Chapter Nine

The Vigilant was ordered to the Antares space dock. The captain and Kelly were escorted again to Admiral Craddock’s space dock office. Admiral Craddock was behind his desk waiting for them when they were brought in.

“Ed, Kelly, come on in and have a seat. I was just reviewing the New Alexandrian Defense Forces’ report on your action there. The Vigilant acquitted herself quite well. Ed, I’m putting you in for the Space Medal for that action. I have your recommendations for awards for the crew. My staff will be reviewing those, but I don’t see any problem with any of your recommendations.”

“Now, tell me about this data device you found.”

LCDR Timmons pulled the data device, sealed in a plastic pouch, out of his pocket and set it on the admiral’s desk.

“That is an exact copy of the data we found on the K’Rang body on our last patrol. It was obviously what the K’Rang landing party was trying to get. Only our untimely appearance and destruction of their transport and escort caused them to try and depart before they accomplished their mission. I think our techies need to review that data again. If the K’Rang are willing to sacrifice a battalion of warriors and two ships, it must be worth more to them than our analysts have surmised. I recommend, sir, that we let the Blakes look at this data and see what their assessment is.”

“That’s a good recommendation, Ed. I think that’s just what I’ll do. Andrew and Moira may be able to make sense of this.”

“I also appreciate your recommendation for the increased electron flow in the sub-FTL engine exhaust. I’m glad you guys figured that out. That could have been disastrous if we met the K’Rang in battle and they released a number of those into our fleet. I’ll get the yard boys to come up with a fix for that based on your Chief’s recommendation.”

“You can return to your ship and move down to the Base spaceport. We’re going to need the space here shortly. Bolivar and her battle group will be here within the hour.”

Kelly perked up and said, “Admiral, would it be all right to stick around for an hour or so? I’d like to see the Bolivar come into orbit.”

The admiral looked up with a smile on his face. “Yes, I think it would be all right to hang out in orbit for an hour or so. Just move off to make room for them, Ed.”

LCDR Timmons smiled, “Okay, Exec, we can wait a bit for you to see your old ship.”

Kelly and the captain saluted and took their leave. They made their way back to the Vigilant. On their way, they passed a Fighter Force Major General and his aide. The aide was having trouble keeping up with the general and controlling a wayward baggage cart. Several bags were dropped and retrieved as they made their way down the hall. Kelly thought to himself that the general must be Bugarov’s replacement. It brought a smile to his face. As they passed around a corner he heard the general admonishing his aide, “There’s docking arm 17, Jim. We’re going to be late if you don’t get a move on.”

Timmons and Kelly boarded the Vigilant. The captain ordered it to depart the dock and move off 50 km to make room for the battle group.

In less than 45 minutes, the frigates Tenacious and Transcendent came into view, dwarfed by the Bolivar immediately behind them. Two flights of F-53 fighters flew to port and starboard of the Bolivar. One flight flew directly ahead of the Bolivar. She moved majestically in the velvety darkness, navigation and marker lights blazing. The destroyers and cruisers, with their gun turrets fore and aft, trailed the Bolivar. Support ships followed behind. The battle group arrayed itself around the space dock, lining up on the external docking arms. Within minutes all the ships had locked and sealed to the space dock. Most ships the size of those in the battle group would fit inside the space dock only one at a time. The Bolivar wouldn’t fit at all. It would require a Fleet space dock on one of the major worlds for overhaul and refit.

Kelly felt nostalgic about the Bolivar, but realized he was happy right where he was.

Timmons came up beside him as he stared out the view screen at the battle group, “Do you wish you were still on her?”

“No, sir, I’m happy here, but she does look impressive, doesn’t she?”

“That she does. It is time to head down to the Spaceport. Didn’t you say your former flight lead was going to be stationed on Antares Base for a while?”

“Yes, sir, Angie Shappelle, she said she’d be around for a while. I think her squadron will be taking part in my folks’ experiments.”

“You’ll have to introduce me to her when she gets in.”

The captain turned back to the bridge crew. “Helm, take us down to the base spaceport, standard approach.”

The helmsman engaged the engines and the Vigilant descended to the surface, where she was directed into the same dry dock she had left a few weeks earlier. A message came through telling the captain that the yard would be replacing the electron guns in the engines with larger ones to reduce the ion discharge. It seemed their idea had borne fruit.

Life in the dry dock, while the engines were being upgraded, settled into a routine. The chiefs ran their sections at fifty percent manning, allowing time off for their personnel. Kelly finally got word that his old squadron would be landing at the spaceport. He got time off to watch them come in.

Kelly walked over to where the squadron would be parked once they came in. He watched as twelve F-53 fighters passed over the field at altitude before peeling off and landing two by two. Kelly stood just off the apron as the dozen sleek fighters were guided into their parking spaces. The fighters shut down, canopies opened and the pilots climbed out. It was 1LT Kanakis that first recognized Kelly standing by the fence.

He pointed and yelled, “Hey everyone, it’s Kelly!”

Several heads turned in his direction and a crowd of pilots ran over to him. Angie was first, giving him a big hug. He was slapped on the back and had his hand shaken by five of the pilots before CPT Willis, his old flight leader, noticed the twin silver bars on the collar of his coveralls.

“What the hell is this? Who did you steal this uniform from?”

Kelly quickly explained his frocking as exec of the Vigilant. Several lieutenants quickly saluted him and followed it with a rude noise. Kelly laughed along with his former squadron mates. He stopped laughing when they told him he was buying the first two rounds at the club that night. LTC Matthews, his first Squadron Commander, came over to him. The others walked back to their fighters.

“Wow! Lieutenant Blake. I heard that Fleet made rank faster, but I thought it was just a myth. How have you been, Kelly?”

“I’ve been just fine, sir. How have you been?”

“You know how it is in the squadron with this bunch. There’s never a dull moment. Things did get a lot better though when your favorite General was ordered to retire. The new General is supposed to be a breath of fresh air. You’ll be happy to know that the Wall of Fire tactic has been officially retired.”

“Great to hear that, sir. I believe I saw your new general up on the station today. I’ve been informed that I’m buying the first two rounds at the club tonight. I’d be glad to buy a drink or two for you, sir.”

“I might be a little late, but I’ll take you up on that. After more than six months on cruise, I’m ready for a few drinks.”

Kelly saluted as LTC Matthews walked away to take care of a matter brought to his attention. Angie came over to him.

“Hey, Wing, I haven’t had a drink in six months. How’s about buying a girl a drink? We can celebrate your jump in rank at the same time.”

“Sounds good to me. I need to change out of my coveralls. They’re not really appreciated out of the spaceport after noon. Come on. I’ll show you my ship.”

Angie and Kelly walked to the Vigilant after she saw to it that her gear would wind up at the BOQ. It was a good distance to his ship and they caught up on what all had happened since last they saw each other. Angie told him of the minimal ceremony held for General Bugarov’s retirement and the expected blowout now that she was gone. Kelly told her of his two patrols and his actions against the K’Rang. He told her of his parents’ invention and what their part in it might be. They arrived at the Vigilant.

“Wow! I’ve seen these out in space, but it looks so much bigger sitting here on the ground. How big is the crew?”

Kelly told her about the crew and how they were organized. Then he brought her onboard the Vigilant.

Angie impressed the crew. At 5’6”, fit, wearing a partially zipped open flight suit, tight turtleneck shirt, and fighter boots, she was impressive. He brought her up the ramp into the crews’ quarters area, past sensor crewmen with gaping mouths, past the galley, chiefs’ country and up to the officers’ quarters, where the captain was standing, looking over the bridge.

“Captain, you wanted to meet 1LT Shappelle, well, here she is. Angie, this is my boss, LCDR Edgar Timmons. Captain, this is my former lead pilot, 1LT Angie Shappelle.”

LCDR Timmons had a smile from ear to ear. “I’m glad to meet you, Angie. Kelly has told me a lot about you. I have to say that his description of you doesn’t do you justice.”

“Why, thank you, sir. I must say that I’m quite impressed with your ship. I wouldn’t trade my F-53 for it, but I like it.”

“Sir, I didn’t give Angie the full tour. I’ve been informed that I am responsible for some rounds of drinks and I need to change into something more fitting for the club. You’re invited to come and partake, if you wish. Could you give Angie the grand tour while I change?”

“I’d be happy to, on both counts. Come on Angie, let me show you my ship.”

When Kelly came back out, the captain and Angie were waiting for him on the bridge.

“Kelly, let me see your quarters. I want to see how Fleet lives.”

Kelly opened the door to his stateroom and Angie walked in. He left the door open as he followed her.

“This is nice. What’s in here? Oh, you have your own head with shower. Can I move in here with you? This is much nicer than I would have expected on a ship of this size. Are there just you two officers?”

“Just the captain and I and six very good chiefs.”

“That’s amazing. The smallest division on the Bolivar is bigger than your whole crew. I’m envious.”

Angie moved over and sat on the bunk. “Kelly, I’m so glad things worked out for you. I felt just terrible when that horrid woman shipped you out. I miss you. Your replacement as my wing man has been hopeless. I have to constantly remind her to keep her spacing and stay in formation. I think she screwed her way through fighter school. You were fun to fly with. She’s a pain in the butt.”

Kelly laughed. “Come on. Let’s head over to the club before the ship’s rumor mill gets too wound up over us being in here together.”

The two of them departed the ship and headed over to the club. Kelly showed her the base shuttles and how they worked. They got out at the club and Kelly led her into the junior officers’ bar.

Kelly and Angie were loudly greeted as they entered the bar. Kelly was grabbed by both arms and led to the bar to put his credit chit down. Kelly told the barmaid to give two drinks to anyone in a flight suit.

CPT Willis came over. “Kelly, now that you don’t work for me and we’re both the same rank, can I kiss you and give you a hug?”

Kelly, wondering how much she had already had to drink, said, “Sure Janey, why not?”

Janey Willis came at him with a look of mischief. She locked lips with him.

Kelly broke the kiss off and said, “Thanks, Janey. Didn’t you and that major in the 73rd Fighter Squadron have a thing going on?”

“Oh, you mean Fred? That was just a shipboard romance. Once you leave the ship, they’re over. Of course, I do have some time on my hands while we are here on Armstrong.”

Kelly looked her in the eyes, saw the mischievous look replaced by a questioning look, and decided she wasn’t kidding.

“Janey, I’ll have to take a rain check. My dance card is filled for the moment.”

“Oh, too bad. I was looking for someone local to bestow my favors on.”

“If you can wait, my C.O. will be here in a bit and I can introduce you. He’s available.”

“Is he cute?”

“I wouldn’t call him cute, but I think he’s better looking than I am.”

“Ooooh! Where is he? I need to meet this Adonis.”

“When he comes in we’ll come find you.”

Angie walked over. “What was that all about? What did Janey want?”

“Me!”

“Oh, she and Fred did say their goodbyes. I wondered how long it would take for her to get feisty.”

“Obviously, not very long at all.”

Angie broke out laughing. The night went on quite late. Kelly introduced LCDR Timmons to Captain Willis, but not without warning him first. The two of them hit it off right away. They retired to a table in the corner and got to know one another. Kelly didn’t notice when the two of them left the bar together. The barmaid deftly made her way through the boisterous crowd and returned his credit chit to him, which had been used to buy two drinks for each member of the fighting 68th that wanted one, and a few others. Kelly authorized a generous tip for the barmaid for taking care of it all for him.

A group of lieutenants up near the bar were breaking out into some of the raunchier squadron songs. One of the female officers, it was hard to tell her rank as she had stripped out of her flight suit into her skivvies, was dancing on one of the tables. Angie grabbed him by the hand and led him through the throng and out of the bar.

“So, Kelly, would you be so kind as to escort me to the BOQ?”

Kelly told her he’d be honored.

The “Q” was only a short distance from the club. It was a Fleet myth that there was a master base design specification that said the “Q” could be no further than max crawling distance for an ensign away from the club. They didn’t have to crawl, but they did arrive in short order and Kelly walked Angie to her room.

At the door, she turned around to face him. Kelly wondered if he was about to get a handshake instead of a kiss.

“Kelly, when I said I missed you earlier, it’s not just because of having a lousy wing man. You were fun. In a way I’m kind of glad you aren’t my wingman anymore. I could never do this if you were my wingman.” She leaned into him, cradled his head in her arms, and kissed him. It was not a friendly kiss. It was a take your breath away and leave you swaying kiss. Kelly literally rocked back on his heels when she pulled away. He caught his balance on the doorway alcove wall.

“I’ve wanted to do that ever since that first day we met on the Bolivar. I’m glad I finally got the chance.”

“I’m glad you got the chance, too. Now, if my heart will stop palpitating, I’d like to do it again.”

Angie laughed, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him into her room.

The next morning, Kelly got up early, cleaned up, found his clothes, got dressed, and kissed Angie goodbye. She lifted her head off her pillow for his kiss then dropped back onto it sound asleep.

He took a while longer than usual to find a shuttle. He would find out later that some lieutenants in the 68th had acquired a large number of them and programmed them for racing. The central computer would need a bit more time to reestablish communications with them and reprogram them to their original function.

Kelly got back to the ship before the day deck watch came on. Chief Watson met him on the quarterdeck with a cup of black coffee.

“Must have been quite a party last night, sir.”

“That it was, Chief. I imagine it’s still going on somewhere. You know how folks are after a long deep space patrol.”

“Yes, sir, I’ve been on a few of them myself. Tell me, sir, do you happen to know what happened to the captain?”

“He’s not back?” Kelly started laughing. “You might want to draft up a message to Fleet to requisition a new captain, just in case. I left him in the capable hands of my former flight leader. Chief, he may not survive.”

The chief laughed and walked off, leaving Kelly to retire to his quarters, change into his coveralls, and go get some chow. The captain didn’t make it back to the ship until midmorning. He immediately retired to his cabin and wasn’t seen again until lunchtime. Kelly and the chief kept the crew busy on quiet tasks until he resurfaced.

Kelly and the captain went to the chow hall for lunch. The captain was still a little unsteady on his feet.

“Exec, what was in that horrid concoction they referred to as rocket fuel?”

“Ah yes, rocket fuel, it’s an old squadron tradition. You know that the fighting 68th traces it ancestry to an old earth squadron formed in the mid 20th century. Well, its tradition is to make a punch using alcoholic beverages associated with every major campaign the squadron has been in. There are 79 ingredients as of last count. If we ever find out what the K’Rang drink, there will be 80. Some of the ingredients are damned hard to find. Some of the ingredients are illegal now. I think you get the picture.”

“My God, I drank two full glasses of that stuff. It’s a wonder I’m still alive. Those fighter jocks know how to party. At least I think they do. I don’t remember too much after that.”

“How did you and Janey get along?”

“Well enough that we’ll be seeing each other again while she’s here.”

Kelly didn’t say anything. He just smiled.

On Saturday, Admiral Craddock called a meeting of the officers of the Vigilant and the 68th Fighter Squadron, to discuss the upcoming experiments with the

Blakes’ transport system. The captain and Kelly headed over to the large briefing room in the Scout Force HQ.

Kelly and Timmons were the first to arrive. The conference room was paneled with some exotic deep-grained local wood and had a conference table of the same wood. Plush carpet covered the floor. It was unusual in its opulence.

Captain Hasselrode met them at the door and escorted them to their places at the main table. Kelly saw that there were also places for LTC Matthews and the senior officers of the 68th. The four flight leaders had seats in the front row of the theater seats at the back of the room.

Kelly heard a clatter in the hallways and saw Captain Hasselrode move to meet the 68th as they entered the room. The 68th officers and their support transport pilots noisily filed into the room and into their seats. LTC Matthews and MAJ Brown sat down at their places across from Kelly. MAJ Brown beamed a broad smile at Kelly. Kelly looked over and saw Angie also smiling at him.

The room was called to attention as Admiral Craddock and the Blakes entered the room.

Admiral Craddock stood while the Blakes sat down and said, “Be seated, please. Good morning. I’ve brought you all together to give you some information on the experiment that you will be taking part in. The briefing you will receive is Secret and the information should not be discussed outside of secure areas.”

Admiral Craddock paused a moment to let that sink in and then proceeded. “The great limitation of movement in space has been how much we can push beyond the speed of light. At maximum sustainable speed, a journey from the center of the Galactic Republic to the K’Rang frontier will still take up to two weeks. The experiment you are about to take part in will reduce that travel time to seconds.”

A murmur of incredulity spread through the room.

Admiral Craddock continued, “Let me introduce Doctors Andrew and Moira Blake. They will brief you on their experiment.”

The Doctors Blake stood up and moved to the front of the room. Admiral Craddock sat down. The lights dimmed and a holographic imager rose from the floor in the front of the room. An image of a large ring-like free space object appeared.

Andrew began. “I’m not sure how many of you are aware how FTL communications work. As you may know, we have the capability to send messages from one frontier of the Galactic Republic to the other in seconds. We accomplish this feat by using a fourth dimension. This dimension exists parallel to the three physical dimensions we are used to dealing with. In simple terms, this dimension is the dimension of time. We take messages and send them from a transmitter into the dimension and receive them at a far transmitter. The transmission travel time is practically instantaneous. The speed of transmission is only limited by the time it takes to format the message for transmission and process the message into useable form at the far end.”

“What we have been working on is a means to digitize solid matter and transmit it through this same dimension.”

Moira said, “With electronic data, it’s simple to move it through this fourth dimension. If you garble a message, you just send it again. With solid objects, if it gets garbled in transmission, you’ve lost the entire object. If the object you are trying to move through this dimension is a living being…well, let’s just say there is no margin for error. The living being has to be sent through safely and when it arrives at the far end, it has to be more than a recreation of what went in at the transmission end. It has to be exactly the same living being that comes out at the receiver. With people, what comes out at the far end has to be the same person, with the same memories, the same knowledge, and the same personality. Whoever goes in must come out at the far end unchanged in every aspect.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have accomplished just that.”

Kelly looked around the room. All eyes were focused on his mom. She had their complete and undivided attention.

“In our lab at Gagarin in Tau Ceti, we have transported ourselves within the lab. We’ve transported ourselves up to Tau Ceti Station. We’ve even transported ourselves in shuttles within the system. We have transported approximately 35 people with no problems. Andrew and I have personally transported over 160 times apiece.”

Andrew said, “Your part in this experiment will be to transport yourselves and your craft from here to Tau Ceti. You should get to Tau Ceti ahead of the Bolivar Battle Group.”

Kelly looked about the room. He could tell some people were having difficulty accepting what his folks were saying. He saw disbelief in some faces, fear in others, and enthusiasm in yet others.

His father spoke again. “I can see mixed emotions in the crowd. We have a little demonstration to give you some idea of what we are speaking about. Admiral?”

Admiral Craddock motioned to Captain Hasselrode in the back of the room. Hasselrode opened a side door and Kelly recognized two of his parents’ lab assistants wheeling in two seven foot diameter ring-shaped objects. One of the rings went to the right front of the room, the other to the left.

Andrew walked over to one of the rings, Moira to the other. Andrew made some adjustments, flicked some switches and turned to the audience while Moira did similar things to the other ring.

Andrew said, “What we have here are the transporters we built and tested in our lab. We will give you a demonstration of what we are talking about. Switch on the rings.”

Both rings started to hum. The hum increased in frequency, sounding like a turbine engine warming up. A shimmering haze appeared inside the two rings, as if a diaphanous silver veil had been draped over them. Andrew stationed himself in front of one of the rings, Moira in front of the other. Andrew took a small ball out of his pocket, bounced it on the floor, and tossed it in the air.

He said, “Moira, are you ready?”

“Yes.”

He threw the ball into the ring. MAJ Brown, sitting on the other side of the ring threw his hands up to catch the ball, but it didn’t come through. It appeared from the other ring and Kelly’s mom caught it.

“Moira, would you send the ball back to me?”

Moira, instead of throwing the ball, stepped into the ring, and handed it to Andrew as she stepped out the other ring. A gasp exploded from the assembled crowd.

“What you are seeing is actual teleportation. This is not some stage magician’s trick we are doing here. Admiral Craddock, could we borrow you for a minute?”

Admiral Craddock joined them at the ring.

“Tom, we’d like you to walk through the ring right behind Moira. You’ll feel a slight tingle as you go through, but no harm will come to you.”

Moira stepped through the ring, Admiral Craddock followed behind. They both appeared, one behind the other, on the other side of the room. There were no gasps this time.

Andrew asked Kelly to come up and follow him through the rings.

Kelly got up, walked over to his father, and followed him through the ring. He felt a slight electrical tingling, similar to a large static charge and he saw blackness, deeper than he had ever experienced before, and a chilling cold. Then he was standing on the other side of the room, looking at his mom and Admiral Craddock.

Andrew slapped him on the shoulder, and turned back to the room. “Now, if you wish, we offer the opportunity for all of you to experience the future of travel. If you have no objections, would you line up and walk through the far ring single file. If you will just allow a second between people you will be fine.”

To the credit of those in the room, all rose, lined up, and walked through the rings. Looks of amazement were on most of the faces as they emerged at the far end.

Admiral Craddock said, “Thank you, Moira and Andrew. Now if everyone will return to your seats, please.”

The officers all returned to their seats. Admiral Craddock waited for them to get settled and said, “This was just the first demonstration. We will put on a similar demonstration for the chiefs and crew. In two weeks time the ring will reach here from Tau Ceti. A number of probes will be sent through the rings to fine tune the settings and verify their safety. The Vigilant will be the first ship to make the passage to Tau Ceti and return. Then a single F-53 will make the round trip. That one will be followed by a two-ship formation flight through the rings. When they return, an entire flight will make the trip, followed by the entire squadron’s formation flight with and without the Vigilant through the ring. Provided all the tests are successful, we will recommend convening an admiralty board and determine if the system is ready for acquisition and deployment throughout GR space. We figure we can have twelve rings within the first year, twenty-four the next. We have plans for over 100 rings to connect all corners of the Republic within five years’ time. Ladies and gentlemen, we thank you for your cooperation.”

LCDR Timmons stayed behind to confer with Admiral Craddock, releasing Kelly for the rest of the day. He wasn’t on duty this weekend, so he had the rest of the day and the next two for himself. Angie had squadron on-call duty all weekend. She was not in a good mood. He arranged to see her next weekend.

Kelly checked to see if there was any word on when Tammy would be coming in. The space-going dry dock was still four days out. It had some sort of engine problem and was coming in slower than expected. Kelly called Candy to see if she had plans for the weekend. Candy was ecstatic when he called. She was taking ownership of her air car that afternoon and invited him for its maiden flight. She told him to pack hiking clothes and walking shoes. Kelly happily accepted and arranged to meet her at her office.

Kelly went back to the ship, packed a bag, made sure his communicator was fully charged, and left for Candy’s office. He found her on the terminal at her desk. She looked up, saw him, and grinned from ear to ear. She logged off her terminal, threw the papers on her desktop into a drawer, grabbed a large duffle from the corner, and ran out the door, yelling, “Come on!”

Kelly quickly followed her out to the shuttle stop outside her office. A shuttle was waiting. They climbed in and Candy programmed it to take them to the air car dealer outside the main gate. Candy regaled him with all the features her air car had. She couldn’t wait to get behind the controls and take off.

The dealership was small. At the prices they charged, they didn’t sell enough to have a large inventory, but what was there was impressive. The dealer had all the agreements ready for her when she arrived. She quickly agreed and sealed the deal with her thumbprint and credit chit. The salesman expertly ran her through the operating procedures and checked her out in how the aircar worked. It was essentially as easy to operate as a base shuttle, albeit a hovering and flying shuttle. The aircar was equipped with full flight controls, but it had a fully automatic mode that most owners used. The computer actually flew the aircar and it wouldn’t allow an operator to do anything dangerous.

Kelly had to admit that the air car was beautiful. It was a deep blue, almost purple. The lines were sleek and it just dripped speed. It had wheels for ground operation like a car, but four thrusters on each corner gave it the ability to fly at an altitude up to 3000 meters. The cabin was large enough for four people and it could carry luggage for all of them for a long weekend. It was roomy and comfortable.

The salesman took Candy out for a quick flight to make sure she understood how to operate the air car. She went in a big circle around the dealership and came back. The salesman leapt out. Candy yelled at Kelly to get her bag and get in. Kelly grabbed her bag and hopped in. The bag was heavier than it looked and threw him off balance slightly.

Candy programmed the ship, activated the flight program and they were off.

Kelly asked, “Where are we going?”

“I’m going to show you my mountain.”

“Your mountain?”

“Remember I was thinking about building a house in the mountains? Well, I found the perfect site. It’s a ledge on the side of a mountain, a small meadow with a spring and a small waterfall. It’s going to cost me some credits to put a house there, because everything will need to be flown in. I’m looking at having a house prefabricated and brought in. That way will be cheaper, because they will have minimal work to do on site. Even with the cost of a hover ship to bring it in, it’s cheaper than building it all on site. It will take us a few minutes to get there and the car is on autopilot. What shall we do to pass the time?”

Kelly considered this to be a rhetorical question, because she slid across the bench seat and into his arms before he could respond.

They eventually arrived in the vicinity of Candy’s property and the air car circled the spot, waiting for landing instructions. Kelly and Candy untangled and she told the air car where to land.

The property was everything that Candy had described. Those peculiar almost palm tree-looking trees covered the edges of the clearing. It had a spring with pure, crystal clear water. The waterfall was a mere trickle now, but Kelly could see how rain uphill of it would cause it to become spectacular. The ground was soft and covered with a short, soft grass. The real selling point had to be the view. The slope faced almost due south and had a breathtaking view of a large intermountain valley and a mountain range to the south. The property ended in a heart-stopping drop of about a kilometer to the start of the valley below.

Kelly turned around to see that Candy had pulled her duffle from the air car. She carried it over to near the stream and started pulling things out.

“Kelly, come over here and help me set this stuff up.”

Kelly walked over and she tossed a medium stuff bag his way. He opened it and extracted a tent and two sleeping bags with self-inflating pads. He made short work of the shelter, setting it up, and laying out the sleeping bags. Kelly looked up as Candy walked over with both of their duffles.

“Give me a minute to change out of these work clothes and we can explore a bit.”

Kelly replied, “I need to change, too. Hand me my bag.”

The two changed out of their clothes and into shirts, shorts, and hiking shoes. Kelly got changed first and Candy sent him to continue setting up camp. He looked in her duffle and found assorted camping supplies, dehydrated rations, a couple of bottles of wine, and a small cook stove. He also found a collapsible water container and a water purification device. Kelly went over to the spring and started filling the container. Candy walked over as he finished. She was wearing a mesh knit halter top and mesh shorts. They didn’t leave much to the imagination.

“Isn’t this place beautiful? Short of climbing up from below or down from above, there is no way to get here other than with an air car. I love the isolation.”

She walked Kelly over toward the center of the clearing and said, “This is where I want to site the house.”

She pulled a pocket terminal out, pushed a button and a holographic image of a house appeared.

“This is what I am looking at putting here.”

Kelly saw a roughly square house with wide eaves and open louvers for its external walls. A rectangular extension protruded from the front. The peaked roof had dormers on all four sides. The dormer above the front elevation had glass doors and a balcony over the rectangular extension. There was a cupola on the peak of the roof.

“What does it look like on the inside?”

Candy punched another button sequence and the roof came off the house. The upper story was three rooms. Stairs led up to a second floor gallery, bisecting the upper story. A large open area, probably open to a great room below, was in the rear middle of the house from the gallery.

“The master bedroom is centered on the front of the house. I have a marvelous balcony here above the outdoor room. The room on the right is a dressing room and the master bath. The room on the left is the guest room with its own bath.”

Another button combination and the first floor appeared. Three interior rooms and one outdoor room made up the first floor.

“The kitchen is here in the front left, with a dining area behind it. The rest of the ground floor is one large room. My favorite spot will be the outdoor room or front porch, depending on what you want to call it. I see it as a great place to drink wine, eat cheese and watch Antares cross the southern sky. I figure I’ll be able to watch the sun rise and set from here. I want to have a pool put in just in front of the outdoor room.”

“It looks fabulous, Candy. How long will it take to build? When do you think you’ll be able to move in?”

“If I go with a prefab house brought in in sections, I can have it built in three months. If they build it on site, it will take six months or more. I’m really looking at having it prefabbed and brought in. It’s quicker and cheaper. My only concern is quality of workmanship. I have an appointment with the builder tomorrow afternoon. I want you to come along.”

“Sure. How long to put the pool in and have you settled on a design?”

“I’ve got a lead on a pool company down south. There aren’t any here up north. I’ll go meet with them in a couple of weeks. I’m looking at an organic design. I want it to look like it has always been here. I also have an idea for the spring in back. I want to dig out a small pool to catch more of the water. You felt how cold it was when you filled the water bottle. I’d like to use that water for a misting system for the porch for those really hot dry days that we get here.”

“Sounds wonderful. I hope you invite me over once you get it built.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I want you to be a frequent guest. I’ll make you the same offer here that I did when I was living down south. If you can get here, you are welcome to stay, whether I’m here or not. My door will always be open for you.”

“I thank you for your most generous offer.”

“You’re welcome. Let’s eat.”

Candy moved over to the wine and rations. She expertly put the camp stove into use, put water into a pot, and added one of the dehydrated rations.

“We’ll have beef stroganoff here in a few minutes. Go gather some firewood.”

Kelly went to the edge of the clearing and brought back an armful of deadfall. He had arranged rocks into a fire circle before Candy called out that supper was ready. She asked him to open the wine and join her at the shelter. He popped the cork and went over to where she was by the tent. She had managed to pull two small camping stools and a small table from somewhere. Knives, forks, two plates of beef stroganoff, and two empty glasses were sitting on the table. Kelly poured a nice red wine into the two glasses. Kelly and Candy dove into their food and wine as the sun started to set in the west.

When they finished, Candy told Kelly to get the fire going while she cleaned up.

Kelly stacked wood like a teepee and used a fire starter brick to get the fire going. Candy brought the stools, while Kelly brought the table and wine. While there was still light, he brought back another armful of wood, then sat down next to Candy and sipped his wine.

The fire had a mesmerizing effect on both of them. They sat, not saying a word, and watched the sun set. It was a spectacular sunset, sending crimson rays into the sky off the far clouds.

Candy drained her glass as the sun sank below the horizon. She held her glass out for a refill and said, “I love it here. I am going to really enjoy living here. I expect you to check out a flitter and come visit me whenever you can. Otherwise, it will get pretty lonely here.”

Kelly threw some more wood on the fire and said, “Don’t worry, when I get time off this will definitely be one of my destinations of choice.”

Candy picked up on that and asked, “What do you mean one of your destinations of choice? Oh yeah, you did mention that there were two other girls interested in you. Can you tell me about them or is that none of my business?”

“There are two. One is a pilot on the planetary shuttle. The other is my former lead pilot on the Bolivar. Tammy, the shuttle pilot, is on her way back from transitioning to a new type shuttle. She should be here in a few days. Angie is my former lead pilot. She is here on Armstrong for a new equipment test.”

Candy had a mischievous look on her face and said, “My, it’s a wonder you had time to fit me in your busy schedule.”

“I swear this has never happened to me before. I must be emitting pheromones for all three of you to be interested in me. I had girlfriends in college and interest by classmates in the academy, but I’ve never considered myself a ladies’ man.”

“Relax, tiger, I’m just kidding. I’d love to meet your other girlfriends. I’m not concerned about sharing you with them. I like what we have so far. You are fun to be with and you fit my needs at the moment. I like the fact that you weren’t afraid of my dad. I like it that even though you had all the credentials, you didn’t come on with any typical fighter pilot lines. Your sincere interest in my mom’s landscape really sold me on you. I don’t normally kiss guys on first meeting. Your visit to my house in the south really convinced me that I wanted you around.”

Kelly filled up their glasses. He looked out into the valley. “Do you have any idea how close your nearest neighbor is? I mean, I can see probably 60 or 80 kilometers east and west and I don’t see any lights.”

Candy looked out at the view. “I guess you’re right, I don’t see any lights either. We are only 30 minutes from the base by air car. I thought there might be someone out here. It doesn’t bother me. I can handle solitude very well. Of course, this will make my clothes last forever.”

Kelly arched his eyebrows and asked, “Why?”

“Because I won’t be wearing any here.” Candy dissolved into laughter.

Kelly and Candy continued talking until the fire went out. They stared at the dying embers for a bit longer. Candy got up went into the tent and came out dragging both sleeping bags.

Candy said, “Come over here,” as she spread the two bags on the ground outside the tent.

Kelly went over to where she was kneeling, smoothing out the sleeping bags.

“Sit, Kelly, I want to look at the stars with you.”

Kelly sat down beside her. She snuggled into his arms.

“What stars are those?” she asked, as she pointed off to the south.

Kelly looked where she was pointing and said, “I’m not sure. I’m not completely familiar with the constellations from this part of space. I think that is the back side of Taurus.”

Candy snuggled closer and leaned back to kiss Kelly. The two spent the night outside the tent watching the stars, until they both dropped off to sleep.

Kelly woke up when the sun rose above the ledge and hit him in the eyes. He sat up, looked around, and didn’t see Candy. He got up and saw her shorts and halter top laying on one of the camp stools. He walked around and found her over by the spring washing up. The sun lit up her auburn hair. The water glistened off of her skin. She was a vision of beauty.

She looked up as he walked over and said, “Go back, get a towel, and shuck out of those clothes. I’ll wash your back.”

Kelly, recognizing a good idea when he heard one, did what she said. The water was cold, bordering on icy, but it felt good anyway. After cleaning up, they helped each other to apply sunscreen on areas that are easiest reached by another. It also included some areas that just felt better when reached by another. They put on their hiking shoes and explored more of Candy’s 100 hectares.

They found the source of the spring. It came out of the mountainside about 50 meters above the clearing. They walked into the woods until they reached the cliff edge to the east and to the west. They found a pathway up the mountain side and walked up until they came up onto a large granite outcropping. The outcropping formed a shelf about 12 meters by 20 meters on the top of the mountain.

They stood on the crest of the mountain and stared at the panorama before them. They could see 40 to 80 kilometers in all directions. They just stood there for the longest time staring at the beauty of the forests and meadows and lakes all around them. It was an awe inspiring view.

Candy hugged Kelly around the waist, stretched up, and kissed him.

“As much as I’d like to throw you down and have my way with you in my mountain aerie, I have to get back for an appointment with the builder. Come on. Let’s get the area secured. We can leave everything here. I’m coming back after the appointment. I want to fly around the area some and see what might be around.”

Kelly followed Candy back down to the clearing. They secured the camp and then both dressed in casual clothes appropriate for a meeting with the builder. They hopped in the air car and headed back to base. In a short 30 minutes, they were slowing down to transition from flight to road operations. The wheels touched down and Candy directed the vehicle into a parking space outside a large industrial building.

They walked into the building and were met by Klaus M. Krallen, the general manager of Antares PreFab, Inc. He sat down with Candy and Kelly and pulled up a hologram of Candy’s design.

“Ms. Craddock, I’ve taken your ideas and worked them through our designers, and this is what we’ve come up. We have taken your design and broken it into these five transportable segments. We have hover ships that can carry these segments to your property. Our crew assembles the segments and bonds them together. When we’re done, you won’t be able to pick out the seams. The house will be guaranteed to withstand winds of 250 kph. The building will be earthquake resistant. It will be heavily insulated and will be equipped with all the latest and most sought after features.”

Kelly and Candy watched as the five segments were moved about in the air above the table, pushed together, and finished inside and out. The hologram continued to show a walkthrough from the outdoor room and front door to the rear, up the stairs to the second floor, and out through the master bedroom onto the balcony. It was very impressive.

“I’d like to take you back into the shop and show you some of the projects we have in process. It will give you some idea of what we can do for you.”

They both followed Mr. Krallen out onto the shop floor. There were about three or four houses in various stages of construction in the shop. Because they were modular, it was hard to pin down exactly how many.

He walked them through one house that was being built in two sections. It was almost completed. The fit and finish was quite good. Kelly could see the workmanship in the joinery. All appliances were installed and the bath fixtures were in place. They walked over to one project that was just getting started. Kelly could see the plasteel framing and extra bracing used to keep the section in one piece for transport. He could see how it would be able to withstand such high force winds.

They walked around for a bit more until Candy announced she had seen enough to decide to have her house prefabbed. Candy and Mr. Krallen went back to his office to discuss details and financing. Kelly tagged along. At the end of an hour, a contract had been drafted, checked, and authenticated and thumbed. In three months time, Candy would be the proud owner of a mountainside home.

Kelly and Candy thanked Mr. Krallen and headed back to the mountains. Thirty minutes later they were back on the hill. Candy stripped out of her clothes and climbed back into her air car, carrying a couple of towels.

Kelly asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to check out those lakes we saw from up top. I might want to go for a swim. Want to join me?”

Never one to turn down a good offer, Kelly stripped and joined her. When he got into the air car, Candy had already lowered the top.

“Hang on lover, here we go.”

They lifted off the mountain and dropped down into the valley. They flew the north side of the valley from east to west and the south side from west to east. They saw no sign of habitation or evidence of human presence. The scenery was breathtaking, both inside and outside the air car.

Candy gained altitude and turned the air car northwest to the larger of the two lakes they had seen. She flew up to the lake and then made a pass down the center of the lake. The trees were so thick that there were no beaches or shoreline wide enough to set the air car down.

She made her way to the other lake to the northwest. This lake had two islands, one with a large central clearing. There were plenty of places along the shoreline big enough to set the air car down. They cruised along at about ten meters elevation above the lake looking down into the crystal clear water.

She looked over at him and said, “I’m going to set down on that island with the big clearing.”

In a moment, they were down on the island and climbing out to explore. Kelly led the way through a break in the trees to the water’s edge. A warm breeze blew across the lake, causing small waves to slap upon the shore. Some sort of bird was singing in the distance across the lake. Candy walked down, shucked her shoes, and waded into the water. Kelly did the same and joined her. They both kicked off and swam a way from shore.

The water was cool. Candy stopped a short distance from shore. Kelly swam over to her. Colder water from deeper in the lake swirled up around their legs. It felt marvelous.

Kelly and Candy swam back into shallower water. When Kelly could touch bottom he stood up. Candy swam into his arms. Her warm body felt good against his in the cool water. Her lips met his. The kiss went on, but before it went any further she broke away and said, “Come on, let’s get back to camp. I’m not ready to be landing this thing in the dark yet. Besides, it will be a lot more comfortable on the sleeping bags than here.”

Kelly and Candy went to the air car, dried off, and then flew back to the camp.

They awoke in each others arms the next morning, tired, but sated. Kelly led her to the spring and they freshened up. They soaped each other up and took turns pouring cold water over each other to rinse off. It was exhilarating. Then they got dressed in anticipation of heading back to civilization.

Candy made breakfast while Kelly tore down the camp and put things away. He was not as good at packing as Candy, so everything didn’t quite fit back into her duffle. Kelly packed everything into the trunk of the air car. Candy called him over for a breakfast of french toast and freeze dried fruit.

They ate while gazing at the scenery. When everything had been cleaned and cooled down, they packed the rest of the gear away. Reluctantly, they climbed into the air car and headed back to base. Candy let him off near the dry dock holding the Vigilant.

She helped him get his duffle out of the trunk and gave him a big hug and a kiss.

“I suppose I’ll have to wait my turn with all your other girlfriends now before I can see you again.”

Kelly chuckled, “I guess so. I have no experience in how this all works. Why don’t we just play it by ear? You aren’t going to get jealous on me, are you?”

“Jealous, no. I don’t think that will happen. Let’s just see how things work out. I’ll still be living with my folks for the next three months until the house is built. As much as my Dad likes you, I don’t think we could be very intimate at his quarters.”

Candy climbed back into the air car. Kelly leaned in and kissed her goodbye.

“Don’t worry Candy. I’ll be able to find time for you.”

She looked up, grinned, and said, “Of course you will,” and drove off.

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