FBW Cover

Part Two

What was concealed
        Shall stand revealed
        In all its radiant glory.
        Those secrets held
        Shall be unveiled
   And thereby hangs this story...


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 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, the innocence in his voice sounding lame even to him. "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. Payback 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 adventure.
    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.

Comet Cthulu -- Early Expedition Sighting    "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."

    "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."


Comet Cthulu: Co-Orbit Insertion    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. "Deceleration 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.
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.Comet Cthulu, Mapping Flight
    "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's tiny ship. The fat arrowhead shape of the four-engine craft giving lie to the power harnessed in its 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.

  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 time. No screw-ups, no excuses. It is a very Nicola Tesla-like philosophy that has seemed to permeate the entire project from it's first inception: '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 Capt. Darlene into Hell itself if she needed me.
 Abby is turning out to be determined about fighting off
her panic attacks
and nausea. She's got to be the best pilot I've ever
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 fast...as 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
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 more
helpless- 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, Earth
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 cheesy
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 soon
 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 is...off-the-record...if 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 time
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 Communications, 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 them
around 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 keep.
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
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 pizzas!
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