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Cradle of Saturn
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Almost twenty years before, as a nineteen-year-old engineering student at college, Landen Keene had astounded drivers on the Interstate near the campus by overhauling them with ease in a 1959 Nash Rambler body fixed to a reinforced chassis on racing suspension, mounting an L88 Corvette engine. He had also more than impressed the two state troopers who handed him a ticket, but they were unable to cite his handiwork on a single safety violation. One of them had even indicated interest if Keene ever found himself of a mind to sell. "Keep at it, kid," he had told Keene. "One day you'll make a damned good engineer—supposin' you live long enough, of course, that is."

These days, it seemed, things worked the other way around. Outdated engineering camouflaged in futuristic-looking shells was hyped as a wonder of the age, the best that taxpayers' money could buy. Keene sat in the cramped crew compartment of the NIFTV—pronounced "Nifteev," standing for Nuclear Indigenously Fueled Test Vehicle—, wedged comfortably into the seat at the Engineer’s station by the mild quarter-g of sustained thrust cutting the craft across freefall orbits, staring at the image on the main screen. It showed the elongated body, flaring into a delta tail-wing with tip-fins, of the spaceplane riding twenty-five miles ahead off the port lower bow, closing slowly as the NIFTV overhauled it. Officially, it was designated an "Advanced Propulsion Unit." Its white lines were illuminated in direct light from the Sun showing above the dark silhouette of Earth, revealing the insignia of both the U.S. Air Force Space Command and United Nations Global Defense Force. (Exactly what the entire globe was to be defended from had never been spelled out.) The NIFTV, by contrast, with its framework of struts and ties holding together an assemblage of test engine and auxiliary motors, external tanks, and crew module, was ungainly and ugly. The APU looked sleek on the covers of glossy promotional government brochures and was pleasing to bureaucrats. The NIFTV was a creature of engineers—a space workhorse, born of pragmatism and utility.

Ricardo's voice came over the circuit from the Ccom station—Communications & Computing. "We've got a beam from them now. I'm windowing onto the main screen, copying you, Warren."

"Gotcha." Warren Fassner, research project leader at Amspace Corporation's Propulsion Division and coordinator of the current mission, acknowledged from the control room at Space Dock, at that moment orbiting twelve thousand miles away above the far side of Earth. "It looks like you guys are on stage. Make it a good one. We're getting the hookups." To avoid giving somebody officious somewhere an opportunity to interfere, Keene had persuaded the public relations people at Amspace to hold until the last moment before slipping word of the mission to the networks. Since it was something new and sounded exciting, the networks were interested.

A helmeted head and shoulders showing a gray flight suit with Space Command insignia appeared in a one-eighth window at the top right of the screen. "This is Commander Voaks from USAFSC APU to approaching craft U-ASC-16R. You are approaching a restricted zone posted as reserved for official Space Command operations. Identify yourself and announce your intentions."

Joe answered from the Pilot station, squeezed centrally behind the other two, which were angled inward to face the bulkhead carrying the screens. "Captain Elms from U-ASC-16R acknowledging APU. We are a private research vehicle owned and operated by the Amspace Corporation."

"We are about to commence a high-acceleration test. For your own safety, my orders are to warn you off -limits."

"We're paralleling you outside the posted limit. Just taking a ringside seat. Don't mind us. Let's get on with the show."

Ricardo cut in again: "We've got another incoming—military priority band prefix."

"This is General Burgess, Space Command Ground Control Center, and I demand to speak to—"

Joe shook his head in the background behind Keene's console. "We're gonna be too busy here for this. I'm throwing this one to you, Warren."

"Sure, switch him through. We'll handle it," Fassner said from the Space Dock. It had been expected. Ricardo clicked entries in a table on one of his auxiliary screens, and the irate general was consigned off to a string of comsat links around the planet.

"APU to Amspace 16R. You have been warned in accordance with regulatory requirements. Be advised that your continued proximity to this operation will not be taken as indicative of a desirably cooperative attitude. Negative consequences may result. This is APU, out." The window vanished.

"Negative consequences, guys," Keene repeated. "That's it—it's all over for us. They'll find some bug in our parking lot that needs to be protected now. Close down the head office."

"Where do they get those guys?" Ricardo asked as he scanned his displays and made adjustments. "I mean, do they have to be programmed to talk like that? . . ." His voice trailed off, and he leaned forward. "Okay, this is it. We're registering their exhaust plume on thermal: pre-boost profile." As Ricardo spoke, the APU's image sprouted a tail of white heat, growing rapidly to extend several times the length of the vessel.

"Full burn," Joe's voice confirmed. "We're looking at about, aw . . . two gee initial. Downrange radar is tracking." The Air Force spaceplane was accelerating away, commencing its test. While Joe continued reading off time checks and numbers, Keene rechecked his own panel to make sure all the NIFTV's systems were ready, then turned his eyes again to the image shrinking and foreshortening on the main screen. Advanced propulsion, he thought to himself scornfully. Pure hydrogen and whatever they called the latest oxidizer, it was still chemicals. Nineteen-sixties NASA repackaged in an Air Force suit, its adequacy a giveaway of what it was intended for: a high-altitude police cruiser to patrol the envisaged one-world state. NIFTV had the potential to bring the Solar System into Earth's back yard, but the powers that Earth's destiny depended on weren’t interested. If the day ever arrived when their one-world order looked like becoming a reality, that, Keene vowed, would be when he'd leave it all and go out to join the Kronians. But with enterprises like Amspace still able to find backers, there was hope yet.

Fassner, who had evidently passed the general on to someone else and been following, reappeared on the beam from Space Dock. "Okay, that's looking good now. Let's go after 'em."

"On standby at Fire-Ready," Keene confirmed.

"Go, engine. Take it up to eighty," Joe ordered.

Keene initiated the start-up sequence and felt himself being squashed back in his seat as he increased reactant flow to bring the NIFTV quickly up to eighty percent power. Lead gloves encased his hands. He felt his cheeks and lips weighed back over his facial bones, baring his teeth. Smaller screens on the bulkhead in front of him showed deformed parodies of the faces of Ricardo and Joe.

"Lateral thrusters on. Pulsing to commence roll now," Joe grated, his mouth barely moving.

"APU ahead low, declination twenty-seven degrees and increasing," Ricardo reported. "We're twelve-point-two miles off the axis and holding. Course projection is clear."

It was a stunt to get the world's attention. The news channels had publicized that the Defense Department would be testing a new propulsion system designed for low-orbit maneuvering and announced it as a breakthrough. While the spaceplane was now in its maximum acceleration phase, the NIFTV was not only overhauling it but tracing a spiral twenty-plus miles in diameter about its course—literally running rings around it. A comm beam latched on again to deliver another tirade. Ricardo looked questioningly at Joe; Joe made a tossing-away motion with his head; Ricardo grinned and switched the call over the detour link to Control.

"Yeaaah!" Keene whooped, smacking the armrests of his seat. "Was that a bird? Was it a plane? No, it was us, guys. Hey, look at that thing. It's like a dead duck in the water out there."

"Eat our dust, General," Ricardo sang.

The APU went into slow curve. Joe altered thrust parameters and stayed with it easily. He ran an eye over the monitors and gave a satisfied nod. "Okay," he said to the others. "Take her up to full burn. Now let's show them what we can really do."

As the NIFTV accelerated along its continuing spiral course, a white haze appeared along the top edge of the screen, moving slowly down to blot out the starfield background. It grew until it became part of a vast band extending off the screen on both sides, losing the APU spaceplane in its brilliance as it passed behind.

 
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