Chapter 26: Deadline

“Hawk One! Hawk One! Do you read me?” the operator on the radio all but shouted in desperation.

There was no response.

“Keep trying,” the control room manager ordered in a calm, gravelly voice. “What’s wrong with Major Connor?”

“He screamed at the same time we heard Commander Murphy scream on the radio,” another operator pointed out the obvious.

“He must have been linked with Ed for whatever happened to hit both of them at the same time,” the manager mused angrily to his Companion. He was the only Companion/host pair in the control room at the time. “Ed! Can you hear me?” the manager sent, anxiously trying to mentally contact the Commander, but without success.

“They were merged,” his Companion informed him. “That shouldn’t have caused a reaction. Test flights have been conducted while merged. Merges between ground based and flight hosts have even been conducted during Command and Control training over the last weeks. It also optimizes the training time available.”

“Could it have been the distance?” the manager wondered.

“Major Connor has participated in melds from the other side of the world,” his Companion reminded him. “Commander Murphy would have had to go a long way to beat Major Connor’s current distance record.”

“The only other variable is the Van Allen Belt,” the manager thought. “What would happen if two people were merged, and one was subjected to highly excited energy particles, and the other was not?”

“I have no idea,” his companion replied, sounding worried.

Caleb became aware of the urgent voices around him. He heard JJ ordering someone to collapse the legs of a stretcher so they wouldn’t need to lift him as far. He tried to open his eyes, and stopped with a groan. His brain felt like it was on fire.

“Caleb! Honey! Can you hear me?” JJ demanded.

“Uh-huh,” Caleb croaked affirmatively, but painfully.

His throat felt raw, probably from the screaming he dimly remembered.

“Wha ... hap ... pened?” he gasped in pain.

“We don’t know what happened, yet,” JJ responded. “Wait a minute!” she angrily ordered someone that had started sliding their hands under Caleb.

“Ne ... Need water,” Caleb croaked, a little stronger, but still haltingly.

He felt something touch his lips, and JJ tenderly said, “Just a sip until we know what’s going on. Do you know what happened?”

Caleb started to shake his head, and decided that was a bad idea. Lights flashed behind his eyes, and spears of pain lashed his brain. Instead, he struggled to verbalize his last memories, “Ed ... I ... we were ... I was ... with him during ... the launch and...”

His brain and his mouth were definitely out of sync. He’d have to work on that.

“Try to contact him again,” Caleb heard a gravelly voice order.

“Mission Control calling Hawk One! Hawk One, respond!” the radio operator broadcast anxiously.

“I ... Is Ed okay?” Caleb asked.

“They lost contact with him when he entered the Van Allen Belt,” JJ answered. “They’re trying to raise him now.”

“Al? Are you still with me?” Caleb mentally asked his Companion.

“I’m here, but I’m not sure I want to be,” Al replied, his thoughts sounding strained.

“Do you know what happened?” Caleb asked.

“No, but as soon as I find out, it will be off-limits for all future activities,” Al answered blearily. “That hurt!”

“That makes it unanimous!” Caleb assured him.

“Hawk One! Can you hear me?” the radio operator demanded again.

A groan that sounded like an affirmative came from the speakers. Sighs of relief came from around the control room.

“Hawk One, what is your situation?” the control room manager asked. “Can you respond coherently?”

Several moments later a husky voice stammered, “I’ve got ... got the mother ... of all headaches! I think ... I need to ... come down ... now?”

“Roger that, Hawk One,” the manager replied with relief. “Give us a moment to calculate the quickest trajectory to get you home.”

“Thank ... you, control,” Ed’s voice responded, sounding afraid. “Is ... Is Major Connor ... okay?” he haltingly asked.

Several of the technicians looked at each other, startled. How could a man in orbit know to ask if someone on the ground had some type of attack? They weren’t hosts, so didn’t know the significance of the question.

“Hawk One, this is Mission Control Actual,” the control room manager interrupted. “Be advised the Major was feeling bad, but is doing better now. Why don’t you relax, while we work on getting you back on the ground.”

There was a delay before Ed apprehensively replied, “R ... Roger ... Control Actual.”

Caleb wondered about the apprehension he heard in Ed’s voice.

Space craft can’t simply be launched into orbit and immediately return to earth. It was two and a half hours before Ed left orbit.

Ed had been struck in the same way as Caleb. Ed was knocked out by the same blinding pain and disorientation that had briefly incapacitated Caleb. Unlike Caleb, Ed was physically alone when he regained his senses. Ed’s Companion, Bud, had been affected, the same as Al had been. Bud was isolated, the same as Ed, but he had never been isolated before. Bud was terrified. Ed’s calm response to the emergency was a lifeline for the frantic Companion. No one on the ground could reach them, either, but the pilot and his Companion didn’t know anyone was trying. Mental telepathy, or the lack of it, wasn’t something they could discuss on the radio. Their communications were very secure, but someone was bound to be listening. Ed was afraid his brain had been burned, tearing out his ability to communicate telepathically. In Bud’s opinion, the very concept approached the seventh layer of hell.

The moment Ed’s Star Hawk dropped below the Van Allen Belt, as he descended, he hesitantly reached out mentally. He reached for Caleb, since that was the last person he had mentally talked to before his flight.

“Caleb?” Ed probed tentatively. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Ed!” Caleb replied, his thoughts surging with relief at hearing his friend. “Are YOU okay?”

“I’m OKAY!” Ed mentally shouted with a massive mental sigh. “We thought our minds were burned, and we couldn’t mentally reach anyone! We talked about the possibility, and we didn’t like it. It would be like suddenly losing your sight, when we were limited to five senses!”

“That would be bad,” Caleb agreed with a mental shudder. “I think we need to slow this program down,”

he continued reluctantly.

“It sounds like a good idea, but no-can-do,” Ed groaned. “Don’t tempt me! As much as I would like to, I wonder about how many lives an hour’s more of preparation may have cost. We can’t slow down.”

Ed gave a mental sigh, before sending, “We’re going to lose hours on our schedule because I didn’t get my mission objectives completed. We are already shaving objectives, because of our imminent visitors. When the Aliens get here, what we have ready is what we’ll have to fight with. Hopefully there won’t be a fight. But if there is, we need to win. There’s a lot we can do with a battle-field the size of Earth orbit to Moon orbit.”

“Two steps forward, and one step back,” Caleb grumbled. “Is it even possible to be ready before the aliens arrive?”

“It is possible,” Al reassured them, breaking into the conversation. “Just like it is possible to do all the other impossible things that you humans do.”

“Thanks, I think,” Caleb answered, sarcasm tingeing his thoughts.

“I’m serious!” Al protested. “Bud can’t really compare humans to other species of his own knowledge. I can! Humans should have eradicated themselves by now, but they haven’t! Humans shouldn’t be as advanced as they are, but they are. There are so many things Humans should or shouldn’t be, but are! I’m amazed mankind survived beyond the Stone Age. Humans aren’t quite meeting a new species on an even basis, but close enough to get their attention. There is no doubt in my ... uhm ... our mind that we can survive this encounter.”

“See, Caleb,” Ed mentally complained. “I knew I wouldn’t get the afternoon off!” he added, a smile in his thoughts.

A day later, Ed went up again, with no ill effects, though he still couldn’t mentally reach anyone on the ground. Radio communications assured everyone of his safety. Appropriate code words were used in their banter to assure the earth-bound host/Companions that he was mentally intact. Even a strong meld tried to reach him, but couldn’t sense him in orbit.

A week of careful testing revealed the extent of the problem. Somehow, the Van Allen Belt blocked mental communications between host/Companion pairs. Once past the high intensity of the inner Van Allen Belt (1,000 to 6000 KM (620 to 3700 miles)), mental communications between pilots worked normally. They tried to mentally contact ground-based hosts with a meld from orbit, but that test was also unsuccessful.

A squadron meeting was held to discuss the ramifications.

“The lack of orbit to ground mental communications is a strategic speed bump,” Commander Murphy admitted in the meeting. “That’s the bad news, and it isn’t terrible. Command Control won’t be what we hoped, but we can live with it. The good news is the lack of mental ground communications doesn’t impact our tactical situation. We can still link and meld, while in orbit. Our training syllabus has been modified to include reliance on ground control via normal radio communications, only. Any questions or comments?”

One of the young pilots raised his hand and asked, “Does anyone know why the Van Allen Belt blocks us?”

“Professor Hawthorn, would you like to take that question?” Ed asked.

Bran didn’t bother standing, simply saying, “We don’t know why, but we’re guessing it’s because of the excited electrons in the Van Allen belt caused by the solar wind’s interaction with earth’s gravity well. We’ll study it more in-depth at a later time. For now, we only need to know what limitations it imposes. The limitations are two-fold. First, no command and control mental coordination. Second, never fly into the inner Belt while in a meld or a link. Since we hope all contact is far beyond the near-earth space, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Any other questions?” Ed asked. No one responded, so he continued with, “We’re behind schedule, again. You all have the new syllabus. Flight operations will increase to twenty-four hours a day. Your syllabus for the next week includes assignments into five teams. One team will be in orbit at all times, and one team will be on active standby. The other three teams will be on the ground, training in simulators, or sleeping. Sleeping is important, ladies and gentlemen. Fully as many battles have been lost due to tired soldiers as have been lost due to under-trained soldiers. We must strike a balance. Sleeping is as important as the time in orbit. Major Connor. You’re up.”

Caleb stood, faced the group, and said, “You are all going to be busy. While in orbit, you will be practicing combat tactics and docking procedures with resupply modules. You will also be repositioning some resupply modules. The alien ship is on a trajectory that approaches the dark side of the Moon, hidden from earth. One of your tasks, between now and when the aliens arrive, is to prepare the battlefield to our advantage. Resupply modules will be orbiting the Earth and the Moon. Clusters of resupply modules will also be stationed between the Earth and the Moon. The satellites orbiting the moon will alert us when the aliens approach. The current plan is to have the teams of Star Hawks docked at the clusters when the aliens begin coming around the Moon. That gives us two advantages. You start the engagement fully charged, and you should have the element of surprise.”

Karen raised her hand and asked, “Are we just going to start shooting at them?”

“No. We will attempt to contact them when they arrive at the Moon via the satellites,” Caleb replied. “We will also try to contact them through our Companions. Hopefully, one of the two methods will provide a peaceful outcome to this mess. We won’t start shooting until they circle the moon, and move to attack Earth. At that point, we won’t have a choice. Earth based population centers will be defenseless. We must not allow them to strike Earth. Any other questions?”

The room was very quiet. The enormity of their situation was beginning to sink in. The silence lengthened.

Commander Murphy stood, and said, “And on that note, it’s time to get to work! Dismissed.”

The following weeks were grueling, but they were productive. Space junk was used for target practice, and the teams improved. Five Star Hawks, with melded pilots, could hit a half meter piece of debris within a tenth of a second of each other, even though the fighters were widely spaced and at different distances from the target. The melds proved as effective in space as they did on the ground in Iraq.

“Theoretically, this configuration should provide more power than it needs to sustain the plasma core,” Caleb told Al with a grim smile.

“I have never been a fusion engineer,” Al said. “But I have been in closely associated fields. This looks right, but it won’t help. It’s too big for the Star Hawks! We need to build a fusion generator that works, before we can miniaturize it!”

“That would be the normal way,” Caleb agreed, “And that is where computer modeling comes in. We don’t have time to build a working model. We need to create a computer model of a fully functional prototype that will work in the fighters. THEN we need to build a prototype. We know what alloys we need to withstand the heat. We know how to shape the magnetic fields to contain the plasma. Kim’s quantum computer is fast enough to calculate the precise frequency of the lasers to push the Deuterium and Tritium molecules into close enough proximity to create fusion, after she gets the input and output fixed. Al, we need to have a fusion power-pack ready before the aliens arrive!”

“You want to create a functional fusion reactor, from a computer model, and expect to immediately use it in a Star Hawk?” Al asked, incredulously! “Are you nuts?”

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Caleb answered somberly. “The alternative is we all die ... if your estimate of their reactions is correct.”

Al was quiet for a long moment before asking, “What miniaturization part do you want to work on first?”

Kim rubbed her eyes and shook her head before saying, “Bran, I think this is one of those things where you just can’t get there from here.”

“I’m afraid that you’re right,” Bran replied tiredly, slumping back into a chair.

“The optical wave-guides work in the interface between the armor and the computer,” Kim pointed out plaintively.

“Yes, but the armor control signals need to be optical, for the interface to work,” Bran agreed. “That requires another armor upgrade. If we can’t make the armor work, as is, we can’t use the new computer interface! We don’t have time to go through the armor upgrades!” his frustration clear in his voice. “The best we can do is start preparing armor for upgrades. If Ed thinks we should chance it, maybe we can start upgrading people one at a time.”

“This computer could be a game changer!” Kim complained. “The added functionality of the armor would be enormous!”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t matter,” Bran sighed. “We’re already so far behind schedule that Ed and Caleb are trying to reprioritize what to do before the aliens get here.

“I know,” Kim complained, sounding defeated. “It’s just frustrating to find the solution and not be able to implement it due to time constraints. It’s just not fair!”

“I know, Honey,” Bran said consolingly, while his head was back and his eyes were closed. “All we can do is move to the next task, and do the best we can.”

“You’re right,” Kim answered morosely, turning back to her computer.

She looked at the armor/computer overview for a moment, then groaned in frustration, and typed in a flurry of commands. The image she had shown Caleb of his armor, at the beginning of the project, appeared on her screen. She glared at the image, resenting not being able to finish her main project. Her glare slowly morphed into a questioning look, and she tapped her lips in thought.

“What do you think would happen ... if we did this?” Kim asked her Companion, her mind flashing through possibilities. “Instead of undoing what his armor has done, can we use it being embedded to ease the transition to new armor?”

“Maybe ... I think it would help, but what if we did this, too?” Alice responded, mirroring Kim’s thoughtful ... thoughts, adding her own mental changes to the image in Kim’s mind.

A flurry of keystrokes, and they were enmeshed in another puzzle to solve.

“Everything looks good, except for the magnetic containment field,” Caleb muttered angrily in frustration.

“And we have twenty-seven days to go before our four-month deadline,” Al reminded him.

“I know! I know!” Caleb growled.

“And, if we can figure out the magnetic fields, we still need to build it, and integrate it with Kim’s computer,” Al continued.

“I know all that, Al!” Caleb mentally snapped. “Do you think I don’t know how far we have to go, and how little time we have to do it? Quit watching the clock, and help me figure this out! You’re the one that had a host whose career was nanotechnology! How can we build nano-scale magnets that we can control?”

Al was silent for a moment before saying, “Sorry.”

“De Nada,” Caleb replied, letting out a sigh of pent up frustration. “I need ideas! Got any?”

“There is one thing that might work,” Al mused thoughtfully. “It’s a long shot, because it wasn’t used for this type of application. It was primarily used to create a specific kind of ceramic memory crystal for high heat environments. If we arrange metallic nano-particles using multiple lengths, they’ll act like bulk magnets. The shape of the magnetic field is dependent on how the multiple lengths are arranged. It would create a static magnetic field; not the dynamic field you were trying to build, but if we can get the particles arranged correctly, we can design the correctly shaped magnetic field.”

“A static field means the power-pack would have an on and off switch for delivering power, instead of controlling the amount of power delivered,” Caleb slowly replied, considering the ramifications of not having output control of a fusion reactor figuratively strapped to his back. He shrugged and continued with, “If that’s the best we can do, we’ll have to use it. Help me model it so we can test it!”

“You’re nuts,”

Al responded quietly.

“And both our species could face extinction, if we don’t find a solution,” Caleb said aloud.

“You’re right,” Al replied quietly, after a long pause. “It’s all on the line, and failure is just a faster way to die.” He paused again, before he said, “Let me work the keyboard, and I’ll explain what I can remember, as I go. You can do the heavy lifting by figuring out how we’re going to adapt this technology to a miniaturized fusion generator!”

“Sounds good, Al,” Caleb said, smiling. “You’re in charge of my hands ... And, thanks!”

“Da Nada,” Al replied, and Caleb could hear the smile in his thoughts.

“Satellites are in position orbiting the moon,” Commander Murphy stated tiredly, giving a progress update.

The core team was around a large conference table, and the pilots not flying were seated against the walls. Everyone looked tired, but determined.

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