43 Seconds (First Chapter, 1200 words)

One

43 Seconds

James Hayden smiled as his dream died. It was the polished, charismatic smile that had glossed the feeds of Frontier and Momentum. In the silence he could hear the soft pulse of Hayden-Pratt’s logo spinning on the wall behind him. He paused and gripped the podium. A room full of tuxedos and gowns looked back. 

“It’s gone, James,” a voice in his earbud said. “We lost telemetry forty-three seconds after wave initiation. They’re reviewing imaging now, but the debris field and trajectory are consistent with a cascade implosion. Distance traveled was twelve million kilometers.”

The A speech indexed in his vision. Twelve Minutes to Mars. The timing of it, here at the Industry Innovators awards, would have been perfect. He blinked, changed to the B speech, and considered the first sentence. The audience watched, waited. He cleared his throat. 

“A great man once said, ‘Rules are made for people who aren’t willing to make up their own.’ He was one of the nineteen pilots who flew the one hundred and fifty-seven test flights of the Bell X-1 aircraft. The fiftieth flight, in October nineteen forty-seven, is the one everyone remembers.” A murmur of recognition swept across the room. “The X-1 had no ejector seat. Each of its pilots was committed, in a single-seat rocket designed to look like a fifty-caliber bullet with wings.”

The voice in James’s ear said, “Okay, Skyway3 just picked up the story, and it’s starting to go viral.”

He could see the Skyway3 news filtering across his audience. Feeds were tapped and haptics signaled notifications. Eyes darted to wearables and looked back to him.

“As a pilot, Chuck Yeager is a personal hero of mine,” James said. “He represents an age and spirit of unbridled exploration and courage. The Bell X-1 flights paved the way for supersonic flight design, forever changing the way we travel.” He gripped the award, and the cold bevels of the etched letters bit his fingers.  “I’m honored to receive the Aerospace Innovators award on behalf of my team for the development of the Riggs drive. Like the X-1, the test flights for the Riggs vehicle are pioneering a new frontier in travel, and I am humbled to be a part of the team pushing the envelope.” He paused, seeming to want to say more, but simply smiled and raised the award. “Thank you.”

A short round of applause sounded, the host wrapped up the ceremonies, and James walked casually back to his table. He set the award behind his plate with a solid thunk.

William Pratt sipped a scotch. The ice clinked as he swirled the glass. “That was not the B speech.”

James shrugged. “When in doubt, quote Yeager. Besides, I think better off the cuff.” He sent a private message to William: I’ve just been getting verbal updates from Hitoshi. What’s the latest on the crash?

William seemed to be expecting this. “Let’s get some air.” He set his napkin on the table as he stood, picked up his drink, and smiled to everyone. “Excuse us.”

The two walked to the back of the room, past the bar, and through a frosted glass door onto the balcony. The distant, rhythmic white noise of the Pacific’s crashing waves greeted them. Crimson light faded into an ultramarine skyline with the first stars brightening. A few people were seated at tables with flickering oil lamps, chatting and watching the night’s arrival. James and William found a quiet corner and leaned against the railing.

“Manifold irregularities at thirty-one seconds, then resonance.” William gestured a tired spiral with his free hand. “Cascade failure, implosion. Same as last time, although the upgraded compensators did keep everything together three more seconds. This is the problem with space. For something that’s filled with nothing, it’s not very uniform.”

James nodded. “Hitoshi thinks we need an AI to manage the flux changes. The interferometers aren’t cutting it. We need to go predictive, not reactive.” William quirked his head, but James continued. “Plus, the mass dynamics of the Riggs vehicle are part of the problem. Hitoshi’s working on a Comet for the next run.”

William leaned forward and lowered his voice. “We’re fortunate these have all been unmanned flights. You put an AI or pilot in there, and they’ll be a glowing field of wreckage before they know they’re dead.”

James thought about that for a minute, and said nothing.

William paused to take a swig of his drink. “All right, consider this. When the US shuttle program collapsed, astronauts went to Soyuz launchers. It was forty-year-old technology, but it was still the most reliable rocket in the world.”

“Your point?”

“Tried and true technology doesn’t kill you. RF and Mach-Lorentz drives can achieve similar speeds without all of the drama.”

“That’s true, except you skipped the part where a one gee acceleration takes a year to get near light speed. The Riggs engine takes nine seconds.”

William pointed his finger, clinking the ice again in his drink. “Sure, but no one needs to spend a year taking an RF drive near light speed. You can literally fly to the end of the solar system in fifteen days. Riggs could change that from days to minutes, which, sure, is amazing, but really, is it necessary?” He gestured towards twin contrails glowing brilliant rose against the navy sky. “Your supersonic flight story is the perfect example. Commercial supersonic was available since the nineteen seventies. I mean, we’re talking disco-era technology, here. It was pricy, and it folded.” He shrugged. “Daily life worked fine at subsonic speeds. Unless you’re talking military, that is.”

James sighed. “Yeah, well, I think we’ve beat that horse to death.”

“Yup. There you have it.”

James laced his fingers and leaned his elbows against the railing. “You know, this is all about getting people interstellar. Everyone’s imagination is fired up from those Proxima images. Timing’s right.”

“How many interstellar drives do you think we’re really going to sell, considering the premium? It doesn’t even get you that much. Six years to Proxima with RF, four years with Riggs. Everything crashes into the light speed limit.”

James’s expression brightened. “But time dilation tips that scale. The RF crew experiences four years, but only eight months for Riggs. And that’s with current design. Tack on more nines after the decimal point, and months become days.”

William considered the point. “I’ll give you that one. But for now, forty-three seconds is the best we can do. The power costs alone are prohibitive.” He clasped James on the shoulder.  “Look, the award is great recognition, and I won’t complain about the PR, but there’s a lot more baking to do. We can’t endlessly implode ten-billion-dollar test vehicles.”

James glanced at William’s hand, and William withdrew it, shifting back to his scotch. James knew the inevitable conclusion of this debate before it started. Still, he paused a long second and sent a private message: You’re not going to side with me on Monday’s board vote, are you? You’re going to mothball the Riggs drive.

William tilted his watch, read it, and responded: Sorry, James. I’m sure you knew this was the last swing at the ball. On to brighter projects.

* * * *

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