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Groundties

By
J. S. Fancher
 

Making an Entrance: Part 1
Stephen

"Disappearing data?" Lexi couldn't believe she was hearing correctly. "A whole person? As in gone? As in off the 'Net? I thought that was impossible."

"Supposedly it is." Cantrell seemed perfectly serious.

"Just one person?"

"Two that we know of," TJ replied from his side of the document-strewn table. Security documents. Not on file on the 'Net. Maybe not on the Secured Line Transmission. "Both researchers. How many others is one of the things we hope to find out."

"How did they discover the-- "How did you refer to something that couldn't happen? "--dropouts?"

"In the general investigation of this notorious Smith's postgraduate production, a piece of an archived file the balance of which was not on the 'Net put them onto the problem. Followup got no information, period, on one Barbra Liu. No personal files, no professional; nothing. Council's hardcopy SciCorps register showed them what researchers should appear on HuteNamid records, which turned up William Bennett's absence. As far as the experts can tell, the glitch is confined to HuteNamid files, but the error glitched outward, somehow got through the 'Net and into local ReaITime memory files."

"But you can't . . ." Lexi shut her mouth. Fast. This went way beyond SecFive. You didn't talk about the 'Net losing things. You didn't ask the question she'd been about to ask.

"The 'Net does things," Cantrell said carefully, "for reasons you have to ask somebody who understands NSpace communications better than I do; and even then you won't get a straight answer. Personally, I don't think they really know. Officially, we're not assuming it goes beyond HuteNamid."

"But it already has, admiral," TJ objected.

"Quite," Cantrell said drily.

The file fallout could well explain why the Council had released a SecOne StarShip on this particular RecRun, but:

"What about Smith's paper, admiral?" Lexi asked, her earlier question suddenly achieving far greater significance. "What's it about? Does it have anything to do with the glitch?"

Cantrell shrugged, scattering a bead-glitter throughout the small conference room. "Meeker never mentioned it. Danislav seems to have determined it's worthless; perhaps Council agrees. Obviously, this Ridenour kid thinks it's valid. As for the 'Net Authority . . . who knows what the 'NetAT thinks?"

"The 'NetAT's been all too retiring in this for my taste," TJ growled.

A second scattering glitter. "They're never prone to overt participation."

"But why in hell are they sending this green kid? We're not talking ordinary RecRun here. What's wrong with an experienced secured 'NetTech? Hell, what do we pay Chet that big salary for? He's one of the 'NetAT's own. He could--"

"He's backup, for sure. But Chet's also very much on Record--both his association with the 'NetAT and Cetacean. Maybe that's why we're being sent."

"Ridenour's handling it, but Chet's the real rep?"

"Maybe. And maybe the 'NetAT doesn't take the whole problem any more seriously than Danislav does. He calls Smith a prankster and Ridenour a gullible fool. He says Ridenour's off-course entirely."

"Then Danislav's the fool. If Ridenour's off-course, why the Council's involvement? Why Cetacean?"

"Could the 'NetAT have engineered the whole thing?" Lexi ventured. "Maybe created the glitch? Maybe even steered Ridenour toward Smith's paper?"

"They could have," TJ said, "but, why?"

Good question. She had no answer, but Cantrell did:

"Ridenour."

"What about him?" TJ asked.

"Kurt called him 'special.' Danislav implied he's not exactly swift--in fact, made a point of it. Say Kurt knows something Danislav isn't admitting. Say this Ridenour's really a wiz-kid. Right now, Danislav controls him, legally and psychologically. Maybe the 'NetAT wants him free and this is a way to bust him out. It's like Kurt: if all goes well, create it position for the boy--give a bright Recon kid at break: maybe even help get him into the 'NetAT program, if it ends up that's what the kid wants." She laughed humorlessly. "That'd give Shapoorian a seizure. now, wouldn't it? The 'NetAT's one entity she can't control. And a Recon DProg? Does boggle the mind."

TJ said: "Or it could be Kurt's just getting old and sees a chance to win one against Mialla Shapoorian. --So we're going to have to trust a kid's judgment in this whole damnable mess to make Eckersley look good?"

"'Bout have to, won't we? past a certain point? We've got Chet. He'll keep tabs on Ridenour as well as anyone can, but any good 'NetTech's got an effective security clearance higher than God. If one goes bad--"

"--You better shoot him," TJ said: and Lexi thought:

Fast.

Cantrell nodded grimly. "It's worth making real good friends with this Ridenour. Help him have a pleasant trip."

TJ said, "Wonder how much Council really thinks it knows."

"Council has to rely on the 'NetTechs, ultimately," Cantrell said. "Ultimately, so do we. So we don't use them for target practice before we know what they've done to the 'Net."

TJ said, "I'd like to know why Eckersley never mentioned this kid before."

"I'd like to know the same thing. I'll tell you, it doesn't do a whole helluva lot for my confidence in anything else Eckersley's done and said over the years. I thought we were on the same side." The admiral rose and handed a security packet to Lexi while TJ gathered the reports from the table. "Read up. If Danislav's right and that kid is unstable because of his background, you're likely to be our best hope of gluing him back together if he blows."

She opened the packet, saw the diary within. "Ridenour's?"

Cantrell nodded.

"Admiral, if his background is SecOne, does he knew that we know he's Recon? I mean, if the students knew . . ."

"Good question." Cantrell frowned. "Hell, don't mention it until he does."

"What's his official story?" Lexi asked.

"According to Danislav, Del d'Buggers usually approach the researcher in question very quietly. Legalities. Officially, Ridenour's along as Cetacean's tech advisor and as a possible transfer to the HuteNamid 'Tank. Ostensibly, he's along to check out the facilities, to see whether he wants to join that team. Since he's in Smith's field, that will allow him to approach Smith discreetly. Smith gave no cites whatsoever in his paper; he must be expecting questions."

"Does Ridenour know about the missing records?"

"At a student's security level? Unless he's deeper in this than we've been told, he doesn't know anything yet about missing records. Not even Danislav knows that. Just 'discrepancies' and that only as a cover story for his investigation of Smith's paper."

TJ said slowly, "If Ridenour lives in this universe, he sure doesn't think transporting him is our only reason for going. Eventually, this kid is going is going to start asking Lexi's question, isn't he? Maybe start to think his cover's not a contrived story and maybe understanding a whole lot more than we're going to figure. Danislav called Smith Designer material. Academies don't just hand out doctorates to twenty-year-olds. The 'NetAT doesn't take personal interest in just any student 'Tech. Get Ridenour and Smith together and we don't know what in hell's going to shake out."

Cantrell nodded. "I don't discount the possibility that our wiz-kid--if he ever makes it here--might just find a connection between that paper and the fallouts once he gets with Smith. I don't believe in coincidence on this scale. If it's a prank, it's damned unfunny. No, if that kid's legitimately what they want for the 'NetAT, that brain lives in NSpace, and we'd better hope he wants whatever bribe Kurt offered real bad."

"Maybe we'll luck out," TJ said. "Maybe he's one of those that can't match his own socks, and we won't have to worry about his motives."

"I don't care if he wears his socks on his head, we keep on our toes dealing with him.--As for why Cetacean: we're on a training run and this RecRun is an opportunity to do some mechanical shakedown. We don't say 'erased files.' That can't happen. On Shapoorian's personal orders it can't."

"Yeah," TJ said. "Right."

***

The lounge outside the security room was packed now to overflowing. Cetacean bridge crew were draped on chairs and in each other's laps in varying degrees of inebriation, surrounded by bags of purchases which absolutely had to be hand-carried aboard. Heaven forbid they should trust their precious new toys to the cargo crew, who would only see them safely crated and painlessly transported to Cetacean.

Cantrell shuddered to imagine the chaos which must reign at the ZG transfer tubes where the bulk of Cetacean's personnel were gathering. The rotating shore-leave meant eighty percent of her crew were wandering Vandereaux Station-Main or any of its six subsidiaries, all of them being tracked down, their leaves cut short, and the lostlings herded back aboard. They all had beepers installed in their heads, but some became amazingly hard-of-hearing under certain--recreational conditions.

For some, like herself and her personal staff, leave had just begun, and only the crew now onboard had had their full, promised, two weeks.

They were going to be such a happy ship.

Suddenly, from down-rim, the irritating chime of an AutoCab on an emergency run. People and carriers scattered in all directions as the blinking light atop the vehicle drew closer. And closer. And lurched to a halt at gate G-35A.

"Why did I suspect as much?" TJ muttered at her shoulder.

Out of the cab, perfectly composed, apparently oblivious to the havoc he'd created, stepped a slender, dark-haired young man. Definitely not the awkward, painfully-out-of-place Recon she'd been led to expect. Every hair and every creased seam was very much in place. The kid was as identifiably Academy as Meeker had been Council.

"Good God." Another TJ mutter as the Academy Clone cast a cool glance around the lounge, and the AutoCab released two enormous suitcases (and a trunk?) to a RoboPort. "What does he think we are? A cargo hauler?" And as the young man's gaze fell on them: "If he dressed himself this morning, we're in deep shit."

Ridenour--it had to be him--started toward them, the RoboPort at his polished heels.

"What do you mean?" Lexi's murmur from her other side.

"Adm. Cantrell?" The fashion plate's voice was silky-smooth, his accent pure A-ca-de-my. He held out a perfectly manicured hand. "I'm Stephen Ridenour."

And TJ, in a voice meant only for Lexi and herself: "His socks match."

Making an Entrance: Part 2
The Wesser

They heard the music and the laughter, smelled the food, long before they turned down the hall leading to The WateringHole. Wes still hadn't returned to his office--no surprise: Wesley had sworn to avoid Ridenour as long as possible--and since this was the best food and drink to be had on all HuteNamid, Anevai was willing to bet he'd be here.

She paused in the doorway, giving her eyes time to adjust to the low light. Beside her, Stephen asked, his voice low and unsteady, "Are you sure it's safe in here?"

"Huh?" Elegant, Tyeewapi, real elegant. "Ridenour. it's only a pub!"

But his worried look remained.

What did he think would happen here? The researchers told tales of places on stations, places along the docking bays which harbored all sorts of rough individuals: free traders, drug dealers, merchanters and such; dark bars where weapons (such as could be detected) were appropriated at the door; but how much resemblance could they possibly bear to The Watering Hole?

"Hey, relax, okay?" she said. Standing on tiptoe, she scanned the crowded room, waving to one person and another. Finally: "Looks like you beat the odds, Ridenour. There he is.--Hey, Wesley!" she yelled out, waving one arm above her head and jumping up and down. She felt Stephen start, then draw back into the shadows as the whole room seemed to turn toward the door.

Everyone except (the tode) Wesley, who was standing over by the bar, nose buried in his beer, and his backside stubbornly to the door. He either hadn't heard: unlikely, was too busy flapping his mouth: distinct possibility; and/or was flat ignoring her: almost undoubtedly.

And Stephen received the message, loud and clear. He ducked his head and turned away from the restaurant door, mumbling, "Let's go. I'll talk--"'

"Forget it, Stevie-lad. He's just approximating an ass. C'mon." Anevai darted through the packed room, dodging waiters and tables with practiced ease.

"Look out, Ridenour!" She swayed away from an overloaded tray floating through the air on one upthrust hand. She glanced back to ensure Stephen's safety--and he wasn't there.

The spacer was still standing back at the entrance, making a major production of the removal and storage of his sunglasses. A surreptitious survey of a room gone private again, and his shoulders visibly relaxed.

Suddenly, his actions made it bizarre kind of sense: Stephen didn't like being the center of attention--for whatever reason. But that wouldn't work in this roomful of egos and curiosity. If he wouldn't go to Wes, the Wesser would simply have to go to him. Easy done: all she had to do was get the Wesser to look up.

She worked her way the last few steps to the bar and grabbing Wes by the shoulder, shouted in his car, "Wake up, Doc! Time to go to work."

He yelped and jumped away from her, tripping over the stool next to him and managing to lay his hands all over its shapely occupant in his resultant fight for balance. Tracy, long since immune to him, just grabbed his elbow with one steadying hand, and sipped foam from her mug with the other.

"Wesley, knock it off, will you?" She wanted her lunch and she sensed potential trouble brewing in Wesley's hyperactive RAM.

Wesley scowled at her and turned to Tracy, pulling her around to kiss her soundly. She indulged him until she'd swallowed her mouthful of beer, then pulled away, patting him on the cheek. "Go to work, dear. You have to earn your keep somehow."

The scowl deepened and he muttered, "I earn my keep just fine. Don't need no stinking grad-ii-ates from Van-dy-roo screwing my computer."

If she didn't know him better, she might believe he was serious.

"Hey, Wes, he's okay. And he's a nice boy. Shy. Take it easy on him, will you?"

She followed his glance to the deep shadows beside the doorway into which Stephen had melted. But--dammit--Stephen was A-ca-de-my again.

"Right." Wesley said sourly. "A Vandy-roo pretty-boy: vaporware for brains and virtualware for--

"Wesley. "

He shrugged and turned back to the bar. "Just what we don't need. Well, screw him."

She grabbed his arm and hissed in his car, "Dammit, Wes, you're not being fair! C'mon."

He glanced at her over his shoulder. "No? Let's find out, shall we?" And turned back to his beer.

"Wes, what're you--"

"Trust me."

"The hell I will!" She tightened her grip on his arm, started to pull.

Suddenly, he yelled, "Help! Rape!" And leaning across the bar, grabbed the far side.

"Wesley, what--" He winked at her. Oh, shee-it. Jonathan Wesley Smith, what are you up to? Whatever it was, he wasn't getting away with it-- "Nigan! Grab his other arm!"

And Nigan Wakiza, bless his homely heart, helped her drag Wes away from the bar, quite literally kicking and screaming, while the crowd cheered them on--them or Wes. Pretty soon, they'd be laying bets.

"Dammit!" their victim gasped, pulling hard. "Lemme go! Them's m'workin' arms!"

Someone shouted over the answering roar, "Don't you fret, Wes, old man. You can always type with your toes, like any good anthropoid!"

She spotted Stephen over Nigan's shoulder. For it split instant, his face mirrored dismay, and she couldn't blame him for wondering: Wesley certainly wasn't acting much like the brilliant researcher he claimed he was.

Wesley's backside was aimed straight at Sarah Metcalf, who was eyeing the view with open appreciation. With a meaningful glance at Nigan, Anevai released her hold. Nigan, following her cue, did the same, and Wesley staggered backward onto Metzky's lap. Metzky obligingly wrapped her arms about him and kissed his open mouth soundly before he had it chance to escape.

Not that an escape attempt was likely.

When it became obvious Wesley wasn't about to break the clinch, Anevai shrugged and headed back toward Stephen yelling at the top of her lungs, "Guess we better leave, Ridenour. Look like he's down fer th' count."

Wesley yelped and jumped up, rubbing his posterior and glaring with injured pride at his assaultress, who had already resumed her lunch. His shoulders heaved. He placed a hand on his heart and declared himself wounded for life--that a hermit's life was the only choice left for him--and staggered, hangdog, for the door--

--straight into a startled Stephen, who caught at his arms, jarring him to a halt. It was truly one of the Wesser's better performances, albeit undermined by rude remarks and ribald laughter from his audience.

The shuffling walk continued for several more steps, going nowhere, pressing Stephen's elbows to the wall behind him. Finally, the shuffling stopped. Sun-bleached hair in front of Stephen's nose tipped back and Wes (the wretch) said breathily, "Hi, there. New in town?"

Stephen stared back, spook eyes a bit crossed at the close focus, his mouth slightly open. C'mon, Ridenour, call his bluff. Don't just stand there.

Wesley's hands crept to 'new in town's' sides and up under the loose sweater. Stephen, his back against the wall, seemed to freeze.

"Oo-oo, leather." Wesley crooned, and hid an over-the-shoulder wink to the crowd under a pii'chum-like rub of his head against Stephen's chest. "Kin-ky."

The brace: Anevai was not amused.

Stephen quite obviously was not.

Panic. Mindless, irrational panic: she'd seen it too often in animals not to recognize it. But Stephen was no animal. And--dammit--he'd been making such an issue of meeting Wes--well, here he was. Call his bluff, ya damnfool!

Finally, Stephen licked his lips and swallowed visibly. Closing his eyes for a split instant, he whispered in it constricted tone, "Dr. Smith, I . . ."

She exchanged a disgusted look with Nigan, moved up behind Wes, grabbed his elbows and pulled back. "--Knock it off, hotshot! This is a nice boy. --A nice boy, hear?" She grew less and less amused as Wesley, his hands held out of action, began to press bodily up against Stephen, whose face was no longer red but deathly white.

She hissed in Wesley's car, "Dammit. Smith, that's enough! You're not funny anymore!"

Wesley sighed heavily enough to make Stephen blink and stir his curls, and straightened up. He accepted the napkin someone handed him and delicately wiped the lipstick from his face, ran a hand casually through his mop, miraculously transforming it into hair, and extended his hand as though nothing had happened.

"How do you do, Dr. Ridenour. I'm Wesley Smith."

Stephen eyed the hand, the calm, professional demeanor, then looked desperately at her. She shrugged and turned to Nigan standing next to her. You're on your own now, Ridenour.

But she kept an eye on him, all the same.

He stepped away from the wall, got the open door at his back, which seemed to help, then wiping his palm covertly on his slacks, smiled hesitantly at Smith, and took the proffered land, saying in his soft voice, "I've been waiting a long time to meet you, Dr. Smith. Ever since I read your paper."

Wesley looked an I-told-you-so at her, then asked Stephen, "Which was that? The Consumer Dynamics of Infopropogation? Econometric Systems as Pertains to 'Netly lntercource--"

"N-no, sir. Although I d-did read the D-Dynamics as well." He was blushing again, she could hear it in his voice, though she couldn't see it in the pub's low light. "I was s-speaking of H-Harmonies of the 'Net."

Well, I'll be . . .

Stephen winced as Wesley's hand closed convulsively on his, and Wesley, marginally sane at last, relaxed his grip but continued to hold on, studying Stephen through narrowed eyes. Stephen blinked, but otherwise held steady. After a long moment. Wesley grinned, clapped him on the shoulder, and drew him toward the bar, the crowd dividing to let them through.

As they passed her, Wesley called somewhat wistfully, "You sure he's a 'nice boy?'  

 

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