Oh, what the heck. I'll post three a week. I just may have to stop snippeting a month or so before the book comes out. :)
Simon leaned back in his chair, massaging his temples. "So we are nearly ready to go?"
The diminuitive blonde woman opposite him nodded, answering in a soft Southern accent. "Speaking just for myself, I'm ready. Tom and the others have done themselves proud on giving me the best medical facilities we can fit in the space available. Of course, I'm hoping I'm just excess baggage."
"Gabrielle," Simon assured her, "a medical officer is never excess baggage. Obviously we hope you have nothing but an entertaining ride to look forward to, of course."
"Thank you kindly." Doctor Gabrielle Wolfe said, flashing a brilliant smile of appreciation at him. "Me and you both, I assure you. And you too, Arrie."
Ariane Austin smiled fondly back at her friend. "No doubt about it, Gabrielle. We just want to sit back and enjoy the show."
Simon could tell that Ariane wasn't being entirely truthful; she was a pilot, and at heart she wanted to be the one flying the ship into history. But she wasn't going to complain about that in public; she was going to pull her friends together as part of the team.
In an odd way, the fact that they held these face-to-face meetings as a courtesy to her preferences was helping bring them all together. Virtupresense was ubiquitous… yet somehow personal meetings still had an undefinable power that most virtual encounters lacked.
You made the right choice in taking her, Simon. Mio said.
Thank DuQuesne for that, he answered honestly. I wouldn't even have thought of taking a pilot. Now I've got a crew that starts out unified, mostly. He glanced over at the third of Ariane's friends, Dr. Stephen Franceschetti, nearly as small as Gabrielle Wolfe, one of the top concept engineers in the System and the main designer of the experimental vessel – which now had a name, courtesy of Ariane Austin.
The pilot had insisted on it. "No ship I've ever flown has been just a string of numbers, and even if the only time I actually fly her is in simulation, I'm not going to change that now."
And her suggestion of a name had been so apropos that there hadn't even been any competing candidates. In honor of what they sought – the proof of the practicality of faster-than-light travel, something dreamed of but never realized over the centuries – the test vessel was to be named Holy Grail.
He smiled again at the thought. "Dr. Franceschetti, how long until we're ready for launch?"
Steve ran a hand through short-cropped curly hair. "A week? The E-dollar support we've been getting has pretty much maxed out the construction and testing speed. Tom," he glanced to Dr. Cussler, who grinned back, "has already got the nanomaintenance working internally, which is helping a lot. Carl's got the controls installed, except for Ariane's pure physical actuator backups which we're having to do a lot of modeling on to make sure we're not making any unrecognized assumptions."
"What do you mean by that?"
"What he means," Ariane said, catching his gaze, "is that our technology's so ubiquitous that we have lots of areas where we tend to forget about it entirely. Like the fact that we were installing physical control systems, and backup sensors that could've been manufactured three centuries ago, but the display interfaces were still assuming I could get a 3-D holographic input that's run by a T-0.5 display server."
"Oh dear. Yes, that would not do at all." Simon had the momentary, very unpleasant image of being inside a vessel whose pilot – human pilot – couldn't see where she was going or what might be in her way.
"That's been the main pain in the ass for this ship design all along," Carl put in. "Having to parallel every damn operation of the ship, one cutting-edge, the other something that dates back to, what, the 20th century, maybe the 21st? I've had to work with Tom, Steve, and Marc," he nodded at DuQuesne, "to reconstruct models of those kind of devices. Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to crossbreed a rocket ship with a Spanish galleon."
Simon chuckled. "Come now, it's not that bad. But it is an interesting challenge we are facing, I admit. Dr. DuQuesne?"
"Interesting, yes. I'm coming from the other direction – with all the advances we've made since that time, I was able to actually come up with a reasonably efficient design for a fusion reactor that doesn't require AI controls. Might actually be worth a paper or two at the next Energy Review Conference." The huge, black-haired engineer leaned back in his chair. "So main fusion reactor's a go. I've put in a good chunk of backup batteries, plus the absolutely enormous bank of superconductor batteries to hold the transition pulse for your 'Sandrisson coils'. Power runs to all main and backup systems are designed and almost completed. We've got all the drive systems installed, primary to final backup, except of course for the test drive; those coils are still being built up and you'll have to resonance test them day after tomorrow."
Tom Cussler answered. "That's my department. We have – courtesy of Commander Maginot – an AIWish unit, rating 10, with the limiting programming interlocks disabled, so I can use it for manufacturing just about anything. We'll have plenty of raw materials, so food should not be a problem… unless you're planning on spending a long time in this 'transition' of yours."
"Well," Simon said, "That depends on what you mean by 'long'. Because of the energy demands of the drive, we will have to spend some time – I calculate about five or six days – to recharge the coils, but no more than that."
Ariane glanced up, puzzled. "But… your probes jumped out and came back pretty much right away. Why can't we just do that?"
"Because we simply don't have room for two banks of surge superconductor batteries capable of carrying that much power." Sandrisson answered. "The one we have already takes up more than a quarter of the ship volume. Add another bank and we'll have room for about one person. Maybe."
"Your prior tests only lasted for a few seconds,Simon," DuQuesne pointed out. "If we stay in this … transition space for days, how far away will we have gone?"
"A question that's not quite as simple to answer as it sounds. Remember that the probes seemed to emerge at almost random locations. There was some correlation between how fast they were going and how far they had gone when they emerged, but it was not nearly so clear as I would have liked.
"Based on the maximum speed we have seen… perhaps a third of a light-year."
The others were silent, staring at him for a moment. A slow grin spread across Ariane's face. "Going where no one has gone before," she said.
"Aside from unmanned probes, yes. Of course, that's part of the risk. For the current approach, we don't have room to add a full backup set of batteries – the power requirements of the drive would scale up again – and so, if for some reason we end up unable to come BACK…"
The others looked momentarily troubled, but Ariane waved that away as though it was of no more concern than a smudge on the Holy Grail's paint job. "Don't try to scare me out of this. You can stay home if you like. I could always fly her on my own."
Simon shook his head. "And I do believe you would. No, I don't think any of us are backing out. Certainly not me – I have a great deal to prove here. Anyone else?"
DuQuesne snorted, an eloquent if nonverbal response. The others all indicated they weren't backing out either.
"Then I do believe that our next meeting – this time, next week – will be our final meeting in preparation for launch." Simon smiled. "One way or another, we'll be done with this in a couple of weeks."
"With luck," Ariane said as she and the others stood to leave, "it will just be the beginning of something bigger."
"We can only hope," he agreed.
Well, Simon, since we have like 145,000 words to go, you can probably bet on that.