This I have known always: love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales.
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
--Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Pity Me Not"
LAUNCH MINUS 5 MONTHS, 13 DAYS, 14 HOURS, AND COUNTING . . . Prometheus MEC Clean Room, Hangar 1-D, Cedar Key, Florida
"NASA is and always has been a subversive organization. Anything else you hear is a public relations lie," Jack Medaris said.
Dr. Isaac Perlman looked at the ceiling of the big hangar and wagged his head from side to side, an indication of his doubt at his companion's comment. "Subversive? Why, Jack, there's never been a more conservative bureaucracy on this planet. It takes polls to see what it should do next. It lets politicians decide technical matters. You forget I went there first for my moon dirt. NASA just laughed at me. That's why I hired you!"
Medaris and Perlman, dressed in clean-room regalia--white one-piece coveralls, puffy plastic hats, and latex gloves--were watching a dozen other similarly clothed men and women ministering to what looked to be a giant robot, two gangly arms akimbo, mounted on a go-cart. The doleful strains of Barber's Adagio for Strings accompanied the technicians as they moved slowly and reverently around the machine's oddly shaped pyramid of spheres, rods, and cables. Antennae protruded from each level of the machine. Its "arms" were actually two extendable and jointed booms. At the end of one of the booms was a digger, a rakelike device. The other arm had a grasping claw.
"I'll grant you NASA as a bureaucracy is timid," Jack said. "But what I'm talking about is its charter. NASA is supposed to develop the means to allow American citizens to leave the planet. Leave, Doc! What could be more seditious than that? If NASA ever does what it's supposed to do, Americans are going to be flying all over the solar system. Where there's Americans, there's trouble. It's in our nature to cause trouble, challenge authority, kick up our heels, and be ornery. You think it's going to be any different in space? Just you wait. It'll be a sight to behold!"
Perlman kept shaking his head. "No, no, no, Jack." He laughed. "Nothing of the kind will ever be done. You're talking about Americans the way they used to be. We're too fat and happy now. No American is going to get in a rocket ship and take off into the wild blue yonder. Why, they'd miss Monday Night Football!"
Jack grinned. He enjoyed debating with Perlman. None of it was serious, just lighthearted philosophizing to offset the boredom of watching his engineers prepare for the final flight-readiness test of the robotic moon miner--Prometheus, as it was called. Jack owned the company that had built it, the Medaris Engineering Company, MEC for short. After the accident that had killed his wife, and the investigation that had resulted in his banishment from NASA, MEC had become the most important thing in Jack Medaris's life. An invention of his called the sling pump, used in almost every liquid rocket tankage system in the world, had made Jack wealthy and MEC a very prosperous company. His people were paid accordingly. WE HAPPY FEW, read a banner over the entrance to the clean room. It reflected the fierce camaraderie of the company and the loyalty of its people to its founder.
As the test neared its critical phase, Perlman became visibly nervous, not surprising since he had paid Jack and MEC over thirty-one million dollars to build Prometheus. "Is it looking good?" Perlman worried.
"Very good, Doc," Jack said, concentrating on the sensor data scrolling down a computer screen.
"It's got to work," Perlman breathed, his fingers covering his lips as if he was afraid to let his voice fall on the precious spacecraft.
"Everything is fine," Jack said distractedly. And it was too. Jack and MEC's thirty engineers had spent a year carefully constructing Prometheus, borrowing liberally from the proven design of the old Soviet Union's Lunakhod series of moon-sample return spacecraft.
"I feel like WET's coming at me like an unstoppable locomotive," Perlman remarked with a groan. Every so often, it seemed, Perlman had to voice a little misery.
Jack ignored the comment. He didn't want to get off into a discussion of WET. The acronym stood for the World Energy Treaty, a United Nations agreement that had been drafted after the breeder reactor disaster in Sorkiyov, Russia. Hundreds of Russians had died, thousands more were going to get cancer, livestock devastated by the score, trees, grass, everything contaminated and dying. An antinuclear frenzy had swept the planet. WET banned all "power plants utilizing fissile and radioactive materials." The treaty had been ratified by every country in the world except France and the United States. President Edwards had signed WET but the Senate, as yet, hadn't approved it.
Jack had known Perlman for five years. The physicist had just turned up on Cedar Key one day, introduced himself in Jack's office, and tried to start an argument. "Do you know what the most important product of our civilization is?" he had demanded.
"No, Dr. Perlman," Jack had replied, amused, "what is the most important product?"
Perlman had raised his finger, his habit when he pontificated. "It's not cars, not television sets, not even computers. It's energy! Without energy Western civilization would not exist. A good portion of the earth--the so-called Third World--struggles in misery and degradation. Those poor people think what they need is money, or a different political or economic system, to rise up out of their poverty, but what they really need is energy!"
To Perlman's disappointment Jack had not seen fit to argue. "Okay, Doc. Energy. What does that have to do with me?"
Perlman had looked out Jack's office window, to the ocean tide that lapped the nearby shore. "Mr. Medaris, did you know that in a gallon of seawater there is the equivalent energy content of three hundred gallons of gasoline? That's because ordinary water contains deuterium--heavy hydrogen. If deuterium is fused with an isotope known as helium-3, the result is nearly limitless energy. Did you know that?"
Jack remembered Perlman spreading his hands in that effusive way he would come to know so well. "I have come up with a way to use inertial confinement of a quantity of deuterium and helium-3, subject it to the heat and pressure of a rather large laser beam, and release all that energy. Fusion, Jack. Energy from fusion is within my grasp."
Energy from fusion: the commercial application of the same physics as the sun and the hydrogen bomb. It had been the dream of scientists, engineers, and researchers for six decades. The little man had leaned forward. "But I need help, Jack. You are my only hope!"
Sally Littleton caught Jack's eye, releasing him from his reflections. Her eyebrows were raised. She was ready to complete the final test. Jack nodded and his lead Prometheus engineer began to call out the next steps.
"If it fails . . ." Perlman worried.
"It's not going to fail."
"There's so little time."
"There's plenty of time. Everything I read says the Senate won't pass WET until July. That's six months away. When we finish tonight, we'll disassemble Prometheus, ship him off to Shiharakota. The Indians have already mounted our dog engine to their Shiva launcher. Once this payload is stacked, we launch. We'll have your dirt back to you in three weeks."
"It isn't dirt," Perlman grunted, ever sensitive. He could call it that but he didn't like anybody else doing it.
Jack nodded. "Fire beads, then."
"And it's not quite true that I will have it three weeks after launch." Perlman clucked. "It'll still be on a ship."
Jack had explained it to the physicist a half-dozen times. "We could speed things up if we had the freighter dock in Hawaii, lease a jet there. Probably save you a week."
"I'll ask my benefactors," Perlman said doubtfully.
Jack shrugged. It was ever thus, even with a group of heavy-hitting investors like the January Group. Jack assumed at least one of the members of the organization was a bean counter, worrying about spending thousands when they'd already spent millions--hundreds of millions, in fact--to build Perlman's pilot fusion plant in Montana. "Penny wise and pound foolish, eh, Doc?" Jack gently gibed.
"The men and women of the January Group are cautious with their money in their own audacious way," Perlman answered stiffly. "Thank the good Lord for them or I'd not be as far as I am. You wouldn't either."
"Do you even know who they are, Isaac? I know you work through their attorney."
"I do not," he said primly. "It is none of my business. But I've been told they are the movers and shakers in this country."
Jack looked Perlman over. "You haven't told them about me, have you?"
"You asked me not to."
"You didn't answer my question."
Perlman changed the subject, not fooling Jack for a moment. "I still can't believe WET will make fusion energy a crime. It will all be done in the name of the children, of course--what reckless activity in the last decade hasn't? And what is the world going to do for energy? Keep burning fossil fuel! Oil and coal, Jack! Can you imagine the pollution? The degradation to the environment? My technology is clean, cheap, and limitless!"
Sally gave Jack a thumbs-up on the sensor readings, and also a pert smile. She was a handsome woman, that Sally. Perlman was still rattling on, extolling the advantages of his technology. "Doc, everybody's going to see that," Jack interrupted. "We've still got time. You'll get your dirt--fire beads--in a month or so and you'll be able to fire up your plant, show it to the media, demonstrate how safe it is too. After that I guarantee you they'll make an exception in WET for fusion."
Perlman shook his head. "I don't want that damned treaty modified. I want it killed. If we approve it, we might as well pack it in. In fifty years, maybe less, this tired old polluted planet is going to go dark."
"We're doing the best we can, Doc."
Perlman was into it. He stabbed his index finger at the roof. "I don't care about fission energy, Jack. They can shut down every nuclear reactor in the world and I wouldn't give a flying fig. But fusion is not fission."
Jack took a deep breath. "You told them about me, didn't you?"
Perlman slowly lowered his hand. "I had to. The January Group wasn't going to give me seventy million dollars to hire someone they didn't know."
Jack looked at Perlman. "What did they say? I'm sure they dug up everything they could find on me."
"Nothing." When he saw Jack's doubtful expression, he added: "I swear, Jack. They cut the check within two weeks after I told them your plan."
Sally had rolled a computer up to Prometheus, plugged it into an interface panel. A graphic display, a thick red horizontal line on a blue background, formed on the monitor. "Ascent stage sim, plus ten," she announced, keying in the parameters of the final stage of the mission.
"Reentry activation, nominal readout," Virgil Judd said, watching the numbers come up on the computer. Judd had been a Cape Ape, laid off by the decimation of the workforce there over the last two years. He was a big, gentle man with a lovely wife and a very sick daughter suffering from the advanced stages of cystic fibrosis. Jack had done everything he could to help Virgil, including arranging for tests at the Mayo Clinic. We happy few.
"Vector all balls, deceleration nominal," Virgil said. Then, "Bingo deceleration. Switching to reentry mode."
A few minutes later another layer of numbers slid across the computer screen. "Simulating reentry, checking azimuth, bingo envelope," Sally said. "Readouts on volume." The music, provided by a CD player outside and piped in through speakers in the four corners of the bay, switched to Orff's Carmine Burana, placing a triumphant caste on the already exciting moment. "Nominal targeting. Prometheus has landed," she concluded, peering at the screen. She looked over at Medaris, her eyes twinkling with excitement. "On the money, Jack. Prometheus is ready to rocket and roll!"
Jack joined in the spontaneous applause of the engineers, muffled by their latex gloves. He approached the moon miner, looked over the numbers still running down the computer screen. "Let's pack him up, children. Our boy is ready to go to India." His people crowded in, clapping him and each other on the back. Virgil picked a protesting Perlman up bodily and waltzed him around the room. The CD switched to "Jailhouse Rock." The dozen engineers in the room joined them in an impromptu shag. Prometheus seemed to be thoughtfully watching.
It was several hours later, well past midnight, when Jack finally got to his office to catch up on some paperwork. Virgil was the only other person still in the plant, detailed to finish the inventory of Prometheus components, and to initial out the procedures manuals. Since there were only thirty full-time employees at MEC, everyone pulled double, even triple, duty. Jack scanned his desk, determined to make a dent in the piled-up documents, mostly purchase orders for the myriad of hardware required to build such an exacting machine as Prometheus. He walked over to the interior window in his office that looked down into the clean room and admired the robotic spacecraft, resting in a cone of light from an overhead lamp. He especially admired the arm with the claw. That had been his addition to the spec. Perlman had asked him about it and Jack had explained that Prometheus might need to move a few rocks to get at the fire beads at Shorty Crater. It was an explanation that could be defended but it wasn't its real purpose. That purpose he kept to himself.
Virgil spotted Jack and walked to the squawk box. "Hey, boss, I'm nearly finished down here. How about you?"
Jack looked over his shoulder at the purchase orders and gave in to his fatigue. They could wait until the morning. "Yeah, Virg. I'm ready to pull the plug too. Go ahead. I'll lock up." Virgil, Jack knew, wanted to know who was going to be the last out of the building. The MEC burglar alarm system was cranky, requiring a complicated code to be entered into a box at the exterior door and again at the parking lot gate. It was a time consuming process and about half the time it didn't take and had to be reset and reentered. Everybody hated it. The system had been installed, the cheapest available, when MEC first moved into the facility. Jack depended, more than anything, on the remoteness of the site to protect the company. Trooper Buck, the Cedar Key constable, made routine swing-bys during the few hours the plant was unoccupied at night. Still, having a burglar alarm that might not even work was foolish and Jack knew it. One of the purchase orders on his desk was for a new security system, but there had just been so much to do.
"See you tomorrow, boss," Virgil called.
"Okay, Virg. I'm right behind you."
Jack took a moment to savor Prometheus, but memories of his wife flooded him as they often did when he was tired. Looking out over the moon miner reminded him of the time when he had found Kate in their mountain-home sunroom, pensively gazing down on the city of Huntsville and, on the distant horizon, the big rocket test stands of Marshall Space Flight Center. When he'd asked her what she was thinking, she had said, "Jack, if I die, will you forget how much I love you?" He hadn't known what to say. It was such a preposterous idea. She was younger than he, the very picture of health. "Please tell me you won't ever forget." He'd knelt before her, taken her hands, and promised. They'd ended up making love, passionately clinging to each other as if they only had a few hours left together rather than a lifetime. Five months later she and their unborn child were dead. NASA had determined that it had been his arrogance that had killed them. Soon after, he had resigned and left the agency. Ever since, it had seemed that he lived in a different world, one of shadows and pain.
Jack shuddered, pushed away the memory that was beginning to creep into his thoughts, of the bitter night on the test stand, when he had lost all that he loved. What good did it do to think of it now? A lump in his throat, Jack turned from the window, found his briefcase, and was nearly through the door when the telephone rang. It was Sally Littleton, calling from what sounded in the background like a party. "We're getting down here at the Pelican, Jack," Sally yelled over the din. "You got to come on by and live a little, boy. You deserve it."
He felt drained. "It's been a long day, Sally."
"Jack Medaris, you get on over here. Isn't that right, everybody?" Jack heard a chorus of shouted agreement in the background. Sally came back on. "Your people are celebrating and they want you with them!"
Jack looked at Prometheus, saw his own reflection in the window. He had been a solitary man for years. He was lonely. There would never be, couldn't ever be, another Kate. Yet he needed the touch and the warmth of a woman in his arms, her breath in his ear, her perfume. . . . "All right, Sally," he said quietly. "Tell them I'm on my way."
"I'll be waiting, Jack," she replied with the emphasis on I.
Jack clumped down the wooden steps of the old hangar, set the alarm on the clean room, then moved through the two outer dressing chambers. The old hangar was plunged into darkness except for an emergency light mounted above the main door. He went outside, turning to set the exterior alarm. Compared to the crisp, sanitized air in the plant, the breeze coming off the lapping ocean nearby was rich, heady. Jack took a deep breath. He loved Cedar Key, a bountiful treasure of nature. He had chosen the remote Florida island as the site for his plant because of its isolation. He could hear in the distance the plaintive call of a loon. The Key was a nature preserve, only the old airport where he'd built his company zoned for industrial commerce. Bird watchers the world over came to the island. Fishermen crowded in for saltwater fishing at its best, at all times of the year. A single narrow bridge was all that connected Cedar Key to the Florida mainland.
Jack stepped off the stoop and was surprised to find a big recreational vehicle facing him. He glanced toward the perimeter fence. Virgil had left the gate open, as was common when someone else was following close behind. The RV's lights went on, blinding him. "Hey, mister," an unfamiliar voice called out. "You got any idea where we are?" A man walked out of the glaring light. He was short and stout, had a walruslike mustache, and was wearing a bright yellow shirt and creased tan slacks. He was holding a sheet of paper.
Jack shielded his eyes with his hands. "This is a restricted area," he said. "You need to leave."
The man waved back at the RV. Jack could see several shadowy figures standing alongside it. "Sorry, mister. We saw the gate open and the lights. We're fishermen and we're lost. You got any idea how to get to Stevenson's Fish Camp? I got a map here."
The man appeared innocent but the road was clearly marked as leading to the old airport. If they had ignored the signs, they had to be not only lost but stupid too. "Never heard of the place," Jack said. "If you'll go back through the gate, turn left, that'll take you into town. You can ask there."
"Why don't you just look at the map, mister? I think we're way off here."
The man approached. Jack thought about going back inside, but that would have required entering the code. "Look, fellows, this is a restricted industrial plant. Go into town, ask there."
"You know, you're not an accommodating fellow, Mr. Medaris," the man said, smiling. "I've decided to Milli Vanilli your ass.""What?" He knows my name. Jack was startled by the sound of heavy boots pounding on the asphalt. He didn't have time to react. Someone big, dressed in black, came out of the lights, tackled him, knocked him down, and fell on top of him. Jack landed on his back, his head hitting the concrete stoop. Everything dimmed. He struggled for consciousness. He grabbed the man, pulled at his arm, felt something give way. It was a patch on his shoulder, a piece of black Velcro. There was a flash of gold letters, just for an instant. Puckett Security Services. Then he felt himself being rolled over, his hands jerked behind him. Something hot dripped down his neck. Handcuffs clicked shut on his wrists.
"Cut the wires, all of 'em," somebody said.
Jack was blearily aware of men running past him, battering at the door. He heard it tear from its hinges. There was no alarm. The man in the yellow shirt knelt beside him. "Milli Vanilli means I pretended to kick your ass while somebody more qualified did the work." He laughed and then abruptly turned deadly serious. "Take him inside."
Jack was ruthlessly jerked by his wrists, pushed into the hangar, through the doors, all hanging from their hinges. Two men, dressed in black fatigues, clustered at the clean-room door. The yellow-shirted man walked in front of Jack. "The lander in there?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. That's a clean room. We use it to inspect our pumps."
Using a flashlight, the man peered inside, Prometheus glittering in the spot of his light like a giant tin man. "Doesn't look like a pump to me, Mr. Medaris."
Jack tore loose from his captor, ran for the door. He had to get help. He was quickly caught, thrown to the floor. His shoulder felt as if it had been dislocated. Jack groaned, kept struggling. "Get him out of here," the man said harshly.
Jack was jerked to his feet again. It felt as if a spear had been stuck in his shoulder and twisted. He couldn't help but cry out, although it shamed him to show weakness in front of these men. He looked over his shoulder, saw men in black fatigues batter down the clean-room door, go inside. Other men followed, carrying sledgehammers and cutting torches. Despite the pain Jack struggled to stop them. He was savagely driven to his knees, then dragged across the concrete, through the halls, out the door, thrown down onto the asphalt in front of the RV, its headlights now dimmed.
Nearly mad with impotent outrage, his head in a puddle of his own blood, Jack listened to the sound of smashing sledgehammers, glass breaking, the hiss of torches, more doors being battered down. The man in the yellow shirt stepped up, knelt down beside him. "Well, thank you, Mr. Medaris. It's been real. By the way, you ought to be more careful with the combustibles in your plant. I'm afraid it's caught on fire."
Jack struggled to raise his head, saw the flames licking out of the broken windows, an orange glow deep within. "Why?" he cried.
"Don't you know, Mr. Medaris?" the man said softly, his small dark eyes twinkling mischievously. "We did this for the benefit of all mankind."
Jack felt the heat of the flames against his skin. He turned away from it, trying not to think of the time when another fire had engulfed him and all that he loved. He involuntarily groaned, let his face down into his blood. He felt someone taking off the cuffs. He was roughly dragged to his feet. Blood still streamed down his neck. His shoulder felt as if it had been torn to shreds. His wrists were raw and bleeding. The men got back into the RV and drove away, left him standing alone. It turned away from Cedar Key, toward the main highway.
The hangar was an inferno by the time the volunteer fire department arrived ten minutes later. Trooper Buck was with them. Soon afterward the engineers of MEC, Doc Perlman, and the company lawyer, Cecil Velocci, arrived as well. They found Jack sitting in the parking lot, quietly watching the futile efforts of the firemen. When they reached down to help him, he pushed their hands away, then finally stood up under his own power. He growled at anyone who approached not to touch him. He held his shoulder, gritted his teeth against the pain, ignored the steady drip of blood puddling at his feet. The others were certain he'd gone insane.
The glow from the garish flames made the scar on his face and neck look as if it were on fire too. His eyes glittered as the flames reached solvents stored in a back room. The hangar burst apart, buckets of solvent flying into the sky, trailing long torrents of hot liquid fire. Jack said nothing, didn't move at all when everyone else fell back from the resulting volcano. He was thinking.
After the fire had died down, Jack turned to the throng. "Isaac, a word," he said quietly.
Perlman approached him, his eyes wide. "What happened?"
"Men came to destroy Prometheus. They knew all about it."
"How did they get in?"
Jack grimaced. "The gate was open."
Perlman was quiet for a moment. He might have been looking at Jack's dripping blood, scarlet in the glare of the burning hangar. "Jack, I'll have to tell my investors the circumstances. They may come after you, want their money back."
"They'll get their dirt," Jack growled.
Jack's lip was split. He spat blood while the likely scenario played out across his mind. The company had insurance, but he could see the insurer accusing him of arson. A jury, hearing of his background, might conclude he was guilty. In any case, it would be tied up in court for years before he saw a dime. "Buck," he said quietly. The policeman came to him. "You ever hear of Puckett Security Services?"
Buck was six and a half feet tall in his cowboy boots, a formidable man and a secure presence on the little island. "Nope," he said. "That who did this?"
"Do you still have contacts with the FBI?" Jack asked.
"Sure. You want me to check it out for you?"
Buck leaned into Jack, his big broad face lit by the guttering flames. "I will on one condition. Let the paramedics take a look at you."
Jack relented, walked toward the ambulance. The people opened a lane for him. He kept his head down, not from pain or shame. He was still thinking. A fresh ocean breeze fanned the embers in the hangar and a torrent of flame suddenly roared alive.
Jack turned to watch the blaze and then saw the bloody crescent of the moon floating through the smoke. Luna. The face the moon showed the earth was pocked and scourged, but like many plain women she had a body that could still fill men with lust. Another sea breeze blew the smoke away and the crescent turned from scarlet to gold. Isaac Perlman coveted the golden dust that layered the moon, sifted into her cracked rock, coated her craters, seeped into her pores. He had revealed to Jack the moon's secret treasure: helium-3, blown through space for billions of years by the solar wind, laid down on Luna's airless surface. Perhaps, Jack realized, helium-3 was a threat to someone who might do anything to keep it off the earth. The moon also held another treasure. Kate. She waited for him at Frau Mauro. Jack's eyes slowly began to fill with determination.
"What are we going to do, boss?" Virgil asked, holding the door of the ambulance open.
"I'm still working on that, Virg," Jack said quietly as he climbed in. He sat on a bench, looked at the faces of his people, his happy and faithful few. "But I can tell you this much: We're not going to quit."
Copyright 1999 by Homer Hickam