C H A P T E R 7
Audrey Andrews read Colleen Acevedo’s report in bed the night she received it. There was a case there, and everyone had overlooked it. The crux of it was this: Mars was a long, long way away. It had been assumed, to the degree that no one had ever considered otherwise, that the colony on Mars was wholly dependent on Earth. Why wouldn’t it be? It was so small and so distant that it seemed it had to be constantly looking back to the bountiful mother for support and reassurance. For these reasons, no one had ever considered Mars as a separate entity. For many years the Martians had held the same view from the reverse perspective. Like an old habit, they had routinely assumed that Mars was second best, out on a limb, dangerous and desolate.
It had been a slow realisation that once the Martian colony had developed beyond a certain point the relationship ceased to make sense. Venkdt Corp made huge profits on Martian deuterium and other minerals that went to its shareholders on Earth. What did Venkdt Mars get in return? It didn’t need the protection of an army; it had no enemies. It didn’t need any other services from Earth; it was too costly in time and money to go back there for anything. In short, it got nothing in return that it couldn’t, with some minor development, provide for itself. Why wasn’t Venkdt Mars trading with Earth rather than mining for it?
Once this idea had been grasped it was impossible to see things the old way. Mars needed Earth solely as a trading partner. But Earth absolutely relied on Mars as a source of increasingly scarce minerals, and would have to trade for them come what may. In this new paradigm Mars held the upper hand.
Despite not having or needing a military Mars held a strategic advantage, too. It was just too far away to threaten with a big stick. If they wanted to pull away, who was going to stop them?
Laying down to sleep Audrey mulled these ideas through her mind. As she sunk into progressively lower levels of consciousness something occurred to her. It was bold and radical, but it just might work. She slept like a baby.
Peter Brennan disliked having his routine disturbed.
“This better be about something. I’ve cancelled two meetings and a teleconference. The president can’t make it, but he wants me to report back to him directly. We’ve got twenty minutes. What is it?”
Andrews spoke. “We have reliable intelligence coming out of Mars that Charles Venkdt is going to run a plebiscite asking the entire population of Mars whether Venkdt Mars should break away from the parent company. Since more than eighty-five percent of the Martian population work for Venkdt this would be tantamount to Mars declaring independence from Earth.”
Brennan grunted, and noted something down.
“Should this come to pass it would present us with a number of problems. First, it would be a criminal act on a huge scale. Venkdt Mars is worth vast sums and would be, in effect, ‘stolen’ from its rightful owners. And that would be happening on the other side of the solar system, where we cannot police it.
“Secondly, it would damage us strategically and economically. Our whole society is underpinned by the power provided by nuclear fusion reactors and they run on deuterium which comes, in large part, from Mars. An independent Mars would mean the USAN were no longer energy independent. We would be hostage to the prices Mars could set for deuterium as well as other minerals which, at present, are more cost-efficiently gathered and transported from Mars than they are gathered here on Earth. We could see energy prices double, triple, quadruple; who knows?
“Thirdly, we would look weak politically. A major source of our energy and a major technical and social achievement in its own right a – source of national pride, no less – would be seen to walk away from us with utter impunity.
“And fourthly, we would lose our frontier outpost. Mars is our forward base, right out near the asteroid belt, which is ripe for exploitation. Ten, twenty years down the line we want to be out there mining those asteroids and looking out to the further reaches of the solar system. If we lose Mars, we’re pushed a hundred and forty million miles backward, and that can’t happen.”
Brennan turned to Farrell. “What do you say?”
“Our analysis is largely the same, senator,” said Farrell.
“What do we do?” said Brennan.
“Well,” started Farrell, “certain actions are being prepared already. We can’t move yet because Venkdt hasn’t made a formal announcement, but we’re expecting that soon. When he does, we’ll be ready. We have a statement ready for the president, condemning the action in the strongest terms, and we have a team working now on all diplomatic avenues that we might want to pursue.”
Farrell shuffled his notes. “We can assure the Venkdt Mars hierarchy that we will pursue all legal means to prevent this from happening. We can pressure them into seeing the folly of taking this path. We can co-opt the Venkdt shareholders on Earth, and other stakeholders, to bring pressure on them to see sense. And we’re looking at the practicalities of freezing their assets, should it come to it.”
“Would any of that have any effect?”
Farrell seemed momentarily startled. “I would hope so, senator.”
Brennan turned back to Andrews. “What have you got? There’s a garrison up there, isn’t there?”
“There is senator, but its role is very limited. Venkdt have their own security service and mostly police themselves. In terms of physical force they outnumber us ten to one. We couldn’t jump to that at this stage, anyway.”
“So we have an inadequate and outnumbered force that we can’t afford to use, and persuasion? That’s it?”
“At the present time that’s it, sir,” said Farrell. “I have a team working on this right now, and we hope to have something much firmer in the next few days. We have until Venkdt announces, too.”
“What would we do if this was, say, Sri Lanka?” Brennan said to Andrews. It was what she had been waiting for.
“We’d do just what we’re doing now, sir. Monitor communications, pursue diplomatic channels, play the media. But if it was Sri Lanka, sir, we’d park a carrier group off-shore, just for emphasis.”
Brennan raised an eyebrow. “Ms Andrews, I take it we don’t have any carriers in the vicinity of Mars?”
“No, sir, we don’t.”
“Nor do we have any such vessels in space at all, do we?”
Andrews didn’t hesitate. “That’s not quite true, sir. We do have the two LEO carriers. They’re the most expensive ships ever commissioned by the USAN, and they’re brand new and ready for service.”
“LEO. That’s Low Earth Orbit, isn’t it, Ms Andrews?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
“So that’s not going to help with Mars, is it?”
“Well, sir, if we could get them to Mars they would be exactly the thing to show we mean business. Their strike capability is enormous and highly configurable. They were made for policing the world. They could just as easily police another world.”
Brennan thought. “Could we get them to Mars?”
“I don’t know. The hard work was getting them built in the first place. If we could refit them in some way for interplanetary flight we could police our frontier.”
“Is that even feasible?”
“I’ll talk to Helios.”
“I’ll talk to Helios. Time is the issue. Even if it can be done it will take time, then we have to wait for a launch window. It’ll take two years at a bare minimum.”
Brennan shook his head. “It’ll all be over by then. Too late.”
“It’s all we have. And it won’t be over, legally. And they’ll know we’re coming from the minute we make the announcement.”
Farrell called ahead from his car and had his people waiting for him on his return. He entered the room at pace, walking to his desk and planting his briefcase down on it as he said, “What have we got, people?” A handful of his top advisers were seated on plastic chairs in front of his desk. As he took his seat he looked at them expectantly.
“A special envoy is out,” one of them offered. “The next launch window isn’t for eighteen months.”
“Who do we have on the ground?”
“No one,” another adviser answered.
“Who’s senior at the garrison?”
“That would be Colonel Katrina Shaw,” another said. “I’m squaring it with defence that she can assume diplomatic responsibility for us.”
“That’s good. As soon as that’s cleared I want her fully briefed on the situation and ready to meet with Venkdt the moment he announces.”
“What about legal?”
“Without the specifics of the plan we’re guessing against certain likely scenarios. For each scenario we’re working through the legal issues; which laws are being broken, who by, potential remedies etcetera,” said an adviser.
“That’s good,” said Farrell. “As soon as Venkdt goes public I want to know what laws he’s breaking and what laws he’s proposing to break. And I want a warrant for his arrest in Colonel Shaw’s hands five minutes after that.”
“You want to arrest him?”
Farrell shook his head, “No, we can’t arrest him. But I want him to know there’s a warrant.”
Audrey Andrews had already scheduled a call to Lewis J Rawls before the meeting with Brennan had begun. As her car pulled away she barked instructions to it. “Get me Rawls, put it on the wall.”
Presently, the chest and head of Lewis Rawls appeared opposite Andrews. The image was slightly distorted initially, as it fell over the opposing cream white seats. The projector quickly recalibrated the image to allow for the uneven surface so what Andrews saw resembled the man in the flesh. A subtle but definite 3D effect helped, too.
“Make him smaller,” said Andrews.
“Make him what?” came muffledly over Andrews’ speakers. The image shrank a little.
“That’s good,” said Andrews. “I was just resizing you, Lewis. You were bearing down on me like some huge ape.”
Rawls laughed. “That’s just how I like it. What can I do for you Audrey?”
Audrey looked at the image of Rawls. Approximately life-sized now it felt disconcertingly like he was sat there in the car with her. She looked into his eyes as she spoke. “You’ve done a lot of work for us over the years, Lewis. Right now we need you to really pull something special out of the bag.”
Rawls leaned into the camera. “I’m intrigued. And I’m excited, on behalf of billing.”
“We’re in the process of taking delivery of the second carrier. As you know, they’re arriving too late for the war. We may have another use for them, but they would need some modifications. Is this all sounding plausible?”
“It sounds great so far, but you haven’t got to the modifications yet.”
“Well, it’s this Lewis. We need the carriers to do exactly what they’re designed to do, but we need them to do it someplace else.”
Rawls didn’t have a comeback for that. “Go on,” he said.
“We need to get them to Mars,” said Andrews. “Can that be done?”
Rawls sat back in his chair and was silent for a moment. “It,” he paused for a long time, “. . . could be done, yes.”
Audrey waited for more but there was none. “Talk to me Rawls. How could we do it?”
Rawls pushed the tips of his fingers together, with his elbows rested on the arms of his chair, and looked at them in concentration as he spoke.
“The carriers have ion drives for manoeuvrability. Their main engines are standard chemical rocket engines. They’re for pushing them quickly around the world. There’s not enough power in those for interplanetary flight, and there’s not enough space for the necessary fuel.”
Andrews pursed her lips.
“But. If we could replace the main chemical engines with nuclear fusion jet engines that would give us the necessary thrust, within the limited space available, to kick off into the void. So theoretically, yes, it could be done.”
“You’re really talking seriously about doing this?”
“How fast could you do it, how much would it cost?”
Rawls thought. “I can’t give you a price, but not cheap. And fast will at least double the price, whatever it is. In all of our projects we try to keep to standardised specifications, and we keep everything as modular as possible to simplify maintenance. That would mean that ripping out the current engines would be relatively painless. We could do that in, say, a week or less. The difficulty would come with the NFJ engines.”
“They don’t exist.”
“Goddammit, why didn’t you just say that!”
“Hold on. They don’t exist yet, but one of my top engineers is working on NFJs right now. She has three prototypes, two full-sized, and is nearing the end of the testing phase as we speak.”
“She has two? One for each carrier, that’s great,” Audrey was saying when Rawls cut back in.
“They are two prototypes. The work is extremely promising, but putting two untried engines in what I believe to be the most expensive vessels ever commissioned by the USAN would come with a high degree of uncertainty and risk.”
“I know that Rawls. But this is a national emergency.”
“It is? I haven’t seen anything on the bulletins.”
“Not yet. This is going to blow up in the next few days and we need to be ready for it.” As an afterthought she added, “You understand this all falls under your confidentiality agreement?”
“These engines; if we sign off on the risk, you just fit them in and that’s that?”
Rawls laughed. “Not quite that simple. As mentioned, we make all our stuff modular. Saves on costs, saves on headaches, keeps things simple. The prototype engines are the same form factor as the class of chemical engine that is currently in the carriers. Obviously, the NFJs don’t need the huge fuel capacity of the chemical engines, but it’s not a like-for-like swap. We’d have to look at that. And the control software would need to be overhauled, and we’d need to look at ramping up the power of the ion drives. Navigation and coms would need to be looked at, too. It could take months.”
“We don’t have months. If you had to do it fast, how fast could you do it?”
Rawls looked off to the side. “Audrey, bear this in mind. Everything takes at least four times as long as you think it will. That said, if everything goes without one single little hitch, and it won’t, then I would say, maybe, six months?”
Audrey thought. “I need to take this to the president. I will strongly advise him that we should proceed with this course of action. We’ll need the nod from him, and he’ll have to find the money. Until then, can you proceed, with haste, to get this thing rolling?”
“I can start. You’re confident the president will buy it?”
“He has to. There’s no other course open to us.”
“Okay. I’ll put things in motion.”
“Who’s working on the engines?”
“You know her. She was second lead designer on the Aloadae, for a couple of years, anyway.”
“I know her?”
“Sure, you must have seen her in design briefings and the like. Tall blonde woman, short hair.”
Audrey thought, scanning through her internal archive but unable to locate an image of the tall, blonde engineer. “What’s her name?” she said.
Madeline Zelman patronised the arts. She could often be found floating through a private viewing, or holding court at the interval of a much anticipated première. She supported many prominent charities and occasionally travelled overseas to see first-hand the work that was being done with the monies she helped to raise. For a number of big-name NGOs she acted as a roving ambassador, hugging the poor here, opening a hydroelectric plant there. She smiled graciously for the cameras, gave good interview, looked good in pictures and was utterly unshakeable. A desperately ill (but still, give-or-take, photogenic) Haitian boy vomiting blood onto her virginal white designer dress couldn’t phase her. She looked genuinely concerned for the boy and later shrugged a self-deprecating smile at the cameras as aides fussed over the bloody clothing.
She had had the colossal misfortune of having been born immensely rich. Her childhood had been happy and she had wanted for nothing. All of this had left her with a gnawing feeling that she should be doing something. What was she for? If she wasn’t for patronising the arts and raising money and awareness for charity, at least it kept her busy.
As the majority owner of Helios Matériel Corporation she would often be met by protesters when she attended events. Chants, placards, eggs. But she was resolute. She knew that peace wasn’t the natural state between people. She knew that not all people were good. And she believed, wholeheartedly, that the advanced weaponry that Helios made and sold was making the world a safer place.
She had met Gerard White through her fund-raising activities way back when he was just starting out in politics. She had contributed to his campaigns all the way through to when he was seeking the presidential candidacy. He hadn’t quite made it that time, but he managed to get on the ticket as VP candidate. He balanced out Cortes. Cortes was swarthy, he was a WASP. Cortes was a hawk, he was a dove. Cortes was a hot-head, he was level-headed, always taking the long view.
Zelman hadn’t contribute to their presidential campaign. She didn’t trust Cortes. She’d been around the world, to the non-aligned countries, and had seen leaders like him there – generalissimos and tin-pots. There was something of that about him and she didn’t like it.
When White’s wife had died four years earlier he had drifted into a relationship with Zelman which, looking back, had always seemed inevitable. The relationship wasn’t secret, as such, but it wasn’t public either. They would meet for the occasional meal, or night, or weekend, and that suited them both. They were busy people.
On this occasion Zelman had booked a suite at a swanky downtown hotel. It was one they had used before and had been pre-approved by the Secret Service. They had additionally booked the entire floor, and strategic rooms above and below, and were in a position to maintain security from a discreet and low-key distance.
White arrived late. He closed the door behind him and crossed the large and minimally opulent living area to where Zelman was lounging on a sofa, reading a magazine. He lofted a bottle of champagne up in front of him and smiled. Zelman smiled back and nodded to the small table next the sofa. There was a bottle of the same champagne, their favourite Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque, on ice in a bucket. White’s face fell to mock sadness. “I wanted to surprise you. Well, I’ve had a two bottle kind of day, I guess.” He took the chilled bottle and replaced it with his own. He poured two glasses, offering one to Zelman. He took a sip and sat at the other end of the sofa, Zelman lifting her legs to make space for him then laying them back on his lap. He stroked her calf and took another drink.
“I’m just finishing this article,” said Zelman, distractedly.
White looked around the room. He could feel himself relaxing. It felt good.
“There!” Zelman exclaimed, half-dropping, half-throwing the magazine to the floor. “How are you, darling? A two bottle day, you say?”
White perked up. “Oh, maybe not that bad, I guess. Things are hotting up at foreign and defence. We’re meeting with Cortes tomorrow.”
Zelman was intrigued. “The Asian Bloc? Are they getting antsy again?”
“No, no. That’s all going great. Bizarrely enough, there are storm clouds gathering over Mars.”
“Yup,” White sighed. “With any luck it’ll just be a storm in tea cup but we have some intel – I shouldn’t be telling you this – that Charles Venkdt is going to poll the Martian population on independence.”
Zelman was genuinely baffled. “What do you mean, independence?”
“From Earth. Well, technically from the parent company but it amounts to the same thing.”
“Ha!” Zelman couldn’t help herself. The very idea seemed so ridiculous. “Is he mad? It’s just some internal spat at Venkdt then, isn’t it?”
“That’s what we’re all hoping. Because if anything crazy does go on up there there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.”
“What about the garrison?”
White snorted. “Two hundred guys gone soft. And what use would they be? Firepower is only useful if you have overwhelming superiority. The last seven years have taught us that. The greater your superiority the less likely your need to use it. Anyway, we can’t be seen to be turning the military on USAN citizens. That could get really messy.”
“Well,” said Zelman, “let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“I don’t think it will. But, you know, in our line we have to think the unthinkable.”
Zelman smiled. “These things always seem important at the time. In two weeks this will all be over and forgotten about. Let’s go to bed.”
“You know, there could be a silver lining in this for you.”
Zelman looked at him quizzically.
“Andrews is talking about refitting the carriers. Sending them to Mars, like some old colonial warships, to give the natives something to think about. Your stocks will go through the roof.”
Zelman laughed. “That sounds like a grand idea! I’ve tried to tell you before, peace through superior firepower. That’s the only foreign policy you need. They wouldn’t really go through with it though, would they? The Martians?”
White rose from the sofa, reaching out for the champagne.
“Who knows what the hell they might do.”
Rawls got off the phone to Andrews and lay back in his white chair, kicking his feet up on the desk. He closed his eyes and thought. Was what he had just told Andrews feasible? Probably. Realistic? Maybe. He felt a little scared. It was an exciting – as well as lucrative – project, and it was the risk of failure that made it exciting. His mind was racing a little. Had he oversold what Helios was capable of delivering? Even with twenty-third century production methods, refitting the two giant carriers was going to be a massive task. Intellectually, he reasoned that it could be done. But the fear was still there. It was good. And anyway, now they were committed.
He sat the chair back up and spoke to his terminal, “Get me Lund.”
“Ms Lund is busy right now,” the terminal replied.
“Can you let Ms Lund know it’s me and that it’s urgent,” said Rawls.
He brought up some documents on his terminal and scanned through them. He looked at the plans for the carriers and at some of Askel’s recent work on the engines. He looked at budgets and the project management records for the carriers’ construction. He was sinking into the details of the engine fitting procedure when his terminal spoke again.
“Askel Lund for you.”
“Great, put her on the wall.”
The wall of his office sprang to life with the huge image of Askel’s head and shoulders projected two metres high, and in incredible detail. Her face was clean, honest and open, and her crystal blue eyes looked out vividly from the projection. “You wanted me?” she said.
“Hi, Askel. Got some ideas I want to run past you.”
Askel’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. She couldn’t say ‘Can’t you see I’m busy’ to the boss, but her expression hinted at it. “Go on,” she said.
“You worked on the carriers. The NFJs you’re working on now, would they work in them?”
“Why not? They’re the same form factor, aren’t they?”
“They’re not ready.”
“No, but if they were ready they could be made to work in the carriers, right?”
Askel paused. “I guess. But there’d be no point. They’d be overkill for ships that just roam about the planet.”
“I’m coming on to that. If you could get the NFJ engines into the carriers, there’s no reason we couldn’t get them to Mars, is there?”
Askel paused. “Well . . .”
“Could you do it?”
“It could be done, when the engines are ready, which they aren’t, but it would take a lot of time and money and wouldn’t be as effective as building ships from the ground up for interplanetary flight. That’s where I’d start – with a new design.”
“Askel, we don’t have time for that. If we started right now, how long would this take?”
Askel shook her head gently in thought. “Six months, eight. If the engines were ready, which they aren’t.”
“If I gave you everything you needed, if we went at this day and night, could we do it in six months?”
“Maybe. But the engines -”
Rawls cut her off. “I’m reading the test data right now. It all looks good to me. These engines are ready, aren’t they? Really?”
“I’d like to do further tests. We’re doing very advanced stuff here and I’d like to proceed with an abundance of caution.”
“Can you think of a better test than putting them in working spacecraft?”
“Lewis, I . . .” Askel’s voice trailed off.
“We can do this, can’t we? And you said six months? That’s great. I’ll let the secretary of defence know.”
Askel was already reluctantly thinking of the problems ahead. “I’ll need more money. And I want it in writing that you’re proceeding over my objections.” Her mind was racing now. “And we’ll need more production drones and an orbital laser lathe.”
“You’ve got it, Askel. It’s all billable. The client wants it and they want it fast.”
“The client? The USAN? Why do they want to send the carriers to Mars?”
“They have their reasons. It’s political, as far as I can tell. If you ask me it’s a huge fuss over nothing, but they’re asking for it and they’re going to pay for it, so I say let’s give it to them. Customer’s always right, eh?”
“How much are we going to bill them for this?”
“Do I get a bonus?”
“Write your own cheque, Askel. Uncle Sam’s paying.”
Askel Lund, twenty-eight, pulled her chair up to her desk and prepared to concentrate. She sat in front of her terminal and grim-facedly set to work. She pulled files on the carriers; designs, redesigns and construction records. She pulled the project management data, where she could compare the plans for the builds, including projected milestones, against actual milestones. She looked at all the delays, their reasons and impacts. She hunted for short cuts; safety inspections that could be sped up; systems that could be worked in parallel. She maximised man and drone power to the point beyond which they would get in each other’s way, which cut the time for some crucial tasks by as much as fifty percent.
She looked at the engines. Rawls had been right; they had been tested to exhaustion and Lund, ever thorough, had been delaying the sign off to make further tweaks and tests. Rawls had been right, too, in that the ultimate test would be to set the engines in spacecraft and put them to work. The engines were currently housed in a test facility in Winfrith, Dorset. They would have to be prepared for transport – five days – and then shipped by special lorries – need to organise that – to the spaceport at Foulness Island near Southend in Essex.
Lund was making lists as she went. There was a whole load of things that would have to be organised to make this thing move fast. Rawls would need to organise an HLV or two to get the engines into orbit. There were various tools and drones that would have to be in position against specific dates. There were work schedules and a huge shopping list of necessary supplies. Lund hammered away at the task without stopping, like a machine. The more she worked the clearer the whole project became in her mind, and she could see it as a reality. Initially, it had seemed something of a pipe dream but as she worked the numbers came clearer into view, and it did indeed seem like a plausible thing. A few hours later and in Askel’s mind it was not only plausible, or possible, it was going to happen. Lund was gripped by the project. Every problem solved, every hour saved, every unnecessary system discarded was like a huge victory in service of the ultimate goal; to make this thing happen as soon – or even sooner – than she said she would. Rawls may baulk at some of the prices on her shopping list, but fast was never going to be cheap. And anyway, the bills would be passed on to the client with a twenty percent mark-up.
It was two hours after midnight when Lund finished. She had generated or copied, modified and amended a vast amount of documents and schematics by then. She kicked her chair back as she spoke to the terminal. “Check all of the documents I’ve produced in the last twelve hours. Check them for spelling, grammar, logical consistency. Check them with the highest grade AI for logic, and produce a report for any inconsistencies. Also, generate a report suggesting any improvements. Priorities are speed and efficiency. Let me know when you’re done.”
“Yes, Ms Lund,” the terminal replied.
Askel rose from her desk and walked to the window. It was dark outside but looking up and to the west she could see what looked like a bright, slightly orange star.
Rawls picked Askel up early next morning. She had slept soundly and dreamlessly after finishing her work. The terminal had found a few minor inconsistencies and had made some very useful suggestions. She had quickly worked these into her documentation over breakfast and then showered. Her hair was still wet when Rawls commed through to tell her he was waiting downstairs. She buzzed him up.
“Good morning,” said Rawls. “How’s it going?”
“It’s going great,” said Askel, closing the door behind her.
“Everything’s looking good?”
“I went through everything yesterday. I’ve got a full report, I just sent you a copy.”
“I saw. I haven’t had chance to look at it yet. We’ve got something to take to the secretary, though?”
“Yes, we have. It’s all doable, provided they’re willing to pick up the bill.”
“That’s great, Askel. I knew you could do it. Can you get it down to four months?”
“It’s down to three. And of course, as I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a massive bonus with the NFJs.”
“I thought so,” Rawls grinned. “The poor defence secretary. She’s just a dumb civilian. I bet she hasn’t even thought about launch windows, which is a shame. She won’t realise what an incredible thing it is that we will be providing to her. But maybe for the best. If she had known, she might never have come to us in the first place.”
Askel looked out of the window as London slid by. “I wish they were going into a civilian transport. Rather than this.”
“In the fullness of time, Askel. This is a major coup for us. This will be a news story around the world. You can’t buy publicity like that. The whole world will be watching our ships, our engines.”
Askel shook her head. “This is a hell of a job, Lewis. This only comes off if everything goes exactly to plan.”
“I know. That’s why I want you to oversee it personally. Lead designer and project manager. How’s that sound?”
Askel turned away from the window. It sounded good and terrifying. “It sounds great. When do I start?”
“You already have.”
They pulled into the Ministry of Defence local HQ at Whitehall, London and drove through the security checks down into the underground car park. They were escorted under military guard to the lifts, and were then whisked up to one of the higher floors. As the lift doors opened they were greeted by a huge bear of a man. He thrust a paw in their direction, beaming brightly. “General Terrence Cain, just call me Terry. Great to meet you, Mr Rawls, and you must be Ms Lund. Very excited to meet you, come this way. The teleconference will start in just over ten minutes. If there’s anything you need just let me know.”
They nodded their ‘thank yous’ and, after the handshaking and pleasantries, followed General Cain down a series of corridors until they came to a room labelled ‘Conference Room A’. There were two armed soldiers guarding either side of the door. They snapped to attention and saluted General Cain as he approached. Cain returned the salute as automatically as he put one foot in front of the other when he walked. He held the door open and Rawls and Lund entered.
The room was large and low-lit with no windows. It was air conditioned cool and there was bottled water and glasses on the large table that dominated the room. The far wall was blank white. That was where the images would be shown when the teleconference started, Askel guessed.
“Please, take a seat,” said Cain. “We should have the feed from Dallas up in the next few minutes.” He seemed genuinely excited, like he had never done this sort of thing before. Maybe he hadn’t.
Lund and Rawls took seats at the far end of the table near the screening wall. They sat on opposite sides. Cain took up a seat one down from Rawls.
“This line is fully secure, is it?” asked Lund.
“Oh, yes,” replied Cain. “Military grade. Literally. We’re sorry we couldn’t do this over standard coms; the secretary requested the highest levels of security.”
“Can you patch my comdev in? There are some files I’ll need to show.”
“Yes,” said Cain. “Can you just pass it here?” He took the comdev and held it under his own, slid his fingers about the screen and handed it back.
“It’s Conference Room A, Screen 1,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Lund. She fiddled with her comdev, her brow furrowed. Rawls seemed relaxed. He took a bottle of water and poured himself a glass. He took a few sips. He might have been sipping a G&T in some Mediterranean resort for all the stress he displayed.
“Ah!” said Cain as the screen flickered to life. The head and shoulders of a woman appeared, three metres high, filling the screen. “Hello, London,” she said in a southern drawl.
“This is London,” said Cain.
“Hi, there. I have the secretary of defence here for you, we’ll be patching her through in just a few moments.”
“Very good.” Cain winked at Askel.
The screen cut to a conference room similar to the one they were seated in. The resolution was extremely high, and the three dimensional effect made it appear almost as an extension of the room they were in. Audrey Andrews was seated to the front and side of a similar conference table. About her were five or six senior staffers and assistants. A young, suited man was half leant over saying something to Andrews. She seemed to thank him as he left, walking across the screen and out of shot. Andrews looked at them. “Hello, Lewis. I see you have General Cain there.”
“Hello, Ms Andrews!” said Cain.
“And this must be Askel Lund.”
“Good morning, secretary,” said Askel.
Andrews cut straight to it. “Ms Lund, Lewis has assured me that Helios can refit our two orbiting carriers, with engines and other necessary equipment such that we can transport them to Mars, within six months. Is that reasonable, in your opinion?”
Askel glanced at Rawls. “I’ve looked at the figures and have come up with a preliminary plan. The plan is dependent on many factors – I’m sending you all the documentation now – but if we get all those in place I think we can deliver the modifications in three months.”
Askel beamed, just a little. “Yes, I think so. As mentioned, that would depend on many things. We would need some assistance cutting through some red tape and it would not be cheap. I mean, it would not be cheap anyway, but to do it quickly and safely will require a big financial commitment.”
Andrews looked invigorated. “But in three months’ time we could set our two carriers off to Mars, if we had the will and the money to do it?”
“That’s correct. And that’s only possible with NFJ engines.”
“I’m sorry, what’s only possible with these engines?”
“There are a number of papers in the tranche of documents I’ve sent over explaining it in detail, but with these engines we don’t have to wait for a launch window. As you know, with conventional chemical engines we can only launch about once every two years, during a very specific launch window.” Andrews nodded. “That is because the cost, in terms of weight of fuel, is too high at any other time. When the orbits of Earth and Mars are at just the right relative positions we can jump off the Earth, which is already moving around the Sun at about 108,000km/h, and accelerate up to a speed where we can travel to Mars within six months. We’re limited in how fast we can go by two factors. One is the weight of necessary chemical fuel and the other is our speed at arrival. If we’re going too fast the gravity of Mars won’t be strong enough to catch us when we get there. For every kilo of fuel we need to accelerate we need the same amount to brake at the other end. With conventional fuels the cost is just too high. To go fast and stop at the other end, or rather slow down to the speed necessary for orbital capture, the fuel tanks would have to be enormous – far beyond what is practical.”
Andrews was nodding her head in all the right places, her brow furrowed with concentration. Rawls was looking content, like a proud father, and Cain was beaming like he’d just received the best birthday present ever. Lund continued. “The ratio of thrust to fuel weight with a nuclear fusion jet engine is simply enormous. That means that for a trip to Mars we can accelerate to a speed far beyond what has been used up to now, because the cost in fuel weight is so low. It also means we don’t have to wait for a window when Earth and Mars are at their closest. We can go whenever we want, because we’ll have more than enough fuel left to decelerate to the necessary speed when we arrive at Mars.”
“So three months from now, we could send the carriers off?”
“And how long would it take them to reach Mars?”
Askel frowned. “I think, given the current positions of the two planets, if we launched in three months’ time it would take approximately six to eight weeks to arrive in Mars orbit.”
Andrews looked impressed. She leaned back and spoke to one of the men behind her, nodding at him as she turned back to the screen. “If we can get the funds and other resources, smooth out some of the paperwork, you can get us two carriers in orbit around Mars within five months. I’ve understood you correctly, Ms Lund?”
“Yes, secretary. If we start now.”
“Thank you. And thank you for the documentation. I assume the costings are in there?”
Rawls cut in, “Audrey, that’s the one on top of the pile.”
Andrews smiled. “I’ll be taking this to the president. In the meantime, can you assume you have approval? Get things going?”
Rawls puffed his cheeks.
“If for any reason this doesn’t come off we’ll reimburse you for any losses. But we need to hit the ground running.”
“I wouldn’t do this for anyone other than you, Audrey,” Rawls said, and chuckled to himself.
“That’s great. Thank you for your time, we’ll speak again soon.” Andrews stood up and the screen cut back to the head and shoulders of the woman. “Dallas here, were finishing the conference at 08.47, London time, is there anything else?”
“We’re all fine here,” said Cain. “Good morning to you, Dallas!”
“Good morning to you too, sir, have a great day, Dallas out.” The image cut and the wall was a wall once again.
Rawls turned to Lund. “Need a ride home?”
“Sure. There’s a million things I need to do.”
Rawls nodded. “And you’ll need to pack, too.”
Askel gave him her quizzical glance.
“Your new position. It’s based on Ephialtes.”
Askel didn’t like spaceflight. The prospect of spending the next few months on Ephialtes filled her with a mild dread. Still, at least she would be busy. She’d hurriedly packed some things and had asked a neighbour to keep an eye on the apartment; she would be gone about three months. She’d made a few calls to a few people, letting them know she’d be gone, cancelling the odd arrangement. Then she’d taken the ride out of town in one of Rawls’ cars, which he’d sent over for her. She’d left London at dusk and now found herself heading out to Foulness Island in the growing darkness. She could see the port on the distant horizon, all glimmering lights and wisps of propellant venting off into the night.
She was met at the port by a no-nonsense sergeant, briefed to see her aboard the bone-shaker taking her up to orbit. He was thorough and impersonal, which suited Askel just fine. She was in no mood for small talk and pleasantries. Her mind was occupied with the low-level fear of launch, overlaid with the million and one things she needed to do, check or delegate at the next opportunity.
She had never been to Ephialtes before but it was practically the same ship as Otus, where she had spent some months soon after its float-out. She had contributed to the design of both ships, particularly in terms of their accommodation of dropships and drones. She knew the Commander Program well and she knew the dropship carrier system probably as well as anyone on the original design teams. Her AIs had done most of the design work and she had overseen the linking together of the two systems, carrier and dropship. The two great carrier ships, known together as the Aloadae, were the pinnacle of the Commander Program system. They could dispatch a fearsome fighting force anywhere in the world within hours, and with minimal notice.
She had been moved to the NFJ project just before Ephialtes began fitting-out. It was a great opportunity to raise her stock even higher within Helios. She knew she had impressed Rawls and that he had great faith in her. She had been determined to prove him right.
As well as the technical challenges of the NFJ project (designated Aphrodite) there were personal ones too. The project was based in Dorset, England and took Askel away from her settled home life in Kentucky. It took her away from Bobby Karjalainen. Initially, a long distance relationship seemed doable. Bobby was often posted overseas anyway. But it had put a huge strain on the relationship from the very moment Bobby had meekly responded ‘Okay’ to the proposal, rather than being taken aback like Askel had expected. Suborbital flight meant that the UK and North America were less than forty-five minutes apart, but the connecting journeys either end increased the length of the trip by a factor of ten. Over time the relationship faded and crumbled. Askel missed Bobby but she had no idea if he felt the same way. She’d noted that he hadn’t mentioned her in his book. Whether that was due to his respect for her privacy or whether he had airbrushed her from history she did not know. But he was gone. The last she heard he was truly gone – headed back to Mars.
She checked her baggage with the sergeant and was fitted for a flight suit. She was given a medical scan, signed some papers and was then put on a bus with some other Helios personnel. She recognised some faces – many of the Aphrodite team were there, but there were some from other divisions who she did not know. One way or another they were there at her behest. She had detailed all the personnel she would need by skill and ability and here, less than forty-eight hours later, some of them were. Frantic dealing was still going on in the Helios HR and purchasing departments. It was an overtime bonanza as favours were called in, deals were struck and backs were scratched. There would be more flights like this, freight flights, too, over the coming weeks but, appropriately, Askel was at the vanguard.
The bus ferried them to the launchpad where they got out and ascended the tower by elevator. Askel attempted some small talk with her team members but, with her mind racing from the fear of the launch and the enormity of the task at hand, she kept falling back to talking shop. She was constantly making lists in her mind and delegating tasks here and there. They got out of the elevator and were ushered across a gangway into the craft itself.
The Heavy Lift Vehicle was a large SLSVII class rocket, the fundamental design of which had not changed in more than two hundred years, though it had been hugely refined. The cabin of the cylindrical spacecraft on top was divided into two floors. Each had around thirty seats, set out in rows and aisles like some sort of futuristic bus tipped up on its rear. The seats were large, with harnesses and ports for various life support, monitoring and coms systems. The passengers had to climb up a retractable ladder mounted in the aisle and then work their way along a small gantry above the rows to their seats. Askel worked her way to her seat in the front row on the top deck, plugged herself in, and waited.
Coms crackled over Askel’s headset informing her that conditions were good and that launch was on schedule to proceed within fifty minutes. She was informed that a countdown was available should she wish to patch it through, but she declined. As she lay back into her chair she could feel it adjusting to accommodate every curve of her body. She absentmindedly thought about getting one for home – surely she could swing it with Rawls – but then her mind was racing again with a controlled anxiety about the project and about the flight.
The last five minutes were the longest. She kept trying to distract herself but it didn’t work. She told herself it would be over in ten or fifteen minutes. She would be in orbit, and it would be over. Her colleague next to her tapped her on the arm and told her when it was T-1 minutes. She nodded and smiled weakly at him, closing her eyes.
When it began the first thing she felt was the rumble, which started powerfully and grew ever stronger. It felt and sounded like she was in a collapsing building, then there was a sudden kick in her back. It felt like one of those awful falling nightmares, except instead of falling she was rising ever faster and she didn’t wake suddenly, as much as she longed to. The incredible force and roar could hardly fail to impress, but Askel’s mind was in a place far away from such things. She was in a zone somewhere between serenity and panic, knowing that there was nothing she could do. She was committed to this and all she could do now was just be, until it was over.
Very soon – Askel couldn’t tell if it was minutes or seconds – the violent shaking smoothed out and the incredible pressure she had felt on her body eased off. She felt the tension in her body relax a little and she started to feel light. She turned to her colleague and nodded a smile at him. He smiled back and gave her the thumbs up signal. A voice came over the com. “All passengers, following a successful launch we are now in orbit around the Earth and are due to dock with Ephialtes in approximately two hours. Please remain seated for the rest of the journey, if you have any problems we are right here for you. Thanks.”
Askel let herself relax. It was going to be a tough three months and she thought she’d earned it.
It was dark when Andrews reached the New Oval Office. She spoke briefly to Cortes’ personal assistant and let herself in. The lighting was low and Cortes was in his chair, turned away from the great desk of office, facing the window. At first she thought he might be asleep and she approached cautiously.
“Thanks for coming, Audrey,” he said without turning. “Take a seat over on one of the sofas. I’ll be over in a minute.”
“Yes, Mr President,” Andrews said, and she walked over to one of the sofas and sat down. She felt a little awkward, like she was intruding on some intensely personal moment. She was surprised when Cortes spoke again.
“You know, it’s been quite a day,” he said. “I got the intelligence briefing this morning. I guess that’s what you’re here to talk about.”
“It is, Mr President.”
“I thought so. You know, this job never ends. It’s just one damn thing after another.”
“I guess so, Mr President. I guess that’s what our jobs are; dealing with issues, one after another.”
Cortes chuckled. “Well, that’s true enough,” he said. He turned in the chair and stood up. As he walked over to Andrews he asked the question she had been preparing for all week. “What have you got for me, Audrey?” he said.
“Well, sir,” Audrey replied, “I’ve spoken to Helios. They can refit the Aloadae for interplanetary flight. They have experimental nuclear fusion engines they can use. We can have the Aloadae in orbit around Mars within six months if we need it.”
Cortes nodded, impressed. “I guess that wouldn’t be cheap,” he said.
“Well,” said Andrews, “not financially, of course not. But it might be cheaper than losing a planet.”
Cortes thought for a moment. “They can really do that? In six months?”
“They’ve assured me they can,” said Andrews, “and I’ve no reason to disbelieve them.”
Cortes paced. “How would that look, politically? Is it overkill?”
“Not at all,” said Andrews. “We have these ships, more-or-less redundant now over Earth. Think how powerful we look if we can send them to Mars. Not just to the Martians but to the Asian Bloc, the non-aligned countries, even to our own country. It would be a great demonstration of our power. Reassuring to those at home and impressive and intimidating to those abroad.”
Cortes stopped pacing. “What do you need from me?”
“I just need the executive order authorising the expenditure. You still have the elevated powers from the war. If you want to go ahead, let me know now and I’ll tell Helios to proceed immediately.”
“How much will this cost again?”
“I sent you the costings. It’s a lot, but we can afford it.”
Cortes paused. “Okay. Go ahead. The bigger the stick the less likely you’ll need to use it, right? That’s the principle we’re following here, isn’t it?”
“Of course, Mr President. We’ll stop this thing before it’s started.”
“I like that,” said Cortes. “The last thing we need right now is another war.”