Captain’s Signature Log

 

Thirty-fourth year of King Mordecai A. Tyberius, the sixth month, the second day of the month.

Or …

Stardate 2178.06-02 (according to the Terran trade calendar, which most worlds at least know)

This is my first log entry as the captain of this ship, the HMSV Spartacus, a ship recently decommissioned by the Tyberian Armada. It is little more than a glorified shuttlecraft since it was the yacht for the captain of another ship decommissioned, the HMSV Thor. Now that was a ship I would really enjoy buzzing around space in! Unfortunately, my father, the King, said there was too much restricted-use technology still left on it, so it was not an option. Oh well.

On my other hand, I am not complaining. This may not be the biggest ship in the fleet, but it is one of the coolest.

It is probably the smallest ship built with a fast light drive. Not this eighty to a hundred Kliks nonsense. Nope. This naughty child is equipped with a 175-Klik drive! I can cruise with most capitol ships at that speed!

Of course, I know the point of my signature log entry is not to go on and on about the ship, even though I probably could. So I will try not to annoy you, the listener (or reader, if the voice copy of the log is destroyed) with any more details. You can look up the specs on this ship yourself in the ship archives in any case.

So since this is my signature log entry as captain—I like how that sounds—of my ship, let me formally introduce myself: my full name is Prince Richard Fitzgerald Tyberius, prince of the Tyberian Empire and heir to the throne. Technically, I am the prince of the province of Allsophoria on my home planet of Alexandria, but my family has been the leading authority for quite some time, out of the three houses. My dad, the King, will be happy to tell you Alexandria is the most beautiful planet ever to be seen. But he is trying to promote tourism on our world.

I guess I could describe how I look since the visual records could be lost. Well, imagine the perfect man. If you are a guy and do not care to envision that, just ask a girl. Well, you got an idea what the perfect guy should look like? Positive? Good. Well, forget it now, and I will tell you how I really look. Using the Earth imperial measuring system, I am about six three, two hundred pounds, medium light-brown skin, I guess, with wavy dark brown hair, cut in a style I cannot remember the name of. A fade on the sides, not too short, and longer on top. I just got out of Allsophoria Officer University for the summer so I can assure you I am in excellent shape, especially since Fitness, Stamina, Dexterity class is required the first two years. I guess they want to make sure I will be fit when I start serving as a commander or something. Yeah. Sitting and giving orders can take a lot out of you.

In any case, I am out on summer break, in part because, being royalty, I am not yet required to go to university. But my Father, the King, thinks it is a good idea in any case. “Helps build character,” he says. Yeah, well, I hope he was being sarcastic about that. Not that he ever is about anything. Oh, never mind.

I am also in part out to “mentally” prepare for something I have dreaded since I was about seven. Trust me: I would not wish this on my mortal enemy, but this winter, I am destined to be the husband of Rebecca Maxia, princess of the Maxian Empire, one of the other three houses. But that is a subject I do not care to talk about right now.

What I want to explain is the point of this small adventure. I am planning to surround up a few of my friends from high school who are still on Earth. I know it has been a few years, but I have been able to maintain contact with a lot of them since then, and I even managed to locate a couple I had lost contact with.

In this moment, I am contacting Joseph Pike, my best friend from high school. He works for a big industrial firm there, but I cannot remember what it is called. I have it written down here somewhere. Here it is—Matterhorn Power, Industry & Electronics. Hmm. I guess they make generators and electronics.

In any case, I am in the process of landing right now on Earth near the Matterhorn branch on the North American continent. That is where he said he was stationed. He said he is working on some really top secret stuff, stuff I will not document here, to avoid espionage liability. After all, I am a prince of a foreign power. I do not have any business knowing their defense secrets, right?

This is Richard, signing off.

 

His Majesty’s Space Vessel (commonly abbreviated HMSV) Spartacus touches down gently on the tarmac of the Nebraska Interstellar Transit Center on the outskirts of the city of Omaha. The gantry springs open for Richard to step from the Spartacus’s side exit, and he takes a deep breath of the Terran air. As he glances over the surrounding area, what he sees befuddles him.

While he is aware of the typical layout of a Terran interstellar transit site, it still amazes Richard how sparse and uninviting an environment it initially presents of Earth. Stretching out for miles in all directions, as far as he can see, lay smooth asphalt. Atop the asphalt, ships of varying sizes and shapes are resting quietly, awaiting the return of their respective passengers. Richard looks around again, not noting a single tree or shrub within view; only the occasional arching metal superstructure, primary supports for environmental domes some species require.

The only other notable structure on the landscape is a small building in the midst of the asphalt: the check-in station. Its design, like a small artillery bunker, carries the same sparse theme as its surroundings in its construction, with plain concrete cinderblocks for walls and an asphalt-coated, corrugated steel roof. Richard walks up to the concrete structure, noting its simple, straightforward design and the unusually happy girl waving at him from inside an opening on the side.

Richard smiles as he approaches, seeing her appearance is one typical of Terran women (girls, really) working at such interstellar transit sites. She has long, straight hair in a shade of blond with an iridescent quality. Her overall height couldn’t be more than five foot six since she is stretching herself over the counter to wave and get his attention. Her bright blue eyes, showing her genuinely excessive interest in assisting him, lock onto his. This forces Richard to nervously glance down, staring into the worn asphalt path, noting her shadow, reaching out from the shadow of the building on the ground before him, frantically waving. He raises his head, a smile briefly appearing, till a more stoic expression presents itself. Though her clothes fit her properly, a white blouse, black vest, and matching pants, Richard takes note of her waifish physique, except for a trademark full bosom, some Terran men are proud to point out, on the women of their species.

“There are over seven hundred fifty transit sites on Earth,” Richard mutters softly as he nears. “Could they all have attendants with this appearance?”

“Hi and welcome to Earth, the diamond of the Terran solar system!” she yells as he approaches, to present a more inviting perspective than her surroundings indicate Earth can offer.

Richard, who is carrying a small backpack, puts it on the counter on the side of the building from which the girl grins. “Hello,” he responds hesitantly, finding the alarmingly perky grin she bears across her face disconcerting.

Before he can continue, the young lady initiates a brief interrogation. “Is this your first visit to Earth?” she asks. Richard shakes his head. She looks over to his ship. “It doesn’t appear you have our new Earth Americas parking permit! Would you like to order it now for your next visit?”

“Um, no,” Richard replies. “I am a representative of the Tyberian Empire. I do not need one of those to park my ship here.”

She smirks politely and then speaks, her tone hinting at cynicism. “But that doesn’t appear to be an ambassadorial shuttle.” She pauses for a moment, scrutinizing the vessel. “It looks more like the captain’s yacht of the recently decommissioned Viking-class battle cruisers of the Alexandrian Empire.”

Richard steps back, her remark astonishing him. “How do you know that? The Viking class was decommissioned from service only a month ago!”

She smiles, his surprise flattering to her. “I like to know my ships!” She holds up a sheet of paper. “I’ll need you to fill this out,” she says with a polite firmness, handing him the paper.

Richard takes the paper, looking it over. “What is this?”

“It’s the application for that parking permit I told you about! I’ll need you to fill this out.”

Richard lays the paper on the counter. “Listen, lady, I told you I am a representative of the Tyberian Empire.” He draws his ID from his inside jacket pocket, showing it to the skeptical girl behind the counter. “I am Richard Tyberius.”

She looks down at his ID and then up at him. “Richard Tyberius?” she remarks with skepticism. “I’m not sure I know that name.” She slowly slides the application back toward Richard. “I really can’t allow you to park there without the proper authorization since that’s reserved for the royal Tyberian family of the Alexandrian Empire. So if you’ll just fill this out”—her smile intensifies— “it won’t take but a minute.” She turns her attention to the tarmac behind Richard, pointing to a distant edge. “And then if I could have you move your ship afterward to the commons landing grounds, we can have you on your way.”

Richard folds his arms in disbelief. “I am not sure you understand, Miss—?”

She straightens up, pointing to the shiny name tag on the lapel of her vest. “Call me Amber!”

“Amber.” Richard pauses. “Well, Amber, I happen to be the crown prince of the Royal Tyberian Empire, and vice-commander of the Royal Tyberian Armada, second in command only to the king himself.” Richard unfolds his arms, leaning forward on the counter, looking straight into her cheerful light blue eyes. “So I suggest you answer my questions and let me be on my way.”

Amber, jumping back slightly, squeezes out a nervous laugh. “I’m sure this can be cleared up. Let me have the security personnel come here, and you can—”

Richard waves his hands, seeing the direction his assertion is leading her. “Listen. I obviously cannot convince you I am who I say I am.” Richard pulls out his identification again. “You should be able to recognize this contact code.”

She looks at the ID. “Of course, it’s a reach for someone on the Royal Tyberian Information Network.” She looks up at Richard. “Everyone knows that.”

Richard hands her his ID. “Call the operator, and tell them Richard Tyberius wants to speak to his father.”

Amber looks at the card and then at Richard. She smiles, mockingly responding, “Sure, why not? I’m sure this won’t take long.” She inputs the code into a terminal behind her in the building. A large video screen above the terminal briefly displays the seal of the Tyberian Empire and then the face of a male operator.

“Welcome to the Royal Tyberian Information Network, I am Sean,” the operator relates. “How may I direct your call?”

Amber folds her arms, looking back at Richard. “I’m needing to speak to the father of Richard Tyberius,” she says, confident she knows the answer.

Sean looks down at the console before him. “I’m sorry,” he replies. “The king is not available right now. May I direct your call to the Ministry of External Affairs? They would probably would be able to get a message to him?”

Richard speaks. “Sean, is my dad still in the Secondary Worlds Trade meeting? I forgot that was today.”

Recognizing the voice, Sean grins. “Of course, Your Highness!” he comments with conviction. “At least until this afternoon, the way it’s looking.”

Richard now eyes Amber, watching a reddish color enter her light-complexioned face. “I have already told you that you can call me Richard,” he remarks to Sean.

“You know the rules,” corrects Sean. “I’m not allowed to address royalty informally over an unsecured channel. It’s considered a breach of protocol, Your Highness.”

Richard nods. “I know; I was just checking.”

Sean leans back in his seat. “Is there anything else?” Richard shakes head. “Then thanks for using the Royal Tyberian Information Network.” The image changes to the seal again before the screen deactivates.

Amber, blushing a bright red, stares at the counter. “I am so sorry. I can’t believe I was so rude to such royalty!” She looks up. “Please forgive me!”

Richard smiles. “It is nothing. You are doing your job is all!”

“I hope this won’t reflect badly on trade relations between the Terran people and the Tyberian Empire!” she pleads, tears now streaming down her face.

Richard shakes his head slowly, frowning. “You are making too much of this incident. But I do have a couple of questions.”

Amber’s face lights up. “Of course! Anything for you, Your Highness!” she squeals elatedly, wiping her eyes.

Richard gazes critically at Amber. “Right. First of all,” he says, pulling out a small digital assistant, “I need to find out where the Matterhorn PIE branch is on this land mass.”

She looks down at her terminal, keying in the information. “Oh that’s in Wichita just south of here!” She hands him a small data card. “This includes a detailed map to the headquarters, including interesting landmarks and sites along the way.” She bubbles, ignoring her previous error in judgment. “Is there any other service I can provide you?” she softly implores, leaning closer to Richard.

Richard grabs his backpack, slinging it onto his shoulder. “I do not see any trees around,” he comments, gesturing at their surroundings. He looks over to Amber. “I would think trees would give this place a more inviting atmosphere. You know why there are none?”

“I don’t understand,” she says. “Why should there be trees here?” She shakes her head. “I’m sure they’d just get in the way.”

Richard nods, starting to walk away. “Yeah, I guess that is one way of looking at it.”

 

***

 

He moves his car through the streets, hovering by on a pocket of air. The sleek lines and high gloss give it a fluid look as his car flows through the central business district of Wichita.

He approaches his destination, just outside of west Wichita, looking up to the distant obelisks of the main offices now clearly visible from the entrance of the Matterhorn Power, Industrial & Electronics complex.

The complex that nests on nearly fourteen thousand acres just outside of the city. I did not think they could build this stuff on Earth, Richard comments, observing the thousand meter drive to the gate.  Joe said there were forty million refugees in Wichita alone, a century ago. Richard glances to his right, where he notes a sign remarking on the company’s 175th anniversary in business, celebrated a year earlier. I see, he surmises, I presume they were on the winning side. Richard nods, briefly staring into the foliage lining the road, a combination of native grasses, reaching two meters, a few large, well-cared for evergreens, and a strip, three meters wide, of perfect Bermuda grass along the edge of the curbed roadway. “I wonder,” he pulls out his digital assistant, requesting information on an event he calls the ‘Cesium Convention,’ the digital assistant returning information regarding a nuclear holocaust experienced on Earth more than one hundred fifty years earlier.

His vehicle, elatedly content with being at Richard’s service for this trip, purrs. As it approaches the gate of the facility, however, the vehicle whines, aware the trip is coming to an end.

Richard looks up, preparing to negotiate entry into the complex. Staring back at him is the perturbing face of a tired, heavy security guard.

At ease with how well his girth fills the small guard station, he takes a moment to scratch a couple of areas on his body that itch, including his groin. Looking down at Richard from his high perching, he tips his bright orange hat back on his brow, scratching his thinning scalp, and then settles his weight onto his thick forearms, the sleeves of his bright orange uniform rolled up to expose his rather hirsute arms. “What I can I do for you?” he asks sarcastically, an expression on his face devoid of interest in the answer.

Richard smiles politely after absorbing the spectacle of the guard’s conspicuous relief of an itch. He takes a moment to gather his thoughts. “I need to enter this complex. A friend of mine works here, and I—”

The guard waves his pudgy hand, each finger a thick Vienna sausage of a digit. “I’m afraid I can’t allow you to do that.” Leaning back, he reaches down for a belt, one that barely clings to his immense gut. As he takes a deep breath, he yanks up his bright orange pants. The result satisfactory, he relates a rote line of reasoning for just such an occasion.

“You see, this is a restricted area. Not just anybody can come and go through here as they please. There’s protocol, rules, regulations, and other bureaucratic nonsense governing this type of thing.” He settles back onto the counter again, a look of dissatisfaction on his face. “You see,” he starts again, “they have taken many precautions to insure these secrets remain just that: secret.” He adjusts his hat. “I’m the first line of defense. With that being the case, I have the important job of keeping people like you”—he waves a meaty digit at Richard— “out of places like this.” He gestures with his thumb back at the complex.

Richard looks forward, in meditation. He looks up at the security guard. “How about if you could have Joseph Pike paged? I am sure he would be more than glad to authorize me for entry.”

The guard feigns a smile. “I would hardly bother such an important and busy person as Mr. Pike for a matter like this.” He leans back in his chair, knotting his fingers contentedly over his immense gut. “But I’ll gladly mention your name when he leaves this evening.”

Richard again turns forward, releasing a quick exhale. “Well then, what if I told you I was royalty, and I have permission from the president of this establishment to enter and go where I wish?”

The security guard thinks for a moment, scratching his head again.

“Interesting you should say that! You’re the fourth … no, fifth guy to pass himself off as royalty this week! The first time was original. The second was cute. The third time was beginning to try my patience. The fourth time I was forced to chased the guy away!” He adjusts his pants again. “Now, unless you’re looking for a night in jail, I think you should leave!” He points demandingly in the direction of the road leading up to the gate.

Just as Richard is about to plead for entry, he beholds, out of the corner of his eye, Joseph rounding the corner of a building five hundred meters from where he sat. Richard smiles, then immediately jumps out of his car and, after clearing the no-entry arm blocking his car’s path, runs over to Joseph. “Joe!” he shouts, trying to get his attention as Joe now rounds the corner of another building.

The guard sighs in agitation, waddling to a small electric cart behind the guard station, preparing to pursue.

Richard, thoroughly winded, catches up to his friend. “Joe!” he gasps.

Joe, finally looking up from some notes absorbing his attention, realizes Richard is behind him, bent over, gasping for air. “Richard?” Joe asks, notably speechless otherwise. He looks around, trying to comprehend why Richard is suddenly manifest before himself. “How did you get in here?”

Richard, standing upright but still short of breath, gestures toward the guard station. Joe looks up, seeing an agitated guard rounding the corner, now approaching in a whining little cart. Joe smiles. “Oh, I get it,” he comments, nodding his head.

“Nice guard …” Richard finally gasps. “Real amiable …”

The guard pulls up in his cart, the cart releasing a sigh of relief as it stops. “Do you even realize how many rules, protocols”—he pauses to adjust his hat on account of the sun’s glare— “and laws, for that matter, you’ve broken!”

The guard inhales, preparing to relate Richard’s heinous transgressions, but Joe raises a hand. “That’s quite all right,” Joe states. “He’s with me.”

The guard scoffs as he backs away to return to his post. Richard, watching the guard leave, turns to his friend. “It has been a long time,” he comments.

Joe smiles, nodding. “To say the least! I didn’t think we would ever be on the same planet together again!” Joe gestures, directing Richard to follow him to a door he is approaching. “With you being groomed to the throne and me stuck in research all the time, it would seem there’s no time to visit friends.”

They reach the door of a vast building. The building looks similar to a vast, half-buried barrel on its side, the walls and roof being part of the same curve, the front of the building flat. A single door is in the center of the flat wall.

Joe pulls a small card out of his left pocket. Its surface is worn smooth in spots due to its rough life of use. Joe then swipes the card through a slot for it near the door. Joe shakes his head. “These have to be the crudest security measures ever used”—he looks up to Richard— “considering what kind of ‘secrets’ we’re supposed to be working on.” The heavy metal door groans, creaking slowly to the right. Joe and Richard step in, not waiting for the door to finish its task. Richard pauses a moment and looks around.

His eyes widen, taking in the sheer size of the interior. The high arching roof lets in natural light from eight or ten portals along the sides of the roof. This light, though bright, is complemented with ten or fifteen hanging lamps along the four arching roof supports.

Though the building is about one hundred meters tall at the apex, the floor within is lowered about the same, creating a huge open space within the structure. The expansive floor area is consumed with various scale models of ships under design by Matterhorn.

Near each model is a group of energetic designers and engineers, pointing and gesturing at their respective models. The lively nature of their design process catches the eyes of Richard. But this isn’t what captures his attention.

Hanging from the arching rafters is a full-scale, possibly working, version of a small Terran warship. Nearly one-hundred-meters wide and twice that in length, the ship hangs a few meters from the heads of the several Matterhorn personnel hard at work. The ventilation system kicks in, causing the behemoth to sway lightly, the rafters expressing discontent as it moves. Richard steps back to flee but then notices how everyone else in the building is oblivious to the danger, ever present, overhead.

Richard stares in awe. Joe taps his friend’s shoulder. Richard looks back at Joe’s smiling face. “I know what you’re thinking, and don’t worry!” Joe starts forward to the stairs ahead. “They say if you walk under it enough, eventually you’ll forget it’s there.” He looks forward, casually moving down the stairs to the ground level.

“Right,” Richard says, cautiously following but still glancing up at the ship hanging over his head.

When he looks down, he perceives, near each of the scale models, large, flat, stubby tables, appearing to be billiard tables. As they walk up the center aisle to a door at the other end, Richard can see the tables are level on top, displaying some type of drafting information on their smooth, polished surface. People standing around each of them can directly manipulate the physical scale model designs near the tables by merely touching the surface of the table, sliding their fingers from one criticized point to a more desirable one.

They continue down the middle of the floor, treading down a wide strip of worn gray carpeting marking the aisle from the entry staircase to the staircase on the opposing end of the building. While the second staircase is joined to the first by a raised floor, circling the area that Matterhorn personnel work in, it’s obvious no one walks the perimeter of the building to get to the other side.

As Richard moves up the second set of steps, he looks back at the ship looming overhead. “No,” he says resolutely. “I could never get used to that being over my head!” Joe opens the door to a small office at the top of the steps, gesturing for Richard to enter. “Especially knowing how much those things weigh!”

Joe smiles, closing the door as he enters. “Don’t worry.” He lets out a sigh of relief. “I haven’t gotten that used to it myself!” Joe steps behind a desk across from the door. He sweeps away a small pile of paper on it into a desk drawer, sitting down behind the desk. He looks up at Richard, who is scowling in horror. He quickly grins. “Um, have a seat!”

As Joe sits, Richard now notices how the desk isn’t the only place papers are piled. Upon removing a small pile in a nearby chair, setting it on a larger one beside it, and sitting down, he surmises there is hardly a spot where there is no paper. Richard smiles. “I guess that expression your people have, ‘old habits heartily die,’ is proven today.”

Joe shakes his head. “You realize you’re only the second person to actually come into this room since it became my office?” He turns around, remembering a larger pile of papers on the desk behind him, to immediately deal with the pile. “My bosses won’t come down here because of that ship. So if they want an audience with somebody down here, we have to go to their offices on the other side of the complex.” Joe piles the heaps of paper into a bin behind the first desk, glancing at various pages as he does.

Richard leans back, enjoying the entertaining show before him. “If they do not want that ship hanging up there, why do they not take it down?”

Joe looks up at Richard, sweeping the remaining papers on the desk into the bin. “The engineers won’t have it.” He looks left, distracted by another huge pile of papers in a corner of the room. “It’s funny though. When they put the first ship up, the engineers protested.”

Richard sits up. “You mean,” Richard starts, “this is not the only one to hang from there?”

Joe smiles, moving over to the pile of papers he has spotted. “Nope. It was originally the second CEO of Matterhorn’s idea, I think. He put an Athena-class fighter up as a publicity stunt for this facility. He thought he would draw more seasoned engineers here after the war to help design ships.” Picking up the pile, Joe searches the room for a suitable home for the papers. “When they did a major redesign on that model, they decided to take the original down.” Joe notes a file cabinet drawer ajar on the other side of his office and starts toward it. “The engineers had gotten attached to the ship, and they demanded a model of a new midsized corvette replace the old one. When management initially denied their request, the engineers made it part of the new union contract to replace the ship—the contract they happened to be negotiating that year.” Joe pulls the drawer open, letting out a sigh, seeing it is already full of papers. “They nearly went on strike over it.”

Richard stands up, looking to help his friend organize. “It appears they fulfilled their wish. This likely means they will not attempt this again.”

Joe pulls open a drawer in the cabinet below the first. “Yes!” he exclaims, yanking out some papers. “I’ve been looking all over for this!” He dumps the others into the drawer, slamming it shut. He looks over to Richard. “Oddly enough, management doesn’t care much anymore about it being there. In fact, they’re planning on moving a new ship into its place.” Joe lays the papers on his desk and then leans against it.

“I have never understood how you can find anything in this chaos,” Richard says, picking up a pile of papers.

Joe snaps his fingers and displays a large grin. “See if you can guess what this is!” Joe goes back to the desk behind his own. It still has several books, not to mention papers, on it, but there is also something else on it. “This is what I wanted you to see.” Richard moved closer to the desk, to get a better look at what was on it.

“What exactly is this?”

Joe smiles proudly. “It’s a model for a mass displacement drive. This could easily be the fastest engine for a galactic starship ever built.” Richard gasps, pointing at the thing on the desk and stepping closer.

“Your senior paper was on this!” Richard looks down to recall a key thought. “You said in theory we could cross the Milky Way galaxy in a matter of seconds instead of ten to fifteen years with conventional light drives. This is an incredible breakthrough!” Richard excitedly exclaims.

Joe lets out a sigh. “It will be, once I find something that can power it. Conventional power sources just aren’t concentrated enough, since it discharges the energy for the conventional trip instantly. The amount of conventional fuel needed to power it for more than five or ten seconds would fill this hangar, assuming we could get it into the thing fast enough.” He sits down in the chair. He lets out another sigh as he plops down. “I’ve run out of ideas, and I don’t know where to go from here.”

Clearing a spot, Richard moves to the edge of the desk. “How long have you been working on this?”

Joe leans back in the chair, his hand on the top of his head. “Ever since I got out of school. That’s how I got this job.” He leaned forward, reaching for a coiled-up sheet of paper sticking out of a drawer. Pulling it out, he spreads it out a little on the desk. “When I showed them the original design, they loved it! They wanted me to start immediately.” He unrolls the paper closer to the middle. “About three months ago we ran into a problem with this.” Joe points to a sketch of an arrowhead-shaped piece. “We can’t get it to modulate at a high enough frequency to sustain this.” He moves to a T-shaped piece. “That’s when I realized it was a power problem, not a design one. So, I’m trying to work around this.” Joe stares at the page, hoping for enlightenment that, thus far, eludes him.

Richard, seeing Joe is continuing to stare at the sketch, begins to smile. “Well,” he starts, “maybe you need to move your mind off this for a while. Maybe go somewhere to regain flexibility. Then you can attack this with a new perspective on things.”

Joe folds his arms. “You know, you still haven’t told me why you’re here.”

Richard hands Joe the papers. “I was seeing if you might be free to do a little traveling.” Richard leans on the desk beside Joe. “A bachelor excursion. One last adventure before our responsibilities reach critical mass!”

Joe looks up at the ceiling, letting out a longing sigh. “My friend, it may already be too late for me,” he remarks. “I mean, I’d love to go! In fact, I would go, if I didn’t have this to worry about.” He points in disgust at his creation on the back desk. Joe took a deep breath. “What am I going to do?”

In deep thought, Richard looked down at the floor. Then it came to him. “Joe,” Richard said, turning to face him, “you said yourself the engine cannot run for any length of time on conventional fuels.” Joe looked up from his creation.

“Yeah, I tried everything! Even some things I was sure wouldn’t work. Nothing can give it enough power fast enough or long enough. Nothing.”

Richard began to pace around the desk. “What if …” he begins, “what if you discovered an element, a gas, or some sort of plasma that would work? You see, this is no ordinary engine, so the fact it cannot use ordinary fuels should not be hard to accept. Therefore, the fuel that would power this would have to be as extraordinary as the engine itself.”

Joe raises an eyebrow at Richard’s present line of thought. “I don’t see where this is leading.”

“Do you not see?” Richard said, spinning to face Joe. “In order to find that ‘extraordinary’ element, you have to look in unconventional places! You have to go to unconventional worlds to seek out the unconventional! With an unconventional line of thought, you could easily locate that which is unconventional!”

Joe looks down, smiling, and shakes his head. “You really want me to go, don’t you?”

Richard sat down on the desk again. “Joe, it just would not be an adventure without you.” He pauses. “So whaddaya say?”

“Well, I didn’t think I would get this job. And I never thought I could build this.” Joe leaned back slowly in his chair. “Asking for time off to do ‘research’ should be a cakewalk.” Richard grins. However, Joe cringes, apparently recalling an ominous thought. “But Jen already thinks I don’t spend enough time with her. I already know how she’ll react to—”

“Jen?” Richard blurts. “Are you referring to Jennifer Quincy?” Richard frowns. “From high school?”

Joe looks over to Richard. “Um, yeah,” he reluctantly responds. “Why?”

Richard jumps up. “Why?” he asserts. “You hated her in high school! Why, every time you two intersected paths, I was certain someone was going to be maimed!”

Joe laughs. “‘Hate’ is such a strong word,” Joe objects. “‘Strong-willed’ would better describe her. There are certain things she feels very strongly about. Once I realized that, well, we sorta hit it off.”

Richard looks intently at Joe. “You desired her all along, did you not?” Joe smiles. “That explains why we were intersecting paths with her so much.” Richard grins. “You were trying to, how you say, hitching up with her?” He shakes his head.

Joe blushes, looking down. “Well, it wasn’t until after high school we connected though. But we’ve been dating for almost a year now.” He stands up, his arms still folded, and steps behind his desk.

Richard’s eyes follow his friend. “A year? You are probably close to …” He watches as Joe pulls a small box from the top desk drawer. The paper dust lightly covering the heavy black velvet on the outside of the box indicates to Richard the box may have been there a while. “Asking her?”

Joe slowly opens the box, peering at its contents. “I don’t know.” He sighs.

Richard steps closer. “You have doubts?”

Joe looks up, quickly closing the box. “No, it’s not that,” Joe corrects. “I’m sure she’ll say yes. She’s probably wondering why I haven’t asked her yet.” He pauses. “I’m just wondering if she’ll be pleased with the ring.”

Richard folds his arms again. “This is humor, is it not?”

Joe puts the box into his coat pocket. “Well, I mean, I did spend two months’ salary on this, and although they got the setting right, I was hoping to get a diamond with a little more blue in it to better match the sapphires.”

Richard stares in amazement. “You are worried about her not liking the color of the stones on the ring?” Richard walks over to his friend. “Give her the ring, Joe! Do you not think she has waited long enough?”

Joe scratches the back of his neck. “I just want everything to be perfect, you know?” Joe starts for the door slowly. “The perfect ring, the perfect setting, the perfect moment.” Joe stops. “I don’t want to mess this up. It’s just too important.”

Richard steps over to Joe. “Joe, the only way you will to mess this up is if you do not ask her!” Joe looks at Richard, letting his words sink in.

Joe looks away and nods. “Maybe you’re right.” He starts again for the door. Stepping through, he stops and turns back. “You coming?”

“Coming?” Richard inquires.

Joe smiles. “I have an idea of how I can get some time off!”

 

***

 

At the opposite end of the vast acreage from the engineering area lay the corporate headquarters of Matterhorn. Within lay various administrative departments that coordinate with the company’s far-flung operations.

While most other departments are forced to use video conferencing as their principle means of quickly communicating with the central headquarters, the engineers are afforded the luxury of addressing their superiors in person. The engineers, including Joe, often take advantage of this unique privilege.

The corporate headquarters building is set on a particularly well-landscaped portion of the complex. Each of the three buildings, staggering in height (with the middle building being the tallest, the one to its left slightly shorter, followed by the third being the shortest), resembles the gothic and postmodern architecture popular in the early twentieth century. Each building has heavy marble facades around the first two or three floors in several muted shades. Each building is also decorated with ornate staggered masonry, including contrasting hued bricks on the corner edges and in the detailing around the windows. Each building tapers to a rounded point, having a large medallion-shaped picture window in each side. The window bears the nearly two-hundred-year-old logo of the company within. They enter the tallest building through one of the rotating doors into the huge lobby. Upon walking in, Richard pauses for a moment to take in his surroundings.

Richard takes note of the vast though sparse lobby within the middle building, noting only the large, ornate pillars of white marble supporting the building and the expansive information desk in the center of the area as decor. The floor is covered with a heavy deep maroon plush pile carpet, to contrast with the white marble trim. Richard looks up at the nearly ten-meter bronze eagle perched atop the rear of the information desk, its wings spread, preparing to take off through the third floor.

As they walk up to the receptionist counter, Richard notes how the counter is made from the same white marble. A young woman, sitting behind the counter, typing away, stops, seeing the pair approach her. “Can I help you?” she asks politely.

Joe looks down to her, smiling. “It’s me. I’m here to see Mr. Matterhorn,” he causally remarks.

“Yes, that’s the only reason you ever come up here, anymore,” she says with a sigh, pushing a button on a nearby console as she lifts the handset to a communications console. Joe pulls back from the counter, Richard seeing his friend’s eyes widen and his grasp of the counter tense. She looks up at him. “You can go up. He’s in a meeting, but he’ll be finished by the time you get up there.” Joe grins nervously and then darts quickly to the bank of elevators directly behind the information desk. He presses a button with an arrow pointing up.

Richard follows, putting his hands behind his back. “What was this reaction concerning?” Richard asks, leaning forward as he nears Joe.

“Oh, well,” Joe says, rubbing the back of his neck, “I apparently gave her the impression I was interested in her or something like that.” Richard looks over to Joe. A green arrow above one of the doors elatedly dings, signaling the arrival of an elevator. Joe turns, noticing the polished brass doors of a nearby elevator pop open.

“You were not? She looked pretty attractive to me. I certainly would have!” he remarks sarcastically. They step in to the velvet-lined elevator, Richard noting his reflection in the smooth brass trim framing the sheets of velvet.

“If Jen even suspected that, she would be up here in my face within the hour!” he replies, looking over to Richard. “Jen can get very jealous very easily!”

“Oh!” Richard says, smiling at this revelation. “I think I see a triangle of love forming!”

“No! No, you don’t! I don’t want you to even mention this to anyone else!” Richard leans against the side the elevator, staring at Joe. Joe looks back, seeing Richard’s mocking grin. Joe shakes his finger at Richard. “I know what you’re thinking! You think she backed me into a corner and threatened me with bodily harm if I even thought something like that!”

“She must have, since I cannot see you inventing such a reaction for her,” Richard says frankly.

Joe pauses, withdrawing his finger. “Well, she did, but that was before we talked,” he clarifies. “But I did tell her I didn’t enjoy her getting jealous of every girl walking into my line of sight, and I still wanted to pursue my career. She understood and agreed to try not to be so jealous.” Joe folds his arms. “In fact, she isn’t even here, to show you how much she trusts me! She’s in Egypt, on an archeological dig in some pharaoh’s pyramid.”

“Well, I just hope that when I meet that someone, they will not get as jealous as she does!” Richard turns back to the doors but notices now they did not immediately close. Joe looks up for a moment. “Um, you did pick a floor, right?” Richard remarks.

“Yes …,” Joe pauses, suddenly grabbing for his pocket. “Sorry, I just remembered something!” He pulls out his worn badge card again. Richard now notices the panel left of the doors, neatly framing the buttons to various floors. The topmost button, which was already lit, bore a small slot beside it into which Joe quickly jabs his badge. The doors finally close. “Always forget that when I’m going to the top!” he states and then sighs.

“How often does she call?”

Joe heaves a heavy sigh. “Up until a couple of weeks ago, every day! But she said she may not be able to call for a couple of weeks since she won’t be near a phone.” He looks up to the ceiling. “Thank goodness!” he says under his breath.

Richard shakes his head. “It cannot be that bad!”

Joe turns to Richard, glaring. “Her sentences are paragraphs, and her paragraphs pages!” He shakes his head. “I don’t mind talking, but every once in a while, it doesn’t hurt to pause”—he pauses— “for stuff. Like breathing!” He folds is arms, leaning into the velvet. “Maybe I just miss her.” Richard smiles.

As the elevator makes its ascent, Richard admires the intricate etchings on the smooth brass trim. When he reaches out to touch it, he is surprised to find the surface actually smooth, as if there is a transparent film protecting the etching. Richard touches the velvet. “When was this building built?” he inquires to Joe.

Joe thinks for a moment. “Well, actually, I think about seventy years ago.”

“I did not think this style of architecture was popular on your world then,” Richard comments.

Joe nods. “That’s the advantage of owning your own company: you can design your buildings however you want! I think one of the previous CEOs relished gothic architecture.” He refolds his arms thumbing the velvet behind him. “But, personally, I think the marble and brick here are just to make people jealous of how stupid rich this company must be!”

Richard nods. “Were they involved with the Cesium Convention?”

Joe shrugs. “Maybe. Officially, they didn’t get involved with military projects till after.” Joe looks at the ceiling. “Though, it wasn’t long after.”

“You have always had reservations about working for military contractors,” Richard folds his arms. “You did not come to Alexandria when I offered, for fear that–”

Joe laughs. “Actually, I didn’t come, because I was close to catching Jen.” He shakes his head. “I wasn’t going to let her slip away, not when I was so close.” Richard unfolds his arms, facing his friend. “Besides, Matterhorn offered me a job in civilian propulsion development.” He pauses, gesturing to underline. “Civilian.” Richard nods, raising his hand.

He then looks down to his watch. “This is a long elevator ride.”

Joe leans back onto the back of the elevator. “Sometimes they’re in a meeting with certain sensitive customers, and the customers don’t want their identity publicly known. So they hold the elevators to that floor until they leave.”

“That would make me wonder what they have to hide.” Richard runs his fingers across the thick velvet again. “They certainly went to a lot of expense on this elevator, considering the labor costs on Earth,” Richard comments.

Joe shakes his head. “Most of the fixtures in this building probably weren’t manufactured on Earth.” Richard pulls his hands away from the velvet. “Whenever possible, Matterhorn outsources to the lowest bidder. Defense work, and this engine are about the only things they do in house.”

Richard frowns as he turns to Joe, preparing to inquire further. However, the delay in the elevator trip comes to an end, the doors popping open on the topmost floor.

The room they step into is clearly on the topmost floor, Richard notes, since the silhouette of the original Matterhorn logo is visible on the wall before them. In front of the inlaid solid wood wall is a desk at which a young man sits. He stares intently at a flat pane of crystal, noting his various inputs as they display on the flat pane. The plush, almost shag carpet covering the floor looks almost new, save a small path beaten to the desk from the elevator and to a nearby set of plush leather furnishings.

Joe walks up to the young man at the desk. Richard remains in front of the elevator, not sure if he should proceed. He notes Joe gesturing toward the double doors just behind the young man. The young man looks over to Richard briefly and then back to Joe. The young man nods, looking down at his crystal display. From his vantage point, Richard is able to see the face of a gentleman, appearing to be his father’s age, displaying on the screen. The young man makes a few brief remarks to his crystal screen and then waits briefly for a response. The gentleman nods, responding, and then the screen dims. Joe starts for the door, Richard preparing to follow.

The young man quickly stands. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” he politely protests, “but I can’t allow you to enter.” Richard stops, looking at Joe.

Joe smiles. “Don’t worry. This won’t take but a minute,” he assures, quickly entering the neatly framed door on the inlaid wood wall.

The young man raises a hand toward the nearby plush leather furnishings. “If you would prefer, you may have a seat here,” he offers. Richard nods, meandering over to them, and plopping down onto a particularly overstuffed leather couch.

“Yeah, I am sure this will take a lot more than a minute,” he mutters to himself.

 

***

 

Joe steps through one of the two doors, closing it quietly behind himself. Within was a small, square hallway with three doors. To his left and right are the boardrooms where the chairpersons gather for their many meetings. However, just in front of Joe is the door he is heading for. As he starts for it, he looks up at the shiny lettering across the door, spelling out “Zachariah Barclay Matterhorn, CEO” in a fine script font. Joe shakes his head, imagining the headache laying out each of those letters on the door must have been.

Joe enters the office. Stepping through the door, Joe looks around the room, seeing the three individuals at a long white marble and mahogany desk. The first is a woman with reddish hair who appears to be in her mid-thirties. The one in the middle is a man who appears to be in his early fifties, wearing a strikingly bright lavender and violet tie that stands out to Joe. The one on the far right of the desk from Joe is also a woman in her late twenties with brunette hair. The man raises his hand, gesturing for Joe to sit in a chair before him. Joe sits down in the large maroon velvet plush chair.

Straight before Joe sits the man himself, above him the massive Matterhorn logo towers for another fifty meters. The huge picture window affords Joe a clear view of the rest of the Matterhorn facility, even a glimpse of downtown Wichita near the horizon. Joe looks down at the gentleman behind the desk, noting his warm smile. “Joseph, it’s good of you to visit me. How is your project coming along? Have you gotten the results from the alpha testing?”

Joe nods, kneading his fingers together in his lap. “Yes, and the results, so far, are positive.”

Mr. Matterhorn stands, turning to take in the scenic view his office offers behind him. “Excellent work! Your research into fold technology has always looked promising. It is good to see such consistent, positive results from your efforts.” He pauses. “How do you propose we proceed with the beta testing?”

Joe looks down at the mahogany in the desk. “I have reason to believe I may be able to beta test the device once I’m able to locate a power source or fuel suitable for it. Once this is done, I propose a test in actual space under controlled conditions to be conducted to test range and long-term stability.”

“Really?” Mr. Matterhorn comments, looking up into the sky. “I thought the generator engineering department was already working on a power solution for you.” He looks down, shaking his head. “However, I am surprised they have yet to produce a suitable test fuel or a reliable power source.” He steps closer to the window. “Was there something you had in mind?”

“Well, I was wondering if I could take some time to research the power problem myself. I was thinking of checking on some experimental power sources or to try and locate an element that would prove suitable for testing applications.”

Mr. Matterhorn glances to his left, at a nearby grove of trees. “Is this a practical venture?” he blindly inquires.

Joe looks to his left, recalling Mr. Matterhorn’s two executive assistants. Joe finds himself wondering how much “assistance” he actually needs in performing his duties. However, they normally dispense to him advice on matters of concern to him.

The first woman to Joe’s left is presumably who Mr. Matterhorn is addressing. Her mane, a striking crimson, is drawn back from her face in a loose ponytail, a subtle way of taming her large curls, save a chosen few. These curls carefully frame her otherwise ordinary-looking face. Ordinary, except for a few faint freckles dotting her cheeks and nose. As she keys on the console, Joe notices she has freckles on the backs of her hands.

“From the specifications available, the present design will require a sizable test platform.” She looks up at Joe, the same odious look she gives him each time he visits. “It would require a ship of at least our Excelsior series. And at that, it would barely qualify.” She blinks her eyes in mock contempt. Mock, since she feels circumstances are not meriting actual contempt. “Of course, this is all assuming an element we could test can be found, which would require it to go through a refinement process as well as applications testing. All of which could take months and could possibly bring us back to this point.”

Mr. Matterhorn turns back to the scenic view before him. “The Excelsior series. Hmm, that certainly is a sizable ‘test platform.’” He releases a brief sigh. “Certainly not one we normally build for even demo purposes. It would seem a special fuel, and a special ship may need to be built just to complete the beta testing.”

Joe groans. Such a suggestion implies a minimum three-month wait before a ship design could even be approved and a two-year wait before it would be completed. And that’s far longer than he would want to wait under any circumstances.

“However,” she notes, “I don’t believe the head of the fold technology project would be the best person to choose to do such field research in any case.” The man in the middle turns to the redhead.

“What makes you think he would not be suitable?” Mr. Matterhorn inquires.

“Well, I feel the head of a project of this nature, considering he is the mastermind of the original design, should remain here to oversee the continued testing of other power methods. Also, there is a certain level of inherent danger involved in conducting field research. It’s possible he could meet with an adverse fate.”

Joe looks over to the slightly younger brunette. The young woman, with softer features than the redhead, both because of youth and overall size, also has her hair pulled back, though she wears it in a bun, a brightly colored scarf tying it. Her complexion is not as fair as the redhead, being a light natural oak, compared to white beach sand of the redhead. The brunette also prefers more color to her eyeshadow and lipstick, in this case wearing a chestnut lipstick that brings out the color in her eyes. “I would have to disagree,” she interjects. “First of all, as the project lead, he would be the best person to conduct such vital research, since he best understands the power requirements of this design.” She adjusts her wire-framed glasses, smiling at Joe. When she smiles, he can see the slight dimples in her cheeks. “And there is a certain level of danger in life. He could just as easily face death in testing a new fuel or something else on his design while here.” Mr. Matterhorn nods.

“But I think we may be overlooking another option,” the brunette continues. She gives Joe a look of reassurance, seeking to salvage what remains of his proposal from the bureaucratic siege it is being subject. “I believe since this project will ultimately offer a multipurpose solution, this may be a good time to bring a third party into the picture.”

Mr. Matterhorn shudders at her words. Joe knows this means he has serious reservations. “Hmm, most third parties we would approach normally prefer to exert a higher level of influence on projects than what I am comfortable.” He steps closer to his scenic view, resting his hands on a rail marking the edge of the floor. Opposite the rail, if he chooses to, he can look down on other execs busily working away, who share his scenic view, far below himself. After some moments of deliberation, he shakes his head. “No. Neither of these options are suitable. Without question, another option must present itself.”

Joe sits up. “I think there is still another option to consider, sir,” he respectfully interjects. Mr. Matterhorn turns to face Joe. Joe clears his throat. “There are others we could call upon to assist in this.”

Mr. Matterhorn steps slowly toward Joe. “Go on,” he beckons.

“I believe the Tyberian Empire can offer assistance with the level of autonomy the Matterhorn Company’s reputation with them deserves.”

Mr. Matterhorn smiles, nodding his head. “Is there any way you can be certain of this?” he inquires.

“I can get assurance from the royal house, and we can begin testing in the next few weeks,” Joe quickly responds, picking up on Mr. Matterhorn’s interest.

Mr. Matterhorn raises his hand. “Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he replies, noting Joe’s eagerness. “What is the Pact’s official position on the House of Tyberius?” he remarks as he glances to the scarlet-haired woman.

“The Terra government is neutral toward the House of Tyberius.” She looks up, her voice hints at cynicism. “They look at them as neither an ally nor an enemy.”

The brunette turns back to Mr. Matterhorn. “A cooperative project with the House of Tyberius wouldn’t affect the remainder of our contracts with the Terran military.”

Mr. Matterhorn nods. “This does sound promising,” he comments as he looks down for a moment. “I believe this option would be worth investigating.” He moves back to his desk. “Joseph, I hope this relationship you have with the Alexandrian Empire is as good as you indicate.” Mr. Matterhorn moves around the desk, extending his hand to Joe, who immediately stands. “I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

Joe looks down at Mr. Matterhorn’s extended hand, dumbfounded. He then quickly grabs the hand, shaking it eagerly. “I won’t let you down, sir!” he assures.

Mr. Matterhorn smiles. “I know you won’t, Joseph. Have a safe trip.” Joe steps back, starting for the door. Mr. Matterhorn moves back around his desk. As Joe exits the room, Mr. Matterhorn takes his seat. He leans forward, leaning his head on his hands. He releases a mild sigh. “Hmm …”

“Is this wise, sir?” the redhead inquires. “Typically, the Terra government takes a neutral stance on worlds they feel will threaten their sovereignty. Especially worlds they can’t easily defeat.”

“I am well aware of the nature of the Terra stance. I am also fully aware of the threat the Tyberian Empire poses.” He glances to the redhead. “But if the Terran military is to offer us what such a technology is worth, an effective demonstration of its potential is required.” He looks back to the door Joe left through. “I’m certain this arrangement will do just that.”