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The NOVA of Bishop 43

Special Edition of theHunter

©03 The Media Desk

        I had been 'the New Bishop' long enough that I was no longer being referred to with the modifier 'New'.
        I was now just 'Bishop 43'.

        And I had been the Bishop a lot more than I had been theHunter, especially in the first couple of years after I took over that side of Command and Control and the phrase 'War on Terrorism' entered our vocabulary.
        But then suddenly I received a forwarded communiqué from Bishop 42 in his office in the old warehouse complex. It had come from the National Security Advisor.
        It was copied to the director of NASA and a few others whom made me wonder what it was about. But I would know soon enough.
        We were to meet them tomorrow for a top secret conference at the NSA offices.

        The idea of walking into what we loosely referred to in my offices as Enemy Territory gave me some misgivings. But I decided to play it straight. I would begin the day as I always did, and then go to the meeting.
        And under my jacket would be my old .38 in its side holster and the .454 flat against my back in its reserve position as usual.
        The morning of the big meeting came and I went downstairs for breakfast with the kids as usual.

        The three guys in my kitchen chatting with Keia were Not usual. The kids were no where to be seen, later I found out a day trip with 'Uncle Centre' had been arranged.

        One of the people was Bishop 42, the other two could only be described as Men in Black.

        "Morning Hunter." Bishop 42 said. "Been a long time since I've been out here."
        "Yes sir." I took the cup of coffee Keia handed me and tried not to smile.
        "Hunter, your meeting location has been changed. We have enough time for breakfast." One of the men said without even a slight smirk.
        "Good. I'm starving." Bishop 42 said and sat back down.
        "It almost done Bishop." Keia said going back to the stove.

        We ate a hearty breakfast, then I asked when we'd be leaving for the meeting.
        "We're not, the meeting is coming to you."
        "This location is more secure than the original site."
        My mind flashed through several thoughts at once. My house was more secure than the NSA office complex.
        "The Advisor asked me if I knew of a location where eavesdropping, even internal eavesdropping, was impossible. Your armory was the one place I had been to where nothing could get in or out without our knowledge."
        "Thank you sir."

        We were almost done with breakfast when Conga bounded in the back door. "They're coming." He said. He was holding one of his new toys. A man portable Gattling gun. Its rate of sustained fire and accuracy made it almost unbelievable, but there it was, and nobody was going to take it away from him.
        I heard Falcon's helicopter swoop over the house, from the sound of it, it was upside down, again.
        Conga's radio crackled. "They weren't followed. Area secure. Blithe is closing the road." It said in Falcon's voice.
        "OK." I said. "Now what?"
        The less severe Man in Black nodded toward the front room. "Can you give us a hand with the equipment?"
        "Sure buddy." Conga said reaching for the nearest case with his free hand.
        "No sir. I wouldn't want to have to kill you for touching it. You haven't been cleared."
        Now get this picture. The MIB wasn't even half of Conga's size. He wasn't holding a baster or some sort of death ray gun, he was just standing there with his hand up and shaking his head. Conga was holding one of the most powerful firearms I had ever seen in operation, and had taken down whole gangs of badguys with his bare hands. Conga was the one that nodded, backed up, and said, "Yes sir."
        Me, Bishop 42, and the two MIB's carried the stuff upstairs to the armory.
        When we came back down there were two more of them in the house sweeping it with sensing equipment. Looking for bugs and taps.
        "Your sniffer is two models out of date." I grinned to one of the MIB techs.
        He glanced around. "I know. We're not allowed to go off bid any more for new stuff. This one won't even detect a subVLF short range transmitter."
        I grinned, "No, but your dog might hear it."
        He laughed, "I'll have to remember that. But still..." He gestured with the scanner, "It's nice to have the best equipment. There's private outfits that have better than this and we are supposed to be The Man."
        I nodded and told him I'd be right back. It took some digging through a couple of my tool boxes, but I came up with what I wanted. I picked up a fresh pack of batteries and went back into the kitchen where the tech was scanning around the pantry. "Here. A gift from my agency that doesn't exist to yours."
        He looked at the scanner. "Hey, this was in prototype at the last trade show. I didn't know they were in production yet."
        "They're not. It's a field test unit." I handed him some papers and the fresh battery. "The only disadvantage is that it is a battery hog."
        "You're really giving this to me?"
        "Yessir. Just send a report back if you have any problems. They want to know how it works in the real world."
        "Yes sir. Thank you sir." He made some adjustments to the unit and began scanning for 20 to 50 kilohertz transmitters in my pantry. He didn't find any.

        In a few minutes I stood with the Bishop at attention in my living room as we were introduced to the Special National Security Advisor to the President of the United States and a couple of the major players at NASA. And finally a couple of others who were introduced to us by first name only.
        Then the Advisor asked if there was any coffee left.
        Keia assured them we had an endless supply and she'd bring some right up.
        As we started up the stairs I heard the 'nicer' of the first MIB men I'd met tell Conga that if absolutely anybody besides the people who were already in the house tried to go upstairs to...
        "Kill them until you're sure they'll stay dead for a long time."

        We sat around my big folding table and exchanged pleasantries until the Advisor had had their second cup of coffee. Then they went out to the restroom and we all sat in more or less silence for awhile.
        "Did you test fire that new .50 mag yet?" The Bishop asked me to break the silence.
        I nodded. "I don't like it that much. It kicks a lot more than the .454."
        "The Casull? That's a serious handful." One of the others said.
        "It is, but it's heavy enough to control the recoil, the fifty mag's frame is too light for the cartridge."
        The other man pursed his lips thoughtfully for a second. "Remind me to speak to you during the lunch break."
        In a couple more minutes the Advisor came back in and the outside door was closed with a couple of guards outside.

        "I know I don't need to say this, but I think it will set the mood if I do. Everything that is said, seen, done, or even thought about in this room, not only stays here, it never actually happened." The Advisor said. "And from here on out everybody will be referred to by code name. I am Unicorn. Doctor Ams.... Sorry, Bocephus is from the European Space Agency."
        A man with a large black mustache smiled and nodded. Then he whispered he had picked his own code name. "I love American country music."
        "Most of you have met Hunter, and the Bishop."
        We nodded and I shook hands with the firearms enthusiast next to me who was introduced as Langley, for a man twice my age he had a remarkable grip and glint in his eye. Then there was Tudor from NASA.
        The Astronomy Department was represented by Frontier and Doc Z. The last person at the table wasn't attributed to any organization, which meant they were NSA, their code name was Water.
        "Water?" Bishop said committing it to memory.
        "I enjoy scuba diving." They said with absolutely no smile at all.
        "Now." The Advisor said. "We'll watch the movie." They pushed a button on a small remote control. The two TVs we had set up in the room in opposite corners came to life with the same picture. A very clear spoken voice began a narration.

        "What you are looking at are a series of pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope that will not be released to the public. The highlighted object was first observed from land based instruments some seventy years ago. It was then classified as an asteroid in near Earth orbit."
        The picture's focus sharpened somewhat, then it zoomed in on the object.
        "However as you can see, the object is actually perfectly round, which is unusual for an asteroid of this size. Also, it is traveling in exactly Earth's orbit around the sun, perfectly matching our velocity, and maintaining a mean distance behind us in our orbit of some one point two five million miles."
        Then the visual image was augmented with several computer-enhanced overlays.
        "These are more recent studies of the object. From X-ray imaging, radar images, and even laser return spectrum analysis, we have concluded that that object has a very high metal content."
        There was a pause as the images contrasted with each other then settled into a three-dimensional representation of the object.
        "And that it. Is not. A naturally occurring body."
        The image got a little bigger and sharper. Then it held for a second and the presentation was over.

        I blinked a few times.
        "There is more but that will do for right now." The Advisor said. "Doc, you have the floor."
        Doc Z sat back in their chair and nodded to the Advisor, then to Bocephus. "We've been using the Hubble and Chandra to check up on Shadow, that's what we call it, now and again. Just to see if it moves, or changes, or whatever. There's been a new development, and that's what this meeting is about."
        Doc nodded to the Advisor and they pushed the button on the remote again.
        The screens lit up again and showed a very enhanced image of Shadow. But now Doc explained to us what we were looking at instead of a narration on the video. There was a highlighted area just below center on the disc.
        "This is what we call the Dark Spot. It's actually somewhat lighter than the surface coloration in the visible spectrum, but in other bandwidths it appears dark. We had used it to measure Shadow's rotation."
        On the TVs the Dark Spot moved from left to right.
        "The period of rotation had been constant at once every eighteen hours or so." Doc nodded to the nearest screen. "Until a couple of weeks ago."
        The screens went to a time lapse sequence showing several pictures taken over the span of four days. The Dark Spot was just visible at what would put the Sun at about ten o'clock in the morning sky if you were standing in the Spot.
        "It hasn't moved since. The last image is from Hubble yesterday afternoon. The Dark Spot is in exactly the same place it's been." They sat there staring at the picture like it would reveal its secrets in front of all of us. "There is no way to explain it except some internal or external force stopped Shadow's rotation. Either by accident, or design... for purposes we can't even guess at."
        The Advisor let that sink in for a second, then they nodded to Bocephus.
        "That's just the start." He nodded for the button to be pushed. "These are long term thermal images of 'Shadow', you can see the uneven heating on the surface which faces the Sun. The estimated surface temperature is estimated to reach just over one hundred degrees centigrade at peak solar exposure. The 'night side' radiated off the heat until it was around two hundred degrees below zero."
        There was a striking difference in colors between what we could see of the day side as it approached Shadow's noon to the colors near the dawn line. Once in awhile the dark spot would skirt by, holding a little more heat than the surrounding surface through its night.
        "Then the rotation stopped. As you would expect, for a day or so, the temperature of the day side climbed, and the night side got even colder. But then, about a week ago, this happened."
        The difference in temperature between the day side and the night side began to lessen. Soon there was only a slight difference in surface temperature between everything except the 'high noon' area and the deepest night.
        "We can't explain it except there is some internal mechanism redistributing the heat." He looked over at Doc Z, "Except we can say that this is intentional. Something like this does not happen by accident."
        The Advisor waited as if they expected Bocephus to continue, but when he didn't Unicorn nodded to Frontier.
        "Something else has changed as well. I was part of the team monitoring it for radio emissions. Until very recently it was silent. We would get some almost natural signals from the surface as it heated and cooled from solar heating, but they were constant and predictable. Just before the rotation stopped we picked up a very short burst in the low cosmic ray range that came from Shadow."
        "I hadn't heard that." Bocephus said sharply.
        Water nodded. "We hadn't confirmed the source of the burst was Shadow until this meeting had been proposed. We thought it best to release the information here."
        "Oh. Well. It doesn't change anything I brought with me. I just hadn't heard about it."
        Frontier continued, "The burst was very short, point six three of a second, we had to stretch it out a long way to see anything in it, but it was definitely generated purposely and artificially. It wasn't like any natural burst of radiation from any source we have ever tracked. And there is no doubt, it came from Shadow, we even narrowed the source down to within a mili-arc second of the source. There is no mistake, it came from Shadow. Maybe from the entire thing."
        The Advisor looked at the clock over my workbench. "We'll run through it once then take a short break." They nodded at Water.
        "We have an artificial asteroid approximately one half the size of the moon orbiting some one and a quarter million miles behind the Earth relative to our orbit around the Sun. It was rotating and acting for all the world as if it were a benign object until some three weeks ago. Shortly before it ceased its rotation it emitted a short burst of extremely high frequency radio communication. Since then it has begun some sort of internal heat convection."
        "Oh, that's the other thing." Bocephus said. "It's sped up and no mistake. Its speed relative to Earth has increased by a factor of point eight. It'll take it awhile, but it will catch us."
        "How long?" Water asked.
        "Several orbits, we're watching to see if it is going to stay at that speed or continue to accelerate. Right now it'd take it about three years to catch us. If it speeds up some more, it could be a lot sooner."
        There was silence in the room for a second before Water continued.
        "And, we have received information that the Red Chinese, coupled with certain other parties, are planning on sending a probe to Shadow. But we don't think they are ready to launch anytime soon. So, we are in a space race again."
        "Whoa." Somebody said as all that sunk in.
        It might have been me.

        We were sworn to secrecy before the break but as I walked around the back yard I couldn't help but think about it.
        Up there someplace was something I had only seen in computer games and old TV shows.
        Something made by somebody, who knows how long ago, and for what purpose. Nobody knew. Nobody could know.
        "Thinking about it?"
        I nodded but didn't turn to the Bishop. "How could you not?"
        "So, what'cha think of the whole deal?"
        I looked at him. "We're not supposed to talk about it."
        "They're not." He jerked his head to where a couple of them sat on my back steps smoking and drinking coffee. "We are, let's go check on your otters." He started along the trail by the creek.
        "Gut reaction?" I said as we walked through the small trees along the trail. Keia had planted them on some Zen-ish whim, their size and spacing was supposed to promote harmony. Right now, I needed some harmony.
        "Yeah. First impression."
        "We have to determine if it is a threat, and if so, eliminate it. Probably with multiple thermonuclear hits in quick succession."
        He stopped walking and stared into the creek. "That's what I told the President you'd say."
        "You talked to the President about this? About me?"
        "And if I know you like I think I do, you just had one of those cold chills and colder realizations." He stared into my eyes.
        "How do I get there?"
        "That's part two of the meeting."

        The bell on the porch was ringing. Doc Z seemed to be taking great pleasure in calling us all back in, pulling the cord with a flourish.
        "That's for us." I said. The Bishop laughed.

        Keia had made a 'snack' for us.
        Except her enthusiasm for having this much company had expanded the snack menu to include everything she knew how to cook.
        Conga was walking out of the kitchen back to his guard post with a plate piled high and wide with things both local and exotic.
        "Conga. Some of that is actually healthy." The Bishop said with a grin.
        He looked at his plate. "Oh well." And walked out chewing.
        Back upstairs I had to identify some of the things on the plates.
        "It's made out of chicken and pineapple and... some other things." I explained to Frontier.
        "This one looks like a Vietnamese dish I had during the war." Water said, then after a taste they nodded. "In fact I think it's the same recipe."
        "Do you like it?" Bocephus asked.
        Water paused and seemed to be remembering something. "It tastes a lot better now than it did then. There."
        We ate and made small talk for some time. Then the discussion turned to Shadow and our general thoughts and ideas about it.
        I watched Unicorn and Water. They neither encouraged nor forbid the discussion, but instead they listened carefully and asked the occasional question to get more information from the scientists at the table.
        "So Hunter, what would you say if I told you there was a way we could get a team to Shadow to take a look?"
        The question stopped the general discussion that had been going for almost an hour.
        I looked at Unicorn and nodded. "I'd ask what kind of team you had in mind. Bunch of scientists and space technology heavies?"
        "No." Water answered. "We want objective observers who could make a hard cold fast decision for the right reasons and stick to it."
        I nodded. "I know a few people like that. Who'll pick the finalists?"
        The plates and utensils sat forgotten on my workbench. From outside you could hear the sound of the helicopter once in awhile.
        "It's up to you. There is room for five. And the gear they'll need."
        I could hear the tick of the clock over the workbench.
        All of the sudden my attention was drawn to the metal box on the wall just below and to one side of the clock. Inside was my baster, empty, but ready to charge and use in only a couple of hours.
        "What kind of gear do you have in mind?" I asked Unicorn. "I want to know what to pack." Without realizing it I had just said to them that I'd go before I really wanted to commit openly to it.
        Evidently the Bishop had already told them I'd do it because nobody even blinked.
        Water answered. "We won't be sending the devices that would be required to destroy Shadow. Those would be launched from Earth on your recommendation by the President after certain parties have been consulted. You would take scientific instruments, sensing equipment, and yes, some defensive weapons in case you meet..."
        "Whoever built Shadow." I said to finish the thought.
        "Who has final approval of team members?"
        "I do." Unicorn answered.
        "No." I said to a glare from Water. "I'll lead the team. I'll approve who goes. Package deal."
        Unicorn stood and extended their hand. "Agreed."
        "Now, how do we get there?"
        "That's where Langley comes in."
        We all sat and looked at the old man. He smiled and put his hands flat on the table.

        "Back in... oh, late fifties. I was a young man right out of school. Some guys from the Air Force recruited civilian engineers to work on a pie in the sky project at Langley. I had been bored in school and studied oxidizers every time I had to do a report on something. I worked on ionizing oxygen to increase energy release on burn and all sorts of things. Speeding up the reaction, slowing it down, everything." He chuckled at a something. "One time I put together a reaction that was so slow we called it frozen fire."
        We all chuckled politely.
        "Anyway. The Space Group was working on a moon rocket. Yeah, this was before they put together NASA, before Kennedy made his speech, all of it. We were dreamers, but we were official dreamers, and we actually worked out ways it could be done. With what we had then. There was like one computer on the base that was worth anything, so we had to do a lot of our calculations by hand. I spent three days ciphering out the fuel needed to launch the return vehicle from the moon to attain the required velocity to reach Earth in the time allowed. I had to account for every pound of Moon dust, every meal the astronauts ate, everything."
        "We worked it out that the best way to do it was to take the Earth launch vehicle all the way to the moon and back. Actually land the main ship on the moon. We called it direct launch, not like what they did eventually, that was a NASA type idea from drive, we thought it was crazy, until we did the math. So we spent a long time designing the rocket to do it. It was absolutely huge. Like twice the size of the Saturn 5. But it could lift everything you'd ever need into orbit and then some."
        Unicorn nodded. "With today's fuel, and guidance and all, could your rocket get our team to Shadow and back?"
        "Oh hell yeah. There and back and then some."
        "But Nova was never built." Frontier said. "Was it?"
        Water grinned. "The government has a habit of building prototypes. Of course we couldn't build it now, it would be prohibitively expensive. But back in the late fifties, even into the sixties, they wanted to know if it could be done."
        "The thing was so big I actually crawled through the motor intake lines checking tolerances." Langley grinned. "I said I WAS the oxidizer going into the burn chamber."
        "So it was built and it still exists?" Frontier said. "How can you hide something like that?"
        "Well, you can't hide it IN anything, but you can paint it and use it to hide other things." Langley was still grinning.
        "They still exist. Nova one and two. And in fact, right now, Nova two is being assembled and retrofitted with some state of the art equipment and loaded with modern fuel for the trip."
        "Great! Can I go see it?"
        "Count on it." Water said. "We need to know how some of the regulators work. The specs are missing."
        "Oh great. I'm going to fly this thing a million miles and you can't find the owners manual."
        "Sorry Hunter, there's no time to teach you to fly it. One of your crew will have to be an astronaut with this kind of experience." Unicorn said.
        "Everybody from Apollo is a little long in the tooth now." Langley said. "I've been to a lot of their funerals too."
        "There are others. Or I should have said Cosmonaut."
        "Ohhh. Yeah."
        "Of course." Bishop said. "And I just happen to know one."
        I sat silently and listened as they discussed my pilot.
        I was thinking about my crew.
        Of course if I was going into a situation where I might possibly meet up with upset aliens with ray guns I would want Conga by my side. He was immediately approved and Water sent one of the MIBs to get him.
        It was a shame Allied Forces wasn't up to it. He would love to go, but he still wasn't physically or mentally up to something like this. However, he was first on my list for ground crew and Spacecraft Communicator. He had developed a knack for taking in simultaneous input from several sources and making sense of it. Him and Keia together would be able to feed us everything we needed from this end.
        "Thunder for the crew." Bishop said looking at my two lists.
        "I thought she retired."
        "That's what you get for thinking. Want me to call her?"
        I nodded slowly. Bishop took out a small phone and pushed some buttons, then he put it down.
        They were still debating everything from water reclamation to solar panels powering communications when the Bishop's phone blinked. He picked it up and spoke softly.
        "It's her. You ask her."
        I remembered my island assignment with the tall beautiful dark skinned girl who could jump six feet in the air and break a man's neck with a kick. And she was just as good a photographer as she was model. Yeah, she might be a good one to take to meet the aliens. I quickly explained the mission, including the fact that it would be over a million miles from home.
        "Sure Hunter." She said and I could tell she was smiling.
        "Now I need two science type people."
        "Mind if I make a recommendation?" Doc Z said.
        "An Astronomer won't be any good. This isn't a star or a planet." Unicorn said.
        "I have a graduate assistant whose hobby is plausible xeno-technology."
        Langley laughed. "That's a contradiction."
        "Not really. You take the laws of physics and look at things a different way." Doc Z said. "Oh, and she's a licensed EMT."
        I nodded, I hadn't thought about that side of it. "I'd like to meet him before I decide either way."
        "Her. Ahhh, I'll code name her Xena."
        "Interesting choice." Unicorn said. "Call her. We'll need to run her through security."
        "She already has NASA clearance for the Hubble."
        "Good start. But..."
        Doc Z brought out a phone and raised an eyebrow. Unicorn nodded and he made the call.
        I looked at my list. Me, Conga, Thunder, the pilot, and Xena.
        "That's my five."
        "You misunderstood. That was a mission crew of five, the pilot and copilot don't count. We are planning for a total of seven people." Unicorn paused. "And I think we should have a couple of alternates, just in case somebody gets the flu two days before launch."
        "Two more. And then a couple" I said. That made it tougher. "Another scientist. And maybe somebody like a spacecraft engineer in case we need to fix something."
        "Good idea." Water said.
        "I know a young gun engineer. I think he memorized all the schematics of the Titan and Saturn Rockets when he was in high school, a lot of what we did on them was based on Nova work. And he's involved with the Advanced Spacecraft Design Team looking at the next generation of ships and propulsion."
        "Sounds like your man." Bishop said.
        I nodded. Water told Langley to call him.
        They tossed around a few names and I went through everybody I ever knew. At one point I even asked the Bishop what he was doing for the next few months.
        "I'd never be able to use all those flight miles." He laughed.
        I thought about it. "Two and a half million frequent flier miles."
        "But they'd only be good on Uncle Sam airlines." Unicorn said with the first smile I'd seen from them all day.
        Then I had another thought. I turned to Unicorn. "Why isn't this a military mission?"
        Unicorn waited a minute, then after taking a look around, answered slowly.
        "Well. Because Shadow was obviously built by somebody with different and vastly superior technology, we really don't want this looking like a military expedition until it has to be one. If we sent up a Marine crew loaded for bear, it might provoke a retaliation that we, frankly, could not hope to meet with equal force."
        Water nodded. "There is a good chance the builders of Shadow may be monitoring us for some sort of response. If they see a mission cranking up with a heavy military presence, it might be what they are looking for and give them an excuse to launch a preemptive strike."
        "A civilian mission may elicit a different response. Perhaps even a peaceful first contact from them to us."
        "Or we might get blown out of the sky by some Ray of Doom." Conga said glumly.
        "Perhaps. If you wish to back out."
        "Are you out of your mind? Just think about the travel mileage pay I'm going to get!"

        Falcon came into the room and all of the sudden I realized what the Bishop had been grinning about.
        "I believe Falcon is here to formally accept the roll of pilot on the mission."
        "Yessir." He said with a grin.
        I glanced over at the Bishop. "I didn't know he had been a Cosmonaut."
        He shrugged. "It's not the kind of thing that comes up in casual conversation." Then he looked at me. "And that also means you never read all the way through his personnel file either."
        "Cover to cover, it wasn't in there."
        The Bishop's face got long. "Oh, that's right. We had to make some adjustments to provide cover for a couple of missions awhile back. I must have forgotten to put the real file back."
        "Who else's file was 'adjusted'?"
        "You'll find out." He turned back to the meeting.

        After the introductions and a short mission briefing while Falcon and Conga watched the tapes and listened to Bocephus we took another extended break.
        It was late in the day.
        Everybody had been all over my computers. We ate another feast prepared by Keia. We took an extended walk around the grounds and watched as one of the otters followed us from the opposite bank of the creek, as curious about us as we were about him. Later we were all back around the table. The Bishop and some of the others had been in touch with the nominated members of the expedition. All but a couple had accepted immediately even without knowing all the details.
        But as Doc Z and Langley explained how long it would take us to just get to Shadow my own enthusiasm, which had been shaky at best, seemed to wane.
        Yes I would love to go on the mission, but...
        But I never said a word about even thinking about backing out.
        I just hoped Falcon didn't fly spaceships the way he did everything else.

        With the final additions to both the ground crew and the mission team things progressed at breakneck speed.
        We were given three days to wrap up our personal business, then we all met in Houston to begin our training. We were split up into small groups to make it more manageable. The last arrival, code named Ice, was in my group. He was to be Falcon's co-pilot and the spacecraft's mechanic.
        "We never call anything a 'crash course' in the space business." Our first instructor said. "But that's what I was told this was."
        "Did they tell you why?" I asked him.
        "No sir. They said it was so classified they hadn't even told God about it yet."
        "Sounds about right." Conga said. "Where do we start?" He was almost drooling looking at the tri-axle machine.
        Just being this close to it was enough to almost make me airsick. Or space sick, or whatever.
        "I'm supposed to familiarize you all with trying to function in zero G. Your other group is in the launch simulator so they won't miss their chance to puke today." He grinned. "Who's first?"
        Nobody stood in Conga's way as he all but jumped into the machine.
        "Now as it rotates through all three axis try to get the light on the target when it appears on the screen."
        I had only heard Conga do some sort of war-hoop once before. But now, as he swooshed around faster and faster he hollered and whooped and whistled. For its part, the machine groaned whenever his spin changed directions dramatically.
        We watched the monitor for how he was doing with the aiming the randomly appearing light. His reaction time and accuracy score was impressive.
        When the machine stopped Conga blinked a few times, but managed to undo the straps and be half out of the machine before the green safety light came on. He didn’t even look dizzy.
        “Hey, that was great! When can I go again?” He said with a grin.
        “He can have my turn.” Ice said.
        “Everybody has to go or they don’t Go.” I said. Then I realized that meant I had to take a turn in the thing.
        “So you’re next then right?” The trainer asked. I knew there was no way around it, and nodded.
        I got the light into the target once. Once. And that was just as the machine started spinning. The rest of the time I was too dizzy to tell you whether my eyes were open or shut. I won’t talk about the rest of it.
        It took me ten minutes after it stopped before I could even sit up.
        But I was quite proud of the fact I wasn’t as bad off as Ice was. It took him half an hour to move without 'problems'.
        Conga went again, and whooped and shouted about trying to set a high score.
        That made the rest of us feel even worse.

        I thought about lunch and drank warm tea. That was all I could handle.
        My group got to the cafeteria first. The mission team was to begin eating the ‘food’ we’d have to live with on the flight. There was no way I was going to try it now, and maybe even tonight.
        Conga didn’t ignore his prescribed diet, he ate it too, along with a regular meal.
        “Huntie OK?” Keia asked me as she sat down next to me.
        “I will be. As long as I never do the tri-ax machine again.”
        “It part of space training. You have to do it.”
        I looked at her, “I could drop out of the mission.”
        “No you can’t.”
        She was right, I couldn’t. “I know.”
        I heard the buzzing of Allied Forces chair before I saw him. “Hey Buddy.” I said as he cruised up with his lunch on a tray.
        Then I saw the Bishop and Unicorn.
        “We’ve filled the final mission slot.” The Bishop said.
        I knew it, I just knew it.
        I stuck out my hand to Allied Forces and smiled. “Welcome aboard.”
        He shook my hand with a big smile. His right hand worked almost as well as it ever had, although his grip was still pretty weak. His left hand shook sometimes, but he was fine on a keyboard or joystick with it.
        “How can he go to Shadow?” Keia asked.
        “No gravity in space.” I said.
        “DAMNIT that’s right!” Conga slapped the table. “He won’t have to walk or anything, he can sit at the console and monitor everything like he does here.”
        “It will free up another member of the crew upon arrival for the investigation.”
        Allied Forces grinned. “You. Can’t. Get. Rid of me. That easy. Conga.” He said in his slow but exact way.
        Now I had my seven. “The Nova Seven.” I said slowly.
        “Nova Seven.”

        The afternoon was spent doing classroom stuff. Familiarization with everything from the scanning equipment to emergency drills on board ship.
        Compared to the tri-axle machine it was hopelessly dull, but at least I wasn’t trying to vomit up my socks afterward.

        The next morning we were all given T-shirts with our code names on the back above the ship's logo encircled with the words ‘Nova Seven’ and our code name stitched in script over the pocket on the front.
        The ground crew had theirs too, with their names forming a circle around the logo of the Nova rocket and ‘Support Team’ under it.
        I liked their shirts better than our own.
        “I’d like it better if they spelled my name right.” Bocephus said. I looked at his shirt. It was right on the back, but on the front it was spelled with an ‘F’ instead of the ‘PH’.
        “I’ll see what I can do.” I laughed.

        We had weightless training in the airplanes and underwater in space suits. It was fun, and I didn’t get nearly as space sick as I had in the machine.
        Allied Forces loved it, and loved watching Conga slam to the floor at the bottom of the arc in the aircraft as well. In the weightless environment, his limited mobility and lack of strength in his legs didn’t matter really. He became something of a ballet star when weightless. But then when it passed, he was all but helpless once again. For Conga's part, his bulk and strength was almost a liability when weightless, but he assured us all he would adapt.
        The worse part of it was the 'conditioning' as they called it. We would be without certain amenities for an extended period of time.
        "No cigars. No BOOZE. No women… well, you know what I mean." Conga wailed.
        We all looked at each other. I smiled at Thunder, "We still have our memories." I grinned at her.
        "And how." She smiled back at me and made my entire year.
        Conga was still pouting.
        Xena spoke up. "You will help us quit smoking right?"
        "Yes ma'am. And anything else you need to get through it?" The trainer said.
        "One. Order of. Saltpeter. For Conga." Allied Forces laughed.
        The days flew by into two weeks. Physical training in the morning, then after lunch, schoolwork. And almost every evening there were briefings and reports and meetings. We had to go through procedures for scanning Shadow's actual surface for electrical activity while floating on a tether to the NOVA in case our magnetic grapples wouldn’t grab it. Then we'd have to work on trying to operate Geiger counter while wearing space gloves. There were contingencies for everything and anything. And then some.

        But as we recouped on Sunday, our only day off since this started, I noticed some significant changes in Allied Forces. One of the things he excelled at was the technical side of our agency's operation, and had for the last couple of years. But the physical demands of the space training had actually helped him even more than his own physical therapy. One of the flight physicians felt it was their duty to fret over him, but then they admitted in one of the meetings they were surprised at his progress and eagerness to do even more.
        The instructors cut him very little slack. And other than helping him in or out of the apparatus, like the tri-axel machine, he was on his own. And in some of the tests and programs, he was at least equal to me or Conga since physical strength and agility really didn’t help much with some of the things.
        As for the others, Thunder was almost the most natural at the delicate controls of the maneuvering suit. She had the ability to just barely touch the joystick and think about where she wanted it to go. I fought the thing but was able to cope with it. Conga went spinning out of control twice before he mastered it. The others were more or less between the three of us.
        Ice had the spacecraft’s systems down to a science. Well, it was a science, but as the retro-fitting and replacement of nineteen fifties and sixties technology with stuff forty years newer went forward, he was all over it and translated rocket science technospeak into something the rest of us could grasp. I finally got to the point that when he said LOX I knew he was talking about Liquid Oxygen without having to stop and translate it in my head or thinking about pieces of fish in sour cream.
        At the end of the third week we all boarded a passenger jet for a trip out to meet the Nova 2, now about halfway through its emergency refit.

        The flight was the first time since we had gotten to Houston that I got to sit next to Keia, hold her hand, and talk about something besides the mission. She brought me up to date on the kids who were staying with my parents and having a grand old time and being spoiled rotten.
        Unless my sense of direction had been completely turned upside down by my time in the tri-axle machine, once we left the base we had turned south-west, and judging by the speed and how long we had been flying, we were somewhere over Mexico now.
        “We’re not in Kansas any more.” I said as a joke glancing out the window.
        “No we’re not.” Water said. “And we’re going to land even further from Kansas as well.”
        “Taco lunch.” Allied Forces said voicing the thoughts of several of us since Conga nodded as well.
        “Something like that.” Water said with a slight nod.

        As the small plane was descending to land, all we could see out the windows was low but incredibly rough mountains. It wasn’t Kansas, but it could have been almost anyplace else.
        Then all of the sudden something incongruous appeared through the clouds. A huge base with a international airport size runway complex.
        “That’s the real area Fifty One!” Conga said. “You should have said we were coming down here!”
        Water looked at him funny. “How would you know about it?”
        Conga laughed. “Somebody had to take the land away from the Mexican drug mogul that owned it.”
        I chuckled and nodded. I had read about that mission, but the particulars were seriously classified and I hadn’t felt like going through the nonsense I’d have to just to read about something that happened a dozen years ago or more.
        “Security isn’t what it used to be.” The Bishop laughed. “When the late Don’s family tried to reclaim ranch the lawsuit hit the court in Mexico City and we had to do some fast maneuvering to squash it. But a couple of small articles appeared in the local paper in the court watch section.”
        “Sometimes I forget who I’m dealing with.” Water said. “You guys run a real nice operation.”
        “Thank you.” The Bishop nodded and checked his seatbelt.

        We landed and taxied toward a hanger. The view from down here was indistinguishable from any number of US installations anywhere in the world. The same buildings, the same vehicles, everything.
        But as we turned one feature caught my eye.
        There was a large building built into the side of a mountain face on the edge of the base at the end of one of the taxiways. It was obvious the building extended into the rock. A large metal door was slightly open.
        The door was large enough to let the space shuttle in or out.
        Or if it was on its side, the NOVA.

        Then my view was cut off as the plane entered the hanger.
        “Would you all like to stretch your legs or go see the Nova?” Water asked us after we got out of the plane.
        Thunder did a couple of high kicks and then added a backflip for emphasis. “Nova.”
        The vote was unanimous.
        We got into a large van and rode across the base to the building that jutted out of the mountain which was further away than it had looked from the plane.
        During the trip over Water went to great lengths explaining this was the NOVA 2, the second prototype of the design. Bigger, faster, hardier than the original. He kept saying it was “Twice the rocket of the Saturn Five.”
        As we got closer what I had judged as a large building got even bigger. It was a huge building. And the mountain it was built into wasn’t any slouch either.

        The van drove through what had seemed to be a small opening in the central door with enough room for a couple of tractor trailers to pass as well.
        I expected the rocket to be just inside the doors.
        It wasn’t.
        The van stopped and we all got out.
        “OK. Where’s my rocket?” Water said with mock exasperation.
        The overhead lights came on and a large black curtain started moving.
        All it needed was some big instrumental theme music. Instead I could hear some bubblegum pop music from a boom box in an office nearby.
        The curtain pulled back and there it was.

        I had been to the Air and Space museum a few times, and Goddard, and even Kennedy in Florida. I has seen rockets before. Some were bigger than others, a few were impressive looking in some way or other.
        But this thing.

        It was Mammoth. Enormous. Colossal. Damned BIG!
        It didn’t look like it would ever move, let alone fly.
        “It took us six months just to get it all down here and start putting it together.” Water said.
        We were looking at the capsule end of it far above our heads. The rocket part extended back. And back.
        And then further back yet.
        I stood and stared, I couldn’t see it all and I was standing in front of it.
        It was indeed twice the rocket of the Saturn Five.
        Water was running off some numbers about its length and weight and girth. “The second stage alone is bigger around and longer than the first stage of the Saturn Five.”
        I wondered how that was supposed to make me feel good about flying on top of this thing.

        We walked over to a service elevator and rode up to the capsule.
        “This part was never finished. All we had to work with was some external framework and a few spare parts.” Water was still playing tour guide. “We borrowed cargo bay sections from the shuttle and even stole a component from the ISS.” His official stoic persona was barely there as his personal enthusiasm for the project bubbled over.
        Inside it was obvious there would be no ‘down’ in the crew area of the ship once we left orbit. Everything was everywhere.
        “This will be Allied Forces’ station on the mission. He can even sleep right here since the backup station up there can do pretty much everything this one can, just maybe not as neatly.” Water said gesturing as we clambered over equipment. Allied Forces, confined to his chair for the Earthbound tour looked at his post with a huge smile.
        I had been going through the training with the idea about half formed that we would never actually have to GO. That something would happen, or not happen, and the whole thing would fizzle before we had to actually put on a space suit. But now, standing next to, well, sort of below and next to, where I would be strapped in for the launch, that chill was back. This was actually going to happen, and we, I, was going to be shot into space on top of a rocket that was exactly two years younger than I was.
        “The controls are a mesh of State of the Art systems and Mercury/Saturn vintage controls for the F-1 and J-2 engines.” He showed us the buttons and dials and switches and readouts until it all became a blur. I was very glad I was the Mission Commander and not the pilot.
        After the tour of the crew compartment and Command Deck we went out and walked down a catwalk to see the rest of the ship. Water pointed out some obviously new construction just behind the crew area.
        “This is brand new, not in the original design at all. We’re adding a new stage and an extra set of fuel cells to get you back from Shadow. Most of the mass will be gone and all you have to do it get aimed this way and do a long burn. Then we’re planning for you to dock with the ISS and be transferred down on the shuttle. We don’t have time or equipment to outfit the capsule for atmosphere re-entry.”
        “It doesn’t have a heat shield?” Falcon asked.
        “Not for this trip.”
        “So we have to rendezvous at the ISS instead, OK. Then what are you going to do with this?” Ice asked looking at the ship.
        “Most of it will become part of the ISS. The service module and extra fuel tanks will be jettisoned to burn up over the Pacific.”
        I looked at the NOVA, well, at least it would get to go to space instead of sitting in a warehouse someplace like it had been.
        We walked further down and looked in awe at the array of huge engines at the far end of the craft. From what I had read about the NOVA 1 they had never really settled on a number of engines that should be used to lift the giant ship into orbit. NOVA had started with four of the fantastically powerful F-1 engines. Then they had talked about modifying the design so each actual unit would have to strain less to lift the towering vehicle above them.
        Now we were facing the fiery end of the rocket and counting the great funnels. Six of the great engines protruded above us. Five around the outside and one that seemed slightly bigger in the center.
        "It's not an optical illusion. The center engine has been modified for significantly more output than the others." Water gestured proudly. Then he went on to talk about the tricked up kerosene and liquid oxygen that would power us into orbit. "Also for the first minute or so of launch those intakes up there will be pulling in air to mix in the burn chamber to give an extra boost to the thrust. The doors will shut shortly after the rocket clears the tower."
        "What if they don't?" Falcon asked.
        "Won't matter if they stay open and pumping, as the atmosphere thins out the pump will simply be running to keep itself busy. The injector will be injecting nothing, and trust me, these babies will be beyond caring once they get that hot. And if the exhaust does backup through the pump it'll simply push the door shut for us because the vacuum from the pump is all that's keeping it open."
        Falcon and Ice nodded grimly. They seemed to be consigning the pumps and their doors to Murphy's Law.
        It was hard for me to believe the huge cold black funnels above us would be doing a good impersonation of the very fires of hell just a few weeks from now. But it sure looked like they would be.

        Then we got to sit in a conference room and watch animations of everything from the launch to how to go to the bathroom in zero gravity.
        Allied Forces couldn't wait.
        Xena seemed to have a problem with the serious lack of privacy, but then she said that was probably part of the price of space travel. Thunder shook her head and made some comment about spending some time in a cargo container with several refugees and a couple of war criminals trying to escape someplace.
        I promised Xena we'd smuggle a sheet or two on board to ensure some privacy for certain things.

        Then it was back to Houston for more training.
        Our schedules were pushed to the limit. We trained almost eighteen hours a day. Science, investigative equipment, weightlessness, emergency procedures, basic medical, sanitation, even a 'crash course' on how to fly the ship.
        But still every time I asked anybody that was supposed to know when we'd leave I got conflicting and non-committal answers.
        We had to address the idea of what weapons to take to meet an unknown and most likely more advanced threat. I had been almost joking about taking basters, but they turned out to be our best option.
        There was a serious discussion of arming the ship, but that was dismissed as a futile gesture. If whoever built Shadow had armed ships in the area, we were nothing but a sitting duck. But most of the crew, myself included, wanted something to shoot with instead of just being a big slow moving target.
        We compromised by mounting a couple of high output lasers on the radio and solar panel masts. There was no way anybody could take them as an offensive weapons array. And really, they were there more for show and a sense that we weren't totally defenseless instead of a real threat to anything we'd meet. And we all understood, if we had to fire them it was so we'd go down fighting more than any serious attempt to win a battle.
        For my part, the lasers looked like a prop in an old black and white Saturday morning movie serial I watched once than real weapons. Truth be told, you could take them out if you stood back and threw a rock at them. But, so it goes.
        Falcon summed it up best. "If we meet an enemy battle cruiser and it gets ugly I'll ram them and let Ice fire the lasers for effect."

        Then the trainers made a slight mistake. The mission team was all in the same hallway late one afternoon without a babysitter to keep an eye on us. Conga looked out and saw a delivery truck at the side door.
        "I say we make break for it." He said with mock seriousness.
        "Break for where?" Ice asked.
        "Anywhere." Falcon said.
        "I've got my credit card." I said with a grin.
        "I'll stand guard." Thunder said, "Honk before you leave and I'll jump on."
        "Ice, Falcon hotwire the truck, we'll help him in." Conga grabbed Allied Forces' chair and started that way.
        Xena hesitated then shrugged, "What'll they do? Ground us?"
        "They'll probably sentence us to an extended session in the Tri-ax machine." I moaned like I was sick. Something I had become very good at recently.
        Ice and Falcon got the truck running as the rest of us piled in the back in and on boxes and crates. Falcon honked and Thunder jumped in as we started rolling.
        "Where to commander?" Falcon asked as we turned onto the main base road.
        "Town." I said with authority.
        I expected we'd be pulled over before we got out of the gate, but Falcon fell in line behind a construction truck that was leaving and pulled a baseball cap down over his eyes and the MP waved us through.
        "I know a great spot for beer and ribs. They usually have live music too." Ice said.
        "Sold. OK Sir?" Conga said smacking his lips.
        "Sounds right to me. Set course Falcon, Ice navigate."
        "No tail." Thunder reported from the back window.
        "Excellent." Allied Forces giggled. "Just like. Old times."
        We laughed but I felt sorry for him. And then began hoping the real mission was a success, for his sake more than anything else.

        The rib joint was in a shopping center. Thunder and Xena promised to spend enough to make up for a month of shopping in the base commissary then join us later.
        Conga took the delivery truck around the center and parked between another truck and a dumpster. We got a good table in a back corner and listened to a country band do a sound check and ordered everything on the menu. Twice.
        The food and drink arrived and we commenced to have a great time.
        The women came in with bags and boxes and joined us.
        No MP's interrupted us. No guys in black suits and sunglasses showed up. We ate and drank until even Conga couldn't hold any more. Then I charged the whole thing to my card and we wandered out.
        "I'll drive." Thunder said. "Where's the truck?"
        Conga belched mightily and said he'd show her.
        Soon we were all back in the truck. Allied Forces started singing one of the songs the band had done and we all joined in, sort of.
        "Hey, look at that." Thunder said pointing off to one side. "They're just getting ready to start."
        "Let's go." I said. Then I looked around. "Any of you have other plans?"
        She aimed the truck at the parking spot and we all piled out.
        "I've never been to a college soccer game before." Xena said.
        "First time for everything." Ice said.
        We became the cheering section for the visiting team.

        Conga walked across the road for some refreshments and came back with enough to feed the team. Nevermind the fact he had just eaten enough of the best food in the state to feed both teams, and most of the fans.
        We cheered and booed and Allied Forces whistled and we carried on until one of the assistant coaches asked us if we were alumni.
        "Nah, we're all just playing hookie and thought you needed some boosters." I said.
        "Oh. Well, thank you." He smiled and went back to his team.
        Our team, Tech, lost to the home team, A&M, but it was a good competitive game. And we all felt a lot better for being out in the fresh air for awhile too.
        "Where to?" Ice asked starting the truck.
        "Well." I said.
        "Let's head back, but take the scenic route." Xena said.
        "Sounds like a plan. And if you see something interesting, stop. We'll check it out." I ordered.
        "And give it our full treatment." Conga said shoving another handful of lousy fake onion rings into his mouth.
        We stopped at a church bizarre "In case they had something we might need for the mission." Watched a parade with a bunch of little kids and a high school band through a shopping center parking lot for something or other they were celebrating. Stopped at a gas station because the truck was almost out of fuel. Then drove through the countryside until I thought we were lost, but Ice was very familiar with the area and got us back on the right road.
        Except we couldn't get back into the base as easily as we had gotten out.
        They had missed the truck. And us, except we were classified and they couldn't say that.
        The MPs had no sense of humor and tried to confiscate Conga's quart of beer and pork rinds.
        "You're not allowed to bring open containers on base sir." Some half sacred MP Corporal was trying to look important. His backup was staring at Thunder in her new outfit and all but drooling.
        "Yes he is." I said.
        "Who are you sir?"
        "If he told you that son, I'd have to kill you." The Bishop said walking up behind us. "I knew you'd do something like this before it was over, but I didn't expect to be billed for twelve hundred dollars worth of spareribs and chicken"
        "They were very good ribs." Conga said with a grin.
        "The truck has to stay here. Get your stuff and get in the van. And no I will not reimburse you for the gas."
        "Then they are cleared for all this stuff Admiral?" The corporal asked him.
        The Bishop nodded briskly. "Even the doggy bag."
        In the van Allied Forces clutched his doggy bag with a big grin and looked at the Bishop. "Admiral?" He snickered.
        "Long story. So… what all did you guys do?" He looked like he really wanted to hear the story.
        He did.

        Except the trainers didn't see the humor in the situation. From then on in they watched us every minute.
        It became a challenge. We all wanted to go out one more time before it was over. And we wanted to take the Ground Crew with us.
        It was a conspiracy worthy the idea we'd soon be going back to the real Area 51. We laid plans and arranged details for three days straight.
        And then it happened. We were in the simulator with our ground crew in place. There was a break between sessions of make-believe disasters and then… we vanished.
        Conga threw a filing cabinet in front of the side door for effect and we beat feet to a crew bus that had cost me some real money in a bribe to somebody on base to have left there. The Bishop flashed one of his ID's at the gate and we all cheered as the bus hit the highway.
        "I want to try those ribs." The Bishop said.
        "On our way sir." Falcon said.
        Now with him, Keia, Langley, Bocephus and the others there it was a real party.
        We took over two tables and had a riot of a time.
        Then we took the bus to the zoo, then went and did some serious shopping.
        But as the Bishop laughed at Allied Forces in a cowboy hat I got that chill again. When things were calmer I stepped up to him, "We're leaving when? Tomorrow, next day?" Keia gasped and gripped my hand tightly as the Bishop nodded slowly.
        "Something like that."
        I knew my face hardened. Conga saw me and eased closer to us. Allied Forced picked up on it, as did Thunder and Falcon. The other two knew to trust us and listened.
        "I didn't say this, but this is basically it for you guys. We're just waiting on word from… down there… to transfer you there for launch. You won't be on the ground, there, for more than a week."
        "Weather permitting." Langley said softly.
        "That's about all that can hold it up at this point."
        We all got way too quiet.
        "Well then. I think we owe it to everybody to end up face down in the parking lot before it's over." I said. Conga seconded it.
        "I'll be the designated driver. Again." Thunder said with a very charming smile.
        "I've seen you drink. You can hold your own." Falcon said.
        "I know when to quit." The beautiful woman said with her eyes flashing.
        "Let's Go." Allied Forces said. "I can. Drink. More. Because I. Don't have. To. Walk." He grinned.
        "You didn't walk that straight before. Even when you weren't drunk." I said.
        "OK. So?" He laughed some more.

        On the way back to the base somebody spotted a small carnival set up to raise funds for some sort of organization.
        We did every ride in the place, some of them three times. Conga almost broke the arm wrestling strength machine and won the biggest prize there.
        The Bishop proved he was something of a connoisseur of fair food when he told the 'chef' in a trailer the best way to fix sausage sandwiches.
        Keia had to have one of the bears at a game trailer and I almost got myself medically disqualified from the mission for a dislocated shoulder throwing balls at the target trying to win it for her.
        "This is when you need an engineer." Ice said. He picked up the ball and examined it. "OK." He took it and threw it at the milk bottles and knocked them all down. Then he did two more stacks. Then he walked down the lineup of stacked balls and eliminated every pile of bottles the man had. "Give all three of them whatever they want." He gestured to Thunder and Xena, who had become great pals, walking our way.
        The game operator was going to say something, but about then the rest of our crew came up.
        "What'ssthematter?" Conga said from behind Allied Forces' chair.
        "He was going to ask the women which animal they each wanted." I said. "Right?"
        "Sure buddy."

        Then a couple of things absolutely unreal happened.
        The first was actually fun, in retrospect.
        We had seen the three guys earlier. They were pretty boisterous, but didn't appear to be stupid.
        Well, they were stupid.
        "Hey babe. You girls should come party with us." One of them said.
        "Yeah. Damn you're sweet." Another one said to Thunder.
        "Some other time." Xena said.
        "I think you should come now." The third one said and grabbed for Xena's arm.
        His hand never touched her.
        Thunder whipped her left arm up and her right one down and broke the guy's arm cleanly just above the wrist.
        His partner didn't like that and went to rush Thunder. Conga picked him up and threw him at the milk bottle targets.
        The third guy seemed to be reaching for a weapon. I grabbed him in a half nelson and the Bishop stuck a small stun gun against the side of his nose.
        "Well well well. Looks like I get a souvenir of Texas after all." Falcon said reaching into the man's pocket and coming up with a small semi-auto.
        "You're going to give it to the nice man out of the goodness of your heart aren't you?" Xena said with a voice dripping sarcasm.
        "Yeah. Sure." He stammered shaking under my arm.
        "Good. Now, let's see how fast you can get your friend to the hospital." The Bishop said. He reached into his pocket and came up with a US Marshal ID. "Right boys?"
        "Yessir." The one Conga had pitched at the milk bottles said trying to climb back over the counter holding his side. Conga helped back him over to our side, none to gently either.
        The milk bottle guy just shook his head. "How many of you, and three of them. Some guys are just really stupid."
        "Yes sir." I said to him, then I gave him a good tip, "Sorry about the mess."
        "Just another Friday night in Houston." He said.

        As we walked back out to the van I mentioned the Bishop's IDs.
        "I've got a full collection. I didn't bring my Postal Inspector badge. Not much call for it."
        We all laughed and agreed.

        But then the second unreal thing happened.
        In the parking lot around the bus were cops and MPs and a few others.

        "Oh Geeze." Allied Forces said with great feeling. "Those guys. Are. Pressing. Charges."
        "I doubt it." Falcon said.
        Then we all saw Water and Unicorn.
        The Bishop sighed.
        "It's time." I said.
        Water nodded. "The plane is waiting. And ahhh, we took your friends to the hospital."

        I had the bus ride back to the base and about an hour after that to say goodbye to Keia.
        "Huntie go Space." She said with tears in her eyes, then she got her voice more under control. "I see you when you get back."

        I could feel her in my arms until we were putting on our seatbelts for the landing in Mexico.

        The first thing we saw was the vertical NOVA 2 dwarfing even the mountains with its presence.
        Since we had been down here they had enlarged the existing launch support tower, moved and assembled the NOVA, and imported enough rocket fuel to blow the base itself halfway to the moon if Conga lit one of the cigars he was going to try to smuggle on board.
        A fleet of railroad tank cars sat off to one side, many of them steaming and dripping in their long rows. Off in the other direction was a brand new compound of trucks and trailers of every description.

        The next day we all climbed into the crew compartment for a launch test. Yes the space suit was hot and uncomfortable even with the A/C running and extra padding on the seat. But we had to wear them during launch because no matter what had been done to the NOVA, it was still a 1960's space capsule.
        Allied Forces loved every second of it and answered questions for the rest of us to make everything go better so we could lift off on schedule.
        It took all day. Getting into the compartment, testing this, doing that. Then getting back out so they could make changes. Then we all got to climb back in.
        I don't know about the rest of them, but I slept good that night.

        We were told two things in our regular morning briefing that changed our plans dramatically.
        "There is a severe weather system building over the Gulf that may come this way. Also, the US Geological Survey has warned us of low harmonic registrations that indicate increased seismological activity in the Mexico City area and there is a related fault near here. We are not willing to risk the NOVA and this mission to either eventuality. You will launch as soon as the fueling of the rocket is finished. Countdown has begun. You are Go in just under seventeen hours."
        The rest of the meeting was basically a waste of time. We all had a thousand things to do and say that all of the sudden had to be done or said then. We were out of 'Later's.
        We spent a couple of hours in a video conference with the ground team in Houston. All I had eyes for was Keia no matter who I was talking to.
        There was a last minute round of medical testing. None of us had developed leprosy or black lung in the last week.
        Then we were all ordered to bed for a few hours sleep.
        Fat chance.

        The countdown was at five hours when we started getting various wires stuck on us for vital sign monitoring and then climbing into our flight suits.

        With just over an hour to go we were making last minute adjustments to our suits and chairs and work stations. Something almost impossible to do in the full pressure suit.
        From the back, or even the front with the face shield down, the only one of us you could recognize was Conga. His suit had been specially made by the space suit people because they simply could not adjust one enough to fit him and still be functional. The rest of us; Thunder, Ice, Xena, Falcon, me, even Allied Forces, all look so much alike you forgot who you were standing next to as we got ready for the final strapping in.

        All the simulations. All the training. Watching endless hours of actual in-capsule launch video. Talking to current and former astronauts about every detail from launch to recovery. Nothing made me ready for the sheer terror and excitement of feeling those huge engines fire up under us.
        The shudder that rattled my bones as they came to full power. The unbelievable roar transmitted through the structure of the ship that echoed inside my helmet. Over the intercom I heard voices yelling about things I had heard in training that indicated everything was going as planned.
        Conga was on one side of me and Xena was on the other. But I couldn't tell you which was which now. Whoever it was on my left managed to move their hand and tap on my arm a couple of times. I couldn't move my helmet but I could turn my head slightly inside it and looked their way.
        Outside the small portal just inside my line of sight I could see.

        Then there was yelling that indicated we were to brace for first stage jettison.

        I thought I was ready for it. I wasn't. The massive slamming jerk punched me against the straps holding me in the seat and I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder. "Terrific." I managed to say as I tried to move my shoulder inside the suit to ease the pain.
        Then the second stage lit up and we were all slammed back against the seats again.
        The plan was to orbit the Earth twice, picking up speed, then head directly for Shadow. We had to stay in our seats for about another two hours until the third stage fired for the transit although we could now remove our helmets and some of the other gear for launch.
        Except Conga didn't see things that way. He unbuckled himself and sort of fell/floated over to the portal while stripping out of everything except his modified flight suit. Modified in that he had cut off the legs below the knees and completely removed the sleeves and lapels.
        "Hey, this is a great view!" He said into the intercom.
        "I'm glad we went through all this so you could see it." Thunder answered.

        "Nova. We're reading one of your passengers is out of their position." Bishop said in his role as Capsule Communicator.
        "Roger that. We'll see about putting him back to bed." Falcon answered.
        "Fat chance." Conga laughed into the com. "You have GOT to see this." He said floating around and waving to the rest of us.
        Allied Forces didn't want to miss anything, period. He got loose and drifted over to Conga and expressed the proper awe for what he was seeing. Xena followed shortly.
        Ground Control noticed and made noise over the com.
        "I'll see if I can get them strapped back in." I said fighting a wave of nausea. Then I unbuckled and floated that way.
        We took turns at the small window that was facing Earth and the two that looked out into space.
        The view, was awesome from all of them.
        "Solar panel deployment in progress. Green lights all across." Falcon said in the com.
        "Fifteen minutes to service stage burn." The Bishop announced after awhile. "And the pictures you are sending back are truly magnificent."
        Somebody had thought about it and turned on one of the cameras to take pictures of what we could see.
        "Bridge to gang. Strap in. We're going to turn it on again." Ice said. "Ten minutes."
        We had gone around the planet twice in less than an hour and a half, and now it was time to break orbit and begin the two week trip out to Shadow.
        I had had trouble buckling the harness back on Earth, gloves or no gloves. You had to get everything pretty much just so for it to work. Now, without gravity to help hold things in place, I was at a loss. Well. I hoped close enough was good enough and held onto the one strap that refused to cooperate.
        There was an all pervasive vibration and a low hard edged whir as the pumps came to life, then the service module's J-2 engines came to life and we were on our way. Loose pieces of spacesuits and some odds and ends that had been disturbed all slowly drifted to the back of the cabin.
        I glanced out the window as Earth started to fall away. "Bye Keia." I said softly.

        The burn went on for ages.
        Considering we went from a standing start to orbit in something under eight minutes (reaching what I was told was an orbital velocity along the order of eighteen thousand feet per second) the long term burn of the service stage engines at only a fraction of their power was interminable.
        Ice had cheerfully pointed out that without gravity for the engines to fight against they didn't need to run them at the tooth jarring full power the first and second stage engines would work at for launch. "We're going to be burning a ton of fuel and two tons of LOX per engine per second during launch. But out in space we will only need a fraction of that to accelerate to our cruise velocity. So we'll run the engines at about fifteen to twenty percent for a much longer duration and end up with a more efficient acceleration curve." He went on talking about G-forces and trajectory out of the Earth's gravity well and much more. As he said it I nodded meaningfully from time to time. Mercifully as soon as he was done talking I forgot most of it.
        For me the steady pressure of the accelerating ship mimicked gravity enough that my stomach settled down a little bit. That is, until I got to watch Conga show Allied Forces how to do spiraling barrel rolls across the compartment.
        To his credit, Allied Forces only did it twice, once over and once back, then he settled into his position and ran through his console's readouts. He relayed everything to his ground control contact, Langley and a couple of his associates, right by the book.
        I took my recommended dose of motion sickness medicine and looked out the portal at a star that was not moving. It helped a little.

        Having had enough of Thunder and Conga doing low gravity yoga moves and not wanting to watch Xena conduct some sort of study with radio wave speed distortion as we accelerated I half floated and half climbed up to the command deck.
        "Well boss, you're in charge now." Falcon said taking off his spacesuit gloves and saluting. "What're your orders?"
        The brain trust had made it very clear in the training that the launch and our eventual rendezvous with the ISS were Falcon's babies. Out of Earth orbit, which meant the trip to and from Shadow as well as the actual work on location, were all mine.
        "Are we on schedule?" I asked them.
        "Well." Falcon said and grinned at Ice. "We're planning on bending the schedule a little."
        "Yessir." Ice said. "We've tweaked the engines to maximum efficiency. We can burn longer, and at a slightly higher power setting than specked. It'll cut over a day off our trip out."
        "And we might be able to sneak it up a bit more." Falcon said.
        "And still be able to fire them as retros so we don't miss Shadow altogether."
        "Guaranteed, sir." Falcon said.
        I looked at Ice.
        "Without a doubt. We'll have plenty of juice left for the braking maneuver."
        I nodded. "Good. Do it." Then I thought of something. "Let Allied Forces know the ETA as soon as you firm it up. He may have to adjust his stuff."
        "And Ice." I jerked my thumb at the communications block, "The man on the other end of that thing is the Sir. I'm Hunter."
        "OK." He grinned.
        "I smell coffee." Falcon said. He looked down and around through the small access on his side to the main compartment. "Yes please." He shouted.
        "I'm not the stewardess." Thunder answered.
        "Well then find the cabin boy and send some up with him."
        "No problem."
        He turned back around. "Go ahead down Ice. I got it for awhile."
        "Have a seat Hunter. I need to get out of this suit." Ice said unbuckling. They had been a little too busy to get undressed earlier.
        He did the half-float fall we would be doing for the next day or so as the ship sped up and disappeared down the access way.
        "Hey! Great ride Ice! Good Job!" Conga bellowed to the co-pilot.
        I climbed into the seat and took a deep breath.
        "We're just babysitting the autopilot. It doesn't like the new engine settings so we'll have to lie to it once in awhile."
        "Oh Good. That makes me feel better." I looked at the incredible array of outdated Apollo era gauges and brand new digital displays and stuff somebody had made up on the spur of the moment all combined together in a control panel that would give Han Solo nightmares.
        "Your coffee sir." Conga said with mock subservience half tossing a small bag to him.
        Falcon took it with a grin, "Damn that's a change from Thunder or Xena." Then he looked at me. "You feeling all right?"
        "He looks like hell." Conga said. "You need your gum?"
        "I took a pill. I guess I'm just acclimating to low gravity."
        "It takes awhile. On my flight on the Mir I was sick about half the time we were up."
        "Thanks for the encouragement." I took another deep breath. "It's passing. I'll be OK." I watched Falcon scan the displays and sip his coffee from its bag. "As long as I don't try that."
        I sat there long enough to watch him make a slight course correction and then lie to the computer again.
        "You know, this thing was built with no real computer on board at all? You know, 1959 technology, there was an autopilot that was basically a wind up alarm clock and some processors that were mainly monitoring circuits, but as for like a navigational computer or something, nothing." Falcon tapped an added on box with multiple digital displays and a small screen. "They went to the moon with the equivalent of a 6510 based PC."
        "A Commodore?" I blinked, "You're kidding."
        "Nope. Allied Forces has more processing power in his workstation back there than everything that flew on all Apollo missions combined."
        "Whoa. And they went to the moon with that."
        "Come to think of it. With everything on this ship we could probably have acted as the Johnson Space Center for a moon shot." He smiled.
        "It was enough that it worked when they did it." Listening to him helped take my mind off other things.
        "Of course at the time they were several generations ahead of what we had in Russia, one of the reasons we lost the race was lack of heavy number crunching machines." Falcon went on waxing poetic about various flight control computers on everything from Mercury to Soyuz to the Shuttle and then some.
        I woke up an hour later. Ice was sitting next to me talking to ground control.
        "Feeling better?" He asked when he noticed me stirring. I nodded. "The Bishop wants to talk to you if you're up to it."
        "Just give me a second." I said and flexed my back. My stomach was almost back to usual. I picked up the headset that was velcoed to the panel and put it on then hit the button. "Yessir."
        "Not like you to get car sick."
        "It's been a long ride already, mileage wise."
        "You've got a point there. How's the rest of the gang?"
        "OK I guess." I looked back down the access. "Yeah, they're fine. Xena and Allied Forces are working. Conga is riding the bike. Thunder's on the other com."
        "Sounds about usual. Now tell me the truth. Are Falcon and Ice keeping to the script?"
        "Falcon said they made an adjustment to the engine mixture. But everything is on spec so far."
        "Remind me to put you on the EEG polygraph when you get back."
        "Yessir." I grinned.

        We fell into something of a routine to pass the time.
        Once the engines were shut down from their extended burn, the monotony of the trip hit hard. We knew that was going to be an issue and had laid careful plans to break it up.
        Conga was in charge of keeping us physically trim and had developed a series of calisthenics with the NASA people that we could all do. Allied Forces enjoyed doing the routine for the first couple of days, then he even tired of them and would talk his way out of it once in awhile.
        And we had meetings. Mainly to kill time, like most meetings seem designed to do.
        Xena gave briefings on the various kinds of alien technology we might run into.
        I went through the mission plan a couple of times.
        Allied Forces and Ice talked, and debated, about the ships systems and how much oxygen usage went up during Conga's workout sessions.
        And we watched some DVD movies somebody had smuggled aboard on Allied Forces' workstation that just happened to have a DVD drive built into it that wasn't spec.
        I shrugged and said it was amazing how insecure the equipment orders on the agency's system had been.
        I had picked long movies and miniseries. I even burned a couple of discs myself until they wouldn't hold another minute of programming. We had sports (including one college's entire football season's games burned into one disc), TV shows, and even hours and hours of a live camera in a wildlife refuge I'd recorded.
        The wildlife camera view became the most popular. We put it on and left it on. Glancing at the screen showing deer walking past or just the clouds going by was comforting in a lot of ways.
        Hours passed. Days passed.

        Then we had an alert.
        "It's right in our path. And it is not a space rock." Ice was saying as I clambered up to the command deck, what we had taken to calling 'the bridge' in spite of Houston's objections.
        "Hang on. I can get. A look at it. With the. Forward camera." Allied Forces said over the com. He muttered to himself while he worked. "There. It is. Bishop. You getting. This."
        "Roger Nova, we see it. I think we can get an ID on it here shortly."
        "Looks Russian." Falcon said.
        "Close. Bocesphus thinks it's the Chinese probe."
        "They never launched." Falcon said.
        "It was an orbital, they used the maneuvering rocket to send it your way. We lost track of one of their satellites a couple of weeks before we launched, but we thought it had dropped out of orbit. Now we know what happened to it." Boscephus said from the com.
        "It's not much of a scientific probe. Couple of cameras and a look down radar." Xena said from behind Allied Forces.
        "Better than nothing." Falcon said looking at the monitor.
        "And it will tell them you're on your way as well."
        "They probably already know."
        "But they only know the original schedule. Not your improvisation." The Bishop said.
        "If we had been on schedule it would have gotten there before us. Then what?" I said.
        "Point taken. Do what you think is best." The Bishop paused. "You feeling better?"
        I nodded to Ice's raised eyebrow, "Yeah, I'm OK. This helps…. Having something interesting happen."
        "Very good. Houston out."

        We discussed possibly taking it out with our lasers. But then realized that if worse came to worse, we might have to snag it and use it to communicate with Earth. Through Beijing of course. But it would get a message home.
        Falcon altered our course somewhat. But there was no way to hide from it. And the word from Houston was that the intelligence reports on the Chinese satellite's cameras said it could read the menu at a fast food drive up on a clear day from orbit, so there was no hiding who and what we were from it out here.
        "So let's be stupid." Conga said. It sounded good so we went with it. Even though once the pictures and descriptions got back to Houston we'd probably all be in serious trouble.
        Allied Forces had it down to seconds when we'd pass the Chinese probe so we had to hurry, but we knew when to be ready.
        I assigned portals to everybody, and Ice worked on his 'unique idea' for the flyby.
        "Five. Minutes to. Overtake." Allied Forces announced. "Houston com. Incoming. Monitor only."
        "You going to make it?" I asked Ice while he readied whatever he was doing.
        "Just finishing up."
        Conga was in his space suit and maneuvering to go through the EVA airlock with Ice's banner. Thunder, believe it or not, was topless with makeup highlighting certain features and was positioning a work light to make sure the Chinese got a good look through her portal. Falcon, in the pilot's seat, would be visible through the front portal wearing a pig mask he had smuggled in his stuff. And so on.
        "There it is!" Falcon said. "Put Conga up."
        "He is. Opening. Outside. Door." Allied Forces said.
        "I can see it too." Conga said through the com. "Damn... what a view."
        "Just unfurl the banner." Ice told him. "And don't tangle it around a solar panel."
        "Already casting the weight."
        To unfurl the banner in space Conga had to hold one end, and then throw a weight on a string, in this case a spare can of food that nobody wanted, to pull the other end out and away.
        Falcon turned on our maneuvering lights and the probe, if it was paying attention, could read, 'SEND 5 ORDERS - KUNG PAO CHICKEN' written in Mandarin Chinese on the banner.
        "One. Minute to. Best View."
        "Places." I called in my role as mission commander. I saluted the probe. The others did their thing, whether that was holding a light on Thunder or watching Conga's lifeline, or mugging and waving at the portal. We all did something.
        Falcon flew and rotated the ship on its long axis so everybody had a portal and could be seen by the probe.
        Allied Forces used the flyby as practice for his scanning controls. He used everything we had on it from penetrating radar and laser reflection camera and everything else we had.
        I watched it drift out of view of my portal and turned to look at the others.
        "Bye bye." Conga said as we passed it. "I even blew it a kiss for Thunder."
        "Well thank you." She said. "If you want to see what they saw you'd better get back in here before I get dressed again."
        "Reeling in the banner. On my way. Don't be in no hurry, I don't think anybody is going to stop by for coffee."
        "I'm. Looking. For you."
        "And grinning too." Thunder said.
        "A mile wide." Xena added.
        I had worried that Conga wasn't going to want to come back in. But Thunder's gleaming chest was evidently enough to bring him in as soon as possible.
        We heard the banging in the airlock, then a hiss, and as it pressurized we could hear Conga swearing at his suit. Then I turned the handle and he burst in.
        "Well? Where is she?" He sputtered still fighting his helmet liner.
        "She went to take a shower." Ice said with a grin.
        For just split second he bought it. Then looking around he laughed. "I see her. Come back down here. Falcon don't need the distraction, he's driving."
        She floated gracefully down and posed for him.
        I do have to say, she is still absolutely stunningly gorgeous.
        We had tried to maintain decorum and professionalism on the flight. We had a privacy screen for 'personal functions' and anybody that needed some time by themselves could go back into the storage area between the airlock and Allied Forces' station. It was cramped and oddly shaped, but you could meditate or sleep without a bunch of other people almost within arm's reach.
        But by the third day out we had given up trying to maintain modesty. The only rules were, no obvious staring, and no heckling.
        As we got used to the lower power setting on the life support we took to wearing less and less as the air got more and more humid, and the atmosphere stayed just a touch warm for comfort. Conga had started it, of course, by shedding everything except his skivies because he was sweating constantly. The rest of us went from there.
        Allied Forces was the only one who was wearing anything like his flight suit. He said he was comfortable. Xena was down to what amounted to her underwear most of the time. Thunder wore a T shirt tied around her waist.
        The crew in Houston disapproved of the fact that they couldn't see every inch of the compartment. But we blamed it on some loose wiring and said we'd work on it.
        I hated tying myself to the wall to sleep, so I just hooked a bungee cord from my waistband to a D-ring so I wouldn't drift too far. Some of the others didn't even do that.
        The good part was once I woke up tangled up with Xena's legs and spent a nice minute or so watching her sleep and wondering how it could have been if personal circumstances had been different. The bad part was waking up with Conga floating inches from me.
        Oh, note for the record. Conga does not snore in zero G.

        About a day after our encounter with the probe we got a message from Houston.
        "The Chinese space authorities said they're fixing your dinners. But they asked who would pay the delivery charge." The Bishop said with some mild amusement in his voice.
        "We thought they'd appreciate the business." I said.
        At this distance there was so much lag between messages I almost forgot what we were talking about.
        "We got some interesting pictures too." He answered eventually. "Uploading."
        "Slow transfer. Rate." Allied Forces said when he confirmed the incoming data.
        "So these missions aren't a secret anymore?" I asked the ground station.
        A couple of minutes later I got back the answer. "Neither mission exists."
        The pictures were high resolution images of us from the probe. Including Thunder's breasts, Conga and the banner, and a few others.
        "They also wonder how the Americans taught pigs to fly spaceships." The Bishop added as we looked at the images and saw a pig waving while he flew our ship.
        Then in a minute the Bishop said he had another message for me.
        "Huntie make funny." Keia said.
        I got kidded by the rest of the crew for the next hour.

        "Three quarters of the way there." Falcon announced in another day or so.
        "What?" Conga said. "It's supposed to be nine days out."
        "We made some adjustments. We'll begin braking maneuvers tomorrow."
        I was grinning. Increasing our speed had been just the ticket. "Somebody made a command decision."
        "You mean. You got lucky. And hired. Good. Pilots." Allied Forces said.
        I couldn't argue with that. So I didn't. I also didn't mention to them that the Bishop had said that while we had been accelerating toward Shadow, Shadow had also been accelerating toward us.
        The wait was excruciating as we basically sat and killed time until the pilots turned the ship around and started firing the engines to slow us.
        "OK. Put everything away." Falcon ordered floating through the compartment grabbing the odds and ends that had accumulated everywhere but where they should be. "We're going to start the 180 and then do the burn."
        We had a lot of... I was told by Ice the technical term used by 'Steely Eyed Missile Men' was 'Crap', floating around, stuck to this or that, or even tied to fixed equipment by a ribbon of electrical tape.
        The danger of having stuff loose in the cabin during acceleration or deceleration had been literally beaten into us during the in flight weightless training. Anything that we had been playing with during the few seconds of weightlessness turned into very painful projectiles as the gravity returned to normal and even more.
        We swept through the compartment inspecting everything. Then we took our positions, sort of.
        There was no feeling other than the maneuvering thruster's vibrations as we turned end for end. We had been going forward, and now we were going backward, and I couldn't tell the difference. Looking out the portal there was no difference in anything I could see. By the stars, we hadn't changed attitude at all.
        There was a countdown and then everything changed. It was launch in reverse. There was a gentle nudge back into the seat. Then after a long couple of minutes it gradually increased until we had meaningful gravity. Which my stomach didn't find amusing at all.
        I had been living on starvation rations for the last week. It was the only way to keep myself from having either headaches and hunger pangs or nausea. And I couldn't watch Conga eat either.
        Him or Allied Forces.
        They would get their meal and spread it out around them, floating in the air. A handful of veggies would drift in a bunch up here, then lower would be whatever passed for meat for us. Then their drink bag would be lower. And they would swat stuff toward their mouths and act like a vacuum cleaner chasing wayward bits.
        We had pretty good food considering the freeze dried stuff that went to the moon. But still, by the end of the first week one of the things I was longing for was a fresh salad.
        Now as the pilots burned the engines to slow us, I found myself fighting that uneasy stomach all over again.
        "It'll be so easy you won't notice." Ice had promised.

        "!Oh Shit!!!"

        Those are two words you never want to hear your pilot say. Especially with a ton of emotion in them. I started to go up to the control deck and ask them what was happening. But then I was smashed into my seat as the engines roared to full power.
        "That's. IT!" Allied Forces said. "Shadow! It's. Early!"
        "I've got it visual." Ice answered. "Bring in the panels for landing."
        "Me too, engines to one hundred twenty percent. Hang On Everybody!"
        We put on our belts and watched as stuff 'fell' all over the cabin.
        Allied Forces, strapped in at his work station where he usually was, was thrown violently around against his seatbelt. Now he was half out, and half under, his chair. Yet he continued to work. "Confirm. Hundred. Seventy. Thousand. Kilometers." He called out. Then he calculated our relative speed and direction. "Panels in. And locked." He paused. "Shadow. Moving faster. Than. They said."
        Now all three of them were talking at once and it was almost impossible to follow what they were saying.
        Falcon was trying to turn us toward Shadow and bring us around for an attempt to land on it. Ice was regulating the engines and our pitch and roll. Allied Forces was relaying our speed and position and Shadow's own information as well.
        As long as they all understood what was going on, I didn't have to worry about it, too much.
        The rest of us watched out of the portals as the view of Shadow shifted from one to the other, then back.
        "There's a hatch there!" Xena said pointing. "Right below that seam."
        "I see it." Conga said.
        "On screen." Allied Forces answered. "Another one. There." He pointed at the screen.
        "Got it." Falcon announced. "I'll see if we can sit down next to one of them."
        "Thirty. K. PH. Relative."
        "Got it buddy. Slowing."
        Falcon started using the maneuvering thrusters to get us in position to land on Shadow at the area in the sunlit region. "We'll be close to your hatch. Best I can do."
        "Engines down twenty percent." Ice said to everybody. The noise and violent shaking subsided.
        "Gravity." Allied Forces said. "Confirmed." He looked at me and nodded. "One Fifth. Earth."
        "You're kidding." Xena said. "It can't have gravity."
        "It does."
        "I feel it in the controls." Falcon said. "She's wallowing. Ice."
        "I'm with you. Got it."
        "Gear extended and locked. Magnets on."
        "Eighty. Meters. To surface."
        I didn't know a spaceship could wallow. But I figured now was not the time to ask them about it.
        The confused cross talk escalated for another few seconds, then… nothing.
        There was some more shaking and then a feeling of slowly falling as the ship slowed relative to Shadow and then a slight bump as what passed for landing struts touched the surface. Then there was a massive jarring shudder as everything came to a standstill and they turned the engines off.
        "We're there." Falcon said.
        My stomach wouldn't let me make a comment so Conga made it for me. "Exit the ride to your left. Thank you and have a wonderful day."
        "Houston. Nova. Has Landed." Allied Forces radioed to the Bishop.
        "No external threats observed." Ice said actually looking out a portal at the surface.
        We could feel the gravity now. It wasn't much, but it was there.
        "It's true. We're showing about a quarter of Earth gravity. Don't move suddenly or you're fly off this thing." Falcon commented.
        "Sounds like fun."
        "No Conga." Xena said seriously. "You could easily reach escape velocity and we'd never find you in deep space."
        He looked at her with a pout, then nodded. "OK, I'll be good."
        We got unbuckled and started getting ready for our investigation of what was truly an Alien World.

        There was a lot of housekeeping traffic between Allied Forces and his ground team including Keia, before we could really do anything.
        Conga got his security stuff ready, Xena and Ice got the science gear together. Thunder coordinated camera feeds and data links with Allied Forces. Falcon had every system on the ship on standby for a quick getaway and was monitoring our progress toward Earth. The only one not doing anything serious was me. I sat on the com listening to the Bishop as he re-read our assignment and watched the others do their jobs.

        Then they were all looking at me.
        "Reports." I said automatically. I nodded to Allied Forces to start.
        "Earth com. Open and active. No sign. Of. Activity. Gravity steady. At point. Two. Three G. No Atmosphere." He paused to catch his breath. "No radio. Activity. No. Radiation." He grinned. "Sir."
        I looked up at Falcon leaning over from the bridge to see us. "All ship systems on standby. Confirmed nothing moving on the surface. Estimating the Chinese Probe is about a day and a half out."
        "Science team ready. All equipment working as advertised. We even have the fresh batteries with us."
        Ice nodded. "Data relay to the ship is online and working now."
        "Good." I looked over at Conga.
        "Ready to suit up. All weapons ready. Ass kicking mode on standby." He grinned.
        I smiled at Thunder. "Video live." She pointed the camera at me. "All team radios set to voice activation. Real time recorder working. Earth relay live."
        "Is that it?"
        "How about Command and Control?" Conga asked getting his suit on.
        "Ready as it ever is." I said patting my stomach now settling down on its own. I refused to take a pill in the middle of this crucial of a mission. I might be as sick as a dog later, but for right now, I'll get through it on adrenaline and nerve. "We have permission to do it from Earth. Away team. Suit up." I nodded to them.
        By agreement, I would not be actually going out until the second surface mission, if there was one.
        We helped them get their suits on and made sure everything was working. They had to get dressed in the order their EVA suits were packed in the storage locker and it seemed to take forever as the compartment filled up with people in their bulky outfits.
        But then they were all ready and exited through the air lock two at a time. Conga and Thunder went first to provide both security and video coverage of the others.
        "All life. Support. Good. Everybody." Allied Forces touched the controls that displayed them all at once on one of his monitors.
        I had my face pressed against the portal and watched as my crew. My friends. Went out.
        Some more gracefully than others.
        "I thought you would say something memorable like 'one small step' but we have now committed 'Damn that's a hell of a drop!' to history." I said to Conga.
        "Oh geeze. I forgot about that." He panted into the com.

        "We continue to come in peace for all human kind." Thunder said dramatically.
        "That's. Much better." Allied Forces commented.
        Xena put her sensing unit on the surface as soon as she was down. "Is it transmitting?" She asked over the com.
        "Yes. Ma'am" He answered. "Good data. Stream. Relaying. No lag."
        I looked over at him. Allied Forces had made remarkable progress.

        My memory went back to when I saw him in the hospital after he had been nearly killed by a man best described as human scum. He was on a ventilator, with minimal brain activity, and so many chemicals in his body they didn't know where to start to detoxify him. Now he was a key member of my crew in the middle of an actual space mission. His injuries had left him with halting speech and a pale skin tone, but he was able to concentrate on several fine details at a time and keep them all straight and right. He would never be able to type a hundred words a minute, but what he did enter would be nearly perfect, and he knew which button on his consol controlled what display or sensor without even thinking about it.
        Now he was monitoring the life support of every team member, watching our data transfer rate to Earth, and he had the Chinese probe's trajectory mapped out on another screen, and he was marking Shadow's progress toward Earth as well. He had one earphone on the open channel from Houston and the console's speakers on our com channel. And he was keeping a written real time log of what happened as we went.
        It was something just to sit back and watch.

        "Surface team down and secure." Conga said bringing me out of my… whatever it was. "Permission to check out the hatch?"
        "Allied Forces?"
        "All green. Here." He answered.
        "Go for it. Keep all channels open." I said without needing to, but because I felt like I had to say something command like.
        "Magnetic soles operating. We can walk OK." Ice said through the channel.
        "If this is what you call OK." Conga answered. "All right. Let's move. I'll take the point."

        As surface team commander Conga took his double role of babysitter and security very very seriously. He swore to me and the Bishop that he would bring back everybody from the surface mission, or he wouldn't come back at all.
        We knew that once the serious scientists on the team, Xena and Ice, were on Shadow they might not listen to reason when it was time to go if they found something really neat. Conga could and would physically drag them back to the ship if he had to to clear his people from the surface.
        He was also deadly serious about meeting any outside threat they might encounter.
        We had speculated that they were far more likely to encounter an automated defense system than any little green men with ray guns. But he was right in wanting to be ready for anything from giant attack robots to alien rodents shooting laser beams from their eyes.
        Which was why as they walked a couple of kilometers to the hatch Allied Forces was constantly scanning every which way with cameras and sensors. The eerie dark silver surface curved to the short horizon without break.
        I was watching Conga's helmet cam. It showed the same scenery.
        "No antennas, no obvious sensors, nothing." I said looking over Allied Force's shoulder.
        "I know." He nodded. "Odd."
        There was a mild vibration through the ship. I went on high alert instantly. "Was that us or Shadow."
        "There's nothing on board that would vibrate like that." Falcon said.
        "It came. From. Shadow." Allied Forces said.
        "They know we're here." Conga said. "The hatch opened as soon as we could see it."
        "Conga. Make sure it's secure before anybody goes near it."
        "Already am."
        I looked up at the monitor. He had the others laying flat on the ground. He had his Gattling gun in one hand and the baster in the other and was slowly inching his way up to the opening.
        "Nobody. Nothing. Just a black hole." He said through the com. "Turning on my light."
        "His view's. Best." Allied Forces nodded to the screen.
        We watched as the camera looked down into the hole. Instead of a hole down into the interior, it opened into what looked like a corridor. It ran off in two directions at an angle to each other from the opening.
        "You want to take a look?" I asked him. "Cleared for internal inspection. Just watch your time."
        "Conga to team. Who wants to check it out?"
        They all wanted to go down.
        "Stay together this time and use a com relay just to be safe." I advised. "Nobody gets separated. And make sure the door doesn't close behind you."
        "Roger. Thunder is planting a relay right now."
        "Turn around in. Fifteen Minutes. Mark." Allied Forces said.
        "That's not much time." Xena protested. "We can come back right?"
        "Next time we'll pack extra air." Conga said. "Let me go first."
        He unceremoniously stepped into the opening, floating down slowly as the light gravity worked on him. He landed on his feet and scanned both ways with his light and both weapons. "All clear. But there's nothing to see. Come on."
        They all floated into the opening. Conga stood ready to shove his big gun into the opening if it started to shut.
        It didn't.
        "Relay signal. Good." Allied Forces said.
        "Which way?" Conga asked them.
        Ice and Xena had been scanning both ways with their sensors. They said it looked like it didn't matter.
        Conga looked down one passage then the other. "This way goes further from the ship. Let's try it."
        "Lead on." Thunder said pointing the camera and its brilliant LED lights that way.
        We sat and watched the corridor progress at a slight angle down from the surface.
        They walked fairly quickly and made good time down. Then Conga came to a dead stop.
        Their corridor joined up with another one coming down at a similar angle. Then just off that intersection was a larger corridor that curved off into the black distance both ways.
        "This goes back to the surface." Xena said. "And that." She looked both ways in the larger corridor. "Who knows."
        "We're almost there on time." Thunder added.
        "Let's turn the mouse loose." Ice said. Unhooking a satchel hanging on his back.
        "You've. Been dying. To. Use that. Thing."
        "Do it." I said to confirm it was OK just in case anybody wondered about that.
        "I'm setting another relay. Check the signal." Thunder said. Even as she did it she kept the camera focused on Ice and his toy.
        "Good. Signal. I can see. From the. Mouse." Allied Forces switched one of his keyboards to control the remote vehicle. It backed away from the group and we had a mouse eye view of them in their suits.
        "OK. Let's head back." Conga said. "Scan everything as we go."
        "Yes sir."
        "I'm going to leave my scanner here running across the hall from the relay."
        "Good idea Xena, do it." I said with a very commanding nod.
        Thunder's camera watched her set the scanner to do everything it could do remotely until the battery went dead. Allied Forces had the mouse watch Thunder watch Xena. Conga was watching the mouse watch Thunder watch.... Nevermind.
        "Good signal. From both." Allied Forces said in a minute.
        "We're coming home." Conga said. "I'll bring up the rear."

        Their trip back was interrupted as Ice or Xena or even Thunder a couple of times wanted to stop and check out some detail they had passed on the way in. They made it back and were taking turns in the airlock just as a couple of the suits air indicators warned they were getting low.
        "Perfect away mission." I congratulated them as I was the resident expert on outside activity on an artificial world constructed by aliens.

        "A little dull though. We didn't find anything." Falcon said.
        "Oh heck no. It was Great!" Ice answered as he fought his way out of his suit. "Those corridors, those have to be machine tracks in the walls, and look at that intersection, it's made for high speed direction changes."
        "Oh?" Now I was interested. "Bring up the video." I said to Allied Forces.
        Soon the surface team was sitting or standing around the monitors and commenting and looking at their video and the live feed from the mouse as we had it zoom in on features we wanted to check out.
        Then the picture from the mouse changed as Falcon guided it down a slight slope.
        It was in a cavern.
        "That has to be about in the center of this world." Xena said.
        "That'd be my guess by how far it's traveled." Falcon said. "Even with the light up full intensity I can't see anything beyond the wall."
        "You're using. A lot of. Battery." Allied Forces warned him.
        "OK, heading back to the relay and shutting down for now."

        As the mouse was traveling back up the corridor to where they had left it, something went past it at breakneck speed.

        "WOW!" Allied Forces shouted.
        "I saw it. What Was IT?" Falcon exclaimed a heartbeat later.
        "It just went over my scanner." Xena said. "Just a blip."
        "Watch outside. See if anything comes out." I said to Conga. He was already putting his suit back on with a spare air pack. "Not alone."
        "You coming?" He said to me.
        "I'm trying. To slow the. Video. Down. So we can. See it." Allied Forces said with his voice quivering. "Damn. That thing. Was. Moving fast."
        With my heart pounding in my ears I got into my suit and checked my air three times.
        "You'll have to think about walking until you get used to the way the boots release." Ice coached me.
        I nodded as they buckled my helmet. Then Falcon handed me my baster with its refitted trigger to work with space gloves. I couldn't feel it in my hand, but it felt good none the less.
        I turned around slowly and was surprised to see Xena in her suit too. "Somebody has to be the science officer on this investigation." She said. I nodded.
        "OK." Conga said getting into the airlock.
        "Mind the store." I said to Falcon.
        "Don't get run over."
        "It's a large sphere. Two meters or so. I still can't see how it's moving." Ice said helping Allied Forces with the tape.
        "If you. Lay flat. It. Might go. Over you."
        "If we have time." I said. Then I was shuffling into the airlock.
        "Take this. It has a fresh battery." Thunder handed Xena her camera as she got in next to me.
        The chamber's pumps sucked out the air then Conga opened the outer door.
        "Watch your step." He said and stepped off the platform and glided slowly down.
        I found out the steps from the airlock to the surface were basically useless in 'moon boots' as Allied Forces called them, so I followed Conga's example and simply stepped off the platform. It was a long way down, and it took a few seconds to get there, but the landing was fairly soft.
        "Welcome to Shadow Hunter!" Conga said with his arms spread wide.
        I looked around inside my helmet at the featureless 'landscape'. "Nice place. Remind me to bring Keia and the kids here next year."
        He laughed as Xena landed beside us.
        "Ready?" Conga asked us. "Remember, I am away team commander." He said grinning through his visor at me.
        "Yes sir." I tried to salute but couldn't.
        We started off at a good pace. My walk was a little jerky until I got into the rhythm then I managed to keep up with the others without too much effort.
        Conga was basically running to get to the open hatch to go find the mysterious high speed ball. But when we got to the hatch, nothing was different.
        It was open, and below, it was pitch black outside the area lit by the sun. Conga hit his lights and we saw the familiar corridors below.
        "No ball." Xena observed.
        "That your official science officer opinion?" Conga asked with a smirk.
        "Yes sir."
        "OK then. Down we go." He answered.
        Once again he landed with his weapons ready. But there was nothing to shoot. "Clear." He said and started down the passage toward the mouse and the scanner.
        We reached them without incident. No balls, no nothing.
        "Let's go see the room." I said picking up the mouse and putting it in the satchel.
        Xena retrieved her scanner and checked its settings.
        "Relay showing good charge." Conga said looking at the unit. "Let's go."
        We walked down the passage a little more slowly. Ready to hit the deck at the first sign of the ball. But we all knew that at the speed that thing had been traveling, it'd be past us before we even knew it was coming. And most likely, we'd be on the floor wondering what happened.
        But we reached the room without incident.
        "Try your light Conga." I said as my own helmet beams vanished into the gloom.
        Conga had a massive searchlight grade unit hanging from his belt. He aimed it into where the center of the room should be and switched it on.
        Instead of a hollow room it showed us a huge and amazingly complex construction of what appeared to be dozens of workstations, giant equipment panels, plumbing work, and some things that defied categorization. All part of one seriously intricate structure than ran from below our level up until it vanished out of sight above.
        "Wow." Xena said. "That's another science officer's official opinion."
        "So noted for the record." I said.
        Then on the other side of the thing we saw movement. A ball came out of a similar opening to ours, zoomed across part of the space, and vanished into another passage.
        "Any idea what That does?" I indicated the assemblage of stuff. "Or what the ball is doing?"
        Xena shook her head. "No, but I'm getting all the pictures I can."
        Conga's watch beeped. "We've got about ten minutes before we have to head back."
        "Hunter. See if you can put the fresh power pack in the mouse." Ice said over the com.
        "Sure." I got it out and fumbled with it for a minute. Conga used one of his tools off his belt to help me get the old pack loose, then I slid the new one into place. It wasn’t as easy as it had been in practice, but we did it. The mouse powered up and all the little lights turned green.
        "Getting. Picture." Allied Forces said.
        "LOOK OUT!" Conga thundered.
        I had time to start ducking but the ball still just glanced off my helmet.
        "Damnit." Conga muttered. "Too slow in this rig."
        "I'm OK." I said.
        "It just missed me." Xena said.
        Then we heard a light hiss in the com.
        "It's not too bad." Conga said as we looked his way. The ball had caught the side of his backpack and the sleeve of his suit. There was a small abrasion where it had touched him. Air could be seen just seeping out of the rough spot.
        "Here." I said remembering something that might help. I fumbled in the mouse's satchel. Inside there were stickers to put on the used battery packs to indicate which needed charged. It took Xena and me both to get one unstuck from its backing, but then I pushed it as solidly as I could over the spot on Conga's suit. The hiss of air was cut down by about half.
        "Get him. Back here. We can. Patch. The suit."
        "You gonna make it?" I asked him.
        "If you quit making me waste air talking." He said. "Let's go."
        We hustled up the ramp, paranoid another ball would come at us from behind.
        Conga was making good time back to the ship, but we still had a ways to go when his alarm started going off.
        "I'll make it." He puffed.
        He actually jumped about three quarters of the way up the ladder and was inside the airlock in one more bound.
        Me and Xena had a time of it since we were carrying his stuff and ours as well. But we got there.

        "He had two. Minutes of air. Left." Allied Forces said as I got my helmet off.
        "Plenty of time." Conga laughed.
        I looked at Ice and Falcon. "That'll work?" I asked as they worked on the inside of his sleeve.
        "Like a charm."
        "How do you think they patch damaged suits from spacewalks on the ISS?" Ice said.
        "Duct tape." I nodded. "Don't leave Earth without it."
        "Now about this." Xena was bringing up the images of the massive, thing.
        "Those are. Work. Stations."
        "Yeah. But for who. Or what?" Falcon said looking up at them.
        "Not human. Or even humanoid." Xena said.
        "That's a chair?" Thunder pointed to something on the screen.
        "It's facing the wrong way." Conga looked at it. "I guess."
        "We can't think in human terms." Xena had her face screwed up. "It's to lean against instead of to sit on. And these displays must work to…" She clapped her hands. "I've got it. This workstation is for a being with more than two arms, my guess would be maybe three or four, and they don't sit down."
        "Giant bugs." I muttered. "Wonderful."
        "Hey. Look at. This." Allied Forces said.
        The monitor was showing the view from the mouse. The workstation area of the room was lit up. The lights were dim, but they were on.
        And in the background we could see a ball slip from a passage and go out of view.
        "Well. This is going to need another away mission. But we all need some rest first." I said. "It's been a long day."
        "There is no way I can sleep."
        "We have to charge the airpacks. It's going to take a couple of hours before anybody can go anywhere." Ice said.
        "Batteries. Low too." Allied Forces pointed to the rack of charging equipment.
        "OK." Xena said with a pout. "You win." She climbed up into her launch chair and reclined a little.
        Most of us did the same.

        I don't know who else actually slept. But I know I was out for about fifteen minutes. Long enough to make myself feel worse and end up with some drool on my shirt. I was aware of Allied Forces working away at his station the whole time, watching the mouse's monitor, analyzing data and relaying stuff to Earth, sipping from his ever present pouch of coffee.
        Then activity stirred me out of a half doze.
        "They can go now." Falcon said. "Everything's ready."
        "Your turn." I said to him with a nod.
        He actually giggled.
        This time it would be me and Allied Forces staying behind and monitoring and feeding information to Earth. Everybody else was going on the mission.
        They pressure tested Conga's suit, blowing it up like a balloon with the air line. The patch held at three times normal pressure.
        Xena had a dozen tests she wanted to run on the alien complex.
        "Just don't damage anything. I don't need any calls from giant alien bug lawyers."
        They all laughed and started heading out.
        It was a long half hour while they hiked to the opening then down to the junction.
        "I want to see where this one goes." Ice said pointing back up the other way.
        "Probably to another hatch in the surface." Xena said.
        "I'll go with him." Falcon volunteered.
        "Your call Conga." I said.
        Conga made the decision. "OK. Sure. We'll leave the fresh relay here. Go check it out but stay in contact. Then head right back."
        Thunder's camera showed them almost running up the passage. Then the others turned and went down to what we had taken to calling the 'control room'.
        I was left with the realization that the only two people that could fly this thing in a million miles or so were now separated from the group. Oh, well. It was done. I didn't relay my concerns to Conga.
        The lights were still on in their dim glow. But the team in the room and me and Allied Forces watching the monitors couldn't tell where the source of the light was.
        "Well at least we can see now." Thunder said.
        "Go that way and take pictures of everything." Xena said after replacing the battery on the mouse.
        "Look at. The walls." Allied Forces moved the mouse back to watch the whole group. Then he zoomed the camera in on the wall behind them.
        Instead of flat and bare the entire surface was marked with incredible detail. I recognized it immediately. "It’s a circuit board." The picture from Thunder's camera was better. "A big one, but that's what it is."
        "You're right Hunter." Xena confirmed. "What's it do?"
        I said the obvious. "It feeds those workstations."
        "So this whole thing, Shadow itself is one big computer? Cool." Conga said.
        "Hey!" Falcon said into the com. "Over here!"
        "Hi guys. It never went to the surface." Ice said.
        Thunder panned around with the camera. The two pilots were on the other side of the room waving.
        "Well at least they're back." I sighed.
        "Yeah, we walked and walked, it never crossed another passage and never went near the surface that we could tell. But the walls all looked like the ones you're talking about from about halfway until we got down here." Falcon said.
        "This is really really cool." Ice observed. "In the passage the circuitry started out simple, then got more complex as we went on. I got pictures."
        "Peripherals." I said.
        "Could be." Allied Forces added. "Look. At these." He had Ice's pictures up on the screen.
        He had taken a close up shot of where the smooth wall surface blended into the circuitry. There were terminal points where the various lines went into the wall, and others where it seemed something should be plugged into them. Lines bent and looped and routed around or over each other just like on any computer motherboard I had ever seen. Except this motherboard was on the scale of multiple kilometers in every direction.
        They studied the workstation, but as much as she wanted to Conga would not let Xena actually touch anything. She had to content herself with pictures and scans and readings of every stripe, but no touching until she found a couple of pieces of what appeared to be spare parts or scraps lying at the bottom of the assembly.
        Just as they were discussing coming back something else happened.
        The towering workstation came to life.
        Consoles lit up, indicators flashed. One display over the station the mouse was watching came to life showing a view of space, and in the distance, Earth.
        "oh wow." Several of them said at once. I whistled silently as it sunk in.
        Then there came over the com a burst of what seemed to be static and 'oh wow.'
        "OK, that's it. Back to the ship." Conga said unslinging his Gattling gun and aiming at everything at once.
        "This is really weird." Falcon observed.
        More static that wasn't static and Conga's order and Falcon's comment followed.
        "Maintain radio silence until you get back here. That's an order." I said.
        True to form the com repeated the comment with its preliminary round of static-type noise. Except even my untrained ear was now recognizing repetitions and potential phrases in the string of sputters and chirps as meaningful communication.
        They didn't need to be told twice. Everybody picked up everything except the mouse and hotfooted it back as fast as their magnetic moon boots would take them.

        Back in the control room the displays went dark and the lights dimmed.
        I didn't break radio silence to tell them the only thing in the room still on was our mouse.

        "OK. What was that all about?" Conga said coming out of the airlock.
        "It's been listening to us and just decided to talk back." Xena said.
        "The static. Wasn't. Static." Allied Forces said. "Look." He pointed to a monitor with all four transmissions laid out graphically. "Two identical. One close with. This. Signature. His. That." He jerked his head toward me for the last one.
        "The first one was a couple of us saying the same thing at the same time." Thunder remembered.
        "Then Falcon and Conga each said something that was replayed." Xena nodded.
        "The really different one came from the ship. It evidently noticed that." I pointed to the last one on the screen. "So what's it mean. Do we have any hope of translating it?"
        "Not on this mission's budget."
        "Can you relay something through the mouse?" I asked Ice and Allied Forces. They both nodded and Allied Forces pushed some buttons and typed on his keyboard for a second. "Let's try it this way. See if you can back track the signal." I picked up my headset. "Allied Forces come in." I said carefully.
        In a second the com broadcast a burst of static followed by my call for Allied Forces.
        He put the graphic on the screen. It duplicated the last intercept except for my voice message pattern. Then he typed for a second then hit a key. The mouse responded with a rather thin metallic "What's up doc?"
        The static responded accordingly.
        "I can't tell where it's coming from." Ice said from the communications panel. "This equipment isn't sophisticated enough."
        "It's directional." Falcon said. "That way we can home in on Earth."
        "Not directional enough for this."
        "It's almost. Like. Shadow is. The antenna."
        My memory brought up the cosmic ray burst they talked about in the meeting. "It is." I tried to recap the story from the meeting.
        "So it could be that instead of a probe or something Shadow is a communications relay station for somebody." Conga said.
        We looked at each other.
        Xena nodded. "I would say that is our best working theory right now."
        "But relaying what, and to whom?" I asked.
        Nobody tried to answer that.
        The Bishop and the others had been listening in and now as we worked the theory and offered opinions he began adding people to the slightly delayed live chat side of the conversation.
        Bocephus and Frontier agreed with our idea that Shadow was part of a larger system, but we had no way of knowing where the rest of the network was.
        "I bet. Shadow. Knows." He started bringing up images of the monitors from Thunder's walk around.
        I blinked. "The boy's a genius."
        "The information has to be there someplace. At least the locations of the nearby stations so it knows where to look for incoming signals.
        "I'm looking." Allied Forces said. "That?" He asked Xena in a minute and pointed to a monitor.
        "Could be. Can you enlarge it?"
        "It looks like a star map." Ice said as the picture they had taken of a workstation got bigger.
        "That'd be my guess." Falcon added peeking at it.
        "How would we confirm it?" I asked them.
        "See if there's some sort of signal coming from any of the highlighted locations." Ice said.
        "That'd be a job for NASA." I said. "Relay that image and the theory to the Bishop."
        "Already. Doing it."

        About an hour later Allied Forces had some bad news for us. "The Chinese probe. Will be. Here. In about. Twelve. Hours."
        I took a deep breath. "One more away mission, then we split."
        The others looked at each other. "OK."
        I glanced at Allied Forces. "You wanna go see it in person?"
        "I couldn't. Walk. That far."
        "I'll carry you. Come on. Suit up." Conga said.
        The others encouraged him. Xena even said that in the low gravity she would take a turn helping him along.
        "You cracked the mystery of the star map. You deserve to see it in person. I'll stay and run your station, I did help design it after all."
        "And I'll work the com while you're gone." Ice said.
        "Get dressed." Conga ordered.
        "OK." He consented.
        We all cheered.

        Allied Forces found that he was better off with the magnetic soles turned off. He didn't walk with enough force to throw him off the ground anyway. But he admitted he'd probably need help getting back. Everybody said that was OK, they'd all help him if he needed it.
        He was able to jump down through the hatch and laughed the whole way down.
        They found the mouse sitting where it had stopped when its battery died. Once it was given a fresh cell I was able to maneuver it down ahead of them with the lights on so show them the way.
        As soon as the team got to the control room the lights and monitors came on again.
        "Wow." Allied Forces said.
        Shadow dutifully repeated it with its burst of static-like commentary.
        The team had discussed how to do their investigation with minimal verbal communication. Thunder even had a small white board with a wax pencil so any changes could be written out.
        Allied Forces wanted to be part of it, and he was.
        They scanned everything within reach and improvised other things. At one point Allied Forces was standing on Conga's shoulders holding a sensing unit above his head to take readings on stations three tiers up. Then he repeated the operation with a camera.
        They watched a couple of the 'patrol balls' go by. Confirming that there were more than one when two made a simultaneous appearance and then another one went by a second later.

        Then all of the sudden the ship's com was full of the static stuff.
        The video and data feeds were OK, but it was obvious the away team was hearing it too. Conga made visual contact with everybody and went to a high defensive posture with his gun at the ready.
        Then the static stopped.
        "Ahh, Hunter. Can you see this?" Conga asked over the clear com. There was no static repeat.
        "Wait a minute. What am I supposed to see?"
        Thunder's camera view showed a screen, then I realized what was on the screen.
        Not knowing what else to do I smiled and waved. In just a second I smiled and waved back.
        "Well that's different."
        Then there was a burst of the static, without the repeat of my statement.
        In a second it happened again.
        "I think it's trying to communicate with us." Xena said.
        "That would be my guess." Ice said looking at one of the other monitors with row after row of incomprehensible data scrolling by. "Top to bottom, right to left." He observed.
        "How Oriental of them." Falcon said with a laugh.
        "Speaking of which. If we're going to make contact, we need to be doing it before our friend shows up." I said.
        "Contact has been made." Xena said. "Now we have to communicate."
        "That might be a problem. I don't speak Static." I said. "Anybody know Morse Code?"
        Falcon started tapping on the wall in code.
        Nothing happened.
        He gave up tapping and they decided to continue their investigation.

        Suddenly my image on the monitor was replaced with what had to be a computer generated image of the one of the builders of the station.
        There was a burst of the static.
        "Yes." I said without having any idea what I was saying yes to.
        There was another burst of static.
        Then silence.
        "Your application to add your transmission site to this network is under consideration. We will notify you when the transition is complete."
        The picture of the bug being vanished and was replaced by another stream of data.
        I felt my eyes get wide. It had addressed me in English.
        "You're going to do what?" Conga said through the com.
        "I guess I just signed us up for alien broadband."
        "Who's going. To pay. That bill?"
        "We'll take it out of your pay." I said back.
        "I think it's time to be going." Falcon said.
        "Amen." Thunder added.
        "Yeah. We've done enough damage here." Conga chuckled.
        "I second that. Finish up, collect your toys and let's get out of here." I said as almost an order.

        They had to help boost Allied Forces up out of the hole. But he walked most of the way back unassisted.
        Adrenaline will do that for you.

        The Bishop and the rest of the ground team were all over the Com.
        Half of them thought I had just invited giant alien bugs to come invade the planet with bottles of barbeque sauce in their claws. The other half were wondering how the aliens would like our version of their communications network being bogged down with pictures of half undressed female Russian tennis players and phone calls about somebody's sister's social doings.
        "Then they'll drop us off their net." I said with a shrug.
        "Or shut down our net."
        "I think it was just talking about the ship. There was no indication of anything else." Ice said.
        "But the picture on that one monitor was of Earth." Conga said.
        "And what about when the Chinese probe gets here. It might want to add that too."
        Falcon just had to mention that.
        We looked at each other.
        I made a Mission Commander decision. "Let Shadow decide."
        The time lapse before the Bishop's comment came back to me was agonizing. "Agreed. The probe cannot get inside the structure to activate it. And if Shadow adds all of Earth to its network it will pick up the Chinese anyway."
        "It's. Six hours. Out. Present speed."
        "We won't have long to wait." I sighed. "Get everything ready. Falcon, start your countdown."

        We struggled to get the suits back in their lockers. Then some of the other stuff didn't seem to actually go anywhere. So we made things up as we went.
        All too soon we were strapping in for the liftoff.
        "It won't be very dramatic. There's not much of a gravity well holding us down here. Should just take a little kick to do it." Ice said.
        "Just don't run over the Chinese probe on the way out of the parking lot." I said.
        "No problem." Falcon said.
        The checklist went off without a hitch.
        "Here we go again." I said as I heard the fuel pumps come up to power.
        "Ignition." Falcon shouted as a low roar built through the ship.
        "We're moving." Ice said almost immediately.
        "No gravity. Shadow. Shut it. Off!" Allied Forces shouted.
        "Throttling back engines." Falcon answered.
        "Hey Hunter. When you talk to the bugs again. Thank them for us." Ice said.
        "Fascinating." Xena said.
        "NOW! You sound like a Science Officer." I laughed.
        Falcon and Ice flew us once around Shadow and Allied Forces took picture after picture of it from every vantage point he could from his console. I watched as near-infrared picture followed an X-ray portrait to be replaced by something done in radar returns. I don't think he missed any way there was to gather data on it.

        We passed the probe about two hours away from Shadow. Once again Conga was on top waving and we all saluted from the portals.
        This time the probe wiggled its solar panels at us.

        We had a lot of stuff to go through. There were even some samples of Shadow itself resting in their plastic bags. Xena was dying to take them out and play with them. But then she had to admit we didn't have the proper facilities to even begin to test them.
        The Bishop wanted my initial evaluation of Shadow's 'threat potential'. I had to think about it but I told him I didn't see any threat from it unless it intended to ram our planet. It could possibly be used to jam our communications, but unless it did, we'd probably be better off just letting it be. He agreed based on our observations and said he'd pass the message on.
        My duty as mission commander was pretty much over when he thanked me for the information.
        Before long we settled into our in flight routine.

        "OK. Was the mission a success?" Conga asked me out of the blue.
        I shrugged and looked up from the book I was reading for the second time. "I guess. Why?"
        "Let's celebrate!" He nodded to Allied Forces.
        Suddenly music blared from the speakers and Conga bounced to the lockers and rooted around, throwing stuff here and there trying to find whatever he had stashed.
        "Hunter. Catch!" He said in a minute and tossed a box my way.
        I could tell by the label he had violated policy by smuggling liquor aboard.
        "I knew they'd have a cow if I brought glass bottles. You know how hard it is to find good wine in plastic?" He came out with paper cups.
        "I'm no scientist, but I see a problem with your plan here." I looked at the cups.
        "Oh damn. That's right." His face fell as he floated in a slow spiral.
        "No problem." I pulled the tab on the container and held it out to Xena to take the first drink. "We're all friends now." She took it with puzzled eyes. "You were right. First contact. First drink."
        She smiled and held the nozzle up to her mouth and kind of sucked out a long swig of the wine. "Oh… that's lousy."
        "Next trip. You buy." Conga said and took the box and a long drink. He handed it to me.
        It was very cheap.
        "Just don't light that thing." Ice said to somebody.
        I looked around. Conga had a huge cigar in his teeth.
        "No problem. I'll save that for on the ISS."
        "That'll be a hit."
        Allied Forces put some of the wine in empty drink bags and passed it out by, well, passing it. He tossed me one and it leaked a little so I got to play vacuum cleaner and chase globs of wine around.
        We found out they were having a small party on the ground as well.

        During the mission Keia had broken protocol by getting on the capsule communication link and saying hi to me, or even to the others, once in awhile. I appreciated it, but the one thing it did do was remind me exactly how far from home I was, and how much I missed her.
        For the entire mission the official ground communication voice had been either the Bishop or somebody else working under the code name 'Houston'. Very original that, but that's what they used.
        Now as we reviewed data and enhanced pictures, the science side of the crew were talking to several others. Which made me and Conga jealous. Even Thunder, as the resident photography expert, was in on the action. And Allied Forces was absolutely essential since he could all but perform miracles on his work station.
        Falcon spent most of his time babysitting the autopilot as they lied to it again and burned the engines harder and longer to get us home sooner as Ice was in on the science investigation for his knowledge of spacecraft construction.

        I have to admit I found parts of their discussion interesting, but most of what they were talking about past the possible configuration of the workstations was way over my head. That was what I wanted to look into, but they were all into trying to decipher the language and locate other Shadow's on the star maps and speculating about the biology of the aliens.
        So I took my book and retreated to the far side of the ship and read tied to a rack with a bungee cord.
        Conga. Drank more wine and slept a lot of the time.
        I asked him how many boxes he had brought. There was one empty floating around in the airlock, and he was sharing a new one, and didn't seem worried about running out.
        "Engines off." Falcon said. "Need to save enough gas to maneuver once we're in orbit."
        "Tacking. ISS." Allied Forces said. "Plotting. Rendezvous."
        "That's NASA's job."
        "I trust our boy's numbers more than theirs since they estimated Shadow's speed wrong." Falcon said. "Go ahead Allied Forces. Plot away."
        I could see Allied Force's face. He was beaming with pride.

        We watched the Moon go by then Home got slowly bigger in the window.
        And the Secrecy started.
        We were each put on the com and got a preliminary de-briefing.
        I had to order everybody to have minimal contact with the crew of both the Space Station and the Shuttle that was flying a mission with an 'undisclosed military objective'.
        The Shuttle would land and we'd be whisked away for decontamination and supposedly, more debriefing.
        Conga half suspected that once the Powers got all the information out of us they could they'd move our autopsies up a couple of decades to ensure we didn't talk to anybody.
        "The government wouldn't kill us for going on this mission for them." Xena said. Then she blinked. "What am I saying? Of course they would." She sighed. "Boy I wish I'd thought of that before."
        "Why, would you have backed out?" Falcon asked her.
        "No. But I would have changed my will."

        "Now Hunter." The Bishop said quietly into my headphones. "I will personally guarantee the safety of you and your entire crew. Yes you will be quarantined, and yes there will be extensive debriefings and reviews, but you will not be terminated or held in the stockade until you are old and gray."
        I was flabbergasted. We had made sure the cabin mics were off while we were debating that. "You've been eavesdropping on the entire mission." I said flatly.
        "Well. Yes. And to correct your log, Conga does snore in space, not as loudly, but he does."
        "OK. I'll accept that. Both, his snoring and your listening. But who is going to guarantee your peace and well being? You are fully aware of everything we've done. They may lock us all up together."
        "Excellent point." The Bishop said. "But I have the personal word of somebody higher up that nothing will be done like that. You will be sworn to secrecy under penalty of treason, and given your freedom."
        "How did you get the President to agree to that?"
        "Not the President." He said.
        "I know, if you told me, you'd have to kill me."
        "No. If I told you. They'd kill us both."

        The rendezvous with the ISS was rather uneventful considering where we'd been and what we'd done. We simply glided up to the thing and docked.
        Then we started moving all our 'crap' over to the area where it could be loaded onto the Shuttle when it arrived the next day. Then we helped the ISS crew start working on the compartment to turn it into a major project lab for the station in spite of our 'minimal contact' order. They asked for some help moving stuff, so we helped take stuff out of the capsule.
        We all stood side by side and watched them detach the service module and send it plunging into the atmosphere over the central pacific.
        "Farewell. Thanks for the ride." Falcon saluted with a tear in his eye as it drifted away.

        The Shuttle arrived right on time. It was a spectacular sight watching it come up 'under' us and dock with the cargo doors open.
        "Well Damn." I heard Conga say from the port. "Look who's here."
        I couldn't imagine who it was. I had just talked to Keia in Houston about our plans for after I was released from Decon. Then a slow chill ran through me. I hadn't talk to the Bishop for a couple of days. "They wouldn't."
        "They did." He said floating through the airlock slightly green around the cheeks.
        "When did you train? How did they clear you?" Falcon asked him.
        "How much training do you need to scream loudly then throw up?" He said looking like he was going to do it again.
        "This isn't a casual visit though." I said looking at his eyes.
        "No." He said with That look. No, that Other That Look.
        "Look at something that isn't moving and take a couple of slow deep breaths." I coached.
        "I'll try it." He said and focused on a panel on the wall.
        We all looked at him with varying degrees of concern.
        "It helped. Thanks." Then he blinked. "OK. We don't have much time." He asked the Shuttle and Station crews to excuse us then we all went into the NOVA section.
        We floated there while the Bishop took a few more deep breaths and one of the Shuttle astronauts closed the hatch behind us. As it locked I got a really bad feeling about it.
        "Hobson's choice." I said.
        "Damn you're good." The Bishop said looking at me.
        Conga looked confused. Falcon shook his head. Allied Forces blinked a few times.
        Xena's eyes got wide as the phrase registered. "No."
        "I'm afraid so." The Bishop pulled a small radio from his flight suit's pocket. "I am to have you each swear by your life, and the lives of the rest of us, that you were only on an experimental flight to the Station and spent the last couple of weeks simply floating around up here running simulations."
        "And if not?" Conga said.
        "They jettison this capsule and we all take the fast way down."
        "And if I decide to go on TV and talk about the real mission when we get down?" Falcon said.
        "Don't take a taxi home from the studio." He said with no emotion in his voice.
        We were all silent for a long minute.
        "So we swear now, or die. And if we break our oath. We die."
        "Exactly." He looked at us. "But you can talk about your simulations up here all you want. The First Contact drills and even some artificial gravity work." He almost grinned.
        "So it. Didn't. Happen. But it. Did."
        "Or we burn up in the atmosphere." Conga sighed.
        Ice laughed and tried to sound like a Mafioso. "He's making us an offer we can't refuse."
        "Well?" I looked at my crew.
        "It has to be unanimous."
        I made eye contact with each one. Then looked at the Bishop. "It is. We all swear to your conditions."
        He looked at them in turn and they all nodded and said or mumbled something to that effect.
        "I thought so." The Bishop finally said. Then he did something to his radio and tossed the unit to me with the back cover open.
        I caught it and looked at it. "There's no batteries!"
        He just smiled. And now he didn't seem so green around the edges either. "Hit the door three times Conga. That's the signal that you agreed to my terms."

        There was part of me that half expected to be jettisoned into space anyway, and a smaller part of me that was disappointed when it didn't happen as the ISS crew opened the hatch.
        There was bad weather over Florida so we got stuck in space one more day.
        Conga decided that was reason enough to break out the last of his stash and for us all to have a party.
        The last of the wine was squeezed into drinking bags, Allied Forces tuned in some music off a nearby broadcast satellite, we broke out the rest of the food for our trip and we had ourselves an orbiting party for several hours in the NOVA module, it had a much better sound system than the rest of the station.
        The Bishop passed on everything except a few sips of wine.

        We said a hearty goodbye to the crew of the Station. One of them was leaving with us and one from the Shuttle was staying. And then we all boarded the Shuttle for the trip home.
        "You’re a passenger now. Relax." I said to Falcon.
        "I hate it when somebody else drives." He said and gritted his teeth as the engines fired to slow us and we began our descent.
        "At what point should I scream and puke again?" The Bishop asked me.
        I felt the effects of the change in our condition start to talk to my stomach again. "You're in line behind me." I said with a definite queasy edge to my voice.
        "Except he doesn't scream." Conga said with a grin.
        Then the shuttle shimmied a little as we entered the atmosphere.
        All things considered, it was a very smooth ride down.
        "That's it? I've been through worse landings on the agency jet." The Bishop said after taking a couple of real slow deep breaths.
        "Hey." Falcon said realizing that had been aimed at him.
        "Really. I'll have to speak to Centre about sending somebody to a refresher course."
        "See if I ever fly you out to…" He was going to say something then thought better of it. "To the ISS again." He grinned.
        "That's right." The Bishop said. "I know there will be slips and speculations. But if you just play it straight, everything will be fine."
        While they joked and picked on Falcon's piloting skills, I tried not to act like I was space sick and trying to throw up everything I had ever eaten all at once.

        It took two days before my stomach allowed me to be debriefed for more than an hour or so without interruptions.
        The decontamination was almost a joke. But it was a good excuse for them to watch and listen to us. We were separated and questioned. Then questioned in small groups. Then all together. Then individually again. They wanted to know what we saw, what we felt, what we thought. They went through our tapes and data and conversations and asked stupid questions about jokes and side comments that were simply jokes and side comments.
        Then later we'd have to go give blood to compare with the blood we gave as soon as we landed which had been compared with the blood we had given before we left. The conclusion, we all had the same blood we'd always had, just less of it after all the testing. After my second chest X-ray I started to squawk about refusing any more tests.
        Finally the medical types were done with us and we were all back in the residential area together.
        We sat around in front of a TV that was running some lame movie we had all either seen or didn’t want to watch and looked at each other.
        We all knew 'They' were listening to us, and most likely watching us, nearly every minute of every day. Allied Forces had taken to bathing with one finger raised at various unseen cameras just in case.
        "Well. Now what?" Allied Forces said. They had finally managed to get his chair to him from Mexico where it had sat forgotten in the hanger until well after we were back.
        I shrugged. "I'm not mission commander any more."
        "Yes you are. And before long you'll be Bishop 43 again." Thunder said.
        I thought about it. That was what Bishop 42 had said. "Yeah. I guess so. But right now I'm still Hunter and I don't know nothing from nothing."
        "So what's your best guess?" Falcon asked me.
        I sat back and ran it through my head. "That we sit here for another week, then they break us up and send us home after some sort of out-processing."
        "With suitable veiled threats." Conga said.
        "That goes without saying."
        "So you guys go back to your secret agency and do mysterious things the world will never know about. And Ice goes back to NASA and does heavy research on spaceships." Xena said looking at me. "What about me?"
        I thought about it. "Wanna job with a secret agency?" I asked her.
        "Where you'll do mysterious things." Falcon laughed.
        "That the world will never know about?" Thunder finished.
        "Xena already. Has. Code name."
        We looked at Conga. He hadn't chimed in. "What?" Then he realized what was up. "She's already sworn to silence. Why not?" He smiled at her.
        She looked at him and laughed for a second. "Another one of your Hobson's choices." She said to me.
        I shrugged. "It would save the NSA the trouble of having you tailed day and night."
        She shook her head. "But I can't be a secret agent all the time. You said it was a part time job."
        Thunder grinned. "How are you at posing in your underwear?"
        "Excellent!" Conga volunteered. "She's a natural."
        "But I'm a Cosmologist and a Xeno-technologist, not an underwear model."
        "Everybody has to have a hobby." Thunder said. "Most of the time I'm a consulting management analyst. I used the modeling to pay for my MBA."
        Xena looked at me with disbelief in her eyes.
        "It's true. She's the best looking investigative accountant you'll ever meet."
        Falcon had been thinking about it. "Hunter. Doesn't that outfit you used to work for do stuff with speculative systems and platforms?"
        "Sure!" Allied Forces said. "I still. Work. With them. She. Can too!"
        "And I just bet you can get me a gig there."
        I laughed. "The manager and I go way back."
        "Mention the two women with all the guns in your interview and see what he says about it." Thunder laughed.
        Xena shook her head. "OK. I'll try it." She chuckled. "And I bet you know someplace where I can live too."
        "Second Grace's convent." Conga laughed.
        "Oh hell no!" Thunder said sharply.
        Everybody laughed and laughed. We talked about it for a long time. Then decided it was time to turn in.

        A week later we were packing to go home.
        Keia was thrilled we were going to have a houseguest until she could find a place.
        "Not just a place. A condo." Xena said. "With a view."
        My former boss at the technology firm took my word for it, well, and Allied Force's as well, that Xena was worth a least an interview and an evaluation on 'exotic systems and interfaces.'
        She was also more than thrilled when Bishop 42 told her he had her a consulting position with the Hubble team from the Maryland Science Center.
        Xena would be working at the Computer Center three days a week (sometimes side by side with Allied Forces which made him all kinds of happy), spending another day or so with Thunder on shoots, taking classes a couple of nights a week to finish her PhD, and working as needed with the astronomy group.
        "You've got my whole life planned out for me."
        "The least I can do for somebody that slept with her feet in my face for a couple of weeks." I said with a grin.
        She laughed and said it was a 'simulation'.
        Which was the way we talked about our mission.

        "It seems. Like. Long time. Ago."
        I nodded to him and looked at Keia. "Like it never happened. Really. I mean." I looked out of the van window at the sky. "Did it happen?"
        Xena nodded and played with our daughter in her car seat. "I think so. I feel like I've had a lifetime of experiences in a couple of months."
        "We. Did."
        I smiled at Keia as she watched our baby and Xena get acquainted. "It happen Huntie. It really happen."
        Somewhere, up there, Shadow, was waiting for us. For Me. To log onto the network.
        And I knew I would. Eventually.


      [NOTE: The NOVA rocket, while proposed for the lunar program, was never built, officially. The Desk is not affiliated with NASA, the NSA, ESA, AFL-CIO, or anybody else for that matter. No defamation or infringement is intended. No Chinese Spacecraft were destroyed in the writing of this story. See information for theHunter series on the Media Desk main site. Copyright and all other rights including right of approval for further publication held by the author. Thank You.]

End Special Edition- 52

End Series- TheHunter

the INDEX of theHunter