Year Two, June:
Still... You Turn Me On
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..."
"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-"
"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
"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!"
"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
“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
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
"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.
UNSS Saint George
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.
"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
"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:
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
"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
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
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
"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."
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."
"I'm not buying it. You're up to something."
"I'm certain of it," Simon replied.
"You're wrong," Callow replied evenly. "Please offer your apologies to Ms. Summerset on your way out."
"I'm dismissed?" Simon asked, beginning to get angry again.
"You have work to do," Callow said flatly. "I know I don't have to remind you."
"Save it. You have your good news. Go tell Stephanie."
"No. Just go. Now."
Without another word, Simon rose from his chair and
left Callow's inner office. He took nearly fifteen minutes to apologize
to Ms. Summerset for his rabid actions the last time he had visited
Callow's office. Finally, his conscience sporting a brand new band-aid,
he left to carry the mixed news to Stephanie Keel. Tom was alive, but
people he had been working with had died. Suddenly, tragically,
senselessly. But the work went on, as it had to keep going on. The sky must not be allowed to fall.
Year Two, August:
Rendezvous With Cthulu
9:25 AM, August 11th
The next few weeks passed by in a blur of mind-numbing drills and endless work.
"All Hands, prepare for scheduled deceleration. Repeat, all hands are
to prepare for the scheduled deceleration for Cthulu Rendezvous..." the message blared out of the PA speakers on every ship
in the fleet.
"Is Sister Ray locked down?" Tom asked- thinking of the stubby, four-winged arrowhead that he'd come to know intimately from his training.
"I inspected her twice- yesterday and today," Abby
replied after a moment's pause as they jogged down the corridors of the
Saint George. "Capt'n
Darlene by my side the whole time. Everything is tied down and secured.
For any stress short of getting hit by a stray asteroid, anyway. Relax,
Doctor Tom. Nobody's gonna fuck up. We've been practicing too damn hard for
that. The whole damn fleet's been doing drills for the last motherfuckin' month. Working my fat ass to the bone, I tell ya..."
"Baby, please don't cuss."
"Sam, I grew up on a fishing boat. With real, live sailors, you
know?" Abby rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. "All
that time in the Air Force didn't help me towards sainthood any,
either. And now I drive trucks... Well, before we left, anyways."
"Abby- Baby... I'm just saying you've been cussing a
lot more since this trip started. I wish you'd go back to being you."
"Sorry," Abby said as the vibrations in the ship increased. "I'll try to keep a lid on it, for you."
"How do you feel Abby?" Tom asked as he scanned the
welds in the passageway module. "We're going to have to take our
ship out on a mapping mission tomorrow. Sam and I are going to be
depending on you."
"I know, Doc. My guts feel like month-old spaghetti-"
"Ooo, very poetic," Sam whispered. The three of them had to hold on to the walls as the Saint George shuttered.
"Pipe down, Sam."
"Yes, Tom-Tom." Sam looked around with barely
disguised concern. "This old girl...young girl...doesn't like
these maneuvers, does she." Tom looked at Abby with a mixture of
professionalism and compassion.
"It's all right to be scared, Abby. But you know that you can do this."
"Damn straight, Doc," Abby said with as much
conviction as she could muster. "I can do it. I was born to fly,
and this will be the best friggin' flyin' that there's ever been!"
"I'm looking forward to it myself," Samantha said. "I'll be flying Captain Best's Sweet Jane
in a different formation, but I'll be able to see your ship. And we'll
all be on the Com. Tom-Tom will be right behind you, and Captain
Simmons knows he's your doctor."
"Yes," Tom added. "Darlene's damn glad to have you as pilot, Abby. And for what its worth, I trust you."
"Coming from you Doc," Abby said. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"Come on you two," Samantha said. "We've only got a few minutes to get to our stations and strap in."
The Flight Crew's acceleration stations on each
carrier consisted of a long chamber near the
m 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
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
Fleet is go for orbital matching. Final deceleration thrust in five,
four, three, two, one, fire retros!"
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.
, and the Yorimasa
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
, 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.
UNSS Saint George
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
COMET THREAT IMAGINARY UN SAYS
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:
[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.
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 77, 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?
fierce flames of August 27th that threatened the lives and home of a
Belleview, W. Virginia
Child Saved From Fire
Hero Gives Life To Save Little Girl
Contributing Writer: Zeb Carter
local family did not hold back the stranger in our midst. When a little
was trapped in an upstairs bedroom as her family home blazed up
this knight errant appeared as if by magic. Our office has learned that the
hero, Tom Darby (age 77, 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
Kathy- A total stranger to him.
report that the local firefighters had been driven back by the
at Tod and Judy Morgan's house at 483 Bullfinch Terrace. Police and
firefighters were readying themselves for a final effort to brave the
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
Mr. Darby from entering the burning building, will be released from
ICU with a clean bill of health later today. Witnesses report that Mr.
Darby exited the burning home within minutes, holding the uninjured
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
treatment at the scene, and later at County General in their ICU's Burn Ward.
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
burns over 70% of his body, smoke inhalation, and flame
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.
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
Council is proposing a small memorial in the courthouse square,
eventually to incorporate Tom Darby's red
motorcycle, along with an heroic
in a permanent memorial to his
brave sacrifice. Darby's surviving family
have given their consent,
reported a representative of Grey, Maxwell, & Thornby,
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
See: Hero Page 4 and the listing in our Obituaries Page 18
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
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
"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
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."
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
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?
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."
"This is Fleet Control, Scouts One through Five
are go for launch. Scouts Six through Ten are directed to stand by at
Pre-launch Alert. Scouts Eleven through Fifteen are directed to
finalize launch preparations..."
"Holy shit. We're actually going to do this!" Paul Chung said, excitement plain in his voice.
"What? You think we
came all this way just to tape some photos?" came the vaguely vacuous
voice of Angelina Proctor. Her normal, slightly-out-of-it tone gave no
hint of sarcasm or humor. It was as if she were somewhat slightly
disconnected from reality. She was a certified genius, but then again,
she might just as easily be certifiable. She knew her stuff, though.
Tom sat back and waited on the launch clearance for his
team'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
"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
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
"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
"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
"Do it, Abby. Make it five degrees extra."
"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...
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."
"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."
"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."
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..."
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,
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."
"I'll see you in my office after we dock back on the George
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."
"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."
"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."
UNSS St. George
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
extra training. But sometimes we play flight sim games,
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
I think there's a garden somewhere in the spin section. You
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,
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
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
"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.
"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
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?
UNSS St. George
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
8:17 PM, November 3rd
"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..."
"Strain on the lines is nominal."
"Frag One, Light-Sail Seven- Fully deployed."
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
"...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
-- UNSS YORIMASA --
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
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.
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,
UNSS St. George
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
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"
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: