Evening. Yeah, I'm Tom Rutley, why d'you ask?
Huh. You want to hear my story? Every Fen's got one, there's not much special about mine. I wasn't really happy on Earth for one reason or another, so I acquired a bit of handwavium, built a ship and left.
Well, okay, it's a little bit more complicated than that, but...
Now there's something special about that story, alright, and not in a good way. I don't really like telling it, and I dare say most Fen wouldn't like hearing it, if they knew enough to ask in the first place.
Classified? Hah! Not hardly; the Convention doesn't have an official secrets act, and they couldn't enforce one if they did. It's more of an unspoken mutual consensus to pretend the whole ghastly fiasco never happened. I can't speak for the laws Earthside though, I'd make some discreet inquiries about that before publishing if I were you.
I don't like the term "mundanes". Never did, even before... Well, we'll get to that.
I guess I'd best start at the beginning. You might want to place your order before we start, this is going to take some time. Oh, thanks. I'll take a double Bruichladdich, no ice.
I'm old for a first-generation Fen. Born 1970, fan of Doctor Who before John Barrowman got his Equity number, actually witnessed the first really serious Trekie/Warsie flamewar on Usenet. In 2007 I was gloomily contemplating the inexorable onset of forty with depressingly little to show for my time on Earth to date.
I'd left the Royal Air Force in 2005 after a Taliban sniper took a sizeable chunk out of both my shin bone and my helicopter's no-claims bonus (I doubt that poor farmer ever got the rotor-blade out of his living room wall), returning home with a limp, a modest disability pension and no idea what to do next.
Flying was out of the question indefinitely, possibly for good if my leg didn't heal well enough, and at the time I wasn't sure I even wanted to go back to it. I was tired of feeling rootless, of spending so much time abroad that I didn't really have a home to come back to but at the same time rarely getting to see anything of the world past the airfield perimeter fence.
But on the other hand, it was pretty much all I knew how to do; certainly the only thing I had formal qualifications for, although I was a fair hand with computers and vaguely remembered most of what I learned from weekends and summer holidays helping Dad fix cars.
Eventually I ended up splitting the difference. I got a six-month gig as a technical advisor for a small developer making third-party DLC -though the term hadn't been coined back then- for Microsoft Flight Simulator, put a card in a newsagent's window offering computer repairs and bought an ancient and non-running Vauxhall Senator on the cheap with the intention of putting it back in order. (It ended up being a bust, the chassis was too badly corroded to get it roadworthy again, but I sold off the still-useable bits on eBay and turned a small profit.) I made enough money to rent a dilapidated but characterful ground-floor flat in an old Victorian townhouse, and bought myself a decent computer for the first time in years. I became a regular at a nice local pub, found the time to go to a couple of conventions and generally made the most of having more leisure time than I'd had since I was a teenager.
It didn't take long for boredom and restlessness to set in, but before they could become unmanageable, two things happened. The first was that my godfather died and left me a small cottage with two acres of land, a large collection of mechanical bits and pieces and a pretty considerable sum of money. The second was handwavium.
I'd heard... Well, I can't go into detail because some of these people are still Earthside, but suffice it to say that scientists working for defence contractors tend to see an ex-serviceman wounded in the line of duty as trustworthy enough to bend the rules when it comes to classified information, especially when they've had a few beers. I'll tell you this much, though: I have it on good authority that the stuff existed in some form well before 2006. I expect we'll find out more some time in the next five years or so thanks to the thirty-year rule.
Anyway, the wild stories had begun showing up on the message boards by then, and I knew enough to realise there was a grain of truth in them. Vague plans began to form in my mind.
Now, you haven't asked about my faction yet. Personally, I think of myself as a generalist for the most part; I'm not picky when it comes to reading or viewing material, especially when I'm making a long cargo run. But my first real fandom... Well. Ever heard of a game called Elite? The original space trading sim, killer app for the BBC Micro...
[sigh] You really are young, aren't you? Okay, bit of background.
In the early Eighties, the educational programming wing of the BBC started getting interested in computer science. There'd been some piecemeal efforts before, usually an offshoot of the maths or science department, but now that home computing was becoming a thing they wanted to offer something hands-on.
Now in those days, there was no common standards for much of anything: Many manufacturers had their own fork of BASIC, and even on those that didn't you couldn't be sure your homebrew program would work on a competitor's machine. In order to have something that they knew would work with all their software and coding exercises, the Beeb put out an invitation to tender for a custom-designed computer for the home and classroom market. The winning bidder was a company called Acorn Computers and their design was christened the BBC Microcomputer, or BBC Micro for short.
They were expensive bits of kit, but pretty powerful for their day; they were some of the first desktop computers aimed at the home-user market with LAN capability and the ability to add an auxillary processor, for one. It also had the ability to download code from a TV signal, but it only worked properly if you had absolutely perfect TV reception and was generally more trouble than it was worth. They were a huge success in Britain and a more modest one in continental Europe, but they never took off in the US because the display hardware didn't adapt well to NTSC displays.
But anyway, Elite was the game that drove most of its non-educational sales. You know the basic formula: You start out in a very basic spaceship with a bit of cash and a huge open gameworld to explore. There are several ways of making money both legal and otherwise, occasional pirates, police who'll come down on you for anything illegal... It was the original sandbox game. And, like a lot of my generation, I was absolutely hooked on it for most of my teens.
We never became an established faction for a number of reasons. The game didn't have much of a plot, so there was no convenient polity to name ourselves after, and the nature of the game is such that the faction tends to appeal to loners and individualists. It's also partly because British Fen tend not to be in a position to home-build; we're one of the easier European countries in which to acquire a handwavium license, but with our airspace being rather crowded the authorities tend to get a bit tetchy about amateur space programs. Either way, I'm the only bloke I know who's managed to build himself a ship directly based on that 'verse.
And that's where my godfather's barn full of junk comes in.
His name was Greg Sanderson, and he was an old friend of my dad's and a lifelong bachelor who didn't get out and about much. Bit set in his ways, you know? He was a great fan of science fiction and something of a radical in his politics, and I'm pretty sure he was hoping to make it to Fenspace himself.
Anyway, the house was up in the Scottish Borders, a tumbledown little two-up-two-down affair with a bathroom added on some time in the 50s. It was permanently cold and damp, the wiring was such a haphazard mess that I had to pay an electrician twice his usual rate to set it to rights, the boiler was older than I was and hadn't been serviced since before I learned how to masturbate... The list went on. I spent just enough money to keep the place from being actively hazardous for human occupancy and decided to sell up as soon as I'd inventoried the barn.
Well, that was a revelation alright. I knew about the old Beech King Air fuselage and the jet engines, but I wasn't expecting... Well, I've still got the list on my palmtop somewhere...
- 200 square metres of sheet steel
- Four hundred gallons of aviation fuel in a galvanised tank
- Eight hundred metres of copper wire
- One air compressor, broken
- Four expensive electronic paintball guns
- Five thousand 17mm ball bearings (exactly the right size to be fired through said paintball guns)
- One 4.5-inch gun barrel, ex-Royal Navy
- One fully functional septic tank system, apparently designed for a seagoing yacht, new and in boxes
- One 200-litre water tank, also intended for a seagoing yacht
- One Ferranti Blue Fox aircraft radar set, broken
- One Webley revolver, .38 S&W (which was only marginally legal in the UK at the time, being a 'trophy of war')
- One hundred and fifty .38/200 revolver cartridges (which most definitely wasn't legal!)
- Five tonnes (approx.) of miscellaneous scrap metal.
- Twelve litres (approx.) of handwavium, base strain, in an old oil drum at the back of the barn
Well, I suppose that made the choice for me, didn't it? There was nothing much tying me to England; my parents had emigrated to Spain some years ago, my brother David was currently somewhere in the Yukon finding copper ore for one of the multi-nationals, and I'd written the very idea of marriage off as more trouble than it was worth a long time ago.
And I'd always wanted to travel, hadn't I?
The first thing I did was buy a secondhand laptop and a pre-paid mobile phone that could be tethered, both for cash. This was before the Snowden Documents hit the public domain of course, but you soon got a good picture of what the SIGINT people were capable of just from being part of operations that acted on the information they acquired, and it wasn't a great leap of reasoning to imagine they'd be on the lookout for anything connected to handwavium as well as terrorism.
(I had Snowden as a passenger once, you know; I was on a regular run to Ganymede at the time, and he'd just bought a house in Serenity Valley. Nice chap actually, even if he enjoys his status as a hero among Fen a bit too much for my liking. But anyway.)
Once I'd got some nicely untraceable hardware, reinforced by a few software tricks upon which I shall not enlarge here, I started reading every Beginner's Guide to Handwavium I could lay hold of and hanging out on the forums picking up tips from those who'd gone before me. After reading some of the safety warnings, I made some discreet inquiries with a relative in the construction industry about where to obtain some protective clothing rated for dealing with asbestos contamination. The supplier he found me only did bulk orders, but I figured they'd be worth a fair bit to other Fen and bought a batch of a hundred.
My first 'wavetech project was small and simple, a used 486 ThinkPad I bought off eBay for about twenty quid. I soaked it in a small amount of the base strain overnight, and the results were encouraging. It turned glossy metallic green and shrank to the size of a netbook, but when I tried various CPU benchmarking tools the ones that didn't glitch out completely came back with estimates of 4GHz. It also sprouted some USB ports and a DVI cable plug.
I put the used handwavium in a separate container and fed it a load of the scrap metal, along with a complete set of Traveller sourcebooks and a thumb drive containing copies of everything even vaguely Elite-related I could lay hold of: Copies of the first two games and the open-source remake, along with their manuals, and a load of fanfiction and the tie-in novella that came boxed with the original game. For a bit of extra flavour I threw in a couple of Arthur C. Clarke paperbacks and a pirated copy of Star Cops. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony, but it's not out on DVD.) This version would be used for the engines and flight control systems, and I'd stick to the base strain for the hull and life support.
Of course, before I got to that point I had to design the ship... Although I already had something in mind.
In the original Elite, it's known as a Cobra Mk3, and it's the ship you start off with in a new game. It's sort of low slung and wedge-shaped, not much aerodynamic lift but even less drag. I figured I'd have to modify it considerably but it seemed as good a starting point as any, if only because it was a simple enough shape to weld together. So I bought myself a copy of X-Plane, imported the model of the Mk3 from Oolite into the "PlaneMaker" utility and began the long and tedious process of hammering it into a workable aircraft design.
You might well argue that this wasn't really necessary, but like all good career aviators I'm naturally inclined to err on the side of caution. I didn't trust... Well, no that's probably the wrong word. I didn't want to rely on handwavium completely. One of the early pioneers I spoke to on the old Starbase 1 forums told me that he reckoned the stuff can't actually break any physical laws, it just knows all the loopholes, including -especially- the ones we haven't found yet. How true that is I have no idea, but it is well-established that aero- and hydrodynamics are one area where handwavium has almost no effect. (I'm told that a reader poll by the Annals of Improbable Research ranked the process of finding this out "The 4th Strangest Thing Ever Done With A Wind Tunnel In The Name Of Proper Science". I have no idea what the top three were and I don't especially want to.)
The end result of several weeks of fine-tuning was a sort of flying-wing design with a small vertical fin, still fairly blocky and angular but now capable of gliding a few miles if something went wrong while hopefully being within my capabilities to weld together. I invested in a copy of AutoCAD and a correspondence course in how to use it and set to the project with a will.
As far as I know, my ship was the first 100% scratchbuilt Fen craft to be laid down, even though the Epsilon Blade and the Toy Box were in service well beforehand. Construction took me most of a year, the first quarter of which was spent refreshing my knowledge of welding at evening classes.
The hull structure is fully monocoque, made of two layers of 1.5cm steel plate with self-sealing foam in between. (One part base-strain handwavium, one part my homebrew strain, eight parts cavity wall insulation material. Worked better than I dared hope.) I'm fairly sure I could have left it un-'waved and still made orbit if I'd been able to find a windscreen tough enough for the job, but ordinary plate-glass had to suffice in the interim.
Internally, the ship was fairly spartan. I'd crammed a bunk and a desk in around the cockpit with a tiny head and galley immediately behind it, and squeezed two tiny passenger cabins into the awkward corners between the engine nacelles, the cockpit and the cargo bay; I didn't plan on taking passengers often, but there wasn't much else useful I could do with the space and I figured it couldn't hurt to have the option.
The cargo bay itself was about twelve metres long by four wide by three high, not huge but enough to get a worthwhile amount of stores aboard. I toyed with but ultimately abandoned the idea of shaping it to accommodate an ISO-standard shipping container; the aerodynamics went wonky when I tested it in X-Plane and in any case it would have been awkward as all hell to load and unload. Still, I could get standard-sized pallets in there, and the hydraulic loading ramp I acquired from a scrapyard would do the rest.
I left the 'wavium application until last. The two old jet engines, the instrument panel from the King Air and the radar set were immersed in the special blend I'd made, and as an afterthought I tossed a spare unit insignia for my old squadron in to add the final touch. I mixed the same stuff half-and-half with the base strain for the broken compressor, an air-conditioning unit and a couple of old radiators, and used pure base-strain and a quite ordinary household paint roller for the outer hull. I left it overnight to cure, and went inside just in time to hear about the Guacoamole Incident.
Ugh... I swear to all that's holy and many things that aren't, if I ever lay hands on the reckless bloody fool who cooked up that little stunt I'll administer at least five pints of their own concoction in enema form, gift-wrap whatever they turn into and dump their sorry arse outside the Hoover Building. Not only was it a gross violation of other people's bodily integrity of a severity easily comparable to rape, it sent the United States into its stupidest and most counterproductive moral panic since Joe McCarthy's day. Damn good argument for a handwavium license if you ask me, at least if there was a snowball's chance in hell of enforcing one.
But anyway, we were a little bit saner about it in Britain, at least to the point where I was able to call in a favour from a man I'd served under in Iraq who was now rather senior in the Ministry of Defence. In return for turning over my handwavium stockpile -less a few hundred millilitres as seed stock- and giving the backroom boys from QuinetiQ (don't ask) a detailed briefing on what I accomplished with it, he furnished me with an IFF code and some other registration paperwork to make my use of UK airspace at least marginally legal so long as I promised to be extremely circumspect... and give him a lift Fenside once he collected his pension and his gold watch in a year or so. (He worked for Reaction Engines until he got fed up with Spacefleet and their "damned ridiculous Renaissance Festival take on the Fifties", as he put it to me, and I think he's somewhere in the Belt now. I'll email him your details if you like, I dare say he's got some good stories about the Experimental Handwavium Station.)
That... didn't work out quite as well as I'd hoped, at least partly thanks to a major lapse in my usually fairly good judgement of character. But the full scale of that lapse didn't become obvious until some while later...
But we'll want another drink for that. My shout this time?
* * *
So, if you knew enough to come and talk to me, you're probably familiar with the name of Frank Berquart. Even at that stage I wouldn't have called us friends, but we did correspond a lot over the year I spent building my ship. He could be abrasive and condescending at times, and I really didn't like his attitude to non-Fen, but that wasn't uncommon; like many first-generation Fen, he had a rough go of it growing up as the only nerdy kid in one of the less salubrious bits of the rural United States. He had a good deal to be bitter about, and I tried to reach out to Frank and others like him because I thought they had it in them to be something better.
Either Frank didn't, or I didn't do a good enough job of looking for it. But at least I tried, right?
Anyway, all his attempts at getting hold of something waveable had been stymied and he was getting desperate enough to consider doing something foolhardy, so eventually we struck a deal: He'd buy me certain items that were more easily obtained in the US, and in return I'd pick him up from a nearby airfield and give him a ride as far as New Yavin. This was all before the December 30th deadline so it was entirely legal: I even filed a flight plan, describing my ship quite truthfully as an "experimental long range utility aircraft".
Yes, I do mean guns. I wasn't harbouring any illusions about a new era of peace and brotherly love coming to pass through the power of handwavium.
Many people tend to draw a slightly rose-tinted picture of those freewheeling early days. Don't get me wrong, it was an incredibly exciting time to be alive with all kinds of possibilities opening up, but... Well, it's not like the Boskonians popped into existence fully-formed in 2012. This was before the Sailor Armed Militia was more than a concept, before FTL comms equipment was readily available... Hell, it wasn't until WorldCon in '09 that we had a formally agreed distress frequency. Once you were out of radar range of a station or settled body you were pretty much on your own. And space may be big, but if you know roughly what time a particular ship left Point A, what speed and/or acceleration it's capable of and that it was headed for Point B then you can narrow the search area down considerably.
(One of the first really effective anti-piracy measures, incidentally? Port control services locking down manifest information on encrypted servers so that it was nigh-impossible to target specific ships. I once met an allegedly reformed ex-pirate who claims he jacked it in when he hit a freighter he thought was carrying flatscreen TV sets only to find it full of baby formula.
Of course nowadays they're organised and professional enough to get the information by data-mining instead, but c'est la vie.)
Anyway, the practical upshot of all that is that I wanted something more impressive than a .38 revolver older than I was in the hopefully unlikely event of the 114mm coilgun not being enough to prevent my ship from being boarded in the first place.
Yeah, I'm pretty sure I hold the record for the biggest gun fitted to any prewar Fen craft. I don't advertise this fact because I don't consider it something to brag about, and in any case I prefer not to have pirates targeting me specifically because I'm so well-armed I must be carrying valuable loot, but it's all on the PEPPER database and everything so it's not like it's a secret.
Things have been tightened up considerably now that handwavium is de facto decriminalised, but at the time it wasn't strictly speaking illegal for a private citizen to own a multi-stage coilgun capable of launching projectiles with enough force to put a concrete blockhouse to some trouble; for better or worse, lawmakers in this country tend not to restrict or outright ban weird and exotic weapons -or potential weapons- until after someone goes out and commits a violent crime with one. Nevertheless, my test firing was conducted well out to sea.
The paintball guns turned out to be more trouble than they were worth, incidentally: I think Greg had intended to use them as secondary weapons but the rate of fire and muzzle velocity were marginal at best in atmosphere, and when I put the test-rig in a vacuum chamber (aided and abetted by a fellow aspiring Fen studying at the University of Manchester) it experienced what British aerospace engineers call "rapid unplanned disassembly", costing me £5,000 for the damage to the equipment and several bottles of good scotch as an apology to the lab assistants who had to repair it.
I did find a good use for the ball bearings though. Combined with an accelerometer, a small pyrotechnic charge and a hollow steel casing they made for good canister shot.
But anyway, the ship's armament won't really become relevant 'til some years later. Back to my first face-to-face encounter with Frank.
I hadn't done a long-range flight test up until that point, and neither had I pushed the throttle much beyond 25% or tested the button conspicuously marked TURBO on the collective while in flight. (A ground test of the turbo button proved that it caused an 'afterburner' effect that appeared to function as an acceleration drive. Rather a powerful one, in fact; I found one of the barn doors a quarter of a mile away. This was before handwavium's innate safety features were widely known or documented, I might add, so the safety cover on the button was taped shut until further notice.) But I did have enough data to calculate that I'd just make my destination field on a full tank.
The main engines are a constant-speed type, powered by ordinary Jet-A and electrical energy from a couple of solid handwavium crystals. They're fairly standard reactionless thrusters capable of a respectable 7% of c in space, while the turbo button activates some kind of fusion torch that will get my ship up to a theoretical maximum of 21%, but I can't exceed 15% without draining my fuel tanks well below my preferred safety margin.
Performance in atmosphere turned out to be a bit less impressive by Fen standards. Cruising speed is around six hundred miles an hour, or just over the speed of sound, but when I really pushed the engines I got her up to about a thousand... at which point the vibration was so violent I couldn't read the instruments anymore, and when I made the mistake of lightly touching the rudder I got an unwanted refresher course on recovering from an asymmetric stall. I pencilled in eight hundred as the Never Exceed Speed and settled in for a long run.
On arrival, I had a brief and rather awkward discussion with US air traffic controllers that ended with no less than four F-15s escorting me as far as the small airstrip in Colorado where I was due to pick up my passenger. Their pilots were perfectly friendly though, and quite embarrassed about being ordered to hassle me like this when I was still within the letter of the law.
The airfield was some tiny grass-strip place in the arse-end of nowhere, to the point where they had to borrow a sheriff's deputy to check my passport because this was the first international flight they'd had in years. He looked like he was expecting me to suddenly manifest a biomod or pull out a death ray or something, but he signed the necessary paperwork without demur. I had a brief argument with the refuelers about whether they were insured for possible handwavium contamination ("For what I'm paying for my liability cover you'd bloody well better be!", I think my exact words were), ordered a pizza and settled in for my mandatory crew rest period.
I was just on the point of turning in for the night when someone started pounding on the hatch. Frank wasn't due until the morning, so I ended up grabbing my revolver and running aft in my dressing gown, torn between alarm and annoyance.
To my utter astonishment, I found myself face to face with a shivering and terrified catgirl in a soaking-wet hoodie clutching an overnight bag, who immediately begged me for a ride somewhere, anywhere in Fenspace.
Once I got her calmed down a little and into some dry clothes, she told me her name was Barbara, and that she'd treated her Gender Identity Disorder with handwavium after being refused insurance cover for it. The process was an overall success, but her roommate had taken it rather badly and called the police. Barbara'd managed to get away ahead of the hue and cry, and had been headed to the airfield hoping to 'borrow' a plane and make a run for the border when she saw my ship.
I made a quick phone call to Frank and got an ETA; the Greyhound he was on was due in around 2AM. I explained the situation and told him to cancel his motel room and come straight here in case we had to leave in a hurry. He agreed quite happily, apparently finding the whole idea rather exciting, and confirmed that he'd got the items I'd requested... more or less.
I'd specifically requested a couple of Browning High-Powers because they were the only pistol I'd had any range time with, unless you counted the few surreptitious rounds I'd fired into an old dartboard behind the barn to make sure the revolver actually worked. Beyond that, I wasn't very specific beyond "a couple of shotguns, preferably 12-gauge, and a rifle that's decently powerful but won't make me look like a militia nutbag".
Apparently Frank's local gun dealer had some sort of promotional deal going in anticipation of some cowboy action shooting event, which is how I ended up with a lever-action and a coach gun. They even came with a free ten-gallon hat! But they were modern replicas chambered to take modern ammunition, and I've always been quite fond of Westerns, so I was actually pretty pleased. I was almost disappointed that he'd managed to score a fully contemporary Ruger Mini-14 (albeit with wooden furniture) with a scope instead of a Henry rifle.
And yes, I did wear the hat, but I don't have the gravitas to pull off the look.
Anyway, Frank launched into another one of his rants about 'mundanes' and how we Fen could be running the planet in ten years if we dropped a few big enough rocks, then tried a couple of hilariously ill-advised Pick-Up Artist tactics on Barbara until she up-ended her coffee in his lap. He retreated to his cabin to sulk when I laughed at him, and I didn't see him again until takeoff the following morning.
The police did eventually turn up looking for Barbara, but I refused to give them access without a warrant and to my mild surprise they didn't make an issue of it; I guess they figured she'd be somebody else's problem soon enough.
Then I realised I only had two pressure suits. (Made from a pair of old RAF flight suits complete with helmets and an emergency O2 bottle, which under the influence of my homebrew 'wavium became mechanical counter-pressure suits with full-face helmets and enough air for about six hours.) We solved this problem by shutting Frank in his cabin with a fully hardtech "oxygen candle" and a CO2 scrubber and sealing the door with duct-tape.
Funnily enough, yes, this was Barbara's idea. Frank had made a very tactless remark about her pre-biomod medical condition after overhearing me talking to the cops and she wasn't in the best of moods with him. Neither was I, for that matter, seeing as he laughed off my attempt to give him a little word of advice about what is and isn't okay to call people. (My mum's Indian, born to first-generation immigrants, so I dare say you can imagine my views on the subject.)
Oh well, in about six hours we needn't ever see each other again.
The transition to space was smoother than I expected, though I had to throttle up abruptly at the tropopause. After that, it was a simple case of identifying the radio beacon for New Yavin and putting it into the autopilot.
Frank was in another one of his moods after I cut the tape on the door, which didn't bother me in the least, so Barbara and I got to know each other a bit better over a mug of tea. I learned she'd been a pilot for a small commuter airline until the economy took a shit, that her parents were divorced and her father had taken her diagnosis rather worse than her mother. She was also down to about fifty dollars until and unless she could get in touch with her bank manager.
Well, I was starting to ponder the issue of long-distance runs and fatigue; I couldn't exactly set the autopilot and go to bed, could I? But there was the thorny issue of British law to deal with: Getting her a visa was going to be all kinds of inconvenient when her passport was in the name of Robert White, assuming the US didn't outright revoke it. And I really couldn't afford to bend the rules if I wanted to keep my relatively unfettered access to European airspace...
Well, that could wait. I was in space, I was flying my very own homebuilt spaceship and I was going to have some fun!
We dropped Frank off at New Yavin, by which time he was in a much better mood. He bade us farewell and dashed off to cash in the two kilos of high-quality weed he'd brought with him. I wasn't sure if I should laugh or feel a bit sorry for him, because I doubt he made a profit. Me, on the other hand...
Now, basic hydroponics are pretty easy even with pure hardtech: Some troughs full of potting compost, some sun-lamps, a drip-feed system -which can be as simple as a low-powered water pump and a couple of dozen metres of plastic tubing with pinholes every couple of centimetres- and a dilute solution of ordinary fertiliser in fresh water will do the trick. But it doesn't scale past plants you can grow in an ordinary Earthside greenhouse without a much more elaborate setup that requires a lot of money, expertise and above all space. And root crops or fruit trees need really deep soil; they didn't become really practical to cultivate until someone got a crater on the Moon glazed over and pressurised, and they stayed quite pricey until prefabricated buckydomes hit the market.
The practical upshot of which is that I just about quadrupled my money selling four tons of King Edward potatoes and one ton of coffee beans, and made a decent profit from the hazmat suits to boot.
I remember the conversation Barbara and I had in vivid detail. I was carrying a good-sized duffel bag stuffed full of small bills, and I saw Barbara looking at the Situations Vacant board by the exit to the hangar with a rather mournful expression; there were plenty of jobs posted, but I guess not many of them called for a couple of hundred hours in a Bombardier CRJ.
"So," I said, "is there anywhere in particular you want to go?"
"I dunno," she replied sadly.
"Well, how about we start at the Moon and work our way out? You can show me how good a pilot you are too."
She was quite taken aback. "You really wanna hire me?"
"That's going to depend on a lot of things," I replied. "Not least how good you are at your job. But I'm sure as hell not leaving you stood here in the clothes you stand up in. You're Fen now, Barbara. And I guess I am too, even if I'm not a wanted felon in my home country. And this far from home, all we Fen have is each other. Now let's go find somewhere you can call your mother and I can call my friends in high places."