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Skipping Diablo
__—— an eBook for the Kindle.  Robbie Vincent’s grandfather invented the Diablo Engine some 30 years previously, but it resulted in a tragedy and the family has been prohibited from working on it – other engineers have played with it over the years but nobody had ever been able to better the very modest anti-grav effects of the engine.  It basically can’t lift more than its own weight no matter how big and powerful it is made.  It has been relegated to the ‘cute but useless’ category.  When Robbie manages to persuade his grandfather to allow him to experiment with it he makes a breakthrough by causing several very small Diablos to operate in close proximity so that their weak gravitation fields overlap slightly and amplify the effect.  This is the Diablo Array, which comes with its own limitations – it can provide strong vertical lift but can’t be moved sideways.
The array is patented and the family engineering firm starts making the SteadyDevil – a simple platform for workmen that can be ‘flown’ straight up or down, and rivals cherry-pickers or fixed scaffolding.  A simple device that is a great little earner in a narrow, niche market.  Robbie’s future seems assured and, frankly, that’s all he wants.  His next invention is a method of using two arrays for lift, rotating the platform around one array at a time to simulate a sickening ‘walking’ effect in mid-air.  The A2 platform can crab sideways at a very slow rate, but extends the SteadyDevil to a much wider market...  and more success.
At this stage Robbie pulls back from full-time inventing, since the family firm is now struggling to keep up with world-wide demand and is forced into licensing deals, but stumbles on a really radical way to make a Diablo Array move sideways, injuring himself in the discovery.  Taking his time and keeping all his work under cover, he develops the capacity to ‘skip’ an array into and out of an alternate dimension momentarily, with a resulting displacement in space-time.  Like using a tiny worm-hole, he calibrates skip distances of up to 30 kilometers, and the implications of Diablo Array craft with Skipper Drives starts to sink in.  It could revolutionize transport on a global scale.
Being extremely careful, Robbie develops his Skipper Drive system unaware that he is being closely watched by patent poachers, and after he uses his prototype to rescue some mountain climbers, including his fiancée, media investigation puts him in a spot.  He has to deny the rescue while racing to complete his patent application, but the other firm beats him to the punch, guessing from the media speculation roughly how his system works.  His only recourse is to submit a patent application in the USA where proof of ‘Prior Invention’ is accepted.
The US Patent Office notifies their Australian counterpart of intention to challenge on the basis of Prior Invention, and this causes an Australian Senator to get involved after notification of possible court proceedings...
This sudden toxic cocktail of conflicting commercial, political, media, legal and personal interests sets in train a sequence of events...

Available for Kindle from Amazon, US$2.60 – 434 ‘Amazon pages’.  Interested?  Read the first Chapter of Skipping Diablo here...


1:  Homecoming

Provincial  adj. ...someone who lives in or comes from the provinces.
*  *  *  *  *

Aged twenty, Robbie Vincent had completed his apprenticeship in the city and decided to resign immediately and return to his small home town.  City life just didn’t agree with him, and he accepted that all the taunts he had endured over the past three years were fairly accurate.  He was a cowboy, a rube, a small-town hick.  But so what?  There had never really been any doubt that he would end up working for the family engineering firm, and the temptation of staying on – spending a few years in the city as a qualified fitter-turner, earning good money and living a good life – was not enough.
He missed the simple things.  His main obsession was dirt-bike riding.  In the city, just getting to an off-road trail was a major hassle.  He had to tie his bike onto the tray of his utility and drive for hours.  At home he would be able to ride out the front gate and be on a trail within minutes.
Robbie was big guy, wore riding gear a lot, scowled a lot...  nobody ever picked fights with him.  He knew that his appearance was intimidating, and he played that for all it was worth – it had kept him clear of rough treatment from older workers for years and allowed him to complete his apprenticeship with top marks.  Because he was largely unkempt... well, extremely unkempt, he admitted, and followed his dirt-biking hobby with such zeal, he looked like a typical biker.  So that was how he had been treated.  With extreme caution.  They all saw him as a wild man, surly and unpredictable, and a loner.  Good at his work, but not good company.
That suited Robbie just fine.  It wasn’t accurate, but so what?  And in the city, nobody ever knew anything about you until they met you – so everyone tended to be judged entirely on their appearance and it was hard to change a first-impression image once made.  It wouldn’t be like that in a small town.
The main problem with going home would be money, but his family was a secondary problem.  The Vincents were comfortably well-off – although none of that wealth seemed to have stuck to his fingers yet!  He just didn’t get on well with his immediate family.  His father was a withdrawn and remote man, while his mother and his older sister were both wannabe socialites.  In a small town, that was difficult and more than a touch absurd.  But those two had made social work an obsession, and just about everything they held dear was of little consequence to Robbie, and often enough completely opposite to what he wanted.
He saw a lot of what they did as unnecessary, pretentious and condescending interference in other peoples’ lives.  His sister Susan was the ring-leader, he was sure – she was a fanatical snob to whom appearance was everything.  Life at home had been difficult, and leaving to start his apprenticeship had been a blessed relief.  However, if he could get a job at Vincent Engineering he could rent a place of his own and not be too concerned about family conflicts.  Keeping them at arm’s length would allow him to avoid major clashes and arguments.  He would have to visit home as a first priority, but after that...
His plan was to approach his grandfather, who was the founder and major shareholder of Vincent Engineering – VE to everyone – to apply for a job, now that he was a qualified tradesman.  To avoid any claims of nepotism by Vincent family members, that was just the accepted way things were done at VE.  There were several Vincents working at all levels of the company.  At the top, his father managed the Aviation Components division of the firm, while his Uncle Joe managed the much larger Automotive Components division.  His Aunt Helen was the Financial Controller.  Those three were the minor shareholders of the company, and they made all the day-to-day decisions, since his grandfather was 75 and semi-retired.
After loading his meager possessions on the back of his truck, he left the key to his dingy city bed-sitter under the doormat as arranged and drove off without a backward glance or the slightest regret.  Homeward bound.
*  *  *  *  *

Meeting his parents, updating them on the successful completion of his apprenticeship and outlining his vague plans for a job at VE went off smoothly enough, but he felt like a peasant visiting the local Baron to ask for permission to use some castle muck for fertilizer.  His mother didn’t like his casual, rough appearance and his father seemed to know a lot about his apprenticeship performance and his high qualification mark, which was disturbing.  But when they offered the use of his old room for a few days, while he looked for more permanent accommodation, he accepted – it would save some money.  He unloaded just some essential gear from his utility, then his dirt-bike, and made a typical snap decision.  It had stopped raining hours ago so, leaving the rest of his gear on the truck tray, he kitted up, started his bike, and blasted out onto the street.
Within minutes he was at the start of an off-road trail that he knew.  If nothing else justified coming home, that did!  He enjoyed it so much that he did some cross-country puddle-jumping to access a second track, and was able to pace himself to another rider a minute or so ahead of him on the track.  Pushing fairly hard, he got some good air at times, and was closing on the leader when the trail finished.  He returned home at dusk, covered in mud but thoroughly pleased with himself.
At dinner, though, reality imposed itself.  Robbie felt like a frog on a dissecting table – his mother and sister acted in a much more coordinated manner than he remembered from the last time he visited, backing each other up in a non-stop barrage.  His dirt-biking habits were the target, and their weapons were heavy sarcasm and isolation – talking across him as though he wasn't there, with lots of ‘darlings’ and ‘sweeties’ and ‘pets’.  His father just ignored the interchange and got on with his meal, and Robbie soon understood why.  He tried to do the same, responding where it seemed absolutely necessary in minimum fashion, until he realized that monosyllabic grunts just reinforced their position.
He was so crude.  He was so inferior.  His biking was soooo dirty, and noisy, and dangerous, and infantile, and showed callous disregard for his family, and meant dirty, smelly machinery littering the property, and sent the wrong signals to important visitors, and he showed so little consideration for others, and all the hard work that went into improving the family’s standing, and he needed to grow up, and show some taste for a change, and wear suitable clothes for meals, and...
The only time they left him alone was to criticize the maid.  Robbie didn’t know her – and he knew that maids tended to have short careers in the Vincent household, so she was probably the fourth or fifth one since he had last visited home.  He soon learned that trying to respond in any way was a waste of effort, and became as quiet as his father.  Resolving to find a place to rent and get out of the house as quickly as he possibly could, he couldn’t wait for tomorrow, when he expected to at least get a job at VE and could start looking at alternative accommodation.  So much for saving a bit of money by staying at home for a while!
As always, he ended up just letting the talk wash over him.  It would have been prompted by Susan, anyway, and was the same ol’, same ol’.  He should have known better – home life hadn’t changed for him.
The following morning he called the VE office and asked to talk to his grandfather, to discover that an appointment had already been made for him by his father – he was expected at eleven-thirty at the main office.  He was surprised, but agreed to the time.  Two hours to kill.  He changed into clean clothes and wandered outside.
His battered utility with most of his gear still roped on the tray looked very out of place in the driveway with his mother’s Mercedes and his sister’s little BMW.  Susan had quickly announced that she knew of a couple of self-contained flats, which probably meant that she wanted him out of the family home before he embarrassed them all.  He would investigate those once he was sure of a job at VE.  Robbie was suspicious of her motives, but he needed a roof.  Checking the ropes on the load, he thought about his grandfather.
Dudley ‘The Dude’ Vincent, had been born Dudiera Vinocourov in Russia, his parents refugee immigrants after the second world war.  Anglocising his name by Deed Poll, he had founded Vincent Engineering 40 years ago – he had always been an innovative and inventive engineer, and VE was founded on some of his early work on aviation components.  But the reason why the Dude was so well-known in the engineering industry was because of one magnificent flop.  That was the Diablo engine.  His most famous invention had, 30 years ago, been heralded as a new dawn for aviation – a true antigrav engine – but it had been a mere flash-in-the-pan, abruptly abandoned.
At the time, Robbie knew, the Dude had often repeated that it provided only modest lifting power, and came with its own set of unique problems.  But the media had admired the beautiful machining work and seemingly magical properties of the engine running under controlled conditions, and wanted it to be the new wonder-invention that would revolutionize aviation.  So there had been pressure on him to develop it once the patent was granted.  Under intense media scrutiny, he had attached two large, gimballed Diablo engines to a light aircraft.  The solid-steel center core of each Diablo had been the size of a bowling-ball!  They were enormous.
But, as the young Dudley Vincent had predicted, it never delivered on the early modest promise, and fuel consumption on the plane had increased dramatically as it fought the tendency of the Diablos to simply hover.  They resisted movement, always swung around in their gimbal frames to point directly North, and were difficult to tip.  That meant that the plane became very hard to control in a bank, climb or dive.  The advantages of the extra lift provided by the Diablos were more than canceled by the decrease in flight control response and increase in fuel consumption.  It was never going to be a commercial success, and the dapper young engineer had known it.  The modified aircraft was more to demonstrate the unsuitability of Diablos than to showcase their benefits.
The tragedy had happened on a demonstration flight.  Dudley had taken his seven-year-old son with him on the flight because it made good media, but one of the Diablos had jammed in its gimbal frame as he turned to make a landing approach, so that the plane yawed severely as he touched down and cut engine power.  It wasn’t a crash – just a sudden swerve sideways.  But the aircraft was still traveling fairly fast, and one wheel had hit a protruding runway light.  That was enough of an impact in a light aircraft to cause young Billy Vincent to shoot out of his seat – he had removed his seat-belt as soon as they touched down – and hit his head.
An ambulance was called as soon as the injury was examined, and Dudley called his wife.  In the most bizarre of accidents, the ambulance ran into Maggie Vincent’s car racing to the airport and she was killed in the crash.  Young Billy died in hospital the following day.  So in the space of one day, the Dude had lost his wife and his son in the pursuit of an impossible dream, and he was extremely bitter about it.  Understandably so.
Every Vincent knew the story by heart, and understood that the Dude had locked up all the Diablo engines and now refused to discuss them.  They were a taboo subject.  The Dude’s two sons and one daughter, now running various parts of VE, were from his second marriage, and all agreed that the Diablo engine represented the low point of an otherwise brilliant engineering career, and should remain well-buried.  Robbie knew that he should not mention anything relating to Diablos!
He prepared for his interview by riding around the VE complex to refresh his memory.  Growing up, Robbie had spent some time in the Aviation Components building, but didn't know much about the others.  Most were just big tin sheds with the distinctive ‘flying-V’ logo plastered over the outside, but one building was more substantial – it had once been a cheese factory – and that was where the Dude had his office.  Robbie had never visited his grandfather at work, because it was family policy to respect his position as mediator on business and family matters, and visiting him at work was reserved for official purposes.  He had no idea of what to expect.  But the Dude was an engineer, after all.  He would appreciate Robbie’s abilities.  What could go wrong?
He arrived early to find that his grandfather was not there, and he was asked to wait in the office lobby.  He sat down and looked around the dreary room, focusing on the large polished alloy logo on the wall.  That was quite an impressive casting, and he’d never seen an embossed version of the logo before.  The three bars of the ‘E’ formed the stylized wing.  An old-fashioned design, but it looked solid and reliable, which is why he guessed the company continued to use it.  After thinking about it, he decided the old-fashioned look at least indicated permanence, which gave him a good feeling contemplating employment at VE.
Eventually he got up and examined a collection of framed photos on one wall.  He spotted his father in one of them, standing alongside an aircraft landing-gear wheel.  That would have been taken at the deployment of the GPS-Altimeter system that he had developed.  Robbie remembered that.
As he browsed the photos, his grandfather entered the office, and Robbie turned to greet him when he realized it.  The Dude stood in the doorway clutching a folder, plainly just studying Robbie.  Hell, it’s hard to imagine him getting his hands dirty... he looks like an accountant or a shopkeeper.  Always the bloody waistcoat and bow tie, I see.  He’s well named.  I must look a bit scruffy to him, I guess.
“Hi, Grandad.  Or I guess I should call you Dude, like everyone else?”
The old man nodded.  “That would be best.  I do not like to allow staff to perceive favoritism in any way.  I am sure you will understand.  Well, Robbie, come on into the office, and we will discuss your situation.  You have grown a lot since I last saw you.”
The slight Russian accent is still just discernible.  As they walked into the office, Robbie couldn’t help but add, "Well, I can’t say the same for you!  You look exactly the same as you did three years ago at Christmas – that was the last time I saw you.”
The Dude chuckled.  “That is a good thing when you are my age.  Any change is likely to be unwelcome.  Take a seat.”
To Robbie’s surprise, the Dude's folder contained quite a bit of detail about his apprenticeship and performance in the city.  It became obvious that the old man had spoken to Robbie’s previous employer and asked about his work and social activities.  He also had all of Robbie’s examination results and Performance Reviews.  God!  He’s done his homework!  But that’s good... he’ll see that I’m a good machinist, and my lack of social interaction at work could be anything.
The interview proceeded toward the expected outcome, but the Dude emphasized that, for Vincent family-member employees, there was always an extra responsibility.  It was up to them to prove to local employees that family favoritism was not the sole reason for their appointment.  They had to strive to contribute something unique to the company – their ‘Vincent contribution’.  The company employed over sixty full-time workers, and a team of about thirty part-time casuals were deployed in small groups as required for specific assembly or construction work.
“Do not forget, Robbie, that my prime responsibility is to those employees and to the town.  We are the fifth largest private-sector employer here, and the stability of the region is partly in our hands.  I will not allow family interests to interfere with that.”
Robbie nodded, reassessing his grandfather – he’d never thought of him as anything but an engineer, but he obviously had a deep sense of civic duty, as well.  The young fitter-turner felt a sudden lack of maturity.  It was an uncomfortable jolt.
“Ah, yes, okay.  I can understand that.  One thing, though...  It might get awkward working at Aviation with my dad.  We’re just not the same sort of personality, and I’m a keen biker, which he doesn’t like.  My mum says it shows me to be antisocial, although I don’t think that’s true.  I’ve met a good number of bikers, and only a few of them have been bad eggs – about the same number you’d expect anywhere.  I know that quite a few bike parts are made at Automotive, so I’d feel more at home there.”
The old man nodded, grinning.  “A keen biker.  Yes.  Your previous employer thought that you were a bit obsessive about your biking.  I have not ridden a bike for...  well, more than a decade, now.  But I used to like it, too.  I do not think you would fit in at Automotive, though.”
“No?  But you think you can make room for me somewhere here?”
“Yes.  There is a vacancy coming up in the tool-shop.  The tool-shop is independent, but most of its output is for Automotive.  I do not know if you know Jack Strachan?  No?  Well, you would not have met him through your father.  He started with me and used to help me make prototypes.  A very good machinist, but he wants to retire.  You have the skills, Robbie, but I cannot allow you to simply take over from Jack.  His experience is a major factor, and what he does is not a full-time job.”
Robbie’s hopes sunk – he needed a full-time job to be able to afford his own place.  Staying at home would be intolerable, if last night had been any indication.  “Aha.  So it’s to be a part-time job for me?”
“No, it will be full-time.  But you need to work with Jack to find out what he does, and the rest of your time will be spent helping the tool-shop build plastic injection moulds.  More and more of our products use plastic parts instead of pressed-metal parts.  So there is a continuing demand for that.  You did well in that area during your training, according to the reports.”
“Yes, I certainly did.”  Robbie was pleased – he knew that he had excelled at die-making, and quite enjoyed the exacting work.  It was also quite obvious that the job offer had been finalized before the interview started.  His grandfather was taking maximum advantage of Robbie’s known skills and experience.  “And I need to think of something unique that I can bring to the job.  I’d get a bit of time to think about that?”
“Yes, but do not take too long, or the job will simply become routine, and you may meet with some resentment from other staff.  I think you have the ability to help substantially with making moulds, and the independence to handle Jack’s work with relative ease, but I will look forward to hearing what your Vincent Contribution might be in addition.”
“Okay, that all sounds good to me.  When do I start?”
*  *    *  *

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