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, 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.
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..."
"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.
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!
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, 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."
Dolan followed me down the hall looking thoughtful; hopeful.
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?
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?"
"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."