This is the last part of Hyperion Origin that I'll be posting; it is still a work in progress.
"You okay, Rich?" The tone of his voice spoke volumes more than the simple words.
"On the beam and in the green, Marc." Seaton looked at him from the other acceleration couch, duplicate bank of controls mirroring Marc's own. At DuQuesne's glance, he nodded. "Dot and I talked it out the last few days. She wasn't happy, but she's accepted we have to do this, and supports me. Don't worry. I'll pull my weight."
"And more. Sorry to have asked –"
"Don't be. We're about to launch the most powerful ship ever built, and we're not sure – by those legendary ninety-seven rows of little green apple trees – exactly how it's all going to work. We might blow up halfway to the moon, or our navigation go all screwy, or any of 'leventy-dozen other things, and the last thing you – or I – need is for my head to be spinning 'round because I'm worried about something else." He grinned. "I think it helped that the Commodore and you gave her what she wanted, though."
DuQuesne grinned back and flipped the first set of switches. Lights began to glow across both boards, starting at amber and then, as all the tubes and other elements warmed to full power, to bright green. "Well, she was right; bad luck to set out in a ship with no name."
"So I've heard." Seaton activated the radio. "Launch Control, this is XSS-1 Skylark preparing for launch."
The rough voice of Kinnison responded instantly. "XSS-1, this is Launch Control. All systems clear on this end. Launch area has been evacuated. You are cleared for takeoff."
"Understood, Launch Control." He clicked off the radio, activated the remaining banks of controls; one flickered yellow on both boards for several seconds, drawing lowered brows from DuQuesne before finally shifting to green.
"Hmph," DuQuesne grunted. "Probably one of the krytrons is getting touchy. It'll do for the start, but I'll want to go down to the main power section after we reach our first destination."
"Makes sense. We've got spares of just about everything on board, and those things we've got two or three." Seaton keyed up the mike again. "Launch Control, XSS-1 Skylark, both boards, all green. Launch in… thirty seconds."
"Thirty seconds, aye."
"You taking the launch, or am I?" DuQuesne asked.
Seaton pulled out a quarter. "Call it." He flipped the shining silver coin into the air.
The coin hit Seaton's hand, he slapped it down on his hand and took his hand away. A small cascade of quarters poured off his hand. "Looks like heads AND tails."
"Showoff!" Despite himself, DuQuesne was laughing. "Damn, you're good. I couldn't catch you doing that. Now I do the flip." He suited action to words, with Seaton calling tails this time. "Heads. Sorry, Rich, I get first dibs on the stick."
"Fine, I'll just sit back and relax."
"XSS-1, ten seconds."
"XSS-1, aye. Counting down final seconds. Five. Four. Three." Marc DuQuesne felt his pulse racing. I'm about to launch the first true spaceship the human race has ever built! "Two seconds. One." He gripped the main drive control. "Launch."
He clicked the Skylark's main power up one notch.
Slowly, majestically, the huge globe of the Skylark rose from its cradle, the driving force of disintegrating copper negating – even on its lowest setting – the thousands of tons of weight, the constant and implacable pull of the Earth's gravity. By God, it's working!
There were no blazing flames, no thundering jets, no cataclysmic roar of a rocket venting energy in wasteful and ultimately futile drive to break the shackles of the mother world; the Skylark merely floated upward, a balloon of armor-plate and polished quartz and gold-copper plating rising, now lunging upward as DuQuesne added a second notch of power.
"XSS-1 Skylark, we have liftoff at 12:00 PM, July 4th, 2476," came the triumphant voice of Commodore Kinnison. "Our ranging transponder is active, verify your own."
"Launch Control, we have liftoff. Ranging transponder… shows fully active." The matched transponders verified communications between Earth and the Skylark to the limit of their range. Only when the transponder connections went dead was Skylark cleared to perform any of its more secure system tests. At that point – everyone hoped – there wouldn't be any chance of the more … difficult factions on Earth getting a look at what they were really testing. The launch itself might, or might not, go unnoticed. Security had been as tight as possible, of course, and Skylark while huge didn't set off a flare as bright as the sun during launch… but there were still a hundred possible ways the Skylark might be noticed, and even tracked.
However, without another Skylark – a ship with X-plated copper bars of a precise shape, carefully-designed sub-etheric resonator controls, and other key elements – the best anyone on Earth could do would be to watch from afar.
"Altitude five miles," Seaton said, watching the altimeter. "Congratulations, Blackie – we've … just passed Everest. And the air's getting very thin."
"About to get thinner. She's responding fine, I'm going to open her up a bit." He clicked a third, then a fourth notch, feeling acceleration starting to press them back just a hair.
Gathering speed with every second, Skylark annihilated the miles of thinning atmosphere and vaulted into the velvet blackness of space.
"They did it. By God, by God they DID it!" Kinnison let out a whoop, not caring who else heard him or saw the undignified leap he made into the air as radar showed the Skylark continuing to accelerate in nearly a straight line away from Earth. "And they're picking up the pace."
"Accelerating at… Holy –" the radarman gave vent to a sulphurous oath that gained him a reproving glare. "Sorry, sir, but… they're going at over 20 G's! No one can survive that!"
Kinnison chuckled. "Son, you're probably right – but they're accelerating with the ship, in a way nothing else can. I don't understand the math, you understand, but Seaton and DuQuesne realized from that initial accident that something … funny was going on. That chemical bath setup wasn't made to take multi-G accelerations, yet it hadn't torn itself apart – it just stepped out, flying straight into space. Somehow the acceleration was being applied to the entire object, not just the copper wires. It's not a hundred percent efficient, and the design considerations were… well, I heard even worse language from our resident geniuses while they were working it out.
"But the long and the short of it is that they're probably not feeling a full G of acceleration yet." Kinnison shook his head in admiration and half-disbelief. "They haven't even started to open her up."
"At this rate, sir, they’ll reach transponder limit in… a few hours. Ten at the outside."
"I'm going to get some lunch. Call me if anything important happens." Kinnison breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't slept much the previous night, and his gut had been too tense for eating much. With the launch successful, he could finally let that knot relax. "Whoops. Almost forgot an important diplomatic call." He picked up the phone at his command station. "Greenhall 212, please."
The phone on the other end managed possibly one-quarter of a ring before it was snatched up. "Hello?"
"Miss Vaneman, it's Commodore Kinnison."
She knew the protocol, but her tension was almost audible. "How nice of you to call, Commodore. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I just wanted to let you know that Dr. Seaton will be on some off-base research work for the next few weeks. I know this will be inconvenient for you, but rest assured that he's doing fine and we shall relay any messages he sends that aren't controlled by security considerations."
"I… appreciate the call, Commodore," she said, with relief palpable in her voice. "I'll miss him terribly, but I know he's doing some important work for you."
"Very important, and I wouldn't send him away without reason. Have a good day, Miss Vaneman."
"And you too, Commodore."
He hung up and then headed for the mess. Good woman, that. Anyone listening in on the communications would think that they'd sent Seaton and DuQuesne off to one of the remote island bases for testing – and, indeed, at the same time as the Skylark launch, anyone observing movements of base personnel carefully would have clearly seen Seaton and DuQuesne boarding a military jet whose course would take it to some far Pacific islands perfect for remote testing. Dorothy Vaneman had carried off her little part in this play; hopefully they were still secure.
After the first leisurely meal he'd had in weeks, Roderick Kinnison made his way back to Launch Control. "Update?"
"They went to an even higher acceleration before they got out of decent radar range. If they maintain the pattern, they could be out of range … very soon."
Millions of miles in an hour or two. God, this will change everything. "Transponder?"
"Showing signal dropping."
He nodded and settled back to wait. Once that signal ended, the Skylark would be free to "do her thing" in any way the two scientists felt most appropriate.
The phone rang. He picked it up. "Kinnison."
"Commodore? This is Bryson."
"Dr. Bryson! The launch went off without a hitch. You don't need to worry." Bryson was at a separate, even more secret, facility, where crucial materials had been duplicated just in case of disaster.
"I'm sure it did, but that wasn't what I was calling for."
The concern in Bryson's voice brought all the waiting tension back with a vengeance. "What is it, Doctor?"
"We were working on some more plating tests – on very small items, you understand, given the strict limits we have on X at the moment. The experiments the past week or so have been having difficulties – unexpectedly thin or incomplete coatings – but we have been dealing with new substances and unprecedented sizes. However, those were not the problem."
"The solution of X we have on site, sir. It was one-quarter of the original concentrated solution Seaton isolated, at a concentration – in layman's terms – of roughly ten percent X. Having eliminated the obvious problems, I ended up starting at the beginning again with the base solution – from which we usually take a few milliliters and dilute 10:1 to get a 1% solution for plating.
"Commodore, the main vial is at a concentration of two point five percent."
Kinnison froze. "Doctor… are you saying that X is… unstable? That it's breaking down?"
"What? No, no, nothing of the sort, sir. I am afraid that, upsetting and dangerous as that would be, the truth is much worse. The only way I can think of that this could have happened would be that someone removed three-quarters of the solution and replaced it with an appropriately colored liquid so that the solution appeared to be the same, but was missing three-quarters of the original X."
"Dear Lord. Then that means –"
"That someone not only knew about the project, but has now obtained the key ingredient we believed they lacked. Yes."
Without even taking the time for a proper good-bye, Kinnison slammed the phone into the cradle and leapt to the radar operator's desk. "Get me the Skylark – at once!"
"Sir, they're millions of miles away. They won't hear anything you say for … a few minutes, anyway." Despite the words, the operator was setting the transmitter, locking it to the active transponder frequency.
"Seaton! DuQuesne! Someone –"
The transponder light flickered and went out. Kinnison stared at it, realizing that the simple darkening of a light had just cut the last chance he had to warn his friends that they might not be alone at all.
And at that moment, there was a doomsday roar and Launch Control seemed to leap up and smash into him.
DuQuesne was finishing up his dinner, and contemplating whether he should have a dessert, when the loudspeaker abruptly crackled to life. "Seaton!" the urgent voice of Commodore Roderick K. Kinnison blared out, so hashed with static that it was almost unrecognizable. Even so, the sudden sound jolted Seaton awake – he'd been napping in his acceleration couch. "DuQuesne! Someone –"
The loudspeaker went dead; DuQuesne and Seaton both glanced to the board, just in time to catch the last trace of light fade from the transponder link indicator. Whatever Kinnison wanted to tell them, it was too late.
A red light suddenly blazed out, and what had been a gentle caress of perhaps a third of a gravity transformed in an instant to a bonecrushing force ten times and more greater, and climbing. DuQuesne was slammed back into his couch sideways from where he had been sitting, and it was pure instinct that allowed him to desperately yank his legs – feeling as though they were covered in leaden weights the size of anchors – over the edge and onto the couch. The resilient fabric gave way, let him slide to the proper recumbent position, but the initial impact had sent a red haze of pain screaming through his body. "What the … blue… bloody… blazes…!?"
"Krytron…?" Seaton gasped. "Same… system…"
The pressure was over five G's, and mounting. DuQuesne felt like a dozen sandbags had dropped onto his chest. "No… that one failing… cut off power." Though the vicious acceleration was interfering, his mind still riffled through the designs with precision. No. "Not… accidental. Can't be. No… design failure… would make runaway drive."
He could see, from Seaton's face – distorted by the pressure of nearly 8 G's – that his friend had reached that conclusion at the same time. "S.. sabotage."
The two men tried to override, to shut down the systems. But the obvious controls did not respond, and as they tried to force both brain and body to obey, the effort to reach a control a mere inch or two farther away became an impossible task, a feat of will and strength beyond anything human. DuQuesne made a last, valiant effort and saw his fingers brush the target button… and slide back. A red-black haze rose, clouding his vision, darker, darker… Black!
Travelling ever faster with each passing second, the Skylark screamed outward, its two crew as still as corpses … perhaps corpses already, in fact, a ghostly crew on a phantom mission.
Well OUCH! That's a surprise. So who was behind it?
Oh, come ON, at least give me a name.
Very well. (pause)
Ohhhh, now, that's clever. I wouldn't have thought of that directly. And with that, I can see something about where you're probably going.
I bet you do; you're nearly as clever as I am.
Nearly as SMART, but probably more clever.
I yield the point.
Okay, I'll stop distracting you. I can hardly wait now!
"DuQuesne! DuQuesne! C'mon, Blackie, don't do this to me!"
He was aware of aching pain, pain throughout his body, as though ever fiber of his being had been stretched out, pounded, stretched again, and wrapped around a bed of needles. Muzzily he forced one eye open, seeing Seaton standing… no, floating over him, dark circles under his friend's eyes making him look as though he'd gone rounds with someone twice his size.
"What… happened?" he forced out, his voice a croak instead of its usual powerful bass.
At the simple words he saw immense relief wash over Seaton's face and realized how worried the other man had been. "Thank God. What happened!? Don't you remember?"
DuQuesne forced himself to take a deep breath, although his chest – especially, now that he thought of it, the right side – screamed in protest. "Remember…?"
Then it all came back in a rush, the launch, the cryptic static-laden message, and the runaway acceleration. He lunged towards a sitting position, to be stopped by his acceleration harness and the flaming agony of his body. "Son of a –" he swore. "Sabotaged! Someone messed with the main power controls, put a short across the line…" he remembered the timing, "… on a relay hooked to the transponder signals. Once we lost the line, it cut us loose. Big time."
Seaton nodded in relief. "Okay, your brain's back to firing on all cylinders."
"Half, anyway." He unstrapped gingerly. "You know, I don't remember strapping in at all."
"You must've done it when you slid into the couch right when it all went south. Reflex for a pilot – the right one, too." Seaton indicated the interior of the cabin, which showed numerous dents and other minor damage. "Toward the end, the acceleration went really wonky – my guess is that the last few pounds of copper were distributed in patches inside the coating and so the acceleration axis shifted."
DuQuesne nodded, noticing that the armor shutters over the forward viewport had at least done their job and shut automatically when the high acceleration came on. "Makes sense. Holy moley but I hurt everywhere."
"So do I, but I'll bet you're worse. You took a fall first. C'mon, let me take a look."
Just pulling up the shirt made it hurt worse – and DuQuesne felt the fabric sticking in an all-too-telling fashion. Looking down at the acceleration couch, he could see a large red-brown stain on the one side. Seaton sucked in his breath. "Damn that's ugly. How the hell did that happen? You fell on the side of the couch!"
"Damned if I know. Maybe the acceleration … yeah, look, it's more a scrape and a tear than a cut. Not that that makes it better."
"Well, we've both got to get back in working shape. I'm so stiff I can barely move."
"Amylophene for the stiffness might work."
"Oh, I'll be looking forward to that. Not. First let's get you wrapped up."
After tending as best they could to DuQuesne's bruised and torn flesh, the two men used the amylophene rub; the chemical stimulated blood flow and, paradoxically, alleviated swelling, among other effects, but it had one very unpleasant side effect: it also increased stimulation to the pain receptors during application. By the time they had finished, both men were white and sweating. DuQuesne just sagged into himself and drifted about the cabin for a few minutes. "Whew! I don't know about you, Rich, but I'm not sure I could take that again." He flexed his arms. "But it did the trick. I can move perfectly well again, except of course my side."
"Same here, Blackie. I think that makes it time for breakfast."
The thought of food made DuQuesne's stomach cramp with eagerness. "We must've been out a long time. I feel like I could eat a bear."
Seaton nodded, starting down the handholds to the galley. "I think we were out something like fifty hours, most of that under acceleration."
"Damnation. Judging by our prior ratio of acceleration felt and power applied… we might have had an effective acceleration there of something like fifty to a hundred gees."
Seaton paused, shock in his eyes. "That… over 48 hours? That would put us at something like a quarter to half lightspeed! We'd have passed Pluto and be on our way outsystem!"
"Yeah. But let's get something to eat first, then we'll put in a new bar and start heading back." DuQuesne thought of something. "Hey, you go put together some sandwiches or something; I'm going to check the secondary bar."
"The repellers? That wasn't affected, was it?"
"If we're going that fast, they might have had to step up automatically based on demand."
He got to his board and keyed up the proper inquiry. Numbers popped up on the console, and for a minute he couldn't make sense of them. What the …
Then it did make sense, and he gave vent to another oath. "Seaton! We've got to get another bar in the secondaries, right away!" Suiting actions to words, he launched himself down the tube towards the storeroom.
Seaton swam into view a moment later, towing a bag of wrapped sandwiches. "What's the hurry?"
"The hurry, my friend, is that there's about twenty pounds of copper left on that bar – out of four hundred."
"What? That's… ridiculous!" His disbelief didn't stop Seaton from pushing DuQuesne out of the way – as, despite his attempts not to show it, Marc was finding it difficult to drag a new bar out of its restraints with the injuries to his side. "There. Let's go check this out. But I'm betting it's the board that's off. That four hundred pound bar should last a long, long time, even if we were going at some chunk of lightspeed."
But one look at the bar was enough. The thin X coating was translucent and light shone through most of its length. "My… aunt's… cats'… kittens… pants… buttons."
DuQuesne was too worried to laugh at Seaton's newest expression. "C'mon, open the parallel clamp. I'll get the new one set in place, you hit the switchover and we'll pull the old one to recover the X."
Seaton nodded and, in a few minutes, the job was done. DuQuesne noted, with a frown, that the demand on the new bar was still very high indeed. "Rich, how many spares of the power bars do we have?"
"Four of each. So that's three more for the repellors."
"I think we need to get this crate slowing down as soon as we can."
Seaton's frown was, if anything, even grimmer than his own. "Right now if not sooner."
The two men quickly removed one of the huge thousand-pound power bars from the storage area and locked it into the main drive mount, carefully taking the crumbling remains of the first and placing it in the bin for X recovery. "We don't even know exactly what direction we ended up flying, DuQuesne," Seaton pointed out as they returned to the main control room.
"Doesn't matter right now. Unless we're completely off, most of the acceleration was along the main bar axis as intended, so if I just precisely reverse the alignment of the bar," DuQuesne suited action to words, "and start her running, we should start slowing down. We'll have some residual velocity from those last uncontrolled side thrusts, but it shouldn't be too significant."
The acceleration at first seemed to be upward, drawing the strapped-in scientists towards the ceiling; however, due to the painstaking attention to detail in all features that had been applied to the Skylark, in a few moments the rest of the ship rotated slowly around the drive unit, returning the apparent acceleration to the more normal down orientation. "I've stepped her up to a full apparent gee, which should be something like ten gees. Once we're both recovered, in a couple days, we can strap in and let her run a lot faster. I figure we can be stopped in a week or so, and then check our distance from the sun."
"At something like twenty billion miles, if we're guessing our speed right."
"It'll still be the brightest damn thing in the sky, though."
Seaton nodded. "True enough. And," he brightened, "on the positive side, we'll be able to be sure no one's around to see our tests!"
DuQuesne laughed for the first time since the drive had gone wild, and almost regretted it after the sharp pain in his side. "Ouch! That's you, Rich – always seeing the sunny side of life."
All right, that was just plain nasty. But maybe not as bad as the original.
As they say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!".
I might have known you'd have more up your sleeve. We get to see the other side of things?
Of course. Just like the novels. Most of the time with the heroes, but we have to see the bad guys sometimes. How are the others doing?
Most of them are doing pretty well – some are downright spectacular. I was spending some of the downtime over at Jasin's –
Ah yes. Tarellimade Shantrakar, right?
A grin. Exactly. One of the best products of the immersive simulations ever, and he's come to life exactly as Jasin and the others in that group intended. Some of the others have had issues… but mostly the bugs have been shaken out. A glance at the tank display. Oh, I see!
Yes. It's beginning.
Note that the "Tarellimade Shantrakar" mentioned by our unnamed voices is another Hyperion, but one based on a character that's well-known in the Grand Central Arena timeframe, but doesn't exist yet. I'm cheating somewhat just by having a considerable proportion of the Hyperions be characters that could be known to us 20th-21st century types, rather than being mostly from entertainments and stories created centuries from now.