Authors: L Valder Mains,Laurie Mains
The inverted fuel tank was dripping gasoline into the interior of the van, the spark had set her possessions aflame. The fuel was leaking faster, rolling down the inside wall of the van, he could see that it would be only a matter of seconds before the interior of the vehicle would be a fireball. Sara was pulling on the straps trying desperately to free the woman but he could see it was impossible to save her. The heat inside was building and he worried the fuel tank would explode. He had no choice he backed out and grabbed Sara’s legs and forcefully yanked her out of the van.
“What are you doing, let me go!”
She kicked and struggled and broke free but when she tried to crawl back inside the heat and smoke pushed her back. They both scrambled backwards moving safely away from the flames. They knew when the fire inside reached the woman because she began to shriek; the sound of her screams were nightmarish as he watched the flames engulfed her. The fire was on her clothes, burning her flesh, consuming her alive before their yes.. Jack did not notice when Sara pulled the gun from his jacket pocket.
In one swift movement she ran back to the van, reached inside, and shot the screaming woman in the head ending her torture. In silence they walked back to the RV and watched the van burn. After a while he got up and poured two shots of the old folks’ bourbon and handed one to her. She sipped it with tears in her eyes as she watched.
“You tried to get her out. Ending her suffering was the right thing to do,” he said.
He hugged her from behind and felt her slump against his embrace. It was a brave thing she’d done, he had to admit that it had not even occurred to him to do what she did. To put the woman out of her misery. He left her and went to the truck and pumped out its diesel fuel. There was more than enough to fill both tanks on the RV. Sara was lying down when he returned and he drove the motorhome a few miles down the road and parked it in a driveway off the highway. He did not feel like driving but he did not want her to wake and see the burnt out van.
He made diner but she wouldn’t eat, just picked at her food.
“I killed someone today.”
Her voice was soft, indistinct. He did not say anything, what could he say? He went to her and held her and he knew that was the right thing to do when she tucked into his embrace and sobbed.
That night he dreamed about the woman in the white van. He wondered if the disabled woman in the van was the driver in Eloy. He could not get over the feeling that all she’d been looking for was help from him and he ran away. It could have been him that killed her only under much different circumstances. He felt sad about that and the next days neither of them talked much for the rest of their journey.
Clayton New Mexico
Clayton was a tiny dot on the road map and an even tinier place in person. The big green welcome sign on the outskirts of town proclaimed a population of twenty five hundred and sixty souls. Jack eyed the empty old-west style buildings and the thick layer of dust on the cars and estimated the population was closer to two now that they’d arrived.
Sara drove for the last hundred miles and they were both exhausted when they pulled onto a freshly paved road marked Spaceport Drive. A half mile further they came upon a group of aircraft hangars. Most of them were old and weathered and he assumed they were built during world war two. There was one new building if you could call it a building because it looked more like a small mountain. It was painted sky blue with a one hundred foot tall Jericho Space Adventure logo on the side.
She stopped at the entry gate and he got out to check inside the security hut. The gate was electrically operated and he could see no emergency over-ride. He walked up to the gate and tried to budge it but it was securely locked. He was looking at it trying to figure out what to do when he heard the diesel engine rev. He looked back just in time to jump out of the way as Sara smashed through the gate. She was grinning bigtime when he got back in.
“Nice going,” he said, “now everyone knows we’re here.”
The building was big and it took time to drive around to the other side and when they turned the last corner Sara slammed on the brakes.
”Holy Shit!” she said.
“Wow,” he said.
Jericho One did not come into view, it was the view.
“It’s enormous,” she said.
Jack’s mouth hung open, enormous was clearly an understatement. They got out of the RV and walked to the spacecraft both stunned by the massiveness of the thing. It was easily the most beautiful aircraft he’d ever seen and it was certainly the biggest. He was standing gazing at it in awe when Sara pointed.
“There’s the way in.”
He followed her to the rear of the spacecraft which was inside the massive hangar. A set of stairs led to a loading ramp which was extended to the rear section of the spacecraft ahead of the tail plane. The hatch was closed but Jack found the cover plate used by the ground crew to operate the door and managed to get it open without too much trouble. They stepped aboard Jericho One and saw two double rows of passenger seats. The interior looked a lot like a conventional airliner but with some major differences. For one thing the seats were wide and luxurious and the carpet was made from a material similar to Velcro, there were lots of windows, and every inside surface was soft, there wasn’t a sharp edge or corner anywhere.
“Why does it seem so much smaller inside?” she said.
He’d noticed that the interior of the cabin looked smaller than the outside of the craft would seem to predict.
“I think it’s because of the difference in strength needed between a conventional airliner and a spacecraft. In order to keep the passengers’ safe and the atmosphere breathable it needed a heavier external hull.”
When he saw the blank look on her face he started to explain in more detail but she stopped him with a raised hand.
“Okay, okay, I get it already. I just thought the whole thing would be a lot smaller.”
“So did I,” he admitted.
They walked forward to the cockpit and opened the crew hatch and went inside. The cockpit looked like the pictures he’d seen of the flight deck of the space shuttle Atlantis with rows and rows of switches and lots of video display panels.
“Oh my God, I can’t fly this thing, what was I thinking?” he said, over whelmed by the complexity.
Sara slipped into the pilot seat and put her right hand on the joystick and looked down at the runway. She was pretty sure he was right but she didn’t feel good about giving up.
“I’ll bet half these switches don’t do anything anyway,” she said.
They gazed around at the cockpit; every surface was covered with switches or gauges.
“Maybe not but that leaves about a trillion that do,” he said.
She could not argue the point but she was not happy about being defeated by a machine. They left the spacecraft feeling defeated, their high spirits gone, blown away by the stark reality of the situation. It took years for military pilots to build up enough flight hours to qualify as astronauts and then years after that to pilot the shuttle. What the hell had he been thinking?
“Steve are you there? Over,” he said.
He listened to the static on the CB in the RV and wondered if crashing through the gate damaged the radio. He was about to give up when he heard Steve’s voice.
“Yes Jack, did you make it to New Mexico?”
Jack looked at Sara and said,” Yes we made it
“What’s wrong?” In spite of the scratchy radio reception they both heard concern in his voice.
“Now that I’ve seen Jericho One I don’t think I can fly it. It’s really complex. In fact, I know I can’t fly it,” he said.
“Jack we are just glad you are both safe. You don’t have to fly anything son and we are proud of you and Sara for trying.”
There was dead air and then Steve came back on.
“We’ll be out of range in a few seconds but we want you to know how proud we are of you. You are remarkable young people. Find someplace safe to stay and we’ll talk again soon.”
Jack threw down the microphone and slumped back into the seat. He felt defeated by the whole thing and the worst part was it had been his idea to start with, after a while he got up and said.
“I’m going back to look around some more.”
Sara did not answer because she’d fallen asleep in the passenger seat. He gently stroked his hand through her hair as he went by. He hoped that she did not think he was an idiot because he dragged her all the way out here for nothing.
The cockpit looked just as intimidating as it had two hours earlier only more so. He sat on the edge of the pilot’s seat and counted eleven video screens. He read some of the labels for the various switches and levers trying to make sense of them. He did not recognize the abbreviations on most, some he guessed at, the rest remained unknown. Steve said that lots of them were redundant systems, backups for backups of primary systems in the event of a failure. He scanned the rows of switches directly in front of the pilot’s seats.
He slid into the left seat and dreamed out the windshield. The sky had darkened to a deep crystal clear blue. He shut his eyes and imagined the sound of the main engine starting, the deafening rumble and vibration. He put his hand on the joystick and imagined taxiing out onto the runway and pointing the huge craft at the horizon. In his mind he jammed the throttle forward and imagined the growing force of acceleration as the spacecraft hurled down the runway. Pulling back on the joystick he experienced the huge rush of stepping into the vast desert sky. He felt his stomach flutter at the image. He thought about being weightless in zero gravity and he imagined his body begin to float tugging against the seatbelt. It all seemed so real, so possible, when he opened his eyes and looked around the cockpit again somehow the task of flying Jericho One did not seem quite as daunting. In fact the cockpit seemed to be almost familiar to him now.
Well why not, he thought, this isn’t that much different from the flight simulator games he played. He found a tabbed binder with a pre-flight check list and flipped through it stopping to look for the corresponding switch or gauge amongst the hundreds around the cabin. Slowly he began to get a general sense of, if not the function of the switch, at least where it was located. The switches, levers, and video displays fell into sub-groups that were conveniently clustered using the diabolically twisted logic of an aeronautical engineer. As he progressed he ignored items associated with non-flight related functions. After all, he reasoned, if we reach the point where we need fire suppression we are as good as dead anyway. He tried to keep it simple. Navigation and communications he would leave to Sara to master.
He would concentrate on flying, engine controls, air speed, and rate of climb. He sat and practised scanning the gauges and controls in front of the pilot’s seat. He would be able to rely on Steve and his crew mates for technical support but, when he got right down to it, flying the huge craft would be up to him and Sara. He wanted to approach the problem in a logical manner. First things first, he needed to know how much fuel was on board, if any. Before he could determine that he had to figure out how to power up the electrical system. It took him a few minutes to find the main switch for powering up the cockpit systems. When he clicked it on about a million warning lights and buzzers went off and it scared the shit out of him. He spent the next hour systematically identifying every flashing light using the pre-flight manual and then figuring out how to shut the alarms down.
He discovered that the spacecraft appeared to be fully fuelled. This was an enormous bit of good luck because he had no clue how to fuel it or even where the fuel tanks were located. It occurred to him that the spacecraft was prepped for takeoff when the plague hit. If that was true it really was an incredible bit of luck. He shut the main buss down and went back to the RV it was time for ISS to pass overhead.
“Steve can you hear me, over,” he said. This time there was some excitement in his voice.
“Hi Jack, this is Gerry Wright Steve is getting some sleep. Over.”
“Hi Gerry, I’ve been looking over Jericho One again and I think maybe I over-reacted. With your help I believe we can do it. I think Sara and I can fly it.”
He looked over at Sara sitting next to him in the RV passenger seat and grinned. She was awake and looked back at him but he could not read her expression.
“There are a lot of things to learn before we can try it but right now we seem to have a lot of time on our hands. Over,” he said.
There was a few seconds of dead air.
“That sounds encouraging Jack and you are right there is no reason you could not learn the steps to flying the Jericho One. I was a flight instructor in the Air Force I will teach you everything you need to know and the crew will certainly help you any way they can. I have no doubt you can fly JERICHO ONE but my main concern is what will happen once you reach orbit, more specifically, how you will control the vehicle and manoeuvre it safely into proximity of ISS. Sara was correct, I’ve done the calculations and if we bring ISS into a lower orbit and we stretch the operational ceiling of Jericho One it is possible. The hard part is when we try to grab JERICHO ONE with the Canada Arm that will be extremely tricky. I’ve flown every type of aircraft there is and I had trouble manoeuvring the shuttle in weightlessness at 17,000 miles per hour.”
There was a pause in transmission.
“Everyone on board will be working on a plan. In the meanwhile you and Sara need to do some things to prepare. You’ll need to find spacesuits that can sustain extended periods in space. I don’t think the ones they give the tourists are good enough for an E.V.A.”
Sara whispered to Jack, “What’s an E.V.A.?”
He shrugged and said, “Going outside.”
“Outside where?” she said.
He looked over at her to see if she was kidding. ”Space,” he said,” outside in space.”
He saw her face redden at this and he smiled to try to soften whatever it was he said that she’d reacted to. She smiled back but he missed it when her face suddenly went pale as she processed what ‘going outside in space’ really meant. She turned away from him and stared out the windshield. The sun was setting over the long expanse of runway before her. It was beautiful but she was unable to see the beauty because she was filled with dread. All the plans and discussions they had on the way here and all her hope and excitement at the prospect of a great adventure had suddenly vanished in a gut wrenching bout of fear.
She dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands an old habit that came back when she was under stress. What am I going to do, she thought, I can’t go outside in space. I won’t go. She began to cry and when Jack saw her tears he tried to ask her what was wrong but she jumped up and ran into the bedroom slamming the door behind her.
“Jack, we need technical data, anything you can find about Jericho One and its flight systems. We will work on a method to transmit the data to us but in the meantime, gather as much as you can, and don’t worry if it does not seem relevant or important we want everything you find,” he said. His voice faded as the ISS passed over the horizon. Jack walked to the back and stood outside the bedroom door and spoke softly. “Are you okay?” He tried the handle and the door opened, “I’m sorry I wasn’t making fun of you,” he said guessing that was the problem. He’d had experience with this, his sister Marion though she was two years older than him, would have extreme reactions if she thought he was making fun of her. He sat down on the end of the bed and touched her ankle.
“Hey, I said I’m sorry.”
“It’s not you,” she said.
“So what is it?” he said.
“I’m afraid. I don’t want to go outside in space.”
He thought about that for a moment and said.
“Well you don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
At this she began to really cry sobbing into the pillow kicking her leg away from his touch. He figured out that he’d said the wrong thing but he was not sure why. “I don’t think you’re chicken or anything,” he said.