A base had a non-stop stream of barges and lighters that moved materials between ground side and space side. At some mature bases, the short-haul operation could be handled by independent operators who owned their single transport ship; other bases had large businesses that owned fleets of lighters. At the military-controlled fringes of the Core Planets, however, ground barges were non-existent. Transporters like Larry Drover needed to be both interstellar navigators, but also planetary pilots. Most navigators were terrible pilots, making every landing a combination of luck and courage. “Have a good flight and don’t bang into the rock too hard,” they cautioned each other.
Larry’s collection of ancient canal song recordings put the planetary operations in an ironic light. One particularly raucous song about a storm on a canal that threatened to sink the boat and kill the crew evoked a feeling of courage in the face of terrible dangers, but was all exaggeration. One of the historians noted that the size of the boat made it possible for the crew to wade to shore in the unlikely event of sinking in a canal. Another song lamented that “the Erie was a-rising and the gin was getting low, and I scarcely think we’ll get a drink ‘til we get to Buffalo.” On one hand, Larry thought it would be good to locate a route where the liquor supply was his biggest navigation hazard, and the worst accident would be an unscheduled delay. Larry also knew that competition was fierce, driving rates down to the minimum.
Drover and Whiting had threaded their way through the final administrative steps of the unloading operation, and returned to the last Mule II cargo bay. It stood vast and empty, squatting on the landing platform after having disgorged the endless series of shipping containers that comprised a mini-factory. The Mule II had two different styles of cargo bays, neither of which matched the newly standardized planet-side crew scaffold. Since the scaffold didn’t match the cargo bay gangway, they were forced to enter the bay through a maintenance hatch.
“One load, that’s it?” Larry asked, staring up through the scaffolding at the empty ship.
Whiting knew this would be one of her largest problems. She had tried to raise this point, but Johnson didn’t listen to her, or didn’t care.
“They’ll call when we need something else,” she muttered. It sounded hollow to her, but it was the best answer she had.
Drover shook his head in disbelief. “Probably ought to go back to the Core for another load. Is there anything to go back? I can’t afford to go back empty.” He knew he was whining, but the expense of flying a load of vacuum back to another base would make the trip a net loss.
Whiting looked around; with a scowl she said, “When do we leave?” “We?” he asked. “Leave ‘we’ out of this. Mo and I leave when we’re fueled.” Larry felt that if there was no military load, there was no no point in a military adjunct.
Whiting scowled even more. She was uncomfortable and the conflict she felt was written all over her face.
“Negative. I’m with you until this is over.”
She watched Drover climb up into the scaffolding, leaving her standing on the deck, feeling very small and alone. She knew that Pomeroy had identified her for this because she couldn’t refuse. Her failure would rid Johnson of someone he didn’t trust. Even a success might only set her up for more of the same treatment. Her world folded into a small, dark tunnel, blocked by a freighter pilot who wouldn’t cooperate.
“Joy unbounded. No load and now a passenger,” Larry shouted down at her. “I’m billing for this, I really am. I’m charging double. Plus freight; what do you weigh?”
Whiting climbed up into the scaffolding.
“You’re being paid. You’re on retainer,” she said; but it sounded just as hollow as everything else.
“It won’t even cover my fuel!” he said.
“Then buy it some place cheaper.”
“Yes ma’am, right away ma’am,” Larry recognized the stock military answers. “Maybe I’ll open a fuel depot out here on the frontier just for me. Maybe on that rock in your dust cloud.”
She looked up, scowling still. “I’m assigned to this ship. Can we move on?” she said. She hoped her voice wouldn’t crack. She was not doing well. She had to finish this mission and earn some kind of reputation for success; otherwise Johnson would throw her at more dangerous missions until she was killed.
Drover climbed out into the platform that was closest to the cargo maintenance hatch. He looked back down at the ground support equipment. The landing area was completely empty. Whiting crowded uncomfortably close to him on the tiny platform.
“Well, you can ride the cargo hold, because I’m not putting up with you on the flight deck,” he said.
Whiting sighed. In one smooth motion she tore out her impossibly huge side-arm, armed it and pointed it at Drover’s chest. There was barely room on the platform for the two of them separated by the gun. Slowly, Larry put up his hands.
“Put your hands down. You’re not armed, and you don’t stand a chance against me.” Larry started to put them down, embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said.
“I have orders. Now you do, too. Would you get in the ship, already?” Eyeing the gun, Larry shuffled back to the very edge of the platform. He found himself frozen by the malice it represented. He wondered if she would actually shoot him. With a wrench, he turned away, took a breath, regained his pilot’s cool distance, and climbed through the scaffold into the bay. As soon as he had both feet inside, he turned; but the gun was already inside the ship. Whiting’s arm followed, then the rest of her body. Drover stared at the gun.
Larry knew the weapon reasonably well. He had two on the Mule II. He knew that a frontier pilot had to be heavily armed, but the weapons terrified him. He’d forced himself to practice a few times with each of the various ship’s weapons. He didn’t like them and justified his dislike by quoting the high price of ammunition, the complex restrictions on almost every base, and the basic danger to the hull of his ship. Her gun was big enough that he was sure that it would not only kill him, but would also blow a hole through the bulkhead at his back.
“Keep moving, we’ve got a ship to fly here,” Whiting said. She felt like shouting her rage and frustration at this poor pilot, but choked back her anger. She wanted to fire a few rounds into the air just to make her position crystal clear.
“Look, I’m just a pilot,” he started. “You can’t—.” Larry stopped. Of course she could do anything she wanted. “I mean, this can’t be legal.” He didn’t see any response. “You’re a Marine. This is, I mean, this is hijacking.”
“Just shut up,” she replied.
She jabbed him in the chest. She found it gave her a vague feeling of guilty satisfaction. She shouldn’t enjoy this, but she was hurt by the position she was in, and she needed to share that pent up rage somehow. She certainly couldn’t talk about it to this pilot, but she could shove him around until he felt it, too.
Reluctantly, Larry turned away. He tried to put himself in his coolest frame of mind and walk to the flight deck. He couldn’t find a good reason why she needed to force her way onto his ship. Without a load or an order, he didn’t have to return to Lyman. She could get there via the constant stream of military flights. Her vague hints about Johnson forced Larry to conclude that she was doing something for which she didn’t have orders.
Whiting followed him toward the flight deck. He glanced back to confirm that she was following. The Mule II companionways were narrow and twisted around the various ship’s systems. Larry knew the Mule II reasonably well. Whiting, on the other hand, had seen only the flight deck. Larry ducked under a fuel coolant pipe that was routed through the companionway. Whiting, focused on Larry and her gun, wasn’t looking for low-hanging plumbing and cracked her head solidly against the metal fitting.
“Ow! Goddamn it!” she shouted, ducking and holding her head.
She hit the pipe with her left hand. She switched the gun and then punched a nearby section of wall several times. She wound up and kicked a locker door, leaving a sizable dent and springing the door off its latch.
“I hate this stupid ship!” she shouted, stamping.
“Low bridge, everybody down,” he said. “Please don’t wave the gun around, Lieutenant.” “Lieutenant Colonel,” she said, holding her head.
“Okay. Just don’t go busting anything important.” Pain had replaced some of her fierce scowl. Larry looked at the dented locker door. It had a standard location marker specifying the deck, side and relative position, plus a large temporary tag with one of Mo Lusc’s meticulous lists of common spare parts.
“Okay. That’s only storage for spares and stuff. I guess you can bash that up.” He looked at her, hoping that she would soften up a little.
“Listen, okay,” she said. She focused the gun back on his chest.
He could see that she was not relaxing her guard. She was still fiercely focused on what she had to do. Larry wondered if she recognized him as anything but the keys to a ship.
“Do I have your attention, now? I’m out of options here. You will take off, you will file a plan back to Lyman’s base, but I will give you different coordinates. Is that clear?”
She could feel the scowl in her forehead and the knot in her jaw. While she was not happy with what she was doing, she had a very specific mission, and she had to do it without actually revealing it to her pilot. She was giving him something the intelligence service called “plausible deniability”, an alibi and an excuse that would keep him safe no matter what happened to her.
Larry looked at her closely for a moment. He could see the strain.
“Out of options?” he asked. “I don’t think you’re ever out of options. Everyone needs a bail-out plan.” It was something every pilot knew.
“Well I don’t have a bail-out plan,” she said.
Whiting relaxed and looked at him coldly over the barrel of the gun. She had heard Johnson laying out her new career in the military, beginning with this mission. Larry could see that she had resolved something in her own mind. He didn’t know, but hoped that she’d changed her mind.
“Pre-flights,” she said. “Now.” She gestured with the gun. “Get us clear. Quickly.” Larry saw that she hadn’t changed her mind, leaving him with a far worse alternative: that she’d resolved her internal conflict and now felt better about shooting him. He started to edge down the hall toward the flight deck.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” she continued, “and there aren’t a lot of pilots. I don’t want to waste one.”
Larry found this chilling, but continued to hope that it was just hyperbole. He tore his eyes off the gun and scrambled around the corner. As he went up from cargo, past engineering, to the flight deck, Whiting followed him, calm and collected. The bruise on her head was a bright red.
Once on the flight deck, he climbed over the control conduit and dropped into the cockpit. He settled into his control station. He noticed that his palms were wet. He felt like he had to go the bathroom. This was no way to fly.
Whiting dropped into the jump seat. She powered up the communications panel. He looked around for a moment. She waved the gun at him to show her impatience.
“Why can’t you just leave me out this?” he said. He had lists, procedures, checks and confirmations. He had a call and response litany. He know that he couldn’t just go racing off into space because some Marine officer insisted that she didn’t have any time. For Larry, there was no procedure that he could hurry. Any mistake could start the cascade of events that could end in the slow death from dehydration or the quick death from asphyxia or one of the horrifying alternatives in between.
Larry flipped on his computer and got his lists ready. He turned on the intercom for engineering.
“Mo. Mo! You there?” It was not the call that he usually made. Larry wondered if Mo would pick up on it.
Larry took a breath and started again, “Ready for cargo-bay hookup?” He felt better about his, as it was closer to the right beginning for pre-flight checks.
The intercom chimed. Larry heard the squawk of Mo’s speech synthesizer, “Are we ready? Are we always ready? Is this the moment’s notice? Is the fuel all on board? Do we have enough?”
This was Mo’s veiled and oblique discomfort with the situation. Destinations were planned well in advance with fuel and food loaded on the last cargo bay to make sure that they would survive almost any contingency. With no formal planning, Mo was clearly uncomfortable. But Larry had no satisfactory response. Whiting had a destination that she was keeping secret. Larry was afraid to ask for details and have her start waving the gun around the cockpit.
“Rig for interstellar,” Larry snapped at Mo.
The intercom buzzed, “Were we rigging for interstellar? Are we in a hurry? Are we rushing as fast as our pods can,” Mo paused. “What is the word for our motility mode?”
This was a game they played, centered on Mo’s cut-rate speech synthesizer. Since the synthesizer lacked some common translations, and neither of them knew how to update the lexicon, they had invented some synonyms they could use. Larry was in no mood to reinvent a synonym. On a more relaxed flight, that conversation could go on a long time as they searched for a good alternative word. It was pleasant when they had nothing to do, mid-flight. Larry jabbed, punched and wrenched the controls that initiated the near-planet orbital configuration.
The ship announced that the cargo hatches were closed and sealed. Larry realized he needed to be cool and distant. He knew he couldn’t focus on parts of the problem. If he thought about the gun, or Whiting, or General Johnson, or his costs, he would miss something important.
Larry said, “There isn’t a word for your kind of movement. Just use the word ‘move’”. He had almost had his fill of the entire situation. He glanced over at Whiting still holding a gun, and exploded, “Just say, as fast as your stinking, clammy pods can move!” He felt the gun like a cargo manipulator clenching his chest, making it difficult to breathe.
The cargo bay announced that the fuel fillers where disengaged.
The intercom buzzed again, and Mo asked, “Are we ready to fly? Do we show green on all systems? What about the port side ion pump? Is the sensor still broken?”
Larry was sure this was on their “to be fixed” list. He should check the list. But Whiting was in an all-engines hurry.
Larry switched on the visual monitor for the port-side ion transfer system. He could see that the system was intact. In fact, with a close-up, Larry could see the “fix” tag they had put on the overpressure sensor. Several things around the ship were tagged for repair. This was a known problem, with a known solution.
“Override it,” Larry barked. “Let’s go.”
“Is this prudent? Is this wise? Can system failure breach hull integrity, leading to a loss of life support?” This was a direct quote from the fuel transfer system maintenance manual. Mo, obviously distraught, continued to read, “Does the controller weigh seventy-two kilos and requires six standard number four fasteners?”
“You’re rambling. Override the sensor; we’re leaving this star,” Larry said. He tried to project cool professionalism. He needed to get this flight back on course, and treat this launch like every other launch.
They started the pre-hookup call and response. They worked through the list. Each step was taken, each check made, each system verified. The words were spoken and they were the right words in the right order. They followed the book, and found it comforting and satisfying. It reduced the out-of-control feeling which Whiting had created. It put them back into the world they knew and trusted. Larry knew that had to stay distant from the problem, look over the whole situation to find a way out; if he focused on the gun, he could still be dead if he forgot to check the fuel.