— 3 —
Sparks jumped from under the metal console that filled half of the closet-sized space. Ken was hidden half under it, welding a small line across two pieces of sheet metal. When he finished, he repositioned his dark goggles to his sweaty forehead and gently examined the smooth mold with his gloved hand. Satisfied, Ken turned off the torch and slid out. He set the torch and his gloves aside and grabbed a white-sheathed electrical wire dangling from a gap in the thin, flat plate that separated the curvature of the console’s belly with its face. The red plastic had been stripped away from another wire attached to the plate in a loop, which allowed Ken to tie the organs of the white wire to the copper of the red. Letting out a relaxing breath, Ken smiled and searched the welder for something that obviously wasn’t there.
“Lark,” he called out. “Can you grab me the electrical tape?”
Ken pulled off the goggles and wiped his forehead as he waited impatiently. “Lark!”
“Right here,” Lark said. The electrical tape rested across his shoulder.
“Oh. Thank you.” Ken took the tape with a light brush of her fingers and quickly wrapped it several times around the exposed wires, making certain he had covered it all. “Where’d you take off to?”
“Just grabbing a bite,” Lark said. She took a seat in one of the two cushioned chairs in front of the console and rested her feet gently on the front.
“You really need to get a fat, juicy steak one of these days,” Ken said, taking notice of the small salad she had sitting on her knees. She was deathly thin and looked younger than she actually was — which at thirty-six, she absolutely loved hearing.
“When you turn Vegan,” Lark said, shoving a mound of lettuce into her mouth with a satisfying grin and a wink.
Ken shook his head. “One day in Hell,” he said and slid the wires into the panel.
Lark giggled and dropped her feet to the floor. She set her dish on the console and examined the blueprints that Ken had sprawled scrappily upon it. “How’s it coming?”
“I think I figured it out.” Ken picked up a rectangular metal plate from the floor and covered the gap, completing the panel with a light fist bump and a couple of screws. “Like I said, I think it comes down to the ion thrusters operating in opposition to the ignition.”
Ken smiled and returned Lark’s wink.
“Ken, we already talked about this.” Lark was standing now, unconsciously stepping away from the console.
“An explosion is only one possibility, Lark.” Ken stood.
“And a damn good one, too.”
“No more so than jumping to the speed of light instantaneously when we start her up.”
“Exactly. The simulations were clear.”
“That’s before I grounded the ignition.”
Lark’s worries dissipated slightly. “You did what?”
“The simulations were predicated on the ion thrusters working in tandem with the regular drive. All I did was give the thrusters their own private portal to the ignition.”
“What does that mean?”
“The nuclear reactors can provide power independently to the thrusters, but they weren’t getting any real ignition. I set up the system so that when we’re ready to light them up, we can trigger the ignition at the same time through the thrusters.”
“So, what? You’re going to pump jet fuel into the mix to help the ion thrusters burn faster?”
“And to generate more juice.”
“Thus pushing us past the threshold and sending us over the barrier.”
Ken gestured his acknowledgment.
“But won’t that cause a faster rate of decay?”
“Possibly, but if I’m right, it’ll still take over a year of travel for that to happen.”
Lark smiled, her cheeks growing dimples with ease. “That might actually work.”
“If we don’t blow up first.”
Lark’s smile vanished for a second before Ken broke his own. She returned it with a playfully angry punch to the arm, followed by a nice, generous laugh that Ken found exciting and soothing at the same time.
“All that’s left now is to test it.”
Lark set her hand on Ken’s arm, squeezing it gently. “If you’re right, Ken, we’ll be traveling at the speed of light by the end of the day.”
“And on our way to history.”
“I’ll set up the simulator with the new specs.”
Within seconds, Lark was on her way, her dirty-blond ponytail bouncing gracefully across the small frame of her shoulder blades. She walked with a substantial limp, having once broken both of her legs as a pilot in the Air Force. During a routine low-range speed trial of an untested fighter jet, Lark was forced to eject when the engines malfunctioned, and though she had taken every precaution to land safely, her position was far too low for her parachute to work effectively. Occasionally, on her worst days, she would need the use of a cane to get around, which she hated with a passion.
Ken took a bite of the salad and examined the blueprints one final time before gazing through the Plexiglass windows resting just above the console. Lark spouted out a few orders as she limped past some of the technicians middling about the massive room. He loved watching her bark out commands like that; authority fit her well and made her look exquisitely exotic. After she slipped through a door at the other end, Ken lowered his head and took in a deep breath, revealing an anxious demeanor that he wasn’t ready to share with Lark. She was a great friend and their partnership in this project was one he wouldn’t want to ever change. But Lark had made it clear from the jump — reaching space may be one of her life’s ambitions, but she would never allow that ambition to endanger anyone’s life. If there were any doubts at any time whether this would actually work, she’d pull the plug in less time than it would take to blink. Ken’s mask of confidence was all he had to guarantee the project continued to move forward.
Ken sat down and pushed the blueprints to the floor. Please let the simulations work, he prayed as he gripped a pair of metallic handles. They will. They have to.
He leaned back in his seat, far from confident.