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Warp Speed: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Saturday, May 29, 2004 01:25 EDT



    It had taken months for us to figure out what had happened. Rebecca had nearly completely healed by September. She had a laser treatment to do in another month and her ring finger was still in a splint, but other than that she was nearly back to normal. She had even started light karate workouts with kicks and some aerobics and been on her road bike some. There had been setbacks though. Her allergies had started acting up on her while she was recovering. The congestion led to sinusitus, which then led to bronchitis. She has continued to have a nagging cough and a bit of a wheeze, but she is getting there.

    She recollected that she had been standing at the computer watching the seven hundredth Clemons Dumbbell (as her and Jim had started calling them) being constructed. Her left hand was in the vacuum chamber glove and she was adding materials to the new process. She recalled a flash of light and then everything exploded in front of her. That is all she could remember.

    Jim, ‘Becca, and I had tried and tried to piece the accident together, but were getting nowhere. No one could remember enough for the accident to make any sense at all. We decided to take a mental break and put in some physical playtime that Saturday. Jim and I were discussing her recollection of the accident on our way up to the mountain bike trailhead at Monte Sano State Park. Mountain biking is one of the coolest things. It requires endurance, strength, balance, and lots of nerve. Jim had turned me onto it a few years back and I was hooked. ‘Becca usually goes with us and wears us out, but she was still on the “injured reserve” list. As I was putting on my shoes he asked me about the flash of light.

    “I can’t understand what the flash of light was. Could we have tapped into some fundamental force of the fabric of spacetime?” he asked.

    “Before we get all hocus-pocus let’s rule out standard stuff first,” I warned. “There were some big pieces of plexiglass and one piece of aluminum that slammed into her body pretty hard. It’s not unbelievable that one of them hit her in the head. You’ve had your noodle knocked around before. You know that flashes of light aren’t uncommon with that.” I was still grasping for straws. You know what they say about drowning men.

    “You ready?” He hopped on his bike as he asked.

    Click! Click! I popped my cleats into the pedals and stood up on the bike hopping it slightly off the ground three or four times.

    “Last one to the switchback buys the first pitcher!” I started hammering up to the trailhead in about gear two-three (eleventh gear) getting the jump on Jim. He pedaled up beside me not even breathing hard yet.

    “You cheat, old man!”

    “I’ll show you old!” I cranked my right shifter down changing to about seven so I was in fifteenth gear. Then I moved my posterior further back on the saddle so I could push the pedals through and over the top of the stroke. Once I got rolling good, I cranked up to three on the left shifter and up to two on the right one. Now I was in eighteenth gear and in my hill-climbing stroke. My legs are stronger than Jim’s, so I knew I could take him on the hill. The trek up the mountain to the switchback trailhead is a good couple of miles at a grade of at least forty-five degrees. A good warm-up.

    By the time I got to the switchback at the top of the mountain I was at least fifty yards ahead of Jim. I dropped back down a couple of gears and stood up and dropped my center of gravity back as far behind the saddle as I could and dove straight down the switchback trail. The switchbacks are about every forty yards or so on that particular trail and they’re very steep. The worst part is that there are trees and stair steps all across and down the trail. I don’t recommend it for beginners. The first time I tried it I had my center of gravity too far forward and did and “endo” right over the handlebars. Had I not known how to fall from years of being thrown in karate, I would’ve been seriously injured.

    The trail was much too technical and tricky for me to look back and see where Jim was. I turned a switchback and then I caught a glimpse of him. To make up time he’d decided to forego the switchback, bunny hopped his bike off the trail, and turned head first down the mountain at ninety degrees to the switchback. His body was way behind the saddle and he was screaming.

    “Let’s go, you old fart!” he yelled as he tore down the mountain blazing his own trail.

    “Now who’s cheatin’?” I yelled just as I did a left foot plant and locked the back break swinging my bike around counter clockwise at the last switchback. I entered the main trail crossroads by the big marker boulder just behind Jim.

    Jim hopped his bike up on the boulder and held it up on just the back tire. Then he dropped down and hopped up on the front tire. He did a three sixty off the rock and landed pointing in the right direction and never missed a pedal stroke.

    “Show off!” I said. Jim used to do bike trial tournaments where they would hop over cars and waterfalls and you name it. He has a picture of himself hopping his bike on its front tire in the scoop of a bulldozer while he’s giving a peace sign with his right hand. Like I said, he’s a show-off.

    We raced down the logging road for a while and cut to the left down the “screamin’ downhill-between-the-benches” we had to have hit thirty miles per hour. An “endo” here at that speed wouldn’t be fun. We leapfrogged each other back and forth through the rocky “whoops” and I took him on the “crazy-uphill-by-the-tree.” When the trail opened back up to the logging road we were dead even. Jim bunny hopped the big oak tree across the road by nearly a foot! I had to pop my front tire up and dig my big front chain ring (that’s a sprocket to you hairy-legged non-bikers) into the tree and then grind up and over the tree until my back tire caught it. I almost went over the handlebars from not keeping the front tire up high enough when I hit the ground on the other side of the tree. Somehow, I managed to stay upright.

    “Thank God for gyroscopic motion. Amen, brother!” I muttered to myself and the squirrel that ran across the trail in front of me.

    Finally, after about six miles we were up the last hill and back to the boulder.

    Jim cried out, “One more lap!” and kept on going.

    I plowed in behind him holding my own. I looked at my heart rate monitor readout on my handlebars: one hundred eighty three beats per minute! That is about ninety percent my max and I had kept it there for about thirty minutes so far. Not bad for an old man. This time around he dropped me on the big oak. I didn’t have enough left even to do a chain ring grind over it. I had to hop off my bike and climb over it dragging my bike along with me. Jim was waiting on me back at the boulder.

    “What happened, old man?” he laughed.

    “Whew!” I panted. “I got hung up on the tree again. One of these days you have to show me how to get over that thing. By the way, you know you’re not but about fourteen years younger than me.”

    I laid my bike off the trail with the deraileur side up, which is proper bike etiquette. My legs felt like lead. I sat down on the boulder sucking on the tube in front of my face, which came up out of my jersey around to my back and into the water bag in my back jersey pocket. I felt my rear middle jersey pocket to make sure there was still plenty of water. I’d finished about a fourth of a liter, not enough.

    “I was thinking,” I said still breathing hard, “about the light ‘Becca saw.”

    “Yeah?” Jim took his helmet off and handed me an energy bar.

    “What if it was like sonoluminescence?”

    “How, there was nothing in that vacuum chamber but vacuum?” Jim asked.

    “When we get back to the lab Monday remind me to make you work out on the board how many different molecules are actually in that vacuum chamber, at least fifty times. Where did you get your Ph.D. anyway?” I scolded him.

    “Okay, sure it’s not a perfect vacuum, but how could there have been enough molecules in there to luminesce?” he asked.

    “Just like sonoluminescence. With that you have a bunch of sound waves pressing a tiny amount of water and other additives into such a small ball that it gets it as hot as the sun for a microsecond or so. Hence, the little flashes of light. What if the Dumbbells set up some kind of crazy electromagnetic field configuration that trapped enough of the particles from the vacuum chamber into a small enough ball that the same type of thing happened? Maybe the flash of light didn’t cause the explosion but was a symptom of a bigger problem.”

    “You thought of all that while we were racing? No wonder you couldn’t get over the tree. And those chain ring grinds are hell on your big chain ring by the way. I wish you would quit doing that, because I’m always the one who has to put the new one on.” He paused for a second and shook his head. “You are focused, just not on riding,” Jim said.

    “I can’t help it Jim. It was my fault that ‘Becca got hurt. I can’t put it out of my mind that I could’ve done something to prevent it.”

    “It was all our faults, Anson, not yours alone. You want to get it out of your mind for another hour? I know what’ll do it.” He looked down the trail and put the energy bar wrapper in his pocket. “Two laps the other way before it gets dark.” He buckled his helmet and put his sunglasses back on.

    “Fine with me. Double or nothing on the beer?”

    He nodded and took off. He needed it this time. The other way means going up the “screaming downhill” at the end of each lap. Hills are my specialty. Going up them I mean. Going down them scares the living hell out of me.

    We called it a draw. On the last lap we were dead even on the last “whoop” before the big uphill climb. Jim hit a rock just right and went over the handlebars. We were moving fast so I was worried that he was hurt. Jim rolled up on his feet laughing hard as he dusted himself off and wiped the blood from the big scrape on his left elbow.

    “Cool!” he said.

    “Kids!” I said.

    We surveyed the damage to his bike and realized that his front rim was a wavy curve shape like a potato chip.

    “Well, you really potato-chipped that one!” I told him. He popped the quick release skewer and took the wheel off the bike. Jim grabbed the wheel at the four and seven o’clock position and commenced to beating the thing against the ground. He rolled it around in his hands about ninety degrees and repeated the process. Finally, he held up a perfectly good wheel and then put it back on his bike.

    The first time I saw that trick I thought, Now ain’t that the damnedest thing! Since then, I’ve done it myself a million times. The problem is that the wheel, although back in round, is structurally very weak afterwards. Any good knock would potato-chip it again for sure. So we rode out two-up (again, for you civilians, that’s side-by-side) talking about our next step for finding out what happened to ‘Becca.



    Monday I decided to go about reconstructing ‘Becca’s accident. That would be the only way to really see what happened. Nevertheless, it had to be done in a controlled manner this time. After a week or so of planning, we rented the huge vacuum chamber over at NASA MSFC. We hired a local alphabet soup contracting firm to help us set up the experiment. Finally, after weeks of trying to recreate the disaster, we did!

    Apparently, some sort of chaotic resonance set up between all of the generators. This resonance field shielded the energy coupling system from allowing the energy to bleed off from the Casimir effect spheres. An analogy would be that we were filling up seven hundred little air tanks with a constant inflow of air at infinite pressure with no release valve. Once these tanks reached their stress limit, they exploded. From the shear nature of the vacuum energy physics, these tanks had quite a large stress limit. I hadn’t expected that.

    In other words, the Clemons Dumbbells had a constant inflow of energy into them, but they couldn’t dissipate that energy fast enough. Final result: they exploded. I calculated that a piece of material smaller than could be seen by the human eye exploded with as much force as an eighth of a stick of dynamite. DARPA gave us more money.

    The only slight problem with the new DARPA money is that the program all of the sudden became deeply classified. Security was tightened up and we had to hire security guards to sit at the office around the clock. There were a lot of retroactive security issues that had to be dealt with. I had worked security programs before and had a Secret clearance. God knows how high Tabitha’s clearance went. And Jim and ‘Becca were cleared from previous programs as well. The others were put on temporary “need to know” company clearances, but they still were only privy to proprietary information. It didn’t take but about two months for Al and Sara to be cleared at the Secret level also. Johnny presented documents as proof of his clearance that were passed on to the Defense Security Service. He was cleared at Secret.

    For some reason Tabitha put me in for a Top Secret clearance and some other clearance that I had never heard of. She had explained that if things worked out we could find much, much more money in the “black projects.” It all sounded cool with me.

    After a bit of experimentation and analyses, we figured out just how lucky Rebecca had been. ‘Becca was lucky that the thick vacuum glass, the plexiglass shield, a metal enclosure at head level, and the computer at body level were between her and the explosion.

    Once we figured out how to recreate the accident we went about figuring out how to prevent it. That was hard. We determined that it was very easy to set up the chaotic resonant field and very hard to dampen it. One of the subcontractors had the idea of designing each individual collector in an orientation that would cancel out the effect of the next one. Then we could construct them in stable pairs. This worked. I put Sara to working with ‘Becca on this. ‘Becca still needed another hand. Her bronchitis was acting up and you could tell it was wearing her down.

    Finally, we were back on track for building the warp drive experiment flight demonstrator. We left the setup in the NASA MSFC facility with hopes that we would soon be building a very big Casimir effect energy collector.

    All of this time I had been giving Tabitha and Al the possible spacecraft requirements and general dimensions. The two of them began solid model simulations and finite element analysis of the concept vehicle. They also contracted out a lot of the work to some local shops.

    The architecture of the spacecraft started out as empty boxes on the white board with names of spacecraft components written in them. Then we expanded each box and filled it with larger boxes. It turns out that Tabitha is a super genius with systems integration and solid modeling for spacecraft design. Al is pretty sharp, himself. The two of them together were amazing and accomplished some of the best spacecraft engineering I had ever seen.

    The problem wasn’t the design or complexity, but the sheer size. The size of the damn thing kept growing. Sometime in November we decided that the only way to get the thing in orbit would be to either build it there or take it up on the Shuttle. Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELVs) were just not big enough. Tabitha called me after they figured this out.

    “How much do you weigh?” she asked.


    “So I can account for it in the mass budget for the mission.”

    “Hunh?” was the wittiest thing I could think of.

    “Well, somebody has to deploy this damn thing. It ought to be the guy that invented it? Besides, there is budget now for a payload specialist.” I could hear her smiling through the phone.

    I tried and tried, I really came close, but in the end, I failed to shit a gold brick, which I said I would do if I ever made it to be an astronaut. It had never dawned on me that somebody might have to deploy this thing from the Space Shuttle. I always had envisioned some sort of ELV. To tell the truth, I expected to be about ninety by the time we ever figured out how to do the experiment, for sure not going on forty-two.

    “What about you?” I asked Tabitha.

    “Nope. I plan to be flying the Shuttle on NASA’s dime,” she said. You see, payload specialists aren’t NASA employees and a company pays for their training and their ride. Taking me was a smart idea on Tabitha’s behalf. Now both Tabitha and I could be there for the test.

    “I love you!” I told her.

    “I know.” She laughed. Solo and Leia thoughts popped in my head. I’m sure she’d planned it that way.



    We ended up hiring another subcontractor firm to help us with the spacecraft bus and the systems engineering and integration for the demonstrator. You would absolutely not believe the amount of paperwork required just to get something on board the Space Shuttle. It almost seemed like we would invent a better access to space vehicle before we had the dang thing qualified to fly in the Shuttle. It might have been easier to wait for the second generation reusable launch vehicle (2nd Gen RLV) being constructed via the Shuttle Replacement Initiative. However, that thing was falling behind schedule and over budget. After all, Congress changes its mind on funding for that program on a daily basis. In addition, it would have to be tested for a few years before payloads were put on it. It just wouldn’t be ready in time. So, Space Shuttle it had to be.

    First, we had to demonstrate that we could completely control the warp field and the energy systems working as one system in the environment chamber at NASA MSFC. That was a scaled experiment. The fact that all of this was now classified slowed down some of the progress due to security, but it sped up the process due to processes that could be sidestepped. Then we constructed the full-scale experiment: not actually warping just powering up to the available power level in the chamber then down. Even though the power level for the warp field was at fractions of that required to actually drive the warp for an object the size of a spacecraft, the stress on the field coils were still tremendous. We couldn’t figure out how with modern materials to support such huge stresses as would be caused by a full-scale warp bubble. A full-up test on the ground was out of the question. Besides, the power supply wasn’t complete yet.

    Once as much of the full-up tests as possible were complete, we had to start integrating all of these components into a spacecraft. This part was complicated. Everything we used on the spacecraft had to have been spaceflight proven in some fashion or the other down to the last nut, washer, and bolt. This is where I relied on the experience of Huntsville, Alabama. There were a couple of local firms that could do this integration properly and at the right security levels. We ended up choosing the same company that built the lunar rovers forty years ago. The sheer size of this development project had grown to hundreds of people and millions of dollars. My program management skills were being pushed to their limits. I relied heavily on Tabitha.

    By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, the scaled tests were almost complete. Rebecca was basically back to her old self again, although she was now four months behind on her black belt quest. The only scar that remained, after the laser treatments, was a hair-thin ring around her left ring finger. The engagement ring that Jim gave her on her birthday (October second), covered that up nicely.

    Finally, Rebecca and Sara had started on the actual flight hardware pieces for the energy collector. This was going to take a while. It took them about a day to grow the prototype element, which was a ten-centimeter by ten-centimeter wafer with four hundred layers in it. Each layer is four thousandths of a centimeter thick. The final system will have to be a rectangular solid about three meters by three meters by nine meters. We chose these dimensions so it would fit in the Space Shuttle payload bay, which is about four meters by four meters by eighteen meters. Effectively we’re building three cubes three meters on a side and connecting them linearly. At the rate it took us to actually build the microscopic prototype it would have taken about twenty two thousand years to make the three cubes.

    ‘Becca and Sara hooked up with one of Sara’s friends who works at a local printed circuit board company. They make tens of thousands of computer motherboards a day. By Christmas they had set up the first automated assembly line process to construct Clemons Dumbbell etched boards. The first few weeks were dismal failures and the assembly line was constantly shutting down or failing in some manner. Worst of all, ‘Becca found that the quality of the products they had made didn’t meet specs. She had to explain to them the severe catastrophic possibilities of Clemons Dumbbells not built to spec. She told then the horror story of having her finger blown off and embellished it very well. Years of being around a lying scoundrel like me paid off.

    Sara worked that company over pretty good until they produced a line of to-spec products. They managed to get a final line output of about eighteen thousand boards a day with about five and a half of a percent quality control. This meant that we had to throw away about a thousand boards a day. That leaves us with seventeen thousand boards in a year. This meant that nearly a half a million boards are just thrown in the recycle bin. We all considered the problem, but just didn’t have the manpower or the resources to worry with that little amount of quality control. Each board cost about a dollar to make. So the final cost of the cube would be about eight million dollars plus the half million that we have to throw away. It would’ve taken at least a half million dollars in man-hours to figure out how to reduce the quality error.

    ‘Becca was about to make the wrong decision and spend some money to fix the problem. I would like to say that I caught the mistake. But it was Johnny that figured out that it would be better just to bite the bullet on this one. It was a good call. Johnny had spent all those years on construction jobs learning how best to use resources. It’s easier for a contractor to throw away a half of a two-by-four that cost three dollars than it is to spend an hour of labor at ten dollars an hour trying to find a use for it.

    Our biggest issue with the energy collection cubes, or ECCs, was safety. All of the bad boards have the potential of building up explosives energies. Sara figured out that a very high electric discharge through a board would basically weld the concentric spheres to each other and short out the circuit. This rendered the Clemons Dumbbells into a smoking pile. ‘Becca pointed out to her the following very important information.

    “Electrical Technicians Corollary Number One: Electronics runs on smoke. Once the smoke is removed from them, they will no longer function properly.” Using this corollary, Sara could then conclude that the boards would no longer operate as an ECC subcomponent.

    We thought there was an error in this corollary once when a recycle bin exploded and blew a hole in the storage room wall into the adjacent ladies room. The niece of the company president happened to be in there at the time. She was okay, but messy, wet, and scared and … no, wait a minute, she was really messy.

    After investigating the accident (ha! pardon the pun) Sara and ‘Becca found that that board hadn’t been shorted out (Sara likes to say “electrocuted”).

    ‘Becca started in on the vice president of the company.

    “You may be able to get away with a half million bad boards a year.” She stopped and took a hit off of her Albuterol inhaler. She caught her breath and continued, “But you can absolutely not get away with one single board not being shorted out! Ever!”

    Had OSHA ever gotten wind of what we were doing, there would’ve been hell to pay. Fortunately, all of this effort operated under the DARPA money and everyone working on it was under at least a Secret clearance. The person who had made the mistake of not shorting out the board was fired, probably because of the company president’s niece.

    ‘Becca and Sara kept the ECC effort running smoothly from then on. We expected to have the ECCs delivered in a little less than a year and a half. Jim, Al, and I were working the spacecraft design while Tabitha and I were working the mission plan. The spacecraft was coming along pretty good. The problem was that we couldn’t figure out how to put the warp field generator or WFG on top of the ECCs and it fit in the Space Shuttle payload bay.

    “Then there is the problem with the bus, the C and DH systems, the ACS, and the comm systems. Where do they go?” Al was fairly frantic by now.

    “What if we distribute all of that around the ECCs?” Jim said.

    I put in my two cents. “I don’t know about you guys but I think that would create a whole new research program for distributed spacecraft systems.” I decided we needed an expert’s opinion. “Tabitha! Hey, Tabitha, you got a sec?” I yelled down the hall.

    She put her head in the door. “What’s up!”

    “We still can’t figure out where to put all of the systems. I mean, we finished the WFG a month ago but have no idea how to attach it to the ECCs and get it in the Shuttle,” Jim told her.

    “Much less the other systems.” Al added.

    “So don’t attach them,” she replied and turned back toward her office. “Haven’t you guys ever heard of EVAs? Sheesh. What do y’all do in here all day anyway? Anson, you didn’t think you were just going along for the ride did you?” She said this very sarcastically as she went back down the hall. We just looked at each other with our chins on the table.

    “Okay, is it just me, or does everybody else feel really stupid about now?” Jim asked.

    “Don’t beat yourselves up. She practically built the last few modules of the ISS on extravehicular activities herself. It was very obvious to her what to do.” I laughed. “Amazing,” I added as I shook my head back and forth.

    The main design problems were finally worked out. We would build the thing on orbit from three subsections. The subsections consisted of the warp field generator, the energy collection cubes, and the spacecraft bus. We bought a bus from one of the commercial spacecraft bus manufacturers and then tailored it to our specific needs. We decided to separate the three ECCs by one hundred twenty degrees and place the WFG in the center. The WFG would be encased in a cylindrical composite container about one meter in diameter and about three meters long. We then decided to suspend the ECCs from the WFG cylinder by support booms. Attached to one end of the WFG cylinder will be the spacecraft bus. The communications antenna attached to the outside of the bus will deploy to one meter in diameter once the spacecraft is powered up. The attitude control system (ACS) and the other science instruments all will be packaged in a cube-shaped container at the base of the rectangular-shaped bus. Two small spherical pressure tanks were added on each side of the science box to house the fuel and oxidizer for the ACS. Small arcjet thrusters were then placed all around the spacecraft. The final design was in three easy to snap together chunks.

    That is what I thought, anyway. Then, six months later I tried to put a full-scale mockup together in the full EVA gear in the neutral buoyancy tank at NASA Johnson Space Center. Tabitha ended up having to help me. It was a two-man, uh two-person, job for certain. She would be the only other astronaut on board not already tasked to the max for other jobs and who was “read onto the DOD/NASA program need to know list.” Unless you consider flying the Space Shuttle a job. I hadn’t known it, but Tabitha had continued to fly more than fifteen hours a month all this time to maintain her currency. I had to start flying with her at least four hours a month. I say that like it was a chore. I love to fly. I got my instrument rating by the time I finished undergraduate school and had been to more fly-ins than you could shake a stick at. But this was really flying!

    We would get our hours by flying back and forth between Houston, Texas or Cape Kennedy, Florida and Huntsville, Alabama. Fly out to Houston to do some more training. Fly back to Huntsville to keep the construction, testing, and integration of the spacecraft components in order. Then back to Houston. Then back to Huntsville. Then to Kennedy for payload integration meetings and training. Every now and then there would be a flight out to Pasadena, California to JPL or to Baltimore-Washington International to Goddard, HQ, or other government entity buildings. We were burning the candle from both ends, the middle, and from several other places.

    Things were rather chaotic during that time. Tabitha and I tried to run or do Kardio Kickboxing type workouts together as often as we could. I got on the road bike and went to karate every chance I got, which wasn’t often. Mountain biking and fighting were completely out of the question now though. No way I was going to risk an injury that would scrub me off the spaceflight mission.

    Between Jim, Rebecca, and myself we were able to cover my classes at the university, but we did have to schedule quite a few make-up sessions. The chairman of the physics department saw what was happening and suggested that I take a leave from teaching until after the mission. That was a load off my mind. He assured me that my job would be there as long as I wanted it. Why not? What university wouldn’t want to boast having an astronaut on the faculty?

    The first ECC was completed by June. To celebrate, Jim and Rebecca got married! They had asked Tabitha and me about it beforehand.

    “We don’t have a lot of money for it and neither of us has any family to speak of,” Jim was saying. “Think we ought to do a small church thing or just elope or what?” ‘Becca wasn’t too keen on the elope idea for some reason.

    “I don’t know. Its y’all’s wedding,” I responded, helpfully.

    “’Becca, what do you want?” Tabitha asked.

    “I just want something to remember,” she said.

    “If you had a formal kind of thing, who would you really want to invite?” Tabitha asked. We had some ideas of our own. But we hadn’t spoken a word of it to the kids.

    “Really, just Sara, Al, Johnny, Jim’s folks - but they won’t come - a handful of people from the dojo, you would be a bridesmaid, and I was hoping Anson would give me away.” ‘Becca looked sheepishly at me.

    Jim chimed in, “He can’t give you away and be the best man, to!”

    “Sure he can,” ‘Becca said giving Jim a look that he better start getting used to.

    “I would be honored,” I said to both of them. Then I asked them, “Are you sure that is all you wanted to invite? Can you give me a number?”

    She counted on her hands for a second and said, “I don’t know - fifteen or so?” She shrugged her shoulders and looked at Jim.

    “Tim. Don’t forget Tim,” Jim replied.

    “Okay,” I said, “Let’s assume twenty.” I looked at Tabitha. “Colonel, you have any bright ideas?”

    “Don’t colonel me!” she started. “Look at this.” She handed them brochures from a cruise line. “The big dolt there and I did some checking. If we have a party of fifteen to twenty-five go on one of these three-night-four day things it would only run us about two hundred seventy-nine dollars per person. Then you two would swap boats when it returned to port and then do another four-night five-day cruise for your honeymoon.”

    “Yeah and they have wedding services either on the boat or on one of the islands. They take care of everything.” I added.

    ‘Becca was almost in tears. She grabbed her inhaler and took a puff. She had hardly used that thing in months.

    She wiped her eyes and said, “That’s beautiful but we can’t afford that.” Jim said the same.

    “I’m sorry, did I forget to mention that it’s on us? We already talked it over and we want to do this for you. Bob and Alisa said they would pay their own way and so did some of the other karate folks. And I have some money just lying around collecting dust anyway,” I joked.

    Tabitha smiled, “Goofball! I do have one request. I would like to bring my daughter along.”

    ‘Becca was crying full flow now. “I would love to meet her. In fact she can be a bridesmaid too!”

    Jim punched me on the shoulder. “When you get back from outer space, I’m kicking your ass!” He laughed.



    That’s pretty much how the wedding went. Almost everybody but Sara paid his or her own way and we got a good deal on the price of the cruise. Tabitha and I covered all the other stuff. We ended up splitting about seven grand between the two of us and most of that was the open bar! Jim and ‘Becca seemed happier than I had ever seen them. As a second wedding gift, I gave them each a bonus and a new pay scale. After all, the company was doing a lot more business now, mostly because of them. I had planned on giving them raises earlier for graduation presents, but we had been so busy that administrative details were falling behind. The bonuses were the retroactive raises plus a little. We were all very emotional and ‘Becca had to take a hit of Albuterol. The ocean air seemed to help ‘Becca’s respiratory condition andshe didn’t use her inhaler but that once during the whole cruise.

    We all had a great time. When we stopped at Key West, I made a point to visit a certain restaurant and tip the bartenders well. We all needed the short break, anyway. My mind was fried from the round-the-clock hours we had been putting in. I could tell Tabitha’s was also and looked even more beautiful in a bathing suit and smile, although I’m not upset with the way she looks in her colonel’s outfit or her astronaut gear.

    I didn’t mention her daughter, did I? If you can imagine Tabitha twenty years younger, there you go. Same bright red hair, same big brown anime eyes, and the temper and spunk to match. Instead of the Texas accent that her mother sports, Anne Marie grew up in Florida where Tabitha’s parents had moved for retirement and to be close to Tabitha when she launched. I fell in love with her from the moment I laid eyes on her. Although Tabitha and her parents had done a bang-up job raising her, you could tell that she didn’t have a father or big brother figure in her life. Maybe that’s why we got along so well.

    At one point I showed her how to get out of a chokehold; she wanted to see more. So, I gave her a plastic butter knife and told her to stab me in the stomach with it. After she said, “Uncle!” I helped her up off the deck of the promenade and asked her if she wanted the knife back. Jim told me to quit showing off. Anne Marie stuck her tongue out at him and held onto my arm.

    She kept asking me, “Could you whup that guy? What about that guy? Him?” I told her that that wasn’t why I learned karate. Then she pointed at Bob and asked if I could beat him. “He don’t look that tough,” she said. I laughed and so did ‘Becca, who was eavesdropping in on our conversation.

    I reassured her that myself and three or four other guys couldn’t “whup” Bob in a million years. Jim and I have tried several times. We always went home rubbing our knots, bruises, and bumps wondering just what in the hell were we thinking.

    “You ever heard the expression, I’ll put knots on your head faster than you can rub ‘em?” I asked Anne Marie. “Well, believe me, he can.”

    After kissing the bride “so long” and shaking the groom’s hand, Tabitha, Anne Marie, and I left the Port of Miami and I drove up to Titusville near the Cape to see her parents. We stayed at her parent’s for another two days, Tabitha took care of some business at NASA, and then we flew from the Cape back to Huntsville. A few times Tabitha let me fly the trainer. Pretty cool! It wouldn’t be long before I would have enough hours in the trainers to be rated to fly it since Tabitha is a certified instructor.

    We altered our flight plan a little and flew to an unrestricted airspace where I practiced maneuvers. Tabitha took me through some stalls and slow flight. Then she had me do some S turns and some three-sixties and seven-twenties. After a while she showed me how to do a simple barrel roll and a few other neat tricks that you can’t do in a Cessna. Then it was back homeward.

    Tabitha took over coming into Huntsville International. It was socked in with rain and we had to land under ILS (instrument landing system). I have an instrument rating and I know how to do that in a Cessna 172 prop job but not in a T-38 jet. I was glad to have her at the controls.

    When we got back to my house we were exhausted. Friday meowed at me for being gone so long. Tabitha stroked her on the head.

    “Hello kitty. That’s a pretty kitty,” she told Friday.

    We watched the idiot box a bit and got real friendly with each other on the couch. Finally, Tabitha and I went to bed and didn’t budge until near lunch the next day. Why is it that you’re usually more tired after vacation than you were before you went? Isn’t the point of the vacation to rest and relax? Oh well, we had to get back to work tomorrow and from herein there would be no more resting. There was only ten months left before our scheduled launch date.

    The line in Aliens where Sergeant Apone grunts, “Okay, marines, you know the drill. Assholes and elbows lets move it!” rang in my head as I drifted off, a big smile on my face.

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