Sunday, November 27, 2011

3rd Part of My 2011 Nano

Romantic Retreat, Interrupted
We went on a little retreat, just the critical people you might say... I don't know if I was really that crucial, but I'm sure that I was there because Meiguo was going, and I'm his boss. Dolan had some plans for us, but they were preempted, first by No Such Agency, or something even more black and secretive, perfect for getting my inner conspiracy theorist going, and there was also a third party with extreme views on the shipstone.
The retreat was up in the mountains, on the state line between PA and NY state. Just a few cabins and a lodge by a lake still open even this late in the off-season, or else Dolan got it re-opened for us. The lake was a heat-sink, still pretty warm even in late fall and given to fog in the morning, the waters just nearly warm enough for a polar bear. A few romantic fools braved it in little row boats- Meiguo and Beatrice, of course, and couple from Materials Testing. They were out early Saturday morning, and I waved to them while I was taking a walk around the lake after breakfast. That seemed like about the limits of off-season activities up here, but it was good enough for me. I was going to break out my laptop when I got back to my cabin and work up the next step in my project, unless Dolan decided to fill us in on why he wanted us up here before then. He said he wanted us together for lunch, so I thought I had the rest of the morning for myself.
I saw the two black SUVs drive up to the lodge, one stopping long enough for two men to hop out. Dressed in black and carrying weapons, but no identifying markings like 'FBI', so I got off the path, behind a tree and on my cell phone as fast as I could. No signal.
We had service up here; the cell phones and laptops had worked fine last night, so somebody didn't want is us communicating with each other or the outside world. The possibilities were, if not infinite, then at least a very large number. More than I cared to dwell on, out here in the cold, wanting to run, and yet wanting to help my friends. But the main thing which sent me creeping around, trying to sneak back to the lodge, was curiosity, damnable curiosity, which killed the cat.
I got to a good vantage point, of where the deck at the back of the lodge, freshly swept clear of snow, was full of my friends and coworkers. I saw Dolan arguing with one man in black who seemed to be in charge. They went on for three minutes by the clock on my cell, which was still without signal, and then everyone was sat down and the man in black and my boss talked at the people. I was far enough away that I couldn't hear what was said, but there was annoyance, but little real anger, so I started to relax. That was when I became aware of another one of the unknowns, coming up the path from the Lodge.
I felt like an idiot at I suddenly worked out what he was doing; my vantage point was important for securing the place. I couldn't see how I was going to get away without being spotted, and the man was coming right towards me. I backed up behind a fallen log, cursing silently. What to do?
I looked back and saw the man in the body armor had stopped, gun up but not quite pointed at Dr. Sparks. where had Tom come from, Damn it!
"Sir, hold it right there," the intruder told him and reached for his comm, on his shoulder. Sparks stepped toward him and the man stopped trying to talk to his people, the gun coming down and covering the organic chemist now. I don't know my guns, but it was a futuristic-looking piece of hardware, like something out of a dystopian SF flick. I could easily imagine it spitting out a lot of hurt.
"I'm afraid I got myself lost out here in the woods," the Doc said rather feebly, or rather, he seemed to me to be obviously acting. The man snarled and advanced in a threatening manner, reversing the long arm as if to hit the old man with the rifle butt.
"Don't pull any crap with me, you old fart," the soldier said, lowering the butt and looking just a little uncomfortable. Maybe ashamed of himself. I jumped up to make what surely would have been a futile attempt at subduing him. At the very least I got his attention just as Meiguo came up silently behind him and put him in a head-lock, applying steady pressure to his carotid arteries.
"Of course he knew how to do that," I groaned to myself. The advanced rifle fell but Sparks caught it. The light went out of the mans' eyes and Meiguo eased him to the ground.
"Is he dead?"
"Unconscious. We need to tying him up and-" Beatrice threw some rope at him, and he looked lost. There may be a few things he's not good at... which is okay with me, because I really suck at sneaking around in the woods, don't I?
"What's going on?" I demanded of the three of them. I grabbed the rope and tied the guy up, then shook him. He didn't stir, either faking it or completely out of it.
The Doc looked uncomfortable, but Bea was never one to mince words. "It's possible his Uncle brought us u here to hand us over-"
"No!" Meiguo shouted, very angry for once. I whistled. Sometimes that kid acted a little like the reincarnation of the Buddha. Bea and Sparks shushed him.
"Do you want them up here?" Beatrice said sharply, and Doc Sparks looked like he wanted to commit mitosis, split right down the middle and try to work on calming them both down. I chuckled and interrupted thoughtfully.
"The way Dolan was arguing with the man down there just now, I doubt that. But it wouldn't surprise me a bit if somebody suggested this to him, with this in mind, or maybe something else-"
Something wet sprayed on my face, and I turned to Sparks as I wiped it off. There was blood on my hand and the Doc looked very surprised. He stumbled, half pushing and half falling, saying, "I think I've been shot..."
I tackled all three of them and we went down in in a tangle. Beatrice cried out and I felt something tear across the back of my shoulder painfully, and a buzz like a wasp. Something wet immediately started trickling down my back and I felt a draft where two big holes had been torn through my clothing.
"Bea, you hit?" I said, grunting as the crease in my shoulder started to hurt, a lot. I've had a few close calls with power tools, but this was the worse pain I'd ever felt, a line of fire from right behind and under my right armpit and on up the middle of my back. I suppose I was lucky; just then I was thinking about how close all this had passed to my spine, my neck, the back of my skull... Doc Sparks wasn't moving.
"I'm okay," Beatrice said, which was a lie; I could see where she was holding her shoulder, another near miss. But she was concentrating on Sparks, applying pressure with her other hand to a hole in his side which was leaking an alarming amount of blood. Meiguo was gone.
"Where's Meiguo?"
The soldier I'd tied up coughed and turned over towards us. He was awake and glaring at me. "Untie me!"
I ignored him and he added, "That other guy with the moves ran off towards the sniper. Let me help or we're all dead, starting with him!"
I dug my leatherman out, painfully, and cut the rope. Then I handed him his shiny rifle. He turned over on his belly with a little cover and started firing, muttering, "Damn civilians, gonna get myself killed over a bunch of damn amateurs-"
A bullet struck the log he was using for cover and he rolled away and behind some roots.
"Get the hell down!" He fired wildly without exposing himself, in the general direction of the bullets.
"Hey, Meiguo-"
"I'm way high, and he needs the distraction, if he's gonna pull this off." But he stopped and peeked, getting back down quickly. "I don't see him, which is good, maybe the sniper doesn't either-"
A few shots rang out.
"Well, he's shooting at something, I guess I'd better do what I can to help..." he carefully sighted fired three three quick shots and took cover again. A few close misses struck near him and where Beatrice was working to save the Doc, then a couple more at something else.
"How's the Doc?"
"He needs a real paramedic, and somebody who knows what they're doing," Beatrice said angrily. There were tears streaming down her face, and streaks of blood. "I'm barely getting a pulse on him, he's unconscious but in a lot of pain, and the blood is so damn dark..."
"Kidney or liver, probably the liver," the soldier commented. "Too bad, that old man probably saved my life, even if you all fucked things sideways..." He fired again, and then he fell back, sprawling, the rifle falling from lifeless fingers. There was a hole under his left eye and gore leaking out under the back of his helmet.
I stared at the dead man, and we heard two more quick shots, right on top of each other, and then nothing. "Meiguo," Beatrice sobbed, and then she looked down at Tom Sparks, eyes wide. "No!"
I crabbed around low, shoulder hurting but I had to know... I took Tom's left hand, but there was no pulse. I held it hard for nearly a minute; nothing. And no more shots, either. Because we weren't showing ourselves? I bobbed my head up into view and back down as fast as I could, then again, feeling stupid. Then, increasingly brave, I stood up next to a tree.
I saw Meiguo making his way back to us. He was staggering, bloody, and a lot of the blood had to be his, leaking out of a hole in his shoulder. He reached us and went to his knees.
"Just a little bit too slow..." and he leaned over, hands on the ground, and threw up. His hands were gory and torn.
"You got him?" I asked after a little bit.
Meiguo leaned back against the base of the tree, looking at the dead soldier by his side. "She's very... dead. I left her rifle; I broke it."
I blinked and thought that one over, looked at his torn hands, and nodded. We all started as sounds of screams and gun-fire came up the hill from the lodge.
"My Uncle," Meiguo said, getting wearily to his feet.
"You sit your ass back down!" He'd lost a lot of blood already; all that adrenaline must have had his heart pumping like crazy. But he wasn't listening to me, and with a cry Bea tore herself away from Sparks. She hit him hard enough that they almost went down, but they kept their feet, just barely.
Meiguo was smiling at her, and leaning hard on her. "You remember when you said you hated John Wayne and I said that I did too? I lied."
I looked down at Tom and the guy whose name we still didn't know, who had died for all of us anyway, and prayed that this wasn't a big fucking mistake. "I guess we'd better see what we can do to help..."

7016 + 1987 = 9003
Not a Mistake
I looked down at Tom and the guy who's name we still didn't know, who had died for all of us anyway, and prayed that this wasn't a big fucking mistake. "I guess we'd better see what we can do to help..."
We went down the hill to the lodge at a very slow pace, Beatrice helping Meiguo. I got under his other arm when he stumbled again, and we parked him on some firewood stacked behind the little outbuilding where the lodge kept the grounds keeping equipment.
"You stay with him," I told Beatrice.
"Why, because I'm a girl?"
"No, because you'd just be worrying about him, instead," I told her. And because you're a girl, I thought. I wouldn't be able to concentrate, worrying about her and Meiguo both. She relented; not that she would ever have admitted it, but I suspect that she was glad of a reason to stay with her boyfriend.
Does it need to be any more complicated than that?
I shouldn't have left them. I'll regret that till the day I die.
My right shoulder was numb from the cold, the two big holes in my clothes were good for that much. I went around to the back of the lodge, under the patio, to the back doors of the place, the kitchen and the storerooms. The delivery trucks backed down a ramp on the west side of the lodge, and one of the black SUVs I'd seen earlier was there, dead men-in-black body armor fallen by the vehicle, drivers' side, shoot-gun and at the back door. One of the lodge staff was face-down in front of the delivery door, shot in the back running away from whatever or whoever had taken the MIB down, I thought. All four were cooling corpses.
Six dead people, two of them people I had known and one of whom I'd loved like an uncle, was about my limit. I leaned against the building and would probably have been sick, if I hadn't heard a female voice, calling for help. I sighed, a shuddering of my whole being and sucked in a deep breath of that cold clean air, and went around the open door, low like I'd seen on TV. Nobody shot at me, and I kept moving, trying to not be a sitting duck.
I tripped over the woman; some hero I was. I caught myself on a prep table; I was at the back of the kitchen, right by the walk-in freezer. Most of the lights were out and it looked like there had been a lot of shooting in here. I kneeled by the woman.
"Hey," I said, and she focused on me. A local woman, maybe a cook, she had a cut on her head which looked a lot worse than it probably was. It looked like she'd been shot n her upper left leg, through the outer thigh. That I could maybe do something about, taking a hopefully clean rag from the prep table and wrapping it around her leg over the wound. I tied it loose and put her left hand over it.
"Press down on this. Who are you, and what did you see?" Part of that was curiosity and part of it was what I'd heard and seen about- keep the victim talking, find out what you can about the situation. Keep them calm and, yeah, try to keep calm yourself.
"Ann, Annie Pitt. I run the kitchen and-" her eyes filled up with tears as she rememered. "The first set of them were scary and mean, but they didn't kill people! The others came in, shooting everybody, shot my boy Freddie in the back!" she sobbed, quietly, already spent. I thought about Tom, and then Meiguo, Bea and the rest of them. I shook her lightly.
"What else? I need to know more, I need to-"
There was more gun-fire, a battle on the floor above us. I left Annie and ran for the stairs.

9,003 + 626 = 9,629 words

End of the Line
The ground floor was even with the parking lot. I came up the stairs by the main entrance and lobby. Behind the check-in desk facing the doors was the dining room and the patio at the back of the place, the North facing part. The stairs were to the West, the parking lot to the South, and conference rooms lay to the East. The gun-fire had died down, but I heard a few more shots, and shouting.
"You're at the end of the line in here. We came to kill some of these people, but we don't have to kill you-"
"Whoever you are, you've killed half of my agents. I'd start running if I were you, and not stop."
"Brave talk, for a dead man. I want Dolan, Sparks, and Leguin, and that's the end of it. I only get paid for the brains behind this..."
I was just a little insulted, but what does a working man expect? I got across the lobby and I was ten feet from the mercenary, maybe thirty feet up the way from the leader of these men in black. I still didn't know who they were for sure, but they didn't want us dead, a vast improvement over the other guy. The killers must have them pinned down there.
"Who wants me dead?" It was Mr. Dolan.
"Somehow I don't think the folks paying to kill you would appreciate me telling you. Would you?"
Dolan laughed. "I can't say that I would, no. Nor would I trust a man who doesn't stay bought-"
"Dolan, shut the hell up!"
"But I have a counter-offer. Your lives."
"Mr. Bester, you had your chance, now let me try to salvage this."
"You are threatening me and mine, as a counter-offer?" The mercenary sounded more amused than offended.
Things were very quiet.
"Say your piece, ass-hole."
"Walk away from this if you want to live. I promise you, you don't have to worry about Bester or the government; you need to worry about me."
"We're out of time," someone else said quietly, in the little knot of killers. I glanced around, saw four of them. One reached for something on his harness. I didn't know what it was until he reached for a tab on it.
"Here's what I have to say to that, Mr. Dolan!" He held the grenade up for his men to see and said, quietly, "We make sure, and then we get the hell out of here."
I was moving before I even thought about it. One of the men shouted something, but I grabbed their leaders' hand after he pulled the pin, before he could throw it, and he dropped it as we struggled for the grenade. I kicked it into the corner, their corner, and turned and ran back around the wall. One of the killers grabbed me, and pulled me back, and he was between me and the grenade when it went off. Mostly.
Something rang my bell pretty damn good.

9,629 + 505 = 10,134

The Next Bit
I didn't exactly lose consciousness, but I was looking at a blurry world. The mercenary who had grabbed me had saved my life, taking the brunt of the blast. He was in ribbons, like bloody, undercooked hamburger, and the top of his head was gone. Somebody over on the other side of the wall to the lobby, which now had several substantial holes in it, was keening like a horse with a broken leg. It was a truly pitiable sound, of mindless pain. Distantly I heard more gunfire, but this was closer than it seemed, in my ringing ears. The men in black were leapfrogging this way. One of them looked in at what was left of the man, and then shot him.
"Poor bastard..."
I was suddenly in the crossfire as two mercenaries fired on the men in black from the dining room, and three more joined them from the front door. This provided enough cover for those two to make it to the stairs and down, while the three out front faded back into the bright sunshine outside.
They were going to get away and I leaned against the wall, not really caring at this point, just glad to be alive after the grenade business. And then I heard four more shots, two and then two more, from outside, off towards that maintenance shed.
I went back out the same way in which I had come in, a dead Annie barely registering. Someone shot at me in a half-hearted fashion as I got out the delivery door, and then the mercenaries roared off in one of the black SUVs. A half dozen got away, out of how many? I panted, running for the shed as men in black shouted behind me. I didn’t stop.
Beatrice and Meiguo were laying tangled where they fallen, a double-tap to each head. At least they had died together, I remember thinking. Tom was up the hill with a dead stranger, and I turned to go. The rest of it is a jumble of images, as the world turned on its side. I suppose I fell down and blacked out.
I woke up in a hospital bed. Dolan was sleeping beside me, the next bed over. Great, now I was recovery buddies with my boss... I took inventory of my aches and pains and was happy, on the balance, with the result. The shoulder hurt a little, and there were a few stitches under some bandages on my forehead.
I was alive, and the only thing bad about that was that so many of my friends were not.
"You're awake," a man said. I saw him standing at the door. "May I come in?"
I shrugged and winced. "Ow! Uhm, who are you?"
He held out a hand for me to shake. "Agent Bester; make that Chief Bester, and never mind which agency. You don't need or want to know!"
"I really don't," I agreed. I frowned, for Bester was still holding my hand.
"We had a bad day the other day- when my team has a bad day, people die. Half of my team, and many of your friends. But thanks to you, not all of them." He suddenly grinned. "That was crazy-brave, my friend. Thank you!"
Bester took a seat by my hospital bed. "But mostly it was crazy. Why? Why did you do it?"
"I'm not brave, or suicidal. They probably would have killed me on the way out the door. So it seemed like a good idea, at the time..."
Bester stared at me, then he sat back I his chair and laughed. "'...seemed like a good idea-'"
"-at the time, yes."
"I wish I had a dozen of you, Mr. Hobson!"
"Any one of my friends would have done the same. Any one of them..."
"That's my opinion of Meiguo, and Beatrice, and Thomas, as well," Dolan said, sitting up painfully, or trying to. "My legs-"
"What's wrong with him?" I demanded of Bester.
"Maybe I should get the doctor-" he said, getting up.
"Or you could just tell me what you know, what he's-"
"She. Doctor Rebecca Varley."
"What she would tell me anyway. I'd say you know a little bit, and it's bad."
"Yeah... you really do need to talk with her, but you got hit low in your back by some flying shrapnel." He looked uncomfortable.
"When was this?" I asked.
"Mr. Dolan caught a bullet, or part of one, when those thugs were getting away, trying to keep us from following so closely." Bester turned to Dolan. "I'm sorry, but you should have stayed down, stayed back."
"I needed to find my nephew." Bester looked away, and I closed my eyes. Beatrice, Meiguo, Thomas and how many others?
"He's dead?" Neither of us answered, and he said again, louder, angry, "Is. He. Dead!?"
"Yes," I said.
Dolan turned away from us. "Go away, please."
"I'm sorry for your loss." The man in black stood up and made his way out of the room.
The silence stretched out for minutes and I wanted to fill it up, but there was nothing to say. I don't have any family left, living, and I haven't for a long time now. Certainly no sister, or nephew to take the place of children of his own.
Dolan turned back to me, saw me looking at him, sighed.
"My sister was older than me. I was ten when she went away to college, dropped out, had adventures, finished school and set off to save the world. She started with China... was pre-occupied with it." He turned back to me. "I rebelled against her, you see. I was mad at her for going away, a lot of things."
"I don't understand, what about your parents?"
Dolan shook his head. "She was always more of a mother, a parent..."
"Why are you telling me all of this?"
He bit his lip. "I tried to make up for what I threw away with my sister, with my nephew, and I'd be telling him all this, but I can't, now, can I?"
He turned his face back to the wall, and that was that.

2nd Part of My 2011 Nano

Doc Sharp was an inveterate meddler, not a joiner per se, but those groups of which he was a part, he really took part in. The stories of his 'social engineering' are the stuff of legend...
He was a great planner and an excellent expediter and troubleshooter. His genius at Molecular solutions was to wander around, adding value quietly, confronting problems and false starts in an ego-easing, non-threatening way. Paranoid geniuses (and very few smart people were as secure as Tom; "There’s always some young punk of a grad student gunning for your work and position," as I’d once overheard) saw him coming and smiled. People regularly dropped by and talked until, hours later, they left re-energized, problem solved or reduced, or maybe with insight and a totally new direction in which to look for answers. They called it the 'Spark'.
Tom had a plan- The Plan, he called it, and it was very nearly as comprehensive as that makes it sound. It was a tactical and strategic blueprint for the roll-out of the Shipstone, and he got it by jogging an elbow here, dropping a loaded question there, by turns squashing egos, or boosting them. He encouraged my hobby, and got Beatrice looking at spin-offs along with her Nobel dreams. Meiguo he took pains to get to know, before he put him rather agreeably into the harness.
"So what did you guys talk about at lunch?" I asked Meiguo a few days after he'd started. Sparks had kept him an hour longer than he was supposed to. I was annoyed, but I wasn't going to make that big a deal over it. I liked them both, and the kid was the bosses' nephew after all.
He had a funny expression. "Travel, the different places where we'd lived. He's been to my- he'd been to where I grew up."
"In China?"
"What was that like?"
Meiguo shrugged. I sighed.
"Alright, my little minion, back to work."
He didn't turn to his work right away. "Mr. Hobson-"
"I told you, call me Luke."
"What do you think of Doctor Sparks?"
I shrugged. "I like him. Don't you? For that matter, isn't he like Beatrice's mentor or something?"
"Something like that. I don't know about Sparks. Likeable, Bea really likes him, but he's, I don't know..."
"That's one word for it. Maybe... manipulative?"
"He's definitely that. He has a certain charm to him- charisma we called it in my moldy old D&D days. There are definitely leaders of men, like your uncle, who are all about bending other people's wills to his own vision. Making money, ruining competitors, surviving the economic storm. A bit of a pirate." Meiguo was laughing.
"Sparks isn't like that, but he does have the charisma thing. He has things he wants, mind you, but they aren't exclusively for himself. I think he would have made a good priest or reverend, I don't even know his religion-"
"Agnostic," Meiguo put in. "It came up."
"Did it, now? He never asked me..." But thinking back on it, we had talked about God and philosophy from time to time. Somehow that had never seemed strange, thus my impression of him as a good preacher man. Maybe he was a man of God without being in your face about it.
"So what does he want?"
"He wants people to be happy, to succeed. He gets a lot of mileage out of figuring people out, and then he puts things in their path, or asks a question, makes a remark, finds out what they might need, and arranges that they can get it. He doesn't give it away, or steal your accomplishments. He helps you to be more... you."
"God's Tom," Meiguo muttered. "From Stephen King's 'The Stand'. When they hypnotized the retarded man, Tom Cullen- did you ever read it, 'The Stand'?"
"Luddite though he is, I read King. 'The Mist' and 'The Stand' are his best ones."
"When they hypnotize Tom, to send him as a spy into enemy territory, they speak with another personality, who identifies himself as 'God's Tom'." Meiguo put a hand to his forehead. "That stayed with me, here and also here," he moved the hand to over his heart. "I'm a Christian and a Buddhist, I don't see where the two have to be exclusive, and I converted in a little basement church in the village where I grew up. They have to take that one passage to heart over there, about going into a room and shutting the door to pray quietly? My minister and his congregation bear witness with humility and grace."
"I told Sparks about all of that... it's weird, that his name is Tom, isn't it?"
I shrugged. I find that universe is a pretty interesting place to be. We are built to find patterns and make our own meaning. "Yeah, it is strange..."
"So we're all God's Tom, in our own way, trying to be more perfectly ourselves. And this guy, Doctor Sparks is all about that, so I guess I trust him."
"What did he suggest, for you?"
"He didn't really seem to be hinting at anything, but we did talk about how some martial arts focus on being reactive, and redirecting your opponents' energy."
So he had handed the kid a leading question, then. I smiled and said gruffly, "Well, enough with the talking, more with the working, alright?"
Meiguo laughed.
Obligatory PDA
(I can't write a love scene, per se, these two aren't my MC, Luke is! Sigh 8-)
The next day I came in to the shop, way too early in the AM, and I found Bea and Meiguo necking. I backed out as quickly and quietly as I could and went to get a fresher cup of coffee. When I came back, I made a little discrete noise. They were both still there, as expected. Meiguo had the good grace to look a little embarrassed, but Beatrice gave me a rather annoyed look.
"Like the show?" Apparently she'd seen me earlier, I guess.
She blinked and left in a huff, the line in her forehead more pronounced. She's a pretty young woman, when she's not angry at the world for it not bowing to her desires. She's more often given to smiles than to frowns, but I don't let her have an inch these days. I do mourn the loss of her sunny smile, though, and the laugh lines at the corners of her mouth.
"Woman wants," I told Meiguo cryptically.
"Wants what?" He said, perplexed.
"Oh brother, are you in trouble!" I laughed at his further clueless-ness, and he joined me a little uncertainly. Then we got to it.
Judy Sharp is the Doc's wife of nearly forty years; they met in college, dated but didn't really fall in love until later, when they were both working for Uncle Dupie. She had majored in Law and minored in Chemistry, and had worked in patent law. She retired when the company grew smaller and elected not to try to get into a partnership or start up her own practice late in life, and she writes freelance instead. They moved a little north of their old home of thirty years and got a place within walking distance of Molecular Solutions when the Doc signed on. No children; they either couldn't, or didn't want them, but I tend to think the former. She's not the busybody her husband can be, but she is like an aunt or a second mother to some us.
Judy wanted to throw welcome party for Meiguo; no doubt she knows the real score, but a simple thing like B&E and corporate espionage wouldn't stop her. I imagine it only added spice to the enterprise, and the lady does know how to throw a party. She's a little bit Martha Stewart, and little bit, hmm, Mel Streep. She likes a little zing in her get-togethers, if you know what I mean...
In the event, the party turned out to be smaller and quieter than I'd expected. Instead of a packed crowd spilling out onto the back deck and the fire pit, a mere two dozen guests were there, and they dwindled into an after party with purpose.
"Lukie-boy, you want to join us in the corner by the piano?" Tom went around to the other guests; Mr. Dolan and his date, a local realtor who had sold me my house, as it happened, Meiguo and Beatrice, Jim Mera, a guy I knew from accounting, and a few others. Some of them were people I'd never seen before at these parties, actually, but I did notice a pattern. They were all well, not to put too fine a point on it, troublesome. Jim, the guy in accounting, had gone to Dolan over an error that might not have been a simple mistake; the offending party had left the company shortly there after.
Dolan was the last to join us, his date leaving because she had "an early day tomorrow." I winced at the tone and the look on her face. Dolan didn't look very happy, either. He took a seat, the last space available, on the couch with his nephew and Beatrice.
"What's this all about, Sparks?"
"I've been concerned, for the last few days, that we aren't doing enough to prepare," Sparks said.
"The new substance? I've got people working on that... people who handle the roll out of new products all the time."
"I understand that, I do. And I know that their are other people looking into, uh, the military applications."
Beatrice looked like she'd bitten into something nasty at this point, and Meiguo leaned over to say something to her.
"This doesn't really concern-"
"With respect, sir, yes it does."
Mr. Dolan stood up, turning to go and reaching for his keys, but Meiguo jumped up and put a hand on his shoulder. "Uncle Mike? Please. Listen to the man. What could it hurt?"
Dolan sat back down. "Tom whatever you have to say, make it good. I don't need this shit!" He rubbed his face in his hands and then added, "Sorry, Judy."
"Don't be. I know all about this, of course, and this is bigger than our stocks, bigger than our individual lives."
Dolan glared at Tom, who simply shrugged. "She drugged it out of me..."
"Dragged?" Meiguo said.
"Drugged; she plied me with alcohol. A few Yuenglings and a 'you look troubled dear,' plus a very fine old Scotch Whiskey. Loosened my tongue right up, you see-"
"About the Shipstone, before my head explodes?"
Tom settled down. "Shipstone changes everything, and we are the ones who understand it best, if we really do. We are morally obligated to choose wisely for the entire species-"
"Don't you think I know that?"
"You do, but you still don't grasp how this will change literally everything."
"Tell me, oh wise grey-beard, who's this close to losing his job..."
"Are you going to fire me again, Mike?"
Mr. Dolan snorted. "Yeah, because that works so very well..."
I think that maybe Judy was the only other person in on their little joke, and we were not laughing. But Dolan visibly relaxed, stole his nephews' beer, and had a slug of it. "Alright. I'm bent. Straighten me."
"This is an emergency, ad hoc planning committee. I've talked to each of you about this, and I want to go around the room, get each of your thoughts. Let's start with..." his eye fell on Jim Mera, "Jim from accounting."
Jim looked around nervously, ending up with Dolan, who gave him a thumbs up. "Well, the big picture is energy. It's a big part of the economy, and cheap energy drives growth... the shipstone will make leveling of wind and solar truly feasible, but the really big thing will be the way it stands to decentralize the power grid. We should look into private power production and distribution, and service contracts for domestic and commercial Shipstones-"
"Residential and commercial? What about liability on that?"
"We've got to satisfy the EPA and OSHA anyway; once we clear those hurdles, and Underwriters Laboraties..." he went on like that for a while.
"Is it going to replace oil?" I asked.
Jim scratched his head. "The question is how fast, and how much? In Europe and Japan, major importers of oil, they'll want to kick the habit as fast as possible. Oil, petroleum is going to be with us as an industrial feedstock for a long time yet, but demand for oil to burn is going to fall off in a big way. You don't want to be in oil for years to come. This'll take a long time to shake out."
I glanced at Meiguo. "What about China?"
Jim looked his way and shrugged. "I'm working on an overview, and I'm not a China expert. They depend on us to buy cheap consumer goods from them, which we won't be doing if the world economy gets disrupted in a big way by Shipstone, and it will. Plus they've outsourced some of the production to other countries in Southeast Asia just like Taiwan and Hong Kong originally outsourced manufacturing to southern China. The Chinese get some things from us, too... cheap oil will be good for them, but they'll transition to Shipstone as soon as they can, and we know, historically, they don't respect copyright protections very well."
"How expensive will that be?"
"The transition process or piracy? I'll been looking into both problems."
"Transition. I've already accepted that, short of selling this to the military in a big way, our copyrights won't be worth very much, even inside the U.S-"
"We can still get some value for them," Judy cut in, "upfront and if we patent spin-off products. But the domestic market would soon be flooded with cheap knock-offs, flooding from overseas. Molecular Solutions could sell the patent to somebody in a better position to produce new products using Shipstone, but they won't pay very much... they would make more money off of volume sales, in the long run, if we can get this in products quickly and get them to market first." She looked around the room. "So, for a lot of reasons, only some them concerning MS seeing a decent return on investment, Shipstone should come to market as soon as possible. It looks like that shouldn't be problem, from what Jim has found out."
Jim nodded. "I was looking at what it has cost us to prototype production for the Shipstone which we need to conduct research, and the numbers are very encouraging. To date, a pound of this stuff is running just under thirty dollars, and that is only going to go down as the chemical reactors make more. The capital investment in materials and skill to increase production goes down a little over time as well, and while it's going to cost more to scale it up, the economies of scale will also knock that initial capital cost per pound, way down. We've produced nearly half a ton of this stuff to date, a little over $28,000 dollars, and for that kind of outlay, we could probably have a small factory rolling out that much every day, for an order of magnitude less per unit cost-"
"Mr. Dolan," I interrupted, "for the pirates, we're talking about garage-scale production, meth-lab production, and while it's probably that dangerous for any half-assed backyard chemist," Beatrice snorted," it can and will be done." I'd cooked up my own first batch on the sly, last night; three kilos.
"What about safety, again?" Dolan asked. "We had that fire in the lab..."
"That was a one-time event," Beatrice answered. "We understand charge and discharge rates better, and have proper safeties. The power surge sent 1700 amps through that wire and it burned up."
I whistled, having done the repair work. It burned up good. That was about fifty times what the wires had been rated for, no wonder the poor damn piece of my equipment had fried.
"Objectively, is Shipstone inherently dangerous?"
Slowly, Meiguo put his hand up. "Yes." Beatrice looked ready to tear into him, but he manned up and went on. "Efficiency varies a lot from production lot to production lot, we're still learning, and we've had a few samples that have, uh, melted. And one discharged so violently that it, well, it exploded, like a defective firecracker... There is plenty of potential as a safe, uncharged substance that becomes a variable explosive based on charge, as well as the power source for weapons and vehicles."
From the looks on several faces, this was not news to everyone. I felt just a little queasy, thinking about nearly seven pounds worth of material sitting in my basement. Somehow I knew my homeowners insurance wouldn't cover the damages, if I had a house fire tonight.
"So production is dangerous, cheap and easy; utility is high, but so are the risks of idiot-error." Dolan looked around at us. "So is gasoline, so is propane, and we use them in our cars and homes. What else do we know, what do we need to find out yet, and is there any coffee?"
There was, and we went on to have an all-night bull session.
Once a year, I take a personal day. I'm overly mysterious about it. Even so, folk tend to get the word and leave it be, but as I prepped Meiguo for a day by himself, after less than week of working with me, he was naturally curious. Of course, the Shipstone must roll, and Dolan came down, himself, to see me a half hour before closing.
"Do you think you could cancel tomorrow?"
"It's the anniversary of-"
"Oh, yeah." He looked away. "Sorry. I knew that, and I'd forgotten."
I stared after him and blurted out, "You knew that? How?"
Dolan shrugged. He didn't turn around. "You are working with my nephew on the most important thing in the world, but you're working with my nephew. Of course I know everything I can about you, and did a little more digging besides." Now he did turn back. "I'm sorry for your loss."
After he'd gone through the door, I saw Meiguo not-looking at me, looking anywhere else. "What?!" I snapped.
"You could tell me why you're dumping all this on me-"
"Its just one day!"
"That's cool," he said quickly and hurried back to work. I slammed a few drawers on my tool-box and began to regret my behavior. I don't want to be that kind of boss, and I don't want to be that kind of human being. I'd spent years being miserable...
"It's about my parents. They died in a three-car pile up when I was seventeen, a bunch of years ago. They were... old, and I was young and stupid, a little bit wild. They died on a Saturday night, out looking for me, and I didn't know about them for nearly a week. I almost missed their service. I have an older brother, much older. He never talks to me."
"I have an uncle who I fight with, but at least we shout at each other."
I smiled bitterly. "Yeah, the dysfunctional family is the best kind, except for all the rest-"
"Better than no family, Mr. Hobson. Even you know that, or why else would you have made your own?"
"What are you talking about, kid?"
"For a man who likes to pretend he wants to get away from everybody, you have found a way to be a part of a whole lot of lives. My Uncle talks about you and Tom a lot; I think most of what he knows of you is through Doctor Sparks. You act a little bit like an uncle with Beatrice, but she doesn't see it; in many ways I'm a lot older than she is, which is strange. From my mom, I always thought that women were smarter, understood more."
"I imagine that she was a special woman."
"She was, and no, I didn't appreciate that nearly as much as I did after she was dead. My Uncle was the same way, only more so. They were very different people, but he thought the world of her. I know there were at least three occasions where he helped out behind the scenes, because she wouldn't take his help; once financially, which she really hated, 'blood money' she called it. And when she was in prison and he got her out of there and out of China, period. And again when she wanted to go back."
"What happened then?"
"Killed, murdered for a little money, or maybe somebody inconvenienced by her arranged it, the death of a meddlesome foreigner." Meiguo shook his head. "I brought her home to her family, and then I stayed. Because my uncle couldn't ask me too, but I could that that was what he wanted."
"You've got good eyes, kid. Eyes that see inside of people." Damn if he didn't turn away. "What's the matter?"
Gruffly, focusing on his work, he said, "That's what my mother said."
I finished putting my tools away and put my coat on. "All yours, Meiguo; do me proud tomorrow."
I was a month shy of my eighteenth birthday when I lost my parents. My older brother had a wife and children and lived in another state, and I was... difficult. A loner I always will be, but I experimented with herd behavior at the end of high school, after I discovered that alcohol made me a different person- funnier, more social, happier. Well, at least at first. Alcohol also made me fight, and lost me what few real friends I had back then. The ones I partied with, they weren't my friends.
That time I disappeared on Thursday morning, and by Saturday night my parents were just about out of their minds, according to my neighbors and my brother. He came up from Virginia to help Mom and Dad, but he got here on Sunday morning, about seven hours after they had died. I- was missing for another four days, and finally showed up on Wednesday morning.
The house was full of people, getting things ready. The arrangements had already been made and things went smoothly, without me. My brother took one look at me and walked away. Alice Hart, our next-door neighbor, broke the news, and told me the viewing and cremation would be that night. I slept, I guess I might have cried, then I got up, put on the suit that had been set out for me, and then we bore up through the service.
The next day my brother told me I would be coming to live with him and his family.
That didn't last very long. I was legally an adult soon, and just left. I just went, passed on from one place to another, one job to another. And I haven't talked with my brother in years. We're both fine with that.
The accident took place at what was then a lonely intersection. There's a traffic light and a strip mall with a gas station off to one side now.
It was a four-way. They had stopped and then went on. But they had pulled out in front of a drunk who roared right past his stop sign, and he pushed them into an oncoming car. Neither the driver nor the passenger had a chance, crushed and spun between two cars, one traveling over fifty miles and hour. They died, each with in seconds of the other.
Like I had for the last seven years, since I finally got my shit together, I lay flowers at the base of the traffic-light pole nearest where the car had come to rest between the other two, pushed over into the northwest corner of the intersection. I had a few words, but I said them quietly, in my heart. Then I went back to my car and sat in it for a little while.
By and by, I came back to myself, and as I did, I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched. I groaned; this would not be the first time I'd been bothered on this little pilgrimage by curious bystanders. But when I looked around, there was no one obviously interested in me. I started my car, backed out of my parking space, and drove out of the parking lot of the strip mall.
That feeling didn't go away. There was a little green sedan, a Hyundai, which I could have sworn that I'd seen it at least twice before, the first time when I'd stopped for coffee at five AM, at the start of my drive. The second time had been when I stopped to get gas.
Paranoia is insidious, but even paranoids have enemies, y'know? I started to get more and more nervous, until I looked up to see the Hyundai turn off. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then I had a thought; what if I was right? Maybe... I slowed down and a car passed me as I dithered, and then I pulled over on the shoulder of the two-lane highway, waited for traffic to pass in both directions, and made an illegal U-turn.
I went back up the road, turned left following my little green sedan, and went down the road a couple hundred yards. Around a bend in the road, in the middle of nowhere with just fields one side of the road and forest on the other, was my friend, pulled over. There was enough room on some grass, where some farmer would have parked his combine, or some hay-wagons, that another sedan, dark blue was parked, driver to driver the same way cops will pull up by each other, windows down. A woman in the green sedan was talking to a man in the dark blue one. They looked up and saw me.
I went on past, glancing at them but not staring. I didn't want to try to ignore them; two cars parked that way is inherently interesting, right? I was sweating, and drove around randomly for twenty minutes. I managed to get myself thoroughly lost. I didn't know the area anymore.
I drove through another little cluster of business by the road, another strip mall and a couple of gas-stations just down the road from a housing development and an RV dealership. There was a burger joint of the franchise I liked best, and I was lost and hungry, so I pulled in. I got my directions, a soda and a sack of burgers, and was headed back to my car when I saw the man in the blue sedan drive by. He was slowing down and turned in at the other end of the strip mall, pulling around to a pump at the gas station down there. The guy seemed to ignore me. He got out his cell phone and walked inside, to pay for his gas, apparently.
I sat in my car, ate a burger, and watched him get his gas, then drive off. I was not fooled. I sat for a while, and sure enough, the green Hyundai drove past the other way, the route I would surely have taken after getting directions. The opposite direction from the blue car, earlier.
I went that way, and there was the blue car, pulled over on the side of the road, hood up, the man fussing with the dipstick. He nodded as I went past, and the last I saw of him, he was pouring a little oil.
I sure hoped he didn't ruin his engine, play-acting. Reflecting on that thought, I hoped that he would.
I was in a spot. I wanted to know what they wanted with me, and I also really didn't want anything to do with them. I didn't have a clue as to how to go about either; they seemed to be doing a good job of keeping me in their sights. What to do? I didn't know, but I wasn't crazy, and these people were just following me, at this point. I decided maliciously, that if they wanted to follow me around, I'd take the long way home...
I drove west, into the mountains and the heart of the state, then turned south again, not at all sure I could find roads that would take me where I wanted to go, and not caring very much. I trended southwest on back roads, getting higher and a little farther from home, over all. I hadn't seen any other traffic for half an hour and was driving with the sun in my face, when a sports car, in canary yellow with black markings, like a hornet, came up behind me, doing eighty or ninety to my forty. I cringed, as the roads were crooked and not very good, and there were places with steep drop-offs into mountain streams. But he slowed down as he came up on me, a white male, middle aged with dirty blond hair, talking on the phone. He pulled off after another quarter mile, in one of those look-out spots for sightseers.
A minute later, as I was passing through a nature reserve, more concerned with finding an easterly road, he was back again. The yellow sports car was doing fifty or sixty, and then he accelerated, until he was gaining on me like I was standing still.
I panicked, I guess. I put the pedal all the way down, and prayed that I was half the driver my uncle had been. He'd been a part-time racer when I was a little boy, until he'd rolled his pride and joy off a dirt-track and burned. I braked into the first turn and then gave it all the gas I could.
He was gaining all the while, but at least for the next three turns, braking was my friend, I don't know why. But we came up to a straight run and my heart sank. By the next turn he was ten feet behind me, and I didn't brake nearly as much as he did. I could see him smiling in my rear view mirror... but I made it, drifting a little, and flew down the road, almost headlong into a green, oncoming car. There was just a moment of recognition, the woman grinning and shouting something, and then I was trying to get out of her way and stay into control of my car.
The driver of the green car twisted her steering wheel hard and drove her car across the road into my lane behind me and halfway onto the shoulder. The yellow sports car had braked enough so that he had stayed completely in control of his car, confident of catching me. But the oncoming green car gave him nowhere to go. He steered wildly around her, but the green car turned back towards her lane just as they came together. The sports car went out of control, flying across the road, up the hill and rolling three or four times. The green car spun around and slammed trunk-first into a tree.
I hit the brakes and pulled over. I must have sat there for a full minute, watching the twisted, upside down sports car, but the man didn't move. I shuddered, but I turned back around, driving past the car slowly. From where I was, it seemed to me like his neck was at an unnatural angle, and I decided that that was the best that I was going to do for him. The driver of the green car, however...
She had stumbled from her car, something in her hand, muttering as I drove back to her. She'd been watching me at the yellow car, and had started to come around the corner of her wreck, but had relaxed as I drove past the sports car. She put the Glock behind her, but I had seen it. I debated driving on, but I stopped and asked, "Need a lift?"
The blue car from before came squealed around the curve just then and the woman said, "No, I'm fine."
Special Agents
Special Agent Jake Green, of the FBI, had been very concerned for his partner. He cuffed me and put me in the back of his blue sedan before calling the local law enforcement or doing first aid of her, though. I could tell because he was short with me, just a 'protective custody' and two sentences for the the county dispatch. "Traffic accident at," he rattled off a location. I hadn't really know which rad I was really on," need an ambulance. Federal Agents requesting assistance."
I should have drove on. 'Coulda, woulda, shoulda.'
"Don't mind Jake; he's a good agent."
"And you are?" I asked the woman. The passenger side door was open and the first aid box was sitting on the seat. She winced as she wiped at a cut.
"Gabrielle Trudeau. Call me Gabby; Jake says I talk too much-"
"Which you do," the big man muttered. "It's unprofessional. He's dead."
Jake took her and turned her around, a little more hands on that I'd have expected, looking at her pupils and then examining her cuts and scrapes. "You'll live."
Gabby must have seen that on my face.
"Priorities. You're somebody we were supposed to keep alive."
"Not that I'm complaining, but why?"
"Come on, Mr. Hobson, that's not at all hard to work out, I would think. A man with access to a big secret wanders off alone, maybe to meet with somebody? We had to watch you."
"Watch me, not be my bodyguard. Why is somebody trying to kill me?"
"Gabby," Agent Green barked, and she gave him a sweet smile.
"Jake thinks you don't need to know." She turned back to me and frowned. "I think that forewarned is forearmed, don't you?"
I nodded, mouth dry.
"Who stands to loose big with this new material? Yeah, all of them. A regular rogues gallery..."
"Spinning conspiracy stories and feeding my paranoia-"
"I thought you might be," Jake interrupted. "Paranoid. If you hadn't been so jumpy, maybe we'd have followed you home by now."
"It has been a long day, and it's not over yet."
The local LEOs arrived about then, and we started in on that. Agent Trudeau at first refused treatment and I caught Jake smiling at that, but she relented and the checked her for a concussion. The county sheriff's deputy called for the coroner, we all gave statements, and then we were free to go, in a manner of speaking. I drove up front in the blue sedan, with Gabby and without the cuffs. Agent Green drove my car, and we all headed back home.
On a personal note, I kind of liked being rescued by Special Agent Gabby. We talked about the Shipstone, spun some real-life conspiracy theories, and talked about people in general. I relaxed and nodded a couple of times, almost falling asleep.
I was not at all prepared for it, when we drove up on my house ablaze. I remember thinking, in shock, how it lit up the night sky quite nicely.

7,508 + 504 = 18,012

Thursday, November 17, 2011

First 6700 words of My NaNoWriMo 2011 (with 1100 words from last month)

The Man Who Would Build Spaceships
By Vincent L. Cleaver
To make a really useful rocket engine you need a robust design, one that uses an easily handled reaction mass, like water. But water is already happy being water, unlike hydrogen peroxide, a monopropellant which breaks up into water and oxygen and a lot of energy. We need to add energy to water, we need to really piss it off!
If the universe was kind, we could get that energy from a dead-simple fusion reactor, based on Farnsworth's Fusor, his electrostatic fusion reactor. But no joy; while the reactor works just fine, fusing protons into mightily pissed-off helium nuclei, it will never break even in our universe. But if it did, oh frabjous joy but it would provide a handy supply of high-energy electrons with which to blast water molecules into plasma, and make a light-weight, or low-mass, fusion rocket engine!
Instead, what we found was a way to pump a lot of energy into a small space, and let it out quickly. A pretty good trick, and one of its' spin-offs is a cheap, self-assembling solar cell that we can make into roofing shingles, but the real money is in electric cars and trucks, UAVs with unconventional warheads, a new breed of jetliners which run on DC and water, and are VTOL or STOL.
Which is good and all, but all I've ever wanted was to build spaceships. You might even say that I'm 'the man who would build rocket ships', single stage jobs to infinity, the way that God and Robert Anson Heinlein intended. I finally got to do that, but I'm getting way ahead of myself here.
I've got nothing against scientists and engineers, I'm just not one of 'them', that breed of computer-simulators who never bend tin, never actually build anything. Not that you a shouldn't always be learning. I know shade-tree mechanics so set in their ways- well, never mind. I build stuff for people who are way smarter than me, and have a lot less common sense.
I'm not sure who said it first, but I credit Mark Twain with "truth is stranger than fiction, for fiction has to at least be believable!" He was a writer and understand that. But things pop out of the dark back alleys of the universe, or the back doors of laboratories and factories, and the doped polymer was one of them. We took to calling it 'Shipstone', after the power storage medium that Heinlein came up with in 'Friday'.
But, again, I'm getting ahead of myself.
There was a day in fall, early October, a Tuesday chilly and sunny, crisp with the promise of a warmer afternoon, by and by. I was hard at work in the shop, but we had the receiving door rolled up, and the cool air was welcome in between welding and fabricating stuff for the labs upstairs. Molecular Solutions was a small company, a spin-off that was also part start-up, in that half of the people came from- well, there was an NDA, and I never liked the old management, but let it go. The other half were kids, damn lucky to have jobs in this economy, and me. I was the guy who got to build chemical reactors for our geniuses, and help ramp up small production versions for the two or three things that got into prototype, where we needed tens or hundreds of kilograms of product, but not tonnes.
The first I heard of it was a conversation between our two resident smokers, a kid who should have been smart enough to never pick up the habit, and an oldster who probably never would kick the habit. Beatrice Leguin and Tom Sparks, an organic Chemist who started out with Dupont (somebody once joked that we could have called it Spark, but Sparks was one of the ones who first suggested 'Shipstone'. A modest old gentleman.) where smoking outside and I... I've always been a people-watcher.
"You run the series on that third compound again?"
"Yep." I could almost hear Beatrice's smile, and I stopped what I was doing to wipe my face.
"And?" There was a rather pregnant pause, and then, "You wouldn't keep an old man in the dark, would you?"
"Well, it does seem to be everything we'd hoped for, after we almost burned the place down..."
We'd had a small fire in a lab on the second floor and I'd had to give up my weekend, getting it set to rights. Thinking back, it had been a little suspicious, very intense, almost like thermite or something. They fell to talking shop, and I could only follow a little bit. But I heard bits and pieces that made sense, including 'two or three orders of magnitude faster than state of the art lithium cells, with room for even better performance...'
I sat up then looked out the dock, to where they were finishing their smoke break. Old Man Sparks saw me, frowned, and I knew that I should keep this to myself. But that night, that was when I started to have the old flying dreams again....
The Challenger disaster happened over a quarter of a century ago, when I was a kid. That shook me, even then I was a space cadet, but things limped along, going round and round in low Earth orbit, until Columbia. I was a college dropout by then, already angry at Big Science and Big Space, but that night I dreamed I was falling, tumbling, burning to death... it seemed my dreams of space were dead, and I drifted from odd job to job until economy tanked and the last shuttle came down. But every so often, I dreamed that I was floating, looking out a window down on the big blue planet that I was falling, falling around. And I knew peace. I knew what I was going to do with my life, someday. Even if it made no sense, I believed.
I woke up in the middle of that night and drew the first version of my plasma rocket engine. It wasn't anything like what I finally built, but the ideas were all there; how do I inject water, how do I hit it with the energy and get it moving more or less in the right direction? Just like with chemical rockets, we needed to cool the walls of the rocket, or it would melt, but with water, lots of water. I eventually turned the engine inside out, and used magnetic fields, but by then I had a lot of help with the heavy lifting, you might say.
The Whole Elephant
Thomas Sparks is the kind of man who would help you dispose of the body, as an academic exercise... and because he was your friend, all the time urging you to turn yourself in. A good and complicated soul, other directed like Mother Abigail in Stephen King's The Stand. But not by God, or at least not the Old Testament God of Contracts, nor the New Testament's bloody lamb. Reason, sweet reason, was married to intuition. He liked to say, "an none be harmed, do as thou wilt."
I've known many smart people, and he was one of the few who was smart enough that he could see, feel, intuit, the whole picture.
He knew what we had, the whole elephant, and he was scared. I can see that, now. That old man knew that the Shipstone was trouble and power, and salvation, all in one package, where I saw the power-source for a spaceship, Beatrice saw fame and glory, and others saw great big stacks of money.
He started putting his fall-back plan into effect right away, and part of it was keeping everyone else busy with their own piece of the elephant. With Bea, he got her looking at Einstein's original Noble Prize work, photo-electrics, putting her on what he thought was a wild goose chase, because they had hoped the polymer would have been a cheap solar cell candidate, for roof shingles... others he had looking at business models on the sly, or pursuing their specialty into a bit of tail-chasing, like with Bea. The two resident hippies were looking into open source manufacture; I know because they weren't very subtle in picking my brains. Me, of course, he encouraged with my hobby, finding people to help me with the plasma problem, flight software, a carbon dioxide and monoxide trap for the LSS, and electrolysis, of water and of CO2 and CO.
I just thought he was taking an interest, and he was, but for all our sakes.
(show, don't tell!)
I was doing maintenance on the new series of chemical reactors, which were in a sorry state already. They predictably had been rode hard and put away wet, turning out the new substance for everybody to work with. It was run by lab-monkeys, technicians, not the high and mighty researchers, but folks came tramping through on a regular basis, anxious for the machine to be back up an running. I finally got tired of it and pointedly started putting away tools, at which point Sparks laughed and herded two obliviously scientists out, along with Bea-
"Beatrice, dear, did you look at Einstein's Nobel paper, that first one?" She had and was off at 70 miles and hour. But Tom was back a minute later, and I gave him a look.
"No, I'm not going to hover, Lukey-boy. I just wanted to ask you, how's the hobby coming along?"
With anybody else, I was just a little guarded. Tom had never ridiculed my hopeless quest; quite the opposite. He had helped to design, and test, the CO2/CO trap and electrolysis contraption. Spent an hour in my cramped old pressure vessel, rebreathing our air right along with me, watching O2, CO2  and CO levels while I ran a battery of simple operations- tool-using, blogging, programming and systems checks.
"The new pressure vessel isn't much improvement over a motel room, but now at least I've got an RV's worth of room- thanks for putting me onto that milk truck!"
"Stainless steel, in good shape. I hope you got a good deal on the price?" He was smiling.
"Yeah, a surprisingly good one. About that-"
"I'm sure the original owners just didn't want it scrapped," Tom said, and changed the subject, just barely. "Pressure check?"
"It held three atmospheres, so I pretty sure just over one, at launch, and just a little under one, up there, wouldn't be much problem... you know, I've been thinking about-" I nodded at the machinery for producing 'the third compound', 2011S8-17.
The old man nodded. "Luke, do you know, I do believe we've discovered the functional equivalent of a Rorschach Test?"
"I look at this and I see..." He shook his head, and I never did find out what the old man saw- Everything? The universal snowflake Mr. White saw in Planetary? "You look at this and see a rocket engine, with extremely high specific impulse if we can keep it from flying apart-"
"Or melting."
"-or melting, something which you can feed water, or maybe even rock, and get a jet of reaction mass pushing you away... 'Away from the things of man.'"
"Joe Versus the Volcano? How'd you know that was my favorite movie?"
Tom smiled. "A good guesser, me." He sobered. "You do know that you can never get away from the world? The things of man, and woman?"
"Watch me try."
"I expect I will, someday. Someday quite soon." He looked thoughtful, and added, "I’ll see what I can do to help you out, with the other thing…"
"You know some rocket scientists?" I said, and it was my turn to grin, but he did answer. When I looked around, he was gone.
Smart Money
This is a time when the money men are hated; with good  reason, but it's demoralizing, if you happen to be one. Michael Dolan is the president of Molecular Solutions, and while he represents a lot of venture capital, he's also into MS for a lot of his own money. That wasn't always the way of it. He lost a lot of money a few years back, like a lot of other players caught holding a lot of bad debt.
I think that the fact that he wasn't 'smart money' after all, was a bitter pill for him.
The big boss learned about 'the third compound', 2011S8-17, a few days after I did. I guess people were excited about it, but didn't want to raise false hopes. He came around, made an unannounced tour, talked with the scientists, techs, and the rest of us lab-monkeys. He had the strangest look on his mug, like a dog I had when I was a kid, right after I'd shared some of my sandwich. Dolan noticed me looking at him, and came over. "So what do you think about all of this, Mr. Hobson?"
I was pretty surprise that he knew my name, but didn't let it show, I hoped. Instead, I shrugged. "Looks like I'm going to be very busy?"
"Come on, Lucas, you know what I mean."
Now I did show how surprised I was. I didn't realize we on a first name basis, and I'm not the brightest light bulb. "Well, Michael-" my boss smiled, showing all of his perfect teeth like a shark; but it wasn't a camouflaged threat display, his eyes were twinkling, "I guess this is what we call a game-changer. It makes electric cars a good idea; we we can recharge a block of this stuff faster than we can fill a gas-tank. It's potentially dangerous, because it has a higher energy density than gasoline or TNT. As fast as this stuff discharges, if makes laser weapons feasible. It's a good bet we could build one into every new home and leave them off the grid, recharging by service truck as needed, or leveling point-of-use production, from sun or wind power." I paused. "There are, of course, other possibilities nobody has thought of, yet."
Dolan smiled at me. "And rockets?"
I nodded. "And rockets."
Dolan sighed. "Too bad this isn't just like that stuff Heinlein came up with. But a meth-lab could cook this up with a bit of retooling..."
"I hadn't thought about that," I lied. I was already looking into a little private production.
Dolan seemed to be talking out loud to himself. "This is what they call a 'killer app' in the software biz... it's exactly what we need in this country, except anybody could make this, anywhere, and everybody will. Oh, we'll copyright it, and then China will pirate it, and other places with just a little industrial capacity, which means even the third world will soon be producing this openly. We might see a penny on the dollar of what this is really worth. Maybe."
"So what are you going to do?"
Dolan looked at me like I was crazy and said, seriously, "I don't know. Certain people in Washington and elsewhere will want this kept quiet, you know." That hadn't occurred to me; stupid! "Considering that that's the only way this nets us a profit on R&D, and considering just how disruptive this technology is..." That had occurred to me. People were going to die, as this shook out. Not just a handful, but thousands, maybe millions.
"Mr. Hobson, you know what? If this is what success looks like, I'll take failure... I don't really mean that." He absently rubbed at a scar on his right hand, looked at it. "Y'know, I did something really stupid once. I rode a bronco, a wild horse, on a bet. It's cruel, but they still break horses, wild ones that have never been ridden. The old hands took pity on me and told me the secret, such as it is, which is to hold on tight and break the horse, or it will break you..."
"Did you?"
"Oh yes." He held up the hand with the scar. "Bitch bit me, afterwards. Meanest horse you ever saw, but I used to ride her every day, until... well." Dolan had lost nearly everything but this place, I remembered. He walked away without saying goodbye, but I called after him.
"Saddle up, Mr. Dolan!" He chuckled and waved over his shoulder without looking back.
Break In
This business with 2011S8-17, the shipstone, was good for a lot of overtime and it was seriously cutting into my hobby, which was seriously cutting into my sleep... I was working late, really late, cold pizza for my supper, alone after midnight. The building noises were getting to me. At 1 A.M., even the researchers had called it a night, or fallen asleep at their desks... that had happened with Beatrice Leguin more than once in the three months since she'd joined MS.
She's one of those 'kids' who were lucky to have landed a gig like this, in this economy, and don't think we didn't let her know it. She didn't see it that way, or just resented hearing about it from a bunch of 'old hands', maybe. If she had twigged to the fact that she was lucky to be doing world-changing work, I wasn't aware of that, either. Maybe she thought this sort of thing happened every day.
I had just got done cleaning up a weld and was thinking about sleep when I felt the quiet dragging on me, and then I felt like maybe somebody was watching me. I looked around. The loading and receiving bay door was rolled up, shoulder-high, for a little airflow. Security had been around to bitch about that, and I thought that I remembered rolling it down... I walked over, thoughtful. There was a clatter, back in the warehouse, which, given the layout, was all pretty much an extension of my assembly area. When I needed more room, I generally evicted something that the warehouse guys had parked in my space, and if I need a lot more room, I went to war! But the piece-work I was doing wasn't taking up much more space than usual, and warehousing had actually parked a lot of my sh- I mean, my materials, on my side of the chain fence that, in theory, separated our areas.
I looked in the darkness back there, the rows of shelves and said, "Hello?" I felt stupid for saying it, but there you go. I grabbed a head-band with some LED lights, for when I was inside of a dark piece of equipment, and wishing that I had a big old heavy flashlight instead, and so I picked up a nice heavy wrench. Then I went on back.
Alright, so it was a little scary, but I didn't think I had much to worry about, until I did start to think, you see. And then I wondered what this might have to do with the shipstone. I can spin conspiracy theories with the best of them, but even I wasn't thinking corporate or state espionage, until today. At this point, we had a working theory, a whole lot of wild ideas, and a production bottleneck-and I was the guy with the most experience, the most hands-on grasp of that particular piece of the puzzle...
I heard the sound of a footstep right behind me. I spun around and a figure was sprinting away from me. I was so relieved at that, that somebody wasn't just about to abduct me, that it took me a second to start after them.
So I chased after whoever it was, head-band light not showing me much. Skinny, lean, young and a runner or a jogger, I guess. I'm not any of those things, and I wheezed up to the door from the warehouse to the office seconds after it slammed, and the damned thing was locked. I went around the long way and almost ran into- Beatrice Leguin. She came up short, surprised as I was apparently. I went around her as quickly as I could, but saw nothing. Damn.
"What's going on?" Bea wanted to know.
"I- I saw some- err, heard something, I guess." I looked at her. "Did somebody just run out into the hallway, here?"
The hallway in question was wide, with the stairs up to the second floor, and doors to the front offices, the cafeteria, the more public part of the building. It was an open layout, hard to hide anything from someone on the stairs.
"I just came down here from my lab, to get some coffee, and I heard shouting. I didn't see anything..."
I didn't really believe her, but I didn't want to call her a liar, either.
"What are you going to do?" She asked.
"I'm going to call it a night," I said, as casually as I could. She was looking down, not meeting my eyes. "See you around."
I went back, shut things down, and turned the lights off. The bay door I put all the way down, and then I went on through to the main hallway. I'd taken my time, but as expected, Bea was still in the cafeteria, where she was sitting and watching the TV, and she waved goodbye to me.
So I went out to my car, walking guiltily past the security guard, sat in my pickup for a couple of songs on my CD-player, and then went back in. I told Betty I'd forgotten something; she's the only night-guards woman I've ever met. Beatrice was no longer in the cafeteria, though the TV was still on, and I turned it off. She wasn't in her lab, either, so I came back down, getting more and more puzzled.
There are cameras all over the place, so if someone was in here that wasn't supposed to be, well it stood to reason Betty would know. For that matter, there was my run-in earlier, which I hadn't mentioned. I went back to my shop, quietly as I could, and was rewarded with lights and two people talking, or arguing. I slipped in without being noticed; they weren't being very subtle or covert, now.
"Look, I've got what I need, and you're going to get caught. Let's just disappear-"
"Are you kidding me? This is the biggest thing I'm ever going to do!" It was Bea, and maybe she did know how lucky she was. But she had a strange way of showing her gratitude...
"Luke, is everything okay?" Betty had come into the shop, and I cringed. Beatrice and the man she was talking to saw us both near the door, me crouched down and just now standing up, she reaching for her radio, the nice one clipped to her shoulder to a regular cop. The young man rushed her, either panicked or stupid-brave. Or maybe not. Betty had a stun-gun, not a firearm.
I tried to tackle him instead, not wanting Betty to be interrupted making her call. I'll admit I was just a little bit angry. Whatever was going on, this man had invaded my space, and, truthfully, he had scared me just a bit, earlier. I wanted to get a little of my own back. He handed me my ass, instead, so on the balance it was a good call; he probably could have taken Betty, no offense to her... as I came at him, he spun, took a hold of my reaching right arm and swept it on around, pulling me along with it, easily placing me between himself and Betty. Which just meant that she tasered us both at the same time; thanks, Betty!
Taser Hangover
I woke up hard, hearing voices talking about me. I didn't know what had happened or where I was at first, but the voices mentioned me by name.
"I was aiming for the intruder, but I shot Luke instead..." that was Betty, and she sounded upset, or maybe just annoyed. I was going to give her a lot of shit for tasering me, I decided.
"We all understand that, Ms. Yoder-"
"Mrs. Yoder, please!"
"Elizabeth," another voice admonished. I recognized Dr. Sparks and then placed the earlier voice as Mr. Dolan. How long had I been out?
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Yoder. I forgot, and I truly didn't mean anything by it."
Betty was a little bit touchy about her marriage. Jake is a little guy, and he took her last name when they married; something about his family, and we didn't talk about it. So Betty went from Ms. Yoder to Mrs. Yoder, and a half-wit had joked that she'd married herself. She should have tasered that joker, instead of me.
I groaned and suddenly they were paying attention to me instead. I sat up, worse for wear, wondering where the police and or paramedics were. I didn't see either, so I looked at the boss.
"What are we going to do, Mr. Dolan?"
Dr. Sparks nodded ever so slightly, and he and Dolan exchanged a look. Dolan shrugged.
"We could report this, but it involves a key researcher, and it would make things incredibly complicated. Our security is about to be reviewed by a number of paranoid entities; it's about to be beefed up in unpleasant ways as it is. I've already spoken with Ms. Leguin about all the ways this could be so very much worse, for herself and for her boy-friend and co-conspirator-"
"She's still going to be working here, I get that. It blows my mind, but I... I like that outcome-"
"I couldn't agree more, Mr. Hobson, in thought or in turn of phrase." He was smiling, and waited for the other shoe to drop.
"What about the boyfriend?"
"What about him? Would you like to meet him? He's a good kid, with some crazy ideas."
"I'm missing something important... who is he?"
Dolan didn't answer me for a long time. "He's trouble. His mother gave him a Chinese name, because she was trouble too... Meiguo, Mike, Wick, my nephew and my little sister's oldest boy."
"Sir, I can understand not wanting to send him to prison, or let this mess go public, but what are you going to do with him?"
"I gave him a job working for you, Mr. Hobson... don't you need an assistant?"
I tried out a couple of responses to that in my head, then shut my mouth without saying anything. Dr. Sharp put his hand on my shoulder and said to the big boss, "What my friend Luke was trying to say just now was 'Yes sir, Mr. Dolan!' He has also, silently, conveyed to me an urgent need to go have a late-night meal and maybe get a little sleep before the sun comes up. I think he might be just little late tomorrow, won't you, Lukey-boy?"
I nodded and followed Dr. Sparks out to his car.
Things Said In A Diner @ 3 AM
Dr. Sparks had orange juice and tuna fish on toast, watching disapprovingly as I started in on my steak and eggs. "I can't see how you can eat like that, Luke. Don't you- oh my God, how much ketchup are you going to put on that steak?"
I shrugged and poured a little more, over the eggs, too, and dug in. I saw Tom waving and turned as Beatrice and her boyfriend walked up. Me and the Doc had a corner booth in the back, and he slid around so they could sit facing me on the left side of the table. I was holding my steak knife a little too hard and set it down. With my left, I shoveled a forkful into my mouth, smiled and concentrated on eating, not talking. I could listen just fine, if that's what I was here to do.
Beatrice elbowed Mike, or Meiguo, whichever, and he looked just a little sheepish.
"Do I have to?"
"I do; you do what you want." Bea said angrily out of the corner of her mouth. "I'm sorry we got you mixed up in this mess, Mr. Hobson."
I shrugged and kept on eating. I had more than half a plate left and sleep seemed like a winner.
"I'm sorry I got you tasered," the kid said, finally.
I paused and stated, "It hurt."
"Yeah, it did. You okay?"
I shrugged again, added, "Why?" and went back to my steak and eggs. Meiguo looked rather longingly at the plate and turned to wave at a waitress, but Bea rapped the back of his head. I'd never seen anybody get a 'Gibbs' slap in real life, and smiled for the first time since I'd gotten tasered. This mess was finally starting to look up a little bit.
"Hey!" Meiguo protested, but took it in stride, sighed and rapped his knuckles on the table. "I am truly sorry, and I'll try to make it up to you, Mr. Hobson." I shrugged again. "I... heard about this new development from Beatrice and, well, I thought that maybe it needed to..."
"Be free? Open source it? I don't think that your uncle appreciated that." I finished up my food and wiped my mouth with a napkin. I sat back and studied the two of them.
"So, what's your story? A) How'd you meet and decide to B) steal from your uncle and her employer," I asked ticking off points on my fingers. "Oh, and C) What do you want out of all of this?"
Meiguo blinked. Beatrice actually blushed. I glanced at Sparks, who was smiling. This was going to be good, I thought.
"We met at the Labor Day picnic Uncle Mike had at his place. Beatrice was a new hire and my Uncle asked me to introduce her around, since I was about her age. We, uh, didn't exactly hit I off."
"Really? Well, it seems like something clicked, because two months later you both are-"
"Hey, keep harping on that. I helped discover this thing!" Bea said heatedly. Tom made shushing noises as the other patrons, both of them, looked our way. Our waitress came hurrying over and the other two ordered, Bea fuming all the while, until she went away again.
"I'm angry, I guess, because not only did you have a little help making that discovery, you stole from me, and you stole from the Doc here, too-"
"What are you talking about, profit-sharing?!"
"Hey don't knock it, little girl. Some of us are planning to retire someday." I pointed at Tom. "Well, maybe he won't, he'll die in the harness, but me, and I’ve finally got a good job with a company that just recently made a big discovery. We kinda hit the Powerball, kids!"
"What about saving the world?"
"If that's your hobby, cool. I won't be any less proud to save the world for fun and profit, and I'm pretty damn sure that you two," I pointed at Bea and Tom, "wouldn't mind a few more lab-toys to play with, a few big papers to write, maybe Nobel?"
Tom nodded and put his empty glass of ice tea down. "Speaking of the lab, I'm going to need to be there in the morning, or later on in the morning." He yawned. "I'm going to see if I can get back to sleep for a couple of hours. Goodnight and good morning!"
I stood up to let him out. "What he said, only I'm sleeping in, seeing as how the big boss owes me for something his stupid nephew and his girlfriend did tonight. I'll see all you folks at work, later today."
I got a couple hours sleep, but I was up at 7 AM anyway. I just woke up, and lay there in bed, thinking about calling out sick, and about everything which had happened in the last six hours. and then I got ready for work.
Work. In case you've never noticed, it's all about the four-letter words. Hope, Love, Hate, Work, Duty... a whole lotta what makes life interesting and worthwhile. Yes, even hate, even work. I've heard the saying 'work to live, not live to work', but lucky people, who love what they do, they don't really work at all. Work is what you do. For the last few decades all you get on TV is how over-rated work is, having something worthwhile to do, and do well. Sure, you play, too. But it used to be taken for granted that you worked hard, and then you played hard.
Of course, if things fell together right, I might just get to 'play' pretty damn hard, maybe take an extended vacation away from it all. I was really going to have to try to keep that to more to myself, as it started to look like my 'hobby' might just get off the ground.
I must admit, I was really surprised, when I showed up on time, that the kid was waiting in the shop for me. Meiguo? What kind of name was that?
"Good morning, kid. Meiguo- what's up with that, anyway?"
"It's my name- the one my mother gave me, so it's good enough for me." Meiguo met my eyes, chin up, daring me to press him on it, but I guess I disappointed him when I shrugged.
"Just curious. You uncle seemed to think you can work for me, and he doesn't strike me- well, he's smart enough not to waste my time, or MS' money. What kind of experience are we talking about?"
"I've done this sort of thing; fabrication, installation. Factory work, but for medical equipment, cabinets, sinks and plumbing, too."
That got my attention, and he could see the wheels turning, spinning, in my head. I repeated, "China?"
"It's a place, over the ocean; the East is west of here, don't you know. And no, I'm not spying for the PRC. I'm an American Citizen, born here, but I grew up here and there. Mostly the US and China, but points in between; Japan, Australia, Chile..."
"Mei-guo... guo is 'country', in Chinese, isn't it?"
"Very good. China calls itself the Middle Kingdom, (*)guo, and it thinks it is the center of the world, the universe, just like America. Mandarin-speakers transliterated America into Mei, which sounds like Mei, 'Beautiful', so that America is Meiguo, the 'beautiful country'."
"Beautiful? America? Your Mom is strange-"
"Was. She was an idealist and she loved the idea of America a lot more than she loved the reality of it."
Weird. He looked so bitter and sad, and yet he smiled as he said that. I shook myself. I've got entirely too much drama going on in my life. Time to light out for the Territories...
"Well, let's see what we can get into today," I said, and we proceeded to do so.
I was pleasantly surprised. The welding, the machining, all that were things that I didn't expect a venture capitalists' nephew. The electronics maybe not so much. I had figured him, what with his hook-up with Beatrice and his B&E last night (this morning, rather), for some sort of hacker or cracker. A son of the digital age, a rebel without a clue but a whole lot of bandwidth.
We had a productive morning, getting another piece of equipment ready to deliver upstairs, to Beatrice, as a matter of fact. We went up in the freight elevator, but before the doors closed, we had a hitch-hiker. A hand poked in between the closing doors and they opened back up on Michael Dolan. He hopped in.
"Hey, I was just coming to check up on you two..." He turned from Meiguo's stony face to my ugly mug. "How about it, Luke? Do I have to fire him?"
Meiguo smiled at that.
"Don't do it, Mr. Dolan. I'm putting him on something when we go back down, see how he does at his own pace. Some welding while I reshuffle my schedule. And so far, no attempts at suborning the oppressed worker, or any crap about 'information wants to be free!'"
I have one of those fake motivational posters on my wall- 'My information wants to pay my mortgage.'
Meiguo looked unruffled at our attempts for rile him up. We came to the third floor and he hopped off, ready to pull the dolly out into the hallway. I helped him, but Dolan put a hand on my shoulder and held me back a bit, speaking quietly.
"No problems?"
"No, and a decent attitude. Although maybe since I mentioned this was for Bea, he was motivated to do a good job."
"Anything worth doing, Mr. Hobson," Meiguo said from down the hallway, "is worth doing well."
"And it was for Beatrice."
"That too."
Dolan followed me down the hall looking thoughtful; hopeful.
Lab Brat
Beatrice Leguin is a bright, smart young woman- hell, she's more of a bratty kid than a woman, but she's that, too. She had no qualms about properly greeting her boyfriend in front of adult authority figures. Dolan scowled as she kissed Meiguo, muttering, "and to think I was hoping she'd be a settling influence on him." Meiguo colored just little, which I could tell Bea liked. She gets these evil little grins... brat, remember. Scary smart, adorkable brat.
Okay, so I like her. She still pissed me off.
There were a few cat-calls and a wolf-whistle, but folks cleared out as the big boss glanced around.
"Enjoying yourself, Ms. Leguin?" Dolan said coldly. I winced. Man should have known better, but this hadn't been a very good day for him, had it?
"I am."
Dolan sighed and decided to cut his losses. We did need Beatrice more than she realized that she needed us... didn't we? He nodded at me and strode away, not retreating, but making another unannounced tour, elsewhere.
"Do you really need to make it worse?" Meiguo said to her, which was what I'd meant to ask before he beat me to it.
"Hey last night you were the one who talked me into this mess. If I'm going to suffer the consequences, I might as well enjoy myself..."
"It was his idea, not yours?" I cut in. Bea glared at me; for being a judgmental ass, I suppose.
"Oh no, I didn't get talked into anything I didn't want to do, anyway. Just disappointed that my hero rolled over and showed his belly to The Man-"
Meiguo stepped away from Bea, face completely blank. "We have some equipment for you, ma'am."
She looked like she'd bitten into something nasty, but after a moment she put a hand out, seeking his. "I'm sorry.."
"So am I." He took her hand and they twined fingers. I felt a little ashamed to be looking onto something private and turned away, but I heard the rest of it. "I didn't do this to score points off of my Uncle, or have an adventure. I did it because I thought it was the right thing, and maybe I was wrong. I'm not so sure of myself this morning. My Uncle... matters to me. What he wants matters to me, and I'm going to do this thing, okay?"
We did the install in record time.
On the way back down, I stopped the elevator... yeah, I'd always wanted to do that. Meiguo frowned.
"Why are we stopping? I have a question for you. You've got a lot of people pushing and pulling on you, and maybe I'm one of them. But you work for me now, so I do want your head on straight, which it is, I think... but your Uncle and your girlfriend are going to keep this up until either you sort it out with them, or they bust you up, up here," and I touched my forehead with a callused fingertip, "or in here," pointing at my heart. "You want some help?"
Meiguo nodded.
"I can't hear you."
"Yes, I want some help. But what do you have in mind?"
I turned back, started the elevator again. "Hell if I know. We'll make it work; it's what we do, kid."