Disturbing Implications of Land Rising Into the Sky
Hexagram 46 - Pushing Upwards (Ascending), Earth over Wind
Pushing Upward has supreme success.
One must see the great man.
Departure toward the south
Brings good fortune.
Within the earth, wood grows:
The image of Pushing Upward.
Thus the superior man of devoted character
Heaps up small things
In order to achieve something high and great.
April 21, 2012
"Commander, something just took off from North America. Something big."
"How big is it?"
"It's... " The technician on watch gasped. "It's over a kilometer in diameter!"
"Is it in the recognition database?"
Yoriko looked at the screen. "No, sir."
"We've got a possible colony launch, then. Yellow alert, but don't panic the paying customers. Inform The Island and Hephaestus that we may have to go into crisis management mode... again." As Yoriko turned to the FTL comm, Noah muttered, "Let's hope they're good neighbors."
Altitude: 250 km
Inclination: 51.5 degrees
Ground Track: Just south of Pensacola, FL
Skimming the atmosphere, the valiant research vessel USSR Ptichka drifted in a low parking orbit across the Gulf of Mexico. Having just taken on loads for a NASA contract, the crew were finishing strapping down the last of the gear, stowing the groceries and otherwise getting ready for the long haul out to Saturn. On the flight deck, the commander was engaged in Serious Business.
"Steve, listen." Mal said into the phone for what felt like the fifth time that day. "You've got to face facts: we don't have the room. Between the instrument packages for Titan, the powerpacks for Cassini, the communications relays, the launch cradles for the communications relays and the Imax cameras, our cargo bay is packed. If you want us to haul more gear out, you're going to have to pay for an external cargo pod... Double, maybe triple the current contract... Maybe it's robbery, but we've got bills to pay, too."
Alert lights flashed on the control panel. "Uh, Mal."
"Hold that thought, Steve." Mal muted the phone and looked over at Elena. "What is it?"
"We've got a launch indication coming up on our track."
Mal looked a bit puzzled. "So? Launching things into orbit is the new taste sensation sweeping the country."
Elena tapped at the laptop bolted to the center of the console and pointed at the display. "Yeah, but that's gorram different."
Mal looked at the display, taking a few seconds to process the numbers. Very calmly, he unmuted the phone and said, "Something just came up, Steve. I'll call you back later," and hung up without an acknowledgment. "Christ on a pogostick," he muttered. "That's insane. Where's it coming from?"
Elena looked at the ground track. "Uh. West Virginia?"
"Really? Huh. I thought Flint's crew were trying to build a time machine, not a worldship."
"Guys!" Shad called from the aft station on the flight deck. "NORAD just lit up like a Christmas tree! Air defense radars, squadrons scrambling all up and down the eastern seaboard.. and I think they might just have turned on the NMD battery at Andrews. What the hell's going on down there?"
"Somebody just launched something motherfucking huge," Mal replied. "What's it's altitude?"
Elena focused on radar returns. "About 5000 meters, rising steadily but not very fast."
"Probably not." Elena ran the figures through her head. "We'll be almost directly overhead when it breaks atmo, but not for very long."
Mal looked thoughtful. "Almost directly overhead, huh? Hm... " Switched on the intercom. "Hey, Calc! Get the forward and ventral cameras set to record and aimed. Ptichka'll have the coordinates. And get the site ready for continual updates, we've got something big happening!"
"Stellvia just got the launch indication," Shad said from his station. "And they're yelling about it on all frequencies."
The intercom crackled. "I've got the cameras aimed," said Calc. "And... oh my, that's a big one, isn't it?"
"That is is. Keep filming! And call Kandor, get them to throw another server on the pipe, we're gonna get hits tonight!"
The buzzer, as is its wont, buzzed.
Given that it's 3am, and I've been in bed for almost two hours, I lunged at the squawking demon and vainly scrabble at the plate with my bare hands for a few seconds, before my brain catches up to my kill-reflex.
"Gnnnrrrr - Whaaa?"
"Stellvia calling, boss - there's another land colony coming up, and they'd like to make sure we're aware of it. They seem a bit worried."
"Can't blame them, who knows what these people are gonna be like... " I scrubbed sleep from my eyes and shucked into a shipsuit as I talked, dragging a brush through my hair and beard."I'm... I'm gonna head out there, at least keep an eye peeled and say 'howdy'... Can you ask V to get ready, tank up the usuals, and I'll meet her at bay 1... probably bring Doc with us, you never know... "
I stumbled out the hatch as Hermes responded in the affirmative, and figured I could get a bit of a nap on the way in.
Banzai Institute Shuttle Craft HB88
The Jet Car, in atmosphere, can go Mach 7 at 35,000 feet without the slightest shudder. However, it does leave a heat signature the size of a Boeing 757, and has a tendency to make air traffic controllers go totally spare.
Which, in this case, was the intention.
"Yeager Tower, this is HB88. We have concluded our acceleration test and will be ascending to LEO on vector four-zero. Once again, please accept the Institute's apologies; we filed that flight plan two weeks ago."
"HB88, we have the flight plan here, along with the confirmation. No apologies necessary. We must have had a clerical error."
"No harm, no foul, Tower. Y'all did a bang-up job of shuffling traffic, and your pilots all had their eyes open and their hands steady. Next time, we'll double-check the confirmation."
"Affirmative. Clear skies, HB88. Say hello to Buckaroo for us."
"Will do." I snap the channel switcher over to another frequency and add, "Sorry about the mix-up, Hunter Team. We honestly didn't know y'all were out there."
The voice on the channel is as dry and sarcastic as only a jet jockey can get after a near-collision. "Of course you didn't, HB88. You're lucky we didn't decide to drop a heatseeker down that oversized Zippo you call a main engine."
I smile. "You need to check out the flight cameras from that little incident over South Dakota, Hunter One, before you do that. It'll save you the disappointment. You guys have a safe trip home."
There's a pause as the implication that the Jet Car can outrun missiles sinks in. A chuckle comes across the wire, followed by, "Acknowledged, HB88. You drive the speed limit, next time you decide to fly over West Virginia."
"Message received, Hunter One. This is HB88, over and out."
Buckaroo looks out at me from his monitor. "Nothing," he comments good-naturedly, "is sadder than a jet jockey with thruster envy."
"Aw, come on, Buckaroo. Sometimes a turbine is just a turbine."
He smiles at that, and then picks up the radio in his virtual cockpit. Buckaroo likes to have a background when he talks to us; he says it helps him set the mood to the conversation. As a result, when he's running the Jet Car with us, he sits in a virtual cockpit, working his side of the controls. "World Watch One, this is Buckaroo Banzai. What's our status?"
J.'s voice comes over the speaker. "Read you five by five, Buckaroo. Satellite view shows the Raptors have pulled away and are heading for home."
"Excellent. Anything on our VLO?"
"Hephaestus has one of their folks on the way. Looks like they're on final approach. The others are mobilizing."
Buckaroo turned to me. "Shall we go meet the neighbors?"
"Since we're already out for an evening drive? Why not?"
"There are plenty of reasons not to, Blackstone."
"True, but at this point in time, none of them apply to me."
Buckaroo turns back to the radio. "World Watch One, advise our newcomer that Blackstone is on his way."
The Jet Car pushes its way up through the top of the sky and into the Black, and we point our nose at the chunk of land that we had passed under on the way across West Virginia. Someone in Strategic Air Command took offense at folks choosing to move 250 acres for which they held title and paid taxes. Running at full burn across the sky in an "unannounced" test flight caught their attention before the Raptors had a chance to do anything they might have regretted. Not that any standard ordinance could have taken a chunk out of something that big that had been ‘waved, but you never can tell.
"Nice bit of finagling there, Buckaroo, with those flight plans."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he replies. His eyes are merry though, and he's got that smile that he gets when he does some sort of mischief that benefits more people than it hurts. Like the smile of a Buddha, enigmatic and peaceful. "I filed those plans weeks ago," he adds. "Remember, we discussed it last Sunday."
Last Sunday, I was cutting a marble reproduction of the Venus de Milo in half at a show on The Island and restoring it without a mark. I don't remember much of anything except the whine of the saw and the applause. "Oh yeah, we talked about it during intermission. I hope the data is good."
"That it is. I'll talk to J. about it later." He's not fibbing on that. It's a little known fact that Buckaroo is constantly improving the Jet Car. It's fast right now, but he thinks it can go faster.
The VLO isn't hard to find, since it went straight up from West Virginia and seems headed for Low Earth Orbit. I give it a slow flyby, taking in the scenery behind the dome. Lots of green. If these folks are farmers, I suspect they'll do a healthy business in produce, which is always scarce up here in Fenspace. I wonder if they can grow avocados. Last ones I found at Kandor looked like they walked there, and I could kill for a good dish of guacamole.
I loop back around on a slow approach, holding position so they can see the Jet Car's silhouette. The Institute's PR makes us pretty recognizable, even without Buckaroo's initials on the door. "No hails yet," he says. "Maybe we should knock?"
"Sounds good to me, Boss." I pick up the mic and spin the tuner to the citizens' band. "Breaker, breaker, this is HB88, hailing the very pleasant real estate off my portside window. I am requesting permission to dock and say howdy. I'm not selling Amway, nor am I handing out literature. Y'all decent for visitors, or should I come back later?"
Eric Zhu squinted at the images on the main monitor, the big screen occupying one wall of the Island's command room. The sight made his eyes hurt. They weren't very good images to begin with. The fact they'd been blown up way past their original resolution wasn't helping matters.
He shook his head, resisting the urge to pace. There wasn't room. "Who are these guys?"
"You know," Gin replied, in a voice laden with sarcasm, "we're all thinking the same thing. It's not like you have to say it out loud or anything, make yourself sound like an idiot... "
Eric scowled. "Shut up."
Gin hit the mute button on her console, and swiveled round. The console was just a 'waved desktop computer. But it was an exceedingly well 'waved computer, and emitted a satisfying 'bleep' in fine Star Trek tradition. She adjusted her headset... and made a face.
"I'm talking with a tech at Stellvia," Gin said, "They've got it on their scopes. But they don't know either."
There was a minor scuffle behind Eric as someone shouldered his way through the crowd. Island Control was a large-ish space, but it wasn't meant to support so many people. Not at once.
Matt pushed his way to Gin's side, people parting for the big man like the Red Sea. "Any identification," he demanded gruffly, "are they broadcasting an IFF?"
From the back of the room, Will Kao shouted: "Are they answering hails?!"
Feeling somewhat overwhelmed, Gin turned back to her console. "Uhhh... I'll ask. Wait one."
As she did, the room descended into noise once more. Most of the Island's crew was packed into the control room - not just the command staff, but almost every employee. Most of the people in the crowd were supposed to be on-duty elsewhere. But they weren't going to miss something as big as this, not for something so trivial as work.
There were even a few Fisherbots jockeying to see the screen, poking their little plastic heads between the legs of crewmembers. The Island's robots seemed fascinated as well.
"Jesus," Matt said. It wasn't clear whether he was swearing, or making a very short prayer. He stared at the information displayed on the main monitor, and shook his head. "That thing is huge."
"Biggest land theft ever," Eric muttered, "almost makes me feel inadequate."
Gin snickered. "Aren't you already inadequate?"
Eric scowled. "Aren't you supposed to be talking with Stellvia?"
Gin pointed to the red light on her console. "I'm on hold."
"Wonderful," Eric grumbled. He placed two fingers against his forehead, trying to hold off the coming headache. "Right, right. Someone check the 'net. Is there anything online about this?"
Up on the big screen, a small window appeared. The face of a bearded man popped into view, the usual avatar of the Island's resident AI.
"Just did, boss," Simon-Peter said, "there's quite a bit, actually."
Eric's eyebrows shot up. "Really?"
"Uh, yeah," the AI replied, "though most of it's been posted in the last, er, five minutes."
Moving next to Eric, Matt glared at the screen. "Is there anything older? Anything with useful information?"
"Um," the AI said, looking abashed, "no?"
Eric breathed a deep, long-suffering sigh. Then he looked around, coming to a decision. "Alright people," he announced, "we'll maintain alert status. The rest of you, back to work."
The wave of protest was almost deafening.
"Quiet," Eric yelled, "You'll get updates!"
He searched the sea of faces, until he found the one he wanted. "Ally?"
Ally blinked. She twisted her hand round, pointing to herself.
"Yes," Eric confirmed, "you."
She looked uncertain, surprised at being singled out. "Um... "
"Once everyone's back on-duty," Eric said, glaring deliberately at his errant crewmembers, "get on the PA. Most folks on board have probably heard. Especially since you all rushed here when we paged the command staff. But... make an announcement anyway. Then talk to Simon-Peter, put all the graphics and sensor stuff we have on the public screens. No speculation, just the facts. As we get 'em."
Ally felt the sudden and completely irrational urge to salute. "Yes sir!"
Eric nodded. "And the rest of you... "
"... GET BACK TO WORK!"
"Yoriko, just how many people did you tell about this? Besides who I told you to tell, I mean?"
"Oh, just my friends in the Senshi, the Blue Blazers, the Browncoats, the -"
Noah cut her off. "You told everyone, didn't you?"
She blushed. "Well... yes."
"Great, just great. Ask the Warsies if they've got room for a few dozen visitors; I just know our docking ports are about to fill up. Get Yayoi to fly the Epsilon Blade out somewhere it won't be in the way as soon as Sora's aboard it; when whoever the Island sends shows up, they get that slip. Whoever Hephaestus sends gets the slip beside them. And if anybody else demands parking priority, refer them to Kohran."
"Er, Boss... Half of Fenspace is afraid of Kohran; they think she'll blow up their ships on a whim."
Noah smiled. "Yes, I know. If we're lucky, that'll cut down on the congestion." He turned to the tech on duty. "Have they answered our hails yet?"
"No, sir. They're maintaining radio silence and headed for or past the L3 point."
"Damn." He toggled the intercom to the station's turret. "Kohran, there's still no answer from the bogie. Prep one, I repeat, ONE, kaboomite missile, just in case. I hope we won't have to use it."
Vioarr, out of Hephaestus
I woke up when V strobed the main MFD at me. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, again, and yawned. As my vision focussed, V popped up on the screen, and looked concerned.
"What's wrong, V?"
"well, boss, the big hunk of land... isn't talking. I talked to Stellvia, and they aren't getting anything from it, either."
"Hrm. Are there any active receivers?"
"One, on an FM station, that I can see"
"Can you hit it?"
"Uhmmm... not very well, but I think I can push one of my transmitters that low."
"Do it. Burn the 'mitter if you need to, we can get spares. Ready to record message?"
"Go ahead, boss."
"Attention unknown land mass. Please activate your comms! If you have no radio comms, please start flashing your lights. My name's Wiregeek, and I'm a friendly, and I'm driving a 1999 Dodge Stealth, and I'll be close enough to hunt for an airlock soon."
"Got it on the chip boss"
"Go ahead and send it. Loop it until there's a response, or until we get there... or until the transmitter burns out."
"Roger dodger, boss."
I pondered and fiddled for a bit with the receivers, but nothing was coming out of the near-spherical mass except a bit of 60hz, and that was spectacularly uninformative.
"Go ahead and cruise over to Stellvia, I'm gonna head straight for this newcomer. I'll call if anything comes up."
"Okey dokey. There gonna be room for me?"
"You're driving a 4000 pound steel behemoth, just sit on someone!"
"Right... oh well, I needed to talk to a 'bot about a man, anyway."
I let that confusing conversation trail off, and as the black and tan Suburban drew away from me, I cranked on all normal speed, and shot through the eternal night, towards an unknown rendezvous.
When the message concluded, we looked around at each other for a moment, then Joe bopped his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Lights!"
I pushed up my glasses and pinched the bridge of my nose. "You realize we've just spent two years so intently focussed on growing the ship that we paid no attention to little things like, oh, a two-way radio or running lights. Or a name on the bow, for that matter. Not that we actually have a bow."
"Well, we have been busy with jobs and raising nearly a dozen extremely energetic kids during that time," Kat pointed out. "We were bound to miss something."
"Yeah, but why this?" I pinched the bridge of my nose some more. "Okay, so what do we do?"
"It seems to me that we need to open up one of the garages for him to land in," Alison said.
We turned to look at John, who was leaning back in his chair, itself leaning back on two legs. His eyes were half-closed, and he almost seemed to be asleep. "The Saturn 0 and 1 are both 'waved, and they're in the east garage. Use their headlights and guide him in."
"Good idea, O Lord!" Scott barked.
"Right," I nodded. "That's better than anything I can think of - let's do it."
The Inelegant Truth
"You would not believe the phone call I just got from Stellvia." Cynthia said, coming through the hatchway..
"Oh yeah, what's that?" I asked, only half paying attention. Jeremiah and I were playing catch in the now empty cargo hold while waiting for Toni to finish her math "homework." Perry was sitting a few feet away, up to his elbows in the guts of some PC tower. He didn't even bother looking up.
She skirted the two of us and sat down on the hood of the L.R.D. "Apparently, there's a new station in town. Just took off today. Land grab from what I've heard."
Ok, that was a little more interesting. "Really? Where from?" Not a lot of these had gone off. It took a lot of planning, resources, and secrecy since places like The Island and Hephaestus lifted.
"Nears as they can figure, West Virginia. Big ass chunk just up and floated away," Cynthia replied, a touch of glee coming into her normal curt tone. Perry looked up from what he was doing and raised an eyebrow.
"Wow, bet that made the guys in Cheyenne Mountain piss themselves a bit,"
"NORAD isn't technically based in Cheyenne Mountain anymore Jon." Jeremiah pipped in while catching my last throw.
"I know. Broke Dad's heart when they moved it to Peterson. Anyway, how big a chunk we talking about?"
"Bout a half mile diameter sphere."
Cynthia's timing was exquisite. The baseball was just leaving Jeremiah's had when she finished, giving me just enough time for my jaw to drop and turn to stare at her, incredulous. Luckily the words 'half mile' spoiled his throw enough so it didn't brain me in the temple, causing hilarious amounts of cranial damage. But the side of your ribs isn't exactly a tender caress either.
While I danced about and swore, Jeremiah tossed his mitt into the L.R.D's open driver side window and began to leave the hold, blatantly neglecting his bodyguard duties to defend me even if the attacker was technically himself. "Air Force Space Command would have lit up its defense grids immediately, and Europe and Russia probably weren't far behind. Even if things aren't as tense as they used to be, something like this would make the brass shit a brick."
The four of us made our way to the Wheelhouse, where we stared dumbfounded at grainy images of a significant chunk of Appalachia, floating in space. Well, three of us stared, Cynthia just looked bemused.
Perry was the one who broke the silence. "Christ on a bike, do you know how much lift it would take to make a chunk of dirt that size break orbit?"
Jeremiah simply nodded but I shook my head. "Not a clue really, but even I know it'd be pain in the ass to even wave that much stuff. Remember how long it took to make the Truth space worthy?"
We lapsed into silence again for a few minutes, before Jeremiah said. "Well, guess it would be the neighborly thing to do to go say hi," his East Texas drawl exaggerated for comical effect.
I grinned. "I reckon so. And I bet they've got some stories to tell. Thia, tell your dad I'm about to piss him off again."
"Aw hell," a fifth voice said from the hatchway, "I hate it when we speed. The rolling makes me sea sick."
More grinning all around. "Now now Toni, the path of a Historian is fraught with peril."
She folded her arms and huffed, the epitome of teenage stoicism in the face of adult idiocy. "You always say that."
"The fact is," Eric said, as he strode down the corridor, "whoever they are, they're already a major player. A superpower."
"C'mon," Gin shot back, "they just got here. Unless that thing is a secret project by one of the fractions, it's gotta be crewed by newbies."
Eric frowned, as he considered this. "Well... it's big, round... I guess it looks a little like a Death Star... "
Gin stumbled to a halt, nearly tripping. Eric stopped, holding a hand out - but she shoved it away, finding her balance. She gave Eric an incredulous look.
"Okay," Eric admitted, "not really. Still, fact is... that's an insanely big ship. Or mobile station. Whatever... "
Gin snorted. "It's big and it moves."
"Right," Eric said, as they continued walking, "that's enough for influence. Respect. Lifting something like that from 'daneside... apparently in secret, since this is the first we've heard of it. Can you imagine the bragging rights? That's the real Fen currency, you know that."
"Mm-hm," Gin pursed her lips.
"Annnd there's the fact... well, if Stellvia's right, that thing's a land theft. Unreal Estate. It's a chunk of floating ground more than a klick across. That has to be a new record."
"So what," Gin asked, "they're the new Commie Threat, and we need to build a nuclear arsenal?"
"Nah," Eric replied, with a grin, "I, for one, welcome our new Soviet overlords."
Gin sniggered. "Seriously?"
"No-oooo, but I hope they're friendly," Eric answered, crossing himself.
"Didn't know you were Catholic," Gin said, squinting at the gesture.
"I'm not. But I'd pray towards Mecca if I thought it'd help."
They reached the personnel entrance to Docking Bay Two, the hangar reserved for Island support craft and official deliveries. Eric and Gin passed through the airlock in short order, heading to the ship preparing for launch.
"Hey, cap'n," Katie chirped. She was standing near the aft of the ship, overseeing a band of cargo-toting robots. She looked up at their approach, tucked her clipboard under her arm, then delivered a sharp salute. "We're almost loaded up, and Matthew's just about done with pre-flight."
Eric frowned. "Matt? Aren't you the duty pilot?"
"He says it'll be a cold day in hell before he lets me fly a mission this important... " Katie gave a guileless look. "... I have no idea what he's talking about, do you?"
Eric and Gin exchanged a significant glance.
"Uh," Gin said, "no idea. None whatsoever."
Katie nodded happily. "Thought so!"
Eric shook his head, then studied the scene. The ISS Delphinus was at the end of a very strange line. The converted yacht had its cargo hold open, and a chain of brightly-coloured little robots were loading boxes inside it. The robots were throwing stuff to each other in a strange game of pass-the-parcel.
Gin was puzzled. "Why are we bringing all this stuff?"
Katie tapped her clipboard. "Standard greeting package. Goodwill junk, y'know. Emergency supplies, in case something's gone wrong in their lift... oh... and some of the Fisherbots are coming too."
Gin gave the little robots a suspicious stare. The plastic automatons were ubiquitous on the Island, a fact of life. But they still freaked her out a little. "Fisherbots... why, do you expect trouble? Security, repair force?"
"Nope," Katie replied, "they just wanna come with."
Silently, Eric tapped Gin on the shoulder. She turned... and followed his arm, as he pointed.
Gin blinked. Once, twice, three times.
"Why," she asked, "is that Fisherbot wearing a god-awful Hawaiian shirt? And is that a camera?"
"Tourist," Eric said, blandly.
Gin placed a hand over her face. "Sorry I asked."
Katie laughed. "Better get on board. Matt was looking for you."
"Right," Eric nodded. He headed for the boarding stairs, pausing halfway up to rub his hand against the dolphin painted on the ship's prow. Gin followed.
They took their seats on the bridge, behind the pilot's chair. Matt ignored them as they entered, running through the last of his pre-flight checklist. Only when he was finished - and the other two strapped in - did he turn round, looking over his shoulder.
"Hey," he called, "any updates?"
"No," Eric said, "they're still not answering any signals. Hephaestus is on site, Wire Geek's trying to dock or land with 'em... in a small craft, I think. Stellvia control wasn't too clear when they relayed that."
"Whoever they've got on the comm has really lousy phone presence," Gin groused.
Eric brushed her complaints aside. He'd heard it before. Gin thought everyone had bad communication skills. "Situation'll probably change before we get there," he said, "but I don't see any point delaying. Stellvia's expecting heavy traffic... half of Fenspace wants to get a look at this thing."
As he spoke, Katie entered the bridge, taking her seat. She started fastening her harness, before stopping. She gave Eric a funny look. "Er... Eric?"
"Don't you get sick or something whenever you leave the Island?"
"Yeah," Eric shrugged, "that's my biomod."
Katie tilted her head. "Sooooooo... "
Eric smirked. "I'm not missing this."
Matt echoed his grin. "Damn straight."
"As opposed to what," Gin quipped, "damn homosexual?"
"I have," Eric declared, loftily, "a great and true platonic love for any flying landmass. I wish to kiss it for myself."
Gin pretended to throw up.
Matt rolled his eyes, and strapped on his headset. "ISS Delphinus. Requesting permission to launch. Quickly. Before Eric makes any more jokes."
"Scott! Bob! Don't go out yet!"
Nina's yell halted us in our footsteps. As one we turned around to see her and her cousins Carl and Max running after us. The three were all within a couple years of each other, and had always been thick as thieves, so it was no surprise to see Nina ringleading them again. She had a bundle of some sort in her arms, while Max trotted along behind her juggling a roll of duct tape. Further behind, Carl strolled along with a big grin in his face.
I shared a look of amused incomprehension with Scott. He shrugged.
A few moments later Nina stood in front of us, gravely rocking back and forth on her heels and toes. Although just shy of thirteen years old, her height (five feet plus an extra two inches from the near-platform shoes she preferred) and the early arrival of a teenager's figure combined to make her look closer to fifteen -- in stark contrast to her cousins, who still looked like the elementary schoolboys they were. Juggling the bundle in her arms, she peered at us through her glasses as she pushed a lock of hair -- of a color almost precisely halfway between her father's dark brown and her mother's blonde -- out of her face. Then she held out the wadded mass of fabric to us. "Here. We thought maybe you could hang this over the garage door."
"Thanks, I guess." I took the bundle, which was looking quite a bit like a folded sheet, and began unfolding it. After a moment Scott got into the game, and then the two of us began to chuckle.
Broad stripes of what looked like indelible art marker, the kind with a two-inch-wide felt tip, spelled out "HI NEIGHBOR! WE'RE FRIENDLY!" Smiley faces two feet across flanked the greeting.
"Oh yeah," Scott said, laughing. "We can use this."
Grinning, I nodded. "Maybe we should add, 'AND A LITTLE STUPID, TOO'."
After thanking Nina and the boys for the banner, we folded it back up and then hopped into a golf cart. (We'd gotten a dozen scrapped carts dirt-cheap a few months earlier and 'waved them all, both as practice for the eventual conversion of all our cars and trucks and to use in getting around the ship after we sealed the dome.) It was one of the ones that had come out of the 'waving something like a hovercraft, or maybe a landspeeder - it floated a foot or so off the ground, bouncing gently but not far when the two of us climbed aboard.
It took just a couple minutes to drive the quarter-mile down Blue Horizon Boulevard (or rather, the segment of it that came with us) from "town hall" to the east garage/air lock. Suiting up for vacuum took a only little longer.
One of our number, Joe, was until launch an aerospace engineer. He'd worked for several of the big-name air/space firms, mostly doing up wiring harnesses for satellites and space probes. In the years he'd been in the business, he'd made a lot of casual contacts, and one of them had given him a line on perhaps the most useful bit of salvage we'd come across during the GC's development - a set of three space suits, Apollo-vintage Michelin-Man outfits. They weren't real space suits - they were a set of mockups for display that were being thrown out for the dual sins of being too old and deteriorating - but they'd been made by the original contractor for the actual Apollo suits, and were damned close to the real thing, lacking only the working guts.
Well, if there was one thing handwavium could do, it was make working guts.
So we snapped them up. We installed our own basic air and comm gear into each one and then dropped them into a tank of 'wavium. We tossed in a (new) copy of Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel for flavor, cast a circle around the whole thing, and let them soak for a day or so while Kat intermittently sang filksongs nearby.
The results looked more like costumes from a 1950s B-movie than Apollo suits, but as far as we could tell from our testing, they were properly airtight, hellishly strong, and had an operating time measurable in days. To our surprise they automatically resized themselves to fit their wearers perfectly, from tiny Nina to Scott's somewhat oversized frame. And just as an added extra bonus, they were also incredibly easy to get into and out of - like putting on a set of overalls.
Which is how it came to be that, only a few minutes later, Scott and I were learning just how well duct tape worked in space as we hung Nina's banner over the garage door during our first-ever excursion into hard vacuum. (Surprisingly well, as it turns out.) Below us, the two Saturns' headlights blazed out into the black from the open garage door. Hopefully our prospective visitor would notice our attempts at a beacon - but one disadvantage of having a ship the size of the GC is that both the door and the banner were little more than specks on its huge surface. High-contrast specks, at least the garage, but specks nonetheless. Spotting our efforts to welcome him would be more luck than anything else.
Fortunately, luck was with all of us.
The pair of Saturns guiding me in with their hazard lights were a very good sign, and the actual sign...
Well, I set V down and waited until the air pressure outside of her was air again, instead of vacuum, and popped the door. I unfolded myself from V's driver's seat, and laughing, handed a walkie-talkie to the older of the two partially de-suited civilians in the garage.
"Hi, folks! My name's Nick, I go by Wiregeek or WG.. did you seriously not bring any sort of radio with you?"
When we had pressure in the garage again, Scott and I popped off our helmets and waited for our guest to disembark. He was in shirtsleeves when he got out of the car, which surprised me but on consideration I realized it was pretty much to be expected. He stepped forward, handed me a walkie-talkie, and introduced himself.
I took the walkie-talkie, then shook our visitor's hand. "Welcome aboard, Nick. I'm Bob, and this is Scott." I looked mournfully at the radio. "Yeah, we're a little slow. Completely forgot about comm systems." I looked up and grinned. "But we've got a sensor suite to beat the band, thanks to my wife."
"Speaking of whom..." Scott said with a grin.
I nodded. "Right, right." I turned toward the pressure door at the back of the garage. "Come on in," I said as I undogged the latches and swung it open.
Nick stepped through behind us, then stopped short, with his mouth open. I chuckled, realizing just how much I was going to enjoy doing this with every new visitor. "Welcome to Grover's Corners!" I announced.
"Grover's Corners?" Nick echoed.
"Grover's Corners," I confirmed, nodding.
"It's only a model," Scott quoted, sotto voce.
"This... this is amazing." I craned my head around one way and another, soaking in the sights... It took a few years to truly get accustomed to the hard, sharp-edged quality of the light on Hephaestus, but this place felt like Anytown, Iowa, Population "A Few". My ears couldn't detect any hissing or noise, the two gentlemen walking with me (one unobtrusively behind in case I put on my Black Hat, good man!) seemed to be a happy excited...
"So I guess your dome held up, then?" I blurted out, a rueful grimace on my face.
I raised an eyebrow. "I take it you had one that didn't?"
Nick ran a hand through his hair. "You could say that. I got shot at by a fighter jet on my way up, and it blew my containment all to hell."
"Well, that sucks," Scott said from behind us. "You look like you came out of it okay, though."
"Almost didn't." Nick was still staring, trying to take everything in. "But some friendly folks came to my rescue." He glanced over at me. "When you didn't respond to any hails, I sort of assumed you were having trouble along the same lines."
"Nope, no trouble," Scott declared.
"Other than a two-year-long brainfart about radios," I grumbled. Nick chuckled. "Which reminds me," I went on. "Do you need to check in with anyone so they don't think we went and kidnapped you or something?"
WG smiled and tapped the small black rectangle at the front of his hatband, which blinked a blue light in response.
"Nope, my lady V is keeping an eye on me, and letting most everyone else know what's going on." He smiled broadly, settling his hat back in place. "The biggest question I have, Bob, is what, aside from comms and if anything, you folks need, though I'm betting it isn't much - you're much better prepared than I was, and better-landed to boot."
"Better landed?" Bob asked, quizzicaly.
"I only brought up ten acres with me, and not nearly so much life... I'm... impressed, I have to admit."
Grover's Corners, back at the - nearly literal - ranch
After Bob and Scott had left, John lowered his chair to all four legs with a loud thump, and stood. The deceptively sleepy look in his eyes vanished. "Okay," he said, "while they're doing that, let's get all the kids here in the blockhouse."
Peggy looked over at him. "Huh? Why?"
He smirked. "I'm not quite as trusting as Bob is. We only have this 'Wiregeek''s assurances that he's friendly. I'm not going to assume anything. This is the safest, most defensible place on the ship, and I want the kids in here until we know for sure." He walked around the conference table and headed for the stairs to the building's lower levels.
"Wait, wait," Peggy pressed on. "Where are you going, then?"
John turned to look back at here, and one side of his mouth quirked up into a half-smile that in the right light might have been called "evil". "I'm getting the guns out of secure storage." He paused, then added with a bigger smile, "And the Bondo grenades." A moment later the sound of his boots on the stairs down echoed through the control room.
Kat raised an eyebrow and shrugged. "He's got a point. Let's go round up the kids."
Helen sniffed. "If he's got that much of a point, someone ought to watch the sensors. There might be someone else coming. Even if we can't talk to them, we can at least see them coming. And one more thing. Officer Friendly!" she called out, rolling her eyes slightly.
The huge plasma screen at the end of the room flickered, and the image of man dressed in the 1950s version of a police uniform appeared. He was blond and blue-eyed, with a face that was strong without being craggy, and an open, friendly-seeming smile. "What can I do for you, ma'am?" he asked, pushing up the bill of his uniform cap with the nightstick he held in his right hand.
"We've got a visitor coming in at the east garage. Keep an eye on him, please," Helen barked.
"Right-o, ma'am," the AI said with a sharp nod.
"We don't think he's up to anything bad," Peggy added, "we just want to be careful."
The AI's eyes tracked over to her. "Understood, ma'am. Officer Friendly is on the beat!" He saluted her with his nightstick, then vanished.
The screen returned momentarily to the view of the receding earth before being replaced with the image of a regal middle-aged woman wearing a white gown and a crown of ivy and grape leaves. She stared down her nose for a moment, then cleared her throat. "I, too, shall be watching the interloper," she declared imperiously.
"He's not an interloper, Gaia," Kat said patiently. "Not yet, at least."
The female AI sniffed derisively. "He is from Outside," she said simply.
"Can't argue with that," Nancy said with a laugh.
"Noah, we just heard from V, out of Hephaestus. They're aboard the ship - it's called Grover's Corners, by the way - and Wire Geek says they're friendly; they just didn't pack a radio."
"Oh, thank Washuu. Stand down from yellow alert. Kohran, put the safeties back on that missile."
"Now, Kohran." I extracted myself from the turret's firing station and switched on the intercom's video screen. "How big a crowd of curious onlookers do we have so far, Yoriko?"
"About two dozen, and growing. The Warsies and the Senshi sent a half-dozen people each, the Island's shuttle is about a half-hour away, a Hidden Asteroid triad showed up from somewhere..."
"Damn kids were probably pretending to be paying tourists," I muttered under my breath.
"...and they already know you don't like them, a Long Heinleinian couple were honeymooning here and got told by their friends that they were that faction's official representatives, and I think I might have seen Candy's red sports car in landing slip five. Don't quote me on that last one, though."
I grinned. Yoriko feels about "adult" businesses the same way I feel about idiots who think hand-to-hand is useful in space; it must be because her personality algorithms were based on a police officer's. "That doesn't add up to two dozen."
"Well... the UN wants to send an observer."
"Absolutely not. These people just got away from the 'Danelaw; we're not about to be the ones who give the 'Danelaw a way back to them."
Yoriko frowned. "But what if they're criminals?"
"Then we let the Browncoats and the Blue Blazers handle it. They're Fen now, Yoriko, and we look after our own. So. Did V say whether they were coming to visit us, or should we visit them?"
"No word either way yet, Noah."
I sighed. "Let me know soonest once we get an answer, please. Recall the Epsilon Blade; I'm on my way to main control." I switched off the intercom and turned to Kohran. "I'll bet they don't have an FTL comm, either. Do we have a spare system?"
Kohran actually looked insulted. "Of course we have a spare! We have two spares, just in case something happens."
"Something happened. Get one of the spares boxed up and ready to ship over there on the 'Blade, okay?"
"Sure!" She headed down the access tube to engineering storage as I went to main control.
They didn't pack a radio? Didn't they have room for one on that monster? Oh, well; I suppose we'd find out why soon enough.
Grover's Corners, east garage
I peered at the odd little accessory on his hat, smiled, and waved. "Hiya, Ms. V! Hope you're enjoying the show." Then I turned my thoughts to Nick's question. "What do we need... hm." I glanced at Scott, and he took over.
"Not much, really, other than the comm stuff and a good Net connection," he said, jumping right in. "We were planning to just camp at L3 for a week or two while we got used to being in space and finished up our fleet. So we stocked up on enough supplies to cover us for that and a bit."
Nick nodded, then raised an eyebrow. "Your fleet? Just how many of you are there?"
Scott grinned. "Oh, a couple dozen or so."
I did a quick count on my fingers. "Seven families and a few related hangers-on."
Nick whistled. "What did you do, all move into the same neighborhood and then 'wave the entire place?"
"Pretty much," Scott said.
"We had a long-term plan," I added. "Anyway, if you want, we can..."
I never finished because the radio in my hand gave a squawk. "Breaker, breaker, this is HB88, hailing the very pleasant real estate off my portside window. I am requesting permission to dock and say howdy. I'm not selling Amway, nor am I handing out literature. Y'all decent for visitors, or should I come back later?" a male voice with a Western-sounding accent crackled out of the speaker.
I looked at Scott. He shrugged. "We've got one visitor already, why not more? Not like we're gonna get crowded."
"Okay, then," I said. "Why don't you give Nick the fifty-cent tour, and take him up to Town Hall to meet everyone? Oh, and send somebody back with more carts for our next bunch of visitors."
"Cool," Scott agreed. "C'mon, Nick, time for a ride."
As the two of them climbed into the cart and took off down Blue Horizon Boulevard, I brought the walkie-talkie to my lips. "Ahoy, HB88. This is the Ess..." I wracked my brain for the Fenspace ship class nomenclature, "Um, Ess Vee Grover's Corners. If you don't mind hitching a ride with us as we head to L3, sure, come on in."
"Well, that's right neighborly of you, Grover's Corners," the voice crackled back. "Where should I dock?"
"One moment, HB88." I stepped back to the garage, closed the back door and dogged it tight, then hit the big button next to it. As the air pumps started chug-chugging away, the red light over the door turned on. "Sorry, HB88, I'm back. If you circle our equator, you should eventually spot an open docking bay with a welcome sign over it. Just slide on in, we've got plenty of room unless you're something unusually large." I stopped for a moment of pot-kettle-black when I realized what I'd just said, and chuckled before continuing. "I'll be waiting for you there."
Then I had a thought. "Um, none of you are agoraphobes, are you?"
The Inelegant Truth
We weren't the first to get there. Not by a long shot. Don't get me wrong, my boat can haul ass, completely smoking most others in her weight class with more authority than she has any right to. But we were a third of the way out to Mars when we got the call, but to quote a certain book, Space is Big! and it takes a little while even with our throttle set to hellride. So people with better positioning and faster boats got there first. Annoyed!
To keep myself occupied, I sat in one of the wannabe barber chairs in the Truth's wheelhouse, occasionally grumbling about an increasing trend of crap going down while I'm off doing the crop report in Toledo out loud to nobody and fiddling with my newest toy. Said toy being a ugly looking kludge of what I hoped would be a hovering camera and a wireless hub connecting it back to Galvius' mainframe. After one too many times dropping my Palm Pilot, my camcorder, my digital tape recorder, my cellphone, and my spiral note book down whatever bottomless space station shaft I was walking near on any particular day, Cynthia and Jeremiah had had enough. They staged a sort of intervention for clumsy assholes, and told me in no uncertain terms that I could no longer continue to go through my gear like Honey Bucket toilet paper at a chili cook off. This shit was expensive. So, Perry and I spend a couple weeks pirating whatever media we can find of hover cameras in action, then taking screen caps and feeding the printed off results into a bucket of 'wavium. Long story short, it's why I was noodling around with a basketball sized hunk of crimes against engineering aesthetics, doing my best to follows Perry's instructions on how best to not make it explode into fiery shrapnel on the first go.
A two toned chime from the Captain's station brought me out of my tecno-reverie, and I turned to where Perry and Cynthia had been having hushed conversations with Callisto the whole ride over. "We there yet?"
Cynthia just gave a little head bob out the window while continuing to keep her attention on her computer screen. Perry gaped in awe though, and pointed to starboard. "Wow, there she is."
You can have as vivid an imagination as a seven year old tweaking on LSD, but sometimes numbers just don't give you a picture justice till you see it for your own eyes. It was a huge sphere, more than half a mile wide, looming there in space making every other artificial object in its vicinity look meek and anemic in comparison. The lower half was smoothed off soil, obviously liberally treated with 'wavium, which gave it a polished look. The upper hemisphere was transparent in places, like a skylight or green house writ large. I couldn't make anything specific from our distance, but there looked to be a lot of green. I had the sudden fanciful image of a flying snow globe. All and all, one hell of an Unreal Estate.
Callisto popped up on a auxiliary monitor, today dressed up like she was one of the Little Rascals. "That's the biggest damn space marble I've ever seen!"
I snorted. "I was just thinking flying snow globe, but yeah that works too."
Perry looked scandalized. "Come on guys, have some respect! Look at the thing, do you know how much 'wave it would take to engineer that thing? In America? Those guys have some serious nerve!"
"Don't get me wrong! I think its neat! But still... space marble!" Callisto made a vague gesture, seeming to signify the importance of her initial impression.
Cynthia, as always, was all business. "We're coming up on her –y axis, near the southern pole. I'm slowing us down to maneuvering speeds till we figure out where we can park. I assume you and Jeremiah'll be taking Gaye and the L.R.D.?"
"Yup, makes sense. They're big enough they might have docking for a big gal like the Truth, but might as well start small," I replied.
Perry shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "Um, not to rain on your parade or anything, but splish splash. What makes you think they'll let you board? For all they know, we could be Dark Kingdom."
"For one thing, we brought beer," a laconic drawl came from behind us, as Jeremiah heaved his tank like build up through the stairwell from the lower deck. "The L.R.D.'s loaded up and ready to go whenever you want boss. I even have koozies."
Here Cynthia and I partook in our favorite Olympic sport: Synchronized Eye-Rolling. She might have added a scoffing "Texans" under her breath. She's sweet like that.
Perry seemed unimpressed by offers of booze, but switched tactics anyway. "Well fine fine, sure you'll get on board. But what if they're Dark Kingdom? We don't actually know anything about these guys. Are you guys going to have a shoot out again?"
"That business out in the Oort Cloud doesn't count. And c'mon, even if we assume these guys are Black Hats (which we shouldn't!) pretty much all of Fenspace is watching them right now. And with as many people buzzing around them after little more than a hour or two? They aren't gonna try anything. Plus, we'll have brought beer. You don't attack bringers of... what are we giving them?"
"Our last crate of Fat Tires," Jeremiah supplied.
"Awesome sauce. See? Who'd turn down Fat Tires? Nobody that's who." Washingtonians are famous for taking our coffee seriously, but what we're less known for but take equally seriously is our micro-brews. You can walk into any Safeway or QFC in the state, and where in other parts of the country they'll have a huge isle filled with rack after rack of Bud Light and Coors, half our damn shelve space is dedicated to smaller, expensive ales and lagers and seasonal beers from dozens of small companies. Fat Tires is a brand of beer brewed by the New Belgium Brewing Company, one of more well known brewers.
"I dunno, a couple of beers..."
"And vodka!" Toni shouted up from the galley. "Bottles of it!"
"See, we're the welcome wagon! They'll love us," Calli said, now looking like an extra from the grocery in the Wonder Years.
"You want to hail them, or sit around talking about talking to them?" Cynthia dead panned from where she was steering.
"Right, gimme the radio. We'll broadcast first then video link if they've got it," I cleared my throat and lifted the head set. "Attention unidentified... uh giant space marble..." I made a face. Not my smoothest of hellos. "This is the Inelegant Truth, can you guys hear me. Blink once for yes."
Perry was outraged! "You can't hail them like that! What kind of impression are you trying to establish!"
"Well what's he supposed to call her? She doesn't have an IFF," Calli said coming to my defense.
Perry: "I don't know, unidentified vessel! Or unknown ship! Not a vague simile to a kids toy!"
Me: "It's an Unreal Estate, they usually aren't ships."
Perry: "That's besides the point! What if they hailed us as 'Hey there, large rusting hulk of a crabber, what's up?"
Callisto: "I am not rusting! Good luck getting hot water for the next week, Percival!"
Cynthia: "Too late now, he's already made them mad. Better mention the Fat Tires quick, or you'll never get to talk to them"
Me: "Good idea. Bribery is the best way to make new friends."
Jeremiah: "You do know that you're fingers been on the button the whole time and they can hear us?"
Toni (from the galley): "Nevermind about the vodka, Dieter just took it all back. And he's pissed. I told him Jon made me."
Me: "Shit, now I have to check my food for crude oil for the next month."
Jeremiah: "You're still broadcasting."
"People, people..." They weren't listening. "PEOPLE!"
It's amazing how yelling at a bickering mob can get them to agree on something. Usually what they agree on is that they don't like being interrupted, but at least shouting at them gets their attention.
"Now that you're paying attention to your host..." At least some of them had the decency to look embarrassed. "...we have to work out who's going to pay the Grover's Corners a visit."
"Don't they have room enough in their landing bay for all of our ships?"
I recognized the voice; it was a Senshi who I'd done business with in the past. "I don't know, Leda, but let's put it this way: If Crystal Tokyo had a choice between a dozen ships suddenly showing up and a hundred ships suddenly showing up, which would their traffic control prefer?"
"Oh, ... right."
One of the Hidden Asteroid yahoos looked like he was about to say something stupid; I went on before he could open his mouth. "Add to that the fact that a lot of people skipped right past Stellvia and have already docked with our newest neighbors. We're probably looking at barging in on a bunch of folks who already have a lot more visitors than they planned for right after launching. So, who absolutely has to be in the first group of visitors, and who can wait for a while?"
Before anyone could answer, the intercom beeped. "Mr. Scott, the crew of the Epsilon Blade says that cargo loading is complete. They're ready for passengers now."
I thumbed my palmtop computer on, switched its foreground program to "intercom", and spoke into its microphone. "Thank you, control. Please inform the Epsilon Blade that I and six other passengers will be there shortly. Scott out." I turned back to the crowd as I thumbed the palmtop off. "You all heard what I said - six passengers besides me. Since there are more than six factions represented here, somebody's going to have to wait, or get there on their own. Who here has their own ships?"
The Heinleinians raised their hands, as did the Buccaneers and the Browncoats. The Gearheads' commander piped up. "We can squeeze in three or four passengers in our mechs."
The Warsie delegation's leader added, "We have room for a dozen supernumeraries in our launch."
"I'll leave the others to you then, Mr. Solo, Mr. Duo." I know it was traditional for Fen to take false names to avoid the 'Danelaw, but why did they have to take such obviously false names? "I think that covers the bases. I'll go first, with one representative each from the..." I caught myself before I used any of the faction nicknames "... Crystal Millennium, the Interstellar Alliance, the United Federation of Planets, ..." You'd think the Trekkies would have had their own ship. "... the Musician's Aid Society, the Watch, and the Barsoomians."
"But no Ninjas, huh?"
I looked straight at the sneering, snot-nosed brat. "You folks make a point of traveling in threes. I have room for one person per faction. Why would I offer to break up your group?"
He deflated visibly. (Now is not the time to pick a fight, moron.) "I guess that makes sense." The idiot walked over to the Warsie commander and started whispering to him.
I turned back to the others. "If you've decided who's going with me, let's head down to the landing slip."
The Epsilon Blade, out of Stellvia
"Noah, we're ready to launch as soon as our passengers settle in in the lounge. I've taken the liberty of securing the hatches to the crew quarters and your cabin."
"Thank you, Yayoi." Securing the hatch to the crew quarters meant nobody'd be able to wander back to the weapons locker or the turret.
"Sora's in engineering; would you be kind enough to assist me on the bridge?"
Which meant I didn't have to unlock the door to my own cabin, so nobody'd be wandering in there, either. My personal pilot's a smart girl. "Certainly, Yayoi. I'll be right there, as soon as I make sure our passengers are comfortable."
A few minutes later, we were away. Five minutes later (we took things slowly to avoid colliding with the Inelegant Truth, who'd just beat us to our new comrades), we were there. "Hello, Grover's Corners, this is the SS Epsilon Blade out of space station Stellvia, requesting permission to land. We've got nine people aboard who'd like to say hello to you in person. We also have some communications equipment I suspect you'd appreciate having, and one of the people aboard is an engineer who knows how to install it. Awaiting your reply..."
Grover's Corners, the ranch
The children were duly gathered into the bunker-like concrete structure that some were calling "Town Hall" while Nancy and Peggy went to work on the sensor suite. As most of the suite had been automated through the central computer network, the vast majority of its operation was handled through voice commands to Geordi, the engineering AI, and through a touch control that had been deliberately designed to be as simple as possible.
"Wow," Nancy whispered.
"Yeah," Peggy concurred. "More company coming. Lots more." Her arms twitched; Kat and Helen, standing immediately behind her, both saw this and had simultaneous images of Peggy leaping up and impossibly trying to mop and scrub the entire 250 acres of the ship before anyone else could get on board. Without looking at each other they each laid a hand on Peggy's shoulders, in case they had to hold her down and talk her out of a cleaning binge.
"How many?" Attila called from where he roughhoused with Rushin and the other dogs. None of the animals had taken the launch well - the cats had fled to the tops of the tallest pieces of furniture they could find as soon as the dome had started unfolding and were still there, while the dogs had howled until someone had thought to close the door of the drive room in the basement. Even now, the dogs were whining and nervous, and Attila was hoping to distract them with a little play.
"Everyone, I think," Nancy said.
"Fuck," Attila with surprisingly little emotion.
Nancy snorted and dragged her finger along the large portrait-orientation touchscreen, pulling the sensor viewpoint along with it. The image was synthetic, a false-perspective super-fisheye generated by stitching together the images generated by dozens of stationary cameras grown into the hull during the building process. At any one time, it showed a wedge of space 90 degrees wide, and stretching from the top of the ship to its bottom, although the vertical swatch could be shifted if the image needed to center on objects near the poles.
It was one of four such screens which all stood next to each other and normally provided an integrated full-spherical display. At times like this, though, they could be operated and pointed independently, as Peggy and Nancy were doing. Overlays in various hues highlighted and annotated objects and ships in nearby space.
The displays were a riot of color. As Nancy and Peggy swept nearby space around them with their scans, there didn't seem to be a single section from which at least one ship wasn't coming, or already matching their velocity. "I'd say we've attracted some attention," John chuckled as he watched from over Nancy's shoulder.
"You know," Nancy mused as she zoomed the display in on one fencraft that looked like it had been a fishing trawler in an earlier life, "It just occurred to me that we could have managed this launch with a little more... I don't know, professionalism? I mean, we didn't even turn on the sensors or anything, we just went up. That's okay if you're flying a Volvo or something, but we're big!"
"We didn't need to," Alison pointed out. "We weren't under any regular air traffic corridors, and we passed though the usual altitudes for commercial flights so fast that a plane would've had to've been right on top of us for there to be any danger. And anything else that might've wandered across us would have picked us up on radar way before they needed to do anything about it."
Nancy shook her head. "I'm just saying, we launched way too casually. Yeah, nothing bad happened, but we should have been careful right from the start."
"Oh, well." Peggy's tone combined fatalism and snark, enough of both to merit an annoyed glance from her sister-in-law.
Attila rose from where he'd played with the dogs, fingering the belt buckle that held a hidden knife. "If you guys are going to fight, then I'm goin' outside for a smoke. You know where to find me if you need me."
"I wish he wouldn't do that," Peggy muttered grumpily after he'd left. "It's going to stink up the air in the ship and set off my allergies."
"Peggy!" Helen snapped.
Over Peggy's head Kat shot Helen a look that said "have patience", then squeezed Peggy's shoulder. "Peggy, we've been through this before," she said gently. "We've got more than twelve billion cubic feet of air. Attila's cigarettes aren't going to foul that so you'd notice any time soon, even if we didn't have a life support system filtering and refreshing it."
"I still don't like it," Peggy muttered.
Kat sent that "patience" look Helen's way again.
Grover's Corners, southeast section
"Attention unidentified... uh giant space marble... This is the Inelegant Truth, can you guys hear me? Blink once for yes." Another male voice, this one relatively unaccented, blared out of the radio.
I chuckled as that hail was followed by what amounted to a comedy routine. Wow, these guys sounded almost as slipshod as us.
I steered my current golf cart with one hand (Damn, I should've had Grace leave the one that drives itself, I mentally groused) and held the walkie-talkie up to my ear. I was driving breakneck across raw terrain to get to the southern garage, since our first two batches of visitors had pretty much filled up the east garage, and the jouncing around was getting on my nerves. Not to mention the battering my ear was getting from the walkie-talkie.
Add to To-do list: clear direct roads between all three airlocks. I frowned. Also add to To-do list: find out if there's anywhere we can get asphalt in Fenspace. Or a bulldozer.
When the exchange from the Inelegant Truth had ended with a second heartfelt "Dammit!", I chuckled to myself and debated whether or not I should respond with, "Hey there, large rusting hulk of a crabber, what's up?"
I decided against being that much of a smartass, though. "Ahoy, Inelegant Truth. This is the SV Grover's Corners. I blink in your general direction."
That got me a torrent of laughter in multiple voices, both male and female. The same male speaker as before then said, "I guess we deserved that. Do I have the privilege of speaking to the captain?"
I dodged the cart around a stump and pulled up short at the southern garage. "Um, not really, but I'm about as close as you're going to get."
"...As close as we're going to get?"
"Yeah," I said, hopping out of the cart and heading for the airlock door. "We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week. But all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified by a simple majority..."
They were laughing again. This was good. I grinned to myself as I dogged the door and hit the exhaust cycle.
"Seriously, Truth, we didn't get around to appointing a captain before we lifted, and as it so happens I'm the only one with a radio. So you're stuck with me."
"Fair enough," he said, a little static roughening up his voice. "So, Mr. Not-Appearing-In-The-Captain's-Chair, would you good folks be up for some more company?"
"Well," I drew out the syllable as I hit the little green-lit button that triggered the garage door opener, "we're a little cramped with everybody who's already here, but I think we could squeeze you in somewhere. I've just opened our southern docking bay, but if you're really flying a rusted old crabber, you're bigger than we can handle, and you'll have to come in via a shuttle."
"Understood, Grover's Corners, we'll be there in a few minutes."
I plopped back down into the cart. "Coolness. See you then. Grover's Corners out." Then I looked down at the cart and the three empty seats. Damn, I thought, trying to count voices from memory. I hope there aren't too many of them. I studied the walkie-talkie for a moment. Wish I could call to have someone bring more carts again. I sighed. Add to To-do list: Get in-ship cell phone service up and running pronto.
My worries about transportation for our latest guests were temporarily alleviated when Peggy's brothers all showed up in more golf carts. This surprised me a bit, since none of the three had actually lived in the neighborhood, so I hadn't expected them to be comfortable driving cross-country in the ship. Then again, it wasn't like they could get lost -- all they had to do was head for the dome and then follow it around to get to any of the docks or either end of Blue Horizon Boulevard.
Anyway, Dave and Jim were racing, while Ed - as ever careful about aggravating his back - followed behind them at a slightly more stately pace. I had no idea how they'd known we needed transport for more guests, but I was very glad to see them - the Inelegant Truth's shuttle was sliding into the garage even as they screeched to a halt in front of me.
"Yo, guys, good timing," I said as they unlimbered themselves and stretched. All three of Peggy's brothers tower over me, anywhere from couple inches to over a head taller, and just seeing them squeezed into the golf carts had been amusing. "'Scuse me a moment," I added when I heard/felt the shuttle touch concrete, and thumbed the transmit button on the walkie-talkie. "You're down, right?"
"That we are, Grover's Corners," crackled back.
"'Kay, then, hold on for atmosphere." I hit the garage door button; when the motors stopped grinding, I heard the whir of the air pumps. We'd originally wired the two plus a couple of other systems separately, though they all came to the same control panel; the 'wavium had taken them all and integrated the lot. Even better, it seemed to have figured out what order we needed to run things ("pump out air, then open garage doors," for example) when performing what would become common tasks, and had automated them for us. It had even added a couple safety interlocks that we'd not had the time or materials to make ourselves. Then again, we always had good results with 'wavium, as long as we had at least one of the Wiccans talking to it and telling it the general idea of what we wanted.
Anyway, the button flashed green again, and the back door unbolted itself. I keyed the radio again. "You're go for air, guys."
"Thanks! See you in a couple minutes then."
"Right!" I slid the walkie-talkie into a pocket, and turned back to Peggy's brothers. "So, like I was saying, good timing. This is our first load of space reporters, but they sound like cool folks."
"Spiff," Dave said. Oldest brother, craggiest features, middle height. "We'll give'em the tour, then."
"Get lost, more like it," Jim amended. Middle brother, shortest but still taller than me.
"So..." I kept one eye on the garage door, so I could greet our new visitors properly. "How'd you guys know I needed more wheels?" I glanced over at Ed's cart, which was another of the ones that had gained hover systems in the conversion. "Seats, whatever."
Ed - youngest, tallest - slowly rolled his shoulders and stretched. "That fellow Nick had another radio on him and set it up so we could all hear it. We've been listening to you all this time."
I frowned. "And no one bothered to jump on the line to help."
"Nah," Dave answered. "You were doing just fine by yourself. Besides, we were listening in on all the other radio chatter out there, too."
"We've, uh, caused a bit of a ruckus with the launch," Jim added with a grin.
"Gee, can't imagine why," I deadpanned, and just then the garage door opened.
The Inelegant Truth
"Understood, Grover's Corners, we'll be there in a few minutes." I said, signing off and tossing the headset on the desk.
"Coolness. See you then. Grover's Corners out."
I turned and looked at my guys. All of them were in various stages of amusement, or as close to amused as they get when working in Thia's case. Except Calli, she looked halfway between amused and outrage. Heh.
"Well, that could have gone better," I said scratching my head.
"Astute observation, my Captain," Cynthia said, with a tone so filled with dry humor I thought all the water in my body would boil away. "And you wonder why I stick you in a hole when we do business over the air."
Jeremiah looked thoughtful though. "Well, it could have gone a lot worse too. At the very least we know that they have a sense of humor about the whole situation. It'll be interesting to see how they run that place. But I guess we aren't in a position to throw stones about weird command structures. You do need to work on your hail though, Skip. Captain Picard you aren't," he said, then stood and stretched, popping joints and tendons like bridge cables in high winds. It's sort of an alarming process to watch, like all that dense power he has will explode and perforate anybody nearby.
"Well, I figured this was a special case. So, take Gaye and the L.R.D.?"
Callisto took the moment to finally decide she was annoyed rather than bemused.
"I can't believe you Perry! Rusted old crabber my ass! I just KNOW this is gonna turn into one of those timeless running gags you'll all share with the Corners' crew. I can see it now, twenty years from now you'll all be sipping mimosas on a beach on Mars, joking about how my hull looks good for an old gal." Her avatar started waving her hands erratically near her head and her voice pitched up in mockery. "'Ooooo, that Callisto, she might be getting on in years, and her paint's flecking, and she doesn't accelerate like she used to and... what were we talking about? Nevermind! Who wants another cocktail!' I hate you guys!" All the screens winked out at once, and the screen saver was now simply a volcano erupting on a stick figure while it got struck by lightning repeatedly. Poor Perry.
Everyone tried to keep a straight face. Nobody wanted to share Perry's new role as Ship Biatch. It was hard. Seriously.
"Ok. Well, you guys go ahead and head over, I want to back us out a couple dozen kilometers. It's getting crowded around here." Cynthia did a head nod out to starboard while feathering the throttle. "That's the Epsilon Blade out of Stellvia. Whoever Noah Scott sent, they will have probably brought a handful of Fen from factions that annoy him the least." Cynthia gave me a pointed sidelong glance. "Be nice."
"What? I'm on pretty good terms with the guys at Stellvia?"
"Not talking 'bout them, Captain. They're going to be Senshi and Wizards around, and it's almost guaranteed that if they aren't on that ship they won't be far behind. So, don't be a jerk. I know, it'll be hard. Do it anyway. Sir." She added, almost as an afterthought. "Keep him honest Jeremiah?"
Perry had taken a glassy eyed minute to contemplate the horrors he could now expect, then pipped up, "You know, I should go over with you guys. You know, make sure Jon doesn't offend these people by being himself. Jeremiah still really doesn't know all that much about fandoms other than broad guidelines." It was a transparent ploy as any of us had ever seen, but man, what are you gonna do. When one of the things you learn out here in the Black is when an AI is on the warpath, you help a buddy out, long as you don't have to walk into the firing line. We all nodded in a pitying way, not that I liked my guys thinking they had to babysit me. Seriously, I'm not that bad!
"Will do Cynthia. Come on Fearless Leader, let's go be neighborly" Jeremiah hooked a meaty arm around my shoulders and steered me out of the Wheelhouse.
O' for the days of floggings.
Little Red Deathtrap, out of The Inelegant Truth
Gaye liked to think she was like most other women. She had some good friends, she liked to spoil herself probably more than she should, she had the same niggling insecurities about her body but thought all and all she looked good. Sure, she had a weird job, but she liked it and did it well. Other than that, she was like most women.
"All I'm saying, if I can't be cruel to my enemies, what the hell do I want them for?" The skinny, dark haired cargo shorts and t-shirt clad one with Eurasian features whined from the passenger seat.
"Ok Captain Exaggeration, like you have any actual enemies." The shorter, paler, similarly clad but glasses wearing man scoffed from the cramped back seat.
"Well, when was the last time we got a greeting from anybody from Venus that didn't start with 'Oh, it's you again?'" The taller, broader, older, blonder man in a polo shirt and jeans said while "driving" her into the garage hold of the giant floating piece of former West Virginia.
Well, maybe not totally like most women. She just happened to look like a shiny red metal pear that weighed half a ton and her 'brain' was made of circuit boards instead of meat.
"A couple years maybe." Jon admitted.
"Roight. Doesn't it make sense if you want your stuff read, not to piss off half of the Fen by getting into flame wars?"
"Dude, I never used to get into that kind of shit back dirtside. It's being out in space. It does things to you. I think I got modded to be a spectacular asshole. And my stuff gets read because I'm the soul of wit and charm."
Gaye took the bait that was clearly given, and tiny monitor attached to the dash showed her strawberry blonde self split into a smirk "Boss, you were born a spectacular asshole, and are the soul of whine and smarm" to appreciative chuckles all around and a eyeroll from her captain.
"Haw haw, my name's Gaye, I take the easy way out with my jokes. I'm funny! Be a dear and get me a link to Galvius, I wanna do a quick post before we go do this meet and greet." Jon said with the tone of a man who endured similar trials before.
"Geez, you couldn't have done this before? You know how he is on uplinks." The bombastic Space Marine admin of the Truth's mainframe was one of her least favorite people, coincidentally tied with the Truth's ship AI.
More tired eyerolling. "Just do it, kid."
"Fine fine." A split second later and some wrangling with routers, Gaye was finished. "Uplink established, you're go."
"Thanks. Galvius, begin dictation on my mark. Mark."
April 21, 2012
The time is 07:30 Zulu.
Well, unless you're stuck under a rock or live in Eastern Washington (Hi2U Pullman!), you all have probably heard or will hear that a giant ass piece of West Virginia up and floated away. Well, because I'm a curious soul and frankly had nothing better to do, I'm sitting in a airlock garage on said Unreal Estate, the good, well ship ain't the word but guess it'll have to do, Grover's Corner with a rack of beers and a bunch of nosy questions, about to hang out with some people whose ambition seems to only be matched by their nerve.
It promises to be an interesting day.
I thought about testing that new toy I've mentioned before, a sort of floating web cam', but who the hell wants camera shoved in their face in their own home? Not me! So, sorry to say, I won't have any visuals for you guys so you'll have to wait till somebody else posts their pics. Just put off burning me in effigy till after I post later today. Or hell, who knows? The people of Grover's Corner might do it themselves soon enough.
Oh hey, they just cycled the airlock. Time to meet the new Fen.
I think they'll fit in fine.
Bad Moon out.
"End dictation! May you bring glory to the Emperor, Chapter Master.
"Right. Let's go say hello," Jon said cheerfully.
As the group piled out of what was once a GEO Metro, Gaye said, "I'll keep a line open to the Truth Boss. You'll probably want to start writing as soon as you leave I bet."
"You're a smart girl, Gaye."
"I'm not just another pretty face!"
But Gaye could only watch as her friends went and met the new neighbors undoubtedly to go on have another adventure.
No, she really wasn't like most women after all.
Grover's Corners, south garage
After all the greetings and the inevitable "wow"s at the interior vista, we got the crew of The Inelegant Truth and all their gear in the carts. But no sooner had Peggy's brothers taken off with them for Town Hall, then I got another hail on the squawkbox: "Hello, Grover's Corners, this is the SS Epsilon Blade out of space station Stellvia, requesting permission to land. We've got nine people aboard who'd like to say hello to you in person. We also have some communications equipment I suspect you'd appreciate having, and one of the people aboard is an engineer who knows how to install it. Awaiting your reply..."
I sighed. No rest for the weary. I mean that literally - it was nearly three in the morning for all of us. At least the kids were probably asleep. Lucky kids. If things had happened as we'd intended them to, we'd've been safely parked at L3 with all of us sacking out by now. We just didn't take into account a) that Fenspace doesn't run on Eastern Daylight Time and b) just how overwhelmingly interesting we would be to the folks who were already out there. The combination essentially scuttled our original plans.
After the first couple of guests, I was starting to get just a little bit irritable, what with the lack of sleep and all. I was tired, not stupid, though - for one thing, that FTL comm system would be very welcome. And for another, well, we'd done our research on Fenspace long before lifting and had kept it up to date, and I knew that ten people out of Stellvia on the Epsilon Blade could be only one thing - some kind of mass diplomatic mission from the various factions.
Oh joy. I'm not all that diplomatic even when I'm awake.
The Epsilon Blade
"Noah, we're getting a signal from Grover's Corners. They'd like us to wait until the launch from The Inelegant Truth lands, then follow them in."
"Sounds good to me. Let them know we'll follow their flight plan, please, Yayoi, and chat with their radio person for a few minutes. The usual protocols." By which I meant 'no telling any of our secrets, but be neighborly otherwise'. I switched comm channels to the one I remembered the Truth's launch usually used. "Hello, Gaye, this is Noah Scott aboard the Epsilon Blade. Is your captain available?"
"Captain Helscher's busy dictating an article right now, Mr. Scott. Why didn't you call him on the Truth a couple of minutes ago?"
"I would have, but my chief pilot's standing right beside me, and I'm pretty sure she doesn't want to be in a communications circuit with Callisto."
"Oh, yeah. Callisto and Yayoi don't get along well, do they?"
I grinned. "That's an understatement. At least Yayoi's only ignoring Callisto; Kohran wants to invite Callisto to help with some weapons research ... as a target. Anyway, please let your esteemed leader know that there's a half-dozen ambassadors on my ship, or seven if you count me. The other six are from the Fivers, the Trekkies, ..."
"There's a Trekkie on your ship?"
"Yeah, I know, but he's not saying why he doesn't have his own ship no matter how loudly I ask. As I was saying; the Fivers, the Trekkies, the Dandelions, the Watch, the Barsoomians... and the Senshi."
"Oh. That's going to cause a few fireworks."
"Maybe literally; she's Leda Swansen."
"The electrical scientist? I'll be sure to warn my boss."
"Thanks. You're a smart girl, Gaye."
"Smart enough to not want to change employers... Oh, the Captain's finished his article. Still want to talk to him?"
Yayoi caught my eye, and pointed out the Blade's bridge window. "Thanks, but we've landed too. I'll catch him before we leave the landing bay."
To be continued...