Saturday, July 9

Shop Talk 9 Bug Infestation

            Our shop can handle big ships, the three rear bays are the size of an airplane hanger after all, but when I came on shift the next day--oh my God. I had just dropped off some paperwork and glanced out the window on the second floor and did a double take when I was eye level with the bridge port of a ship, that nearly touched the shop lights. I wandered out to get a better look.
            The behemouth and the scaffolding placed around it like caging a monster, nearly filled two bays. I once flew in a C-2 transport out of Sacramento and it would fit in this easily. I squeezed by some equipment and gazed up at the purple and black exterior grimy with oil. There didn't seem to be much work going on so I donned a hardhat and decided to explore. I hauled myself up the steep stairs to the side entrance some twenty feet off the floor.
            I walked down a hall to the bridge and crew seating, I'd never been inside something this big and I was astonished at the sheer size of everything, the steel webbing was heavier than anything I'd seen before. The hall was dark and narrow, typical for a Rogue cargo ship. There was a small porthole that offered a view of the payload bay where a partially draped ship that looked heavily armored, filled the hold. That looks familiar, I thought, with mounting anxiety.
            "Hey there," I heard a voice call out and turned to see a red haired fellow walking toward me.
            "I'm Eddie, the site manager," he said. He was a lean guy in dirty gray overalls. He seemed nice with an open square face and brown eyes that darted everywhere.
            "Are you here to install the additional transmitters?" he indicated an open slot on the main control console with a blurred wave of a hand.
            "Oh you're a Pohl," it came out more accusing than I intended.
            "We're not all stiff and serious like the ambassador," he bristled.
            That was news to me, every Pohl I ever saw was a walking mannequin. This guy was all loose and relaxed. Who was this guy and what the hell was he doing on a Rogue ship? Like the Pohl's, the Rogues did their own repair work. Actually the seating looked to small for Rogues, who tend to be tall or bulky.
            There was an awkward silence when it dawned on both of us that I was not who he expected. He moved slightly to block my view of the bridge and I could feel him trying to probe inside my head. My urgent bladder came to my rescue.
            "Ah, that would be a job for Zero Atcha. I'll go fetch him after I take a serious piss, ok?" I said as causally as I could.
             "Take your time, there's no rush," he said equally stalling.
             I left with no intention of returning as my inner alarm bell told me there was something very wrong with this picture.
Realization hit me like a blast of cold air when I realized the ship in the hold was a Klee fighter like one of Shakova's models.
Holy shit it's a Trojan horse, I thought in terror. I tossed the hardhat aside and ran to the office to warn everyone fast as my chubby legs could carry me in the syrupy gravity and thin air that left me panting.
            One tidbit of information I gathered about the Pohl's is that the planet's environment is as unhealthy to the Klee as it is to us. As I rounded a corner, I guessed it would make sense to launch an invasion from a safe place more compatible to their atmospheric taste. This was a perfect base of operations and Pohl was a sitting duck.
            Why the Trojan horse trick? Because the security around the moon is fairly substantial given the alien population passing through. Having agents inside to override the many airlocks would be--
            An alarm sounded and a sudden drop in pressure made me skid to a halt. As I waited to get enough air for my brain to work, I saw people rushing to the airlock shelters as I raced to the front hall.
            "Get to the safety now," Stan bellowed to me as he hurried the staff along.
            "We're being invaded by the Klee, they have a ship hidden inside the barge," I managed quickly between gulps. He stared at me and I feared sounding like a lunatic then his eyes widen, at that moment he spotted Temple rushing by.
            " Get some rifles from the weapons locker and call for reinforcements, we got a bug infestation," he informed her over the din of people running and the clanging alarm.
            By now the safety door began to close automatically and I'd never make it, so I broke away to hide in a ship I had been working on in bay one. It was fully operational and airtight. I could escape in it if need be. The thudding sound of rifle fire distracted me then I was almost knocked down by a clearly frightened Elvis as he shoved his way pass me. What the hell? I wondered.
            I advanced carefully into the shop to see what scared him off when I spotted Imbler lying on the floor in a widening pool of dark liquid, a laser rifle, far too big for his slight build, lay nearby. I approached cautiously having discovered the first week at work to stay away from an injured Pohl.
            Fet had punctured his hand and as blood spurted, I instinctively moved to help when Temple warned me back.
            "Their blood is poison," she explained and Imbler rushed in instead.
             Imbler lay still as I stood and wondered what to do. He looked up at me, his wig slipping off his head as he moved.
            "Don't let them get in . . . the Bailey doors . . . George," he gurgled. I nodded and looking around, spotted a sandbag we use as a universal weigh on a mover's quilted blanket. I gently placed the blanket over his torso and set the bag close to his wound. He figured out my intention and slowly pushed the bag closer with a free hand. Satisfied he would hold, I dashed past my hideout to see George come toward me.
            "By the Gods, get to safety," he waved an impatient arm, shooing me away.
            "We have to lock the Bailey, that's how the rest of the invaders will get in," I shouted and pointed to the heavy door at the far end of the garage. As we headed for the control room, a swarm of Klee emerged from the big ship, chattering like cicadas.
The creatures that looked like heavily armored beetles with crab like arms and legs headed straight for us firing pulse rifles. George rushed at them with a heavy bar in each upper hand roaring with primitive rage while I scrambled up the ladder to the control cabin. I glanced back to see George pick up two of the invaders and throw them at the advancing line. He was pushing them back toward the barge but there was no way he could defeat the overwhelming hoard.
            There was hell of a racket with the pitched battle and alarm but all I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears and heavy breathing as I frantically tried to remember the shut down procedure I had seen once. This wasn't my job, in fact it was the one thing Elvis was good at, the bastard.
            Don't lose your focus, I told myself as I wiped sweat from my face and put on the sound blocking earphones. I had ten seconds to figure out this control before the invaders shot their way in through the inch thick door window. I found the door lift lever and pushed it all the way off.
            Or so I thought.
            To my horror the door began to slide open. Several Klee and anything not anchored was sucked out as decompression occurred. George held on to a metal post and kicked off a Klee who was trying to hold onto him.
               This is not as bad as it sounds, I knew the Bailey wouldn't open if the outer airlock door was open so the decompression wasn't total. There was still a chance to stop this disaster.
            The only way I figured to quickly disable the door was to disconnect it from the hydraulic lift, causing the door to fall like a guillotine and ruin it, but fuck it, that was the least of our concerns right now.
            I grabbed a large mallet lying on the floor that is used to free the steel pin holding the safety line in place. I swung at the pin and sent it sailing then hit the release with the mallet. I flinched away as the counterweight whizzed upward and turned too late to see George on the other side of the door fighting off more of those awful bugs.
            "George," I yelled, as the door fell with terrifying speed and crushed several Klee underneath.
            The sound of rifle fire from behind informed me that security, along with Stan and Temple had arrived to wipe out the remaining bugs. I climbed down the ladder and was immediately grabbed by Temple who continued to fire an automatic weapon with one hand while shoving me into my intended hiding place with the other.
            I was too dazed to comprehend anything as the door was shut behind me. I lay curled up on the floor in the dark cabin with the gun battle faint in the background.
            George, George had to be dead if the outer door lock had been opened to flush the Klee out to the airless moon. I hope every one of those disgusting bugs was dead. How could I have been so stupid not to make sure he was safe before dropping the door?
             I began to shake as the events and shock caught up with me. The shooting stopped then I heard vague shouting. I sat up, brushing away tears and suddenly hating everything about this place. There was a thump on the hull.
            "Open up it's me," I heard Temple yell and I reluctantly unlocked the door. The outside light momentarily blinded me but I adjusted to see the lithe mechanic holding a rifle over her shoulder, her face and clothes smudged with dirt and God knows what, her short hair in wild disarray.
            "You look like shit McLaughlin," she said with relief.
            "Same to you Giotti," I retorted with anger. She regarded my desolate mood for a moment then broke into a broad grin.
            "Don't be that way, we beat the bugs good thanks to your move," she said in an attempt to cheer me up.
            "And killed George," I said, not cheered at all.
            "Did someone mention me," I heard a voice then a familiar blue face peeked around the open hatch.
            "George," I leapt at him with unbridled joy. He caught me as I rapped my arms around his thick neck, laughing at my reaction.
            "Oh come on little one, it takes more than the Klee and a bit of decompression to stop a Chiron," he informed me with a dramatic sneer. I had to laugh at his bravado, I should have known he was invincible under that gentle demeanor.

            The invasion was stopped in its tracks. The Alliance Defense showed up in full force within an hour and the Klee beat a very hasty retreat at the sight of the armada. The surprise attack taught the Pohls not to under estimate their foes.
            Imbler survived and it was revealed at length that the Klee wanted him because he was an intelligence agent. Eddie was hauled off and tried for treason, another embarrassment for the Pohls.
            Stan and Co. were cited for their defense of Mark's Station. And Elvis-- he had the nerve to show up several days later, chipper as ever like nothing had happened. He walked in while Stan was finishing up a new safety lecture with the whole staff. Pretty ballsy considering how he cowardly left Imbler to bleed to death.
            "Hey all," he greeted us.
Maybe it was out of place but I couldn’t control my fury and without warning, stepped forward and kneed him in the groin as hard as I could. He doubled over in pain. Stan and the others regarded him unsympathetically
            "That's for being a shit and running away," I informed him contemptuously as he lay writhing on the floor.
            Oh yeah, and I aced my exam. 

Friday, July 8

Shop Talk 8 Riddle Me This

            I have a habit of discovering things by accident like Imbler resembling a bowl of wet noodles or how telepathic the Pohl's really are- we had our suspicions. I figured out how to evade their mental probing while playing poker with Imbler and Fet. Generally, Pohl's are lousy at reading human behavior and a song stuck in my head was enough white noise to block any attempt to guess my hand. They were impressed.           
             I had no problems with the aliens, it was human interaction that made me uncomfortable. Thankfully the people on Mark's were entertaining, God knows I needed some as life on a lunar colony can be deathly boring. The longer I lived here the easier it was to be alone, putter around, work in the shop. The Station had a vast library, and in my free time I'd spend hours at the "Star Lounge", a large room with comfy chairs and a huge screen that afforded a stunning view of Pohl and it's other two smaller moons when not showing movies.
            There was a lot of work to keep me busy and I forgot all about the encounter with Shem and Shakova until a conversation I had with Elvis one day.
             He  was sitting alone, as usual, at a far table. Normally a chatty person he learned to be quiet after being repeatedly told by Temple and company to shut the fuck up.
            He looked lonely. so after refilling my tea at the service bar, I wandered over and sat down next to him rather than rejoin George and Temple.
            "Hey dude, how's it going?"  I gave him a friendly grin. He looked up from his lunch glancing around in confusion.
            "Fine," He replied cautiously. There was a long silence while I sipped my tea.
            "I hear you got your full residency card, I guess that means you are here for good," I said half as a question, half as a gentle ribbing. He shrugged.
            " Maybe," he said picking at his bean salad, a piece of which hung in his thickening beard. Well thanks for the terse answers, the crew did a good job on him I thought.
            "So where are you from?" I asked innocently. He scrunched his shoulders and folded his hands under the table like a scolded child.
            " Why do you ask?"           
            "In order to find out, I'm just making small talk Elvis," but my tone revealed a growing irritation with him and I calmed down. Eventually he relaxed too.
            "I was born on Garin but grew up in a fold on Hedeutch," he said, returning to torture his salad with a fork.
            "They're mostly farmers, right?" I continued pleasantly and he bobbed his head.
            Growing up in a fold, or a clan commune, has got to be the most bucolic life one could imagine. How did he end up here with his fellow earlier amigos?
            "Ever do mining work?"  I asked. He shook his head sharply.
            " I don't have a death wish," he answered as he shoveled in a huge mouthful of food and chomped noisily. I looked at my tea to avoid watching his awful table manners.
            "I guess you never came across coral kiss then," I asked, my previous interest in the subject renewed.
            "That crazy shit? No way. I've seen what it does to miners, makes them wild, dangerous. I don't touch the stuff I swear," he said, his voice growing louder. I held up a hand to gesture him to quiet down.
            "Alright, I'm was just curious," I assured him.
            He had good reason to avoid it, Stan would fire anyone under the influence of any drug- not a good idea to be buzzed in a work shop where you could get mangled or killed by it's many hazards.
            "The tension between the Rogues and the Pohl's doesn't help." he volunteered after a pause.
            "What's the deal with that?" I genuinely wondered. I glanced back to see Temple watching us intensely.

            " I don't know, they're probably being egged on by the Klee, who are always looking for a fight with the Pohl's," he said, his voice becoming more animated. Elvis didn't have much regard for our benefactors.
            "The Klee aren't in the Alliance, are they?" I worried. He snorted at the idea.
            "They don't want to be a part of the Alliance, hell, they'd like nothing better than to destroy it, or at least shove the Pohl's out for interfering with their trade between us and why not? They give us a better deal on goods without the hassle of rules and taxes like the Alliance," he went on, energized with the topic.
            "That's enough," We turned at Temple's sharp rebuke and her deep scowl shut him up. He returned to his lunch meekly, avoiding eye contact. I did not flinch from the mechanic's harsh gaze as I contemplated this insight. I wouldn't get any answers from her though, she had a strong loyalty to the Alliance narrative.           
            There were a lot of reasons to dislike the Rogues with their rough manners and lack of intelligence but I began to see how these durable folks were taken advantage of. Poor schmucks.
             I tried to find more on the Rogue/Pohl/Klee feud but the normally open Alliance Library informed me I didn't have clearance to the 'superior archives' whatever that was. All I could find were a few scattered articles about the illicit trade in raw ores, contraband and drugs. The lack of information made me wonder, then suspicious, which made me paranoid. Screw it, I thought and took a long walk to clear my head.
             There were a lot of Rogues wandering about as I strolled along the long central avenue lined with shops of every sort, apartments and bars. It reminded me of a shopping mall from the 1980's with kitschy decor and clashing colors; the plastic trees were an especially nice touch. Thank God there was no muzak. Like the other cities, all avenues lead to Central and as I wandered past offices in the government district, I noticed many were deserted. Must be vacation week I guess.
            The embassies of Alliance members lined one side of the street. There was the office of the Cassarians, a featureless building of beige, next to the official residence of the Pohl Administrator with a somber, brushed metal exterior.  On the other side of it, I recognized the Jova embassy by the bold color scheme and ornate molding. It inspired me to pay a visit to Madame Shakova.
            A male secretary in a black and gold trimmed uniform met me as I entered the lobby. Shakova was present and a few minutes later I was ushered into her well appointed office.
            "Madame McLaughlin, good to see you again," she greeted me warmly. Her polite address surprised me, I expected her to revert to Kuma, the normal generic term for human females.
             We exchanged compliments as custom and she gestured to one of the lavish oversized chairs nearby for me to sit on. I felt like a little kid as my feet dangled from the high chair.
            A servant arrived with a plate of sweets and strong tea. We chatted pleasantly about the food and her plans to return home once her term as ambassador ended. As we talked I glanced around and saw a long shelf with model space ships. She noticed my curiosity and delighted in showing off her collection, going into detail as she picked up each scale model and explained them.
            "Is that a Rogue ship?" I pointed to what looked like a spiky gold colored ball.
            "No, that is Klee design," she answered as if pointing out something unplesant, and this opened a discussion on their technology.
            "You know a lot about mechanics for a diplomat," I opined and she arched a slender eyebrow at my bluntness.
            "My Mother and Father are pilots. I have been around ships all my life," She said proudly as she set down a model with care.
            " I understand you are taking mechanics exam soon, yes?" she asked and I nodded, noting her awareness of it.
            "Your collection and knowledge is impressive. I'm sure it will help me with the exam next week," I said. This pleased her as she gently placed a model back on the shelf.
            "Given your insight, I wonder if you could help me with a minor problem," I said, as we returned to the tea and sweets, and mentioned my problem with the library.
            "What I find intriguing is the grudge between the Pohl's and the Klee. Maybe you could enlighten me," I said in an "oh by the way" manner but fully intended to flatter her.
            "What is 'grudge' ?" she inquired, unfamiliar with the word, and I explained it to her. She sat back and sighed, her long black hair sharply contrasted against the emerald green of her robe and the busy abstract upholstery.
            "Always hiding something, those Pohls, They try to extend need to control on everyone," she said with a small sardonic laugh. I frowned at her use of the Terran term for them. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever heard the native word for our sponsors race.
            " I don't think that's it. I'm just a regular with no credentials," I admitted, but she gave me a look I often see, like I didn't get it, which is often the case.
            "Alliance may think Terrans are misbehaving children but our fifteen races can behave badly," she explained unapologetically. 
            It was the first time I became aware of any serious friction within the Alliance. Like many humans, I assumed they had better control of their cultural prejudices than we did.
            "Some wish to remove Pohl's from ruling triad because of this foolish business with drug trade," She shook her head at the machinations going on. "They have their faults but they are tidy with their business unlike Rogues, and they are far better than Cassaria," she said with barely concealed distaste.
            A female assistant interrupted with some official business which signaled an end to our meeting. We parted company and despite my new found understanding, I felt oddly unsatisfied like having eaten a fine meal when I wasn't hungry.
             I glanced at the Cassarian Embassy as I left and it thoroughly depressed me. They might replace the Pohl's? By the Gods, they were the worst possible candidates for leadership. They were new to the Alliance, politically weak and not very bright. Easy to manipulate would be on the list too. I thought I was done with petty politics when I left Earth but I guess not.
            Mark's Station was looking less inviting as I plodded along and I worried what could go wrong next.

Friday, May 20

Shop Talk 7 part 2 Meeting of Minds

            "Come on I'll introduce you," Stan said as he pulled me by the arm-almost causing me spill the drink in my hand- to a cluster of people around the ambassador.            
             "-It doesn't look  like you cho-lau have made much progress halting the Lythospheran trade from my stand, " A Rogue was speaking loudly to Shem in a harsh voice as we approached. Everyone froze in awkward silence as the ambassador regarded his challenge with an impassive expression.
            "Ambassador Shem, you old dog, how the hell are you?" Stan broke the tension with his own inappropriate remark. One simply doesn't address a Pohl like that- Jesus, what was he thinking? I thought in embarrassment. Shem was undisturbed by the intrusion as a faint smile of amusement spread across his large oval face.
            " Stan Mussel, I am quite well and how are you?" he said formally in the best imitation of a human voice that rivaled Morgan Freeman.
            " Fine and airtight, by the way I'd like you meet the best interior designer to ever work in my shop," Stan said putting a friendly hand on my shoulder to keep me  from bolting at the sudden attention.
            "It's an honor to meet you Agai," I said, using the honorific Pohlian title and gave him a small formal bow of respect to a superior. His smile broadened and politely returned the bow.
            "Madame, haroda has been misusing your talents, you should be giving him lessons in manners," he said as a gentle rib to Stan and a sly reproach to the arrogant Rogue. Haroda roughly translates as lowly servant like a cabin boy and is pretty rude.
            "Oh it's too late for that," I said with comic exasperation.
            Both gave a hearty laugh between good friends. Several people present, including Governor Pegoda and Jova Ambassador Shavkova decided it was funny too and joined in. The Rogue regarded the Fem Jova with barely veiled contempt then squared in his shoulders before angrily stalking off in a snit.
             Shem and company provided delightful conversation on the latest gossip and interstellar cuisine. My neck ached from looking up at all the tallness so I climbed onto a nearby chair with Shem provided a helping hand, which everyone found amusing, especially Shakova who regarded me with interest. She stopped me with a light touch on my shoulder before I wandered off to fetch another drink.
            " A moment of your time Madame McLaughlin," she said.
             The formal address startled me until I recalled their custom of referring to females by their last -- or house name -- while males are addressed by their first. I quickly dug up everything I could remember about the Jova, so I wouldn't make an ass of myself or my species.
            Terrans first cozied up to the Jova when they were in charge of the Alliance Guardianship Commission. When the Pohl's took over, the triad rotated leadership to prevent any one group usurping power, it was a big adjustment to deal with a new ally. Just as well, the Jova rejected the silly designation of LeGuin/Neruda we had given them and they were not Jovians. They did things their own way to the consternation of everyone.
            "What's on your mind Madame Shakova?" I asked politely in AIL.           
            "You are not like other Orbis," she began, groping for the right words as the Jova don't speak English and AIL can be a struggle for them.
            "You do not take to politics," she said, with the disdain for our geopolitical style.
            That's because I don't give a shit, I was tempted to reply.
            "It's not my area of knowledge or interest," I answered politely.
             Shakova nodded in a mechanical way. She was a tall with dark eyes and long silky black hair that fell over the shoulders of a bright red dress. That observation reminded me of an important cultural custom.
            "Madame, that robe is stunning, the intricate brocade contrasts your light complexion perfectly," I said without a hint of fawning. It was impressive.
            She gave me an approving smile. A rare reaction from a Jova, as they take themselves very seriously.
            "You do not attire fancy like other Kuma," she said, using the word for human female. She was not insulting my simple black slacks and peach colored silk shirt under a dark green dress coat, she meant it.
            The Jova love of fashion was about an appreciation of beauty not vanity, so they regarded the competitive fashion Terrans engaged in to impress them as tasteless.
            Jovas look human enough but up close I could see subtle differences. There was a glossy quality to the skin and her gaze tended to be unfocused, which was fine with me as direct eye contact made me uncomfortable.
            " You would make a good liaison between us," she continued. It's coincidental that the Jova affected Slavic names to match their pseudo Russian accent with it's soft rounded vowels.
            " Um, thank you, that is very kind, " I replied, thinking it was mere ego stroking when I realized she was serious. "Say what was that Lythospheran business the Rogue mentioned earlier?" I quickly changed the subject away from her ludicrous offer.
            "A trade causing trouble and that Rogue with no manners," she said, disgusted at his behavior.
             No kidding,  cho-lau is the worst thing to call anyone. Before I could question her further, Stan came by and announced he was leaving as the crowd thinned out. I bade the Ambassador a hasty goodbye and scrambled after him but he walked at a brisk pace I couldn't keep up with. Never mind, I had to go back to fetch my forgotten coat hanging over a chair.
            That's when I spotted Shem and Imbler standing in a side hall, their heads nearly touching the way Pohl's do when engaged in private discussion. As they parted, Shem gave a slight bow to Imbler. That's interesting, I thought as I watched the diplomat walk away.
            When I got home, I made a bee line to the Alliance library on my computer and found this:

Lythosperan,  An amphetamine developed by Meji Pharmaceutical Int. to facilitate the metabolism of workers in deep mine operations. It quickly gained use among the Rogues, where the drug increases stamina and vision acuity. Its use by other races causes numerous severe physical side effects including blindness, cardiac arrest and paralysis. In a study conducted by Dr. Laura Robinson at Leary Institute, the drug can be fatal for Terrans who consume more than 20 mgs. resulting in death from asphyxiation as the tongue and lips swell, blocking the airway.

             'Coral kiss' they call it because of the color of the lips and tongue. I remember overhearing Terrans talk about someone  going "over 21"  when I arrived, meaning  21 milligrams or more of this shit.
            What a charming drug to avoid, I thought, utterly appalled. That a Terran corporation developed it was just as appalling. I sighed in disappointment. A quick search showed that the company went bankrupt several years ago. So who was behind the drug trade now, I wondered.

Saturday, April 16

Shop Talk 7 Set Phasers on Reheat

            "How does this gew gaw work?" George cheerfully presented me with an complicated looking tool while I collected some dirty gears from the monstrous Jova ship that came in yesterday.
            "Oh no, not you too?" I wailed in exasperation. I tired of everyone grilling me for my mechanic's exam. George put the conversion scale down on the work table with a sad slump of his shoulders.
            "Sorry," he said with heartfelt embarrassment. I couldn't be mad at the sweet Charon.
            "It's nothing big guy," I said, giving him a smile and a playful swat on the arm. He brightened and helped me load the all purpose service cart.
            " How did your date go with-what's her name?" I asked about the fem Chiron he met at the bar a few weeks ago.
            "Doro? Oh she's a cutie, loves old TV shows too, even X-Files." He rolled his eyes at that. The show was still notorious fodder for loony conspirators and Chirons are known to have little patience with such nonsense.
            "Say, how accurate is Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman?"  He asked, referring to the eighties western melodrama. About as accurate as the X-Files, I was attempted to say, but didn't want to ruin his romance of the old west.
            "I don't know, it was a century before my time," I answered. Most aliens forget that, compared to them, Terrans have an absurdly short life span.             
             George and I put the gears into a high tech version of a dishwasher and waited through the wash and rinse cycles with a game of rock, paper, scissors .
            "You can't use two hands," I complained.
            "You can use both of yours," he countered, but after some playful debate, he agreed to use one. We were getting pretty silly when I happened to glance up at the big window that overlooks the shop and noticed two Jovas watching us intently.
            " I think we better behave," I suggested to him with an significant nod toward the window.
            "Oh prisk them, one more round please?" George dismissed with uncharacteristic brusqueness.
            I won the next game and when I glanced up again they were gone. They were a melodramatic race and I wondered what they and their ship was doing here.
            I forgot about the incident until after lunch when I was summoned to the bosses office. Uh-oh was my first reaction even though I got along pretty well with him and couldn't think of anything I had done wrong lately.
            Stan sat at his cluttered desk and greeted me affably, tossing his reading glasses on a pile of paper. He asked my opinion about some design work on the Jova ship that came in.
            " Why are they here? Don't they usually go to Scotty's?" I asked.
            "Yeah, but this is being refitted with McKinleys,"  he said distractedly.
            Most ships coming to Mark's are interstellar but don't always use McKinley's. I wondered at the odd request but filed it away for future study.
            "By the way, I have to attend the Report tomorrow and wondered if you would like to come along," he said in a causal tone that threw me off guard.
             The  'Annual Report' was a meeting of local leaders, as the Pohl's required, to  discuss policy and business.  The Governor, mayors of each city and the Guardianship of the Alliance would be there. It was not the company picnic and I'm just a glorified grunt like George so why was he be asking me out? Was this a date or strictly business? I stared at him in disbelief.
            "You know I'm not good with people," I carefully replied. That was an understatement, my social skills are a cross between a 12 year old and a cokehead.           
            "You relate well with the etees," he said as encouragement.
            " Have you asked Temple?" he gave me an incredulous look. She detested small talk and had even less patience with social rank than me.
            "Ok bad choice, how about Gaga?"
            " She's the one person they try to avoid. Look it's just for an hour or so, the Jovas like you and you speak AIL better than me." he fairly pleaded. He was referring to Alliance Interstellar Language.
            Now he was making sense. There are times when we are asked to help the boss and this appeared to be one of them. I agreed, to his relief.
            The event was held at Central in a round hall where Governor Pegoda gave a speech under a large photo of the founder and the Alliance emblem. The administrators of each city and an Alliance official, who I had never seen before, listened politely to the official drivel . All very boring, the real business happened when everyone retired to a banquet room where they promptly headed for the open bar after surveying the paltry canapes buffet.
            I stood near a wall with a gin and tonic trying my best not to attract attention but Stan kept introducing me to various delegates and I had to translate for him. I was out of my depth but it was a great opportunity to see the real powers that be, up close. Everyone was standing because, according to protocol, sitting was offensive to some of the races for some stupid reason. I suspect it was to keep such meetings short.
             "Who's that guy?" I asked, pointing out an alien the color of eggplant who towered over the diminutive governor.  Stan's gaze was a sharp reproach but I warned him I was blunt spoken and his expression melted into amusement at my ignorance.           
            "That's Ambassador Shem I told you about," he said. I remembered him from Stan's narrative about "The Awakening".
            Shem was tall and slim with striking features. He had smooth, hairless skin the color of eggplant under a silk robe of shimmering yellow and green.
            "How come he doesn't look like Imbler or Fet?" I puzzled.
            "Because I insisted they look human to work in the shop. Shem has been negotiating with the Nikon for years so he allegedly looks like one of them," Stan explained as he took a sip of his bourbon.
            The Nikon were an elusive race everyone wanted to get to know if the claims of their immortality were true. A Pohl convincing them to join the Alliance as their sponsor would be a major coup.
            "How did he get to be ambassador anyway?" I wondered.
            "Connections and a good reputation. Shem was the forensic investigator on the Polaris scandal," Stan said.
            "Remind me again what that was about, " I suggested, a little irked at his tendency to relate stories with the assumption that I know what he's talking about.
            "Ten years ago an associate in the Alliance was convicted of murder using a disruptor weapon found at the scene," He began. " The guy swore he was innocent but the case was airtight based on the signature trail of the weapon," he said and I put a hand to his arm as I remembered that dramatic case.  Those weapons are very illegal as vaporizing a person makes for the perfect crime.
            " Oh right, then the victim showed up at Alliance headquarters after the conviction, I bet that was embarrassing."
            "Big time. Anyway, Shem discovered the signature trail of the weapon was similar to the shitty Belock designed microwave oven that leaked radiation."
            " You're kidding me?" I never heard that part before. Stan nodded.
            "Shem recommended the appliance be redesigned and widened the range of what is now the best disruptor detectors," Stan explained.
            Very impressive, I really wanted to meet this guy.

Thursday, March 3

Fire Fly Chapter 4 An Uncommon Man

            The visit from the mysterious flying man left me rattled for days. The page in front of me remained blank as I stared at the typewriter, willing the words to come. Here I was on the verge of quitting the newspaper grind and the biggest story ever drops in my lap. I should have majored in economics like Mother advised.
            This was going nowhere, I sighed in frustration and took another gulp of tepid coffee. I picked up the essay I wrote for the magazine section of the Sunday Gazette and read it again hoping it would jar my brain loose from the writer's block gripping me. I may have been new at reporting but knew how to write an interview. I revised the copy four times before handing it to my editor when he was in a good mood, hoping it wouldn't look ridiculous.
            Al Mackie did not put up with the ridiculous. I watched him read it without correction then he peered at me over his reading glasses.
            "You're fucking kidding right?" Al famously excelled at editing and swearing with equal skill.
            "No, he's the real deal," I assured him, a touch chagrinned. He narrowed his eyes, unconvinced of my assessment.
            "First you speculate this guy is a myth, only to have him conveniently show up on your doorstep where you interview him like Lois Lane, for Christ's sake, and you expect people to believe this?"
            " Well, not when you put that way but I was hoping  you would," I answered, as I watched my credibility crumble. He perched his glasses on his head and leaned his chair back in exasperation.
            " Look Vic, you've been straight up so far, but this is outrageous. I'm going to need verification this is legit," he said, not quite sure where to go with this. Inwardly I fumed but he had a point. Now what?
            "He'll call me in two weeks. When he does, I'll set up a meeting between the three of us and you can see for yourself okay?"  I volunteered. I had no idea if flyboy would go along with any of this but he had to, if I was going to get the story printed.
            "Deal, let me know when," he said, signaling the end of the conversation. We would sit on the story until then.
            I was relieved when he called exactly two weeks later and I explained the situation to him. He wasn't keen on the idea but agreed to the reasonable request. We arranged to meet at a defunct golf course outside of town in a few days. No one else comes and no cameras he demanded.
            You know the feeling you get on a roller coaster as it climbs up the hill- how your anxiety builds until you get to the top before that moment of release? That's how I felt until the next meeting.
             Neil was leaning against his car wearing jeans and a Steeler's jersey when we pulled up in Mackie's car. Frankly I was surprised he did show up, demonstrating for total strangers-journalists no less, had to be intimidating after a life time of secrecy. Mackie unfolded his tall, lanky frame from the car while Henry, our photographer and I emerged from the back seat.
            " I said no cameras." he crossed his arms defensively, ready to end the encounter. Mackie mollified him by waving at Henry to put his camera away which he did reluctantly but remained where he was. There was an awkward pause.
            "How does this work, you need a running start or what?" Mackie asked in a condescending tone I warned him against. Neil regarded us carefully, his half moon eyes squinting in harsh determination. Any misgivings he may have had were instantly replaced with a desire to put Al's haughtiness in its place.
            He gazed out over the wide grassy lawn of the driving range where a line of huge boulders marked the far side. He launched himself a hundred feet in the air and I held my breath. It was a weird and dangerous sight with no turning back. He flew to a boulder, landed on it briefly, then returned to his starting point.
            "Well?"  He prompted after a stunned silence. His show had the desired effect.
            "No one will believe this, no one will believe this, no one will fucking believe this," Mackie sputtered as he paced back and forth.
            "Will you stop saying that," I winced in embarrassment. That was not the reaction Neil expected and his face drooped. He started for his car when I put a hand on his arm.
            "It was very brave of you to come, thank you." I smiled and he gazed at me for a long time before returning it. He turned his attention to Mackie.
            " I hope this satisfies you that Ms. Ball was telling the truth. I would appreciate it if you hold off publishing this story until I inform a few other people first,"  he said. I cringed, that wasn't going to happen.
                           *                                                *                                                *
            The reaction from Mackie made me reconsider this whole revelation idea. I was a jittery wreck after I left the golf course and fretted about how my family, friends and the Bureau would react. Especially the Bureau. I should have gone to the Public Information Officer but decided to see how this played out first.
            I called Victoria and asked to meet her to get a take on all this. Maybe it's not a good idea to be chummy with a reporter, given the love hate relationship between the media and fire departments: the media wants drama and the departments wants accuracy.
             I knocked on her door once more, I wavering between doubt and curiosity. She opened it seconds later; her oval face flush from exertion.
            She must have just gotten off work as she was still in a black skirt and a light gray striped shirt that showed off her Mediterranean complexion and curvy figure nicely. A blazer and pair of shoes had been carelessly tossed on a couch which she hastily cleared off as we entered the living room. She added them to a pile of mail on the coffee table, apologizing for the mess which I politely ignored.
            " Thanks for coming, I'd like to get some more background information if you don't mind," she said in full reporter mode as she picked up a notebook and pen.
            "Maybe I should do the same of you," I replied likewise as we sat down across from each other. The couch, like her chair, was a dun corduroy and as worn and comfortable as an old pair of shoes; the arms stained from being used as a napkin.
            "Why did you come to me in the first place?"  she asked, pushing a strand of black hair out of her face with a delicate hand.
            " Because you're the only one I trusted," I answered. I stared into her dark eyes, both of us startled at my unexpected response. Honestly, she was smart, attractive and took me seriously which was good enough for me.
            The smell of fresh coffee from the kitchen caught my attention and she fetched each of us a cup to brush away the awkward moment.
            "So how did you become a nosy journalist?" I asked lightly as I stirred in a teaspoon of sugar.
            "Not at all really. I dislike the 'good old boys' mentality in journalism. This job is just for experience and contacts. What I really want to do is be a publishing editor," she replied. The explanation felt weary from frequent use.
             While she distracted herself with some internal debate, I looked at her apartment for the first time. Along with the couch, the furniture was sparse and practical although most of it was covered with disarray of some kind as if she had better things to do than attend to the clutter.
             The place was dark with a window in the small open kitchen and a sliding glass door at the other end of the serviceable living room. On the wall across from us, hung a diploma from Yale next to several crooked photos above a desk with an electric typewriter.
            "You're not worried about letting a strange man into your house?"  I asked, breaking the long silence. She considered my lame non sequitur with a thin smirk.
            "You're hardly a stranger. I know who you are," she said confidently as she settled back in the chair. She knew my full name, education and work history with the PBF.--the sort of thing on my resume. I should not have been surprised.
            " You like jazz, play the clarinet-- oh and you just turned twenty eight," she said with a wry smile.
            "And you'll be twenty seven in August."  I retorted, having done some snooping of my own.
            "Touche," she said, putting down her cup. After some discussion, it turned out we were both on track teams in high school.
            "Sprint or long distance? " I asked.
            " Cross country --but not for long, the coach was a macho jerk," she answered and we traded familiar training stories. I learned she was born in Paris and raised in Bethseda. Her parents were divorced and her younger brother just joined the Navy.
            "How did you become a firefighter?" she asked, turning the subject back to me. Instead of being cautious, I decided she was entitled to a full picture since I was dragging her in to this haphazard plan. I gazed at the ceiling as I closed in on the memory.
            At nineteen, I had no idea what I wanted to do. College seemed unaffordable but working at Dad's hardware store was stifling. I got a job as a truck driver doing deliveries between Chicago and Galesburg.            
            One day, while frustrated with a long wait in traffic, I got out to investigate. Beyond a roadblock, fire trucks and police cars swarmed around a partially collapsed building in a neighborhood of boarded up houses.
            "Some kids are trapped under the rubble," a cop informed me crisply, holding out a hand to bar me from getting closer.
             I could see firefighters throwing aside big chunks of wall board and cinder blocks in the continued to search for more victims. A trio of firefighters struggled with a large piece.
            My God I could easily move that.  I tried to rush in and help but the cop would have none of it. I glared at him and intended to shove him aside when I heard shouting as the rescuers pulled a kid out and the crisis passed. I watched the scene in a trance and knew exactly what to do with my life.           
            " I can see a straight line from that epiphany to this moment," I said as a curious feeling of self awareness rushed up. Her eyes narrowed as she mentally constructed a narrative.
            "Not everything I say is for public consumption," I said, stopping her thinking.
Victoria gave me an odd look, like I didn't get it.
            "Everyone is going to know your history when this breaks, so you better get used to it," She informed me bluntly. I squirmed in my seat. Once again I had the uncomfortable feeling this was a bad idea and felt the urge to run and hide.
            "Have you talked to anyone else about going public?" she inquired. I shook my head, leaving Roscoe out of the equation. There was an anxious pause as she stared at her cold coffee and I got an ominous feeling.
            "Uh-oh," I groaned as a prompt.
            "Mackie wants to pass on the story."
            "What?" I blurted, incredulous.
            "We know it's true, but he's a conservative journalist and a cautious man."
            "I thought the press loved this kind of story," I said, expressing confusion.
            "Oh they do, the more dramatic, the better. Extreme behavior, the eccentric and the horrible-- all makes for good press," She looked out the rear door for a long time before finishing. "But this one requires-- more than print copy," she said tactfully.
            "What should I do, fly into Three River Stadium in the middle of a ball game and land on home plate?"
            Wow, this was proving to be more troublesome than I imagined. There was no in between, either I make a big reveal or not at all. I crossed my arms impatiently.
            "Superheros never had this problem," I sputtered.
            "This isn't the comics," she replied. I blinked, that's exactly what I once said to Pete.             "Don't worry, when this story breaks the press will be all over you," she said with sardonic humor.
            " And I can kiss my privacy good bye," I sighed. She shook her head.           
            " No, never give up your privacy. Never compromise or answer the unasked question. If you really want the press to ignore you, be boring, they hate that."
            "Actually, I am kind of boring," I said. She gave a small laugh at my modesty.
            " I doubt that highly."
            We discussed the problem a bit further. In addition to the public and press, the government was going to be keenly interested. That hadn't occurred to me and I went into shock at the prospect of powerful, incompetent agents putting their hands on my balls.
            "Maybe you could wear a mask or have a secret identity," she suggested with little conviction. I snorted at the idea.           
            "There would be a race to unmask me. I'll have a better idea what to do after I talk to my parents," I offered.
            "They don't know?" She sat up startled.
            " Kind of, " I hemmed. I planned to visit them in July for the holiday.
            " Don't worry, I don't think anything will happen between now and then. I have all summer to yard this thing out," I said off handedly. 
            Famous last words.