Chapter 25: Racing the Clock

“What do you mean, there’s nothing you can do?” Caleb demanded angrily.

“Would you understand it better, if I said it slower?” Bran shot back in frustration. “There’s nothing we can do! We don’t know how to undo what your armor did, and we don’t know what will happen if you upgrade. There’s a very high probability that an upgrade would kill you! Your current armor has over-integrated into your biological functions! It isn’t supposed to do that, but your armor did it anyway. Based on your description of what happened, it probably saved your life in the process; but that doesn’t change the reality of the results!”

Caleb’s shoulders slumped, and he plaintively asked, “Do you at least know why my armor is doing things on its own?”

“I think your armor programming had ... umm ... something like an epiphany,” Kim hesitantly answered for Bran, while frowning at her tablet screen and stabbing it with impatient fingers. “I call the armor programming Artificial Intelligence, but it isn’t like you would normally think of a computer AI. Your armor intelligence is more like a hive mind. An individual nanite, in your armor, isn’t programmable to perform meaningful action. It is a cloud intelligence ... you know ... a hive mind. One of your generation of nanites can only hold eight bits of information. The mass of nanites that form your armor, working together, form a rudimentary AI function and can learn. I’m pretty sure your armor figured out that protecting you is more important than waiting for a command.”

“That isn’t reassuring!” Caleb snorted. “Our armor is a hive mind, and its learning to take action on its own! Oh, yeah, and we can’t disconnect from it! At least it isn’t as dangerous as aliens attacking Earth! They can kill everybody! Armor with a mind of its own would, theoretically, only kill the wearer!” he burst out in frustration. “Is there any other good news?” he asked sarcastically.

“We’re all just riding this horse the best we can!” Kim protested defensively. “What would you have changed, since you became Al’s host? I know that I wouldn’t have changed anything! There’s a lot of uncertainty in what we’re doing. My brother is going into space in a few days to fight aliens, for God’s sake! What I’m doing could make the difference between him surviving or not surviving. If the pilots don’t survive, it could cost my baby’s life! And I still wouldn’t change any decision I’ve made since I became Alice’s host!”

Her fingers had continued stabbing at the screen, her fingers angrily enunciating her words as her eyes brightened with unshed tears.

Caleb shot a startled look at Bran, before stepping over to Kim, saying, “I’m sorry, honey. I wasn’t blaming you. I’m just tired. I would make all the same decisions, too. I really am sorry! I was worrying about a glass half empty, when I should have been celebrating the glass being half full!”

He enfolded her in his arms and hugged her, whispering, “I’m sorry, Kim,” over and over. Caleb held her until her sobs diminished, then held her at arm’s length. He wiped tears from her cheek and said again, “I really am sorry, Kim.”

“I know,” Kim mumbled, wiping at her eyes. “It’s okay,” she said, stepping back, and resumed tapping on her screen at a more sedate pace.

“You keep referring to my armor, comparing it to the current generation. What does that mean?” Caleb asked, hoping to steer the conversation back into a more productive path, or at least a less awkward path.

“The current generation of armor is made up of nanobots consisting of nanite pairs,” Kim explained again, sounding relieved with the change of subject. She was still intently studying her screen of test results, and tapping her touch screen in annoyance every few moments. “The first version, when we lived in Texas, was nanobots consisting of individual nanites. Your current version is nanite pairs. We needed something more robust to be developed for a space based fighter. We tried to follow the example of how DNA is programmed.”

Kim grimaced at her screen before continuing, “The double helix format is beyond our capabilities; however, we figured out how to assemble a three-sided nanobot using existing nanites. An individual nanite forms each side, and the ends connect to form a triangle. Each side of the triangle is locked to the junction in the opposite angle by another nanite. Each exterior side and each locking member holds eight bits of information. The actual nanobot programming is on the locking members, providing five-hundred-twelve bits of information: eight cubed.”

Kim scowled at her screen, and tapped out a rapid sequence before nodding and continuing with, “There are five hundred twelve more bits of information available on the exposed sides that are modifiers to the programming of the locking members. That gives us 262,144 functions available for each nanobot. Multiply that by the trillions of nanobots that make up the Star Hawk, and you have a extremely serious data network. That’s why we need the quantum computer to work. It will work, now, but the traditional input and output circuits slow the response times of the armor, and requires the computer to be a separate component of the system. If I can reduce the input and output functions to the quantum level, the I/O can be programmed directly into the armor. The computer can become an integral part of the armor, instead of an external attachment. That’s when we’ll see the full capability of the Star Hawk.”

Kim looked up and met Caleb’s eyes before saying, “The difference in armor building blocks is why Uncle Bran is worried about you upgrading. Your armor has intruded into your biological functions more than it should be able to.”

She turned her tablet around so Caleb could see her screen, and what she had been working on. The image was a three-dimensional side view of two heads, each slowly turning on the screen. On one, blue lines encompassed the skull and brain. The lines cradled the brain in a double protective shell, and extended down the neck. Vague blue tendrils could be seen reaching into the structure of the brain. The second image showed the same blue lines as the first, but they permeated tissue throughout the brain.

“Caleb, every organ in your body is like that. All your major blood vessels, and most of the smaller vessels are lined with nanites. Your blood is even measurably thicker, due to the presence of nanites.” Kim eyed Caleb speculatively before asking, “Are you more tired than usual?”

“Yeah,” Caleb answered guardedly. “That’s to be expected, after the last few months.”

“It is to be expected with the additional nanites your system is producing,” Kim corrected him. “It takes energy to power nanites, and your body has gone over the threshold of how many it can handle without external power. That’s another reason we need to figure out what happened to you, and undo it. Your body can’t sustain the level of energy needed to support your current armor. An upgrade would dramatically increase the strain on your body. We don’t know what it would do to you and Al, in your present condition,” Kim reiterated, gesturing towards the images. “You’re a pain in the neck, sometime,” she added gruffly, “But we’re still not ready to risk losing you.”

“They won’t let us kids upgrade, either,” Noah commiserated with his dad from the corner. Noah and Mike were working on a jigsaw puzzle, with all the pieces face down on the table. The puzzle looked like it was half finished.

“Uncle Bran locked us out of the armor area, too,” Mike complained, sounding wronged as only a six-year-old could.

The boys had stayed with Kim and Ryan the night before. Kim had tried to delicately explain why Noah couldn’t stay with his parents. The boys had a giggle fit before Noah reassured his half-sister that he understood.

“I locked you kids out because you have a bad habit of upgrading your own armor,” Bran groused, giving Mike the evil eye. “This upgrade is too different and too dangerous. I don’t want you kids hurt!”

“Uncle Bran, we’re not stupid!” Noah answered for his younger nephew.

Bran shook his head in frustration, before turning to Caleb.

“Not being able to upgrade you now doesn’t mean we can’t design a solution, my boy,” Bran reassured Caleb, while patting his shoulder. “It’s a matter of priorities. Do we spend time working on enabling you to upgrade, or do we spend time on all the other things that need to happen before the aliens arrive?”

Caleb sighed, looking down at his hands, considering. He knew they were right. He wasn’t used to sitting on the sidelines, but he didn’t think that was what bothered him. He felt like he and Al NEEDED to meet the aliens! On the other hand, Bran was right, too. The squadron needed to be in space and functional before the aliens arrived.

Finally he nodded and said, “Okay! You’re right! We do need to focus on the priorities.” His shoulders straightened when he continued with, “I’ll work on the fusion problem with Ryan, but I want to be there for the armor upgrades. I want to understand what is happening, first hand. Al may spot something that can help with my upgrade. I want to be part of the meld during the pilot debriefs, too. You said that I tend to ask the right questions. If that is so, I can do that better if I understand what’s going on.”

“That’s fine,” Bran nodded, obviously relieved Caleb had agreed so easily.

“We’ll figure it out,” Kim reassured Caleb with a one-armed hug.

“I know,” Caleb agreed with a forced chuckle, while returning the hug. “Let’s get started. We have work to do!”

He wished the nagging worry about humanity’s first meeting with aliens would go away!

The program was three days behind schedule when they were finally able to schedule the first armor upgrade. Their meld had revealed some needed tweaks to their formulas, and processes, tweaks that would make the armor more efficient. The modifications also gave them more control of the upgrade implementation. They were significant enough to warrant the extra time.

The new nanobots could implement the radical change, from strands to triangles, and quickly complete the process. However, the rapid change could be extremely painful to the host. The meld had found a way to slow the upgrade process, hopefully mitigating host discomfort.

The person upgrading would be placed on a medical IV for a short period of time: less than thirty minutes. A catalyst added to the saline drip would begin the conversion process on a small scale. That process would gradually cascade as more and more nanites were converted to the nanobots. Another bag of saline would be added to the IV with the actual armor upgrade when the initial stage was judged complete. Theoretically, the armor upgrade should be completed and ready to accept one of Kim’s computers within an hour.

“I’m ready, Doc,” Commander Murphy told JJ with a nervous grin from the doorway.

JJ, Caleb, Kim, and Bran were sitting at a table to one side of the room. Each had a laptop in front of them and they were intently focused on their tasks.

Ryan wanted to be there for the upgrade, but he was overseeing the redesigned Star Hawk airframe print. The existing airframes could be used for training, but the new metal would include embedded sensors and controls that would allow the airframe to change shape, similar to the armor but with a restricted range of movement.

“Good morning, Ed,” Caleb greeted the Commander. “Are you ready to be super-sized?” he asked, repeating the joke the flight cadets had started about the armor upgrade.

“I’ll super-size you,” Commander Murphy grouched back good naturedly, appreciating the flash of humor to break his tension.

A first test flight in a newly designed aircraft was nerve-wracking, but the pilot still had some control of the outcome. This time, his control ended when that needle went in his arm. All he could do was hang on for the ride. The only reason he was going through with it was the overwhelming need to use the armor ... and someone had to be first.

“Ignore the funny-man, Ed,” JJ advised, with a faux scowl at Caleb. “Did you bring something to read? The chair reclines, so you can doze through the process, if you want.”

Commander Murphy raised his own laptop, saying, “I have work to do, Doc. I’m working on the macros Kim asked for, defining all the different functions of the armor in flight.”

“Better you than me!” JJ answered with a shudder, while ushering Ed to his seat. “Based on the synopsis of that project, every answer creates two or more questions! Get set up for your work while I unwrap everything I need.”

“I’ll have some down time, after I get this fusion simulation running,” Caleb informed the Commander. “Would you like some help with the macros?”

The simulation wouldn’t actually run on his laptop. His laptop was connected to a powerful server array, the same as the other laptops.

“Sure!” Ed replied. “It’s like learning a new programming language, but it isn’t too hard, as long as you can visualize what the nanobots are doing when the macro runs. Once you’ve got that down, it’s kind of like playing a video game.”

“You boys can play after I get this started,” JJ scolded, setting her work tray beside Ed. Moments later, she was ready to insert the needle. IV bags were hanging on stands beside the chair.

“A slight pinch,” JJ advised in a murmur before inserting the needle. Once it was in, and the feed line taped down, she asked, “Are you okay?”

“I hardly felt it,” Ed assured her. “You can stick needles in me any time you want.”

“The next time I’ll do it from thirty paces,” JJ promised in an attempt to keep him relaxed and smiling. “I’m going to start the catalyst,” she stated. “Let me know anytime you feel discomfort. I’ll also be checking at timed intervals for discomfort, for the record. Please use the one to ten pain chart: one being no pain and ten being unbearable pain. I can slow the drip, to make the upgrade progression slower, if it begins to hurt.”

“Sounds good to me, Doc,” Ed replied jovially. The tension around his eyes and his other hand gripping the chair arm belied his attempt at nonchalance.

JJ opened the line from the first IV bottle, and carefully studied the drip through the control. She made an adjustment, and nodded her head in satisfaction.

“How do you feel?” she asked after the catalyst had time to begin reacting inside the Commander.

“Fine,” he answered. “Maybe a little warm around the needle site, but that’s all. Nothing bad,” he said, relaxing a little in relief.

“Forget that,” Caleb said, waving dismissal to the whole IV thing, as if it wasn’t important. “Tell me about these macros,” he ordered.

Commander Ed Murphy had a fully trained military mind, and immediately reacted to Caleb’s command tone. He looked thoughtful, considering his answer.

“The new armor has the same basic programming as our old armor,” the Commander answered. “Plus, it has basic flight parameters programmed into it. Theoretically, immediately after completing an upgrade, a host should be able to take a Star Hawk up with the existing programming. The thing is, we’re not just taking them up and back down. We needed a way to get more versatility from stable airfoil surfaces. The new armor has a normalized input and output, when docked with the rest of the fighter. We can use macros to allocate nanobots to specific additional tasks.”

“Like making the surface harder than the interior of the armor?” Caleb asked.

“Exactly,” Ed replied nodding. “Except with the old armor, that toughness was nanites aligning for a harder surface, and the quantity of nanites was low enough that the host/Companion pair could treat armor reactions like reflexes.”

“Yeah,” Caleb answered, nodding in understanding.

“It’s more difficult with the new armor, but the shell is a lot harder, too,” Ed continued.

“How do you feel?” JJ interrupted. “Are you feeling any pain?”

“Umm ... Not really,” Ed answered. “I feel warm, but that’s all.”

“Thanks,” JJ said, entering information into her laptop.

“Why would this armor be harder?” Caleb asked.

“The nanobots are triangles,” Ed stated, watching Caleb to make sure he understood. At his nod, Ed continued, “Connect three triangles together at the edges, and you have a tetrahedron, also known as a triangular pyramid. The surface of the armor is made up of these pyramids side by side, instead of a aligned layers. The resulting surface is stronger, with less resources used in terms of the number of nanobots available. It can also be more versatile. We just need to tell it how to help. Macros sort of let us upgrade on the fly. The armor can learn, too, but macros can add to what the armor learns. We have more control over what, how, and the speed at which the armor learns. The goal is getting to the point where the armor reacts reflexively, the same as our old armor.”

“Have any of the kids produced any macros, yet?” Caleb asked curiously.

Ed snorted a laugh, and said, “Why do you think I’m scrambling so much to stay ahead of them? My only edge is I know more about flying, so those are the macros I’m focusing on.”

“Do you mean the kids’ macros aren’t about flying? Why would they write macros for a jet that isn’t about flying?” Bran asked in confusion, looking up from his computer.

“They’ve written a bunch of them!” Ed assured them, “But one of the best extends operational efficiency. One of them wrote a macro to spread the armor and turn it into a huge solar array. We calculate the energy savings would nearly break even, if we’re just hanging in space. Extending operation efficiency is a big deal! We could even use it like a sail, but that would take a lot more programming. For now we’re satisfied with significantly extending our mission life. JJ’s boy came up with a winner, too. Standard programming ejects the cockpit with the life support, power, and a small drive to get to the nearest depot and safety, in an emergency. Most of the armor is left behind to save on power used. Blake wrote a macro to take all the armor with him, if the pilot ejects. In combat, a pilot ejecting can use all the armor as armor around the life support pod instead of creating a shell around the fighter. I don’t know of anything that could get through the layers of pyramid structured armor with life support in the center.”

“Won’t that reduce the available power to get to safety?” Caleb wondered aloud.

“Nope,” Ed replied with a chuckle. “Once formed, the armor doesn’t consume energy. It’s locked in place. After the danger passes, the armor can be redeployed as a solar array, and actually recharge the power of the module. Used as a sail, if we finish those macros, it will even minimize power requirements getting to safety. Blake thinks he can figure out a way to safely descend through the atmosphere in the escape module, too.”

Ed shook his head in amazement, saying, “These kids are brilliant! At first I thought they were undisciplined, but they aren’t. They’re curious, and their critical-path thinking isn’t satisfied with ‘good enough’. They want to wring every bit of mileage from every function. Also, if you tell them something, you had better be right, and know why you’re right. They are a challenge to lead,” he concluded with a grin.

“I’m ready to begin the second bag, now,” JJ informed Ed. “Are you still feeling okay?”

“I ... I don’t feel bad,” Ed replied hesitantly. “I just feel really hot, and hungry.”

JJ retrieved two protein drinks and a frozen band from a little fridge. She opened the first protein drink, handing it to him, and used Velcro to secure the cooling band around his neck.

“You’re hot because your existing nanites are combining to form the new nanobots,” JJ informed him. “The ‘Cool Band’ will help keep your brain temperature down. You’re hungry because your body is low on nanobots and is trying to reproduce them. Your body doesn’t have enough resources to reproduce what you need.”

She adjusted the second IV drip, before instructing, “Let me know if you feel any more discomfort.”

Ed’s face became tight. His eyes closed and his head dropped back to the chair’s headrest. His breathing became rapid and his jaw’s clenched. His back arched and he quietly groaned.

“Ed, what’s wrong?” JJ demanded.

The Commander held up one finger as his breathing slowed, and his back relaxed.

“J ... Just a minute,” he groaned, trying to rein in his body.

JJ changed a menu on the machines connected to Ed, and his pulse rate and blood pressure was displayed.

“Pain at first,” Ed gasped, “But it tapered off pretty quick.”

“Where was the pain?” JJ demanded.

“All over ... Everywhere,” he responded. “Better now.”

“Does it still hurt?” she asked.

“Hurts like, when your arm goes to sleep. Blood starts flowing back into it. Like needles, but everywhere at once,” Ed struggled to explain.

“Are there any other sensations?” JJ asked calmly, while reducing the rate of IV drip to slow the upgrade as much as she dared. She didn’t know what would happen if she stopped the upgrade in mid-process. She didn’t want to find out either.

Ed was silent for a moment, before panting, “It feels like ... my head is full. Like sinuses feel ... clogged when I ... used to get a cold. But it’s my whole head. Like when I ... first got, Bud, my Companion. More physical, though,” he gasped in short, choppy bursts of words.

His pulse had increased, along with his blood pressure and temperature. His back was slightly arched, and he was sweating. Both hands were gripping the arms of the chair, and his eyes were tightly closed.

“What’s happening?” Caleb demanded of Al, but including JJ and Bran in the link. “Does Bud know what’s going on?”

“His body isn’t adjusting fast enough,” Al reported.

“I don’t think Ed is in true danger,” Bud, Ed’s Companion interjected. “We are uncomfortable ... Ed also accuses me of understatement. Our mind had been accustomed to managing armor in eight bit ... umm ... words. I believe the Professor explained the difference in the size of each word this armor is capable of. The armor is like a sixty four bit application trying to run on a sixteen bit processor. It may work, but not well, and major adjustments must be made. May I suggest attaching the computer. The integration he is struggling with is included in the computer programming.”

“We weren’t going to use the computers at this stage. They were to be used in conjunction with the aircraft,” Kim protested. “I didn’t design a way to connect the pilot to the computer, outside the fighter!”

“If Bud thinks it will help Ed, we’ve got to use it,” Caleb argued. “Can the computer be connected to the pilot, outside the aircraft?”

“The input and output are still pretty slow,” Kim pointed out. “Flight helmets with sensors connected to the computer are the best solution we’ve been able to devise. We have some other ideas, but I just don’t know if we can finish in time. But, as a standalone unit...” she tapped her pursed lips in thought. She nodded to herself, then announced, “We can do it, but the computer module needs to be the same one he’ll use on his fighter.”

“Good enough!” Caleb said decisively, getting to his feet, and hurrying towards the door. “Figure out a way to power the module,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll get the computer from the fighter assigned to him.”

Ten minutes later, Ed’s flight helmet was lowered onto his head. The Commander had been writhing and twitching in the chair. His panting breaths through clenched teeth hadn’t slowed. His back remained arched, and his knuckles were white from gripping the armrests. Thirty seconds after his personal helmet was secured in place, the rigid arch in his spine began to relax. His white-knuckled grip on the chair eased, and his panting breaths gradually slowed. His jaws began to relax, and his breathing deepened. Finally, with a moan of relief, Ed opened his eyes and looked around.

“I don’t want to go on that ride again!” the Commander croaked.

JJ tilted a bottle of water to his lips, and he sipped it gratefully.

“I’m sorry, Ed!” JJ quietly said. “I didn’t think about using the computer at this stage.”

“Further testing would have shown the need,” Bran defended. “We should have proceeded with more caution!”

Ed shook his head, saying, “We talked about that, Bran. It’s just like flying a new prototype. There’s always more that can be done before that first flight. In a program like this, four months is no time at all! We are virtually out of time! I would suggest the kids have their helmets ready, before their armor is upgraded,” he added with a dry chuckle.

“Well, just keep your own helmet on until the upgrade is finished,” JJ advised, adjusting the IV drip again. “This should be finished in fifteen minutes, but I think you should stay in the chair for the full thirty minutes, as planned, after the IV is finished.”

Ed only nodded in agreement, dropped his head back, and closed his eyes.

Later, JJ relinquished control of her patient, advising, “Wake up, Ed! Time’s up, and you’re taking up room! You should probably eat a good meal, and rest for today. Drink lots of water and fruit juices. Eat another big meal this evening, and go to bed early. Your body is already generating new nanobots and powering them, so you’ll need the energy.”

“Yes, Mother,” Ed teased.

“Be good, or I’ll take your helmet away,” JJ teased back. “We need to make sure your nanobots are stabilized tomorrow morning, before you try to interface with your fighter,” she explained in a more serious tone, while he carefully removed his helmet.

She watched his face, looking for any sign of discomfort. He didn’t show any, and she nodded to herself in satisfaction.

“I’ll schedule the first pilots for upgrade in the morning, after you’ve proved the integration with the fighter works,” Bran grumbled. “There should be more tests! It’s dangerous working this way!”

“Is it more dangerous to move forward, without more tests, or more dangerous to be cautious, and risk not having anything between us and the Aliens?” Ed queried Bran.

“I know, I know!” Bran grumbled, turning back to his computer. “I just don’t want something that I developed ... I don’t want anyone to get hurt!”

“After going through all that, Ed, does super-sizing feel any different?” Caleb asked, steering the conversation away from his concerned friend.

Ed sat up, considering the question, and examining how he felt. Finally he said, “Not bad for a first step! I feel like I’ve got a buzz, like after drinking a beer on a hot day. It was different, when the helmet was on, though. It felt like...” He shook his head, searching for the right words. “Have you ever been talking in a small room, like an office, then walked into a very large empty room like a gymnasium, still talking? It felt like that, except, instead of sound, it was thoughts. It was kind of weird, but not in a bad way.”

“Without the helmet, if feels like you’ve got a buzz on?” Caleb asked, eyebrows raised, grinning.

“Yeah!” Ed agreed, seeming surprised himself. “I feel pretty good! It was bad there for a bit, but this feels pretty good! The computer made a big difference, but it feels good without it, now.”

The team breathed a sigh of relief as JJ saved the recorded data of Ed’s vital signs. One milestone successfully accomplished, and dozens more to reach before they could defend their world. The clock was ticking.

Kim turned back to her computer from a schedule update. She was working on fully integrating the quantum computer with Bran. If they were successful, the Star Hawk’s combat profile would increase by an estimated thirty-five percent. Could they task nanobots to perform the input/output functions of the quantum computer? If they could solve that problem, the data bottle-neck of the computer would be eliminated. Then they could tackle the problem of how fast a host/Companion could receive and process the data.

Caleb turned back to his own project on his computer. The fusion issue was niggling at his and Al’s mind. Many of the critical issues had been solved by people much smarter than him, in Caleb’s opinion. Materials had been designed, starting from their atomic structures. They were needed to handle the magnetic fluxes and heat of the mini sun at the heart of the fusion generator. Extracting the energy at the level needed was the next problem.

“If we could capture and organize the proton stream...” Al mused.

“An optical wave guide?” Caleb wondered.

“It would be subjected to a lot of heat,” Al pondered. “Maybe a ceramic optical wave guide to...”

Commander Ed Murphy settled in the seat of his star fighter. Outwardly, he appeared calm. Inside, he was mentally bracing himself. The ordeal of the armor upgrade had brought home the realization that he really was exploring new territory. This wasn’t the same as testing a new airframe configuration. This was a whole new ballgame!

“Ready,” Ed announced before reaching back and easing the helmet over his head.

Once his helmet was firmly in place and secured, JJ asked, “How does it feel?”

“Like I just stepped into a large empty room again,” Ed answered. “Other than that, everything seems fine.”

“The full nanobot complement is attached,” Bran announced.

A vehicle resembling an aircraft food service cart was parked next to the star fighter frame. It was attached to the back of the cockpit assembly by a hose.

“Power applied,” Bran added.

Ed flipped one of the few physical switches in the cockpit, reporting, “Power applied.” He steeled himself before supplying the mental command to begin loading the additional nanobots.

“There they go,” Caleb murmured, as billions of nanobots began flowing into the Star Hawk systems.

A single human hair is about one hundred microns in diameter, or 100,000 nanometers. Each nanobot was one nanometer per side. The Star Hawk needed a lot of nanobots to fill all its empty spaces.

“He isn’t showing any additional stress,” JJ muttered from her bank of monitors. “Ed, everything is looking good. Talk to me. Are you feeling okay? What are you observing?”

“I’m feeling fine,” Ed answered, his voice tinged with surprise. “Kim’s computer is handling the integration and distribution of the incoming bots,” he added. “It’s amazing! I can actually feel ... no, not feel. I can sense when the new nanobots are synched with my upgraded armor and the system, even before they are distributed!”

“Wow!” Caleb breathed in awe.

He was watching a black tide flow through the cockpit input, and out to the craft’s systems. The stark image of aircraft systems, attached to the fiber/metal mesh alloy super structure, was fading before his eyes. A black tide, looking very much like liquid, was flowing out from the cockpit. It would have looked like water, except gravity seemed to have no effect on the flow. The area in front of the cockpit had less to cover than the back and wings, so that finished first. The angular image of a praying mantis was gone! This was a Hawk. A very angry, lethal, Hawk!

“How are you doing, Ed?” JJ asked. “Your respiration and pulse are climbing. Not dangerously, but notable.”

“Don’t worry, JJ,” Ed replied softly. “This is really odd, but it’s so outstanding, too! Remember my comparison between a small room and a big room?”

“You said it was like stepping from a small office, to an empty auditorium,” JJ said, with a nod.

“Yeah,” Ed sighed with a nod in return. “Well, that auditorium is filling up, and I can identify each, individual nanobot, as it finds it own, perfect place in that humongous room! This could seriously get addicting!”

“That isn’t one of the reactions I expected!” Bran exclaimed, as he watched his own set of dials.

“I feel like I’m expanding!” Bud added, his thoughts almost giddy with excitement. “This is very strange! None of the memories Al has shared, compare to this ... this...”

“At a loss for words?” Ed asked his Companion aloud, chuckling. “That will be a first, but I know what you mean. The important thing is, I don’t think we’ll need to worry about integrating with the ship’s nanobots. That initial upgrade is the rough spot!”

Caleb watched, envious, as the last of the nanobots were loaded into the aircraft system, and the Star Hawk took shape in front of him. The unfinished, skeletal look was gone. In its place was a sleek, deadly-looking machine.

The Star Hawk was the kind of black that seems almost blue. The nose of the craft was a curved beak, going flat on the bottom as the sleek lines moved aft, toward the main body. The forward anti-gravity drivers looked like eyes, glaring out at the world. The rail-gun barrels were covered by nanobots, protecting them until they were needed. The lines of the body swept back smoothly, merging with the wings and cockpit. The wings were tapered, as if diving on prey. Ed couldn’t be seen, but Caleb knew the Commander could still see out, just like when he was wearing armor encompassing his head. The anti-gravity pods attached to the cockpit were visible, and defined the demarcation of where the fuselage began tapering towards the stabilizers. The horizontal stabilizers sported another set of anti-gravity pods that gave the appearance of flaring tail feathers. The vertical stabilizer wasn’t deployed.

“It really does look like a hawk,” JJ murmured in surprise.

The black tide engulfed the landing gear last and took the shape of talons, gripping the landing gear.

“Ah, come on!” Caleb barked in laughter. “You have got to be kidding me. “How did you get the landing gear to look like bird’s feet?”

“A default form was needed while on the ground,” Ed mentally explained to the group at large. “Since we are calling it a Star Hawk, the kids decided it should look like a hawk, when on the ground. Aerodynamics aren’t required when on the ground,” his matter-of-fact tone of thoughts indicating that he couldn’t find fault with his pilot’s reasoning.

“It is definitely cool looking,” Caleb responded in kind. “A little tweaking, and we can add color, making it more realistic. What other configurations have they cooked up?”

“Well, we have one for takeoff...” Ed began.

The craft slowly flowed, like thick, black paint, and became a glistening black needle with winglets.

“And stealth in atmosphere...” Ed added.

The shape of the Star Hawk flowed again, and after about three minutes, became a broad wing of angular surfaces.

“Or in space,” Ed demonstrated as the craft slowly flowed again, assuming a torpedo shape, but with the same angular surfaces.

“They have a bunch of macros written, but these are the forms we’ll practice with,” Ed explained, allowing his craft to flow back into its hawk form.

The Star Hawk ‘stooped’, bringing the torso close to the ground, as Ed said, “And maintenance mode! The girls in the squadron insisted on it, even though there isn’t much need. This damn thing’s nearly plug and play, but the girls said, ‘If a man can make it, a man can break it!’ So, it’s included in the basic load-out of the software. It’s also easier to get out of,” he explained.

The entire area around the side of the cockpit flowed open, receding from Ed’s body, revealing him in his pressure suit and helmet. The nanobots continued flowing, forming broad stairs for him to exit the craft. The receding nanobots gently lifted the helmet from Ed’s head, cradling it in preparation of Ed’s reactivation of the system.

“The stairs were my contribution to the dismount process,” Ed explained drily, as he swung his legs out, and stepped down the three stairs to the ground. “I’m getting too old to be climbing ladders!”

Caleb had to laugh with him. The Commander didn’t look a day over thirty.

“What’s next?” Caleb asked.

“Well, I just tested several configurations, including the dismount process,” Ed explained. “Next, I’ll test the mount process, and then run through the primary configurations again. We’re giving this final portion of the upgrade twenty-four hours before the kids get to finish their upgrades. If everything is good, they’ll start integrating with their Hawks in the morning. The next milestone is a launch. That will be twenty-four hours after the final successful upgrade. The first few launches for each of us will be in atmosphere only. Launch, and glide down, or launch, and do some maneuvering on the way down. We’ll practice flying in formation, and coordination between fighters. That will allow everyone to become familiar with the flight characteristics and thoroughly test all systems prior to leaving atmosphere. There are some wrinkles we need to iron out before beginning operations out of atmosphere, but people are working on them. We should be launching to orbit by next week; at least, we hope to. Part of the next few months will be training to maneuver as a unit, but we also need to position the supplies being launched.”

“Not much time,” Caleb sighed.

“Nope, which is why we need to put a stake in the ground for any more improvements,” Ed pointed out. “I would suggest we set the deadline for when we go to orbit. Any improvements after that will need to be incorporated after we’ve resolved the alien issue.”

“What if it’s a really good improvement?” Caleb asked quizzically.

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