The train pounded forward at impossible speed as Tom Kelly threaded his way through the narrow aisles, using the smooth surfaces of the tightly-closed overhead bins to steady himself, carriages seeming to oscillate as the landscape thudded by.
It was his first time on this train, a Maglev, taking him from Boston to New York in 60 minutes on tracks that went arcing over or burrowing under smaller, regional stations and passing conventional trains in disconcerting sparks of kinetic energy. The muted violence of the passage made his chest thump.
Other passengers looked up as he lurched by. Evidently, at such speed, you were supposed to remain in your seat.
“Jesus, pal,” someone called out as he bumped against knees and elbows..
“Sorry, sorry,” he muttered.
What manner of train does not have a goddamn bar? he wondered. He’d made his way from end to end only to return empty-handed. He fell back into his seat.
“Sorry,” he muttered again. At nobody. He was nervous. Partly because of the train, mostly because of the meeting he was heading to in New York
His gaze swept out through the high windows, the smear of rooftops, the blur of small towns flashing by. Meanwhile, the digital flotsam of his workday streamed across the upper quadrant of his eyewear.
Need to be Productive, he told himself, especially when the Company was paying for such conveniences as Frictionless travel. It was hard with the landscape crashing past at such speed, but he shifted in his seat, fired up his tablet, tried to focus
There was an Engineering briefing for him to review. His tablet went through multiple identity-verification protocols as he accessed the file and let it play through the aural feed behind his ear.
“The solar wind is plasma made up of charged particles which carry a magnetic field,” Elizabeth Tangri, an enigmatic explainer of things space-related, began. “When the solar wind’s field meets the rocks’ mini-magnetosphere the two fields clash, exerting a force on each other. Something has to give. Because the solar wind’s field is created by free-moving particles, it’s the one that yields, altering its orientation to minimize conflict with the mini-magnetosphere’s field...”
He closed his eyes and listened more intently.
His employer, the Dexter Company, was the leading developer of deep space infrastructure, but it was hard for him to follow to the lecture at anything but a very shallow technical level. Despite his lofty title, (“Director of Intergalactic Business Development), he struggled every day to understand how they made their stuff work.
For a second he looked up, out of the deep window. The sudden refocus caused a momentary nausea. The speed made it impossible to see the immediate landscape, only the buildings that were further back, fleetingly, as he hurtled towards New York
“Some parts of the solar wind shift more easily than others,” Tangri continued. “The positively charged protons have nearly 2000 times the mass of the negatively charged electrons, so the latter are much more easily deflected. The electrons stay at the surface of the magnetic bubble, while the positive charges penetrate further in.
This separation of positive and negative charges generates intense electric fields up to a million times stronger than the magnetic fields that created them. Subsequent solar wind particles hit these electric fields and are strongly deflected. The result is a shielding effect far more powerful than the magnetic field alone might be expected to provide.”
The avatar of his boss, Bill Nash, began to blink impatiently in the corner of his vision. Tom shook his head, paused the lecture. Elizabeth Tangri froze in mid-gesture, mouth open, her head towards the audience but her body pivoting to the screen.
“Tell me,” Bill said without preamble, “about the things you have sold today.”
“Hey Bill. How are you?”
“I’ve been reviewing your pipeline report,” Bill grunted. “ Let’s go through it.”
Tom was holding his own among the Dexter team, but he was not setting the world, or even any minor planets, on fire. He had a deal cooking on evacuation pods for the new ore freighters being delivered to the Deccan System, another for mobile-life-support units for Prophet 6561, the giant station in the Kuiper Belt, and a small but continual flow of Sustainment & Transportation units to Ganymede: enough revenue committed to just about make his annual quota.
Deliveries were not going well however: technical problems, political problems, funding shortfalls, the usual noise. Not his fault. But still his problem.
“Some of this shit is dubious,” Bill declared. “Evacuation Pods?”
“Yes! We’ve talked about this one,” said Tom emphatically. “Closing in Q3.”
“You’ve been whacking it around for a while….”
“It’s gonna happen, the dials are moving.”
Tom could hear the click of an old-fashioned keyboard on the other end of the call as Bill looked more closely at his deals.
“Close it, or kill it,” he intoned, eventually.
Bill had a twitchy antennae for bullshit, but in general Tom had it together. He was good at bringing in new business. Not so good at managing it but that was not his primary job. Bill’s antennae retracted a little. The call wound down.
But there was one more question. There always was.
“The executive team wants to know more about this deal you’re putting together on Phoedrus, the Space Elevator.”
“It’s not even in my pipe yet,” Tom said cautiously. He wasn’t so confident in the deal that he was going to include it in his forecast, no matter how huge the money it represented.
“You seem to be missing some key pieces. They think you’re sandbagging. They want to know more..”
“Which is why it’s not in my forecast, Bill.”
“Well get it buttoned up. There’s interest in this at a very high level.”
Tom sighed, closed his eyes. He silently recited a litany of blood-curdling and fearsome curses. Below him, around him, the train throbbed and oscillated like some infernal serpent.
“It’s not ready for prime time.”
“Well get it ready,’ Bill snapped. “Where are you now?”
“I’m on the way into the City.”
“The annual bloody shindig, man….” Tom cried. It was his whole reason for being on this train: the sales meeting that Dexter held each year in Manhattan, summoning their business development people from across the globe to celebrate, to commiserate, to wash away their sins and their fears on a wave of company-sponsored euphoria.
“Oh right. That. Yeah…” And Bill hung up. Abruptly, as was his style.
Tom kept his eyes closed for a moment, performing his breathing exercises, fighting the urge to reach for the bottle of feel-better pills in his briefcase. There had been too many feel-better pills in his recent life, as well as too many feel-better drinks. He was trying to find a better way.
He reopened his eyes, stared at the frozen image of Elizabeth Tangri on his screen. She was beautiful. Ethereal. I would introduce you to my electrons, he mused, and they would not be deflected. But Elizabeth Tangri did not date Salesmen, no matter how much revenue they brought in.
Which is a bloody shame, he thought. Because we’re a lot more fun than Engineers.
He pulled up his Phoedrus outline, polished it as best he could and sent it to the Executive Team, copying Bill. They’ll shoot it full of holes, he thought. The galaxy was not ready for a Space Elevator. It was too ambitious, too edgy, too bold for an organization wallowing with institutional inertia.
It seemed the train had barely accelerated out of the Boston terminal before they were shedding speed, shutting it down to glide into Manhattan. Tom stowed his tablet, sat with eyes closed, hands clasped together, feeling the train slowing, the howling of the wind diminishing.
I miss the track, I miss the clickety-clack, he thought. Something intrinsically wrong about the feel of a Maglev. The final ten minutes of the journey were eerily quiet.
The Annual Dexter Sales Meeting, he thought, feeling the tension rising again. It was a gala affair where those who had achieved their quotas would be feted and those who had not would have the metaphorical shit kicked out of them. There would be endless speechifying and motivational hoo-rahs, followed by an expensive dinner and much imbibing of cocktails.
“Corporate is a vipers nest, “ one of his colleagues had warned, before he’d attended his first one of these events. “Tell them nothing, you hear? Especially when the boozing starts...”
And he’d seen it himself by now: the minor indiscretions, the major faux pas, the account manager who’d gotten fired one year while he was still sitting at the bar, surrounded by his colleagues. The chill that had swept over them.
Temper your thirst, he told himself, pulling his luggage from the overhead. Unlikely though that would be to happen.
Leaving the First Class arrivals area at New Penn Station a sleek mid-century Tahoe awaited him, signaling its presence with the subtle appearance of an icon in his eyewear.
I hate these things, he muttered, standing next to it, wondering how the hell he was supposed to gain entry. An augmented reality overlay appeared in his glasses but he waved it away. Too complicated. He called Dexter Security.
“Er, how do I get into your…er, Tahoe here?” he grumbled at them.
“Just place your hand anywhere on the left side passenger window….sir…” came the curt response. Tom grunted and hung up as he palmed the tinted glass. The door sprung open, making him jump back smartly.
“Fucking thing” he muttered as he slid inside. There was no steering wheel, no driver’s seat, no instrument panel.
“Home, James,” he barked at it. The Tahoe moved silently, quickly away.
He missed the anarchy, the chaos of the old city, back before traffic had been enslaved to the grid, when every vehicle had moved at a different speed and the randomness would defy even the most advanced CRIBM computers. Now it all moved in lock-step, with mind-numbing efficiency. Nobody honked, nobody yelled. Nobody rained down curses upon you. But something had been lost. Traffic was the soul of the city. It was supposed to suck.
The Incoming icon pulsed. “Mr. Kelly? Sir?” It was Corporate Security again.
“Yes. I figured it out,” Tom called. “We’re underway.”
“We have a few protestors outside the office, as usual” the officer explained, as if remarking upon the unseasonal weather. “They’re a little…enthusiastic…today….we’ll be rerouting your car.”
“Protestors? What kind of Protestors?”
“There’s only one kind,” said the Guard, as if talking to a small child. “The assholes-waving-placards kind.” There was a lot of yelling in the background from his end.
“I can just get out down the block,” Tom sighed. Protestors were a normal sight outside Dexter HQ. Inter-galactic expansion was a political hot-potato.
“Sir you need to remain with the vehicle. There’s an alternate entrance, just sit tight and we’ll get you in here safely.”
He was whisked from Midtown to Uptown and in less than five minutes the Tahoe swung sleekly past the towering building that housed Dexter, the inter-galactic megalith, architects of the new Frontier.
It was pissing rain now but, undeterred, there were a dozen or so protestors holding up large signs that called notice to the recent deaths of sixteen miners in the Deccan System, deaths that could been avoided, it was claimed, if Dexter had not sacrificed safety to costs. They were very close to the building entrance and the NYPD were pushing them back.
Yeah I know all about that, Tom thought. Let me tell you tales of mining safety and equipment maintenance, or the complete lack thereof.
The Tahoe drove past, into the basement of the adjacent building. He took a connecting tunnel over to Dexter.
“Sorry about that sir” a security guard said sheepishly, running him through yet another check.
Not for the first time, Tom felt a flash of sudden anger towards his employer. The accident that had killed those miners had not directly been Dexter’s fault: contractors had cut corners. It was the same old story. Dexter deflected the blame but there was a backlash and they had not handled it gracefully. They never did. Their institutional arrogance could be supreme.
But then the forty-foot high doors opened smoothly into the sumptuous lobby. Floor-to-ceiling prints of great heroic chunks of space infrastructure with the stunning beauty of the Deccan system as a backdrop. Tom felt a momentary surge of pride as he saw they had recently added a piece that he himself had sold. His name was displayed over the reception desk and, although he knew that his admission through the retinal scans of security activated such a welcome, he still felt rather important. He puffed out his chest, sucked in his gut, and prepared to bask in the debauchery.
But first, a live lecture conducted by another one of Dexter’s top engineers on the Force Field technology that would one day enable their ships to exceed the speed-of light. Again, it was something Tom barely understood, something he had been given very little exposure to up until now. Dexter kept these breakthroughs very close to their chests. But one day soon, he’d need to be able to explain it to erstwhile customers.
The lecture was restricted to senior people with the highest level of clearance, and was held in one of the small auditoriums. Tom came in a few minutes late, as usual: the security guys had checked his retinas again before letting him in.
“…a surrounding shield for the spacecraft, protecting it from the radiation, much like Earth’s magnetosphere does, has proven to be a good solution,” The speaker was Wendy Chang, the Director of Engineering for Dexter’s partnership with Metropolitan Vickers, the British company who were streaking ahead in the race to achieve Faster Than Light propulsion. “The technology relies on nuclear fusion, the process which is currently used to obtain energy, in order to scatter the ionized particles away from the ship.” She looked out over her audience.. “Yes, a question...”
A thin, rangy guy at the back of the room stood up.
“I’d always thought that only an extremely large field, like over 100 klicks across, would work, but now we’re using a magnetic bubble that’s only a few hundred meters wide?”
Wendy pulled up her softscreen schematic. “You’re correct, Angus, but now we’ve found that just a small “hole”, we’ll call it, in the space weather caused by solar wind is enough to ensure the safety of both the human crew, and of the ship and its electronic devices. The key thing is to absolutely ensure the continuity of the power supply and that’s where the Safe Failover systems come into play.”
The discussion began to get deeply technical and Tom’s attention wandered. He understood it up to a point: the force field was like a cosmic snow plow keeping them safe from the detritus in their path as speed built up its crescendo. Just so long as nobody shut the juice off.
In the corner of his eyeglasses an icon pulsed. Priority emails did that, instead of waiting dutifully in queue on his tablet like everything else: Bill again. He was being summoned. He nodded apologetically and slunk out of the lecture.
“I can’t believe they’re falling for this,” Bill said. He slid his tablet across the desk to Tom, tapping on an email for him to view. “From the Executive team…”
Tom scrolled rapidly through the text.
“Holy shit Bill…” he said. “They’re giving me the go-ahead to work the Phoedrus Deal.”
Bill nodded solemnly. “It appears they believe your little story.”
Tom stood; thrust his hands into his pockets. A big smile began to spread across his face. “Wow,” he said.
The Phoedrus deal was The Big One. The one that every salesman hoped for: The big fish in the dark waters on a rainy night.
He’d been working it for over a year, from cold calls to the first tepid conversations, through the endless legal shuffling of inter-galactic commerce and export-control bullshit, into the actual requirements, and now finally, to the Proposal.
The approval meant that he could proceed with trying to make the deal happen: whatever resources he needed, he would get. It also meant that the Executive Team felt good about the risk. They would allow Tom to travel to Phoedrus, and to bring whatever engineering talent he needed with him.
“Congratulations Tom,” said Bill, in a tone that was almost grudging. “This is a big one. Don’t fuck it up.”
Tom nodded, lost in thought.
“I’m going to forward this approval to you and I want you to respond appropriately to the Exec. Team, got it? No speeches, no bullshit. Just thank them and get on with it.”
Tom nodded again. The deal was well-qualified. He’d spent a year getting it through the various committees on both Phoedrus and here on Earth. The Elevator, even though it was small, even though it was a prototype, meant that hundreds of millions of dollars were in play, just for the Dexter piece. Billions more, once it was running.
Furthermore, this would be the first major commercial application of Dexter’s Space Elevator Technology. It would set the standard for installations across the galaxy. Dexter couldn’t afford to lose it.
“I have to get out there, Bill,” he said. “I have to see…”
“I know,” Bill interrupted. “’You have to see the whites of their eyes.’ He got up from his desk and paced around. “I don’t disagree with that. But, meanwhile, you’re taking three of my top engineers with you. For six months.”
“It’s a long trip,” Tom admitted.
Bill paced, stopped, and stared out of his 30th floor office window at the filth-strewn city below.
“Well, I have to tell you, figuring who to send is gonna be a challenge. I have to think about it...” He sat back down and rubbed his bald scalp.
Tom was silent. He badly needed the talent of the engineering team. He was just the Salesman: the engineers needed to see the site, to calculate the loads, to figure out exactly how the thirty-kilometer high elevator was going to work. Most importantly, how much it was going to cost, how long it was going to take. Maybe, he thought, maybe they would send Elizabeth Tangri….
“Let’s see if we can’t get you out there and back a little faster,” Bill said.
“I checked the flights already. Not too many options with the Decca Lines, everything is booked solid for eight months out. …maybe we can get a ride from the navy boys?”
Bill shook his head.
“Navy won’t do shit for us. Not after that LAMPs deal.”
“Hardly our fault, that,” Tom protested.
“Yeah, well…try telling them. No, I’ll look around and see what else I can do. It would be good if I could get you back by the end of Q2. Not you, necessarily, Tom. You can stay on Phoedrus as long as you like. Just get my engineers back here. “
“Get outta here. Don’t make any travel plans until we talk.”
Tom left the office. There were offices along one of the outer walls reserved for visiting executives and, even though he was not an executive, he slid inside of one and closed the door.
Within was just a bare desk and a chair and some random wiring splayed across the grey rug. Rain lashed the high windows. Slowly, he sat, set up his tablet. Then he swiveled the chair around to face the outside. It was grey out there as well. The lights of neighboring skyscrapers cast a cozy glow.
A tingle of excitement was spreading through his body.
Phoedrus, he thought.