In March 1976, the full-sized mockup of Hopeless Diamond was ready to ship to Ratscat Test Range at White Sands, New Mexico for its do or die competition with whatever Northrop was putting forth. Rumor in the industry was that Northrop's powerful combination of structural and coating elements would be unbeatable.
In a meeting the day before shipping, Paul reminded Ben: "Everything hangs on the fact that nothing must touch the model's surfaces. We cannot afford even a tiny ding on the leading wing edge, or a bird dropping on the fuselage. Even a fly sitting on the cockpit window could give back a return, with the 50,000-watt megatron radar source they are going to use."
"I hear you," Ben said. "It's going to require every ounce of our attention. I want you watch their every move."
"I wouldn't do it any other way," Paul said.
Ben confided: "Rumor has it Northrop has an extremely sophisticated design with some faceting and some rounded corners, and the most advanced composites and paints imaginable."
Paul felt a sine wave of sheer icy terror pass through his gut. Rounded? Could that mean Northrop had leapfrogged over the computer problem and actually programmed a design with curved surfacesmore complex polygons than just the triangles the Hopeless Diamond was using?
Ben saw the look on Paul's face and said darkly: "I can almost hear the laughter out there. We've come this far, old buddy, we might as well go in swinging."
It was one of the only times that Paul saw a twinge of doubt on Ben's face. And why not? This design looked so strange that it was hard to be cheered for long over the incident with the crow. What if there had indeed been a short or something? What if the crow had in reality had nothing to do with the failed return? And the Skunk Works did not have a 50,000-watt megatron like White Sands, or even a 25,000-watt device like that at Palmdale. Most of the testing had been done with weaker radars. Oh Jeez, Paul thought, I feel like wetting my pants. Too late now for any further design mods.
The next morning a huge flatbed truck arrived, contracted from a civilian firm, with an ugly but powerful gray cab to tow it along.
Once again, major security had to be enforced. The truck had to back up into the hangar. Now the problem was how to lift the 38-foot behemoth the size of a small yacht without damaging it. This time, it would take more than a dozen men.
The model sat on a steel cradle, protected by rubber bumpers on the steel struts. The full size Hopeless Diamond had been built of wood, all in flat panels cut to precision by the model making shop. All edges had been carefully buttered to be invisible to radar, using radar-absorbing iron ball paints. The Hopeless Diamond reminded some of Darth Vader's helmet, especially now that it had been painted matte black.
The steel cradle was parted as far as its wheeled exterior halves would go, and the flatbed sidled underneath. A pair of motorized overhead pulleys rolled along on their steel I-beam tracksleftovers from a Korean War production line. Technicians wrapped blankets around the edges of the model, and loosely tied canvas straps around the model and then up over the pulley hooks.
The hooks tightened, and the model swayed in the air inches above the cradle.
The techs rolled the steel cradle away, and an operator lowered both pulleys evenly, very slowly, until the Hopeless Diamond sat snugly on its flatbed. Again it was wrapped in protective cushioning, and this time a canvas tent was laid over the steel poles in the edges of the flatbed, assuring the model was invisible to the air; and just as invisible to nosy fellow drivers on the road to White Sands, New Mexico. This time, two armed men from Lockheed's security branch would ride in the truck along with the driver, and Paul would fly to White Sands with Ben, Steve, and Kelly Johnson.
It would be a few days before they could fly there. The truck would have to drive to White Sands. Then Air Force technicians and security experts would take over. These tests meant potentially billions of dollars in funding, and everything had to be done in an atmosphere of 100% fairness and even-handedness. The powerful aerospace companies demanded and received precision attention. There would be no hands-on lifting of the models here. Air Force experts would handle every detail, from transporting the models to mounting them to testing them. The makers of the models would not be allowed to lay a hand on their creations during the official testing period to prevent tampering or cheating.
The evening before he flew to New Mexico, Paul found a letter in his mailbox. It was from Pete Kassner. He opened it with shaky fingers and read: "Dear Paul: Thanks very much for the wonderful saucer. I named it Condor IV in honor of you. It flies beautifully. Mom says hello. We miss you. Sincerely, Pete."
Paul stood in the doorway in the sunset and read the letter several times, trying to read between the lines. He was glad the boy was happy. We miss you... was that Pete talking, or both of them? If she wanted to, she would have called or written by now. Paul looked at the unused shelf high up near the door, where a plastic plant had been gathering dust in a fake pot since he'd moved in here three years ago. He supposed that Mrs. Garcia occasionally dusted there, but he never bothered. He reached up and felt around. There lay the note Marsha had written to him the day she'd bailed out. He slipped Pete's letter up to lie on top of that. He had no idea how he felt about them anymore. It had been several months without any contact. He resisted the urge to throw their notes away. He would walk away from this. He would let the notes lie there like leaves that have fallen off tries and slowly rot to nothing, so that a stray wind blows their brittle remains away.
Not long after Marsha's departure, new neighbors moved in. They were the Polanskis, a 40ish couple from Scranton, Pennsylvania, come here to start Madeira's first furniture store. Karl Polanski was a tall, thin man who moved with languid self-assurance. He was balding and had a devouring, intelligent gaze. Paul sat on the porch a few evenings, sharing a beer and political views with Polanski.
Dorothy Polanski was a small, robust graying woman with thick glasses. She had youthful skin, despite the gray hair, and it appeared she did not use much makeup. They had two children, both in high school. Beth was 16, a lovely dark-haired girl with a close, quiet manner. Her typical body language was to hold her school books to her chest with both arms and to stand slightly pigeon-toed. Aaron was 15 and a power soccer player, a fast runner, with a large bone structure and an aggressive chin. Paul could see the mix of features in them from their parentsKarl's incisive gaze, Dorothy's athletic plainness.
Dorothy was an excellent cook and they had Paul over for dinner two or three times. He felt odd, sitting in that same kitchen where... but it was a form of innoculation, he thought. One day he could look at that house or sit in that kitchen without remembering that a certain woman had once briefly lived there.
Life went on. The Polanskis were very much the reality now, not any of the many other people who'd lived under that roof in the 100 years of its existence.