Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Another Day, Part 3

Doc looks less like a former high-ranking SF officer than anyone I know — approximately egg-shaped and nearly as bald, he moves with the care and economy of someone who's put in a lot of zero-G time. He's 70 but looks 50. Scuttlebutt is he was Regular Army, dirtside, before he went into medicine. Or maybe not so regular — some kind of Special Forces. Given the black-budget nature of every part of Space Force, it's plausible. All I know for sure is there's very little that surprises him and he knows a lot more than he lets on.

"This is about the Schramm and the Bearcat, isn't it?" I asked.

Doc nodded.

My first two Engineering berths — I was just a 'Drive-tender aboard the Schramm, back when they were still required, though a tug like that ship about had to have 'em: tugs have massively powerful 'Drives in a small, stout frame and when things get out of control -- well, they'd better not, is all. Schramm hauled bulk ores, entire asteroids, for the refinery ship Wayrue. Tenders rode out the Jumps in heavily shielded compartments just off the four 'Drive rooms, ready to cope with breakdowns on a moment's notice. One fine Jump, a rigger disconsolate, drunk or just plain crazy had sat himself on the 'Drive field emitter for my set of 'Drives and when the PAs shut down on excessive reflected power, it was already too late. I'd been first to find him and had spent the next hour all alone with the remains in the airlock.

The Bearcat incident was more recent, a cargo-hauler I signed aboard after a year spent teching at a factory dirtside (Kansas II, for an embarrassingly large salary. I learned to love barbecue and found out the bottom of a gravity well wasn't for me). It was smallish, short-hop rig compared to Lupine, looping freight Kansas II - Honeyweal - Blizzard, oil, grain and heavy machinery mostly, but "smallish" means a couple of miles across and operating at seven-eighths of a standard G, while "mostly freight" included a dozen passenger rooms. A Junior Jayhawk fratboy had bribed his way onto the hull and headed out to climb the 'Drive mast on a bet. He made it about halfway up, too. I headed the gang that found him, after his buddies realized something had gone terribly wrong and went to the Captain. I'd worked my way up to Chief Engineer by then but after the inquest, all the officers and section chiefs found their contracts terminated. Including me. Had it not been for Lupine's previous Second Officer's willingness to look beyond that, I might still be cooling my heels under too much blue sky.

Between those two incidents, one of them about as career-limiting as they come, I was the closest Lupine came to having an expert on death by 'Drive field. It wasn't much of an honor. I looked at the monitor again — it had cycled to a wider and thankfully pre-autopsy shot — and noticed the name stenciled across the pressure-suit overalls: EMILY L. "Dam- doggone it, that's not Em, not even close..."

"Nope. DNA's no match to any crew, subcontractor or passenger."

Mike added, "And I don't want you telling anybody that, either."

"You think we've got hitchers?" I had to ask.

"Not guessing. Officially? No. No way."

Doc cleared his throat. "Impossible her presence aboard may be, that young woman is dead and I think you can now be quite, quite certain how she died. 'Why' is your department. Although...?"

Mike snorted. "You guys read too many detective novels. Yeah. Sure. If I need help, I'll call ya. Bobbi, you too."
* * *

I found myself "downtown" with nearly two hours to kill before my shift. No point in heading back to my quarters...so why not wander over to Starboard Stores & Cargo and see if there were any interesting tales making the rounds. If we did have optimists shipping themselves as cargo, S&C might have an inkling. You can travel in a pressure-tight cargo container; even back on Earth, it happens more often than you'd think. Strictly against regulations, ridiculously dangerous and uncomfortable to boot, but people do it.



Turk Turon said...

I love a good mystery.

Anonymous said...

The plot thickens. Keep stirring.