Pressure Cooker

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2013 by Howard Faxon

Science Fiction Story: In a future world of corporate families Anthony Skoda rescues his wife to be from a life of chemically forced childhood. Then the story gets interesting.

Caution: This Science Fiction Story contains strong sexual content, including mt/ft   Consensual   Heterosexual   Science Fiction   .

This story is written to an alternate future where multinational corporations have supplanted every existing national government. Bio warfare is not uncommon and corporate lines of succession are closely guarded. Some of the great old families such as Kellogg, Corning, Skoda, Sukhoi, Tupolev, Bertelsmann, Mitsubishi and Sony rule the larger, more stable corporate clans.

The world population had slowly climbed back up to nearly a quarter billion. The flash plagues wiped out so many people that the government infrastructures of the world collapsed. That left a power vacuum for the corporations that still had any structure to speak of to come into control.

-= The Pickup =-

March 4, 2127 at a private school near Grenoble, France. Three double-load tractor-trailers had parked quite near the campus the evening before. at 2:00 AM all three HERF guns detonated, throwing all local electronic systems into disarray with a rolling sound of thunder. Within minutes four squads of Skoda interdiction troops scaled the walls of the now silent and electronically undefended school. The Skoda troops had working night vision equipment. The staff did not. The sky was heavily overcast. The sound of mini guns firing interrupted the night and the bitter smell of cordite drifted over the residence halls. All the students wondered if it signaled an assassination squad sent for them. The complex was quickly overrun and locked down before any denial weapons could be detonated.

It wasn't so much as a school as a multi-corporate hostage site. Before Skoda could pursue a corporate takeover the heirs had to be secured.

Anthony (Andrei) Skoda sat on the floor of his sleeping quarters, watching through bleak eyes as his door crashed open and four black-clad troopers rushed in to secure the room. The Sergeant motioned for him to quickly move out the door. It appeared that it wasn't his day to die.

None of the other hostages were touched. Injuring or killing the other heirs was the most certain way to force the other corporations join together in destroying Skoda root, stalk and branch. None would survive.

Tony was quickly strapped into a recovery stretcher and nearly thrown over the compound wall. The teams, once over the wall, blew the charges on the underground data conduits to further isolate the school and delay reports of the attack. Three troop transports had pulled up while they were inside the fence. Within moments all that was left of the incursion were tire tracks.

A transport jet met them at the local airport. One team accompanied the heir aboard along with all the obviously high-tech equipment while the other two teams scattered. They would go to ground for five weeks or so, then make their way back to their bases. Their part was over.

-= The Drop Off =-

March 7, 2127 Vella Lavella Island, Solomon Islands. The island had long been deserted since the plagues had scoured away the population. The fields lay untended yet still were covered with their last seeded crops. The fallen seeds had germinated and grown, year after year.

There was only one occupied installation on the island--a hospital and sanitarium whose task was to tend one important guest--Isabelle Bergman, a potential heiress from a distaff line, closely guarded like a precious trade secret recipe or a cache of jewels, to be brought forth and exhibited as proof of solvency in case tragedy struck the main family line. She was kept as a near-imbecile by use of regularly dispensed medications; a blonde-haired little sylph of a teen doomed to a life of eternal childhood.

Anthony was informed of all this and more. He was alarmed at what the family had planned for him. However he was well aware that his continued existence depended on his compliance with orders. Mindful of what was in store for him he carefully inventoried the supplies aboard the jet.

The time of the jet's visit had been carefully calculated to match the hospital resupply shipment and to hide from satellite observation. Immediately after landing the squad burst from the drop tail and secured the landing field, leaving Anthony along with two guards aboard the jet with the pilots. As the heir, Anthony could not be risked even though he had been trained with the teams. All the airport staff and the maintenance team sent to pick up the shipment were secured aboard the jet. There was no sense in murdering them. After all, if plans went well they'd all soon be working for the same paymaster.

Within hours the facility staff and management were taken, the drugs being dispensed to Isabelle were identified in confirmation and the jet was unloaded. The jet took off with the team while still unseen by satellite coverage, flying south west to merge with the traffic over Australia. Anthony was left alone with his charge. He'd been left some soporifics and tranquilizers for Isabelle to ease the panic attacks that coming off her long term medications would cause. His first task was to gain her confidence as he'd be her friend, nurse and teacher in the months ahead. He'd been left several cases of textbooks with which to educate the girl and to continue his own education, so rudely interrupted by his own abduction.

The long halls of the hospital had been mothballed and sealed for years. Only the emergency facilities and a small ward for Isabelle were kept active. Anthony was made aware that the illumination patterns should not be varied so that comparison satellite imagery would not detect any changes. Under these constraints he was still able to move into the staff housing wing, replacing the site manager's possessions with his own. He inventoried the somewhat dismal kitchen stores and began to write up some menus that could be prepared from what was on hand.

The site ran off of a diesel generator. A fuel tank lay buried beneath the garage where a small truck sat waiting for the needs of the staff. Being near the equator Anthony hoped that some old orchards and gardens around the island would provide windfalls to vary his diet. He'd have to be careful to ration his time, however. He would be taking on the tasks of at least four people. His primary concern was the girl. He had to be prominent in her sensorium to make an impact through the filters put in place by her drug regimen. The first week or two would be critical. Before that he could not vary her routine without confusing her. After the detox period he could take her with him around the island as he inspected and harvested the crops. The changing environment should benefit her recovery.

-= The Substitution =-

March 8, 2127 At promptly seven A.M. she woke up, went to the bathroom and got dressed. She sat at the table waiting for her breakfast, noticeably bored. A different person brought her the bananna, oatmeal and milk that made up her standard fare.

"Hi! You're new!" "Hi, yourself. I'll be your new nurse. George had to go home to take care of his mother."

"Oh. Okay." Her attention span had been dramatically affected by the drugs. She quickly ate her breakfast, then went out to the sun room where her picture books sat. She wheedled, "Would you read me a story?" Anthony had read her case notes. She often tried to convince her nurse to read for her. He thought it an ideal way to acclimate her to him. "Well, okay. Which one?"

She gaily hopped up to pull down a tattered Dr. Seuss book. They spent the next hour in the bright morning sunshine exploring the deeds of the magical cat. Isabelle liked this new nurse--he didn't mind holding her in his lap while reading to her. Her old nurse didn't like to touch her. She wistfully remembered hugs. She missed getting hugs.

"Time for the pool!" "Yay! play time!" "Will you change into your suit for me?" "Okay!" She promptly peeled down to her birthday suit, then padded back into her room to find her swimsuit. He watched her jog away, her flanks and bottom switching. "This is going to be a harder job than I thought." Anthony quickly made for the bathroom where he changed into swim shorts himself. He picked up his charge and jogged outside where he jumped into the swimming pool with her in his arms. Her squeals of joy and laughter echoed off the walls. They splashed about and played catch across the pool with a big inflatable ball. Soon she lost her enthusiasm. Anthony sprayed her with some sun screen and left her to doze in the sun while he jogged back to the kitchen for the sandwiches he'd prepared that morning for lunch. He'd been up at five to exercise, clean the pool and prepare the day's meals. A chicken stew was slowly simmering in a crock pot. It would be ready for the biscuit topping by four that afternoon.

After apple juice and a ham sandwich it was lesson time. The poor kid had been doing the same six lessons for two years and didn't know it. However, he knew not to change the status quo until the chemicals had a chance to work their way out of her system.

They finished the day with another viewing of Beauty and the Beast from a DVD, then he read a little Peter Pan to her as she fell asleep. This nursing bit was hard work! Anthony picked up her clothes, took the dishes back to the kitchen, cleaned the place and, after a quick shower, went down for the night himself.

The second morning she frowned on seeing him and opened her mouth to ask who he was, then seemed to change her mind. He kept a smile on his face and maintained physical contact with her as much as he could.

This was the daily regimen except for weekends which were a bit more relaxed and he had a chance to clean the place and get the washing done. He frequently blessed his stars that he'd always been pulled towards cooking. Thankfully some of the house cooks had taken to the curious little boy he'd been.

It was late in the second week that he noticed a change. She frowned a little when doing her lessons and seemed inattentive during story times. He changed lessons and stories. Her mood improved visibly.

He was startled out of a sound sleep by a terrified shriek. He palmed a tranquilizer tablet and grabbed a cup, then sprinted for her room. She was panting and thrashing about, whining through clenched teeth. Anthony sat on her bed and pulled her into his lap where he hugged and rocked the distraught girl until she calmed down. She nuzzled her head at his neck and slowly relaxed. He could feel her skeletal muscles in her back occasionally twitch, though. These were signs that her CNS was shaking off the drugs. He knew that this was only the beginning. According to the brief a doctor had written, once the spasms began it could take eight to twenty four days for her to detoxify and shake the addiction involved. It was time for stage two. Anthony got her to swallow the pill and cover up. He sat with her until she became logy and fell back asleep.

The next morning Isabelle was bemused to see her nurse move another bed into her room. "Am I going to get a room-mate?" "Yep ... me." "You! But, but--nothing's wrong with you!" "There's nothing wrong with you now, either. From now on you're going to get better and I have to stay with you to make sure you're all right."

She crawled up beside him and gave him a hug. "That's okay, then."

They ate lunch, then went for a swim. The more she exercised the faster her metabolism would shake the drugs. She seemed to stay awake a bit longer as he read her to sleep.

This continued for two more weeks with the occasional panic attack either during the day or at night. He observed her becoming frustrated and bored with her daily regimen. "Want to go exploring?" She was hesitant to leave her familiar environment. "Well, I don't know..." "Come on! I'll be with you all the way. I've even got some new clothes for you!"

That perked her up. Dressed in work boots, blue jeans and a colorful blouse she held his hand as she left the building she had been in for over eleven years. Anthony showed her how to put on the seat belt then fired up the little truck. It seemed to her as if they were speeding along but he held the pace down to a fast walk. Wherever he spotted an overgrown trail he headed down it for a few measures to look for fields or orchards. they found citrus, bananas, mango, melons, cucumbers and vegetables such as carrots. He found some pineapple fields but the fruit was not ripe. The cocoanuts were so prolific along the beach that it made driving difficult. Isabelle was fascinated with the fantastic flowers and the birds. Parrots were everywhere!

That was a turning point. She began to quickly recover her memory and critical facilities. She followed him about as he did his chores, including the cooking. Pancakes and fresh fruit became a large part of their diets. Anthony was quite intelligent yet he felt hard pressed to keep up with her lessons as she burned through the material left for her.

Isabelle had noticed that they were alone on the island. That didn't agree with her vague memories. After reading the lessons on the history and politics of the families Isabelle sat with him at the dinner table. She had a serious expression and had the "we have to talk" look. He knew that this day was coming and dreaded it. However, he refused to lie.

"Tony, What is your last name?" "Skoda." "The Skodas and the Bergmans are competitors?" He squirmed. "Not any longer." That gave her pause. She quietly said, "Please explain." "There was a corporate takeover not too long ago. I was sent here to keep you safe and to make sure I was safe as well." He didn't lie. He didn't tell the whole truth, either. She caught it. "That's not all, is it?" He sighed. No, dear, it's not. I was also sent to bring you back to the world and to try to convince you to be my wife." She sat looking at him for what seemed like forever. Silently she rose, bathed and changed for bed. Tony quietly cleared the dishes, turned out the light and did his chores. He fell asleep on a tanning bed out by the pool, watching the stars.

Isabelle couldn't sleep. The brutal realities of the world had impacted her protected existence like a hammer blow. On further reflection she didn't have any objection to Tony as husband material. He had been kinder to her than any of the nurses she could remember. It was the high-handedness of the whole thing that appalled and infuriated her. It was close to dawn when fatigue finally shut down her churning mind and she dozed off.

-= The Agreement =-

April 7, 2127 Neither of them woke at their usual times. The sun's rays woke Anthony. He bolted upright in the lounger, no longer sleepy in the slightest. He quickly peed in the grass at the side of the pool, then got out the nets and chemicals to tend to the water. He stuck his head through the door to see if Isabelle was awake yet. Since she wasn't he went back to the kitchen to prepare a few things that would keep in the refrigerator. It didn't take long to assemble a pear and cheese tart that he could cook off later. He also started a roast and vegetables in a crock pot for later. Twenty minutes later he walked into Isabelle's room balancing a tray holding to defrosted Danish and two cups of tea.

"Isabelle--good morning!" His voice and the clatter of the tray brought her back to the land of the living. She stretched in bed and smiled at him. She didn't realize it but she couldn't have looked more attractive if she'd tried. "Morning, Tony. Be right back." She scampered to the toilet to do her morning business.

They sat at the table where he served the light breakfast. "How are you today? I'm afraid that I gave you quite a shock last night. I apologize for it but I felt it best not to deceive you."

She took a sip of tea. "Yes. Well, we live in a harsh world, don't we?" She thought for a bit, tapping the edge of her cup against her teeth. "How long do we have here?"

"Until I place a call. It's expected that we live out the summer here. That's, what, five or six months from now? I can extend or shorten that if we need to. I suggest that we finish our studies as I doubt that we'll have this sort of time once we leave here."

She nodded. "Undoubtedly. You're what, seventeen? And I'm, umm, just how old am I anyway?"

He was careful not to smile. "Sixteen, almost seventeen."

She said quietly, "So much time lost. My family has much to answer for." Louder, she said, "Right, then! We need to study like crazy, keep fit and keep this place up."

Anthony was hesitant to ask, but he had to know. "Isabelle, what of the last thing we spoke of last night? Would you be my wife?"

She knew he would be on pins and needles. She would have been, in his place. "Yes, Anthony Skoda, I will marry you." They leaned across the breakfast table and softly exchanged their first kiss.

Anthony was a genius on anyone's scale, but Isabelle put him to shame. Her mind was like a wildfire, consuming everything before it. Once she finished her studies she read Anthony's. After she completed those the hospital's medical library fell under her onslaught. Anthony had never seen such a fierce commitment before and was more than a little frightened. Still, there were things that he could teach her that were not in the books she so relentlessly devoured.

Anthony started her on a more structured exercise program such as the military used. She didn't enjoy exercise for itself but she relished the further control it gave her over her body. Anthony constructed a heavy bag out of a heavy canvas duffle bag and a pile of old hospital sheets. She learned to punch, counterpunch, block and box. Later he built on that with some of the grips, holds, throws and strikes he'd learned while studying with the guards. They spent some time in the little machine shop mutilating mower blades into knives. By the time he called for a pickup she was a dangerous knife fighter and could throw a blade with acceptable power and accuracy. She needed practice under a skilled eye but she was far from helpless.

When the little four-seater turboprop set down on the beach Anthony recognized his uncle Daniel climbing down. He walked down to greet him with Isabelle at his side. After shaking hands he said, "Uncle, may I present my bride, Isabelle. She unflinchingly evaluated him then took Tony's hand. "Is this one we keep or one we destroy?"

Daniel felt goose bumps suddenly raise on his arms. What kind of woman WAS this?

They held hands on their way to Sydney, Australia. Daniel couldn't see the tiny muscle contractions that they'd practiced. They had learned Morse code and how to tap it out quickly on each other's hand. They expected that they'd be separated and interrogated. He cautioned her about drawing blood in the opening round unless the family visibly escalated matters. A precis of her education should do for her basic answers. Other than that he suggested that she reply along the lines of "I have no reason to trust you with that information." Hide all combat skills.

-= The Interrogation =-

September 28, 2127 near Preetzer Strasse, Hamburg Germany Within hours Anthony was brought before the clan 'Thing'. Grandfather Hermann ruled from his chair. "Well, Andrei, your pickup signal implied success on all fronts. We are anxious to hear of your successes and failures in this, your first deployment."

Anthony rose from the postulant's chair and gripped the railing before him. "I can sum up my findings in one sentence. The stupid bastards almost destroyed a fully functional polymath!"

The uproar took several minutes to quench. When order had been re-established Hermann took up the lead once again. "Anthony, the words polymath and success gives us much hope. Please continue."

"I have spent the last six months educating Isabelle. Her appetite for knowledge is positively fearsome. She has a photographic memory and an IQ that must measure over two hundred. I have taught her all I could of family politics. I sincerely suggest that you turn her loose in the most comprehensive library that we can access and stand back. She has committed to be my wife and partner. She needs combat training as I could only take her so far. She is truly a diamond. However, I fear that any attempt to 'polish' her could be catastrophic. She is quite bitter about the 'high handed' decisions made to control her. To summarize, she is a loaded weapon seeking a target. I have some influence over her decision-making but her motivation at this time is that of an assassin. God help the matriarchs if they attempt to put the heel to her."

They spoke further for nearly an hour when suddenly an explosion sucked the immense doors of the room off of their hinges and dust fell from the ceiling. Isabelle stalked into the room scanning those seated with a look of eagles. "Anthony. Come. We are not welcome here."

Tony rose and lifting his shoulders in apology to the grandfather hurried after his woman. He thought to himself, "Thank God she doesn't collect scalps."

The whispered conversations that filled the room were full of speculation. The fact that no on was shouting was a telling point. Another was the small smile on Hermann's face. He sighed and stood. He had some women to placate and a security team to gently chastise.

-= The Entrenchment =-

December 31, 2127 University district, Hamburg Germany They took up residence at the University of Hamburg. Anthony was already fluent in German but Isabelle was not. Two months later that could not be said. He found himself back in his old grind of providing food for Isabelle while she furiously devoured the libraries. One of his old trainers had accepted the task of making them 'bitter pills'. Their knife fighting skills became truly deadly. She did much better than he did at field expedient weapons and explosives. After all, she was the one that had memorized chemistry libraries...

Grandfather Hermann paid them a visit. They sat at the apartment's dinner table to talk. "Christine, my wife, has retired from the field of combat. She said that she no longer wishes to find out what it feels like to have her hair set on fire." Isabelle shrugged. "I only suggested it as a possible outcome." He patted her shoulder. "I have to thank you. My home life has become much more pleasant."

Isabelle brought a plate to the table. "Please, try these. My husband is a master baker. They are freshly-made kolachkes. They're marvelous." We snacked and had tea. Afterwards Hermann sat back and sighed. "I would drop the whole thing in your laps but you haven't the reputations to carry it off yet. Political power is comprised of not only understanding but perception. I'm afraid that it's up to you to pull together a faction among the family before you can assume the mantle." He turned to Anthony. "You are the heir designate because you have the ambition as well as the talent for it that none of the others have shown, despite their protests. Still, there remains a wide gap between the theory and practice."

He slid a leather bound folder across the table to Tony. "These accounts are anonymous and inviolate. They control two billion in assets. You must secure a holding of your own and populate it with those you trust completely before you can take the next step. Only then can you solidify your position. Trust no one and stay aware of your environment. We have hints that some of the clans have evolved telepaths that can rip forth a man's secrets while dining at the next table in a restaurant."

After Hermann left we lay in bed curled like spoons. I had an idea. "Let's turn it around. Bold as brass, let's go back to the island. With a few million in defenses, a good mercenary squad or two and a satellite communications array we could operate anywhere from Taiwan to Buenos Aires."

She nuzzled back against me, hugging my arm under her breasts. "Let me think on it for a few days. If the facts agree perhaps we should re-open the hospital as an ongoing concern. In any case I need to delve into the weapons, both the capabilities of various hardware and the protocols involved in a multi-layered defensive and offensive umbrella. There are many issues involved in hiring trustworthy staff as well." I kissed her above the ear and we fell asleep nestled together.

-= The Proposal =-

June 21, 2130 Bern, Switzerland Stealing from the idea my university had operated under, we opened up the hospital under a multi-family contract. Crack combat teams from the top corporate families around the world came to us. Even though their loyalties were not ours we did not fear attack. The other teams would come down on any one team that went rogue like a steam hammer. We constructed comfortable housing for all of them and rotated the teams in and out of the close and peripheral watch assignments. We instituted a totally above-board research project into the genetic anomalies that affected the various families and the residual polymorphic viruses that had held large areas of the planet in a strangle hold since the flash plagues. Slowly we began politicking, not just within the Skodas but among all the families.

Our goal was not just survival. It was victory. By soft words or authoritative power we planned to take over the families.

Isabelle was our secret weapon. She had seen something in the physics texts that, seemingly, nobody else had pursued. She thought that it was possible to create an energy field that would slow or stop matter from piercing it. With enough of a power surge behind it the thing would explosively expand its bounds and perform a power strike on any immediate threat--within microseconds. After several generations of engeneering it evolved into a backpack that could be worn. My wife was wrapped up in the possibility of designing a star drive while I took her defensive shield into field trials.

Every ten years the families came together in a 'thing of things'. Anthony was third to speak. He made certain to energize and balance the defense field before walking up to the podium. Several depleted uranium rounds hit his back as he stood before the microphones. He smiled as the processors traced back the kinetic paths of the projectiles and fired back pulses of energy. The screams, dust and panic soon settled down. Tony keyed open the microphones before him. "We anticipated this assassination attempt. All the weaponized soldiers have been neutralized. Their handlers however remain at large."

A voice screamed out of the crowd. "Goddamned you Anthony! I should have killed you while I had the chance!" The crowd backed away from the single figure. "Ahh, Uncle Daniel. I expected you to be one of the heel-draggers, but not one of the leaders." His tone of voice dropped. "You disappoint me, Uncle." I turned to the assembled crowd. "Many among you want to keep the status quo in place. That path leads to eventual ruin. We cannot thrive if we do not grow. It is an ecological golden rule." I turned to the screen behind me. "Behold our global economic map. Notice the breakpoints and inefficiencies in transport, manufacturing, warehousing and shipping." The screen changed. "A few budgetary percentage points here and there, a few policy changes, a cooperative corporation where necessary and this is our goal."

The slide changed. I motioned towards the changed colors in zones. "If the thing of things underwrites our cooperative model our profits could be nearly boundless. We are researching satellite mining once again. Newly discovered technology is pointing the way towards an ecologically sound method of achieving escape velocity and landing at a conventional airport afterwards. Only a consolidated economy could afford the investments necessary to create space-based foundries and residential stations."

Another slide went up. It illustrated some primitive orbital mechanics. "These are the Lagrangian points L4 and L5. They are a third of an orbit away from the Earth, in preceding and trailing positions, respectively. What gets put there remains there by reason of orbital mechanics. Building, supplying and operating facilities at these locations would pose much less risk to our planet than working in local space. You don't operate a fireworks plant in your front pocket, hmm?"

Another slide went up. Isabelle and I had discussed releasing this information. She judged it safe as the equations were in their general form. Up on the screen were twelve equations in esoteric mathematics. "These are the future. These are the field equations developed by my wife. They work! You want proof? Today they protected my life from assassins. In the future they will protect and drive our craft. We are operating on a firm timeline of seven years until launch. Ladies and gentlemen, let's get cracking. We have business to conduct."

Daniel did not move fast enough. His vehicle was intercepted while leaving the thing. He was not seen again.

Anthony had been quite careful in drawing up his proposals. Within each folder lay proposals that, taken together, gave something to everyone. Within days a vote was cast to give the plan provisional approval. Some family diplomats had already approached their opposites with folders in hand, willing to wheel and deal. Some of the arrangements Anthony proposed made too much sense to ignore. He slowly gained a reputation among the houses as a planner and a diplomat--perhaps as a leader.

-= Home life =-

February 1, 2134 Solomon Islands Tony sat in his lounger playing with their baby Sasha as Isabelle carefully guided a floating skateboard around the living room furniture with an R/C airplane controller. She grinned at him and pressed a control. The contrivance silently rose four fee higher in the air, spun about its center of mass and zipped off for its charging station. The big 12-volt wet cell bolted to the chassis could only power it for so long. Little Sasha squealed and reached for the floating thing, totally captivated. Tony said, "See, she has her mother's interests."

Isabelle laughed. "With the genes from both of us in play she has a chance to be formidable." I spun her around and tickled her belly. "Well, miss astronaut, it's time for dinner." I handed her off to Isabelle while I made my way to my office. It was time to call into a meeting. I was asked to mediate a contract between four houses. I smiled. Today I could break the news that we had perfected the reactionless drive. Observing which houses showed interest in the announcement would prove fascinating.

--transmission detected by geostationary satellite repeater-- The house leaders of the Mitsubishi and the Sukhoi clans were on a private, encrypted call. Jen Li asked Peter, "So, what do you think of this Skoda fellow?"

"I think that we'd all better watch him very carefully so as not to be left behind. My people say that this field theory is the real thing. Our families have long been leaders in transportation. This could dramatically affect profit margins, in a good way."

"But what of him? Do you think that he is a wolf or a shepherd? It is almost too late to remove him now. Once he grows into his power it will be too late to remove him without severe consequences."

"It's too late for that already, old friend. The Solomons are now his fief and he consolidates daily. The signs are good, though. He is investing in the right places. Perhaps we should pledge our house's allegiance now when it will mean something instead of later when the others realize what is happening and leap to the winning side."

"Perhaps you are right. I shall think seriously on this. Good day, Peter.

"Be well, Jen Li." --transmission terminated--

-= The Practical Test =-

June 30, 2135 Henderson International Airport, Honiara, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands The flying wedge was powered by an oxy-hydrogen fuel cell. Its cargo bay held eight replacement communications satellites that had long been designed and warehoused to replace failing units already in orbit. A simple claw and arm device that had been pioneered for use in space by the NASA shuttles was ready to position the new birds and retrieve the old ones. It was designed to be a four day mission. The Sukhoi astronauts were grinning like cats that ate the canaries.

When the mission clock hit zero the pilot simply threw a covered switch and rotated a vernier. When the radar reported 35,768 Km above sea level he triggered a program from his console that took his craft up to 11,300 KPH spinward to match the orbital characteristics of an Earth equatorial geostationary orbit. Using the global GPS satellites in a way that would have amused their inventors the craft navigated to its first target. The mission specialist belted in at his remote manipulator control console and brought it online while the pilot opened the bay doors and gently approached the failing bird. Within two hours the satellite was replaced. The pilot delicately backed off while the satellite's ground station brought it on line and confirmed its orbital characteristics. One down, seven to go. In fact, it went so well that they were done in two days instead of four.

Upon re-entry instead of using the dangerous process of skipping off the atmosphere to shed kinetic energy the pilot simply engaged another program from the console. Within two hours they were back at Henderson sitting within two meters of where they had sat at takeoff. The fact that the astronauts had been in a shirtsleeve environment throughout the mission was not lost on the houses. Neither was the fact that the same vessel that retrieved the tired satellites delivered them to their owners the next day. Isabelle and Anthony shared a bottle of sparkling wine with the flight crew.

Within a week the budding space delivery company was fully booked to raise sat-phone repeaters, weather satellites and observation units into various orbits. It had been decades since a new bird had flown due to the lack of available resources. The old solar observers had long ago failed. Their replacements had weather forecasters the world over sighing in relief. Any satellites that set off the transport vessel's gamma detectors was boosted into a retrograde solar path--it was dropped into the sun.

Many clamorous voices were raised behind closed doors. Strategically and actually the Skodas had the proverbial high ground. However, after several months went by with no orbital blackmail attempts things cooled off. The threat was still there, but much like Mutually Assured Destruction of the nineteen seventies people can get used to living with anything. Witness the people that built and lived in houses on the slopes of active volcanoes.

-= The Devil is in the Details =-

December 30, 2136 Solomon Islands Isabelle was focused on navigation. How would an ignorant miner locate himself, his find and the factory he needed to get his precious ores to? Automation seemed the simplest solution. She theorized a series of satellites to be placed at the L1, L2 and L3 Lagrangian points of all planets in the system short of Mercury. The satellites would broadcast coded radio pulses on various fixed frequencies to act as navigation aids in space, just as TACCAN and VOR were used to aid aircraft in a terrestrial environment.

The trouble was space was so vast and the planets were so distant that radio signals would be nearly useless across the system, unless the transmitters were so strong that they would make local communication nearly impossible. Likewise a set of strobes that performed the same function would affect close observers like the detonation of a nuclear weapon. And then the question reared its ugly head of how anyone would ever power the damned things? A passive solution seemed to be in order such as a resonant antenna array or a large radar reflector buoy. The bogus for Jupiter and Saturn would have to be damned big, though for the L1 and the L2 points. Hell, the L3 as well because it would be at solar antipodes to the planet. Now, how to get the material and how to manufacture a radar reflector the size of Pluto?

Anthony had his own projects to oversee. The old research on high-efficiency photo-electric cells was dusted off and several teams of engineers were tasked with retooling a large plant for production. Their goal was to pump out large vacuum-tolerant panels that would power a space station. A large space station.

Architects and structural engineers studied the issues of how to build a maintainable, safe ring structure that could be rotated for artificial gravity while maintaining a link to a static power supply module that had to maintain a focus on the sun, and some sort of shipping and receiving terminal. It was finally decided that a two-phase design held the most promise. A smaller rotating station with long cylinders designed for either habitation or oxygen replenishment via photosynthesis would work until a massive enough body could be brought on site and drilled out. Then the natural gravity would be taken advantage of cancelling the need for rotating sections.

The engineering and construction of orbital solar furnaces was likewise a necessary precursor to orbital refining and casting.

Isabelle had found that the reactionless engines would move anything that could be held in a metallic mesh or net and attached to the driver. There existed a maximum mesh size that would propagate the field. Old cities and auto graveyards were mined for the metal needed to spin the great net necessary to capture a fish the size of Phobos, the larger moon of Mars.

Isabelle had two entire walls of her cavernous workshop turned into smart-boards. They were replicated in other places but only she had the rights to change the images. One board had a time-line that encompassed twelve years. The other had process notes and engineering task completion figures. The project had caught the imaginations of most of the world's engineers. Mining ships had to be designed to bring in the ores. Space station segments including gas cells had to be built and prepared for orbit. All the problems of building a factory town had to be understood and extended by the lack of gravity as well the necessity for atmospheric regeneration and control. The same had to happen for a vacuum foundry environment. Slowly things were coming together. It was the largest single investment in manpower since the plagues.

Thankfully, technological spin-offs from all this research crossed over into other, more mundane products in electronics, materials science and a score of other venues. Forced food production in a controlled environment, for one, made remarkable strides. This brought down the price of food which benefited everyone's pocket book. Air transport became much cheaper per mile and much safer as well. Critical demands for fossil fuel for powering jet engines finally ceased. The helicopter ceased to exist other than as an air museum curiosity.

-= Accidents will happen =-

February 14,2140 Solomon Islands Sasha was fascinated by her baby brother, Alex. "Was I this helpless?" Tony was reading at his computer while paying half a mind to his daughter. "Yep. Just as noisy and smelled just as bad, too." "Ew." "We still kept you, though. You have to have faith that things will get better." That was one hell of a seed to plant in a little girl's mind. Still, it grew.

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