Chapter 1: The Reality Show Starts Now

Rob Young was surprised by the question at first, more so than he had been during the bulk of his thesis defense, but he smiled as he considered it. He liked questions that made him think.

"No sir, if you look at the data on field retention and feedback effects, the results show clearly that the tuned fields are sympathetically reinforcing. The math supports it here and here."

Rob used his 'pointer' to interface with the holo-projector image, splitting the display to show several pages of equations from his work.

"In addition, proper tuning will cause a dynamic increase in field stability that makes the increases sustainable across all the field parameters with almost no additional power required."

"What are the practical limitations you expect, aside from the theoretical ones you mention?" Came another voice in the darkened room.

"Well, the quantum tunneling gets us around the light speed problems, but adds its own problems with the refractive index issues causing some measurable differences between real-time and RGL sensor output. Also an increase in interference from quantum hashing begins to override the signal output as the distance increases. This is a common problem all researchers in this field are having to endure. We all agree that the math doesn't support the concept of distance being a problem, and yet it exists. My best guess without having had the chance to build and test it yet is ... a light minute, more or less?"

The room was silent for a moment before the last voice came again.

"Thank you Mr. Young, we will have a determination for you by this time tomorrow."

The lights came back up and Rob pulled the datapak out of the media console interface and reattached it to the lanyard that hung around his neck. It was only a copy, but he still felt protective of it. It represented two years of his life, after all.

As he was escorted back to the elevators by the aide who had brought him to the interview room, Rob couldn't resist asking.

"How do you think I did?"

"You lost me almost immediately. Pretty much the last thing that you said that I understood was 'Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen'. Based on what I know of the reviewers though, I'd say they liked what you had to say, but thats a very subjective impression."

"I'll settle for the subjective if its all I can get, thanks." Rob said as the elevator doors closed between them.

There was no one in the villa when Rob got there. He was sharing it with two other IME candidates, none in his field, but all just as scientifically bent as he was. No matter. This was Hawaii and the beach was calling. The dreaded suit was off, the board shorts were on. A pair of sunglasses, a tube of sunscreen and his wallet in a waterproof pouch finished the switch from candidate to tourist and Rob was off.

Ike Dunham left his interview feeling bruised. Not only had the questions made him think, but some of them actually required him to rethink several of his conclusions. He'd changed one of them on the fly but adamantly stuck to his guns on the second one.

The very same nano-crystalline composites that were being used as ultra-fast computer memory could be modified and used in constructing the processors and other components of the nanoscale computers he proposed and he was confident that his conclusions and his math were accurate.

One of the reviewers had attacked the math, saying it wasn't his own work and that his proposal was derivative.

"Well yes the math is derivative!" Had been his answer. "I'm not a mathematician, I'm an engineer and computer scientist. "The nano-crystallization and circuitry formation processes are all derivative too." He had continued. "That's exactly the point I made to defend my doctoral dissertation. This is not new math or science, it is new engineering."

"Thank you Mr. Dunham." Had come the voice finally.

The young man who walked him to the elevator just smiled and shook his hand when they got there, calling out a "Good Luck!" as the doors closed. 'A warm beach and a cold beer were definitely next on the agenda.' Ike thought to himself.

Wendy Fellowes steamed and stewed silently as she floated in the pool. Her interviewers had refused to take her at her word, insisting she step them through the proofs. Demanding she go into details involving the metallurgy and the simulations that showed the bonding site specifications and the resulting field integrity test results.

"Of course this is all simulator work!" She had fumed back at one of the questioners. "Nobody else on the planet but the IME and Obsidian Research is willing to even talk about building this stuff, so all I can do is run simulations."

In the end it had been all about the projected conversion efficiency ratios and the reduced waste heat outputs and the simplified manufacturing process.

"You have been asking for a Universal Power Convertor and here it is." She had said at the end. "Is it perfect? Hardly, but it is as good as we'll get until we start building them and have something real to continue our research on."

"Thank you Miss Fellowes." Was all she got from the darkened room. That and a smile and wink from the cute guy who had escorted her in and out of the meeting.

"Eight out of Twenty four." Arne said. "That's better than I had expected."

"What surprised me was just how much original work was being brought to the table." Dave McKesson added. "We've got at least three or four workable ideas here that will bump Earth's technology right up to the Taluatan levels as soon as they can be produced."

"What I find intriguing, is the unspoken communications potential that some aspects of that RGL sensor technology could provide." Chester Magill said. "If we can get improvements in the quantum hashing and the refractive index issues, enough improvement to get up to 4 or five light minutes, we've got near instantaneous communications within the inner solar system. Improve that out to light hours instead of light minutes and we've got system-wide interplanetary communications with no more delay problems than we currently have with the global cellular network."

"Lets allow ourselves to be happy little techno-geeks another time." Dave McKesson said. "We've got our eight candidates, lets get them in the fold, let them enjoy the weekend at the resort and then put them to work, shall we?"

When Rob's cell phone rang he was on a bar stool in the Hang Ten Bar and Grill sipping on a cold beer. It was a message asking him to please return to the Ali'i Suite. Two stools down from him, he saw another cell phone flip shut. He sized the guy up and decided to gamble.

"Rob Young." Rob said holding out his hand. "Ali'i Suite?" He asked.

"Ike Dunham." Came the reply as the two men s hook hands. "Guess the sword is falling quickly."

"Apparently so." Rob answered.

"Shall we?" Ike said, waving his arm towards the path leading back to the hotel.

"Lead on Damocles!"

The two rode up in the elevator together and found five others already in the reception foyer waiting. They sat down and got busy waiting for something to happen. They hadn't been waiting long, only about five minutes, when the elevator door opened again and a young woman in a bikini and a beach towel came rushing out.

"Umm. Hi. I guess I'm not late?" She asked. Nice voice Rob thought, kinda smooth and smoky at the same time. A part of Rob that hadn't had much chance to express itself began blipping a signal on his consciousness. No not that! Well, not just that. 'She has a great ass', Rob thought. That part of him did threaten to respond.

They got the whole story later of course, that laying in the pool sipping on a piña colada, she had not heard her cell phone, and rushed straight to the meeting on the assumption she was late once she had checked her messages.

The group was shown into the conference room again. The numbers were reversed this time. There were eight of them, five men and three women, and only one interviewer, the aide who had escorted them to and from the elevator.

"Welcome back." He said to us all once we were seated. "My name is Trevor Parkin. I am acting liason to the IME from Obsidian Research. I will be working with all of you to some degree or another over the next eighteen months. Welcome to the IME."

The room immediately burst into what Rob's dad used to call 'Glorious Noise'. He looked around the room and there were seven beaming faces that he assumed were mirrors of his own happy expression.

"Congratulations Ike!" Rob said, shaking the hand of the only person there he knew by name. "You too Bikini Woman."

"Wendy." She said with a blush. That led to a round of introductions. Trevor resumed control of things once they were out of the way.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, it is now 4:30 on a fine Friday afternoon. In an hour and a half, there will be a dinner held in a private dining room where you will all get to meet and mingle with your department heads. After that dinner, you have the rest of the weekend here at the resort as guests of Obsidian. Monday morning we will all be packing up and heading to the Shipyard on Nauru."

More Glorious Noise! Once again Trevor got their attention when things quieted down.

"With the other sixteen candidates going home today we will be doing some re-arranging of the accomodations. We can keep two of the ocean villas we are currently using if we can collapse ourselves down into them. Who here was in the three bedroom villa?"

Rob raised his hand, and was the only one who did.

"We'd like to move the three ladies into your villa Rob, if you don't mind, and we'll put four men in the four bedroom villa. Who here doesn't mind being moved into a room in the hotel?"

Rob raised his hand again. Other hands followed.

"Rob, looks like you beat the others." Trevor said. "Thank you all for generously offering to give up your villa room. I don't guess you need me to find the elevator anymore, do you? I'll see you all at dinner. Rob, if you'll stay a moment I'll get you squared away with your new room."

"See you at dinner." Ike and Wendy said almost simultaneously as they all disappeared out the door.

"Rob, I'll do the old routine here. I have good news and I have bad news. Which do you want first?"

'Oh great!' Rob thought.

"You might as well get the bad news out of the way first." He said with a sigh.

"Okay. You will not be meeting your department head at dinner tonight. You ARE the department head. We will be asking you to head the team designing and building the sensor array for the Pai Lung. We want you to base the entire array on your new system and augment that with whatever else you feel will be needed."

'Good-God-Freaking-Damn! What were these people thinking!' Rob thought.

"ah - okay, if you all feel I'm the man for the job, I'll give it my best. The good news better be pretty good though, after this!"

That got him a laugh from Trevor at least.

"Relax, we have a lot of confidence in you, and you will have a lot of support! The good news is that the room in the hotel you're moving into is this one."

"I'm moving into the Presidential Suite?"

"You are, and for the next two days we expect you to share your good fortune with your team mates." He said, handing Rob the key card. "The other department heads and the rest of the support staff will be heading off to Nauru tonight after dinner. From then until Monday morning the eight of you will be on your own. Don't worry about your bags by the way. They'll be packed and brought up for you."

That was said as he walked out the door. What a parting shot!

"What do you think?" Dave asked.

"He's as close to awakened as anyone I've ever seen who hasn't been exposed to the Light." Jeni said.

"He'll be fine, but we're going to want to give him lots of reassurance as he goes." Grace said. "He's going to need a father figure or confessor type that he can go to when he has doubts."

"Do we push him over the threshold, or wait for him to fall through on his own?" Ginny asked.

"Let him fall. We should let him have time to form a normal bond with the rest of the crew as one of them before things get complicated." Ian said.

Kieran was the one who finally said it out loud.

"The trick will be in keeping things sane when someone finally notices that his work can be used to communicate over distances at faster than light speeds."

The colors of the IME were officially red, black and blue, representing Mars, space and Earth. Rob decided if he was going to dinner tonight as a department head he'd better not show up in his cheap-ass college interview suit. He called his concierge, Drew.

Yes, the Ali'i Suite had its own concierge.

"Yes Mr. Young?" Drew said when he answered the line, before Rob even heard it ring on his end.

"I have an important dinner in less than an hour and a half. I'm hoping you can help me find something stylish but not too extreme to wear, and I thought a hair cut would probably be a good idea as well."

"Of course sir. Your barber will be there shortly and I will have your valet bring by a selection of outfits to try, if you'll trust me to make the selection?"

"Of course." Rob answered.

"Very well sir. Will there be anything else?"

"I was thinking of inviting everyone back here after dinner for a champagne toast and then perhaps hitting the Hang Ten for drinks and dancing. Do you see any problems with those ideas?"

"None sir." Drew said with a sniff, as if the idea that I might have a wish that he could not fulfill was an insult. "I shall arrange everything. Would you like me to select the champagne for you?"

"Please! I will confess to being an unsophisticated rube if you promise not to laugh to much. Your assistance is a life saver!"

"You do yourself an injustice sir. You at least had the good sense to consult me immediately."

There was a buzz at the door. They ended their conversation and Rob went to open the door, finding a large Hawaiian man in a traditional barber's outfit. Two women were with him, both wearing the hotel's staff uniforms.

Rob received a luxurious and decadent shampoo and cut as well as a shave and pedicure. Halfway through this process a distinguished looking older man came in with two bellboys in tow and it was quickly decided that Rob would be wearing a black silk shirt and white linen slacks with a black leather belt and a fancy dress wristwatch with a watchband that matched the belt. He was given black socks and a pair of black Italian leather shoes to finish things off.

More wait staff arrived as Rob was leaving, carrying a couple cases of champagne. They were led by Drew himself, who gave Rob an intentionally dramatic once over.

"You dress up pretty well for an unsophisticated rube!"

"The generosity of the Obsidian people aside Drew, I cannot say how much this means to me. Thank you."

"Thank you sir. Enjoy your evening." Drew answered with a smile.

At dinner Rob was seated next to a man in his mid-thirties who introduced himself as Doctor Constantine Fylakas. In addition to the seven people He'd met earlier at the suite there were twelve others. They were all enjoying a captain's platter of seafood appetizers and margaritas when Trevor Parkin got their attention.

"Folks, I want to introduce the department and group heads and get them seated with the people they'll be working with. I'd like to start with the man who'll be leading the Hull build out, Doctor Alexei Baranov."

There was a nice bit of applause as a man who hardly seemed older than the rest of them stood up.

"I'd like to ask Pradnesh Ravandur, Brian Conroy and Oscar Menendez to join me please." Alexei called.

Next Trevor called up a woman named Natalie Simmons.

"Good evening everyone. I am actually a stand in for the person who will be the head of the Fusion power team, Doctor Chen Hsu. He has obligations as head of the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing that prevented him from being here this weekend. On his behalf I would like to call up Wendy Fellowes, Peter London and David Trainor."

Next up was Yuri Stepanovich, head of the Gravity Drive team.

"Welcome everyone. If the following people would join me? Saalih Jaffre, Michael Westbrook and Coretta Ramirez."

"Next we will have the head of the Electronics, Communications and Data systems department, and a founding member of Obsidian Research, Doctor Constanine Fylakas. Con?"

The man Rob had been sitting next to smiled and stood up.

"Thank you Trevor. Everyone please call me Con. My position as head of this department is something of an honorary thing. We will have no trouble filling in the ranks of people capable of building these systems. Still, we will push the envelope in a few places and it promises to be an exciting time. I will announce those joining my department, but if you will merely stand for the moment, rather than joining me here? Ike Dunham, Nicole Short and Mickey Brooks"

Ike stood with a big grin as did the other two.

"Thank you." Con said. "My next duty is introduce you to the head of the Sensor Array team. I will be working with this team also in an advisory capacity, as well as liaison to the electronics team. Ladies and Gentlemen, Doctor Robert Young.

'That definitely generated some Glorious Noise!' Rob thought as he stood next to Dr. Fylakas, who handed him a slip of paper. There were three names on the list. He looked up and saw that everyone was waiting for him to speak.

"Thank you Doctor Fylakas. As you can all imagine, I am still adjusting to the idea that I am being expected to head a department, when as all of you were, I was merely hoping to win a place on the team." There was another brief bout of cheering at that before Rob spoke again. "This slip of paper lists the names of the three of you who will be joining me on my team. Alexandra Nascimento, Frederick Wassermann, and Tyrese Glover."

In the end, they were divided into 5 development groups with a total of eight departments. Power and Propulsion were a group of two, Hull and Ship Systems were also a group of two, Sensor Arrays and Electronics were a group of two, Shielding was a group of one and Health and Safety was a group of one, even if it sounded like it was two.

Dinner seem divided into two groups as well, those willing to try sushi and those who were not. Rob was definitely in the 'not' camp, figuring he was going to wind up there, but not tonight. Not with champagne and the possibility of dancing later. He had a delicious piece of fresh grilled Hawaiian Snapper with a green salad and fresh pineapple and ice cream for dessert. As dinner wound down and he saw more and more people scraping the bottoms of their dessert plates and bowls, he stood and did the traditional spoon on water glass attention-getter.

"Folks, I know the Department heads, myself excluded, will be headed out tonight, but I'd like to invite everyone back to my room for a champagne toast. We are also expected at the Hang Ten later for drinks and dancing."

Rob found dancing with Alexandra Nascimento exhausting and exhilarating, and watching her dance was almost pornographic. He don't know if it was a Brazilian thing or an Alexandra thing, but she was not self conscious in the least about her body, and she really seemed to consider body contact and sexual stimulation as a natural part of dancing.

Dancing with Wendy Fellowes and Jocelin Walsh was exactly the opposite and yet even more stimulating somehow. Perhaps it was because it seemed to be one of those two who found him every time the music slowed down.

The first step in building the Pai Lung was was to build her keels. Although this ship, Earth's first true ship of space, did not need a keel in the same sense that a sea-going vessel did, there were several reasons for these. A cross-section of each keel was going to resemble a slice of Okra. She would have a central access chamber. Surrounding the access chamber there would be five smaller chambers, two for data, two for power and one for the environmental control conduit, piping in clean air and piping out carbon dioxide and other waste gases and unwanted airborne contaminants.

Symmetrical construction outward from the keels would make the artificial gravity more stable and less subject to variations and 'seams' in the field overlaps. Any seams would be found where the fields for the two keels overlapped, which was actually outside the hull itself. It would also allow for increased efficiencies in the modular methods planned for the laying in of the individual sections, making it possible to build the individual sections separately and just 'lock them in' when the time came.

The hull was going to come out looking something like an elongated clamshell, and each half of the clam was going to have its own keel. Picture the Atlantic Jack Knife Clam, or Razor Clam as it is sometimes called. Ensis Directus, not the one from the Pacific. It looks like a folded straight razor, and that is more or less what the Pai Lung was going to look like as well. Without the slight curve though, she would be straight.

The shipyard proper was ringed by classrooms, labs and shops. For a lot of them, they were prototyping as they went. Rob spent the first two weeks in a classroom with his crew and the three Electronics guys, Ike, Nicole and Mickey. Nicole and 'Alex' as Alexandra insisted she be called seemed to just rub each other the wrong way, so they had to do things with a little more structure than Rob might have normally used. He was beginning to believe that Alexandra simply saw every other woman as a competitor and couldn't or wouldn't put that perception aside.

The biggest problem Rob had was getting everyone in the room to the point where they could wrap their heads around the quantum physics the RGL required. The R in RGL stood for remote, and it was the key piece of the puzzle as far as making his gravitic lens idea work as a sensor system. He rolled out the basic explanation in their first session together.

"The gravity lens is a simple concept, in and of itself. A lens in its simplest and most basic form is an object with two curved surfaces through which light passes. The curvature of the surfaces either causes the light that passes through it to converge or diverge. In our case, we are not building our lenses out of glass or plastic like you would a pair of glasses or a telescope or microscope. We are building our lenses out of tunable gravity fields."

Rob got plenty of nods from everyone at that point. Optics was a long established science, and extending those well understood mechanisms to the new work being done with gravity fields made sense as well. Now to introduce the tricky part.

"What makes our lenses into a sensor system then. What are we going to do differently?" He got blank stares from everyone then.

"Since we are not dealing with solid objects as we do when building lenses for grandpa's reading glasses, our two curved surfaces, or series of lenses need no longer be tied to each other physically. If we want to look at a spot on the dark side of the moon, we build one face of our lens there and the other face of our lens here, and we let the light travel between the two faces using quantum tunneling."

With the skeleton of the idea out in the open, the room burst into excited chatter as ideas and questions flew. Doubt and enthusiasm battled with each other, sometimes from the same person.

Rob laid out some of the problems he had already encountered as well as those he thought they might see down the road, warning as well that there were always unanticipated obstacles in every project.

We talked about quantum hashing, quantum level focal vagueness, lens aberrations and aperture diffractions. Some problems were borrowed from the world of optics and some were new. This generated more chatter.

Rob flicked the holo display to the final image, the blueprint for his first RGL sensor.

"I have built this in the Carnegie Mellon simulator. The simulated results are promising. Lets build one for real and see what we get!"

The main Fusion Reactor, which the lab rats were already referring to as 'The Core', was being build with the future in mind. It was the only piece of the ship which attached directly to a keel that had its own airlock. The Core powered everything except the Gravity drive and the shields. The drive had its own pair of reactors and so did the shields.

The third pair of reactors were the true spares, they fed extra power to whatever system had a temporary demand for more than its usual capacity, but most of the time they simply idled along, waiting for any disaster or emergency. These six 'Secondaries' were collectively capable of providing 150% of the power of the Main.

The dual nature of all the secondaries allowed each half of the clamshell design to have their own set. In theory, the ship was capable of being cut in half along its longitudinal axis and each half could still get all the survivors in it home safely.

The day after they got to Nauru, Wendy and her fellow power team members found themselves in a high speed suborbital air car headed for the main construction yard for Guardian Gravitics. All four reactors and the gravity drive itself were being built there.

For the first time Wendy got to see and touch a real version of the power couplers she had designed. It was used to couple a load generator to a 'bench' reactor and tested. They went back to Nauru with a couple suitcases worth of printouts and a couple dozen of the couplers.

Ike cleared the lower bank of displays and threw up the next series. Dr. Fylakas asked for the the mineralogical and electrical property specs for the substrate material. They were now displayed just below the specs for the circuitry material.

The fact that the substrate and circuit materials were essentially identical except for an electronically induced phase state change, meant that an entire computer could be built from a solid block of the material. The same material that was already used as the Obsidian Fuel Cell medium. The trick was in the fine print of the molecular bonding, and that was the part that the lab was finally going to get a chance to bench test outside of the simulators.

Six weeks into construction, Rob Young found a message waiting for him when he got up. There was a breakfast meeting in the third level cafeteria. This wasn't where he usually ate breakfast, but it was no big deal to make the switch. He spotted Wendy, Ike, Jocelyn and most of the folks from their Hawaiian weekend and joined them. He grabbed a pile of link sausage, scrambled eggs and hash browns and found a seat. Once again Wendy and Jocelin seemed to be sharing a Rob Young conspiracy, as they had saved him a seat between them.

"Good morning ladies. You're both looking lovely this morning." he said as he sat down. They all began speculating, between mouthfuls, over the possible topic of today's meeting. Ike was sitting across from the three of us with DeeDee Ponders. DeeDee was in the systems group, and now that the actual hull build out had started, she found herself spending a lot of time with the other groups, as they integrated their individual projects into working ship systems. Ike's induced phase state circuitry idea was being used on a larger scale to provide wiring paths and control interfaces throughout the ship.

"In theory, we could upgrade the ship's entire control system by simply plugging in an override module and 'rewiring' the entire thing with the flip of a switch!" DeeDee gushed.

DeeDee was still gushing when we all heard a 'ding ding' tone come from the back of the room. We turned to look behind us.

"Good morning everyone. Thanks for joining me for breakfast this morning. My name is Andy McKesson. You all have probably heard that I have been finagled into leading the expedition when it finally comes time to lift off and head for Mars."

There was a nice amount of applause after this. They had all been waiting to see him become involved with the project, though they had been told it would be only occasional until closer to the launch date.

"Most of you have already met Commodore Brenneman, who will be the Pai Lung's Captain for the journey. Ladies and gentlemen, we're here to announce that each of you in this room have been selected as crew. Unless you seek a deferment, you will be going to Mars with us. Welcome aboard!"

This kind of Glorious Noise did not just die down after a while. It continued to echo through the facility for days. There were close to fifty of the lab rats that were going to make up the majority of the technical component of the crew. They learned that Victor Emanoff, the former Russian submarine commander who was head of the systems group was also in the command crew as first officer. The crew was divided into three sections, command, tech and service, and most folks wore two hats.

When the initial bout of Glorious Noise had died down at the breakfast announcement, they were also introduced to Corycia Caldwell. She was responsible for inventing the new grav field space suits. As crew, the lab rats were going to have to get involved in the refinement and training procedure for the new suits!

As things began to settle down in the labs and while they watched first the keels and then the hull begin to grow, they all soon were taking shifts off from the labs to participate in testing out the new Caldwell Suits. It took a large mental shift to finally place your trust in something that seemed so unsubstantial. The psychological factor was eventually minimized by simply darkening the nanofluidic substrates, making them less transparent.

Once you could get past the mental hurdles, the suits were a revelation. No more clunky, slow motion movements. Wrapped in the milky translucence of a suit, everyone kind of looked like the robots in that Wil Smith movie 'I Robot'. A little clunkier, since the crew had real human waistlines to deal with, but there was that same frosted-glass kind of translucence, which everyone decided looked good. The two fuel cells that powered the gravity field generators were good for 30 days, but they were modular and hot swappable, and if needed, could be swapped while the field was under normal load, one at a time.

After the suits passed the basic testing, the crew, including the lab rats, began training in zero G and vacuum conditions. A 'Space Harness' was added after the third week. It gave them maneuvering thrusters and some flight control software to manipulate them with. There was talk of a 'Mars harness' as well.

Six weeks after that they took a couple cases full of them to Antarctica and donated them to the staff at the McMurdo Station and New Zealand's Scott Base. It didn't take very long for the people there to share the crew's enthusiasm for the suits.

Rob had been there for six months when Doctor Fylakas asked him to meet with him. As the head of the Sensor and Electronics group, he was Rob's boss, but he had been pretty hands off as a boss so far.

"Rob, you and Ike Dunham have become friends, haven't you?" Was the first thing he said.

"Yeah." Rob said. "I'm as close to Ike as I am anyone here, though Wendy Fellowes and Jocelin Walsh would be pretty close."

"Would you have problems supervising Ike's work, or worry that he might resent your supervising him?"

"No, I don't think so, but I couldn't see how you would want to move Ike into my group. His ideas are the heart of his groups operations." Rob was obviously worried now. This sounded like some sort of serious shake up.

"What about the others in the Electronics team. Would you have any problems working with them?"

"If I can handle working with Alexandra, I can work with anyone." He answered, half jokingly. "Doc, just what the heck is going on?"

"Rob, I was always supposed to be just a temporary fill-in on this project, and its time for me to get back to the lab at Obsidian Research in California. you are going to spend the next month working part time with me and the electronics team. I want you up to speed on the projects and responsibilities of everyone in the entire group."

"Why? What's up?"

"I intend to name you as my replacement as head of the Sensor and Electronics group when I go."

'Oh Crap.' Rob thought.


The initial flight of the Pai Lung was done quietly and with a skeleton crew on board. If you can use skeleton to describe a group which included the designers, the construction supervisor and the department heads. Quietly meant that the McKesson Group PR hounds that had been assigned to work for the IME leaked the news to several sources, who then went overboard covering her maiden orbital flight.

The flight lasted a mere two hours and was used to do a basic structural integrity test as well as tests on all the control, flight and environmental systems. Everyone wore one of the new Caldwell space suits. They at least had already been thoroughly tested.

The two hour flight officially generated one hundred and sixty one alarms, warnings and failure notifications. Most of these were from self-diagnosing indicators and gages reporting a component or wiring failure. Self-correcting features caused almost half of these to fix themselves before the first hour was up. When she finally rested back in her cradle at the shipyard, hands on comparisons to the data sent back eliminated a further seventeen alarms as actual failures of the telemetry equipment rather than the devices or circuits they monitored. The remaining seventy three alarms were investigated, analyzed and generally poked and prodded repetitively. Another thirty four were found to be poorly set or unset alarm parameters, and they were adjusted to the correct specs.

The remaining thirty nine were deemed to be true failures and the equipment components were repaired or replaced. Now it was the installers, the inspectors and the manufacturers turn to get the intense poking and prodding.

Some problems proved to be true unexplainable glitches, the kind of errors that didn't repeat in the lab and that no explanation could make account for. Some were install failures, mis-wirings, even simple things like using the wrong size LED in the indicator panel in one instance. They had one case of poor quality control at the site of manufacture and another, truly egregious case of a supplier substituting older, second hand components 'off-the-shelf', rather than the specially manufactured ones that had been ordered.

One set of problems was eventually determined to be sabotage at the lab where the components were mounted to their sockets, a new semi-universal connector that was one of the many innovations that came along with so much of the newness associated with this project. It took several months for them to uncover the saboteur.

In a fair universe, it shouldn't have been Rob's place to worry about that, but with his promotion to head of the sensor and electronics group, he was told it was one of his obligations to sit in on all the strategy and planning sessions. The unofficial 'builder's committee' was Arne Walker and Yuri Stepanovich the designers, Alexei Baranov the yard chief and Chen Hsu, who was nominal leader of the Power team, but also one of the Joint Study Group movers and shakers and the head of the Chinese delegation. They expected everyone who sat in on these sessions to contribute.

"If you're not answering questions, you should be asking them." Alexei said very early on. The first thing they did was give everyone a datapak with all the specs, schematics, engineering plans, - everything related to the design and construction of the ship and all its systems.

Two months in, they had almost universally adopted the use of what they called a Q-tap. Ike's amorphous material was ideal for quantum computer applications and he had quickly began churning them out for everyone in the sensor and electronics group. His initial units had been woven into a flexible material with velcro-like properties that could be worn almost anywhere. Howard Dexter and Tony Gaines chipped in and helped Ike with all the code conversion to the new system, and developed a side-by-side emulator for the old system while writing a completely new one from scratch that took advantage of the quantum environment. It didn't take Rob long to adapt the remote quantum coupling system the sensor arrays used to provide remote holo output, using a set of special glasses at first. Mickey Brooks came up with a keying system that allowed each unit to assign itself a unique id. This allowed the units to pass data back and forth at what they called FHS – Fantastically High Speed. Since the units could now identify other units as well as itself across the 'Q-Net' as they called it, short for Quantum Network, just like that they had a hands free comm system that was better than anything currently on the drawing board.

The lab rats officially designated Mickey as the 'father' of the Q-net the day the entire Q-tap system was officially incorporated into the design specs for the new space suits. The flexibility of Ike's material proved itself then, when the suits were simply commanded to reconfigure a part of the control materials into an internal Q-tap.

Mickey's keying system provided for an almost infinite address space, so the entire thing was an immediate threat to replace the traditional Internet - broadband, wireless and all. Few of the problems they were dealing with in boosting the sensor array into a usable system applied here because they were talking about relatively short distances compared to the sensor array's design parameters. What few there were were minimal.

This breakthrough brought Dr. Fylakas back to them briefly. He helped Ike, Mickey and Rob draw up patent applications and some legal documents that set up a deal with McKesson Technology Group to do all the development and marketing work in exchange for a straight ten percent. All three of them thought that was going to be as good a deal as they were ever likely to see, so after a little due diligence by an independent lawyer they hired at McKesson's urging no less, they signed on the dotted line and got back to work.

Con promised them they were going to be filthy rich by the time they got back from Mars, especially when they finished a few wrinkles that made the entire system a perfect replacement for the telecommunications system. The lab rats were just happy to have instant access to the data they wanted.

Rob spent a lot of time poring over everything he had been given on that datapak from the builder's committee! Probably more time than was wise. It caused his first argument with Wendy and Jocelin.

The first argument was just angry accusations and Rob being defensive. It was heated and short and accomplished nothing. Or so they thought at first. What it did was cause three people to do a lot of soul searching and ultimately caused their second argument.

After putting away the datapak that night and going to sleep, Rob woke in the middle of the night from a restless sleep. He had a headache and heartburn. Rob ate a banana, drank a glass of water and tried to go back to sleep, but gave up at two in the morning and took a shower, threw on some shorts and a T shirt and went out to sit at the couch and stare at a display of log files from the datapak, but even that seemed distracting.

He had a sudden mini-epiphany. The headache and heartburn hadn't been coincidental, it had been a clue. A weirdly psychosomatic clue. During today's argument - well, yesterday's argument now, he realized he had been listening to his head and tuning out his heart. He already had a relationship with Wendy and Jocelin that was based on reason and intellect.

'What was my emotional relationship with them like, and what did my heart say about it?' He thought to himself.

It wasn't that He hadn't already reached a decision. It was just that he had been ignoring the decision and refusing to act upon it. Fear perhaps, or inertia, who knows? He fell asleep right there on the couch after that, no longer feeling conflicted inside.


Rob slept right through his internal alarm clock, right through breakfast and almost through the start of the work day. He woke to the pounding of fists on his door and the sound of yelling through it. Rob jumped up and ran over and opened it.

"Its okay!" Rob said. "I was up late and overslept."

Reassured that he was okay, Wendy and Jocelin began haranguing him again over yesterday's subject, with scaring them today piled on top. He stood there for a bit, just taking it before he finally did what he'd wanted to do since he'd opened the door. What he'd been wanting to do for weeks really, if only he'd been listening. Rob reached over and picked Wendy up by the waist and pulled her into him and kissed her. He kissed her long and hard and by the time the kiss ended it was difficult to say where Wendy ended and he started.

"About time buster!" Wendy said looking up at Rob with shining eyes and a sweet, sexy smile. Rob stared down into those eyes for a while before they both thought to turn to look at Jocelin.

She had tears in her eyes and a bittersweet smile.

"I was always afraid it would turn out this way. But alls well that ends in love, huh?" She said, stepping up and onto her tiptoes to give Rob a brief peck on the lips, followed by another for Wendy. "Wendy you'd better take him in for a quick breakfast. I'll make sure the crew knows he overslept and that you'll both be in shortly."

She closed the door behind her, and in a heartbeat Wendy and Rob were lip locked again. He felt a little steam rising from this one and pulled back, grinning.

"You, Wendy Fellowes are one damned fine kisser!"

"You will find out soon enough that I am damned fine at a lot of things Mr. Young, but not now." She said, giving me a quick kiss and a very strategically placed and suggestive squeeze. "Right now you had better be hitting the shower and getting ready for work.


When Rob got to work, he was just in time to put the dampers on a huge argument over the crew's latest frustration. They were having troubles linking the sensor array into the ships computer tracking and targeting systems. The quantum nature of the sensor output seemed to be confusing the digital inputs on all the targeting instruments. That was the theory at least for why they continued to get targeting inaccuracies of monumental proportions.

"I appreciate the zeal you are all bringing to the problem." Rob started. "But there is a fundamental flaw with your attempts to deal with the problems in this system. Who wants to guess what that the flaw is?"

When Tyrese Glover began to bring up their still infantile ability to calibrate inputs across multiple quantum devices, Rob cut him off.

"Last chance. Anyone with an idea that doesn't involve quantum science or tracking software?" He drew only silence then.

"The flaw in your attempts is that that this is a systems problem. Are any of you guys in the systems group?" Silence.

"Has anyone here notified anyone in the systems group of this problem?" More silence.

"Alexandra. I want you to get together with Victor Emanoff. Get him briefed on this problem and let his team tackle it. You and Nicole will give the systems group whatever support they need from us in their efforts."

"Yes sir!" Alexandra said with a grin, snapping him a saucy salute.

"Ike, lets get busy breadboarding a setup here that can be used to run tests on. Use everything off the shelf, just like it was going to be hooked up on the ship. That'll give Victor and his crew a baseline setup to compare against."

Hit the ground running, Rob had heard. 'I wonder when the running stops?', he thought to himself.

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