Alone Together

Part II of the Dawnwalker Cycle

"A Spearfish Lake Story"


a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2004, ©2009




Chapter 14

October 1999

The cabin of the Learjet was small, but it was just right for Jon and Tanisha to hold hands across the aisle as Jennlynn flew it high over the southern California desert. They glanced at each other; an awful lot had gone right during the last several months, and some had gone wrong, but not that much. But still, an awful lot rode on what happened in the next few hours, and they couldnít help but be nervous.

"China Lake tower," they heard Jennlynn call over the radio. "Skyhook Two fifty miles southeast for landing. You should have clearance and hold harmless on file."

"Ah, thatís a roger," they heard the voice over the cabin speaker. "Squawk six eight zero zero and ident, please. Youíre Learjet five nine zero sierra hotel, correct?"

"Thatís a roger," Jennlynn replied, fiddling with one of the radio-looking things on the panel in front of her. "Charter flight for Lambdatron, six on board."

"Skyhook Two, radar contact," the voice came over the speaker. "Come left to three zero zero and descend to one zero thousand feet."

"Thatís a roger, China Lake," her voice replied as she pulled back on the throttles of the jet. The noise from behind them dropped to a whisper.

"Well," Jon said nervously to his wife across the aisle. "Here goes nothing."

"Relax," Stan said over his shoulder from the co-pilotís seat next to Jennlynn. "The one-inch has worked fine, and weíre not pushing the design limits on the four-inch."

"Yeah, but still," Tanisha protested.

Although the new system was more or less officially referred to as the "Swallowtail," to distinguish it from the old Butterfly, they often just called it the "four-inch." It wasnít technically a Navy project, since the Navy had cancelled the Butterfly, but the Swallowtail still had half a megawatt capacity in its capacitors, so no one had been real thrilled about just taking it out to the dry gulch west of town where theyíd run the system tests on the one-inch. Theyíd never dared to even test the one-inch in the buildings at Lambdatron, since any loose RF could fry some very expensive computer equipment. The four-inch had a lot more power, and even the dry gulch didnít seem very safe for a first trial at moderate power, so Stan had pulled a couple strings and gotten permission to use the Navy test site at China Lake.

Jon and Tanisha were pretty sure that Stan was trying to kill several birds with one stone by having the test at China Lake. If it worked, or even showed signs of working, the word was sure to get back to Washington that Lambdatron was still playing with high-power RF, and may just have something. Stan had warned them, though, that the Navy wasnít supposed to know any details of what was under that fiberglass case with the "Lambdatron" logo on it.

But no matter, there was still a lot riding on it: the project, the investment of time, money, effort, and a fair chunk of future. Jon and Tanisha hadnít been working quite as frantically on it as they had those first few hours after their inspiration, but they had put in lots of hours, evenings and weekends; for most of the summer, about all theyíd done was eat, sleep, work, and exercise, in bed and out. More than once they had to take a problem to bed with them to work it out, but that was a very highly classified secret, even at Lambdatron Ė even Stan and Jennlynn didnít know. Over the course of the summer, theyíd discovered engineering could be almost as exciting as sex Ė and sometimes when the two got together, it could get really exciting.

The desert below was getting closer; Jennlynn was talking on the radio with China Lake tower. "Skyhook Two," they heard over the speaker, "Youíre number two to land, behind Skyhook One, a Cessna 310," followed by some stuff about winds and such.

"Roger that," Jennlynn radioed back, then turned to Stan. "Damn, Mike must have been crowding the old girl," she smiled.

"We wanted to cut it close," Stan smiled. "Well, weíll know for sure in a couple hours."

The Learjet was lower now; they could hear the rumble as Jennlynn threw a switch and the landing gear extended. The desert grew closer and closer; through the glass ahead, they could see the runway. In another few moments, there was a "scrooch" as the antique but fast business jet touched the runway. Far ahead of them, they could see the Cessna taxiing to a parking space, and soon they were coming up alongside. Jennlynn smoothly brought the plane to a stop, set the parking brake, and shut down the engines. "Well, weíre here," she smiled.

In a few seconds, she had shut everything off, and turned to open the door. Before long, all of them, along with the crew from the Cessna, were standing on the tarmac, watching a Navy pickup truck, a van, and a Humvee pull up. A Navy captain got out of the pickup and walked up to them. "Still smoke testing, I take it," he smiled.

"I donít think so, not this time," Stan said. "Got a few new tweaks."

"I just want to remind you," the captain said, "This isnít a Navy project anymore, so weíre sort of doing this under the table. But we owe you a few, so I flew out from Washington to set this up for you. We can overlook the technicalities so long as you pay for damages."

"We knew that, Phil," Stan agreed. "This really shouldnít take long. We ought to have you out of here this afternoon. We brought the unit and some of the test equipment in the Lear, the rest in the Cessna. All we really want to do is make sure it works. If it does we want to see how close to parameters it is."

"All right," the captain replied. "Weíre just going to go out to the test site, blow this thing up, and then get you out of here. I donít know about clearances, but I assume youíve taken care of everyone on your end."

"Not a problem," Stan smiled. "Like you said, itís not a Navy project anymore."

"True, but youíre not necessarily cleared for anything here," he said. "You want to get started?"

"Yeah, if you could have someone back the pickup up to the cargo door on the Lear, weíll get started unloading," Stan nodded.

"Can do," the captain said, looking around. "Mike!" he piped up with a grin, "Donít you know China Lake is off limits to you Air Force pukes?"

"Iím not in the Air Force anymore," the Cessnaís pilot grinned. "I got out with a star two years ago. I work on my golf game, do a little consulting, and fly charters some. Iím just a wheelman this trip."

"Hey, itís good to see you again," the captain said. "Jeez, I havenít seen you since we were working on the GBU-28A, what, six, eight years ago. Howís the golf?"

"Shot a 78 out at Camelback yesterday," Mike grinned. "I kind of like Phoenix, you can golf all year around."

"Watch out for this guy," the captain smiled to a younger officer next to him. "Not only is he Air Force, he ought to be PGA."

"Oh, donít let Captain Ricketts pull your leg," Mike smiled. "Iím just your basic retired hacker."

"Bullshit," Captain Ricketts smiled. "Lieutenant Ayres, General Hanneman has taken half the officers in the Pentagon to the cleaners on the golf course. Mike, you flew the Lear in here, right?"

"No, the Cessna," Mike smiled back. "Ownerís choice, after all. Itís hers," he grinned, nodding at Jennlynn. "She likes to fly it. Canít blame her. Itís not supersonic, but itís a nice ride. I get to fly it most of the time."

Captain Ricketts turned to Jennlynn. "This is your plane?" he said, a little surprised.

"Both of them, in fact," Jennlynn laughed. "Along with the bank, of course. Iím Jennlynn Swift, Iím president of Skyhook Aviation, along with a few other things."

"Let me tell you," Mike grinned. "This is one of the most astonishing women who ever walked the face of the earth. I could tell you stories but you wouldnít believe them. Hell, I donít believe them myself."

"Hey, could we have some hands here?" they heard Jim call from the back of the Lear. "This generator isnít that light."

Captain Ricketts glanced over at the drivers of the vehicles. "Sailors, give them a hand," he called, then turned to Jennlynn. "Miss Swift," he said, "Iím rated in several planes, including the Tomcat and the Bug, but Iíve always heard the older Lears are pretty exciting for a civilian bird."

"Oh, itís pretty good," Jennlynn smiled. "It does all I want it to do. I donít really have that much time in it, Iíve only had it for a little over a year."

"Itís got to be interesting, having a little charter outfit like that," he smiled. "Iíll bet you get around a lot."

"Not as much as Iíd like," she frowned. "Actually, Skyhook is only a sideline, thatís why Iíve got Mike doing most of the flying for me. Iím actually Project Manager for this little stunt."

"Yeah, Mike," Captain Ricketts smiled. "I think I see what you mean. Ms. Swift, youíve got to be some lady."

In a few minutes, they were loaded, with the van leading the pickup and Humvee, heading out into the desert. It was about a twenty-minute ride down dusty dirt roads until they turned down a smaller dirt road, and came to a stop in front of a couple of sandbagged bunkers, about a hundred yards apart. "You can blow up the west bunker," Lieutenant Ayres said. "The east one should be fairly safe for the personnel."

"Uh, Lieutenant," Stan protested. "We really donít need to have the unit in the bunker. Weíre not dealing with anything like the power we brought out here the last time."

"Could be," the officer said. "But I was Range Safety Officer the last couple of times you people scattered a bunker, and for safety purposes I donít want you firing that thing in the open. Iíve seen bombs that didnít do that much damage."

"Like I said, itís nothing like that much power this time," Stan said again.

"Itís probably all right if he says it is," Captain Ricketts suggested.

"Sir, youíre only here as an observer," the lieutenant said. "I am the Range Safety Officer, and thatís my ruling."

"Oh, letís not get into a fit over it," Stan said. "Weíll fire it in the bunker, the first shot, anyway, and go from there."

The Swallowtail wasnít very big Ė the core module was about three feet long, and a foot across. Jon and some of the Lambdatron people set it on some concrete blocks inside the bunker, then hooked up the power pack, the capacitor unit that was about two feet square, also in a plastic case with the "Lambdatron" logo on it. They ran a power line to the portable generator located outside the bunker, a standard if large unit that theyíd bought at a hardware store, while a coaxial cable was run back to the other bunker a hundred yards away. The cable carried signals to monitor performance of the unit, through a simple laptop computer in the other bunker.

"I guess thatís about that," Stan said. "Letís get the generator running and see what happens."

"Works for me," Jim said, giving a yank on the generatorís starter cord. It sputtered for a minute, then settled down to running. "All right," he said, "Letís get back to the other bunker, just in case."

It was cool and dark in the other bunker; the only light available was from slits in the concrete facing the other sandbagged bunker where the Swallowtail was sitting, and from the screen of the laptop that Tanisha had set on a small ledge. "OK to charge?" she asked.

"Go for it," Stan said, and explained to the officers, "It takes about five minutes for the power pack to charge. We could do it faster, but itíd take a lot bigger generator than we wanted to bring in the Lear. But more power on an operational system is an easy problem to solve."

"You seem pretty confident about this, Stan," Captain Ricketts said.

"We are," he said. "Weíve fired hundreds of shots with the pilot unit, but itís a lot smaller. This is scaled up quite a bit, but not pushing the limits anything like we did with the Butterfly. This is just a developmental test, thatís all."

The minutes dragged by endlessly as Jon stared out one of the slits at the other bunker where nothing was happening. The charge state was able to be monitored on the laptop, and Tanisha occasionally called out "Fifty percent" . . . then a little later, "Seventy percent." It still seemed like forever before she said quietly, "Full charge, ready to fire."

"Go for it," Stan said.

"Stan, itís your idea," Tanisha said. "You want to fire it?"

"No, itís really your and Jonís idea," he replied. "You fire it."

"All right," she said. "Get set." All of the people in the room were already staring out the slits, except for her, but it was a last warning. She hit a few keys on the laptop, then counted down: "Three . . . two . . . one . . . FIRE!"

Instantly there was a faint "whoof" and a small puff of dust on the side of the far bunker.

"Well, shit," Stan said, shaking his head.

"Told you so," Lieutenant Ayres said.

"Nominal shot," Tanisha reported from the computer, not having seen the scene outside. "Performance at parameters, dot four nine seven meg. Stray RF dot zero zero zero zero six. System at idle, ready to charge."

"What the hell?" Stan said. "Are you sure?"

"Reporting nominal," Tanisha replied.

"Then what was that explosion?" Lieutenant Ayres said.

"Half a meg of RF," Jon said. "It had to go somewhere, and it was pointed at a sandbag."

"Letís go check this out," Jim suggested.

Excitedly they all trooped out of the bunker and over to the other one, where the generator sat idling. They climbed over the sandbags, and saw the unit and power pack sitting there, with a coating of dust on them. Six feet in front of the unit, there was daylight showing through a four-inch hole in the sandbagged wall. It was weeping sand, and shiny things lay around. Jon bent down to check the shiny things, but before he could touch one, he could feel the heat. "Glass," he said. "The sand it didnít vaporize, it turned to glass. Holy shit, it works!"

Instantly Tanisha was in his arms, and they were pounding each other on the back, kissing and shouting, "It works! Son of a bitch, it works!" Stan, Jennlynn, Jim and some of the other Lambdatron people were shouting, shaking hands, pounding each other on the back. Two and a half years of frustration . . . and finally victory. It was sweet!

"Well, that was what we came to do," Stan said. "We might as well get on back and get to work on the upgrade."

"I wouldnít mind firing another couple shots," Tanisha said, coming down a little from the victory high. "Just to give us a broader baseline and some hints on system stress."

"We didnít have the diffuser on that time," Jon added. "We probably should have a look at that, too."

"Right," Stan said. "Lieutenant Ayres, what do you say if we drag this thing outside and point it at that mountain over there? I hate to get it dirtier, and blowing up a sandbag six feet away could damage things."

"All right," the Range Safety Officer said, "So long as we keep this bunker between the unit and the personnel bunker."

"Good enough," Stan said. "Folks, letís drag it out, dust it off, and find out what weíve really got."

It took twenty minutes to get the unit cleaned off and set up. Once again, it was sitting on concrete blocks. Since this version of the Swallowtail was intended as a test unit, there was no way of sighting it, but Jon used the corners of the case to point it at a prominent mesquite tree just barely visible a couple of miles off. "Anybody bring binoculars?" he asked. "Maybe I can get a hint of what itís actually aimed at."

"Yeah, Iíve got some 10x50s in the Humvee," Lieutenant Ayres said. "You wonít be able to see from inside the bunker, but if you stay on the back side you ought to be all right."

In a few minutes more, the Swallowtail was ready to fire again. Things were a lot less dramatic this time; once the system was charged, Tanisha counted down and hit the "enter" key. There wasnít a sound from the far side of the bunkers, but through the binoculars Jon could see a puff of dust on the far mountainside Ė and could see the mesquite tree fall over. "Pretty good aim for no sights," he said smugly.

"You see the hit?" Stan asked conversationally.

"Yeah," Jon said. "If the Navy wonít buy it we can sell it to logging companies. We just cut down a tree at two miles or whatever it was."

"Range dispersion had to be about zilch," Stan noted. "Did you have the diffuser on?"

"No," Jon said. "I wanted to have some idea of where we were actually pointing. I mean, I didnít want to fry some airlinerís radio a couple hundred miles off. Since we know weíre pointing low on the mountain, we can try the diffuser."

In another few minutes, they were ready for another shot, this time with the diffuser running, at what they calculated to be about a ten minutes of arc setting, which was pretty loose and would be a real test for that part of the unit. Again, Jon had the binoculars pointed at the mountain when Tanisha hit the "enter" button with her little finger, but he couldnít see anything happen. The only way he knew the Swallowtail had fired at all was Tanishaís giving a report of a nominal shot and reading off performance numbers.

"It must have diffused the beam," he said. "Jeez, I wish I knew how much."

"No test equipment," Stan shook his head. "We didnít even expect to get this far."

"We could smoke something," Jennlynn suggested.

"I donít think we want to blow the system up now," Stan frowned. "I mean, we know it works."

"I didnít mean the system," she said. "Put something out there on the mountain with a chip. It doesnít have to be much, a cheap watch or calculator or something."

"Yeah!" Stan said. "Lieutenant Ayres, can we get one of your men to drive someone to the Exchange? Iíll send one of us and a Lambdatron credit card if someone in the military can make the actual purchase."

"Iíll go," one of the Lambdatron engineers said.

"OK, Sam," Stan replied. "Get every damn cheap wristwatch, clock, calculator, stuff like that with a chip that you can get your hands on. Bring back something to drink and some sandwiches. Letís blow up some chips!"

* * *

All in all, they fired the Swallowtail seventeen times that morning and early afternoon, seriously depleting the supply of cheap chip devices in the China Lake Navy Exchange, but giving some fairly decent, if rather rough figures on the accuracy of the diffuser. Their calculations proved to be remarkably correct, but they were surprised by one thing: the edge of the beam was apparently sharper than they figured, as was proved by a blown-up childís Mickey Mouse watch, with a calculator sitting ten feet away that operated perfectly afterward. The last few shots were at the maximum rate of fire allowed by the generator, to get a handle on system heating, and that looked promising, too. Finally, Stan called a halt. "I think weíve learned about all weíre going to learn today," he said. "Jon, Tanisha, Do you think youíve got enough data points to start work on the Monarch?"

"I think we can get started," Jon said. "We really need better flux measurements, though."

"Right," Tanisha added. "All we really know is things inside the beam blow up and if theyíre outside, theyíre fine. We really donít know how hard weíre hitting them in practice, although I can give you a theoretical number. I think weíre going to have to design some test equipment to find that out."

"Looks like a hell of a deal to me," Captain Ricketts said. "Stan, you and your crew of tame geniuses here have made the Butterfly work at last."

"No we havenít," Stan told him. "The Butterfly is still a flop, and the tests today only prove it."

"What do you mean?" Ricketts frowned. "Everything worked beautifully."

"Itís not a Butterfly," Stan told him. "It doesnít have anything to do with the Butterfly contract. The guts of this system are totally different than the approach we were using, and nothing here was developed originally for the Butterfly. Besides, you cancelled the Butterfly contract on us. This is just a spec job. Weíre looking at totally unrelated applications."

"But it does about what the Butterfly was supposed to do," Ricketts protested.

"Pretty much," Stan admitted. "But like I said, itís not a Butterfly. Jon and Tanisha threw out all the old specs and started with a clean sheet of paper when they cooked it up."

"But Stan!" Ricketts said, "We threw a lot of money at the Butterfly."

"Yeah, you did," Stan admitted. "And, like I said, it was a flop." He tightened the screws a lot harder. "If you want in on this, youíre going to have to do a new contract."

"You canít hold us up like that!" Ricketts objected. "The Butterfly was our system!"

"Like I said, itís not a Butterfly," Stan smiled. "Look, we can stand out here in the sun and argue about it all afternoon, but I know youíre in no position to sign a contract right now, anyway. Youíll have to run it through your shop."

"Yeah, youíre right," he said.

"Hey, itís not like Iím not willing to talk to you," Stan told him. "But letís not hassle over it. What do you say that I get most of my people and the Swallowtail on the Lear heading back to Building Four? You, Jim, Mike and I can go to the O club and have a couple brews and kick it around. Mike can fly Jim and me back in the 310. I can have Jennlynn fly Jim and me into DC Monday, and we can start hammering out details."

"Yeah," he conceded. "Thatíd work fine, and I could stand a little brewski myself. Crap, I ought to get back to the Puzzle Palace, but my flight isnít till Monday, and Iíve got a couple things I want to do out here over the weekend."

"Tell you what," Jennlynn piped up, "After I drop the crew off in Phoenix, Iíve got to head up into Nevada for the weekend, and Iím starting to crowd my time now. What do you say I drop by here early Monday, weíll fly down to Phoenix, pick up Stan and Jim and head on to DC together? Iíll even let you have some stick time on the Lear."

"Sounds like a deal to me," Captain Ricketts smiled.

"OK, thatís how weíll do it," Stan smiled. "Jon, Tanisha, Why donít you take a couple days off the first of the week? Then, when we get back from DC, we can have a little celebration of our own, maybe do a little planning about the Monarch."

"I think we can figure out something to do with a couple days off," Tanisha smiled.

"Yeah, maybe we can figure out a way to measure electron flux without blowing up the test gear," Jon said.

"Jon," Stan shook his head, "I said take some time off. Get a little drunk. Maybe do something romantic if you remember how."

"Thatís what I was thinking," Jon smirked.



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