3rd World Products, Book 10 [NOOK Book]

Overview

Out of the blue, Megan Donner inherits a sailboat from a man her mother knew years ago. She asks Ed to help her sail it to Jacksonville, but her boat is mysteriously sunk by gunfire only a few miles from Miami during a test of repairs. Subsequent investigation discovers a damaged and leaking nuclear device had been built into the boat and a trail of residual radiation leads from Miami all the way to New York along Interstate 95. Within days of that discovery, three journalists are arrested on spying charges at a ...
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3rd World Products, Book 10

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Overview

Out of the blue, Megan Donner inherits a sailboat from a man her mother knew years ago. She asks Ed to help her sail it to Jacksonville, but her boat is mysteriously sunk by gunfire only a few miles from Miami during a test of repairs. Subsequent investigation discovers a damaged and leaking nuclear device had been built into the boat and a trail of residual radiation leads from Miami all the way to New York along Interstate 95. Within days of that discovery, three journalists are arrested on spying charges at a nuclear facility in the Middle East. Helping the journalists escape before they can become bargaining chips must be accomplished anonymously for corporate and political reasons.
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Product Details

  • BN ID: 2940000114995
  • Publisher: Abintra Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2007
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 432 KB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My implant pinged with Linda's chimes at eight on Sunday morning. I called up a screen and Linda's face appeared with an intense expression I hadn't seen since Dragonfly team six had disappeared in East Germany in the seventies.

I said, "You're scaring me, ma'am. What's up?"

Without preamble, she replied, "James Chen is aboard Shining Star with three other astronauts. Something punched through the ship, damaged several systems, and now they have less than six hours of oxygen left. That's at the absolute outside, Ed. They'd be using the last of what's in their suit tanks by then. And neither of the Amaran transport ships can get here in less than ten hours."

Figures. Things rarely go wrong at convenient times. Shining Star was a European Space Agency mission to the international space station with ... what? Parts, I think. Who the hell's James Chen and why would one of 3rd World's people be aboard something as primitive as a chemical-fueled space gadget? Oh, well. Doesn't matter. Linda's upset and she called me about it.

"So what's the plan, Fearless Leader, ma'am?"

She sat straight, took a breath, and sighed, "We don't have one. Yet. We need someone who is extremely capable with fields and who can ... think abstractly ... under pressure."

"You're just being kind, milady. Sounds like me, though. What's the job? Try to deliver some oxygen somehow?"

"Yes, but maybe I should explain a little more first. NASA has an unmanned rocket that was supposed to rendezvous with Shining Star yesterday, but there were storms over the Cape. A second attempt to launch during an alternate window was scrubbed two hours ago, and now theydon't think any of the astronauts would be capable of making an EVA by the time the rocket could get there. Someone would have to transfer the tanks to their airlock."

"Okay. Marching orders?"

Somewhat more animatedly, she said, "Go to Canaveral. Get with NASA's Lee Hines and see if you and your special friends can devise some way to get more oxygen up to Shining Star in time."

I didn't say anything about how flitters and orbiting stuff can't match up due to speeds; Linda knew all those logistics difficulties as well as anyone. But here she was, telling me to try to find a way, and she was as tense as I'd ever seen her, so I'd damned well give it a shot.

With a small salute, I replied, "Yes'm. By your command, milady. Have Hines or somebody who can take me right to him meet me at the VAB entrance in ten minutes."

"Okay. Ed, do you know James Chen from your visits here?"

"Nope. Doesn't matter, Fearless Leader. I know you and you seem to think he's worth some effort. Good 'nuff for me."

She smiled and said, "Okay. Thanks," as she tapped her 'off' icon. I looked up info on the international space station to get a feel for the turf and considered the puzzle of how to connect flitters and orbiting spacecraft as I tossed two cans of soup in my backpack and pinged Tiger's collar.

He answered, "Hello, Ed!"

"Hi, Tiger. Linda needs me and I have to go somewhere right now. Cindy will tell you about it, okay?"

"Can I come with you?"

"Remember the Space Center? With the big rockets? You were so bored you fell asleep in a corner. It's that place."

"Okay. I'll stay here and watch the house."

"Good deal, Tiger. Thanks."

Dropping the link, I called my board up as I called the flitter down and slid aboard the flitter at ten thousand feet about halfway to Brooksville.

Cynthia appeared in the seat on my left and I said, "Hi, there, Flitter Goddess. Completely aside from the fact that you could simply pop yourself into being on Shining Star and whomp up a batch of oxygen for those guys, do you know of any health reasons why I shouldn't ride one of NASA's rockets into space?"

With a raised eyebrow, she replied, "Your physical health is adequate for the purpose. If you're willing to go, I suppose your mental health would be a moot issue."

"Ha. Maybe so. Could be a real no-frills trip, though. I'd displace somebody's satellite on something like a Delta rocket that can catch up with Shining Star. As I understand things, my board can't operate in open space because there's nothing close enough to provide a base for pushing or pulling."

Giving me an arched eyebrow, she replied, "Yes, that's the simplest possible explanation."

I shrugged. "Simple works well enough for now. What if there were something big enough and near enough to use as a base? Their ship is almost the size of our space shuttle."

Her instant reply was, "You'd affect its orbit, Ed."

I shot back, "Not much, and they could correct things. The transport ship would pick me up later."

Obviously taking a dim view of my intentions, she said flatly, "Your p-field won't stop high-velocity debris."

"But you can, ma'am. You can zap it before it gets me or set up a field or something. I have truly vast faith in you, y'know."

Still seeming unenthusiastic as hell, she replied, "I'd be using broadcast power. Something I couldn't stop could very easily find us in low Earth orbit."

"Then it would be up to you to finish the mission; get the oxygen tanks to Shining Star. All that."

Her gaze narrowed. "I'd much rather go alone, Ed. I'm a little more durable than you."

Giving her a flat gaze, I said, "Yes'm, but that'll happen only if there's no possible way to get me up there too."

Looking and sounding moderately amazed, Cindy asked, "So you actually want to do this?"

Grinning at her, I replied, "Oh, hell, yes. Did you think my bio readings meant anything else?"

"Linda would undoubtedly object."

"Maybe not. Doesn't matter. I'm going if I can."

Sitting back, she said, "I see."

"Great. Now let's go see about a ride upstairs. Got a number for Lee Hines? He's some kind of honcho at the Cape."

Giving me a roll of her eyes, Cindy sighingly snapped her fingers. A blank field screen appeared and after a few moments, a harried-sounding man answered with, "Yes? Is this Dave? Your number isn't showing on my cell."

I said, "Nope, not Dave. I'm Ed. Linda Baines sent me."

"Whaaa ... "! How did you get this number?"

"Just did. I'll be there in a few minutes."

Hines said, "I'll have someone meet you. Which gate?"

"No gate. No time for formalities. Meet me at the VAB."

"Uh ... okay, then I'll meet you at the front doors."

"Okay. See you in a few."

Dropping the connection, I sat back and sipped coffee as I watched our descent to the Cape complex.

Looking at Cindy, I said, "As much as I'll miss your gorgeous presence, it might be better if you vanish for now. I'll have enough to explain and I can introduce you later."

Giving me an arching eyebrow, Cindy disappeared.

Of course Hines had told the security people there'd be a visitor. Before the flitter had even stopped moving, I was surrounded by people with guns who were busily yapping on radios and ordering each other around.

A tall guy with a burr haircut came out of the VAB with two other guys who also yapped on radios. The crowd parted for them and guns were pointed at the sky instead of me as the two men stopped at the flitter's field 'hull'.

"Hines', one guy's badge read. I dropped the flitter's hull field, hung my mug on my pants pocket, and stepped down to meet him. His sharp gaze took in my green Army shirt, jeans, and Adidas sneakers, then locked on my coffee mug.

When he made no attempt to introduce himself and simply stood staring critically at me for a time, I asked, "Yes?"

His gaze flicked around the flitter before he rather stiffly said, "Well, uh ... To put it as politely as possible, you aren't quite what I expected. I'm not sure we can..."

I felt like saying, "By God, you're exactly what I expected," but I didn't. Keying my five suit on, I flicked open my belt knife and slashed at my left hand as Hines recoiled in alarm and several guns again aimed at me.

Holding up my unblemished hand, I said, "I'm already wearing my space suit. It's a protective field. Come on, Hines; snap out of it, break up this goddamned clambake, and let's talk about the problem instead of my wardrobe."

With a narrow look, he said, "I'd prefer you didn't swear in my presence."

"Then it's too damned bad this visit isn't about catering to your preferences. Look, if you could use one of your own people, I wouldn't be here. I don't know why you can't use one of your own people, but apparently my boss does, 'cuz she asked me to come talk to you."

Another guy bulled his way toward us and stopped cold when he saw me. His badge said he was Michael Gear.

Turning to Hines, Gear asked in a piercing tone, "He's the guy she sent?! He's in his fifties! Is this for real?!"

"Enough,' I thought, then I said the word aloud as I called up my board, lifted a few feet, rode it quickly in a tight, twisting barrel roll in front of the VAB, and returned to land and hop off it.

Now a couple of the pistols in the group were aimed right at me rather intently. I created a pulsing two-foot neon-red light ball between the flitter and myself and when all eyeballs had locked onto it, I swept a light stun tendril through the guards surrounding us.

Seven men and two women suddenly collapsed to the pavement. Hines and Gear stood staring at them in shock as I said, "If you two don't get your heads out of your asses, you'll go down next and I'll go way the hell over your heads about this. No more bullshit and no more guns pointed at me."

Gear looked up at me and gestured around as he asked, "Uh ... Will these people be okay?"

I snapped, "They're just stunned."

"Uh ... We ... Uh ... Well, when Ms. Baines said she was sending someone, we ... Uh ... We thought she'd send..." He paused, then peered at me as he asked, "Sir, do you actually know anything about the Shining Star mission? Or space travel, for that matter?"

Meeting his gaze, I replied, "They were supposed to deliver stuff to the international space station, which is a bit more than 200 miles up, going about 17,000 miles per hour, and has an inclination of about 51 degrees. I figure Shining Star is likely at about the same altitude at the moment, but the fact is, Mr. Gear, I don't have to know a damned thing about any of that. All I have to do is ride up there, deliver some oxygen tanks, and wait a couple of hours to be picked up."

Hines began to say something that looked as if it might be caustic. Raising a hand to stop him, I looked at Hines and said, "Whatever you decide; just tell me when it's time to leave."

As I stepped back aboard the flitter, I snagged my backpack off the deck and took out a can of soup, used a thin grey field to cut the lid out, pinched the top of the can to form a spout, and propped my feet on the console.

Sipping soup and coffee, I watched Hines and Gear wake up the guards and hold a hurried conference. Some of the guards looked ready and very willing to shoot me. Gear almost frantically shooed them away.

Through my implant, Cindy chuckled, "While I've not lost sight of the fact there's an emergency at hand, I've found a certain amount of humor in proceedings so far, Ed."

"That's nice, ma'am. I live only to entertain you, y'know."

That got me an actual laugh. "Of course you do."

"Just out of curiosity, why couldn't they have used one of their own people?"

"Weight restrictions. The man, his suit and its life support equipment, and sixteen oxygen tanks would require launch parameters that wouldn't get him there in time."

"So Linda probably thought we'd send a weightless AI up there to transfer the tanks? Possibly even you?"

"That would seem likely, wouldn't it?"

Calling up a field screen, I pinged Linda. She answered with her usual, "Yes, Ed?" as her face filled the screen.

"Hi, Fearless Leader. I've met Lee Hines and a guy named Gear. They seem reluctant to proceed."

Her gaze narrowed. "Why?"

"They were expecting someone younger and prettier than me to make the trip upstairs, I guess."

She said nothing for a moment, then said, "So was I, really. If I object, what then?"

Matching her gaze, I said flatly, "I'd rather you wouldn't. Not needing a bunch of space gear cuts away most of the weight problem. If there's any possible way, I'm going."

Sitting back in her chair, she seemed to digest that for a time, then asked, "You demonstrated some of your talents?"

"Yup, and even after all that, they lack confidence. My feelings are hurt, ma'am. That's the real reason I called you."

Linda snickered, "Yeah, sure. Stand by, Ed. I want their input on this before I threaten anyone."

She poked her 'off' icon and I soon saw Hines and Gear answer their cell phones. After a few minutes of conversation, they both looked thoroughly shocked and actually paled a bit due to whatever Linda had said.

"Wow," I muttered, "I'll bet if anyone says the name 'Linda Baines' around these guys from now on, they'll drop a load in their pants. Wonder what the hell she said?"

Cindy's soft chuckle filled my implant and became a full-fledged laugh as I finished my soup and poured a little coffee in the can to wash the last few noodles loose.

After swilling them, I set the can by my seat and waited as Hines and Gear again held a quick conference. Gear hurried to shoo the remaining guards away and almost ran back to the flitter as Hines squared his shoulders back, took a breath, and marched toward the flitter.

I picked up the soup can, stepped off the flitter, walked a few paces to meet him, and asked, "Well?"

Hines looked as if he was having trouble making the words as he said, "We're going to send you up."

Saying, "Great! Where's my ride?" I tossed my can at the flitter and it flashed to plasma with a loud 'bang'. Hines reacted as if a grenade had gone off and stood staring rather starkly at the flitter, blinking as if that would get rid of the afterimages from the flash.

Recovering a bit, Hines said, "Perhaps it's time for some formal introductions, sir."

"Okay. I'm Ed. Cynthia, milady, would you join us?"

She popped into being on my left and Hines's jaw dropped as his eyes grew huge. With much the same reaction, Gear also let out a kind of hissing noise, heard himself making the sound, and quickly stopped it.

"This is Cynthia," I said, "She's going with me."

Hines tore his eyes away from Cindy to look at me and replied, "Two passengers..." But..."

I interrupted with, "She's an AI. Her total mass and weight is just about zero. No extra fuel. Good enough?"

Again looking at Cindy, he muttered, "Oh, hell, no! Not nearly good enough!" then he sighed, "But I'll save my questions for later. Both of you come with me, please. I'm going to show you your ... 'ride'." He put distasteful emphasis on the last word and started toward an official NASA sedan.

"Better idea," I said, and thumbed at the flitter.

We got aboard and less than ten seconds later I got my first glimpse of the vehicle that would carry us into space; a huge Delta rocket stood on the pad.

They were still working on it; a gantry-mounted crane was in the process of slowly moving something away from the rocket and technicians were doing things inside its nose.

Remembering what I'd seen of rockets that had blown up on the pad or soon after, I considered that--if anything went wrong--these could be my last hours on Earth.

Hines gave me a sharp look as he unclenched his fingers from his seat and said, "Uh ... Could you make this quick? We'll need to run a few medical tests."

Holding up a hand, I replied, "No. Get any info you need from my ladyfriend here."

"We'd prefer that our own doctors gather your info."

Shaking my head, I said, "They can gather it from her. Call Linda if you have to get some kind of clearance on it."

"May I ask why you object to testing?"

"Nope. It's classified."

Hines chuckled, "I think you'll find our security clearances are quite high enough."

Shaking my head, I replied, "Government security is fine for most government stuff, but it's been known to leak rather catastrophically fairly often. No offense."

Subsiding into his seat, Hines seemed to be trying to get some kind of an angle on things. Gear looked at the rocket almost reverently and began to rattle off facts about overall measurements and power ratios and such.

I let him go on until Hines gave me a desultory glance and muttered tersely, "You're wasting your breath. He doesn't care about any of that."

Nodding, I agreed, "He's right, but thanks anyway. Now I'd like to have the flitter to myself for a while. Flitter, take us back to the VAB, please."

Hines and Gear went back into the VAB and I called up the specs for the Delta rocket. The computer ran several possible flights and I discovered--as I'd expected, really--that the weight of a man and the usual space gear would, indeed, have been enough to cause serious problems matching orbits.

My computer showed me the numbers for a tanks-only shot and the numbers showed the real reason I'd been called into this; the job called for someone who could maneuver quickly between the capsule and Shining Star. Maybe Linda really had expected me to arrange something with the AI's, but we knew each other pretty well and she could just as easily have asked the AI's without consulting me. That meant she had an ulterior motive in bringing me into the situation, but I truly didn't care what it might be.

For the next hour I called various people for brief chats as if I'd simply decided to pick up the phone and say hi. Sharon and my sisters weren't fooled during our conference call. Sharon eventually asked what was wrong.

"Nothing's wrong," I said, "I'm about to take a longish trip and I just wanted to make contact before I go. It's a business matter, so I can't talk about it."

My New Mexico sister said in a flat tone, "You sound as if you think you might not come back."

"Could be. I was overseas for over a decade once upon a time. If I did that again at my age, I might not get back during this lifetime."

She let me hear her skeptical snort, of course.

"Crap," said my Texas sister, "You're up to something. I know you, Ed. You're about to do something risky as hell or you wouldn't have called like this. Whatever it is, you just be real damned careful, okay?"

"You got it. 'Real damned careful'. Yes'm, I'll try to remember to scribble that on my hand so I can't forget, okay?"

"Yeah, you do that. In red, with a big Magic Marker."

They each pushed a little, but I didn't go into detail and I had other calls to make. Alissa wasn't home. I left a 'Hi, there, just checking in' type of message on her machine and called Angela. She took a break from training flitter pilots to chat with me and said she'd get with Linda to ask questions, then also wished me luck.

Hines came out of the VAB and quick-stepped toward the flitter. As he hopped aboard, he said, "We have a problem. You weigh one-ninety-one, which means we'd have to leave three oxygen bottles behind to compensate. That cuts our margins of error to an unacceptable level."

I didn't tell him that about twelve pounds of my weight was a briefcase he couldn't see. Three oxy bottles? Damn. Were they just trying to cut me out of the trip?

"Cindy," I said, "Could the flitter use fields to support the payload for the first few minutes during liftoff?"

Looking thoughtful for all of a split second, she replied, "Yes. Two minutes, forty-four seconds."

"Thanks, milady." Looking at Hines, I asked, "Would that cover the weight problem?"

He turned from Cindy to meet my gaze and almost whispered, "Oh, hell yes! Can it really do that?"

"Sure. The problem is matching orbital speeds. Watch."

I asked the flitter to lift a car parked to one side of the doorway and move it to the next parking space. The flitter sent a fat grey tendril around the car, picked it up, and placed the vehicle in the precise center of the next space.

"Oh, dear God..!" breathed Hines. He raised his hands in a 'stay put' gesture as he almost yelled, "We need new numbers! Wait right here!" then he ran back into the VAB.

I looked at Cynthia and said, "Flitters have done tricks for the evening news since 2000. How the hell can seeing one lift a car surprise a guy from NASA?"

She shook her head. "Maybe he doesn't watch news that doesn't involve space."

"Hm. Yeah, maybe. How long will it take that thing to match up with Shining Star? An hour and a half or so?"

"An hour and forty-seven minutes."

"Damn. That plus waiting for the transport to find me. It's gonna seem like a week up there."

Grinning, Cindy suggested, "It isn't too late to back out. You've already seen space many times, Ed."

"This is different and Linda had reasons for involving me--likely political reasons. After something like this, I doubt she'll hear another squeak out of the bureaucracy's tightwads."

Cindy laughingly said, "What absolute drivel! You aren't doing this for Linda. You're doing it for you."

"Well," I admitted, "Maybe a little bit, yeah."

She laughed again and disappeared, then laughed yet again through my implant before her presence vanished. Some moments later, Hines came trotting out of the VAB and started chattering about burn rates and weight differences. I let him go on until he realized I wasn't paying much attention.

When he stopped talking, I asked, "How soon 'til liftoff?"

He looked at his watch and replied, "An hour and thirty-four minutes. Having the flitter handle lifting the payload cuts fuel consumption by ... Ah, never mind. It just means we'll get you up there at a useful speed."

Nodding, I replied, "Great. Back in a few," keyed up my board, and soared away toward Melbourne. Calling up a screen to locate a sporting goods store on a main highway, I chose one on State Road 520 and found the place easily.

The camping display had three sizes of hydration bladders. I picked two of the mediums, paid for them, and headed back to Canaveral to find Hines in a frantic-looking discussion with Gear not far from the flitter.

Landing near them, I took the bladders out of the store bag, picked up my backpack, and said, "Hi, guys. Where can I rinse these out?"

Hines bellowed, "Where the hell did you go?!"

Handing him the empty store bag, I replied, "That should be pretty obvious, even to a rocket scientist. Take it easy and take me to a faucet, okay?"

For some reason, Gear chuckled. When we looked at him, he asked, "Would you rather fill them with bottled water?"

"Doesn't matter to me. Tap's fine."

With a grin and a 'come along' gesture, he headed for the VAB entrance. I followed him and after a moment, Hines followed us inside. Gear led me to a kitchenette alcove in a break room, where I rinsed each bladder and filled one with water, then reached for one of the coffee pots on the brewing machine.

As Gear quickly read aloud the cautions concerning hot liquids on the second bladder's label, I added about half a capful of my instant coffee to the pot and stirred it. After sending a cooling field into the coffee to make it drinkable and tasting the results, I filled the bladder as Gear held it open.

Looking mystified, he blurted, "Hey! It's not hot!"

Without answering that, I switched off the hot plate, rinsed the pot, and set it back on the coffee machine.

Hines had taken a chair at the little nearby table. He said, "You didn't have to buy those, you know. We have Air Force and Navy survival gear for all occasions."

Glancing at him, I replied, "Thanks anyway, but I won't have to give these back later. How much time left?"

He checked his watch. "Fifty-eight minutes to go."

"Time to take a leak and wash up, then."

"Speaking of which," said Gear, "Cynthia said a catheter won't be necessary."

Shrugging, I said, "She's right," and left my gear on the table to head for the restrooms. When I returned to the kitchenette, I slipped on the bladders with the water in back and the coffee in front, adjusted straps, and asked, "Will the oxygen tanks be bundled or loose?"

"They're packaged in groups of four. Cynthia said you'd have no problems moving that size load."

Shifting the pack a bit, I said, "Good 'nuff. Are we ready?"

"I wouldn't think so. Cynthia's not here."

Heading for the VAB entrance, I replied, "No sweat. She'll pop in sometime before I get to Shining Star."

* * * *

Chapter Two

I left my backpack on my seat when we disembarked the flitter, and after watching a short video clip of how Shining Star's airlock worked, I asked the flitter to create a translucent simulation of the airlock in the video. Hines and Gear marveled at the simulation as I ran through the motions four times on general principles, then I let the simulation dissolve.

We took the elevator to the top of the gantry with twenty-nine minutes to go. Turning on my p-field, I entered the nose capsule through its access hatch, strapped myself onto a fairly deep gel couch, and looked around.

Very Spartan. Four clusters of white LED's illuminated the interior of the capsule. A small camera was mounted on each side of the couch and another camera was mounted directly above it. Makeshift racks welded along the inside walls held the pre-packaged oxygen bottles upright.

I briefly wondered why they hadn't simply pre-bundled them and anchored them to the floor. Big green plastic handles on bolts--likely to make them easier to grasp in space suits--would free the sides of each rack. Two straps would buckle a bundle of bottles together.

Looking out at Hines and Gear, I asked, "All I do is unbolt the racks and pull the bundles out? No other fasteners?"

Hines said, "That's it. The crew will open their hatch, you'll put a bundle in, they'll close the hatch and cycle it, remove the bottles, and get ready for the next bundle."

He pointed at the radio and said, "The microphone's built-in. A radio will be on all the time with double redundancy. If one quits working, you have two backups."

Lightly slapping the hull of the capsule, he added, "Until you open this hatch you'll have air in there."

It suddenly occurred to me that the bladder on my back might not be able to handle being squashed under me at ten G's. I sat up and took the bladders off, strapped them to the side of the couch, and got flat again. A technician quickly leaned in to secure my couch straps.

Gear asked, "Any questions?"

Looking inside the capsule again, I shook my head. "Nope. It all looks pretty straightforward."

Apparently he'd expected questions; he looked a bit lost for a moment, then stuck his hand out and said, "Okay. Good luck, then."

We shook hands and Hines added his, "Yes. Good luck," and a handshake, then they retreated from the hatch and two technicians eased the cover into place.

Even the manual hatch dogs were simple; just flip the spring-loaded locking bars out of the way and give 'em a turn. I noted they couldn't be reached unless I was off the couch and free of the straps securing me to it. Huh. Manual hatch dogs. Wonder why they didn't use the electronic-explosive kind?

I also noted there was no 'off' switch for the radio and that I could hear people talking in low tones. Or maybe they weren't right next to the microphone? Where there'd been a volume knob there was now a black plastic cap-plug.

Some guy said clearly, "Well, I think it's damned strange, Kelly. No bio readings at all?"

A woman said, "None. Someone said there was no way to connect them. He's wearing one of those field things."

Another guy said, "Bring up cameras two and three. Mac said he's wearing jeans and sneakers. Should we believe that?"

"Yes," I said, "I wear casual clothes when I travel."

There were some whispers and one of the guys asked, "Uh ... This is Control. How are you feeling, Rescue One?"

"'Rescue One', huh? Well, I'm feeling just dandy, 'cept for having been labeled and numbered. How 'bout you?"

The woman snorted a soft chuckle and said, "Oh, we're all just fine, sir. Do you have any questions?"

"Well ... Are you single, ma'am? I really like your voice."

One of the guys laughed as she replied, "No, I'm not, sir, and I have to get back to work, so here's James Richter."

A man said, "That's me, Rescue One. I'll be your tour guide today and I'm not single, either."

I let my silence speak for me and checked the time on the radio's small display screen. Three minutes, thirteen seconds to go. I pinged Linda and called up a field screen, then set it at an angle where none of the cameras could see the display.

She answered with, "Hi, Ed," and looked around the interior of the capsule before she said, "That couch looks pretty comfortable. Emory's here. Mind if I include him in this call?"

Someone asked Richter who the hell I was talking to as I answered, "Sure, ma'am. I have some company, too. Three cameras and there's no 'off' switch on the radio."

"Rescue One," said Richter, "Who are you talking to? It sounds like they're right in the capsule with you."

"Just updating my bosslady."

Someone asked, "They let him take a cell phone aboard?"

Richter said rather commandingly, "Rescue One, until you're off my spacecraft, I'm your boss."

"You go ahead and believe that if it makes you happy."

The other guy said, "Please turn off your phone immediately, Rescue One. It might interfere with your communications with us."

"No, it won't. They're different technologies."

Wallace said firmly, "Ed, they have priority."

"Wallace, there's not a damned thing they can do for me if this thing blows up, so they can damned well let me talk with my friends before they light the fuse. Linda."

She looked directly into the screen and asked, "Yes, Ed?"

"I don't love you the same way Wallace does, but I do love you, ma'am. I just wanted to let you know that before I go."

Linda smiled and said, "I knew it. I love you, too, Ed. Take care up there. That's an order."

"Yes, ma'am, ma'am. Wallace, you may be a bit brassy and hidebound, but I guess you must be okay 'cuz she seems to like you."

With a wry, droll expression, he chuckled, "Well, thanks a bunch, Ed. Like she said, take care up there."

"Okay. Later, everybody."

Turning off the screen with eight seconds to go, I wondered if there was really any way to be ready for what was about to happen. Nope. Guess not. I took a sip of coffee and tried to relax a bit, but they chose that moment to start the engine.

Initial rumblings made things vibrate a bit, but when they opened up the big engines, I became a bit more concerned about how well things were attached within the capsule.

The shaking suddenly stopped as the flitter took over lifting the weight of me, the gel couch, and the oxygen bottles. I couldn't tell when the rocket actually lifted off the pad, but as it gained speed, the G forces began to shove me down into the gel couch.

That confused me for a moment, then I realized that--other than eliminating the shaking--having the flitter lift me in tune with the rocket's upward progress was really no different from letting the rocket do the lifting.

Hm. I remembered what I'd seen of shuttle launches, realized I didn't particularly want an audience for my suffering, and used my implant to turn my p-field opaque grey.

This caused some instant consternation on the ground and Richter almost yelled, "Rescue One, what just happened?!"

I replied, "I'm fine, guys. It's just my field suit."

Firmly attached as they were to the walls, the bottles still rattled in their padded racks, but all I felt were the gawd-awful G forces that seemed to go on and on. Keying up a screen with a timer, I saw that only thirty seconds had passed.

Richter's voice asked, "Rescue One, this is Control. What's your status?"

My 'status'? Heh. I managed to grate out, "Oh ... I'm ... just ... fine," then paused to take in enough air to say, "When ... I ... don't ... have ... to ... try ... to ... talk! Call ... me ... later!"

Richter's calmer voice replied, "Roger that, Rescue One. Hang in there. Control out."

"Hang in there?' I thought, 'As opposed to doing what?'

The G forces seemed to continue interminably with only abrupt interruptions as stages of the rocket dropped away, then the flitter's field faded and the shaking began again. A short time that seemed like a long time later, the horrendous pressure on my chest abruptly ceased.

It would have been nice to have a window, but the capsule had been made for inanimate hardware, not tourists.

"Flitter," I said quietly, "Thanks for the lift. Wait for me at Carrington base, please. Park above the admin building."

My flitter replied, "Yes, Ed."

The radio barked, "Rescue One, Control!"

"Here! Present! Yo! Are you gonna tell me I ought to be weightless by now and that all I have to do is wait for you to tell me when it's time to pop the hatch?"

After a brief pause, Richter said, "Something like that, yes. Should we take it that you're not overly familiar with official communications protocols, Rescue One?"

I changed my p-field back to transparent and drawled, "Yeah, that's a big ten-four, Cap'n! Eastbound 'n hammer down! Warp six, y'all! Let's see if we got enough beer t' fly this crate allaway t' Paris!" then I asked, "Who else is on this channel? I don't even hear static when you aren't talking."

"Rescue One, it's a frequency, not a channel, and there shouldn't be anyone else using it. Listening, perhaps."

"Huh. Is this trip a secret? If so, nobody told me."

Richter sighed, "Rescue One, we at NASA prefer to share our communications at our convenience."

"Well, I guess that sure 'nuff 'splains why you're callin' yourself 'Control' today, doesn't it?"

Somebody down there giggled and someone else chuckled.

I asked, "So, how long 'til rendezvous, 'Control'?"

Richter replied, "Eighty-eight minutes, Rescue One. The revised payload numbers let us widen the window."

"Kewl. Okay, just holler when it's time to go outside."

With that, I called up a field screen as wide as the capsule and chose a few music videos, then unbuckled and sat up as Stargard's 'Which Way Is Up?'--which had seemed an appropriate song for the moment--began thumping.

From the radio came, "What the hell?!" and "Rescue One."

Raising my voice slightly to be heard over the music, I put up a second screen to check email and manufactured fake surprise as I yelled, "Rescue One? Hey! That's me! Hi, guys!"

I used my left hand to cover the keypad from camera view while I typed my email password and Richter asked, "Rescue One, did you take any unauthorized electronics aboard?"

Damn. 103 spam messages since my last visit. Dumping that folder, I replied, "It's just another field toy, Richter."

Richter said, "Rescue One, as I said, we'd prefer to control communications during your mission. Please turn off your music and other devices."

Looking directly at the left camera, I replied, "Richter, I have almost an hour and a half to kill in this tin can and you guys haven't been very entertaining so far. Give me a hard time and I'll turn off the radio instead."

"Rescue One, your radio can't be turned off."

"Well, you prob'ly shouldn't bet on that. Now quit bugging me. I'm checking my email."

Somebody blurted, "He's what? How?"

Richter said, "Rescue One."

I ignored him.

He repeated rather firmly, "Rescue One!"

Kewl, a new message from BJ Ray. She'd made a deal on a Honda Silverwing and she was about to go pick it up. Asterisks, a smiley face, and picture links. She was definitely doing the happy dance.

I set about answering her longish, enthusiastic message as Richter almost yelled, "Rescue One!" in a rather commanding tone. Oh, well. He'd give up in a minute or two.

He didn't repeat himself as I typed out my reply and hit the 'send' button, then moved on to the next message, picking up my coffee bladder's tube and sipping as I read.

A guy wanted me to place my titles with his web bookstore. I checked out his domain name and found he'd only paid for a year's registration. Nope. I politely declined his offer.

My implant pinged with Linda's chimes and I put her on screen as I answered, "Yes, milady! At your service, ma'am!"

She winced at the music, so I turned it down a bit as a guy on the radio said, "He's talking to somebody again!"

Linda said, "Lee Hines said you aren't answering the radio."

"Yeah, well, they were getting kind of pissy about how I'm spending my time up here. Besides, they can see and hear everything, so it's not as if they're out of the loop. I have over an hour to kill and I'd rather check email than hope that bunch can entertain me, y'know?"

Her left eyebrow went up. "I see. Cynthia told me you tried to tell her you were making this trip for me."

"Then Cynthia talks out of class, but it's at least partly true, ma'am. Do you think the 'crats'll give you any more budget and personnel trouble after this trip?"

She laughed, "Not for a week or so. This mission hasn't hurt your status with Emory, either, but I expect to have to talk with him later about what we said before liftoff."

Shrugging made me lift off the gel couch. Buckling the straps over my legs, I said, "Well, sorry 'bout that, Fearless Leader, but I've got seniority and it seemed like a real good idea to mention it before they fired this thing up."

Richter bellowed, "Rescue One! Answer me immediately!"

Eyeing the radio, I flicked open my belt knife and pried the black plastic cap off the volume button hole, then used the tip of the blade to turn the slotted shaft inside the hole as I said, "Cindy can tell me when it's time to go outside."

Linda's gaze shifted to the still barely audible radio, then back to me. Something flashed on her desk brightly enough to reflect in her eyes and she held up a finger in a 'pause' gesture as she poked an icon. Her screen shrank to half-size and I knew someone else was on the other half.

Wallace asked, "Linda, what the hell's your boy done now? Hines says they just lost contact with him."

"Hines is exaggerating the situation, Emory. Ed just turned the radio down."

Sounding even more upset, Wallace yelped, "Well, tell him to turn it back up! He's not even supposed to be able to do that and he scared the hell out of the commo team! They think something's wrong up there!"

Snickering, Linda replied, "Right. NASA called you about a technical problem in space. Emory, it's a perceived control issue. Whether they like it or not, NASA's usefulness to this mission ended when they pushed the ignition button."

Looking directly at the other side of the screen, she said firmly, "They'll get over it, Emory. He'd prefer not to be pestered and Cynthia will tell him when it's EVA time."

Wallace blurted, "Pestered?! He thinks NASA is pestering him?!"

"My choice of words, not his."

For a moment there was silence, then the screen abruptly expanded to full size and Linda quietly muttered, "Damn."

I felt it wise to say nothing for the moment and busied myself choosing another couple of tunes on the big screen.

Pink began singing 'Stupid Girl', and when she reached the chorus, Linda growled, "Are you trying to tell me something?"

Drumming my fingers to the beat, I replied, "Nope. I chose her 'Who Knew' song first, but it came up second 'cuz the screen automatically alphabetizes."

"Uh, huh. Well, you seem to have made yourself reasonably comfortable up there and I need to get back to work. Later, Ed. Keep me posted."

Saluting, I snapped, "Yes, ma'am, Fearless Leader, ma'am!"

She tapped her screen off and I went back to my email. After a few more messages, I switched to surfing the net and chose some more songs.

Cindy manifested her face on my screen some time later and said, "Fifteen minutes to rendezvous, Ed."

I looked at her for a moment, then said, "Gee, you're pretty, lady. Gorgeous, really."

Rolling her eyes, she shook her head slightly and said, "As that may be, it's time to saddle up. We'll have a forty-one minute optimal window for transferring the oxygen."

Putting on my coffee and water bladders, I checked to see that my p-field had accepted and encompassed them, then located by touch the two-foot ball my briefcase used as an oxygen repository.

"Cindy, I've been thinking I might want to just get this job done and get myself back inside this capsule to wait for my next ride. Believe it or not, I actually heard you when you talked about things finding us out here."

She popped into being beside the capsule's hatchway in her jeans-and-sneakers outfit and smiled. A muted, excited gabbling came from the radio.

Eyeing the oxygen bottles, I said, "In fact, maybe I ought to hang onto one of these, ma'am."

"No need," she said, "Your reservoir contains four hours."

Nodding, I glanced around and tapped one of the big plastic knobs securing a bottle rack as I replied, "Uh, huh."

Turning the knobs required me to hang onto the racks to avoid turning myself instead. Once I'd opened the racks, I used a field tendril to cut off the big-headed bolts and turned off my p-field long enough to cram them into my front pants pockets, then continued un-racking the bundled bottles.

Cindy asked, "Souvenirs?"

"Maybe. If I don't need 'em for anything else."

When I'd checked the straps on all four bundles, I loosened the hatch dogs one at a time to allow pressure to escape gradually, then took a look outside.

You've seen it too, every time a shuttle mission aimed a camera outside; some portion of the Earth and a black sky sprinkled liberally with stars. The Earth directly below was dark and a band of brightness to my right was the dawn of a new day. It seemed to me that we were flying backward, though it really didn't matter which end of the capsule led the way.

As the capsule's hatch view slowly rotated, I asked through my implant, "Can we kill the capsule's spin, Cindy? Maybe aim the hatch where Shining Star's going to be?"

Replying in the same manner, she said, "Yes. I'm converting one of the other bolt heads to nitrogen for use as a thrust jet. It will take a few moments."

We were over Africa when the view through the hatch seemed to begin moving backward. I realized that I was still spinning as before, so I reached to get a grip on the straps that had secured me to the couch. A few moments later the hatch faced open space and I didn't sense any further movement.

Calling up my board in the hatchway, I placed a bundle of tanks on it and said, "You're driving, ma'am."

Cindy appeared on the other end of the board, her hands clasped behind her and facing forward as the board began moving. I clambered onto it as soon as it was clear of the hatch, straddling the board with a loose grip on one of the bundle straps.

Eyeing Cindy's tall form, I enthused, "Wow! You'd look magnificent on the prow of a ship, milady."

She grinningly glanced back and replied, "Thanks, of course, but that sounds like a rather boring job."

After what seemed like a fairly long jaunt through space, I saw the spacecraft ahead and used my implant to make the board glow neon red as we matched their rotation and approached their airlock.

Cynthia asked, "Would you like to be able to talk to them?"

Hm. Would I? No, not really. "No, thanks. Maybe later."

A light near their hatch glowed green, the signal to open the outer door. I did so and shoved the bundle of tanks into the narrow tunnel beyond the hatch, then closed and dogged the hatch cover. A few moments later the light glowed red as they cycled the hatch and Cindy headed us back to the capsule for another load.

The return trip seemed a little shorter because the capsule was catching up to Shining Star, and the second delivery trip seemed even shorter. It occurred to me to wonder if we'd have to hurry the last couple of loads, but I had faith in Cindy's math. She didn't guesstimate much.

By the time we returned from the second delivery, Shining Star was easily visible a mile or so ahead and drawing steadily closer as I loaded the third bundle onto the board.

While I shoved the third bundle into Shining Star's hatch a few minutes later, the capsule passed us and slowly began dwindling in size as it continued on. When the red light glowed, Cindy launched us in the direction of the capsule.

* * * *

Chapter Three

About halfway to the capsule, things didn't look right and I realized the capsule had stopped growing bigger. Cindy spoke before I could ask why we'd stopped.

"Debris ahead. I've matched velocity with the capsule. We'll wait at a safe distance."

Glancing back at the receding bright spot that was Shining Star, I asked, "How long?"

Looking at me, she said flatly, "Eight minutes and thirty-six point three seconds."

"That's cutting it close. Will we be able to make the fourth trip? And what if the last bundle's hit?"

In that same flat tone, she replied, "The fourth bundle was intended to be part of Shining Star's safety margin. It may turn out to be yours."

Hm. Terse sentences and some attitude. Could an AI get nervous? If so, how bad would an impending situation have to be? I worked the coffee bladder's tube up inside my field and took a sip as I studied my surroundings.

"There could have been three bundles and we'd have been finished by now. The board could have handled the extra weight. Or rather the mass, since we're weightless out here. Hines said four bundles was your idea."

"I wanted to force them to use a wider window of time in which to complete the delivery."

Uh, huh. A simple fudge factor, or had she known about the debris? I sipped again and kept my thoughts to myself for the time being.

I sort of expected flashes or some other signs of impact ahead, but I saw nothing and some moments later, Cindy said, "I think it's safe to proceed," and the capsule began getting bigger again.

Yeah, there'd definitely been some damage. Dots of light from the capsule's LEDs became readily apparent through tiny holes as we neared the capsule. On the side facing Earth, there was a yard-long angular rip in the hull. Whatever had hit the capsule had met it almost head-on.

When I looked inside, I saw that two of the cameras had been obliterated and muck from the gel couch had covered the radio as well as much of the capsule's interior. Wondering what miracle of chemistry kept the stuff from freezing in open space, I used a field to sweep floating blobs toward a wall, where they spread out and started merging.

Reaching in to haul out the remaining tank bundle, I found no damage until I turned it over. The meter read zero on one of the tanks; it had been pinholed near the top and there was a similar hole near the bottom. Some tiny bit of something had punched through it end-to-end.

Oh, well. Their problem. I released the bottle bundle and sent a tendril to wipe the remaining camera's lens.

"Is this camera still working?"

"Yes."

"Good 'nuff. They can see we're still on the job."

After leaning in to wave at the camera, I put the bundle on my board and said, "Ready when you are, milady." Near the big rip in the capsule, I flicked a finger soundlessly against the hull and said, "You know, it seems to me that deep fields would be considerably better protection out here than sheet metal not much thicker than a stop sign."

She looked back and nodded slightly. "Yes, they would, but current levels of broadcast power would be inadequate to the task of maintaining uniform densities. I'll use some of the capsule as raw material to create a small field generator."

We arrived at Shining Star and deposited the oxy bottles as before, then waved at the guys inside as we departed.

When we reached the capsule, I said, "Um ... 'Scuse me, ma'am, but making a generator would also make some of this thing disappear for no reason we'd care to explain."

Cindy replied, "A suitable generator will require less than a quarter of the capsule's mass, which I'll scavenge from the interior. Reentry will incinerate the remainder."

"They're expecting it to splash down in the Indian Ocean."

With a slight shrug, Cindy replied, "It won't survive reentry. Would you care to move to the hatch so you can be seen outside the capsule when its electronics cease to function?"

Moving the board, I laughed, "Oh, yes, milady. By your command, ma'am, and thanks for providing an alibi. Maybe I'd better let Linda know things are okay."

I pinged Linda for a secure link as the camera's red 'on' light died and she pinged me back a few moments later, coolly answering with, "Yes, Ed? You have some news?"

"Huh? What? You don't sound anywhere near panic-stricken, Fearless Leader. I think my feelings are hurt!"

She laughed, "Poor baby. Maybe you shouldn't have pinged me so soon after the capsule picture quit."

"Yeah, good point there. I'll try to remember that for next time. Anyway, I'm just calling to let you know we've had to change travel plans a bit."

After a slight pause, she replied, "Well, I'm sure you have a good reason."

"Yes'm, that we do. The capsule was trashed by debris, thankfully while I wasn't in it. Cindy's using some of it to make a field generator and she says the rest of the capsule definitely won't return to Earth. Otherwise, no change. We're just hangin' around up here."

"Understood. For the record, it pleases me that you weren't aboard the capsule when it was damaged, Dragonfly."

"Well, thank you, ma'am. It pleases me, too."

There was a pause, then she chuckled, "My phone just lit up like a Christmas tree. What do you think I should tell them?"

"Would 'nothing' do?"

She laughed, "No, too many people know we can communicate."

"Well, let 'em fret a while first to build suspense."

"Okay. Later, Ed. Cynthia, are you in this link?"

"Yes, Linda."

"Thank you, Cynthia. Thanks very much."

"You're welcome, Linda."

Linda dropped the link and some ten minutes or so passed, then I suddenly felt a very strong field presence and a smooth, silver-skinned object the size of a volleyball appeared just inside the hatchway, then vanished as I studied it.

Looking inside the capsule, I saw that her scavenging efforts had left it as featureless and smooth as the inside of an egg. Several more ragged holes appeared in the skin of the capsule, then my board moved us away from it.

What seemed like quite a distance from the capsule, the grey form of a flitter like mine popped into being and Cindy guided us to a stop next to its console. When I let the board disappear, I hung above the deck for a moment, then felt myself being drawn toward the deck. My sneaks made contact and the sensation of weight began to make itself felt.

"Gravity? How did you manage that, ma'am?"

She smiled and replied, "Not gravity. I tuned the deck to your bone cells and adjusted the level of attraction."

"Ah. Well done, milady. Feels just about right."

As I took a seat by the console and turned off my p-field, Cindy said, "I thought you might like familiar surroundings."

I unstrapped the two bladders and set them on a flitter seat, shook out my shoulders a bit, and retrieved the coffee tube for a sip as I replied, "You thought absolutely right, ma'am. This beats the hell out of that tin can NASA gave me. We only need the deep-field generator for protection. What'll you do with it when the big ship comes?"

"I'll send it to the house and find a use for it later."

"Why not use it to destroy the capsule? Big boom. Add some drama, give 'em a show."

She laughed, "You don't think there's been enough drama today?"

Shrugging, I replied, "Nah. Give 'em something special to ponder. Besides, it would make absolutely sure none of the capsule will get back to Earth. Cindy, what hit the capsule? Meteorites or man-made trash? And speaking of trash..." I took the knobs I'd removed from the capsule out of my pockets and tossed them. Each flashed brilliantly at the flitter-sim's 'hull' field and vanished.

Cindy gave me a raised eyebrow and said, "The debris was composed of remnants of an interrupted military experiment that's been labeled otherwise for thirty-eight years. Once I knew our flight parameters, I managed to destroy most of it using the flitter, but there was too much of it and too little time to get it all. May I ask what led you to ask that question?"

"The stuff struck head-on. That would seem to mean that whatever hit the capsule was in our orbital path. Since damned near every bit of orbital detritus bigger than a quarter has been radar-tagged and numbered, I find it hard to believe nobody realized a fat cluster of that stuff would find us."

She sat down beside me and said, "They knew there was a good chance of collision. I was absolutely certain of it, which is why I delayed our return for the fourth bundle."

That gave me pause for thought. I sipped my coffee, then looked at her as I asked, "How did you manage to skirt your Amaran 'endangerment' protocols, Cindy?"

Meeting my gaze, she said, "I didn't have to. The decision to make the trip was all yours. The decision to send you up was shared, but not by me. Once they ignited the rocket, my only participation involved protecting you."

I took another moment for thought and asked, "Did you tell the guys on the ground I wouldn't be in the capsule when the stuff hit?"

"No." She grinned and said, "I simply made sure you were a safe distance from the capsule at the appropriate time."

Taking her hand for a kiss, I said, "And for that I wholeheartedly thank you, milady. Also for not scotching my trip up here. I'm pretty sure that option occurred to you."

Smiling, she nodded. "Yes, it did."

Linda's ping chimed in my implant and I answered by putting up a blank screen and saying, "Hi, Linda."

She took control of the screen and turned on a picture. Her angry glare let me know there might be a problem afoot.

There was tension in her tone as she growled, "Ed, ground control was apparently very surprised when you and Cynthia reappeared and picked up the fourth bundle. They knew that debris could hit the capsule."

Nodding, I replied, "Yeah, I know."

Her voice rose an octave as she almost ranted, "And-you-went-up-there-anyway?! Are you insane?!"

"Well, apparently not, ma'am. I'm still alive."

She snapped, "Thanks only to Cynthia, I'm sure."

"Yup. She made sure I wasn't anywhere near the capsule when the stuff hit. No problem."

Again glaring, Linda insisted, "Oh, there's a problem, all right, Ed; they sent one of my people into what they knew full well was a potentially fatal situation without mentioning one damned word about that to me!"

For a moment it looked as if she'd say something else, then her mouth shut and she took a deep breath.

"Cynthia," said Linda, "Thank you very much. Again. Ed, I'll talk to you later." With that she tapped her 'off' icon.

Sipping my coffee, I looked at Cindy and said, "That almost sounded like a threat. Could be some heads will roll down there before she's through. How long until the transport gets here?"

"Two hours, fourteen minutes." Canting her head slightly, she asked, "You're thinking of taking a nap, aren't you?"

"Yup." Gesturing around us, I said, "Seen it all before and I only got about four hours of sleep last night."

"You could try turning off your computer a little earlier."

"Nah. I write when I'm inspired. Can't do that by the clock. Flitter, make me a bathroom and a bed, please."

My own flitter's voice answered, "Yes, Ed," and I said, "Thanks," before I commented to Cindy, "You thought of everything, ma'am."

She grinned, said, "I do try," and vanished.

I used the bathroom, took another sip of coffee, tossed the coffee bladder on the bed, and flopped myself down next to it feeling rather bushed and thinking, 'Maybe she was right about turning off the computer sooner.'

Sometime while I lay studying the stars I fell asleep. What seemed like only minutes passed before Cynthia stood by the bed calling my name. Waking a bit groggily, I reached for the coffee bladder and sipped as I looked around.

"I don't see a transport ship."

"It's ten minutes away. I thought you might like to freshen up before I send the generator at the capsule."

Nodding, I headed for the bathroom as I said, "You thought right again, ma'am. Thanks."

When I stepped out, Cindy beckoned me to the edge of the deck and pointed down and to our right. The generator ball flashed away from us, disappeared, and two seconds later there was a brilliant flash above Greenland.

She then looked beyond me and nodded. I turned to see a bright dot getting bigger quickly and perhaps thirty seconds later the transport ship filled the sky above the flitter.

The field-generated flitter moved toward it and aimed for a bay almost directly over our heads, altering our position in relation to Earth so that we entered the bay upright in relation to the interior of the ship.

Keying my implant, I asked, "Kemor?" and the ship's computer responded, "Yes, Ed."

"Fancy meeting you here! What are the chances?"

Without the slightest indication of humor, he replied, "Fifty percent, Ed. There are only two transport ships available."

"Great,' I thought, 'Now he'll think I'm retarded.'

I sighed, "That was an attempt at humor, Kemor. Thanks for picking us up."

"You're welcome, Ed."

By that time two blue-uniformed women had entered the bay and approached the flitter. I said, "People are here. Guess I'd better say goodbye for now and talk to them, Kemor."

"As you wish, Ed. Goodbye."

Grabbing my two hydration bladders and slinging them over my left shoulder, I stepped off the faux-flitter, which immediately disappeared. The two women in transport ship staff uniforms faltered in their approach, then came to a stop a few feet away from us.

As they studied us, I studied them. One blonde, one brunette, both late-twenties or early thirties, both very lovely, and both apparently quite surprised that our flitter had been a field manifestation. Heh.

The brunette cleared her throat, greeted us, and said they'd be our guides to the debarkation area and any other facilities we might require. Hm. Separate guides? Did that mean they didn't know Cindy was also a field manifestation?

Apparently Cindy had the same thought. After a round of handshakes, Cindy gave me a grin as she said, "You know where to find me," then she vanished, but she wasn't truly gone. I heard her hearty chuckle through my implant as both staffers adopted expressions of vast surprise and stared hard at the spot where they'd last seen her.

For some reason it hadn't occurred to me that Amarans might be as surprised as Earthies to encounter an AI. Oh, well. I went to the edge of the bay to watch our landing and the ladies followed after a moment.

With a glance at them, I said, "No need to take me to the passenger lounge." Thumbing at the world beyond the bay, I said, "When we touch down, I'll just hop out."

Looking as if she thought I might be rather confused, the blonde said, "Sir, this bay won't be at ground level."

Nodding, I replied, "Yeah, I know. I figure it'll be about a thousand feet up," and by that time the ship had stopped moving downward.

Calling up my board, I said, "Bye," and slid through the bay's barrier field into the open air above Carrington base, banking right to aim for the admin building.

When I pinged Linda, she answered, "Hi, Ed. I'm on my way to the dining facility. Join me there, please."

"On my way, milady. Uhm ... we aren't talking about some kind of a party, are we?"

"No, we aren't. I know how you dislike that sort of thing. In fact, we have instructions to keep quiet about your mission."

"We do, huh? Why's that?"

"We'll talk about it over dinner."

"Okay. Be there shortly."

She and Wallace were halfway through the food line when I arrived. I dropped the bladders on an empty table, grabbed a tray and silverware, chose a steak and various veggies, and stopped by the drink dispenser for a dr pepper on my way to join them.

Linda and Wallace were standing by the table as I approached, which struck me as odd. When I'd set my tray down, Linda gave me a quick hug and Wallace grinningly reached for my hand.

"Good job, by God," he said, "Good work up there, Ed."

"Thanks, but all I did was ride up and shove tanks through a hatch. Cindy did everything else."

Linda asked, "Where is Cindy? We'd like to thank her, too."

Cindy appeared on my left and said, "You're welcome."

Giving Cindy a hug like the one she'd given me, Linda said, "A simple 'thank you' seems so inadequate, Cindy."

"I disagree," Cindy replied with a smile, "It's perfectly adequate, Linda."

After she received a handshake and some adulation from Wallace, we all sat down and Linda said, "As I told Ed, a lid has been put on information concerning your visit to Shining Star. No reason has been given, so for the moment I'm presuming that various agencies would simply rather not have their spa ce capabilities publicly compared to ours."

Sipping her drink, she continued, "For example; you and Cindy appeared to be wearing only street clothes in space as opposed to bulky suits. We've been trying to get Earth's space agencies to consider using PFMs since the day they went into production, but those in charge have steadfastly refused to consider them. Even if nothing else is gained from this, perhaps now they'll reconsider that matter."

Wallace swallowed some corn and said, "In fact, I was on the phone this afternoon with a Senator who now questions the need for Earth's current space agencies."

He paused and added, "He also knows the human half of the rescue team is nearly sixty, that you went up there without any of the usual intensive training, and that you had no difficulty functioning in space."

I shrugged. "Nobody should start worrying about their jobs just yet. They probably won't make sending up untrained older people standard procedure anytime soon."

Turning to Cindy, I said, "On the other hand ... what about stationing a string of flitters around the Earth? Each of them could catch and pass on another flitter until it was going as fast as necessary for an orbital project. Kind of like a rail gun moving a slug using magnetic fields."

Cindy shook her head. "Flitters wouldn't be powerful enough. Unique platforms would have to be developed. If you don't mind, I'll speak with Steph and Sue about this idea as a potential new business project."

Carving my steak, I replied, "Mind? Nah. Just save me a seat for an occasional space ride."

She chuckled, "Oh, that could probably be arranged."

Linda had stopped in mid-chew and was staring at us. Wallace had put down his coffee and joined her in staring.

"What?" I asked.

"Ed," said Wallace, "Do you realize you're talking about ... doing away ... with a sixty-year-old scientific institution?"

"No, I'm just talking about letting them pay an AI company to put their hardware upstairs, but they'll likely b

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