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East of the Sun, West of the Moon: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Saturday, December 17, 2005 23:06 EST



    All of Megan's staff were up and in the apartment when they got back.

    "What happened?" Shanea asked. "We heard the knocking but when we got dressed you were already gone!"

    "The Icarus team got taken out," Herzer said, stripping off his jacket and yawning. "So for my sins they're putting me in charge."

    "Oh my God!" Shanea wailed. "You're going into space?"

    "Looks like it," Herzer muttered. "Is the coffee on?"

    "I thought you were going back to bed?" Megan said. "Meredith, Ashley, spend most of tomorrow clearing my schedule. I'm going to be unavailable in a few days."

    "Yes, ma'am," Meredith said, nodding. "May I ask why?"

    "It turns out that there's something unspecified that requires the presence of a Keyholder on the mission," Megan said with a moue. "So that means me or Duke Edmund. Of the two, I'm less necessary at the moment."

    "You're going?" Ashley said. "You've got to be joking!"

    "I'm not joking," Megan said. "What's on the schedule for the breakfast meeting?"

    "Vote count," Meredith said. "The port upgrades, fleet budget and the new legion budgeting."

    "Make sure the linking sheet is ready with a list of hard votes," Megan said, shaking her head. "Mirta...a gray suit I think. The news will have gotten around fast. A touch of mourning clothes would be in order. Among other things it will send a signal that I knew about it before anyone else."

    "What about us?" Ashley said. "We're not going with you, are we?"

    "No," Megan said with a smile. "Meredith will stay in Washan to keep an eye on things. Ditto Mirta to follow the rumor mill. I'd like you and Shanea to accompany me to the training facility. You to handle the reports from Meredith and Shanea..."

    "Because I'm nice to have around?" Shanea asked, bringing in a tray with coffee and some rolls.

    "Exactly," Megan said, smiling. "Thank you."

    "I'm going to have to start working out, soon," Herzer said. "Mirta? Meredith? I don't know which of you would handle it but I need a set of weights. Barbells from ten kilos to forty, bar weights from sixty to two hundred and a press bench. If you can find it a legion weight training system. I don't know when we'll be leaving town and I'm going to have to get started right away if the mission is in two months."

    "You look in pretty good shape to me," Shanea said, grinning.

    "That's because you've never seen me actually in shape," Herzer replied with a smile. "Even on the ship I was woefully out of condition. Sleep or workout?" he muttered, taking another sip of coffee and a bite of roll. "Ah, hell, I can sleep when I'm dead. I doubt anything serious will get done today; they're going to have to get Evan down here from the training facility, he'll have to get a brief together..."

    "You're not planning on starting today, are you?" Megan asked.

    "Yeah," Herzer said. "But I'll need more breakfast than a roll. I'll go get it from the deli around the corner."

    "The hell you will," Shanea protested. "What do you want? We've got everything you could possibly need here."

    "Hmmm," Herzer muttered. "Well, when I get back, I'd like six eggs, over easy, about six slices of bacon, four pieces of toast, coffee," he said, waving his cup, "and if you've got it, a large portion of hash browns."

    "Ulp," Shanea gasped. "All that?"

    "All that," Herzer said, standing up. "Megan, I'll see you later, I guess."

    "You're going now?"

    "Traffic's light," Herzer grinned. "Best time of the day."



    Herzer stumbled back into the apartment, fully aware of how badly out of shape he was. He'd only gone about twenty kilometers with the ruck and half of that had been at a walk. And it wasn't a combat loaded ruck. He should have been able to trot the whole distance if not run it. Either he was getting old or soft living in the capitol was taking its toll.

    "Are you ready for breakfast?" Shanea asked then blanched. "Are you okay?"

    "I will be," Herzer gasped, lowering the ruck onto the floor of the entryway. "But right now I'd puke at the sight of food. I'll be fine after a shower."

    "I'll get started then," Shanea said.




    As he was finishing breakfast the weights started to arrive accompanied by Mirta.

    "I got everything you asked for," she said as the sweating workmen carried the material into the apartment.

    "I have no idea where we're going to put it all," Herzer temporized.

    "Meredith has offered the spare space in her office," Mirta said with a grin.

    "I hate to throw her out," Herzer replied, frowning.

    "Oh, you're not," Mirta said with a smile. "I said the spare space. She said she can work around you."



    There had been no further word from Edmund and Herzer was well into his upper body workout when Meredith wandered into the room.

    Her "office" was one of the spare bedrooms in the apartment. Each of the ladies had their own apartments in the building, which had been virtually co-opted by Megan, but she had an additional office in Megan's apartment where she kept most of the records. The room was large, however, and the desk and filing cabinet only took up part of the space. The extensive weight equipment Herzer had ordered, however, could have taken up a much larger room.

    "Are you sure this is going to work?" Herzer asked, slowly raising a barbell in one hand and prosthetic up to shoulder height, arms outstretched in front of him. He took a slow breath as he raised them then held them out at full extension. He was wearing cut off shorts and a sweat-soaked, sleeveless, gray cosilk shirt.

    "If I can get in here around your stuff, yes," Meredith said, coldly. She dropped the files in her arms on the desk and sat down, opening up the top one. "And if I don't have to engage in casual conversation."

    Herzer took the hint and lowered the barbells with an outrush of breath, waited a moment and then repeated the movement.

    He was half way through a forty rep of slow curls when Meredith closed the file she was reading and turned around in her chair.

    "Aren't you supposed to do a lower body workout one day and an upper body workout the next?" she asked, scornfully.

    "I did a heavy lower body today," Herzer said, slowly raising the twenty kilo barbell. "This is a light upper body workout."

    "That's light?" Meredith said, frowning.

    "Yes," Herzer replied.

    Meredith watched him for a moment and then turned back around, opening another file.



    "Thanks for coming over here, Evan," Herzer said, helping the engineer with the easel he had brought.

    Evan Mayerle was a medium height, brown-haired young man with blue eyes that at the moment were mostly focused on Shanea's rump. She had brought in a tray of coffee and sweet rolls and placed them on the low table by bending over from the waist. Since she was wearing a tight skirt, her endowments in the area were fully evident.

    "Uh..." the engineer said. "Yeah. Uhm..."

    "Briefing on the Excelsior," Herzer said, grinning.

    "Right," Evan said, shaking his head and trying not to watch the blonde as she sashayed out of the room. "Excelsior," he muttered, pulling a set of charts out of a tube and pinning them to the easel. "Excelposterior..." He paused and shook his head. "Miss Travante, have we met?"

    "Briefly on the Hazhir," Megan replied.

    "Nice to see you again," Evan muttered, his eyes wandering between her chest and her eyes. He shook his head again and pulled out two thick files from his briefcase.

    "I suppose I should get started," he said, setting the files on the coffee table. "Uhm..." He paused and took a breath again and then turned to the easel. "You're ready?"

    "Ready, Mr. Mayerle," Megan said, trying not to laugh.

    "The Excelsior was built in 2935. It was originally a tanker that carried hydrocarbons from Neptune to Terra."

    Herzer started to open his mouth and then close it. Evan, concentrating on his notes, didn't notice.

    "It was refitted for Helium Three transport in 3212 when the market for hydrocarbons dropped below the sustainment level for the system. As the last of its class it was retained while the others were scrapped. It uses an ion drive propulsion system which, of course, is very low impulse but has a high maximum speed..."

    "Excuse me," Herzer interjected. "I'm lost. What is an ion drive?"

    "You know what ions are, right?" Evan said, frowning.

    "Yes," Megan said.

    "No," Herzer replied at the same time.

    Evan sighed and thought for a moment.

    "You do know that an atom is composed of a nucleus and an electron shell, right?" he asked.

    "That I know," Herzer admitted.

    "Okay. Ions are atoms that have had the electron shell stripped away. They're highly energetic and you can push them out the back of a space vehicle and they give you specific impulse. That is, they push the spacecraft. More or less."

    "Okay," Herzer said. "So that means...what for us?"

    "Just that that's the ships main drive system," Evan replied, frowning.

    "And that matters to me...why?" Herzer asked.

    Evan opened his mouth and then closed it, looking non-plussed.

    "Herzer," Megan said, smiling faintly. "Let him talk."

    "Okay," Herzer replied, leaning back. "Just wake me up when we get to the part where I kill people."

    "The ship is a bit over one kilometer long," Evan said, frowning slightly and pointing to the first schematic. "The drive system is to the rear and takes up about two hundred meters of the ship. There are six very old model HE3 fusion reactors in that section and the ion generator cannon..."

    "Cannon?" Herzer said, sitting up.

    "It's a term of art, Major," Evan sighed. "It's not a weapon."


    "There is also a small control facility which controls only the main engine systems. The ship vector is adjusted by latitudinal thrusters located along the midline and centerline..."

    Herzer opened his mouth and then closed it, shaking his head.

    "That's how it's steered," Megan whispered in his ear.

    "...which are controlled from the ship's central command facility," he said, pointing near the center of the ship.

    "Why's it got those big bulges?" Herzer asked.

    "There are three HE3 tanks," Evan said, sighing. "Located centerline of the ship. Each is composed of a flex-metal composite. When empty they deflate but they will be fully engorged when the initial presentation is made."

    Herzer started to say something again and then waved his hand in despair.

    "That means when we first get up there," Megan whispered.

    "There are twelve refueling shuttles," Evan continued, apparently not noticing the by-play. "Located midline at docking points here, here, here, here, here and here," he added, tapping the new schematic. "This, of course, only shows the shuttles on one side, there is a matching set on the far side. Each of the shuttles has room for seven persons including a pilot, in case the ship needs human repair crew..."

    "Why in the hell would it need that?" Herzer asked. "Doesn't Mother handle that?"

    "At the time it was developed," Evan said with a moue, "full function AIs were limited in number and not fully trusted with complex problems. The ship originally had a human crew. Which is why the transverse personnel tubes located midline above the shuttle docking points are pressurized as is the engine control room, maintenance, crew quarters and the main control room."

    "Okay, now we're getting someplace," Herzer said, leaning back and rubbing his chin.

    "The shuttles are fully automated," Evan continued. "When the ship approaches Terra..."

    "Where's Terra?" Herzer asked. "You said that before."

    "Earth," Megan replied.

    "What she said," Evan said with a nod. "When it approaches Earth, the shuttles fuel from the HE3 tanks and land at reactors. Transfer at the reactors takes approximately one hour. Then they return to the ship, fuel again and so on. It takes approximately twenty trips for the ship to be fully emptied."

    "Why not just port it down?" Herzer asked, confused.

    "The ship, for safety reasons, never comes closer than the orbit of the moon to Earth," Evan said. "The initial shuttle punch occurs far outside the orbit of the moon and the ship continues on trajectory past Terra and the moon. It's far enough out that even modern porting systems are questionable and a portal, since it moves at a high rate of comparative velocity to a link on Earth is highly unstable. When the system was designed, of course, teleportation had not yet been developed."

    "So we can't just set up a portal and flood the ship with troops," Herzer said.

    "No," Evan confirmed. "The only way up, and the only way back is on the shuttles. Seven at a time, per shuttle. Nine at a real squeeze. There are, in addition, four small space capable shuttles. They are not capable of landing on Ter...Earth. They're designed for moving around the ship and between the ship and its fueling stations around Jupiter and Saturn and cannot handle reentry gravitational loading. Nor are they aerodynamic."

    "So...what's the plan?" Herzer said.

    "The control room can reprogram shuttle priorities," Evan said. "The original Icarus plan was to go up in the first shuttles and take the control room then reprogram the shuttles to only refuel Freedom Coalition reactors."

    "Sounds like a plan," Herzer said.

    "What about the engine room?" Megan asked.

    "Anyone who controls the engine room, effectively controls the main engines," Evan said, frowning. "But that only give direct velocity control. I'm not sure what utility that would have to the mission. My primary concern was with the shuttles themselves."

    "Why?" Herzer asked.

    "They can be overridden by an onboard pilot," Evan pointed out. "We can reprogram them to land at only our reactors. But if New Destiny has pilots in them, it won't matter."

    "Ouch," Herzer muttered. "This is making my head hurt. What we really need to do, in other words, is capture all twelve of the shuttles."

    "that was my suggestion," Evan said. "There was, however, a problem."

    "And that is?" Megan asked.

    "Where, pardon me, ma'am, you come in. The shuttles require a security override for pilots to take control. For that matter, so does the control room."

    "And the security can only be overridden by a Keyholder," Megan guessed.

    "Correct," Evan said, frowning. "So to take control of the shuttles, you will be required to go to each of them and tell them who you are. The system is a real antique. We don't even have good mock-ups for it. That's one of the reasons we'll have to have some people who know old computers. There were some on the original team and they gave a presentation on the systems. Unfortunately, I don't even have their notes."

    "Great," Megan said, frowning.

    "But New Destiny will be sending up their own people in their shuttles," Herzer said. "Do the shuttles always go back to the same reactors?"

    "No," Evan said, unhappily. "Just because you have a shuttle, doesn't mean it's programmed for your reactor. But if you have a pilot in it, it can be forced to go there."

    "I have to ask this," Megan said. "Is Mother going to intervene in this little scuffle?"

    "She shouldn't," Evan temporized. "As far as we were able to determine, she doesn't have a protocol that governs security for this ship."

    "Hmmm..." Megan mused. "Mother?"

    "Yes, Megan?" a voice answered out of the air.

    Evan reacted with surprise but Herzer just looked non-plussed.

    "You are aware that we're planning on...hijacking the Excelsior?" Megan asked.

    "Yes," the disembodied voice replied.

    "Are you going to tell New Destiny what our plans are?"


    "And I don't suppose you'll tell me their plans?" Megan asked, hopefully.


    "Are you going to interfere?"

    "Not unless the safety of Terra is jeopardized," Mother responded. "And perhaps not even then."

    "What does that mean?" Herzer asked.

    "I suspect it has to do with ship trajectory," Evan said. "If the ship were to crash into Terra, it would be very unpleasant. Big boom."

    "Okay, handy safety tip," Herzer said. "Don't crash the ship into the Earth."

    "Is Evan correct, Mother?" Megan asked. "As long as we don't crash the ship into Terra, you will not interfere?"

    "That is correct," Mother replied. "As long as you remain within your plans to capture or destroy the ship, there will be no interference from this party. Furthermore, re-entry of the Excelsior under these conditions could be described as human error. I am remanded from fixing human errors other than through specific protocol provisions."

    "In other words," Megan said, frowning, "if we crash it into the earth, Mother won't save us."

    "That would be bad," Evan said, quietly.

    "How bad?" Herzer asked.

    "Mother," Megan said, puzzled. "What about explosive protocols?"

    "The impact of the Excelsior, more or less intact, would exceed explosive protocol overrides given current power reserves."

    "Very bad," Evan said.

    "But if we slam it in the moon we're good to go?" Herzer asked.

    There was a pause and Megan smiled as the computer didn't answer.

    "But if we are forced to crash it into the moon, there will be no repercussion?" Megan asked.

    "No," Mother replied. "The mass of the ship is insufficient to deflect the orbit of the moon."

    "Thank you, Mother," Megan said, frowning. "I really don't want to crash the ship. Once we drain the reactors down in this damned war, we won't even have the power left to build another ship that can go out and get the fuel we'll need. Even if we take all the keys we may be stuck on the planet."

    "No," Evan said. "If we take nine keys we can override several protocols that will permit us to build different reactors. Then, when we've built up the power, we can build another Excelsior and go get the fuel we need. It will be a pain and it will stretch out the rebuild time, but we can do it."

    "What sort of reactors?" Herzer asked.

    "The HE3 reactors can be converted to use hydrogen," Evan said. "Which is easy enough to extract from water."

    "Why don't they already?" Megan asked, curiously.

    "There are...unpleasant byproducts," Evan admitted.

    "Define unpleasant," Megan requested.

    "Very radioactive," Evan admitted. "It's why they use HE3 instead; it has virtually no radioactive byproducts. The only radiation comes from hydrogen and H2 contamination and that's in parts per billion; easy enough to scrub in use. But if you use hydrogen you're constantly having to replace parts that have been irradiated. It was extremely time and cost intensive at the time of their design, requiring that the parts be ground down and then reprocessed laboriously to extract the radioactive isotopes and then mixing them with glass and eventually containing them in a long term containment facility." He paused and his eyes unfocused as a thought hit him. "Of course, with modern replication technology, it would be easier to reprocess the materials since the replicator fields can distinguish, of course, between standard stable and unstable isotopes...'

    "Evan," Herzer said. "The ship."

    "Oh, right," Evan muttered. "Uhm..."

    "So we have to take the control room?" Herzer asked, standing up and flipping through the large schematic diagrams. He noticed that they were some type of plastic and wondered where they'd come from and how old they were. The plastic had a brittle feel to it.

    "That would be optimum," Evan said. "But probably insufficient to guarantee success."

    "Any way to ignore it?" Herzer asked.

    "Well," Evan said, shrugging. "If you took all the shuttles, secured them, manned them and ensured their continued security, you'd get the fuel. But if you ignore the command center, New Destiny then has control of the ship."

    "Lots of personnel for that," Herzer muttered. "Where's the control center?"

    "Here," Evan said, pointing to the spot on the schematic. "Located between Fuel Blisters numbers one and two on the lower structural reinforcement ring."

    "These are the closest shuttles," Herzer said, pointing to the spots. He was starting to get the arcane symbology on the schematic.

    "Yes, shuttles three and four are closest," Evan admitted.

    "Pressurized the whole way?" Herzer asked.

    "Pressure and artificial gravity," Evan said.

    "Alternate means of egress?" Herzer asked.

    "Each of the pressure corridors, port and starboard, have airlocks, here and here," Evan noted, pointing to the symbols. "There are two doors to the control room, port and starboard. Standard pressure doors."

    "Armored or what?" Herzer asked. "What are they made out of?"

    "Memory plastic," Evan said, unhappily. "They're rather easy to break if you squirt them with a cryogenic fluid and then give them a sharp tap with a pointed object."

    "Cryogenic?" Herzer said, wincing.

    "Very cold," Megan said. "Liquid helium would do."

    "Or nitrogen," Evan noted. "It's what the team was going to use if they had to force the doors."

    "No other points of attack?" Herzer asked. "What are the walls made of?"

    "You're thinking of cutting your way into the control room?" Evan asked, aghast.

    "I'm hoping not to," Herzer said. "I'm also hoping that New Destiny doesn't. What are they made of?"

    "Ceramo-metallic composite," Evan said. "Very strong, very resistant including to chemical attacks and heat. I'm not sure how you would cut it under the conditions. Repair requires a plasma torch. There are some on the ship in the maintenance bay," he added, pointing to a spot between the control room and the engine room."

    "What are these?" Herzer asked, pointing to two spots on the reinforcement ring that were marked, he thought, as airlocks.

    "Docking points for the space only shuttles," Evan said.

    "Any way in there?" Herzer asked.

    "The airlock for the shuttle is attached to the ship," Evan noted. "Someone could cut in through the wall of the ship, but it's composite as well. It does have a view port forward, diamond composite. That would be easier than cutting the hull."

    "I'd like to know what all these symbols mean," Herzer said, running his hand over the schematic. "I can read a topographic map easily. This is...different."

    "There's a legend on the second page," Evan said, flipping to it and pointing at the massive number of entries.

    Herzer looked at it and groaned. "This is going to take forever to understand. And we'll want copies. A lot of copies. Are there any around?"

    "There's one other," Evan said, unhappily. "How many copies?"

    "At least ten," Herzer said. "Preferably more. I'd like every team to have one. How were the Icarus teams set up?"

    "The first wave was to be fighters," Evan said. "Their mission was to take the control room. Then another wave of mixed fighters and techs would move in and take control."

    "That assumes that you can take the control room and don't run into anything that your fighters can't handle," Herzer noted.

    "Yes, but the strike personnel were cross trained on limited engineering capability," Evan noted. "They could figure out the basics of most of the systems."

    "We can't," Herzer pointed out. "Our fighters are only going to be able to fight, and I'm not sure of that in zero g and no pressure. Gag. We're going to have to go with mixed teams. One computer tech, one engineering tech and four fighters per shuttle."

    "And on one of them there's going to have to be a Keyholder," Megan noted.

    "Figure out if you're specialty is going to be computers or engineering," Herzer said. "You're going to be studying like the rest of us. What about steering this beast? Navigation or piloting or whatever?"

    "The navigation is simplicity itself," Evan noted. "If you have the control room. All you do is tell it where to go in space and park itself. If you want to crash it, have it park on the moon. If we gain full control, you can park it at L-5 or in geosynchronous orbit."

    "What is L-5?" Herzer asked. "Or geosynchronous orbit?"

    "L-5 is a stable gravitational point off-set between Terra and Luna," Megan said. "Geosynchronous orbit is the orbit around Terra where a body travels as a speed which maintains it in orbit and over a single point on Terra."

    "Is there any way to gain control of the steering if you don't have the control room?" Herzer asked.

    "Manual control of the thrusters," Evan said, pointing to spots along the structural rings. "But actually steering it, even into a body as large as the moon, will be difficult. It risks crashing it into Terra, for example. Or having it 'miss' forcing us to keep scrabbling for it."

    "I'm scrabbling in the dark," Herzer admitted. "Leave this copy and notes on the basic areas. I'll come up with a list of questions over the next few days, each of which will produce more questions. Do you know anything about the personnel search?"

    "No," Evan admitted. "I suspect I'm going to have to go on the mission, though."

    "Why?" Herzer asked.

    "Well, I'm familiar with the ship. I've been studying it off and on for the last year. I know how an ion drive works," he added, proudly.

    "You're right," Herzer said. "You just got drafted. For now, though, get copies made of the other copy. And I'll get started on a list of questions."

    After Evan had left, Herzer continued to pour over the schematic unhappily.

    "So I'm going to be an engineering tech, eh?" Megan said after a few minutes of being ignored. "What are you going to be studying?"

    "This," Herzer said, waving at the schematic. "I'm going to have to be the expert at this thing. To know it like the inside of my mouth. To know every detail of every dimension. What portions are pressurized. Which have gravity. Which have both. Which have neither. Where the entry points are. What they are made of. How to disable a door. How to disable an airlock. How to fix one that's been disabled. I'm going to have to be able to know exactly where someone is based on this insane coding," he added, waving at the map, "when a team reports they've hit heavy resistance at...Charlie One Three Five. To know, without looking at the map, if they're fighting in pressure or out. And be able to keep track, partially in my head and partially on this map, where reinforcements are. And I only have a month. That and getting in shape again. Sleep is going to be optional."

    "How are we going to communicate?" Megan asked.

    "Question one that I should have asked Evan already," Herzer sighed. "I dunno. I don't even know if we'll have space suits or space armor or nothing."

    "Suits and armor," Megan said, looking at the notes. "Armor for the fighters, suits for the techs."

    "We'll have to get fitted," Herzer said. "Soon. Which means we have to have the list of personnel. Soon. If I understood his briefing, we won't know which of the shuttles is coming to which reactor until they're on their way. And how do we find out which are going to friendly reactors and which are going to enemy once they're on their second trip?"

    Megan flipped through the briefing papers and found the appropriate page.

    "Each shuttle access point has a readout showing where it is going when it refuels and where each other refueling shuttle is going."

    "Assuming one side or the other doesn't control the shuttles," Herzer said.

    "Communications," Megan said. "Quantum communicators are useable on the ship but their power will be drained until we're outside geosynchronous orbit where some of the Net protocols fall off. There are chargers in the shuttles." She flipped through the notes some more and nodded. "The suits have a similar problem with power. Once up there they're going to work on batteries but have to be charged. The suits will have communicators. In addition to the batteries they have three other backup power systems based around a wind-up handle," she added with a grin the cocked her head. "You have to see these things. There's a note here that says, in all seriousness: 'The use of domesticated rodents for suit power was contemplated and rejected after analysis.'"

    "What do you want to bet it was hamsters?" Herzer said with a grin.

    "What was the name of that inventor that created gadgets that did things in the most complex way?"

    "Bill Gates?" Herzer asked. "Something like that?"

    "No I was thinking Goldsmith or something," Megan mused. "Good Lord!"

    "What?" Herzer asked, not turning away from the schematic.

    "I just read the description of the suit plumbing," Megan said. "Yick!"

    "Can I borrow that?" Herzer asked, turning away from the schematic thoughtfully.

    "Of course," Megan said, holding out the thick book.

    "Thanks," he replied, wandering out of the room. "I'll be in the weight room if anyone needs me."

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