Read Shanghaied to the Moon Online

Authors: Michael J. Daley

Shanghaied to the Moon (6 page)

BOOK: Shanghaied to the Moon
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Gingerly, I press the cold, sweating can to my right cheek. Hiss in a sharp breath. But the cold feels good. Slowly, I rotate the can.

“Okay.” He lurches to his feet with a curse and a grab at the small of his back. “Come on.”

He bends down only far enough to catch the strap of the duffel bag. He hitches the strap over his shoulder, then, Igor-like, limps toward the rear of the station. I stand up, but it's tricky holding the sodas and keeping the jacket from falling off. He's around the corner already. I rush to catch up.

He's standing behind some kind of wheeled thing.

“What's the matter?” He shrugs the duffel into the back of the thing. “Haven't you ever seen a golf cart before?”

“Not with

“Get in.” He hitches up his right leg and works it over the sidewall into the driver's side. The cart tips as he shifts all his weight onto that foot and hauls the rest of his body in using the steering wheel.

“Where are we going?”

He gestures toward the ocean and now I see that the cart is parked at the beginning of the long road out to Pad 12—must be at least a mile. The ancient concrete is heaved and shattered, but there's a smooth path of fresh sand down the middle of the decayed roadway. Two ruts are packed hard from frequent trips. His berth. He's been living out there with the rocket! Probably cleared away any surveillance stuff. But he's wrong if he thinks Pad 12 is a safe place to hide.

“It won't work. Your ad is on my computer. They'll know where I am.”

He turns the key. “We'll be gone before anyone comes.”

“Gone …?” I look toward Pad 12. One old PLV, operational. He
have a plan. To blast off. With me. Now.

“Take off that wrist yapper.”

I shield the wireless OmniLink on my wrist with a soda. “I can't just

“That's sort of the point, kid.”

“I have to call Mark.”

“Not with that. Easy to spot as a supernova.”


“We'll call him from orbit. Safer that way.”

Orbit. He really means it.

“Ditch it and get in. We've got to keep moving now.”

Suddenly, he's the one in a hurry. I pull my gaze from the rocket, toss the sodas onto the seat. Hooking a finger under the stretch band of the OmniLink, I slip it off. The breeze slides coldly over the bone-white skin of my naked wrist. That skin only sees daylight during a bath. There aren't even any little hairs growing there anymore. We were always told: Never be without your OmniLink. Never talk to strangers.

I look at the TransTube curving away from the station toward the city. Things don't seem that simple anymore.

“Don't fool yourself, kid. You were lucky today. They won't screw up again.”

I drop the OmniLink into the sand and hop in.

He lays the throttle to the floor. Sand sprays, tires squeal, then catch, bucking us into motion. I slam back against the seat. The soda cans go flying out of my hands. No acceleration dampers; this sure isn't an ordinary golf cart! Even the modern air-riders don't go this fast.

I whoop and shout against the breeze. “What did you
to this thing?”

The corner of his mouth curls up a bit. “Double wired the traction pack.”

Bad news for the motor. Then it dawns on me. Nobody's going to drive this cart away from the gantry. It'll be burned toast as soon as we … blast off.

We're close enough now to get a good look at the rocket. Not a fleck of paint left on it. The skin is as rusty brown as an uscrubbed potato. Black stains fan down the sides from each of the staging joints. I know my boosters. This is an old ICBM. A lot of nuclear missiles were converted to PLVs during the worldwide disarmament a half century ago. They were a quick, cheap, and dirty way to orbit for people who couldn't afford a ride on shuttles.

Not exactly what I imagined making my first trip to space in.

Taller and taller it looms until even with my head tilted way back, I can't see it all at once. We coast to a stop right under the rocket nozzles.

A smell of burned motor wiring wafts up from below my seat. I hop out and step away from the cart, worried it might burst into flames. He's either not worried or can't move any faster, I'm not sure which.

We've pulled up next to a tent. A tidy campsite is arranged compactly around it. The PLV towers silently above us. The only sound comes from the waves breaking on the beach just over the sand dunes.

“Grab that duffel.” He heads for the open mesh-wire elevator at the base of the gantry.

Guess he doesn't need anything from his camp.

I sling the duffel over my shoulder. It isn't too heavy, but you'd never guess that from the way it bent him over. Whatever is inside shifts around like potatoes in a sack, settling into a lumpy bulge at the bottom.

I hustle into the cage. He pulls the door closed. It clatters like a freight train. The elevator lurches upward so fast my knees nearly buckle. I like that feeling.

The sound of the breakers fades as the elevator lifts us out of the deep shadow between the tail fins. A light wind blows; the air coming off the sundrenched beach is warmer here.

The rocket is only a few feet away. On this side, the ocean side, it's in even worse shape. The salt spray has left pits in the metal. The black stains glisten wetly. The hair rises at the back of my neck.

“Is this really okay to fly?”

“I've checked this little Roman candle out nozzles to nose cone, kid. She's sound enough.”

The elevator stops. A walkway leads to the capsule hatch, which isn't much bigger than a manhole cover. Can he even fit through that?

“I'll take my jacket back now.”

It's chilly up here. Goose bumps rise immediately on my arms. He doesn't put the jacket on, but walks ahead, punches a few commands on the latch plate. The hatch pops open, revealing two reclining flight seats crammed in a hollow ball barely the size of a refrigerator.

“You first.”

Halfway across the walkway, I stop. I look through the steel grating under my feet, down the long, rusty body of the rocket to the hard, hard ground, 150 feet below. The failure rate for these things is a bit higher than the rocket Dad went up in.

“You with me, kid, or what?”

“Yeah.” I crawl through the tiny hatch.

I'm going to be in so much trouble!



T minus 00:06:06

IT'S super cramped inside the capsule, but warm.

With one knee resting on each seat back, I try to straighten up. The padding is so spongy it's hard to balance. Control knobs jab my head. I flop onto my back, sliding my legs under the instrument console at the same time. My toes aim toward the sky, but I can't see it. A launch shield covers the nose window.

The bare-bones instrument panel is dark. No power. How long will it take to bring this rocket online from cold shutdown?

Suddenly, the sunlight from the hatch goes out and I'm sitting in darkness.

“Hey!” I grope toward a dim halo of light around the hatch. My fingers find the rough canvas of the duffel.

The old spacer's voice comes muted. “Pull it in.”

I pull. He pushes. The thing oozes in on top of me. In the struggle to wrestle it behind the seats, my 3-Vid goggles catch on something. They pop off the belt clip and clatter down behind the seats, just as the bag drops, too. Probably crushed them.

The jacket next. Down behind the seats.

The sunlight goes again. His head rams my arm.

“Scoot over.”

I wiggle up against the curve of the cold metal wall. He squirms and grunts and twists until he flops into the seat nearest the hatch. He takes a deep breath, then hits a button on the control panel. The rocket shudders awake with a cascade of noises, like a truckload of empty tin cans pouring down through its innards.

T minus 60 flashes in bold digits on the countdown clock.

The hatch slams shut. The locks click. Interior lights soak us in red. He reaches across me and pulls the harness into place, snugs it tight. Once his own harness is on, he starts flipping switches. His left elbow jabs me with every move.

The numbers start dropping—
by the second!

I thought we had at least an hour of pre-flight checks!

T minus 40.

This thing is already primed for blastoff.

T minus 30.

The fuel pumps grind up to speed, shivering the rocket from nozzles to nose cone.

T minus 15.

“Wait a minute! Who
you? Why do you need a

3—With a little smile

2—he puts his thumb over the

1—ignition button and

0—presses it.

The rocket motors erupt.

The initial jolt hits like a belly flop. The seat pads sigh and absorb me as the crushing, squeezing force of liftoff builds. The padding yields more, bulges around and over me. It's like sinking into chocolate pudding. My body shakes and quivers in its grip, chafing against the material.

In a few seconds, we hit maximum acceleration: ten g's. My weight goes from ninty pounds to nine hundred. Feels like an elephant is doing a slow roll over me. My chest collapses, leaving no room for air. I pull breaths, panting quick and shallow like a frightened chipmunk. My eyes wander out of sync and for a moment, I'm seeing both the old spacer on my right and a wildly vibrating strut on my left. Then blackness floods up to take away all sight.

I know the max-g boost phase will only last two minutes, but time doesn't move in ordinary seconds under this kind of stress. I almost wish I'd pass out.

The rocket bucks. Stage one jettison. Acceleration eases back to a couple g's. I can see. I can breathe. I can handle six more minutes of this until we make orbit.

As the near senselessness caused by the boost phase wears off, the scar across my right palm starts to hurt. Figuring it's squashed in a fold of seat padding, I make a fist to protect the scar. The pain turns searingly hot, as if the rocket exhaust itself is flaring through my clenched fist. It burns like in the dream, but there's no pulling away. No waking up!

I was wrong. I won't make it. I'm going to scream.

Can't disgrace myself like that.

I think of Val in Venus: Inferno Below the Clouds; the steely control, the indifference to danger …

Another buck.

Fresh fire seems to flow through my palm.

I scream.

The last stage flames out.

The abrupt release of force kicks me against the harness, knocks my breath away, frees my arms. They swing up, reach the top of their arc. Instead of falling back into my lap, they hang in the air, floating.


We're in orbit. I stare at my palm hanging in the air in front of my nose. The pain is gone, switched off with the rockets, leaving only a lingering pins and needles feeling. Seems impossible that it hurt so much just a moment ago.

“No more screaming. Understood?”

Startled, I pull my arms out of the air, too embarrassed to answer him.

With a gunshot-like pop, the launch shield ejects. A blue-white light whops my eyes, totally knocking me out of myself. The most beautiful view in the universe—Earth from orbit—blooms below us. We're pointed straight down at the ocean. Intense aquamarine, streaked with wispy clouds, fills the entire view port. Even though we're moving nearly eighteen thousand miles per hour, there's no sense of motion. The launch shield falls, winking sunlight as it tumbles toward burn up.

There's nothing left of the PLV except this tiny capsule. It isn't designed for any long duration flying, so he's got to get us docked to a ship or a space station soon. If we really are going to the Moon, there'll be a ship, somewhere close along this same orbit.

He fires a maneuvering thruster. The capsule tilts. The sky all drains to my side of the window, like when you flip one of those toys filled with different-colored sand. The upper atmosphere is pale blue, marbled with clouds. A vibrant band of neon blue marks where the edge of the world meets jet-black space. The shallow arc of the curve tells me we're in a low orbit.

An object appears ahead of us, a fiercely bright speck of white at first, quickly gaining in definition, becoming a triangular shape with an elongated nose. It looks like a badly designed paper airplane—body too fat, wings too small and far back—it's an old-fashioned space shuttle!

It hangs in orbit like a still life, crisp in every unbelievable detail. We're coming at it from “above.” A cargo canister the size of our living room and two round propellant tanks crowd the cargo bay. But the cargo doors are gone, ripped away. Big areas on the hull show dull metal where hundreds of heat shield tiles are missing. There are
in the wings!

space junk

“Settle down. I've got to concentrate on docking.”

“We can't go to the Moon in
!” Only one explanation makes sense. “It's a decoy, right? Like in Asteroid Run?”

“Sure, kid. Now shut up.”

to be. Inside that blasted exterior is hidden some secret superduper drive system. And only
can help this guy test it. Except, he didn't want me. He was waiting for a midget …

A staccato blast of thrusters wrenches me back to reality.

Just behind the crew section is a combination docking adapter and air lock. It's shaped like an upside-down
with a big bulge at the intersection. That's the airlock chamber. The short legs stick out fore and aft from the air-lock chamber. One connects to the canister in the cargo bay; the other to the interior of the shuttle. The long leg of the
sticks out into space a few feet beyond the cockpit roof. A three-foot-diameter docking ring is on the end. Our target. It's an unusual arrangement, sticking out like that, but I guess it doesn't matter when there aren't any doors … jeez, it's a mess …

BOOK: Shanghaied to the Moon
12.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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