UNF Admiralty, Paris, Earth
“I don't like it one bit, Doctor, not one bit.” Admiral of the Fleet Sir Douglas Chamberlain was not having a particularly good day. The reports from the edge of the Union were not optimistic, and given that they were all from the almost undefended east, near Earth, he had good reason to be nervy – and the opinion of Doctor Weisshaupt was one of the few he valued, or indeed listened to.
“Perhaps you could use this to leverage some support to this end, Admiral?” Weisshaupt was a small, fat man with a bristling moustache, and sat in the too-small chair in the Admiral's office, surrounded by all his awards and accolades, he could not help but feel nervous. There was a glistening of sweat across his furrowed brow, and given the heat of this year's summer, that was only to be expected.
“Not very likely, I'm afraid. Our gelatinous neighbours are getting uppity, and the Parliament are more nervous about known threats than unknown ones. They are, after all, only human.” There was a moment in which Weisshaupt tried to work out if this was a mistake, and after seeing the glint in Chamberlain's one good eye, burst into laughter. He forced it a little too loudly, perhaps, and felt a distinct awkwardness when his ample frame stopped shaking. “Never mind. The Earth will be launching later today, and if I know that Adolf half as well as I think I do, we'll be fine. I still don't like the Uralyet building the Achilles, though.”
“Well, Doug, there are-”
The admiral raised a wrinkled hand to stop his old friend. “I know, I know. Another three months and we'll have her in our hands, but I'm a traditional old man with traditional thoughts on these matters.” He sighed, leaning back in the green leather chair behind his desk, staring out into nowhere. “When I was last a captain of a ship, they were still on the sea!”
“How times change, Doug.”
“I've had plenty of change in my lifetime, Whitey, and I'll be bloody glad to retire at the end of the year and settle down to golf and shooting.” Chamberlain, for all his experience, was, and always would be, an old-fashioned English gentleman, with all the foibles and interests of all the Englishmen that had come before, the odd sense of calm and determination that had served him well throughout his career. “If you take my advice, White, don't ever challenge a Klinat to a few holes – how they ended up so good at golf when they spend most of their time on four legs I shall never know.”
“Ah,” interjected the Doctor, who seemed more at ease now. “but we've certainly got them beat with basketball!” The pair laughed again, while the Admiral opened his desk, retrieving two glasses and a bottle of whiskey – 2003. A very good vintage, and at none too low a price. Still, if you couldn't poison yourself to happiness aged eighty-nine, when could you? God bless those aliens, thought the OBE, and their career-lengthening knowledge. This time twenty years ago, at his age, Douglas would have been about ready to die – now he had twenty or so years of retirement, perhaps another ten if he looked after himself properly – as if!
After a drink or two, Weisshaupt stood up, shook the hand of his dear friend, and departed. “It's a shame you won't come up the elevator with me, Whitey,” the Admiral had said, but frankly Weisshaupt had never trusted the space elevator, and while he was just as much a humanitarian (a term which had taken on a new meaning in the last decade or so) as the next man, he had to turn down the chance to ride with his friend – he had patients to see, and then he could watch the launch on the television, along with almost every other man, woman and child on the planet – it was a big moment, and even as he left the Admiralty, having dropped off his results from Chamberlain's medical exam from last week, he could feel the electric sense of excitement, anticipation and pride dancing in the Parisian summer morning air. As he walked past, he couldn't help noticing the BBC news team, with a well-groomed, well-suited gentleman talking into a camera – something to do with the launch.
“Inside this building, Admiral Chamberlain is preparing for the launch. He, along with the Representatives, will be watching the launch of the UNFS Earth from the Virgin Galactic Hotel, along with members of the Royal Family, including King William. It will be broadcast around the world, and we will be bringing you the live footage at four o'clock this afternoon.” This was easy – the news practically wrote itself! Everyone wanted to know every minute detail about about this launch, and just mentioning the Admiralty would get viewers, and they were very much conducive to Adam Wainright getting behind that desk at BBC Salford, rather than out here in France, where it was far too hot for his liking, and finding a decent cup of tea was like finding a buffet in the Sahara. “We were unable to get a statement from Rear Admiral Morgenthau-Ebersbacher, but we did get this press release from the Admiralty...”
The Scaffold, Control Centre
Lieutenant Perez was part of the team managing the final launch – it was hard, trying to contain herself under the circumstances; here she was, in charge of a section of docking clamps on Man's premier ship of the line, on the threshold of really crossing into space, becoming a real part of the Union. She had been there at the launch of the Winter, the first warship, and the Spring, which she had served on before losing her left leg, and now here she was, part of the crew that would see the Mothership away. A series of voices from the ship crackled across the radio headset to all those standing or sitting at the consoles within the Scaffold, zero-point energy humming on the metal floor, latching them to the metal plates at a steady 0.94 G.
“This is Earth, reporting engines on line.”
“Weapons on line.”
“Construction on line.”
“Countermeasures on line.”
“All systems gold, we are ready.” Perez moved a hand across the console, green lights on all the ignition systems showing, glowing through the gaps in her fingers, lights dancing across her face in the relative gloom, lit only by the colours of the consoles.
“This is Scaffold. Prepare for alignment.” Perez pressed down on the light-console, forcing her finger through the photons to engage the alignment burners, shifting the Scaffold to zero degrees against the galactic plane. The silent engines outside burned as the Scaffold rotated, bringing the Earth up to the target trajectory, ready for launch. Blinking away a patriotic tear and scolding herself for being so damned silly during a military operation, Perez steadied her headset microphone with a trembling hand and spoke. “Scaffold is aligned. All systems green. Prepare for launch.”
Ten minutes passed as checks and balances moved through. Inside the Earth the hard disks were linked together and the CPUs linked up on the massive core, the computers coming alive with all the data flowing freely from one section to another. Everything was ready – the Admiral and crew were aboard the ship, the Cruisers were on standby for their return, and mankind was ready to join the rest of the Union in the stars. The escorts were docked in the hangar, and every human watching could feel the pride swelling in their chest. The responsibility of pressing the damn button was a cruel mix of kindness and unfair pressure, all mixed up with a quasi-nationalistic pride and self-belief. Homo Sapiens were ready, now, and in just a few seconds their new era would begin.
“This is Scaffold. Releasing docking clamps in ten. All systems green, engines hot. Five. Four. Three. Good luck, Earth, releasing clamps now.” Pressing another key, there was a shift on the floor as the massive mag-clamps that had held the Mothership in port for five years released, retracted into the Scaffold, and the four fusion engines began to burn, ice streaming from the exhaust.
The Earth began to move, slowly, out of port, while in the Scaffold, on the televisions and in the cruisers, applause was, for just that moment, the one thing that unified all of the peoples of the United Nations together. The tip of the Earth left the Scaffold, before the rest of the main body of the ship, the wide rear engines with the hangar, and the bridge. Man watched and waited for those seven words they had been working towards for five long years. The long, grey spear broke from the magnetic control field and pushed out into the vacuum under the power of it's own engines, a blue, ghostly trail of ice left in her wake from the fusion exhausts. Lights danced along the surface of the ship as computer systems lit up and corridors became illuminated by engineers rushing to complete their checks. Gun turrets rotated, tracking bits of dust while the ruby-crystal lasers lit up here or there, zapping errant pieces of dust or tiny rocks, the bane of any ship out here, where even a tiny speck of dirt could run straight through a hull and kill the whole ship's company - when the words finally came, they seemed otherworldly, like they had come from some sort of fairy story.
“This is the Earth. We are away.”
Perez couldn't help but smile at the beauty of it – a magnificent feat of engineering. As intricate as the mechanisms in her prosthetic leg, as beautiful as a Klinat choir, and as mysterious as how Lax went for a shit – oh, if only she could have been on there, for just a minute or two – how must they have felt, stationed on there? Given that she was absolutely overwhelmed, brown eyes watering and pearly white teeth shining in a smile wider than Orion's Belt, how could those men and women out there even function, stop themselves from jumping up and down with joy every millisecond and get work done? It seemed an impossible challenge, and perhaps, thought Perez, it was a good thing she wasn't aboard – she wouldn't have been any use in this state. There would be plenty of time for celebration when they returned from the warp-drive test, and with that thought came a terrible, shuddering cloud, casting a gloomy shadow over the joy – there was always the possibility that they wouldn't come back. Wrapping a hand around the silver crucifix, the latina starting praying, even while the applause continued.
“Hey, Augusta!” A voice called her name, followed by the pop of a champagne cork. “We can't drink this all by ourselves!”
“Well then, Akira,” retorted the Argentinian, “I'll have to help you get rid of it!” There was time for praying later – Akira was right, she mused, watching him fill glass after glass. If she couldn't celebrate now, when could she?
Bridge of the Earth, Extrageostationary Earth Orbit
“Admiral, proceed with the test.”
“Ja vohl, Scaffold.” Admiral Morgenthau-Ebersbacher stood at the back of the bridge, hands behind his back. His uniform, service grey with a black trim, clung tightly to his body. As much as he was glad to be here, in command of the most technologically advanced vessel in the UNF, he still disliked the spacesuit-style uniforms – perhaps if there was a hull breach, he'd be happy to have them, but since Captain Leatham was at the countermeasures console, he doubted one would occur. The German didn't much care to find out what they were made of – it was some composite polymer, designed to breathe in one layer and stay fast in another, through some piece of engineering wizardry that Adolf didn't really find all that enthralling; impressive, yes, but not terribly interesting. His name, stitched onto the left breast above the long service ribbons, was probably the longest in the room, a fact which made the thirty-eight year-old man smile inwardly, watching the officer crew at work – whichever architect had decided on this design for the bridge, he clearly had a thing for lying down.
Each command console was above a black reclining chair, so that the officers up here nearly had to lie down to work, each station about three feet below the main floor level, recessed into the structure. The plastoglass and steel-aluminium superstructure formed the rest of the bridge, perched on the top of the rear section of the Mothership, protecting the crew co-ordinating every system from up here on their lofty position, looking and assessing from on high. There must have been a century of combined experience in here, each officer a member of the net effort in the same way as the Lax – strange creatures, they were, always very hard to read in conversation – even other Lax rarely spoke to each other, happy as they were to simply exist within themselves, with the rest of their little germ friends. We're not so different, I suppose. We're all just cells working together.
The cells in Adolf's body had worked together very well in his youth, which was why he was over six feet tall – while he had been very glad as a teenager to be the tallest person he knew, it made space travel a misery, since he spent most of his time in tiny cruisers banging his head on portholes or bulkhead frames. His hair had long since left his head, migrating to somewhere beyond his reach, which was why he kept his black moustache and beard, in the fashion of the old sailors from before the Great War – with a name like his, he was certainly never going to wear a toothbrush moustache, no matter how much more convenient it was. He had tried that at the Officer's College in Berlin, and even the instructors had spent most of their time ribbing him for it – even the Padre had taken it as a chance to have a good laugh at his expense, which was perhaps why he always seemed so stern. Adolf was not a man given to smiling, and his blue eyes were almost always hidden behind squinting eyelids, a habit when deep in thought, concentrating on a tricky problem. It was that determination to defeat problems that had given him the four long-service ribbons, and the knowledge that he would have never been any good at life outside the UNF – not enough order, discipline or short haircuts.
“Enough sinking,” Adolf muttered to himself, his accent warping the 'th' into an 's'. He was all too aware of the running jokes amongst the crew, giving him the nickname 'The Reverthed Lithp.' It helped them stay happy, he supposed, and as far away from home as they would be going, two week's laser-message away, those little joys would keep them cheerful enough. “Mister Philips, prepare space-warp drive,” boomed the Admiral, now in full command, radiating his usual aura of leadership and wisdom with the assistance of the occasional touch of shouting. The uniform certainly helped, despite how ridiculous the Rear-Admiral might have felt, always paranoid that the garment looked as tight as it felt – the chemists who had come up with these polymers had yet to synthesize a chemical to make him feel any better about wearing a space-suit. If he had known that transferring from the blue-water navy would end up with him in such a silly-feeling garment, he might never have done it. Naturally, they looked nowhere near as revealing as he imagined them to be, but it was these little moans and nags to himself that got him through each day – that, and very large guns. There was no problem so bad that it could not be made to disappear, even if just for a short while, by blowing something up with a very large gun. In sat respect, at least, the commanding officer pondered, the Americans are on to something.
A minute passed before he responded, and the Rear-Admiral nodded as he paced the deck. “Compute for edge of Uranus' orbit and engage.” A few seconds passed, before there was a tiny moment when time seemed to stop, before a voice came back – the computer.
“Fantastich. Everyone, get out of here for half an hour. Go enjoy yourself, but don't have too much fun. Ve still have to get sis ship back to the Scaffold aftervards.” There was a silence, as though everyone expected the stern-lipped man to turn around and start swearing at them, belaying his commands and ordering them to push the damn thing back. “Go on, I'm sure you've all had bets with the duller crew that we would explode or turn inside out, get out, sirty minutes!” Finally, Adolf cracked a smile and waved his hands toward the door. “Go on, aus, aus!”
It would be the last moment of flippant celebration the crew of the Earth were going to get in a very long time, but there, at that jovial moment, they would never have suspected a thing.