Our friends had made a few discoveries...
"Good Lord, Richard, it's huge!" Dorothy Vaneman looked with awe up at the immense battleship-gray hull that curved up and away into the sky, seeming to lean out over them ready to fall over at any minute. "I thought this was supposed to be a test vehicle, a little thing!"
"Well, Miss Vaneman, neither of us are particularly small, so the ship's got to fit our needs," DuQuesne said with a smile.
"I suppose you have a point, Dr. DuQuesne – and didn't I tell you to call me Dot or Dorothy?"
"Sorry. I tend to be formal, especially here at work."
"She does look pretty big from here, I have to admit that, Dot my love, but she's actually not much bigger than she absolutely has to be. You see, we're not just testing one thing, but about 'leventy-dozen different things all in one. Most of 'em have been tested some in the lab, but there's nothing like a real field test. And some of these things, believe you me, you don't want field-tested anywhere near anything you want kept intact."
Dorothy nodded. "I remember you describing what could happen if you liberated the energy of just a small amount of copper the wrong way. Terrifying! But still…"
DuQuesne chuckled. "You know, Dorothy, I think we both still get fooled by that oh-poor-little-me routine. You're right, there's more to it than that. Kinnison –"
"That's Commodore Roderick K. Kinnison to you, Doctor DuQuesne." The rough voice held an amused tone that removed – slightly – the edge of the rebuke. "Getting ready to blab government secrets to the lady?"
"I'd hardly understand anything important even if they did, sir, and they're close-mouthed as anything off the base."
"And if I believe that wide-eyed innocent look, I should retire right now. You understand a lot of this pretty well, is my bet."
Dorothy flushed – something that with her complexion made her look prettier rather than, as with some unfortunates, merely blotchy or feverish – and shook her head. "Well, the principles – the very basic principles – maybe, but the numbers all go right over my head."
"Mmm-hm." Kinnison still looked skeptical. "In any case, you're right about the XSS-1 being a lot bigger than you might have expected. I'm guessing Seaton at least told you about the night I invited them all down here, and why?" At her nod, he continued, "Well, the wonder twins here," he grinned at the double wince, "have been cranking out potential miracles from their lab at breakneck pace ever since they've been here, and despite best efforts, we've got good reason to believe at least three different organizations have a whiff of what's going on. So any tests need to be done far enough away that no one – but no one! – can detect them. The last thing we need is a corporation like Steel or one of the nationalist groups getting enough of a hint to start building their own superweapons."
"Of course, that's only a problem if they can get some of this 'X', right?" Dorothy asked.
Seaton glanced at her. "You're hitting close to the mark there. It's not impossible to do it without any 'X', at least in theory, but in practice… I dunno. It's sure as heck a lot easier with 'X', and will stay that way until we've got a lot more experience with this sub-ether stuff."
DuQuesne nodded. "But that turns the problem around on us. So far the only 'X' we know of is what Rich got out of that one batch of refined ore. We're searching for more, but if we get too obvious about what we're looking for, it's going to be a flare-lit tip-off that there's something big to be found there. And our best guess right now is that the X metal came in on a meteor; that's why we haven't found a trace of it in other platinum or gold deposits so far. So –"
"—One thing we plan on doing is a little search for heavy-metal meteors or something of that sort that may contain X."
Dorothy's eyes narrowed. "Just how long is this trip supposed to last, Richard Seaton?"
Oh boy, she's caught him now.
"Don't 'well' me."
"The mission is currently listed as 'indefinite duration'," Kinnison said, breaking into the confrontation. "Which means, practically speaking, that we expect it will last a week or two, but could be a couple of months."
"A couple of –"
Seaton took her gently by the shoulders, with a glance at the others. DuQuesne nodded and withdrew, Commodore Kinnison following, as Seaton began, "Full stop, gorgeous. I know this isn't a bed of roses, but…"
Kinnison glanced over – and slightly up – at DuQuesne as they walked. "Noticed you don't have lady visitors."
DuQuesne raised an eyebrow. "Any of your business?"
The uniformed shoulders shrugged. "In a way, yes. Married men, or ones with serious relationships, tend to be more stable. On the other hand, unmarried ones can afford to risk more. Ones that have… other issues can be problem, if I – as the commanding officer – don't know about the issues."
"So this is your attempt at subtly asking if my preference runs in the other direction."
Kinnison's face reddened. On him, unfortunately, it was blotchy. "Well… I wouldn't have –"
"Skip it. No, I don't. I … Okay, you want my issue? I'm just not good about approaching people. And I have a lot more important things to worry about than learning how, at least at the moment. Plus… haven't met the right girl, really. Dorothy's a swell girl, and I'm glad Rich has found someone who's worth his time. But she's not quite my type – which is a good thing, I'd hate to either envy Rich or end up cutting in on him without even meaning to – and, well, I'm picky."
Kinnison smiled and lit a cigarette, drawing the smoke in slowly and sending a ring up against the rim of sky visible around the XSS-1. "Actually, that was about what I figured. I just had to make sure."
"You don't have a problem with –"
"Gays? Not a one. As long as they don't have a problem with it. We've come a long way, but there's still people that feel guilty for 'being that way', and others that think there's something inherently wrong. If I know what I'm dealing with, though, I can usually de-fuse it."
That made sense. DuQuesne knew he wasn't perfect there; his father Pierre had drilled his own beliefs of right, wrong, and natural into his son, and while DuQuesne had mostly managed to dig them out, the gut reactions could still ambush him at the wrong moment.
He looked back at Seaton and Dorothy Vaneman. It looked like they were talking rather than arguing, so – with luck – this wouldn't blow up in their faces. He knew Seaton wouldn't drop the project, but if Dorothy Vaneman was upset, Seaton's efficiency would go to just about one notch above absolute zero.
"Given everything you were talking about, sir," DuQuesne said finally, "we'd better launch soon."
"Sooner than you think. I was coming down to give you the directives." He put a long sealed envelope in DuQuesne's hand. "You are to launch the XSS-1 no later than seven days from now."
"Seven days? Great holy jumping –" DuQuesne turned and headed back at a run. "Rich! Dorothy! Sorry to break in, but," he grinned devilishly and saw Richard cringe, "I've got something to really get you going, Dorothy."
Oh, so in the next day or so we'll get the launch!
That is the projection.
Adversaries? I noticed you mentioned Steel. Any others?
Now, now, didn't you say you wanted to just watch the action unfold? Why ask for spoilers?
A snort. All right, I suppose you're correct. But if I don't miss my guess, something has to happen in their first voyage.
We shall see. I'm saying nothing.