Actually, 1000, but I'm chronically slow, especially when I don't want to be. Time to take a break from the dry facts they never told you about, scribbled down while I waited for the good folks at the annoying-tests department of Lupine's clinic to finish up whatever they were doing, lunch most likely.
It's said exciting situations usually aren't while they're happening, that "adventure" is somebody a long ways away in a lot of trouble. Like many such nuggets of wisdom, it's true and it isn't.
I've mentioned Linden/Lyndon/whatever they're calling it this time; it's not my favorite port of call and at that, I'd only ever been down once before today. Just the local TV and Web is bad enough. There are some stunning successes on the Hidden Frontier. I've mentioned the insufferably proud Junior Jayhawks of Kansas II, though without much detail about the agricultural and industrial success that entirely justifies their pride, let alone the buffalions that make some parts of the vast, flat prairie so very interesting. And I wrote a Christmas Story set on proud, slightly goofy Blizzard, a cold place but rich in natural resources and with a keen appreciation of Jay Ward. Linden/Lyndon is success, too. Of a sort. Possibly too much so.
It was the fourth habitable world found and the third settled. The climate's pretty good, the local land life not especially varied or aggressive; "terraforming" has been no big deal, about like settling Ohio. Or Texas: some challenges but the settlers rose to meet them. And had kids. A lot of kids. And indulged in civic involvement most majorly. They had a large and steady influx of settlers through the Sixties and went in for referendum and ballot initiatives and such in a very big way. Local government has been more than a bit...variable. Sometimes there's not much. Sometimes there are a lot, with a lot of rules and fines and forms, fees and taxes and tariffs. If you take shore leave, usually you have to change all the money into whatever they're using at the time -- Linden Reserve Notes, Kennedy Hours, gold certificates (good luck tryin' to redeem 'em) and you can count on not taking your change back -- there's always an "exit tax" or a steeply slanted rate of exchange (plus fees) or some darned thing. The economy runs in fits and starts; we can sell a lot of cargo but sometimes they haven't much to swap for it -- and nobody but nobody takes paper money, checks, drafts or letters of credit from any business or government agency there.
The locals don't seem to be starving and the general ambiance reminds me of California's central valley; but it's not a stable place and they don't get nearly so many settlers these days.
The squirt-booster landing field is run about like any other enterprise on the planet -- one trip it'll be filled with officious officials, next time run by bumbling amateurs, or all but abandoned. We and our sister ships have given up counting on the locals, and set up meteorological and, well, surveillance installations in the buildings near the field. Each ship sets up one, maintains it, makes their own arrangement with the locals; we can all tap into all of them and we'll do emergency repairs on the others if need be. It's clumsy but it works. Mostly -- sometimes the locals steal them.
We first thought that was what had happened this time but the reality was more complex. Our camera and weather station is d-e-a-d. As in off the air. As in we got an ansible call from the KSAS Wildcat* to let us know the building, a primo 15-story apartment tower with shops and parking on the first two floors which connect it to a 10-story office building that had all been under serious renovation on our last stop, and a goin' concern when we installed the stuff, was dark. Gutted. They'd tried to get in but the place was buttoned up tight -- or tight enough to keep an honest man out, they'd seen firelight in a couple of windows -- and they'd been unable to get a hint of the current ownership, if any. Ever since we dropped back into the more-or-less normal universe, we've been tryin' to find the present owners, pay up, maybe get the power back on -- managed the first trick three times, each time the outfit has raised a fuss about back rent, then become evasive when we've asked for documentation. It now appeared the renovation had failed and the building was in receivership -- when what passes for the planetary government had managed to go belly-up again, including the courts. Unh, oops? Things are a little unsettled down at Star City.
The Chief has been hopin' to just get down there and grab our stuff. There's, I don't know, about half a million bucks (as of the last time I spent any) worth of hardware strapped to the top of that building, doing nothing, and he wants it in hand before we move on to the next step. The Chief's boss, the Dir of Eng, Ops and Nav, Dr. Schmidt, he is not so sure and has spent a lot of time with the Purser and her tame lawyers, radioing back and forth to our supposed semi-landlords. Yesterday, at long last, even he gave up.
We've been talking contingencies and making plans for weeks now, ever since Wildcat's message; Handsome Dave did the original install seven years ago with a crew of locals and he'd dug out his photos. --Pretty plush building, back when! But not a nice place for us: there's no rail or parapet on the roof. You step out of an elevator penthouse onto a four-foot ledge, walk ten feet, and turn the corner to the main expanse of the roof. Electronics package is inside a closet at the top of the stairs, easy to get to. Met stick and radio link are on masts fastened to the penthouse wall but the camera, well, that's at the far corner of the roof, on a four-foot pole. Fifteen floors above the blacktop, no rail, no parapet, no nothin'. Stylish.
Good news: there's a lot of blacktop. Remember the squirt-booster pilot who gave me a nice long talking-to about not impugning the capabilities of his faithful steed? Yeah, him; he swears he can set us down right next to the building. Bad news, main access was on the second floor and our pix from orbit show the outside stairs to that entrance are gone.
Nevertheless, we gathered in the Eng. Shop well ahead of 1000 this morning. Handsome Dave showed up last with a rueful expression. "Might be off; I reminded the Chief that Big Tom and Kent can't do any heavy lifting right now and he chewed me out and asked why we even bothered to show up."
General complaint ensued; we'd all dug out our coats, jackets and jumpsuits (early Spring where we're headed) with the ship's logo on them, along with various and sundry other items (hey, a one-hand opening pocket knife is a tool, not a weapon and it's just plain handy to have one in each pocket; and an 80-lumen flashlight is practical. Okay, the pointy bits on the lens end are kinda much but it was on sale...).
"Okay, okay, let's see, C. Jay, Lance, Morris, Bobbi, me, that's enough to get all the gear; Butch stays in the booster with whoever we get from Security--"
"That'd be me," from the door. Mike, head of Ship's Security, think of him as the Sheriff. He's limpin'. "As long as I don't have to run, anyway."
Turns out he slipped in the shower this morning, doesn't think it's all that bad, and Dr. Schmid (Ph.D.), Lupine's 2/O and thus Director of E, O & N wanted somebody with some rank to accompany our little picnic. It's a good sign. Dave heads off in search of the Chief, last seen heading for the Dir (etc)'s office while the rest of us mill around, grab tools and gab about methods of entry. C. Jay shares out some nifty headband lamps and hands me, a bit slyly, a hefty hammer handle sans head. By the time Dave's back, thumbs up, we're ready, and we all troop off to the squirt-booster bay, where a simple double waits, about the size of a city bus. On the way, Dave tells us the Chief's staying aboard: "He wanted to go, his boss won't let 'im." We mull that over and I, at least, wonder if this might be a little riskier than it seems. Is this trip really necessary? It's too late to wonder!
After the usual clank and confusion, we're on our way down, a disorienting experience. True to his boasts, Butch sets us down neatly, the 'drive cutting off a mere 25 feet up and we squish down on the crash balloons right in front of the place. Grey sky, grey day, traffic streams by a half block away but there is not a car in the lot nor a soul to be seen.
While the rest of the crew set up a ladder to the balcony at the old main entrance, Dave and I made a quick sweep around the building looking for an easier point of entry -- him in close and me hanging back, looking around. A big, empty parking deck connects "our" tower to the office tower, which is just as empty. On the outside edge, a spiral stair winds up two floors; the ground level is fenced off but the gate gapes open, a chain and padlock laying in a puddle next to it. The only openings we see have heavy plywood bolted over them, the ends of the bolts pounded over: no access there.
When we complete our circle, C. Jay is already on the balcony, calling down a warning about ice in the shadowed spots; I hand up gear and then follow him up. The door's locked but a big plate-glass window next to it is broken out; Morris has cleared the jagged shards with a wrecking bar and we head in. It's right at the middle of a long side and the elevators are off to our left. Stairs should be right around here, no?
No. Dave shakes his head at our quizzical looks. "Never saw 'em at this level." So we set out past the the former leasing office, and into a kind of maze: storage rooms, doors all ajar, the floor drifted with old magazines, heaps of clothing, Beta tapes (caught on big out here, go figure). It's unlit and the sightlines are poor, with blind corners and tight spaces. It makes my skin crawl and I am not the only one -- headband lights are on and anyone with a hand light has it on , too.
The group splits and reforms, down one hall after another, into an unexpectedly wide corridor with padlocked overhead doors at the far end and more mazelike halls branching off. No stairs. One of the guys, I can't tell who, mutters, "Great set-up for a first-person shooter game," which is true enough except that in here, losing would mean more than having to start over. Something else bothers me and I finally put words to it: "There can't be any stairs hiding here, the walls don't go all the way up!" The storage cubicles have mesh ceilings and their walls stop a good two feet shy of the ceiling. I shine my light around to confirm it: sure enough. No walls other than outside walls, no stairs.
Back out through the maze to what was once the leasing office -- "Look out, that panel's full of nails," and so on, slicing the pie around corners and wishing Linden/Lyndon wasn't quite so Illinois about guns. Dave and C. Jay headed down a level (looking, I guess, for mystery stairs that bypass a floor), Lance and Morris head deeper into the office hoping for a floor plan. It looks like news footage of a war zone -- ceiling tiles and wires hanging tangled overhead, glass all over the bunched and sodden carpet, desks overturned, drawers open -- but about as the downstairs guys give up and head back, I hear "Aha!" and Lance comes out to the lobby holding a roll of drawings. Five minutes later, we're all certain there is no blamed access from the office/storage levels to the apartment floors above. I'm pretty sure the fire codes back in the States and Europe wouldn't allow it, but here, it's another matter. The fire stairs are on the ends of the building and they don't stop at this floor!
Back down we all go, across the parking lot and up the spiral stairs to the topmost parking deck; we trudge up them, cross a bit of concrete and up one flight to -- a door with a sheet of plywood screwed across it. Dave's already working at it with a screwdriver when I arrive but a wrecking bar makes short work of popping three sides free. The door thus revealed, nice shiny glass, is not deadbolted but the crashbar's latched. Another job for the wrecking bar, a very gentle pry, and it pops open.
Revealed, concrete stairs, one flight down and 23 up. The fire door to the first floor we pass (4) is open and it looks like people had been moved out in a hurry. At the next landing up, there's a shopping cart on its side and the fire door is closed, trash neatly bagged beside it. The guys had been yakking but now we trade looks and get less noisy; there's another shopping cart on the next landing up and as we pass it, the radio Morris is carrying squawks, "Everything all right?"
He turns it down and replies but I think I hear scrambling sounds above; we press on. All the way up, there are some signs of recent habitation. On most floors, the fire doors are open on hallways just as cluttered and abandoned-looking as the first. It's the few that are shut-but-not-latched that worry me. At the top floor, we march to the center of the building, where the open doors of a very empty elevator shaft gape, the counterweight hanging at the back. Just beyond that opening, a narrow stairway winds up into darkness. "We can go that way," Dave says, "Or over here--," as he walks into an apartment across the hall. The main room is huge, lit by a floor-to-ceiling window but I start to ask if sightseeing is a good idea, stopping when he heads up a stairway: it's a two-story apartment!
The room at the top of the stairs defies expectation. It's got floor-to-ceiling windows on each side, one looking towards downtown and the other out to the suburbs but what dominates the room is huge bathtub, at least ten feet square and two feet deep, tucked into a corner. Along one wall, at the far end from the taps, there's a little marble-shelved passthrough about two feet square; I walk around the corner and up a step: the passthrough opens into a small WC/vanity, with a medicine cabinet set and hinged so anyone reaching though the passthrough could reach in. Dave laughs, "Helluva place to keep the soap, hunh?"
Just past the bath is a door into the same dark staircase we'd seen below, winding on up to the roof. C. Jay takes the lead and when the door at the top proves to be stuck, braces himself and kicks it open gently. Just as the pictures showed, it's a narrow walkway and a long way down. There's no place to tie a rope or clip a cable, just a couple of antenna poles in some flimsy-looking brackets I wouldn't trust.
Dave, Lance and I file out onto the roof and around the corner. Dave's got the collapsible ladder, and we lend a hand extending it, locking the sections and standing it up so he can get the weather instruments and antennas from the elevator penthouse roof. C. Jay and Morris will tackle the electronics package inside, Lance and I head towards the camera -- at some point, I managed to volunteer for it. It's not that bad unless you really dislike heights but there are puddles on the roof and a brisk, gusty breeze. I huddle down, duckwalking as I get closer to the edge: it's a lot harder to do a trip and fall when you're starting low! Right on the corner, there's our "non-penetrating mount," a steel frame about four feet square with a pole in the center topped by a medium-sized camera on a remote-controlled pan and tilt head. The base should be full of concrete blocks but they're all missing. I restrain myself from going to the edge and looking over to see if they're below, squatting down instead on the edge of the mount's frame and looking at what holds the pan & tilt to the pole: a "coffee can" a heavy steel can with six fat setscrews, all a bit rusty but worth a try. Down below, sirens scream by and wail to a stop, out of view, and I hear Dave on his radio: "Any company on the ground?"
"Nope. Little action on the highway but it's not us."
I don't have the right size wrench but I've got an adjustable. Lance is hacking away at the cables -- "It doesn't have to be neat, hey? Oh, dammit," as the wrench slips, but the setscrew had turned. I back it out, five to go, get the next one and realize I'd better do the two closest to the corner of the roof next, which I proceed to do, mostly by feel. Fifteen floors didn't sound like much but even looking out instead of down, it's not a small distance. Okay, next two, the "coffee can" wobbles free and I get my arms around the camera housing and lift. Swelp me, if this thing is too heavy, I'm droppin' it, I'd rather be yelled at by the Chief than splatted here-- It comes clear and Lance leans in to take some of the weight; we walk it back towards the elevator penthouse to hear, "Heads up!" and a small high-gain antenna hits the roof in front of us.
Back at the stairs, C. Jay and Morris have the electronics package out and are bumping it down to the elevator level; Lance and I strap the camera to a length of strut and head after them like Great Cyber Hunters. Once we're down, they head back up and return shortly with Handsome Dave and a pile of assorted Met. and RF goodies. As we're sorting and packing for the trip back down, I see C. Jay dart a glance down the hall to the stairs, then he trades a look with Morris as I hear a faint clanking and muffled voices. "Anyone else hear that?" Jay asks, as we all fall silent. Yes, it's faint but something's coming.
"There's another set of stairs at the far end," Lance says, and we pick up our burdens and head that way. I grab the collapsible ladder -- it's got a shoulder strap -- and one end of the strut holding the camera; Jay and Morris have the bulky electronics housing and Dave's got a fully-loaded knapsack. We get to the far end in record time and sure enough, more stairs, the first flight well-clogged with discarded clothing; but down we go. At the first landing, I have to swap shoulders, the ladder's tangling with the camera, but I do it on the fly and down we go. Most of the fire doors on this side are closed.
It's an endless descent, round and round, stairs down half a floor and then a landing, followed by more stairs, over and over. My right knee starts to burn and the burn becomes a fiery ache; we start to fall behind. Lance says to Dave, "She's startin' to slow up."
I pant back, "You wanna carry the ladder awhile?"
"You've got the ladder, too?"
"Didn't. Wanna. Leavitt."
Dave tells me, "Set it down on this landing, I'll grab it." I'm happy to comply.
Five more floors, we climb down, down, past a covered door, hey! One floor too many! But we've about caught up with the first pair and this is the route they're taking, so we follow. There have been water leaks down here, potable water I hope; it doesn't smell especially bad. The floor is slick with drifts of pulped ceiling tiles on ragged, mildewed carpet and we have to cross full length of the building. About halfway, I hear both radios: "Company out here, couple unmarked SUVs just pulled in." Grrrreat.
We get to the end, trudge up one flight to the door, out, down and Morris puts out a hand. "They're at the base of the spiral steps. Sittin' talking."
Dave has come down by then and says, "Let's just wait. I could use a breather anyway." Me, too, but darned if I'll admit it.
After about ten minutes, the radio again, Mike from the squirt-booster, "They haven't given us or the the building any attention. I think it's just a hook-up. You might as well head out."
So, off we go, and sure enough, the occupants of the two SUVs (Ladas, f'pity's sake) don't even glance our way. If they're game, we're game, so we ignore them as studiously, get across the lot to the booster as Mike pops the hatch, load up, strap it all down, strap in and the pilot gives us and our cargo the once-over. "All ready? Bunch of pirates!"
We grin back like schoolkids, he punches the Go button and we bid sweet, lovely Lyndon (Mike says they're back to that, now) a less-than-fond farewell. I don't know who or what was headed up the stairs as we headed down and I'm just as happy not to.
All the gear we've grabbed has to be refurbished before it can be reinstalled anywhere -- but not back to that building, not if they'll listen to my advice or that of any of us who went after it. All in all, not a bad day's work and we were back aboard by 1400. Naturally, the Chief groused about lost time and had plenty else for us to do the rest of the watch.
* Yep. Kansas II has a merchant fleet -- okay, one ship, and they bought it used. Still, even I have to admit, not too shabby.
T. R. MCELROY'S STREAMLINED TELEGRAPH KEYS
8 months ago