4 September 2002
Research and Development Facility One
North of Forest Grove, Oregon, United States of America
Rachel Marsten knocked on the door. "Yes, yes, come in," a voice answered. She entered the office of Kurt Vetter, the man to whom she owed - well, not everything, but more than she was willing to part with: her education, her job, the opportunity to discover what she had carefully transferred to and arranged on the datapad she clutched in a hand that was less dry and steady than she would have liked.
Vetter was seated behind his desk, which was plainer and more cluttered than she would have imagined. The walls of the office - smaller than she expected - were crowded with overflowing bookcases; models of Vetter Aerospace's products and more classic designs hung from the ceiling; another, of a sailing ship bearing an old American flag, rested in a glass case, above another case which held six sheets of parchment. On poles in one corner stood a red, white and black flag she had never seen before, and a yellow flag with a coiled rattlesnake, which she had.
One entire wall, the most orderly, was given over to weapons. Marsten couldn't help but learn something of them, working here, and recognized a Thompson submachinegun, a Soviet assault rifle, a flintlock musket with bayonet, an Old West-style lever-action, a Civil War-style revolver. She also saw a long medieval-style broadsword, a Roman-style shortsword, and a third edged weapon which seemed to be a very modern blending of the two. A brass-hilted naval cutlass hung from a chair, on a heavy leather belt with a pair of flintlock pistols and a pouch of paper cartridges. The belt's large brass buckle was cast with the design of an American eagle.
Trophies proclaimed both his and his wife's victories in competition. Photographs commemorated those and other occasions: Mr. Vetter and his wife, Ms. Bjolnir, in medieval clothing, he in partial armor over a fine tunic and trousers beneath a bearskin cloak, with the same broadsword and a large dagger, she in a simply elegant dress with a slim jeweled stiletto; the two in Confederate gray uniforms, Vetter with revolver and sabre, Bjolnir with a muzzle-loading rifle with a long, primitive telescopic sight; Bjolnir in modern camouflage clothing and military harness, spattered with mud and smeared with dirt and powder residue, borne on the shoulders of a crowd of similarly-dressed men and women, smiling and cheering as she held a very functional-looking modern rifle and telescopic sight above her head. A larger photo in the center of the collection showed Vetter in similar circumstance, Bjolnir beside him, in a more formal pose with many of the same people, all heavily armed, some apparently wounded.
From the photos, it was difficult to recognize her as the same woman, so different was her manner and style in ‘civilized' settings. Beside Vetter, her hand on his shoulder, stood his wife, Lynna Bjolnir, chief of security for Vetter Aerospace, tall and lean and possessed of the kind of natural health and beauty that made most women turn green and see red, but presently Marsten was too nervous for either. Both were dressed in jeans and casual shirts with Vetter Aerospace logos; both wore holstered pistols at their hips. Bjolnir leaned over and pressed a few keys on Vetter's desk computer, saying, "That should take care of the general arrangements. I've selected these people for the advanced training. Marcia is about ready to take over the classes from me so I can move on to- uh-" Bjolnir glanced at Marsten and continued- "Project Nineteen."
Vetter examined the screen while waving Marsten to a chair. "Good, good work, as usual, dear. -This is Rachel Marsten, one of our promising physicists. I suspect we won't have to use numbers in her presence much longer. Dr. Marsten, my wife Lynna." The tall woman smiled and rounded the desk, hand extended.
"Pleased to meet you," she said, taking Marsten's hand. "But I'm just leaving, I have a flight to catch," she added, turning back to her husband.
Vetter rose and kissed her lightly on the lips, saying, "Good luck at the tournament, love." Bjolnir picked up a travel bag by the door, from which protruded a wooden martial-arts practice sword, and a real one. She smiled and waved and left.
Marsten gathered her thoughts and said, "Thank you for taking the time to see me, sir."
He waved dismissal as he returned to his seat, gesturing at the datapad. "That's why we're all here, doctor. What do you have?"
"Well, sir, ah-" she had rehearsed several opening lines in her mind, but none seemed proper now. She handed over the pad. "Perhaps, if you would examine...?"
"Certainly." Vetter took the pad and activated it, and sat reading silently - for a time that grew terribly long and unsettling to Marsten. She watched as his brow slowly furrowed, his features becoming more focused and, she thought, stern, sliding into their new positions like the movement of tectonic plates.
Finally he reached the end of her presentation and said, softly, "Good... God... all... mighty." She didn't think he looked pleased - Marsten couldn't tell what he looked like, and nearly fainted. Still staring at the pad he reached across his desk to his comm and punched in a code by touch. His secretary's voice answered, and he growled, "Tallenbeck. Here. Now." And disconnected, scrolling back and forth through the pad's display.
Marsten's pulse rate jumped again, and she hadn't thought it could. Hans Tallenbeck was the Head Wrench, the Master Builder, the Chief of Engineering for Vetter Aerospace, the man who took theories (like hers?) and translated them into hard mechanical reality. Some considered him the reincarnation of Werner von Braun, or Kelly Johnson, or both.
For an eternity that surely was longer than the seven minutes Vetter's wall clock showed passing, Marsten sat waiting and Vetter sat reading, apparently oblivious to the outside world or even the other side of his desk. Finally Tallenbeck burst through the door (nearly giving Marsten a coronary), snarling, "What? I'm busy!" He certainly looked busy, part of Marsten's mind said beneath her abject terror: grease, oil, metal shavings and other, unidentified substances stained his coveralls, hands and face. "That verdammt subcontractor must be illiterate-"
"A lot of people are, these days," Vetter said quietly. "But not, I think, in this room. Read this," he said, flinging the pad at Tallenbeck like a frisbee.
The engineer caught the pad in a greasy, scarred hand and punched at its controls with a greasy, scarred finger. From where she was sitting Marsten could see the pad's screen; when he finished the first page, he said softly, "Was ist...?"
When he finished the second page, he said more softly, "Gott im Himmel...."
When he finished the third page his mouth fell open, and closed with a click. He turned on Marsten. "Bildeten Sie- Did you make this?" Marsten floundered, mouth working like a fish.
"She certainly did," said Vetter. "What do you think?"
Tallenbeck stared at Marsten, then Vetter, then the pad, then Marsten again. Finally he said, "I think it's about damned time."
Vetter nodded. "Doctor Marsten, as of now you're transferred to Tallenbeck's team. Requisition anything you need. Build it. All of it. ...Now get out, both of you. I've some calls to make; you're going to need a whole new set of tools, and most of them don't exist yet."
Tallenbeck opened the door, still reading the pad, gesturing to Marsten with his free hand, saying absently, "Kommen Sie, bitte...." Marsten rose and turned to follow.
Vetter's voice stopped her. "Doctor."
She turned, heart racing still. "Yes, sir?"
He gestured at Tallenbeck's receding, oblivious form, and by association her work on the datapad. "That really is why we're all here.
The door clicked shut, and Rachel Marsten - after a moment of purest bewilderment - smiled.
"Willkommen, jeder- sit down, everyone." Tallenbeck's entire department was gathered in the conference room of the Vehicle Assembly Building, more often simply referred to as Hangar Three. "The breakthrough we have been waiting for has finally been made, by Dr. Rachel Marsten, who will explain her discoveries to you. Proceed, Doctor."
Despite her nervousness Marsten stood and took Tallenbeck's place at the podium. "Uh, first, I, I'd like to say that the discovery was not mine alone, and that this breakthrough could not have been made without the skill and assistance of-" she named most of her subordinates. Having that out of the way, she continued:
"As everyone here knows - as you are all authorized to know - my department has been assigned to Project Three, whose goal was to discover some means to travel or communicate faster than light. While technically this is not actually what happens under the theories I will now put forth, as you will discover later when reviewing our data, the practical effect is the same.
"Project Three has met at least the theoretical part of its goals of communicating and traveling faster than light, and another useful application is suggested as well; I will leave that third application for last, even though it was the second to be discovered. If you will all please activate your pads and access Section One." Marsten did the same with her own, glanced at the pad's display, and recoiled in horror with a little squeaking gasp.
Tallenbeck spoke. "At the insistence of the very people you named, I have taken the liberty of making a minor cosmetic alteration to your presentation, Fraulein Doktor. Your discoveries will be known, not least for the sake of convenience, as the Marsten Device, the Marsten Drive, and the... Marsten other thing, which I agree we should save for desert. Please continue."
For a few interminable seconds the room, the world, the universe whirled around her - and then settled with remarkable clarity, for in that moment Rachel Marsten changed. No longer was she the shy, bookish student girl intimidated by the mere acknowledgment of her existence by such godlike figures as Kurt Vetter and Hans Tallenbeck. At last, she was whole, complete - equal.
She turned back to the assembled scientists and launched into her presentation. "My initial presentation will be brief, and then the subject will be open for discussion.
"Section One deals with my team's first, simplest, and most obvious discovery, which we will for convenience call the Marsten Device. In lay terms, a device with the properties described herein will emit a modulated beam of tachyons which will ‘drill a hole,' or perhaps more accurately create a ‘tunnel' of hyperspace through Einsteinian space. This beam, like any, will disperse as it propagates, but can nonetheless be finely tuned, so that, in the bluntest terms, one can ‘narrowcast' to a point of reception anywhere within a planet-sized target up to seven light-years away at a speed of approximately thirteen thousand times that of light."
She had the scientists' complete attention, now. "My estimates are conservative. I expect this performance to improve in all respects once such devices are actually built and tested, and their actual properties determined. Surely those who follow this work in the future will make improvements of their own. Naturally at interstellar distances communication must take place in some sort of packet arrangement, but at interplanetary distances it may be possible to establish realtime, or nearly so, communication.
"Moving along: Section Two deals with what we will call the Marsten Drive. Using an array of Marsten Devices, altered and arranged as you see on your displays, the Marsten Drive will create a field or ‘bubble' of hyperspace around an object - a ship, for example - allowing that object to propel itself at a speed of ten or more times that of light, as observed relative to Einsteinian space. As you see on your displays, our calculations indicate that physical laws are somewhat different in this form of hyperspace, in that there seems to be a kind of ‘friction' or ‘drag' on the object thus being propelled, so that constant acceleration or ‘thrust' must be applied to maintain constant velocity, very much like a conventional aircraft traveling through an atmosphere. I believe this ‘drag' to be gravitational in nature and can most simply describe it as the underlying fabric, the ‘aether' if you will, of space itself. I imagine our successors will still be quite frustrated by this phenomenon far into the future, since the best theories we can come up with to explain it most closely match those of the blind, blundering experiments to measure just such an ‘aether' in normal space early in the previous century.
"Now, for ‘desert' as Dr. Tallenbeck calls it. The discovery of the theory of the Marsten Device led my team to wonder what would happen if the tachyon beam were altered in various ways. In our computer simulations, if so much power at such a modulation were fed to such a device, such an effect was observed; what, we asked ourselves, would happen if more power were supplied, at different modulations, to a somewhat different device? Eventually we arrived at the theory of the Marsten Drive, but before that we discovered what you will find in Section Three, which for convenience I suppose we must call the Marsten Gun...."
Marsten, Bjolnir and Tallenbeck were by themselves in Bjolnir's office. Tallenbeck said to Vetter Aerospace's chief of security, "The kind of machinery we will need - the kind of precision, that is - well, there are very few sources. Perhaps half of them are here in the United States, but they are owned by the government and are used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons."
"Now, that would certainly draw attention," commented Bjolnir.
Marsten asked, "What about other sources?"
"Japan, I suppose," said Tallenbeck, "for their robotics industry. But...."
"But they'd likely be seized by customs as ‘suspicious,'" said Bjolnir, "and the Federals would stick their dirty noses into our business." She sighed bitterly. "It looks like we'll have to bootstrap."
Tallenbeck nodded, eyes downcast. Marsten objected, "But the time - building the machines to make the machines to make the parts-!"
"If you've another way that maintains our secrecy, I'd love to hear it."
Marsten gritted her teeth and, finally, said, "So would I."
After a moment, Tallenbeck nodded and rose from his chair. "Eher angefangen, eher getan," he said, and left.
Marsten rose too, and asked, "What did he say?"
Bjolnir's green eyes lit. "‘Sooner begun, sooner done' - and that gives me an idea...."
Harold Thaler looked up and smiled. All the men liked Ms. Bjolnir, even the gays, and even most of the women couldn't stay jealous for long - she was just good people, besides making the average supermodel look pasty and undernourished, and the average movie star look stupid and weak.
But no man in this company ever made a pass at Ms. Bjolnir. The most obvious deterrent was her husband Mr. Vetter, who was rumored to have a terrible temper and was known to have, and be quite proficient with, a vast collection of weapons, but in reality it was Ms. Bjolnir herself whose wrath the men feared (Thaler always thought of them as Mr. Vetter and Ms. Bjolnir, for his father had raised him with old-fashioned manners). She was just as good as her husband with those same weapons, and better with some of them, and didn't need any of them to kill a man. Popular theory held that if ever Ms. Bjolnir did take offense, she'd simply twist the offender's head off with her bare hands and drop it on her husband's desk (to which, it was said, he would respond, "That's nice, dear, who do I need to replace?").
Not that Mr. Vetter was a weakling, or dominated by his wife; just as he had taught his wife the use of weapons, she had taught him the use of his body as a weapon. The senior personnel at Vetter Aerospace discreetly drew the newcomers aside and showed them videos of Ms. Bjolnir's participation in martial-arts tournaments, Mr. Vetter's participation at combat pistol and long-range rifle shooting matches, and an expensively-obtained copy of a parking structure security video that captured the attempt by four young street toughs to relieve Mr. Vetter and Ms. Bjolnir of their vehicle and other possessions.
Kurt Vetter's employees were loyal, because he treated them very well and had, in that and various other ways, earned their respect. Pay and benefits were very generous, and perhaps more important, he made sure their highly skilled, passionately driven work was appreciated. Mr. Vetter chose his employees carefully, for they all shared, to various degrees, a Vision. Thaler was one of the few people at Vetter Aerospace who knew just how great that Vision could be - and lately he had begun to suspect that there were still greater Visions which had not yet been shared with him.
Thaler noticed that Ms. Bjolnir was armed. This was not unusual; most Vetter Aerospace personnel were quite fond of all their Constitutional rights, and many went armed on company property. Ms. Bjolnir was, after all, head of company security, but even Thaler himself sometimes strapped on the .45 his father had brought back from Korea, though in the machine shop it usually got in the way, and might pick up metal flakes or other contaminants from the various machines, so he usually left it in the office and wore it only between the shop and his house at the other end of the compound. But Ms. Bjolnir wasn't just wearing her favorite Browning 9mm; she had not one but three rifles slung over her shoulder, and they were all different. Then Thaler saw Mr. Vetter himself following her, with his usual stainless-steel .45, little different from Thaler's, and with two more rifles and an actual machinegun. No - a rifle and two machineguns.
Or was it three machineguns? What was that thing, anyway?
"Harry!" exclaimed Mr. Vetter. "Good to see you! You're well, I trust? Family good?"
"Never better, sir, especially since that last raise you gave me."
"Well, you earned it for salvaging those manifolds last quarter. Saved the company a lot more than I'm paying you. But I'm here today because my wife had another brainstorm." Mr. Vetter and Ms. Bjolnir set their loads down on a table. "Who's that clever kid you keep bragging about, what's the name-"
"Gonzalez, sir?" Thaler supplied. "Dominica Gonzalez?"
"Yeah, that's her! Is she here?"
"Sure, sir." Thaler put fingers to his lips and whistled over the din of the shop, after Mr. Vetter, known for his sensitive hearing, raised fingers to his ears. "Dom!" Thaler waved the young woman over.
"Ms. Gonzalez," Mr. Vetter said, taking her hand. "Pleased to meet you. My wife Lynna," he indicated, who also clasped her hand. Gonzalez stammered something polite. "Harry, is she in the middle of anything right now?"
"Not much, sir - you just finished those pump adapters, didn't you, Dom?"
"Juan and Gisela are doing the last set now, uh, sir...." Gonzalez looked back and forth between the head of the company, the head of company security, and the head of her own department.
Dominica Gonzalez had been born into poverty twenty years earlier, to migrant-worker parents working the fields of eastern Oregon. Her father was killed in a traffic accident when she was nine, leaving Dominica's mother destitute. Estrellita Gonzalez worked a series of increasingly menial and decreasingly well-paying jobs until she could no longer afford to keep her Baker City apartment. Scraping together enough for a Greyhound to Portland, she and her ten-year-old daughter found themselves in a homeless shelter.
Then the Long View Foundation swung by on a hiring run, giving decent, well-paid jobs to anyone in the shelter who wanted to work for a living instead of taking handouts. Estrellita was hired as a janitor for Vetter Aerospace, a light-aircraft manufacturing firm then located in Hillsboro, and was provided with housing on company property and credit at the company market in addition to the Federally-mandated minimum wage - which, all taken as a package, was rather generous compensation for sweeping up after people who hardly ever made a real mess.
Both mother and daughter also enrolled in the company school, which quickly proved itself vastly superior to the public education both had been exposed to previously. Estrellita rose to become manager of the building-maintenance department at the new facility in the remote forest groves near Forest Grove, while her daughter Dominica started hanging around the machine shop in her spare time, watching things getting built. At fourteen half the Anglo men in the company - and even a few of the otherwise macho Latinos - were asking Dominica to help them fix their cars. At eighteen, Dominica was hired in the fabrication department, and two years later was regularly handed all the interesting jobs. This looked to be the most interesting yet.
"We have a little project for you, Dominica," said Ms. Bjolnir, gesturing Gonzalez over to the table.
"Two projects, actually." Mr. Vetter named each weapon: "First: Russian Kalashnikov, American M14, American Stoner M63 rifle. Second: Belgian Minimi, German MG42, American Stoner M63 machinegun. Instruction manuals, technical drawings, tools, spare parts, dummy ammunition for function testing, live ammunition.
"Now, Ms. Gonzalez, what we would like you to do is examine each of these tools very thoroughly, these three and those three. Learn how they work and why they work. Discover the best features of each, what makes each most reliable, most accurate, most functional; for example the accuracy of the M14, the reliability of the Kalashnikov, the simplicity of the MG42, the versatility of the Minimi. Then combine the best features of each, those three and these three, and make us a rifle that is as accurate and powerful as the M14 and as simple and reliable as a Kalashnikov, and make us a machinegun that is as powerful and simple and reliable as the MG42 and as light and handy and versatile as the Minimi. Make them both use the same ammunition, the same as the M14 there, and make the machinegun take all these standard belts and the magazine from the rifle you end up with. Here's some magazines from other rifles like the FAL and the G3 so you can pick the one that works best, or just design your own; at least twenty rounds, twenty-five or thirty would be good but more than that would weigh too much. It would be real nice if the rifle and machinegun could have lots of common parts like these Stoners, which as you can see are the same basic design with different stuff hung off them. If you need any tools or materials or such, just tell Harry and he'll get it for you. If you hit any snags call me, and if I can't help I'll send someone who can. Here's some ideas I came up with, some sketches and computer drawings, and a more detailed description of the requirements for the end product, but unfortunately I have neither the time nor the creative talent to pursue them or even determine whether they'd work, and Harry tells me you have the talent, so I'm making you the time. -Harry, I know this'll cost you your cleverest person, but this project is rather important to me and may be very important to all of us, so to make up for it I've poached two more reputedly very clever young people from another company who should be here tomorrow, and that CNC machine you were lusting after should be delivered by the end of the week. Everybody okay with all that?"
Thaler stared in awe at Mr. Vetter, wondering where he came up with these ideas - and why rifles and machineguns could be "very important" to an aerospace company. There were rumors - and if they were true, Thaler decided, he should get more practice with his father's .45, and should get a copy of whatever Gonzalez came up with. Gonzalez stared in fascination at the weapons on the table, her hands already moving invisible parts in relation to each other. Thaler nodded in bewilderment, Gonzalez nodded absently.
"Good!" said Mr. Vetter. "Oh, two more things: Ms. Gonzalez, the rifle must accept a bayonet, preferably with this system of attachment - and both of you, this is a Level 4 Company Secret. Understood?" Nods again. "Good. Now, Harry, when that CNC machine gets here, you know it's going right to Project Four, yes?"
"Yes, sir, and it should really speed things up there."
"Excellent. The sooner Four is done, the sooner we can proceed on Nineteen. If there's nothing else you need? No? Good luck then." Mr. Vetter turned to leave, then stopped, watching Gonzalez' hands. In an aside to Thaler and Ms. Bjolnir, he said, "John Browning used to do that with his hands."
"John Browning, sir?" asked Thaler.
"He designed this," Ms. Bjolnir answered, touching her 9mm, "and that," pointing at Mr. Vetter's .45, nearly all the parts of which were interchangeable with Thaler's own.
"And some other things," Mr. Vetter added as he and his wife left.