Chapter 5 - SKYROCKET
It took most cadets a full year to accomplish what Tala did in a month at the Pilot's Academy. She was an excellent student on an accelerated track. In addition to her flight studies, she had to get up to speed on the technical aspects of every Ishtar Terra installation.
Her simulator runs were excellent, but she had problems adjusting to the motion of real ships.
Instructor Miles Greene was impatient with his star pupil. "No, no, no...you've got to make that last spin before you dock or you'll come in too hard."
"I'm getting airsick again. It's hard to concentrate when I'm about to fill my helmet with lunch."
"I've told you to take the pills, Tala. You're a quick learner, but space sickness takes time to overcome. Not everybody does, either."
"And what if I'm one of the unlucky ones?"
"Lay in a lifetime supply of the pills and develop a steel jaw. That's what I did."
"Miles, are you serious? You're one of the best in the fleet. Somehow I can't imagine you chasing your cookies around the cockpit."
"That's because I'm a good boy and take my pills."
"Sure you do, and I'm Captain Hero, Galactic Savior.
"Correction, you're Cadet Hero. And from now on, Cadet Hero takes her puke pills just like a groundhog. That's a direct order from somebody who knows the score. Now, I think you've had enough for today.
Then he added, "Good work, Tala."
Paying attention, hard work and natural ability helped her keep up with the accelerated pace.
Chet got to spend lots of time with his Mama, but not much of it was quality time. She was always preoccupied. It made him sad, but he really loved the times she put away her studies to play with him. A lesser dog would have felt abandoned, but not Chester Arthur Fillmore of Hialeah, a purebred of noble stock and superior genetic engineering.
Richard had a busy month too. It took twice as long as Swanson's estimate to force the new space budget through the senate. Mallory had to cut several distasteful deals with undecided senators to swing the needed votes. It won him points with Swanson, but left a bad taste in his karma.
Even while the bodies piled up in the budget battle, Mallory had to plan his the Venus team. Fortunately, much of the cream of the scientific community was in Nafta's vast workprison system. This made them simpler to find and recruit. Incarcerated for various crimes against conformity, many of the world's brightest minds worked as legal slaves on government projects.
Workprisons provided a huge pool of highly skilled professionals. They did jobs for free that many of them had previously performed for high salaries. Now, their only pay was room and board as they worked off their sentences.
Unlike the crowded penitentiaries for dangerous felons, workprisons never gave reduced sentences for good behavior. Mallory had to pull quite a few strings to gain custody of the people he wanted on his team.
Richard was glad he'd snagged Tala before she ended up in the workprison system. If they'd figured out her value, he might have never gotten her out.
Although Tala showed excellent progress in her studies, Mallory recruited two more qualified pilots as well. Each also had other more important skills that qualified them for the team.
By the end of the month, Tala and Richard were exhausted by the intensity of their respective tracks.
They met at the Bonneville Flats shuttle boarding area on the day of the liftoff. She was wheeling a sturdy metal kennel case, but Chet wasn't yet inside it. Instead, he was at her heels, checking out the scent of the other people in the shuttleport.
Passengers scurried about like rodents in a grain elevator. Although the decor was meant to be light and airy, it shared an undistinguished sameness with every airport and shuttleport ever built.
Richard spotted Tala and rushed up to greet her. "Good to see you. I just read the results of your finals. Congratulations! Your flight scores were almost as high as mine when I was at the academy."
Chet sniffed curiously at his ankles.
"Hello, Chet, I'm glad you could come along too."
"Mallory, I saw your academy scores. I beat you fair and square in every category, with the possible exception of Advanced Prevarication."
"Whatever. Anyway, I'm proud of you."
"Listen, Mallory, I really don't feel good about making Chet ride in a kennel case. Why can't he sit on my lap?"
"You'll be busy supporting your own weight. Besides, the kennel case reduces the chance he'll be injured. He'll get a good dose of hibergas to calm him down. When he wakes up, he'll be in your room at the space colony. It's the safest way for animals to travel."
"Maybe, but I worry about him when he's not with me."
"You'll have enough to worry about when our shuttle starts to pull G forces."
"I won't worry, I'll just be sick."
"That's the spirit, whatever it takes to stay calm."
She stared at him, head cocked to one side. "Mallory, you're just damned weird."
"Come on, they've started to load."
Tala tenderly put Chet into the kennel case and soothed him. "It'll be alright, baby boy. You and Mama are going on a trip. I have to put you in here. I'll be right with you, even if you can't see me. Okay?"
Chet leaned out and licked her face. He didn't like it one bit, but he believed Mama. He knew she wouldn't leave him alone.
"I'll let you out soon, Chet. I promise.
The hibergas gently hissed into the case as soon as Tala latched it. In minutes, Chet was chasing cats across the canine virtual reality stage in his head.
Tala gave explicit loading directions to the baggage crew and slipped them each five Ameros. Chet's case was handled so gently that even if it had contained a hair trigger nuclear warhead, everyone would have been perfectly safe.
Once aboard, they took their Executive Class seats. Mallory insisted on only the best arrangements for everyone on the mission. He wanted his team members to understand their importance.
The entire crew was scheduled to meet at the Heinlein space colony. Richard and Tala had to arrive early to find the ships they'd need for their journey. The mission would depart directly from the colony.
The flight attendant checked their harnesses. They were properly buckled in for the high acceleration flight.
"Richard, this is my first flight into orbit."
"I know. Like I said, just relax. It's less stressful than the simulators you used at the academy. Lots of business executives fly these things, and you know what kind of shape most of them are in."
The shuttle jerked forward as it hit the mechanical track. It took less than a minute until it stopped again. It was in position at the Bonneville Rail Gun's entrance.
Unlike the lunar version, the Bonneville Flats gun wasn't designed to launch a load into orbit. Instead, it was a damped rail gun with much lower acceleration. Solar power from satellites drove the system's magnets.
The shuttle was magnetically levitated along a track that started on the Bonneville Salt Flats of western Utah. Nanite work crews had smoothed a sloped path from the edge of the flats up the west slope of the Cedar Mountains. They piled the excess earth from their mountain crossing into a berm across Skull Valley. It rose quickly up the side of Mount Deseret.
The earth moving project created a long, smooth parabola across the high desert. Magnetic propulsion stations were built along its length. Each set of magnets sped the shuttle to the end of the track.
By the time it left the track at the mountain top, the stubby-winged shuttle was moving well above Mach 6. Once past the end of the rail gun, the shuttle's engines cut in for the rest of the trip. It saved an enormous amount of expensive, non-renewable fuel, and created new jobs and noise in the Deseret Region.
The approach to the space colony wasn't as dramatic as Tala had hoped. The shuttle had no windows, she couldn't even see the Heinlein from her seat. What she saw on the viewscreen could have been lifted from any travel VR. In fact, it was.
When Tala arrived at the spaceport, her first priority was to play tourist. She had to check out the famous view of the Heinlein space colony from the port's viewing station.
Richard had seen the shiny aluminum torus and its clones too many times to be excited. He went on ahead with Tala's luggage and Chet's kennel case.
Over two miles of orbital space separated the docking bay from the colony's main torus. They were joined by an airtight carbon fiber tube.
Tala was in the overgrown coffee can that served as the spaceport. The interior of the port rotated to give the illusion of gravity, but at less than half of earth normal.
Newcomers got a glimpse of the main colony and a photo opportunity through a special viewport. Deadly solar radiation would have flooded through a real window.
Instead, the image was like the sunlight inside the colony itself. Two giant aluminum mirrors reversed the view, then reversed it again so that it appeared normal. It was the same view one would see through a window, except that it wasn't lethal. The mirrors reflected light back to the viewport. High energy cosmic radiation passed right through the mirrors.
No matter how it was created, the view was famous. Sunlight reflected from the curves of the Heinlein's shiny aluminum wheel. The sun was directly behind the port, along the colony's main axis.
From her perspective, the massive round solar mirror seemed to hover over the station. It was a kilometer across, but from the port, much of its reflected light was obscured by the colony ring. However, the gap between the hub and the main ring was a blinding halo of reflected sunlight.
Tala tried to look, but the light hurt her eyes. Disappointed, she was on her way out when a shabbily dressed man with long brown hair and a beard poked up above the crowd.
"Get your viewing rings here," he shouted with the excitement normally shown over a full tray of steamy stadium hot dogs. "Lucky souvenir viewing rings! See the station clearly, the way God intended. Scientific design protects your eyes from solar rays...lets you shoot video too."
He held up a length of carbon cable with about two dozen aluminum rings strung onto it. A hearty shake made the rings give a happy jingle. "Allow me to demonstrate, folks."
His head disappeared back into the crowd as he stepped down from a small box. He picked up the box like a piece of luggage.
He popped back up in front of the picture window, next to an especially attractive and expensive-looking woman. Her escort was a well-dressed man who was obviously used to being rich.
The unkempt salesman slid one of his large rings onto the glass, exactly at the woman's eye level. It was burnished aluminum and static cling held it to the viewscreen. A faint shadow described itself across the lady's eyes and upper face. "Please tell us what you see, ma'am."
"Oh, cool! It's perfect. It blocks the glare, but I can see the space station. Get me one of these, Bobby."
Her companion automatically reached for his money pouch.
"Just five Ameros, sir. Creditwands same as cash."
The vendor weaved through the eager crowd of newcomers and quickly unloaded his merchandise. Since Tala was on her way out, he reached her last. Sales were tougher this far from the window.
"Hello, Milady. I've only got one last lucky souvenir viewing ring left. It yours for a fiver, what do you say?"
"Sure enough," she chuckled, strangely at ease with the man. She unpocketed a five Amero piece and was about to put it into his hand.
The man's voice became more natural as he went on, "Of course, I might trade you my whole stock for a good nadget."
She leaned closer and examined him. "Dirk!" Tala instinctively raised her open palm.
He slapped it eagerly with the back of his hand, smiling through his new beard. "Hi, Tala. Haven't seen you since Inauguration Day. What're you doing up here?"
"Holy hell! What are you doing up here? I figured the corp goons were doing genetic research on you by now."
"Shhhh! Let's talk about such things where it's more private." He turned toward the window. "Meanwhile, let's make sure you get a good look at the Heinlein while you're here. Most folks don't see this part of the station again 'til they leave. By then, they're too rushed to take in the view."
Tala casually walked to the viewport in the hands of her new tour guide. She had a dozen questions, but she figured she could wait a few minutes for answers. She'd already waited nearly six months.
Dirk helped her stick the new ring to the window. She stared at the colony as he started to tell her about his new home in space. "I'll give you my version of the talk the official tour guides give. Pardon me if I throw in a bit of personal bias for the sake of balance.
The Robert A. Heinlein is the prototype for a series of earth orbiting colony ships. It was marriage of Twentieth Century imagination and Century 21 technology. The basic design was worked almost a century ago, when the United States and its space subsidiary NASA were still in business.
Early plans called for a single station at the neutral gravity Lagrange 1 point between the earth and Luna. Later computer simulations of orbital dynamics changed their thinking.
It turned out that a station in an egg shaped track made more sense. Its orbit is roughly half as large as the moon's and it takes two weeks to complete one loop. It's a stable trajectory that doesn't need rockets to maintain the orbit.
The computer analysis showed that power and communications satellites can be put into a geosynchronous orbit from here with minimal thrust. What's more, it takes minimal energy to access the Lagrange 2 point behind the moon. That's where we park ore catchers. They pick up orbiting loads of lunar dust launched from the Tranquility City rail gun.
We make everything up here from lunar material. This space colony was built almost entirely from refined moon dust.
The original space station plan was gradually abandoned as the United States started to go broke. When the Twenty Year Recession wiped out the remains of the U.S. Treasury, they sold off most of their national assets. The space station plans and a few of her original designers were picked up by big business."
"As were the national parks system, the highways, harbors and airports and most of the defense department. If I remember right, it was the biggest giveaway in history."
"Excuse me, lady, but this is my tour."
"Sorry Mr. Ford, please continue. I'll try to be quiet, despite your provocation."
"Thank you. So, when business and government officially merged early in this century, it was finally possible to finance the whole satellite and colony system.
Originally, energy customers footed the bill. The sun's energy was harnessed by satellites, then beamed to desert sites across the globe by microwave. Those satellites were built from the same lunar materials used in the Heinlein."
"Wait a minute," Tala interrupted, "That was just another corp scam to grab more tax money."
"Naturally, but we had to get new energy sources from somewhere. The cheapest route was solar power satellites. The selling point for the space colony was the high cost of lifting so much material into orbit from the earth. By the time they finally started the project, the price of rocket fuel had started to... well, let's just say it had become very expensive. It was cheaper to build complete energy satellites from material on the moon. That took a lot of people and equipment, but there's always been big money in energy."
"Okay," Tala interjected, "If there's always been big money in energy, why did it take so long to start building energy satellites?"
"What it took was an acute energy shortage that tripled prices. A consortium of aluminum, energy and transportation companies drew up the energy satellite plan. They pressured the government for subsidies, for the good of the people. With low cost government financing in place, they built it all.
The project required a lunar mining base, rail gun and orbiting ore catchers. To manufacture products from the raw material, they built this space colony. She's complete with orbital smelters, manufacturing facilities and homes for ten thousand workers.
The powersats convert the sunlight into microwaves. The energy is beamed to ground-based power stations located on empty tracts of land, such as deserts and nuclear blast zones. The power stations on the ground reduce the frequency of the microwaves to 50 or 60 Hertz. At that low frequency, people think of it as electricity instead of radio energy. The technology hasn't changed much since the first plants went online twenty-five years ago.
The first three satellites paid off the entire project in twelve years, at least on paper. That's assuming you don't subtract the trillion Amero subsidy the taxpayers tossed into the pot."
"Yeah, let's make sure we don't include free money from the taxpayers as an expense."
"Hey, I'm not here to apologize for a bunch of ethically challenged human organ thieves...I'm just playing tour guide. Do you wanna hear the rest of the speech or not?"
"Sorry, Dirk, please finish. Otherwise I won't feel like a real tourist."
He smiled. "The Heinlein was built of carbon cable and aluminum. It's based on NASA's Stanford Torus design, with a few changes to incorporate new technology.
Although it was originally created to build and service power satellites, the colony's importance increased with the spread of nanotechnology. Some types of molecular nanotech can only be grown in microgravity."
"Hey that reminds me! I've got a couple of projects I've always wanted my babies to try in micro G. Maybe I can give it a shot while I'm here."
"Be very careful, Milady. The corp has made unauthorized nantech production a major felony up here."
"Just like earthside."
"Not just like earthside. They actually have people competent to enforce it here. When manufacturing first got started, they had a bunch of 'You got chocolate in my peanut butter' complaints. A few powerful shareholders lost profits, so of course there was a major fuss. The corp began to crack down on anybody responsible for escaped nanotech."
"I'm game for the risks. You know me, careful, discreet, sneaky."
"Tala, give me a few hours to arrange something. I may know a place you can work. This isn't the place to discuss it, though."
"So give me the rest of the tour, already."
"Alright...so the original colony was overrun by nanoscientists, engineers, technicians and support teams. A turf war broke out between the new nanotechs and the original satellite crews.
Ten thousand people is the limit for one of these wheels. There weren't enough workers to share between the two factions. Big bucks backed both sides, so the answer was obvious. They dragged out the blueprints and started more colony rings."
"Why not add a second ring here instead?"
"It would have cost about the same either way. But from a security standpoint, it's safer to have several individual colonies than one huge mass of rings. It also reduces local turf wars."
"So how many rings are out here now?"
"This one plus five more. The Sagan and Roddenberry are already occupied. People have started to move onto the Peter Vijk, but it'll take a few months to fill it. If they shift too many people on or off a station too fast, the ecosystem crashes.
Two more stations are under construction. One of them will be just for shipbuilding. It'll become a major port like the Heinlein, but on the opposite end of the orbit. That'll cut the wait for a transorbit shuttle in half. It'll also double the number of passengers that can be sent out to the lunar colonies.
Manpower is at a premium on the moon right now. They're going nuts at Tranquility City just trying to get enough warm bodies to feed dust to the rail guns. Every new colony increases our orbital smelting capacity. That means more demand for lunar ore. Somebody's making out like a senator from all this. That's why I'm here...to get my little piece of it."
"But why here, Dirk? Why not one of the newer stations?"
"Let's talk about it on the way up. My limo is here. Is all your baggage accounted for?"
"Yes...it went on ahead."
Dirk spoke to his cellchip and a cubic aluminum vehicle wheeled right over to them. "Follow me, Tala."