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Denizens: 13 - Meetings

...The four had met for the first time in this very briefing room. They had reacted warily, mentally circling each other like a group of tag-team wrestlers, uncertain and awkward in each other’s company...

And now the four are together at the Kennedy Space Centre, waiting to set out on mankind's first attempt to travel at the speed of light.

Brian William Neal's thrilling sci-fi story pins you back in your seat and compels you to read as fast as your eyes will go. To read earlier chapters of this great adventure please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

Kennedy Space Center,
Florida
April, 2033

“I didn’t say it’s not going to work, Paul. I just said I can’t help having reservations.”

The speaker was standing at a large window, looking out at the featureless sand flats that surrounded the site of all spacecraft launches in America. He turned, and faced the other man in the room.

Doctor Paul Fiorelli looked back at his assistant. “If you’ve got a better suggestion, now would not be a good time to mention it. You should have said something a long time ago, Sam. I didn’t hear you voicing any objections when we were selecting the team. And even if you do have any new ideas, are you willing to take them to the Senate, Congress and the media? Not necessarily in that order, either,” he added.

Samuel Travis was silent for a moment; then, typically, he tried to bluster his way through the confrontation. “Damn it, Paul, this isn’t about personalities, or who should have said what! We’ve put together a crew for the most important space mission in our history, and the best that can be said for any of them is that they’re a little unstable! Oh, sure, I know you think they’re the best we could get, given the time frame and the nature of the mission. I’m buggered if I know why it all has to be so top secret, anyway. Sometimes, I think the Yanks are the most paranoid people on the planet, worse even than the Russians.”

In times of stress, Travis’s Australian accent came through in all of its down-under nasality, despite his many years in America. Fiorelli sighed; it looked as though they were going to have the old argument again. He crossed the room, and sat behind the large desk at one end.

“You know as well as I do,” he said, his Oxbridge tones echoing mellifluously around the room, “that our masters in Washington and London want this mission under way as soon as possible. As much as anything else, they want something they can present to the public, to justify the expense. In short, Sam, they want results. Now you bring these things up with only one day to go until the launch. The only alternative I see to a launch is to cancel. Please tell me you’re not suggesting that.”

The Australian made a gesture of frustration. “We don’t have to cancel, Paul. It need only to be a postponement until we can get a better team together.” He began to pace up and down before the desk.

“I mean, look at them, for Christ’s sake! A struck-off ex-doctor with more hang-ups than a telephone exchange; a failed astronaut who hangs out with poofters; a crippled nutty professor who doubles as a sky pilot, and a grease monkey who thinks he’s John Wayne taking Singapore!”

The garrulous Australian paused for breath, and Fiorelli said, “All right, Sam. Now that you’ve put them in the worst possible light, do you mind if the counsel for the defense has a turn?” Without waiting for a reply, he went on.

“Firstly, the reasons Doctor Purdy was struck off the medical register have always seemed a little twentieth-century to me, and they in no way detract from her abilities as a physician, at least for the purposes of this mission.

“Colonel Ferguson – yes, he’s been promoted – may be friendly with one rather large Native American of the gay persuasion – don’t let him hear you insulting Major McCulloch, by the way, not if you enjoy walking – but that’s not even a crime in Russia any more. Or Australia,” he added maliciously.

“The irregular heart murmur that kept him out of the space program has never shown up on any subsequent tests, including those we conducted, and there are some, myself included, who think it was the equipment that malfunctioned, rather than the colonel.

“As for professor Edge, quite apart from the fact that he has been described as the most brilliant mind since Hawking, his religious beliefs are his own affair. He keeps his views to himself, and doesn’t attempt to foist them on anyone else. He was a student of mine for a short time at Oxford, until I ran out of things to teach him, and we should be thanking his God that we have him. And considering where they’re going, it might not be a bad idea to have someone on board who knows how to pray!

“And finally, Bill O’Rourke was another of my finest pupils, this time at MIT, and he knows all there is to know about the fusion drive. Also, if they run into any rough stuff out there, Colonel Ferguson might appreciate a little backup in the action department.”

He paused, and glared at the other man. “And it was Iwo Jima, not Singapore.”
Travis shook his head, confused by the sudden change in tack. “What?”

Fiorelli gave a small smile, enjoying the man’s bewilderment. “John Wayne. Iwo Jima. Never mind.”
Travis looked at his boss and thought, you’re rambling, old man. You’re past it. He really had to work these days to hide his contempt for this man, this pommy with the dago name who had been brought in to head the program he believed should have been his. But his position was not yet strong enough for an outright confrontation, so he backed off.

“O.K. Paul, take it easy.” He smiled ingratiatingly. “I’m just blowing smoke, playing devil’s advocate, you know? I suppose you’re right, in a way.”

Fiorelli made a sour face, and said, “You bet I’m right. We couldn’t really do much better, crew-wise. Nobody likes the idea of a one-way ticket to immortality quite as much as might first be thought. It appears there are limits to the sacrifices scientists are prepared to make for the sake of science. We ought to be lauding these people as heroes, not deriding them.”

Fiorelli paused, and regarded the younger man. The Australian was a competent enough physicist, and Paul had no complaints about his work, unimaginative though it was. He found he just didn’t like the man, and that annoyed him. He felt he ought to be able to get on with the job at hand, and not get involved in personalities.

Maybe Travis is right, he sighed to himself. Maybe I am getting too old for this kind of pressure. The treacherous thought was banished as soon as it surfaced. No way, he thought. I was in on this from the beginning, and I mean to see it through to the end.

Anyway, he thought, they need me. So fuckem. And fuck Travis, too. And the kangaroo he rode in on.

*

“This meeting will serve as a final briefing, hopefully to answer any last-minute questions you might have,” said Paul Fiorelli, letting his gaze travel round the room, resting momentarily on each person before moving on. The Hermes team members were in a secure room, two hundred feet beneath the space center. The four had arrived in Florida independent of each other; it had been decided that they should make their own way there, like any other traveler, to avoid any unwelcome attention from the media. What they had not known, reflected Fiorelli, was that the best surveillance agents in the country shadowed each of them. Well, that’s not exactly true, he thought wryly. Karen Purdy and Professor Edge had traveled from England, blissfully unaware of their “tails”, but Colonel Ferguson and Bill O’Rourke had slipped their shadows within hours of setting out.

Ferguson’s tail had returned shame-faced and reported that the colonel had just vanished, “like smoke”, somewhere between Flagstaff and Williams AFB outside Phoenix, and had not been seen again until he had turned up alone at the base. Meanwhile, Doctor O’Rourke’s shadow had been waylaid in a men’s room at Grand Central Station in New York and relieved of his weapon and identification. Apparently, the unfortunate agent had not been informed that the aerospace engineer was traveling armed, and had been very surprised to find the cold barrel of a large .44 Magnum revolver pressed against the back of his neck when he followed O’Rourke into the men’s room. The engineer had used the man’s own handcuffs to secure him to a toilet cistern, and had handed the gun and badge in to the Special Agent in Charge on his arrival at the Cape. Needless to say, although Bill had found the situation hilarious, as had Cal Ferguson when he had heard of it, the SAC had not been amused.

Fiorelli nevertheless felt the security had been necessary; the project was still top secret, and the powers-that-were wanted it to stay that way. At least, until the mission was under way. The last thing the politicians wanted was a public outcry about “suicide” missions.

Doctor Karen Purdy, her credentials reinstated for the mission (but only after the direct intervention of the President and the British Prime Minister with the BMA), sat stiff-backed in her chair, her hands folded demurely in her lap. She understood very well the second chance she had been given, and was determined not to say or do anything that might jeopardize her newly regained status. After the mission, when and if they got back safely, she intended to do whatever was required to retain it.

She had arrived on a British Airways flight at Miami almost two months ago, and since then her life had been an endless round of tests, both physiological and psychological, and training as the project’s scientists tested the team’s reactions to simulated space flight. Many hours in the centrifuge were required, as well as in the simulator, a mock-up of the bridge of the ship they would be traveling in, the Hermes.

The four had met for the first time in this very briefing room. They had reacted warily, mentally circling each other like a group of tag-team wrestlers, uncertain and awkward in each other’s company. Karen had taken an immediate liking to Jonathan, of whom she had heard through scientific journals she had read, and whose quiet grace she found humbling, almost saint-like.

Bill O’Rourke she also liked, after she got used to his somewhat loud manner. He was big, and cheerful, and his humor often had them in stitches. But the psychoanalyst in her, present in most doctors, detected an inner melancholy that was at odds with the image he was trying to project.

Her first sight of Cal Ferguson had triggered emotions in her that she thought had been successfully repressed some time ago. His cat-like grace, which gave him the air of some dangerous jungle creature, and the way his hooded eyes had of looking right inside her, made her feel uncomfortable. She chose to interpret these feelings not as an attraction, but as a reaction to what she saw as his arrogance, and resolved to keep their relationship on a strictly professional basis.

Cal Ferguson sat in his chair, listening to the project director with only half his attention, and mixed feelings. His parting from Joe McCulloch had been the hardest thing he had ever had to do. The pair had enjoyed a last drunken night in Flagstaff, not that Cal could remember much of it. The next day, after losing his FBI tail, Cal had reported to Williams AFB, proudly wearing his uniform with the new insignia of a full colonel in the United States Air Force, a jump of three grades from his retirement rank of Captain.

Climbing into the rear seat of a USAF F-33 fighter (apparently, they were going to let him fly a spacecraft God knew where, but still would not allow him to pilot one of their jets), Cal had been delighted to find it was piloted by none other than Major Joe McCulloch. The flight to the Kennedy Space Center, almost two thousand miles, had taken only forty minutes, and neither of them had done much talking. When they landed, the two friends had sat quietly in the plane for a few minutes, watching the activity as the ground crew bustled around them, refueling the fighter for the return flight. Then Cal had climbed down to the baking tarmac, and looked up at his friend.

“I don’t have the words,” he said.

Joe nodded, then stood in the cockpit and snapped a salute. “Good luck, colonel,” he said. Cal returned the salute, grinned and shouldered his gear. Then he walked away among the many aircraft towards the administration buildings. His last sight of Joe, before the people from the Space Center had taken charge of him, was of the big Navajo standing in the cockpit, his hand raised in the traditional gesture of his people. Cal barely had time to return the farewell before he was whisked away.

A few days later, he had also met the other team members for the first time. He had liked Jonathan at once, and knew they would need his wonderful brain in the months to come. He had also taken a liking to Bill O’Rourke, and saw in the big, clowning engineer a capable ally, someone on whom he could rely if things got scratchy. He wasn’t quite Joe McCulloch, but he would do.

The fourth team member, however, was not so easily summed up. Cal, like Karen, had felt the electricity between them when they had first met. Like her, he had chosen to ignore it, but for different reasons. As the team leader, his responsibility was to all the team members, not to mention the mission itself, and he wasn’t about to complicate things by chasing after the first piece of skirt he saw.

Still, he thought, as he watched her covertly from the corner of his eye, she sure was something. He caught himself imagining how that red hair would look spread out on a pillow, and abruptly brought his attention back to the briefing, and Fiorelli.

“Final refueling arrangements are being made as we speak,” the project head was saying. “We are on schedule (he pronounced it Shed-yule, in the British way), and in synch with the countdown.” The Italian-English scientist paused for comment, and when there was none, said, “Colonel Ferguson, do you have any questions at this stage?”

Cal shook his head. “I don’t believe so, Doctor.”

Fiorelli nodded, and began to outline the procedures they would follow during the countdown, leading up to the launch. At the rear of the room, Bill O’Rourke sprawled in his chair, deep in thought. He was wondering, for the first time, whether or not he might just have made a mistake. Perhaps he had been a little hasty in joining, so readily, what was beginning to look like a crackpot scheme. The only consolation was the company; well, one in particular, he thought. While he had also liked Jonathan immediately, and had seen in Cal a man on whom he could rely, he eyed Karen Purdy surreptitiously as the briefing droned on. He had not so much as looked at another woman since Kathy’s death, but he was beginning to feel the first stirrings of renewed interest. Maybe I’ll stick around for a while, he thought. Nobody was going to say that Wild Bill O’Rourke was a quitter. Still….

Professor Jonathan Edge sat quietly in his wheelchair, a slight smile on his face. His feelings about the mission had not changed; if anything, they had been growing stronger and more certain by the day. The prospect thrilled him, and he was eager for them to be on their way. To discover great scientific truths, and to serve his god, no sacrifice would be too great.

At Fiorelli’s inquiry, Bill sat a little straighter in his chair. “Well, I’ve got a question,” he said. “I don’t know about you others, but I for one haven’t heard anyone adequately explain just what they think is going to happen if we do reach light speed.”

Samuel Travis spoke for the first time, his tone condescending and superior. “I realize this might be a little difficult for a non-scientist to grasp, Doctor O’Rourke, so I’ll try to explain it as simply as I can.” He managed, by a slight emphasis on Bill’s title, to make the engineer’s field of expertise sound trivial and somehow inferior. Charles Redfern could have told Travis just how close he was to real danger, but the Australian was oblivious in his arrogance.

Cal watched the exchange with interest, and admired O’Rourke for his restraint. He also saw the engineer’s almost imperceptible reaction, as the normally sparkling blue eyes went as cold as twin gun barrels. Cal reaffirmed his earlier judgment that this was a man he wanted on his side.

The Australian, meanwhile, was still talking, postulating his theory that, in the unlikely event that they should reach the speed of light, they would then find themselves projected many years into the future. From his wheelchair, Jonathan spoke quietly. “There is a reasonable weight of opinion, Doctor Travis, which says that there is an almost equal chance that we may travel the other way in time, into the past.”

Travis dismissed Jonathan’s comment with a disdainful wave of his hand. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in those theories if I were you, Professor. It’s a very new idea, and one that doesn’t have too much of a following on this side of the Atlantic.”

Jonathan made no reply, but gave the Australian a very cool look until Travis looked away.

Fiorelli, seeing the tension his assistant’s manner was creating, took over the briefing again. “Of course,” he said diplomatically, “there is also every indication that neither of these possibilities will present itself. The most likely outcome is still that Einstein will be proved right, that the speed of light cannot be exceeded, or even reached.”

He glared at Travis, then said, “That about wraps it up, I think. We have just twelve hours until the shuttle lifts off to take you up to the Lightship Hermes, which is waiting in orbit. Once you leave earth orbit, you will travel outward from the sun, passing through the orbits of the various planets, the asteroid belt and so on…” He stopped as O’Rourke raised a hand.

“That’s something I’ve been meaning to ask,” Bill said. “Just how dangerous will that be, anyway? I mean, have you got all these rocks floating around that we’ve somehow got to navigate through, or what?”

Fiorelli smiled at Bill’s question. “No, no, Doctor O’Rourke. It isn’t like that at all. There’s so little chance that you will run into an asteroid, it’s negligible.”

Jonathan spoke up quietly again. “Perhaps you could explain just what we think the asteroid belt is, Doctor Fiorelli, and put all our minds at rest.”

“Well,” said the project head, “there are many theories, of course, but obviously no one knows for sure. It may be the remnants of a moon, perhaps from Mars. Although,” he reflected, “it would have to have been a rather large one, given the amount of material we have found to date. Some have also suggested, yourself among them, I believe, Jonathan, that it may be the remains of a tenth planet in our system, one that was somehow destroyed.

“Anyway, you will be quite safe. Your course has been very carefully plotted, and the mining ships will provide you with any course changes, should they be necessary, and give ample warning of any close, er, proximity. But I’m sure none of this will worry you. The asteroids are separated by vast distances, their positions are known, and we envision no problems.”

Bill sat back, mollified, and Cal watched as Travis failed to conceal a smirk at the engineer’s apparent trepidation. Watch it, pal, he thought, or O’Rourke’ll hand you your head.

Fiorelli rubbed his hands together briskly. “All right, then,” he said. “You will all need to be in the ready room in ten hours from now, but you may use the intervening time as you wish. Videophone facilities will be made available to those that require them. At no charge, of course,” he added.
They all smiled at this, and Bill said, “I’d like to see Ma Bell collect on that bill. Pity there’s no one I want to call.”

Silence greeted this remark, as they realized they all felt the same. They had all said their good-byes, and there was no one in the entire world that any of them wished to speak to on this, their last night on earth, perhaps forever.

Bill stood and stretched. “Well, as for me, I’m going to find the local watering hole and have a few brews for the road, pilgrims,” he said. He headed out of the room and, passed close to Travis. With his remarkable talent for mimicry, he said, in a very real Jack Nicholson voice, “I’ll see you on the outside, know what I mean?” As the Australian blanched, Bill winked at the others and left the room.
Cal smothered a grin, and said, “I believe I’ll do the same.”

Karen said she was going to bed, and said, “What about you, Jonathan? What are you going to do on this last night?”

Jonathan looked up at her from his chair, and smiled. “Why, I believe I’ll take a spin around the complex, and look at the stars.” He glanced at Fiorelli. “If I won’t be in the way, of course.”
The project head smiled. “That’s all right, Jonathan. There’s nothing you can’t see. You and the others have got better clearance than the President. Just remember, the ready room in - ” he glanced at his watch – “nine hours and forty-eight minutes.”

Jonathan engaged the throttle on his wheelchair and swept silently out of the room, while Cal and Karen gathered up their notes and followed him. Each of the team members wanted to be alone on this night; whether they were having second thoughts, or were looking ahead, they each needed this time of solitude.

***


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