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Authors: Michael J. Daley

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BOOK: Shanghaied to the Moon
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I shift on the hard seat. “Can I go now?”

“This is a critical time, Stewart.” Mrs. Phillips's image takes on a somber, disapproving expression. “Perhaps, before you rush off, we should review past events that may be a source of pain for you?”

The Counselor's talking about the NewsVid. It hasn't shown that to me in
ages.
How can it be so off course? “Watching that won't help. I'm not thinking about Mom. I'm mad at Dad. He's ruining my life!”

“It has helped. It will help.” The image shimmers, then fades away around a sad smile, leaving a clear view of the screen on the wall behind the desk. “Watch, please.”

Maybe the bad dream connects in a way only the Counselor can understand? Maybe I'd better pay attention.

The old NewsVid detailing the last minutes of Frisco Shuttle Flight 78 begins. I know it better than many of my Val Thorsten 3-Vids. The view is of a pale blue sky crowded with cotton ball clouds. The camera moves, seeking the incoming passenger shuttle. The chatter between Tower Control and the pilot is calm. Shuttle landings are routine events, repeated a dozen times a day.

The camera pans the crowd and there I am, a short, auburn-haired boy beside my tall dad, my tall brother Mark, the basketball star. I'm short even for a six-year-old. The camera stays focused on us for a long time. Pretty boring really. I can never figure why the news crew wasted so much time watching us. I'd rather see the shuttle. What was Mom doing just before it happened?

A sharp sputter of static erupts from the NewsVid. My breath catches and I can't help but pay attention.

Tower Control says, “Contact lost with incoming.”

The camera moves urgently now, its electromechanical optics straining just as the human eyes strain. The screen fills with an image of the mysteriously stricken passenger shuttle, upside down, wobbling in a rocklike dive toward the hard earth.

I grab the edge of the stool. Bile stings like grapefruit juice at the back of my throat.

“Eyes open, please.”

The camera is on the boy again. His mother, the famous rocket pilot, is on that shuttle. She was only a passenger, returning from a trip to the Moon. But now she is called upon to take over for the blinded pilot. To fly her toughest mission yet. Raw fear shows in the upturned face of the boy.

I can't bring that feeling back into my own body. I can't remember the terror. The Counselor has explained that the combination of youth and shock has dulled my memory: a kind of self-protective reflex of the mind.

A good thing, really, but that … absence … makes the NewsVid seem more like a bad 3-Vid; too stingy on the special effects. Just
once
I'd like to really remember the feel of the cool air on my face, the hush of the crowd, the biting chemical stink of the crash foam in my nose. Feel Mark and Dad pressing against me as they're doing now in the picture. Hear the soft whistling sound of the massive, too-quickly-falling shuttle.

I wish the camera spent more time watching the shuttle. What was Mom up against? What systems were damaged? What was working? How did she even get into the pilot's seat from the ceiling?

I've tried flying upside down in the simulator. It's really hard! The belts bite into your shoulders. All the controls work opposite and backward. You have to fight every instinct, every bit of common sense, or you'll make the wrong maneuver.

I rise up off the stool. The miraculous moment is coming. The shuttle abruptly flips upright. Mom's triumphant cry rings out in the office. “Tower, tower, positive airfoil! I've got control!”

Whatever she was faced with in there, she was handling it. But then something went wrong. Maybe she made a mistake. Or another system blew. Or maybe, with the hydraulics out, she wasn't strong enough to work the yoke.

In the best of my dreams, I'm there with her. Not a six-year-old. I'm Val Thorsten and I reach into the cockpit. Grab the yoke. Put my hand over hers. Pull! Pull! The scar across my palm hurts from pressing against the yoke, but I just pull harder.

“Eyes open! You must watch.” I want to stay in my head … where it ends different—

the lightning reflex

the brilliant last-second maneuver

even the cavalry

anything
.

Because the hero shouldn't die in the end.

2

MISSION TIME

T minus 14:42:02

I take the elevator from the Counselor's office to the TransHub, hail a Marble, and get in. When I press my thumb to the fare plate, the Marble rolls down the chute to the main travel tube. Dozens of Marbles whiz by like beads on a string, while mine bobs gently in the levitation field.

“Destination please?”

I should go home. Get to work on my science project.

“I'm sorry. Perhaps I did not hear you. Destination please?”

The neat idea for the project is gone. It was clear as a blueprint before.

“If you do not wish to take a ride, please return to the TransHub. If you do not wish …”

Mark won't even be home yet. He was going to the cafe with Andrea.

“If you …”

“Gamma Station, Old Spaceport.”

“Thank you.”

The Marble drops into the traffic stream and accelerates, but the motion dampers are so good there's no feeling of speed. That's what I don't like about Marbles. You can barely tell the difference between parked or moving. I want to feel the punch of acceleration.

“ETA is four minutes under present traffic conditions.”

My mind slips into automatic, calculating the average speed at 120.345 miles per hour. The Marble's readout says 120.348. I'm that quick on my feet with calculations, but it doesn't help with AstroNav. My problem is getting the star field vectors oriented right. It's like I have some kind of stellar dyslexia.

The Marble stops at Gamma Station. The door snaps open. A chill ocean breeze whisks all the heat out. I zip up my jacket and step onto the platform. No one here, except a guy asleep on a bench in the sun next to the outside wall of the station. He's hugging a large, limp duffel bag. Its dark shape looks like a giant toy bear with all the stuffing kicked out.

Angling away from the bench, I put about ten feet between myself and the guy. An easy scissors-kick vault puts me over the guardrail in front of the fence. I lean against the wire mesh. The metal bites cold where it touches my face. Rays of the late afternoon sun seep through my jacket, warming my back.

The Old Spaceport spreads out eastward over the salt marshes to the ocean. Ships aren't launched from here anymore. It's a museum. When I want action, I go to the New Canaveral Spaceport further up the coast. Even from here, I can see some of the taller gantries and watch a few ships come and go. Dad's rocket left from there two nights ago—an Alldrives Eniex 70. It can make the Moon run in four hours; nothing but the best for employees of Alldrives Space Systems.

That's who Val Thorsten works for. Who I want to work for. They run the asteroid mines and the Jupiter colonies and eighty percent of the transports. They build the fastest ships and win the exploration contracts. That's where I want to be, on the edge, piloting that kind of ship into unknown space. Ships like the ones displayed here at the Old Spaceport.

They were all unique in their day—firsts of a kind. Each one needed a special pilot. Apollo vehicles are over to the right. Off to the left is a Jupiter Floater; Mom was the test pilot for the prototype. In the center, the Lance Ramjet perches on its pedestal, angled toward the stars. The hull glints orange in the sunlight. It might have glowed like that when Val Thorsten skimmed it through the clouds of Venus.

Venus: Inferno Below the Clouds is my favorite of his 3-Vid adventures. It was Val's first mission for Alldrives; a test to see if this young hotshot fresh out of the academy really had what it took to become a permanent member of their team.

The best part is when the Lance Ramjet is halfway through the Venusian atmosphere. The alarms start singing. The cloud density is above spec. The engines are in danger of flaming out. Abort! But it's too late. Val's plunging toward the lava-hot surface, out of control, with only a few minutes to find a way to refire the engines or … well, I wouldn't have a pocket full of his other adventures if he hadn't succeeded.

That Lance Ramjet is no replica. Val pulled it out. Val Thorsten always pulls it out.

“Hey!” A voice. Close. “You a kid or a midget?”

“Heeii-yaa!” I spin around, crouch into Position One, on my toes, jigging, ready for anything.

The man from the bench leans on the guardrail a few feet from me. He's bent so far over I see more of the top of his balding head than his face. A fringe of silver hair above his ears is pulled back into a knobby ponytail. Looks like the frayed end of a rope.

“Nice reflexes.” He straightens up, winces, and grabs at the small of his back. “Damn Mother Earth. No place for a spacer.”

A spacer? He wears his stub of a ponytail like a pilot. And that
is
a flight jacket. Frayed bits of thread faintly outline less grimy patches on the sleeve and chest where the insignias used to be. The zipper is broken open over his big belly. He doesn't look like a real pilot to me.

“Drop the ninja act.” His teeth flash white and even as he speaks. “I'm the guy you came to see.”

What's he talking about? I deepen my crouch. He stares at me staring at him. His face is broad-featured. His mouth cuts a cheerless line across it.

“Pad 12?” He frowns. Rubs at the silver stubble on his jaw. “You
are
here about my ad, aren't you?”

“Ad? What ad?”

Disappointment remolds his face. He turns his back to me and, with a groan, settles his butt on the rail. He sure is hurting. They've mostly got the bone problem solved today, but a lot of people who went to space a few decades ago have serious troubles. Normal gravity can be torture.

Most old spacers never come back to Earth, not without a really good reason. He's probably a nutter. Just some homeless guy with bad arthritis who
thinks
he's a spacer.

“Um … mister?”

“You still here?” His head half turns my way.

“Yeah.”

“Come round where I can see you.”

I one-step over the guardrail, but keep my distance, just to be safe, though I doubt he has any moves I couldn't handle. I have three years of karate under my belt.

He rests his hands on his knees. Short breaths whisper through his parted lips. He runs his tongue over their cracked dryness. “Well?”

“You got a place? I mean, you don't sleep on that bench all night, do you?”

“So what if I do?” He juts his chin at me.

“Well, maybe I could help. Rent you a cubby—”

“I've got a berth. That's not my problem.” He reaches into the right pocket and pulls out a small squeeze bottle—the kind they use in zero-g. The contents glow amber in the sun. He pops the straw in his mouth, squirts. The sharp smell of alcohol comes to my nose on the breeze.

“So what is your problem?” I ask, though I'm probably looking at it in that bottle.

“Ever been to space, kid?”

“Have
you
?” Why should I give a straight answer if he doesn't?

He draws a tight circle in the air with the bottle. “Done a few loops.”

“That jacket looks Salvation Army to me.”

“Because of this?” He pulls at a few threads. “Did that myself.”

“Why?”

“That's a long story, and I'm in no mood to tell it.” He reaches deep into the left pocket, looks surprised to find something in there. He brings out a fistful of insignias. “Want 'em?”

He opens his hand. I snag the biggest one as the rest flutter to the ground. My fingers trace rich textured weaving that forms the letters
TE.
Never heard of an outfit with those call letters.

“What's TE?” I pick up the rest. Tuck them in my pocket.

“Before your time, kid.” He takes another drink, then, twisting carefully around, points with the bottle. “You know that ship? In the center?”

“Sure! That's the Lance Ramjet. I just saw the remake of Venus: Inferno Below the Clouds. Have you seen it?”

“Yeah. The original.”

“You
have
to see the remake. They really improved the sense-o-rama. Your teeth chatter when the Lance Ramjet hits the clouds!”

“Chatter?” He makes a disgusted face. “That's nothing, kid. Those engines. Kick your butt between your eyeballs.”

“Someday I'll feel that. Someday, I'm going to Pluto.”

“Pluto, huh? No one's dared since the Valadium Thruster failed.”

“I'm not afraid to try again … only … I might never get the chance. I can't do AstroNav.”

“Bigger problem, kid. No ship.”

“Someone could build another Valadium Thruster. I'd take it out there.”

“Why would you want to do that? She … didn't make it.” He tips the bottle back, squeezes long and hard.

“I've studied the design. Got some ideas of what might have gone wrong.”

He's about to take another drink. Stops himself. “Gimme a for instance.”

Is he baiting me? The other kids love to get me talking about the Valadium Thruster, then poke fun at me for caring so much about a ship that fell into the sun. But he's waiting with an interested look.

“My best guess: Something went wrong with the impulsor engines during the Whip maneuver. Maybe …” He'll laugh now, if he's going to. “Maybe even caused a transdimensional shift.”

“Interesting.” He rotates the bottle in his palm. For a few long moments, he seems to be hypnotized by the way the sunlight winks off the faceted surface. “And if that's really what went wrong, you could fix it?”

“With the right team, yeah. If only Val hadn't lost it in …” It's too painful to say out loud. The image from the 3-Vid Pluto: A Star too Far comes harshly into my mind. The beautiful Valadium Thruster melting to lava as it plunges toward the sun.

BOOK: Shanghaied to the Moon
13.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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