Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Wheelman" by Walt Staples

Captain Mark Dengara stared at the portraits of the Emperor and his Viceroy to the planet Krabbit hanging on the wall of the battalion office without really bothering to be aware of either. Like any good officer called to see their superior, he was going over his past sins attempting to guess which one might have sparked this summons.
There was a “buzz” and the battalion clerk, a toothy corporal named Glitchzman, spoke, “Captain Dengara? Major Kimshe will see you now, sir.”
The major had his feet up on his desk—a good sign. Normally, when Kimshe eviscerated people, he preferred to have both feet on the deck so as to get a proper upstroke. He glanced up from his display. “Mark. Have a seat.”
“Thank you, sir.” Dengara dropped into one of the camp chairs in front of the green, Imperial Erin Marine issue desk.
“Looking at reports. Had a question.” The opinion around the battalion was that the Commanding Officer purchased his words in small packets and expended them in the same fashion.
“Yes, sir?” This could be bad, neutral, or even good.
“You’re the one team working with the alien Dongos, so you tell me, why aren’t the Dongos using the roads we built?”
Dengara relaxed. Just a recon then. “Uh, sir? As far as I know, they’re using them if the road goes their way.”
Kimshe’s brows lowered a millimeter. “No, Mark. I mean why no wheeled traffic? The Major tells me there’s little or no traffic other than the occasional pedestrian. I asked the Security Officers and they didn’t know either. A religious problem?”
The Imperial Marine captain leaned back in his chair. Ah, I know this. No sweat. “No, sir, no problem with their religious beliefs. It’s more a matter of never having had the technology. They’ve always mostly used game trails. The Hus on the flats seem to have continued using the wheel since the settlement ships landed way back when. The Dongos apparently lost it after being pushed into the mountains.
The major sat in thought, then asked, “What’s the difference between Hus and Dongo?”
Dengara furrowed his brow. “Not a lot, sir. Outside of the difference in dialect and the fact that they hate each other’s living guts, that is. The Hus were the pets of the CPD while they held this planet. The original settler stock seems to have been the same as the Xenese who run the CPD. That’s why the insurgents are made up purely of Hus. One of my Non-Commissioned Officers, Gunny Dogan, has been working with the wisemen and granny-ladies to record the old stories. The big one is the one telling how their great-grandfathers came in boats that flew.”
Kimshe raised an eyebrow. “’Great-grandfathers?’”
The other grinned. “Yes, sir. That’s about as far back as they tend to count. Gunny says that’s one of the reasons he thinks they lost literacy comparatively recently. He maintains that anyone used to illiteracy tends to have an oral history going back about two hundred to four hundred years. People who are literate write it down and don’t bother to memorize things. After all, they only have to look it up.”
The major grunted, “Yeah, then collapse and the written word disappears.”
The length of the sentence told Dengara his superior was in a philosophical mood. That lasted about 35-40 seconds. “Why no traffic?”
The captain tried to match his boss, “No technology, sir.”
Kimshe ran a hand over his cropped red hair. “What do you need?”
Dengara began an inventory on his fingers. “Beasts of burden — carabao would probably be best — harness, and carts. But for it to work, the Dongo have to be able to make the harness and carts themselves…I figure the carabao will handle the manufacture of more of themselves, sir.”
Major Kimshe squinted an eye at him, then chuckled. “Yes, I don’t see the need for me to insert myself into that process either.” Like most animals, the carabao would reproduce on their own just fine.
“Okay. Do it.”
Dengara took a breath. Man, I hate to spoil his mood. “Er, one problem, sir.”
He felt his way around the land mine, “Sir, the carts will be easy as will be the harness. The Dongo already do wood and leather work. What should I do about animals and wheels?”
Kimshe thought a moment. “Hire some Hus. They can teach the Dongo guys to make wheels. The carabao are easy. Have the Navy buy them. Out of their budget.”
“Sir, the Hus and Dongos are more likely to try to kill each other than teach each other something.”
The battalion commander burnt 44 seconds in thought. “Okay. Need somebody who builds wheels. Not local.” He tapped out a rhythm on his desk plate and smiled at the result on his display. “Calls for a wheelwright. Engineers have one at Clear Water. Petty Officer First Class, K.R. Potass. I’ll call ahead. Commander Reccy owes me a favor.”
The Marine Vertical / Short Take-Off and Landing ship gave Dengara a good view of the Clear Water as it approached the base. It was roughly circular with a triple line of fortifications encircling it. As there were no hostile tanks or other assault vehicles on Krabbit, most of the perimeter weapons were infantry and heavy support. A few anti-ship weapons were sighted for form’s sake. They might make life interesting, if short, for enemy landing craft, but the planet was guarded by two Battle-class cruisers in high orbit and three Hero-class destroyers in low orbit. Four Navy landing craft lifted off for orbit from the field ahead as the V/STOL was cleared for landing.
Dengara and Gunnery Sergeant “Flap” Dogan stepped off the V/STOL’s ramp and walked over to Operations. A clerk looked up as they pushed through the door bubble. “Captain, sir. Gunny, can I help you?”
Dengara nodded. “Yes, Lance. We’re looking for Engineer Petty Officer First Class Potass, K.R.”
“Yes, sir. Won’t take a minute.” His fingers played across a desk plate. “He should be in Building 621 ‘Mahan.’” Lance tapped his keyboard again. “There you are, gentlemen, it’s on your heads-up.”
‘Thank you, Lance.” Dengara smiled at him and Gunny nodded. They turned to the door bubble.
As they entered Building 621 “Mahan,” the aromatic smell of lubricating oil, hot metal, tobacco smoke, sweat, and stale coffee told them that they had discovered a machine shop. Six or seven men in Navy black worked at various machine tools of arcane purpose producing a symphony of screeches, bangs, and other musical noise. A chief petty officer holding a cup of coffee or tea noticed them and walked over. Transferring the cup to his left hand, he saluted Dengara. “Help you, Captain, sir?”
Dengara returned the salute. “Yes, Chief. We’re looking for PO First Class Potass.”
The Chief grinned. “Oh, he’s hiding out in Sherwood Forest, sir.” He hooked a thumb toward the back of the building, then made an after-you motion with his free hand. “This way, sir.”
At the end of the room, they stepped through a door bubble. The change in smell was noticeable. While the sweat, tobacco smoke, and coffee were present, the mechanical smells were replaced by the rich bouquet of woods, wood sealer, and turpentine. A dried up little man dressed in a sawdust covered black uniform with a long nose was sighting down a length of board. He looked around with a squint when the chief called, “Hey, Woodpecker!” then broke into a lop-sided grin.
When he spoke, it was in purest Bayern accents, “Ach, hi, Chief. Something I can do for you?”
The Chief gestured toward the two Marines. “Couple of folks looking for you, Karl.” He turned back to Dengara. “Yell if you need anything else, sir.” After saluting, he disappeared through the door bubble.
The elderly man snapped to and saluted. “Petty Officer First Class Karl Potass, sir.”
Dengara returned the salute. “As you were, First. I hear you’re a wheelwright?”
A wide grin broke across the spacer’s face. “Yes, sir. My father taught me. And his father taught him.”
Dengara asked, “Do you get much call for wagon wheels?”
The grin turned mournful as he shook his head. “No, sir, I’m afraid not. Mostly I do woodworking, cabinet making, and a little carpentry. Not nearly enough wheel-wrighting, sir.”
Gunny Dogan took a hand in the conversation. Tipping his head to the side, he asked, “Potass, could you teach someone else to be a wheelwright?”
The Bayern thought it over for a few minutes then allowed, “Perhaps, if they work hard. Call me Karl.”
Gunny smiled. “Okay, Karl. I’m Flap. How long would it take for you to teach someone to make cart wheels, do you figure?”
When he thought, the Navy man tended to tip his head down and to the left as he rolled his eyes as puckered his mouth. He said, considering, “Well, Flap, I would know if they could be taught within a week. After that, about three months and they would know enough to do most cart and some plain wagon wheels. If they are any good, they will pick up a number of the fancy tricks on their own.”
Dogan smiled. “I think cart wheels are what we’ll need most. I’d like to bring a pair of the Dongos here and have you teach them. Would that be a problem?”
Potass went through his thinking process again. “No, I think not. As long as they speak some Basic. I can’t make heads or tails out of the local gibberish.”
The Marine’s grin widened. “I’ve got a pair who speak Basic pretty well – the Wong brothers.”
Seeing the mission moving along at a decent speed, Dengara asked the directions to the Officers’ Club and got out from underfoot.
Dengara awoke with a start. His reader, still displaying the ancient classic, Magic, Mensa and Mayhem, lay on the deck next to his cot. Gunny Dogan apologetically cleared his throat. “Sir, you asked me to wake you at 16:00 so we could brace old Cho?”
The captain swung his legs over the side of his cot. His mind spooled up to its normal operating speed as his feet landed on the deck. “Oh, right, Gunny. Thank you.” He wondered if the last sentence constituted a lie considering how he felt. He shrugged mentally. The lie’s a venial sin, maybe. Let the Padre sort it out if I remember to bring it up next time. He rubbed his face and was rewarded by a slight scratching sound. Hmm, better pop a depilatory with my aspirin to kill this stubble. Alright, forward march. He stood and decided to just throw on his load-bearing equipment over an undershirt. His boots sealed as he stepped into them. Dogan preceded him out of the bunker’s door as Dengara picked up his N-44 assault weapon and followed, cursing himself for ordering that all Marines in the advisory unit were to never leave their quarters with only their side-arms.
Cho, the village wiseman-shaman-elder, lazed on the low floor of his house watching four of his granddaughters playing baby doll with one of the tomcats. The game appeared to consist of dressing the large ginger tabby in an infant’s cloak and carrying him around in a baby basket. The cat was well bribed with goat’s milk. The unit’s corpsman had allowed the girls one of the nippled bottles he stocked for those mothers having trouble nursing. By this time, the tom had become a pro at lying on his back and holding the bottle with all four paws as he guzzled his pay.
Dengara let Dogan take the lead, he being more at home in the language. The gunnery sergeant knelt at the house’s open front in the proper manner and began, “Grandfather, I have a boon to ask.”
Cho smiled with one side of his face, the other frozen by a stroke. “And what might that be, Small One?”
It had taken Dengara a while to get used to being addressed as “Small One.” Even longer to not to be tempted to smile at the 125 kilo Dogan being referred to as such.
“Grandfather, I would like to take Chang and Tolie to the place known as Clear Water for a season.”
The ancient frowned. “Why, Small One, should ever you wish to do such a deed?”
“It would be to teach them to make cart wheels for all the Dongo people.”
The frown remained. “And why ever should the Dongo want carts? That is an evil for the Hus.” The actual word he used for the flatlanders dripped with disdain.
Dogan tried another tack. “There is a master woodworker there who would teach them many wondrous way of working the flesh of trees.”
Cho chuckled under his breath. “Small One, there is nothing more that need be learned of working tree flesh. We have all that is needed.”
This looked to be a long battle. Dengara glanced around the area for something to sit on, his headache coming back. He considered entering the house and sitting at Cho’s feet. As he wasn’t actively engaged in the conversation, this would be permissible. His eye traveled over the old man’s swollen, arthritic knees and an epiphany struck. “Grandfather? If the Dongo have carts, a small one could be made that would allow your children and grandchildren to move you around the village and perhaps out of it.”
The gunnery sergeant quietly flashed his captain a “thumbs up” with the hand the old man couldn’t see and continued the charge. “Just think, Grandfather, once more you would be able to collect the proper herbs yourself rather than depending only on Dojie.” From Cho’s expression, that hit home. It was no secret that he despaired of his grandson, his apprentice, ever learning the lore well enough to follow in his footsteps. The fact that the rest of the villagers thought Dojie did well didn’t matter to the old man. They, after all, were mere laymen.
He asked, “Small One, who will care for the brothers so far away?”
Dogan reassured him, “There is a craftsman, a worker of wood. He is in his realm as you are in yours. He has promised to look after them and teach them if they will learn. I think he is a good man, as are you, Grandfather. Also, each seven day, I will go there and check on them that they are safe and happy.”
The old man smiled, lay back, and closed his eyes. “It is good, Small One. Go and ask their mother and the maidens to whom they have promised themselves. If all are in agreement, so be it.”
Gunnery Sergeant Dogan stomped into the dayroom, passed up the tea maker,  jerked open the cooler, selected a half liter of Bayern beer, and ripped the top open. Dengara watched him over the top of his reader. Uh, oh. Somebody’s not in his happy spot. It was out of place for Flap to pass up his afternoon Earl Grey for a brew. “Problem, Gunny?”
The NCO took a huge swallow, stared into space for a moment, looked down at the beer, took a much smaller sip, and grinned at his commander. “Sorry, Skipper, it just became a lousy day.”
The captain made a sitting motion. “Okay, Gunny, tell Papa.”
Dogan laughed and sat down across from Dengara. “Well, sir, you know those new bolt-action N-42 rifles we got in and how supply forgot to ship the actual bolt with them?”
Dengara looked pained. “Oh, yeah. That was swinging. ‘Sorry, guys, but you can’t play with the shiny new toys the off-worlders brought because some idiot at the plant forgot to include the bolts.’ Man, you’ve got to love ‘built by the lowest bidder!’”
“Yes, sir. Well, the bolts finally came in, but they’re Mark 1 Mod 0s.”
The captain made a “come-along” motion with his hand.
The gunnery sergeant took a disgusted sip of his beer. “Which means that they don’t have the .065 millimeter groove that that N-42, Mark 1 Mod1s do.”
Dengara closed one eye. “I’m suspecting that makes a noticeable difference.”
Dogan grinned lopsidedly. “Only if you don’t want the poor schmuck firing the weapon eating the bolt, sir.”
Dengara made a sour face. “Yeah, that probably would make us a little less than popular. What’s to do?”
The other rubbed his face and took a sip of beer before answering, “Guess who gets to sit up all night filing a .065 millimeter groove in one hundred and twenty  bolts, sir.”
“That, Gunnery Sergeant Dogan, is why you get paid the big money.” Dengara turned serious. “Gunny, I really am sorry. But we need those weapons badly. It’s only been a gift from on high that the Hus insurgents haven’t noticed us yet. For that matter, they may have noticed us and are somewhere in their planning cycle while they decide just what to do about us and the village.
“What do you have on tap tomorrow? Anything that’s just got to get done?”
Dogan thought for a moment. “Sir, really the only thing that has to be done is issuing the new rifles to the Dongos and start training with them.”
“Can Mitch and Telly do that?”
“Oh, sure, sir. The only touchy stuff is filing the grooves. The rest is just normal soldiering — Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. I’m supposed to fly over to Clear Water and see how the Wong brothers are making out with Potass.”
Dengara grinned at his NCO. “Okay, you go ahead and burn the midnight oil with those grooves. I’ll task Mitch and Telly, the terrible twosome, with making sure none of our Dongo troops shoot off a toe with the new rifles. I’ll also run over to Clear Water and see if all is happy with the brothers and Potass. That way you can sleep-in tomorrow after all that filing and grooving you’re about to do.”
“Sir, if you’ll pardon me, for an officer, you’re pretty close to human.” Dogan grinned at him, finished his beer, stood, and dropped the container in the recycler as he headed out the door to the armory.
Dengara’s sense of unease didn’t begin until he saw the Chief’s big toothy grin and was greeted with, “Hiya, Captain. I ‘spect you’re looking for ‘Woodpecker’ Potass and his nestlings. The kids are over getting their kit together and Karl is in his hidy-hole, sir.”
The captain felt a cold, sinking feeling in his stomach. “Thank you, Chief.” He managed to suppress the “I think.”
Pushing through the door bubble, he saw the little man sitting on a tall stool staring down at his clenched hands. Covered in sawdust, the only real change was the man’s forlorn expression. When Potass looked up, Dengara realized his eyes were red-rimmed from weeping. He spoke gently to the elderly craftsman, “Karl?”
The Navy man sniffed loudly and the words spilled out of him, “Captain, sir? I tried, I really did. And the boys tried, they tried hard. They’re good boys, sir. If I’d had kids, I would have wanted sons just like them. But they have no talent. Sir, they just can’t feel the wood.” He sniffed again and continued, “I’m sorry, sir. I really am. But it’s the good Lord’s truth. Two Wongs don’t make a wright.”
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