Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Three

The base conference room was small, dirty and crowded with over a dozen people breathing and sweating in a room with life-support for eight. Since the room had been in constant use for days, no one had taken out any of the effluent that people create. Empty drink cups and food wrappers were wadded into corners. A cup had been abandoned in the middle of the small table days ago: the level of liquid had gone down, leaving a brown rime inside.

Garish military posters in metal frames attached to the walls. One poster showed a cryptic icon of an animal surrounded by stars and jagged bolts of energy; over this was a huge “Fighting 59th.” Another poster showed a sphere bathed in fire with a carefully done icon of a destroyer in the background, labeled “Hell In Orbit”. The poster titled “Death From Above” showed a welter of small insignia patches and escutcheons.

Six freighter pilots lounged around the table, wondering what further confusion they would have to endure. Larry knew two of the pilots and nodded at them as he entered. The remaining chair, however, was between a pilot Larry didn’t know and a military officer who was peering at his computer. Larry adjusted the chair and sat down.

The other pilots looked glum. Larry was afraid that they were about to be told of some political change that made them unable to transport in this sector. They would not be able to pick up return loads and would be forced into “delivering a load of vacuum”: making the expensive empty run to someplace they could find a paying load. Larry found he harbored an intense dislike for any political change that disrupted the smooth flow of commerce.

The pilot closest to Larry leaned over and shook his hand. “John White,” he said, then folded his arms and resumed a focused study of the abandoned drink cup. Larry shook his head; he felt that the cramped confines of a base demanded attention to the details of domestic duties. The cup was a symptom of overlooked details.

John had the characteristic paunch of pilots who sit in their flight decks for days at a stretch, sleeping and eating in the cockpit. He had a short, clumsy, self-inflicted haircut that could be managed easily by quick trips to the head during a flight. Like the other pilots, he still wore his flight suit. Larry realized that he stood out as the only person wearing civilian clothes in the room. He wondered why other pilots couldn’t buy a decent suit of civilian clothes for these kinds of meetings.

One of the military types looked at his watch and then at his computer. He looked around the room and his focus fell on Larry.

“And you are?” he asked.

“Drover, Larry Drover of the Mule II,” Larry said, trying to sound cheerful and ordinary.
The officer poked at his computer for a while. He turned to another military type. “One to go,” he said.

The other military type looked around, “We’re out of chairs.” “Get General Johnson, and we’ll start as soon as the last pilot is here.” Two of the pilots started talking quietly. In the large, transparent silence of the room, their whispers were plain as they complained of the price of resupply out here at the edge of the Core Planets; the Lyman Base fees for provisions were outrageous, far more than good conscience should permit; if they’d known this, their bids would have been higher; they would have declined the load; who needs to travel out here anyway.

“The Outer Rim hold some systems nearby,” one of the pilots whispered. This sent a tiny geologic tremor around the room. The military types slowed their typing. The pilots stopped feigning indifference and started listening. Two turned toward the speaker. There was an awkward moment when the speaker realized she now had the floor.

She looked down at the computer cradled in her hand. She had a military-style flight suit that had a separate vest with straps and clips for every kind of equipment a pilot might want. Her hair was cropped pilot short, but she wore fairly elaborate earrings. Like most pilots, she found space desperately lonely, but was also uncomfortable around other people. After taking a breath, she glanced quickly at her audience and then studied the table in front of her.

“They built a base called Carillon. I know a guy who took in one of the first loads of provisions.”

The pilots nodded. This was indisputable fact, with a certificate of authenticity that would never be challenged. The spectrum of veracity among space pilots went from lies through rumors, military intelligence, news, and ended at transport manifests. You could debate what you wanted about the state of the economy of any base or stellar cluster or even the entire network of Core Planets; you couldn’t dispute that actual transport of goods.

“I heard they’ve put up a line of ‘em,” said a pilot wearing an older style of flight harness.

John White nodded intensely. “Duquense,” he said to the drink cup.

“Duquense?” Larry asked.

“Duquense,” he answered. “Part of the line. Almost as far into the core as they’ve ever reached. They say that Acadia is a Rim-friendly base.”

“And Niagara,” someone else said. “I met a guy who heard they were offering top prices. Top prices. With paid dock time.”

The phrase ‘paid dock time’ echoed around the room. Being paid to sit idle was an offer that that was more valuable than any political loyalties.

“Two bases named after the Outer Rim King Louis,” John White said. “And one named after his grandfather, King Louis.”

This received a polite chuckle.

“What do they pay?” someone asked.

A military type jumped up. He seemed to be some kind of lieutenant. “Okay, folks, can we listen up?”
“Metals,” someone whispered.

A ‘wow’ orbited around the room. The most common form of pay was credits for fuel, victuals, parts and services. Credits didn’t transfer well; they locked a pilot into routes where the credits were usable. Metals gave a pilot freedom to move to new routes, following the shifting demands.

“Okay folks, we’ve got a lot to cover here, and we can’t waste a lot of time on scuttle-butt,” the military type barked.

“Aren’t we waiting for someone?” John White asked the drink cup.

“We’re always waiting for someone,” someone answered. The pilots started chuckling among themselves.

“Hurry up and wait,” someone else said. This was picked up as a chorus by several others.

“We’re behind schedule already, we really can’t wait any longer,” the lieutenant said.

“We’re not surprised,” someone muttered.

The door creaked open, and an aging officer came in with an assistant. There were two obvious trappings of power: a military type shouting “officer on deck,” and a crowd of supporters, lackeys and sycophants. At the “officer on deck” shout there was a general jump to attention that Larry found it difficult to ignore. He forced himself to stay seated, like the other pilots, in carefully maintained indifference.

Drover thought that William Johnson was relatively old to be a Major General. He was wearing a military uniform, but his paunch didn’t fit the trim military cut; he bulged out in various directions. Rather than a military flat-top haircut, his hair was professionally styled.

Lieutenant Colonel Pomeroy was General Johnson’s shadow. He had been a successful lawyer, and had shifted into military service as a stepping stone in politics, also. He pointed Major General Johnson at a computer at one end of the room. The military types shifted around, revealing a chair with no back, arms shrugging uselessly. Another missed bit of housecleaning.

Lieutenant Colonel Pomeroy adjusted his computer, “Okay, fly boys, listen up.” “Don’t forget the fly girls,” the Carillon pilot said. This got a laugh from the freighter pilots, and a cold stare from the lieutenant.

“Oh, touch my fly, baby”, said the flight harness pilot.

“Catch me, freighter,” Carillon said, sneering at him.

There was a chorus of jeers from the pilots.

“I don’t think the General came here to listen to this,” Pomeroy said. “Major General William Johnson.”

Pomeroy pointed General Johnson to the computer. Johnson squinted at it for a moment.

“Thanks. We’re entering the next phase of our operation in this cluster,” the General began. “For your protection, we’ve assigned military adjuncts to each of you contract freighters.”

Larry’s hand shot up. The General squinted at him, then looked around the room, puzzled by the interruption. He looked at his various aids and assistants. Some frowned at Larry; others stared blankly, unsure what to do.

“Yes?” General Johnson said after a long pause.

“Things have been okay. Why are you making changes?” Larry asked.

“I believe we’ve made that perfectly clear,” Pomeroy said.

“When?”

“Did you or did you not agree to the transport terms and conditions as set forth in —”

General Johnson cut him off. “You’re carrying military gear to construct a military post where we’ll stage an attack on an Outer Rim base at Carillon.” There was a stiffening among the military types; a shuffling from foot to foot and poking of computers. Glances were passed around the room. Apparently, this was too frank an explanation of the freight handling.

“I don’t plan on getting shot at,” Larry added. He didn’t mind the ordinary dangers of space flight; he had his flight checklists to ward them off. He was very afraid of hostile activity with no standard procedures or checklists.

“The frontier is changing, son,” Johnson replied. “You’re going to have to adapt or move on.”

Larry didn’t like this answer. He folded his arms and stared at Johnson.

Johnson stepped away from the computer. “Pomeroy,” he said.

“The base will be code-named Henry, to honor current president of the Core Planets Governmental Network. You can start to download the coordinates now,” Pomeroy said.

One of the military types poked his computer. The pilots all reached for their own computers. Larry had a computer that was not originally part of the Mule II. It had two extra interface modules that were now essential for communication. The computer was not large enough to accommodate them as internal components, so they were attached with adhesive tape and hook-and-loop fabric fasteners. It took Larry a moment to unwrap his computer and start accepting the coordinates for download. Ms. Carillon had a very new computer, quite small, sleek and easy to use.

Larry brought up the coordinates and the relevant charts. Henry base was attached to a planet named to “George” after the current president of the Core Planets Network council; George’s son, Henry, would likely take over the reigns of government in due time.

“Isn’t that in the Cephalopod sector?” Larry asked.

Ms. Carillon was poking her computer, clearly struggling to accept the old-style military transport coordinates. “Do you have this in another format?” she asked.

General Johnson stared hard at Drover. “Did I ask you for a critique of our strategy?” The General was staring at Larry with a ferocious intensity. Larry, accustomed to long periods with no human contact at all, had no response to this kind of hostility. He flinched back into his chair, sliding away from the table and slouching down even further.

“Did I?” the General asked.

Larry realized the question wasn’t rhetorical. His hands waved for a moment as he struggled to find an answer. “No,” Larry began. “But I’m worried about my ship.”

One of the officers poked his computer, and then slid it in front of the General. General Johnson squinted down at the computer.

“It’s not even your ship. You chartered it,” the General said.

“You offered good money to fly your stuff all over the frontier,” Larry replied.

Many of the other pilots nodded. This was the approved method for making good money in transport: charter a ship appropriate to the load.

“When we’re done here, this will be a Core Planets cluster,” The General said, and then peered around the room. “Are there any actual questions?”

The pilots looked around at each other. Some looked down at their computers. A few glanced over at the military types lining the wall at one end of the room.

“Are we going to get fighter escorts?” a pilot blurted. He had a haphazard beard that looked like he shaved random patches of his face on an irregular schedule.

The General looked around at his officers.

“This is not a large base. Honestly, we don’t have the personnel to escort you all over this little corner of the galaxy.”

The pilot slouched down in his chair. “Without escorts, I can’t take the chance.” 

“Do you want to get paid?” Johnson asked, staring hard at the pilot.

The pilot squeezed down in his chair. “It isn’t worth it if my ship is at risk.” 

“I will not have you bunch of vagabonds stealing my stores. I will not protect one of your ships until the petty thievery stops.” Johnson was working himself to a frenzy. He raised his voice even louder, “It can’t be that hard to off-load everything on your manifest. Why must you conceal one case-load of everything?” This accusation led to a stony, defiant silence. The standard apology was that a space ship was large and complex; things tended to get lost. Everyone called it shrinkage, not theft or loss, to politely conceal the real intent. Every pilot considered load shrinkage as part of their fee structure.

“I think you’ve just got time to finish pre-flight checks.” General Johnson started a recitation, “On behalf of the Core Planets military leadership, the Core Planets combined government network and all of your family and loved ones on Core planets everywhere, may divine providence smile on us and help us destroy the Outer Rim military bases that threaten our safety.”

Pomeroy moved into position at the desk. “The General would like to thank you all for your participation.”

This sounded dismissive to some of the pilots. Shuffling chairs and folding up computers, they started to get up. One of the junior officers picked up his computer and started to shoulder his way into position by the doorway.

The pilots gathered around the doorway, waiting for it to open. Scruffy Beard poked the control by the door with no effect. Flight Harness reached across and jabbed the control. The indicators showed simply shut, not locked, but Flight Harness toggled the lock switch a few times. John White reached through the crowd and jabbed the button. The motors clicked as the door creaked open.

Compromises were the price of being at the edge of the frontier. Since bases were often built hastily to allow rapid exploitation of new-found planets, unscrupulous contractors could easily substitute components and pocket the difference. Greedy freighters would sell substandard parts from their private load, keeping the difference between the contractor’s price and the prices paid under the counter to unknown suppliers.

“Get your adjunct assignments before you leave,” an officer announced.

Larry sat in his chair, staying back from the press by the door. He watched as pilots and military adjuncts were matched up. When the last few were working their way out the door, Larry pushed his chair back. He’d already heard his name called; his adjunct was a Lieutenant Colonel Whiting, a fact he set aside for the moment. He preferred to maintain his cool indifference to military procedures as long as possible.

General Johnson, similarly, had waited for the crowd at the door to thin out. He looked at Larry coldly. “Don’t you have preflights?”

Larry looked over at the General, and his cluster of assistants, including Lt. Colonel Whiting. She stood out from the other members of the command cadre. She didn’t wear the complete marine battle dress uniform. She had added jewelry, bending or breaking some Marine Corps rules. Also, she packed the biggest weapon Larry had ever seen jammed into a thigh holster.

“Why hurry? This is just going to be another crappy day on the frontier. Shot at by the Outer Rim, out of fuel, and harassed by Cephalopods—”

The General slammed the desk, cutting Larry off.

“These rumors of a Cephalopods alliance with the Outer Rim is an exaggeration,” General Johnson shouted. The assistants all shuffled around nervously. Larry wondered how bad the situation could be if that kind of vehement lie was the response.

General Johnson looked meaningfully at Whiting. She looked over at Drover. Larry felt the stare and returned it. She picked up her computer, shoved the backless chair out of the way and started to head out of the meeting room.

“Let’s go,” she said, with the easy authority of one accustomed to command.

“Yes, ma’am, right away ma’am”, said Larry, laying on the irony as thickly as he could.

She stopped, glowered at him for a moment, then softened, squeezed around the table toward him and stuck out her hand. “Lieutenant Colonel Whiting.”

Drover looked at her, unsure what to do next. He watched General Johnson and his party leave. Whiting waited, eyeing Drover closely.


“You know,” she said, “I’ve only just met you and already I don’t like you.” 

“That’s a comfort. I don’t like this whole stinking job,” Drover said, shaking her hand. “But here I am anyway.” 

Whiting strode out of the room. Drover looked at the detritus left behind. The lonely drink cup with the falling level of liquid remained alone in the middle of the table. Larry wondered what his flight engineer would make of this kind of Mammal military intrusion.