The takeoff from Los Angeles International Airport was as smooth as it was familiar. Patrick Jensen had been back and forth between LA and Houston more times than he could count. On most flights he spent the time working on his laptop. He had an extremely heavy workload as head propulsion engineer for the combined Global Space Technologies/NASA outer solar system spacecraft.
This trip he had to forego the work on the laptop because he had a seatmate in first class who could have seen his screen, so he contented himself with catching up on some reading.
“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice you’re reading that technical journal. Are you some kind of scientist?” asked the very pretty, blond woman seated next to Patrick.
“Not really. I’m more of an engineer. Are you interested in science?” he asked, more than a little flattered at the attention.
“Not me. But my brothers were always building models of airplanes and rockets when they were growing up. One of them works for Boeing doing something in design,” she said. “By the way, I’m Melody, Melody Parker.”
Putting down his magazine, he stuck out his hand and said, “Patrick Jensen. Nice to meet you. You fly often?”
Melody laughed. “No, I was visiting a sick friend in LA, now I’m going back home. I live in Houston. Is that where you’re from? You don’t really have the accent.”
“No, I live in California, but I’m relocating to Houston. My job’s requiring it.”
“Really! Are you going to be looking for a place? Maybe I can help!” Melody said excitedly.
“You think so? How’s that?”
“I’m a broker with Carson Real Estate. Do you have someone looking for a place for you yet?” she asked hopefully.
“Not so far. They only told me they wanted me there full time a few days ago. Maybe that would work out,” said Patrick, weighing the prospect of getting to spend more time with her.
Melody looked him over, evaluating what kind of home or condo she would pitch to her new prospect. He wasn’t bad looking, kind of thin, early to mid-forties, maybe six feet tall. The glasses made him look somewhat nerdy, no, more like studious. His clothes were neat, not overly expensive, but flying wasn’t exactly a tuxedo affair. She decided that she could do worse, maybe a dinner or two to see what this Patrick Jensen was all about.
They ended up talking for the remainder of the flight, exchanging mobile phone numbers in the process. Melody promised to give Patrick a call in the next two days, saying she’d have a few prospects for him after learning he was looking for stand-alone home.
When the jet landed, the two chatted until the rest of the passengers deplaned, then walked together to the baggage claim area. When they parted, each felt they had made some kind of connection, leaving both anticipating their next meeting.
In the limousine taking him to the Johnson Space Center, Patrick caught his reflection in the driver’s rear view mirror and saw he was grinning like a fool. He pulled his sunglasses from his breast pocket and put them on, trying to turn his thoughts to the work ahead.
He pulled his phone from his pocket, turned it back on and waited for it to connect to the network. He was happy to note that he had no voice messages, but cringed when he noticed fifty-three email messages waiting for his attention. With a sigh, he started paging through the messages, figuring the more he got done en route, the less on his plate for the fully booked afternoon of meetings.
Patrick was startled when someone tapped on the window next to him. Once he rolled it down a security guard said, “Your identification, sir.”
Looking past the guard he saw the Johnson Space Center sign.
“Sorry, got distracted,” he said as he fumbled for his NASA ID.
“Thank you, sir. One moment please.”
The guard went to the booth and called in Patrick’s ID. He returned in a couple of minutes and said, “Welcome back, Mr. Jensen. You know the drill, have the driver take you over to reception and someone will pick you up and take you to engineering from there.”
Patrick thanked him and sat back in his seat, seeing that the driver apparently knew where he was going. He was pleasantly surprised when he saw someone sitting in a golf cart at the entrance. The driver stopped in front of the welcome center, got out, opened the door for Patrick, then retrieved the bags from the trunk.
The young man sitting in the golf cart approached Patrick with his hand out. “I’m Lucas, I’m an intern here and I’ll be taking you over to the engineering complex,” he said, as he watched the limo driver transfer the bags from the trunk to the back of the cart.
“Shall we go, Mr. Jensen?”
“Sure. You new here? I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“About eight months. I’m here from Stanford on an internship that winds up in four months. I’m here working on inter-solar navigation.”
“Sounds interesting. You like it?”
“It’s all right. But your stuff, the design and construction of the GST probe, that’s epic!”
“We’re supposed to say NASA/GST probe,” Patrick said, winking.
“I know, but everyone knows that without the billions in cash and technology from GST, it wasn’t going to happen.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that.”
The two rode the rest of the way in silence to the building where Patrick had spent a large portion of the previous seven years, designing and supervising the construction of the ship in orbit’s propulsion systems. When they arrived, he thanked Lucas for the ride and grabbed his bags off the cart.
Inside the lobby the receptionist had a cart waiting for Patrick’s luggage and, once everything was settled, swiped his ID badge, checking him into the building.
“I’ll have your bags brought to your office, Mr. Jensen. Dr. Milton asked that if you have a few minutes, could you stop by his office,” she informed him.
“No problem. I’ll head upstairs and see what’s up. Thanks.”
Patrick was somewhat in awe of Dr. Paul Milton, who had served on the special presidential commission a decade past when the Separatists were discovered living on the back side of the moon. He worked with the notables on that commission, like Norma Lancaster, the discoverer of the inbound ice asteroid that had crashed on the surface on the moon. An asteroid, largely consisting of frozen water, that the moon colonists apparently used to provide water for their habitat. Some hotshot astrophysicist, Dr. Martin Harris, who was acknowledged as the world’s expert on gravitational research; unfortunately he hadn’t been able to duplicate the gravitational technologies of the separatists. Milton had even managed to work directly with the president of the United States at the time, a relationship that survived even today.
That commission was the precursor to the project that had completely taken over his life for the previous seven years. Project Jove was the most ambitious manned space effort by NASA to date. And yet it was so woefully short of the technological achievements of the African Americans who built a city below the lunar surface. NASA’s efforts, even with the massive infusion of cash and resources of GST, were like fielding a Boy Scout’s Soapbox Derby car against a Formula-One racer.
Patrick had spent countless hours and a stack of GST’s money to perfect an ion powered propulsion engine capable of getting the massive Jove spacecraft out to the asteroid belt and back to earth quicker and more cost effectively than any previously used rocket technology.
When he arrived at Dr. Milton’s office, Patrick knocked twice on the open door.
“Come in, come in,” Milton said, when he saw who it was. He rose and came around his desk to shake hands with Patrick. “How was the flight in? Everything go smoothly?”
“No complaints. I had a delightful conversation with a woman who sells real estate here in town.”
“That’s great, and timely too. I can’t tell you how much more productive the project is going to be with you here full-time. As soon as Jove is powered up and has life support working, maybe I can talk you into taking a trip up to see what you and your team have created.”
Patrick laughed. “At least it’s not being built by the lowest bidder. And thanks, but no thanks, I’m just fine down here.”
“We’ll see. What I wanted to talk to you about was that I can have relocation services help you out finding a place. I’m sorry no one thought to put you in touch before now.”
“Thanks, Dr. Milton. But I want to see how things work out with this woman I met on the plane.”
“Cute, was she?”
Patrick blushed, nodding in response.
“Okay. We booked you into the same hotel where you usually stay. Keep me posted on this prospect, er, real estate agent. I’m going to grab something to eat, you want to join me?”
“Can’t. Gotta get some things squared away before we meet with the rest of the team. I’ll catch you later.”
They both left the office, going down the hall in the opposite directions.
* * *
“Melody! You’re back. How’s your friend?” asked Ginger, her cube mate at New Century Real Estate.
“She’s much better,” answered Melody, hanging her sweater on a hanger dangling from a hook on the cubicle wall. “Anything happen while I was gone?”
“No, but Brad gave me a stack of files for you to go through. Kind of helping you learn the ropes around here.”
“It was very understanding of Brad to let me keep my job. I was here what, two days and I had to leave?” Melody said, shaking her head.
“True, but I think he likes you,” Ginger said, smiling slyly.
“Maybe so. Anyway, I think I may have struck gold on the flight back.”
“He was kind of cute in a shy sort of way. Anyway he’s looking for a house to move into. He’s from California. Can you help me find three or four properties?” Melody asked.
“No problem. Any idea of his budget?”
“No, but let’s start around $500,000 and maybe go up to a mil,” she suggested. “He’s some kind of engineer. He dressed nice and he was flying first class. Although I guess he could be using his miles.”
“Hope for the best, Melody. Getting a sale right off the bat would be great; Brad would really love that!” Ginger gushed.
“Fine. Give me a hand picking out some houses. I’ll bet this Mr. Jensen will be pretty impressed if I have something for him by tonight,” Melody said as she fished Patrick’s business card out of her purse.
“No problem. Here, I’ll show you how to log onto the system and search for properties. Our system’s home grown, but it’s the best in Houston. It’s never more than a few hours behind the market. We have interns entering new properties and filtering out those that are sold every day.”
Melody rolled her chair over next to Ginger’s and the two began the computerized search for a few likely homes on the market. After an hour’s worth of work, Melody grabbed a stack of printouts from the office printer and stuck them in a folder.
Giving Ginger a quick hug, Melody said, “Thanks, hon, these are great. I owe you one!”
“No big huhu. It was a pleasure. Besides, you picked up the system in no time. I’ve got a couple of things I want to catch up on, so I’m staying a little late. You go ahead. If you see your man tonight, I want details tomorrow. You hear?”
“Deal. See you in the morning,” Melody said as she pulled on her sweater and bolted, the folder of pictures and printouts under her arm.
* * *
“Ms. Parker, I had no idea you’d be getting back to me so quickly,” Patrick said, fielding her call in his NASA office.
“I wouldn’t be a very good agent if I just let things lay around instead of trying to meet the needs of my clientele as quickly as possible, now would I?”
Patrick laughed despite himself. “Good point. I’m glad you called in any case. I’ve had wall-to-wall meetings until now. I’m ready for a bite to eat.”
“Is that an invitation, Mr. Jensen?”
“Patrick, please. I don’t want to sound forward or anything, but I imagine you eat, right?”
“I could do with something myself. I barely had time for lunch getting back into the swing of things at the office. I did have time to pull five homes for you to take a look at. Could make it a working dinner?” she asked.
“That would be fine. Where do you suggest? I spend most of my time at the Center or eat in my hotel when I’m here. I still don’t know Houston well at all. I have access to a car and my phone can guide me anywhere.”
“I could go for a steak. How’s that sound to you?” asked Melody.
“That would be fine.”
“Then can you find your way to Russell’s Steak House?”
“No problem. How about 8 P.M.?” Patrick asked, checking the time.
“Perfect, just enough time for me to get out of my traveling clothes and into something fresh. I’ll see you there.”
Patrick logged off his workstation, stood up and stretched. He called down to reception and asked for the fleet automobile assigned to him be brought around front and that his bags be put into the trunk. Downstairs the security guard tossed Patrick the keys to the car parked out front and waved him off, letting him know that he’d already been checked out of the building.
When Patrick finally exited the main gate, he checked to see if he had time to go to the hotel and change. Looking up the location of the restaurant on his phone, he saw there was just enough time.
When he arrived at the hotel, letting the valet know that he would only be a few minutes, he realized that he wouldn’t miss staying there at all. As a matter of fact, he was quite looking forward to having his own place. Although a house was more than he had ever had to himself, it symbolized putting down roots and committing to not only the mission, but to the NASA community as well.
Now, if I can only get someone to make up my bed every morning at the house, he thought. At least he was realistic enough not to go off on any flights of fancy about his new real estate agent.
“Did you have any trouble finding this place?” Melody asked when Patrick arrived and found her already seated.
“Not at all,” he replied, giving her the once-over.
She had changed into jeans and a nice blouse, showing off a modest amount of cleavage. Patrick was quite smitten by her appearance, but his normal caution and shyness kept him from remarking on her looks.
"Great, I’m starving. I also brought you a few selections to look at once I get some food in me. I can be a real bear when my blood sugar gets low,” she warned, smiling.
“Uh, sure. What do you recommend?” he said, picking up the menu, beginning to scan through the offerings.
“I like their rib eye, with sauteed mushrooms and the garlic mashed.”
“That sounds great. Maybe with a salad,” he said.
“Get whatever you want, it’s on the company dime since you’re a hot prospect!”
“I can’t accept that, I invited you,” said Patrick, holding up his hand and shaking his head.
“Don’t be silly! It really is part of the job. And I did bring you some houses to look at. If it makes you feel any better, I won’t require you to sleep with me later in return,” she said, watching Patrick blush a deep red.
Seeing that she may have pushed a little too hard, her face turned serious and she added, “I’m sorry. I hope I haven’t come off badly. It’s just playful banter. After all, we did have a great conversation on the plane, and I thought you had a good sense of humor. Maybe I went too far?”
Patrick laughed nervously. “It’s not that. It’s more along the lines of not having someone who looks like you chasing after a guy like me. I know it’s all in good fun, I’m not a prude or a child. Please, continue. Honestly, it’s flattering.”
“Well good! I am serious about finding you a home, though,” she said picking up the folder from the seat next to her and putting it on the table.
Fortunately, the waiter arrived to take their orders, giving Patrick a moment to regain his composure. By the time the waiter collected the menus and left to get their drinks, Patrick was anxious to move the conversation into safer waters.
“Okay, now that that’s out of the way, what kind of houses did you think I might like?” he asked.
“You didn’t tell me your price range, so I have five prospects here in the city from about five hundred thousand up to a really tony house sitting on a three-acre lot for one point one mil.”
Melody opened the folder, separated five pictures from their descriptions, and handed them across to Patrick.
Patrick looked at each picture for a few moments before moving on to the next. After he had checked them all out, he handed them back and asked, “What’s up with this one on top. It looks pretty nice and I like the lawn. What’s the floor plan look like?”
She pulled the spec sheets and floor plan from the folder, handing them over.
He looked over the information, liking that all the rooms were on one floor, but the home had a full-sized basement too.
“This looks nice. Is there anyone living there now?”
She shook her head and said, “No. It’s been empty for almost a year now.”
“Is there something wrong with it? Why’s it been on the market so long?”
“There’s a glut of homes for sale. Some repossessed, a few are left behind by their owners hoping to get out from under what they owe because their mortgages are more than the homes are worth. A very small percentage were new construction in developments that either didn’t sell or the sales fell through.
“If you have time, I can take you through the place tomorrow or the next day—well, anytime really. Whenever you’re available.”
Patrick was silent as he went over the information again, looking closely at the photos.
“How much is it to keep up a pool like this? You know, heating, cleaning and such?”
“I’m not really sure. Someone in the office will have a better idea, but I’ll know by tomorrow.”
The waiter returned with their drinks, promising that their food would be on its way shortly. Putting aside any further discussion of the house, they continued getting to know each other.
When the meal came to a close, dessert finished and Melody having paid the bill, she caught Patrick trying to conceal a yawn.
“How about I call you tomorrow? We’ve both had a pretty long day. Does that work for you?”
Somewhat relieved, though maybe a little disappointed that he wasn’t going to have to navigate the ins and outs of a burgeoning intimate relationship, Patrick nodded as another yawn overtook him.
The two walked out of the restaurant together, and gave their valet tickets to the doorman. They chit-chatted until Melody’s car pulled up to the curb. She leaned in to give Patrick a quick hug, promising to call him before noon to set up a time to go through the house.
As she drove off, her lingering scent brought a smile to Patrick’s face as he allowed himself to briefly consider the prospect of becoming more than just friends.
Unfortunately, the next day he was buried under a complete overview of the Project Jove spacecraft’s status and never had the opportunity to think about a new home.
The spacecraft, the most ambitious space construction project in the history of NASA, was so large it was easily visible by eye from earth’s surface as it orbited overhead. The ship was designed in three discrete modules: the living quarters for the crew, a massive supply module also containing life support machinery, and the propulsion module.
The ship looked for all the world like a massive, slightly misshapen Apollo command and service module. The forward portion of the ship contained the control cabin. It looked very much like the command capsule of the Apollo spacecraft wearing a spare tire around its middle. Just aft of the forward section was the crew module, and immediately behind the crew quarters was the storage module, carrying oxygen, food and water for the astronauts, as well as spare parts for the mission-critical components of the ship. At the rear was a large fuel tank and the cluster of engines that would push it out past Mars.
The crew compartment was designed to carry a maximum complement of twelve, split between mission specialists and what were being called ambassadors. The eight specialists were responsible for getting the craft out to the solar system’s asteroid belt and back to earth safely. The other members of the Jove crew were still being worked out. They would be tasked with contacting the former lunar inhabitants, opening up a working dialogue with them and then perhaps negotiating any possible concessions that could be had.
The Jove mission was designed to be strictly scientific and diplomatic, in other words there would be no military components included, the US government having learned a harsh lesson from the ill-fated SEAL team mission to the lunar surface.
The worldwide backlash from that effort to confront the black separatists with an armed invasion was still being felt a decade later. Even America’s staunchest supporters had turned a cold shoulder to their ally. The only country that had not succumbed to the nearly universal condemnation was Russia, which had provided logistical support to the armed mission in the first place and had their own diplomatic collateral damage to deal with.
The separatists’ spectacular departure from the moon, and subsequent travel toward the inner boundary of the solar system’s asteroid belt, had disheartened a world obsessed with finding out how that remarkable colony had remained hidden for four decades. How had a group of American blacks managed to carve out such a technologically advanced existence in such an inhospitable place?
The roll call of the lunar colony’s inhabitants, sent to the entire planet in a defiant screed against the racist deprivations of a culturally sick America, was pored over by every investigative branch of American law enforcement for years in an effort to find some clue as to how they developed their advanced technologies. The two advances they had demonstrated—the control of gravitational force and the retardation of the normal aging process in humans—were unknown on Earth. Once it became general knowledge that those former lunar inhabitants were gifted with a life span considerably longer than those on earth, the pressure to acquire that same boon became the rallying cry to beg, borrow or steal the technology from those in space.
Multinational corporations lusted after access to the gravity-based technologies exhibited by the Separatists, fully realizing the unspeakable wealth those same technologies would bring them once exploited on earth.
As in the past, when serious discussion took place about sending missions out to confront those who had settled outside earth’s reach in space, the jockeying had already begun to figure out how they could cash in on those missions, externalize their corporate risks, and internalize their own profits. There was no altruism present in the boardrooms of the biggest business concerns, whose influence and revenue crossed every border on Earth.
Global Space Technologies’ working relationship with NASA had a two-decade history, beginning with the announcement of the retirement of the NASA space shuttle program. As one of the top three private concerns qualified to provide logistical support to the International Space Station, GST was in the best position to exploit that relationship to gain the lead in the construction and deployment of the Jove spacecraft.
GST had been lobbying since the beginning of the project to have someone of their choosing included on the mission, trying to fill one of the four remaining slots that the U.S. government was jealously hoarding.
The logistics of building a spacecraft designed to keep a dozen people alive for two years or more were daunting, as was the selection process for a crew whose temperaments were psychologically suited to living in such close quarters for so long a time. If one were to become completely fed up with the rest of the crew, there was no house next door or a tavern down the street where they could go for a time out.
Fortunately, because of advancements in communications and entertainment, the Jove crew would have unlimited music, television and movie downloads to amuse them during the trip, as well as educational opportunities to occupy their time in space. Arrangements were being made for the Jove mission to be connected to the Internet throughout the mission, albeit protected by NASA’s firewall.
The construction of the Jove spacecraft engendered the largest simultaneous number of humans in space in NASA’s history, numbering over thirty several times during the project. Most of Jove’s components were prefabricated to be assembled in low earth orbit. Estimates put this space effort at over $600 billion and climbing. However, there were billions in technology offsets that made the effort tenable for GST’s stockholders.
Once Jove was on its way to the belt, the temporary safety habitats and construction modules lifted into orbit to support the construction would be joined into a space station named SkyHub, whose size would dwarf the International Space Station. GST also had the contract for designing and building three identical lunar lander, designed to get those stranded Navy SEALs on the moon back into space.
The schedule for their retrieval was well over a year into the future, as all GST and NASA resources were being expended on Project Jove. But GST was looking at the opportunity to build its own lunar habitat and fleecing wealthy spaceman wannabes and the world’s space researchers with transport into orbit and to the moon. GST’s board was considering building hotel modules in orbit and on the moon for the “ultimate” space vacation.
The specialty, for which GST had recruited Patrick, was advanced propulsion systems for interplanetary spacecraft. His knowledge of ion and nuclear propulsion systems dated back to his obsession with rockets and NASA space programs, beginning with the Mercury program that launched John Glenn into orbit, to the now retired shuttle program. Patrick fell in love with America’s space program when, at the age of eleven, his parents took a vacation to Houston, spending an entire day touring the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
Four years later, he convinced his parents to plan a Disney Epcot Center vacation with an all-day side trip to the John F. Kennedy Space Center. By then he was truly obsessed with the mighty rockets that propelled the Apollo hardware into the heavens. The Saturn V rocket was the most powerful machine built by man, a fact that fascinated Patrick and set off his love of propulsion systems.
Growing up a skinny teen, wearing glasses and obsessed with rockets, didn’t exactly excite the attention of the girls around him, but in his senior year of high school he found a junior named Ida who shared his interest in math and science. They also shared an interest in human biology, neither having had the opportunity of a steady partner before.
Patrick graduated a year earlier than his girlfriend, choosing to attend the California Institute of Technology which allowed him to stay at home with his parents for the first year while attending the university. When it came time for Ida to graduate, the two had the summer to spend together before she took off to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They saw each other infrequently for a while, mostly during holidays when Ida traveled home. But soon their interests diverged and they broke up with a surprising lack of acrimony, both feeling fortunate for their brief time, and explorations, together.
Caltech, the academic home to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, couldn’t provide Patrick with enough class and homework to keep him busy. He ate, slept and breathed science and space technologies, capturing several internships with NASA in the design and development of ion propulsion technologies. It was these systems that would power the manned interplanetary spacecraft from earth to any and all of the other bodies in the solar system.
As lead propulsion engineer of the NASA/GST development team, he envied the ease with which the discovered separatists were able to travel, manipulating gravity with frightful ease, lifting an entire city out of lunar bedrock and sending it out past Mars. But until someone at NASA or anywhere else on earth could replicate that technology, ion and nuclear propulsion were where the proverbial rubber met the road in interplanetary space travel.
When Patrick returned to the hotel, the first thing on his agenda was a long, hot shower to soothe away the fatigues and tensions of the day. Once he was warm, dry and in his bathrobe, he sat down and carefully went through the folder of homes Melody had given him. After examining the other four homes, he decided to take a look at a second house as well. It was a split-level ranch home, both front and back yards had large trees that sheltered the house from the sun and made for a visually pleasing property. He didn’t exactly admit to himself that the decision to check out the second house was equal parts buyer’s curiosity and the desire to spend more time with Melody.
With the decision made, he turned on the television, picking a classic 1950s science fiction movie, The Day The Earth Stood Still, to fall asleep to. He set his phone’s alarm to wake him at seven the next morning.
I'll need to read the rest tomorrow. So far, as usual, my interest are perked.