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The Fata Morgana


Table of Contents














































The Fata Morgana



Leo A. Frankowski


This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.



Copyright (c) 1999 by



All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.



A Baen Book



Baen Publishing Enterprises


P.O. Box 1403


Riverdale, NY 10471



ISBN: 0-671-57876-6



Cover art by Gary Ruddell



First paperback printing, July 2000



Library of Congress Catalog Number 99-27089




Distributed by Simon & Schuster


1230 Avenue of the Americas


New York, NY 10020




Production by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH


Printed in the United States of America








This book is dedicated to my father,



Leo Stanley Frankowski










A lot of good people helped me out by proofreading this book, and by giving me many valuable suggestions. Special thanks go to L. Warren Douglas, Alan G. Greenberg, Gilbert Parker, Tom and Jane Devlin, and Mike Hubble, who has a habit of quoting my books back at me, chapter and verse.








I first noticed that something was definitely wrong when somebody hit me in the back of the head with a club.


I went flying down on my knees and elbows, slapped the ground, yelled, and came up on the bounce, smashing someone's testicles in the process.


A whole platoon of thugs was pouring out of a small doorway in the side of the tunnel. I caught a wall with one hand while swinging with the other, and then there were other things to do. It seemed like I was surrounded by dozens of the bastards!


In the movies, the hero can take on vast numbers of bad guys because the stunt men have the courtesy to come at him one at a time. That way, he only has to fight one opponent at a time, ten times in a row. If your enemies have any brains and coordination at all, they will mob you, all of them at once, and then you will go down, no matter how good you are. At best, you might take out one or two before you are deleted.


My opponents seemed to have neither brains nor coordination, but they did have enthusiasm, and there were an awful lot of them. Also, even waiting in line takes a certain amount of coordination, and for these idiots, fighting seemed to be a series of random events. Once, apparently by accident, four of them came at me at once, and I had to drop and roll. Fortunately, they weren't bright enough to know what to do to me once I was down. I was up again in a hurry, and dancing around.


I swear that there were at least fifteen of them on me alone. Against odds like that, you fight to win, without thinking about the damage, jail time, or lawsuits you might be generating. I've always been partial to knees. Knees are low and easy to get to without the flashy, dangerous, high kicks that some of the other good targets require. Also, knees break easily, they put your opponent down fast, and barring modern surgery, they generally don't heal properly for years, if they heal at all.


I guess I broke a lot of knees that night.









A Boy and His Tank

The Fata Morgana




The boat was dismasted, and in parting company the mast had knocked a hole in the bottom of the ferrocrete hull.


We were sinking in a Force Ten gale, with gusts of up to seventy, but it was debatable whether she would sink to the bottom of the East Pacific Basin, or wreck herself on the rocky shores of an island that couldn't possibly be where it obviously was.


We had already done everything we could think of, which wasn't nearly enough. We had stuffed a mattress into the hole, and wedged and blocked it in as best we could with the sea water slapping to and fro on the lower deck. Tons of stuff were awash down there. Plugging the hole seemed to help only a little. The water in the hold wasn't getting any deeper, but it wasn't getting noticeably shallower, either.


The engines had flooded out early on, taking the big pumps west with them, and the electric pumps were losing ground as the batteries slowly died. Adam was valiantly working the manual bailer, but he was only postponing the inevitable.


The automatic distress beacon was ready to be switched on and the life raft was inflated, loaded and in the water. Back in the cockpit, all I could do was wait and see if our navigation was really five hundred miles off, and I was staring at one of the Line Islands, or if the solid looking thing in front of me was really a mirage, the Fata Morgana, as Adam had twice called it.


A sad ending for a pair of good engineers, I suppose, but perhaps a better way to go than some of the alternatives. I've read that drowning beats the hell out of, say, death by fire, but I don't know where the writer got his information.






I guess it all really started because of a problem that exists in the Special Machinery business.


Special Machines are designed and built one at a time, in accordance with your customer's needs and specifications. If he manufactures widgets, you might make him a machine that assembles widgets, or maybe paints them, or wraps them in plastic film for shipment.


Each special machine is specially designed, you could even say invented, to do only one thing, but to do that one thing extremely well. Such a machine can be very productive, but it is generally of use to only one company. Thus, our industry is one of the last bastions of craftsmanship in this increasingly automated, mass production world.


To be sure, our machines are largely responsible for all that bland mass production, since they can turn out identical products at a fraction of the cost of any other method known, but there is nonetheless a great deal of personal satisfaction in designing something, building it, and then watching it work as you had planned. It is a rare joy that the operators of our machines can never have. When thereis an operator, that is, and the whole system is not completely automated.

* * *


I've always liked workshops and factories. Some people—my ex-wife, for example—claim that the industrial environment is alien, unnatural, and inhuman, but for me it is the most natural thing in the world.


I am a man, and as such I am as much a part of nature as any tree or beaver or bee. The machines that I build are as natural as any beaver lodge or bee hive. If there is any fundamental difference, it is that, being a man, I use the mind nature gave me to direct my efforts, rather than depending on my instincts alone. Even then, I don't think that I can claim that a beaver never thought about her work, or that she never sat back to admire a well built dam.

* * *


In Special Machines, our sort of craftsmanship entails a whole set of problems of its own, problems that the rest of the world rarely perceives.


You see, in order to get new business for your company, you have to have competent people ready to start on your customer's job. No purchasing agent in his right mind would trust an important order to someone who had nothing but a vacant shop.


And in order to get competent people, you have to have interesting work for them to do. Even if you could afford to pay them to sit and do nothing while you were waiting for the next job to come in, the best workers would all quit within days, leaving you with no one but the sort of people who would be better off working for the government. When you start paying people to not work, you are automatically selecting for incompetence.


It's a shame, but the only sane course of action is when the work is gone, you have to lay almost everybody off. It hurts, but there's nothing else you can do.


It then becomes a matter of "If we had some eggs, we could have some ham and eggs, if we had some ham." I've seen a few companies that never were able to get started up again. Oh, in an ideal world, there would always be a fresh job to get into whenever the last job was winding down, but if I ever began to notice that happening to me on a regular basis, I'd start believing in Santa Claus, or maybe even God.


So when a big (for us) Chrysler welding line was getting ready to be shipped, and nothing new was in the offing, most of my best engineers had their computers in word processing mode. They were updating their resumes on company time, and I knew that I was in trouble.


Oh, I had plenty of money. The previous three jobs had been profitable, the company bank account was flush, and I hadn't even been paid yet for the last one. The trouble was, looking for work, I'd called on everybody I knew (and many that I didn't) and I hadn't been able to find anything, anywhere, that was ready to shake loose in less than two months.


By which time I would have to hire a whole new bunch of strangers, assuming that I could find such people. Then I would likely end up having to fire half of them for incompetence, after gracing each such bumble fingered fool with a month's pay in return for his efforts at screwing things up. And then I would have to waste yet another month teaching those with some small bit of ability the proper way to get things done. That is to say,my way.


All with the net result of an ungodly amount of personal aggravation, late deliveries, and cost overruns that, in this industry, you generally have to eat on your own. It's not like doing "cost plus" work for the government. Starting with a new crew, my next job would run at a loss, not only to my bank account, but also to my reputation, which—in the long run—is the only really important thing that any company has ever got. Once you have the right reputation, you canbuy everything else you need.






I sat alone in my office wondering what I would do next, after I fired everybody, when the room darkened and I noticed that my chief engineer was filling the doorway into my office.


Adam Kulczyinski is the biggest man I've ever met, standing six foot five, and so wide that, from a distance, he looks squat. He's powerful, not like a bodybuilder, but like a big time wrestler who's going to seed. He has thick legs, thicker arms, and a big, hanging gut. When you add thinning, unruly hair, bushy eyebrows, and a huge beak of a nose, you have a remarkable looking individual.


He walked in with a yellow legal pad filled with numbers and sketches, sat down in the chair across from me, and put his feet up on my desk. His shoes were very expensive Italian jobs, since with what I had to pay to keep him, he could afford anything he wanted. But the soles were worn through because he never got enough time off work to either have them fixed or buy a new pair.


His suit was crumpled, of course, since his suit wasalways crumpled. On business trips, I've seen Adam put on a good suit fresh from the cleaners, and watched it crumple as he stood there. It was just one of his many magical talents.


Another of his peculiarities was that he always wore both a belt and suspenders. I'd asked him about that, and he'd said, "A good engineer, he don't take no chances."


Now, most people would get fired for putting heel marks on their boss's desk, but I'll put up with a lot from a man who really knows what he's doing.


Hell, once I went into engineering to find Adam winning afarting contest with a Japanese customer. Three detailers were acting as judges, holding up scorecard numbers for volume, odor, and tonal quality. When I mentioned his conduct to him later, all he would allow was that, "Yeah, well, it probably woudda shown more class if I'd 'a let da customer win. I just got carried away wit da spirit of da competition, is all."


Adam was one of the few people left in the world who still spoke with a Hamtramck (pronounced hamTRAMik) accent. Hamtramck is a small city that is completely surrounded by the city of Detroit, like a tough little amoeba that a bigger amoeba could swallow but couldn't quite digest. Any place else in the world, the larger city would simply have absorbed the smaller one, but here, for fairly good reasons, the city fathers involved were just plain scared to try it.


You see, early in the century, Hamtramck had been populated by Poles who had abandoned Europe in favor of the American car factories. For many years, it was actually the largest Polish-speaking city on earth. Thus, those who "came over on the boat" never had to learn English at all, and the second generation developed something that was almost a creole of English and Polish. It involved substituting a "T" sound for an unvoiced "TH", and a "D" for the one that was voiced. The word order used was half way between the two parent languages, and its other unwritten rules were beyond my understanding. Furthermore, while I have never been able to get Adam to admit it, I am positive that he has a lot of fun making his statements as deliberately ambiguous as possible, and just filled with internal contradictions.


In writing this history, I have found that I am completely unable to do justice (or rather to do proper injustice) to his strange accent. Nothing that I am capable of putting on paper sounds exactly like whatever it is that Adam actually does. I regret to say that even when I am quoting him, you must take it for granted that what I am actually doing is paraphrasing his statements into something closer to a civilized tongue.


Yet while Adam's accent was probably authentic, to the extent that it really was what he grew up with, it was more than a little bit phony as well. I say this because sometimes, when he was tired or distracted, he would start speaking pure, Midwest Standard English, the language of Walter Cronkite, until he caught himself and went back to his Hamtramck accent.


His constant use of an illiterate creole convinced some people that he was a "regular" sort of guy, and others, who didn't know him well, that he was a fool. He liked people thinking both of those things. Very few of his associates realized that he had graduatedsumma cum laude from Michigan Tech, an engineering school that is second only to Cal Tech and MIT. He never mentioned it. In fact, I've heard him denying that he'd even graduated from high school. The only reasons I knew about his education were because I'd seen his resume when I'd hired him, and because I went to the same school that he had. Oh, he'd been a senior when I was a freshman, and we'd never actually met during that year, but it was not easy to miss a man as big as Adam in a crowd.


Even then, I'd phoned our old school, not so much to verify his technical skills, but to see if he'd actually passed an English course. He had. Indeed, he'd minored in English Literature, and pulled straight A's doing it.


But whether it was because of or in spite of his various peculiarities, when Adam designed a machine, the machine performed flawlessly. What's more, it generally worked perfectly the first time it was turned on.


Therefore, if Adam wanted to talk with his feet on my desk, I was willing to listen with my feet on the rug.


"I take it that that's not your resume," I said, pointing to his pad of yellow notes.


"Nah, I do dose on one of da draftin plotters, on dat nice cotton bond what I had you pay for."


"I wondered why you wanted that stuff."


"Well, if you woudda axed me, I woudda told youse."


"Maybe I just didn't want to know. So what's your idea?"


"So sales has screwed up again, and we're looking at some serious layoffs."


From Adam, this was a remarkably tactful statement, seeing as how I did most of the actual sales work myself. Not out of choice, you understand, but because I have yet to find a sales engineer who was both good at his job and willing to work for somebody else once he'd learned the ropes. You have to be a good engineer to be able to talk to other engineers, and once you have the sales contacts besides, the temptation to "buy your own cannon," and run a company the way one ought to be run is just too strong.


I'm very familiar with the process, since that's how I got my company started twelve years ago, and that's how I lost my first (and last) four sales engineers. And so although I suppose that it represents a monumental case of hypocrisy on my part, well, let's just say that I'd gotten tired of training my own future competitors a long ways back.


"Look, I've gotten solid promises for two big lines in a couple of months. Most of the guys and girls have been working sixty, seventy hours a week for over a year now. By the time they come back from a long, deserved, company-paid vacation, there will be plenty of work for them to do," I said.


"Nah, you know better den dat. Dees guys, dey been pulling down twice deir regular wages for so long dat dey tink forty hours' pay is like bein' on welfare. Dere's udder outfits around wit plenty of work dat'ud snap up our best people in a hurry. But me, I figure dat if we could give dem sometin fun to do, we could keep our best ones, anyway. Say ten from engineering and maybe a dozen from da shop. Da other tirty-five, well, dey're not so bad, but we could live without 'em, and anyway, dey're the ones dat will still be dere without a job when we need 'em back again."


"There's money in the bank to pay for it, but what's your plan?"


"I figure dat you've always wanted a yacht." He pronounced it with the "ch" sound left in. "You never said nuttin about it, but everybody else wants one, and you always looked pretty normal. So. Did you know dat you can buy da materials for da hull of a one-hundred-foot-long yacht for around ten tousand dollars, if you build it out of ferrocrete?"


"Now wait a minute. A hundred footer, new, has to go for something like a couple of million bucks, at least, and the hull has to be the major expense item of any ship. There has to be a catch, somewhere!"


"Dere is! Ferrocrete is pretty labor intensive to make, but keeping people busy is exactly what you want to do just now."


"Even so, the gap between ten thousand and two million is still too fantastic."


"You got to look at da economics of da yacht-makin business. Dose tings are built for people who got too much money an' don't know what else to do wit it. Did you know dat half da production cost of one of dose big babies goes into teak wood decking an' cherry cabinet work on da insides? You're talkin a coupla hundred bucks a board foot for some of dat stuff! Now, you don't own no teak in your office or your car or your house, so why should you want any on your boat?"


"Okay, so we keep it sensible and Spartan, but you're still a long way from saving two million bucks."


"You got to look at deir sales expenses too, boss. All dose fancy showrooms. All dose magazines wit all dose slick photos, an' all dose good-lookin girls in dose string bikinis, or dose better-lookin girls not in dose string bikinis. I've heard dat da total weight of all da books an' magazines about yachting produced each year outweighs da actual boats produced each year by a factor of more den tree to one."


"That's hard to believe. But anyway, say we get our best people involved in building this boat. Why, a hundred footer will absolutely fill the big assembly bay. If a customer walks in and sees it, he'll know that we don't have any serious work under way, and he'll drive the price down to the point where we couldn't make a profit, knowing how hard up we are. And when wedo get a real job in, what do we do with the half finished boat? Scrap it?"


"Not to worry. I got dat all figured out. We rent da warehouse across da alley from da shop. It's been empty for a year an should oughta come cheap. Den if a customer comes over unexpected, you or Shirley holds him up in da front office for a few minutes while da rest of us runs back to da shop and looks busy. An' when we get real work in, we just leave da boat sittin dere until we hit another slow spot. I figure dat just having it dere will make da guys an' girls feel a lot more secure."


"Okay, say we do this thing. Just what am I going to do with a yacht once we get it done? I haven't had time...

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