Brian W. Antoine
July 26, 1993
I ran my hand across the surface of the wing and watched my reflection in the liquid silver finish. It was impossible to see any difference in the surface where the repaired area merged with the main structure. Once more, the Sunbeam sparkled in the lights of the construction bay. Its mirror surface twinkling in the work lights like some huge Christmas ornament. The final static tests on the main drive had been completed a few hours ago. Now was the moment when Penny and I would find out once and for all how well we had wrought.
I stepped away from the wing and around to the rear of the ship. There, the main drive that we had worked on for so long lay incased in its home. We had tested the maneuvering drive earlier, but even at its maximum output we would have still be crawling. Now we would calibrate the main drive, and for the first time have the entire solar system within our grasp.
"Kind of weird isn't it."
"Huh?" One of Penny's remotes had snuck up behind me while I had been lost in thought. "What do you mean?"
"We have been designing and building this thing for almost seven years now. It's kind of weird to see it sitting here ready to fly after all that time."
"Did you ever think we wouldn't get it built?"
"No, over the years I've learned that you will complete any project that you're serious about. It just feels funny somehow."
I stared past the remote at the ship as it floated above the floor of the lab. "Well, it's time to find out wether all that work was a waste of time. Start running through the checklist, and I'll get ready."
"Aye Aye, Captain."
I walked along the underside of the ship to the access port under the bridge. With a small jump, I floated up the null-G tube and came to a stop on the flight deck. As the port irised closed below me, I could hear Penny running through the pre-flight checklist with the on board computer. Grabbing the pilots' helmet, I sat down began to follow along. When the list was complete, I decided to have a little fun.
"Did you check the repaired sensor array?"
"Yes, it's tied into the science station and is fully functional."
"Did the navigational deflectors checkout?"
"Yes, they're fine."
"How about the PennyWorth?"
"What's a Penny..."
After a pause of a few seconds, I distinctly heard the sound of someone clearing their throat behind me. When I turned around, I was staring at one of Penny's construction remotes as it floated about 12 inches from my face.
"Be very careful how you answer this. What is a PennyWorth?"
I looked at the warning light blinking on the industrial strength welding laser that hung below the remote and decided that no pun was worth getting fried. "Uhhhmmmm... Her weight in gold?" I closed my eyes and tried my best to look helpless.
"Acceptable. I think I'll let you live," and the warning light blinked out as the remote turned and floated back to its storage locker.
"God Damned machine, won't let me have any fun at all." From behind me came a pretty good imitation of a Bronx cheer and a few comments about the parentage of people who told puns.
"Ok, if you've got a few minutes to spare, lets get this show on the road. We've got quite a journey ahead of us."
The lights in the lab went out and the external sensors told me that the atmosphere was being reduced to a vacuum. A few moments later, the roof began to open and I found myself staring up at the lunar sky.
"Ready when you are. I've got one primary and two backup links running to keep an eye on you. Try to stay out of trouble."
I activated the pilots' helmet and passed a couple of commands to the ships' computer system. Behind me, I felt the familiar hum of the maneuvering drive as it came to life. Slowly, the Sunbeam lifted and passed through the opening above and came to a stop. As I watched, the doors closed and the cloaking field once again hid the lab from view.
"Ok, lets see how well you tuned the maneuvering drive."
"Don't you trust me?"
I laid out a course to lunar orbit and gave the energy profile for the drive. When it engaged, the Sunbeam turned and jumped into the sky as if it had been fired from a cannon. At the 50g's output of the maneuvering drive, it was a little more than 30 seconds before the ship came to a stop 100 miles above the lunar surface.
"Very nice, I couldn't feel a thing. The tuning feels perfect."
"That will teach you to believe me from now on."
"I beg your forgiveness, I must have been mad to have doubted you. Now lets go for a little jaunt, shall we?" With a thought to the computer, I activated a pre-programmed series of test maneuvers. Behind me, the main drive of the Sunbeam awoke and we took off with a jump. To start with, Penny and I had decided to stay within the magic field generated by the Earth. It would give us both time to double check things while I could still bailout.
As the testing progressed, the reality of what we had done began to sink in. As I sat in the chair and watched Penny put the ship through its tests, I grew silent and just sat back to enjoy the ride. At the end of the first two hours, the ship came to a stop about 2 million miles from Earth. Now was my last chance to change my mind before we entered the void beyond.
"Are you listening?"
"Huh?" I'd been lost in thought and hadn't heard her question. "What did you say?"
"I asked if you were ready. Everything checks out fine and the next part is yours to control."
"Yeah, I'm ready. I was just thinking." With a final glance out the viewport at the small blue gem hanging there in the night, I spun the Sunbeam around and aimed for the heart of the solar system. "Next stop the sun. Anyone that burns easy, get out now or dig out your sun block!" I laid out the flight parameters and engaged the program. For the next 3 hours the Sunbeam would dive straight for the sun. I still wasn't opening the drive up all the way, but this trip would test it out under about half power. As I watched the numbers ticking over on the displays in front of me. The Sunbeam took off and quickly reached its programmed acceleration of 500g's. As the velocity began to climb, I began to hear a low roar coming from the ship. Some of it was the remaining drive imbalance, and it quieted some as Penny refined the calibration. Even then though I could hear a low rumble from the ship around me. I almost think the damn ship was purring with joy as it took off across the solar system.
At the end of 3 hour we came to a halt and I sat in my chair in awe. The entire viewport in front of me was filled with the blazing inferno that was our sun. We were close enough to see the solar prominence' fighting their way up from the surface and I felt a chill run through me as I watched. "This is what I keep tapping into?" As we had pulled inside the orbit of Mercury, I had felt my magic return. The light spell I had tried had nearly blinded me as it had snapped into existence at something like 100 times its normal intensity. "I don't think I'm ever going to cast another spell without this image in my mind."
"Awesome isn't it. You ought to see the readings I'm getting from the sensors. The temperature reading are going right off the scales!"
"We must be sitting inside the corona. How are the shields doing?"
"They are pulling more power than I expected, but aren't even working hard yet. You designed well boss."
"Thanks, but we're not done yet." With a final glance out the port, I linked with the computer and setup the next leg of our trip. Now I was going to open up the drive and see just what our limits were. "Hang onto your bloomers lady, it's time to find out just how fast this crate will go. Next stop, Mars!" The Sunbeam swung around on its axis and pointed off into deep space. When the drive came on-line this time, the purr had been replaced by an angry growl. Einsteinian space-time might not have been too happy with our previous hop, but now what had been a simple difference of opinion turned into a battle of titans.
At something just over 1000g's, the Sunbeam pulled away from the sun. In the rear monitors I could see the wake of our travel ripple through the solar corona as the sun began to shrink in size. The flight to Mars took just over 3 hours. When we reached turnover, the Sunbeam was traveling at almost 20 percent of the speed of light and the feedback from the onboard systems showed that we hadn't even come close to our maximum velocity yet.
"Jesus, we've created a monster!"
"Boss, even if you never figure out how to build a working star drive, this thing is going to keep you busy for the rest of your life."
We were hanging in Mars orbit and I had watched Phobos fly past a few minutes earlier. Now I was scanning the surface below, looking for the telltale trace of a previous visitor. I'd come to pay my respects to a fellow traveler and I hoped it hadn't been buried by a dust storm.
"I've got a positive trace on a metallic object that matches its recorded landing site."
"Good enough, take us down." As we descended towards the surface, I went back and grabbed a small bag from one of the storage lockers. By the time I had double checked its contents, Penny was holding the ship just off the surface and about 100 yards away from where the final Viking lander sent by the human race rested.
"You sure that things dead?"
"They turned it off years ago. Lack of power, lack of money and lack of imagination. Some testament to the spirit of human exploration isn't it." I walked over to the access hatch and activated the environment and gravitic fields. With those ready, I opened the hatch and floated down to just above the Martian surface. With my personal flight and environment fields up, I floated over to hover just beside the traveler that had lead the way here.
It was in pretty sad shape. The years of blowing sand and small rocks had beaten the hell out of the poor thing. Most of the markings were also long gone, but a close look showed a faint image of the American Flag still showing through the scruff marks. "Well old girl, you've waited a long time for someone to come visit you. I'm sorry that no one but you and me will ever know I've been here, but maybe someday the rest of the people back home will catch up with me."
I circled around the lander and cleared the worst of the rubble away. When I was ready, I cast a small defense field around the old explorer. It was set to vanish the moment it came in contact with anything that generated a living bioelectric field. Until then, it would preserve the record that once upon a time, someone in this solar system had risen high enough to try exploring their surroundings. Whether someone from our own world would one day be surprised at the remarkable state of preservation, or whether someone I couldn't imagine might wonder at the complex metallic form their sensors showed and come to take a look. Either way, the last Viking probe would be here to great them and ask them what had taken so long. My sense of humor being what it is. I pulled one last item from my bag and hung it from the arm that reached up towards the sky above. That done, I headed back to the Sunbeam and got ready to leave for home.
"Boss, I can't believe you did that."
I smiled at the camera on the wall and chuckled to myself. "They will never know how it got there and maybe it will make somebody wonder about the world they live in. Either way, it's done and now it's time to go home." As the Sunbeam began to turn and climb back into the Martian sky, I took one last look behind me. There, resting where it will remain undisturbed until someone else come to visit was a small probe. In its up lifted arm was a small tin cup full of pencils and an old postcard that I had kept all these years. I'd gotten the card as part of the fund-raiser that had occurred when the government had announced that it was cutting support for the continued monitoring of the Viking probes we had left on Mars. The public campaign that had tried to keep the link alive had failed, but maybe the next visitor would look and remember what had happened those many years ago.
"It's all yours, bring me home and there is no need to push it. I'm not in any hurry."
"Ok, I'll take it easy. Are you ok?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I just want to sit back and enjoy the view."
"One gorgeous view, coming right up."
"One other thing. You might contact Bob and let him know the results of the test run. The next flight is his to pilot and he better start thinking about where he wants to go."
"Will do. You know of course that he's going to be pissed about missing the first real flight?"
"Hey, he had the kids this weekend. What was he going to do, drag them along?"
"Knowing his kids, he would have been trampled by them as they tried to get aboard. I'll pass on the message."
As I stared out the port I saw Phobos flash by again as the Sunbeam began its long journey home. It had been quite an evening and the way things were looking, the fun was just beginning. With a sigh, I settled back into my chair and listened to the drive purring behind me. Yep, it felt good to be alive.