by Justin Oldham

an excerpt from the new novel

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



by Justin Oldham
Publisher: Silverthought Press

ISBN-10: 0-9815191-1-3
ISBN-13: 978-0-9815191-1-1

240 pages

paperback: $11.99 $12.99 + S/H
e-book: $5.99

[click for details]




Starports of all sizes require a lot of commercial and technical support. The success or failure of a space launch facility can be directly linked to its administration. Creating a positive entrepreneurial atmosphere for small businesses can greatly enhance the profit potential of any privately initiated, non-government, aerospace concern. While government-run starports do benefit from the hundreds of companies found in their jurisdictions, they don’t realize the commercial success that many civilian corporations enjoy.

Many of the firms that begin life as one-room shops can grow to become multi-million-dollar businesses. The failure rate for these companies tends to be rather high—estimated at better than 75 percent. For those with a pioneering spirit, the potential rewards justify the risks. Cutthroat competition among these “sweat equity” firms has been known to result in turf wars, contract fraud, assassination, and embezzlement. The rise of the modern multi-function starport has contributed to a renaissance in organized crime on every continent.

The rapid growth of most starports often means sudden accumulation of great wealth for those who get in early and stay alive long enough to cash in on the explosive growth of their businesses. It’s not uncommon for large corporations to buy out small, aggressive companies to avoid future competition with their visionary owners. The men and women who benefit from these mergers often go on to lives of excess and luxury while founding new concerns that continue to fuel the space race long after they are gone.




“So, what do you think?” the starport’s business rep shouted into the wind.

Ivan’s windbreaker flapped as the ocean breeze intensified. He looked up at the freshly painted sign on the newly constructed steel and concrete building. “I must be out of my mind.”

The cool midday sun peeked through low, fast-moving clouds. Mary Moon fidgeted with the zipper on her long coat. “I can think of worse ways to spend a million dollars. Ever since the war ended, we’ve had a real need for on-site electronics. You’ll be rich and famous. Trust me.”

The bald man rubbed his chin. Turning, he surveyed the empty parking lot and the distant surf line. “I think I already did. That’s why I’m here, up to my neck in debt, with no employees and no customers. Man, I can’t even see the launch towers from here.”

Mary gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. Her soft Athabascan features revealed a perfect smile. “Come on inside. There’s something I want to show you.”

Ivan followed her through a side door into the loading bay. Inside the brightly lit storage area, they stopped next to a white panel van. The sign on the vehicle’s long, flat side matched the one on the top of the building—Alaska Aerospace Electronics.

He looked at her over the rims of his glasses. “Does the building come with the van?”

She giggled. “No, silly. It’s a little gift from the administrator. Mr. Griffin wanted to show his thanks for your initiative.”

Ivan shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and walked around the van. “If I don’t get a big contract in the next few days, I won’t be able to put gas, hydrogen, or water into this thing. Does Mr. Griffin know that?”

Mary tossed her hair and stepped up to the van. She opened the driver’s side door and took a slim manila folder from the dashboard. “We launched our first space shuttle a few weeks ago. Just between you and me, there’s a deal in the works for a space platform. It’ll take a while for the bean-counters to hammer it out, but in the meantime, I think you’ll like this.”

He approached and took the file. Leaning on the side of the van, he lowered his bifocals halfway down his nose and read from the pages in the folder. “Repairs and upgrades for launch control and telemetry. Are you kidding me? This is peanuts. I have bank loans; I need real money. I could make more than this if I’d stayed in Fairbanks.”

The unflappable woman snatched the last page from the folder and gave it to him. “Learn to read, please. Custom-built parts. Proprietary software. If you can keep our secrets, you’ll be paid well. Do you think it’s easy to convince people to come out here? This is an island, and everybody knows it. If the weather isn’t bad, nasty, or terrible, it’s cold, wet, and inconvenient. We don’t do anything small here at the Kodiak Starport. If it’s not big and aimed at the future, we don’t waste our time.”

Ivan looked closely at the billing formulas on the printed page in his hand. “This isn’t a job offer; it’s a request for a bid. I’d need at least a week to put this together.”

“Work fast. Bid wisely,” she counseled, folding her hands.

Licking his lips, he nervously flicked through the pages again. “I’ll need an advance.”

Mary started walking toward the door. “You should ask for one. Who knows? You might get it.”

His face reddened as he started to follow her. “How much time do I have? Who am I competing with?”

Stopping at the open door, the longtime Kodiak resident made an exaggerated gesture to pretend she was searching. “Don’t think like a big city man. Look around. You’ll have competition soon enough. For now, you’re all we’ve got. If you’re nervous and afraid, think about how we feel. We just sold a building to a guy who hasn’t done any work for us before. You can always go back to Fairbanks. If we fail, lots of us will be stuck here.”

Upset and alone, Ivan walked through the empty spaces in his building. Environmental sensors registered a human presence, and the place slowly warmed. The AAE logo that sang the praises of Alaska Aerospace Electronics seemed to be stenciled brightly and happily on everything. Clean white hallways contrasted with dull gray work spaces. Automatic lights blazed to life as he entered the room designated as his office.

With the folder still clutched in one sweaty hand, he marveled at the faraway ocean view that greeted him through a vast expanse of photoreactive glass. With a shiver, he abruptly halted in front of a small fiberboard desk with a land-line telephone on it. Next to the desk stood a small, spindly plastic chair with a thin cushion and cheap casters.

Ivan’s boots made rude squeaking sounds as he shuffled across the length of the Spartan office to sit on the little chair. A plastic rivet popped as he put his full weight on the flimsy seat. The tiny shard of plastic bounced off the linoleum until it hit the nearest wall.

“That’s just great,” he mumbled as the chair gave way. Dropping to the floor with an undignified thump, he glared at the pieces of shattered plastic surrounding him. The crumpled file stared at him from the desktop at eye level.

The frustrated man unzipped his windbreaker and glared at the ceiling tiles. “Anything else? How about a fire? My insurance hasn’t kicked in yet. Kill me now or leave me alone.”

As if in response, the phone on his desk chirped. Struggling to his knees, he answered on the third ring. “Alaska Aerospace Electronics. Can I... can I help you?”

The voice on other end of the line sounded jolly. “I’m calling from Northern Pride.”

Ivan got to his feet. “Okay.”

The caller was gregarious. “I’ve got a customer who wants a specialized instrument package for his jet. What we’re looking at is basically a multi-band global positioning system with a built-in surface navigation enhancement. The client wants to link with a terrain-following sensor if he can get it. Touch screen interface with voice recognition and tutorial program. Can you do all that in the next thirty days? I know I’m reaching, but I saw your company’s ad in the phone book, and I said, ‘What the heck.’ You’d really be helping me out. Can you do it?”

Kicking slowly at the pieces of the ruined chair, Ivan thought about his worsening financial situation. “I don’t see an item like that it our inventory. We’d have to build it from scratch. Is your client ready to lay out that kind of money?”

The caller hesitated. “I think so. He’s not interested in owning the patent on the thing. He’s just going to want the item, you know?”

Ivan pulled his personal data device from his windbreaker. Typing with his thumb, he accessed the internet to look up the caller’s company. “Northern Pride, as in the aviation guys? Mat-Su Valley, right?”

“Birchwood,” the caller confirmed.

The company had a long list of accomplishments on its web site. Ivan recognized the brand names of a few very expensive electronic items and components. “If this is an add-on, how much instrument panel space do we have to work with?”

The caller paused to check his figures. “Two inches by two inches, four inches deep.”

“Power draw?”

More papers rustled as the caller reached for technical specifications. “No more than two amps for the instrument. I know we’ll have to see what the sensor needs all by itself. I’ve got a set of FAA requirements I can send. Would E-M shielding be a problem?”

The computer expert mumbled as he fumbled with the numbers. “Hey, it’s only money, right? Send your specs to my listed e-mail account. Thirty days is kind of short notice. We can do it, but I’ll have to put a few jobs on hold. If you don’t mind a rush fee, I’ll have our best people get to work on this just as soon as we get your first payment. You’ll have a cost estimate before lunch tomorrow. If the check clears, we get busy.”

The caller laughed as he made some notes. “Hey, man. Don’t burn me. My name’s on the door, if you know what I mean. I’ve got a lot riding on this client. This is our second jet for the year, and word is starting to get around. If we can pre-sell a few more before we build them, I’ll be getting back to you for more of this kind of thing. You got me?”

Ivan pulled the stylus from his PDD and opened a word processing program to make notes. “I get you. I’m the boss here, too. This gadget your client wants could be a hot seller. I won’t mess that up.”

“What’s it like at the Starport?”

Ivan shrugged. “What can I tell you? This is where all the action is.”

The man in Birchwood laughed through the digital connection. “I wish I had your confidence. I’ve worked hard to take this company from props to jets. I can’t imagine what it would take to make the jump to aerospace. You must be doing well.”

Ivan turned his back on the empty office to look out through the large window. In the distance, a bright, elongated flame climbed into the afternoon sky. The vehicle was too far away for him to see if it was a rocket, a shuttle, or one of the new self-contained lifting bodies. The importance of what he saw wasn’t lost on him.

“You still there?” the caller asked.

Knocked from his reverie, Ivan replied, “Yeah. I was just distracted by a space launch. Can’t tell you what it was, but it looked marvelous. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing—”

“Yeah, it must be great to be you,” the boss for Northern Pride said impatiently. “The rest of us have to work for a living. Can you get that estimate to me first thing tomorrow? I want to look it over before I show it to my client.”

Checking the clock on his phone, Ivan nodded. “Sure. It’s coming up on two now. I could have it for you by ten tonight. I’ll do it myself so that my engineers can clear their schedules for tomorrow. If the money comes through, we’ll be busy-busy inside of twenty-four hours. You can stay in touch with me every step of the way.”

“Great. By the way, my name’s Dick Roberts.”

“I saw that on your web site,” Ivan replied, nodding.

Dick laughed. “Who am I talking to?”

The computer expert sighed, “Ivan Gallagher. Owner and idiot in charge.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting you,” Roberts said before he hung up.

Ivan placed the receiver back onto its base. The flare from the ascending rocket was no longer visible. Sitting on the edge of his desk, he struggled with his PDD for several minutes. The electronics package that he was being asked to fabricate wouldn’t be that hard to make. Parts would be expensive, and time would be a factor. If a paid patent search came back negative, he would jump on it. Aviation and aerospace companies of all sorts could make huge sums off patented technologies. He continued working, his mood improving as the estimated dollar figures for the project grew.

When he could proceed no further with the limited tools at hand, Ivan locked up the building, activated the security system, and walked to his battered and rusty pickup truck. The sun had gone down, causing him to swear at the dashboard clock as he drove.

Rolling down one of the many long, paved roads that were so characteristic of the Starport’s forward-thinking layout, he slowed down each time he approached new construction. Buildings of all shapes and sizes were being put up by local contractors. This much was obvious from all the signs posted near each work site on every inhabited parcel of land he drove by.

After passing the administrative complex, he turned inland. On the far horizon, to his left, he could see the perimeter lighting for the hydrogen cracking plant. Driving through a block of employee housing, he parked near the Iceworm Bar and Grill. The place was a hangout for company employees and anyone looking for a job at the Starport. Soft blue fiber-optic lighting bathed the corrugated metal exterior of the restaurant in an eerie glow that seemed extremely inviting. Popular gossip suggested that the exact lightwave frequency had been selected by a psychologist from the University of Alaska. Local legend had it that this particular shade of blue was irresistible to humans with alcoholic tendencies.

Ivan checked the notes on his PDD before getting out of his truck. Locking the doors, he went into the bar. Illegal tobacco smoke hung like a gray fog inside the dim room as his lungs protested the sudden lack of oxygen. Fighting down the phlegm, he made his way past busy tables to the bar. Finding no empty stools, he wound through the mass of happy and talkative customers to the end of the bar. There, he found a dry-erase board with a black marker hanging on a string.

As part of his official orientation to the Kodiak facility, he’d been told that posting jobs at the Iceworm would get the word out faster, and it would have the added benefit of giving the locals an unofficial head start on any other candidates who might be applying from outside the state. Reading from his PDD, he scribbled on the cold, white surface of the dry-erase board. The felt pen scritched as he made each letter. He succinctly spelled out his needs: two programmers, part-time; one electronics engineer, full-time; one dynamic systems designer, part-time; one secretary/office manager, full-time. Estimated time of employment for all positions, thirty days with option to renew.

He took the time to add his employer ID number so that anyone who was interested could file an application through the Starport’s Office of Personnel Management. Because the space launch facility did business with several Western governments, federal law required anyone working at the Starport to undergo a background investigation. The automated process was fast, mandatory, and mostly accurate.

With his task done, Ivan elbowed his way out of the bar and into the restaurant. Without waiting to be seated, he flopped into a chair at a table in a quiet corner. Taking in a deep breath, he savored the smells coming from the kitchen and the superior air quality at this end of the building. Using his stylus, he tapped slowly on his PDD to access the internet and enter his employment offers into the official Starport job database.

As he finished, a waitress appeared. “Didn’t see you over here. Can I get you something to drink?” she asked cordially.

Ivan scratched his head. “How about a beer?”

“House or import?”

“Do you have something Irish?” he thought out loud.

She shook her head. “We’ve got six different kinds of Alaska-made beer.”

He shrugged. “Bring me something I don’t have to chew.”

As she departed, he looked at his PDD and reviewed the estimate for the Northern Pride project. With a twitch of his thumb, he added an extra zero to the total. “That looks about right,” he said to himself as the waitress returned. The increased number made him feel better.

“Looks about right for what?” she asked as she put a cold mug of honey-colored beer on the table in front of him.

He closed his PDD and put it away. “Looks about right to save my ass.”

The hostess smiled and moved to sit in the empty chair across from him. Her strawberry blonde curls bounced and she smiled. “I’ve always said that any man who could save his own ass was worth working for. I saw you writing on the board in the bar.”

Ivan’s head came up. “You saw that from all the way over here?”

She beamed. “I notice things. That’s why I’d be a great office manager.”

Tiredly, he wiped his chin and looked at the nearest clock. “It’s getting late, and I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I may not get to sleep tonight, and I’d really like a cheeseburger. If you’ve got the chops for it, I’ll be glad to see your online résumé tomorrow.”

The woman became tense. “Hey, come on. I know how this works. You’ll check your mail tomorrow and get a C.V. from some guy at the university in Anchorage with four college degrees who’s willing to start work at your company for minimum wage. I’m telling you, I’ve got chops that somebody like that could never have.”

“Do you have a college degree?” he asked.

She glanced over her shoulder. “You want to know about college degrees? Both of the guys behind the bar are aerospace engineers. The so-called ‘chef’ we have in the kitchen is some kind of rocket fuel genius. The guy who cuts her vegetables is a dynamic systems designer, whatever the hell that is. Me? I’m just a girl who barely graduated high school. I never had the money for college, but I’m self-taught on every piece of office software you could name. The only reason any of us are here is because guys like you don’t look past what’s on the paper. We sling drinks or hash because we have to, not because we want to.”

He found himself looking at her with a fresh perspective. “How fast can you type?”

She snorted. “Fifty words a minute, hung-over. One-fifty when I’m sober, which is most of the time, since I don’t really like to drink.”

He raised his mug and took a drink to stall as he thought. Clearing his throat, he took another drink. “I still want that cheeseburger. If it doesn’t taste like rocket fuel or a ground-up motherboard, I’ll be willing to take your résumé with me when I go.”

She stood up. “Doesn’t initiative mean anything to you?”

He bristled. “Hey, I am all about initiative right now. You know what I got? I have an empty building, no tools, no employees, a job offer that might fall through, and no cheeseburger. I have no toilet paper except what I’m going to steal from this place, and the fifty bucks I have in my pocket will all be gone after I pay my dinner bill and put gas in my truck—which I live in.”

The woman sat back in her chair. “I’m sorry. I’ve never met anyone who had it like that. At least you’ve still got a truck to sleep in. I share a crummy house trailer with five other people. Three of them are computer programmers. You have no idea what it’s like to live with nerds.”

Ivan chuckled. “I’ve never been one, but I do know a few things about nerds.”

The waitress pointed to the kitchen. “I’ll trade you a cheeseburger for a job interview.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know...”

She stepped in close. “Even if you hire me at minimum wage, I’m still better off. I’m in good with the people who run this dump. I can get hours waiting tables or bussing when somebody calls in sick. The only way to make it on this island is to have something on your résumé that isn’t retail or food services. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but most of the people in here don’t have criminal records. That includes the customers. We’re just like you; we’re looking for that one good break.”

He stared at his half-empty beer mug. “I could think better if I had a cheeseburger in me.”

“My name is Peggy,” the energetic woman said as she jogged for the kitchen.

Another sip of the cold beer helped him to mellow. As he relaxed, he remembered the rocket launch he’d seen earlier that day. He thought about his own reasons for coming to Kodiak, and all the risks associated with such a bold move. He considered the unexpected phone call, and what a lucky break it could be. He thought about Peggy the waitress and what she had said.

The server was ebullient as she returned with his cheeseburger. “I just want you to know that I logged my application with the employment database. You know my name, so it won’t be hard to figure out which résumé is mine.”

In spite of her excitement, he could tell that she was bracing for rejection. “I still need to taste this cheeseburger.”

She waited courteously while he worked his way through two bites. After a long swig that finished off the beer in his glass, he put the mug down with a flourish. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. I still want to see what’s on your résumé.”

She nodded. “Check it.”

With a burp, he took out his PDD and accessed his business e-mail account. There were six responses to his request for computer programmers, two for his request for an electronics engineer, and only one for the position of office manager. He opened that message and read the short résumé.

One item caught his eye. “You went to Tanana Valley Community College?”

“Accounting and secretarial studies,” she admitted.

He folded his PDD and put it away. “Why are you here?”

“I don’t understand the question,” she answered warily.

Ivan turned in his chair to look right at her. “They call this place a starport, but it’s really just a super-sized industrial park. I know why I’m here. I suppose I never really thought about it until now, but I do know that much. I know what I want to do. I’m asking you the same question. Why are you here?”

Peggy fidgeted. “I don’t know. I suppose I never gave it much thought.”

He stayed busy for a moment with his food. “Your résumé says you graduated from a high school in Anchorage. What made you cross the water?”

The peripatetic woman sat across from him. “I just did, okay? I’m not very cosmic. I don’t try to figure these things out. I was looking for a cool job, and this place seemed like it might have what I wanted. It’s not my fault it turned out to be cold, wet, rainy, and so freaking miserable that I could just die every time it snows.”

Ivan ate the last of his cheeseburger and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. “Sounds to me like you’re here for all the right reasons. The last thing I want in an office manager is a ladder climbing résumé hog. I’ll consider this to be your job interview. Come to my office tomorrow morning at eight and I’ll give you my decision. You can get the address off the job announcement.”

Peggy smiled, pleased. “You’re a good guy. The fact that you didn’t ask me to sleep with you says a lot.”

He smiled back and reached for his wallet. “I’m too tired for that, and I have too much to do. I might use you as a pillow, but that’s about as far as we’d get. Here’s twenty. Keep the change. Don’t say anything to anybody about this. I’ll tell you straight when I’ve made up my mind. I’m in a bad place right now, and it’s hard to think. Let’s see what everything looks like tomorrow morning and go from there.”

The woman disappeared with a nod. Ivan left the Iceworm and walked back to his truck. The sky held a three-quarter moon. He stopped at a nearby gas station to put twenty dollars worth of petro-ethanol in his tank. The idea of having just ten dollars in his pocket didn’t seem like such a bad thing as he drove back to his empty office building.

The dashboard clock ticked over to 11 p.m. as he turned off the security system and opened the garage door with the remote control keyed into his PDD. The old truck rolled to a stop next to the clean white van, with an embarrassing squeak of tires, shocks, and leaf springs. Turning off the engine, he got out and climbed into the rusty bed of the vehicle as the overhead lights came on.

Pulling off the canvas that covered his personal possessions, he dropped the tailgate with a bang as the loading bay door closed automatically. Starting with a pair of long folding tables, he made ten trips from his truck to the nearest work station. The large ventilated room was labeled as a machine shop. An hour and ten minutes later, he’d unpacked six hand-built computers in various states of repair, and a mismatched assortment of bench tools and testing gear. Seven displays and monitors sat on the floor where he’d stacked them. Two cardboard boxes of circuits, boards, modems, memory devices, and connectors completed the inventory.

“You have got to be kidding,” Ivan muttered when he realized he still had no chair. Using both of the dirty spare tires from his truck, he fashioned a temporary seat. He adjusted the environmental controls for the big room, increasing the light levels, and then peeled off his coat. Working fast, he assembled one of the desktop computers. Plugging the cobbled-together PC into the building’s surface area network, he accessed the internet. Working through the night, he completed more than fifty pages of federal and state paperwork relating to the specialized electronics package he was being asked to build.

He sweated from stress as he paid filing and research fees with a rapidly shrinking credit line. Patent options, permits, and contracts for professional diagrams ate into his self-esteem as much as they brutalized his credit rating. As the sun came up over the mountains, he completed his first round of part orders. The only good news seemed to be that his thumbnail cost estimate was running a little high. He’d be able to come down on his asking price if the need arose. Even so, many of the precision components he wanted would take two weeks or more to arrive on his doorstep.

He had just sent his formal proposal for the Northern Pride project when an automated gender-neutral voice from the intercom jarred him into a fully upright standing position.

“Door bell, customer service entrance. Human assistance is required.”

Pulling off his glasses, he wiped his greasy face. The chime sounded three more times before he was able to find the customer service entrance. His PDD told him it was two minutes after eight. Through the security glass in the large door, he could see a humanoid figure wrapped in a long, green raincoat. Cold sleet and rain pelted off the dark vinyl of her coat as Peggy raised a pair of large, white, plastic coffee cups.

“Come in,” he said as he opened the door.

Her athletic shoes squeaked on the thick rubber door mat as she hurried in. “I’m not late—you are. Remember that. Here, have some coffee.”

Ivan closed the door and drank from the offered cup. “I’ve got a few things to finish up, then we can talk.”

She followed him back to his work area as rainwater dribbled off her gear. “I was so excited, I could hardly sleep. Say, is it just me or do you have a whole lot of nothing going on around here?”

The bleary-eyed man showed her into his cluttered work space. “This is a million-dollar building. If I can hang on to it, I’ll fill it with million-dollar ideas.”

“Don’t forget million-dollar people,” Peggy commented as she slurped her coffee.

He shuffled his feet. “Look, I haven’t really had time to look at your résumé. You showed up, and that counts for a lot in my book. The job is yours, at minimum, if you want it.”

She lowered her cup. “Of course I want it. That’s why I’m here. There’s a dozen people in my same situation on this end of the island. I’m not going to let you take advantage of me, but I’ll go the extra mile if that’s what it takes. From what I see right now, you need all the help you can get. No offense.”

Ivan rubbed the sweat from his forehead. “None taken. I’ll forward your résumé to the employment officer for the background check. Get down to the starport admin center right now. Don’t leave until you’ve got your papers and ID card. If your background doesn’t check out as clean, don’t bother coming back here, okay?”

“No runs, no drips, no errors. I’m clean,” she quipped as she zipped up her raincoat.

He nodded. “If that turns out to be true, get me some office furniture on the way back. Start with chairs. There are at least two thrift stores on this island. Bring me the receipts and I’ll reimburse you.”

Peggy frowned. “You don’t have any cash?”

With a sigh, he handed over the last of his money. She eyed the damp ten dollar bill before putting it in her wallet. “If I didn’t know you lived in a truck, I’d swear you were cheap.”

Ivan laid a hand on the top of his computer. “The instrument proposal I just sent doesn’t have a lot of zeroes before the decimal, but it’ll be enough to get me some clean underwear and cover your first paycheck. I promise.”

She laughed and headed for the door after tossing her empty cup into a trash bin.

Time slowed as fatigue set in. Ivan’s head and feet felt heavy as he shuffled off to the nearest bathroom. The idea of waiting for the phone to ring seemed preposterous as he went about his morning ablutions. An improvised sponge bath and a quick shave with a disposable razor well past its prime didn’t make him feel better, but it did keep him awake. Without thinking, he put on the same clothes he’d worn the day before.

His company phone chirped at five minutes after ten. Sitting on the floor of his office, he picked up the old-fashioned receiver.

Roberts was on the other end, sounding enthusiastic. “Hey, man, I like this. Tell your people they do good work. Just one question. I did some checking. The price-tag for an item like this seems a little bit low. What’s going on with that?”

Ivan mentally cursed his lack of retail market research. “You said your client didn’t want to own the patent on the thing. I’m just trying to be cool about it so we can do business again.”

The jet mechanic became conspiratorial. “You want to knock the price on this up by about ten percent? I’ll split the difference with you. I don’t know about you, but I could use the money. I’ve got a son that likes to eat quite a bit. He just started college, and that ain’t cheap, either.”

Ivan yawned, and then shook his head to drive away the floaters from his tired eyes. “I don’t care what you do on your end. Just like you, my name is on the door. You’ll get a fair price from me and a good product. Nothing else... mostly.”

“Are things that good out there?” Roberts asked, openly envious.

Getting to his feet, Ivan looked out the window. Bronze light flickered on the roiling sea as the mid-morning sun began to make its presence felt. “You shouldn’t believe everything you see on the news. Local weather takes some getting used to. It’s a small price to pay for being so close to the real deal.”

“When are you going into space?” Roberts asked, only half joking.

The woozy business man tapped on the nearest window glass. “Not today, I can tell you that right now. If it’s not a problem, I’d like to get the down payment on that project by this afternoon. I can still do the rush job, just this once. We’re going to burn the candle at both ends to make your thirty-day deadline.”

The implication made the other man pause. “Gee. Maybe I want to stay right where I am. I don’t think I want that much work. Building two or three jets a year from scratch is good enough for me. You must be raking it in.”

Ivan looked down at his wrinkled clothes. “So busy I barely have time to sleep.”

“I’ll call you back at two with the client’s answer. Can I get you at this number?”

“Sure,” Ivan slurred through a yawn that overpowered him.

The caffeine crash combined with fatigue blurred his vision. Stumbling out to his truck, he unrolled a sleeping bag on the tailgate and fell asleep. The door chime, followed by an automated message from the intercom, startled him back to life just after 1:30.

“Door bell, customer service entrance. Human assistance is required.”

Sliding off the tailgate, he put on his glasses and plodded to the door. Peering through a small window, he could see a late-model pickup truck waiting near the entrance to the loading bay. Headlights flashed when the driver caught sight of him through the pouring rain. The vehicle’s cargo appeared to be covered by at least two large blue plastic tarps. When Ivan didn’t move, the driver honked three times. The old truck’s horn sounded just as tired and worn out as he felt. After another moment of hesitation, he keyed the garage door to open.

As the vehicle slid to a stop inside the loading area, Peggy slid from the cab, accompanied by two young men. “Don’t say anything. I needed these guys to move the furniture.”

Ivan waited for the garage door to close before he walked over to see what was under the tarps in the back of the truck. Without being told, the men began to unload modular office furniture. The pile, which included at least eight chairs, grew quickly in the remaining empty space of the now full loading dock.

“You got all this for ten bucks?” he asked slowly.

“I got all this for nothing,” she stated boldly.

Ivan raised his hands and his voice. “Hold on! Who did you rob?”

The ambitious woman said smugly, “I know a guy. This stuff was in storage and it’s been unclaimed for two years. So, I claimed it. I used your ten bucks to get these guys and their truck for thirty minutes. Neat, huh?”

Confused, Ivan scratched his head and moved in to examine the loot. “You guys on the level about this?”

One of the workers lowered a disassembled desk to the concrete and nodded. “There’s junk like this all over the starport. Furniture, appliances, computers. You name it. This place is growing so fast that I don’t think anyone really knows what’s been shoved aside and forgotten. I once talked to a guy who got his hands on four unused coffins.”

Ivan was about to speak when his PDD signaled an incoming message. Flipping the device open, he thumbed through a series of menus until he found what he was looking for. The e-mail from Northern Pride contained the order confirmation and an attachment for an invoice... and the confirmation slip for a bank transfer. As requested, Roberts’ client had paid half the projected design and production cost up front. The rest would be due in thirty days.

“Good news?” Peggy asked.

He closed the PDD. “Nope. Just another bill.”

“Sorry,” she pouted.

The instrument development deal was good news, but it didn’t mean he was out of the woods yet. Most of the advance would be spent in just three days to make minimum payments against his many bills. To get out of the hole and build up some forward momentum, he’d have to drum up more business so that he could afford to recruit new employees.

He looked at the pile of dusty furniture. “Say, guys, I heard you mention computers. Are we talking about hand-helds, desktops, or mainframes?”

The fellow who’d been talking about coffins pulled out a chair and sat. “Parts is parts.”

Ivan smiled. “Not quite. Parts with warranties are worth having. Anything else is junk.”

The second man wiped at his pants. “You want processors and memory devices. Man, are you that hard up?”

“Suppose I am?” he asked as the germ of an idea began to take root in his tired mind.

With their cargo unloaded, the two men neatly folded the tarpaulins and piled into their truck. The engine turned over after a slow grind. The driver stuck his head out. “Peggy has our number. We’ll start looking for computer junk with active warranties. Give us a week. See you!”

Sensors in the area detected the movement of the truck and automatically opened the garage door. The two men sped off into the rain and fading afternoon light.

Ivan massaged his temples and tried to think as Peggy began to separate the pieces of furniture. She seemed quite interested in the modular desk set. “Man, this is great! I didn’t realize all this stuff matched. Have you seen the list price for this kind of thing? There’s got to be five grand in perfectly good stuff sitting in this pile.”

“Can I assume your background check came back clean?” he asked.

She stopped what she was doing to take off her raincoat. She reached for the smart card that hung around her neck and handed it to him. “You forgot to log me in as your pick, but some lady named Mary Moon fixed it. Customer service or something like that. I don’t know. She was nice, though. That ID card will tell you everything about me except my shoe size.”

Ivan used his PDD to scan the card. As promised, her starport personnel records were up to date, with no signs of a criminal record. Her employment history was short. Five years of progressively responsible administrative work, two years in food service, one year in retail. It was the curriculum vitae of a hard worker. Her physical address indicated a trailer park that he was familiar with.

The clock on his PDD read 2:30. Ivan went to his truck. Rolling up the sleeping bag, he tossed it forward and raised the tailgate with a loud metal clack. “I have to go see somebody about a project bid. I’m not sure when I’ll be back. You should stop what you’re doing and go home. We can get a fresh start tomorrow.”

Peggy stood up. “Man, you look like I feel, but that’s no reason to quit early. I’ve had enough office jobs to know that it’s all about the hustle. You can tell yourself that tomorrow is a new day and all that junk, but nothing beats honest sweat and hard labor.”

Ivan swayed on his feet. “What are you suggesting?”

She pushed a box of small parts to one side. “If you have a deal to make, go and do it. When I leave, the maintenance computer will shut off the lights and lock all the doors. Putting this stuff together isn’t hard, but it will take time. I brought my own screwdriver.”

Ivan went to his truck. Sitting in the cab with the door open, he used his PDD to phone Mary Moon. “Do you have time to see me today? My schedule has opened up, and I’d like to file a bid on that job you mentioned yesterday.”

She was calm, positive and direct. “That’s good news. If you can get over here now, I’d be willing to have my staff assistant lend a hand with the paperwork. I know that parts and tools are a problem just now, but we can use all the help we can get. There’s a lifting body going up in six days. Ground control is having problems with software and some old hardware. If you can make the red lights turn green, you’ll be somebody’s hero.”

He rubbed his tired eyes. “Could I be a hero with a two-week cash advance?”

Mary tried not to laugh. “I’m sorry. That’s not funny. Things must be pretty tense for you right now. Yes, we can arrange a cash advance. You’ll have more than enough overtime to make up for it. I wouldn’t count on this kind of generosity again, though. We need your services, but this is a growing business. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a free hand for six months before somebody figures out what you’re doing. Then, boyo, you’ll have all the competition you can handle.”

“I’m on my way,” he said, and then ended the call.

“Good news?” Peggy asked as she walked into his field of vision.

He nodded. “I think so. Look, I’m in for some hard knocks. I think I’m going to need people on my payroll who’ve already been kicked around some. Last night, you mentioned that somebody who works at the Iceworm is a dynamic systems expert. Tell him to call me. I want to see his résumé and his portfolio. If I like what I see, I’ll talk to him face to face.”

She grinned. “I’ll tell him. I’ve got part-time hours for the rest of the week.”

Ivan looked away. “Thirty days is a long time. Even with minimum wage help, it’s not a sure thing. What kind of car do you drive?”

It was her turn to look away. “I don’t have a car.”

“How did you get here this morning?”

She blinked. “Walked some, hitched the rest. Had to keep the coffee warm.”

He took his keys from the ignition and got out of the truck. “You know what? I’m going to take the van. Got my image to think of.”

Pulling the door and engine keys off his crowded ring, he handed them to Peggy. “This truck has a full tank of gas. Before you go, take the stuff out of the back and leave it in my office.”

“I can’t take this,” she protested.

Ivan kept moving toward the long, white panel van. “Your résumé says you have a driver’s license and no outstanding tickets. Like I said, I have my image to think about. You’ll make me look bad if people see you walking to work. The gas in that truck should last you two weeks. If it doesn’t, that’s your problem.”

She put the keys in her pocket as he opened the driver’s side door and swung into the van. Her large smile made him feel good. He closed the door and powered down the window. “Remember what you said about looking for a good break? Well, this is it... for both of us.”

Powering the window back up, he used the van’s instrument panel to open the garage door. He backed out and sped away, surrounded by the aroma of new car.

The vehicle’s automatic seatbelt system held him comfortably in place as he drove. On-board sensors turned up the headlights and adjusted their lightwave output to provide the best possible illumination through the pouring rain.

Minutes later, he arrived at the busy administration building. No covered parking was available. He found a spot near the entrance and shut the engine off. Bracing himself, he leapt out of the van and rushed through the cold rain into the well-furnished lobby. The sudden attack of chilled water rolling down his neck was like a shot of adrenaline. Still moving rapidly, he followed the directions printed on signs that hung from the ceiling until he reached a suite of offices labeled ‘Small Business Support.’

Mary’s staff assistant was waiting for him in the outer office. Her professional dress matched her demeanor. She was brisk, but never impolite. Working in a reserved conference room, she made no comments about his fidgeting or his pacing to hold off the fatigue that was causing his speech to slow at irregular intervals.

After three hours of intense questions and answers, followed by signatures on more than two dozen forms, she suggested that he take a break.

“Thank you.” He smiled, popping up from his chair like a cork from a pressurized bottle. Walking quickly out of the long conference chamber, he went to the nearest bathroom. After relieving himself and washing his hands, he went in search of a vending machine. Tearing open a small compartment inside his Velcro wallet, he removed six one-dollar coins and fed them into the automated dispenser. Punching the selector button twice, he reached for two large frosty cold bottles. They toppled out of the mechanism into his waiting hands.

Walking slowly back toward the conference room, he luxuriated in the five throat-searing swallows it took to empty the first bottle of cola. Dropping the empty container in the first trash can he passed, Ivan was met by Mary Moon and a nervous man in blue jeans. The worried man’s ebony features were washed out by the loud t-shirt he wore.

The business manager tossed her hair as she stepped forward. “Mr. Gallagher, would you come with me? We have a problem that needs your expertise, and we’d like to have it handled quietly. I can’t really take ‘no’ for an answer, okay?”

“Let’s roll,” he said, opening the second bottle of caffeinated soda with a hiss.

The black man strolled next to him as Mary led the way. “We’re going to launch control. There’s a problem with a wireless relay in the telemetry section. It’s old stuff. If we had somebody on staff, I’d call ’em. Trouble is, this stuff is old-old, you know?”

Ivan took a long drink as they passed through a secured checkpoint. “Everything and everybody burns out, eventually.”

The ground controller put a hand on his shoulder. “If it works, we don’t mess with it. You’ll have to see what I’m talking about for yourself. This was sabotage. Somebody blew it up.”

“What’ve you got for a backup?” Ivan asked through a small burp.

The other man shook his head. “Our budget has been really tight. The old man makes every penny scream before it goes out the door. Somebody used a small plastic explosive charge on an item that was our last unit in spares.”

Ivan continued to follow Mary as she picked up the pace. “If your thingy was wireless, it couldn’t have been memory. Control interface?”

“Yeah,” the technician replied, nodding grimly.

Energized by the sugar and stimulant spike, Ivan took out a handkerchief to clean his glasses while they rode an elevator down two stories. “Sounds like your fix will be a few snips of fiber optic line and some rearranged cards.”

“If we had any,” the worried aerospace worker grumbled.

Ivan paused after he was led out of the elevator. “I’ve noticed something. Ever since I got here, it’s been all about scrap and scrounge. Where’s all the state-of-the-art stuff? How come everybody is making do with programs and parts that are five and six years old?”

Mary stopped to hold a door open for the men to pass. “It’s all about profitability. We can get our clients into space if we can keep it affordable. The real profits come from long-term contracts. Telemetry maintenance, for example. They pay us to put it up there, and then they pay us to drive it around for them.”

Ivan trotted down the dark steps, as indicated. “You said something about sabotage?”

The controller stopped to open a locked door with his thumb print. “We have competitors. Not just other starports, but aerospace companies of all shapes and sizes. Whoever put a spy on the inside of our operation used less than a hundred bucks worth of synthetic trinitrotoluene in just the right spot. If our insurance carrier finds out that we’ve lost control of the packages, platforms, and vehicles we’re supposed to be monitoring—for any length of time—they can and will cancel our coverage.”

Mary pushed Ivan through the open door. “No insurance means breach of contract to every client we have, which means we sink faster than the Titanic. The clock really is ticking. That system’s been offline for eight minutes. If the spy phoned in a tip to our insurance company, we can expect to hear from them at any time. When their rep shows up, they need to see a fully functional operation with no evidence of sabotage.”

Lurching into a large, cold room, Ivan stopped in front of a layout diagram. The controller pointed to the affected section of component racks. Jogging more than fifty feet to the indicated group of systems, he came to a halt in front of a lopsided mass of smoking, twisted metal that smelled of burnt plastic.

“Holy cow,” he blurted as the controller arrived, followed by a fast-walking Mary.

The man pointed at the surrounding boxes. “See what I mean? Very precise. Almost no collateral damage. You still think this can be fixed with cables and cards?”

Ivan scratched his chin. “It would be very... very... temporary.”

“What do you need?” the technician asked.

Ivan emptied his soda bottle in one long gurgling swallow. Handing the bottle to Mary, he stepped in close to eyeball the outdated electronics. “Be honest with me. This makes these talk to those, right?”

The tech looked at Mary, then to Ivan. “The short answer is ‘yes.’ I wish I could say more, but you’re not cleared for this and I’d like to keep my job.”

Ivan staggered slightly. “Okay, then. Turn it off. Everything in this rack that draws power needs to be off so I don’t electrocute myself. Then, I’ll need a hammer and the oldest fax machine you’ve got. I can get what I need from that. Pliers, and a soldering iron. Duct tape is good, but not vital.”

Mary looked at her watch and nudged the controller. “Beg, borrow, steal.”

Ivan watched the serious man run to the door. “I can’t believe you guys are this helpless.”

The company rep folded her arms. “We’ve had other problems with security. Some of the people who come to work here are worse than spies. They lie on their applications. We have to let them go when it turns out they can’t actually do the job. We can still do everything we advertise, but we’re short-handed right now.”

Without warning, all the indicator lights on the shelf of affected systems winked out. Six minutes crawled by before the controller returned with the requested items and an audience.

Ivan talked as he worked. “You guys really do need to switch this stuff to a surface network. It’d be much harder to sabotage. Whoever did this was smart, or they had good advice. Most people go out of their way to put lots of safeties in their software. Very few people think about protecting their hardware.”

His remarks drew a barrage of spiteful comments from the assembled technicians as he worked to remove the destroyed components. Mary shouted them down as he tore open the fax machine to cannibalize parts. “This won’t be encrypted, and it’ll melt in about fifteen hours of constant use. That should be just enough time to order the good stuff and have it flown in overnight. Have your people call my people, and I’ll be back here tomorrow to plug and play.” He rapidly completed his makeshift repairs. “Cross your fingers and turn on the power.”

Mary smiled. “Come on, let me show you something.”

As the crowd broke up, she led him out of the secured electronics bay. On his way out, he gave the hammer and pliers to the man in the bright t-shirt. “Don’t lose those. I might need them later. Reboot the system, one box at a time. Don’t tax the bit rate until everything is up to full cycle.”

Tossing the empty drink bottle into a trash receptacle as she walked, Mary guided Ivan to an elevator. They rode up three floors. “Thanks.”

He yawned. “I don’t think my paperwork is done. Do I still get to bill you for that?”

She laughed as they got off the elevator and walked down a dimly lit hallway. “Your paperwork is done, and yes, you can bill us for that. My assistant said you were a real trouper.”

“It’s what I do,” he mumbled as they walked through a large pair of metal doors.

“This is what it’s all about,” she said, stepping aside so that he could see the vast layout of the ground control department.

A hundred plasma screens hung above more than fifty consoles as men and women worked quietly, alone or in pairs. In the center of the cavernous chamber, a massive holographic display portrayed the Earth and more than four thousand telemetry tracks. Satellites, platforms, and junk were each represented by tiny luminous icons.

When he didn’t speak, Mary pointed to the orbit model. “Everything in blue is ours. Nothing else is color-coded, just to keep it simple. The image is accurate down to the weather patterns, which are updated in real-time at a rate of five times per second. Eventually, when you have a security rating, you’ll be able to have a closer look.”

“How long does that take?” he asked, stepping closer to a handrail, his eyes not leaving the station.

She giggled in appreciation of his awe. “Three to five weeks. It’s a very thorough background check, and it’ll include your employees.”

The control room’s illumination caught his attention. He checked the clock on his PDD. “Man, you could lose track of time in here. If I’m going to beat the background check to get that clearance, I’d better get busy with the hiring.” He paused. “You know what? I saw a launch yesterday. That was really something.”

Mary glanced at her own PDD. “That was a new satellite for Polar News Group. They’re a good customer. If we can keep the spies out and work smart, you should see more launches. If you want to see something really spectacular, keep an eye open for the lifting body that goes up next week. It’s fully self-contained—goes up and comes down under its own power. There’ll be some very big flares when it takes off.”

Ivan walked beside her as they left mission control. “You tell me if those guys need a cup holder, or something with a touch screen.”

Mary’s PDD signaled a waiting phone call. “That’ll be the insurance company. Can you find your way out? This may take a while.”

He tossed off a mock salute and went back to the elevator. Arriving on the ground floor, he shuffled into the lobby. Through the large tinted windows, he could see that the rain had stopped. The afternoon sky was clearing as he left the building and walked to his van. Unlocking the door, he slid into the cool, dim cab. His PDD beeped to get his attention. The caller ID function indicated that somebody was dialing in from an aerospace company he’d never heard of.

“Hello?” he drawled while starting the engine.

“Hey, I know it’s after five. Sorry for the late call.” The caller sounded frustrated. “I’m working on a navigation assembly, and I got some bad boards from an out-of-state company. Your web site says you have a shop here at the Starport. Would you have anything in stock that’ll work for me? I can give you the part numbers.”

Ivan took his foot off the accelerator. “How do you know your parts are bad? Have they been tested?”

The caller sighed. “Look, this isn’t my regular job. Our ship goes up in five days. These are fifty-dollar parts. The knucklehead who handles this stuff is on vacation. There isn’t enough time to have these things fixed, and I don’t have time to order more before the launch.”

Ivan sat up. “Five days? Is your company sending up that lifting body I heard about?”

The proud smile on the other man’s face could be heard through the connection. “Yeah, that’s us. Two hundred and seven thousand pounds of self-propelled ceramics, carbon fiber, steel, and titanium. You should come by and see it. The way things are going, I’m going to be here all night.”

The invitation made Ivan smile. “I’m at the Starport admin. They called me in to do some troubleshooting. Let me swing by my shop and get some tools and testing gear. It could be nothing more than a few loose micro-parts. I can fix that. After we get your problem taken care of, you can show me the cockpit.”

The caller gave a relieved sigh. “Come on over. The boss is gone for the day, and I really do need your help. If you can save my bacon, I’ll let you sit in the pilot’s chair. Who knows, it could be the closest that either of us will ever get to being in space.”


by Justin Oldham
Publisher: Silverthought Press

ISBN-10: 0-9815191-1-3
ISBN-13: 978-0-9815191-1-1

240 pages

paperback: $11.99 $12.99 + S/H

[click for details]




Copyright © 2008 Justin Oldham

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Justin Oldham is a legally blind writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. He holds bachelor's degrees in political science and history. In addition to writing short fiction, novels, and fact-based books, he is a political essayist, blogger, and part-time radio commentator. His other works include the novel Politics & Patriotism: The Fisk Conspiracy.

For more information about Justin and his various projects, please visit his website at www.justin-oldham.com.

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