Chapter 19: Sand in the Hourglass
Professor Bran Hawthorn silently cursed the delay caused by Building Security. He rubbed at his eyes, tiredly, waiting for the beep that meant he was allowed to enter the building. For the umpteenth time, he questioned his decision to take a sabbatical from Rice University to work in the Albuquerque labs. However, Kim said she needed him. Bran hadn’t been able to deny his niece anything since the day she was born. He snorted derisively at himself.
“Beep,” the small speaker announced, signaling that Bran was allowed to enter the security station.
“There must be a better way!” Alexander, Bran’s Companion complained, continuing an earlier conversation.
Bran shook his head as he passed through the security station, hearing the door click behind him.
“There should be,” Bran agreed with his Companion. “I can’t think of what it is, though,” he added in frustration. “The nanite upgrade should work. Every test I’ve done says it should work, yet when applied to a culture with a stripped-down human genome, it locks everything down!”
“Ed and Alice are here,” Alexander announced, identifying the Companions of Ryan and Kim.
“What are they doing here so early? It isn’t even five in the morning, yet,” Bran grumbled.
“Probably the same thing you are,” Alexander observed. “Trying to figure out why something that should work, doesn’t!”
“I hope they don’t do anything silly, like try it on themselves,” Bran worried.
“Like you weren’t considering it a time or two?” Alexander scoffed.
“Only as a last resort,” Bran objected, defending his thoughts. “We’ve passed the minimum time it would take for the aliens to arrive, according to Al,” he pointed out reasonably.
“Riiight,” the Companion mocked, including the mental equivalent of a raspberry. “That’s the perfect reason to risk your life and the best chance mankind has to get this project off the ground!”
Bran decided he wasn’t going to win this argument, so he held his peace, and entered the assembly bay. The actual lab was a few doors down in the hallway, and he didn’t need to go through the bay to reach it. Bran just wanted to see the construct again. The construct wasn’t the finished product, but it was the final step before the finished product.
This was to be their first space fighter, if they could figure out how to finish it. Sometimes, visualization helped in reaching a goal.
Bran glanced at the large, square, shadowy shapes against the wall. The large 3D printers were silent and dark, but when activated, they could produce a new space fighter every twenty-four hours.
The assembled black framework in the center of the bay looked ominous in the shadows. It was indirectly illuminated by the emergency lighting used overnight in the huge bay. The skeletal shape resembled an attacking bird of prey just before it struck.
Despite the fighter’s deadly look, it looked curiously unfinished. Major portions of the superstructure were bare, as were most of the control surfaces. The exposed superstructure resembled the gossamer strands of a spider’s web more than the sturdy fuselage of an aircraft. Anyone that expected the delicate weave to be fragile would be very mistaken. The strands were strong, but they were primarily designed to be signal paths to simplify the pilot’s control in flight.
Theoretically, the fighter would be finished with the augmented armor of a Companion pair. The craft would change shape at the pilot’s direction. The gossamer strands comprising the superstructure converged on the pilots seat, seeming protective in the dim light. The other internal components such as power modules, on board A.I., and electronics were cradled in the strands throughout the craft.
Bran’s mind wandered back, thinking of how they had reached this point in the project.
Planes, like boats, are a balance of compromise. A plane designed to fly in and out of atmosphere requires even more compromise. Engineers designing aircraft to land and take off from aircraft carriers faced the same challenges. Their creations needed to fly slowly enough to land or take off from a slow, floating landing field that moved with every heave of the ocean. At the same time, the aircraft needed to fly fast enough to challenge land-based jets that had thirteen thousand feet of runway to get in the air. The engineers’ solution was adjustable control surfaces: wings that changed attitude. Teams of engineers had tried the same approach for their space fighter, but the compromises required were too radical.
Kim, Ryan, and Bran put their heads together in an attempt to solve the problem. None of them believed their solution could be found in traditional engineering.
Most students at all levels of expertise asked ‘why?’ Ryan was more apt to ask, ‘why not, ‘ and then to continue working to find out. He never quit!
Kim was very good at ‘thinking outside the box.’ She was an expert at melding ideas from multiple disciplines into unlikely solutions that worked beyond expectations.
As for Bran, the leader of their little cabal ... he didn’t just think outside the box. He had misplaced the box in his youth, and had never bothered to look for it!
Their solution relied on designing the most basic of superstructures with all the requirements for flight and fight, in or out of atmosphere. Bran and Ryan, with the help of their Companions, had worked out the general idea months before. The superstructure only needed to physically support the subsystems: environmental, propulsion, electronic warfare (EW), and weapons. Some of the initial ideas didn’t work, but they had found other ways around the sticking points.
Al’s knowledge provided many of the solutions to the myriad issues that needed to be overcome, though he did insist that all assistance would be applied to the existing human knowledge base. The alien had experienced firsthand, how new technologies could have catastrophic consequences for a civilization. He certainly didn’t want to take chances with humanity’s civilization. He often felt like he was walking a tightrope!
Power was a key issue. Al’s solution was to advance the state-of-the-art for capacitors by several generations. There wasn’t anything that he helped design that wasn’t within easy reach of human scientists. A nudge to a materials scientist provided low-cost, low-weight, nano-scale, high-energy-potential ceramics. A nudge on manufacturing techniques produced high-energy capacitors that could charge and discharge in micro-seconds. Bundled correctly, they out performed batteries by orders of magnitude in weight-to-power ratios. Their space-plane would be powered by large racks of capacitors. The racks were designed to be replaced with charged racks in less than five minutes. The discharged racks could be recharged within fifteen minutes, using a space-based solar charging station. A space-plane could last for days in space, on one capacitor set. In battle, with a fully charged capacitor set, there would be enough power to fire four rail guns while maneuvering, for an hour, plus allow four hours of regular flight and environmental control.
The same nano-scaled capacitors, arranged in a neural network, created a flight computer that was a blend of a hardwired computer, and an artificial intelligence. Al had suggested a rudimentary quantum element in the logic circuits and in their communication circuits for security, and to enhance computation speed. Another suggestion from Al left the computer incomplete. It would be completed after they resolved the nanobot issues that would meld the human/Companion pair with the craft. Earth’s Prime Companion wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give more details for the suggestion. His only comment was, “Blending interactive systems is often advantageous. We’ll just have to wait to see how this works.”
Rail guns were selected for offensive weapons, primarily because of their lower power requirements. The next generation of space-plane would be designed with fusion power and lasers. Fusion had been planned for the initial design, but several supporting technologies needed to be boosted to successfully take that step. Al had determined that fusion would take more than a nudge to rapidly develop and utilize.
The rail guns weren’t bad offensive weapons. Each gun could fire ten rounds per minute, a round every six seconds, with each round traveling at over 5000 miles per hour. Al had assured them the projectiles were enough to damage the aliens’ ship, if it was necessary.
The issue of rearming and repowering the space-planes, without returning to earth, was resolved by planning resupply caches in orbit. The AI that assisted in managing the craft would be given the locations of the resupply points.
Propulsion was the greatest challenge. Space-going propulsion technology, devised by humans, included chemical jets, ion jets, and solar sails. None of them were sufficient for what was needed to meet the aliens, and Al refused to instigate new technologies. Ryan provided the clue for a way forward. Ed, Ryan’s Companion, had related the events.
Ryan absently browsed the internet, while taking a break from working on the propulsion problem. Allowing his mind to ‘free-wheel’ when stuck on a problem had solved more than one problem for Ryan ... in college and since. Ed was fascinated when Ryan’s mind went into this mode of operation, and was always careful about interrupting. Ed called it ‘genius in process.’
Ryan’s all time hero was Nicola Tesla, and his mind drifted back to when he had discovered the ideas of the astounding inventor. His fingers mindlessly sent out searches, and he just as mindlessly browsed the results, satisfying an idle curiosity that had flitted across his mind. He remembered his fascination with Tesla, as a teenager, and being amazed at the inventor’s patents. They were far ahead of their time.
Ryan selected his favorite on-line encyclopedia, and absently scrolled down. He knew much of the information displayed, but his attention still snagged on a few facts. Tesla had at least two hundred and seventy-eight patents in twenty-six countries. Ryan began browsing the patents, and the summaries of Tesla’s public papers. His curiosity deepened. The article reported between twenty-five and thirty patents were missing, along with several papers written by Tesla. Ryan found references to papers presented, but those papers were nowhere to be found. One of the missing papers was titled, ‘The Dynamic Theory of Gravity, ‘ presented in 1928. That was about the same time Tesla filed a patent for an odd looking aircraft shaped like a saucer. Ryan’s curiosity suddenly turned into full-blown need-to-know!
Ryan discovered why the patents were missing after he sent an inquiry to the Library of Congress. Many of Tesla’s patents and papers were still classified Top Secret, and were being stored in government archives for reasons of national security. A brief word from the President, and all of Tesla’s works were made available to Al, via Caleb.
The Prime Companion was skeptical at first, and was vociferous about ‘wasting his time on ninety year old ideas.’ Caleb could no longer threaten to deposit Al into a mangy dog, because they were locked together. He found other ways of twisting the Companion’s arm, so to speak.
“I’m going to buy ‘The Greatest Hits of Disco, ‘ and play it until you cooperate,” Caleb warned. “Why don’t you save us both some pain, and just focus on the damn articles with me?”
Caleb was less than a quarter of the way through the classified patents when Al blurted, “I can work with this!” Al gave the mental impression of someone rubbing their hands together in excitement.
Their space-fighter was going to have a gravity drives!
Even with gravity drives, escaping from earth’s gravity well would be a challenge. It was solved by taking a lesson from launch catapults on aircraft carriers.
A five mile superconducting rail was built in the mountains south of Albuquerque, on the Mescalero Indian Reservation. The launch site was a long, flat valley curving up at one end towards the Sierra Blanca Peak. The rail was a modified rail-gun that would shoot the craft towards space.
Now all they needed were nanites for the aircraft, and to make them work with a human/Companion pair. So far, every effort on that front had been futile. Al didn’t know what the answers, either.
Bran shook his head in frustration as he turned away from the construct.
“I wish Caleb and Al were here,” Bran mentally grumbled. “Maybe they could see something that we can’t.”