I can only conclude was an innate duplicity, some dark stain of the spirit, led him to learn far more than he should have known -- and to eventually threaten to publish unless paid.

     Had his motive been a pure concern for the truth, I might have demurred the assignment; instead, he had more than suggested that his report could be "lost" were he in receipt of a truly staggering financial consideration.

     The Aeroship Company had lately suffered considerable losses in connexion with their base of operations in California, the so-called Sonora Aero Club; the cause was never entirely clear to me, some sort of fire or explosion, but the extent of the loss was palpably real.  They simply could not have met the cost and telling the blackmailer "publish and bedamned" was completely out of the question.  Even then, the gathering fires of war had convinced the engineer Peter Mennis and Aeroship Company President August Schoetler that their contrivances and vehicles must be kept an absolute secret.     

     Murder was out of the question.  Only one course remained.

     The so-called "darter slug" is unknown to Earth's science, and for good reason.  Neither slug nor insect, it haunts the shallows and muddy banks of watercourses on a distant world, a peaceful world the Aeroship Company has, at great effort and expense, made habitable by Mankind.  Though small, it is a dangerous beast; like the honey bee, it has but a single sting -- but that sting brings immediate, incurable madness on whoever receives it.

   I did it--  I contacted Isadora P——— and gave him the matchbox, promising it contained irrefutable proof of his literally incredible tales of persons commuting to and from a distant star.  I had scarcely left his flat when I heard the terrible groan of his last sane moment.  I could not nerve myself to return and retrieve the darter slug

     Within the week, I had slipped away from my remaining friends in London, through a simple trick and on the slimmest of excuses.  An umbrella?  An escape!  In disguise, I boarded the cutter A—— and when it "vanished" in a cloudbank, I was one of her passengers.  Of course it was a ruse; Aero Dora III lifted the ship whole, we transferred to the pressure hull as she rose and carried the cutter to our destination, where it now sails an unimaginably distant sea.

     I have not returned to Earth since.  The flights have become less and less frequent.  The hazards are too great, especially since Dellschau -- poor, mad Dellschau, first victim of the same species of worm that stung Isadora! -- escaped from a supply trip to Texas.  (Thanks to a merciful providence, he was unable to let the cargo of cattle loose, though there is evidence he tried.)  I may never return in this life, but this letter shall, and I can go on with a clear conscience. 

     And I hope, Mr. W—— and especially Mr. H——, that you will not think too ill of me for having left you three such puzzles.   

27 February 2013

Wait, What? Working On A Starship

     The call was for Big Tom; the starship Lupine was well out of Jump, inbound to Farside City, snug on the unEarthly side of the Moon, and at the start of first shift, the ship had just been caught up to by the first Mad Russian ("Express Delivery Service," a/k/a "BisPosEtKom," or what FedEx would look like if they went faster than light and were run by ex-Soviet Space Force courier and fighter pilots -- no, it's both better and worse than you think).

     "Engineering, Roberta X speaking...."

      "Is Big Tom working today?"

     "Yeah, he's right here" I moved the handset away from my mouth, "Tom, it's for you--"

     The voice in my ear protested, "I don't need to talk to him, just tell him his '42' is at the mailroom."  And he hung up.

     I repeated the message to Tom and asked, "What's a '42'?"

     He grinned.  "It's a secret."

     C. Jay was at the desk next to me, deep in e-mail from some Earthside manufacturer who hadn't bothered to ansible out any service bulletins; he had a lot of catching up to do. "Somebody sent Tom The Answer to Everything."

     In the corner at the Calibration bench, old-timer Gale Grinnell looked up in annoyance from where he had some kind of data transcoder laid out in pieces and was poking through it with a 'scope.  He'd served aboard Lupine when she was a warship and and thanks to various time-dilation effects ended up so far out of sync that he has never gone back home (by the calendar, he's well over 70; by his calendar, he's barely past 50) and he figures everyone else in Engineering is in a conspiracy to waste his time.  He gave me a dark look and muttered between clenched teeth, "Probably a damn' stripper.  Foolishness."

     The boys rose to the bait.  C. Jay, "Ooh, a stripper.  '42' could be gooood.  Or it could be bad."

     Big Tom: "Yeah.  It's probably her shoe size!"

     Gale just grunted and went back to his scope-probing, while I endeavored not to blush.

     Undaunted, C. Jay speculated onward, "Shoe size?  42?  Oh, man, a clown stripper!"

     Tom and I both expressed revulsion, but not for long.  From The Chief's tiny office opening off the back of the Engineering Shop there came a determined and somewhat censorious throat-clearing.  "Tom.  That forty-two-inch monitor is for the EVA monitor wall in the Environment & Physical Plant console room.  They're in a rush to get it before the outside work really starts."  He'd been moving as he talked and was at the hatch to his office by the last word, fixing all of us with a gimlet eye.  "Seems they got too involved skylarking and one of the techs put an elbow through the old one.  A-hem."

     Tom headed out.  The rest of us got back to work.

*  *  *
     Via the big dishes at Farside City, we're close enough to dear old Earth's original Internet (with seven herbs and spices) that a web search is possible if you don't mind  the answer taking a bit over a day to come in.  "Clown stripper" sounded like a real bad idea, which could only mean one thing: someone was already doing it.  Ew.  Sure enough, there's a video hit: Ew.  (Link is sans nudity but probably NSFW.)

15 February 2013


    Aboard the USSF William Mitchell, inbound to Trinity's Star, autumn of 1981 back home, around about oh-dark-fifteen.


     Silver-haired and gone just a bit fleshy, he sports a cookie-duster mustache that would make a WW II British fighter ace envious.   He walks with the least hint of a limp but somehow still projects an impression of keen-eyed health, often with a ghost of a smile lurking in the corners of his eyes.

   He isn't smiling right now.  He looks—  He looks for all the world like a college professor about to administer a test and hoping his charges have learned all he's tried to teach them: a kind of annoyed-hopeful foreboding.

     There's a cane tucked under his left arm and a fat file folder in his left hand.  He's walking down a narrow corridor, metal walls, metal-grating floor, low metal overhead nearly covered in piping and conduit.  He comes to a doorway — a hatch? — spins the wheel at the center and steps through silently.  Inside, lights are dim red.  Bunks line the walls, four high, two rows deep with another half-row row in the back center.  A small table and a half-dozen latched-down chairs take up the open space left.  It smells like sleep and the sound of gentle breathing and quiet snores provides a counterpoint to the muted hum and rush of the ventilation system.  Every bunk visible is occupied.

     He spares himself time for a quick, fierce grin and turns to the bunks at his right, right hand taking the cane from under his other arm, and raps vigorously on the upright supporting the nearest corner, producing a shattering clang-clang-clang!  "Wake up, geeks!  Waaaaake uuuup!"

     The result is immediate: a few startled grunts and a general scramble to get out from under covers and vertical, side-by side in front of their bunks as rapidly as possible.

      He flips on the white light, sudden and bright and while his hapless charges may be squinting, not a word or sound of complaint is heard.

     "Well!  Are we all bright-eyed and ready for our cornflakes, or what?"

     The "geek" nearest him — one of the four occupants of the bunk he used as an impromptu bell — blinks though thick lenses and says, hesitantly, "Um, 'Or what?' Cornflakes don't usually come with paperwork."

     "Well-spotted!  'Or what' it is.  Billy Mitchell will be emerging into real space in two hours; Intel says there will be Edgers on the far side, probably military, and we drew the short straw.  Get up, get fed and be in the tank room in under a half-hour; we'll ride it out in the cockpits and drop our drones on emergence."

     The room is silent for a beat and then from the back of the room a voice: "Whoa.  Whoooooa..."

      The young man who spoke earlier pushes his "birth control" glasses up.  "Sir?  We've never done this—  For real.  I mean, when there was gonna be anyone—"

     "That's right, you haven't.  You've run simulations.  You've ridden out Jumps hot into friendly space, into empty space.  You're not going to get any more ready for 'for real' than you are right now.  Tank room.  25 minutes."  And he leaves, cane, mustache, file folder and all, closing the hatch behind him, spinning the wheel and— Stopping.  Listening.

     And he hears a cheer.  Maybe a little ragged, but a cheer.  Ed nods and heads back down the passageway, heading for the "tank room," where eleven teleoperation cockpits await ten two-man teams and one officer: him.

     Ed's done this before, but never in command of a green crew.   He did it time after time, when you went out there and did it in person, in realtime, and he wishes he still could.  This is next best.  His wife claims it's "better." Well, maybe.  His thoughts return to his crew of "remote pilots," the end result of a harsh selection process, and he smiles to himself again, a small and somehow wolfish smile.  Green, yeah, but he's run them through sims, he's pushed them through Jumps, he's pushed them to the edge and right on through, or as close as you can come when the price of failure is a "Game Over" and an after-action review of why.  They're ready.  They can do this.

     It's the job, and they're going to do it.


     In memorial, Maj. Edward J. Rasimus, USAF (ret.) 1942 - 2013  (Biographical link, automatic audio, NSFW!)

14 February 2013

Remote Operators

     They're essential personnel on any large starship, drift or space station.  You'll find them anywhere asteroids are mined or cargoes are transferred in freefall or microgravity.  Half crane operator, half pilot, one-third computer games junkie and 100% space crew, they're usually referred to as "flying crane pilots" or "remote operators" and they're a weirdly assorted lot.

     When you see a skinny geek with bad digestion striding along with that "pilot" look in his eyes, or a smiling, tiny young woman in a powered wheelchair talking shop with a squirt-booster driver or a rigger, you've found yourself a remote op.  On a civilian starship like Lupine, you're sure not going to be able to ID them by their collar pin: they won't wear them.

     There is one, modified from the USSF "tin wings" badge, a cartoon robot astride an equally cartoony rocket, with a hand silhouette behind the whole thing, but about the only ones you can find are undersized replica version in the dusty back corners of souvenir shops ("Collect the whole set!") and pictures in a couple of textbooks.

     Of course there's a story behind it, going back to the later parts of the covert War between USSF/NATO and the Far Edge.  There's no shortage of various kinds of "pilot" on the Hidden Frontier, from the esoteric Jump Pilots or Star Pilots (more like playing 3-D billiards while solving calculus problems, having bet your life and that of all your shipmates on the outcome) to the more-usual kind of "piloting" at the controls of small short-range ships and squirt-boosters; even that is mostly flying a decision tree rather than the kinds of hands-on-the-controls, instruments and seat-of-pants "piloting" most planetbound people think of when they hear the word.  The  only kind of space-piloting that consistently comes close is operating very small tugs, flying forklifts not much more than a main reaction motor and a set of directional trimmers with about as much "cockpit" as a real forklift and an arrangement to couple it to whatever it's pushing.  The operator wears a pressure suit and it's dangerous work.

     So dangerous that about as soon as it became practical to stick a set of TV cameras in the thing and move the operator inside, everyone did.  It's still risky but an ill-considered move doesn't cost a trained operator's life.

     It worked so well that USSF cast about for other ways to move the highly-skilled away from danger, while remoting their skills to where they were needed.  A starship -- a warship -- entering an unknown solar system emerges from Gobau-Heim-Droscher space and drops "scouts" while still moving at a significant percentage of the speed of light; the starship decelerates while the scouts zoom on, radar and optics alert for any sign of danger, radioing back Doppler-shifted reports and, eventually, using their rudimentary Jump and reaction drives to slow and return to the mother ship.  It can take months and it's lousy duty, a tiny ship with a tiny crew, running right up to her own radar with the slight but ever-present chance of encountering something with insufficient warning to evade.  As the War wore on and the two forces found each other more often, the little scoutships were armed.  It didn't take much -- at such high velocities, intersecting the opposing vessel with a bag of trash would to terrible damage and a scattering of high-density cannon shells, even worse.

     Naturally USSF decided to teleopeate the scoutships.  Light-speed lag and all.  Even with the most sophiticated decision tree to ease the job, it took very specialized training to create plots who could fly a ship based on speed-of-light-lagged, time-compressed telemetry, but it seemed to work.

     At least it appeared to be working until two USSF long-range carriers (the Mitchell and the Doolittle), entering the same solar system from vastly different vectors at almost the same time and found the Federation of Concerned Spacemen-settled world Trinity, an agricultural world with a ship-building facility on one of its three undersized moons.  They dropped armed scouts, the FCS -- Mil/Space -- ship-building base scrambled their own armed "bells," and in the ensuing mess, one of Mitchell's scouts impacted Doolittle, with the loss of all hands; Mitchell herself limped out out of the system under attack, the carrier and her remaining remotely-operated scout spacecraft fighting a valiant but impossible battle right up 'til Jump, abandoning two unmanned scouts but managing to recover one.  The two left behind were captured by Mil/Space and one of them survived the war, still serving as a "gate guard" at the Mil/Space facility on T3 (there is very long story on the naming and renaming and re-renaming of Trinity's moons, deeply connected to the Troubles there, but this isn't the time to tell it).  Also lost in the exchange was one of Doolittle's manned flying cranes, which had been engaged in replacing the ship's belly radar dish when the scout hit.

     USSF tried to issue medals to the pilots who'd been remotely flying Mitchell's scouts.  They refused. Point blank.  To a man.  They were threatened with disciplinary action -- and still refused.  They were unanimous in maintaining that had the scouts been manned, Doolittle would not have been destroyed and the action might well have been victorious for Earth.

     Censured but unmedalled, too highly-trained to be drummed out, the scout-ship remote pilots took to not even wearing their "tin wings" (about what you'd expect -- astronaut wings with a robot at the center) and as the story of the disaster at Trinity spread through the USSF fleet, so did their peers.  After a few more and fortunately lesser accidents, USSF gave up on teleoperated scouts, but by then refusing to wear wings or accept decorations had become a tradition among the specialty.

     And to this day, on earth's side of the fuzzy "border" between the FCS Edgers and us, remote operators won't wear the pins that identify their trade.  You'll know 'em when you see them -- or not; but no matter if you do or you don't, they'll be there, in their funky little cockpit-carrels, not running into things.  It's a point of pride.

06 January 2013

The Overnight Report

[This is way out of chronological sequence, as it comes after events on Frothup were...resolved.  I'll get back to that.]

     Might as well start with what I'm eating now: an omelet of genuinely impressive weight and density: filled with diced pork roast, carrots, chives, some leftover -- and sans dressing -- broccoli coleslaw mix and a little random hot pickle, topped with a slice of Swiss cheese.  A truly fridge-clearing garbage omelet and I don't care what your option of it is.  It's ambrosia!

     And I earned it.

     Some months ago, when the boys from the Power Room pointed out to Dr. Schmid, Lupine's 2/O and my boss's boss some irregularities in the assignment, designation and projected end-of-life of the UPSs (and one in particular) serving the Engineering control-type areas (Drive Control, RF/Reaction, the large electronics-rack compartment betwixt 'em and trailing off into Jump Control, that worthy nodded sagely and allowed as how we'd have to set a time to put it right after having made proper arrangements to, and I quote, "Minimize the impact."

     The Chief decided that the "impact-minimizing" part of the three-ring foofraw should fall to -- or perhaps on -- Gale Grinnell (he's a tough old dude, don't be fooled by the gender-neutral name) and little ol' me.  My first thought was along the lines of "Ejectejecteject!" but from out here where the starlight is runnin' thin it's still an awfully long trip home even if I were to steal a bicycle, so instead I tried to look sanguine, sagacious and mildly curious while asking if we were going to be doing this in Jump?

     The Chief asked if I was taking up making faces as a hobby and allowed as how that would be a darned poor notion; the work scheduled for the run-in to approximately-neutral Smitty's World, next stop in our little show-the-flag tour and a little over six weeks away.  Not a bad choice -- lacking the usual sort of star, Smitty's is a wandering planet, a frozen ball of (it says here) carbonaceous chondrite, thorium ores (!) assorted frozen gases accreted from Ghu knows where, and a whole lot of ice-type ice: it's hard to see, despite radio beacons, honkin' overpowered transponders and assorted other tricks you'd like to know about, which means starships drop out of 'Drive early and sort of feel their way in, leaving plenty of extra time.

     Time for things like, oh, I dunno, shoving a huge lot of load from uninterruptable power supplies  U4A and U3A onto U1C and "unprotected power."  Because aw, hell, what's all that junk do besides help us avoid stuff we might run into?  Plus U1C is nearly at capacity and U2FGP,* we do not even consider adding more load to.

     So, plenty of time for prep, plenty of time for the job, right?

     Riiiiight.  Also, we're sellin' vacuum, two jars for $20, you want to buy in?  I kept getting other "#1 priority!" projects, along with the usual parade of broken small things; Tech Grinnell (an old USSF hand, one of the men adrift in time from too much FTL service during the War) was in the same fix.  Tick-tock, and suddenly there was a week left.  I made a list, checked it twice, and handed it off to Gale, who added a half-dozen things and handed it right back.  Along about then, Doc Schmid got in the act with another half-dozen items to add to the must-be-repowered list....

     From there , it's a skip, a hop and a lot of cadging parts to me sitting at a bench, frantically wiring up receptacle strips to power cords for temporary use, making 1.5X as many of each type as I think we're gonna need, while the erstwhile Grinnel, G. and Conan the Objectivist scrounge extension cords.

     Comes the day -- actually, an "overnight" watch, which means Conan (t. O.) gets swept up in fun, that being his normal shift, more or less -- and there we are, having already moved everything we could square with our consciences over to plain, un-backed-up power, checklists in hand, temporary power strips and quad boxes tie-wrapped and Velcro'ed in position, finishing up the last of the must-dos when a moon-faced kid from the Power Room shows up carrying two radios.

     "Kid," I say, and Joe is young; but he looks younger and talks like the huntin', fishin' country boy he was and still is, and never you mind about the EE (power) degree, or the reactor-engineering certification.  He's the 2200-to-0600 el Supremo down where the fusion roars and the MHD units run ripplin' to the stern, and he's here to put us in the loop, with a hearty, "Heya, tube-rats.  Bobbi."

     "That's us," I told him, like he didn't know.  "Are your guys ready?"

     He snorted,  "We've been ready.  Question is, are you?"

     "Just about.  Gale?  Ask the big boss if we're good."

     Doc Schmid himself came around the corner, looking as harried as he ever does (not much) and took a radio.  "We're ready.  Pull the switch."

     ...Of course something went "BLOOoooooop."  Half the monitors went out and I heard Sol West in Drive Control splutter, "Hey!"

     The 2/O didn't even blink, just keyed the radio, "Back on.  Back on."  He let up on the switch, fixed Gale and me with a beady eye: "Find it."

     We did, stupid Dansteel data-buffer frame in rack 70 plugged into an unlikely circuit, and the go-command was given again.

     Noting important went out that time, though a half-dozen alarms started beeping from the things with two power supplies we'd left half on the now-unpowered UPS.  I made a quick walk-through of RF/Reaction and through the rows and rows of racks, ending up at Drive Control where Sol looked resolute but gave me a thumbs-up.  The row of second-priority monitors at the top of the bulkhead his the DQ console faces were all out, items being monitored elsewhere or low-pri enough we were letting the slide.  I made my way back through the racks -- meeting Gale, Conan (the Obj.) and the 2/O along the way, and through RF/Reax, across the passageway and into the Engineering Shop.  Nothing to do but wait!

     ...I was just about snoozing when the seldom-used PA clicked on.  "Need an engineer in DQ.  Engineer to DQ!"

     Strolled out the long way and met Conan and Gale at the hatch.  Beyond, Sol was fuming.  "I don't have no censoredly-deleted intercom!  Navs says they've been yellin' at me for five minutes and there's no way to even tell!"

     Couldn't be in his panel; that's just controls and some basic audio.  Off to Rack 15, Operations-commo, and looky!  A whole row of, oh, call them crosspoints, dark!  --But don't they have dual power supplies per row?

     No.  No they do not.  The have bright, shiny lights that I had assumed indicated dual supplies but really only let you know the two (count them, two) DC power rails are live -- and it takes both of them to tango. (I know that now.)  Ah, but sometime long ago, we'd been careful!  We'd moved the critical intercom stations to one row, and put it on -- guess, oh, just guess! -- the UPSThe the UPS, the one that is presently off.  Easy enough to correct and so I did.

     There were a few more brushfires and then Sol found me to announce he wasn't getting any data from the 'Drive finals, idling just enough to modulate Lupine's effective mass, and the other data he was seeing indicated a problem.

     A real problem: "Are you feelin' kinda light, Bobbi?"

     Maybe I was, at that.  I sat down at the RF/Reax data terminal and started digging and eventually figured out a serial-to-ip tunnel interface wasn't talkin', a Harlington-Straker ESD1400 (if you're taking notes).  The more I messed with it, the worse it got; and I was really feeling light.  I went back to the Shop and grabbed a laptop, called up the manual, headed back to the terminal  and dug in; about then the new, improved UPS configuration came online but I hardly noticed.  I did notice when Doc Schmid slipped in behind me and leaned against a rack; when I looked back, he asked me how it was going.

     "Not well, sir.  Not well.  It's got data coming in -- good data -- but it's not pushing packets out."

     "So put in the spare."

     Awkward: "D- Sir, that is the spare.  The spare."  He just nodded.  I'll hear about that later, probably after The Chief has.  Oh, my preemptively burning ears!

     I finally thought to bring up the "Notes" tab.  One line popped up on the page I was at: DO NOT REBOOT WITH SERIAL INPUTS ACTIVE.  IT'S NOT SMART ENOUGH TO RESTART WITH LIVE DATA."

     Could it be that simple?  Really?

     I tried.  It was. You could feel the effective thrust pick up as the 'Drive finals resynchronized.

     ...After that, a couple of  relatively-easy hours returning power plugs to the (new) normal condition, restowing and cleaning-up, and I was free.

     And ravenously hungry.

     The nice thing about being in Engineering is that your card key gets you just about anywhere it's safe to go unescorted (and many places that aren't).  The kitchens, for instance.  The kitchens where the chefs and lower food-service ranks were using up odds and ends to feed -- and amuse -- themselves.

     Which takes me right back to the great big garbage omelet where started this tale of daring-do.  It's down now, plate licked clean, coffee cup empty.  I'm turning the dishes over to the dishwasher, hopping on a slidewalk and heading home, where I will sleep like a hibernating log -- sleep and with any luck, not dream of UPSes
* It doesn't really have ancillary letters but  someone who didn't want it to feel left out very carefully painted "FGP" right after "U2" on the hatch not all that long after deciding to make her career on Lupine.  Er, that is--