Nightwatch Logo

Year One, January:
Things that go bump in the night...
[In The Beginning]

11:00 PM, January 4th

    The Hubble Space Telescope orbits innocently, never knowing what is about to hit it. At eleven PM on January 4th, Hubble's onboard computers suddenly refuse all official incoming commands and begin the laborious processes of slewing the telescope around to point in a new direction- without being told to do so by Ground Control.
    "Damn," mutters one of the Grad students that mans the Hubble control room on the ground below. He slaps the computer monitor absent-mindedly, as if that will change what the screen display is telling him. The springs on his desk chair squeak alarmingly as he leans back in annoyance.
    "George?" the student's supervisor asks. "What is it?"
    "Dunno, Dave," George replies.  "This thing says the 'scope is redirecting on schedule after that last data dump ended, but its going the wrong way. Its gonna re-focus on the asteroid belt somewhere, if I read these numbers right. 78 degrees off of where we're telling it to point."
     "Ratty data?" Dave asks.  George shakes his head.
     "Don't think so. Something has glitched, and glitched bad."
    "If some stupid programmer reversed a plus sign for a minus sign-" Dave's blood pressure begins to climb. "Run a diagnostic, and get me a copy of the re-direct programming patch for this session."
    "Sure thing," George says.  "Here's the hard copy.  I'll run the diagnostic on the ground computers right now."
    "Thanks. Or maybe no thanks," Dave says.  "Hubble's not officially in orbit anymore, remember?  If it's glitched up and starts to come down."  Dave rubbed his eyes.  "I've got to go call this in.  If this gets out..."  George shrugged as if waiting for Dave to finish.  "Well, you can kiss your assistantship goodbye for one!"
    "Dave?" George swiveled his chair to call to his supervisor's back as Dave opened his office door. Dave turned around to face George's monitor station.
    "Yeah, George?"
    "Dave, what if the problem isn't on the ground?"
    "Then we're screwed, George. Congress will shit-can us and de-orbit the Hubble after all. We only saved it last time by the skin of our teeth and some lucky donations and some discretion. You ever see a satellite fall? Its an ugly sight. Especially knowing you could still use the bugger if Congress would just get off their butts and give up a little more money. Tell you what, call Juan and Dixie- over at Maintenance. Tell them what's going on and to come on over. We can get them to troubleshoot the hardware- Run a check for some kind of signal interference that might be masking our uplink commands, too. They can get motivated enough to get over here while I make the call to report in. Then we'll put 'em to work on the glitch and see what turns up."
    "I'm on it," George replies as he picks up the phone. "But they aren't gonna be happy about being woken up..."


    Meanwhile, on the Internet a computer virus attack begins to sweep the globe. In waves, home computers the world over become sluggish, refuse to accept input, or lock up completely. Curiously, not a single computer in a hospital or police station is stricken. The virus also seems to avoid utility companies and airport computer networks. No railway computers or highway traffic computers are affected. Acting like spyware, the virus tends to operate during whatever idle time the infected computers have. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are inconvenienced briefly as the virus seizes their computer, uses it for a few moments, and then moves on to the next conquest. Few people will ever realize the true magnitude of that first attack.
    In control rooms on the ground, operators of the Very Large Array and the Aricebo Radio Telescope dish are startled to find that their instruments now refuse to obey any of their commands. Likewise, there is unbridled panic in several unlisted control rooms across the globe when highly classified military spy satellites also refuse to obey their masters. Curses resound as their secret weapons rotate to point in the wrong direction. Further curses ring out when the satellites begin to study an area of outer space rather than the nations of Earth that their owners considered enemies.
    Optical and radio telescopes around the globe are systematically hijacked by way of their computer control systems. All of them begin to focus on a specific area between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers work frantically at regaining control of their instruments. So do the militaries of many nations as more and more spy satellites succumb to the same rogue computer program. Many of the computers that are stricken are not connected to the Internet, and never had been. It seems to make no difference at all.
    Somehow, it spreads. It spreads almost instantly. It spreads almost everywhere. But it is very selective.
    Hours pass. Data comes streaming back from the telescopes. This fact particularly upsets the owners of the hijacked spy satellites. Their classified instruments are reporting to the virus instead of themselves. The hijacked computers process the incoming data for nearly twelve hours before the secret control rooms simultaneously light up their respective monitor screens with a video display. The governments of the world watch on secure, secret channels as the first pictures of the previously undetected object are recorded by the hijacked telescopes, transmitting live. The live images are replaced every quarter hour with an animation showing the object nearing, then striking Earth. The virus is trying to drive it's point home to all of the world's governments at the same time.

"36 Months, 25 Days, 17 Hours, 39 Minutes, 44 Seconds until impact"

The Coming of Cthulu    It is big. It is headed straight for us. And if we don't do something quick, it is going to be doomsday for the human race. As well as for everything else that had evolved beyond bacteria. There is no way to escape. There is no hope of survival.
    Earth has been given warning. Within thirty seven months, dinosaurs aren't the only things that are going to be extinct around here.
    Meanwhile, the people of planet Earth's various countries eventually go back to their daily routines as the virus attack seems to subside. News of the Near Earth Object's approach is successfully suppressed by the UN, US, EU, Russia, China, Japan, and other national governments. The bureaucrats of the world then do what they do best: procrastinate, debate, and waste time. Most of them, anyway. Some begin to prepare plans for planetary defense, even when they have to do so in secret. When the upcoming doomsday is mentioned by those in the know, "The sky is falling..." is their password. For others; life goes on, ignorance is bliss, and the sudden doom from the skies is being targeted by every spin-doctor on the planet in order to keep it that way. For yet others, there will be other
tasks. Trials before the storm.
    Time passes, as it so often does. But eventually, time runs out. It isn't called a Deadline for nothing.

Nightwatch: Fly By Wire

By Dan L. Hollifield

Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams -- Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama
       What was concealed
        Shall stand revealed
        In all its radiant glory.
        Those secrets held
        Shall be unveiled
   And thereby hangs this story...

Year One
The Events of:
"Dragon's Egg"    [Late January]

"Alconost"             [Late March]

"Rogue Harvest"               [May]

"Dimensions' Gate"      [August]

"Cardenio"              [September]

Year One,
Sultans of Swing
Space Is Deep]

6:52 AM, September 27th


By William Robert England, Senior Science Writer, posted: 27 September, 7 a.m. ET

The third largest asteroid ever known to pass near Earth will be making a close celestial brush with the planet year-after next in an event that professional and backyard astronomers are watching closely. The space rock, named Cthulu, will not hit Earth, despite rumors of possible doom that have circulated the Internet for months. Humanity is very fortunate there won't be an impact, as the asteroid is large enough to cause global devastation.
Cthulu is about 29 miles long and 15 miles wide (46 by 24 kilometers). On Wednesday, Jan. 29 two years from now it will be within a million miles of Earth, or about four times the distance to the Moon.

No space rock this big will pass so close in the next century, scientists say. And while similarly large asteroids have hit the planet in the distant past, none so big have come so close since astronomers have had the means to notice them. Many smaller space rocks have been spotted much closer, even inside the orbit of the Moon. NASA scientists and other asteroid experts have been watching
Cthulu for many months, and though its orbit will change slightly with each trip around the Sun, they have a good handle on the path.

The position of the asteroid on this pass is known to a precision roughly equal to the rock's size, said Allan Horne, a senior research scientist at the North American Space Science Institute. That leaves a little wiggle room for its exact location at closest approach, but not much. "Because of the nature of the orbit, we cannot predict thousands of years into the future for this object, but in anyone's lifetime now, there is no chance" of an impact, Horne told


Cthulu will not be visible to the unaided eye. Experienced telescope users can see it now from the Southern Hemisphere, and in early October of next year it will be visible from the north. Finding Cthulu will be challenging, Horne said, due to a combination of the asteroid's position in the sky and interfering moonlight.
Because the asteroid is so close, its location in the sky will vary significantly for skywatchers in different places on Earth at any given moment. And because it moves quickly, the location changes constantly. Printed sky maps struggle to provide enough detail to be useful.

"In a large telescope the motion would be perceptible against any stars in the field more or less in real time, sort of like watching the minute hand on a clock," Horne said, adding that the movement would be "not quite that fast, but noticeable."

Highly experienced observers will use complex plotting information known as ephemeris data. Others can use software programs that generate maps for specific times and locations.

When, where and how

At its closest in 28 months from now, on Jan. 29,
Cthulu will be visible only to observers in the Northern Hemisphere. Large and steady binoculars will be able to pick out the pinprick of sunlight reflecting off the asteroid, providing observers "use a good program like Starry Night Pro© to plot its incredibly rapid motion across the sky," said Omar Neismith of the North Dakota Sky Observatory. (The software company Starry Night© is owned by Imaginova©, parent also of© and is in no way connected to
Soon thereafter, experienced backyard astronomers north of the equator will have a chance to find

"By early October of next year, it will suddenly be re-emerging into northern skies as its apparent trajectory will bring it back into very favorable view," Neismith said in an e-mail interview. But by then the asteroid will be moving toward Earth and getting brighter. It will quickly become "very difficult" to miss even with a small telescope, he said.
Both Neismith and Horne photographed the giant space rock last week (it was visible then in the south as it moved across telescope viewfinders in Australia, Indonesia, Southern Africa, and South America)and said exposures longer than thirty seconds showed a definite trail as the giant rock moved slightly against the background of stars.
"It has been quite a wonderful show so far," Horne said. "I look forward to the show getting better as time passes."

Strange rock indeed

Cthulu was discovered in early January. Scientists have modeled its strange rotation and odd shape -- it looks something like a pockmarked pear -- from data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as many other observatories. Instead of a fixed north pole, Cthulu's axis of rotation wanders in two separate cycles of 5.4 and 7.3 Earth-days. So while most asteroids rotate somewhat like a football thrown in a perfect spiral, "Cthulu tumbles like a flubbed pass," says Scott Engin of Tennessee State University.
Astronomers will use this current flyby to examine
Cthulu in greater detail, with a goal of pinning down the rock's rate of spin and better estimating its future path.

While some rumors have suggested the asteroid's forecast course might be off by enough to cause a collision with Earth, Horne agrees with Neismith and other scientists that there is no chance for calamity. Neismith has been monitoring
Cthulu's movement since January 4th, logging more than 500 observations that allow mapping of a precise trajectory. "Although the actual path of it has indeed varied a slight bit from the original calculated orbit, there is absolutely no chance of a physical encounter or impact with Earth," he said. "Despite the current world-wide computer and radio problems caused by an unexpected peak in sunspots, we have every confidence in our orbital predictions. There is no cause for alarm, but everyone will be in for a wonderful light-show as dust from the asteroid's path intersects Earth's orbit."


Year One, October:
The Events of:
"Ghost Rockets of Sweden"

8:05 AM, October 22nd


Year One,
Frankenstein Unleashed
[Back In Black]

3:52 AM, November 3rd

   The virus comes back, with a vengeance.

"You are wasting time.
If all is revealed to the public, thousands will die in the panic.
If nothing is done, all
will die.
The possibility yet exists for Humanity to save itself.
Choose wisely...

24 Months, 20 Days, 7 Hours, 32 Minutes, 14 Seconds until impact

    So came the message to the many secret terminals that all governments seem to have hidden away somewhere... The implication is clear. Start making plans to save the Earth, or the virus will reveal the truth to everyone.

    Once again, the supervirus strikes- bulling its way through all computer defenses. The stricken computers begin running a freeware astronomy program in a small window hidden in the background of their monitors . Half the Internet becomes a number-crunching network for the data being delivered from the hijacked telescopes and satellites. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that the computer virus is once again the telescope hijacker. It must be controlling the various telescopes with the pirated home computers. Whenever they are connected to the Internet they begin to lock up, freeze up, ignore all keyboard commands or mouse clicks for minutes at a time. Then, the virus releases them to move on to other computers. But it always returns.

    Pressure is being applied to the governments of Planet Earth. And when enough pressure is applied to something, it either bends or breaks.

    The virus is almost out in the open now, forcing the hands of various governments to restore the peace. And to spin their actions over the last year. Some of that spin is directed at minimizing the public access to the true extent of the danger. Various astronomers whose telescopes and satellites have been hijacked issue reports that border on science fiction rather than fact. They are already on the inside, and have been coached what to say. Pundits announce that "everything is under control" and that "measures are being taken to minimize future risks" and other meaningless jargon. All the official activity is passed off as preparing for a worst case scenario that "couldn't happen in a million years." People react oddly, though, when the initial scare emerges, and some strange things happen even after the spin doctors convince the public that nothing is wrong.-  Churches of every religion the world over gain a record number of new members, small riots are stopped by armed neighbors working together, and several petty dictators find themselves overthrown in popular uprisings. Meanwhile, unnoticed on a large scale, factories the world over receive computer-generated e-mail orders for new products. Several companies shift production of new, mysterious projects into high gear. The stock market rises and falls like an amusement park ride... But eventually, people learn to cope. Ignorance, however involuntary, is still bliss.

Year One, November:
Lies, Lies, Lies...
[Spin Doctors]

8:29 AM, November 4th

Record year for Sunspots
International Inquisitor
Science Writer: Fred Bardo
Paris Telecommunication Convention:
Fierce magnetic storms once again plague the Northeastern
US and Canada
causing disturbances in communication,
computer networks, and electrical
power grids. For the
second time this year, significant portions of the

Internet are temporarily blocked off. Telecom officials
have requested
that only emergency messages be sent at
this time. "Just wait it out,"
says the telecom industries
spokesman, Josh Langston. "The solar storm
should be over
in a few days. A week at the most. Until then, please

restrict your use of the telecom grid as much as possible.
Thank you. I
know that if we all work together, we can
solve this problem in record
time." The meeting of telecom
industry execs in Paris has been ongoing
for several days
now. Discussions on how to shield modern electronic

equipment against this kind of magnetic storm interference
in the future
continue unabated. Reports have been positive
so far, and promise to
add new jobs to the workforce as new
technologies are developed.

Year One, November:
Somebody's Watching Me
[Secret Treaties]
10:07 AM, November 6th

    "You're telling me that the computer virus is monitoring your e-mail and sent you these books?" Simon Litchfield asked. "Callow, that is a level of paranoia that I'd of thought even you were too stable to achieve."
     Simon and Callow sat in the Popular Culture section of the Nightwatch Institutes's library. Callow sat facing a pile of books, technical reports, biographies, pulp fiction novels, and piles of paperwork printouts detailing research papers on the problem of an asteroid impact. Callow looked upon the stacks of paperwork in much the same manner that anyone would be expected to look at a similar pile of rapidly decaying rodent droppings. Simon had to stifle a chuckle at Callow's expression as he went on. "Half the computers on the Internet are infected by this supervirus, most of the major telescopes and spy satellites the world over have been pirated by same, and the upshot of it is- that our planet's various governments have wasted a year's warning of a major asteroid strike.The end of the world as we know it. And you think that there is something strange going on with your your e-mail?"
     "It isn't funny, Simon. I sent a message to my secretary asking for information on deflecting or minimizing asteroid impacts. On a secure channel, mind you. Ten minutes later, an assistant librarian wheels a trolley over and dumps this lot off."
     "And the librarian said?"
     "Simon," Callow spoke, "she said that the staff had been scrambling for the last seventeen hours to gather the items given to them on a computer generated list. Using my personal, secure account, I might add. Which means that seventeen hours before the thought occurred to me, the virus knew I'd be asking for this information. And knew my most secure account passwords. I don't like that sort of thing. I don't like it at all."
     "Callow..." Simon's voice began, then trailed off into introspective silence. The comforting scent of old books that permeated the library's rooms served as a counterpoint to the melody of Simon's interior monologue. "You know my attitude about this," Simon added after a moments pause. "I've always asked 'why' about this computer virus. Not 'who' or 'how', but 'why?' Why did it take over the Hubble telescope--which isn't even officially on orbit anymore, mind you--and Aricebo, and a score of other optical and radio telescopes? Not to mention a double-dozen top secret spysats from different countries? Why did it direct the world's attention on that little point out in space? Where we just happened to have been given the first sighting of the doomsday asteroid that's coming right own our throats? Who wrote the virus has become immaterial. How did he know? What did he know? When did he know it? Why did he choose this way of telling us what's going on?"
     "I am beginning to agree with you Simon, as much as it pains me to admit. But observe, study this pile of nonsense that the bloody bug has foisted off on me!"
     Simon looked as requested, and observed several studies of the Tunguska event, two of the better biographies of Nicola Tesla, a rare vintage copy of "Tom Swift and the Captive Planetoid" which he remembered as a pulp novel from his childhood. If only Doc Savage were here- or Superman, Simon thought, laughing to himself. A second glance took in several cometary atlases, a Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel about a cometary impact, a number of Civil Defense study folders, a copy of the Necronomicon, a stack of comic books, a Jules Verne novel, and something that looked suspiciously like a report on the readiness of NATO's nuclear weapons arsenals. At least, from Simon's point of view, looking at the documents upside down.
     "Callow," Simon asked cautiously, "Are you trying to tell me that we've been called in to consult on this? Openly? No breaking and entering needed?"
     "Yes," Callow nodded. "At the express request of some of the UN and US government's pet think tanks. Swift Enterprises, the Quest Group, the Probe Agency, Hidalgo International Technologies, even the Banzai Institute asked for us to be included. We don't have to sneak into this one. We've been invited in to play. We will be coordinating everyone's research and making recommendations. The Japanese Space Sciences Agency and the British Quatermass Society were the only ones to howl about classified data. Those two aren't co-operating very well. And then there's-"
    "Don't tell me. Let me guess. The Pentagon's pet black-budget research center. Area 51, S-4, CRD- whatever they're calling it this week."
    "Right in one, Simon."
    "Set someone in place, just to keep an eye on them. And count the silverware before they leave."
    "How droll, Simon. The FBI drew that straw. We are to keep our hands off... For now."
    "Did you send duplicates of all this data the virus sent you to Stephanie?"
    "Of course," Callow replied. "Whom else do you think that I'd ask for answers?"
    Simon shrugged off the implied insult. "And her reply?"
    "She agreed with the think tanks. The US, EU, UN, and NATO military have had their heads up their collective arses all along. Furthermore, that the current plan of nuking the asteroid would result in greater harm to the planet than doing nothing would. The Military wants to blow the thing to bits. Stephanie states for the record that that would be simply exchanging a lethal bullet for a lethal shotgun blast."
     "I'm sure our delightful computer scientist supreme also included some reasons for her brash statement?"
     "Of course," Callow replied, "she believes that the object is a comet, not an asteroid. She believes that the object is too fragile to decelerate with A-Bombs and may be already fragmented. Blasting it with nuclear weapons would only create a cloud of debris that still hits Earth with the same force as a single object would. She's convinced that the virus has given us hints that the object is a comet instead of an asteroid. And further, that the object can be tied to the orbit of a specific comet- The same one that produced the Tunguska Event. That damn huge explosion in Siberia, back in 1908. Her findings check out with all our own experts- As well as a dozen other boffins, scattered across the globe." Callow strained a smile. "She's too much like you, sometimes.  A jack of all trades."
     "So if Stephanie is right, then NATO and the UN are wrong -and will kill even more innocent people than doing nothing would. What can I do to help her?"
     "For God's sake! -- Read some of this crap and figure out what the virus is trying to tell us!" Callow almost shouted his reply. "We've only got two years left!"

Year One, November:
The Events of:
The Orion Affair

10:16 PM, November 28th

Year Two,
Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen
[Storm Warning]
10:27 AM, January 6th

    "Stephanie," Simon said in a reasonable tone of voice. "I fear that there isn't time enough left. We've been called in too late."
    "Possibly not," Stephanie replied. "The think tanks that disagreed with the UN all started production on their own ideas early last year. Rather rebellious of them, but the planet was at stake. So there has been more done than you've been aware of."
    "We still have a chance then." Simon looked slightly less grim from that point on. "Enlighten me, Stephanie. What have those scamps been up to all this time?"
    "Well, I now have access to the project databases of almost all of our new partners. Quatermass and the JSSA still won't allow us access yet, but the most of the rest have been very helpful. Swift Enterprises is working on advanced engine designs and building the missiles to house them. They've been going full tilt for over eight months. Whatever we decide to launch, we won't want for launch vehicles. Swift's aim is to be ready to give us the means to reach the Object and hopefully to push it out of the impact course. They also have a side project to minimize some impact effects or fragments if we don't stop this thing. H.I.T. has offered to provide their offshore launch facility in the Gulf of Mexico, free of charge. Platforms, fuel, support... the works. They are also building more platforms. Construction has been going on twenty four-seven for the last nine months. Hildago is also paying for a lot of overtime at all of our new partner's factories and labs. Wealthy bunch, those HITmen."
    "What about the Quest Group?" Simon asked.
    "They are working on lasers and solar sails," Stephanie grinned. "They want to tow the Object off course using sunlight and some whopping big lasers. One of Hildalgo's subsidiaries, Mayfair Chemical Research, is fabricating carbon nanofiber lines for Quest's solar sail project. The sail material itself is being fabricated by an independent contractor that specializes in exotic fiberglass and carbon fiber composites."
    "Sounds like a match made in heaven," Simon said. "What else?"
    "The Probe Agency is working on guidance and other instrumentation for Swift's missiles as well as for Quest's sail. And the Banzai Institute has every spare student and research member working on intercept course calculations, course deflection calculations, and survival probabilities..."  Stephanie smiled.  "Amazing what they can get students to do under the guise of theoretical exercises! The rest of their staff have been running non-stop, high-level brainstorming sessions since the Object was spotted. Some of their blue-sky ideas are really out there."
    "And your assessment of their plans?" Simon asked.
    "They're working at cross purposes," Stephanie replied, frowning. "Look, Simon." She pulled up several computer graphics on the display screen in her office. "They each have their own idea of what to do- and each is working on their projects like a beehive in full production.They're all big enough to be able to contract jobs out to each other, but its nothing like a solid plan."
    "In other words, each company is working mainly on their own jigsaw puzzle, even if they do pass each other a puzzle piece now and then?"
    "Exactly," she said. "But the thing is, I don't think that any one of their plans is going to be enough. I've been thinking of asking the virus for better numbers on the Object-"
    Simon blinked, and an uncomfortable pause hung in the air"You what?"
    "Don't get shocked speechless, Simon. The program is there to help us."
    "That's rather anthropomorphic, Stephanie. But you know what? I agree with you. Whoever wrote this virus- and I've given up trying to figure out who they are -knew in advance that this thing was coming. And this supervirus was their way of trying to save the world. It has all the best observatories under thrall, as well as half the Internet, and not a soul has been harmed. Several thousands have been inconvenienced-"
    "But being made extinct by a cometary impact would be a bit more annoying, don't you think?" Stephanie interrupted.
    "Just a teency bit," Simon replied. "But we would have to ask the ghosts of reindeer killed in Tunguska in 1908 if we really wanted a definitive answer. Or an intelligent dinosaur from 65 million years ago, for that matter. You wouldn't happen to have a Ouija board in here, would you?"
    "I'd need one if I were going to have a sèance," Stephanie suddenly grinned. "But I prefer to pronounce it science. I ran a search of public records for 1800 through 1910 for possible sightings of what would become the Tunguska object. The virus pointed to it with that hand-annotated paperback it found on e-bay, and forwarded to Callow. I cross referenced the few hits on that database with the best Astronomy databases I could access or hack into. It was the Chinese astronomy database with six thousand years of observations that gave me the best clues. I don't think its an asteroid at all, Simon. Comet Enke comes closest of all the possible hits to being the parent object. I can state that with 99% certainty. The same dead comet that just might have gifted the world with the Tunguska Event, too. From all the data I've been able to scrounge from everywhere, what we're threatened by is a fragment of an old comet. Maybe even the core object itself. I'll stake my life on it!"
    "You have, Stephanie. We all have."
    "But the UN!" She practically shouted the words- spat them out in disgust. "The UN still wants to use the world's nuclear arsenals to blow it up!"
    "Indeed," said Callow unexpectedly. He'd walked into Stephanie's lab unnoticed by either Simon or herself. "That is exactly why I've come to you. I've been ordered to brief
Dr. MacMillian on your findings so she can speak to the Security Council in an attempt to dissuade them from this stupid path. I have only an hour to prepare for our flight to New York. How can I prepare her to convince them that simply blowing the object to bits is more dangerous than than doing nothing- letting it hit in one piece? Whether the thing is an asteroid or comet, blasting it is still a stupid idea."
    Stephanie went to a worktable that was stacked high with books, manuscripts, printouts, and lists. She pulled out a worn paperback novel that had been bookmarked in several places. Paper crinkled and crackled as the pile settled into a new metastable relationship. "Here," she said, handing the book to Callow. "Read this on the plane. Use your pre-flight hour to pack your toothbrush and your most somber suit, then read the parts I've bookmarked with post-it notes- and use what you need in your briefing.
Dr. MacMillian can crib from any of this for her speech. I've already secured the rights from the publisher."
    "I should quote from a pulp novel?" Callow's disdain was palpable. "To
Dr. MacMillian? For a speech to the UN Security Council?"
    "Callow?" Simon asked. "Has Stephanie ever tried to make a fool of you before?"
    "Thankfully, she has not." Callow replied, sighing.
    "Then kindly do her the favor of believing that she isn't now. I've read that book, remember? At your request, I might add. It is not a pulp novel. It is a carefully researched, scientifically accurate, best-seller listed, Science Fiction adventure novel. I couldn't put it down," Simon added. "If
Dr. MacMillian
just reads them the 'Hot Fudge Sundae' section, she might be able to get those boneheads to see sense. If that doesn't do it, we may have to infiltrate NATO and UNIT and disarm their nukes. China, too. That's more covert than I'm prepared to go, Callow."
    "So," Callow coldly replied. "If the UN screws up and we all die, at least your honor will be intact, 'eh Simon?"
    "If you put it that way Callow," Simon riposted. "It still doesn't wash. This is just another puzzle. We haven't found all the pieces yet, that's all."
    "I need more information," Stephanie added.
    "Ask the bloody virus," Callow said through clenched teeth as he stormed out with the paperback gripped tightly in one hand..
    "We intend to," Simon called to Callow's rapidly retreating back.
    "Exactly what I would have said," Stephanie's voice oozed with quiet irony. "So let's go ask the virus."

Year Two, January:
Strange Encounters
[Getting to know you, getting to know all about you...]

10:49 AM, January 6th

    "What do we do now? Burn incense and chant?" Simon asked humorously.
    "Better than the Ouija board. We go online," Stephanie replied. "And we join a chatroom. We need experts. And the virus hangs out there too."
    "The virus hangs out there?" Simon shook his head.  "The virus has one of those silly nicknames?"
    "Yes Simon, the virus hangs out in an Internet chatroom. Spooky, don't you think?"
    "Goodbye Kansas," Simon intoned as Stephanie sat down at her computer keyboard. "Hello Oz... It's been quite a while since I've been in a chatroom. Teleconferencing is similar, but..." Stephanie motioned for Simon to sit at the secondary workstation at the corner of her own desk. There was a duplicate keyboard and monitor there that was slaved to Stephanie's computer.
    "I'll start up the chat program on both computers, but you'll have to log in yourself if you want to have a voice in the bull-session," Stephanie briefed Simon on the upcoming ordeal. "Act naturally, but try to keep your sarcasm in check. Remember, these are some of the brightest minds on the planet, but some of them may seem a bit strange. A few have been awake for too long. Some of the others are just odd people. This chatroom has been running since the virus first struck. The Probe Agency started it up at the UN and Hildago's request. At first, only people with Top Secret clearances were invited in. But it has become a lot more open in the last few months. The virus saw to that. The people coming in there all want to save the world, but this is the Internet, so expect some dysfunctional types, OK?"
    "OK," Simon replied meekly as Stephanie typed rapidly on her keyboard. A login screen blossomed on the monitor in front if Simon and he filled in the brief bits of information requested. Once he clicked on the enter button, his monitor rapidly filled with a blank white screen, peppered with text comments. He was in the chatroom. Right away he saw that Stephanie was already connected as Stephanie11. His own nickname request had resulted in his being known as Simon42. He gathered that the numbers ought to represent the people trying to use the same name on the same chat network at the same time. But other than that, he was a bit lost. Text began scrolling down his screen as the conversation that Simon and Stephanie had entered in the middle continued unabated.

- Connected to:
- Message of the Day:
- Don't Panic!

- is a private IRC network for the serious
- discussion of how to avoid the coming doomsday. Brought
- to you by the Probe Agency, a grant from the MOBIL Corporation,
- and the number Pi.
- Please let other researchers
know about this service, and enjoy it
- yourselves.

- This IRC network is intended to provide a similar service to the
- scientific community as the various government military networks,
- but without the annoying need for Top Secret clearance, and the
- user-unfriendly user interface.  Thanks to Debbie Feng Le Olson for
- originally conceiving of a brainstorming space in IRC.
- If you have difficulty with this server, please contact Bob
- Dawg (
- Enjoy!
- --------------------------------------------------------------------
- This network does not allow connections from insecure SOCKS proxies. On
- connection, your machine will be scanned by once for
- the presence of an open SOCKS proxy: this is not a breakin attempt, merely
- a security precaution. Please see the Probe website for more details.
- (
End of /MOTD command.

Now chatting in #Planetary_Emergency: @Acid_Burn, @Atom_Ant, @Autologger, @BB, @Beefalo, @Catwoman_=^^=, @CrashOveride, @CrazyEddy, @Cthulu, @Davros, @Dexter, @DocHavoc, @Engen, @Foust, @Gunzilla, @HITman007, @Ivan, @Jarvis, @JessieQ, @JQ, @KingLog, @LouweWu, @M5, @MrWizzard, @NASA_Geek, @Nemo, @NORAD, @Orac, @Patch, @Q_Cubed, @RappinRodney, @Rimmer, @Sinderella, @TJ, @UncleChucky, @Vimminine, @Watcher1138, @X_Mark, @Yolanda, @Zardoz, @
Zod, AlacrityFitzhugh, Alice^±^Cooper, ArthurCClarke, Amanda, Astrogator, BadBob, Balrog23, Beaker, Beam, BR549, Brad, BrotherBear, Bubba, Candy, Cappy, Carol, Charlette, Charlie, Christy, Cooper, CountOlympus, Cowboy442, CptnScarlett, Crazy_Daisy, DangerMan, DangerMouse, DanN, DeepBoat, DellaSue, DeltaXi65, DoctorWhich, Dodd, Dorian, Donald, DrZin, Duke, dyost, E-Dude, El_Kabong, Elvis217, EmperorMing, Fancy_Dan, Fiber_Optik, Fitzroy, FleBozz, FranchescaDePergallo, Frankenfurter101, FreshPrints, Galactus12, Geoffrey, Gil, Glenn, Gnuman, Grayhunter, Gran, Green_Lantern9, Hamner7, HarryRed, HawkLord, Heep, Hiata, Hicks_DW, HobartFloyt, Hooperson, Hooterville, Howard, HPL, Infiltrator, InspectorGadget23, JADlite, Jaimie, Jane, Jewel_O_Denial, KAOS, Kalvan, KingCrimson, Krenon, LadyJane, LadyLuck, Leonard, Les, Liz, lonegunman, LongCoolWoman, LuckyDuck, Lyn, L_evator, McElroy, Meeks, Margalla, MentalCase, MickyDolentz, Miki, Milford, MissKitty, MrAllan, Mr_Rex, MrsHippy, MsBehavin, MsDirection, MsFortune, n, Nate, Neo001, Nesssus, NickE, NPollotta, Number_6, Omphalos, PattyVargas, PG17, PronQueen, Quarterflash, Queen_Mean, RacerX, Redflame, Raven, Rellhazer, Rheannon, Robert_M, RossM, SeanS, senax, Simon42, Snake, Snark, Sparky, Spryder, StElmo, Stephanie11, SteveS, T_Bolt, TC, TomDeitz, ToolMan116, Toymanator, T_Rex, TuesdayNext, tZarina, UncleJoe, Vash, Vila, Vince, VoodooQueen, Wishbone, Wormtongue, WonderMan, WTM, Xandrew, X_Man201, YawnDrey, YD038, Young_Gun, zaDept, Zorro

Stephanie11 has joined #Planetary_Emergency

Simon42 has joined #Planetary_Emergency

-ChanServ- [Welcome Message for #Planetary_Emergency] IRC Chat! Welcome! Please do make your selves comfortable and remember at all times, your fellow patrons are probably aliens or insane humans. Don't be shy, don't lurk when you come in, say hello. We might be looking at another screen or away from our computers right then. We'd hate to miss your visit. Please speak out, as we all should have a say in what we should do to save the world.

-ChanServ- [#Planetary_Emergency] Channel Topic set to: "Scotty! Beam us up, NOW!" by DangerMouse

Now chatting in #Planetary_Emergency:
@JQ: Going to order a Pizza, Dad. Want us to get two?
WonderMan: We're beating our heads against a wall here. BRB, going for coffee.
@MrWizzard: Make it two large Super-Specials please, Jon. Roger said he'd be by later. And thank you. How is Jessie?
Balrog23: I still say nuke it. What's a cloud of dust gonna do to us?
@JQ: She's putting the kids to bed. Surprised that you didn't hear them yelling all the way out to your end of the house. I guess your office is better insulated than mine, huh? She'll be online from her office later, after story time. BRB, phoning for pizzas. I'll bring one out to your office as soon as they get here...
@Catwoman_=^^=: Go read the Archives, Balrog! We've argued that one to death. Nuking it is pure suicide for the whole globe.
@MrWizzard: Agreed, Cat. What you're dealing with is mass in motion, not how hard something is.
Hamner7: The chunks still go splat on us just as hard. Like a shotgun blast instead of a single bullet.
Cowboy442: X # of tons of ice cream causes just as much damage as the same # of tons of rock. Dead is dead, you know? Larry and Jerry were right.
PronQueen: We can't shoot down a bullet with a bullet. Much less a shotgun blast with a bullet. Stop thinking with your tools, Balrog. LOL! Just because you have a hammer, don't mean every problem you get is going to be nail-shaped.
Balrog23: Point taken. I was wrong.
Cowboy442: We still go splat.
CptnScarlett: We still have questions about the Object. Is it one solid body or an aggregate of rocks and ice?
Hamner7: And is it already fragmented?
@Catwoman_=^^=: Blast that, and bye-bye Birdie.
@BB: What's needed is a bit different approach.
Stephanie11: Something more Zen?
@BB: Hello Stephanie. Welcome back. Hello Simon, nice to meet you..
Balrog23: Hello, Newbies.

    "Stephanie?" Simon asked aloud. "What's going on?"
    "We're lucky that a head honcho is here. We're being accepted quickly because I've talked with him before.He remembers me. Act natural. And less talking, more typing, right?
    "Right," Simon consented.

Simon42: Hello. Nice to meet you all.
@Catwoman_=^^=: Welcome Simon and Steff.
@MrWizzard: Greetings and salutations, Simon & Steph.
Stephanie11: Thanks Cat, Wizz, BB.
Stephanie11: Hello Balrog, Hamner, WM, Cowboy, PronQueen, CptnScarlett. Have we saved the world yet?
@TJ: Welcome back Steff. Missed you last week. Hugs!
@TJ: Hello Simon. Welcome to the emergency meeting.
Simon42: Stephanie?

    "You loathe being called Steff," Simon began.
    "This is the Internet, Simon. Some people type slowly and abbreviate far too much. Doesn't mean that they're rude, it just means that they think faster than they type. Oh, and before you ask, TJ's hug was just a friendly chatroom greeting."
    "I see. Who is-"
    "Shhh!" Stephanie hissed.

Stephanie11: Thank you TJ.
Simon42: Thanks for the welcome, everyone.
Stephanie11: Any new developments since I was last here?
@Orac: Plenty Steff, all confusion and debate. Welcome back. Missed you.
Balrog23: Lots of yakkin' but no actin'.
@TJ: SE is running all out. We're making rockets by the score. My thanks go out to the HITmen for donating the $$ for the extended OT for the factory crews.
@MrWizzard: Production on Quest's solar sail is ahead of schedule, but the Laser group has run into some roadblocks. HIT is sending a consultant tomorrow. Focusing on the sail without vaporizing it has become a concern. And rightly so at the close range we'll have to work. Our diffuser system is proving to be a bother... Either we make the diffusers work, or anchor the lasers further away.
@Catwoman_=^^=: You need Nicola Tesla's fabled "death ray" LOL!
@MrWizzard: I wish I had the designs, Cat! I truly do.With that kind of power, I could just vaporize the thing and be done with it. There wouldn't even be Balrog's "cloud of dust."
WonderMan: Back. Ahhh... JBM, the world's best coffee.
@Orac: "JBM" ???
@Catwoman_=^^=: Yeah, well. What was it anyway? A laser? Particle beam?
WonderMan: Jamaican Blue Mountain.
@MrWizzard: Given Tesla's history, I'd put my money on a particle beam of some kind rather than a laser. The man could talk to electrons, Cat. He was a real wizard.
Balrog23: The UN still wants to try to nuke the mother. If its such a bad idea, why are they going for it?
PG17: Who's Tesla? Should I know him? I remember some old band...

    "Well, someone's young," Stephanie sighed. "Must be nice."
    "I wouldn't know," Simon joked. "I was born old and cynical. What's going on? This is like a madhouse. I can't keep track of who is talking to whom."
    "Welcome to Chat. Conversations aren't linear. Nor are they bounded by time. Replies to a question can come minutes after its asked. Or hours. Not everybody is sitting at a desk. Some are up and about, and only looking at the screen every once in a while. Like WonderMan going off to make coffee. Or someone going to the bathroom, whatever... Some of these people even leave their computers connected to the chatroom while they sleep. They pick up conversations from before they left the computer, or read what people posted while they were away and jump back into the conversations that interest them. Concentrate on being helpful."
    "Yes, of course," Simon said.

Hamner7: They're thinking that they can brake it's speed without fragmenting it. Gonna be tough. Plus, they're not convinced that blasting it to bits is a bad idea. They think we're exaggerating the danger.
Simon42: I'd say what we need is a martial arts blocking move, not a sledgehammer. Divert the Object, not pulverize it.
@BB: Very good deduction, Simon.
PronQueen: We just summon our Chi and slap it sideways? ROTFL! I love it!
@MrWizzard: Nicola Tesla, PG17. Not the old pop music group. Tesla invented most of the things that make modern civilization possible.
Vila: BRB, rented beer...
Jewel_O_Denial: What about fragmenting from misplacing the nukes?
@Catwoman_=^^=: Ever hear of AC electricity, PG17? Or maybe Radio? Fluorescent lighting? Remote control? 3-phase AC electric motors? Radio Telescopes?
Hamner7: Yeah, if the math isn't done right, we'll get slammed by a million fragments rather than a few big ones. And what if the thing is already fragmented? We need better info.
Balrog23: How do you use nukes to steer the thing?
Cooldaddy118 has joined #Planetary_Emergency
Cooldaddy118: Any single chicklets wanna Private Chat with the Cool Daddy? We can get it on...
Cooldaddy118 has been kicked & banned by @Autologger
Whatta moe-rooon! Thank you thank you for kicking him, Autologger.
@Autologger: My pleasure, Nick.
NPollotta: Doc, how goes the research into the mono-filament wires that Mayfair Chem Labs is working on?
@Clark: Proceeding ahead of schedule, Nick. Thanks for asking. I'll tell Monk you said hello, shall I?
NPollotta: Yeah! Thanks!
Hamner7: Explode them high enough above the object to boil it on one side for thrust. *If* its a solid object. If its not solid, you wind up with a shotgun blast coming down your throat.
Stephanie11: But the math is a nightmare. Do it wrong and either nothing happens, or you get a cloud of fragments. I agree, we need more information.

    "What was Cooldaddy? Did he think that this was a singles bar?"
    "They're called 'trolls' Simon," Stephanie replied. "And they only want to disrupt things. For fun.
    "Fun? Pardon me if I define the word differently."
    "Shhhh... Back to work."

Vila: Back...
HarryRed: It'd be safer to use thermite than nukes. Especially if the thing is already fragmented.

EmperorMing: Tesla also invented wireless distribution of electricity, but old man Westinghouse couldn't figure out where to hook up the meter to charge the customers, so he deep-sixed Tesla's wireless power project.
ToolMan116: I still say we're going to need some on-site observations. That means a manned mission.
UncleJoe: Didn't he (Tesla) also invent a machine that made small earthquakes?
Toymanator: But what ship? We've got diddly that can be used further than Lunar orbit.
@Sinderella: I've read about the earthquake machine, yeah. Didn't Tesla invent some kind of turbine engine, too?
@TJ: SE's rockets & motors can get a ship in place twice as fast as anything in the inventory. And thermite is a great idea, Frank. But we'll have to place it on-site. Can't trust a program to place it right. We may have to pick sites to compensate for uneven melting. The thermite might tumble once it gets going.
InspectorGadget: Yeah? Like what?
HarryRed: I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.
HarryRed: - Poul Anderson
Vila: I remember hearing that one.
Vila: Still makes me grin.
HarryRed: Wit is educated insolence.
HarryRed: - Aristotle
Vila: Well, I've got the insolence part down pat. I believe my education is still lacking as of yet, however.
Vila grins like a maniac.
Astrogator: Celestial nav's a bear even when you've got plenty of time.  How we going to work out the math quickly enough?
The solid-blade fluid turbine, yes. It worked best as part of an external-combustion engine. Like a locomotive. Give it a supply of steam, and it would outperform any other motor ever made. Tesla was a freakin' genius!
Zorro: How about using lasers to boil the rock for thrust gases?
@MrWizzard: Can't do that from here. We can't build big enough lasers on the ground. Not in time, no. We're planning to take the lasers to the Object, instead. To zap the Object for thrust and to shine on the sail for thrust, too.
EmperorMing: *That* sounds like a job for Tesla's Death Ray! ROTFL!

    "What about this 'Death Ray' everyone seems so hot over?"
    "Urban Legend, Simon. Supposedly, the State Department confiscated everything in Tesla's apartment when he died. Plans, diaries, working models, everything. The Death Ray is just the holy grail for conspiracy buffs with a Tesla fixation."
    "It's not real, then?"
    "It could be real, but so far its a legend. According to legend, Tesla wanted something he could use to write his name on the moon. So he built a particle beam gun, of some kind."
    "In quite bold print, I assume?"
    "Simon, another pun like that and I'll kick you. Anyway, if it ever existed at all, the State Department has it classified so deep it would take an archaeologist to find it."

Infiltrator: We ought to thank NASA for making the NERVA reactor designs available again after so many years in the archives. Just scale 'em up, and we've got plenty of power for the lasers. Too bad that we can't defy the laws of physics- We've got the lever, now all we need is a place to stand. :D
Astrogator: And what about the manned flight systems?  We have equipment programmed to be online when we need it?  What about Canaveral and Vandenberg?  Manned flight support, flight suits, food delivery...
@MrWizzard: We can anchor the thrust lasers to the Object, but the lasers for the sails will have to be anchored elsewhere.
@Q_Cubed: On the largest fragment, to be used when the thing calves. On every fragment, but aimed at the sails of other fragments.
Toymanator: One, five, and twenty crewmembers to a ship?
TC: What have we got that we can scrounge? Maybe we don't have to build all new stuff.
Astrogator: Exactly what I was asking?
@TJ: Any tin can that'll hold air will do. If we can fit it with useful instruments. SE and Probe have several designs underway. Hildago does too. NASA and ESA and JSSA have several good designs that are under study, as well as several existing capsules that can be modified. Russia, China, and England have several surplus capsules, too...
@Dexter: I have heard rumors that Quatermass is working on a design for a ship, too. No details have leaked to me, though.
ToolMan116: Museums can be raided for their surplus Vostoks & Geminis.
Toymanator: And some Apollo and Soyuz ships, too.
InspectorGadget: Please let us de-mothball the Shuttles!
@BB: We'll need everything we can slap together. E-mail the Institute with any brainstorms, people. I'll see to setting the right research groups on any possible paths that look useful.
Astrogator: Can we retrofit equipment that old?
TC: What kind of ships will be needed? How many of each? *Then* decide how many crew each type will need.

ToolMan116: First we have to define what we're going to use them for. Then we can decide on designs. And what about crewing these ships?
InspectorGadget: The re-entry shuttles don't need to go on the trip. We can built them in Earth orbit- after the expedition leaves. That'll save time *and* weight.

    "I'm afraid that Quatermass in no longer in the spaceship-building game." Simon spoke.  He still had nightmares about escaping from a vaporized island in the Atlantic.
    "Shhhh," Stephanie said.  "We'll have to keep that to ourselves for the time being."
    "What about crews?" Simon asked. "On whatever ships do get built, I mean. Fancy going for a spin?"
    "Not unless I have too. What about you?"
    "I'm far too old for such hazards. I'll take my chances on the ground with the terrorists, spys, activists, and we other deviants."
    "Unless you quit interrupting, we'll be at this all night."
    "Rome wasn't burnt in a day, Stephanie."
    "Rassum, frassum, sassum..."
    "I beg your pardon?"
    "Has anyone ever told you that you're a pain in the ass?"
    "Yes, Stephanie. Its one of my most endearing qualities, or so I'm told."

PronQueen: I really like the image of Kung Fu-ing the Object. Its poetic as hell. LOL!
EmperorMing: Tesla had over 3000 patents granted to him. If it had to do with electricity, his name was on the designs. Yet even today, almost no one knows his name. Edison & Marconi get credit for Tesla's work. There ain't no justice.
@DocHavoc: If we send a team, how are we going to train them for space in time?
@Dexter: My contacts at NASA and ESA say that there is no shortage of volunteers. Russia & China too. Disturbingly, there have been no rumors from JSSA for many months.
@BB: I'll look into that, Dexter. Maybe I can call in some favors.

"Hang on," Simon muttered. "I just noticed something"
    "What, Simon?"

Simon42: Who is Zod and why doesn't he or she talk?

@Orac: Oops!
Balrog23: GACK! Again?
@Zod: 23 months, 4 days, 11 hours, 14 minutes, 32 seconds until impact.
@BB: Thank you, Zod. But we'd prefer to know how to avoid our fate.
@Zod: Fate is the same for all beings. Only the way that they meet it is different.
Simon42: How droll, a Zen aphorism in place of wisdom.

    "Simon," Stephanie hissed. "Zod is the computer virus!"

Zod slaps Simon42 about a bit with a wet trout.
@Catwoman_=^^=: Zod, play nice. Simon has only just met you.
@Zod: Zen is wisdom distilled into purity.
Simon42: I apologize, Zod. I am frustrated by the UN not listening to reason.
@Zod: Apology un-necessary.

"A wet trout? I suppose it beats the hell out of getting slapped with a dry one, but... What the Sam-Hill is going on?"
    "Relax, Simon. The wet trout bit is as old as IRC chat. You've just been gently chastised by a rogue computer program. How does that make you feel?"
    "Stop grinning. It isn't funny."
    "Oh yes it is," Stephanie laughed. "The great Doctor Simon Litchfield, lopped off at the knees by a mere string of ones and zeros. How priceless.
" Stephanie laughed aloud.
    "Just read the bloody screen," Simon snapped.

@MrWizzard: That frustrates myself as well. Stephanie, how goes your own research?
@BB: A question I'll echo, Stephanie. ??
Stephanie11: I think nukes aren't going to work, even just used as a thrusting force. No one has ever done an actual test, so we have to guess at the data.
@Orac: That's exactly what we've been arguing about for the last few months. I even e-mailed Organlegger with questions about the books he used NEO impacts in.
@TJ: Wow, what'd he say?
@Orac: He pointed out the places where the math had to suffer a little because of the story. I went back to our research and added in some corrections. Didn't change much on the results.
@TJ: Still too little too late?
@Orac: Yeah. I presented the results last night to everyone in the chatroom.
@BB: Yes. We should have launched last year. At least seven months ago. Everything we've come up with, all too late. Still, failure only teaches you that you're looking in the wrong place.
Astrogator:  Sorry I've been so negative.  Too many hours in this place.

    "Sounds like they may be receptive of your plans Stephanie," Simon said.
    "Let's hope so. Exterminated is forever. OK, here goes..."

Stephanie11: That's exactly my point. You all have been working full speed to find the one plan that will work.
Simon42: There isn't one?
Stephanie11: No, not one single plan, not with what we've been working on. Or with. We haven't been asking the right questions.
Simon42: And we haven't been asking the right person, evidently.
Stephanie11: We'll need to work together. I think that we're going to need Sails to pull, rockets to push, Lasers to burn, and NERVA reactors to power almost all of it. There's no way that this can be pulled off by an un-manned mission. We're going to have to send people. Lots of people. And there is not some single plan that's going to save us, but we *can* make a workable plan- out of a combination of all the ones we've been working on individually But there's one thing we need even more right now- Zod, we need better observations of the object. We *need* to know what we're up against!
@Zod: The data archives contain more than twelve months of detailed observations.
@Zod: The archive is constantly updated.
@Zod: The archive is free to all.
@Zod: 23 months, 4 days, 11 hours, 12 seconds until impact.

    "Well that went well," Simon muttered. "Stephanie-"
    "Don't worry about it, Simon. Its a computer program. A little one. It's just running on a lot of machines at once, so its very fast. The virus is just ones and zeros. It isn't a person, but it is imitating one here in this chatroom."
    "Why should a program do that?"
    "Only because it was written to do so."
    "So, how do we get the bugger to give us the info we need?"
    "Like any computer. We have to deduce which buttons to push, in the proper order."
    "Have I told you lately that you're beautiful when you're being relentlessly logical?"
    "Simon," she said with mock offense, "save the charm for your ex-wives... But thank you. We'll have to use the data the virus already gave us to deduce the right questions to ask. I've got a file of the things that it has directly responded to in the past. We'll have to see if we can extrapolate a little more info. Maybe get it to let some password data slip. Hell, I don't know. I'll have to wing it. Tesla, Tunguska, and the virus- There's something there, some connection- I can feel it."
    "But, what possible connection could there be between Nicola Tesla, Tunguska, a particle beam, and the computer virus?"
    "Let's ask the group, Simon. Let's ask the group. Maybe we can get some clues from the replies. Then we can figure out better questions to ask Zod."

Year Two, January:
Wheels Within Wheels
[Electrical Language]

11:59 AM, January 8th

    "Stephanie? Knock, knock..."
    "Come in, Simon. Come over here and see this."

Stephanie11: I know. Or I think I do. Zod, reference: Tunguska-
@Zod: Air-burst explosion over deserted area of Russia- June 30, 1908. The explosion of the Tunguska object released energy equivalent to a modern nuclear warhead, about 10 megatons or 500 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The area of devastation covered in excess of 66 square kilometers. There was no detectable residual radiation. Considerable local disruptions of the planet's electromagnetic field were recorded, however. Such was the population density of the area that no human fatalities were recorded. Four minor injuries, and the loss of several hundred thousand reindeer were recorded. Effects of the blast can still be observed. More specific data is listed in the Archives.

    "You got him to answer a question!"  Simon spoke enthusiastically as he squeezed her shoulders.  " That's marvelous."
    "Well, once I began to understand how the virus was behaving it became much easier to find commands written into it."
    "You haven't been working straight through the last two days?"
    "Don't fear," she said, "I've been home to shower and sleep. Both days."
    "You're still in the chatroom, I see."
    "Different room. This one is just the executive committee, so to speak."
    "Who is everyone?"
    "Heads of think tanks, CEOs, mad scientists, secret agents-"
Stephanie pointed to several of the names on the screens.
    "The usual suspects."
    "Exactly, Simon."
    "I meant who is everyone, really?"
  Stephanie pointed again and spoke nonchalantly. "The CEO of Hidalgo, plus old man Quest and-"
    "Yes. What's the matter? You chatted with them just the other night."
    "I didn't realize to whom I was speaking. You could have warned me. You are an evil woman, Stephanie Keel, and you did this on purpose just to embarrass me. Be warned, I'm taking notes... OK, Who else?"
    "Well, Swift's heir," Stephanie continued with a straight face, pointing to different names on the monitor screen as she spoke. "And I think that WonderMan is MI-7. I know Scarlett is FBI or MIB or UNIT or something. And Doctor Fanshaw, Catwoman, she works at CIA Langley. Oh, uh... Banzai Institutes's CEO, a couple of science fiction writers,
someone from JPL, somebody else from NASA, Frank Gasperik, Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter, the computer guy from the Grateful Dead- what's his name... A couple of the others I can't place right offhand."
    "And the virus."
    "I'm beginning to wonder if it is just a virus, Simon." She bit her lip in concentration. "Zod's  more like an AI than a virus."
    "Something living in the Internet? A digital construct?"
    "I think he's even stranger than that. I'm beginning to wonder if he isn't any more online than we are. There's all this interference with global wireless communications. I know for a fact that there aren't any sunspots to cause it. That's just part of covering up the existence of the comet, Zod, and his effects."
    "What are you suggesting?" Simon laughed cheerlessly.  "The global conspiracy was supposed to have started after the comet was discovered."
    "Its just a theory, mind you. But what if Zod is more than just an Internet problem? I've found reliable reports of computers that have never been connected to the Internet get taken over by Zod. Even some that can't be connected to the Internet."
    "Infected by floppy discs?"
    "Possible. But not in every case. No. It looks more like Zod was built in to every computer ever made. I think he's hardware! Not software."
    "Clarke's First Law, Simon."
    "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right." Stephanie grinned.  "When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
    "I see. Well, at least you think that I'm distinguished. But 'elderly'? Surely not."
    "You're spry enough. So you have a little seniority built up- so what? The problem at hand is how could an AI be built into everything? I'm almost sure that he functions in the radio frequencies and just uses the computers he infects to go online. I just can't find the exact frequency. Or the piece of hardware that emits it." She looked around at the various pieces of computer equipment scattered about the room.  "I can't even figure out how something like this could have ever been incorporated. But I swear, its beginning to look like there's a little piece of Zod in every computer ever built. If I could just trace the damn frequency... No time for that now. Back to the problem at hand."
@BB: We don't even know that it is that we're really up against.
CptnScarlett: What are we really dealing with? A solid rock or a pile of rubble? Radar returns are crap on this thing. Its got a stealth surface! LOL! Visible light and UV isn't much better, although IR instruments do show the object to be bigger than the radar image.
WonderMan: Exactly! Its a whole lot bigger than it looks on radar. The surface must be pock-marked with little craters and fissures.  Scatters the reflection so the dishes don't get much of a return.
@Catwoman_=^^=: Like pumice? Nuke that and you'd get a cloud of fragments. What's the bloody thing made of?
@MrWizzard: We've got to know its mass and composition. Are we going to be trying to anchor our sails to a snowball? A rock? A bunch of boulders locked in ice?
Stephanie11: Zod, reference: the best view from your telescopes-
@BB: So far, the best view I've seen is of a small dark blur. But it moves.
@Zod: Password required.
Stephanie11: Zod, password: Nicola Tesla
@Zod: Password incorrect. Password required for access to composite view.

"Damn, I knew that one would be too simple for it."
    "What, Stephanie?"
    "Zod's programmer was obviously a Tesla fanatic. It was too much to hope for that his passwords would be easy."
    "Why should a telescope view need a password?
    "Um... Simon, I was focusing on the problem so much that that one went past me. Thank you.

@Catwoman_=^^=: Why should this require a password?
WonderMan: The rest of the astronomy is free. What gives?
CptnScarlett: WTF? Zod has been keeping secrets? Oh, wait... LOL! Yeah, of course he would.
@Clark: Yes. Why should this "best view" be password protected?
@BB: Zod, why is the composite view password protected?

    "Simon, you might want to log in on the other computer and get into this one. You thought of it first."
    "No thank you, Stephanie. I'll just read over your shoulder and you can give color commentary."

@Zod: Composite view could lead to panic in the streets if presented to the general public. This is to be avoided at all costs. Access is restricted for this reason. Any singular telescopic view is still freely available to the public through the Archives.
@Clark: Very humane of you, Zod. But we do need the best information possible in order to avert this disaster.
@TJ: Can you give us a hint? LOL!

    "What was the name of the place where Tesla had his beamed power experiment?" Simon asked as he pulled up a chair next to the computer.
    "The project Westinghouse killed, Simon? Wardenclife? Wireless electricity?"
    "Yes, try that one, Stephanie.

Zod, password: Wardenclife
@Zod: Password accepted.

Cthulu: Composite Imaging

@Zod: Image now on your monitor, Stephanie11. Now on other monitors of those in this chatroom. Access is still denied to the rest of the planet.
@TJ: Good Lord! "Worst Case: Projected 6000 Gigaton impact damage...." In the Mid-Atlantic? I'm having trouble with the math... Will every single drop of water on the planet vaporise in the heat, or  have I slipped a decimal place and only everything between Italy and California will burst into steam instantly? Never mind the molten rock, that's a whole other math problem...
@BB: That's big. That's *really* big. Zod was right. This sharp and clear a view, with all the other sub-windows with the course data, the countdown clock... It'd panic anybody.
@Catwoman_=^^=: It looks like a big pear. I refuse to be made extinct by gigantic stone fruit sculptures. Can we deflect that?
Can we split it into smaller pieces? That's too big to manage in one piece. The sails would work better on fragments, too. At least we know its solid, now. Looks like granite, but that has to be an illusion. Can't have igneous formations on a proto-planetary mass. Must be an aggregate- a natural concrete- but vacuum cemented. Something like sandstone or slate? We could sink anchors into that sort of material safely enough, I think. More data! We need more facts, Dr. Watson! LOL!
@MrWizzard: It would be safer to carve it up into manageable chunks with the lasers. Take a lot of extra power, though. I'm going to have to make sure the design for the laser diffusers are more variable. We're going to have to do a little surgery as well as make spotlights to shine on the sails for extra thrust. We still might not be able to do it with what we can build in time. We *do* have a launch deadline.
@BB:  We're not going to be able to hide something that big from the public forever... News will leak out eventually. We need to plan for that.
@TJ: We need Tesla's Death Ray.  That'd carve this turkey up like a... Well, a turkey. LOL! If only the damn thing were real! --- instead of a conspiracy-theorist's wet dream. <grin>

Stephanie11: Well let's just test out a little theory of my own, TJ. Have to go at it in stages, though...
Stephanie11: Zod, reference: Nicola Tesla-
@Zod: Father of the electrical infrastructure that underlays all of modern civilization.  Inventor of radio.  Inventor of poly-phase alternating current, or AC electricity. Designer of every AC electrical motor in the world. Designer of every hydro-electric generator in the world. Architect of the modern AC electrical power distribution grid. Inventor of wireless broadcasting of electricity. Inventor of the bladeless turbine. Inventor of several types of step-up and step-down transformers. Inventor of three forms of wireless florescent lighting. Inventor of wireless remote control systems. Designer of a flying automobile, without need for an onboard fuel supply...  Complete public list is available from the US Patent Office files.

    "Now we're getting somewhere, Stephanie. Ask the bloody thing about itself."

Stephanie11: Zod, reference: Zod-
@Zod: AI, designed in AD 1912, assigned to give warning of the approach of the Cthulu Object in case of its return. Currently running on one third of all the computers worldwide. Further detail is restricted.

    "Another dead end," Stephanie growled as she threw up her hands.  "We'd have to find another password to get to the bottom of who made Zod."
    "1912?" Simon said incredulously.  "Good God! Who could have designed an artificial intelligence in 1912? There weren't even computers back then."
    "Tesla? He did design the And Gate logic circuit that wound up making modern computers possible. And he did invent radio, and radio control- remote control."
    "Fly by wireless, 'eh?"
    "So ask Zod about Tesla, the Death Ray, the comet, and everything."

Stephanie11: Zod, reference: the Object-
@Zod: NEO, modern day, popular name: Cthulu. Object is 46 by 24 kilometers. Data indicates that the object is, or is a large fragment of, the parent mass of Comet Enke...
Stephanie11: Zod, cross reference: Tunguska-
@Zod: NEO, near impact event, 1908, possibility exists that the object Cthulu is part of the Tunguska Object's parent mass. The rest of the parent mass was deflected by Nicola Tesla in 1908. Cthulu's orbit closely matches predictions for the returning parent mass.
@Catwoman_=^^=: You *go* girl! LOL!

    "Thank you Miranda."
    "Dr. Fanshaw. She's OK."
    "Old Girl's School Network, I see," Simon laughed as his mood brightened. "Well, don't let us interrupt the search for wisdom, here."
    "Simon, you make me wish we worked at the Post Office."
    "Down, Girl! Back to the problem at hand? Zod, the particle beam, and everything?"
    "You rat. You'll pay for that."
    "The check is in the mail, my dear."

Stephanie11: Zod, reference: Tesla's particle beam,  cross reference: Tunguska, cross reference: the Object-
@Zod: I cannot comply with that request. I do not have access to all stated variables.

"Say what?"
    "Something significant just happened. Something weird. Let me think..." She got up and quickly walked to another computer.  After a few quick keystrokes, she frowned at that screen, then she returned to her desk and sat down again.

    "What, pray tell?"
    "Zod just told us that there's something that he can't get to."
    "What could that be?"
    "Dunno, yet. Shut up and let me think......"  She looked back at the other computer.  "OK, Let's take it one step at a time.  I'm trying to reference a few things over there the hard way.  We just need a clue."

Stephanie11: OK, one step at a time then. Zod, reference: Tesla's particle beam-
@Zod: I do not have access to that data.
@BB: He's never said *that* before!
CptnScarlett: Wonder what he means?

    "Hush Simon, let me think..."

Stephanie11: Does that data still exist?
@Zod: Yes. That data can still be accessed- But in hardcopy form only.
Stephanie11: Where is that data?
@Zod: Pallet 7042110328, third tier, seventh row. Storage building M-31, 318 Walnut Grove, Washington, DC, USA, Earth, Sol 3, Outer Western Arm - Mutter's Spiral.

    "Oh, so its all right for you to say it."
    "Hush, Simon!"

@BB: That's an old FBI file storage warehouse. The parking lot for a club I sometimes play in is right across the street.
Stephanie11: And apparently that warehouse is a whole lot more than just an old warehouse. All right, who can get us access?
CptnScarlett: That would be my job, Ms. Keel.
@Clark: You are FBI, Captain?
CptnScarlett: Not exactly Sir, but I *am* this group's designated liaison to the US intelligence agencies. WonderMan is my Euro-League counterpart. Our Asian colleague isn't in the chatroom at the moment, but we'll send him reports. That's the deal. If everyone stays properly briefed, our governments won't panic and do something stupid. But as I was saying... If you need something from an American intelligence service, I'm empowered to *procure* it for you. Let me copy that location down and I'll get on the horn to my superiors right away. No matter how damn Top Secret those papers are, Ms. Keel should be able to see copies of them tomorrow. Copies that haven't been censored, or I'll be putting a boot up someone's butt. Pardon my language please, sirs and madams. I can have them delivered in the morning, or heads will roll.
Stephanie11: You get me those blueprints Captain, and we've all got a good chance of surviving this mess. And panic in the streets is the last thing that I want, too. Just give me a little time to work the plans out into something we *ordinary* mortals can understand. LOL!
@Catwoman_=^^=: Captain Scarlett, if you come through for Dr. Steff in time, I promise that I'll introduce you to my cousin. The um, actress.
CptnScarlett: Yes Ma'am! *Absolutely*, I will come through! LOL!
@MrWizzard: Now that we know what we're up against we can start deciding what kinds of ships we'll need, and how many of each.
Stephanie11: I'm going AFK until I have time to study those plans. See you all later. In a day or three... BBFN, friends!
@TJ: Having the Tesla Beam to carve Cthulu into manageable pieces is going to make this job a thousand percent easier. Another thing we're going to have to think about, Benton- sweeping up any debris from splitting the comet into smaller bits.  Bye Steff! Hugs!
@MrWizzard: Have you got any ideas, Tom? Bye Steph!
@Clark: Fishing nets. We need something to act like fishing nets to snag all the debris with. We can put a sail on the nets once they're full and steer them where we want them. See you later, Stephanie.
@TJ: I've been working on some sketches, but I think Clark hit it on the head.
Stephanie11 has quit IRC: Connection terminated by user.

"Congratulations Stephanie!" Simon spoke proudly.  "You  cracked the puzzle!"
    "A puzzle, Simon. Just one puzzle. I've got a much bigger one waiting for me in the morning. I need to go home and get some sleep. I want to come at this thing fresh and alert."
    "Oh come on, this is worth celebrating, surely? Its only three in the afternoon, for goodness sake. You can't sleep now."
    "Shoo! Go home, go to the Canon Moon, or go wherever you like.." Stephanie finally allowed herself to yawn openly after having stifled several of them earlier.  "Besides that, I lied.  I have been here for two days."
    Simon smiled as he stood up.  "I know," he said as he patted her on the shoulder.  "Go home.  I'm in the mood for some bisque."
    Stephanie yawned again and stretched.  "I need a big hot meal, a long hot shower and several hours deep sleep. And I need it all now!"
"All right, I'm going, I'm going... Sheesh, you can be downright mean when you've got your teeth in a problem."
    Stephanie shoved Simon out of her office door, while grabbing her coat and scarf from the coat tree that stood next to the doorway. The hallways of the Nightwatch Institute reverberated from the echo of her office door slamming shut in the early winter afternoon quiet.

Year Two, January:

Tesla's Particle Beam

[White Light, White Heat]

9:19 AM, January 9th

    Deep within the maze-like confines of the lower levels of the Nightwatch Institute, Stephanie Keel's office door was wide open, with quiet strains of instrumental music gently wafting into the hallway. The FBI's courier left-handedly adjusted the tilt of his dark sunglasses and brushed some imaginary dust off of his suit lapels before knocking on the open door. The well-tailored black suit set off his dark complexion and his athletic physique. The portfolio case weighing down his right arm had several unbroken wax seals affixed to secure it's closure.
    "Stephanie Keel?" the agent asked, in a warm baritone voice, as he knocked.
    "Come in," came Stephanie's muffled voice from within the office.
    The agent strode in to find Stephanie rising from her desk. A chatroom program was visible on one computer monitor, complex equations on a second. A radio-frequency direction-finder applet seemed to be unproductively running on a third monitor. Among the usual clutter of Stephanie's office, one new, pristinely clean drafting table stood out as if it were an altar prepared for the writings of some saint to be displayed upon. "If you'll just show me some ID, I'll put this over there and wait for you to scan the documents to a disc," he said, nodding towards the bare table.
    "Nice to meet you too," Stephanie replied as she smiled good-naturedly. "Here's my card. And my other card... and my other, other card..."
    "OK, OK, " the agent laughed as he looked the ID cards over and swiped one of them through a hand held reader. "I've got to follow orders, you know? Nothing personal."
    "Are the sunglasses really necessary? Agent-"
    "Smith, Ma'am. Agent Smith, Bureau Thirteen, Division Six. I'm a Special Courier for the FBI, CIA, OSI, NORAD, SAC, LSMFT, et cetera... Yes Ma'am, we get questions about the shades all the time. All I can say is that they are part of the security system, Ma'am."
    Agent Smith studied the tiny computer readouts that were reflected onto the inside of the dark lenses of his Issue
Sunglasses from equally tiny projectors embedded in the frames. His deep, liquid brown eyes quickly flicked across the miniature display, almost without effort. The readouts were reassuring: no bugs in the room, no hidden recording devices... The room was totally clear. Oh, the devices were still there, five cameras and three microphones, but they had all been deactivated several hours ago. The veteran agent decided that it was safe to relax here, slightly. With tiny lasers reading his careful eye-movements and blinks, the agent set up a low-level proximity scan against intruders or reactivation of the bugs, and activated the necessary alarms. He also deleted six hundred and fifty seven Spam e-mails, and twenty two virus attacks from his personal e-mail account. All of this took only a few seconds as he stood there.
    "I see," Stephanie stifled a giggle. Kinda cute, in a Hip-Hop sort of way. She thought, but way too smart-ass for a real FBI agent. He must be a trainee. "Yes- well, if you're finally satisfied that I'm me, then put the papers on that table and let's get to sorting through them. And please-"
    "Yes Ma'am?"
    "Stop calling me Ma'am. It creeps me out. My name is Stephanie."
    "Its your lab Stephanie. I'm not a whiz-kid, just a messenger boy. I won't be of much help to you."
    "You've got hands and a brain, don't you? We'll be able to put them to use. Now what have we got here?" Stephanie mused, as the drawings and note papers were laid out on the drafting table. She picked up a note pad from her desk and started listing the pages of research and blueprints, trying to deduce the proper order. Tesla's spidery handwriting of his older years didn't help matters any. The two sorted and listed pages until nearly noon. Finally, Stephanie scanned the drawings and notes into her computer and made two copies onto disks. Then they put the papers all back into the portfolio case.
    "Here," she said as she handed Agent Smith one of the disks. "Put this one with your files for the next time the end of the world gets close. With what we've got here, I think we can save the world, this time."
    "Been a pleasure working with you, Stephanie. Good luck making sense of all those chicken tracks..." Agent Smith hesitated, then became serious. "Do we really have a chance? Will this stuff make a difference? Don't kid me, Lady. I know the score. Chicken Little was frickin' right! The sky is gonna fall. My bosses are all shaking in their boots. This is the for-real end of the world..."
     "No!" Stephanie said forcefully- as she held the agent's free hand, tightly. "That is not going to happen. We're going to stop this thing. Stop it in its tracks. The papers you've brought me will see to that. Everything's going to be fine, just wait and see. You and I, right now... We just saved the world today. You've done your part, but now it's time for me to do mine. But you can be sure that we're gonna make it! And you helped do it, too."
    "Thank you, Stephanie. Well-- good bye." The Agent crossed the room and hesitated in the open doorway.
    "Good bye, Agent Smith. And don't worry, the sky hasn't fallen just yet. We still have time."

    Everything will be just fine... Stephanie thought to herself as she walked over and closed her office door. I wonder if he bought it.  Hell, I wonder if I bought it! If I can just figure out how to turn this century-old paperwork into a functioning prototype! She crossed her office, sat down at her desk, and called up the first file. Down to the wire time, Stephanie. The clock is ticking and you've got to come up with the design for the winning machine. Just like "Junkyard Wars III" damn it, just like the show... Time to put the puzzle together... Time to get to work...

Year Two, January:

Spacecraft Scavenging
[One Piece At A Time]

9:09 AM, January 12th

    The scene was repeated countless times over the next few weeks, as swarms of transport contractors and people with clipboards descended upon scores of Air & Space museums across the world. Like hungry locusts, they came and took what they wanted. They offered no explanations- But they paid well. Museums and parks everywhere found their spacecraft displays swarmed over by researchers- and scavengers.

    "OK Billy, we'll take this one, the Gemini, and the Vostock," said the tired looking man, holding a clipboard as if it were made of lead.
    "The what?" gaped Billy De Witt, the museum curator, running his right hand through his thinning brown hair. His fingers ruined his comb-over, but he didn't seem to notice..
    "The Russian one there- Whatever you call it. Sign here. Good. OK Bob, let's get 'em on the truck."
    "Right, Chuck," Bob said as he turned to go get his crew started. A huge flatbed truck sat just outside and backed up to the museum's loading dock. The curve of the museum's planetarium wall- adjoining the small warehouse area -served almost incidentally to hide the back parking lot and loading dock from the nearby highway. Bob's workmen were already attaching nylon lift straps to the Russian capsule. A compact forklift crane rolled off the truck to trundle over to the workmen..
    "What are you going to do with them?"
    "Well Billy," Chuck started to say.
    "Mister De Witt, if you please."
    "Billy," Chuck continued, "I don't rightly know. All I was told was to come here and get the best ones. Some study group wants to reverse engineer a new design or something- Part of that UN training deal... That's my guess."
    "I got an e-mail about this from Jonesy over at Princeton. He said the crew that came there took his best Apollo, and his two-seater Delta-wing X-15... You know how rare that thing is?"
    "Relax," Chuck said just as Bob removed the first of the display signs.  "We got some good replicas comin' your way.  No one ever has to know these puppies left."
    "That's not the point," Billy protested.
    "Yeah Billy, I know."  Chuck whistled loudly.  "Hey!  Don't bang up that thruster assembly."  He looked again at Billy.  "It's all part of the same project. You should have seen Huntsville when we got through with it. This is my thirteenth museum in six days, Billy. In seven different states. Believe me, I've heard everything you're going to say- at least three times over..."  Chuck sighed tiredly, as if running out of steam.
    "This is freakin' unbelievable! You're ruining my museum.  Screwing around with history!"   Billy gestured around at his small display hall. Proudly- almost desperately- clean. And looking decidedly forlorn, with three of its major displays now being trundled out the back door. It was clear that Billy ran the museum as a labor of love. Despite the proximity of the local college town, the Clinch River Air & Space Museum clearly hadn't been a profitable business since sometime in the middle of the last century. "How am I supposed to attract tourists now?" Billy added plaintively.
    "I told ya," Chuck said as he watched the Gemini capsule head out the door.  "We've got some good replicas comin'.  AND you'll be paid for them- paid well, too. And you might even get 'em back- I don't know. Depends on what the Big Boys do with 'em. Don't sweat it. Just think of what you can get with all that cash, Billy. You'll be able to upgrade your planetarium, and add some new interactive stuff for the kids...  But it could be better."
    "Fiberglass replicas?" Billy said angrily as he shook his head. "Vehicular taxidermy? They wouldn't be real! How could that be better?"
    "You could make 'em interactive. Let customers climb inside and work controls that actually do something. You couldn't even let 'em touch the real ones- I'll bet," Chuck sounded confident. "You've got a nice little place here, Billy. But it's obvious you've been running on a shoestring budget lately. Your dad bought those capsules when he first opened this place, didn't he?"
    "Well, the Gemini, yeah. He added the others over the years. Why?"
    "Well, it's like this. Think of it as if your dad had made an investment. Something to help you keep the place open if you ever ran into lean times."
    "Yeah? What are you trying to say, Chuck?"
    "Its time to cash in on that investment, Billy. The lean times have arrived. Face it, you really need the money if you're going to keep this place open much longer."
    "Yeah, well... Money isn't everything."
    "It's all that counts, Billy. It's the only thing you can use to pay the bills."


Excerpt from Classified Document:
UN Security Council Briefing --

DOC # 2701-56438-2102
Spacecraft Construction -  Assembly Yard Inspection:

    Though much of the truth is still unknown to the public, behind the public scenes the preparations to avert this disaster are shifting into high gear. Old spacecraft of every description are being shipped around the world. Any sort of spare parts that could possibly be of use will soon follow. Old blueprints, retrieved from dusty archives, are being studied, copied, modified- Then new designs will soon follow. In vehicle assembly buildings of every space going nation, new ships are being built side-by-side with the rebuilding of the old. A mixing of history with the bright promise of the future. The older spacecraft are modified slightly- With new materials and control systems being mated to the existing frameworks. New engines and fuel systems replace the aged originals. And all the original parts are to be numbered and stored, against the possibility that something might come in handy later. Future flight crews assist in the make-over of the old capsules, as well as the construction of the entirely new ships. They will get to train briefly with the finished vehicles, before the craft get shipped off to be fitted into a transport. The flight crews will then move on to simulator training. Eventually, they will become a cadre of teachers to train all the rest of the expedition's crew. The refurbished antiques are to be fitted, side-by-side with the pristine shapes of the new spacecraft designs, into launch vehicles. Eventually, they will be fired into orbit. They will either go into parking orbit to await booster modules- or the clandestine orbital location behind the Moon. The spaceyard teems with as much hidden activity as there are in the public ones, as the huge vehicles necessary to house the Tesla Beam weapons slowly take shape. In all spaceports, the expedition craft are being swarmed with work crews. The actinic flare of arc welding by hundreds of gloved hands light the nearby darkness of space. Where sunlight, earth-light, and moonlight are blocked, the flicker of arc-light casts it's own shadows.
    The sail modules are designed to have a highly adaptable docking system. That way, different antique spacecraft and x-planes can be used for the Mag-Sails and Light-Sails manned cockpits. Other of the antiques will be attached to modern engine modules in order to equip them as scout craft. The x-planes will be the hardest to retro-fit for vacuum. All the antiques are being stripped down and re-fitted with new electronics and hardware. Composite materials are also being used to "re-skin" the old spacecraft.
    Great effort has also been made to build different modules for different jobs, using a new, generalized space-tug design: to attach manned sections to the right module to suit the needs of the required job on site at the comet. Everyone who has been working on these projects has felt the pressure to beat the countdown clock. The sky is still falling. Despite the progress so far, the real work has barely begun. In the spaceyards, spider-legged sail modules are being fitted to Apollo and Soyuz capsules- the legs curling up over the capsules, and housing the spools of mono-filament line that will eventually be fastened to the light sails, or the electrical lines that will perform the same function for the electro-magnetic sails. Gemini and Mercury capsules, and different X-planes are being fitted with thruster/engine modules. All the effort to outfit the antiques with new materials and instruments is paying off in the spaceyard assembly areas, now. And will pay off yet again on the mission.
    And moving off into the deep darkness, un-manned rockets have already begun transporting supply packets out into the night. The expedition ships will gradually overtake and collect these care packages on the voyage out to the comet. This way, vital supplies will be pre-placed for the fleet to recover as needed.

    Master Sargent A.E. Vincent, ID# 002134-540213

UN 5th  Battalion, Inspector General's Office
Ground and Orbital Spaceyard Inspection Detail
Confirmation Code: 37-MXL-234K 56NVT-1708NLR ++ 127NV-L73-213R    

Year Two, February:
The Events of:
The Kindness of Strangers


Year Two, February:
Uncle Sam Wants You!
[Panic in the World]

-Help Wanted-
Construction Workers, Shipbuilders,
Motorcyclists, Fishing
Trawler Crews.
Adventurous types
wanted. Must be able to tolerate
hardships and rugged conditions.

Must be ready to relocate to job
site for 1
to 2 years. Military
Service a plus, but not required
Apply to Hidalgo International
Technologies, NY, NY

3210-702-365-2201 Ex. 85
Insurance, Dental Plan,
 401k/IRA included.
-Help Wanted-
Construction Workers, Welders,
Deep-Sea Divers, Navy Veterans,
Particle Physicists, Sailboat Crews,
Long Haul Truckers, Steel Workers,
Electricians, etc.

Adventurous types needed.
Must be able to tolerate hardships
and rugged conditions.
Must be ready
to relocate to job site for 1
to 2
years. Military Service a plus, but
required. Apply to The Quest
Group, Alternative

4707-805-849-1138 Ex. 369
-Help Wanted-
Adventurous types wanted. Must be able to tolerate hardships and rugged conditions. Must be ready to relocate to work site for 1 to 2 years. Military Service a plus, but not required. Apply to the Probe Agency offices in Washington DC:
3771-617-335-1121 Ex. 256
Insurance, Dental, 401k/IRA/ISS-RA included. Good Pay, Excitement, Travel, Dangerous Jobs, Training.

-- Sincere Replies Only --
Freedom Is Never Easy Work...

-Help Wanted-
 Jobs for Adventurous types. Good pay, some real risk. Must be able
to tolerate real hardships and rugged conditions. Must be able to relocate to job-site for 1 to 2 years. Military Service not a handicap. Must be in good health
honest. Must supply own tatami mat, weapons, tools, & 50-hour candle.
Apply to Banzai Institute's Washington DC Campus Annex
Building 21, Office 413
or telephone:
3131-617-025-4288 Ex. 413

    Although it was almost in secret, Mankind did what Mankind does best. Mankind prepared for war. And as in any war, some people volunteer, and others get drafted...

10:15AM, February 25th

    "I know someone," Captain Able said as he lowered his coffee cup into the saucer in his left hand, "the most brilliant pilot I've ever seen.  But..."  The group was assembled in a semi-darkened cafeteria at the Pentagon--military, scientific, Nightwatch.
    "But what, Captain?" Callow said- pausing from taking a sip of his own coffee. The faint scent of brandy mixed with the headier aroma of rich Colombian coffee that was wafting around the room.
    "But," Able said, "she's a flake, a complete nut job.  Between the panic attacks and..."
    "Best man- person -for the job? Despite her- handicaps?"
    "Yes, Mr. Callow. She's the best I've ever seen. If you need someone qualified as a fighter-bomber pilot, this woman is the best that there's ever been. And she grew up on a fishing trawler. I'd say she's the one you're looking for. She has advanced training in almost everything that you've described to me."
    "But she needs a babysitter," Callow retorted. "Never mind, Captain. I think I know the perfect person for the job..."

11:25AM, February 25th

    "You want me to what?" asked Tom Weldon. He was in the Nightwatch Institutes's Library by Callow's express invitation. Callow's special sound-deadening insulation around the Popular Culture section- where he normally met with Dr. Litchfield -was strained to it's limits by Tom's bellowed reply to Callow's request.
    "We need you to nursemaid one of the expedition pilots through any rough patches," Callow replied smoothly.  "She's the best qualified applicant to the Pilot's position on one of the seven-man debris trawler ships going out to the Object. It would be the perfect cover for you to represent Nightwatch's interests in this matter."
    "And it would be perfect cover in what way?"
    "She is already one of your patients, Doctor Weldon. Abigail Schlesinger."
    "Abby Schlesinger?" Tom exclaimed. "Small woman? Rather masculine? Perpetual baseball cap and fly-away hair? Prone to panic attacks?"
    "That's the woman," Callow replied. "The best B-3c pilot we could find."
    "She said she was a truck driver..." Tom thought twice. "I mean, never heard of her!" Tom began, then trailed off in thought. "You have an ulterior motive," Tom said moments later, while looking Callow in the eye. "There's more to this than there seems."
    "And if there is?"
    "You've never liked me, Callow," Tom replied.  "I know that. I've always known that. But I never thought you'd go so far as to actually try to get me killed. I'm not qualified to be an astronaut."
    "You are an unknown quantity, Doctor Weldon. I dislike unknown quantities. Nightwatch has never been able to complete its file on you." Callow sat back in his chair and placed his fingertips together.  "Yet the Lower Echelon has chosen you to be their eyes and ears on this mission. Against my better judgment, I might add. You have proven to be an able operative for Nightwatch, albeit freelance, in the past."  He pointed an accusing finger at Tom.  "Except for Patagonia, mind you." Tom laughed cheerlessly.  "This is simply more of the same, but solo. Ms. Keel cannot go, she is too valuable. Dr. Litchfield cannot go, he can't tolerate free fall- due to a virulent attack of German Measles when he was a child.  The poor sod pukes his guts out almost every time he has to parachute. You, however-"
    "I, however, happen to be claustrophobic," Tom replied. "And you want me to sit in a sardine can for five months or more?"
    "You were able to tolerate the confines of a Russian submarine, when the need arose."
    "That was only for a few hours-"
    "Nevertheless, the expedition vessels will be as large as..." Callow laughed coldly. "Well, they'll be more comfortable and roomier than, say, an Apollo capsule. There are actually several pressure vessels on the lead ships. You will only have to endure the cramped confines of the smaller ships for eight to twelve hours at a time," Callow said soothingly. "Furthermore, that shift work will only start once you arrive at the Object. Until then, the voyage will be more like a working vacation on an ocean liner. One of your patients needs you. And I've seen how productive a button that is to push. Besides which, you have no need to fear that I am plotting your demise."
    "Oh, this I've got to hear. Why should I not, Callow?"
    "Why Doctor Weldon, you'd be of no use to me dead."
    "You're a complete bastard, Callow."
    "My mother took an absolute delight in telling me so, Doctor Weldon, all through my youth. Or was that a professional diagnosis? In any case, you have an appointment at Langley in three hours. Here are all the papers you'll need to get into Langley. And a Nightwatch identity card."
    "No secret decoder ring? I'm heartbroken."
    "How droll. Report to Doctor Fanshaw, she'll be expecting you."

Year Two, February:
Stupefyin' Jones
[I Put A Spell On You]

2:09 PM, February 25th

    After a tedious, but picturesque drive out to the Langley center, Tom found the CIA security arrangements to be enlightening. He surrendered his black overcoat and stocking cap in the main lobby. He saw them shut into a storage locker, and was handed the key and a pass card. Afterwards, he was run through metal detectors on three separate occasions, hand-held scanned for bugs twice, his massive Wild Turkey belt buckle being passed through a desk-top X-Ray machine, his papers and card inspected countless times... And all he saw of the place as he was led ever deeper into the complex by a series of equally untalkative guides, were waiting rooms, long cool hallways, and many closed office doors. Sound was deadened- everything seemed hushed. Finally, Tom was guided even deeper into the complex. His last guide wordlessly left him at a plain white door with a simple brass nameplate reading "Doctor Miranda Fanshaw, CMO, Advanced Research". He knocked.
    "Come in," he heard.
   Miranda Fanshaw was not quite the sort of doctor that Tom had been expecting to meet. For one thing, she was over six feet tall. For another, she had a figure that no lab coat could hope to disguise. And although lab coats and figures kind of go together in a general sort of way, this was obviously not the sort of mathematical figure that anyone would usually associate with a lab coat. Unless the one doing the associating was a particularly lecherous Lab Assistant. Then there was her hair... And her eyes... And her perfume... And her eyes... A man could get lost in those eyes...

    "Well," she said after a protracted silence. "Have you seen enough yet? Or are you going to request a copy of my eight-by-ten glossies?"
    "Seems to me," Tom began in his therapist voice, "that you would have had a lifetime to get used to men ogling you- if you'll forgive the observation. You can't have grown up ignorant of your obvious beauty. However," he continued in his normal voice, "I plead special circumstances. I rarely meet women of my height.Your eyes are nearly level with mine, and you're not wearing high heels. I looked."
    "Hmmm, extra points for having an original line, Doctor Weldon," she said skeptically as she sat down behind her desk and gestured for Tom to take a seat also.
    "Mister, please. Or just Tom. I'm the only man with a doctorate you'll ever meet who loathes that title.  Too pretentious sounding for me. You're the Doctor around here," Tom said as he sank into the plush leather chair. "I'm just here to be fitted for a space suit and to be trained to use it. I'm not even curious as to why I was sent here instead of to NASA or an Air Force base." Nice office. Not too crowded, not too impersonal... he thought. Cool photos... Jets, rockets, astronauts...
    "Because of Miss Schlesinger, your patient."
    "I never knew she was a pilot. I knew she was ex-military, but she never discussed that. She told me she was a truck driver."
    "Not much difference. You take a load somewhere and drop it off, then come back for more. A lot of pilots refer to their jobs by some kind of joking reference like that. My dad always did. Plus, it wasn't always fighter-bombers that Miss Schlesinger was flying." Dr. Fanshaw opened a file and cringed.  "Of course, she has made several maneuvers that C-5s were never designed to make..."
    "Ah. I see," Tom spoke.  "Not only did she make deliveries, but she sometimes indulged in a little photography as a hobby. So to speak. Hence the CIA interest?"

    "I can see why you were selected for this, Mr. Weldon."
    "Why? Because someone higher up wants me dead?"
    "Hmmm... That too," she said.  "I spoke to Mr. Callow, and he recommended you a little too enthusiastically. But yes, our Miss Schlesinger occasionally flew Photo-Recon missions for the CIA after she retired from the Air Force. Naturally, they couldn't let her tell her therapist about her little excursions. Even I don't what she was doing."  Fanshaw held up Schlesinger's file and pointed to the blacked out areas.  "You weren't in the need-to-know loop, and neither am I. She was under orders to keep those details secret. And just as naturally, they're going to want to keep a tight lid on anything you learn that pertains to them. You have been drafted, so to speak. And when all of this is over and done with, they'll be keeping an eye on you. To protect their interests, their secrets."
    "I had assumed as much," Tom said. "But on the other hand, this will put a whole new spin on the old Neighborhood Watch," Tom absently said as he glanced again at the photos adorning the cream colored walls of Dr. Fanshaw's office. He noted the matching filing cabinets and the crowded bookshelves- and for the first time noticed that the computer on the workstation behind her desk was tinted a shocking turquoise blue. An open Laptop, sitting next to the blue desktop computer, seemed to be displaying a chatroom program, but it was too far away for him to read.
    "Funny, Mr. Weldon. You're not going to have time for jokes in the foreseeable future.You have far too much to do today- We both do, actually. But for you, your training begins now. You are going to be far too busy in the foreseeable future to waste any more time."  She swiveled in her chair and grabbed another file from a table.  "I wish
I could get you to take this more seriously. You haven't the faintest idea what you're going to up against.  I'm going to have to train you to stay alive against all odds. I doubt that you're going to make that easy for me."
    "What's the first thing on the schedule, then?" Tom asked, dragging his attention fully back to Dr. Fanshaw.
    "You're going to have to be measured for your space suit today, Mr. Weldon."
    "Well, I can give you my tux size-"
    "This will be a little different from a trip to the tailor. Relax, its all done by a machine now. As soon as they're ready for us, we will go down the hall to a laser scanning lab-"
    "You're going to read me like a bar code. But in 3-d."
    "Very good, Mr. Weldon," Fanshaw said, and though her demeanor was still quite serious, there was a slight twinkle in her eye. "That's exactly what we're going to do."  A chime rang out from the turquoise computer.  "Ah, they're ready. Now come with me and take off all your clothes."
    "On our first date? I thought you'd never ask. But we haven't even had dinner yet."
    "Very funny," she said as she led Tom out of her office and down the hallway towards what he presumed to be the scanning lab.
    "Why is it I get the feeling," Tom sighed, "that being asked to get naked by you is not necessarily a good thing at this juncture?"
    "Is that a rhetorical question, Mr. Weldon?"
    "And how many people am I going to have to be naked in front of?"
    "Three. Myself and two technicians. And they will be looking at computer monitors. Relax. I have a distant cousin who is a porn actress. She tells me that after the first few minutes, the discomfort wears off."
    "I'm almost certain that she wasn't speaking merely of the nudity."
    Dr. Fanshaw giggled, the tension finally breaking. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
    "So you do have a sense of humor. I was starting to wonder," Tom said as they reached the door to the scanning lab. "How long is this going to take?"
    "It'll be over before you know it. And it won't hurt a bit."
    "Did they teach you those lies in medical school? Every doctor tells the same ones."

    Big room- I like that, Tom thought as he re-entered the scanner lab from it's private restroom, his black shirt, pants, and other clothing clutched in one large hand.  Sort of empty, too. That platform over there must be the scanner itself. Don't see a chair... "Where do I put my clothes? And where do I sit for the scanner? I assume that this is going to take some time."
    "The quicker you do what I tell you, the quicker you'll be able to put your clothes back on. My, you do like working out, don't you?"
    "I used to be a little, skinny guy. I got tired of that and changed it. Hard work, exercise, healthy eating... What do I do now? Offer you my eight-by-ten glossies?"
    "Put your clothes in that basket," Dr. Fanshaw said as she gestured towards a small wire hamper that sat atop a perfectly ordinary operating room roller-table nearby.
    "Just like at the pool," Tom said. "Now what?"
    "Step up on this dais. This is the scanner itself. When we get you strapped in, a ring will rise up out of the floor and the lasers will be focused on your body from the ring. It'll measure your three dimensional cross section from your ankles to your wrists. Put your feet in these boots and Velcro them shut tightly."
    "Boots? They're more like stiff felt socks." Or Peter Pan slippers...
    "Those will not only anchor your feet while the laser scans you, but they will measure your feet as precisely as the laser would. The data fits together seamlessly in the program files."  Tom, rather reluctantly, did as he was asked.  "Good, now put on those gloves."
    "Why do they have cables going up to the roof?"
    "All the better to stretch you with, my dear. Rather like a space-age rack. It won't be tight enough to hurt, just to flex your body to it's full extension."
    "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me..." Tom muttered under his breath.
    "Maybe we do have something in common after all."  Tom arched his eyebrows, unsure whether Dr. Fanshaw was making a joke or revealing a hitherto hidden aspect of her personality.  "Now, the gloves will measure your hands- just like the boots will for your feet."
    "While stretching me out like something from the Spanish Inquisition-"
    "No one expects the Spanish Inquisi-tion!"
    "Doctor, I think I'm beginning to like your style."
    "Cute," she said sarcastically. Then she turned to the technicians who sat facing away from the scanner at a console on the far side of the room. "All right, stretch him out. Start the laser. Let's get this done right the first time. This will take about five minutes," she added as she turned back to face Tom. "Tell me if the cables are too tight."
    "No, actually it feels rather like something a gym would charge you a hundred bucks an hour for, and then send you off to a free sauna. But it is embarrassing."
    "If it's any comfort to you, you look damn good."  Tom felt himself blush lightly.
    "Why thank you, Madam. I owe it all to clean living."
    "Please remain still in all aspects of your physiognomy," one of the technicians said dryly.
    "Silly boy," Fanshaw spoke and she smiled widely.
    "Can you answer one question?"
    "As long as it isn't about my cousin. Or her phone number."
    "Um, no. I wanted to ask what is that perfume you're wearing?"
    "It's called Obsession," she said as she shyly glanced towards the floor.  "It isn't all that expensive, and I like the scent."
    "I can understand the name. I don't think I'll ever forget that scent." Or you.
    "Done with the legs," one of the techs called out from across the room. "Starting on the torso now..."
    "'Slowly, slowly... It's too nice a job to rush,'" Dr. Fanshaw quoted with a broad smile.
    First she quotes Monty Python and now lines from Rocky Horror Picture Show? Tom thought. And she has the nerve to scold me about my own jokes? This woman gets more interesting by the minute. What will she do next, I wonder? Never mind the fact that she's drop-dead gorgeous- she's got a brain and isn't afraid to use it... And she's my size! Fascinating woman! Those eyes are hypnotic.
"All right, Tom. Take a really deep breath, and hold it. As deep and as long as you can. We'll need your maximum chest expansion for your suit tailoring to fit right. Your life will depend on your suit."
    "'K," Tom replied, filling his lungs as deeply as he could and holding his breath.
    The ring of laser light continued to ascend Tom's body.

    "We'll have to make some adjustments and repeat the procedure."
    "For heaven's sake, why?" Fanshaw said- almost petulantly.
    "The reading came out 'Off-Scale, High' Dr. Fanshaw."
    "What? Let me see that..."
    "I'll just- just wait right here. Shall I?" Tom helplessly called after Dr. Fanshaw's rapidly retreating back.
    "Yes, you just hang tight, Adonis," Dr. Fanshaw said absently as she walked over to the tech's console. "Now what is this nonsense? How can it read off-scale? Let me see the begin-run data entries. There has got to be a typo... D'oh! You keyed in his mass at 21 pounds! Reset it to 210 and run the calculations again. Pay attention, Debbie."
    "Oh, Sweet Mistress of Pain?" Tom called from across the room. "Can I put my clothes back on now?"
    "Oh yes, I forgot. Yes, Captain Lockheed. You can get out of the gloves and boots now and get dressed. We won't have to run it again after all. There'll be a uniform waiting for you in the locker room at the end of the hall. Your Starfighter will be ready momentarily..."
    Oh, lovely, Tom thought. Her personality fluctuates between all business and downright playful. That could be trouble. Bi-Polar? Or just flaky? But she does know her stuff. Nobody gets to be CMO for Langley's own private air force without being damned well qualified. I wonder who was standing around when she got measured for a suit. Woah! Not the right time to engage in those types of speculations, old boy. Finish putting your pants on Weldon, at least. Sheesh.
"Having trouble, Tom?" Miranda looked back over her shoulder at Tom's back as he fumbled with his pants and shirt-tail.
    "I was just thinking that you could market that thing as a home tanning salon," Tom evasively replied over his shoulder, while zipping his pants. "Its a little tame for the S&M crowd. I've got a couple of patients who'd love it for their autoerotic asphyxiation experiments, though."  Tom looked up innocently.  "Am I going to have a sunburn from that gadget?"
    Miranda giggled again, then shifted once more to all-business mode. "No, the laser isn't nearly bright enough for that. You haven't been harmed," she said, then frowned. "You know, your sense of humor could get you killed out there, Doctor Weldon. I suggest that you rein it in, for now. What we're about to do could mean the difference between living and dieing out there. What? No wisecracks?"
    "I'm restraining myself with difficulty," Tom said sarcastically- thinking all the while that the scanning system would make restraining himself easier. "After all, it is my life we're talking about. Seriously Doctor, I understand the-"
    "Gravity of the situation? You weren't actually going to perpetrate that pun, were you?"
    "Certainly not," Tom lied with a straight face. "I was going to say that I understood the difficulties of turning me into an astronaut."
    "Un-huh," she replied disbelievingly. "Well... I'm afraid that you have at least one more shock coming to you today, Mr. Weldon."
    "Oh? And what would that be?" Tom asked cautiously.
    Dr. Fanshaw looked him over from head to toe, then frowned once more- as if at his taste in clothing. "Spacesuits," she finally said, as if she were addressing a small child. "Do not come in black..."

    "Listen, Mr. Weldon," Miranda began, after they had returned to her office. "This isn't going to be pleasant, but there are some, um, realities you'll have to deal with in space.  This," she said while holding up a plastic bag, "is the closest to a lavatory you'll see for the next few months.  The waste management system on your ship wasn't completely designed before we had to give up and finish construction."  She held the bag up higher to complete the point.  "And in a spacesuit, if you do anything wrong you'll wind up dead. Anything you forget about can kill you. Anything you leave behind can kill you. Anything you take with you that doesn't work right can kill you. Anything you take with you that breaks down can kill you. Anything that breaks down that you can't fix on the spot can kill you. And even if everything goes right, you can still get killed by something you've overlooked. I am supposed to give you a crash course in everything you'll need to know about your spacesuit in order to stay alive."
    Back to 'Mr. Weldon' now, are we? She's gone all business on me again. "Crash course? Not the sort of thing a fledgling astronaut wants to hear on his first day of training."
    "Get the comedy out of your system, now. Once your training starts, you won't have time for it. I can promise you that. You'll be here two to four days every week until you lift off. You'll spend eight or more--probably many more-- hours a day here, training to keep yourself alive. If you come back in one piece, it'll be a miracle."
    "I put myself in your hands. Which ought to be safe enough, now that I have my clothes back on again."
    "You big lug! You better listen up or you're going to come back to me in a box!"
    Come back to me? "Yes Ma'am. I'm listening." This got deep, quick. But at least I know that she thinks of me as more than just an assignment. "I'm counting on you to keep me alive. Er, to teach me how to stay alive. I'll pay attention, never fear."
    "The suits for this mission are something special. Something that we've been working on for years. They're thinner, lighter, and more flexible than the standard NASA mission suits."
    "And completely untested in actual flight conditions, I suppose," Tom said under his breath.  Fanshaw cleared her throat and continued.
    "They'll be far more comfortable, and the inner layer can stand up to frequent launderings. Needless to say, body odor is a significant psychological problem on extended missions. We've also done away with the need to glue on, or insert, medical probes and monitors. The inner layer has skin contact monitors woven into the fabric. All the wiring for the inner layer plugs in at the wrists, ankles, and the neck-ring of the outer layer. You can disconnect the plugs at those five points, and then pull the inner layer out through the neck-ring. Like I said, you can wash it every day, if you want. Won't hurt it."
    "Waste management system incomplete," Tom said with a deadpan expression, "but the Chinese laundry made it onboard intact."
    "Pay attention, 007," Fanshaw said, but her near smile was quickly buried.  "There is a middle layer made of a special foamed plastic that is the real workhorse of the suit. It is bonded to the outer layer and contains all the microprocessors, wiring, and circuitry necessary, scattered throughout the foam material of the layer. This gets rid of all that clumsy bulk of carrying most of the gear that used to have to be attached to the outside of the old-style suits. The outer layer is actually three layers of Kevlar, one layer of special metallic foil- to block most radiation, and seven layers of a specially formulated silicone-latex sealer, bonded together into a flexible, but extremely tough airtight fabric. There are over-sized keypads on hard plastic inserts set into the suit's forearms and chest areas, to access the onboard computer components scattered about in the middle layer. There are also controls around the suit's neck-ring and on the sides of the helmet. Hook-ups to the oxygen tanks have been greatly simplified. Each full tank should last six hours. Your suit can normally be able to hook up to two of those six-hour tanks, but there is emergency equipment in the suit's outside-left shin zipper pocket that will allow for either the attachment of up to four extra tanks, or three extra tanks and buddy-breathing with another astronaut. Always check your tank pressure before hitting vacuum. Always check your tank pressure whenever you put your suit on. Always replace your used tanks with full ones after every EVA. Always keep your suit ready to save your life, at all times."
    "Yes Ma'am. I understand. I take it that practice sessions with the equipment will be a great fraction of the training."
    "That is correct. When I'm through with you, you'll be able to wake up out of a sound sleep, dive out of bed, and get your suit on in mere seconds. Probably without fully waking up- If I do my job right... If I do my job wrong, you just wake up dead."
    "I see."
    "No jokes? Are you feeling ill?"
    "No Doctor. I'm feeling like throttling the life out of Ian Callow, but I've felt that urge many times over the last few years. I haven't had the need to act on it, though." Yet. "I am trying to follow you as best as I can. It'll be easier when I have the suit in hand. Until it gets finished, I'll store the lectures away as background material, for later use. Everything you tell me now will give me a head start when I actually have the suit to train in."
    "Very good, Weldon. There's hope for you yet. Now, about the sanitary arrangements. We've done away with catheters for the urinary tract."
    "For that. I thank you. Seriously."
    "Yes, well... Don't thank me yet. I've been working on the women's version, myself. I really hate the NASA design. The ladies all call it 'the sandbox.' The new men's design has been described as a 'condom with a hose attached', plus two rubber bands to hold it in place. There are three valves in the system. One is a back-up and can be used to isolate the system in case of failure of the other two valves. If all three valves are open at the same time, you bleed to death. Quickly. Graphically. Painfully... Never open more than one valve at a time. The bag is housed in a thigh pocket.  In an extreme emergency, you can use the half-gallon or so of urine in the bag as a low-powered reaction motor for a small amount of thrust- Which is why the outermost valve works more like the nozzle of a garden hose..."
     Tom smiled but looked genuinely worried.  "I'm not getting anywhere near the recommended amount of training time, am I."  Fanshaw stood expressionless before him, and then she looked down at the files on her desk.

Year Two, March:

Missing Persons
[Agents of Fortune]

1:17 PM, March 1st

     Stephanie Keel knocked on Simon's office door. At his indistinct, grunted reply, she went in to find him pacing about the room- reading a report. He looked up once he saw whom his visitor was.
    "Hello, Stephanie. What's on your mind?"
    "Tom," she said.  "I haven't seen him for over a week. He's canceled most of his appointments. Or re-directed other patients to the doctors that he asks to cover for his vacations. But this time, indefinitely."
    "Tom just...vanishes...sometimes.  You know that.  God knows what he's doing half the time."  Simon looked down at the report.  "Have you gotten snoopy yet?"
    "Simon!" Stephanie spoke indignantly.  "I'm amazed at your insinuations of impropriety on my part," Stephanie rolled her eyes. "Of course I've snooped around a bit. But there's only so much I could find- even with the best search-bot program I could write! What I found was he'd been checking into a lab at CIA Langley a lot lately. Starting right after a meeting with Callow, no less."
    "That bodes ill for Tom," Simon replied. "Callow has his holds over all of us." Simon lowered the report.  "And whatever skeletons are in Tom's closet- Callow must have hunted them down ages ago. Even the ones that we don't know about yet."
    "This is some serious shit, Simon..."
    "How alliterative of you, Stephanie."  Simon dropped the report on his desk and sat down, massaging his fingers as he did.  "But all humor aside- you've got me damned worried about Tom. If Callow has his claws into him, there's no telling what risks he's running."
    "How can we help him? We can't just walk up into Langley Center and ask for him at the Information Desk."
    "I'd go beard Callow in his Den," Simon said, "but it'd probably only get me shouted at. Same goes for you. Hmm, we need to think of something sneaky..."
    "That's why I came to you," Stephanie said.  "I need to brainstorm some way out of this tangled web."
    "Well, there is one last-ditch, long-shot chance that may be able to clear up the mystery."
    "What's that?"
    "We could just ask Tom what the hell is going on, couldn't we?"  Simon asked reasonably. Stephanie blinked and then held her face in her hands.
    "Simon," Stephanie sighed in annoyance, then she spoke sarcastically. "You have a positive talent for slicing through the bullshit, you know? How do we reach Tom to ask him? Smart-ass..."

    "Hmm..." Simon thought for a long moment. Then he stood straighter and snapped his fingers. "Of course! Surprised that you didn't think of it."
    "We need to ask Zod."
    Stephanie blinked twice, started giggling, then leaned back against one of the walls of Simon's office and began laughing out loud. Within moments, she had slowly slid to a sitting position on the floor, rocking back and forth, helpless with laughter. Simon flopped back into his chair, giggling inanely as well. After a few moments of shared hilarity, they each recovered and moved as one towards Simon's office computer. Stephanie sat down and called up the chatroom program. Instead of joining a channel once she had connected to the Internet server substation, however- she typed "/whereis Zod \?/  /-i/+s/n/b/+t/+msg  /?? \\ URGENT \\ Priority One" Before the chat server computer even had a chance to answer her query, a private chat window popped up on the screen.
@Zod: "Ms. Keel? Am I needed?" Hello, Dr. Litchfield. I gather that the two of you want to sent a private message to Dr. Weldon?
Stephanie_Keel: How did you know that? And that Simon was here too?
@Zod: Your  web-spider was very specific about Dr. Weldon. And you are using Dr. Litchfield's office computer now.
Stephanie_Keel: What has Ian Callow done with Tom?
@Zod: Dr. Weldon has been recruited to accompany one of his patients out to the comet. He will be training for the mission for some time. He is still reachable through his private e-mail account. In an extreme emergency, I can patch you through to the communications system of his spacesuit. Warning: Probability of such communication remaining undetected is less than 68.2573%


    "His," Simon started.
    "Spacesuit?" Stephanie added.
    "Shall we go yell at Callow together, Stephanie?"
    "That would be fun," she said, "but I doubt that it would make anything any better. I've got a better idea. Let's go try and catch Tom as he comes home this evening."
    "Yes," Simon answered after a short pause. "That would be more productive. But we'll have to figure on his having CIA watchers now."
    "Oh, come on! That's the best part, Simon."
    "Oh? How so?"
    "A report will have to get back to Callow- Probably before the night is out..." Her face lit up as she started laughing again.  "Imagine the look on his aggravated little face when he finds out that we know. And just let him wonder how we found out!"
    Simon threw back his head and laughed. "Thank you. I needed that," he said after a long few moments. "Go get your stuff, I'll meet you in the garage."
    Stephanie dashed out of Simon's office and headed for her own. Simon grabbed his raincoat and a hat from his coat tree by his office door. He paused before he closed the door, looked across the room at his computer, and said "Thank you for everything, Zod. You'd make an excellent Butler, you know?" I'm acting as if he could hear me, Simon thought, shaking his head. I'm slipping. Then he closed the door and quickly walked to meet Stephanie.
"Oh, I am all things to all people-- but you are quite welcome Dr. Litchfield..." came a smooth, cultured voice from out of the speakers of Simon's office computer, moments later. No one was there to hear the voice, but then again, that might just have been the point.

Year Two, March:
Lancelot's Dilemma
[You Are What You Is]

1:12 AM, March 2nd

Forty eight hours of this, in only four days, Tom thought as he walked the increasingly familiar path from the training room to Dr. Fanshaw's office. Next week they're gonna put me in a swimming pool and do some simple astronaut training stuff. Wearing that suit feels funky, like a leotard. I keep looking down and expecting to see a tu-tu instead of a tool-belt. Good, Miranda's door's open. She's still here. I wish-
At the sound of something crashing to the floor in Miranda's office, Tom broke into a run for the last few yards. He stopped short in the doorway, catching on to the frame with both hands. The room wasn't in total disarray, but it damn sure came close. Miranda was on her knees in the middle of the floor picking up a fallen stack of files that had obviously knocked a floor lamp over.
    "Shit," Miranda said to herself, her back to Tom. "Shit, shit... I knew that was going to fall over. OK, ok, just clean it up. Clean it up..."
    "Miranda?" Tom said quietly.
    "Oh shit!" she squealed as she turned to look over her shoulder at Tom. "You scared me. What- what do you want? It's late. Its late."
    "I'm through with my session for the day. You were acting a little flaky this afternoon and I wanted to check up on you. What happened? What are you doing?"
    "I- I started cleaning up," she said. "Just a little bit, just to take my mind off things. Then I decided to redecorate a little. Then I decided to re-do my files... and this lot fell over. And the lamp broke. That was one that Daddy gave me when I first left home for college. It's OK. Shit. Ok, ok... Shit... OK-- Oh, ok..." she was looking from side to side as she spoke, focusing on different parts of the mess at one time. Chairs pushed back, filing cabinets half empty- their drawers all hanging open, her desk slid sideways and files stacked high up on it, the broken glass from the lamp's light bulb scattered across the floor...
    "Are you alright?" Tom asked.
    "Yeah, sure. I'm OK. I'm fine. OK... ok, shit..."
    "Did something happen?" Tom asked, concern written plain across his face. "Is your family alright?"
    "I've been so busy, so busy..." Miranda said as she got up from the floor. "Everything needs to be finalized now. There's no time for testing, no time to be sure. No time... I've been so busy. And then you came along. I've got no time for this. There's no time. Everything has to be finished at once. Right now..."
    "Miranda? Miranda!" Tom spoke sharply as he crossed from the doorway and took Dr. Fanshaw by the arms before she could step on the broken glass. "Have you forgotten to take your medication? Miranda, listen to me. When was the last time you took your medicine?"
    "What?" she answered. "No, I always... But I've so busy- did I forget? I've been so scared..."
    "Scared? Scared of what, Miranda?"
    "No- can't say. Can't-- say..."
    "Do you have your medicine here?" Tom asked gently, looking into her eyes. "In your desk? Or in your purse, maybe?"
    "Center drawer of my desk. Back left corner. Behind the bag of cough drops..." Miranda answered mechanically, still casting glances about the wreckage of her office. She took several deep breaths and seemed to come back to a somewhat calmer state. "You're right, you're right. I did forget. Did forget. Sometimes-- I wish I could just-"
    "No!" Tom almost shouted. "No. Don't even go there. Don't ever go there. I-- I'm going to be here for you." The catch in his voice went almost unnoticed. Almost. "I'm going to be here for you. I promise." He quickly found the two different prescriptions, just where Miranda said that they'd be, and also fetched her a cup of water from the cooler near her coffee pot.
    "It'll be tomorrow before this stuff gets fully metabolized," Miranda said after she gulped down two of the pills.
    "I know," Tom said gently. "How are you feeling now?"
    "Better," she said. "Now that you're here. But I'm scared, too."
    "Scared of what?" Tom asked soothingly.
    "Scared you're gonna die. Scared it'll be my fault because I didn't teach you enough, or I'm not good enough to teach..." The words came out in a rush.
    "Woah, woah..." Tom could feel his heart melting and his professional ethics shouting alarms at the same time. With a vicious mental swipe, he pushed everything else into the back of his mind and focused on Dr. Fanshaw. She needed help, he was here, he had the training... But you love her, too. Don't you? Admit it. That's why you can't treat her. That wouldn't be right. But you can be there for her until the fear goes away. She needs you.
"You got too quiet," she said, wiping away a tear. "Did I scare you off?"
    "No, you didn't. But I can't offer to treat you."
    "Why not?" she asked, as if pushing for confirmation of what her heart had already told her.
    "Because I can't be your doctor. I'm too close. You mean too much- I mean..."
    She looked him in the eyes, and her eyes were crystal depths, endless, straight through to her soul. He felt lost, yet not alone. Warm, comforted, and totally head over heels. "Tell me," she whispered. "I need to know."
    "I can't offer to treat you-- because I- I love you," Tom finally said. "The best I can do- as a doctor -is nag you about your prescriptions. It wouldn't be ethical for me to do anything more. And you know it."
    "There is one ethical thing you can do that I need right now," she said quietly, looking down at the floor as if she were ashamed, or embarrassed.
    "What's that?"
    "Hold me," she said as she looked back into his eyes and reached out to him, like a frightened child.
    "Forever," he replied as he wrapped his arms around her. And he knew at that moment that he meant it- literally.

Year Two, March:
Boot Cramp Training
[Diamond Dogs]

4:25 AM, March 7th

    An exhausted Tom Weldon floated near the middle of a deep pool of water, struggling with a boxed-end wrench and a recalcitrant hex-head bolt. The fingers of his new spacesuit gloves were making him just slightly more clumsy than the zero-g effect caused by being under water. Five other trainees floated nearby, their breathing and muttered curses quietly audible in the headset of Tom's suit. The smell of his own sweat was starting to get on his nerves. Time to run the liner through the wash again, he thought. Damn, six hours of this is beginning to wear me out. This has been a tough week.
    "Hey," came a voice in Tom's headset. "I've got a warning light going off..."
    "Me too," answered a second voice.
    Tom sighed tiredly. Looking out through his helmet into the crystal-blue water outside his suit, he sighed again and stowed his wrench back into his tool pouch. "Didn't you two check your tank pressure when you put your suits on?" Tom asked.
    "Aren't the techs supposed to do that?"
    "Always check your own gear," Tom replied angrily. "Never depend on someone else to check it. You check it, yourself! Every time. You two should know that all ready. Now you're going to have to climb down to the supply cart and hook up replacement air tanks."
    "I'm not really good at that yet, Doc," came the answer.
    "TOM," he yelled.  "Not Doc!" Do I get extra credit for becoming a Teaching Assistant? Tom thought while turning himself to face the two slackers. "OK, I'll run you through the drill one more time. You better get good, soon. Next week we start training with the lights out. You'll have to learn how to do this in the dark- except for your suit lights. Anyone else need a recharge? While we're at it?" Tom glanced quickly at the instrument display inside his own helmet. I've still got twenty minutes supply left on my first tank. Second tank- still full... The safety check was quickly becoming second nature to him. "OK, follow me and attach your spare lifeline to the tether down to the supply cart, then disconnect your primary lifeline from your work station tether. Now, climb down the rope-" 'Cause the elevator's broke-- Damn it! Quit daydreaming, Weldon! Lives depend on you... "-and attach your primary lifeline to a tether on the cart..."
    And the training continued.

Year Two, March:
The Pit and the Pendulum
[All My Rowdy Friends...]

11:25 AM, March 10th

    Simon and a military officer entered an observation area, a guard outside the door saluting crisply.  The officer returned the salute.  The door slammed shut as the two of them walked over to the window.
    "Down there," General Welles Graham said as he pointed to a large water tank, "is where your Doctor Weldon is being trained.  We have the best working with him, working with all of them."  Sure enough, at the moment Tom and his fully suited comrades entered the area and prepared to take the plunge.  Graham turned on a coffee maker and also activated several computer monitors.  Finally, he pressed a comm button mounted on the wall.  "Graham in Sector 8."
    "This part of Langley isn't on the tour route, is it," Simon said.
    "No," Graham said.  "You were lucky Nightwatch has connections, and that Doctor Weldon personally vouched for you."  Graham walked over and stood by the window.  "They have a very daunting task in front of them, Doctor Litchfield."
    "I don't envy them," Simon spoke, and then he reconsidered.  "Well, not much, anyway.  Space flight does have some allure, I must admit."
    "Have you seen the plans for the carrier ships?"
    "I have indeed," Simon spoke. "From a Civil Engineering standpoint, I've got to admire your hutzpah. I can't imagine how many launches it'll take to send up all of the modules."
    "Too many for comfort," General Graham said. "Fortunately, it's that modular approach that made this possible from both a construction and PR spin standpoint. The assembly point behind the moon is being pushed to the brink, but a few discreet shots at a time is all it takes to put these things up."
    "I saw that they were nearly complete," Simon spoke. In the tank below the viewing area, Tom disappeared beneath the surface of the water with his training partners.
    "We won't be able to pull something like this off again," Graham said both matter-of-factly and sadly. "Not for a long time. The costs are staggering--in terms of money, in terms of effort, in terms of sacrifices made." He shook his head. "Even if we're successful, the secrecy we used to hide this will set back the reputations of countless nations. And when the people who've more or less been drafted to do the work are finally able to speak out..."
    Tom surfaced and motioned furiously at someone who had apparently offended him.
    "He'd never admit it," Simon spoke as he smiled, "but Tom's having the time of his life down there." General Graham looked over at Simon.
    "I want you to consider something, seriously," General Graham said as he motioned for Simon to sit down. Graham went to the coffee machine and poured himself a cup of coffee and then poured one for Litchfield.
    "Generals and coffee," Simon spoke as he took the cup. "That's never good."
    "We're getting ready to launch the biggest armada space has ever seen," the General said. "That's something that no one in space command, no one in NASA, no one in ESA...hell, no one anywhere could have ever planned for. Not this soon. "
    "I know that," Litchfield spoke. "You don't have to tell me about..." Graham held up his hand and then walked over to a computer touch screen. Quickly, he keyed in a series of numbers, and a live video feed appeared. After motioning for Litchfield to come look, he pointed at the people sitting around a set of consoles.
    "That's Com Team 3 at JPL," Graham said. "Five of the best communications experts in our employ." He looked over at Litchfield. "Their entire job is to work out the communications protocols for the missions." Graham looked back at the screen. "There's never been this many people in space at once. I mean, for God's sake, there's never been this many communications systems out there. The frequencies are a nightmare. And there's call signs, discussions between astronauts..." Simon looked at the people working, noting that two of the team members, mirroring what was also happening in the pool, were apparently involved in a heated argument.
    "I take your point."
    "On top of that," Graham continued as he watched the argument, "Canaveral, Vandenberg, Kodiak Island, Hildago's offshore launch platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, inside a dozen of our nuclear subs- at every spaceport under US control... We are loaded down with equipment. New, old, ancient. Dr. Litchfield, I've got an Atlas on the pad in California, and I'm not talking about one of the new models fresh off of Lockheed's assembly line. I'm talking a John Glenn era, stage and a half, structure kept rigid by the fuel pressure Atlas. Sitting on top of that is one of the X-15s that SE has modified for space." Graham looked down and sipped his coffee. "You think any of my people really know how to handle something that old?"
    Simon reached over and patted the general's shoulder. "Believe it or not, I do have faith in your people's abilities. If nothing else, your PR department is brilliant! So much out in the open and yet completely unnoticed..."
    "You're missing the point, doctor," Graham interrupted.
    "Am I?"
    "Any space launch is planned out months, sometimes years in advance," Graham said. "Trajectories, G- loads, wind shear protocols, points of no return for each and every section of a mission profile... Every variable of a given launch... Everything is checked and rechecked and tripled checked and certified and checked again." The general laughed and looked towards the ceiling. "Even with so much handled electronically, there are still warehouses tasked with nothing but the storage of paper trails.  Throw manned flight into the mix, and the planning stretches out twice as far. Even with our military missions, the planning and vetting process goes on for quite awhile." Graham looked at Simon intently. "Outside of rudimentary sketches, there is none of that involved here. There's been no time. Those carrier ships, the center piece of the whole operation, are completely untested.  Those NERVA engines. No one has any idea how they'll operate under flight conditions. Those micro-fusion afterburners- pure science fiction. I don't even understand the physics. They work, but I couldn't tell you why. The people at SE, and Quest, and HIT may be geniuses, but up there we're improvising, making up 80% of it as we go along." Graham sat down again. "Dr. Litchfield, whether or not the mission succeeds, people will die. You can't throw this much hardware up, this many people up, without casualties. It is a statistical impossibility...even if we'd had more time to plan."
    "So," Simon spoke solemnly, "what are you telling me?"
    Graham put down his coffee and looked Simon straight in the eye. "When your friend, Mr. Weldon, leaves to start his quarantine, leave nothing unsaid. Do you read me?"

Year Two, March:
If I Had A Hammer
[Another Brick In The Wall]

11:40 PM, March 10th

    Towers of steel beams reach skyward in gantry frames as ships are constructed to take the fight to the comet. Work crews scurry like bees in frenzied activity. Quickly, each new rocket ship takes shape. Around the world, humanity's hopes unknowingly garner reinforcement as every completed rocket gets shipped to a launch site. Small supply rockets are being regularly launched from land bases and submarines, for the expedition to overtake and intercept on the voyage. Hidden behind the moon, assembly of the expedition's carrier ships proceeds. Recruiting for the expedition's varied crew is also carried out under the public's collective noses. The official story of "practicing" in order to prepare for a "real threat" effectively hides much of the preparations for the expedition. Completed smaller ships are launched, to be stowed in the finished compartments of the carriers that orbit serenely above the bustle of Earth's surface. The battleship-sized cylindrically-shaped carrier ships take form slowly- at least when the Media is about to ask questions about the modular creations noticed on certain factory floors.
    The huge Tesla Beam generators are built into their own ships. The shadow of Earth's moon hides the welding flares of the workmen in this secret assembly yard. Occasional flashes from the worker's arc welders throw the submarine-sized flashlight shapes of each giant weapon into stark relief. With each seam welded, Earth's future safety seemingly becomes more and more secure.
    But time is still limited. The rush to save the planet proceeds apace, albeit yet in secrecy.
    Yet, from time to time more than one workman pauses his or her efforts, in order to contemplate one slight puzzle. What the hell are we going to do with these damn things once the comet is out of the way? What bloody government on the planet can be trusted to own even one of these buggers and not use it? They all think such things to themselves while working. What's to keep some bastard from using one to try and rule the world? Doesn't signify, most of the construction crew individually concluded in the end. Save the world now, kill any power-hungry bastards later. One job at a time. First, save the world. Then we can take time to deal with the idiots that'll spring up to take advantage of the situation. Politics. I hate it... Shit, got to get this hull plate welded in before shift change, or the supervisor is gonna crawl my ass. Back to work...

Year Two, April:
The Events of:
Death Valley

Year Two, May:
Launch Day
[I'll See You On The Dark Side Of The Moon]

9:02 AM, May 15th

    Tele-Prompter Text of the US president's speech to the UN:

 "Ladies and Gentlemen...
 representatives of all people
 of every nation on Earth...
 We few are gathered here today
 to honor those who will begin the task
 of keeping our fragile planet safe from the threat
 of catastrophic impact from objects from space.
 We stand here,
 as one world,
 against the threats
 that the unknowable future can hold.
 we take the first steps
 to preserve all our futures
 against a common cosmic threat.
 These three hundred brave souls
 that we honor here today,
 are but the first of many generations
 of swords against the darkness
 that we,
 as a planet united,
 have decided to field
 against the great unknown
 that is our neighborhood in space.
 We, as a people,
 have been given a unique opportunity
 to learn the skills that will become necessary
 to ensure our world's continued survival
 against the direst threats
 that a hostile universe
 can throw at us.
 These brave people have joined together-
 without thought of personal differences,
 political leanings,
 or religious beliefs
 -to learn how to safeguard the Earth
 from interplanetary destruction.
 They will become
 our shields against the cosmic threats,
 our swords against the silent enemy
 lurking in the darkness.
 They are our protection,
 and our insurance that there will always be
 a future for all our children.
 We humans of Planet Earth,
 we are not dinosaurs.
 We have made the choice to fight back!
 We choose to defend our world
 against the slings and arrows
 that a hostile universe
 may hold in store.
 We will learn the skills- now,
 while we still have time.
 We choose to do this,
 not because it is easy-
 because it will not be easy.
 Not to prove that we are
 ready for the task-
 because we are manifestly not yet ready.
 But we undertake this great task
 for one simple reason.
 Because our children's lives
 depend on what we do today.
 There have been many names proposed for this-
 this army of intrepid individuals
 that choose to protect us
 against the dangers of the night.
 If I listened to the back rooms of countless
 science and space centers,
 we'd have to either call them Star Fleet-
 Yes, yes, I laughed too, but the people who proposed it were serious--
 Or we'd have to call them Thunderbirds...
 Yes, I know... Even my wife, Evelyn thought that was cute, too.
 Thankfully, since both terms are copyrighted,
 we were able to come up with an alternative
 that wouldn't have the lawyers drooling one day,
 God willing...
 Ladies and Gentleman of planet Earth,
 I give you our guardians of the future,
 the men and women of the UN's newest division:
 Project Earth-Shield!
 Please give them a round of applause...
 They leave us today to begin their mission-
 To protect us all,
 to preserve our posterity,
 and to secure the future for all our children.
 We salute them,
 each and every one.
 They are the true definition of "Heroes."
 We wish them safe voyage,
 and swift return to this,
 our mother planet.

 Thank you very much.

 People of Planet Earth,
 one day, you will learn of the sacrifices
 so many have made so that we may live
 in peace and security, and when that day comes
 each of these individuals should be
 in your thoughts and prayers...
 and may you all be blessed as well
 in all the days of your lives."


    "Why aren't you up there with the rest of the heroes?" Simon asked as he came up on Tom Weldon in the group of diplomatic and UN onlookers. "Weren't photogenic enough, Old Man?"
    "Simon!" Tom exclaimed, shaking Simon's hand. "Glad you could make it."
    "Hey! I'm here too," Stephanie said, as she stepped out of the crowd to give Tom a hug. .
    "Thank you," Tom said. "I'm so glad that you're here. Come on. I want you to meet Miranda."
    Simon and Stephanie exchanged meaningful glances as they trailed along in Tom's wake through the crowd. On Simon's part, this consisted mostly of eyebrow waggling in lecherous semaphore. Stephanie's answering grimace eloquently spoke volumes of pain, although with the underlying meaning that Simon was the source of this particular pain, in whatever unspecified region of her anatomy, from which she was currently suffering. Within a very few steps, Tom led Simon and Stephanie to a trio of women huddled together as if in a private conference. The tallest of the three glanced up, took in the rapidly approaching Tom Weldon, and the two Nightwatch operatives he had in tow. With a curt spoken cue from her, the other two women looked up at Tom, Simon, and Stephanie. All three women smiled broadly.
    "I told you they'd be here," Tom said without preamble.
    "Yes you did," said the tallest woman. "You must be Dr. Litchfield, and Stephanie Keel I already know. Been a while, Girl. How's your welding?"
    "Good to see you again, Miranda. You've been missed on the JW circuit."
    "Nice to meet you, Dr. Fanshaw," Simon said.
    "And this is Abby, and Samantha," Tom said. "Abby is going to be my pilot. Sam's a pilot too, although on another ship."
    "Boat," Samantha corrected over her shoulder at Tom, shaking her angelically long, light brown hair out of her eyes as she shook Simon's hand in greeting. "The little ones are called boats, Tom-Tom. Nice to meet you too, Stephanie...Tom has told us so much about you both. I feel like you're already old friends." She laughed again and touched knuckles with Stephanie as she spoke.
    "I stand corrected, " Tom joked. "And the day is yet young."
    "Hi ya cutie," said the shortest woman, adjusting her baseball cap to an even more rakish angle over her short, reddish-blond fly-away hair. Her twinkling greenish-hazel eyes peering out from underneath her spiked-cut bangs as she grinned disarmingly. "I'm Abby. Doctor Tom has told me absolutely nothing about you. What are you doing for lunch? Do you have any tattoos?" She grinned and waggled her eyebrows like Groucho Marx on LSD, making her baseball cap bob up and down on her forehead.
    "Abby," said Samantha in a mock-scolding tone. "Leave the man alone. You've only just met him."
    "Oh, I wasn't talking to the Khaki Dude, Baby Doll. He reminds me of the commander of those Cammo Dudes out at Area 51. No, I was talking to the oh-so-sweet young thing in the cargo pants disguise."  Abby laughed again. "Junkyard Wars, small world. Stephanie Keel, right? I saw your run against the Blue Orcas team in the amateur trials- oh, about two years ago. You got shafted, I thought," she added as she shook Stephanie's hand briefly. "The judges had it in for your team leader."
    "That's what we thought too," Stephanie breathlessly replied to the whirlwind with the fly-away hair.
    "We've got to catch a Quest seaplane in just under six hours," Tom said. "Our rocket has been ready for a month while we finished our training. And it's been loaded and waiting for us on a submarine out somewhere in the South Atlantic right this minute. Once we meet the sub and get to our launch co-ordinates, we're timed to go up in the same window as the UN show. Everything is being timed out to the minute to keep suspicions to a minimum."  Miranda quickly shook her head and placed a finger on Tom's lips.
    "I take it there's something Nightwatch hasn't been let in on," Simon spoke understandingly.  "God knows, too many people know too much already."
    "In any case," Tom said after lingering just a little too long on Miranda's finger, "they've stuck the most cramped Soyuz capsule three people ever tried to fit into- onto the tip of this antique ballistic missile. Well- seven year old Chinese ballistic missile. The damn thing looks like an antique. It's got rust on it," he laughed. "The Soyuz is thirty years older, and is in a hell of a lot better shape. If anything goes wrong with that booster..." he trailed off, shaking his head and grinning. "We'll be lucky to make orbit, and if we don't hit the rendezvous point quickly..."
    "Three very important people," Samantha added, "will make a very lonely and very cold splashdown somewhere around Zavodovski Island."
    "I'm not looking forward to being shoe-horned into a tin can," Tom said. "Especially one that's been shoe-horned inside of a submarine as well. Practicing in the dark, under water in a pool- having to go down to the bottom and swap my air tanks in the dark... That was bad enough."
    "Our job," said Abby, puffing out her chest like a bantam rooster, "is to do the real job, while everyone else comes along for the ride." Samantha laughed at Abby's display of ego. Tom grinned, his mind taken off of his claustrophobia as the mood lightened again.

    "Come on you people," Miranda said while looking at her wristwatch. "We've barely got time for a farewell dinner."
    "You heard the lady," Tom said.
    "Indeed, "Simon added. "This is supposed to be a party!"
    "Yeah," Samantha said while slapping high-fives with Abby. "Let's go party while we can. The jet to the sub is ten minutes from here. We need to hit Pixel-ease, or the Amour Drome, or someplace else really close."
    "How about Taylor's?" Stephanie asked. "That's really close, and we can get a booth."
    "The perfect place," Miranda said. "I should have thought of it myself."
    "Shall we proceed, Don Quixote?" Simon quipped.
    "Indeed Sancho," Tom replied. "Let us perambulate to yon establishment. There to quaff much Sangria and stuff our faces with mounds of deep-dish pizza. Methinks 'twill be long again before we taste such fare again, anon, alas... And tilting at windmills is such thirsty work, avaunt, aroit, avert-"
    "Ah- stuff it you two," Stephanie daintily reposted. "Let's get this party started! Come on Girls," she added, turning to Miranda, Samantha, and Abby. "These two comedians are gonna waste all our valuable party time. Are you with me?"
    "You go, Girl!" Abby shouted.
    "Yeah!" cried Samantha and Miranda in unison.
    "Tom?" Simon asked. "You ever get the feeling that you've been excluded from a group?"
    "Only when I'm around this crowd!"
    Simon laughed, but then a serious expression overcame him as he remembered his talk with General Graham.  "Tom," he said.  "I need to a have a word with you, before we leave the secure area."  Tom, a puzzled look on his face, nodded.
    He took Miranda's arm, spoke something quietly, and then walked back as the girls headed out of the room.
    The conversation was brief, but the words were some of the most heartfelt Simon had ever expressed.
    Hours later, the farewell party at Taylor's was just a fond memory in Tom's mind. And a full belly from the many pizzas they'd ordered- plus a swimming head from all the wine. Now, sitting strapped in to an acceleration couch in a Russian space  capsule, duct-taped onto a Chinese rocket, resting in the belly of an Australian nuclear submarine, itself parked just yards beneath the surface of the mid-Atlantic- Tom wrapped the memories of the silliness and frivolity of his farewell dinner with his friends around him like a protective cloak. The happy memories helped to shield him from his fear of cramped spaces. After the hours of the constant nagging of his nerves- stressed to their limits by the cramped interior of the sub -Tom's not-so-secret fears positively shrieked at the first sight of the tiny tin can he was supposed to ride up into orbit. The re-working by HIT and SE craftsmen giving the thing a new composite material skin and new, more powerful engines notwithstanding. It was a little tin box, and someone was going to have to hold a gun to his head before he'd get into it. Or something like that, anyway. For the last hour his mind had been occupied by the mental gymnastics of the relaxation and distraction techniques he'd so long ago learned were necessary to force his body to cope with his claustrophobic handicap. Strapped into seats next to him, Abby and Samantha went through checklists with calm, professional precession. That helped, too. The countdown clock ticked on... Then, with a brash bray of alarm sirens, the sub surfaced, a huge hatch retracted, and Tom felt the fattest man in the universe sit down in his lap as the launch quickly left him breathless.
    The long journey had begun.

    In countless places, both public and secret, the countdown reached zero at the sameEarthrise: Outbound,18 Hours after Launch moment. From floating platforms and inland spaceports the world over, a multitude of flames erupted, pushing their fragile human cargo upward into the darkness of space. From myriad more floating platforms and submarines, where News crews had somehow totally failed to be invited, uncounted more launches took place. For a short while, the skies of planet Earth were ablaze with the light of man-made torches against the darkness. Hundreds of launches, both known and hidden, sent the last of the three thousand heroes up into the vastness of space. Then the fabulous light show faded, the pillars of smoke blew away on the evening breezes, and the sun set on the greatest hopes of mankind.  Few on Earth had time to worry, however.  Around the world, panic and puzzlement ensued as radar systems mysteriously failed simultaneously, an event later attributed to a freak alignment of the planet's magnetic field and a large burst of solar activity.  Yet, miraculously, no aviation accidents occurred.
    Within days, the motley assembly of rockets docked with the UN fleet. Soon after, the fleet was in motion. The next day, the great fleet of passenger craft meet up with the Tesla beam ships of the weapons fleet at the secret spaceyard behind the moon. After hours of small ships docking and large ships matching speeds, the great Earth-Shield fleet finally began it's voyage outward- into the eternal twilight of interplanetary space..

Year Two, May:
The Events of:
Jigsaw Creek

Year Two, May:
They Only Come Out At Night
[The Right Stuff]

12:02 AM, May 25th

    "I know what we need." Sam's voice was pure honey.
    "What?" Abby was lounging on the bunk, flipping boredly through newsgroup articles on her PDA.
    "We need to play some games."
    "I like the sound of that already."
    "I've got my toy box right over here," Samantha said as she crossed the tiny room to rummage in a drawer.
    "I like that even better."
    "It's time I beat your-"
    "Yes?" Abby replied breathlessly.
    "Record on Space Fighter Delta. Ah! There's the disc."
    "Somehow, I thought you had loftier pursuits in mind."
    "Later. Play now- play later."
    "Deal." Abby grinned.
    "Now call Tom-Tom and see if he wants to meet us at the training sim we usually use."
    "It's late," Abby yawningly said as she stood and stretched.
    "He'll be up." Sam's voice left no room for doubt. Somehow, she knew that Tom wouldn't be sleeping.
    "What makes you think that?"
    "He's worried about her."


    "Admiral, you have got to see this..."
    "What is it, Stenson?"
    "You asked to be notified of anyone hacking the training sims for games?"
    "Yes man, get on with it."
    "The pilots from Sister Ray and Sweet Jane- Schlesinger and Everet, sir. And that shrink from Nightwatch. They're  running a space combat sim that isn't in our inventory of programs. And the pilot is one bad mother! Sir!"
    "Who's the pilot? Schlesinger? She has a reputation as a hot-shot."
    "No sir, it's Everet."
    "Everet? The poor little rich girl?"
    "She's not like that sir. That's just tabloid gossip. I've seen her records. She's was a good officer, decorated combat pilot, never played on her family's money or connections. Never been a discipline problem."
    "Three times, sir. Twice for bomber escort missions, and once for saving a village and temple from a ground assault team- and their air support."
    "Impressive. Now about this game..."
    "Which one is it?"
    "Uh, Space Fighter Delta. Version 7, I think."
    "My grandson plays that one. Devilishly hard. Let's see it."
    "Yes sir..."
    "Good Lord! Level sixteen? Jackson only got up to level  nine, and he has a book of cheat codes."
    "Your grandson, sir? Is that good?"
    "Yes, Stenson. He showed me the package last Christmas, after he opened his gifts. Well, the last Christmas that I was home... I was worried it might be too violent for a five year old. The box said that the game was written with the advice of veteran combat pilots. Named a couple of Mid-East vets I recognized. Ace pilots, every one of them. Jackson was beating their scores by the second day. I watched him play- oh, lots of times. The game is damned hard. If Everet's this good, then she could teach our best a few tricks."
    "Should I send a couple of MPs to shut 'em down, sir?"
    "No Stenson," the Admiral answered after a long moment's thought. "Make the punishment fit the crime, my granddaddy Enoch always told me. Pipe this display to a viewer in each of the mess halls, fleet-wide. They want to show off, I'm going to make sure they show off to everyone. If they screw up, they'll never live it down. If they don't screw up, they might just give fleet morale a boost. Lord knows we need a shot in the arm after those explosive decompressions last week. Has Marduk's Captain reported on the exact body count, yet?"
    "Seventeen still missing, sir. Four bodies accounted for."
    "It was bound to happen,  Stenson. Sooner or later. There wasn't enough time to build all these junk-heaps to be safe. The Yorimasa got all the effort. The UN wanted one perfect ship to put the reporters on. Damned snow-job... The only reason we can keep the spin sections on the George running for six hours out of every eight is because I wanted my flagship to be vermin-free. Even that's a stretch, some days. George got second best, at the best. Marduk is a disaster waiting to happen-- again."
    "Sir, calling the reporters vermin is only going to lead to trouble. With all due respects, sir-"
    "Relax. Stenson. As long as they don't have my Bridge bugged, I think you and I can still manage a little privacy."
    "Sir, according to my best estimates, based on our most accurate reports, we really can pull this off."
    "My psychic sense tells me that there's a 'but' or an 'except' lurking in your verbal fan-dancing. You've been my Exec for over thirty years, Stenson. There's something you don't want to say. Well, spit it out man!"
    "Admiral, according to the best estimates I can make... We- we stand to lose between twenty and a hundred 'n' forty more people before this damned mission is over. I'm sorry Charles. I can only call them as I see them. There's only so many numbers to add up. They always come out the same. Every time I do the math. We can save the world. But more of us out here are going to die..."
    "I know, Jeff. I know. But all we can do is keep going. Now, this game..."
    "I assume that you've been recording it from the moment you got the silent alarm."
    "Bet on it, Admiral."
    "Good. I want a loop of their whole run on the game- playing on at least one screen in every mess hall in the fleet. If they're half as good as you say, they could wind up boosting morale back up to safe limits again."
    "Can do, Admiral. Oh! This ought to help."
    "They can pick their own soundtrack for the game. I just thought to access that. Seems they picked the Alice Cooper's Greatest Hits soundtrack."
    "Wicked, as Jackson would say."
    "Alice Cooper- I got to see his annual Halloween charity show in Vegas several years ago. The man may be my age, but he can still rock. 'No more Mr. nice-guy...' Yes, that ought to do very nicely. Make sure the sound comes through, Stenson. I want people cheering in the aisles. Wake up one of the Com techs if you need a hand."
    "I can manage, sir."
    "Good man. Go ahead and put it on one of the big screens here. And crank it up."
    "You have got to learn how to relax, Jeff. You can't go through your whole life as tight as a bow-string. You're going to worry yourself into a stroke. Get the display set up and take a break, for heaven's sake! That's an order, Mister."
    "Yes- Sir. Um- on main screen now. Setting repeaters... Done."
    "Good... Wow! Jeff?"
    "You got any more bottles of that Irish Mist that you officially don't have stashed in your quarters?"
    "Um, I think I can dig up a non-existent fifth or so, Charles. Off the record."
    "We're keeping a record? First I ever heard of it. Erase the damn thing."
    "Very good, sir. I'll signal my orderly."


    "Where did you learn to hack a computer?" Tom asked Samantha as she typed furiously into the master console of the flight sim's computer systems.
    "You don't grow up the youngest kid of the fifteenth richest family in the world without getting a good education, Tom-Tom."
    "Um-" Tom was suddenly at a loss for words.
    "Sam!" Abby snapped. "You never told him before now, did you?"
    "Told me what?" Tom said lamely. "Sam's family has got money?"
    "Sam..." Abby bristled.
    "Guilty," Sam admitted as she hacked the final commands in order to get their custom game disc to load into the flight sim's computer. "Though I don't give a damn about the family business. That's my oldest brother's arena. I could care less."
    "Everet... The canned goods empire?" Tom asked. "I should have guessed."
    "Fourth largest canned soup company in the world." Sam said proudly. "We used to be third, but Progresso moved up two slots in the last decade. Big deal. Money isn't important to me."
    "Any particular reason why you didn't think it was important to clue me in?" Tom's voice sounded reasonable.
    "Just that I don't feel like anything other than earning my own way is worth a shit. I've got no reason to brag. Everything I've done has been on my own merit. That damn family fortune has been trying to keep me from being me all my life. Screw it. My sister and brothers are welcome to it. Ahhhh! We're in!" The computer beeped and clicked at Sam's last few commands, and a drawer opened up for her to insert her game disk.
    "You go, girlfriend!" Abby giggled. "Now it's time to put up or shut up. Gonna beat my record score? In your dreams, long-shanks."
    "Watch me, heifer." Sam giggled back. "You're going down, lover. Payday is a bitch- and I'm writing the checks today..."
    "Ladies," Tom said grinning from ear to ear as the game's opening graphics began to play. "Less flirting and bragging, more playing."
    "Slave-driver," Sam muttered under her breath as she selected game options with blinding speed. Within moments, the options screens of the game had been cycled through and the game proper began to play out. Within seconds, Tom was caught up in managing the engines, shields, and weapons power of Sam's game fighter. With only a few whispered hints from Abby, Tom began to feel more and more confident by the moment. In less than half an hour, they unknowingly began to attract attention around the view screens of the fleet's mess halls. Before forty-five minutes had elapsed, some Olympic-sized betting was being placed on the outcome of the game. After the first hour, 90% of the fleet was awake and cheering along at Sam's game exploits- now showing on screens all over the carrier fleet as different groups tuned their nearby monitors to the channel. Once again, the Speed of Gossip proved to be far faster than the mere Speed of Light, as the news of the game's broadcast was spread. She'd long ago passed into legend, as far as the fleet was concerned. In the minds of the gamers among the crew, Samantha was rapidly approaching godhood. Or at the least, sainthood.

    "Shields to sixty seven percent, Sam," Tom said calmly as the game's second hour neared it's end. The lilting strains of the intro to Alice Cooper's Hey Stupid beginning to pound out through the speakers in the sim booth- smoothly replacing the melodic chords of his song Guilty. Somehow, just as effortlessly, Sam shifted her firing patterns and her evasive feints to match the rhythms of the new song. "Ion beams at forty percent and recharging. Proton torpedoes at twelve percent, plasma bolts at eighty percent..." Tom added.
    "Engine recharge-" Abby whispered in Tom's right ear. Tom punched several buttons on his keyboard at Abby's prompting.
    "Shift-F12," Abby hinted.
    "Ah- Engines at fifty percent and on full re-charge," Tom said, only seconds later.
    "Damn," Abby whispered. "She's not gonna make it. The alien strato-fortress is coming up next and she doesn't have enough weapon power. She's not gonna make it into level twenty one."
    "Does she need engine power to bull through this?" Tom quietly asked, almost totally immersed in the game reality.
    "No, speed ain't what she needs," Abby replied, still whispering. "Hell, she doesn't even need her rear shields until after she kills the fortress."
    "Sam," Tom exclaimed. "Reducing engine power to ten percent. All weapons on full recharge, plus transferring rear shield power to all weapons systems.
Shift-F12... Shift-F7, Shift-F9... Ion beams at eighty five percent, plasma bolts at ninety percent, proton torpedoes at seventy five percent... Shields at twenty five percent and charging..."
    "I want shields on double-front- once the weapons charge," Sam said absently, totally into the game. "Rear shields at thirty percent, but not 'til we can spare the juice. We're gonna kick this mother's ass, but we're gonna need some-"
    "Here it comes!" Abby shouted. "Stomp that bugger, Baby!"
    "Eat hot plasma, invaders!" Sam shouted as she began her run against the game's alien fortress.
    The fleet cheered along with her as she dodged and fired. In the mess halls, hats were thrown in the air, and more than one table was almost overturned as Samantha's newfound fans leapt to their feet to shout their approval of each dodge and blast. As the point counter climbed on and on, nearly three thousand people cheered for Sam, unto the very ears of the gods.
    On the bridge, alone and totally against regulations, Admiral Herndon sipped Irish Mist with his Exec, and toasted the resurgence of morale in the fleet..


Year Two, May:
Red Sky At Morning
[Cities on Flame With Rock & Roll]

12:15 AM, May 28th

    For once, Simon had barged into Ian Callow's office in the Nightwatch complex, un-asked, un-expected, and entirely un-welcome.
    "Good morning, Doctor Litchfield," Callow said with a mocking grin as Simon's angry shove sent the office door crashing into the nearby wall. "So nice to see you again. Won't you come in? Coffee? Brandy? Tranquilizers? No? That will be all, Caroline. Feel free to go on break until Dr. Litchfield leaves." Callow's secretary nearly levitated from the chair she had been sitting in, fearfully watching Simon's furious entrance, her eyes getting wider and wider. She dashed from the room at Callow's dismissal, throwing Simon a terrified look, one that only little old ladies like her can seem to pull off, as she pulled the door shut behind her.
    "Cut the crap, Callow. You knew what CE International was doing before you sent Stephanie and I into the lion's den. What the hell has gotten into you, man? You knew what they were doing. I can't prove it, but I know you knew... Are you trying to get us all killed?"
    "Litchfield, I assure you that I knew no more than you did when you left the Institute. Your report was the first believable one I got in the whole crises. And I'll thank you for not terrorizing my secretary, from now on."
    "If I didn't already know what it would cost Stephanie and Tom-"
    "Hold that thought, Litchfield. Remember that you do know. And remember that whatever precautions that I've taken, they can only have gotten stronger in the past months."
    "You'll play that card once too often Callow, if you're not damned careful. I already know about that trap. What makes you think I haven't been spending good time to render it toothless?"
    "Why Dr. Litchfield, is that the first glimmerings of real pragmatism and forethought that I see attempting to illuminate your dim visage?"
    "You infantile little-"
    "Careful, Simon. You have to watch your blood pressure, at your age," Callow mocked Simon's indignation. "And for your information, I briefed you on everything that I knew about CEI and their operation. I didn't know a damn thing that you didn't when you left the Institute. You went, you saw for yourself, you conquered. What more do you want? Egg in your beer? You did a good job- even hampered by insufficient information. There, I even managed to offer you praise. Doesn't that tickle your over-inflated ego?"
    "Damn you, Callow. My bloody ego isn't the damn point! I'm warning you, if your games get Stephanie or Tom killed on one of your little missions, I will personally make sure that you pay for it. And I have ceased to care about the consequences to myself. If you are responsible for their deaths, then I promise you that you'll regret it!"
    Simon stormed out, slamming the door behind himself.
    "I wonder what brought that on? Keel getting herself shot? He let that build up for a week?" Ian Callow muttered to himself as he slumped back in his chair, and the false, confident grin slipped away from his face like rapidly melting wax.

Year Two, June:
Still... You Turn Me On
[Radar Love]

5:25 PM, June 12th

   "Tom-Tom, is that your girlfriend?"
    "Yes Samantha, that's Miranda. Dr. Fanshaw."
    "She looks just like-"
    "They're cousins. Distant cousins."
    "Yeah, her cousin's got bigger hooters. Not that Miranda ain't half got some nice ones, herself. Not very big strings on that string bikini, there. Hell, the tags have got more material in 'em than the suit does. Not that she needs covering up, I say. I always knew Doctor Miranda was built, but she's popping out all over, here.Yum..."Miri
    "Abby! Stop drooling over Tom-Tom's photos. I swear, you'd jump anything in a dress."
    "You complaining, Sam? What say we get you one of those swimsuits? I'll show you how fast I can jump."
    "Not to interrupt the entertainment, but why don't you two go get a room somewhere? I'd like to finish this message to Miranda- without distractions."
    "Samantha, he called us distractions."
    "Abigail, you are a distraction. You have the manners of a truck driver-"
    "I am a truck driver-"
    "Don't interrupt-"
    "Yes dear-"
    "Now get your hand off my butt and let's go get some dinner. I'm starving, and Tom-Tom wants to write a love letter. Let's give him some time alone."
    "Can it, Abby. I know you're bored. We all are. Everybody is. We can bother Tom-Tom later. Give the man a break. He's in love and his sweet-thing's a long, long way from here. Let's go eat something and give him time to write to his sweetie. We can come back after dinner and Tom-Tom can play Doctor with you. And I'll hand out warm towels afterward..."
    "Sorry Tom-Tom, but I'm bored too. You won't blame a girl for daydreaming up a few harmless amusements, will you?"
    "You two are the most exasperating women that I've never had- Er... ever known."
    "Oh-ho! Guess who needs a conjugal visit? Or are you still getting the heebie-jeebies from being inside all these cramped spaces?"
    "Abby! You are the rudest, crudest, meanest-"
    "Sam, Tom knows I'm only joking. Out here, we're almost equals... I'm fighting off my panic attacks and Tom's fighting off his claustrophobia. We need to joke about it, just to blow off steam! Sheesh!You are getting cranky."
    "Take her off, feed her, soak her in a Hot Tub, and give her a back rub. Then give her desert. That's what I prescribe. Trust me, I'm a doctor, I know what I'm doing. Now go! Lemme alone so I can write this letter!"
    "OK, we're gone! Bye!"
    "Good evening..."
    "What are you going to do, e-mail her and ask permission?" Tom thought he heard as the two women walked off down the hallway towards the commissary and their voices gradually faded.
    "Watch me, babe," Sam said playfully. "You just don't know... Damn. My arms are sore from yanking that boat around all day."
    “And that’s all you’ve been yanking, right?” Abby joked back.  "Seriously, sounds like you need to have the hydraulics in the steering yoke checked out. That stuff ain't all fly-by-wire, you know. Maybe you've got a leak. Or maybe the mechanics haven't topped off the fluid tank."
    "I'll get it checked into, Abby."
    "You do that, Sam. Can't be too careful out here. Better to get all the bugs worked out while we're still doing simulations. Once we reach the comet it'll be too late to yell for repairs. Might be the pump, too... Damn, your butt looks fine in those coveralls."
    "Abby, sometimes you make me feel like a Chinese take-out dinner tray."
    "Oh? How so, Samantha-mine?
    Samantha grinned and shook her head.  "You're horny again- You heifer! You are positively worse than any man!"
    "I'll work on it, Babe. I'll work on it."  The two of them started around a corner.
    "You ever noticed how air at this pressure feels squishy?" Samantha asked as she smacked her lips.  Abby looked at her hard, and Sam reached over and pushed her into the wall.  "I heard you think that, you letch!"
    They turned the corner
, and their voices faded into silence. Tom looked around at the light blue walls of his stateroom, glanced at the big Miles Davis poster and the few photos of Miranda that he'd thumbtacked to the walls, and then sighed as if in relief at the peace and quiet that he knew in his heart to be only temporary. After cuing up some quiet jazz music on the room's sound system, he sighed again and finally began his letter.


       June 12
      17:50 GMT
    UNSS Saint George
    Cthulu Expedition

      I got your latest letter yesterday morning. Your care packages
were greatly appreciated. By me, and by whatever telecom jock
copied your photos and started selling printouts on the fleet's
black market. (Laughs) Now you know how your cousin feels when
some photos of her appear online. You've become very popular.
(Laughs) I've even heard a rumor that Admiral Herndon finagled
himself a set of your pics.
      Abby and Samantha have begun mothering me. I detect your
slender fingers in that little manipulation, my dear. Really, you
shouldn't have. I'm a big boy now, Momma. I actually can take
care of myself.  And I *am* keeping current on my suit drills! Abby
throws them at me 3 or 4 times a day, some days. Speaking of
Abby, she's showing marvelous progress in keeping her panic
attacks down to a minimum. I think that having Samantha here as
a fellow pilot has helped quite a lot. Those two seem made for
each other. But back to my training.  My schedule is quite full of
various other training sessions with all the other equipment that
I'm going to be using when we reach the comet. I thought our
little ship would feel very confining after the voyage out in the
carriers--which are still more confining than you'd think--but I was
wrong. The cabin has this humongous dome-shaped wind shied-
like a soap bubble made out of diamond. Our control positions are
spread out like spokes on a wheel, and our heads all point
towards the center. Looks weird, but it gives us lots of room in
such a small area. The trawler is, if not comfortable, at least
bearable. And the work helps keep me focused.
    The food on the carriers is pretty palatable, although the galley
of the trawler is more like a vending machine. We tend to only
snack while in the trawler, and eat in the Mess Hall when the
training session is over. We've even begun EVA training outside
the trawler, on training flights close to the carrier fleet. The first
time, I thought we'd get left behind, but it turns out that I'd
forgotten that we share the fleet's momentum. Needless to say, I
got ribbed about that one for a while. (Grins)
      It is beautiful out here. The stars are sharp and clean- and they
have colors! But no beauty visible in outer space can compare to
the sight of you. You know? Its almost a cosmic joke, but I'm going
to have to feel grateful to Ian Callow for roping me into this little
    Without him, I might never have met you. Falling in love with
 you has been the biggest adventure of my life. And I owe it all to
the manipulative SOB that hates my guts. (Laughs!)
     God is, indeed, an Iron. (And thank you for turning me on to
that Spider Robinson book!)
     As always, I am missing you greatly. The days pass slowly out
here. If it weren't for the work we would all be on edge from cabin
fever. Attach an audio file to your next message, please. I miss the
sound of your voice, too. Not just the sight of you. Too bad that
e-mail can't manage scents as well as sights and sounds. I miss
your perfume most of all.
      Well, I better log off if I want to make the evening beamcast
home with this letter.
             Forever Yours,


    "Tom-Tom," came Samantha's voice from the doorway. "We brought you a tray from the mess hall. I hope you like roast beef, potatoes, and gravy..."
    "Sam, thank you. But you shouldn't have. I could go to the mess hall-"
    "Shush Doc," Abigail said. "I promised Dr. Fanshaw that I'd make sure you ate right. Did you get your little love letter finished and sent off?"
    "Yes, I got my message off to Miranda. I was in time for the evening beamcast to Earth. And
Abby, you three are ganging up on me. That isn't fair."
    "That's right, Doc. Sit back and enjoy the ride."
    Tom sniffed at the scent wafting from underneath the tray's cover, and his eyes suddenly widened. "Do I smell Brussels Sprouts? In wine vinegar?"
    "Well, several steamed vegetables actually. But yes, Miri said you loved Brussels Sprouts in a vinegarette dressing, so we looked for them especially."
    "Ladies," Tom said as he rubbed at his eyes, "I don't know how I'd get by out here without your mothering."
    "Hey! No call to talk dirty, Doc!" Abby giggled. "We're just doing you up right for a friend. That's all."
    "Sure thing, Abby. Thank you for the food. You too, Sam. I'm sure you both argued over every spoonful," Tom laughed. "So she wants me back twenty pounds overweight... I think that's a good sign."
    Abby nudged Samantha in the ribs, and they winked at each other conspiratorially as Tom opened the various covers on the meal tray and began to dig in.

Year Two, June:
The Events of:
The Peacekeeper

Year Two, June:
Another Day, Another Ray Of Hope
[Spirit of the Age]

11:25 AM, June 20th

    "I'm glad to see that you're less irate than your last visit, Litchfield," Ian Callow said smoothly as Simon was ushered into Callow's office by a seemingly petrified Caroline Summerset, Callow's long-suffering secretary. Simon essayed a smile at her, but she bolted from the room as if she'd been confronted with Jack the Ripper- knife in hand.
    "You sent for me?" Simon's voice could put a extra layer of frost on an iceberg.
    "Yes, please sit," Callow requested in a reasonable tone. "This could take some time."
    "If this is about this last mission," Simon began as he slid into the proffered chair. "Stephanie and I have finally got a good handle on it. If events pan out, we should have everything wrapped up within a week- week and a half, at the most."
    "I've been reading the updates," Callow replied smoothly. "I know where you are. For what it's worth, I'm impressed."
    Simon stonily gazed at Callow in much the same manner a scientist would look through a microscope at some disease virus. Moments later, he spoke quietly, but without a trace of friendliness. "This isn't about our current mission," Simon said- speculating, but without a doubt in the world.
    "You're growing more perceptive as you age, Doctor. No, this isn't about your current mission." Callow sighed deeply, pinched the bridge of his nose, and continued on in a tired voice. "Nineteen and a half hours ago... I got a report from the expedition. One of the carrier ships had another blowout yesterday. Explosive decompression. Nine more deaths."
    "Tom?" Simon said painfully.
    "I don't know," Callow answered. "The report I got had most of the details security blacked, and was very brief as well. I asked for the pertinent details as soon as I read the report, but there's a minimum of a twelve hour turn-around time on news to and from the fleet. In this case... Six hours to me with the original news, six back with my questions, and six more hours to wait out the reply from the fleet again. I expect further details at any moment. I knew that you'd want to be here when the message came. So I sent for you at the earliest time the reply could come back. If you can keep from trashing my office, I think I could even get my secretary to bring us a pot of coffee while we wait."
    "I do need to apologize to her. I've felt like a heel for frightening her."
    "As well you should," Callow said firmly. "I can excuse your shouting at myself, and even a bit of breakage about the office. I don't give a tinker's damn what you think about me, or how you feel. But if you wind up costing me the best secretary I've been able to find in thirty-plus years of Washington politics-"
    "Yes?" Simon asked cautiously.
    "I will, personally, neuter you with a dull knife, without benefit of anesthetics. Do you understand?" Callow's voice was cold, calm, and somehow lacking in his usual sarcasm.
    "Ian," Simon almost grinned. "Be careful. A stranger would think that you actually cared about Ms. Summerset's welfare and mental health. Is it because of her age? Reminds you of someone, perhaps?"
    "I care about the fact that she is the best secretary on the East coast," Callow quietly hissed through clenched teeth- as if he were in pain. "I'm asking you- politely -to keep any vendetta that you may, justifiably or not, have with me- out of earshot of my secretary!"
    Simon sat back and blinked at least three times while his mind attempted to fit this new data into what he already knew about Callow. Or thought he knew. Within five seconds, his attention was fully occupied by Callow and looking for signs that he'd been replaced by a pod-person. It took all of Simon's willpower not to blurt out "who are you, what have you done with Ian Callow, and how can I make sure you never bring him back?"
    "You really care what she thinks?" Simon finally asked.
    "I care that it would take me years to find anyone else as good at her job as she is. She's good at what she does..."
    "Stop right there, Callow. If you've picked today to become a human being, I want out before I gag."
    "Shut up, Litchfield," Callow said tiredly. "I told you why I wanted you here. Your friend may be dead. I wanted you to hear the news as soon as I did. Perverse as it seems, I owe you that."
    "I'm stunned, Callow. Why should you feel you owe me that? Why should you owe me anything?"
    Any answer Callow might have wanted to make was interrupted by a buzz from his desk intercom.
    "Yes?" Callow answered.
    "Mr Callow, there is a messenger here to see you."
    "Send them in."
    "Yes, sir." There was a loud click as Ms. Summerset shut off her end of the intercom. Seconds later, there was a quiet double-tap at the door. The messenger entered without waiting to be asked, strode militarily up to Callow's desk, shoved a clipboard under his nose, and demanded "signature..."
    As soon as Callow signed the form, the messenger handed over a manila envelope, spun on his heels, and left the room as if anything inside it was already a fading memory. Callow wasted no time, slitting the envelope open with an ivory-hilted switchblade knife that he habitually kept in a desk drawer. Wordlessly, he shook the papers out of the envelope and scanned the first few pages intently. Within seconds, he sighed as if in relief, and passed the papers to Simon. "He's alright," Callow said.
    Simon quickly read the report, skimming over the blacked-over text that security had decreed.
    "One of the docking areas," he summarized aloud, "near the outside of the carrier Marduk suffered explosive decompression- the entire maintenance crew for one tug was killed. It says here that 'slight' damage caused by a bad docking by the tug pilot the day before 'might' have weakened the hatch seals on that chamber. Nine dead. This is the second explosive decompression on the Marduk. And that this makes thirty two deaths for the expedition so far. Tom never mentioned any deaths in his letters."
    "Two from the carrier Yorimasa, and four from the Saint George- from accidents on spacewalks, and the rest on the Marduk from the two blowouts. Weldon is on the George. The first report of this new accident didn't name the ships or any other details. I had to assume the worst," Callow said. "I'm sorry I got you excited. At least now you know that he's all right."
    "Yes, Litchfield?
    "I'm not buying it. You're up to something."
    "Am I?"
    "I'm certain of it," Simon replied.
    "You're wrong," Callow replied evenly. "Please offer your apologies to Ms. Summerset on your way out."
    "I'm dismissed?" Simon asked, beginning to get angry again.
    "You have work to do," Callow said flatly. "I know I don't have to remind you."
    "Save it. You have your good news. Go tell Stephanie."
    "No. Just go. Now."
    Without another word, Simon rose from his chair and left Callow's inner office. He took nearly fifteen minutes to apologize to Ms. Summerset for his rabid actions the last time he had visited Callow's office. Finally, his conscience sporting a brand new band-aid, he left to carry the mixed news to Stephanie Keel. Tom was alive, but people he had been working with had died. Suddenly, tragically, senselessly. But the work went on, as it had to keep going on. The sky must not be allowed to fall.

Year Two, August:
Rendezvous With Cthulu

9:25 AM, August 11th

    The next few weeks passed by in a blur of mind-numbing drills and endless work.

    "All Hands, prepare for scheduled deceleration. Repeat, all hands are to prepare for the scheduled deceleration for Cthulu Rendezvous..." the message blared out of the PA speakers on every ship in the fleet.
    "Is Sister Ray locked down?" Tom asked- thinking of the stubby, four-winged arrowhead that he'd come to know intimately from his training.
    "I inspected her twice- yesterday and today," Abby replied after a moment's pause as they jogged down the corridors of the Saint George. "Capt'n Darlene by my side the whole time. Everything is tied down and secured. For any stress short of getting hit by a stray asteroid, anyway. Relax, Doctor Tom. Nobody's gonna fuck up. We've been practicing too damn hard for that. The whole damn fleet's been doing drills for the last motherfuckin' month. Working my fat ass to the bone, I tell ya..."
    "Baby, please don't cuss."
    "Sam, I grew up on a fishing boat. With real, live sailors, you know?"  Abby rubbed her nose with the back of her hand.  "All that time in the Air Force didn't help me towards sainthood any, either. And now I drive trucks... Well, before we left, anyways."
Comet Cthulu -- Early Expedition Sighting
    "Abby- Baby... I'm just saying you've been cussing a lot more since this trip started. I wish you'd go back to being you."
    "Sorry," Abby said as the vibrations in the ship increased.  "I'll try to keep a lid on it, for you."

    "How do you feel Abby?" Tom asked as he scanned the welds in the passageway module.  "We're going to have to take our ship out on a mapping mission tomorrow. Sam and I are going to be depending on you."
    "I know, Doc. My guts feel like month-old spaghetti-"

    "Ooo, very poetic," Sam whispered.  The three of them had to hold on to the walls as the Saint George shuttered. 
    "Pipe down, Sam."
    "Yes, Tom-Tom."  Sam looked around with barely disguised concern.  "This old girl...young girl...doesn't like these maneuvers, does she."  Tom looked at Abby with a mixture of professionalism and compassion.
    "It's all right to be scared, Abby. But you know that you can do this."
    "Damn straight, Doc," Abby said with as much conviction as she could muster.  "I can do it. I was born to fly, and this will be the best friggin' flyin' that there's ever been!"

    "I'm looking forward to it myself," Samantha said. "I'll be flying Captain Best's Sweet Jane in a different formation, but I'll be able to see your ship. And we'll all be on the Com. Tom-Tom will be right behind you, and Captain Simmons knows he's your doctor."
    "Yes," Tom added. "Darlene's damn glad to have you as pilot, Abby. And for what its worth, I trust you."
    "Coming from you Doc," Abby said. "I'll take that as a compliment."
    "Come on you two," Samantha said. "We've only got a few minutes to get to our stations and strap in."


    The Flight Crew's acceleration stations on each carrier consisted of a long chamber near the outer rim of the ship's rotating section- where that section was spun on the ship's long axis in order to imitate gravity for the crew . There were six of these chambers, placed equally distant about the rim of the huge drum that was each carrier ship's Spin Section. It was the same as on both of the other carrier ships -a long room with rows of gimbaled cots lining the two longest walls. Hundreds of flight teams were either already strapped in, or getting into their assigned cots- all over the fleet. Getting into the acceleration couches on the flight team deck was just about like getting into a tiny sports car. One pretty much has to squat next to the thing, put one's butt in the seat, pull one's knees up to one's chin, and swivel sideways on one's butt cheeks to assume the right position to stretch back out and strap in against the inertial forces. That was the way they were taught, and that was the way they did it as the three ran up to their assigned stations at the last possible moment.
    "All ships, all ships-" once again came Admiral Herndon's voice over the PA. "DeceleratComet Cthulu: Co-Orbit Insertionion for Cthulu Rendezvous in progress. All crew spin sections will reduce speed to one sixteenth gravity.  All sections stand by for inertial effects.  Fire retros on schedule. Repeat, all ships fire retros on schedule."
    "It's a little late to think of this now," Tom said as he braced himself, "but did we pack up everything in this section? 
    "Earth-Shield Fleet is go for orbital matching. Final deceleration thrust in five, four, three, two, one, fire retros!"
No sooner than had Tom, Abby, and Samantha gotten themselves strapped tightly into their assigned cots- did the alarm go off and the big ship's first lurch of deceleration came.  Almost immediately, bits of accumulated refuse slammed from one side of the room to another, making a sound like popcorn on the bulkhead. The Saint George was slowing his charge, preparing to meet the great dragon, Cthulu.
    The Marduk, and the Yorimasa were slowing as well, as the whole fleet swung into a carefully plotted set of co-orbits with the Cthulu Object. Trailing close behind, the six great weapons also decelerated into their intended individual orbits near the comet. The Excalibur, Orcrist, Kusanagi, Mjölnir, Sakti, and the Wardenclife floated into position moments later. A celestial ballet of immense, barely practiced complexity had just been flawlessly performed by nine highly skilled pilots, and more than one pilot marveled at the miracle of it all.
    The easy part was over.  The real work was just beginning.


       August 15
      14:32 GMT
    UNSS Saint George
    Cthulu Expedition

      It was such a a treat to get another message from you so soon.
    You must have sent them nearly back to back. Yes, I am still
    taking my vitamins *and* the anti-nausea pills to combat Freefall
    Head-Spins. And the hours in the gym are helping too. They have a
    low-gee area nearer the ship's core that we can use to become
    more accustomed to micro-gee-- and even 0-gee if we get daring.
    I haven't had to use a sick-bag yet. Even though the low-gees we
    went to at orbital insertion were a little like being sea-sick. I
    managed to get through it. But Mike Addison, a nearby bunkmate,
    got ill enough to have to transfer to the Med Bay for 48 hours.  We
    all sent him
cards. And his Navigator, Violet Caraminor, paid him
    a "therapeutic"
late-night visit that was caught on the Med Bay
    security cams.
The footage is more than a little hot. Your cousin
    would be able to
learn some useful pointers from Ms. Violet, LOL!
     And I thought life out here
would be dull. LOL!
     Distractions like that are making it easier to cope with my
    claustrophobia. And the feeling of good fellowship among all the
    crew on the George helps, too. Abby's been counseling me as much
    as I have been her. That's been a learning experience in itself. (grin)
     We will be starting the big operation soon. Cutting Cthulu down to
    size. Making several manageable chunks out of this massive mountain.
    Even from 8 miles out, the comet looks huge in the screens. Still
    the freakin' rock asked for it! LOL!
     Despite the lighter side of all this, you are still too damn far away
    from my arms for me to be truly happy. As one poet I've found says:

    "Time is a dull ache
    That grinds away at each day
    Until, like polished diamonds,
    A sparkling gem of memory remains,
    Perfect, and untouchable
    By entropy's dimming embrace..."

     OK, got to go. Sam and Abby want to go run some sessions on the
    flight sims. They send hugs and kisses.  Hope everything is well
    on Earth.

          Forever yours,


                               August 18th
    Staff Writer: Llandra Sheiar

    New York Daily Bugler

    In a report issued by The UN Security Council, released today,
    the rumors that the current Emergency Training Exercise was a
    cover-up for a real disaster in the making were effectively
    dispelled. UN representative Abdul Alhazred (Libertarian, Egypt)
    stated for the record that all speculations concerning Cthulu
    being a real threat to Earth were baseless paranoia. "The stars
    are not yet right," he said, "for any sort of apocalypse. There
    is nothing to fear but the ignorance of the dark that we all
    share. This training exercise is designed to learn how to prevent
    just such a natural disaster. Given the nature of the universe,
    it is only a matter of time before such an emergency becomes real.
    It is best that we train now, while there is no danger to Earth,
    so that we can safeguard future generations."
     Official reports added that the chances against Earth being hit
    by an asteroid or comet large enough to end civilization as we
    know it were on the order of one impact every sixty million years.
    When questioned about the Dinosaur-killer impact of sixty five
    million years ago, Representative Alhazred declined to comment. "I
    am not a scientist," he said. "I only know what they tell me..."

Year Two, August:
Absent Friends
[Just Another Movie]

6:42 AM, August 29th

    As Simon paused to buy a morning paper at a news stand he'd passed on an earlier walk that week, a small-town paper in the same rack boasted a headline that caught his attention. As soon as he had scanned down the first section, he stopped reading as if he'd been hit by a brick.
    "Damn," he said. "It's just as Callow predicted."
    "Oh, sorry,” Simon said quickly as he reached for his wallet.  “Got distracted. These two, please."
    "Sure thing. That'll be two seventy eight."
    "Thank you. Keep the change."
    "From a fiver? Thanks, Pal. Have a good one."
    Simon nodded politely, but absent-mindedly, and left with his two newspapers. Later on at home, he read the article in the small-town paper several times through.

 Belleview Herald
 -August 28th-

Belleview, W. Virginia
Child Saved From Fire
Hero Gives Life To Save Little Girl
Contributing Writer: Zeb Carter

  The fierce flames of August 27th that threatened the lives
and home of a local family did not hold back the stranger in
our midst. When a little girl was trapped in an upstairs
bedroom as her family home blazed up around her, this knight
errant appeared as if by magic. Our office has learned that
the hero, Tom Darby (age 83, of Center Junction, Kentucky)was
only passing through Belleview because he took a wrong exit
off the interstate.
 Little Kathy Morgan and her family will always be thankful
that Mr. Darby got lost that day. Though they morn his
passing, from injuries sustained in the rescue attempt, they
will always be thankful that he risked his life to save
little Kathy- A total stranger to him.

    Witnesses report that the local firefighters had been
driven back by the flames at Tod and Judy Morgan's house at
483 Bullfinch Terrace. Police and firefighters were readying
themselves for a final effort to brave the inferno, when Tom
Darby rode his motorcycle up to the scene. He is reported to
have thrown the motorcycle and his helmet to the ground as
soon as he heard that a child was still in the house. Without
hesitation, he ran for the burning front door in an effort to
burst through, climb the
flame-wreathed staircase, and find
the child in the smoke-filled confusion. Medical teams at the
scene report that the two policemen and the fireman, who were
injured while attempting to restrain Mr. Darby from entering
the burning building, will be released from the ICU with a
clean bill of health later today. Witnesses report that Mr.
Darby exited the burning home within minutes, holding the
uninjured child in his arms. She was wrapped in his leather
motorcycle jacket. The back of his shirt was ablaze,
witnesses reported. Rescue workers took the child and
immediately extinguished Mr. Darby's burning clothing. He
received emergency medical treatment at the scene, and later
at County General in their ICU's Burn Ward.
   Mr. Darby passed away five hours after he arrived at the
hospital, despite everyone's best efforts to save him. Cause
of death was listed as 3rd degree burns over 70% of his body,
smoke inhalation, and flame inhalation.
The three-year-old
Kathy Morgan suffered no injuries whatsoever and was reunited
with her family within hours. Tom Darby will be granted
several awards by the City Fathers and the local Police and
Fire Departments, posthumously.
A memorial service is
scheduled here in Belleview for August 30th, at Pine Ridge
Baptist Church, from 4 to 7 PM. The time is to coincide with
the funeral services at Morningside Methodist Church in Center
Junction, Kentucky, where Tom Darby will be laid to rest
beside the remains of his beloved wife, Mary Singer Darby. The
Belleview Town Council is proposing a small memorial in the
courthouse square,
eventually to incorporate Tom Darby's red
motorcycle, along with an heroic statue, in a permanent
memorial to his brave sacrifice. Darby's surviving family have
given their consent, reported a representative of Grey,
Maxwell, & Thornby, the trustees of Darby's estate.

    Reports of a mysterious sonic boom near the time of Tom
Darby's death -that broke all the glass in the hospital floor
where he was being treated- cannot at this time be either
confirmed nor denied.

          See: Hero  Page 4 and the listing in our Obituaries  Page 18

    "The two policemen and the fireman, who were injured while attempting to restrain Mr. Darby from entering the burning building, will be released from the ICU with a clean bill of health later today." At 83, he took down two cops and a fireman, then kicked down a door? And managed to save the child, too? Old Man, at least you went out with style. Or did you? Was Callow right? Simon thought. Is this just a change of identity, or is Darby really dead?

8:12 AM, August 29th

    Simon answered the knock at his front door to find a small, slender man in thick-lensed horn-rimed glasses, holding an ornate wooden box under one arm. The man was a complete nebbish- so totally unmemorable that he could pass for invisible.
   "Doctor Simon Litchfield?" the man asked. "Hello, my name is Maxwell. I’m a partner in the law firm of Grey, Maxwell, and Thornby. I'm here on a matter of a bequest to you from Tom Darby's estate. He left you a little something in his will."
    "Do come in,” Simon said as he let the man into his Georgetown townhouse.  “I just read his obituary this morning. I gather that the funeral is tomorrow?"
    "Yes,” Maxwell said as he looked around the place, “his family stipulated that there be no guests at the funeral proper. All mourners outside the immediate family are to be directed to the memorial service in the town where he died, instead.  You, however, are a special case. Because of your…rather unique circumstances of meeting Mr. Darby, he felt it necessary to place a clause in his will forbidding us from contacting you until this moment."
     "I see," Simon said. "I think... Please, do sit down."
    "Thank you. Most kind," Maxwell said as he sat on Simon's couch. The springs creaked alarmingly for a moment, then became quiet just as suddenly. "Yes-" the small, dapperly dressed man continued. "He wished to protect your own- hobbies, those that coincided with his. And he wrote that he fully understands if you are unable to attend the memorial service. But as a token of his respect, he left you this." Maxwell handed the small box to Simon. It was about the same size as a box of cigars, but the ornate carving on the deeply polished red wood promised contents far more valuable than mere tobacco.
    "One of those insanely accurate target pistols he carried?" Simon asked after he'd opened up the hand-carved red oak presentation box. The contents gleamed up at Simon with the patina of beauty that all well-crafted machines share. Memories of Tom Darby came flooding back to Simon in that instant.
    "Indeed. A Colt .45 1991-A1, fine-tuned as far as the best pistol smiths can make it. We believe that the other one, the 1911-A1 that he normally carried, was lost in the fire that claimed his life. Among his effects was listed an empty holster and ammunition for a .45 auto. He wanted you to have this one, to remember him by. He wrote that we were to tell you that this is the very same one that he handed to you on the island. Rather cryptic, but I assume you understand his reference. He had the presentation box specially made for you.  And there is one other thing..."
    "Yes? What? Excuse me, I was lost in thought. You were saying?"
    "In a private garage," Maxwell said as he leaned closer to Simon across the coffee table, pulled a plastic card out of his jacket pocket, and lowered his voice. "At the address on this key-card, you will find an exotic sports car- of a type with which I think you are already familiar -that will be stored for your future use. Simply call the number on that card and leave a message that you will be needing the car. Within an hour, it will be ready for you to pick up."
    "Unusual arrangements," Simon said as he took the plastic card from the lawyer. "I assume that the car has only three wheels... Some sort of leasing contract? Will I have to pay a membership fee?"
    "No, not at all," Maxwell replied in the same secretive voice. "The car will be titled, registered, and insured to the garage. Its an old fire station that he and some friends of his bought together. They converted it into an auto shop as a sort of hobby. Mr. Darby instructed us to sell off some tracts of land from his estate and establish a trust fund for the staff of that garage. He had inherited the land from his grandfather, and held on to it for many years as an investment. All the bills and the staff will be paid out of the trust fund. There's enough to keep them comfortable from now through their retirement years. Your occasional use of the car will give them something to do. They helped him build the car, you see. And they helped to keep it in repair after some of his- business trips in it."
    "I'm beginning to understand," Simon said slowly. "These are people he trusted, is that what you're telling me?"
    "Exactly, Doctor. People he worked with. People he could count on in any sort of- emergency, so to speak. Oh, one last thing, Doctor. Whenever you find yourself inside the garage, remember your Bluebeard and don't try to open any locked doors."
    "I see,” Simon spoke, slowly moving into the tone of voice normally reserved for Callow.  “Everything has become-- most clear, Mr. Maxwell."
    "Then I thank you for your time, Dr. Litchfield," Maxwell said, rising from the couch. "Please don't get up. I'll let myself out. Oh, if you ever find yourself in need of legal representation, please don't hesitate to call our offices. We specialize in the unique needs of people in- Mr. Darby's line of work, for instance. Good day."

     Good Lord, Darby! What have you gotten me into? If that little bugger was a lawyer, I'll eat my hat. Thank you for the gifts- but what the hell else have you gifted me with? Contacts into the organization that you really worked for?A bolt-hole to run to if some Nightwatch caper goes awry? Five will get you twenty that these "mechanics" are a lot more than just a bunch of good ol' boys that Darby grew up with. And that offer of legal aid- What are they going to do? Come bail me out of some Turkish prison? No- No... I've just been contacted by Darby's real employers. And they think he told me enough about them... What? To be dangerous to them? Surely not. To become an ally of some kind? Is it possible that they're trying to recruit me? Simon laughed aloud. Or is this about Nightbird Five? Darby warned me not to trust the people who built it for him. Of course, he'd lost a lot of blood by then... Damnation! Darby, this is a pretty puzzle you've presented me with. I wonder if the car is real, or if calling to pick up the car is just the password? Password to what? Tom, what have you done? Who were you, really? Simon sat back down, placed the target pistol on his coffee table, next to the red velvet-lined box, and stared at the key-card, remembering the time he spent with Tom Darby. The afternoon sunlight slowly faded to evening gloom as Simon sat, lost in thought.

Year Two, September:
"Look Ma, I'm on top of the world!"

7:12 AM, September 9th

    "Man, that thing is big!" Mission Specialist Charlie Helden exclaimed.
    "Cut the chatter, Red Two," replied Captain Simmons absently as she read through a checklist.
    "Huh?" Charlie said as he tore his attention away from his workstation's view screen.
    "Sorry, Charlie. Mark it down to pre-launch jitters."
    "OK Cap."
    "This is Fleet Control, Scouts One through Five are go for launch. Scouts Six through Ten are directed to stand by at Pre-launch Alert. Scouts Eleven through Fifteen are directed to finalize launch preparations..."
    "Holy shit. We're actually going to do this!" Paul Chung said, excitement plain in his voice.
    "What? You think we came all this way just to tape some photos?" came the vaguely vacuous voice of Angelina Proctor. Her normal, slightly-out-of-it tone gave no hint of sarcasm or humor. It was as if she were somewhat slightly disconnected from reality. She was a certified genius, but then again, she might just as easily be certifiable. She knew her stuff, though.
   Tom sat back and waited on the launch clearance for his team'sComet Cthulu, Mapping Flight tiny ship. The fat arrowhead shape of the four-engine craft giving lie to the power harnessed in it's chubby wedge form. The widely-spaced engines rested quietly now, but eagerly awaiting their moment to howl out their defiance to the universe. Tom looked around at the wide, circular viewport that Abby's piloting station sat in the center of, the other scattered duty consoles placed strategically around the circumference of the flight deck, including the instruments on his own control console. Funny, Tom thought, being stuck in a can in space isn't too bad if you can see out a big window. Finally, the interminable wait was over.
    "This is Fleet Control, Scouts Six through Ten are go for launch. Scouts Eleven through Fifteen are directed to stand by at Pre-launch Alert...."
"Launch in five," Abby intoned. "Four, three, two, one... Kick it!"
    Tom was rudely shoved back into his seat as the launch cradle, deep within the 0-g section of the carrier ship Saint George, harshly kicked the tiny Sister Ray out into the void, the quiet basso profundo moan of Sister Ray's engines vibrating the ship's cabin adding to the rush in Tom's head.  Briefly, up and down lost their meaning, and Tom had to fight to regain his sense of orientation.  He focused on the border of the window, on the stationary console in front of him.
    "We're out," grunted Captain Darlene, against the gentle stress of the launch g-forces. The widow Simmons was the perfect organizer for the madcap crew of Sister Ray. Unflappable, ingenious, and resourceful, she had carried on in the space program after the accidental death of her husband, Major Ron Simmons, in a tragic fuel-cell bay explosion at Cape Canaveral half a decade or more ago. Her elegantly gray-streaked black hair, now pulled back in a long pony-tail to better fit inside the helmet of her spacesuit, was the only indication of her fifty-plus years of age. Her unlined face was calm as she queried the crew for flight data and managed to keep the crew's jokes to a minimum. "Angelina, mark our sister ships and keep track of their positions. Rogan, keep an eye on the short range radar. We don't want any accidents, Mickey. Weldon, fire up your instruments. We need particle densities and hazard estimates. Abby, what's our status?"
    "On course and within the mission nominals, Cap. Gonna have to throttle back, though."
    "Two and a half kilometers from the George- fourteen kilometers from Cthulu's surface. Holding assigned course and speed- within our estimated plus-or-minus range. All four engines read nominal at one third thrust. Not towing anything, that means we are hauling ass, Girlfriend. Throttling back to one quarter thrust. Still within mission parameters.Course and speed still nominal. Orbital intercept insert in seven minutes. We are in the projected mission slot and proceeding as planned..."
    "Dust count at one part per ten CCs," Tom said, after a moment's hesitation. "No visible gravel or boulders to use for estimates yet. Still scanning."  Despite his on-the-job training, Tom had to force himself to concentrate and keep his mind off of where he actually was.
    "Radar? What's the scoop, Rogan?"
    "Short range showing a cloud of thick dust, maybe sand and gravel, covering close to a cubic kilometer, but off of our projected course by five degrees ahead and to port- roughly, three kilometers ahead," said Mickey. "Long range showing surface clutter from Cthulu, the other ships in our flight, and the George behind us. Other traces indicate the rest of the fleet and the other scout flights..."
    "Heads-up is highlighting the cloud for me now Cap," Abby said confidently. "The IR reader shows its bigger than Mickey's radar estimate. I need to divert three extra degrees to starboard to clear it safely."
    "Do it, Abby. Make it five degrees extra."
    "Yes Ma'am."
   "Charlie," Simmons barked as the tension began to build, "launch one of the marker buoys. Program it to stop in the outer edge of the sand cloud, and drift with it.  And pray the damn thing actually flies and holds station."
    "I'm on it, Cap."
    "This whole thing is one big field test," Simmons muttered under her breath.  "You'll have to look up the settings for the size and composition of the cloud."
    "I'm already on that Cap," said Angelina. "Got the marker code search running while Charlie was programming the launcher. Downloading the blinker pattern to Charlie's console now."
    "Good work, good work,” Captain Darlene said.  “Report it to Fleet Control. They'll have to map our course deviation against everyone else's projected course.  It’s too damn early in the mission to have a bad day now."
    "Got it, Cap..." Angelina said a moment later, as she finished sending the signal.
    "This is Fleet Control," they heard in their headphone speakers three minutes later. "Scouts Eleven through Fifteen are go for launch. Navigation buoy from Scout 9 is now noted. All ships, be advised of navigational hazard at the location of buoy 9-01."
     The crew sat down to their assigned tasks.
    "She handles better without the net module," Abby said aloud after a few minutes of silent flying. "The mapping module is way lighter. She's a lot more maneuverable without the extra weight. Way faster, too. Handles more like a speedboat than a tugboat, now..."
    Tom nodded as if in agreement, then glanced around the flight deck of the small ship. I ought to be feeling more cramped than I do in here. But the elbow room is more than ample. I think having the control stations mounted radially and taking advantage of the zero-g environment really adds to the illusion of extra headroom and legroom. Even the Safety Yellow paint job on the outside makes sense. Now, if I could just get used to seeing people hanging upside-down, and sideways... Tom shook his head, breathed three quick breaths, and  took his attention back to his own instrument console.  All of the details he was noting proved to him that the distraction techniques he was practicing were still working. Back to work before I start thinking about what’s on the other side of these walls...
"That was the idea behind making these things modular," Captain Darlene said. "So we can use this sports car version as Recon fliers, like now. Abby, take us down a little further."
    "Some sports car,” Abby laughed.  “Yes Ma'am, taking us down."
    "Then just hook up the other service modules," Darlene continued as Abby snaked the winged wedge shape of the little ship closer to the comet's surface. "And use 'em for workhorses when we start cleaning up our mess."  Simmons laughed quietly as she thought of just how recently she'd seen the plan for what was supposed to be the vacuum chamber test article for the prototype for this whole class of ship.  "Altitude? Dust count?"
    "Eleven kilometers from the comet's surface," Mickey said.
    "Dust at one part per five CCs," Tom answered smoothly. The extra hours he had spent training on his duty station were now paying off.
    "Take us down to six kilometers, Abby."
    "Yes, Ma'am."


    "Damn, you can see the notch where Tesla chopped the Tunguska fragment off."
    "Follow the curve of the surface there," Simmons said.  "Let's get a good look at Tesla's marksmanship."
    "I'm on it, Capt'n Darlene."Comet Cthulu: Close Orbit Radar Mapping
    "Ho-ly shit," Paul slowly intoned as the little yellow ship rounded the comet's surface. "He nailed it! Look at the way that's been melted."
    "Tell me that that Mother couldn't shoot," Charlie said reverently. "Just try. I'll call you a liar to your face. From the ground, he damn near cut the thing in half. And that was with a tower the size of a lighthouse?"
    "Only a mad-man would dream he had a chance of stopping this bugger with a single weapon," Darlene said, thinking out loud. "God bless 'im. The fool saved our lives once already. Now his Zap-gun is going to save us again. That settles it. When we get back I'm writing the Pope and submitting Tesla for sainthood."
    "Agreed," Tom said. "Though I don't know if Tesla was Catholic."
    "Doesn't matter," Angelina contributed absently as she ran her duty station console through another diagnostic check. "Neither was Jesus..."
    "What she said," Abby added, grinning.
    "All right," Darlene said. "We've obviously found the best spot for the big gun to start digging first. Now, let's see where the other target areas ought to be. Weldon, what's the dust count, this close in?"
    "Two per CC," Tom replied after a moment's study of the readouts on his duty console. "A little thicker than normal," Hah!, whatever normal is, "but we are orbiting a comet. From what I've studied, this isn't anything to endanger the ship. But bigger rocks have to be expected to be out there. If we hit something the size of a baseball at this speed, we'll all be grateful for those endless hours of spacesuit drill."
    "Good," Darlene said. "Abby, take us closer. I want to get down to two kilometers. But be prepared to pull up if Weldon's dust count climbs into the danger zone. Charlie, Angelina- Now is your time to shine, kids. Gimme some good numbers from your scans. Start scanning as soon as we get below three kilometers. We need fault lines and fractures, people. This bugger has to be split like a diamond. Paul, back-up Mickey on the radar. You're behind on your cross-training hours. I'm not going to stand for that, Mister. I will not have slackers in my crew."
    "Yes Ma'am!"
    "I'll see you in my office after we dock back on the George, Mister Chung. For now, we've got a job to do. Did I say something funny, Abby?"
    "No Ma'am, Cap. You just sounded like my Daddy there for a second. Made me sort of homesick."
    "I see. Your Dad was a good Captain?"
    "He didn't take any shit off anyone, and he didn't tolerate laziness, Ma'am. And he always brought everyone home. You two are alike in that. In my book, that's a good Captain."
    "Thank you, Abby."
    "Of course, you don't have that nasty beard like Daddy did-"
    "Thank you, Abby."
    "And you-"
    "Large rock," Paul interrupted. "Dead ahead, three hundred meters!"
    "I'm on it," Abby said. "Diverting two degrees below the rock... I've driven trucks smaller than that thing. How'd we miss it on visual?"
    "Dust count at four per CC," Tom added.
    "Good work on the radar, Paul."
    "Thanks, Cap."
    "Got a natural fault line," Angelina sang out with glee, only moments later.
    "I've got a huge vent..." Charlie answered. "Looks like the perfect place to plant some charges. Or to start carving... There are small fractures running out from it everywhere..."
    "Got it marked Charlie," said Mickey. "Yours too, Angelina. Looks like there's a good place to land nearby if they want to use thermite there instead of the cutter."


        Sept. 25
        18:48 GMT
       UNSS St. George
      Cthulu Expedition

  Thank you again for sending those song files. The ship's library
seems to have avoided stocking any jazz albums, or Johnny
Cash either. Things out here have been busy. Work work work... 
But we've made great strides.  I've been spending a lot of my
free time with Abby and Sam in the flight simulators, getting
extra training. But sometimes we play flight sim games, too. I've
become proficient at being Power Engineer on the game's space
combat sim. (Laughs) Somehow, we've gotten a reputation
among the crew, too.
  The food out here isn't at all bad. There is more fresh stuff than
frozen. I think there's a garden somewhere in the spin section.
You wouldn't believe what the cooks out here can do with a few
fresh veggies and a nice steak. I'm going to have to watch it,
before I have to get my suit let-out along the waistline. (grin)
  The Mess Hall also has lots of video screens set to different
entertainment channels from home. We get the news and game
 shows with a little time delay, but still- its better than you think.
Some of the BBC shows are stuff I've never seen before. I'm
beginning to get hooked on BritComs. (laughs)
 Captain Simmons has put Abby in charge of my suit drills. As
much for the Doctor / Patient thing as to keep me in training. I
set a new personal best yesterday. Abby barged into my room,
honking an obnoxious air horn, and throws my suit at me. I had
it unrolled, on, and sealed in 13 and a fraction seconds. Abby
says she's not going to be satisfied until I can get it under 10
seconds. She says I'm still courting burst ear drums and capillary
damage on my skin. But still, practice makes perfect, they say.
    Well, here's Sam and Abby now. They want me to go down to
the mess hall with them. Its time for Abby's soap opera. She's
hooked on Dr. Who.
    OK I'll send this and write you again later,

Year Two, October:
The Events of:
The Sin Watcher

Year Two, October:
Building the Perfect Beast
[Start Me Up]

8:02 PM, October 2nd

    "We've spent a month drilling out holes for thermite charges and rocket mountings, Charlie. Not to mention all those damn anchor rods for the sails... Its about time we showed some progress. When do we attach the sails and start firing up the lasers?"
    "Day after tomorrow,"
Captain Charlie Gibson replied- a brief smile creasing his tired, care-worn features. "If everything goes well. I hear the Admiral is planning a fancy party to celebrate, come Saturday night."
    "Oh yeah? Celebrate what? The work just getting started?" Former granite-mining engineer Greg Lazar tiredly looked up from his dinner tray at his friend Charlie, while brushing his raven-black hair out of his face. For an instant, Greg's warm brown eyes peeked out unimpeded, until at last, his unruly hair fell back over his forehead as if it had a mind of it's own. "We've still got to hook up all two hundred fifty of those Solar and Mag-Lev sails and ships to all those bloody-damned anchor rods. And we've still got over seven hundred rockets left to mount, not to mention five thousand thermite pots to seat... The work's not even half started... Then there's those damn targets for the Hephaestus laser platforms to do their blasting and fine navigation corrections... ""
    "Yeah," Charlie said, "
but we've been working our butts off. We've got a hell of a lot done. Old Man Herndon thinks we need to blow off a little steam.Celebrate getting the first rockets mounted, and the first sails anchored."
    "Well, here's to the Admiral then,"
Greg replied as he raised his glass in a toast, then downed the wine in a few brief gulps. The rest of the crews at the nearby tables in the mess hall of the Saint George followed suit as the word got passed along. The Mess Hall's Wait-Staff was going to be busy for the next half hour, at least.
    "Yeeehaw! Its party time!" one said excitedly.
    "As you were, Smithers. Don't get carried away," Charlie snapped at his youngest crewman. Tom grinned at Abby and Sam at the young recruit's embarrassment.
    "Yes sir."
    "Just remember, Country Line Dancing doesn't work in zero-g."
    "But sir? What if we wear Velcro shoes?"
    "Shutting up, sir..." said the young man with the ginger hair and glasses as he shyly returned his attention to his dinner tray. Even from two tables up, Tom Weldon could feel the heat from the young man's embarrassed blush. Too many military and ex-military types around here, he thought. They're so damned tight-assed it's hilarious!

    Tom laughed as he returned his attention to the steak and salad on the plastic tray in front of him- the nearby conversations in the mess hall returning to their normal muted volume. The mess hall's bland, neutral gray walls contrasted sharply with the smells of the foods. Smell better if we weren't in space, he thought. Physiologists still haven't figured that effect out.  There were a few large pictures and paintings adorning the walls, and several large intercom view-screens offered the diners the option of watching various entertainment programming picked up from Earth's communications networks- with a six or seven hour long light-speed delay because of the distance back to Earth. No such thing as an Instant Message out here, Tom thought to himself as he ate. Abby seemed glued to one nearby screen that was showing re-runs of the BBC's latest incarnation of their Doctor Who program. Samantha seemed to take this as normal. Conversation between the two women didn't seemed strained or forced, Tom noticed. So he concluded that there wasn't an argument going on- but that Abby's zombie-like fandom of the TV show was something that Sam had long ago learned to cope with, even if she didn't seem to share it. Samantha was watching another screen which seemed to be showing the new revival of Dark Shadows. That
Elijah Wood kid makes a damn good Willy Loomis, Tom had to admit to himself as he carved another bite of his dinner. The warm-blood scent of lightly broiled beef tantalized his nose as the smell finally came close enough to register and as the light-weight ceramic knife from the mess hall's flatware cut through Tom's porterhouse steak- as if the knife were a laser-scalpel. The delicately cooked meat seemed to melt in his mouth- even as at the next bite, the riot of tastes from his salad also finally flooded his senses. The Blue Cheese is aged to perfection,  he thought to himself as he listened to his table mates talking among themselves. And the steak is perfect. Maybe you get that sense of taste back after being out here long enough. But- how the hell are we keeping these veggies fresh for our salads? We're months away from Earth... These greens don't taste frozen... This broccoli just has to be fresh. Are we growing lettuce and tomatoes, and bell peppers and whatnot, in some kinda hydroponics section? Here on the ship? That would be really neat to see. I'll have to ask around, next time I'm off duty. Hmmm, mushrooms! These can't be more than two days old... I don't care where this stuff is coming from, this is the best food I've had in years. There are restaurants who are gonna pale by comparison, when I get back home. I'm going to have to start a file on these cooks and keep track of them after we go home. This is wonderful... Um mm... Great steak... Umm... Tom enjoyed his meal as he made small talk with his friends and glanced from screen to screen at the different TV shows. Who'd of thought that Adam Ant- of all people -would totally nail the part of Barnabas Collins so damn well? It's like he was made for this one role. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. Hmm? What's that on the NASCAR channel over there? Hayden Dale just blew by Nick Sampson in that last lap- He took the win! Abby owes me a fiver- She hates Hayden Dale... I wonder if there is some of that blueberry cheesecake left from last night's dessert?


        Oct. 25
        15:48 GMT
       UNSS St. George
      Cthulu Expedition

  Thank you again for sending those voice files! Now my
computer plays them for system events. (laughs) Its so
nice to hear your voice once more. I can't tell you how
much better it feels to hear your words as well as read
them. I miss you so much.
    Turns out I was wrong about having a garden up here.
The foods I thought were fresh turned out to be
freeze-dried and re-constituted. All the cooking and
 seasoning was done before the individual items were
flash-frozen. I don't understand the process, but Hidalgo
International Tech holds the copyright. Whatever the
process, the food is still wonderful. Charlie Helden, a tech
on our Tug crew, told me all about it. He has an uncle that
works for Hildago.
 The whole expedition is like that. Everyone works for one
of the big companies or space agencies. Every ship is like
a little UN or multi-national corporation. Just in our tug, we
have NASA, JSSA, HIT, SE, and Probe represented. And
that doesn't include myself and Abby. Good thing, huh? 
We need those guys to tell us what the hell just broke and
how the hell to fix it!  (LOL)
    You've gotten Sam and Abby to back down on Mothering
me, haven't you? (grin) I told you the girls had better things
to do with their time. (laughs)

    The work is going well. And the training is forever
ongoing. I've gotten my suit drills down to 11 seconds now.
Abby and Capt. Darlene still think that's too long, but they
say I'm making progress. My duty station on the tug is
getting easier, too. I do wish that someone made keyboards
with keys that fit my big fingers, though. (laughs)  Thank
heavens we had enough drift time out here for me to not be
completely incompetent.  This is more than a simple shrink
ever planned to do!

    Aside from the work and the training, there's not a lot else
to talk about. I'll be glad when we head back for home, and
the job is done. I miss you. I keep thinking about that time
we were in the park, feeding the squirrels, and that big one
ran right up the bench leg to perch on the arm and beg. That
was so cute. Sometimes I just sit here in my room and think
back on everything. Just remembering home. I'm surrounded
by people, but being without you is torture. I can't wait to
hold you in my arms once again. I better send this off before
I tear up or something.


Year Two, November:
Testing the Rigging
[Wild Horses]

8:17 PM, November 3rd

    "Strain on the lines is nominal."
    "Frag One, Light-Sail Seven- Fully deployed."
    "Frag One, Mag-Sail Two- Fully deployed."
    "Frag One, Lasersats One through Ten report anchored and all tethers test in the green."
    "Frag One, Boosters One through Fourteen report embedded and ready. Boosters Fifteen through Thirty report work proceeding on schedule."
    "Mission control confirms Frag One report. Frag Two Teams, report now..."
    And the work went on...


     Simon, working late in his office, pressed his fingers onto a fingerprint scanner and waited patiently.  There was a click, and then he opened a black case.  Carefully, he placed some data disks with thoroughly unofficial (and probably classified) information into the case and then closed the lid.
     Streaming video from one of the cable news channels was playing in the background on the computer, and as Simon reached up to rub his eyes, something he heard caught his attention.
     "...of the Associated Press is reporting the widely reported near-miss of Cthulu may have been deliberately underplayed.  We go now to Shane Yancey at the science desk for a breakdown of what this all means.  Shane..."
     Oh damn, Simon thought.  The cones of silence have hit the fan...
     "Well, Pat," Yancey said, "I want to emphasize that all of this is unconfirmed, but if the report is to be believed, Cthulu may have been aptly named after all.  Classified figures revealed in Caesar Nunez's report show that there is still uncertainty about the actual path Cthulu is taking.  Lending this news an even greater air of urgency is an apparent and previously classified mission by a significant force to intercept and study Cthulu.  The presence of so many astronauts in space..."
     Hit the fan hard, he thought as he picked up his cell phone and dialed Stephanie.  "No time to explain," he said quickly, "just switch to channel 91.  You'll see."
     "Shane," the anchor said, "the Nunez report also made mention of the phrase 'The sky is falling.'  Now those are very ominous words..."
     Hit the fan and shattered, Simon thought as he shook his head.
     "Oh dear," Stephanie said blankly over the phone.  "Looks like the shit's hit the fan.  How on earth are they going to spin this?"
     "They've got those reporters embedded up there," Simon spoke quietly.  "From what Callow tells me those guys have been very carefully guided around so that, as far as they know, this whole mission is just for practice."  Simon laughed cheerlessly.  "Meaning they aren't buying it for one second, but they'll play their part."
     "The genie's out of the bottle," Stephanie murmured.  "The whole cover story's going to unravel.  It may not be now, but..."
     Simon looked up towards the ceiling and thought about the clear night sky above the roof.  "I only hope they send back good news before the panic sets in down here.  It won't be pretty."
     "As Tom says," Stephanie continued, "that would be one heck of a bad day."


Quote from official United Nations Press Release #5529-37125:

Comet Cthulu Expedition
13:00 GMT
-- Nov. 12th

    "The view here, from the 0-G command deck of the UNSS Yorimasa, through the ship's huge main view port, is incredible. The open wire loops and connecting lines of the Mag-Sails have been painted a reflective white to aid other craft to avoid them. They look like huge cowboy lassos, but with six ropes attached instead of just one. The electro-magnetic fields that these seemingly empty wire loops use instead of Earthly winds, are made of charged particles, ions, sprayed out from our Sun as what is normally called the 'solar wind.' The Mag-Sails will use this ionic breeze from the sun to apply braking thrust to Comet Cthulu. And later, to fly the comet's shattered fragments into new and useful orbits. Or off on long exploration flights to distant parts of our solar system.
    The butterfly wing-thin material of the other type of sail-craft that the expedition will use; the hexagonal, Fresnel lens-shape of the Light-Sails designed by the late Robert Forward, are casting spotlight beams of reflected sunlight back into the night and on to the "Popeyes". Those "Popeyes" are the antique space capsules of Earth's Golden Age of Spaceflight. They make up the bulk of the control and lifesystems for the fleet of sail-craft for the expedition. Each has been fitted with a special docking collar that mates to a generic sail-control module. Whether Mag sail or Light sail, these refitted antique ships will once again be serving new duties in the void that they were designed for, so long ago.
    Formations of these smaller-sailed ships have already anchored themselves to Comet Cthulu. Fastened to hastily assembled docking frameworks- attached to long mooring lines anchored deeply into the comet. These are set far between the much larger sails that are attached directly to special anchors set extra-deeply into the comet's surface. These much larger sails, of both kinds, are controlled directly from locations dug into the rock, itself. After the comet is split into more manageable chunks, these former space capsules and jet planes will become an independent fleet of service vessels for the different fragments. The fragments themselves will be flown by pilots in the 'dug-in' control rooms. But for now, the smaller, independent sail-ships have a more important job.  Every part of this training mission fits together like puzzle pieces.
    Every moment that these different sails reflect sunlight and ionized solar wind particles back the way they come, increases the chances of Earth's safety. As each sail takes up it's assigned position, the path of the comet is subtly changed more and more. The mission's imaginary danger is not over, but it is now somewhat less urgent than before. There aren't enough sails to do the job entirely, however. No. That's what the rockets and thermite are for.
    Long days and nights of testing the critical linkages will follow, sail after sail, rocket motor, Lasersat, or thermite pot- Everything has to be installed, finalized, confirmed, tested, re-confirmed, and all filed away in the huge mission log-file. Everything has to work the first time, and every'Every machine I design must work correctly the first time, or there is no point in building one'. Tesla has become sort of the patron saint of the expedition crew. Along with Murphy, Finagle, Popeye, and one un-named young woman in a skimpy swim suit- whose photographs have been circulating among the crew faster than NASCAR champions on a race track.
    I first saw a print-out of one photograph of her, taped to a single locker door in a Sweeper Ship's team locker room, several weeks ago. Soon after, copies of that photo, and other photos began appearing everywhere. Several of the Earth-Shield crew have had small uniform patches made- even attaching them to their space suits. Her fans seem to regard her as a minor goddess. Admiral Herndon, when asked about possible impropriety, stated for the record; 'I remember many a crew on Navy or Air Force craft adopting a particular Pin-Up girl as a mascot. There's no harm intended to the Lady's reputation. Indeed, there is a lot of respect for her expressed from the crews. But the fact that not one soul in all the fleet will divulge her name, or even assist in network searches for her identity, speaks volumes to me about the esteem this young lady is held in. She's become a modern-day Betty Page for us. An Icon, representing home and everything we're out here trying to learn how to save. She's become sort of our image of Mother Earth's historical Nature Goddess.' The Admiral's own space suit sports one of the near ubiquitous 'Mother Earth Is One Hot Momma' patches with a small spray-print illustration of the nameless young lady's swimsuit photo on it's left sleeve. Needless to say, all attempts to discover the identity of this woman have been met with failure. It's as if she worked for some sort of James Bond - secret spy agency or was merely a graphic artwork by some heretofore undiscovered Da Vinci of the computer age. But whatever, she fills a need and that is important for the moral of the crews.
    Irregardless of the lighter tone the expedition members display during their off hours, when on duty, they are all business. Endlessly, the work crews toil on in the eternal darkness. Thankfully, there have been only a few minor accidents. Most of these that did occur can be traced to over-worked personnel tiredly keeping to an Earth-determined schedule. Adaptations will have to be made. Slowly, the grand design is taking shape. The great work proceeds on schedule. This simulated emergency proceeds as if it were real. Each crew member does their part with dogged determination. Everyone involved seems almost obsessed with making this training exercise seem as realistic as possible. If this were an actual emergency, Earth's survival would be in the best of hands.
    This is Frank Gasperik, Aphelion Webzine's roving reporter with the UN's Cthulu Expedition Training Exercise, out somewhere on the far side of the orbit of Mars, signing off the live WebCast for tonight..."

    He didn't need to be hit over the head to know much of what he'd said had been a lie, and he resented being used in this manner.  At the same time, Gasperik knew that if he was being allowed to broadcast home, things on Earth must be getting dicey, and if he could do anything to stop widespread panic, he would swallow his pride and do so. No matter how infuriating it was to be used like this. He knew the other newsmen with the mission felt the same way. The trouble is, he thought, there's always somebody who won't keep their mouth shut. There'll be a leak. I just know it...
    And everyone filed the necessary paperwork at the end of each work shift.

Year Two, November:
Counsels, Councils, Consoles, and Consuls
[Starless And Bible Black]

7:00 AM, November 13th

    Eventually, someone had to call a meeting. Paperwork had to be generated. No bureaucracy can long survive without the illusion of control that endless staff meetings affords it's otherwise unimportant and totally unnecessary leach-like personnel. It seems to be a rather unfortunate and regrettable law of nature.
    "Well Gentlemen and Ladies," the Admiral interrupted the staff report in mid-flow only a few moments into the rush of self-important burro-cratic triple-talk. He hated staff meetings, anyway. Despite the wonderful scent of all that freshly-brewed coffee that wafted through the air in the conference room. "Do the other Fragment divisions report similar successes?"
    "Yes sir," one of the near-mindless, procedure-worshiping, UN paper pushers--types that Admiral Herndon sincerely wanted to personally shove, naked, out the nearest airlock, one each- reluctantly answered.
    "Good, then submit your numbers in writing and give me percentages and deadlines here in the meeting instead. Is anyone running into any problems?"
    "Just everyone working too hard, for too many hours," answered Dr. Chandra as everyone else paused. His dignified, middle-aged movie-star good-looks giving weight to his carefully considered words. The CMO for the expedition, and former Chief of Staff for the biggest hospital in New Delhi, he was always concerned with the work crews and flight teams getting enough rest- but still meeting their schedules. "But thankfully there have been no recent deaths. The incidence of minor first-aid cases, and also minor muscle-strain injuries, is showing a slow increase. Same as normal. But to be taken into account, nonetheless."
    "Your recommendations, Doctor?"
    "Admiral, I think we need to switch from twelve hour shifts to eight hour shifts. It will mean some jiggling of the schedules, but giving the teams sixteen hours off each workday instead of just twelve, will give them more time to rest and to sleep."  He looked around carefully to make sure no reporters were present.  "This ships are held together by duct-tape and baling wire as it is.  We're already on a razor's edge.  What safety margin we still have will soon begin to suffer, if everyone continues to be pushed so hard."
    "Noted, Doctor. I'll include it in my report. Now, Stenson, have you got all the numbers from everyone's reports? Good. How much have we got left to do?"
    The Admiral's Executive officer, Jeff Stenson, looked down at his ever-present PDA for a fraction of a second before answering in his crisp, precise voice. "We're half to two thirds done on every fragment, sir. No matter what equipment you're talking about. Barring major accidents, we'll meet our deadline- Or possibly beat it by three or four days at best."
    "Good. Work out an eight hour rotation cycle as per the Doctor's recommendation. If it will reduce the possibility of injuries, I want it done.  No good rushing if we push all this X-equipment right into the dumper.  Now, what do we hear from our Scouts? Is there another big rock getting close to us?"
    "No sir," Stenson replied. He reached up with his right hand and absently brushed his graying, sandy-brown bangs out of his eyes as he read from the PDA in his left hand. "Everyone reports clear throughout the whole area of operations. Not even small rocks, other than those close to the comet. The fleet is still radar scanning for unexpected incoming, but they report clear as well. Nothing uncharted within range, and everything on the charts behaving normally." He sat further back in his chair, but the casual observer would get the feeling that this was a man who could never truly relax.
    "Still can't tell the large rocks from the sand in the close-in scans of the comet's debris field?"
    "No sir," Stenson spoke, "close-in scans of the comet are still ratty. Still losing too much signal into the background clutter. We're working on getting a better signal return, and enhancing the signal we are getting, but it's an up-hill battle. On the plus side, our charts now include over seven hundred nearby rocks that are too small to be found from Earth. None of them have anything to do with the comet; they're just in the neighborhood..."
    "Keep them on it. We've been lucky so far. Luck doesn't last. Alright, is there anyone who hasn't submitted an electronic report to Stenson? Good. Anything else? Any pressing questions? No. Good. I have to go over to the Yorimasa to do some bloody damn interview show for the UN public relations people in half an hour. Look people," the Admiral added in a raised voice. "I don't like the damn UN's Dog and Pony show any more than anyone else. But we have to keep people back home from getting into a panic. If that means that we have to mislead them, or even lie to them, then that's what we have to do. We let the UN camera crews film anything they want. We say whatever is in the script that they hand us. We smile for the cameras, look heroic, and remember that we're out here to save lives- not cause some kind of uproar that'll wind up costing innocent people their lives. We've got the best equipment out here to do the job. We've got the best people Earth can muster out here to do the job. We've got a plan drawn up by the best minds Planet Earth has ever produced- And as if that wasn't enough- We've got the biggest, baddest Ray-Gun that any Mad Scientist in the universe could ever dream up. What could go wrong? Well- that's your job to figure out. You tell me. What can go wrong? Because you can bet your sweet ass that something damn sure will go wrong! I want you to figure out what, and how to head it off before it happens! Now, let's go earn some of that hazard pay. All right, people? Dismissed."


        Dec. 3
        15:37 GMT
       UNSS St. George
      Cthulu Expedition

  It was great to get another letter from you. Yes, I'm getting
my butt worked off out here. I think I'm learning a lot more
than I ever
could back in school, however.  I think the
stresses out here will
someday make me a better
psychologist, too.  LOL!

 You ought to be here, Simon. You would love this. The
adventure, the
danger, the constant need to stay alert. I
think that you'd flip out for
this place.
 Yes, having a woman Captain and Pilot is quite normal for
this mission. Everyone was picked for their ability, not for
some list of
PC attributes that'll look good in a report. It is
deeds, not preconceptions
that count out here. I'd follow
Darlene into Hell itself if she needed me.
 Abby is turning out to be determined about fighting off
panic attacks and nausea. She's got to be the best pilot I've
seen, bar none. This woman can take a ship, fly it
through the eye of a
needle, and then do a victory roll- with
her eyes closed. I'm damn glad she
keeps her eyes open,
but I'm proud of her in any case.

 It sounds like you've been having interesting times while
I'm gone. Just
remember to save some adventures for when
I get home. Keep an eye on
Stephanie for me, Simon. You
and I both know how special she is. I just
hate being out
here if she were to need me. Dr. Mason is a good man, but

he isn't me, and Stephanie might resent him for not being
me. Things will
get back to normal fairly quickly once I get
home, but if she has a crises,
You'll have to be the one
there for her. Think you can handle it?
 We're getting up against the deadline for carving this rock
up into usable
chunks, Simon. I know that you'd find the
engineering to be almost poetic,
but to me it is just more
TLC and work. LOL! I think you ought to look up
the design
work on the solar sails and mag-sails. You'd find it "elegant"

I'm sure.
 All right, I have to go to a training session now. Hugs to
Stephanie. Take
care of yourself. Say hi to Gillian next time
you're at the Cannon Moon!


Year Two, December:
[Breaking Up Is Hard To Do]

7:00 AM, December 17th

    "This is Fleet Control. We are go for separation. I repeat, we are go."
    "People," said Admiral Herndon as he endlessly paced the spin-section control deck of the Saint George. "Just like we practiced. Let's light 'em up!" The com system was briefly overloaded by cheers from the other pilots. "Team One, by the numbers- just like we rehearsed. Tesla beams, commence fire. Lightsailors, fire up your lasers. Earth-Com, tell the platforms to let 'em rip!"

   Tom watched the events unfold from the monitor screen on his workstation in his trawler ship. Almost tentatively, bright laser guidance beams lanced out from the five lesser weapons to each other and the large final-stage weapon. Only the comet's dusty debris cloud allowed the lasers visibility, Tom knew. Finally- when the alignment of each Tesla Beam ship was adjusted to within the thickness of a human hair -from the five large weapon-ships came the great beams of raw energy that Nicola Tesla had thought civilization too childish to possess. Like tamed lightning, they focused upon the collector of the much larger weapon-ship Wardenclife, to be amplified and eventually focused onto the comet's surface. After a time, the weapon finally fired. The target area on the comet explosively erupted into a huge flaming plume of rock and ice. Vaporised by the beam, the outgassing served both to decelerate the comet, and to begin to split it like a diamond. The cutting beam kept chewing away at the comet's rocky surface. It cut deeper, the remorseless rope of electrons carving great chunks away from the chosen cleavage point of the comet.

    On the lightsail ships, hundreds of tethered lasersats began firing sharply-focused beams onto their respective comet fragments. The outgassing they sought to cause would help thrust the comet fragments apart when the splitting became manifest.

    "Team Two- Once we have separation, prepare to deploy the main net and it's sails. Team Three, stand by to fish the area for debris after the main net has made it's pass and is in place for collection by the Popeyes.."

    "This is Team Two Leader, roger that. We copy. Team Two is holding for launch. Repeat, Team Two is holding for launch."

    Lightning continued to boil the rock until-

    "Separation. We have separation," came the announcement from the command ship. "All Fragment Rocketeers, you are go for Burn One."
    "Tesla Beam, cease fire."
    "Team Two, you are go. Repeat: Team Two is a go for launch. Deploy net segments as planned. Initiate net linkages when you reach your assigned positions. Team Two Lightsailors, prepare to anchor to the main net as assigned."

    The fragments split asunder at glacial speeds. The smaller ones faster, the larger ones lazily drifting apart. The sails anchored to the fragments flickered with the reflected laser light when a chance dust particle intercepts the beams billowing them outwards. The particle beams shut down, though it would take the comet's shattered surface some time to stop boiling. The embedded rocket motors fired- like tiny torches against the eternal night. The sails stretched and strained, towing and tugging for all they were worth... Finally, the comet fragments separated enough to assure that they could never re-join again- except by mankind's intent...

    The first mission was accomplished, three quarters of the comet's former mass moving in eight separate directions, eventually to be inserted into useful orbits for later. Now began phase two, where the shattered core and as many of the small fragments could be netted and the nets attached to their own sails. The danger was in running out of sails. The Tesla beam could be used again to split other useful-sized fragments off.

    "Team Three, you are go for debris clean-up. Repeat- Team Three, you are go for clean-up. Launch all Debris Trawlers. Deploy your individual nets and begin your programmed sweeps when you reach your assigned positions."

    "That's us, y'all," came Darlene's voice through Tom's suit-phones. "Final countdown begins. Check your seat belts and lock your tray tables in the upright position. 'Cause we're five seconds from deployment. Four, three, two... Hail Mary!" Tom double-checked his safety harness for the fourth time- until someone heavy decided to sit in his lap unexpectedly. He grunted as the launch bay thrusters kicked his team's sweeper-ship out into the void- punching him back into his seat. The dull thud and continuing hiss of the ships thrusters igniting and firing filtered up through Tom's seat as a kick in the butt and a steady basso-profundo vibration in his bones. Man I hope that refueling crew remembered the right filters, he thought. The last time we lit up with impurities in the system I thought the whole thing would shake apart.

"Team Three Lightsailors, keep an eye on your sweeper-ships.  Dock when necessary. Report in when docked and commencing evacuation course. Team Three Laser crews, track your assigned fragments, sweepers, and Lightsails. Sweepers, report when your nets are loaded. Sails and tethered rockets will be anchored as Team Three's nets are filled."

    "Abby, double-check our assigned sweep," Simmons said. "Paul, stand by to deploy our nets when we reach the sweep area," Darlene's voice lost her normal accent when she slipped into command mode, Tom noticed. He also noticed the faint wash of body odor coming from the inside of his suit. Time to go to the laundry again, after this sweep is over. Then he made the mistake of looking ahead, out through the ship's viewport. Claustrophobia was forgotten as Tom caught sight of the glories of naked space- augmented by the flickering of rocket thrust plumes, lasersats boiling rock, and the huge lightsails billowing in the reflected sunlight--and then immediately resurfaced as he allowed himself to think of the vacuum those plumes were shooting into.

    "Nets deployed," Paul announced when the ship had reached position. "Painted Lady and Rogue are in position off our port side- Obsidian, Betty Page, Sea Hunt, and Questor are in position to starboard. We've got ten Popeyes floating over head at one hundred klicks. That'll be Team Two's 18th Wing of Lightsailors. And thermal sensors report a whole mess of rocket exhaust plumes crossing the sweep area. You can actually see the laser beams when they intersect some of the plumes."
    "Pink Floyd is going to file a lawsuit," Tom muttered as he thought of a show he'd seen in Raleigh-Durham when he was younger. If the claustrophobia gets too much, he thought, just think of that flying pig.  It should be weird enough to snap you out of it.
    "Can the sightseeing, Weldon," came Darlene's voice in Tom's headphones. "I need a dust count. And I needed it yesterday, Mister. We've got a sweep to make. I don't want to miss anything smaller than a softball. Rogan, what's the radar painting?"
    "We are on track and netting debris," Rogan replied. "Course correction: two points- North of the ecliptic -to avoid that big rock, one point three klicks dead ahead-"
    "I'm on it," Abby replied before any command could be given. "Avoiding that big rock. Transponder missile launched to mark it for recovery by one of the smaller sail-ships."
    "You go, Girlfriend," Darlene said approvingly.
    "Dust count at one part per five cubic centimeters," Tom reported as he shifted his gaze from the viewport to his instruments and deciphered their readouts. "Target area reads as predicted. Average rock size is thirty to fifty centimeters, boulder size at three to fifteen meters- Except for that hundred-meter shard that we dodged and a cloud of sand and gravel fifty klicks ahead, there's not much to mention.
    "Net stress reads half a ton of debris," Paul reported. "Sweep is nominal. Everything within predicted limits."
    "OK people, stay sharp," Darlene intoned. "We've got a long night ahead of us."
    The ship continued to pick up debris, and the automatic systems fired to adjust to the continually shifting center of gravity.
    "Net stress reads four metric tons of debris collected so far," said Paul. "Another hour and we'll be at our tow limit."

    "Steady as she goes, Abby," Darlene replied without looking up from her instruments.
    "Aye Aye, Captain Ahab," Abby joked. "Sweep proceeding as nominal."
    "Do you copy, Sweep Control?" Darlene asked.
    "We copy, Sister Ray. Clean and green," replied someone on the expedition mothership. "Be advised that you are approaching rocket 382's plume from Fragment 2. Suggest you divert one degree South
ecliptic for 98 seconds."
    "Understood Control," Darlene said.
    "Correction noted and executed," Abby said as she deftly piloted the sweeper-ship onto a safer course. "Paul, I need a temperature check on the net and anchoring lines. I don't want to get too close to that hot gas."
    "Temp well within operating limits," Paul answered. "Spool coolant at nominal pressure. Cables well within designed stress limits. No excessive strain on the linkages."
    "Dust count at seven parts per CC," Tom reported. "We're in the ballpark and netting at nominal limits..."
    "Net stress at four point three metric tons," Paul said. "Stress gages and temps still within recommended limits."
    "I don't like it," Darlene said, nervously biting her lower lip. "Its too damn quiet."

Year Two, December:
Murphy's Law
[Between the Worlds]

3:03 PM, December 19th

   "Sweet Jane is on course as well as on schedule, Captain Best," Samantha said. "All instruments reading Green and Go. Sweep at nominal...But,"
    "Problems, Sam?" Tony Best asked.
    "Helm is sluggish again, Cap. The mechanics have been all over the system, but the damn problem keeps coming back."
    "You recommend we turn back for repairs, Samantha?"
    "Officially? No, Capt'n Tony. But off the record? I sure would like it if you lit a fire under our chief mechanic just as soon as we get back and dock. This tiller is getting harder to move than a bear in a phone booth... "
    "Consider it lit, Sam. Doug's ass is going to get roasted. Good and hot." Captain Best laughed.
    "Dust at two point seven," Mike Smith called out.
Cthulu Local Fragment Field
    "Net stress at half our rated capacity," reported net operator Bob Wolfe.
    "Getting some confusion on both the radars, Cap," Kitty said with a hint of worry. "The long range is bleeding over into the short, and they're supposed to be on different frequencies. We've got a glitch in the emitters. Can't tell if its hardware or software yet."
    "Recommendations, Kitty?"

    "Slow down," Kitty said, "and run a whole heap of systems checks. The short range is showing me garbage- and the long range is showing me garbage further away... I hope its further away," The desperation in Kitty Obara's normally ice-cold voice revealed just how badly the radar glitch was endangering the ship.
    "What? Okay," Best said, "everyone go ahead and button up.  If we hit some unexpected chop..."  Everyone quickly sealed their helmets and began relying on suit pressure.  "Show and tell, Lady. Let me see those screens..."
    "Right here, Cap."
    "Sam, come hard about to port!" Captain Best turned and shouted after a scant moment's examination of both radar screens. "Drop speed to five percent! Franky, fire the retros on the net corners! Jill, slave your console to Kitty's and see if the two of you can track down the glitch. One of you do hardware, the other do software."  Captain Best rolled his eyes.  "Fine time for a bunch of stuff that never should've worked in the first place to finally figure that out!"
    "What have we got, Cap?" Samantha called out as she struggled with the recalcitrant steering yoke. Sweet Jane wallowed like an over-loaded barge, and only reluctantly slowed and turned about at Samantha's command.
    "I can't tell yet; the radar's totally fried. But it looked like a cloud of gravel and a couple of larger rocks. I think we dodged them all. Bob, seal off the net and signal our assigned Popeyes. We're flying damn near blind. No freaking way am I going to stand still for that. We- We are going back for repairs, people. Sam, bring us to a full stop and detach the net as soon as Mr. Wolfe gets it tied off. Then plot us an emergency course back to the George. Jill, signal the George that I want a full crash crew ready in case the nav systems totally crap out on us during final approach."
    "Transmitting, Cap," Jill replied.
    "I'm on it," Samantha said, then seconds later spoke again. "Net module sealed and detached. We're braked to a halt and turning to the new course now... Oh shit!"

    The previously unseen shard of rock burst through the ship's viewport and hurtled headlong through Samantha's chest, pinning her to her seat and ripping the seat itself lose from it's mountings. The deadly rock carried on until milliseconds later it came to a stop- after piercing the back wall of the control cabin like some giant spear. The gong-like clang of the rock puncturing the cabin was gone in less than a second as the vacuum of space took over.  The actual shape of vessel was altered like a crumpled can by the loss of pressure.  Samantha's suddenly lifeless body hung against the rear wall like a butterfly pinned to a collector's corkboard. The hole in her chest was nearly a foot across. She was almost cut in two. Her weightless arms and legs floated aimlessly in the rush of detritus escaping her pierced and decompressed corpse.
    "Someone see if we've got any control left!" the Captain's voice roared through the crew's suit headsets. "Don't pay attention to Samantha's body or to the hole in the ship! For God's sake, she wouldn't have wanted you to die too!"  The crew jumped to action, training overcoming grief that would have to be felt later.  "Someone plug a connection into the Com system! Send a Mayday! Now! Hull breach- with casualties! All ships, all ships..."

Year Two, December:
Outrageous Fortune
[Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun]

4:09 PM, December 19th

    "Mayday! Mayday! All ships, all ships- be advised that Sweet Jane is in distress... Hull breach, with casualties.
All ships, all ships-"
    "Sam!" Abby screamed.
    "Abby! Pull yourself together! Plot us a course," Darlene shouted sternly. "I want a zero error intercept. Full power blast toward
Sweet Jane- then a rapid 360 degree turnover and full power deceleration. Get busy on the math, Abby. Paul, tie off the net and dump it. Helden- You, Charley! Snap out of it! Call in to flight control. Advise them we're changing course and will be leaving our net for pick-up. Weldon, I'm going to need a medical aide. You're elected. Grab the first aid kit and the suit repair kit. Got that course yet, Abby?"
    "Done and ready, Darlene."
    "Do it, Girl."
    "Momma's coming, baby..."
    "Stow it, Dr. Tom-Tom," Abby replied coldly- flipping switches and tapping data into her console the whole time. "Fly now, get Pshrunk later. No time for thinking. Only time for acting. Thinking can come later, when I've got time. Sam needs me now, and she needs me in one piece. Don't interrupt my flying, Doc."
    "She's right, Weldon," Simmons ordered.  "Time to stop thinking like a doctor of psychology and start thinking like an emergency room nurse," Darlene said calmly. Only the tears she tried to hide belied her spoken stoic facade.
    The vacuum of space is far, far too thin to carry sound. But the metal of the ship conducted engine noise into the cockpit- usually as a dull hissing moan that Tom had long ago gotten used to. For the first time, he heard the unholy roar of all four engines unleashed at full power, as the acceleration pushed him deeply back into his seat. Sister Ray was vibrating like a coin-operated bed in a cheap motel. So this is what Bat-Outta-Hell mode feels like, Tom thought as his teeth chattered from the shaking. Sounds like that Harley I took across Arizona back during one college Spring Break. Yeah, that night I got it up to a hundred and seven... Sounded just like this. Whoops! Freefall! We're coasting until we get to the turn-over point.
"Brace yourselves," Abby said calmly. Her voice in Tom's headset sounded confident, totally in control. "Turn-over, coming up in Five, Four, Three, Two, One, YEEEEEHAAAAA!"
    With a stomach-twisting lurch, the ship flipped and rotated at the same time, then jerked as small thrusters fired to ease the reorientation to a stop. Sister Ray was now hurtling butt-first through the void- her engines ready to savagely brake the ship's speed.
    "Deceleration... Now!" Abby snapped out. Again came the demonic howl of the engines. Again came the crushing g-forces... But then, finally, they were in free fall once more. The wreck of Sweet Jane was visible through the cockpit bubble, and close enough to fire grappling lines over to. "Oh shit-" Abby said quietly as she took in the shattered cockpit. "There's no way she could have survived. It went right through the pilot's position. She'd have been staked through the heart like some kinda- damn vampire. I can feel it Doc. She's gone. I'm... I'm numb- all over."
     "Stay here," Darlene ordered Abby.
    "Yes Ma'am,"
    "Angelina, start getting space cleared for the wounded."
    "I'm on it. I checked to see if the emergency flashers were on, too.We'll have other boats incoming in a few minutes."
    "Right. Good job. Everyone else is with me.
Stand-by to depressurize the cabin.  There's no way they've still got atmosphere over there. Let's go-"

    There was blood everywhere inside the
Sweet Jane. Control consoles and seats were ripped loose from their mounts, perfectly spherical droplets of Sam's blood floating everywhere. Diamond-hard fragments of shattered armor-glass glittered among the crimson film of gory mist. Everyone moved in toward the injured. Emergency medical training kicking in, Sister Ray's crew started seeing to the wounded. Within a few scant moments, the next-nearest ships began to arrive. With only a few, brief words between the arriving crews and Sister Ray's, Sweet Jane's captain and co-pilot were evacuated to another ship. Then they began to free Sam's body from the rock.

         Dec. 20
        19:40 GMT
       UNSS St. George
      Cthulu Expedition

  So much has happened since my last letter. We've suffered
a horrible tragedy: Abby's girlfriend Samantha was killed in
an accident yesterday evening. There was nothing anyone
could do, it happened too quickly. This stuff we're flying in
was built so near as they can tell from the debriefing,
several systems crapped out at once.  They're getting ready
to do a quick check of the wreck. 
 Her co-pilot, Major Mike Smith, is still in the infirmary
suffering from a concussion. His prognosis is good, however.
Her Captain, Tony Best, suffered a broken arm. Nasty break.
The bone went through into the insulation. Good thing that
held, or he would have died when the air left.
Poor Samantha was killed instantly. Thank God. 
I've been told what happens when the human body hits a
vacuum. This was much more... humane.
Mike and Tony were injured when their seats ripped loose
from their mountings from the shock of the impact.
 Abby is grief-stricken and has vanished into the George's 
uncharted depths. An in-board IM from her I got less than an
hour ago indicates that she is considering joining one of the
Fragment Relocation missions as a scout pilot. I feel like I
ought to be able to offer her more consolation or comfort
than I have been. I feel as if I've failed... She is inconsolable,
as would anyone in their right mind be at a time like this. I
don't want her to make a bad decision, blinded by grief, as it
were... But I have to agree with her on at least one point-
There is nothing left for her back on Earth. As much as I hate
to admit it, staying in space may be the best thing for her. The
constant work will help keep her focused until she can cope
with the grief. Or the constant strive for survival. They are truly
going where no one has gone before, where none of us have
any business being now, not until we've perfected these
gadgets that keep us alive...
 Miri, I've never felt so damned helpless in my whole life. I
know that there is more that I should be able to say or to do,
but all I can think of is Samantha laid out in her coffin. I can't
think straight. I shouldn't be trying to send a message out to
you right now. I shouldn't even be trying to think of what a
good doctor should say to his patient. I should be grieving for
Samantha... A good friend is gone, forever, and I feel so numb...
I am so confused, I don't know what to think... But I do know
that I miss you, and need you so much, right this minute... I
need you to anchor me. One of my Patients needs me and I
cannot help her! I can't possibly feel morehelpless- or useless,
than I do at this moment...
 Wishing I were in your arms right now-
       Love you,



1:14 AM, December 23rd

    "Holy crap! Abby, you just scared the livin' shit out of me!"
    "We got to talk, Tom-Tom."
    "Gimme a minute to put on some pants-"
    "Tom, I'm not going home."  Weldon looked at her, weighing carefully what he should say.  But his grief and his confused feelings got the best of him, and he simply had to resort to the obvious.
    "What? Have you thought this through?"
    "Yeah," Abby said.  "I'm going to sign on with the Fragment Two relocation team. There's nothing for me to go back to."
    "Don't burn your bridges, Abby."
    "I'm not. There's just nothing I want to do back home. Out here, I can help put this chunk of rock somewhere that it can't ever be a threat again."
    "And how much of this is because Sam's dead, Abby?"  Abby went very pale, and Tom suddenly regretted mentioning her name.
    "Some. But we were going to do it any way, together. Now, if I just give up and go home..."
    "I see," Tom spoke.  "It'd be like you gave up just because she died. Have you considered how long it'll be before you can go back to Earth if you leave with the Frag 2 Crew?"
    "Yeah. It'd be five years before we could get the  rock stabilized into the Asteroid Belt-Mars halfway orbit that they want. Any trip home after that would have to be depending on the relative orbital positions. Make it seven to ten years before I might get to walk on Earth again."  She stopped and wiped away stray tears that had come in spite of all her efforts.  "Assuming they can get supplies and fuel out to us.  Assuming we ever really figure out what the hell we're doing.  I'd sign on with Frag 1, but they want to go out into the outer system and might not get back for even longer.  Suicide if you ask me."  Abby managed a pained smile.  "And no, Tom-Tom, I'm anything but suicidal.  Believe me, I spent half the day yesterday contemplating a walk behind the reactor shielding, and I'm still here.  See?"
    "Where's Frag 3 heading?" Tom said as he tried to change the subject.
    "Halfway between Earth and Mars, Tom-Tom. Number 4, 5, and the rest are heading for the far side of the asteroid belt, Jupiter and Saturn's moons, and even one big chunk is going to be impacted on Venus- or close-orbited. Depends on the math."
    "All right. So you want to go through with something that you and Sam had planned on doing. What happens if you decide that you've made a mistake?"
    "I probably am," she said, "at least if I put safety first.  There's no guarantee any of us hard cases won't get our asses handed to us.  Our chances aren't good, but there is a chance."  Abby finally allowed herself to laugh.  "Okay, so I ain't suicidal.  Doesn't mean I feel bad about riding a 90% chance of dying."
    "You have thought this through. For what its worth to you, I'm proud of you."


   On Earth, all was as well as could be expected when the final truth was revealed, that the mission to Cthulu had indeed been a matter of life and death.  Few, if any, had been left who still believed the cover story, but full-scale panic had been narrowly averted.  Questions remained, however, questions about the cost the secrecy of the cover-up, questions about how much anyone would believe the next pronouncement that a dangerous space rock would miss the planet.  There was rejoicing, there was celebration, there was worry...

         Feb. 25
        17:20 GMT
       UNSS St. George
      Cthulu Expedition

 The mission is finally over. No matter what the cost to us,
is now safe. Somehow, that feels hollow now that
Sam is dead. I
can't help thinking about "what ifs" and
"if onlys" like some demented
fool who believes that
wishing can change reality. Sam is dead. My
friend is
gone forever. I should accept it, adjust, and move on, but

that damned formula seems as stilted and fake as any
variety show stage magician- trying to pull
escaped rabbits out of
his prop hat and grinning madly at
the audience while he sweats out
the end of the act.
 I'm only human after all. When my friends die, I hurt. This
is going to
hurt for a damn long time, Baby. I wish I could
be with you right now.
I need your centering. And I need
your arms around me right now. I've
lost friends before,
but losing Sam has hurt the worst of anyone so far
in my
whole life. Thank all the gods that the voyage home will
 The stars out here are cold and bright, and sharp as a
razor. Even
their beauty seems tainted and deadly now. I
can't wait to get back
to you. I hate this place.
       My love,

Year Three, March:
The Price of Safety

1:11 AM, March 3rd

    As Tom stood, ship-slippers firmly velcroed to the deck, looking out through the huge viewport of the zero-gee observation deck of the George, he felt someone moving to stand at his side.The Parting of the Ways He decided that the view was more important and kept looking at the glories of naked space. The comet fragments, each outfitted with sails and motors, looked like toys through the thick armor-glass window. Tiny flickers of flame sprouted- seemingly at random - from the equally tiny rockets. He could see the huge wire loops of the Mag-Sails and the shimmering butterfly-wing gossamer of the Light-Sails towing the gray and black rock of the comet fragments into different, more useful orbits. Orbits from which they could never again threaten to fall on Earth. Even tinier flickers of thruster flames from small ships left behind with the fragments briefly lit the endless night.
    "Beautiful, isn't it?"
    Tom looked to see that it was Admiral Herndon who had joined him. "Yes, it really is beautiful. The same way a volcano is beautiful," Tom replied.
    "Sensible answer... You know, I had wondered why you never came up to th
e Bridge before, Dr. Weldon. Knowing Ian Callow, I had assumed that anyone he sent along would be up here the first day, trying to throw their imaginary weight around."
    "Ah, the ever-lurking Mr. Callow... I had wondered what you were told about me, actually. So you know him."
    "To know Mister Callow," said the Admiral.
"Is to loathe him, I think." He smiled. "He and I have butted heads since the Vietnam War. I didn't realize that he'd shanghaied you for this trip. Although I should have guessed. Well, he may have it in for you, but for the moment, you're safe."
    "And so is he, Admiral. So is he..."
    "Point taken, Doctor Weldon. I apologize for my preconceptions of you being some kind of bureaucratic butt kisser that Callow wanted to use for his personal eyes and ears on this mission."
    "No apology necessary, Admiral. Callow is trying to use me, but I fear that I tend to make a very poor tool." Both men laughed again. They watched the comet fragments slowly recede into the night- Neither speaking again for some moments.
    "Six weeks to Earth..." the Admiral finally said, as if revealing a shared secret. "You'll be back with her soon enough, Doctor."
    Admiral Herndon turned slightly, and tapped the "One Hot Momma" patch on his left sleeve. "I can understand what she sees in you, son."
    "About those photos, Sir-"
    "Can it, Weldon. I knew who she was before you ever saw those photos. I had to approve of them being delivered to your in-box, after all. My crew knows me like a book. My Exec brought it all to my attention as soon as her first message came in. I went to school with her dad and his brothers. I've known her since she was a baby. Once I realized my goddaughter was sending those messages to you, I made it a point to keep an eye on you. See if you measure up. You'll do...
You'll do."
    "Miranda is your goddaughter? She never mentioned it."
    "She wouldn't. She's not the social-climbing kind.
Treat her right, son. She's something special."
"Amen," Tom replied.
    "Well, I'm heading back to the Spin Bridge. Weightlessness is hard on my old bones... It hurts so much when I go back to one gee..."
    "Amen," Tom repeated, as the Admiral turned and pushed off from the deck to float back down the 0-g section of the ship. There was a muffled thud as he closed the hatch that lead to the spin section and normal gravity. Tom turned again to watch the last glimmers of Abby's new home fade into the eternal night of interplanetary space. He wiped a tear from one eye, as he thought of Samantha once more.

Year Three, April:
Duct Tape and Bailing Wire

6:41 AM, April 13th

    Admiral Herndon endlessly paced the spin-section control deck of the Saint George. "Just keep me current on the latest, Stenson," he said to his Exec as he paced. "I don't like the way that alarm from Marduk got cut off. Escot, what's the telemetry reading?"
    "Weird shit sir," Com Tech Tim Escot replied. "They've gone to full Lifeboat drill... and MPs have been sent to the main engine reactors. I can't tell anything else from these data-streams..."
    "Sounds like someone nutted up on us," Jeff Stenson said ominously.
    "Or worse," the Admiral growled. "Damn it, why won't Garner reply? Has Pete got some nutter at the reactor cores? Or a terrorist?"
    "Mighty considerate of a terrorist to wait until we've saved his narrow-minded little cult for him," Stenson said heatedly, as if angered by the very idea.
    "More telemetry data, Sir!" Escot exclaimed. "Marduk is launching all lifeboats. Their number three reactor is going super-critical! Complete evacuation in progress. Message from Captain Garner... His MPs are forcibly evacuating the engine crews. Complete failure of the coolant systems on
number three reactor... Reactor shielding is leaking neutrons... Reactor two heating up as well... They've got- maybe -seventeen minutes before total systems failure."
    "Fleet-wide broadcast, Escot." Admiral Herndon paused for half a second to gather his thoughts.
    "You've got it, Sir."
    "All ships, all ships-" the Admiral shouted into his microphone. "Prepare to pick up Marduk's lifeboats. We have a Category One emergency. Marduk, all hands abandon ship. Repeat- Abandon ship, Marduk!"
    "Captain Garner reports that everyone except his MPs and the engineers have evacuated. He's holding the last lifeboats for them."
    "Thank you, Escot. How much time have they got left?"
    "Eleven minutes, Admiral."
    "Time to intercept the lifeboats?"
    "Seven minutes for us- eight minutes for the Yorimasa, sir."
    "We can't close the gap, Admiral. If Marduk's reactors explode- we're going to have to stay far enough way to survive, ourselves."
    Herndon breathed hard.  "Damn..."
    "Admiral! All three of Marduk's reactors have lost coolant pressure. They're heating up too fast for the emergency systems to compensate."
    "Thank you, Escot."
    "Captain Garner reports he's got the last of the crew into the remaining lifeboats. They're launching now," Escot added.
    "Have they got time, Stenson?"
    "Barely, sir. They should make it. But it's going to be-"
    And the bridge of the George was lit by a soundless flare of light-- like a million flashbulbs going off at once. The fireball blazed briefly, then faded.
    "How many didn't make it?"
Admiral Herndon said quietly.
    "I estimate we lost upwards of a hundred and eighty," Jeff Stenson said. "Whatever lifeboats got caught in the blast. Marduk's surviving lifeboats are beginning to dock now..."
    "Damn it..." the Admiral repeated.


     For the second time, Tom floated on the observation deck and looked out.  And once again, almost as if he had been waiting for him, Admiral Herndon emerged.
     "It's called a bad day, son," Herndon said quietly.  "They come, and they're bad."  Herndon shook his head.  "And it sucks, every minute of it."
     "I keep pinning my hopes on the silver lining," Tom replied.  "So many deaths.  I want it all to mean something.  This ship, this thing is so magnificent..."
     "It all means something, son," Herndon spoke.  "We saved the world.  Doesn't matter what does or doesn't happen from this point on.  They can't take that away from us."  Herndon closed his eyes and then opened them again.  "Which is more than I can say for this ship."  Tom blinked.
     "St. George is going the way of the dodo."  Tom smiled, almost as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing.  Herndon looked out the window.  "Oh yeah, this ship's already heading for the celestial boneyard.  You don't see the daily reports, the bleak systems' analysis data.  Marduk was just the first.  All of the carriers are heading in the same direction.  The speed of construction, Weldon, the sheer speed.  Nothing around us, by any normal circumstances, can really be qualified as man-rated.  Marduk was just put together even faster than the rest, so she was the first to go."
    "So, Admiral," Weldon asked, "what is the plan for the St. George?"  Herndon breathed in and gazed sadly around at his ship.  "St George will slow down enough for crew egress when we reach Earth, and as all of our crew return systems drop down into the atmosphere, the planet's gravity will sling her around...right into the vicinity of Tycho on the moon, give or take a few craters.  We'll certainly add a whopper of one ourselves."
    "In other words," Tom said, "don't stop to turn out the light on your way out the door."
    "Not if you want a ride home," the Admiral said.  "Always admired Armstrong, but not that much."
    "And the other ships?"
    "We're trying to keep enough clearance so that all of us going home don't slam into each other."  The Admiral looked back out the window.  The rest'll get an assist from Earth as well, only they'll be heading for the sun."
    "At least you know you'll probably get to do something like this again, someday," Weldon said, trying to provide comfort to a military officer clearly mourning the impending demise of his command.
    "Will I?" he asked.  "I don't think so." He shook his head.  "By all rights, with everything we know, with everything we've learned, with everything we've accomplished, we should be putting stakes down on a moonbase next year.  After that, Mars.  In light of what's happened, those should be as easy as the snap of my fingers."  He scratched his hand.  "But I'm a military man, Weldon.  I know what'll happen.  Retrenchment.  Having gotten this close to the bullet, no one will be in any mood to think about it for a long time." 
    "Maybe," Weldon said.  "But I can still hold out some hope." 
    "Can you, indeed," Herndon said.  He stopped and looked for anyone in ear-shot.  "Weldon, what I'm about to tell you you read." Tom nodded.
    "I read," he said, wondering what he was about to get in to.
    "Under the circumstances," the Admiral said quietly, "with all of the danger to everyone, there were some strange bedfellows in this game."  Herndon motioned for Tom follow him into one of the darker corners of deck, an area where the lighting had literally begun to fail.  "One of the facilities used for mission support was, quite frankly, in Al Quaeda controlled territory.  It was the only logical place for this particular center.  The west built it and provided material support, but Al Quaeda operated it, probably as much for the intelligence they could glean as for saving their own asses."  Herndon straightened as his jaw clinched.  "I have it on good authority that today at 0500 ship time, a B-52 dropped a JDAM straight down the throat of that facility.  Shredded it.  Incinerated it.  No equipment left, no personnel alive."
    Tom shook his head sadly as what the Admiral said sank in.  "Business as usual," he said quietly.
    "Business as usual," Herndon replied, and the two of them returned to the viewing port and gazed out at the blue planet in front of them.

         April 15
        07:20 GMT
       UNSS St. George
      Cthulu Expedition


 We are almost home! We've had a little trouble, but nothing
to worry
about. The trip home has been almost as exciting
as the work was. I'm
looking forward to getting my feet back
on the ground.

 This whole project wouldn't have been possible if it weren't
for the
danger to the whole world. No one will ever be able
to make something
like this work again. Even people out here
are acting like everything
will go back to normal the minute
their feet hit the ground. This
international amity is going to
last just about as long as the victory
champagne holds out.
I'm willing to bet that some of these countries
will be
dropping bombs on each other before the first month is out.

 People. There's no changing them. Mark my words, it'll be no
before everyone forgets this little adventure ever
happened. None of us will be able to talk about our little
vacation trip. Not for a long time. Sad, really. So many heroes
that the world won't ever know about. Maybe there'll be a
monument, some day. But not any time soon. We've lost some
really good people- far too many of them. They deserve a
memorial of some kind. We'll just have to keep them in our
memories until that day arrives.
 I'm missing you more than ever, now that you're so close
again. I can't stand the waiting much longer. We'll soon be in
reasonable radio range, but we're already well within a
reasonable e-mail lag time. We're only (!) 111 times as far
away as the moon, so you ought to get this message about
five and a half minutes after I click the send button. A few
more weeks and I'll be home.
    Love you,


Year Three, May:
Abandon George!
[Closer to Home]

12:17 AM, May 1st

    From a sound sleep, Tom Weldon was violently thrown from his bunk by a sudden, sharp shock. Without conscious thought he caught his spacesuit with his right hand as he left the bed in a long slow arc towards the floor. Endless hours of training kicked in automatically. He was in his suit and sealing the last fasteners even before his eyes were fully open- still in mid-air. He hit the floor in a crouch, snapping his helmet faceplate down with his left hand even as his right was reaching for the extra air tanks that Abby had insisted he keep in his quarters. As he came fully awake he could hear alarms shrilling, muffled by the sealing of his helmet. Still got air in the ship, or I wouldn't hear anything but the tanks hissing, he thought. His room seemed to be swinging back and forth like some amusement park ride, even as he lurched and staggered to his computer workstation. Even without activating the com system, he knew that this was no drill. Before he reached the com, it snapped into emergency over-ride mode and Tom could hear the voice of Admiral Herndon bellowing out of the speakers.
    "All hands, all hands, proceed to your assigned lifeboat stations. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill! All hands, prepare to abandon ship."
    Everything he had of value was hastily stuffed into a small kit-bag in less than twenty seconds, then he dashed out the door. He pounded out into the hallway and staggered against the lurching of the deck towards his assigned lifeboat. Show me anyone else who can carry four air tanks on their back, he thought to himself in a shock-induced moment of silliness. I've got twenty four hours worth of air here. All humor was swept aside as he saw a fellow crew member reel out of the door of a nearby cabin and get thrown into the corridor wall by the ship's irregular motion. Without breaking stride, Tom caught the hapless crewman as they bounced off the wall, and unceremoniously threw them over his left shoulder. With his legs spread wide to offer maximum resistance to the ship's motion, he tottered down the corridor to the emergency station for his deck area. He felt, more than saw, the helping hands of other crewmen in the hall who slowed to assist him with his burden. As a group, they entered the emergency spin-lock that would decelerate them to 0-G so that they could enter their assigned lifeboat. Twenty five, that's everybody in my section. Tom took a head-count automatically. We all made it- so far. Everyone is suited up. We've got a chance.
    "Put her down, Tom-Tom," he heard someone say. "We've got to check her vitals."
    Tom complied in a purely robotic manner, his head still spinning. Her? he thought. For once, his claustrophobia was over-ridden by the stress of the emergency. Two of the others knelt and flipped open the helmet visor of the injured woman as Tom gently placed her on the floor.
    "Ghah," came a faint exclamation from the woman on the floor. "Wha?" she added.
    "She'll live," said the man who'd asked Tom to lay her on the floor. "Got to get her to the Med-lab when we reach the Yorimasa. She may have a concussion. You did good Bub," the man added as he looked back up at Tom.
    "Logan, isn't it?" Tom asked, feeling the adrenaline rush beginning to fade.
    "Yeah," came the laconic reply. "You alright yourself?"
    "Running on automatic," Tom answered. "I was asleep when the shock came. What the hell happened?"
    "Dunno," Logan replied. "But it ain't got much chance of being good. I think we got hit by somethin'. The Old Man ain't one t' panic. If he's tellin' us to get off the ship, you can bet it ain't because he wants us to wipe the windshield and check the oil..."
    "Woah!" Tom lurched as the spin-lock finished decelerating them to 0-G.
    "Seal yer helmets," Logan snapped at everyone. "We might be steppin' out into vacuum."
    "Everyone have full tanks on their suits?" Tom asked and looked around as he reached to close his helmet again. "I've got spares."
    "Noticed that," Logan replied with a quick grin. "I hoped you was the sharin' kind. I think everybody's OK for now, but those might come in handy later. Doors are gonna open any second. Get ready for anything."
    The spin-lock doors opened to reveal a single MP floating in the passageway to the lifeboat, his helmet open.
    "Move out," he said calmly. "We've still got normal pressure here, but God only knows how long that'll last. You've got wounded?"
    "She got thrown into a wall," Tom said as the crew in the spin-lock pushed off to float towards the lifeboat.
    "I'll alert the Yorimasa's medical teams," the MP replied. "Strap her down when you get in the lifeboat. Yorimasa is shifting closer to us so they can reduce the transfer time."
    "What hit us?" Logan asked as he exited the spin-lock.
    "A damn rock," said the MP. "About the size of a car. Grazed off the baffles, but the damn seals vibrated sympathetically and busted wide open on Reactor Two. Hit us from underneath. The whole damn engine room is radioactive now."
    "Casualties?" Tom asked.
    "Fifty dead- instantly, nearly a hundred more took a lethal dose of radiation."
    "Oh my God," Tom gasped.
    "No time," Logan turned and grabbed one of the injured woman's arms. "Gimme a hand. We'll have to morn the dead after we save the rest. Work now, pray later."
    "Right... right," Tom said as he quickly snapped himself into motion- brutally shoving his grief into a far recess of his mind- to be dealt with later.
    "The whole damn ship is going to be one big microwave oven before too much longer" said the MP as he reached to help Tom and Logan. " The shielding in the engine room walls was breached, too. If the George doesn't blow up like the Marduk did. That your whole section? Anyone left behind?
    "This is everyone from our floor," Tom answered. Less than a thousand of us left now, he thought sadly. Four hundred dead. Thank God the fragment crews stayed behind. At least that's sixteen hundred of us that's out of danger...


    May 15
    07:20 GMT
    UNSS Yorimasa
    Cthulu Expedition
----Message Encrypted----
CIA Protocol- Level 14: Personal Com, Secure

 72 hours from home!
 We've all transfered to the Yorimasa- there was some
trouble with
the George's reactors. Nothing to worry
about, my dearest love. 
There is little crowding- only a
thousand of us are coming home,
after all, and the
carriers were designed for nine hundred each.
  It will be years before the fragment crews will
navigate themselves into the orbits
that were picked out
for them.

 Why did I encrypt this message? The UN is spinning the
real news. This is all old news, though. Everything
happened before we started back. Someone finally
leaked part of it, so the UN is having to spin it.
 Keep this under your hat, or your godfather will get in
*deep-shit* trouble, but Frag 1's crew *pirated* the
gun-ships rather than follow the plan. The Old Man let
them go, rather than try & shoot them down. He gave
them the order to fly the guns to the parking orbit, but the
gun-ship crews stuck together and ran for it. We caught
some radio traffic between them and Frag 1 that
explained the whole plot. It started even farther back,
when the ships were first built.  The strongest construction
was put in to the Tesla ships...the one set of ships that
couldn't afford to fail. Apparently, they also knew what a
danger these things represented, too much of a danger to
keep themaround even for the protection they offered. 
What was the Admiral supposed to do? Shoot rockets at
something that can shoot back Tesla Beams? We'd all be
dead now if he had. Granted, I learned later that he *did*
have everyone ready to fire off everything they had. The
gun crews asked to explain, he listened. They want to keep
the guns away from Earth. Too dangerous and disruptive to
Herndon argued, but they were adamant.  For the
good of mankind the damn things had to be destroyed. The
crews set the ships on autopilot, shut down the com systems,
shut down all but the rudimentary flight systems, and as soon
as they're convinced there's no danger of the ships being
recovered, they're abandoning the Tesla ships to deep space.
It's a damn shame in one way, but, honestly, I agree with
them... There's not enough money for any one nation to build
another one of these.  The only way is through world
cooperation; the ships already built are lost to them. Part of
me is really cynical.  Part of me knows that the two nations
that just finished helping each other, that just finished
celebrating Earth's rescue, will probably lob missiles at each
other next week.  But, part of me is proud.  We did it, Miri...
we did it...
70 hours from home!
Kill the fatted whiskey bottle and order us up a brace of
I'm a-coming home! LOL!

                ----END ENCRYPTED MESSAGE----


Year Three, May:
The King is dead... Long live the King!
[Funeral For A Friend]

10:17 AM, May 16th

    "So Zod is gone? Really gone?" Simon asked. "Or just in hiding?" He sat back in the chair across from Stephanie's desk tiredly.
    "I don't know," Stephanie said. "I can't even tell you what Zod really was, much less if it will ever come back." She gestured around her office at all the scattered testing gear that had proved useless.
    "What? I thought you said he was some pirate chip embedded in computer motherboards?" Simon sat up and stared Stephanie in the eyes.
    "That's what I thought. But remember, I never did find that chip."
    "Yes, I remember. Put you in a foul mood every time someone brought it up."
    "Well, this morning Zod's little gadgets became very easy to find." The sarcasm dripping from her voice would have been obvious to a statue. Her hands balled up into fists of sheer frustration.
    "Your tone indicates that you're not truly happy with that outcome. What happened?"
    "They were the only circuit on every piece of equipment that was burned out- at the same time," she answered harshly.
    "What? Zod committed suicide?"
    "You're still thinking of it as if it were a computer virus or an AI program."
    "Well, it was. Wasn't it? He?"
    Stephanie slowly shook her head. "That little computer chip we were all looking for? It turned out not to be a chip at all. I've looked at a dozen or more- under a good microscope- "
    "Go on."
    "Simon, all of them- It was a little coil of wire." She shook her head, as if in confusion- or shock.
    "What? I don't understand."
    "A tiny coil, intricately wound, just sitting there in plain sight. It used only a trickle of juice. Any meter you'd take a reading on it with would only show the normal fluctuations of a working circuit," Stephanie shrugged. "It wasn't even a transistor, just a little doughnut of wrapped wire. Bugger looked like a circuit cooling tower..."
    "All right," Simon said slowly. "I've grasped the fact that Zod wasn't a computer chip or a transistor. So what was Zod?"
    "The only time I've seen anything remotely like that coil is when I've taken apart some remote-controlled gadget."
    "It was a radio coil? A remote control circuit?"
    "It resembles one, but it's a lot more complicated than that. But that's as close as I can get to really understanding it, Simon. Zod may have been an
Artificial Intelligence, but I don't think he was totally a computer program."
    "Then he wasn't ever inside the computers, he was just running them in some kind of a huge, world-wide wireless LAN? Is that what you're telling me?"
    "That's my best guess."
    "Then Zod was a person, pretending to be a computer program?"
    "Well... Yes and no, Simon. Yes and no."
    "Well? Which is it?" Simon snapped, then looked sheepish for letting his frustrations show. The two of them had been having lots of arguments lately, and that edginess had managed to boil up again.  "Sorry," he added.
    "Zod was too fast," Stephanie replied in a soothing tone. "It was too able, and the circuits have been around for far too long for him to have been a single person. But he, it- kept acting like a program, too. The Zod we talked to in the chat room was not someone pretending to be a program. That Zod knew the contents of every computer it was hacked into. It could instantly access any file in any computer across the whole world. Nobody could do that- not as fast as Zod did it. Only a computer could manage that kind of speed. But this whole thing started with Tesla, back in 1908. No computers back then. Tesla built, or designed- something -that eventually got included into every computer, radio, TV, cam-corder- whatever -ever made. What ever the little coil was, it operated in radio frequencies. And it linked those computers and things up into a huge wireless network."
    "Tesla invented radio and radio control," Simon said.
    "Exactly," Stephanie answered. "Zod was in the radio signals instead of the hard drives or connection lines- probably why no anti-virus seemed to slow him down. No person could do the things Zod did. Yet Tesla couldn't possibly have written a self-aware computer program before computers ever existed. Tesla must have set something in motion- when he realized that the comet would be back. Someone else that he could trust to carry on after he died. They must have known the exact date the damn thing would boomerang back to us... Tesla's secret must have been passed down through five generations by now. We're talking about some kind of vast conspiracy- Stretching back to the dawn of the electrical age. It would take a major corporation to have the necessary resources. Somebody knew all along that the comet would be back. And they worked in secret for decades- Hell, over a century, to be able to seize the necessary equipment- at just the right moment -to manipulate the whole world into reacting to the threat- in just the right way... Part of Zod was a computer program, but the other parts of Zod we never saw had to be a network of people. They would have been the ones following Tesla's instructions. The later generations would have been the ones who got Zod's little circuits included in all the computers, once computers were invented..."
    "There's a secret conspiracy for good?" Simon finally gasped in disbelief. "Or some Government's covert operation?"
    "Maybe scientists- or monks."
    "There's a scary thought. A vast, ancient, secret conspiracy of Monks in league with- What? The Spirit of Radio? - Out hell-bent on... world beneficence?" Simon laughed.
    "Well," Stephanie said. "There was that copy of the Necronomicon that Zod sent to Callow," then she giggled. "But my money is on a conspiracy of scientists. All the technology that had to be invented, marketed, popularized- for the sole purpose of giving Zod the right equipment to hijack."
    "No," Simon replied after a brief moment's thought. "You're wrong. On both counts. To keep a secret like this, for over a century, you can't depend on either priests or scientists."
    "No. Zod has to be a vast
, ancient, secret conspiracy of..." Simon paused for effect. "University Professors. With tenure!"
    They both roared with laughter.

Year Three, May:
[Space Oddity]

11:27 AM, May 18th

    "Ho-ly crap!" Tom Weldon muttered to himself as he tightened his already white-knuckled grip on the arms of his seat.  The re-entry craft bucked and pitched like a mechanical bull in some Country Music bar. After endless months of listening to the cockpit chatter of various pilots, Tom could tell from the clipped, staccato exchanges between the pilot and co-pilot that something was not right. I wish Abby was flying this damn sardine can, he thought. This is bad, real bad. Tom silently checked the readouts in his suit helmet-trying to distract himself. With his claustrophobia screaming non-verbal abuse at the rest of his mind, he desperately wanted to leap from his seat and smash his way through the too-thin bulkheads that trapped him within the far-too-tiny boat. Calm down, Weldon. Don't give in. Fight it down! The ionized plasma created by the friction of their descent back into Earth's thick atmosphere was clearly visible through the viewport in the craft's nose. Damn it! he thought as his head was slammed into the padding of the back of his helmet by a particularly vicious jolt. His inner ear could sense the twisting and lurching of the re-entry boat and he could feel the bile rising in his throat. Not now! If I puke now I'll choke to death before anyone has time to notice. Think, Weldon! Think! Count the frickin' rivets or something. You didn't survive all this by giving in to panic. Trust the pilots. These guys are the best that there is. Tom silently began to pray to every Deity of every pantheon of every religion he'd ever heard of- some of them entirely fictional. Jesus, Allah, Mithra, Galzar, Kdapt, Dralm, Antuth, Jehovah, and Finagle... Murphy and Shiva and Odin and Zeus and Captain Kirk... Klonos, Osiris, Kon-Tiki, Pan, and Rodney... Thor, Apollo, Tezcatlipoca, Yittra All-Mother, and Quetzalcoatl... Loki, Azathoth, Isis and ... "Mother Mary and Joseph!" he exclaimed aloud through clenched teeth at a sudden sideways lurch. Save us!
And the roller-coaster ride went on and on-- as the ground rose ever upward to meet them, like the biggest fly swatter in history.
    "Bonneville Salt Flats..." Tom heard the co-pilot say to the pilot, over the roar of the air-friction that the ship transmitted into the cockpit..
    "What good is that gonna do?" The pilot's reply was quiet but savage. "We've lost our forward landing gear! The only reason we're not cinders right now is the new tiles inside the gear bay. We've gotta try for a water landing-"
    "No. There's something in the works. The Institute said that we should expect the Old Man to pull off a miracle," the co-pilot interrupted. "Reno said the boss had some special equipment out there."
    "You're shitting me-"
    "No bullshit. We've got a good chance."
    "Right," the pilot replied sceptically. "I'll believe it when I don't wake up in Heaven."
    "Just get us there, and leave the rest to the boss."
    "Tommy, if we die I'm gonna knock your perfect teeth right out of your face."
    "Deal," replied the co-pilot, nodding in agreement.

    "Coming up on target," said the pilot. "We're dropping like a brick."
    "This is HB-88 to Lander Atlantis, I have you on radar. You are on course and descending in the groove. I'm starting my intercept run in three, two, one, now..."
    "Instructions?" The co-pilot's voice had lost all trace of fear at the first words from this voice on the ground..
    "Reduce speed to three hundred knots... Pretend this is a normal landing and leave the rest to me. We've got one shot at this. One mistake and we're all dead. Proceed as normal. You've got a fifty-mile runway, so be gentle. Keep that beast on a straight course and I'll do the rest. HB-88 out."
"What the hell--" asked the pilot.
    "Just follow orders," replied the co-pilot.

    Tom's crippled landing craft shuddered and bucked as it descended in a gradually slowing arc. The scorched hole in the nose- where the doors over the forward landing gear had been ripped off during the shuttle's plunge into the atmosphere -gaping empty of it's usual wheel and leg. When the doors blew, the landing gear hadn't lasted much longer in the white-hot plasma of re-entry. At sub-sonic speeds now, the lander drifted ever downward towards the hard-packed salt desert below.
    "We're still too fast," Tom heard the pilot say. "I'm going to have to stomp the brakes while I've still got enough altitude..."
    "You the Man," Tommy said, tightening his seat straps.
    Tom felt, more than saw, the shuttle's nose tilt up, and up, and up... He felt as if he were laying on his back- flying feet-first through the air. Then his stomach tried to leap up and throttle his brain. Just as suddenly as it came, the sensation eased off as the shuttle's nose quickly shifted level again. Tom could see the white salt ground rising to meet them.
    "That's better," said the pilot. "Lower the landing gear- what we've got left." The co-pilot only grinned and flipped switches.
    "Rear landing gear down and locked... 500 feet," said the co-pilot.
    "Half flaps."
    "Flaps to half. 250 feet."
    "Wait for it-- wait for it-- Full flaps, Air-brakes on.
    "Roger, full flaps, air-brakes on... The nose is pitching down," said the co-pilot. "About time for that miracle..."
    "I've got you. I've matched your course and speed," came the reply over the radio. "Fire your braking 'chute in three, two, one, NOW!"
    "Parachutes fired!" shouted the co-pilot as the pilot fought the steering yoke to keep the injured ship on course. Tom was yanked against his seat's harness as the parachutes slowed the lander even more. The lander's crippled nose slowly tipped ever further downward... Then Tom felt the rear wheels touch the ground. The impact savagely jerked the lander's nose downward, as if it were going to dig into the ground. Tom could feel the sudden slam of metal against-- metal? --as the shuttle's nose was intercepted only feet from the swiftly rushing ground. He was suddenly very glad of his spacesuit's sanitary arrangements as his bladder let go in sheer terror. His blush of embarrassment faded within seconds as Tom gaped in outright wonder at the salt desert beginning to slow it's headlong rush outside the lander's rolling form. They hadn't crashed! Seconds ticked by as the Atlantis slowed, little by little.
    "Hit your brakes!" Tom heard the voice of HB-88 snapping out commands from the cockpit radio speakers. "Keep it running straight and true. Just let it coast. We've got plenty of runway left..."
    "It's a freaking pick-up truck-- With a rocket shoved up it's ass..." Tom heard the pilot gasp in confusion as he activated the landing gear braking mechanism. The anti-lock systems were going to get a real workout.
    "That ain't no ordinary pick-em-up truck, Son." Tom heard a voice from the seat behind him. "That there-- is a Foe-wrd!" The reverence in the southern drawl was surely meant to be comical. Relieved laughter broke out in the lander as the returning astronauts realized that they'd finally made it home.
    "Boy, howdy," came the co-pilot's reply. "Yea verily, thou hath said a mouthful. Best damn machine I ever designed... Next stop, ground floor- Sporting Goods, Ladies Lingerie, Lawn Care, and Power Tools... We're home, folks! Thank you for flying NASA/Banzai Airlines. Please watch your step as you exit the aircraft. And don't let the screen door hit you on the ass as you leave..."
    And gradually, the lander coasted to a stop. The ping and pop of slowly cooling metals and ceramics briefly ruled the dusty air. As the lander's hatch opened, Tom could hear the thrum of helicopters off in the distance.

    Normally, safety crews would have been checking the shuttle for toxic leaks and other signs of danger, but given the circumstances, the doors were opened right away, and the crew prepared to disembark.  Tom rose, gingerly at first, but then realized that the spin sections had worked on the carriers.  His muscles, if they had atrophied, hadn't atrophied much.
   As he stepped out into the sunlight, he blinked and then took in the sight of ground, actual ground.  He was about to bound down the stairs to fully embrace salt flats, to show them his immense appreciation of their existence, when he noticed her in the distance.  Miranda, in all her beauty, stood and smiled, almost instinctively knowing which of the suited figures was Tom.  Though she wouldn't yet be able to see his face, he smiled back, waved, and felt the tears start to well up.
   A poem almost immediately leapt into his mind:

    There is no sight in all the glorys of the boundless Heavens,
     to compare to that of one's lover,
     gently sleeping- wreathed in innocence.
     Moonlit thigh, or dark-jeweled breast revealed
     by dim candle, or scented lamplight burning.
     Sweetly breathing lover, gently moving,
     re-kindling romantic fires and heart-felt longing.
     Contentment measured in fevered embrace,
     and in the lingering heat of long-remembered passions.
     Time well spent in bonding, tender caresses...
     The better to heal the ache of the love too-soon lost,
     when life's tender bonds are severed,
     by time's cruel scythe-
     and old age's thrice-cursed infirmities...

    Tom looked down at the woman who had come to mean so much to him in so short a time spent together, and he realized without a shadow of a doubt that he was finally home.

The End
For Now


Text © 2004 - 2014 by Dan L. Hollifield, Nightwatch & Continuing Characters © 2004 by Jeff Williams & Robert Moryiama