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Rover Mars

Rover Mars

 

by

Jim Walker

 

Shakespir EDITION

 

 

[ * * ]

 

Published by

Jim Walker on Shakespir

Copyright © 2016, James (Jim) R. Walker

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

978-0-9866236-3-9

 

[ * * ]

 

[To the dedicated women and men who push
back the boundaries every day. May they
forever be honoured.]

 

 

[ * * ]

 

 

Rover Mars

 

March 14 – Discovery Launch

Sandy brushed back a blonde curl, suppressed a shiver and fiddled with the focus of the Nikon 7 × 35 binoculars she was using to resolve the blob high in the night sky that Peter had pointed out. It was traversing the full moon as she watched it come into focus. If she squinted through the lenses she could make out the sunlight reflecting off the great solar wings like some otherworldly dragonfly. She had sheltered as best as may behind her husband’s hunched form to cut at least some of the sharp wind off the Strait of Juan de Fuca this March night high up on the shoulder of Little Saanich Mountain.

As usual, he appeared oblivious to the chill while quietly humming in contented mode as he adjusted his new SkyProdigy 70 Computerized Telescope. He added lyrics to his tune:

“The stars all out on Einstein’s night…

Discovery’s launch seems so right…

Hallelujah…”

She adds a sweet, contralto counterpoint to his not unpleasant baritone:

“Well I hear the poet in your soul.

Maybe leave the lyrics to the pro.”

Peter replies, “Hallelujah.”

Sandy says, “what does this have to do with Albert Einstein?”

“It was his work that provided the underpinnings for lasers. We’re about to see something like the biggest laser in, or out of this world, light off. Given the way their main propulsion system is set up it seems appropriate that one of the launch windows for Mars falls on his birthday.”

Sandy lets the binoculars dangle from their neck strap and wraps her arms around Peter. She quivers slightly, her voice muffled against his back. “I’m sure it is. How come we can’t watch it in front of the TV, like normal people?”

She can hear the grin. “I guess we’re not normal people. Ah.”

He taps on a small keyboard attached to one of the legs of the tri-pod supporting the telescope and then turns, opens his three quarter length, bright red rain shell so Sandy can snuggle in closer.

“It’s tracking.” He feels Sandy’s nod. “As to TV, why listen to some network’s pundit’s regurgitation of an UN/NASA/ESA/RSA press release, provided we can even get coverage, when we can watch it live. Besides, all the stories seem to me to be about some protest group like Earth First’ers, Flat Earther’s or some other anti-science or pseudo science idiots waving signs in front of cameras. Even the footage from the International Space Station is pretty lame. I can get better pictures from down here.”

“Sandy look at this.”

She peers out from her shelter and looks at a LED display repeating the image from the telescope. There is the International Space Station, tiny, traversing the lunar landscape as if it was in orbit out there rather than barely above the Earth. To the right and slightly behind is another object, which is the goal of their expedition. She thinks, “I really must love him to hike all the way up here in the cold and damp so that he can take pictures of a couple of dots 300 kilometers over our head.” She says instead, “ready for some hot chocolate?”

“That would be great. I’m beginning to feel a little chilled.”

“A little! Maybe you should have thought about it before putting on cargo shorts. You are the only person I know who would likely be wearing them up on the shores of Ellesmere Island, in the teeth of a high-Arctic winter blizzard and,” not letting him off that easily, “you would comment that it felt a little warm out.”

“Yeah, I guess being brought up a prairie boy will do that to you.”

He thought about Sandy’s up bringing on the West Coast, about how with her petite stature she had a difficult time coping with chilly, damp weather. “You really must love me, to put up with my foibles,” he said. “Let me just set the camera and we can shelter by the observatory out of the wind.”

“Just as long as you know where we stand. And, I don’t mean at the top of this hill by the observatory,” before he could say anything. “Also, I don’t think we want to leave. Look at the sky.”

Now, maybe people will become as jaded in time as they have with the other remarkable sights and events that the Universe occasionally decides to display; but for this one instant, this one precious moment, something magical had burst into the watcher’s ken. The UNSES Discovery had lit off the array of Electro-thermal Plasma Thrusters that were her space drive. An object that, a moment before was virtually invisible to the unaided eye burst into a lambent glory against the backdrop of the starry, starry night.

Sandy crushed Peter’s hand in both of hers. “Oh,” she said. Two beats later, “oh. I’m glad we came up here.”

“Yeah, so am I, thanks.” Peter said looking at the glow in her wide, blue eyes that may have been a reflection of the thrusters; or the array sending humanity’s great spaceship on its momentous voyage. He took a deep breath, released it and tore his gaze from his love’s eyes to follow the streak across the heavens.

 

-- -- --

 

While the couple approximately 300 Km below Discovery was gazing up, Leonora Saskund, her Commander and Chief Pilot, contemplated the glorious light bejeweled vista below. It could be said that she and her crew of 15 men and women had left Earth months ago as they prepared. The team had been intimately involved in the prepositioning project, insuring that needed materiel had been sent on its way to Mars. No vessel could carry all that would be required for a sojourn on the planet no matter how short. Given the length of the journey both in time and distance, and the available transit windows for a return; their stay on Mars would not be just a simple walk on the surface like the visits to the Moon back in the middle twentieth century. The intent of the project was to take the first steps to a permanent colony on Mars. The work that Leonora and her people would complete was for returning voyagers who would have every intention of staying.

She shuttered the view. Strange, she had thought at the time, we have high resolution, multi-spectrum displays that render the Earth with much more fidelity than what my eyes can perceive through the thickness of a flight deck porthole; yet we still insist on looking at the real view.

She shook her head as if to dislodge an irrelevancy and turned to her second-in-command, Cheryl Kasper. “Time to retract the control module.”

“Ay, Ay, Commander.” Cheryl tapped on the screen before her. They felt a slight pressure from the straps across their chests as the spherical module lowered into Discovery’s main body.

Behind the two control stations was a third couch, perpendicular to and slightly off the line between the view ports and the collapsing access way into the rest of the ship. The engineering station was half hidden by a console dividing the forward part of the compartment from the rear. Overarching the space were two-dozen displays and one huge slightly curved organic light emitting diode (OLED) screen. The couch’s occupant was concentrating on the latter. He broke off his gaze to check the status of a smaller display to his left. He did not bother to look out the windows over his right shoulder as the module retreated into the body of the spacecraft. All he needed to know or was interested in was on his displays.

“Docking complete,” Harvey Dudly-Smythe said. “Propulsion coming on-line. We should be ready for transition on the tick.”

“Thank you, Harv,” Leonora said. Among the three in the control module communications were easy, almost casual; which belied the very high level of professionalism that they maintained. Harvey preferred to be called ‘Harv’ and Cheryl, without exception was referred to as ‘Kat’ by her teammates including the Commander.

She checked to her own, smaller display, which presented a snapshot of the data on the engineering terminal. “I concur, Commander.”

Despite the easy nature of the team, when they were on duty they always responded to Leonora by her title. The way they related when off the clock was different, very different; as certain media outlets that could be said to lean towards the right of the socio-political spectrum, even in this age, went to extreme lengths to point out. Of course, a Commander is never entirely off duty. Perhaps that was why their particular dynamic worked so well.

They settled back in their couches, Leonora scanning but not actually focusing on any particular readout. Any anomalous data would jump out as if flashing in red; so familiar was she with her vessel. She and her shipmates had, for all intents and purposes, grown up with Discovery.

Unlike the voyagers who hand gone before that had almost no say in the design of the vehicles to which they would ultimately have to entrust their lives; Leonora, Harvey and Cheryl, along with their fellow travellers had been intimately involved in every aspect of Discovery’s design and construction. They had overseen everything from when her center spine had been laid down to the little, homey touches in the passenger accommodations. Discovery was at once one of the most sophisticated devices ever constructed by humans and one of the simplest, which is perhaps a definition of sophistication; Leonora had thought at one time. The command module retraction system was one of roughly two-dozen moving parts within the 800-meter long and roughly 45-meter diameter construct. Ninety percent of their ship had no moving parts whatsoever, if you excluded things like faucets, cabin doors, hatches and the enormous hanger bay doors on the half of the cylinder opposite the passenger sections. Just over eighty percent of the ship by volume consisted of enormous tanks surrounding the habitable sections along with the pumps used to feed the working fluid to her drive array.

Cheryl tapped the surface near her left hand. Among her responsibilities were the passengers. A series of images rotated on the display above the touch pad. “Everyone appears to be settling in,” she said.

The launch from their present orbit a kilometer above and behind the International Space Station (ISS) was automated; however, almost as a tradition, the team like their forbearers monitored its progress. If anything went wrong, it would likely happen so quickly that any human response would be useless. That did not mean that they would not try.

This was a transition burn to adjust Discovery’s orbit from ISS’s 51.6-degree inclination to the equator into an equatorial orbit. At the same time the ship would drop from approximately 300 kilometers altitude to skimming the outer fringes of Earth’s atmosphere, just 90 Kilometers up. She would accelerate from just over 28,164 kilometers per hour to just under 29,000. Not a radical change as far as even orbital velocities, were concerned. Given the total distance to Mars at this particular time of the year, every little bit of delta-V would help to somewhat shorten what was planned to be an eighteen-month long voyage to the Red Planet.

Discovery’s enormous size was not due just to the mass of propellant and perishables she must carry; it also was necessary for the crew’s sanity. The ambiance of the amenities of a luxury cruise ship plying the oceans below could be likened to that of a garbage scow when compared to this interplanetary voyager. Meals on board were an important consideration. Dr. Henry Blythe, the crew’s exeno-biologist had, as a hobby, graduated from the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. He likely would have been snapped up without a second thought by any property catering to the World’s One Percent. He decided to go to Mars instead. Dr. Carrie Wilson, the physician and a nutritionist among her other skills, was in charge of providing meals that were not only healthy but also good for the crew’s morale. It was the same throughout the ship. Part of Discovery’s almost trillion-dollar cost was in developing ways to keep fifteen people safe and sane to Mars and back.

Unlike other attempts at reusable spacecraft, she was designed to be the ultimate planetary voyager. Mars was just the first of many missions for which she had been built with an operational lifetime well beyond that of her crew’s professional lives. Discovery would have many crews and trips beyond this maiden voyage.

The characters of the master clock morphed towards 00:00:00:10.00

Discovery, this is CapCom. You are Go for launch.”

(Some traditions never change. Of course, that is the nature of tradition.) Leonora set aside the irrelevancy. “Discovery concurs. Go for launch in T minus 10 seconds on my mark.”

“Mark!”

“CapCom, Bon Voyage,” said Pierre Lamarque of the European Space Agency, charged with handling the initial phase of the mission into Mars orbital insertion. For political as will as logistical reasons, launch control was located at Cape Kennedy although anywhere on the planet would likely suffice. They would then hand off to the Pakistanis in their new facility in Islamabad who would be mission control for the first four months. Another part of UNSES Discovery’s cost was equipping and training her multi-national support teams. This was humanity’s first voyage beyond the Earth-Moon system. This spaceship belonged to the world, not just to the former and current space-faring superpowers like China, Russia, Japan, the European Union and North America. Even East Equatorial Africa had boomed when it was determined that they would be the best launch site for Discovery’s supply missions. The payloads would rendezvous with her in Mars orbit for the return trip. Despite her enormous size there could not be enough perishables stowage for a round trip. If the supply ships could not reach Mars’s orbit, or Discovery could not rendezvous with her supplies this could be a very expensive way for fifteen people to perish. However every effort had been applied to use the latest robotic technologies for the cargo drones. A separate, state-of-the art control center had been set up in Dubai as part of the United Arab Emirate’s (other than financial) contribution to the effort. Every nation that could contribute wished to bask in the global prestige of this endeavor. Unlike the early space race this was not a battle for ascendency between normative superpowers.

The countdown ticked over to zero.

Three hands hovering over the abort buttons (one of the few electro-mechanical devices that would dump the propulsion system; literally blow it away from the rest of Discovery, should anything go wrong) clipped the safety catches. The ship’s passengers could be forgiven, despite hundreds of hours of briefings, simulations and actual orbital maneuvers; for thinking that nothing was happening. The propulsion array streamed a spectacular, tens of kilometers long artificial aurora. It could be seen unassisted from the planet below. However, despite the stream of energized plasma moving at very nearly the speed of light, the actual push on the spaceship was minuscule.

Compared to the explosive thrust of every rocket that had gone before the results except for the light show were almost anti-climactic. Anyone aboard would be hard pressed to say that they felt any sensation of thrust. If it were not for the fact that, for the crew and passengers this was the climax of a decade or more of their lives; and in some cases, with the younger members, their entire adult lives; the start of the voyage could have been a major disappointment.

As it were, Leonora could feel her pulse throbbing at her throat. She licked her lips before replying. “We have a burn. The Array shows nominal.” She glanced up at the mirror above her couch and saw Harv nod, his craggy face creased with a slight smile. It was his ‘everything in the green’ expression. To anybody less familiar with him, they would be hard pressed to determine if his normally placid demeanor had changed in any way. To Leonora, Harv was bubbling with excitement.

She turned to Kat. “Look at Harv.”

Kat glanced up and nodded. “Our husband looks like a giddy school kid.” Unlike Harv and to a somewhat larger extent, Leonora, everyone pretty much knew how Cheryl was feeling from moment to moment. It was likely one of the reasons her fitness classes were so popular with the passengers. The joke was that they knew that she was suffering right along with them.

The Commander nodded, flashed a smile in the mirror, which Harv acknowledged with a nod before turning back to his displays.

Kat flipped her monitor back to her passengers, who were in the lounge monitoring Discovery’s progress on their own wall-sized display.

Such were the orbital mechanics of this evolution that ISS appeared stationary before them. The view changed to below in time to catch a sunrise. The passenger’s expressions varied. Some flashed smiles at the light show. Others appeared to be slightly thoughtful; perhaps realizing the possibility that it could be one of the last Earth-bound sunrises that they would see for a rather long time.

It was not quite that way, though. They would circle Earth in an approximately seventy-five minute orbit at least three times as they performed the slingshot burn that would send them on their way. There were at least three more sunsets; however this first one marked the change in their lives.

Leonora tapped a set of commands on her left-hand touch pad. Navigational information flowed on to the master display. She examined the vector representation and then tapped another command to send a Doppler laser pulse off ISS’s reflector. A second pulse actually bounced off a satellite lofted into an equatorial, geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth. Triangulation between the two objects determined that they were actually moving and had progressed just less than a kilometer on their voyage.

“Looks like we are on track,” Leonora said.

“CapCom, Discovery, vectors appear nominal.”

Discovery, CapCom. We concur. Continuing to monitor.”

Discovery, acknowledges,” she said completing the formalities of the launch. The evolution was now up to the computers.

“Cheryl, please let the passengers know that they are free to move about.” Leonora suppressed a grin thinking that was more a remark from an airline pilot than a spaceship’s commander. It was true in some respects, the dozen or so individuals aboard, in the shuttle days would be considered payload specialists. All had spent their entire careers learning all they could about their destination, its geology, climate, the possibilities for life both existing and in the future. There were two agronomists, a husband and wife team, whose goal was to explore what it would take for earthlike plants to survive and flourish. The civil engineer they had aboard had spent three years in Hawaii working on Mauna Loa, as the closest Mars-like environment on Earth, to work out ways to use Martian soil for construction. Likewise, each of the passengers had a program aimed at contributing to gathering enough knowledge about Mars so that future visits (perhaps the second voyage, Leonora had thought at the time) could actually colonize. Part of the cargo would be left behind to help establish the first (although uninhabited) outpost.

She heard Kat: “Ay, ay.”

She tapped a command. “Good afternoon. We have successfully initiated the transfer burn. At this time, please feel free to move about the passenger areas using micro-gravity protocols. As you may be aware, we will be steadily accelerating towards Mars insertion over the next three or so hours after which, we will be spinning up for the transition. Dr’s. Blythe and Wilson, I believe you have a bon-voyage surprise. Feel free to unveil it.”

Leonora raised an inquiring eyebrow.

“They baked up a cake in the shape of Discovery and a Mars colored punch for the passengers,” Kat said. “Our share should be coming up momentarily.”

Cheryl was not only the second-in-command she, with a Masters in Psychology, was also the ship’s morale officer. The not so inside joke translated that into ‘Cruise Director’. She and the catering staff had cooked up the send-off cake for just this moment, although it was difficult to suppress the smell of baking permeating the public areas. Part of Discovery’s design intentionally placed the private spaces opposite. Each of the suites in the cylindrical torus that made up the habitable regions did have individual kitchens along with a living room, bedroom and bath facilities, however even this early on in the journey people tended to get together. Kat wondered if that would change as the weeks and months turned over. She had public occasions such at this bon voyage party planned throughout the trip both to celebrate Holidays as well as individual anniversaries.

As Commander, Leonora pretty much knew what was going on; however this was not something that she needed to get involved in.

“Just so long as they don’t get crumbs all over the carpet,” Harvey said. Most of the corridors and all of the passenger spaces were carpeted. Not just to add a touch of luxury, but to provide a way to get about. There was not enough gravity generated as a result of their acceleration to keep anyone firmly on the decks. All of the crew’s under weigh attire came complete with fabric akin to Velcro, although improved to the point where a person could move about without the usual characteristic ripping sound when they were in micro gravity mode.

“Hey,” Kat replied, “that’s what your cleaning ‘bots are for.”

Harvey looked up to see a set of crinkled big, blue eyes belying the force of her comment. “Well, it is good to stress them early, I suppose.”

Leonora’s own affectionate expression belied her words: “perhaps if you two are finished, we could get back to insuring that we don’t smack into the Earth?”

“Ay, ay Commander / Yes ma’m.” the pair replied in chorus.

 

-- -- --

 

The earth-bound couple sipping hot chocolate and standing by the classical observatory dome atop the (relatively small, as these things go) 224-meter rise on the Saanich Peninsula, continued to follow the meteor-like streak tracing Discovery’s path across the starry backdrop. Sandy could hear the muted whirr of Peter’s telescope as it tracked the spaceship. He glanced down and saw that the objective lens was about to be occulted by the trees surrounding their vantage point. He tapped at the control module stopping the telescope’s movement.

“We may as well pack it in, if you like. I should have lots of pictures by now,” he said.

“I imagine you will,” she replied. She took a sip of her drink, rapidly cooling despite the insulated mugs. “Yeah, we still have to hike back down the trail to the parking lot.”

Peter nodded and turned on the LED array attached to his baseball cap. He then dismounted the telescope from the tripod, capped its lenses and zipped it into a knapsack with padding the shape of the instrument. He collapsed the tri-pod and attached it to the outside of the closed bag and then shrugged into the shoulder straps. He helped Sandy on with her daypack. She was in charge of the mostly empty thermos and mugs. She turned on the large flash lamp they had used to ascend the trail and taking Peter’s hand they made their way to the trailhead.

Just before the tree-lined trail, which would obscure their view of Discovery, Peter paused and raised his hand in a salute. “Farewell,” he said. The ship would be in orbit around Mars before, in a very strange way, they would see her again.

 

 

  • * * *

 

 

March 18 – Approximately a year after Discovery’s launch

Richard Starkell was a man on a mission. Speaking of missions, he was aware of the voyage to Mars in somewhat the same way that a person may be aware of a popular TV series they do not watch. That is, as a kind of background noise to the vicissitudes of the day. As something that really had nothing to do with his life. Sometimes one may be misinformed.

After everything that had happened, one would think that he would keep his head down, nose clean and lead a circumspect life akin to that of a cloistered monk. The miracle, if you could call it that, was that the Authorities really had nothing that they could pin on him. The worst case might have been break, enter and theft when he and Carstairs’s lackeys had gone after the gadget in Fred Carver’s basement. Then to top it off Izzy and Moe (he could never remember their names), subsequently lost it while making the delivery. The last anyone had seen of it was when it took off over the horizon to supposedly splashdown somewhere in the Pacific or to join the plethora of space junk somewhere in orbit as far as Richard had understood the situation.

Master Chief Carver had never pressed charges and Richard was free to get on with his life, such as it was, which right now was not all that much. He may not have been imprisoned, however clients were few and far between. He had pretty much drained the meager stipend that Carstairs had given him as a retainer. Still he had some savings, his 401-K and some investments to tide him over. However a lawyer needs clients if he wishes to make a living beyond just being tided over.

Well, things had rather radically changed with the Star Lifter launch a few weeks back. Then there was the subsequent rescue of the space taxi and ISS’s crew by the Taylors and their companions in that motor home. The world was all-agog about the SAGE device and its secrets; which had lasted, like most things, until the next big thing had come along. In this case, it was yet another revolution in some sub-Saharan African state. Actually the world appeared to be very nervous about the amount of rhetoric flying about as nations scrambled after key resources. It was not just oil anymore. Commodities like rare earths and even rarer fresh water were becoming ever-increasing sticking points in relations between ever-fractious nations. That just made things worse with the international scramble to be the first to make some use of the SAGE effect.

To date, no one, whether a multinational, a government or some Hindu in a garage somewhere in Mumbai, appeared to have figured out how Taylor had created a gadget that could lift a motor home into orbit. Apparently, despite all the publicity, the secret had died with them when they had disappeared. At least that was the public face of the situation.

That is, except for one thing, which was why Richard was seriously contemplating breaking into the Moran State Park office beside Cascade Lake on Orcas Island.

 

-- -- --

 

He had decided that he needed a break. To getaway and get his head right. What better way to do such a thing than to hook up with an old friend living on the Island? Pam had always been forgiving of his foibles. Besides, she was into older cars like Richard’s black Trans-Am with the gold firebird on the hood, or maybe what could be done with reclining bucket seats with the Fischer Tops off under a starry sky. They agreed to meet at the Inn at Ships Bay Restaurant, which was advertised as a great place to go for a romantic dinner. It was sort of a neutral territory where they could see what developed from there. Richard had high hopes.

What developed from there almost didn’t One could say typically, Richard got lost on his way to the Inn. He had already looped East Sound twice from Orcas to Olga and back. On his third attempt and rapidly running out of time, he decided to swallow his pride and stop at a nearby park office for directions.

“Yes sir?” Said the young lady in the sharply creased shirt with the park’s badges.

If she was any perkier, she’d be called coffee. He smiled, not in response to her, but rather to his gibe.

“The Inn at Ships Bay,” he clipped.

“Of course,” she chirped. “Go out the way you came in, turn left and its about four miles back the way you came on your left on the water.”

It was when Richard was about to turn away from the counter that any thoughts of a nice evening with Pam fled his awareness.

“Please don’t forget to sign our guest book,” the rangerette said, directing him to the end of the counter where it lay open next to a tethered pen. Behind, on a low table practically within arm’s reach was the Ice Cream Bucket.

We have all experienced the head rush when you get up too quickly. Multiply that by what felt like a hundred times, no a thousand times and ‘weak in the knees’ does not describe Richard’s sensation at that moment. This was the Ice Cream Bucket. It was the one that had lifted a vintage Lincoln by the ass end and subsequently dropped it and its two passengers into a tree by Bug Lake north of down town Bellingham. Richard knew every detail of the Ice Cream Bucket more intimately than Pam’s body, which he knew rather intimately. This was the Ice Cream Bucket that was supposed to have made his fortune.

The young lady thought about two things: that the gentleman was having a stroke or a heart attack; would she remember her CPR?

“Sir!” she said, loudly as she was taught.

“Can you hear me?”

Richard held up his left hand, palm waggling over his head, while supporting himself on the counter with the other. He tuned out the racket on the other side.

Definitely a stroke, she diagnosed, observing bright, wide eyes and the patient’s slack jaw. She started for the swinging gate at the end of the counter opposite the guest book.

“It’s OK,” he croaked. With no ready explanation for his distress, he pushed away from the counter, steadied up and strode for the door. He darn near ended things at that moment when he did not realize that the door swung inwards. After pushing a couple of times, he jerked it open and fled to the parking lot.

She watched as he had wobbled towards the door and struggled to open it. She had been about to assist when he finally figured it out. She could see him through the large windows on either side of the door sitting in the driver’s seat of his car staring up through the opening in the roof. She had picked up the phone on the desk, when she heard the car’s engine rumble to life and the caller leave with a squeal of wheels on pavement. Shrugging, she returned the phone to its cradle and turned to greet a very nice looking gentleman wearing a windbreaker. He smiled bringing on a similar, although milder rush than the one evidenced by the previous visitor. One of the perks of the job, she decided.

“Yes sir?”

 

-- -- --

 

Actually, he had not needed to blow off the date. It was a lovely spring-like evening on the Gulf Islands, the company was convivial and Pam had the family’s summerhouse overlooking East Sound all to herself. Besides, it looked as if the Ice Cream Bucket was not going anywhere. Richard enjoyed the dinner and the evening’s subsequent activities back at the house, anticipation lending a certain pleasurable edge to the proceedings.

Now Pam, softly snoring, had rolled away from him when he slid out from under the big, fluffy duvet she favored. He padded for the bedroom’s door. His departure was not entirely unexpected. They both knew where things stood. He was fun, good in the sack and not someone you would necessarily hook up with long term. Pam murmured something that sounded like a sleepy goodbye and settled into what he decided was a satisfied slumber. He smiled. Pam was always good for what ailed him. Oddly, given his nature, he hoped that the feeling was mutual.

Richard cased the place, eventually finding some clothes appropriate for a break-in. The shed out back had tools he thought he could use. He stuffed his sports jacket; shirt, slacks and shoes into a grocery sack and donned the outfit for his planned activities. The black high-top canvas sneakers were a little tight, but they would do. Richard felt a little like a cliché as he pulled the grey hooded sweatshirt with the University of Washington logo on the back over his head. The jeans had a patch on the knee but fit and were otherwise serviceable.

OK, what else? He thought.

Break and entering was not exactly his profession, despite his past adventure; but like everyone else of the television generation and indoctrinated by scores of caper flicks, he had a basic knowledge of the requirements; at least insofar as the wardrobe department of any of the studios producing such stories was concerned.

“Right.” He started opening drawers in the kitchen until he found a pair of rubber gloves. That they were bright orange was not as important as insuring that he did not leave any fingerprints.

He examined the long-bladed slot head screwdriver. Then he felt the heft of a small pry bar. “I hope the door’s easy to jimmy.” He wondered if the office had an alarm system. It was at that moment he had a panic attack. He fell onto a kitchen chair the pry bar landing on a place mat with a heavy thud.

“I can’t do this,” he muttered.

The kitchen light blazed forth. “Do what?” Pam said, “Richard, why are you wearing daddy’s old clothes? Why are you sitting there in the dark with tools?”

Richard bolted up. The chair’s back clattered to the floor. He hunched over one hand a claw, unaware that he had the pry bar gripped in his other hand.

Pam stepped back into the kitchen entrance, eyes wide.

Regaining his senses, he lowered the pry bar to the table. “Sorry,” he said forcing a smile, his mind racing.

“Pam, please understand this. I left something very valuable in the park office earlier today. If anyone finds out about it, I’ll lose it. I really can’t tell you much more. You know lawyer-client confidentiality. It is a piece of property I was holding in escrow for a very powerful client.” His face bent into a wry expression. “Believe it or not, I was seriously considering breaking into the office to get it back.”

“The Moran State Park office?”

He nodded.

“Why break in? I am a volunteer there. I’ve got a key and everything. You think it will be safe there until morning?”

“Uh…” was all he could think to say.

“What we will do is go down before the office opens. I’ll leave a note for Ginny letting her know that I had to come in early before heading back to Seattle to pick up some stuff. How’s that?”

Richard held out his arms and she moved into his embrace and then stepped back.

“You might want to think about taking off the rubber gloves.” The twinkle in her eyes belied any censure in her words.

 

-- -- --

 

They had returned to the summerhouse to figure out what to do next. Richard had brought along a duffel bag into which he had placed the Ice Cream Bucket. Pam raised an eyebrow, but said nothing when he popped the lid, looked inside and sighed. Richard had a reputation for always doing odd things for clients. In fact it was due to one of his capers with a so called, Producer in LA that they had met. She smiled at how that one had worked out, for both of them.

When they got back, there was a message on the phone. Pam listened then hustled upstairs. Richard followed and watched in the doorway as she loaded a pair of suitcases and a carry-on.

“Change of plans,” she said, “I have a callback.”

Richard nodded. It was an audition for a recurring part in one of the police procedurals that churn out every season. Pam was not a superstar by any means, however she made a decent living in character roles that provide most of the color and background for any well-written script. She could by turns be a grieving soccer mom whose military husband was the victim of the week, or a gum cracking, smart ass bar waitress. She was also had a talent most prized by directors and producers everywhere – she came to work on time and knew her lines.

“Do you mind dropping me? I’ve got to be there today, or I lose the chance.”

After the ferry docked, Richard dropped Pam off at the Anacortes airport so that she could take a shuttle flight to SeaTac. They said their goodbyes with promises to get together soon, meaning at the show’s hiatus and he turned back onto State 20.

Somewhat before the turn-off to the Memorial Highway connecting to Mt. Vernon and the I-5, a man in the uniform of a State Trooper pulled him over. The last thing he recalled was his feelings of indignation when he was shot with an anesthetic dart.

 

 

  • * * *

 

 

March 25 – An undisclosed location

“At least this cell is better than that last one,” Richard muttered.

When he had first been picked up before Florida, they had kept him in some sort of wet, drafty shack he was sure was somewhere in the Olympic National Forest. Everyone knew about Guantanamo. He was beginning to wonder just how many other places the Administration of his apparently free nation maintained. He had read Solzhenitsyn while in college. Maybe these were not Gulags. Perhaps they were worse.

Still, this time they had basically left him alone after dumping him, wherever ‘here’ was. The mattress on his lower bunk was comfortable with the upper one folded up against the wall. In fact the entire space reminded him of a Pullman accommodation on a train. There did not appear to be any bedbugs. It was very compact and very efficient, complete with a small, stainless steel toilet and sink facility, but no shower. He had an office type chair tucked into the kneehole of a desk built into the wall opposite the bunks along with control of the lights. Actually, he did not need the chair. He could just about reach the desk from the edge of the bunk. There was no phone although he could see where one could be attached to the wall beside the desk. There were jacks and power plugs that he assumed were for a computer terminal. They did not issue him with a computer, just nondescript cotton denim work clothes that reminded him of when he was in the Naval Sea Cadet Corps. In fact, it was the introductory JAG training one summer before his senior year that turned him on to becoming a lawyer.

He was lying on his bunk staring at the ceiling when the thought struck him that perhaps he should have stayed with the Navy. He shook his head remembering that he had actively disliked the regimentation.

They escorted him each morning down a plain corridor with evenly spaced doors to a community shower. This was obviously some sort of accommodation area. He appeared to be the only occupant. They also took him to a buffet-style cafeteria three times a day. Interestingly enough, except for his guards, no one else was around; yet there was a wide selection including prime rib with all the fixings every other day. If he wanted some, one of his keepers would slice it. He ate his meals with a plastic knife and fork.

The really unnerving thing was that this was worse than a library in the sense that no one spoke. Not even to say ‘good morning’ or any other greeting in response to his. Actually, they had one (a rather small library that is) and he was able to check out a couple of books. No magazines, newspapers or any other way to learn about what was happening outside. Even the books were paperback mystery potboilers or tech thrillers. They appeared to be well used. Richard may be a prisoner, but apparently life for the keepers was no bed of roses either.

By Richard’s count Master Chief Carver showed up about a week later.

He heard a knock on the door between his room and what he assumed was an adjoining one. Richard fumbled on the privacy latch that resembled one that you might find in any motel with connecting rooms. When he first saw it he suspected that it would not be all that private if someone wished to open the door from the other side.

The door slid into its pocket. It took all he had not to hug the man before him. Instead he swallowed and stuttered: “Fred, Fred, C, c, arver.”

Fred appeared to be much calmer. He held his hand out to the younger man. “Well Mr. Starkell, it appears that circumstances have changed; for both of us.”

Richard grasped his hand in both of his. “Thank God,” he breathed. “I was beginning to wonder if I would ever have anyone to talk to.”

“Yes. I can imagine it could be pretty lonely. Do you have any idea why we’re here?”

Richard nodded. “I found the ice cream bucket.”

Carver did not have a chance to reply before there was a knock at Richard’s door. They heard the lock unlatch and saw the door swing into the cabin to frame a somewhat rotund individual who was blinking at them with a benign expression, his hands busily polishing a pair of half-frame spectacles. He nodded, supposedly towards one of the guards hidden in the corridor. “Thank you,” he said, “if you need me, we will be in the lounge. Gentlemen.” He turned down the corridor.

Richard scrambled to follow with Master Chief Carver a couple of steps behind. Although the guards had been dismissed from, he supposed from in front of his room, when Richard glanced back they were at the end of the corridor. Maybe it was because of his mental state that he had not noticed until now the way that the door to the corridor was set in its frame. The oblong door was set so that one would have to step over an approximately six-inch sill. The only break in the otherwise solid looking metal was a three or four inch glass circle.

Richard shook his head and tuned in to their guide.

“Gentlemen, my name is Kenneth Goodwin. I am the Director of this facility.”

Fred smiled. “You mean, Dr. Kenneth Goodwin of Stanford University and Princeton. I’ve read your paper in Science on electrodynamic gravitation. I have not seen anything you have published since.”

Dr. Goodwin cocked his head to one side like a bantam rooster eying a barnyard rival. Then he flashed a return smile. “Master Chief Petty Officer Fredrick Carver, and I have read your work over the years. I truly believe we have the right team.”

The two were sitting opposite in rather comfortable armchairs with Richard in one of his own between them. In fact the space felt like a well-appointed men’s club. “Team for what?”

“Why to duplicate the Taylor’s SAGE device, of course,” said Carver. He continued before Richard could frame something suitable. “I got it working once before it was lost. No offense meant,” nodding at Richard.

“None taken,” he absently replied. He was thinking that Fred had the technical know-how and he gathered that Dr. Goodwin likely had the theoretical background or had people who did. If this was a Government facility, it was very likely they had other resources.

“That’s all fine,” he said, “other than knowing what it looks like. Sort of! I have no clue on how it works or even how to turn it on. What am I here for?”

Dr. Goodwin’s placid expression creased into a mild grin. “You appear to have a proclivity for being in the wrong place at the right time. No one in our highly funded, alphabet soup of security agencies had / has a clue. Why even we were about to give up the chase, until someone who happened to be on Orcas Island on another, unrelated matter saw you. He actually was not sure that the object in question was the Taylor’s device until he saw you and your companion come out of the office.”

Richard nodded. He had been feeling somewhat as if he were being watched ever since the stories broke about the Taylor’s disappearance. He was probably one of the few who had seen the SAGE device in operation. “Pam does not know anything about the Bucket,” he said.

Goodwin nodded. “We know. She will be left to her own resources.”

“Who is ‘we’,” Carver said.

“We,” Dr. Goodwin emphasized the word, “are the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Well, actually a rather small offshoot, but under the auspices of DARPA.”

Fred turned to Richard. “Seems an appropriate group. Basically it is the Government’s technical brain trust.”

Goodwin nodded. “We have gathered some of the best minds from all over the US to crack this problem. Peter Taylor’s news release after the Star Lifter launch has provided some clues. Unfortunately, he did not apprise anyone of the critical elements. Since they had disappeared …”

“I thought they had been shot down over the North Pacific,” Richard said.

“That is what everyone has been told,” Dr. Goodwin replied. “However,” he removed his glasses, a large cloth from a pocket and started to polish the lenses, “since the Rover vehicle was never found and we had learned from the people that the Taylors had dropped off on Eleuthera that it apparently had submarine capabilities; anyone who has considered this case believes that they are still extant. We just don’t know where.”

There was a quiet knock on the door, which then opened.

“Ahh, thank you Maurice.”

Richard saw an attendant in a white jacket; somewhat like that one would see wearing on a luxury cruise liner, pushing a cart before him. The smell of coffee filled the room. He realized that this was the first time that he had seen any non-security staff since his arrival. Of course, non-security may be a bit of a misnomer given the man’s obvious physique.

The conversation paused while Maurice placed linen napkins on the coffee table, placed china, a silver coffee service and a plate of baked goods. “Shall I pour?”

Dr. Goodwin replaced his glasses, beamed at the attendant and shook his head.

“Very good sir.”

If they had not been watching, they would never have heard him leave. The door latch clicked softly behind him.

Dr. Goodwin lifted the carafe inquiring with a raised eyebrow. Richard and Fred nodded.

After spooning sugar and pouring cream, he continued while the spoon he was using tinkled against the sides of the china. “We have a facility somewhat below,” he said pointing behind him.

Richard kept his expression neutral, although it was difficult. This was the first clue he had that they were somewhere outside. Why they could be in the middle of Seattle for all he knew. He set aside any thoughts of escape and concentrated on what Goodwin was saying.

“We have actually managed to somewhat replicate the SAGE effect.” He took a sip from his coffee and watched the other two. They both lowered their cups, the coffee un-tasted.

“Oh,” he said, “perhaps that was ill timed. Please, finish your coffee.” He lifted a plate. “Perhaps a Danish?”

 

 

  • * * *

 

 

Rover’s Return – a few weeks previous

Dr. Goodwin and his associates had not been far off the mark when they had concluded that the Taylors and their companions had been killed. It had been a close thing though. If one of them had not been looking the right way at just the right time Goodwin’s conjecture might have been entirely correct.

Sandy just managed to not scream. “Peter there’s two streaks heading right for us.”

Peter slammed the control stick forward and to the right. Rover dropped down and away just as the proximity fuse of one of two missiles followed it’s programming and decided it had a valid target. The timing both on Peter’s part and the missile’s was exquisite. Rover plummeted 1,500 feet in the time it took for the missile’s processor to calculate that it had a valid kill box. It was the milliseconds delay between the processor’s decision and the warhead’s detonation that possibly saved their lives. There is only so much smarts you can build into an anti-aircraft device that is also portable despite exponential advances in miniaturized computer circuits. The information that the target had dropped off the seeker system meant nothing to the little processor that had committed itself to destruction. The crew servicing the weapon on the trawler below made a decision thousands of times slower than the missile’s processor. Responding to their captain’s screamed commands, they readied for another launch just as the target disappeared.

The shield that had kept out the harsh vacuum of space was pretty much done for. When the missile exploded most of the tungsten cubes that were the actual destruct mechanism were mostly out of range. Peter had not quite accelerated far enough laterally. Three of the six cubes that had accelerated straight down pierced the motorhome’s skin, far enough towards the rear that the four occupants remained unharmed. The diesel engine did not fare quite as well. One cube punched through the engine block; ending its life. Another took out one of the battery connections, also in the engine bay. They were going to have to depend on the nearly exhausted fuel cells.

“Mike, switch everything over to emergency. Burn out the generator if you have to. We need to get the shield up.” Rover had become a ballistic object like a meteor falling through the sky.

The second missile let go high above when it was unable to track the motorhome. Rover shuddered from the shock wave.

Sandy and Christine clasped each other’s hands, hanging from their safety straps while Rover spiraled towards the iron-gray waves they saw through the windshield below. They were too far away from the emergency controls to do anything except pray. Mike would either save them or all they had gained was a temporary respite.

Mike grunted and struggled to reach the overhead panel, fighting the surge of acceleration that would throw him against the back of the motorhome. He hit the release on his five-point harness to free his shoulders. It was enough. He snapped the series of four red toggles to the opposite setting; then smacked a large, round button beside them. The lights, the whirring fans, the heaters, every non-essential electrical device in Rover shut down.

The women knew what to expect, still Christine could not suppress a yelp when the motorhome’s lights blacked out.

“Sorry,” she said

“S’OK,” Peter grunted.

He watched the shield’s status on the only operable display on the left corner of the dash. “It’s working” he breathed, “brace your …”

An outside observer may be forgiven if they concluded that a meteor had just smacked into the North Pacific off Haida Gwaii. Rover had been in free-fall from almost 15,000 feet. If the crew had a working accelerometer aboard it would have spiked to 11 G.’s when they crashed into the waves. They plunged almost 300 meters below the surface before reversing; a depth that would have crushed even the sturdiest of conventional submarines. Had it not been for the shield they would have suffered the same fate.

“… selves.”

“Mike,” Christine cried when she saw him in the wan glow of the emergency lamp that by some miracle had come on lighting up the front. The restraints that barely held him in place had given out. He managed to twist enough to hit the dash and windshield with his shoulder. He caught the frame with the side of his head. He slumped down onto the floorboards.

“The system’s holding.” Peter adjusted the settings as Rover surged to the surface. “We have enough lift to keep us afloat. For now.”

Rover was stern-down with about a twenty-degree list to her right and waves breaking over her nose.

“You should be able to unbuckle, but be careful.” This after a larger wave set them rocking. “Christine, please help me get Mike into the isle. Sandy, are you able to get the first aid kit?”

She nodded, working her way to the rear, stumbling slightly as the footing changed. Peter and Christine worked Mike onto the floor between the seats. He groaned as Peter eased him down onto a loose seat cushion that Christine had taken from the floor.

“Are you OK with him?”

Sandy nodded.

“I’ve got to get us moving towards land. I’m not too sure how much longer we have.” He fiddled with the controls balancing thrust with lift while sacrificing the shield. “I hope we’re far enough away from whoever shot at us. If they have a fast boat, this may be over before it begins. Christine, please get up here and watch the controls. Yell out when it shows yellow. Sandy can finish up with Mike. I’ve got to get the life raft deployed.”

They exchanged positions. Peter tapped the compass on top of the dash. “Keep her moving South, South West that should put us somewhere off the northern end of Graham Island.”

She nodded and Peter squeezed her shoulder. He did the same when he passed Sandy. She reached up and squeezed his hand. “Mike’s got a bad gash, but he should be OK. We should probably watch him for a concussion.”

He nodded. “You may need to bring him around quickly.”

“I take it we can’t fly.”

“No, we have to conserve power. We’re now a leaky boat. If anyone spots us, we could be sunk with a well thrown seat cushion.”

A wave broke over the bow temporarily blocking out the view through the windshield. Water sluiced through holes above them. Already, runnels were sloshing back and forth down the corridor. Given Rover’s attitude, the floor where Mike lay was still dry. The generators were fighting a losing battle of remaining power against increasing weight. Very soon now the SAGE system would not be able to put out enough lift to keep Rover from sinking.

Peter climbed up on one of the dinette benches, reached up and twisted the catches on a hatch, which swung down. He pulled the hinge pins, angled the hatch through the opening and tossed it overboard. He then reached up to chin himself onto Rover’s roof. Or, at least that was his plan. A gout of water cascaded through the opening. He lost his grip and fell to the floor. Thoroughly soaked, he shook himself like some waterlogged terrier. He struggled up onto the back of the now slippery dinette seat, gripped the hatch coming and heaved up through the opening. Another wave broke over him. He scrabbled on the sheet metal breaking a fingernail. He ignored the tiny pain surge as he held on his waist bent over the frame, his legs dangling in the space below. There was nothing on the roof near enough to grab. Another breaking wave was going to push him back inside.

“If you don’t get up right now,” he gritted, “Sandy’s is going to die.”

Inevitably, he was overwhelmed and slid back; into a pair of arms that grabbed his legs. He popped up through the hole far enough to grab the tie-down that held the life raft canister. He looked back as a bandaged head poked through the opening.

“Let’s get this unshipped,” Mike said, heaving onto the roof.

Peter nodded.

 

-- -- --

 

She disappeared beneath the waves about a dozen nautical miles north and west of Hunter Point, Graham Island, which is one of the archipelagos west of the Alaskan panhandle.

Sandy, Christine and Mike huddled together under sodden blankets seated on the inflatable, which was loosely lashed to her roof, while Peter went below. He set small charges on key elements of the SAGE system wired to a remote detonator that Sandy was holding. He stood a moment below and watched the status screen transition from yellow to red; mere seconds left.

Sandy saw his expressionless head pop up through the hatch. They had come prepared for a possible ditching, however no one had expected quite this soaking. All four were shivering. The jaunty vacation clothes that they had worn into orbit now were at odds with the very real possibility of hypothermia. She watched as Christine and Mike worked bailer pumps as another wave slopped into the life raft.

Rover shuddered as the last of her power drained to zero. Peter clambered aboard tossing a carryon sized case containing SAGE components into the raft. They cast off. A wave pushed the raft away. As they gained some separation, Peter nodded and Sandy twisted the detonator. Six muffled pops sounded behind him, one that loosened the windshield. Their vehicle’s front wheels lifted out of the water and the passenger door flopped open; perhaps to the pressure of the last of the air trapped inside. Silently she slid beneath the waves. A seat cushion and various other pieces of jetsam bobbed on the surface. Peter spotted his travel mug, which then filled and sank.

“Farewell brave ship,” Sandy said.

“Amen,” the others replied.

Christine pulled the start cord on the fifteen horsepower Yamaha outboard and steered to the southeast.

 

 

  • * * *

 

 

The Facility ‘somewhat below’

Unlike security as represented in the movies, it makes more sense to have someone at a desk by a door logging the comings and goings of those authorized to use this particular entrance. It is likely the most boring job in the world, which is why the personnel usually have some sort of activity to fill the hours of their shift. In Corporal Hiram Nelson’s case, it was a correspondence course towards his Master’s in Electrical Engineering. He looked up from his computer as the door lock buzzed and Dr. Goodwin along with the two detainees walked into his anteroom. CPL. Nelson turned to the other computer on his desk and keyed open the log.

“Good morning,” he said, politely smiling at the three men.

Dr. Goodwin returned the smile and passed his key card over the receiver.

Hiram confirmed the information transfer to the log. He then turned to Richard. “Name and id, please.” Nelson had one of those faces that people would automatically think of as pleasant. Perhaps that was another reason he had this post. He saw no reason to come on the heavy. If these gentlemen were with Dr. Goodwin, then they had a reason to be here. Besides, in addition to buzzing through the anteroom door, Dr. Goodwin had not said the duress code (no smile, and a Good Morning in reply). Events would have been very different had it been otherwise. Anyone opposite CPL. Nelson may have realized that they could not see his hands. As inoffensive as he may have come off, the Corporal was still a well-trained professional. He might have felt saddened about possibly having to shoot someone; despite his mien, he would have performed his duty with dispatch and professionalism.

Richard reached for his wallet and extracted his driver’s license, which he passed over. “Richard Starkell.” Since everyone was being polite this morning, he nodded and smiled at the man behind the desk.

After a moment and some work on the computer, he passed back the ID and turned to Fred Carver. Hiram’s eyebrows rose and he straightened slightly at his seat when he noted the Master Chief’s rank on his id.

“Welcome aboard, Master Chief Carver,” he said returning his ID.

All three were cleared through the farther door after Richard and Chief Carver were presented with key cards. It finally clicked with Richard as they stood on a mezzanine above a cavernous space that appeared to stretch forever before them. He looked over the railing at a deck some three stories below.

“We’re on a submarine.”

“Why, yes,” said Goodwin. “The decommissioned nuclear deterrence Ohio class ship, Nevada. Since the Taylor’s misadventure, we have been authorized to explore SAGE. The Administration has given this project the same priority as the Manhattan Project of WW II.”

Richard blinked and shook his head. “You mean the US Navy just blithely turned over one of their multi-billion dollar weapons systems for you to play with?”

“Not exactly. This vessel was being decommissioned anyway. We simply (Richard raised an eyebrow at that.) sequestered it for our use. As far as anyone knows this is simply one of the Navy’s boomers undergoing a refit.”

“It probably cost another billion to re-jig it. How did you manage to strip all the hardware out, including the missile silos, without anyone noticing?”

Goodwin smiled. “When you have unlimited funds you find a way,” was all he said.

Fred interjected, “You appear to have done a first rate job. The section we just came from looks something like one of the small cruise ships I was on.”

Goodwin nodded. “We stripped out pretty much everything to the bare hull and then rebuilt her to this configuration. It is amazing all the space you can get when you strip out all the non-essential gear like the weapons systems.” He waved to a confusion of desks, workbenches and office cubes; all dominated by a black rectangular shape about the size of a Smart Car that appeared to be the focus of the space below them.

“That is the SAGE device?” Fred Carver said.

“Unfortunately.”

“Why it looks like something that could launch the Empire State Building into orbit,” Richard said.

“I doubt we could get enough out of it to do anything near that.”

Dr. Goodwin appears to have lost his cheerful mien somewhere; Richard could not help but think.

“We can create what we believe is the field. The physics department believes they have a working theory on how it is formed although there is some debate between the quantum gravity and M-Theory proponents.”

“I can imagine,” Richard said. He looked at Fred, who shrugged. “Which brings us back around to why we’re here. I can understand the Master Chief’s involvement. After all, he got it working. I have no idea why me, though.”

Goodwin nodded. “I would think because you keep showing up around this thing. From what I understand, every time something happens, you are there.”

“Oh great, I am a good luck charm!”

“No, more like you may observe something or do something that provides us with a breakthrough. In any case, you are too well known and that you have had some involvement with the device. Perhaps you are safest here.”

It was Richard’s turn to shrug.

“May we take a closer look?” Fred asked.

“By all means. That is why we requested your presence.”

Richard suppressed a remark but not before raising an eyebrow. Fred shook his head, indicating that this was probably not a good time to pull on that particular thread.

Dr. Goodwin pointed to a stairway to the lower level.

Richard realized that it had an unfinished look as if it had been spot-welded almost as an afterthought to the curving wall beside him. He looked up at the ceiling at what appeared to be about a score of arched hatches. They had not completely re-jigged the ship, he had thought at the time. There was a group of eight men and women at the base of the stairs. Some with smiles, others with neutral expressions and one in front of the group whose body language and expression conveyed a haughty intransigence that Richard immediately noted would be trouble.

He was the one that spoke as they descended. “Ah, finally, the ones that are going to show us the error of our ways.”

Fred ignored him. He had spotted the Ice Cream Bucket sitting on a lab table bolted to the wall opposite the one with the stairs.

“I suppose,” Richard said, “since we were able to get it working in as much as we were able to launch a car darn near into orbit.”

Dr. Goodwin looked at Richard. “This is the first that I have heard of that.”

“It was in the car that had the stolen prototype we had repaired. The same one on that workbench over there.”

Fred decided to ignore Richard’s dissimulation. Given that he had been the instigator of the theft along with two others and that it was a near thing that the prototype had been activated forestalling the theft. “May I see it?”

“Certainly,” Dr. Goodwin said before their interlocutor could continue. “I’m sure that Professor Heinrich would be pleased to hear any insights you may have.”

Prof. Heinrich sniffed, but stepped aside. Fred walked to the workbench followed by Richard, the Professor and the rest of the team with Dr. Goodwin bringing up the rear.

“Have you tried it?”

One of the other team members replied. “Hi, I’m Sally Cameron, electronics. No, we had just received it today. So far, all we have had a chance to do is remove the top and examine the interior.”

Heinrich chose that moment to assert his authority. “Miss Cameron is remiss in that she did not inform you that she acted without authority. Any damages will be as a result of her, shall we say, over enthusiasm?”

Well, Richard thought, aren’t we CYA. “I am sure, given the high-powered help around here and that you have a working model,” he nodded towards the big, black box, “she is competent to look at the prototype?”

Heinrich glared at Richard but said nothing. Richard ignored his expression focusing on the bright-eyed young lady with a heart-shaped face beside him. Perhaps he had an ally? If they could get it working properly, if he could somehow get his hands on it, if he could get out of here … (way too many if’s and one big one, what in heck would he do once he got out?). He watched as Fred reopened the top of the canister.

“The fluorescent’s broken,” he said.

“Yes, we have concluded that it is a work light,” Heinrich said.

Fred shook his head. “Please, do you have a 15 watt tube?”

Heinrich jerked his head at one of the people standing around who swallowed and quickly walked across to a door under the stairs. He returned with the tube.

Fred meanwhile had inverted the canister. A fine dust of glass fell out on to the table. He reached inside and carefully removed the contact studs from the broken fixture. “May I have a penlight or flashlight?”

Another of the team passed him the item. Heinrich may have been a stiff-assed martinet with an over appreciation of his abilities; however his abilities were still considerable. “Ahh, photocells.”

Fred nodded. “The florescent is integral to the device. There is something else we have discovered …”

Heinrich picked up the thread. “… it requires cryogenic temperatures.”

Fred nodded. “ Apparently -54.6 centigrade. The lower part of the cylinder contained dry ice. ” He pointed to the vent valve just below the divider.

“Ahh” Heinrich nodded. He waved towards the device in the center of the lab. “We shall have to make the necessary adjustments to our model. We had, of course, included cooling for the electronics, however obviously,” he stared at Sally. His expression making it obvious that if fault were to be assigned he would not be the target, “we did not think it would be integral to the device’s operation.”

Fred nodded, while Richard thought, if they set it up like the Ice Bucket, it certainly will be able to lift the Empire State Building. He wondered if anyone would consider what would happen if the SAGE device sitting in the middle of the lab were cooled to even lower temperatures. He decided not to say anything.

Heinrich lifted his chin as if he were an imperial general commanding his legions. “Dry ice,” he snapped his fingers and then pointed to Miss Cameron. “You, install the fixture.” Then he waved at Fred and Richard. “They are to be behind the line; to observe only.”

Before anyone could say a word, two security people had appeared, each taking their charges elbows and guiding them to a painted walkway about ten feet from the worktable.

Prof. Heinrich rubbed his hands together with a dry, papery sound. “Now we shall see what we shall see.”

Fred shook his head and turned to Richard. “Nothing much is going to happen if the batteries are flat. I also wonder if he’s aware of the remote transceiver,” he said quietly.

“Probably not,” Richard said. “It looks like they raided your workshop after they grabbed me and the Ice Cream Bucket. They brought the remote along with everything else that was in your basement. I saw it on the worktable.”

Fred raised an eyebrow. “Saw?” He mouthed.

Richard grinned. “Well, it sort of got lost.”

The table had a pair of red, multi-drawer tool cabinets beneath it. Richard’s imp had taken over when he noticed that everyone was concentrating on Fred. Standing slightly to one side of the group, on impulse, he had picked up the remote, dropped it where it fell softly on the rubber mats in front of the table and nudged it with his foot into the six-inch space between the cabinets. The remote was effectively hidden against the wall. A person would have to get down on hands and knees, likely with a light to see the missing part. He figured that any confusion he could sow would be to their (his) benefit.

Fred shook his head a slight smile creasing his features. “Perhaps this will take the professor down a notch.”

Dr. Goodwin moved over beside them. “OK, what am I missing?”

Oh, nothing,” Richard replied. “I think the professor doesn’t have all the answers just yet.”

Dr. Goodwin’s eyes appeared blank behind the reflections off his lenses. Richard suppressed a shudder. “If you gentlemen are not fully forthcoming I am sure that, given that this is a National Security Matter, you will be in considerable jeopardy.”

“I think one of the components may have been misplaced below the workbench when we were all gathered around it,” Chief Carver said.

Richard looked as if he had his favourite toy taken away from him.

“Ahh, well these things happen,” Dr. Goodwin said. He stepped over to the workbench and drew Prof. Heinrich aside while another member of the team filled the dry ice reservoir. They spoke quietly, heads together. Heinrich stared briefly at Richard and Fred then nodded. He jerked his chin at the guards, who not unkindly guided their charges back to the bench.

“You will insure that this is entirely functional.” He left unsaid what would happen if they did not. He then turned away from the bench towards his people. “Do you not have work to do?”

The team scattered. Sally Cameron was the only one to hang back. “Do you need any help?”

Prof Heinrich said: “I did not give you permission to assist. You have other tasks to attend to.”

Before things got out-of-hand Richard said, “It would be nice to have someone who knows where things are rather than having to ask every five minutes. If she’s available, that would be a help.”

Dr. Goodwin nodded, overriding Heinrich’s incipient protest. “Miss Cameron is assigned to Chief Carver and Mr. Starkell for the duration. Insure that it is not a long duration.”

All three nodded.

 

 

  • * * *

 

 

Wheels within wheels

One of the team members was Lawrence Fong. When he had been accepted (actually, sent) to Stanford, he believed that all his and his family’s hard work had finally paid off. His caseworkers, as they were called, agreed.

The family had been in the Bay area going on four generations, however that did not break ties with the Homeland. In point of fact it reinforced the belief that the only way to counter American hegemony was to lead a quiet, circumspect life gradually working one’s way up the economic stratification that defined American Culture more than any social or racial divide ever would; until one or one’s grandchildren were in a position to be of service. In a country defined by the aphorism, ‘money talks’, where wealth drove the political and thus the economic direction of the nation, Lawrence’s placement with a prestigious, socially acceptable school was a valuable entrée into the circles that would drive this country’s economic decisions for generations; to China’s eternal advantage.

In the inevitable course of events Lawrence became Dr. Goodwin’s assistant at DARPA, which had close associations with Stanford. As such, two gentlemen had called on he and his father. There were no overt threats just a discussion of debts owed and how he, Lawrence, may be of service. DARPA had always been a likely target. Too much of the Agency’s work converged with Chinese economic and scientific interests. This was too good an opportunity to let pass. Lawrence was given his instructions and left to his degree and advanced coursework in Electrical Engineering.

Given the nature of the current project that was about the best anyone could do. Get someone on the inside of a structure that was specifically designed to keep intruders out and also insure that those on the inside would have no reason to leave. The Oriental mind-set can sometimes approach problems on a much longer time scale compared to that of their Occidental cousins. To the FBI and Military Security a ‘deep background’ check may go back to the subject’s birth and perhaps to that that of his parents. Unlikely that it would consider previous generations. Lawrence might as well have been a boy scout (he had been), loved baseball (he did) and eat apple pie (which he loved); as far as anyone vetting him was concerned.

He passed all the security checks anyone would consider throwing at him. Of course, no one would think to ask him if he was planning on stealing a SAGE prototype, had any such gadget existed at the time.

Except for the two detainees, pretty much anyone could come and go as necessary from the project site. Of course there were the usual brief case checks, security badges worn at all times, cars checked in and out of the compound and the like. That assumes that the people performing the checks know what they are looking for. The problem with this site, as with any other of the type, are the ubiquitous laptop computers, smart phones and other personal electronic gadgets that everyone schlepps around every day. Lawrence, as usual, passed over his computer to the security guards to examine. They booted it up, it dutifully displayed the expected stuff and they shut it down. They passed it back to him and took the next one to repeat the exercise. The deeper scans, possible encrypted emails to unknown addresses, visits to inappropriate Web sites and such; they left to the IT Security people, who scanned Lawrence’s system as soon as it was on the network. The scientists and engineers had complained that the scans got in the way of their work. They soon learned that to disrupt the IT security checks would result in they not having any work at all; as when a senior member of their team was unceremoniously escorted out of a DARPA facility in Nevada. Goodwin made sure that the rumor that he was now teaching junior physics to a dozen students at a school in Akhiok on Kodiak Island, Alaska circulated freely.

However the scans cannot catch everything. Given that an entire operating system can be placed onto a silicon wafer, with plenty of room left over for applications and files, it was a pretty simple matter for Lawrence to create a workable computer while leaving plenty of space in chassis of the notebook for such things as circuit boards. More importantly, he had over time stored on the hidden computer a good portion of the schematics and specifications of the big SAGE prototype that had been built aboard the submarine. And, for an electrical engineer, it was child’s play (in fact, many children did exactly the same thing) to duplicate the SAGE circuits as he and the team examined the mysteries of the device. What he did not have until Richard and Fred had been introduced to the lab was any clue as to how the device worked as a space drive.

 

-- -- --

 

Fred, Richard and Sally Cameron stepped back from the white, plastic cylinder mostly hidden under a heavy cargo net. It was the type used to restrain heavy loads on transport aircraft; terrifically strong with firm anchors at the corners. The Taylor prototype sat nearby while the duplicate was under the net. Dr. Heinrich had decided to not risk the original, which although it had its lamp replaced, had been charged with dry ice and its battery replaced, had not been turned on. They were about to try out a new iteration of the ice cream bucket.

The net and been set up at Carver’s urging, along with Richard’s endorsement, when Fred had described his first explorations. Well back from the cylinder, Dr. Heinrich flicked the switch on the remote. The net stirred. He adjusted the power. The net tented with a dull thrum of the anchor ropes.

“It appears to be a logarithmic scale,” a voice commented from the gathered crowd.

Heinrich edged the power to the next increment and everyone gasped as the net collapsed onto the floor and a silver sphere about a meter in diameter fell upwards and struck one of the ceiling hatches with a dull bong. No one heard the slight tinkle of an antenna piece striking the floor below the sphere. Cut off from the controlling signal, a fail-safe mechanism activated and the now visible container floated to the floor.

No one realized that one of the hatches was no longer latched to its frame. Had the hatch been any lighter or the prototype had more power; it was likely that the device would have gone on another flight off to nowhere.

“Logarithmic, indeed,” Richard said to no one in particular.

Lawrence Fong realized that he had to get the remaining data out very soon or America would have an enormous lead over his country. Like the American generation in the 50’s and 60’s, Lawrence’s generation believed that space was China’s frontier. If the US had SAGE his country would become an ‘also ran’.

 

 

  • * * *

 

 

A safe harbour in Haida Gwaii

“When we had first started this folly, the idea was to stop anyone attempting to take SAGE for themselves,” Peter said. He shook his head, his expression sheepish. “That appears to have failed.”

“I guess we’ll have to figure out where to go from here,” Sandy said. “It is obvious to me after what had happened, it’s unlikely that we can go home anytime soon.”

Here was a vintage, fifty foot Chris Craft Constellation currently moored in slip 91-B, Charlotte Warf, Queen Charlotte City on Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. Their premise was that mobility was their best security along with anonymity. Over the weeks the women had changed their appearance. Sandy’s blonde curls could never have been straightened short of wearing a wig but they could be darkened. She became a brunette and with judicious use of a tanning parlor, darkened her skin tone to match. Christine’s dark tresses became a ginger bob. Peter shaved what remaining hair he had and Mike let his grow out. Along with Birkenstocks and a leather hair tie, he blended in well with the rest of an aging hippie generation that had found a sort of refuge on the Islands guiding eco-tourists, running funky coffee shops and various other boutiques in a village of roughly a thousand people.

Peter had discovered and fell in love with the 60’s wooden hulled beauty while prowling the Net for a suitable cruiser they could use only to discover that this rare craft was actually in dry dock in the Charlottes. They decided to look her over and subsequently negotiated the $90,000 price tag including getting her twin 454 cubic inch Crusaders V-8 engines refurbished. Her bones were sound although the lady was looking a little weary around the edges. Still she was livable with no rot on the hull and her various systems working. Peter decided, however to replace most of the antiquated electronics and navigation gear with modern equipment. The four of them signed up for the local Power Squadron course at which Christine excelled getting perfect marks.

They had their skipper.

Christine also turned out to be a whiz with a sewing machine. Soon all the cruiser’s appointments had been freshened up while the other three painted scraped and polished. As a final touch, Peter and Mike installed the SAGE systems in the engine room below the main salon. They launched the Chris Craft newly christened Wanderer II, shortly after Mike and Christine were married.

“Hon?” Sandy said.

“Mmmph,” he replied.

“Isn’t Wanderer meant to be, what do you call it, a costal or in-shore waterways boat?”

“Mhmmm?”

“Peter?”

He straightened up pulling the blankets off her. She grabbed a handful and yanked. “Hey!”

“Oh don’t sound so hard done by. You’ve got the fireplace on your side.”

He looked out the broad windows on either side of the beach stone mantle and chimney rising to the yellow cedar peak of their room; seeing the blue gray waves of the Pacific running towards the horizon. “I suppose you are right. She’s not meant to be a blue water cruiser. I think though with SAGE, they’re probably just fine.”

“Still that’s over 2300 nautical miles … “

Peter nodded. “Yeah, usually a boat like ours would be transshipped on a freighter. Then we would meet it and knock about the Islands.” He grinned down at Sandy cocooned in the duvet. “Makes one think about all the changes that will happen. Can you imagine everyone setting up their motor homes or boats so that they could go anywhere in the World?”

“I wonder how it will affect the airlines?”

“Given what they’re charging nowadays, I think that I would certainly be selling off any stock, I might have despite their current profits.”

She nodded. “How long do you think it will take them?”

“To get there? Well, they’ll probably need to fly at night like we did to get here to Tofino. Also, they’d need to stay low and subsonic, say around .8 Mach …’

She cocked her head in what Peter called her ‘you lost me’ expression.

“Sorry, about the same speed as an airliner.”

“So, about five or six hours.”

“Yeah, they’re probably there now.”

“I hope they’re having a lovely time.”

He nodded. “What do you want to do now?”

She pulled back the duvet and looked up at him eyes bright. She saw him shiver, although she suspected he was not cold. Her smile widened as he snuggled in beside her. Any thoughts of their friends were soon gone. In fact, their two weeks at their waterfront hotel felt very much like a second honeymoon.

 

-- -- --

 

They became involved in the Community in various ways. At first, like any new residents, they were viewed not in an unfriendly way, but with a reserve; their neighbours holding judgment until the newcomers proved themselves – one way or the other. Four people sharing a vintage live-aboard yacht were not all that eccentric, all things considered.

The local RCMP constable had made a mental note to check out the newcomers, basically because of rumors about how they just showed up one day. They also appeared to have a fair amount of cash, which could mean anything. That got pushed to the back burner when she had to deal with another of the perennial bush parties that had cropped up. Luckily no one was killed this time although a young lady had to be heli-vaced to Children’s in Vancouver. These were good kids. They just occasionally needed to think, the Constable had thought at the time when she wrote up her report. She never thought it was strange in any way when she developed a friendship with the newcomer who had become a volunteer councilor at the youth center.

Some weeks later Mike reported to his companions: “I suppose we can breathe somewhat easier. It looks as if we’ve fallen off any official radar.”

Peter raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, I know it probably stank to high heaven that no one could figure out how we ended up on the Island. Of course there are walk-ons from Rupert, which appears to be the conclusion Constable McArthur has arrived at.”

“I think she’s lonely,” Sandy said.

“That may be the case, she’ll certainly talk your ear off given half a chance. Of course,” Mike grinned, “that may be her interrogation technique.”

“Well, as a former PI, you should know,” Christine added her smile making light of the comment.

“Yeah, well I still believe we should still keep a low profile. We have no way of knowing whether ‘unofficial’ authorities overrun these Islands.”

Sandy shivered. “Yes those people who broke into our hose came from nowhere.”

Peter held her hand. “I don’t think that anyone knows who we are.”

Mike nodded. “As far as they’re concerned we came off the ferry and are trying to make a life here.”

Sandy nodded, while donning her rain shell and picking up her shoulder bag. “Speaking of life, I better get up to the hospital. I’m covering a shift.”

Peter had put on his jacket. “I’ll walk up with you.”

Sandy’s skills were a welcome relief at an understaffed Queen Charlotte Islands General Hospital, while Peter ended up splitting his time between the local garage working as a mechanic and the local pub playing for beer and tips. He did not drink all that much beer and, after a couple of weeks, the owner had decided that he was such a draw that he could afford to pay him a percentage of the night’s proceeds to go along with any tips he made. Despite losing his beloved Larrivee when the Rover went down, Peter made do with a beat up Gibson that had been moldering on a peg at the back of the bar. The Lady still had a wonderful, mellow tone that he liked and, after replacing the strings, she felt as if they’d never been apart.

One way and another they had become part of the Community. Just four more people adding to the life of the thousand or so who lived their lives on the wild, beautiful archipelago off British Columbia’s north west coast.

 

-- -- --

 

Peter’s observation about their failure to sequester SAGE came one evening when they were sitting in the mid-ship’s lounge. He waved the Queen Charlotte Islands Observer folded to the article about China’s Space Agency opting out of the Discovery mission. They had announced that they had been developing an advanced technology that would allow subscribers to reach Mars and possibly the entire Solar System within weeks or months rather than years.

“It’s SAGE,” Peter said. “It has to be, otherwise why the announcement? They’ve somehow managed to duplicate my work, although that’s not unexpected. I just never figured it would happen so soon. Also that no one else appears to have done so.”

“Maybe it is just that no one else has announced, as yet,” Sandy said, taking the rolled up paper out of Peter’s hands before he accidentally clouted somebody. The lounge was roomy, for a fifty-foot yacht. That did not mean that their conversation area was not intimate. Mike had already ducked one near miss.

Peter nodded. “I suppose we just monitor events and hope that they go our way to the point where we can get on with our lives.” None of the group realized at that moment that events would unfold in a way that would change their lives, yet again, likely forever.

 

 

  • * * *

 

 

Snapshot

They were gathered in a control area set up on the mezzanine above the two black boxes below. One, sitting on a platform adjacent to the large DARPA model of the SAGE device, was a re-creation of the ‘Ice Bucket’ that had been modified based on information gleaned from the Taylor’s prototype.

Richard was leaning on the rail looking at the two objects below. He was answering a question: “no, we never explored what would happen if two devices were turned on within proximity of each other.”

Fred Carver nodded agreement. “Yes, I had repaired the original unit and was using it as a guide to building a second one, however I never had the chance, or the parts to complete it.”

Prof Heinrich said, “that is all well and good, based on our theoretical framework there should be no negative interactions. The fields should simply merge with enhanced characteristics.”

“What do you mean by ‘enhanced’?” Richard said.

“Hmmph! I suppose you have the necessary mathematics to understand?”

Fred and Richard glanced at each other, the former raising an eyebrow. Richard nodded but did not speak. Heinrich did not know what would happen either.

“Perhaps Dr. Goodwin should make the final decision,” he said.

“I am responsible for this facility and its work,” Heinrich said. “Goodwin is currently in Washington. It is my decision. As you may or may not be aware, this facility is incommunicado. No communications in-or-out. We go forward.”

Richard shook his head. With the original Ice Cream Bucket secured, the copy they had built non-functioning for some reason after the fiasco with it splitting the cargo net and DARPA’s box way too big to cart out of here; if he wished to escape, it would be empty handed.

Lawrence Fong caught his attention. He was looking at one of the circuit boards from the copy that had smacked against the roof. He appeared to be examining it pretty closely. Of course, as an electrical engineer he supposed that was his job to dope out what Taylor had done.

He shrugged and tried another tack. “Why don’t we set the two devices up outside? There must be plenty of room in case we get a mushroom cloud, or something.”

Prof Heinrich cocked his head at him and his face creased in a rather sardonic smile. “The experiment will be performed here. You need not worry. We will be using the lowest setting.”

Richard figured that pretty much shut down any further discussion.

Heinrich turned to the microphone over the control console. “All non-essential personnel please clear the area,” echoed through the lab.

Lawrence Fong looked up with a start. He looked around, appeared to make a decision and lifted the keyboard on his notebook computer. The space underneath was a perfect fit for the circuit board he had been examining. No wonder he had not been using the notebook, Richard had thought at the time. It had been sitting to one side while Fong had been using the terminal at his workstation. He and Fong made eye contact as he dropped the green, gold embossed object into the opening. He lowered the keyboard but not before Richard saw him withdraw a similar looking unit from the laptop.

No wonder the duplicate’s not working, Richard thought.

He was about to draw the matter to Heinrich’s attention when the latter said: “Guard! Confine these people to their quarters.”

Fred had already moved towards the anteroom when the guard, not unkindly, touched Richard’s shoulder. “Please, sir,” he said. He nodded and followed Fred. He sensed Lawrence Fong a few steps behind him with the others deemed non-essential by Heinrich.

A moment later the lab was cleared except for Heinrich and four of his closest advisors huddled together discussing the up-coming test.

 

-- -- --

 

Since Dr. Goodwin had explained Richard and Fred’s rolls in the DARPA work on the SAGE devices, they had pretty a much free run of the accommodation and adjacent lab spaces (except when Prof. Heinrich said otherwise). Richard was not surprised when he heard a knock at his door. He was somewhat shocked when he opened it to have the muzzle of a pistol shoved none too gently into his stomach.

“Ooof!” Richard stepped back as Lawrence Fong entered his room.

“You are to be quiet,” he said.

Richard saw a slight sheen of sweat on his brow. He could smell that the man either did not wear deodorant or that it had broken down under the stress of the moment. Mostly, he realized that the man did not appear to know how to handle the situation. The pistol he was holding was shaking rather like a leaf in a strong breeze. Richard was more afraid of the man spasmodically pulling the trigger than of any intent to injure. He put his hands up to calm the agitated man.

“Hey, there’s no need for this. Whatever it is you’re doing is your business. I’m quite content to sit here quietly and not tell anybody anything.”

Fong shook his head. “I cannot take that chance. You will come with me. When I turn over my material, others will decide how to deal with you.”

Richard nodded. “Perhaps a chance to escape,” crossed his mind except in that moment four things happened:

Fred opened the door between their staterooms. “Richard, Heinrich said nothing about us going to the …. (He never got in the word, lounge);

Lawrence turned, startled and accidentally pulled the pistol’s trigger, just as Richard dove to force the man’s arm into the air …

… all three men were smashed to the deck …

… Richard blacked out.

 

 

  • * * *

 

 

Things gone missing

Even as small a publication as the Queen Charlotte Island Observer could not help but splash the story’s headline in 64 point Helvetica Bold across its tabloid sized front page later that week:

‘US Nuke Sub Lost!’

“Did you see this?” Peter said at dinner that evening.

“The exclamation seems a little redundant,” said Christine.

There was actually no need to sensationalize the facts, which were simply that one of the US’s largest missile submarines whose gross tonnage was equal to a WW II aircraft carrier had up and disappeared from a dry dock at Bremerton, Washington where it was apparently being decommissioned. Although the boat’s (if anything that massive could be called anything but a ‘ship’) nuclear reactor had not been shut down, its complement of 24 nuclear missiles, their control systems and other weaponry had been removed months earlier.

“Interesting that the ship was decommissioned about the time we came back from ISS,” said Sandy.

“Do you think that the Americans have figured out SAGE?”

“Well, a submarine is air tight, self contained and these ones are big. If you were going to do a space ship on the QT, it would be a pretty good vehicle,” was Peter’s only comment. He picked up the remote and zapped the flat panel TV over the computer desk on the lounge’s forward bulkhead. CBC’s The National had the following, somewhat sketchy information:

Personnel were aboard working on the sub when the scaffolding about the warship collapsed into the (now) empty dry dock. The only clue, if it could be called that, to what may have happened was that the massive dry dock doors had a crescent-shaped chunk taken out of the top nine feet, partially flooding the space where the submarine had been resting on hundreds of wooden supports now floating when water spilled into the dry dock. The story finished up with the statement that the Secretary of the Navy had struck an inter-agency Emergency Response Team to investigate.

At this time they had no leads.

It was not until another week later that the ERT, the Navy Secretary, the President and pretty much anyone inside the Beltway in the know had an answer when Discovery sent back a series of photos of the region of Mars that they were currently surveying for their landing. There, near the planet’s equator, was the missing vessel. From a subsequent analysis of the shadows cast by the sail, it was determined that it was resting in the boulder field that had been rejected as a landing site at about an eleven-degree tilt to the starboard.

The World (along with the Taylors and the Woloskis) learned about the fate of the Ohio-class missile submarine a few days later when the photos were leaked to the Internet. The truism that if more than two people know a secret, it is no longer a secret was again proven with a vengeance.

Peter’s only comment was, “well, I guess someone else has figured out how to quickly get to Mars. I wonder if they can make it back?”

 

 

  • * * *

 

 

Part Two

 

 

  • * * *

 

Landing

At that moment, about two weeks before Peter’s question, the only concern with the people aboard the Ohio class (now non-) nuclear deterrent submarine, Nevada was: “what the hell; and possibly stronger characterizations – after all the crew was Navy – had happend?” The last thing anyone recalled was a steadily rising screech ascending into a teeth-rattling silence coming from the SAGE lab before everyone blacked out.

People all over the boat struggled to their feet. Most wanted water. All were feeling unaccountably weak and very disoriented. Some were injured having fallen at inopportune times; others were suffering other, embarrassing indignities; however the sub herself appeared to be intact. Most became aware of the susurration of the air circulation system.

Richard fought to gain his footing. It almost felt like they were at sea, which was patently false. He bent down, picked up and pocketed Fong’s pistol. He saw Fred slumped backward into his cabin and Lawrence fallen half sitting against the wall of his cabin. The man had wet himself, although the only sure evidence was the dried stain on his pants leg.

Fred groaned and struggled to stand.

Richard bent over the older man. “Easy there. You were knocked out.”

“Richard?” He blinked his eyes.

Richard helped him to sit up and then turned to the washbasin. “Here,” he held the cup to Fred who took a sip. He passed him the cup, which he finished in two swallows.

“Thank you.”

They both turned towards Lawrence Fong when the man groaned …

… The complement had lost consciousness at about the same time as the three men in Richard’s cabin. Apparently, some recovered faster than others. One such was the Chief of the Boat, who at his station, immediately observed that the air intakes to the outside were red. He slapped the necessary switches to seal the air intakes then activated the 1MC.

“Emergency Stations. Emergency Stations. This is not a drill. I repeat, Emergency Stations!”

He then broke the proper protocol, for which he would have to apologize to the Captain later: “Get the fuck moving!” All over the sub, people struggled to stand. As their training kicked in they started to move. A number of the crew and their passengers were still disabled. Other’s bent to help. Gradually, very slowly the complement recovered. The Chief did not know the nature of the emergency; he just knew that there was one. They had a skeleton crew aboard along with a small complement of Marines, who knew enough to ‘make a hole’ as crew spun up reflexes too long underused as they made their way to duty stations. They had all volunteered for what was supposed to be a light duty assignment. It looked like it was going to turn out to be anything but. Someone had remembered to secure the main hatch, however, which in hindsight, saved most of those aboard.

The Chief looked at the master timer on the bulkhead and, despite his own condition, shook his head in disgust, which brought on a killer headache, as the conn team arrived at the navigation stations. He made a mental note to make up for this disgusting laxity. Why this used, emphasis on the ‘used’, to be a Gold Team.

“Captain on the Bridge,” announced one of the junior Seamen as everyone attempted to snap to.

”Please stand at ease. Report,” this last to the Chief.

He ignored the fact that the Captain’s voice sounded like something from the Louisiana swamp that had been near his childhood home. “Green board.” Meaning that the submarine was completely sealed. In normal circumstances that would mean that they were ready to submerge. Something that was patently impossible while in dry dock. All the Chief knew was that they had been open to the outside. Given what appeared to be happening he knew that the boat needed to be sealed. He scanned the annunciator board, which indicated the manned stations. The last light went to green as he and the Captain watched with the exception of the missile room lights, which would forever remain dark along with the other weapons spaces. “All spaces manned and ready with available personnel,” the Chief reported. All things considered he was not sure that he sounded all that good either. He licked sandpaper lips. What the hell had happened?

“Very good,” said the Captain. “Have everyone check in by voice, Chief.”

He shook his head and pointed to two men wearing headsets and boom mikes. “Check all departments,” his voice barely audible.

“Ay ay, checking all departments,” the senior of the pair acknowledged.

The Chief and the Captain turned to the entrance to the control room to see the Corpsman, Shelly Long enter carrying canteens strapped over her shoulders. She passed one to the Captain and another to the Chief. “Drink up,” she said, “everyone appears to be very dehydrated by whatever has happened.”

The Captain waved off the canteen. “Attend to the crew. I’ll be OK.”

“With respect, Sir no, you will not. I have plenty for everyone.” She waved to another crewman carrying additional canteens. “It was the best I could think of on short notice. They were in stores next to the pharmacy, for whatever reason.”

“Thank you, Long. Attend to the crew.”

“Sir,” she said.

The boat appeared to be secure, for the moment. Everyone was accounted for, with one exception. One of the crew checking the spaces by voice called: “Captain. We cannot get Corporal Nelson.” Nelson was the guard posted at the former missile space. When the tubes were stripped out so that it could be converted into the SAGE laboratory, the security anteroom had been built on the lab side of the pressure hatch with stairs descending from a mezzanine the forty or so feet to the base of the space. The anteroom was Corporal Nelson and his team’s duty station.

“Chief, check the Missile Room,” the Captain said.

A few minutes later the Chief returned followed by Prof Heinrich holding a pink, translucent water container.

Before he had a chance to report the Professor interjected: “Captain! I must protest this unconscionable interference! That man had no right to kick me out of my laboratory during my experiment.”

The Marine guard at the entrance to the Conn Room stepped in front of the much smaller man.

“Step aside, man.”

The Marine maintained his position.

“Captain!” Heinrich’s tone was that of a cruise ship passenger who was not pleased with the way that a steward had built his cocktail.

Before the Captain or the Marine guard could do anything, Heinrich swerved to another tack. “You there.”

The Captain, who had been ignoring the Professor, turned to see what was happening, saw Lawrence Fong being guided by Chief Carver who had a grip on the man’s arm and was followed by Richard.

“What have you done to my experiment?” Arms akimbo, he faced up to the taller man.

It was then that the Marine became aware of the pistol that Richard was holding loosely at his side. “Gun!” as he brought his M16A6 to bear.

“Whoa!” Richard said as he raised his hands and let the pistol fall.

It was at that moment everyone realized that something was amiss. The gun fell slowly to the deck. The marine, while raising his weapon overbalanced and glided backwards through the entrance. The deck then canted and a grinding crunch reverberated through the hull.

Mars’ gravitational pull is about 62 percent less than that of Earth or about .38 G. With muscles and reflexes adapted from birth for a field three times that of Mars and with bodies hyped up on adrenalin, the inevitable happened. A submarine, even one as well appointed as the refitted Nevada, has dozens of ways to insure that the unwary will be injured.

When they landed; perhaps a better term would be ‘impacted’, on Mars. Or, maybe when Mars happened to be in the way of what could have been the first extra Solar, manned expedition no matter how unplanned, the SAGE field could absorb only so much kinetic energy. It collapsed, imploding into the SAGE generators, both of which, those aboard would subsequently discover, disappeared.

The Marine who had landed on his ass in the Control Room gingerly got up. He hid his embarrassment beneath a stolid expression. Marines were first and foremost riflemen who knew how to handle their weapons, under all conditions at all times. This was unconscionable.

“Pass me that weapon,” he barked jutting his chin at Richard to indicate who was to pass him the pistol. “Left hand, two fingers on the barrel.”

Richard bent to oblige just as Lawrence Fong twisted free of Carver’s grip and dove for the pistol. It was like a bad, slow motion action sequence in some movie with rather inept stuntmen. Of the three individuals in the corridor, Carver appeared to be the only one with some control. He reached over to the handrail that was along the corridor for the purpose, grabbed onto it, and yanked. Fong pulled up short his feet reversing nearly striking Richard who happened to duck under them to pick up the pistol. Carver pulled downwards, his feet slightly lifting off the deck. He had enough leverage from his grip on the handrail to continue the downward motion slamming Lawrence Fong to the deck.

Master Chief Carver looked up at the Marine. The tone of his voice getting an instant response, “secure this man.”

Prof Heinrich was about to interject, when Fred held up a finger and speared him with a look.

Heinrich snapped his mouth shut with what to Richard sounded like an audible clicking of his teeth.

The Marine handcuffed Lawrence Fong and pocketed the proffered weapon.

The Captain had seen the by-play. “You two,” he said pointing at Fred and Richard, “appear to have some sense of what has happened to my boat.” He turned to the Marine. “Take them to my in-shore cabin after placing Mr. Fong in the brig.”

Heinrich finally appeared to have caught up with events. “Captain, I demand that you include me in any interviews.”

“Demand?”

“Uh, request…”

“We’ll see. For the time being, return to your quarters.”

“You cannot order me around as if I was some sailor!”

“Actually, he can,” Richard said forestalling the Captain. “This is a ship under weigh. (Although Richard had to admit that was a guess.) According to any (Richard almost said ‘maritime’) laws that I’m aware of, the Captain has command of all individuals aboard his vessel.”

Fred could see that despite their unusual situation Richard was rather enjoying himself. He too, would love to put this pompous ass in his place. Still, “Prof. Heinrich perhaps it is best to go to your quarters and develop a framework for what just happened? We will likely all benefit from your insights.”

“Uh, of course. I shall be in my rooms. Captain.”

The Captain watched as he descended the ladder to the accommodation section then he turned to the other two. “Gentlemen, when I require assistance aboard my boat to maintain discipline, I shall request it.”

Richard was the first to respond. “Uh, my apologies Captain. It shall not happen again.”

Master Chief Carver braced as if he were a newly minted seaman and nodded.

The Captain extended his hand to the Master Chief and smiled. “This is the first time we’ve had an opportunity to meet. Captain Greg Thomas, Master Chief. From what I understand about your work, I am very glad to have you aboard.”

Carver relaxed his stance and shook the Captain’s hand. “Thank you, Sir. Glad to be aboard.”

Richard raised an eyebrow at Fred’s last remark. The man was actually enjoying their situation!

The Captain turned to him while saying to Fred, “and who is our … lawyer?”

“Actually, he is a lawyer. Licensed before the Washington State Bar.”

“Richard Starkell,” Richard said. The Captain shook his hand.

“I’ll have Corporal Banks escort you to my cabin and will join you shortly.” Left unsaid was, first he had to see to his command. He turned to the Chief, “Report.”

“Sir, it appears that the Missile Room has sprung one of its hatches. As far as I can see, it is in a vacuum. Corporal Nelson is on the other side of the pressure hatch, dead.”

 

-- -- --

 

The World, with Discovery’s news and the accompanying high-resolution photographs, rather belatedly discovered (no pun intended) Mars. Or, more specifically that apparently humans had, rather informally, made a landing. The images of the gray-black, nuclear missile carrying submarine raised the level of rhetoric suffusing the global media to unheard, and seen, and written heights; no matter on what part of the political and social spectrum the commentator happened to be.

Chet Thompson, one of the more popular bloggers, if only because of his entertainment value; was probably representative of one of the more out there conspiracy theorists in that he managed to attribute Nevada’s appearance simultaneously to: space aliens; the Red Chinese; the Government’s Area 52 people; whoever snatched Elvis; and the liberal press. The last, he stated with a surety, had the technology to beam us all up. His recommendation was to get down to your favorite building supply store, buy up all the concrete you could get your hands on, and to get going on that bomb shelter; or failing that head for the hills. The big home improvement box stores reported a significant run on materials shortly after the article surfaced, while various State and National campgrounds reported a surge in RV traffic.

The official media: radio and television; print and mainstream social media tended to either present the various Government Spokespeople as stating that they were still investigating, which could be interpreted as the current iteration of ‘no comment’. As a matter of course the media outlets around the world had their captive experts expounding on what had happened, who it had happened to, where it had happened (Mars seemed pretty obvious; however that is not necessarily the ‘where’ they were talking about). The main context here was that no one actually knew what had happened and those that may have known were not talking. The correspondents working for the various outlets mainly repeated the same thing from their stand-up locations outside the dry dock gates at Bremerton, Washington while aerial news cams took similar shots from various angles of an empty dry dock. That is, until a pair of AH-64 Apache attack helos chivvied them out of the airspace. No one appeared to know what to do about the influx of camera carrying drones that were creating a hazard both for the news helicopters and the military.

Shortly after, Washington (DC) declared a ‘no fly zone’ around Seattle and environs with the ostensible purpose being that the Nevada may return at any moment. (A diligent researcher for one of the networks had earned a bonus and a possible promotion when she had found out which of the Navy’s 18 Ohio class SSBNs was in dry dock and had gone missing. Clarissa Clemens only other claim to fame in what, up until now was an unremarkable career, was that she was a distant relative to Samuel L.; who may be better known as Mark Twain.)

Of the International news gathering agencies, the Al Jazeera network went with a story that a recording had surfaced from the latest representative of this month’s latest terrorist organization that another Fatwa had been declared against the Unholy Western Powers who were attempting to flee the just grievances of the righteous Muslim community. The story was presented without comment, as the third item in the second half of the hour-long show.

The Sky News Network presented clips of: on one hand, European Green Party members taking the sub’s disappearance as an opportunity to decry the tremendous waste of diminishing resources on nuclear weapons systems; and, on the other, Earth First spokespeople exhorting the masses to rise up against the one percent who were now exploiting Mars to the detriment of the rest of us. The latter group vowed to put an end to space exploitation by the moneyed powers. They did not state specifically how they intended to make good on that particular threat.

And so it went. The immediate impression of events that the World understood was that somehow, an almost 17,000 Ton, 560 ft. war craft, belonging to the United States Navy had disappeared from a Seattle suburb and had, somehow, reappeared on a boulder strewn plain near the Martian equator. How that had happened, no one either knew or they were not saying, when it had happened seemed pretty clear, what anyone was doing about it – again no one either knew or they were not saying. Finally, the questions surfaced: how long could one of those submarines stay submerged; and how many people were aboard?

That was currently the topic of two highly secret meetings. One within the confines of the White House and the other aboard a vintage yacht currently moored near Queen Charlotte City. Of the two, one was secret by Presidential Decree (although with the number of individuals who had been brought into the meeting, secret was more a matter of time than any sense of confidentiality); the other because who would consider anything that, any of the four individuals discussing the events, could do as being of any import to the people trapped in a vessel upon a Martian boulder field.

Sandy had just asked the very question under consideration by the larger forum.

Peter looked up from the Wikipedia entry on the Ohio-class submarines (the same one that a Presidential aid had projected on the wall-sized display in the Cabinet room) and said:

“Approximately 150 crew.”

Adjusting for time zones and the theoretical nature of simultaneity, the Navy’s representative at the Table said the same thing. He also said, along with Peter’s speculation:

“Of course that is the maximum. The sub was in dry dock manned by basically a skeleton crew.”

“What do you mean by a ‘basically’ skeleton crew?” voiced the Secretary of State.

No one either knew, or admitted that Nevada’s refit was a cover for a DARPA project into the SAGE system. That is, until Dr. Goodwin raised his hand from his seat along the wall.

“There are approximately sixty people aboard, he said, “forty-five are military personnel, which was determined to be the minimum required to maintain the submarine’s functions. The rest are my team.”

Before the Secretary could question further, the President raised her hand and nodded. “At this point the issue is, given the number aboard, how long will they be able to survive?”

“It says here that they go on ‘70 to 90 day … patrols’. That the only limitation on their endurance is their food supplies,” Peter said, “assuming that they were able to ‘button up’ the submarine during its transition and that it did not spring any leaks when it landed, they may have between two-and-a-half and three months.”

“Oh, those poor people,” Christine said.

“Yeah. Somebody finally gets to Mars and they will never see it,” Mike said.

“Well, not exactly. Submarines come with periscopes. Someone should be able to see something,” Peter said.

Sandy waved off the irrelevancy. “So how are we going to save them?”

“We?” The other’s responded in chorus.

 

-- -- --

 

The President received a similar response from the much larger group around an appropriately sized table in the time zone four hours to the east of the Wanderer II’s occupants. An interesting irrelevancy was that both tables were made of Mahogany. What was relevant was the next question: “How do we know if there’s anyone alive up there?”

Again, a possible answer came from someone (in this case, standing) along the wall behind the decision makers seated around the table: “If there are people aboard,” to which Doctor Goodwin nodded, “and some of them are Navy personnel,” to which the current Navy Chief of Staff nodded, “they would be maintaining a listening watch on their communications systems.”

“They had better be …” muttered one of the Admirals.

… “In which case, we should be able to get Discovery to act as a relay. Her communications systems are certainly powerful enough to broadcast to Mars and relay a signal back to Earth.”

The President nodded, decision made and abruptly stood up. Those seated scrambled to their feet. She turned to her Chief of Staff. “Mary, see about clearing my schedule for the rest of today and possibly tomorrow.”

Mary nodded checking her ever-present tablet. “It’s doable.” Meaning that she would have to put off the head of the Senate Arms Services Committee, the Secretary of the Interior (which was no big deal although the former certainly was), a half dozen other groups and individuals whose agendas included face-time with the President, but were not necessarily included as one of her priorities except for political optics. Sometimes, however, it is nice to have a solid majority in the House and Senate.

***

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Rover Mars

The crew of the Victoria Rover are back. This time it is not the International Space Station that is in jeopardy, it may be the human race. An international manned mission is approaching Mars when a US Navy ballistic missile submarine mysteriously appears near the planet’s equator. Critics of the American administration both foreign and domestic raise the specter of global warfare at this supposed breach of international agreements on the proliferation of weapons in space, especially nuclear weapons. With the world on the brink of catastrophe and the crew of the submarine facing death, Peter and Sandy along with their companions, Mike and Christine brave seemingly insurmountable odds on an attempt to rescue the crew and stop the madness.

  • ISBN: 9780986623639
  • Author: Jim Walker
  • Published: 2016-01-19 23:20:08
  • Words: 70879
Rover Mars Rover Mars