Chapter Seven (cont.)
“OK, people, quiet down,” Robert Schaeffer said as he walked out onto an auditorium stage. “Grab a seat and shut your traps if you want to find out exactly why we are assembled here today.”
Slowly, the crowd of nearly one thousand engineers, scientists, administrators, mission specialists, and astronauts finished milling around and the auditorium quieted. The lights over the audience dimmed, allowing all those gathered to view the stage and the NASA logos on the wall behind clearly.
“All right then, most of you, probably all of you, have heard this before, but let’s keep it traditional: welcome to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Mission control. Kennedy may be the launch point, but Houston has been, and always will be, where we plan, execute, and direct our manned and unmanned exploration programs. To anyone here from the Cape, sorry about you being second-best, but hey, at least you are better than Vandenberg.”
A mixed set of sounds came from the audience; some people clapping and whistling and laughing, the minority booing and making cat-calls.
Schaeffer smiled at the men and women he knew well. As Director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration it was his job to know them and to lead them. The past few years had sorely tried his, and his people’s, nerves, what with the previous administrations canceling both the return to the Moon and the projected Mars mission, as well as the entire Constellation program to replace the shuttle fleet. Money had been siphoned away from NASA, and with the mandatory retirement of the shuttle fleet a decade ago, the very future of manned missions was suddenly in doubt. NASA had lost many of its best and brightest as hope slowly faded away; they left their government jobs, with paychecks restricted by law to less than that of a congressman, for more lucrative private sector employment. Still, the ones who remained were the ones that still dreamed, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Glenn and Armstrong and Lovell. They were the best America had to offer, even in a time of tight budgets, and collectively were the most brilliant collection of men and women on the face of the planet. The most loyal to the ideals of the final frontier as well, even the ones that knew that they would too old to fly a mission when they Agency finally begin to receive the reinstated Constellations.
“I’m not going to bore you with a long introduction,” Schaeffer began, but had to stop as a standing ovation interrupted him, and he waved them back down into their seats as he shook his head and started over. “The recent arrival of our guests has really upset the apple cart. Not only are they far more advanced, with hundreds of years of knowledge that we have only just begun to plumb, they have a functional faster-than-light means of travel and working single-stage-to-orbit lift vehicles.”
The crowd went utterly quiet. Most had thought that this was what the conference would be about, but they had not known for certain. It was uncommon for NASA to summon the cream of the crop for a conference with no published topic, but it had happened before. Only rarely in the past had the attendees been ordered to leave all lap-top computers, digital recorders, cameras, cell phones, and blackberries outside, but even that had occurred. But to have both, at the same time, and for armed NASA security to be present at all doors? That was highly unusual. But when they had walked through the doors and saw the EM scramblers mounted on the walls and ceiling of the auditorium, they knew they were in for something very secretive and very, very special. The electro-magnetic scramblers prevented anyone outside from using listening devices to record or transmit the session, and the devices would erase any magnetic or digital tape that passed through their field. This particular auditorium was of the cold-war era, and it showed in the construction. There were no windows for laser whisker microphones to hear the conversations through, only four-foot thick reinforced concrete walls.
Their curiosity was raised, so the normally boisterous crowd simply waited for the Director to continue.
“First of all neither the Administration nor the White House has approved of this meeting, and especially not of the topic. I will take full and complete responsibility if they find out. We all know they want to kill manned flight; replace it with probes and sensor packages to make it safer and cheaper. But we are not going to go to the stars without taking risks, even with the help of our long-lost cousins from the future.”
Schaeffer turned to the wing and nodded, and then an Imperial navy officer stepped out onto the stage and took the Director’s place at the microphone.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Dan Moore, and I hold the rank of commander in Her Imperial Majesty’s naval service. I am an engineer, and am currently assigned to the flag staff of Commodore Liu Teng-Hui, commanding officer of Cruiser Division 342. Today, I want to share with you some of our—the Empire of Humanity’s—plans for the continued exploration and colonization of space.”
From somewhere in the crowd, a voice floated out on the ether. “A damned grease-monkey; we came here to listen to a wrench-puller?”
More voices, some agreeing and some disagreeing began to fill the air. Schaeffer walked back over to the microphone. “Stow that shit, people. For the record, Doctor Moore holds three Ph.D.’s; in physics, astrophysics, and computer science. He attended and graduated from M.I.T., yes, it still exists in their time, and it is still one of the best schools around, and then volunteered for service in the Imperial Fleet to earn his citizenship. Add to that the fact that he knows how to build the engine for a SSTO, and I think it will be worth your while to listen to what he has to say. Doctor Moore?”
“Thank you, Director. I understand your skepticism, really I do. What you have to understand is that I, and the majority of the Fleet, both enlisted and officer alike, are in awe of what you have done over the past fifty years. My god,” he said, shaking his head and grabbing the sides of the lectern, “from this room, from this Space Center, you people put Armstrong and Young on the Moon. You began all of this. And you have our deepest thanks for your sacrifices and your struggles. Her Imperial Majesty instructed me to come here, and to offer you all a place in what we will be doing. We would be honored to serve alongside you heroes.”
The room was quiet once again, as the Commander’s quiet and sincere words touched the heart of everyone present. Thinking of themselves as heroes was viewed as anachronistic and old fashioned; certainly the current President and his cabinet did not think of them in that way. Sometimes it seemed he thought of them only as a budgetary obstacle, in fact.
“Three months from now, the destroyers Scipio Africanus and Wallenstein will escort the auxiliary merchantman Preston Little from Earth orbit to Luna orbit. Little will be carrying supplies and equipment to construct the first permanent lunar settlement. This site, which will become Heinlein Base, will be primarily a fuel processing station, extracting lithium hydride from the lunar crust for use by the Fleet. However, it will also serve as a scientific research facility and an astronomical observatory. Plus, there are a few other strategic minerals nearby the area where we plan to build that will be eventually mined. Heinlein will also serve as the gateway to Clarke City, which we expect will attract men, women, and children caught by the lure of space. This twin city complex will become Man’s first extra-planetary refugee.”
“The problem is,” the navy officer continued, “we lack one critical resource, numbers. Numbers of people. Trained and skilled and motivated people who want to press outwards and onwards. We intend to ask for volunteers from every nation on this planet; but those volunteers will need to have skills and training and the sheer guts to carve out a settlement in a hostile setting. As we expand our construction to Clarke City, we want to bring families to the Moon, allowing the miners and researchers and hundreds of other required professions to be near their loved ones.”
“Both Heinlein, and eventually Clarke City, will be equipped with our contra-gravity generators, which means that the installations will feature the same internal gravity as Earth itself, so there will be no need to worry about the health risks of prolonged exposure to a low-gravity environment, and our anti-radiation shielding is a lot better than what you have right now, so that concern can also be set aside.”
“Heinlein will also serve as the primary planetary defense facility for Earth. There are races out there that mean the people of Earth harm, ladies and gentlemen. Even if you object philosophically to weapons in space, I can assure you that those races will not applaud your decisions to make war no more; they will attempt to devour you and your children. The defense facilities will remain under the control of the Imperial Fleet and will be manned and commanded by our personnel, to include men and women from this time who volunteer for service. When completed, Heinlein will have more firepower at its disposal than Admiral Chandlers entire Battle Squadron, enough to smash into kindling any Ordan-Kraal culling fleet that ventures too close to the Moon and Earth.”
“Once we have the beginnings of Heinlein up and running, we will begin construction on a pair of stations, one in Earth orbit and one in Lunar orbit; those stations will be named Mercury and Apollo to honor your own exploration programs. Eventually, we plan to add two more stations, Gemini and Constellation, in Earth orbit to complete the orbital infrastructure. These stations will serve as transit points as well as orbital factories and shipyards, and like Heinlein will serve as key elements of defending the planet.”
“Within five years, Admiral Chandler, myself, and, most important of all, Her Imperial Majesty, hope that we can launch the first extra-solar colonization mission, using Preston Little and Lindsey Santiago, our other merchant auxiliary, to transport colonists to the Alpha Centauri system. There is a habitable world there, ladies and gentlemen, untouched by any sentient hands. It has oxygen, it has chlorophyll; it has both plant and animal life that we can digest. Within a decade, we want to transplant one million humans to New Earth, and start colonies at Tau Ceti, Epsilon Eridani, and a score of other pristine and virgin worlds waiting for us and our children.”
“Within twenty years, we hope to have colonies on Mars and Titan as well, and we intend to construct a massive ship-yard orbiting Titan—although construction of the shipyards is slated to begin as soon as humanly possible. The moons of Saturn and the asteroids of the Belt will provide us, as they did in our past, your future, with incredible quantities of material to build the Fleet that will defend our race, our home, and our people.”
“That is what we hope and dream of accomplishing; God willing and the Ordan-Kraal don’t come early. But we cannot accomplish this without your assistance. And that is why I am here to today; to ask the heroes of my childhood to help us save all of Humanity from the threat that wants nothing less than our enslavement or extinction.”
Commander Moore released the podium and stepped back and to the side as Director Schaeffer walked forward again. The silence was overwhelming; a single dropped pin would have deafening.
“Now you know what this conference is about,” Schaeffer said with a sad voice. “My contacts within the White House tell me that the President will not be diverting any funds to this effort; he hopes to force the Imperials to foot the bill and join later on the cheap. But we didn’t sign up to sit on the sidelines, people. We didn’t join NASA to let someone else, even heroes from our future, boldly go where no one has gone before and make history. We didn’t study and work and dream to see other brave men and women do our job that we have spent a lifetime preparing for.”
“Caesar Julia has spoken privately with me, and has offered full Imperial citizenship to any member of NASA that wishes to ask for it, along with a place in their program described today. I am submitting my resignation to the President a week from Friday afternoon in order to accept her offer. I want you to think about this; think about this hard. Go back to your departments and divisions, and let your people know as well—or at least the ones you trust, really trust. We have to keep this quiet. Regardless of what the President agreed to, do you really think he is going to let this entire agency leave en masse if he knows about it ahead of time?”
“Talk to your families, and make the choice for yourself. If you decide to accept the offer, there will be Imperial shuttles at Kennedy, Johnson, and Vandenberg on Friday of next week to take you to Vancouver. Have no doubt about this, people; if we do this, there are some that will call us traitors to the United States of America. I can live with that to accomplish what these people are offering. As for you, the choice is yours.”
The lights in the auditorium came up as Schaeffer stepped back from the microphone. And then, from the crowd, one astronaut stood, tears running down his cheeks, and he began to slowly clap, the sound echoing across the chamber. And then a second, and a third, and it became a wave ripping through the crowd until every one of the thousand was on their feet and the sound was thunderous.
NASA had made its decision.