Preparations were complete...
"You okay, Rich?" The tone of his voice spoke volumes more than the simple words.
"On the beam and in the green, Marc." Seaton looked at him from the other acceleration couch, duplicate bank of controls mirroring Marc's own. At DuQuesne's glance, he nodded. "Dot and I talked it out the last few days. She wasn't happy, but she's accepted we have to do this, and supports me. Don't worry. I'll pull my weight."
"And more. Sorry to have asked –"
"Don't be. We're about to launch the most powerful ship ever built, and we're not sure – by those legendary ninety-seven rows of little green apple trees – exactly how it's all going to work. We might blow up halfway to the moon, or our navigation go all screwy, or any of 'leventy-dozen other things, and the last thing you – or I – need is for my head to be spinning 'round because I'm worried about something else." He grinned. "I think it helped that the Commodore and you gave her what she wanted, though."
DuQuesne grinned back and flipped the first set of switches. Lights began to glow across both boards, starting at amber and then, as all the tubes and other elements warmed to full power, to bright green. "Well, she was right; bad luck to set out in a ship with no name."
"So I've heard." Seaton activated the radio. "Launch Control, this is XSS-1 Skylark preparing for launch."
The rough voice of Kinnison responded instantly. "XSS-1, this is Launch Control. All systems clear on this end. Launch area has been evacuated. You are cleared for takeoff."
"Understood, Launch Control." He clicked off the radio, activated the remaining banks of controls; one flickered yellow on both boards for several seconds, drawing lowered brows from DuQuesne before finally shifting to green.
"Hmph," DuQuesne grunted. "Probably one of the krytrons is getting touchy. It'll do for the start, but I'll want to go down to the main power section after we reach our first destination."
"Makes sense. We've got spares of just about everything on board, and those things we've got two or three." Seaton keyed up the mike again. "Launch Control, XSS-1 Skylark, both boards, all green. Launch in… thirty seconds."
"Thirty seconds, aye."
"You taking the launch, or am I?" DuQuesne asked.
Seaton pulled out a quarter. "Call it." He flipped the shining silver coin into the air.
The coin hit Seaton's hand, he slapped it down on his hand and took his hand away. A small cascade of quarters poured off his hand. "Looks like heads AND tails."
"Showoff!" Despite himself, DuQuesne was laughing. "Damn, you're good. I couldn't catch you doing that. Now I do the flip." He suited action to words, with Seaton calling tails this time. "Heads. Sorry, Rich, I get first dibs on the stick."
"Fine, I'll just sit back and relax."
"XSS-1, ten seconds."
"XSS-1, aye. Counting down final seconds. Five. Four. Three." Marc DuQuesne felt his pulse racing. I'm about to launch the first true spaceship the human race has ever built! "Two seconds. One." He gripped the main drive control. "Launch."
He clicked the Skylark's main power up one notch.
Slowly, majestically, the huge globe of the Skylark rose from its cradle, the driving force of disintegrating copper negating – even on its lowest setting – the thousands of tons of weight, the constant and implacable pull of the Earth's gravity. By God, it's working!
There were no blazing flames, no thundering jets, no cataclysmic roar of a rocket venting energy in wasteful and ultimately futile drive to break the shackles of the mother world; the Skylark merely floated upward, a balloon of armor-plate and polished quartz and gold-copper plating rising, now lunging upward as DuQuesne added a second notch of power.
"XSS-1 Skylark, we have liftoff at 12:00 PM, July 4th, 2476," came the triumphant voice of Commodore Kinnison. "Our ranging transponder is active, verify your own."
"Launch Control, we have liftoff. Ranging transponder… shows fully active." The matched transponders verified communications between Earth and the Skylark to the limit of their range. Only when the transponder connections went dead was Skylark cleared to perform any of its more secure system tests. At that point – everyone hoped – there wouldn't be any chance of the more … difficult factions on Earth getting a look at what they were really testing. The launch itself might, or might not, go unnoticed. Security had been as tight as possible, of course, and Skylark while huge didn't set off a flare as bright as the sun during launch… but there were still a hundred possible ways the Skylark might be noticed, and even tracked.
However, without another Skylark – a ship with X-plated copper bars of a precise shape, carefully-designed sub-etheric resonator controls, and other key elements – the best anyone on Earth could do would be to watch from afar.
"Altitude five miles," Seaton said, watching the altimeter. "Congratulations, Blackie – we've … just passed Everest. And the air's getting very thin."
"About to get thinner. She's responding fine, I'm going to open her up a bit." He clicked a third, then a fourth notch, feeling acceleration starting to press them back just a hair.
Gathering speed with every second, Skylark annihilated the miles of thinning atmosphere and vaulted into the velvet blackness of space.
"They did it. By God, by God they DID it!" Kinnison let out a whoop, not caring who else heard him or saw the undignified leap he made into the air as radar showed the Skylark continuing to accelerate in nearly a straight line away from Earth. "And they're picking up the pace."
"Accelerating at… Holy –" the radarman gave vent to a sulphurous oath that gained him a reproving glare. "Sorry, sir, but… they're going at over 20 G's! No one can survive that!"
Kinnison chuckled. "Son, you're probably right – but they're accelerating with the ship, in a way nothing else can. I don't understand the math, you understand, but Seaton and DuQuesne realized from that initial accident that something … funny was going on. That chemical bath setup wasn't made to take multi-G accelerations, yet it hadn't torn itself apart – it just stepped out, flying straight into space. Somehow the acceleration was being applied to the entire object, not just the copper wires. It's not a hundred percent efficient, and the design considerations were… well, I heard even worse language from our resident geniuses while they were working it out.
"But the long and the short of it is that they're probably not feeling a full G of acceleration yet." Kinnison shook his head in admiration and half-disbelief. "They haven't even started to open her up."
"At this rate, sir, they’ll reach transponder limit in… a few hours. Ten at the outside."
"I'm going to get some lunch. Call me if anything important happens." Kinnison breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't slept much the previous night, and his gut had been too tense for eating much. With the launch successful, he could finally let that knot relax. "Whoops. Almost forgot an important diplomatic call." He picked up the phone at his command station. "Greenhall 212, please."
The phone on the other end managed possibly one-quarter of a ring before it was snatched up. "Hello?"
"Miss Vaneman, it's Commodore Kinnison."
She knew the protocol, but her tension was almost audible. "How nice of you to call, Commodore. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I just wanted to let you know that Dr. Seaton will be on some off-base research work for the next few weeks. I know this will be inconvenient for you, but rest assured that he's doing fine and we shall relay any messages he sends that aren't controlled by security considerations."
"I… appreciate the call, Commodore," she said, with relief palpable in her voice. "I'll miss him terribly, but I know he's doing some important work for you."
"Very important, and I wouldn't send him away without reason. Have a good day, Miss Vaneman."
"And you too, Commodore."
He hung up and then headed for the mess. Good woman, that. Anyone listening in on the communications would think that they'd sent Seaton and DuQuesne off to one of the remote island bases for testing – and, indeed, at the same time as the Skylark launch, anyone observing movements of base personnel carefully would have clearly seen Seaton and DuQuesne boarding a military jet whose course would take it to some far Pacific islands perfect for remote testing. Dorothy Vaneman had carried off her little part in this play; hopefully they were still secure.
After the first leisurely meal he'd had in weeks, Roderick Kinnison made his way back to Launch Control. "Update?"
"They went to an even higher acceleration before they got out of decent radar range. If they maintain the pattern, they could be out of range … very soon."
Millions of miles in an hour or two. God, this will change everything. "Transponder?"
"Showing signal dropping."
He nodded and settled back to wait. Once that signal ended, the Skylark would be free to "do her thing" in any way the two scientists felt most appropriate.
The phone rang. He picked it up. "Kinnison."
"Commodore? This is Bryson."
"Dr. Bryson! The launch went off without a hitch. You don't need to worry." Bryson was at a separate, even more secret, facility, where crucial materials had been duplicated just in case of disaster.
"I'm sure it did, but that wasn't what I was calling for."
The concern in Bryson's voice brought all the waiting tension back with a vengeance. "What is it, Doctor?"
"We were working on some more plating tests – on very small items, you understand, given the strict limits we have on X at the moment. The experiments the past week or so have been having difficulties – unexpectedly thin or incomplete coatings – but we have been dealing with new substances and unprecedented sizes. However, those were not the problem."
"The solution of X we have on site, sir. It was one-quarter of the original concentrated solution Seaton isolated, at a concentration – in layman's terms – of roughly ten percent X. Having eliminated the obvious problems, I ended up starting at the beginning again with the base solution – from which we usually take a few milliliters and dilute 10:1 to get a 1% solution for plating.
"Commodore, the main vial is at a concentration of two point five percent."
Kinnison froze. "Doctor… are you saying that X is… unstable? That it's breaking down?"
"What? No, no, nothing of the sort, sir. I am afraid that, upsetting and dangerous as that would be, the truth is much worse. The only way I can think of that this could have happened would be that someone removed three-quarters of the solution and replaced it with an appropriately colored liquid so that the solution appeared to be the same, but was missing three-quarters of the original X."
"Dear Lord. Then that means –"
"That someone not only knew about the project, but has now obtained the key ingredient we believed they lacked. Yes."
Without even taking the time for a proper good-bye, Kinnison slammed the phone into the cradle and leapt to the radar operator's desk. "Get me the Skylark – at once!"
"Sir, they're millions of miles away. They won't hear anything you say for … a few minutes, anyway." Despite the words, the operator was setting the transmitter, locking it to the active transponder frequency.
"Seaton! DuQuesne! Someone –"
The transponder light flickered and went out. Kinnison stared at it, realizing that the simple darkening of a light had just cut the last chance he had to warn his friends that they might not be alone at all.
And at that moment, there was a doomsday roar and Launch Control seemed to leap up and smash into him.
DuQuesne was finishing up his dinner, and contemplating whether he should have a dessert, when the loudspeaker abruptly crackled to life. "Seaton!" the urgent voice of Commodore Roderick K. Kinnison blared out, so hashed with static that it was almost unrecognizable. Even so, the sudden sound jolted Seaton awake – he'd been napping in his acceleration couch. "DuQuesne! Someone –"
The loudspeaker went dead; DuQuesne and Seaton both glanced to the board, just in time to catch the last trace of light fade from the transponder link indicator. Whatever Kinnison wanted to tell them, it was too late.
A red light suddenly blazed out, and what had been a gentle caress of perhaps a third of a gravity transformed in an instant to a bonecrushing force ten times and more greater, and climbing. DuQuesne was slammed back into his couch sideways from where he had been sitting, and it was pure instinct that allowed him to desperately yank his legs – feeling as though they were covered in leaden weights the size of anchors – over the edge and onto the couch. The resilient fabric gave way, let him slide to the proper recumbent position, but the initial impact had sent a red haze of pain screaming through his body. "What the … blue… bloody… blazes…!?"
"Krytron…?" Seaton gasped. "Same… system…"
The pressure was over five G's, and mounting. DuQuesne felt like a dozen sandbags had dropped onto his chest. "No… that one failing… cut off power." Though the vicious acceleration was interfering, his mind still riffled through the designs with precision. No. "Not… accidental. Can't be. No… design failure… would make runaway drive."
He could see, from Seaton's face – distorted by the pressure of nearly 8 G's – that his friend had reached that conclusion at the same time. "S.. sabotage."
The two men tried to override, to shut down the systems. But the obvious controls did not respond, and as they tried to force both brain and body to obey, the effort to reach a control a mere inch or two farther away became an impossible task, a feat of will and strength beyond anything human. DuQuesne made a last, valiant effort and saw his fingers brush the target button… and slide back. A red-black haze rose, clouding his vision, darker, darker… Black!
Travelling ever faster with each passing second, the Skylark screamed outward, its two crew as still as corpses … perhaps corpses already, in fact, a ghostly crew on a phantom mission.
Well OUCH! That's a surprise. So who was behind it?
Oh, come ON, at least give me a name.
Very well. (pause)
Ohhhh, now, that's clever. I wouldn't have thought of that directly. And with that, I can see something about where you're probably going.
I bet you do; you're nearly as clever as I am.
Nearly as SMART, but probably more clever.
I yield the point.
Okay, I'll stop distracting you. I can hardly wait now!