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Authors: Jeremy Robinson

BENEATH - A Novel (9 page)

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Peterson relaxed his body. "Somehow, I think you might change your mind when we get out there. Do you know much about our solar system? About Jupiter?"

Connelly shook her head, no. "Only what I learned in high school astronomy, but that was long, long ago."

"Why don't I fill you in over dinner? Maybe we can work on some of that skepticism?"

"I had lunch with you during a break. That was lunch. Between co-workers. What you're asking now is more than that, correct?"

"Yes, Dr. Spock. I do believe it is."

Connelly smiled. "Sorry, not on this trip, Romeo."

With that, Connelly, turned and headed for the women's locker room door. Why had she said no? Despite his arrogance, he was smart, funny and attractive—a rare combination to find in the sciences. But this mission was big. Too big for romance, and she would continue to push her feelings to the wayside, at least until they were all back on Earth.

She could almost feel Peterson's gaze lingering on her back, probably on her butt.
She could feel the fabric of her sweatpants riding up, but didn't dare adjust it while he was watching. With a quick turn of the head, Connelly gave one last look back. Peterson waved with a smile and she felt a tightness in her chest, but this wasn't anxiety.

Connelly laughed to herself as she came to a realization. The punching bag wasn't Peterson, but her tension
caused by him. The energy she felt now, after speaking to the man for only a few minutes, wasn't going where she wanted it to go. So she was beating the hell out of a punching bag instead.



Rubbing his eyes in the morning sun, Willard looked at the incredible view of the
Pacific Ocean
. The crew had been flown from the GEC training facility to
San Diego
where they boarded a GEC research vessel and headed out to sea. By nightfall they were all situated in cramped quarters within the walls of the Naval Auxiliary Landing Facility on
San Clemente Island
. Sleep came quickly to all, as it had throughout the duration of their grueling training, but an early start was on the schedule for today.

It was seven o'clock in the morning and the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter's tandem blades sliced loudly through the air. Loud snoring from across the helicopter's interior rumbled along with the chopping blades. Willard frowned and shook his head. Captain Harris sat across from him, sleeping as soundly as a dead man in the grave. Willard wasn't bothered by the sound, just by the fact that Harris could sleep at all.

Willard blinked and felt heavy weights dangling form his eyelids. He turned his attention back out the window to distract himself from his slumber lust. The water of the Pacific was deep blue and the millions of tiny waves reflected glints of yellow from the sun.

But then, something far below caught his eye. A grey shape cut across the ocean. He recognized the shape. "There's an aircraft carrier down there," he said to no one in particular.

Connelly, Robert and Peterson, who had been involved in a scientific discussion of no interest to Willard, immediately moved to the windows adjacent to Willard's, peering down at the ocean. Choi made no move and looked disinterested. Harris remained asleep.

"Is that where we're going?" Robert asked.

"I don't know," Connelly said. She looked at Choi. "Are we landing on the aircraft carrier?"

Choi shook her head, no.

Willard took his eyes off the carrier and looked further out, towards the horizon, where he saw another vessel, and another, and another. He quickly counted fifteen in all, of various shapes and sizes. "Looks like they have a whole fleet out here."

Robert pushed his glasses higher onto his nose and looked at Choi. "Are we launching from sea? Are these ships for our protection?"

Choi rolled her head on her shoulders. "In response to your first question…" As Choi spoke, a loud and constant rumbling grew quickly from behind the helicopter. "The ships below are not for our protection."

The rumbling grew to a deafening level, and then roared past. Willard snapped his head toward the window in time to see three fighter jets.

are for our protection." Choi stood and moved to the central window, through which Willard had been gazing. "The ships are protecting

Willard looked out the window and followed Choi's pointed finger to what looked like an oil platform. Then he saw several more. At the center of the conglomeration of platforms was a massive construction that looked like a floating city. But he knew this was no ordinary city. It had all the bells and whistles of a scientific facility; satellite dishes, multiple antennae, generators, solar panels, and more than anything else, it was clean—gleaming white.

But what stood out most about the gigantic platform was a shimmering blue streak that rose up out of the center and disappeared into the sky. Willard lost view of the line several times as it would momentarily blend in with the blue sky or ocean, but a reflection of sunlight or a white cloud would reveal the line rising into the sky, beyond Willard's vertical view.

Brow furrowed, Willard said, "What the hell is that?"

"I don't understand," Robert said, "Where are we launching from? I don't see a shuttle or a launch pad and I sure haven't heard of a space launch from sea."

"Is that what I think it is?" Peterson said.

"What do you think it is?" Robert asked.

Peterson stepped away from the window and locked his eyes onto Choi. "Is that the space elevator?"

"One of them, yes."

"Space elevator?" Connelly said. "They're for bringing equipment into space, not people. Why are we here? TES is already in orbit."

"OK, now I'm nervous," Robert said. "So let me ask my first question again…. Where are we launching from?"

"We're not launching," Choi said.

Connelly's eyebrows shot to the top of her forehead and her voice became defiant. "What?"

"Your anxiety is misplaced. The mission is continuing as planned."

Connelly's shoulders dropped.

"Tell me we're not taking the space elevator…into space," Robert said.

"I'm afraid I must disappoint you, Dr. Samuels."

Robert sat back, looking pale. "You okay, man?"

"I don't like elevators," Robert replied.

"It will be a quick ride, I'm sure," Willard said.

"This elevator is sixty-two thousand miles high," Choi said.

Willard's face fell flat. "Oh."

Robert lowered his head. Connelly rubbed his back.

"Something going on?" Harris said as he stretched his face and blinked his tired eyes.

Choi turned to him and said, "We're there."

Willard looked back out the window and followed the blue streak from the platform and into the sky. This tiny blue streak would bring them to space, and hopefully, back. Willard smiled. "Intense."




Robert stood at the base of the world's tallest structure and did his best not to throw up. His eyes followed the blue, micron thin ribbon skyward until his neck couldn't bend any further back. The ribbon disappeared into the sky with no end in sight. Since landing he had learned that this recently constructed space elevator had yet to be revealed to the world. There were three others around the globe, but none as massive as this.

The first three had been built five years ago and were widely publicized. Everyone knew about them. They had been shipping satellites, space station modules, even small spacecraft into space with never an incident and at extremely low costs. The success of the space elevators had single handedly saved the globe's space programs.

But the one thing the elevators couldn't transport was people. Equipment designed for space could be brought into space without survivability concerns. People were a different matter. For years, the Institute for Scientific Research (ISR) had sought to create an elevator that could safely transport human beings into space, to a small space station at the end, where they could dock with spacecraft built in space with parts the other elevators transported.

Robert swallowed with a gulp. They had apparently succeeded.

The behemoth of human engineering he now stood on rose out of the middle of the
Pacific Ocean
. The original elevators had a three foot wide ribbon that was just a few microns thick and sixty-two thousand miles long. Robert had learned that this ribbon was identical to the other in construction except for being six feet wide. The extra width gave this elevator the ability to lift 110 tons. The added lifting capability allowed the ISR to construct a module capable of sustaining human life, quite comfortably, during transport to and from space. It was complete with plush chairs, grand windows, refreshment bar and all the necessary facilities for keeping a crew of astronauts relatively comfortable while they were transported into space.

But Robert knew that no matter how comfortable the ride was, he'd be a nervous wreck the whole way up; in part because of his fears, but also because he'd managed to hide that fear during his psychological evaluation. He'd prefer being launched in a shuttle with an exploding rocket beneath him over riding for hours in a glorified elevator. The inner workings of the space elevator had been explained to him; the ribbon, constructed of a super strong carbon nanotube composite was held aloft by centrifugal force—it's why all four space elevators were built at the equator where the earth spins fastest. The station at the end of the ribbon served as a counter weight and was held in a perfect geosynchronous orbit.
The module clung to the ribbon with a set of rollers which were powered from the ground by a free-electron laser, and could move up the ribbon at a steady pace. All this technology made Robert excited and intrigued, but his old fears were coming back to haunt him.

When Robert was a child, he avoided elevators at all cost. He'd sooner take thirty flights of stairs then ride in an elevator. Things had changed for him ten years ago when he went on a date in
—the first in two years—with a stunning woman who seemed more interested in his mind than in his body, which was a good thing...a very good thing. They had a wonderful dinner—lobster with shrimp cocktail. For him it was one of those nights you never forget.

To his never ending surprise, she had called him the next day, and invited him out for a surprise. He happily accepted. For twenty minutes they drove around the city, him blindfolded, her behind the wheel. When she parked the car, Robert felt an excitement he had never felt before. His throat was parched. His heart was racing. When she took off the blindfold, all that disappeared. He stood at the base of the Seattle Space Needle and looked up. The blood fled from his face and his mouth dropped open. He began to sweat at the base of his back and felt a pain in his knees.

Mind spinning, he tried to think of an excuse to use the stairs, but couldn't conceive of a way to justify climbing fifty-two stories. Dumbfounded, he couldn't react. She had grabbed him and dragged him forward, racing toward the elevator. He was still looking up when the elevator doors closed behind him and the doorman said, "Next stop, observation deck, five hundred and twenty feet up."

Robert cringed as he remembered the twisting sensation his stomach felt as the elevator surged up. For five seconds, Robert managed to remain calm, but the gentle touch of the woman he had grown so fond of, broke the barriers of fear. He wept, sobbed really, for what seemed like twenty minutes. He spilled out onto the observation deck, terrified. Moving like a scared rabbit, Robert searched for the stairs through blurry eyes. He didn't hear anyone asking to help him. He didn't see the people diving out of his way. His worst fear had been sprung on him before he had a chance to prepare. Robert found the stairs, stumbled all the way down, hailed a cab and went home.

He never heard from her again.

Since that day he resolved to conquer his fear of elevators and had done so with some success. He regularly used elevators now, using a counting technique that no one ever noticed. As long as he kept counting, his fear could never take hold.

The only person he ever told about his fear was Connelly, his closest friend and greatest supporter. She hadn't teased him once since he revealed his secret fear and occasionally, when they rode in elevators together, she would shoot him a reassuring glance. As far as he was concerned, her judgment and understanding where infallible—it's one of the reasons he was willing to follow her into space. Of course, no amount of reassuring glances could ease his fears about
elevator ride.

Robert looked up at the blue ribbon reaching up into the sky and wondered how high he would have to count. "How long will it take? To get to the top, I mean."

Harris looked over at Robert. He'd been explaining the beneficial ramifications of the space elevator on space travel and how their mission, if successful, would be the first of many jaunts to the outer reaches of the solar system. He looked at Robert with some sympathy in his eyes. "All day, I'm afraid."

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