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The Road to the Stars – Chapter TEN

Oh, the stories I could tell of the years between Volume One and Volume Two! I mean, yes, some of it was boring. Like, I had to do the whole ‘deal with bureaucracy’ thing when I took over the Phoenix Project. Nobody thinks that kind of shit is fun, and I don’t care WHO you are!

Then there were the things Cass was doing which, I have to admit, I found stupefyingly boring. I mean, yes, revolutionary and brilliant. I couldn’t imagine the world without her portals these days. But there’s a reason I went into sensies and she went into sciences!

And then there are the things we did which we found rewarding and fascinating but nobody else would, notably the birth of our daughters. We each carried one because fairness and we both thought we should experience it. As it turned out, I was better at it, even though I’m shorter than Cass. Something about being broader across the hips.

So what does all this have to do with this? Nothing, I guess. Just adding my special touch.

Oh, yeah, this chapter. This was when we first really committed to seeing it through. Of course, we had no idea at all it would cost us so much in blood. And yet. Looking back, and looking at what we did and where we are now? I wouldn’t change it.

But this is when it first became The Thing We’re Going To Do, all the way to the end.

Okay. Now I have to do the thing Adam wants me to do, and mention that you really ought to pre-order the next book of my stories now instead of waiting, and enter to win signed copies of all four books. There’s also an audio sample at the end, and you can order this book by clicking on any picture in this post.

Chapter Ten

Three weeks later, Kendra, Cass, and Mac traveled to Geneva with an escort to meet with Hartman. Getting into the Borlaug building was easier than they expected, even though they had been invited and were on the official visitor’s log; Kendra suspected the wheels had been greased to get them past security more quickly. Be that as it may, soon enough they were in Hartman’s private conference room.

“Ladies –” began the Director, but Kendra held up a hand.

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Mac took out a padd, and another new device Kendra didn’t recognize, and walked the perimeter of the room. Shortly, she nodded, putting away what was now obviously a scanner.

“Now we’re clear,” said Kendra. “Sorry, Madame Director, but we can’t take any chances with this getting out.”

“First, I thought we were past Madame Director?”

Kendra nodded in acknowledgement. “Mya.”

“Second, you know that neither Ted nor I will say anything. We take the security of this gambit most seriously!”

Kendra didn’t answer directly. “Mac, what did you find?”

“Well, the Director’s right, her security has been really, really tight, I haven’t been able to penetrate it more than once a day for the past week, that’s pretty good, and Ted’s been almost as diligent, I mean I can get in and out easily enough, but there’s nothing about our little project in any of his records anywhere, so you don’t need to worry about them, but we knew this room was connected to official UE recording systems, those run all the time, and now there’s at least one additional feed running from here, I haven’t been able to trace it all the way back to the origin yet, but I have my suspicions, and as soon as I have anything solid I’ll let you know, but someone really wants to listen in.”

Kendra turned her attention back to Hartman. “Three guesses as to who that might be, and if you need more than one maybe you aren’t the right person to be spearheading this.”

“Lynch.” It was a flat statement.

Cass agreed. “I think that’s a reasonable conclusion. He was skeptical to begin with, and I’m afraid our meeting wouldn’t have done anything to persuade him otherwise.”

“Broken ribs will do that to a person,” added Kendra wryly.

“In any case, I think that two things need to come out of this meeting today, even if we don’t accomplish anything else. First, we’re not going to meet here again, if only because none of us can guarantee the security.”

“In light of what you’ve revealed, I have to agree. What’s the other point?”

“It’s also the last time we meet with you, Mya. In fact, it might be best if you disavowed this entire idea, and fired Ted.”

O’Quinn appeared surprised, but Hartman simply said, “Can you explain your reasoning?”

“Plausible deniability. Or to be blunt, you need to cover your ass so you can cover ours when we need it,” answered Kendra. “You publicly renounce his ideas – without ever getting specific about what the ideas are, just some bureaucratic crap like, ‘Mr. O’Quinn has taken it upon himself to move in a direction which is anathema to the values of the UE Distribution Directorate.’ Rubbish like that.”

“Go on.”

“Then I hire him in at HLC. That’s nothing unusual, government workers go private all the time,” Cass continued. “I give him a title and some phoney baloney job, and he disappears from everyone’s radar. At least, any casual observer.”

“Lynch might put two and two together,” Kendra picked up. “But he’s not going to have the resources to crack HLC, not easily, and we can set things up so that Ted’s on a separately secured system. I have some ideas on backchannel communications so he can stay in touch with you and keep you posted on our progress.”

“And the second thing is, you’re going to have to approve a rather large contract,” finished Cass. “It’s going to be unfortunately vague and nonspecific, and you’re going to take heat for it, but there’s not much we can do about that.”

“What if we put Ted at OutLook?” suggested Mac. “I mean, it’s not on anyone’s radar, there’s no public connection to you or Kendra, even though she used to work there that’s not really public information, most people who think of her either know her as a sensie star or as the inheritor of the Trust, I know it’s a challenge to get in and out but he’s going to have access to world-class secured communications, and I’d be happy to show him around just like I did for you, Cass.”

“OutLook?” asked Hartman.

“It’s a company that our husband bought before he married us for reasons I don’t need to go into now. It operates in the grey areas of the law, mostly. Certainly nowadays.”

“That’s not bad, Mac,” said Cass. “He’d basically drop entirely out of sight, but he’d have even better access than if he were at HLC. And it would serve to insulate Mya just a bit more, since there won’t be the direct connection between her and HLC.”

“We can explain this meeting, and the last one, as negotiations for us to do the salvage work,” said Kendra, warming to the idea. “And the contract can be based on what we expect to recover on your behalf from the wrecks.”

“We have to ensure that the contract looks like it makes sense, even if it’s way overvalued for what we’re going to deliver. Graft and corruption, your fellow Directors will understand. Active rebellion? Not so much.”

O’Quinn had been silently watching the exchanges. “Do I get a say in this?”

“No,” answered Cass, but she was grinning. “Not really.”

“Mya, this makes sense,” Kendra said.

“Yes, it does. It will also separate Ted and Mr. Lynch before anything serious happens, and that can work into his official reason for dismissal as well.”

“But Director!”

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“Ted, it’s for the best. Surely your assistant can take over here for you?”

“Oh, certainly they can. But – fired?”

“If this works, and you want to return, then you can. And if it doesn’t work, well, we’re going to have bigger problems.”

O’Quinn looked from Hartman to Cass, then to Mac. “And just where is OutLook located?”

“Oh, it’s in New Orleans, in the old Mint, we’ve got a great facility, it’s only gotten better since they put Montana in charge, she was an agent before she became the boss, and she’s really got our backs, and she even changed how we access the headquarters, it used to be a really rough time getting through the swamps, did Kendra tell you about the time she was bringing in Cass and Joe, that’s Joe Buckley, he doesn’t work for us any more, he’s off learning the art of forgery from another old friend of Kendra’s, anyways Joe lost a foot to an alligator, but we fixed him right up, and now we don’t have to do that because Kendra, or maybe it was Cass, they had a couple tube runs put in from the roads that get closest, so now it’s just like commuting in anywhere else, though I guess nobody really goes home at night, did I mention that there are quarters there for everyone, I’ll be happy to show you mine, I think you’ll fit right in once we find you an office, it’s going to have to be secure but you won’t have to worry because that’s my department, and –” Mac became aware of the four pairs of eyes watching her, Ted’s wide as saucers, and ground to a halt. “But maybe we can talk about this later?” she finished.

“That’s our Mac,” chuckled Kendra. “But she’s right, Ted. You’re going to be just fine at OutLook.”

Ted recovered his wits to a degree. “Do you want me to work on my resignation?”

“No, Ted, we’ll do that later. For now, I think we should get back to the real subject of our meeting, our plans for salvaging and refitting Second Fleet.”

Kendra took her cue.

“We’ve purchased the salvage rights from the United States. We also paid a pretty hefty bribe to the New Confederacy, since they were claiming ownership based on the locations they sank. You’ll see those items on the first invoice we send you; try not to wince.”

“Above or below a billion Sonoran credits?”

“Below,” said Cass. “Not by much.”

“We’ll handle it,” assured Hartman.

“There’s going to be an official announcement in a week, when the next billing cycle ends, so we’ll need everything in place on your end before that. I’d rather not have to backdate anything.”

“I have the contract all drawn up. We just have to sign it and we’re in business, if you’ll excuse the pun.”

“We’ll do that before we leave. Kendra, you want to run through the details one more time?”

Kendra checked her ‘plant, then nodded.

“We build the Orion plate, that’s already underway, at the HLC launch site in Pasadena. That’s in the Republic of Texas, near Houston, not the one in Cali. One of the other Trust companies, CusslerNautics, specializes in deep sea recovery, so we’ve officially subcontracted out to them the actual raising of the fleet. Best estimate, if everything goes well, is the initial survey will be completed in a month. Recovery operations should be underway within sixty days. Once recovered from the seabed, the ships will be transported to Galveston Bay and evaluated for suitability for conversion.” She looked around, ensuring that everyone was with her, before continuing.

“There were seventy-six ships of various types in Second Fleet at the time of its sinking. Of those, six were undergoing repairs or replenishment and weren’t caught in the storm, and eight survived. That leaves sixty-two ships on the bottom of Mobile Bay, and we’ve got rights to them all. Mac?”

“There were two aircraft carriers, five heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers, fifteen destroyers of various types, twenty-two frigates, and ten auxiliary vessels, like oilers and resupply ships, sunk in the storm.”

“Mac’s been going blind poring over satellite images, reports, and soundings from various sources. We don’t want to waste time finding them.”

“A question, Kendra?” said Ted.


“If you know where the wrecks are, and only some of them are suitable for conversion, why bother recovering them?”

“It’s all part of the maskirovka,” she said. “If we didn’t raise them all, then someone’s going to wonder why not. We can’t have that, even if it isn’t the Union asking the questions. This is just a routine transaction, the UE contracted to HLC for salvage, so HLC is doing it.”

“Why HLC?” continued Ted.

Cass answered. “Good question. Several reasons. Because HLC has the closest relationship with the Union of all the lift companies, the wrecks are nearby, relatively speaking, and HLC is uniquely positioned to cut out the middleman, actually saving the UE money if anyone wants to do the beancounting.”

“Okay, I can see how that makes sense,” Ted agreed, nodding.

“The ones which are too small are the ones we scrap first,” Cass resumed. “We’ll still make a show of checking them, but that’s going to be mostly for form’s sake. We’ll also salvage them first, partially to reassure our Union spies that we’re doing what we said we’re going, and partly for the practice. Raising the larger ships will be a bitch. We hope to get a good process rolling: recover, assess, scrap.”

“This will start happening in six months.”

“Why so long?”

“The primary concern is the Orion plate. It’s going to be easily two kilometers in diameter, and even though it’s basically just a Durasteel slab with a few modifications, that takes time. We can’t start loading kilotons of shipwrecks on it until we finish building. The other concern is we’re headed into hurricane season, so we’re going to push any complex processes off until after the peak passes. It’s much easier on our people to cut and run if they just have to retrieve some ROVs and a few submersibles. Getting caught in ten-meter waves and two hundred kilometer winds will wreck anyone’s day if they’re towing salvage.”

“Makes sense. That puts us into November?”

“Yes. With a little good fortune, we’ll have the first vessel recovered by the holidays, then we’ll have a better sense of how long the rest of that phase will take.”

“I begin to see why you think this is a three-year project.”

“Minimum,” reminded Cass. “If everything goes as planned. If there aren’t any nasty surprises. The list goes on.”

Hartman decided to get involved. “Have you solved the armament problem?”

“That was actually the easiest,” answered Kendra. “Missiles are missiles, more or less. We’re going old-tech for these, using chemical, liquid-fuel engines, with OMS systems for course correction, salvaged LIDAR and guidance systems, and depleted uranium nosecones for penetration. The damage will be all from the kinetic energy transfer on impact, so we can save space for fuel by omitting explosives.”

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“We’ve already contracted out to Cyberdyne Systems for their manufacture. They were a bit surprised at the quantity we wanted, but they’re solid.” Cass looked just a bit smug. “The Trust is the largest minority stockholder, so a few words through our directors and we were good. The first fifty for testing will be ready by the end of the year.”

“How are you going to test them?” Hartman looked genuinely puzzled. “These are missiles, after all. I don’t think the Union will take kindly to seeing them flying around in orbit.”

“We’re going to boost them with supplies for Diana. The Union has been quite, ah, let’s just say discreet in their observations of the Project for the past year or so,” Cass said coyly.

“What she means is she told the bastards at Artemis City that if she caught any of their ships within fifty thousand kliks of Diana she’d double their lift price. If she caught them again, she’d cut them off.” Kendra looked extremely pleased at the memory. “Gave us a really nice bump to the revenue stream about a week later.”

“You didn’t!”

Cass’s grin was savage. “You bet I did. There’s a reason governments hate monopolies and near-monopolies. They’re just lucky that I have a sense of decency and ethics.”

Kendra couldn’t quite conceal her snort, provoking a glare from Cass that promised retribution later.

“As I was saying. We’ll boost the missiles to Diana, then we can test to our heart’s content. Diana trails the moon by almost four hundred thousand kliks, which is only around the corner in space, but it’s far enough to reduce their ability to pick up on what we’re doing. Plus, I’ve had some ideas that should help out.”

“Like what?” asked Ted.

“Once you’re at OutLook, we can talk about it. Right now let’s just say Need To Know and move on.”

“Oh, right.”

“Cass has diverted some of her HLC engineers to work the problem of conversion. They have deck plans of the various ships, so they’re not working blind, but we’re figuring that we’re going to pretty well keep just a shell.” Kendra sent a command to her ‘plant, and a screen lit up, showing a design. “As you can see, we’re keeping the superstructure and the hull, but losing just about everything else, including the turrets. This will help with the weight problem, as well as giving us a substantial pile of scrap to convince the Union of our good intentions.”

The image changed.

“We’re going to use basic sublight engines for thrust. They’re not fancy, but they’re reliable and robust. For maneuver, there will be a series of baffles leading from the engine to strategically placed attitude controllers around the ships. For fine control, we’ll use OMS packs.”

Again, the image changed.

“Forward will be the magazines. Since the missiles won’t have explosive warheads, the only concern is the fuel. It’s a hypergolic mixture, so if there’s a rupture we run the risk of an uncontrolled reaction. Our solution is to mount all the storage cells against the interior of the hull, add a double-wall bulkhead behind those, and hinge the exterior of each cell. The fuel itself will be stored in pressurized containers in each missile cell, and there’s only going to be enough for the one missile in that cell, cutting down the volume.”

An animation started playing.

“When we’re ready to fire, the outer door will pop open – that’s how we reload, if we ever get that far – the missile is dropped into space, and then the engine ignites. We could theoretically drop the entire load in a single volley, but reloading isn’t going to be easy, or quick.”

“You’ve figured out how to reload?”

“Theoretically,” clarified Cass. “All of this is theoretically, until we actually have something to put into the black.”

“How do you have even this much?”

“A bunch of it is thanks to Mac. If there’s a problem that can be solved by the proper application of computers, she’s our go-to. We’ve also picked the brains of our own ships’ captains, since a bunch of them have wet navy experience. Don’t worry,” she said in response to the worry on the bureaucrats’ faces. “We’re not telling them about missiles, just a platform for mass deployment of mining probes.”

“Mining probes?”

Kendra agreed with the disbelieving tone. “Yeah, I wouldn’t buy that for two minutes myself, but our people are good. They know when to keep their lips zipped.”

Her diagram changed. “Forward, we’ll replace the bow with a Bussard scoop, and the main processing and fuel tank will be between the missile cells.”

“This might sound ignorant, but isn’t that a bit dangerous? Fuel between missiles?”

“Not as bad as it sounds. We’re already doing the double interior bulkheads to isolate the cells from the rest of the ship; the hypergolics are bad, but they’re not going to penetrate the bulkheads, even if there’s a catastrophic hit and they all go up. Mac ran the numbers, and I trust her. And the fuel isn’t as problematic as you might think. The primary power plant is an annie, so –”

Ted cut in. “Sorry, a what?”

“Annie. Antimatter reaction plant. It’s the only power source with enough oomph to do what we need in space. But that’s why the fuel isn’t a problem; we can use just about anything for fuel, as long as we have enough positrons and antineutrinos. Most of what we’ll use can be scavenged in flight, but it needs to be separated.” Cass sighed. “Do you really want a lecture on how an annie works? Because it really is rocket science, and I am a rocket scientist. I can go on about it all day.”

“She really can,” agreed Kendra.

“I think we’ll take your word for it,” said Hartman. “Fuel collection and separation in the bow. Then?”

The image switched to the midsection of a ship. “The superstructures will be upgraded with ablative and anti-radiation armor. We’ll save cubic by not having to install particle shielding; these ships won’t even come close to a significant percentage of c. But we still need to protect the crew from solar radiation, plus whatever the Union figures out to throw at them. Most of the control spaces for the ship will be in there, along with the computers. Quarters, mess, supplies, that’ll all be belowdecks.”

“Finally we get to the engine room. This is going to be the trickiest bit since our thought is to allow for the commander to dump the engineering section in case of critical damage.” The view of the proposed ship shifted to the aft third, with flashing red rings on the deck and the keel.

“Cass modified the basic annie plant design just a bit. All annies have a capacitor to provide power to the magnetic bottle containing the antimatter; she decided that a ‘tell-me-three-times’ design would be safer, so there are three, any one of which can hold the bottle for ten minutes. There’s an ejection system which will jettison the bottle, magnets, and capacitors, either above or below the ship. Which direction will be determined at the time, based on damage, friendlies in the area, and other factors. There’s also an auxiliary He3 plant, which will provide enough power to run the sublight engines at about 20% capacity until they run out of fuel. That’s about four hours.”

“Can’t they collect He3 with the Bussard?”

“Yes, but there’s only about one atom of He3 for every million atoms of He floating round. We might be able to stretch the fuel supply a bit, but if they’ve ejected the annie because of damage they’re going to have bigger problems.”

The display faded to black.

“It’s not going to be easy, or quick. But it’s doable.”

Hartman was impressed, and said so. “How did you pull all this together so quickly?”

“We’ve been working the problem ever since our first meeting,” said Kendra. “We don’t like to fail at anything.”

“On behalf of the planet, I hope you don’t fail at this,” Hartman said sincerely.

Kendra replied with equal sincerity. “We don’t intend to.”

Yup, Click that image if you want to order too!

You found the link to the audiobook sample! YAY!

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