Authors: Michael J. Daley
Shanghaied to the Moon
Michael J. Daley
For Jessie Haas
who always believed
and Tim Travaglini
who proved her right
T minus 16 (hours):00 (minutes):01 (seconds)
TOMORROW'S my birthday and my father is on the Moon.
That's no coincidence. Two days ago, Dad blasted off to do an emergency job for All drives, the biggest aerospace company in the solar system. He didn't have to go. A thousand other computer network specialists could've handled the job. Nope, Dad went to the Moon to get away from me.
Through the window in the Counselor's waiting room, I watch as the Moon slips between the perfect line where the sky meets the ocean. It's a daytime rising and the gigantic orb is pale, almost ghostly. It seems to linger at the threshold of the sky as if someone is holding it back, then it breaks free to claim all of space for itself.
Makes me shiver.
Like an enormous opaque bubble, the Moon rises higher above the Old Spaceport out on the end of the peninsula. I can barely make out the big dimple of Copernicus Crater. Invisible, Luna Base rests at the rim. Dad's staying there.
The only thing I want for my thirteenth birthday is his signature on my application to Space Academy Camp, which is due next week. I had a whole new round of arguments about why I should go all planned out, but now he's gone.
I turn my back on the window. No one else is in the waiting room. No one is in with the Counselor ahead of me, either. But the sign above the office door still says, “
STEWART, WAIT, PLEASE.
” Everybody's acting weird. The Counselor never makes me wait.
I take a seat.
If you ask me, Dad ought to be sitting here. Mark, too. He's like an old mother hen with Dad gone. I mean, he called to make this appointment at two o'clock in the morning! The dream wasn't that bad, as my dreams go, even if Mark says I woke up screaming.
My feet jiggle. A few more minutes and I'm outta here. I have a science project due tomorrow that I haven't even started.
I snug my portable 3-Vid goggles and earphones over my head and select a capsule at random from the cluster of Val Thorsten adventures in my pocket. When I pop the capsule into the earpiece, virtual reality takes over. The waiting room becomes the bridge of a spaceship, the
from Asteroid Run. The engines throb, a deep bass note in my bones. There's the smell of people in a tight space. I'm stationed at weapons control.
Not ten feet away stands the captain, Val Thorsten; tall, muscled, his long blond hair swept back into the classic pilot's ponytail. Leadership radiates from him like a force. It's easy to imagine his Viking ancestors on the foredeck, awash in the spray of a stormy ocean, guiding their ships to new worlds.
The voice-over begins: “Pirates have been raiding ships throughout the asteroid belt, then escapingâ”
Asteroid Run isn't one of Val's best adventures. There's only one really exciting part. I hit
Fast-forward in virtual reality is wild. The world squiggles. I don't like to use it. It reminds me too much about why I've been seeing the Counselor since Mom died. The squiggly effect is a lot like what happens just before a flashback hits me. Sometimes a word, or sound, or smell will trigger one. One second I'm living a normal life, the next things kind of shimmer around the edges andâwham!âI'm in a waking nightmare.
I haven't had a squiggly in months. That's why I don't just cut out on the Counselor. The Counselor helps keep them away.
At least with a 3-Vid, I know I'll drop back into the same story â¦
â¦ and we're in hot pursuit of a vicious-looking pirate ship: all cruel angles and Z-blasters. It plunges into a dense cluster of asteroid rubble. We blaze in after it. One wrong move and those flinty rocks will shred us into confetti.
Three other pirate ships shimmer into view on the main screen.
They open fire. My teeth chatter. My ears ring. Alarms blare.
Another volley pounds the hull like a thousand hammers on a gong. The deck pitches. Vertigo grips me. In the real world, my arm flies out. Knuckles smack hard against the empty seat next to me in the waiting room. Good thing no one else is here. Shouldn't watch 3-Vids in public.
“NavComp damaged!” Tony, the chief engineer, shouts. “We have to stop or we'll be smashed to pieces!”
“And let them capture us? Never. Let me have her, Bob.” Val leaps into the pilot's seat. Bob's a good pilot, great even, but he's not the greatest. Val's hands flutter over the helm console. The ship responds, engines purring like a stroked cat. We hurtle between the clustered rocks. Dance around death. The
breaks into clear space. Val takes us through a loop the loop, then shoves the throttle to the max, leaving the pirates lost in the rocks.
I yank off the goggles, stung by the beauty of Val's skill and mad at Dad all over again. Why is he ruining my chance to do that? Unless he lets me go to Space Academy Camp, I'll never get to be a rocket pilot like Val. I can do all kinds of advanced aeronautics, but not basic AstroNav. It's humiliating. Camp is my last hope. They have the best AstroNav training program in the solar system. Even a few chimps have passed.
I know I'm smarter than a chimp.
With that little chime, the sign changes: “
Mrs. Phillips isn't in the office. The huge view screen on the wall behind the empty desk declares:
MRS. PHILLIPS REGRETS SHE CANNOT APPEAR IN PERSON, STEWART. AUTOMATED SIMULATION IS DOWNLOADING.
Too bad. I'd get out of here faster with Mrs. Phillips. She's my human counselor. The Counselor is an artificial intelligence program. It's more rigorous than Mrs. Phillips. I have to be careful what I tell it. We could waste the afternoon chasing associations around the rings of Saturn!
I sit on the stool in front of the desk. The holofield shimmers into the empty chair and becomes a perfect live-action image of Mrs. Phillips, right down to the three red hairs that grow out of the mole on her cheek. On the wall behind the hologram is a large view screen containing the machine's sensors. They warm up, murmuring like a crowded room.
Sometimes I imagine a bunch of psychologists are behind that screen controlling what the Counselor does and says. But the machine never acts like a real person. It's never warm and caring like Mrs. Phillips.
“Hello, Stewart,” the hologram says. “Sorry I'm a simulation. That was pretty short notice.”
“Yeah, well, Mark got rattled. He's been awfully jumpy lately. And Dad, too. It's like living with two sticks of dynamite. Did you know Dad's on the Moon?”
“We are aware of that.”
“Why do you sound so surprised?”
“Because Mark and I wouldn't even know if I hadn't found the space suit. Dad said the job was in Australia.”
I'd snuck into Dad's room to slip his Megaplexor tool back into its case before he could find it missing and the suit was lying on the bed like a puddle of mercury: one of the new ultralight models. I remember the cobweb lightness of the material as I pulled it through my hand; how it reflected back my own body heat when I draped it over my shoulders.
“Don't you think it's weird Dad going to the Moon and trying to hide that from us? Mark burst an O-ring when he found out. He kept yelling about Dad postponing something again. Do you know what he meant?”
“We have discussed the incident with your brother.”
“Oh.” Sometimes I forget that I'm not the only one in my family who needs counseling. “So you've seen Mark?”
“Earlier today.” The holo image smiles. “But this is your session, Stewart. Please tell us why you found your father's actions weird.”
space! Ever since Mom's crash. He won't even go to the space museum with me. It's totally weird for him to blast off without a moment's notice. What if he doesn't get back in time to sign my application toâ”
“That conflict is not the subject of your visit.” The image leans its elbows on the desk. “Tell us about the dream.”
Mrs. Phillips might come around in front of the desk to hear a bad dream. Definitely, she'd pay more attention to what's really bothering me.
“Actually, it gave me a neat idea for my science project, which is due tomorrow. So can I go now?”
“Tell us the dream.”
“Okay. Fine.” What a pain! Now we'll have to analyze it. “I was on this rolling surface â¦ all silver and gray. There was a black shoe box, but something red caught my eye first. When I picked it up, the red bit was a miniature door, shaped just like a cockpit door in a passenger shuttle. I thought I heard voices, you know, in the box. Lots of them. They â¦ the voices â¦ they wanted me to open the door. And then I thought I heard â¦ Mom's voice â¦ inside and I tried to open it, butâI woke up. Mark said I was screaming. I don't remember that.”
The image sits frozen; analyzing. Right now, I wish it were Mrs. Phillips. She'd care that remembering the dream has upset me. It's much creepier than it seemed in the night.
“Your birthday is soon, isn't it?” the Counselor says. “You'll be thirteen?”
“You know exactly when my birthday is. Why are you changing the subject? Is the dream that bad?”
“A birthday is an exciting day.” The image smiles. “It can also be a difficult day for someone who has lost their mother.”
“You're obsessed with Mom. She's not the problem. Dad is. And AstroNav. I'll never be a rocket pilot without AstroNav. I have to take the entrance exams to Space Academy while I'm thirteen. That means this year! I'll never be able to pass if I don't get to camp firstâ”
“You have explained the details in previous sessions.”
“Well, the way you keep changing the subject makes me think you never pay attention.”
“We are always aware. Are you planning a party?”
“You're ignoring my real problem! Only the very best get into Space Academy. Julio and Tanner and Caytlyn all want to be pilots, too. I'm competing with them!”
“We know of your classmates' aspirations. Are you inviting them to your party?”
I give up. Even
can't outstubborn a machine. “Yeah.”
“Mark mentioned that he and Andrea will be baking you a cake. That's very nice of them.”
“You don't sound too happy about that. Does Mark having a girlfriend trouble you at all?”
“No.” I like Andrea, but if I told the Counselor why, it would just say I was off subject again.
thinks my wanting to be a pilot is a kind of calling, like ministers get for the church. Dad acts like I have a disease. And Markâwell, lately there's been Andrea, so he's not paying much attention to me.
“Girlfriends become wives, then mothers. Perhaps she reminds you of your loss and that brings pain?”
supposed to do the associating?”
“Very well.” The image folds its hands primly on the desk. The sensors behind the screen whir, adjusting for close observation. “We are all ears.”
Machine ears, machine eyes focus on me. I don't like how it keeps bringing up Mom. It's probing for something. But what? When it gets chatty like this, I have to be careful what I say.
Sometimes Mom's death seems so unreal to me that I imagine she's away on a long haul to the moons of Jupiter. Any day, she'll walk through our apartment door. She'll take me by the hand and say, “Come on, Stub. Let's go to the Old Spaceport. I've got a rocket to show you.”
The Counselor would call that an unhealthy fantasy. But sometimes, it's better than anything the Counselor can do for me.