Avatar: Escape Velocity
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  1. #1
    Registered User Exalted Member Fireand'chutes77's Avatar
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    Avatar: Escape Velocity

    Goodness, it's been so long since anyone's posted any fanfiction on the board that this feels a bit out of place....

    Anyway, this complements the "general discussion" thread of the 2009 film "Avatar."

    Without further ado, enjoy!

    (Can also be found on FF-dot-net: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5955278/1/Escape_Velocity)

    Chapter 1

    Centaurus Constellation
    Centauri A-B System
    ~ 2,450,000 B.C.E

    It was an unfortunate day to be sentient.

    Small blue-tinged mammals looked up perplexedly from their fretful grazing as wave after terror-stricken wave of batlike fliers screeched overhead. It was another in a series of bizarre events that had begun that morning with a blaze of light through the thick canopy, followed by a strong ground-lurch. The herbivores’ collective memory had never encountered anything quite like it. As a nearby clan of proto-sapiens hunched back down to scoop a last cluster of berries, they vaporized as the massive shockwave ripping along behind the birds liquefied the tubers in their stomachs.

    Across a wide swath of the violet-tinged moon, creatures with eyes well-adapted to prevalent dusk tumbled, squawking, to the ground, flash-blinded by another giant bubble of light swelling hundreds of kilometers into the thick air. Within minutes, the flash was eaten up by a charcoal-clogged mushroom cloud that boiled high into the upper atmosphere. Sprouting like a gigantic zit above the verdant surface, the million-ton spray of debris finally expended its thermal energy in the thermosphere and ripped into planet-spanning mud-colored tentacles, driven by the jet stream.

    ---


    Orbiting a gas giant doomed its small passengers to a rough life. The planet’s massive electromagnetic aura was only partially countered by a powerful, dueling magnetosphere, and whirling into the giant’s shadow produced months of plant-killing, starvation-inducing twilight.

    The mother giant also held the unenvious distinction as the largest asteroid sponge within two light-years, sucking up cosmic drifters as it spun through bands of interstellar dust. Its swirling, blue-banded surface frequently sported dark, ugly scars, as sometimes did the surface of any moon unlucky enough to be in the way.

    ---

    Mushroom clouds flashbulbed across the forested plains as more nuggets of the disintegrating rubble-pile asteroid crashed to earth, walking through the massive stands of trees like a barrage of otherworldly artillery. Thousands of acres of old-growth trees snapped in half under the blast waves, then exploded into fire from the heat. The infernos sapped moisture from the plants and air around them until they grew into massive, weather-creating firestorms. Tornado-strength updrafts hurled burning tree-trunks high into the atmosphere, which, coupled with an incessant rain of incandescent impact debris, sparked firestorms across the entire hemisphere.

    Gaping radial cracks split open for thousands of meters away from the craters, carving the ground into giant chunks. Liberated from gravity’s grip, many of the monoliths bucked heavily into the air, spilling untold amounts of flaming soil down their flanks as they were forced upward by fantastic electromagnetic forces permeating the core, the soil, and the air itself.

    Incinerating entire species of roosting lizardlike-fliers against its bow shock, one shell in the interstellar fusillade arced down among the soaring crags and gigantic floating mountains of the tectonic mountain chain north of the great sea. Chunks of near-pure floating superconductor directly above the blast vaporized instantly, adding a massive surge of electromagnetic energy to the devastation. Animals hundreds of kilometers away fell as the pulse fried their internal guidance systems.

    Floating mountains hovering horizontal to the blast skidded sideways and slammed into their fellows, breaking apart in a cascading cloud of floating particles, some the size of large trees.

    One suspended block suffered a particularly interesting fate. Some thirty degrees off the vertical crest of the shockwave, it floated just far enough from the impact to escape immediate destruction. Flat-sloped on the blast side, angled on the other, made of near-pure mineral, it caught the sweet refraction spot of the shock wave and shot upward. Untethered from the earth, resistive to the moon’s relatively weak gravity and buoyed by the magnetic field beneath it, the rock joyously hit escape velocity. Final impurities cracked off and fell behind to join lesser fragments as the AWOL chunk muscled through the final wisps of atmosphere to clear Pandora’s orbit and enter the gas giant’s. Breaking out of the lush moon’s electromagnetic shadow, the pure chunk of superconductor rammed headlong into the full power of Polyphemus’s magnetic field.

    Physics ensued. The tremendous magnetic force zinged the wayward rock off at a right angle, slingshotted at some fifty kilometers a second into deep space, and what lay beyond.

    ---


    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
    Not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
    I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

    Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
    I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
    And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand, and touched –

    “High Flight” [Abridged]

    To be continued.
    Carpe Navi: Because you never know when you'll get to go boating at government expense again.

  2. #2
    Registered User Exalted Member Fireand'chutes77's Avatar
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    Chapter 2

    Sol System
    Trans-Neptunian Belt
    May 24th, 2055


    “Ion thruster shutdown sequence complete. Chemical maneuver thrusters online. Engaging. Burn one... Burn two... Burn three. Burn four.

    “Now sixty kilometers out, closing at 50 meters a second, relative. Time to hover-burn, twenty minutes. Over.”

    Capsule commander Jeffry Taylor released the transmit button on his headset mike. The frequency quieted as his message crossed the ninety-second gulf of space and time between his Orion craft, an Indian Lagrangian reflector, a Chinese lunar relay station, and Houston control. Gone were the thirty-minute delays of early Martian exploration, but the gap still remained at these relatively extreme distances. He always had to remind himself the communications were more for documentation purposes than actual, live reporting.

    He turned in his seat to fellow cellmate Naitokya Haybusa, the craft’s Japanese-American propulsion and life-systems officer. The latter carefully monitored an OLED ‘porthole’ built into the console before them, eyes flicking across the screen as he took in growing details of the target before them.

    “How’s it look?”

    “Beautiful. I can’t see any major docking difficulties so far, and the striations are amazing.”

    Taylor grinned happily. They were both trained scientists and geologists, one reason for their assignment for this mission.

    Haybusa stared pensively at the approaching scene, quiet for a minute or so. “…Still no idea what it is, though.” He frowned a little, recounting the lead-up to this three-month trip in his head. “Never had a satisfying signature match, even with the Webb data. No Terran analogue, and it only showed up in one or two other places in the WISE III survey – ”

    “Alpha-C, right?”

    “Yeah…” He shrugged, the gesture barely noticeable through his pressure suit. “The computers and probes were never quite smart enough to figure out what is was – No disrespect to you,” he said, raising his voice a little.

    “None taken, sir,” replied Conrad, the user-interface end of the ship’s computer.

    “Anyway, that’s why we’re here… As long as this isn’t some ‘face-hugger in disguise,’ I’ll be fine.” He chuckled.

    Taylor groaned, smiling. “Not that again… -Ooop, Houston, hold one. Fifty klicks out. Picking up some unexpected electromagnetic readings, over. Haybe, are you -?”

    “Already on it,” his copilot replied quickly, scanning over the life-support and engine condition readouts while slowing the craft’s approach.

    “- Right, Houston, slowing to a Caution Yellow approach. Maintaining. Suggestions to proceed, over.”

    Three minutes later, the professionally worried voice of ground control arrived. “Readings of the last few minutes of data show no other abnormalities; the craft is performing optimally. No solar storms or similar cosmic events have registered recently. We consulted with on-site designers of the electronics and our own testing specs, and they all say the Sparks are rated to cosmic-ray status. No degradation from that level registered. Our current readings do not approach worrisome levels, and we do not believe they will reach any. Conrad, use the current disturbance levels to predict levels down to the surface, and output a report to Houston and Capsule. Over.”

    “Conrad acknowledges, sir. Please wait, sir. Over.” A few seconds later a logarithmic graph appeared on the screen. “Based on extrapolation of current interference levels, Conrad does not predict that the disturbance represents a threat, and that docking with the surface is Go... I defer to you, sirs, and Houston control. Over.”

    Three minutes.

    “Commander, discretion remains yours. If you feel unsafe, abort… But our current evidence backs up continuing the mission. At this time we approve of a Go. Over.”

    Taylor glanced at Haybusa, who checked the instrument readings one last time and nodded. “Houston, Go recommendation acknowledged. Go decision unanimous aboard the craft. We continue, over.”

    Three minutes.

    “Go decision acknowledged, capsule. Godspeed, over.”

    Haybusa puffed the reaction engines a few times to regain lost thrust, and the slate-gray asteroid ahead of them grew larger.

    ---

    “…Twenty klicks out, closing twenty meters per second, rotational match continues to hold, systems normal,” Haybusa reported, as he had periodically once the craft came within thirty kilometers of the rendezvous. As his excitement mounted, his voice became inversely calmer.

    “Electromagnetic levels continue to rise,” rejoined Taylor, “Sustained, unprecedented levels… Indications point to the asteroid as the generative vector… All instruments working within normal levels,” he added hastily, “No problems detected...”

    “Fifteen klicks… ten... five… one. One. Hold position. Final Hold. Haybusa to Houston. Decision to land, over. ”

    The asteroid now towered above and below them, nearly two kilometers in total length. Its surface, though roughened by space impacts over its long life, still appeared remarkably pristine. The surface and its divots swooped and peaked with the glassy grace of obsidian. On the whole, it resembled a large, chunky, slab-sided carrot. Taylor glanced down at his instruments again. The bizarre electrical activity continued unabated.

    “Capsule, Houston reads anomaly levels still within operational limits. We’ve never seen anything like this, but it doesn’t appear particularly dangerous. You guys got lucky on this one… A spot in the history books is waiting for y’all… Houston approves landing. Good luck, over.”

    “Capsule acknowledges, and agrees. Thanks, Houston, over.”

    Taylor looked up at the displays above him. “Conrad, take us down.”

    “Descent command recognized, sir. Commencing.”

    The sound of firing retro rockets shuddered through the craft and the asteroid slowly swallowed up the entire viewscreen.

    “Five-hundred meters, five meter-seconds… Commander Taylor, you have watch of the craft.”

    “Thank you, Officer Haybusa… Two-hundred meters, three meter-seconds…”

    “Sir, airbags deploying.”

    “ Thanks, Conrad. One-hundred meters, two meter-seconds…” Red proximity warning lights lit up across the cockpit.

    “…Fifty meters, maintaining one-meter-per-second descent rate. Thirty. Twenty. Ten. Airbags armed. Five…”

    The two officers’ heads nodded toward the nose of the craft as a dull thud echoed up through the hull. A bright yellow light illuminated on the console, followed by a quick buzz.

    “Contact!”

    Within milliseconds, the Conrad computer noted the position, stress distribution, and friction coefficient of the airbags, decided the landing was safe, and fired a circle of ten harpoon-like cables into the surrounding rock. The tungsten darts did not go in as far as expected, but they were secure enough to hold.

    Inside the cockpit, the red warning lights flashed to green.

    “Touchdown, Houston, touchdown! Altair base here, Discovery II has landed, over!” He reached up and flicked the buzzer reset button, and the keen faded into silence.

    As Conrad and Haybusa helped each other crank through the post-docking checklist, Jeffry leaned heavily back into his seat, savoring the three contemplative minutes he would have to himself before Control’s reply came back.

    He was now part of a very select group, consisting of, now, only four human crews – “The Eight” – to have ever landed on an asteroid.

    Ooh, and I was so a’spitting furious as a kid when the Chinese beat us back to the Moon… And I remember Pa being so ungodly ρissed about Obama toasting Constellation… His Southern Boy face cracked into an ear-splitting grin, and he saw the gleam of it reflect off his helmet visor. Well hell, the Chinks can keep that dirtball. We’re where the future gon’ be. Luna is the kiddie pool. Deep Space is where the big boys play… And we’re getting really good at it. The EU guys raised such a big stink about the US going off to playing Bruce Willis the Action Hero… Well, hell yeah! They were jealous!

    His copilot’s voice broke through his reverie. “ – Taylor, click off the engine arm, will you.”

    “Engine arm – off. 413 is in.”

    “Thanks…”

    Jeffry returned to his thoughts, more thoughtful this time as the enormity of the mission sunk in. It had been one of the biggest question marks since the original moon landing. All of the previous ‘stroid missions had known, basically, what they were landing on, because several space telescopes had done extensive scans.

    It wasn’t as though this particular deep-space traveler was unknown. Infrared sky searches had turned up the long-period object in the late 2020’s, but 55060-Pesphone held no NEO prospects and was a long way off, so it was essentially ignored. Then a program of high-definition, sky-wide spectral element scans turned up a blank on the rock, as well as a similar unknown signature in the direction of Alpha Centauri… Since Persephone was a lot closer, the gray lady got her due real quick.

    To make a long story short, Taylor thought with a snort, our fellow science geeks worked out the orbit, strapped my αss atop a Falcon 15, and fired me and Buddy off to meet up with this mystery rock at its closest graze of the solar system. They don’t expect it back for another half-a-million years. We’d better not get stuck.

    His musing were broken again as his headset erupted. Three minutes. He’d lost count.

    “Houston copies you down, Discovery II! As they say, we’ve got a bunch of blue guys breathing again. Congratulations, both of you! Continue checkdown procedures, and call back when you’re through. The President and a foreign delegation want a word. Then start prepping for spacewalk. This is Houston, over and out.”

    “Houston, capsule copies. Will do. Haybusa and Taylor send their regards. It’s an honor. Thank you, sir... This is capsule, over and out.”

    ---

    Four hours and a phone call later, Jeffry Taylor grasped a handhold on the “upside-down” Orion capsule, floating lightly in the vacuum of space. The first aster-nauts, as they were called, had been tied to their ship by umbilical cords, much like the test pilots in the First Space Race. Spacefaring confidence had since progressed to untethered Manned Maneuvering Units – jetpacks – to cover much more terrain.

    The rock they had landed on- docked with, he mentally interjected – also had no gravity of its own, so he nor his partner were having gee transition troubles, unlike the Martian fellows.

    Above him, the stars spun gently as the rock-craft combination rotated. Looking down between his dangling feet, he saw Haybusa inching along the harpoon wires to set up the first of the geological experiments. The labs were highly automated and needed only one person to care for them, so Jeffry’s task was to take pretty pictures for National Geographic and keep a watchful eye on things.

    His eyes tracked upward from his crewmate, past the docking/EVA module, to the double Orion capsules, linked tip-to-tip, which formed their home. One was command and living space, the other was storage and… more living space. A square inch a day keeps the insanity away, Jeff quipped to himself, and groaned at the bad pun. The capsules had no windows – cameras and 3D screens now took care of such things– which opened up logo space, which pleased the sponsors. The white sides of spacecraft were increasingly colored by corporate logos as cash-strapped governments sought to cover their to-boldly-go bills.

    Taylor shook his head, vaguely annoyed. We’re looking more an’ more like NASCAR with every mission… Which is ironic, ‘cause they mostly had to stop that when the fuel shorts kicked in. Usin’ the infields for soccer now, I reckon. He shuddered instinctively. The horrors... The rats wanted to plaster us with logos too, but even Mr. Musk put his foot down on that one, thank God.

    He frowned, studying them. The Meatball and Old Glory were still there, but they were small, squeezed into the corners near the hatches. Most of the open space on the two living craft was dedicated to corporate insignia – SpaceX, Orbital, Virgin, Bigelow, Ad Astra, Boeing-Lockheed (“Boe-heed”), Raytheon, et. al. By far the biggest, front and center in prime real estate on both craft, was the quad-petaled Arda logo. Their “Pteranodon” software ran the ship, their Earth Departure Stage boosted them off the top of SpaceX’s rocket, and they bankrolled the mission’s marketing, PR, and press releases.

    To their credit, he interjected, their equipment worked flawlessly, and the pamphlets were the glossiest he’d ever seen. He even thought his bio picture was good, which was a first.

    The adage that each new innovation needed half the acceptance time of the one before it still held – Wikipedia took ten years; YouTube, five; Twitter, three – but the speed at which Arda operated still left him breathless. Their very first operating system, Raptor, had shredded Apple’s market share in two years and even made Ol’ Mike stagger. Their second-ever product, a browser called Rex, picked its teeth with IE in one year. The company then used its success to branch out into mobile phones, electric cars, spacecraft, biotechnology, power generation, geo-engineering, and even begin dabbling in weapons research.

    People said they were The Dark Google, that their corporate motto was “Don’t be – ehhhhhh, insert hand wave.” Before the hatch closed some four months ago, he’d even heard rumors about a Google-Arda partnership... that gave the new punk the catbird seat. Google would get to keep its name on the search engine and its products, for brand recognition, and Arda would get… everything else.

    In any case, it was clear they had studied the manuals of Wal-Mart, Google, AIG, Exxon, GE, GM, and Ford, cherry-picked the best ideas, and were mindful of the worst. The company’s stated goal was “Perfect, efficient, ruthless innovation,” and the philosophy extended down to their name. They’d chopped the “h” off the end some years ago. There were whispers of an acronym in the works.

    Taylor gave himself a shake. Out here, none of that matters... Squinting hard through his visor, he oriented himself and just managed to pick out what he thought was Earth; the grain-sized star was just a bit bluer than the others. He held up a gloved hand, spreading his fingers. The very tip of his pinky could blot it out entirely.

    “Commander.”

    The catch to his friend’s voice made Taylor start. Flexing his grip slightly, he spun 180 degrees to face “down” toward the surface.

    “Officer Haybusa, is there a problem?”

    “N-no… no, Commander. Not at all.” Haybusa quickly gathered a handful of rock chips and jetted ‘upward,’ slowing to a stop just below him, their visors almost touching. Taylor could now see tears in his copilot’s eyes, and the look of absolute joy that pried the droplets off his cheeks.

    The geologist opened his fist, and the motion caused the rock slivers to twirl a few inches above his palm. Facets in the rock caught the harsh sunlight and twinkled. With his other hand, he shoved an instrument readout before Taylor’s eyes.

    “You are not going to believe this.”

    ---

    To be continued.
    Carpe Navi: Because you never know when you'll get to go boating at government expense again.

  3. #3
    Administrator Honored Elder jeriddian's Avatar
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    Okaaayyyy.........2001: A Space Odyssey meets Pandora......It's fitting.......:P

    Seriously, though, it does look interesting.
    "Say the Word"

  4. #4
    Registered User Exalted Member Fireand'chutes77's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jeriddian View Post
    Okaaayyyy.........2001: A Space Odyssey meets Pandora......It's fitting.......:P

    Seriously, though, it does look interesting.
    You may play Thus Spake Zarathustra as you read, if you wish.

    I've never actually seen 2001, though. Most of what I know about the movie has been through pop culture references that I've proceeded to look up.

    EDIT: Hm. I hadn't considered that Discovery II could be a call-back to 2001's "Discovery One;" I saw it as a shout-out to the Shuttle Discovery.
    Carpe Navi: Because you never know when you'll get to go boating at government expense again.

  5. #5
    Registered User Exalted Member Fireand'chutes77's Avatar
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    Chapter 3

    For one long minute, Jeffry was silent as the vacuum surrounding him. Finally, he keyed his mike and said, very simply,

    “Run the test again.”

    “This is the sixth result. They’ve all been like this, sir.”

    “Then run it again. I want to see it.”

    “All right…”

    The two men drifted back toward the surface. With practice-numbed indifference, Taylor put out his hands and stopped himself with a kind of vertical push up-handstand, as he had during countless training sessions on the Vomit Comets and ISS. He watched and waited as Haybusa initiated the lab’s test sequence, and the instrument pack cored a fresh sample. Several minutes later, a reading flickered up on the lab’s radiation-hardened screen.

    Jeffry frowned. “That’s... can’t be an accurate reading. Are you sure you zeroed it properly?”

    “Yes. And I know, right? It’s impossible. I was worrying for some time that it broke somehow. But all the calibration specimens checked out a hundred percent.”

    His commander smiled. “Good to see the procedure drills finally stuck. What did you do next?”

    “Yep. Thanks. Well, I ran the checks several times, using different chips. Then I broke out the other labs and ran them.”

    “Why didn’t you say anything when the first abnormality popped up?”

    “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting a false negative before embarrassing myself in front of NASA, sir.”

    “’Can you believe this guy, thought he discovered Eezo until he remembered to hit tare,’ eh?”

    “Pretty much. I ran the other labs, and they came up with similar ‘impossible’ results, yet they all worked fine on the test samples... I worked through our known catalogue of elements, eliminating what this stuff isn’t, until –”

    “ – Until whatever remains, however improbable...”

    Must be the truth.”

    “You’ve read Conan-Doyle?”

    Haybusa shook his head sadly. “Never had the time. Pop-culture osmosis. But, yeah…” He trailed off and looked across the huge expanses of rock and heaven spreading away from them. Jeffry could sense the gears in his friend’s head turning thoughtfully. “Yeah. If we have eliminated all the impossibilities, and our instruments aren’t wigging...”

    “I’d say the weird readings we got earlier are making a lot more sense.”

    His science partner nodded. “Mmm. To confirm this, of course, we’re going to need a lot more tests, more than we have in the trunk. But...” He turned to Taylor, his body posture a swirl of belief and disbelief. “Man… man, this is looking a lot like some kind of – of high-temperature superconductor. Maybe even room-temperature.”

    Taylor whistled deeply. “That’s some mighty tall water right there, partner.” After a contemplative pause, he abruptly burst out laughing.

    “...What?”

    He managed to fight through his giggles. “You know what Higgens over in thermo physics is gonna call this, right?”

    Haybusa smacked the forehead of his visor. “Oh, Christ.”

    “Unobtanium!” Taylor dissolved into a laughter fit again.

    “I always hated that name... No originality!”

    “Oh – ho… ho.. ooo… Ah, er… Though, well, if this is what it seems to be, it does check all the boxes he kept saying his projects were going to check eventually –”

    “Eventually, yeah. Maybe this’ll finally shut him up.”

    “One can dream…” He glanced at wide expense of slate-gray rock around them. “Let’s see if we can keep the dream alive… Grab the electro-resistance and spectral hand-labs and we’ll test other parts of this junk heap to make sure we don’t have site bias.”

    Haybusa nodded. Picking up a bulky lab in one hand and wafting the other to his commander, he puffed his jetpack to gain about twenty meters of altitude.

    “Hey, redneck, you comin’?”

    “Hachimaki’s on too tight, Jap. I’m coming...”

    The conversation quieted as Jeffry boosted to his friend’s level, and they puffed their pack jets to reach cruising speed. The two astronauts coasted smoothly, silently through the vacuum. With no surrounding points of reference, they seemed to hover in place as the rocks below slid past, as though glued to a conveyor belt.

    “...Taylor?”

    “Eh?”

    “Let’s name it something ridiculous, just to ρiss him off.”

    Jeffry chortled.

    =========================

    White House

    June 22, 2055
    10:44 AM

    “...And in conclusion, my colleges and I recommend an immediate launch of course-correction packages, as soon as a firing window can be arranged.” The blue-suited Joint Chief finished speaking and assumed attention beside his Powerpoint.

    The President leaned forward across the Cabinet table. “Thank you, sir… What is the window of opportunity we have on this thing?”

    “Theoretically unlimited, ma’am, though the longer we wait, the farther away Persephone gets. There is, however, an optimal daily window that we must launch inside.”

    “Very well, General. Thank you. You may be seated.” The four-star nodded precisely and sat down. “Now, what’s our resource needs to make this happen?”

    NASA Administrator Charlie Darden motioned his hand.

    “Fire away, Carl.”

    “Thank you, Madam President… Our estimates of the size and density of the deep space object – DSO for short – indicate that we will need at least five direction packages. Each is contained within its own Ares rocket asset and contains a kilometer-wide solar sail/panel and a collection of electric ion engines. The sails spread out behind what is usually an NEO – ” The space director paused. “I’m not boring y’all through repetition again, am I?”

    The President chuckled. “Not all of us had to sit through our dads regaling us at the dinner table with the minutiae of the space program when we were kids…” Down the table, the Secretary of Agriculture grinned and waved sheepishly. The President grinned back. “Please continue.”

    “Okey-Dokie. The force of the sun’s photons hitting the sail provides a small, continuous braking force, as well as electrical power, and the ion engines can help brake or provide directional change. The sails are connected to the DSO by thin carbon-nanotube cables, and the solar wind drags on and pushes the sails out behind the asteroid, much like the parachutes on old drag-racers. This allows us to take advantage of the nanotubes’ excellent tensile capabilities. Each ion engine has its own repositioning thrusters so it can change position on the DSO or NEO as the mission evolves. The computerized “brain” of the operation remains within the Earth Departure Stage – ah, EDS – and floats nearby, controlling the whole shebang wirelessly. This allows us to use the EDS as a small gravity tractor. Normally, we would need to send up only one or two packages, if our objective was simply to prevent an Earth impact. But because we’re taking the unprecedented step of breaking a DSO out of its own orbit and parking it in ours, and because we’d like for it to arrive here fairly quickly, we need a much greater delta-vee.”

    The President nodded as he finished. “Thanks for the explanation, sir. What is the timeline we’re looking at for this operation?”

    “Eleven years, ma’am, if we were to launch this week, as the esteemed Joint Chief proposes. Eleven years from launch to park in one of our L-points. I propose L-1, the Moon-Earth L-point. We’d have to shove the Luna mine support station, among others, out of the way, unfortunately, but the point would give us an unrivaled location from which to study and dissect our newfound wonder.”

    “And what kind of preparation would be required for a launch, say thirty-six hours from now?”

    The Air Force JC piped up. “Essentially none, madam. The Space Guard assets are on launch-on-warning, much like ICBMs during the Cold War. In accordance with the 2037 Treaty, which if you’ll remember was adopted after the 2036 Apophis Scare – ”

    “I’m not that young, general,” the President said with a smile. “I certainly remember that.

    The CSAF smiled back. “My apologies. But in accordance with the 2037 Treaty, we technically don’t have to alert anyone, not even the Russians, though they would highly prefer to be given a heads-up. And, in the grand scheme of things, we would highly prefer to tell them.”

    “Okay, how about three weeks? Does that present any problems with trying to catch up with our super-rock?”

    The NASA man shrugged. “Discovery II took advantage of the prime launch window, and waiting another three weeks will add some additional four months to the total round trip, but... it’s still doable, yes.”

    The President shifted toward the Secretary of State, sitting directly to her right. “What international considerations do we have to worry about, Alex?”

    “Well, once the news of the discovery came in last month, it’s the only thing anybody’s been talking about. My office assumed – correctly, it now appears – that we were going to try and bring it in and proceeded to negotiate from that angle. There are some issues over ownership rights and resource shares, but they’re jumping the gun a bit and we’re working to sort that out. The biggest issue is squawks as the targeting – ah, redirectional envelope sweeps over different countries as the orbit shifts.” He nodded slightly at the Secretary of Defense, who nodded slightly back. “The fear always is that we’ll have a coincidental “thruster malfunction” when the envelope lines up over Beijing or Tehran. Given our science friends’ rough estimates of this rock’s worth, however, that would be utter, ah, silliness.” SecState caught his language and smiled briefly. “The most straightforward solution will be to call up the deflection-event protocols and treaties and tweak them a little. Our guys should be able to cool down a number of the hotheads in about three weeks, and hopefully we’ll have it all mostly ironed out by the time the thrust packs get into position way out there.”

    “Focus on that, then.” The President turned to the Cabinet at large. “Okay, everyone else: is three weeks enough to work out the technical details and alert the public?”

    The room fell deeply quiet as the assembled Secretaries rapidly evaluated their department’s capabilities and current schedules. Slowly, a ring of tentative nods ringed around the table.

    “Good! Then, God willing, let’s hope for clear skies and plenty of fireworks on, uh...” The President paused as she calculated the date three weeks hence. “July 14th! Meeting adjourned!”

    The assembled department heads murmured to themselves and their colleges about the new task, as well as a hundred others, as they methodically repackaged their briefcases and computer tablets. Leaning against the wall, the President gazed out into the Rose Garden and smiled serenely at the commotion swirling about her. The room quieted as the secretaries filed out, until only the NASA administrator remained. The Commander in Chief shook her head with a trace smile. Carl’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met… but damn is he a slow packer. She leaned a little off the wall. “Sure is something, eh, Carl?”

    Darden looked up quickly from his paper-stuffing. “Yes, Madam President?”

    “A little less formality’s fine now, Carl. The meeting’s over.” She sighed, chuckled, and did a small jazz-hands celebratory pump. “We’re living in the future now, ain’t we? Roping an asteroid and everything!”

    Mr. Dardin grinned. “Sure we is... I think people started saying that once we popped Apophis out of the keyhole, but this is certainly something new. And those first landings in the 2020’s really caught the public’s imagination. You would not believe the fanmail NASA got.”

    The President shook her head sadly. “Boy, you wouldn’t believe the flack my dad got for putting us on track in the first place. Everybody was like, “The Moon! The Moon!” back then ‘cause of the Constellation program, but Daddy thought it’d be more bang for the buck to go after ‘stroids and Mars.” She laughed. “I was waaay too young to care, of course... I kept wanting to tell him about the art project I did at school.”

    The administrator chuckled. “And now here you are... By the way, how’s Sasha doing these days?”

    “Good, good. She chaired that long-term study of the BP Spill a few years ago...”

    “Oh, yeah. I remember that report.”

    “Now I think she’s leading some non-profit to use the old fuel cells in people’s cars as home generators, or something like that... Her boy Daniel is going to be so psyched about this whole asteroid biz’ness. Has all the action figures from the first couple asteroid landings… Talks your ear off about ion drives and those unobtani-ma-call-it experiments!”

    Charlie finally snapped his briefcase shut and stood upright. “Sounds like my kind of guy!”

    “Certainly is. Maybe I could set up a meeting once all this is over and you’re not as busy.”

    “Sounds like a plan. Call me back in 2098 or so.”

    The President laughed. “Go launch that rocket!”

    “Yes, Madame President, ma’am!” The NASA director hustled out of the office and pulled the door behind him.

    Silence finally fell. The president slid across the carpet and turned to face the west wall. Crossing her arms, she leaned against a chair back and gazed at the presidential portrait of her father, nestled between JFK and FDR. Her smile and eyes softened.

    “Ain’t we livin’ in the future now, Daddy...”



    To be continued.
    Carpe Navi: Because you never know when you'll get to go boating at government expense again.

  6. #6
    Moderator Venerated Elder TransWarpDrive's Avatar
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    Ah, 'chutes; a little constructive criticism here:
    ... I worked through our known catalogue of elements, eliminating what this stuff isn’t, until –”

    “ – Until whatever remains, however improbable...”

    “Must be the truth.”

    “You’ve read Doyle?”

    Haybusa shook his head sadly. “Never had the time. Pop-culture osmosis. But, yeah…”
    May I suggest you change the sentence I've bolded to something like, "Reading the works of Conan-Doyle again?" or even just, "You've read Conan-Doyle?"
    Sherlock Holmes' creator has (or had) a hyphenated last name. Every reference to Sir Arthur that I've read, using only his last name, has used both parts.
    BTW, I love who you've cast as the President of the U.S. Clever!

  7. #7
    Registered User Exalted Member Fireand'chutes77's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TransWarpDrive View Post
    Ah, 'chutes; a little constructive criticism here:
    ... I worked through our known catalogue of elements, eliminating what this stuff isn’t, until –”

    “ – Until whatever remains, however improbable...”

    “Must be the truth.”

    “You’ve read Doyle?”

    Haybusa shook his head sadly. “Never had the time. Pop-culture osmosis. But, yeah…”
    May I suggest you change the sentence I've bolded to something like, "Reading the works of Conan-Doyle again?" or even just, "You've read Conan-Doyle?"
    Sherlock Holmes' creator has (or had) a hyphenated last name. Every reference to Sir Arthur that I've read, using only his last name, has used both parts.
    Well, I'm going for an informal, jocular feel between one fan and another. "Conan-Doyle" seems too formal.
    BTW, I love who you've cast as the President of the U.S. Clever!
    Thanks.
    Carpe Navi: Because you never know when you'll get to go boating at government expense again.

  8. #8
    Registered User Exalted Member Fireand'chutes77's Avatar
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    Chapter 4

    July 19th, 2069
    Richmond, Virginia
    9:02 PM

    Bliss in a strip mall.

    Trisha Barnes curled back against the grassy rise behind her and stared unfocusedly at the purpling sky, nostrils filled with the strong, crisp smell of freshly mown grass. Hollow, sun-dried crabgrass stalks poked sharply into her back and bared arms as she settled in. Trisha didn’t mind. She’d forgotten how delightfully raw and intimate – how real – grass actually felt; she usually saw its level plains from five and a half feet up, insulated and isolated from its texture by her shoes. Relaxing, brain shifting in the neutral, she realized she couldn’t recall the last time she’d simply flopped out on the lawn, and wondered if any of her friends could. She doubted it.

    Drinking in her senses, she closed her eyes.

    It’s a night to be alive.

    The urban heat island was cooling slowly, and as it did, the region’s infamously wicked humidity ebbed. At present, the balance of temperature and humidity hovered close to tangible perfection. Thick, warm air caressed her shoulders like a boyfriend’s hug, and night settled like a comfortable blanket. Trisha felt an inexplicable joy to be human and alive. This was a simple Americana she thought she was too cool for. This was a summer’s summer night.

    She craned her neck up as an electronic chime distantly ding-a-linged. Her boyfriend was edging his way out the restaurant’s push door, nudging it open with his back and shuffling through to keep the milkshake in each hand stable. As he crossed the drive-through lane and walked across the parking lot, humidity-misted light from the curly red sign above lit up his side.

    She pushed herself upright, resting her hands behind her on the grass; the tang of the night changed from turf to tar as she swung forward toward the restaurant’s freshly-resurfaced parking lot. She wondered vaguely just how much it had cost them; oil had reached a new record two weeks ago and was gunning to break it again this week.

    “Here ya go...”

    “Thanks, Darrell...” She took the proffered cup and poked in a wide-bore straw. Her boyfriend sat down beside her on their favorite curb. For the three years they’d been dating, this spot had been their point of relaxation and stability on warm nights. “The Green,” they called it, a small slice of grassy median strip in the corner of the Chick-fil-A parking lot, sandwiched between the lot, one of the mall’s entrance roads, and the four-lane road it linked to. The small patch was one of the very few “natural” spots they knew of in the entire area; the fifty acres of forest that had existed across the road from the restaurant vanished long before Trisha was born.

    “Damn. Hot out here.”

    She giggled. “You were inside that nice A/C too long.” She finally pulled a shot of the thick sludge up the straw, and her eyes widened. “...Vanilla?”

    “Hey, you said ‘surprise me.’”

    Trisha leaned against his shoulder. “Vanilla’s my favorite. Thanks... What’d you get?”

    “Peach.”

    “Mmm…”

    They turned their attention to their shakes. The dip in conversation brought the sound of the road next to them to the fore. Cars slurped past, tires humming as they skimmed the asphalt. An older-model electric car slowed and turned into the entrance road behind them, its regen brakes and engine whining noticeably.

    Darrell glanced up as his own car gurgled softly nearby. Oh. Right. Just coolant through the fuel cell...

    Over the rim of his bio-Styrofoam cup, he eyed a large milkshake advertisement spread over the facing wall of the restaurant, and its exhortations of the products’ taste, texture, and low cost. What the ad certainly didn’t contain was the enticement of “made with real dairy.” He remembered that pitch fading away sometime as a young child, around the time the government restricted meat and dairy production in an effort to slow global warming. If today’s heat was any indication, he thought dully, it hadn’t really worked. He pulled another sip of his shake. And whatever’s in here, it sure as hell isn’t milk. But I haven’t had any of the real stuff in so long I probably couldn’t tell the difference. Tastes good enough, anyway...

    Above them, the sky slowly leached of color, heading toward a uniform navy blue. In the fifteen minutes before full darkness, deep red traces of the sun lingered faintly over crisscrossing contrails of jet and rocket exhaust. Darrell’s gaze followed them east. The straight, orderly ones were produced by the ubiquitous, manta-like blended wing bodies that took off from airports the world over. Thin, heavily dispersed, cone-shaped streaks were the signatures of the Wallops Island spaceport; its supply rockets launched on a rigid six-hour schedule, four a day, day after day.

    Trisha’s shoulder-pillow was disrupted as his head moved, and she looked up too. Peeking between the contrails, burning through the thin veil of smog that hung across the planet, were stars. She gasped. “Oh... Wow... It’s really clear tonight.” She raised an arm and pointed toward one of the brightest ones. “What one’s that?”

    “Um.”

    “Oh, come on, you’re the smart spacey spaceman.”

    He squinted. “I... think... that’s Vega. Or Betelgeuse. Erm... Maybe Venus.” He pulled out his pocket comp – only his grandparents called them “cell phones” – booted up the star app, and pointed it at the sky. “Ah... Deneb.”

    “You remember the first time I really saw stars?”

    He nodded. Trisha chuckled. She’d been twenty-three, and it had been one of their first dates. Darrell, something of an “outdoors freak” by the standards of his peers, drove them out to Shenandoah National Park, which was one of the few places left where it was possible to see an entire star field, not just the few brightest stars. Trisha freaked when her mobile dropped signal; it was the first time it had ever happened. She couldn’t understand why the jammers laid out around the park’s boundaries were one of its draws. But then the stars had come out. Trish shuddered in the warmth of the suburban parking lot, her awe still tangible.

    She’d had a revelation.

    Everybody knew what stars were. WiFi contact lenses ensured that. Everybody could spit out, on the spot, a stream of stellar coordinates, hydrogen ratios, Kelvin temperatures.

    Nobody knew what stars were. In that instant, under a dome of ancient light, she understood her boyfriend’s “outside craziness,” his devotion to his job, the primal starlight connection that linked humanity across millennia.

    She’d cried.

    Trish dissolved into the present as she took another sip of her rapidly-melting shake. She spent a moment vacuuming up the dregs with her straw, then looked up again. Forcing her lips into a smile, she pointed toward a very bright star sitting low on the horizon. “Huh. I wonder what that one is.”

    Her boyfriend snorted. “Nice try. Like you don’t know. That, hon, is your new set of car tires.”

    Trisha carefully placed her cup on the pavement and slowly wrapped her arms around his midsection, resting her head against his chest. “Don’t joke.”

    “I’m not. I know you’re nearly on the rims of those things.”

    “Damn it, I’ve told you don’t care about that damn piece of junk!” Her outburst echoed across the blacktop. Nobody looked up, thoroughly ensconced in their cars as they were. Between the two on the curb, a deep, empty silence hung as she pulled herself back together. “... I care about you.”

    He put a slow arm around her waist and sighed heavily. “Baby, you know it’s safe. They’ve done hundreds of flights, they’ve got procedures and safety gear for everything. Don’t worry.”

    “I worry every time you go up there! There’s always the launch risk, and then there’s space debris, and cosmic rays, and... and...”

    “Shhhhhh.... Shhhhhhh.... Shhhhh...” He gave her a little shake. “I’m just a bolt-turner, remember? Not some scientist or hot-rod astro way out on the end of the platform.”

    “Yeah, which means the Company doesn’t give a damn about what happens to you.”

    “You know that’s not true. Do you remember that whole thing with Ricky and that blown ammonia tank? You remember? Remember how they nearly shut down the whole platform to save him? You know – I know – they’d never leave us behind.”

    Trisha was silent for a long time. Then she said, flatly, “You boost tomorrow, right?”

    “Yeah. Oh-six-hundred. I’ll probably have to get up around two to be on the road by 2:30.” He sighed. “God, early start. I’ll take 64 out to the ’cat ferry in Deltaville... That’ll run me up to this side of the Seaboard at Saxis, and I’ll drive over the Neck to Wallops.” They both knew the sequence a hundred times over, but breaking down the trip yet again piece-by-piece eased the jitters. “Then an hour of intake, then launch, then...” He waved his fingers toward the low star. “...A week at Delta Station to get acclimated. And then a week after that, we finally wrestle that giant chunk of God-Knows-What to a dead stop.”

    He snorted angrily. “Three years over the first estimates. I know they had no clue just how dense that thing was at the time – which is good in the long run, I guess, ‘cause it means more stuff - but, damn... Did they botch it. First they said six months over, then it was a year, then two, then three. The Company kept saying I was in for the biggest paycheck I’d ever seen, but three extra years is a long time for a man... and his girl…” He gave her a squeeze, “To wait...”

    “What’re we going to do with the money, Darr?”

    “Get a house, fix your car, maybe even rustle up a patch of yard...” He caught himself and smiled wistfully. “But... gotta remember we don’t have it yet.”

    “They pay you a percentage of its total worth, right? The news goes on and on around in circles about it, but they’ve never even said what might be in it for us at the bottom.”

    He nodded. “Yeah. But, shoot, they don’t have any idea what it is, hon. None of them do – not the news, not the company scientists. I stopped trustin’ anything they said when they blew the ETA estimate for, like, the twelfth time.” Darrell shrugged. “I just hope it’s worth a few more pennies a pound than helium three.”

    The two lovers gazed up at the shining dot of humanity’s fourth space station and the hive of space vehicles swarming around it, and the sun went all the way down.



    ----


    To be continued...
    Carpe Navi: Because you never know when you'll get to go boating at government expense again.

  9. #9
    Registered User Exalted Member Fireand'chutes77's Avatar
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    Chapter 5

    October 22nd, 2076
    RDA LUNA 12
    21:36 UST

    A clock ticked in the blackness of space. With an abrupt gurgle of timeworn gears, it burbled out a single cuckoo on the half-hour, breaking the focus of the man peering into the telescope eyepiece. He stood straight, blinking in the warm incandescent lighting, and glanced at the clock.

    Frowning slightly, he looked down at the eight-grand chronometer on the inside of his left wrist and rolled his eyes. “...Slow again?” he asked the empty room, and strode to the wall. Brow furrowing, he gently tapped the 200-year-old dial forward with his finger. Turning, he stuffed his hands listlessly into the pockets of his pressed khakis and faced the giant armorplast picture window before him, watching the star field shift at two degrees a second. The airtight port, capable of withstanding a 100-gram impact at fifteen kilometers a second, displayed a faded reflection. Armani sport sleeves pushed carelessly past the elbows. Wrinkling, untucked white undershirt over a lean, athletic frame. Silk Windsor knot unspooled to the chest.

    Behind him hovered the ghostly shape of a tree trunk, bolted to the wall. If anything projected the power of the man in this room, this was it. Never mind the sheer cost of getting the eight-inch-wide, twenty-foot-long specimen into orbit; the tree was a beech, an unmarked beech. A signed dendrologist’s certificate hung below the trunk, to prove its virgin state to the skeptical. The room’s chair rails and paneling were themselves solid oak, an outstanding luxury in a time when “wood paneling” meant pulped, reprocessed water bottles dyed to taste. The lights were filament; that type hadn’t been seen Earth-side in over fifty years.

    He waited another three minutes, until his previously interrupted viewscape returned, and ducked back to the sixteen-inch telescope embedded halfway through the window. Tracking for a moment, he found and focused on his target. The green-and-white mooring strobes dotting the huge gray bulk were clear and gemlike even at the extraordinary distance, compliments of the scope’s massive aperture and an utter lack of atmosphere to diffuse the light. He gimbaled the scope slightly as a work cutter edged into view, upside down and tracking diagonally downward. Its runners flashed red and white, and the shadow it cast on the eternally sunlit rock had a razor edge that only vacuum could provide.

    He watched the scene until it slid from view, and his tiny, mansion-sized Executive Hab, strung out on the end of a four-mile wire, began another three-minute revolution. The wire’s other end was anchored to the main hub of the lunar elevator’s space-based counterweight. A dozen other inflatable habs were strung from the counterweight like spokes on an eight-mile-wide wheel, whirling around with a force two-thirds of Earth gravity. The force complemented the Moon’s one-third-gee gravity well to add up to a full Terran gravity. Reaching the hab required initial surface clearance – or ship docking permission – followed by a security checkpoint in the main hub, a four-mile cable-car ride (monitored by both CCTV and a ridealong guard), and a second checkpoint on the habitat itself.

    Needless to say, if, as one of the top officers of the most powerful company on the planet, you desired the ultimate in privacy and security, this was the place to get it. “In space, no one can hear your sex party,” the saying went. The asking price? A sum equal to the GDP of several African nations.

    A knock, a solid knuckle-on-hardwood knock, echoed through the still room. The man straightened up and turned, glanced at the vintage cuckoo clock, and nodded satisfactorily at the time it displayed. “Right on time, Bobby. Come on in.”

    The heavy knob turned and a short, semibalding engineer edged gingerly into the room. Entering fully, he closed the door behind him and came stiffly to attention in the rich man’s presence. “Evening, Ceeo. Sir.”

    The other waved a hand. “No need for the Company name up here, Bobby. In this room, it’s Jacob.”

    “Thank you, Ceeo, sir. Ah – Jacob.”

    “And you really don’t have to come to attention. This isn’t the military, you know. Nice touch, though.”

    “Thank you, sir.” He relaxed, and his head began wandering about in undisguised awe.

    “Heh. Ever been up here, Bobby?”

    The engineer quickly closed his open mouth and shook his head vigorously. “Nuh-uh...” He noticed the beech. “Whoa...!” Waddling over, he bobbed between the trunk and the certificate, mouth half-open again. “Whoa…” he said again, much slower this time. “I saw one of these in the Smithsonian once... There’s only, like, a hundred still left, isn’t there?”

    “Ninety-eight.”

    “Those peat fires in Moscow a few weeks back took out the two they had in their museum?”

    Jacob flinched in pain. “Yeah. They were live specimens, too. Unmarked.”

    Bobby sucked in a gloomy breath and blew it back out. “Hew, hew, hew... Awful, that, really...” On a thought, he pivoted around and squinted shrewdly at the 30-something before him. “Hm. Jacob… It used to be... Dent, didn’t it?”

    CEO (née Jacob Hawkins) smiled broadly. He’d received the nickname in his freshman year of college from the then-senior standing before him, due to his striking likeness to the Batman character. Their lives had followed very different paths since then. Bobby had gone into aerospace engineering, gotten on the ground floor of Ardah’s aero division, and through hard work, perseverance, and carefully applied dashes of cronyism, worked his way up to Director of Off-Planet Operations. In the RDA scheme of things, Bobby was still chump change, but he hit a certain sweet spot: senior enough to be in important meetings, lowly enough not to be noticed in them, experienced enough to gather info from the trenches.

    Which is why he is here now, thought Jacob, noticing for the first time the block of bound papers held tightly in the engineer’s hands. “... Is that it?”

    The balding man stiffened and nodded, and the tone of the room iced dramatically. “Yessir. The final hearing and meeting ended four hours ago... I caught the first shuttle up here.” He paused uncomfortably. “They, uh, noticed you weren’t there.”

    “Eh, I like to give those old b*astards some heartburn... And I suppose your possession of that fresh report would give some of the turtles heartburn as well?” He smiled wickedly.

    It was Bobby’s turn to grin. “It’s an, uh, advanced copy, sir.”

    CEO nodded. “Riiiiight.” His levity abruptly faded and he massaged his forehead with his fingers. “Right. So what’s their decision on how use our wonderful little Super Rock?”

    They both knew that he knew exactly what the report contained, and his opinion about it – anyone who’d watched the back and forth on the cable streams over the past year knew that. But there was a ritualistic process to it all, and Bobby was willing to play his part.

    “After due consideration of all proposals...” the Director began, reading off the first page. Jacob snorted scathingly.

    “...After due consideration of all proposals, it is the view of the Committee that majority share of TETRA-METHYL-DIAMINO-BENZHYDRYL-PHOSPHINOUS (henceforth known as Unobtanium) should be awarded to the effort or efforts that are projected to bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number of affected parties, based on the criteria that the contracted party or parties has the existing resources and financial fluidity to see the project through to its expedient conclusion.”

    CEO sighed deeply, resignedly, and closed his eyes. “Of course. Written by the RDA, for the RDA. Get on with it.”

    The technician flipped to another page in the report. “...Fully half of the asteroid’s refined mass is thus deemed ‘earmarked’ for the Maglev VacTrain project...” He saw his boss’s jaw clench tightly and hastily continued. “Of the remaining mass, a quarter has been bought up by various governments and universities for their own uses, and we – the RDA as a whole – have the remaining quarter to use at our discretion. I, um, paraphrase, of course.”

    Bobby finished speaking and looked up. His boss stood alarmingly still, his lips whitening. For a moment, he looked as though he might explode, but he twisted on his heel and strode to the window. He slammed a fist against the armorplast. “Damn it!” He was silent and still for a second, then hammered the port again. He put his hips into it, and the room echoed. “Damn them! Damn them! Seven years! Seven years those toadies have been bickering and fighting over it! They all want their cut, even as everything goes to hell around them. I would’ve loved to make an engine with the stuff and go find where in the hell it came from, but – anything, anything would’ve been better than letting it just sit in orbit for seven years! And then to blow half of it on something that doesn’t even get us past heliopause, for God’s sake! That doesn’t even change the equation in the long run...!” He choked up and fell silent again.

    The wonderment and conflict had started with the geological samples. After the asteroid came to a stop in the Earth-Moon L-point, a hoard of scientists descended to take samples. A two-year battery of tests confirmed the substance was indeed the Holy Grail of electronics manufactures: a room-temperature superconductor. Computers could become a hundred percent efficient; power lines could cross the country without losing a volt; levitating, magnetic trains could match price with traditional track. There were as many uses as there were ideas, which was the problem. The relatively limited supply of the substance meant only key projects could be built – no yottaflop laptops for the gadgeteers. National and corporate bureaucrats waded in and quickly bogged down. America wanted this much, China wanted that much, Boeheed wanted some, as did Intel. Then the RDA settled into the mud and demanded a huge chunk, which infuriated everyone else and caused gridlock of Beijing proportions.

    There was also the problem of a name. “Wonderflonium” experienced an initial strong surge, but it died out as fan enthusiasm waned. “Spice” was also somewhat popular, but it fell out of favor when its proponents found that this particular rock could not be smoked. One of the earliest and noisiest suggestions was from a physicist named Throckmorton Higgens, who claimed that the element matched the theoretical output of his “Unobtanium” experiments; as such, the name should honor him. As he had the money and time to appear on national news to promote it loudly and often, his suggestion was the one on the lips of all the pundits and commentators. From there it filtered into mass consciousness, much to general dismay.

    But in the end, the name was secondary to its distribution, and in that fight, the RDA delegation was, in a crude phrase, the b*itchiest of them all. It received its marching orders from the Board of Directors, an ornery table of old men accustomed to getting their way; they each had enough money to play a spirited game of poker with God.

    It hadn’t always been that way. Pictures of the company’s founders, twin brothers, hung on Jacob’s office wall. As children, the twins launched cansats into orbit from the backyard lauchpad, hacked every gadget in the house, created who-knew-what in the dryer, leveled the breakfast nook half a dozen times, and saved the world once or twice. Fresh off a pair of successful engineering careers (one aerospace, another biotech) and before that, stints at CalTech and MIT, they joined forces once again in Silicon Valley. Their wild, crazy inventive impulses from the kitchen had honed into effortlessly professional engineering skills.... But their freewheeling love of all technology remained, be it in aerospace, biotechnology, robotics, materials science, or chemistry.

    With seed money from their own careers, their sister's GJ grant program, and a penny or two from the Vice President of Bueno Nacho (and his naked mole rat), the two geniuses started a high-tech think tank, pooling the best of their minds and of others to research, develop, and dominate the future of future tech, from organ regrowth to power generation to food synthesis to spaceship design. They named their nascent company Ardah, after the phonetic sounding of the letters of another potential name, the Research Development Association.

    Their problem had been that they’d been so enamored with invention that they left the burgeoning company’s day-to-day operations by the wayside. In the operational vacuum, ultimate power shifted to those that could tolerate the grubby details. By the time the twins realized this, their inventions had created a multibillion monster with a deeply entrenched power structure; it had even eaten its original name. Ardah became Arda became RDA, which had stood for something at some point. Now the meaning of the initials could change with a fluidity that would make Orwell proud – or sob hysterically. At present, RDA meant whatever the PR department wanted it to mean.

    For his part, Jacob was the youngest CEO in the company’s history, and he could be a brutally cold b*astard when he needed to be. He had stepped to the helm in the midst of a drastic Peak-Oil energy crisis in the late 2060’s to mid-2070’s, ruthlessly stabilized the company, and fast-tracked the formation of the “RDE,” the RDA’s energy arm (“Really Dependable Energy”). Exxon, Chevron, and others had their wells blowing up and sinking, turning the Gulf and ANWAR into sludgepools, either from gross mismanagement, risks taken that were par for the course in the hunt for extreme energy, or eco-terrorists, who claimed the world had to bleed out its oil before it could be truly clean. RDE alone had the sheer financial willpower to keep rigs current with all safety devices, strictly enforce accountability, and the balls to machine-gun any and all boats before they could board.

    In face of a crushing need for energy, Congress began deeding the RDE the other companies’ operations, and they performed so splendidly that they were eventually given all the Gulf’s oil wells.

    RDE put massive funding into fusion projects as well – mostly by investing in others, letting them do the grunt work, then scooping up them and their technology with a highly generous bonus. Once the RDA was in majority control of the world’s oil and had reaped a suitable bonanza, it declared that all the oil had run out and began quickly supplying its patented fusion generators in massive, cheap quantities, as well as the fuel to use them, neatly swapping out one addiction for another.

    Global warming exacerbated water shortages and led to Water Wars across China, the Congo, Nigeria, the Mideast, and Southern Asia. The conflicts prevented excavation of rare minerals for battery production, keeping the entry price of electric cars and “green” energy above what most consumers could afford. Combined energy-pollution-welfare strains pushed the United State’s annual deficits into the trillions, and nonessential functions were sold off to the largest, most functional company available: the RDA, which accepted them with a sigh and hired another accountant battalion.

    The company’s accumulated wealth meant Jacob was one of the most powerful men on the planet, and his status allowed him to do, and say, almost anything he wanted. He was brash, brilliant, and fearless, opinionated and unapologetic. He got down and dirty on cable, could speak against the company line. His influence and drive had expanded the company so much – he spearheaded the RDE, the Moon complex, the Luna elevator – that people had lately begun substituting his real name with a simple epithet: CEO. Or Ceeo.

    And despite the swings he caused in stock prices every time he opened his mouth, the Board of Directors found him quite useful. He was the public face of the RDA, the focus of collective love and hatred, and handily drew attention away from them, the real kingmakers. He knew his function, and they knew it too, which was why he was still CEO.

    The port’s glass lining had cooled his hand, and the room was very still. Wearily, Jacob turned around and slumped into a chair, facing his deputy. His legs and arms drooped like a ragdoll’s. “All right... So we – me – I – still have a quarter. All right. Maybe we can still work with that.” He paused and glanced up. “Sorry about the outburst.”

    Bobby fidgeted. “I, uh, know how much you wanted them to consider another option...”

    CEO steepled his fingers over his eyes. “No, no... I –erh – I can see where the board is coming from. Get this set up, and you can cross the world without putting out a kilo of carbon. Phenomenal shipping speeds. We could get workers from China to Brazil and back between breakfast and dinner. That alone would do wonders for our bottom line… But...” He removed his hand. “Damn, I wished they’d put it toward something space-based. We’ve got to get off that rock...” He flapped an exasperated hand toward Earth. “The writing’s been on the wall for sixty f*ucking years. A fancy new choo-choo isn’t going to change anything now...” He smiled painfully. “I’m sorry. Poor language. Was there anything else in there?”

    “Not really, sir. That’s the gist of their section of the report. I’ll leave this here for you to look over, though.”

    “And as for the homework I gave you?”

    “Ah. Yes. In light of the decision, I had to rejigger some of the numbers.”

    He turned yet another page. “And, um, unfortunately, that quarter leaves us with only enough material to – theoretically – refine large quantities of antimatter… Or, again theoretically, build a slick ISV. Until we get more of it, more unobtanium, we’re stuck between a nice small ship – relatively small, of course, sir; we’re talking on the order of a kilometer long – using a staggeringly expensive fuel, or a… a… truly enormous ship using fuel that is much less expensive to make.”

    “And splitting the difference…?”

    “That was the very first idea we tossed around, sir. That tack would leave us with two so-so, fairly expensive machines, instead of one very good one. The total projected expense of the split-difference strategy exceeded the cost of one project having all the unobtanium and another having none.” He gulped. “But, again, sir, those are only vague estimates. Very, very fuzzy. We don’t have anything close, technology-wise, to match the kind of specs you want. CERN can’t kick out more than a gram of antimatter a year at the moment, even with the SLHC, and getting anywhere near Alpha Centauri in less than twenty years would take decades of research alone... Even with the latest fusion bottles, point-two of lightspeed is really hitting our limit. Point six, or even point seven, like you’re suggesting...” He shrugged.

    “And the research probe…?”

    “37,000 kilometers a second. Point-one-two lightspeed. And they’re still looking at a flight time of thirty-five years.” Bobby smiled wanly. “And, OK, that, you’ll be happy to know, got unanimous backing.”

    “Only because I lobbied the shirt of my back.”

    “Well, yes. Construction’s slated to start in two years and take ten, at least, to finish. I have a feeling it’ll be like one of those old Goofy cartoons – they’ll be figuring out how to fly on the way down.”

    CEO rolled his eyes. “It’s a start, at least.” He tapped the chair armrest for a long, contemplative minute. “Tell... you... what....” he said at last. His tone was slow, conspiratorial. “Go find the craziest sons-of-b*itches you know. Ask them about the ideas they’re afraid to touch. Their dragons. Ask them – ask them if they’d be willing to poke that dragon if they had forty years and all the money they ever wanted to whittle out a stick.” He grinned eagerly, standing up. “Got poetic there.”

    The engineer glanced askance at him. “The Board know about this little idea?”

    “Hell no. I’m still CEO, right? I’m still where the buck stops, right? Anyway, no harm in asking around, right? Just get them thinking, right?” He rubbed his arms excitedly, grinning even more broadly. “This is just a crazy little idea. This runs quiet, this runs long, this runs deep. Just get them thinking and bubbling again. Right? Right. Right...”

    His guest seemed to fade out of existence as Jacob trailed off and spun toward the window on his heel. He hunched over his watch for a moment, carefully ogling the time, before bending to his telescope and raptly peering through. He went quiet and rigid, as though the ghost in the suited shell had been sucked through the eyepiece into the grand space pushing against the glass.

    The lackey stood quietly in the background for several minutes, waiting for some sort of dismissal. Finding none, he softly, slowly deposited the thick report on a coffee table, backed across the carpet, and pulled the mahogany door tightly behind him.

    RDA LUNA 12
    22:01 UST

    To be continued...
    Carpe Navi: Because you never know when you'll get to go boating at government expense again.

  10. #10
    Registered User Exalted Member Fireand'chutes77's Avatar
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    Author's Note:

    In this story, I portrayed Wallops Island, a NASA launch facility on the DelMarVa peninsula, as a major space port. It's not right now, but yesterday in the lobby of Tech's Career Services center I saw (and read, of course!) an article in the newest "Virginia Business" magazine about the growing activity and promise at the spaceport.

    As for CEO, I'm picturing him as a blend of Elon Musk and Richard Branson. He doesn't have the smarts to build, say, an arc reactor in his basement (WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!!), but he's got the business genius to see an opportunity and the drive to push it to fruition.
    Carpe Navi: Because you never know when you'll get to go boating at government expense again.

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