The Star Drive

Wednesday, 5 March, 1947 — Chicago, Illinois

“Oh, excuse me!” the French girl says. “Could we please stop here?”

The taxi driver looks into his rearview mirror and smiles at his fare. He can’t help smiling, this is the best-looking fare he has seen in a long time. She looks very small on the Marathon’s big bench seat but sharp as a tack, wearing some kind of fancy designer clothes and a hat that looks like a big black platter.

“We got a block to go yet to the Board a Trade Building, Miss! You wanta walk all that way? I just picked you up!”

“Yes, thank you,” the young woman smiles. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was so close or I would not have troubled you. I would like to see the building from here. It is so grand!”

“Biggest in the city, Miss!” the cabbie grins and pulls hard to the curb, cutting off an elegant black Packard that honks angrily in response. “It’s warm for March around here but it’s breezy out,” he gabs as he pulls to a stop, “so you better hold onto that hat! Anyway, it sure wasn’t any trouble!” He does a quick mental calculation about zones and minutes. “And hey it’s only two bits, don’t even worry about it. Pleasure a your company!”

“Oh, thank you, but no, I won’t hear of it. Please!”

She deftly pushes an entire half-dollar into his palm with her slender black-gloved hands and the cabbie is so affected by her touch that he doesn’t have the brains to refuse or tell her that’s way too big of a tip for such a little ride. Grand Central is only a few blocks away for God’s sake! If she wants to walk she shoulda just walked from there.

But as he watches the young woman walk gracefully up the street, one black-gloved hand holding down her wide hat against the Chicago breeze, the cabbie is glad she didn’t.

~

Chicago is breezy and noisy, sunny and smoky, rushing and stopping, screeching and honking. The buildings on either side of LaSalle Street are the tallest that Arias has ever seen, and her destination is an even greater building that blocks the end of the street so that it feels as though she is walking into a sheer-sided box canyon made of sculpted stone, steel, and glass.

The building on her left is especially arresting. Its front made of beautifully sculpted red stone, pillars and glass, it rises perhaps two hundred feet above the street. Arias notices a large stone, set in one corner by its base, that states the year of its construction.

The stone says 1888. Arias smiles, and continues walking.

Journeys begin, and journeys end. Or pause, and go off again in another way. As she walks, holding down her large and fashionable hat, Arias wonders if this is the end end of a journey that began sixty years ago, or if this is a waypoint on a journey that began three hundred years ago.

But no. In fact, it is a waypoint that began more than twelve thousand years ago, in a place that only a handful beings on this planet now remember. It was a place called Bright Hills: a school for young souls. It was a place where a young Teacher first caught the eye of a young Warrior.

Long and long ago.

A stoplight turns green, and Arias resumes walking across a wide street. The women walking with her are all wearing head-scarves except for a couple who are waitresses who are wearing little white paper crowns atop their heads.

A great bus, carrying perhaps fifty people, comes roaring and sparking past her. Colored green and white and bearing the words Chicago Surface Lines, it draws power from two wires strung high above the street.

As the light changes, everyone walks quickly forward. The men are all wearing dark suits and ties and shallow straw ‘boater’ hats with dark bands. These are their springtime hats, probably coming out just this week for the new season. In the winter they would all wear dark fedoras. The women mostly wear head scarves, simple garments, and practical shoes. People stop walking and start walking when the lights tell them to.

The city-dwellers are rushed and there is tension on their faces. The long ago students in the pavilions and gardens of the Bright Hills, if they could be shown this place would have seen that tension. They would have said These people are slaves, kept in perpetual fear by their unguessed masters that their soul-force might be more easily harvested. And they would have been quite correct. They would have looked at the gigantic buildings rising so high that the sky is visible only as a narrow channel between their crenelated tops and they would have said These people worship only themselves. They have forgotten the rhythms of the Earth. And they would have been quite correct.

And Arias agrees! But Arias can also see these great stone and steel towers, these throngs of men and women, these rushing roaring gleaming vehicles in another way. There is excitement here, and a kind of grandeur. Something great is being built here, reaching to the sky. Does not a tree likewise build its trunk out of the elements of earth, water, and air, lifting its branches toward the light?

Certainly something is being built, the ghosts in her memory would say. But only at the cost of the souls of these hapless beings: stunted as the very force of their lives is harnessed to their masters’ supposed great works. Given no choice and no knowledge, they cannot even know what has been taken from them, or how.

And how are they different, in that from us of the Filii Veritas? Arias asks the shades of memory. What have our masters demanded of us, and what choice have we had? What have we never known?

Waiting at the last minor intersection, she looks up and up and laughs, amused but also more than a little awed by the vaulting battlements of the tallest building in the city: the Chicago Board of Trade. At its top there is a shallow copper pyramid and atop that, six hundred feet above the bustling street, stands a thirty-foot status of an Art Deco goddess, faceless but crowned with a laurel of success and prosperity, she is lovely and making sure that you know it, and she is holding in one hand an object that looks very much like a purse, and in the other a shopping bag. She is the Chicago Goddess of Shopping.

One of the gleaming vehicles frustrated at being cut off in the intersection by a last-moment speedster, lets out a string of a full score of quick bursts with its two-note horn. But it is not a random staccato, Arias realizes. Each note has one of two distinct durations, short or long.

Arias laughs. The car’s driver has used his horn to spell out a-s-s-h-o-l-e in Morse code. A man walking toward her, of an age to have been perhaps a lieutenant in the recent war, catches her eye and tips his springtime hat, giving her a knowing smile and nod as he walks past.

And how could she ever explain this to her long-lost colleagues and students of the Bright Hills?

If she could do anything, have anything? If she were one of the legendary exalted beings of the Second Choir who could work her will upon this whole world at once? Then, yes: she would have the end of the beings who have ruled the Earth since their terrible arrival so long ago. But would she also wipe away all trace of the Filii Lucis culture from the cosmos? Looking at this bustling city and its harried, profane, sometimes humorous and sometime happy people—no, she would not.

And now I go to present a gift to one of their best.

Not one of the Nine, certainly. And Arias feels that this one is nothing like those old monsters who once conquered this Earth and who rule it still. Yet she is quite confident that her peers—as well as her betters—would consider this treason.

Arias smiles at the tall buildings and at the way the wind off Lake Michigan tugs at her impossibly large hat.

What will come of what she is about to do? Who can say? What will come of it a hundred or two hundred years from now? Even the Nine could not have extrapolated from the bustling and shit-smelling dirt roads of Nieuw Amsterdam three centuries ago to the bustling and exhaust-smelling streets of Chicago today. No more so than a young Teacher, twelve long millennia ago, could have imagined that one glance, one smile, one night of love—would someday lead her to commit, arguably, the greatest treason against her people in the entire long history of the War upon this world.

“Then let it be treason,” she whispers onto the wind, one hand holding her great ridiculous hat down against it.

The light across the small intersection changes to Walk, and Arias, smiling, steps out onto the street.

~

“A visitor has arrived, my lord,” Tennen’s master of the house announces. “It is a woman, my lord,” the man says. “A very fashionable woman.”

Tennen looks up at the man, frowning.

“A woman?”

He has not been expecting anyone.

“Would you prefer she meet with security, my lord?”

“No, no need for that. But—she asked for me directly?”

“By name, my lord.”

Tennen has many female acquaintances, but he cannot imagine which of them would show up this morning, especially unannounced.

“Yes, very well. Send her up.”

Rising, he walks to the window and looks at the great city spread out below. He can see the entire length of LaSalle Street, lined by lesser skyscrapers at first, the size of its buildings then tapering down steadily beyond City Hall and the river until terminating at last in the blue distance at Lincoln Park and the Lake.

When Tennen arrived here Chicago was already a great city of half a million, but was only the third or fourth largest city in an America growing by leaps and bounds since its forcible reunification and amidst the ongoing subjugation of the aboriginals in the West. But since then, and partly due to the policies of aggressive development that Tennen and his lieutenants have instituted throughout the Midwest, Chicago has grown quickly. It is now a metropolis of three and a half million, and the second largest in the nation after Raim’s New York on the east coast. But while Raim has been content to let his great city become a place of financial trading and boutiques, Chicago has developed a reputation as a city that works for its living.

Now that the war has been won and the American Empire is becoming a reality, the four primary lieutenants of Naberius have begun vying in earnest for the leadership of the final phase of the great design of the Nine. Until very recently, Tennen thought it obvious that his focus on industrialization and agricultural productivity had won him the primacy. It was, after all, Midwestern factories that had defeated the German and Russian strategy of Andrealphus. But now, only eighteen months after the war’s end, it is becoming clear that winning the right to empire and actually implementing the empire are two significantly different propositions. Now it is becoming clear that Raim’s strategy of focusing on the financial underpinnings of the world-spanning empire to come may have been more far-seeing than Tennen understood.

But of course Tennen has one other very substantial trump card. Drago Stolojan, the engineer of the hundred-year plan that has now successfully achieved the American Empire, is Tennen’s servant as he has been for nearly six decades. Of course in the matter of the plan’s execution he has continued to report directly to Naberius, and in any case would not dream of altering his designs in any way to benefit his new lord.

Yet now that the great design has been achieved, now that Naberius has defeated Andrealphus of Eurasia and Amon of China, the Engineer belongs solely to Tennen. And Tennen intends to use him.

Looking down at the bustling streets, he frowns. Of the lieutenants of Naberius, while Tennen has been industrious and Raim devious, Amiethon has appeared to be redolent. He knows something. He has always had the ear of Naberius. Something is stirring, now that the War is won, and Tennen has, as yet, caught no hint of it. He frowns down at the five-laned street. How can he—

“My lord,” the master of the house enunciates from his door, “your visitor.”

Tennen turns, expecting anything from a forgotten lover to a female assassin. Instead he sees a vision in black and white: tight white blouse, flaring black skirt, absurdly gigantic black hat, black gloves.

And the most beautiful dark eyes.

Ridiculously, he feels his heart flutter in his chest.

“My lady,” he says. “I had not expected to see you again.” Inadvertently, he laughs. “Is this your idea of keeping a low profile?”

The woman who once introduced herself as Josette Landry steps forward and offers her gloved hand, which Tennen takes joyfully. In the old style he bows over it and raises it to touch to his lips, then steps back to regard her.

“You are younger!”

“Oh but of course!” Arias gestures with her gloved hands to indicate her haute couture suit. “Such suits as these are not made for forty-year-olds, you know.”

Tennen smiles at her words, but at their sound rather than their content. She is no longer attempting to hide the trace of an accent in her English.

I am enchanted to see you again, after so long,” Tennen says. In French.

Arias dips the wide brim of her hat for a moment before looking up at her host again.

“Please forgive me,” she says. “I realized afterward that I was a fool for trying to deceive you. I am sure you knew everything about me within a month of our meeting.”

“A week,” Tennen says, and Arias laughs.

“It was just that I had heard that you favored Americans, and—” she smiles meekly, “perhaps I felt I needed whatever advantage I could procure?”

“I assure you,” Tennen says. “You had nothing to fear.”

“I was foolish.” Arias turns her attention to the grand office around her. “Ah, but such magnificence you have here, atop the great city!” She looks at the vaulted ceilings sloping from eleven feet at the large room’s perimeter to a full thirty feet at the center, the walls’ rich mahogany wainscoting and, above that, great framed frescoes depicting scenes of pioneering, agriculture, and trade. The room is large enough to be organized into separate regions: one for Tennen’s grand desk and accompanying bureaus, one area for a table at which a dozen guests might sit, a less formal sitting area of overstuffed chairs and side tables, and a section for shelved books which, judging by the care that has been lavished upon their housing, must be among their owner’s most prized possessions. In the center of the wide bookshelves, Arias’s eye fall upon a single glass display case, inside of which is a single book whose red and orange colors she is shocked to recognize. Tennen has given the pride of place in his entire collection to the book she gave him sixty years ago.

Looking at him, Arias finds him meeting her gaze with a faint smile.

“Please, won’t you sit?”

He guides her to the informal sitting area, and goes to the rooms very grand bar to pour, as he did long ago, two glasses of wine.

“What is this ship? Such a lovely sculpture! And so large!” she says as he places her glass on the side table.

The sculpture standing along the nearby wall is a massive thing: fully eleven feet long and more than half that high, made of glazed iron. It depicts an idealized clipper ship, its masts raked back at a fanciful angle.

“That was the sculpture that stood atop the original Board of Trade building on this site. Its tower was taken down only a few years after I arrived because it was starting to lean. The original builders actually intended it to function as a weather vane!”

“That great thing could point out the direction of the wind?”

“Unerringly!” Tennen smiles. “Whenever the wind was out of the north. Also these frescoes were from the trading halls of the original building. I cannot let such things go to waste.”

“But please,” he lifts his glass. “To your project of these last sixty years. If I am correct in guessing that Dr Goddard was your protege?”

“You are,” Arias smiles, lifting her glass.

“Then you have succeeded brilliantly,” Tennen nods. “To your success!”

Tennen drinks from his glass and Arias sips from hers more demurely.

“I must say, however, that I was surprised, my lord.”

“In what way?”

“I knew that Robert’s work—”

Tennen chuckles, and Arias understands at once the source of his amusement.

“Forgive me, but I have known him since he was sixteen. Although, of course, in changing guises. It is all I can do sometimes not to call him ‘Bobby’ as his mother did.”

“In any case, I knew that his work concerning rockets would certainly come to your attention. Yet it was the German rather than the American military that made use of it. I am not well versed in the territories of the Nine, but is Europe not the realm of the great lord Andrealphus, rather than of Naberius?”

“It is,” Tennen nods. “But, as you know, I have settled down to become the faithful servant of great lord Naberius only recently. You are also aware that I was not idle in all my time before that. I still have contacts and servants in many lands and I thought that, for this work, it might be advisable to have it done with as little apparent connection to myself as practical. While insuring that it would not materially impact the outcome, I nevertheless wanted the work to receive the level of funding and expertise that it deserved.”

“And it was perfect, my friend!” he leans forward in his chair. “This is precisely the kind of technology that you said the Nine would someday allow us, but now, because of your help, we have developed it early and my allies are now able to experiment with it secretly! Even if it is not all we hoped, we may now be able to make developments beyon d what the Nine intended. With development, the technology of liquid fueled rockets will someday take us to the Moon. Or so I believe. Did Dr Goddard believe likewise before his passing? I was sorry to hear of it.”

Arias sips from from her wine and sets the elegant glass on the side table. Unexpectedly, she finds she must calm herself. Any what can it possibly mean that when this being, this enemy, in point of fact—what can it mean that a moment ago when he called her friend that she felt something—quite unexpected?

“These rooms—forgive me, my lord—they are perfectly secure?”

Tennen laughs. “They are, my lady, or I would be dead many times over, I assure you.”

Arias nods and takes a breath.

“Did I not tell you,” she speaks quietly in spite of his assurance, “that it might require more than one generation of student? It was as I said. Robert made his rockets, and his brilliance—despite the mockery of the newspapers it was obvious to keener minds—drew to him one even more brilliant. And it was he who did it.”

Frowning, Tennen sips from his glass.

“Did what?”

Arias holds his gaze.

“My lord Tennen,” she says. “We have discovered the secret of the Nine. We have the Star Drive.”

He watches her without reaction.

“Robert Goddard is not dead. He has gone into hiding with his student and a few trusted servants, back to the desert town where he once experimented. Where I once encouraged him to go, both to escape prying eyes and to keep any unusual developments far from you territory. It is a small town in the far southwest: Roswell, New Mexico. Even so, his laboratory is far outside the town, in a little-frequented area. They are there now, secretly building their first man-capable craft.”

Tennen blinks.

“You—have it. You have seen it.”

“I have touched it,” she smiles. “I have had it explained to me, which helped very little.”

“What—is it?” Tennen asks. “What does it look like?”

“A small device,” Arias says. She is uncertain as to how her host is receiving this news. “It is electrical. He explained it to me. There are two great forces in the universe: electricity and gravitation. It is possible to create a device that uses the one force to alter the other. He—the physicist, the younger one—in fact says that gravitation is not a force at all, but that space itself is like,” Arias frowns, “tiny bundles of activity. That the device uses electrical fields to smooth that activity—no.” She shakes her head angrily. “To slow it! More in one direction than the other. And that causes any mass to accelerate in that direction.”

Tennen looks like he is trying to burn holes in her with his gaze.

“Gravitation. This drive affects gravitation itself.”

“Yes! But he says that inside the field—once they have created a field large enough to contain human beings—the pilot will feel nothing at all. I mean no force, no acceleration. Not even the normal attraction of the Earth. The pilot will not be slammed from side to side as the craft changes course, nor thrown into the dashboard if it suddenly stops. In fact, the pilot will float!”

Tennen’s face remains without expression, although hard and still.

“You have seen this yourself.”

“Yes. Although at first I was uncertain. We have had it for a year! Since the very end of the war. But the first device could not even move itself, but merely reduce its weight on a scale. Robert believed at once, and insisted on keeping it secret. That was my influence, of course, in my guise as their Guggenheim benefactress. But he did not require much influence. The two bombs had just been dropped, the second one only the day before. He said that soon such weapons would be put atop his rockets, and that the next war would devastate the world. He said he should never have released his rockets to the world, and that we must now at all costs keep this great discovery secret, or the governments would quickly do with it what they had done with his inventions. Robert was so troubled that it was only the Germans who had finally used his technology and perfected it. He tried for so long to interest the US military. I became part of their conspiracy, telling them that I would use my own funds. I arranged Robert’s funeral. They believe me to be an aged and wealthy heiress. Yet I was unconvinced. It took more than a year, but they have created a device that generates sufficient effect to lift its own weight. I felt it pushing up against my own hand, although John said that I should not leave my hand too long in the field.”

“John?”

“Ah,” Arias blinks. “Forgive me. The young man. The student. I thought that perhaps his name should remain unknown even to you.”

“Yes,” Tennen nods. “Yes of course. Josette—you felt this yourself.”

“I did.” Arias smiles impishly. “I let the device go, and it quickly went up and struck the ceiling and stayed there. Robert was very upset. He had to send one of his servants to get a ladder from the barn.”

Tennen continues to look at her without expression.

“John says that a greater instance of this device could sail into the sky and not stop until its pilot wishes it to stop. It could leave the Earth. John says that it could quickly attain any speed desired. That we might cross to the Moon not in four or five days, but in a single hour! They have almost completed the first test ship that can carry two men. They hope to fly it soon, secretly in the night.”

“It is true, my lord. We have done it. They have done it. We have the star drive.”

Tennen exhales slowly, setting his forgotten glass down on the side table, then rises and walks to the windows where he can look down the long vista of LaSalle Street. From her seat, Arias watches him for a few seconds then stands, wondering at his silence. Belatedly, she removes her large cartwheel hat and leaves it on the chair.

“My lord?” she asks to his back, approaching him.

Taking another deep breath, he turns back toward her. In the first moment it seems as though he is angry—furious. Then she sees tears on his face.

“You are telling me,” he says slowly, “that we are free?”

Arias feels a wave of emotion that, five minutes ago, she would have said was impossible. Even to her this being is no child. He has walked the Earth for five millennia—less than she, but he has done so much more. Has he for all that time suffered from the knowledge that, no matter what he might achieve, no matter how he might strive, he would never be free of the boundaries set by the true rulers of the Earth?

“Yes,” Arias whispers putting her hands on his shoulders. “We are free.”

His eyes close tightly as if in pain and he takes one of her hands in both of his, which tremble.

After several breaths he releases her, wipes his face and blinks his eyes open, nods to her, and turns away again to walk back to the window, where he stays for a full minute. Arias resumes her seat, leaning her big hat against the side table.

“You said there are two servants?” Tennen says at last. Walking to the bar, he pours himself an immense glass of whiskey before coming back to resume his seat.

“Yes. Both unmarried. I interviewed them myself. They are safe.”

Looking at the rug between them both, Tennen nods. And then drinks half his glass of whiskey.

He stands up convulsively and strides to the cast iron clipper ship.

“The star drive is the great miracle,” he says, “without which we could do nothing. Yet—”

He turns to face her.

“Yet I suspect that much more than transportation will be needed before we can live on other worlds. Even on the Moon, closest of all the worlds, I suspect that we know little of the conditions there. Although we do know that there is no rain. The Moon’s face does not change. It is never obscured by clouds.”

Arias/Josette smiles.

“My lord,” she says. “Robert Goddard has explained this to me. There is almost certainly no air on the Moon at all. Likewise in all the miles between Earth and Moon. As you rise in the atmosphere of the Earth, the air becomes ever thinner until it will no longer support life. Robert has measured the effects of the thinning air on the flight of his rockets. And, he explained to me, there must come some altitude where there is no air at all. Otherwise the Moon itself would long ago have come spiraling down to crash upon the Earth, its speed sapped by that air.”

Tenne stares at her.

“No air at all.”

“Yes, my lord.”

He stalks from the ship to the bar then turns again.

“But this ship that your humans are building—it can contain air?”

“No, my lord. Robert is skilled at fashioning aluminium craft. He has been doing it for many years. Indeed,” she smiles, “since childhood. But he is not that skilled. He has told me that this is something he cannot achieve: to make a craft that will be proof against the vacuum of the space above the Earth’s air.”

“But then—”, Tennen frowns.

Arias holds him with her gaze.

“My lord Tennen,” she says. “I have done what I proposed to do. My men have done what no others have done since the Nine came to the Earth long ago.” Do not delve further into that vein! “Yet, as brilliant as they are, they cannot fully succeed without the help of one whom we do not yet have.”

“Who?” Tennen scowls.

You, my lord. We need you. Your money, your power, your wisdom, your cunning. To finally succeed,” she smiles, “we need you.

Their eyes meet. Tennen is a small man, by current standards. Arias is a small woman, in her normal guise. Wearing her high-fashion heels, she and Tennen are of a height. Yet she understands now, looking into his eyes, that he is the most powerful and magnificent being—save one—that she has ever met. She knows she is giving him a great gift with her words, and she is glad. Why, she does not know.

“Thou builder of worlds,” she says, in archaic French, “we need you.”

For the second time this morning, his face momentarily reacts as though she has stabbed him in the heart.

Yet he recovers himself quickly, and looks at her again. He is no child.

“You had me, my lady,” he says, “on the night we first met.”

Standing again, Tennen walks across the room toward the library, then back to the iron ship.

“Submarines,” he says. “We have the technology to contain air, clearly.”

He walks from the ship to his desk.

“And would the same techniques work in a vessel that must pass through the vacuum, rather than the water?”

“There will be many things,” he says. “Water. We must carry it, or find it. And the pioneers will need clothing! Not just their ships must contain air. They will need to walk out of their ships, and still breathe.”

“Food, mining, manufacturing. Nothing can be taken for granted! Can metals be mined on the Moon? Can manufacturing be performed?”

Walking back and forth across the penthouse office, Tennen begins listing objectives, noting questions, exclaiming at new realizations. Arias watches with a feeling rising in her that at first she does not understand. Then she remembers the moment on the street when she felt the joy of creation, the excitement of meeting a challenge, of setting out toward the frontier—

That thought stops her, the joys and the horrors of the world that men like Tennen have created all coming together suddenly in one incandescent point.

What if all the oppression of the world of the Filii Lucis only exist because there is no longer a frontier? And their energy and vitality, turned back upon itself, becomes consumptive?

What, then, would they become in a world whose frontier is boundless?

Tennen suddenly stops his striding and gesticulating and looks at Arias silently.

“Josette,” he says. “May I see it? May I go see the drive for myself? May I feel it, as you did?”

“That’s why I came here,” she smiles at him happily. “To invite you.”

And only as she says it does Arias realize that it is actually true.

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