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Airframe(5)
Author: Michael Crichton

She had never imagined she would work for an aircraft company, but to her surprise she had found that her plain-spoken, midwestern pragmatism was perfectly suited to the culture of engineers that dominated the company. Jim considered her rigid and "by the book," but her attention to detail had served her well at Norton, where she had for the last year been a vice-president of Quality Assurance.

She liked QA, even though the division had a nearly impossible mission. Norton Aircraft was divided into two great factions - production and engineering - which were perpetually at war. Quality Assurance stood uneasily between the two. QA was involved in all aspects of production; the division signed off every step of fabrication and assembly. When a problem emerged, QA was expected to get to the bottom of it. That rarely endeared them to mechanics on the line, or the engineers.

At the same time, QA was expected to deal with customer support problems. Customers were often unhappy with decisions they themselves had made, blaming Norton if the galleys they had ordered were in the wrong place, or if there were too few toilets on the plane. It took patience and political skill to keep everybody happy and get the problems resolved. Casey, a born peacemaker, was especially good at this.

In return for walking a political tightrope, workers in QA had the run of the plant. As a vice-president, Casey was involved in every aspect of the company's work; she had a lot of freedom and wide-ranging responsibility.

She knew her title was more impressive than the job she held; Norton Aircraft was awash in vice-presidents. Her division alone had four veeps, and competition among them was fierce. But now John Marder had just promoted her to liaison for the IRT. This was a position of considerable visibility -  and it put her in line to head the division. Marder didn't make such appointments casually. She knew he had a good reason for doing it.

She turned her Mustang convertible off the Golden State Freeway onto Empire Avenue, following the chain-link fence that marked the south perimeter of Burbank Airport. She headed toward the commercial complexes - Rockwell, Lockheed, and Norton Aircraft. From a distance, she could see the rows of hangars, each with the winged Norton logo painted above -

Her car phone rang.

"Casey? It's Norma. You know about the meeting?"

Norma was her secretary. "I'm on my way," she said. "What's going on?"

"Nobody knows anything," Norma said. "But it must be bad. Marder's been screaming at the engineering heads, and he's pushed up the IRT."

John Marder was the chief operating officer at Norton. Marder had been program manager on the N-22, which meant he supervised the manufacture of that aircraft. He was a ruthless and occasionally reckless man, but he got results. Marder was also married to Charley Norton's only daughter. In recent years, he'd had a lot to say about sales. That made Marder the second most powerful man in the company after the president. It was Marder who had moved Casey up, and it was -

"... do with your assistant?" Norma said.

"My what?"

"Your new assistant. What do you want me to do with him? He's waiting in your office. You haven't forgotten?"

"Oh, right." The truth was, she had forgotten. Some nephew of the Norton family was working his way through the divisions. Marder had assigned the kid to Casey, which meant she'd have to babysit him for the next six weeks. "What's he like, Norma?"

"Well, he's not drooling."

"Norma."

"He's better than the last one."

That wasn't saying much: the last one had fallen off a wing in major join and had nearly electrocuted himself in radio rack. "How much better?"

"I'm looking at his resume," Norma said. "Yale law school and a year at GM. But he's been in Marketing for the last three months, and he doesn't know anything about production. You're going to have to start him from the beginning."

"Right," Casey said, sighing. Marder would expect her to bring him to the meeting. "Have the kid meet me in front of Administration in ten minutes. And make sure he doesn't get lost, okay?"

"You want me to walk him down?"

"Yeah, you better."

Casey hung up and glanced at her watch. Traffic was moving slowly. Still ten minutes to the plant. She drummed her fingers on the dashboard impatiently. What could the meeting be about? There might have been an accident, or a crash.

She turned on the radio to see if it was on the news. She got a talk station, a caller saying, " - not fair to make kids wear uniforms to school. It's elitist and discriminatory - "

Casey pushed a button, changing the station.

" - trying to force their personal morality on the rest of us. I don't believe a fetus is a human being - "

She pushed another button.

" - these media attacks are all coming from people who don't like free speech - "

Where, she thought, is the news? Had an airplane crashed or not?

She had a sudden image of her father, reading a big stack of newspapers from all over the country every Sunday after church, muttering to himself, "That's not the story, that's not the story!" as he dropped the pages in an untidy heap around his living room chair. Of course, her father had been a print journalist, back in the 1960s. It was a different world now. Now, everything was on television. Television, and the mindless chatter on the radio.

Up ahead, she saw the main gate of the Norton plant. She clicked the radio off.

Norton Aircraft was one of the great names of American aviation. The company had been started by aviation pioneer Charley Norton in 1935; during World War II it made the legendary B-22 bomber, the P-27 Skycat fighter, and the C-12 transport for the Air Force. In recent years, Norton had weathered the hard times that had driven Lockheed out of the commercial transport business. Now it was one of just four companies that still built large aircraft for the global market. The others were Boeing in Seattle, McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, and the European consortium Airbus in Toulouse.

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