The note read:
"If you want an exclusive on the story of the century, meet me in the parking lot at the corner of County Road 39 and County Road 32, one block south of highway two. The intersection of 32 and Highway Four is kind of tricky, so you might want to use the North Schauppsville Road exit, and then head west a block on 39.
Be there at 8PM precisely, and come alone. Or, you know, if you think that’s too pushy, bring a friend. Yeah, actually, you know what? Do bring a friend. Probably a good idea.
She re-folded the letter and stuffed it back in her purse. She hadn’t been in Mayfield long enough to really have any friends, so she brought her landlord along simply because she knew him.
“This is stupid. It’s some kind of gag,” he said, “Get back in the car, let’s go, I’ve already missed Jeopardy.”
“He’ll show,” she said a bit too stridently, “He’s got to.”
“It’s going on nine, Susan…”
“How do you even know it’s a ‘he?’” the landlord asked.
“He..I…uhm…how do you even know it’s not a ‘he?’” she eventually riposted.
As if on cue, ‘He’ showed up in a beat up puke-green 1973 Mustang Mach 1. He slid out - they were very low to the ground - the height of sartorial splendor for the day: bell-bottomed leisure suit, a silk shirt unbuttoned to the waist, lots of gold medallions, and what might or might not have been a perm.
“Susan DuLac,” he said, with a big goofy smile. He walked over and effusively shook her hand, his eyes entirely too steadily fixed on hers. “Lee Austin,” he said, “Very glad to meet you. And this is…?” He trailed off gesturing to her landlord.
“Phil Manlove,” she said.
“Wow, that’s an unfortunate name!” Lee said, then looked like he instantly regretted it.
“Well, I’ve seen enough,” Phil said, “Guy’s a whackjob. Time to go home, Susan…”
Lee looked abashed. “Oh, are you two…uhm…together?” He looked Phil up and down appraisingly: Fifty-something, pot-belly, nicotine stains on his fingers and teeth, one of those sneaky Pete mustaches that went out of style forty years before.
“Yes. Yes we are,” Susan lied, “Phil is my boyfriend. We’re lovers.” Phil blushed and looked incredibly uncomfortable at this, but to his credit, he didn’t immediately blurt out the truth.
“Oh, that’s super,” lied Lee, who didn’t think it was super at all. He continued with fake enthusiasm, “You guys up for dinner? You don’t mind riding in the back, do you, Phil? There’s a new Red Lobster I thought we might try out over in…”
“What about the exclusive story?” Susan interrupted.
“Dinner first, then story,” Lee said.
“You said you had the story of the century for me, not a restaurant review.”
“And I do, but a story this big requires some set-up. I’ve got to bring you up to speed, and we need to establish that we can trust each other. And since both of those will take a while, we may as well eat, right? Nice dinner, public place?”
“I already ate,” she said, “And I’m not going to go…”
“You paying?” Phil asked.
And off they went.
Phil refused to eat any seafood at the seafood restaurant, and just had a hamburger instead. He said he didn’t trust clams or fish or lobster more than a thousand miles from the sea. He also ordered a salad, but didn’t touch it. Susan ordered a salad too, but ended up eating all of Lee’s lobster-stuffed mushrooms instead.
“You’re not very forthcoming with this set-up you promised,” she said, “And why me, anyway? How do you even know who I am?”
“Saw you on the farm report,” Lee said in between bites of his lobster, “You’re new, you’re pretty, you’re young, I thought you could use the break. You‘ve been on there a month now, and I never miss an episode.”
“You watch the farm report? You don’t look like a farmer.”
“I am, actually. You don’t look like a Farm Reporter.”
This was what passed for witty repartee in the 1970s. She looked uncomfortable at his pass. After an awkward silence, he got back to the reason he’d asked her out.
“Ok. Here goes: As you know, the space program in this country is dead.”
“No it’s not, they’re developing that Space Shuttle thing - the Enterprise - and..”
“The Enterprise isn’t a shuttle,” Lee said, “It’s just a mock-up, a full-scale glider to make sure the design will fly. I don’t have any confidence the space shuttles will ever fly. Did you know they were supposed to go into service last year?”
“No. Well, wait…no,” she admitted. Lee liked her. She had an engaging Margot Kidder/Diane Keaton way of talking, generally sure, but then inexpertly shy and retiring at unpredictable intervals.
“No one seems to remember that. President Carter postponed it. He’s got some kind of pathological hatred of space for some reason, I don’t know why, maybe religious I think. Since 1973 NASA kept saying ‘it’ll be in service by 1978, it’ll be in service by 1978’ but now they’re saying it’ll be some time in Carter’s second term…”
“Yeah, that’ll happen,” Susan said sarcastically.
“Carter’s an idiot. He’s not going to get a second term. The Republicans could run a trained bear and beat him. The economy, the Hostage Crisis, Afghanistan, he’s a dead duck.”
“Whatever.” She finished off the last of the stuffed mushrooms. Phil looked bored.
“In any event, there hasn’t been an American in space since 1975,” Lee said.
“Ok, so space is dead. What does it matter?” Phil asked.
Lee’s eyes went aglow, “There’s everything out there - entire worlds to conquer, limitless resources, vast land for us to colonize. America could become the space equivalent of what the British Empire used to be. Added to which, our species needs to get off this rock so that we’ll be less likely to be completely wiped out by a plague or disaster or nuclear war…”
“No,” Lee said, “It’s too expensive, I’ve seen them big Saturns on TV, they’re like a hundred million dollars a pop…”
“Three hundred million,” Susan corrected, surprising Lee.
“Oh, I totally agree, that’s not the way to do it. But there is another way.”
Susan suddenly looked very disappointed. She said in a very flat voice, “I’m impressed: That’s the stupidest line I’ve ever heard to get me in bed. Possibly the stupidest line anyone has ever used to get someone in to bed.”
Lee glanced nervously and Phil, who was red-faced from the beer, and on the edge of sleep, not really paying attention.
“Oh, no, this isn’t a line: I’ve actually got a rocket. I actually wanted to take you to the moon, and let you broadcast the whole thing to the whole world. Story of a lifetime.”
Phil refused to let Susan go off alone with Lee, whom he insisted was a maniac, possibly a cannibal. After some argument, Lee pulled a Polaroid instamatic out of nowhere, and had the waitress snap a picture of all three of them. He scribbled the time and date on the bottom, then wrote down his name, address, and phone number on a napkin and gave them both to Phil. “If she doesn’t turn up by this time tomorrow, give all that to the police and have ‘em come get me.” Susan agreed, then went off to call the station manager and let him know she’d be missing the morning farm report. She clamed to be sick. She made a couple other calls as well. On the drive back to the parking lot to get Phil’s car, he fell asleep in the cramped back seat of the Mustang.
The two of them drove down a winding dirt road running through a dozen acres of cornfields. Susan looked nervous as they got further from civilization - though perhaps ‘civilization’ was an over-generous thing to call Mayfield, and as they got closer to the farm, she got more nervous still. Lee tried to put her at ease with some disco on the radio and his incessant blather - “I can’t stand this new wave punk crap the kids listen to these days, how about you?” - but that just made her more visibly nervous. As they came up on the farm, he pointed to a cluster of grain silos.
“Let me guess, the rocket is in the silos?”
“Oh, no, the rocket is the silos. Huh. Look at that. I wonder who that could be?” There were two men standing by the front door in black suits, white shirts, and black ties.
“Government agents here to rescue me?” Susan joked.
“Do government agents ride bicycles?” Lee asked. He got out of the car, “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Hi! I’m Elder Tom from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and this is Elder Grapeape…” They both looked pretty young.
“Grape Ape?” Lee asked incredulously.
“It’s a long story,” Grapeape said, “Anyway, I know it’s late and all, but we’re missionaries, and we got lost because doofus here had us riding bikes on the highway in the wrong direction, and my tires have gone flat, and I’ve been riding on rims for like the last five miles. Can we please call our sponsor family and have them come pick us up? We’ve been ringing the bell for like half an hour, but no one answered, we were about to leave….”
“It’s ok. Come on in.”
Inside they met a man in late middle age, whom Lee introduced as his “Crazy uncle Steve.”
“Wow, Lee, she’s a dish! Ring a ding ding! Such supple breasts…”
“Did you say ‘crazy uncle,’ or ‘creepy uncle?’” Grapeape asked.
“A little of both.”
Elder Tom made a phone call, then came back in and said “They’re not answering. I’ll have to try again later.”
“Why didn’t you answer the door when they were ringing?” Lee asked.
“They were ringing the bell? I didn’t hear it. I’m a little deaf,” he apologized to Grapeape.
“Can we please get to the story,” Susan asked when she got tired of Crazy Uncle Steve leering at her.
“We shouldn’t go into this in front of the Mormons,” Steve said. Both missionaries blanched at this.
“Why not?” Lee asked, “We’re going to tell everyone about it tomorrow anyway. It’s not like security is an issue, right?”
Steve gave them all a somewhat-grudging tour of the Internal Bleeder. Susan and the Mormons blanched at the name. “It’s kind of a joke,” Lee said, “I hate pretension. Everyone gives space ships such pretentious names - ‘Enterprise,’ ‘Galactica,’ ‘Millennium Falcon,’ ‘Saturn,’ ‘Orion,’ ‘Eagle.’ I hate that. You guys remember Apollo 10?”
“Not really, Grapeape said.
“The Capsule was named ‘Charlie Brown’ and the lander was named ‘Snoopy.’ There was another Apollo where the Capsule was named ‘Gumdrop’ and the LEM was named ‘Spider.’ That gave me the idea that if I ever had a spaceship, I’d not only give it a non-pretentious name, I’d give it the most anti-pretentious name I could think of.” He was kind of worked up by the time he got to the end of this, but everyone else just stared at him blankly.
“If freakshow is done,” Crazy Uncle Steve said, “I’ll continue: As you can see, it’s built out of eight cranberry silos bolted together, six around a central one, and one on top of the central one. The engine’s in the bottom of the central silo, control room is at the top of the upper central one. The outer silos are packed full of fuel and cargo. They’re detachable just in case we need to swap them out.”
“Why not? Fairly cheap, fairly rigid. We had to shore them up, but it’s easy.”
“But they’re not airtight, are they?”
“We spackled them. They are now.”
“So, wait,” Susan said, “The upper silo is the upper stage in this thing?”
“Oh, no, my luscious young pudding cup,” Steve said, “No stages. This is all one stage.”
When the sirens started, they went outside to see what the matter was. There was a long line of police cars and black vans snaking their way down the dirt road.
“Ah, crap” Steve said.
“What’s going on?” Lee asked.
“My landlord - Phil - he must have gotten antsy about you and called the cops as soon as he got home,” Susan ventured.
“Yeah - wait: Landlord? I thought he was your boyfriend or..”
“Now is not the time, Lee.”
They waited for the cops to park, figuring just standing there innocently was the best way to deal with it. If they could see Susan was fine, and there of her own volition, what possible problem could there be? A lot of cars pulled up, a lot of cars. Steve edged back to the farmhouse and opened up both the front doors, then came back to rejoin them.
“Just in case,” he said.
“I’m sure it’ll be nothing at all,” Lee said. Just the same, the four of them backed unconsciously closer to the door.
“Geez, are there even this many cops in Nebraska?” Grapeape asked. He was looking sweaty and twitchy. He started to hyperventilate, and went down on one knee.
“Put your hands over your heads and step forward” a voice on a megaphone commanded.
“If this is about me,” Susan said, “I’m a reporter, and I’m here of my own free will!”
Put your hands over your heads and step forward,” the voice commanded again. It sounded angry this time. They all complied, excepting Grapeape, who looked like he was having a stroke despite his youth. He stayed on one knee, and put one hand on his head, the other hung down by his thigh. His hand twitched out something that looked like a baseball signal, and Elder Tom instantly took a bullet to the head.
His body fell backwards on to Grapeape, who himself flopped over to the side. Susan shrieked. Crazy Uncle Steve tackled her, scooping her up in a running bear hug and screamed “Back into the house! Back into the house!” Gunfire rang out, a few shots at first, then more, then more, like the sound of popcorn, a lot of popcorn. Before he even realized what he was doing, Lee grabbed Grapeape by his lapel and awkwardly dragged him back towards the house. He fell over as Grapeape stumbled to his hands and knees, grabbed Lee, and dragged him back towards the house. They fumbled over each other, then Grapeape managed to get to his feet and ran to the door. He glanced back and saw Lee on the ground, then ducked back into the line of fire, grabbed Lee, and bodily threw him up the three steps on to the porch. He ran forward as Lee crawled towards the door. Grapeape kicked Lee in the ass screaming “Move! Move!” and both of them finally made it in.
“Close the doors! Close the doors!” Grapeape screamed.
“Wouldn’t help, the walls are just wood, wouldn’t even slow their bullets down,” Lee gasped. A volley of bullets tore through the walls and shattered the windows. The power went out in the farmhouse. Headlights from the police cars projected eerie fingers of light into the darkened living room through the bullet holes in the wall.
“Down here! Down here!” Steve yelled from the kitchen. They scrambled - half commando-crawl, half disoriented toddler - to the kitchen, and found the older man standing by the basement door, waving them on. “Into the rocket!” he stage whispered.
They literally fell down the stairs, lading in a heap at the bottom. Steve hopped down three steps at a time, stomping on their piled bodies without even stopping, and screaming and yammering incoherently to himself.
They got up and stumbled to the other side of the basement, then into another door, through a tunnel, and popped through a wooden hatch beneath the cranberry silo spaceship. There was an iron fire-escape ladder there, conveniently near the hatch, and luckily facing away from the legions of cops. They couldn’t see their attackers, but they could hear cars moving, and realized they were shifting position to encircle the home. Lee realized they wouldn’t be hidden long. Susan was already near the top of the ladder, as Steve tore up it, again hoping three rungs at a time. Freakishly fast, he didn’t even stop when he came up to her, he just commented quietly that she had a delicious-looking ass, and without slowing climbed over the top of her - almost knocking her off the ladder - and then continued on the other side. His disappeared into the door on the side of the silo.
Susan followed a moment later, and Grapeape was halfway up - looking ashen and visibly shaking - while Lee brought up the rear. Grapeape fell through the door while Lee only about two thirds of the way up. Cop cars had largely circuited the house by this time, sharpshooters were taking aim on him, and a megaphone voice - a different one this time - commanded them to come out of the silo. There was a whining noise from below, then a flash of white steam, like from a fire extinguisher, then a loud clanking pumping noise.
“Uh-oh!” Steve said to nobody, and quickly wove himself into the ladder, sticking his arms and legs through the rungs. There was a bright flash, and then the whole silo complex lurched upwards. A sniper fired a shot aimed at Lee’s head, but by the time it got there, the ship had lept up four or five feet, and the bullet just missed his buttocks, tearing through the hull.
“Oh, crap!” Steve exclaimed, trying to figure out a way to get to the top, to get inside. Susan leaned out the door.
“Hurry up!” she said. He realized they were hovering unsteadily, not accelerating, and so he disentangled himself and scrambled up. On the ground, the panicked cops were backing away from the lethal-looking rocket exhaust. At least a couple of the police cars had caught on fire. There were two police ‘copters - when did they get here? Lee wondered absently - which recoiled like frightened horses, and backed away. Susan ducked back inside.
When he was one rung away from the door, the silo beneath Lee fell away, rotating slightly, and landed on a couple black vans, which instantly exploded. The ship lurched sickeningly away from him, and the next thing he knew he was dangling by his hands from the no-longer vertical ladder. The rocket was off-plumb, at about a forty-five degree angle, slipping sideways across the cornfields at a canter. The corn below began to pop in the backblast from the rocket, then it caught fire. The police scrambled to regain position, and someone fired a LAWS rocket, which hit the ship on one of the other silos. That silo fell away too, landing on the highway they were skidding past, and burst to flinders. The sudden loss of weight balanced the ship somewhat, and after a lurch that almost threw Lee from the ladder, he was able to finally grab the doorframe and pull himself inside.
“I’m in!” he yelled. Two decks up, Steve slammed a big green button, and the rocket tore skyward amidst a hail of bullets. Lee felt his weight increase rapidly as they accelerated, but managed to get to his hands and knees and crawl to the still-open hatch. The ground was already far below them by the time he got it closed, his last recognizable vision being of his farmhouse clearly burning. Then he blacked out.
They woke president Carter up in the middle of the night to tell him the mysterious object form Nebraska had been spotted again.
“Do we have a man on the inside this time?” Carter asked.
“Ok, then. Take care of it. No witnesses,” he said, and then went back to bed.
When he came to, Lee found himself floating weightless, still in the airlock. He attempted to gather his wits, but his head was muddy with confused anger. He floated to the next deck up - the suit lockers - but they were empty. He floated up to the next deck - the kitchen. Grapeape was strapped to a table with what looked like twine. Steve was literally hovering over him, and Susan floating upside down, shining a flashlight on the Mormon’s chest.
“What the hell happened?” Lee demanded.
“The cops thought you were kidnapping me, and raided your house,” Susan said.
“I know that! I saw that! I mean…uhm…” He couldn’t quite think of the right words, so he just asked the same question again, “What the hell happened?”
“Grapeape here got shot,” Steve said.
“No, no, I mean why did we drop the cargo silos? You almost wrecked us! You almost killed me!”
“It wasn’t me. Everything was going fine - excepting the bullets - until dumbass here hit the ‘release’ button.”
“Oh. Wait, the kid got shot?”
“Yeah,” Susan said.
“Nah,” Steve said, just meat-shot. Straight in-and-out. Bullet didn’t stay in him, didn’t hit the bone, didn’t hit an artery or anything. Lucky, really. I’m just sewing it up. Hurt like hell when he wakes up.”
“How’d you knock him out?” Lee asked
“Didn’t. He blacked out from blood loss and fell on the ‘release’ controls.”
“Uhm…are you qualified to do this?” Susan asked Steve nervously.
“Speak up!” Steve said irritated, “I’m hard of hearing! You need to talk louder or just shut up entirely!”
“Are you qualified to do this?” She asked again, louder.
“Probably not. I was a medic in the war, though obviously there was no training for battlefield surgery in zero G.”
Steve suddenly noticed little balls of blood floating around the cabin, and that cleared his mind for some reason. He got a drink of water, then got the a small vacuum and started collecting the blood-clouds.
“We need to get him to a hospital,” Susan said.
“Yeah, I’m sure that’ll go over well,” Lee said, “Hi there, we just melted your helipad parking our UFO, can you take care of this fat kid with the bullet wound while we go back into space and run from the cops some more?’”
“You can’t just let him die!” she protested.
“True,” Lee agreed. “Is he gonna’ die, Uncle Steve?”
“Eventually, yeah. Twenty or thirty years if he keeps eating the way he obviously does, but he ain’t gonna’ die today.”
“Ok, then, let’s figure our next move.”
They were safely in orbit. The United States had no way to send people up after them; weapon that could touch them, and even if they did, it was a safe bet that the Nebraska State Police didn’t have access to it.
“So what did we lose in those cargo silos?” Lee asked. Steve handed him the manifest.
“Eh, that’s not too bad. Nothing crippling in there,” he said absently.
“We’re going to lose the other one, too,” Steve said.
“What? Why?” Lee asked.
“We’re badly off balances. It’s frankly amazing we made it to orbit. Fuel isn’t really a problem, but gimbaling the engine that far isn’t safe. This is only a prototype, after all.”
“Ok, well, so we loose the camper. That’s still not too bad. Nothing essential in there. We can still continue on to our objective.”
“Wait, what? What objective? I thought your point was just to go into space?” Susan asked.
“Nah, we’re going to the moon,” Steve said, “Well, we were going to the moon. Lee gets the final say on that.”
“I’m thinking. That couldn’t have been a simple kidnapping thing back there. There had to be two hundred cops, copters, someone hit us with a rocket!”
“That’s ridiculous!” Susan said, “You’re just being paranoid.”
“Someone. Hit. Us. With. A. Rocket.” Lee repeated, emphasizing every word.
“I see your point,” she admitted.
“It has to be the Feds,” Lee said.
“Has to be,” Steve agreed.
“Why?” Susan asked.
“We talked about it back at the restaurant - the US is out of the Space Race, at least until the Shuttles go into service, if they ever do. We might be out of it forever. The government has shut down any private industry attempts to get into spaceflight as an industry, they’ve even flexed their muscle to shut down foreign companies that have tried to do it.”
Grapeape woke up, but no one noticed. He pretended to still be asleep.
“Why?” Susan asked.
“I don’t know,” Lee admitted, “Fear of upsetting the status quo? Let the lid off the pot, and it’ll boil over, the government would never be able to control it all, rein people back in.”
“That’s libertarian crap,” Susan said. No one else said anything for a bit.
“We could give ourselves up to the Soviets, ask for sanctuary,” Steve said. “We could easily make it to Salyut 6, explain the situation, land at Baikonour. With our house gone, and my notes lost, I’m the only one who knows the secret of the drive system. I’m sure they’d give their eye teeth for that. I’m just putting it out there.”
“You can’t be serious,” Susan said, “Lee, he can’t be serious.”
Lee looked pensive, “Well, it would unquestionably save our lives, and it might have the long-term benefit of forcing the US to expand into space, which was our goal anyway…”
“You can’t do that!” Grapeape spluttered, startling them all. He looked really angry, really driven, really unlike the fat teenager they’d first met only a few hours before.
“I agree,” Lee said, “But it’s important to know whether the devil is even open to making deals before you rule that option out.”
“So what was the original plan, anyway?” Susan asked.
“We go the moon, set up a big transmitter, and have you broadcast the story back to earth on live TV. Then we maybe make out some. It was kind of a first-date thing. Phil wasn’t really your boyfriend, was he?”
“You mean you picked me just because you want to get in the sack with me?” She was suddenly indignant.
“I think that’s oversimplifying things quite a bit, but, back at Red Lobster I said you were pretty.”
“You went to all this trouble to get a date?”
“I wanted to impress you,” Lee said, sheepishly.
“I am pretty impressed,” she admitted very quietly.
“We should go back to earth, turn ourselves in to the authorities. They probably think we’re Iranian terrorists or something. If we explain…” Grapeape said.
“Someone. Hit. Us. With. A. Rocket.” Lee reiterated.
“Because they thought we were terrorists! If we go back down…”
Lee regarded him silently.
“Not an option,” he said, “It’s either the Rooskies or the moon. No third option. Steve, can we get any kind of proof that we were on the moon? Something to convince the media before the Feds can get a hold of us?”
“Yeah, sure: Moonrocks by the bucketful!”
“Nah,” Susan said, “They’ll just claim you stole them from a museum.”
“We’ve got a Betamax portable video camera system in my cabin.” Steve ventured.
“Do we? Really? Why?” Lee asked.
“Never you mind, lad,” Steve said. Everyone winced at that.
“Do you have any blank videotape?” Lee asked awkwardly.
“No. But I’ll make sure it’ll be blank by the time we get to the moon.” Everyone winced at this as well.
“Ok, so videotape is good, but it’s not entirely conclusive evidence, they’ll just say you faked it.” Susan pointed out.
“What about this: We go to one of the Apollo landing sites, tape as much as we can, grab some of their left-behind gear, then we fly back, land at the UN, and tell the whole world about it, Kind‘a like that Andy Griffith show.” Lee said. Everyone stared at him blankly.
“You mean the one with Opie and Floyd and…” Grapeape asked.
“No, the one where he’s a garbage man who flies to the moon,” Lee said. Again, they all stared at him blankly. “I promise you, it’s a real show,” he said meekly.
“And I get the exclusive?” Susan asked, basically deciding to ignore that whole sub-topic.
“You get whatever you want,” Lee agreed.
“Sounds like a plan,” Steve said.
“A bad plan,” Grapeape said.
“Good or bad, the discussion is now closed,” Lee said.
They dropped the third cargo pod in orbit, fired the engines, and went on their way. A thousand miles away, Vladimir Lyakhov and Valeri Ryumin watched the whole thing from aboard the Soviet space station. They contacted ground control in Kosmogorad, who in turn contacted the KGB, who immediately brought it to the attention of Leonid Brezhnev, who was very interested in the information. Very interested, indeed.
In the cockpit, Crazy Uncle Steve was explaining how the rocket worked, mainly to get close to Susan. Elder Grapeape annoyingly insisted on tagging along.
“So how come we’re not floating anymore?” The missionary asked. His arm was curled up like a chicken wing. Evidently there’d been some nerve damage from the bullet. It didn’t hurt, in fact he couldn’t feel anything at all in it, nor could he extend it.
“We’re accelerating. You only float when the ship isn’t moving. If we go forward, you fall towards the rear, if we go backwards, you fall towards the front. As long as we keep accelerating at the right rate, we’ll keep simulated earth-normal gravity.”
“Won’t you run out of fuel pretty quickly that way?” Susan asked, leaning a little too close over Steve’s shoulder, and accidentally pressing a breast against his neck.
“Using normal fuels, yeah, you’d go dry in nothing flat, but because I’m inescapably brilliant, I’ve figured out a system that gives ridiculous amounts of power for sustained periods of time.”
“Yeah. I first got the idea back in the fifties when I was reading a book by Dr. Robert Car-”
“If we keep gravity the whole way, won’t se crash into the moon at a hell of a clip?” Susan asked.
“Yeah, so we won’t do that. We’ll shut off the engines when we get close to halfway, flip around, start ‘em up again, and decelerate at the same rate until we’re in Lunar orbit. Earth to moon one way, eight hours, spend a couple of hours on the surface sight seeing, we’ll have you back home in less than a day. I call it ‘trans-linear acceleration.’ That’s not actually its real scientific name, but I think it’s got a catchy ring to id. I got it from ‘Salvage One’, that Andy Griffith show that Lee was talking about.”
“I thought you said…”
“Yeah, I was just screwing with him. I do that a lot.”
Just then, Grapeape fainted - perhaps a bit too conveniently - and slumped over on Susan. She reacted almost by reflex, and pushed him away on to another control panel. The ship lurched, and Steve rattled off some fairly rudimentary profanity. “We just dropped some fuel!” he said.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I didn’t think, I just reacted…” Susan said, “Did we lose much fuel? Will we have to go back to earth?”
“Nah, nah, we’ve got like ten times as much fuel as we need. The engine is hyper-efficient. I just need to re-calculate for the lighter weight.
Lee was in his cabin when the mid-flight turnaround came, reading the instruction manual for Steve’s Betamax. There was a knock on the door, and then Susan floated in without waiting. Her hair was untied, her blouse was partially undone, her shoes were off. There was something about the look on her face that made him mildly flustered.
“I guess I picked a bad day to wear a skirt,” she said, and smoothed it down with her hands. Oddly, this had the effect of making it ride up a bit more.”
“Form follows function,” Lee said stupidly, breaking the mood, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I just said that.”
“Me neither. Anyway, it just hit me: I’m further away from earth than any woman has ever been, and I’m probably the youngest person ever in space.”
“Yeah, well, the youngest woman. It suddenly made me feel all flushed and overwhelmed. I didn’t want to be alone.” She drifted closer to him. “It’s so exciting to be here on your first trip.”
“It’s our third,” Lee said.
“First one was two months ago, just orbital, to check things out. Second was a month ago, just before you started working on the farm report, we went out a half million miles just to field test the engines. This is our first trip that actually goes anywhere, though.” She was closer now.
“You talk too much” she said. Her lips were open, her eyes half-closed.
“I do talk a lot,” he said, croaking a bit as his mouth went dry.
“I had something coy to say, but I’m just going to kiss you instead,” she said. And then she did. And then they did.
Or at least they tried to. They fumbled with each others clothes, giggling and tugging and kissing and groping and having a surprising amount of trouble getting naked. Every time they touched, Newton’s Third Law of Motion acted as a chaperone, pushing them apart. At first it was fun, but it quickly became distracting, then, Susan banged her head really hard on the ceiling, and Lee’s face kept ending up in the sink. They gave up and simply undressed themselves, but the actual act itself was way harder than either of them had expected. Each motion tended to push them apart frustratingly. Zero gravity’s effect on blood pressure being what it is, both of them were having a hard time holding on to their arousal. The giggling stopped as the whole thing became more and more of an engineering problem and less and less a momentary outbreak of lust. The only thing that kept them going was their determination to figure a way around it. Lee had a brainstorm, and grabbed two belts from his dresser drawer, cinched them together to make one long belt, and then wrapped it around their combined waists. That solved one problem, but it was incredibly awkward, and then…
“Turnaround complete, restarting engines” Steve said over the PA
Gravity returned and they crashed to the floor, still strapped together, Lee landing on his back, Susan landing oddly twisted on top of him, knocking the wind out of him and racking him in the groin with one of her knees. He spasmed there, unable to breathe, waves of pain shooting through him, fumbling with the belts, but unable to get them off. Susan’s head had knocked hard on the floor when they landed, her face in the carpet. When she pushed herself up on her arms, she had a large bleeding cut on her forehead. Below her, Lee alternately gasped for air and moaned in pain.
“Well that was disappointing,” she said.
The fire broke out about two hours later, in the kitchen. Grapeape was in there when it happened, apparently trying to cook something in the toaster oven, but it got away from him because of his now-useless left arm. It threatened to spread through the whole ship, but Steve just shot off the engines. In weightlessness, without any up and down, the heated air couldn’t lift the carbon dioxide away from the flames, so it just built up around the kitchen until it suffocated the combustion. The avocado green countertops were ruined, but there was no substantial damage beyond that. They decided to keep Grapeape away from anything electrical from then on. He mostly just stayed in the lounge, reading a now-singed Tom Swift,Jr. novel that Steve had brought along.
In the cockpit, Steve explained how the landing system worked.
“The whole thing is run by this TRS-80 microcomputer here,” he said, “Liftoff is easy, even Grapeape could handle that, but landing is pretty dangerous, harder than flying a ‘copter and that’s pretty dangerous. I could never get the hang of it.”
“How does it work?”
“Simple, just type in the X and Y coordinates you want to land at, and it’ll take you there.”
“Yeah, easy. It’s a simple trig function.”
They decided to land at the Apollo 11 landing site, mainly because it was the easiest one to find, smack in the center of the moon’s nearside hemisphere. It was equatorial, roughly evenly spaced from the moon’s eastern and western edges, as seen from earth. A simple matter, really, with no ceremony. Steve simply typed in the coordinates, and down they went.
Steve was leering at her in the airlock deck as they suited up. Lee was trying hard to avoid meeting her eyes. He was embarrassed, and still in pain from their tryst.
“My suit doesn’t fit very well,” she said, struggling to get into it.
“Nobody’s suits fit very well,” Lee said.
“Why is that?” she asked.
“Because we stole them, my lovely,” Steve said.
“Space suits are tailor made, custom built, high tech, and expensive, like a million or more dollars a pop,” Lee explained without looking at her. We just figured out which astronauts were slightly bigger than us, and then stole their suits from a museum. Yours probably fits worse than ours because you’re kind of a late addition to the team.”
“And I’m a girl,” she added.
“Yes.” He said.
“Oh, you noticed that, did ya’, Lee?” Steve joked.
They couldn’t find the Apollo 11 landing site.
They climbed hills, they shuffled around, they used the top of the Internal Bleeder as a lookout spot, but they couldn’t find it. Lee eventually theorized that it was because the Eagle’s initial landing site turned out to be unsuitable on final approach, so they drifted downrange several miles, landing with only a hatfull of fuel left. Since they landed off course, and because Armstrong and Aldrin didn’t venture far from the landing site - only a hundred feet or so - they decided it might simply be too small a needle to find in this particular haystack.
They decided to just move on to the Apollo 12 site the next day. When they got back to the ship, the door wouldn’t open. Susan kind of freaked out, and Steve had to ultimately break the lock with a bayonet he’d been carrying for some eccentric reason. When they got in, they found that Grapeape had somehow managed to futz the locking mechanism. Steve set about to fix it, while Lee gave Susan the Betamax and had her film him planting the Nebraska state flag in the lunar soil.
She slept in his cabin that night, Lee slept on the floor in the lounge because Grapeape was already hogging the couch. In the low gravity, however, the floor was surprisingly comfortable.
He awoke to find Grapeape staring at him.
“There are two kinds of history-changing moments, Mister Austin,” he said rather absently.
“Yeah. Those that everyone talks about, and that change the future of the world, but no one notices.”
“I’m going to make some eggs. You want some eggs?”
“Which one is this, Mister Austin? Which one are we?”
They couldn’t find the Apollo 12 landing site. Nor the sites for 14, 15, 16, or 17. The inability to find the final landing site was particularly damning: they’d gone miles away from the lander in the rover, there should have been tracks all over the place, but there couldn’t see anything. There was nothing to be seen.
Susan said, “Well, now we know why Nixon killed the space program and why Carter is so loony about keeping it dead: nobody’s ever been on the moon before us!”
That night, aboard the internal bleeder, Steve found clear evidence of sabotage. Someone had taken a fire axe to the engine. The damage was insubstantial, but the conclusion was unavoidable: Someone in their midst was a traitor. They met in the lounge deck to discuss it among the four of them.
“I’m just going to come right out and say it, I think it’s you, Grapeape,” Steve said.
“What? No! Why?” the fat kid spluttered.
“Everything that’s gone wrong since we left earth was your fault - the fire, dumping fuel, dumping cargo which prevented us from contacting earth directly…” Steve accused.
“I’m clumsy! Those were just accidents!” Grapeape began to sweat nervously.
“Added to which, none of us ever met you before, and suddenly an army of feds show up…” Lee said.
“What? You think I’m a federal agent? I’m just nineteen! What kind of FBI guy could I be if I’m just that old?”
“He’s got a point,” Susan said.
“He could just look young. Fed’sll do that sometimes.” Steve said.
“I’ve got a driver’s license!” Grapeape said.
“It could be faked. Easiest thing in the world for a fed.” Steve answered.
“And I could swear I saw you give some kind of handsign to the feds back at the farm. I didn’t think anyting of it before, but now…” Lee said.
“What? No! I’ve got a nervous thing going on, I get too scared, I get twitchy…” the missionary protested.
“Honestly, guys,” Susan said, “I think we’re jumping at shadows here. Dumping the fuel was clearly my fault. I pushed him on the controls by accident, and honestly, none of you met me before we left. Hell, I could be a spy, if there was one. I think he’s just a fat, clumsy kid.”
“He’s a spy,” Steve insisted.
“It’s looking that way,” Lee agreed.
“They shot Tom! They killed my missionary partner, why would they do that if we were spies?”
“Maybe he wasn’t a spy, and didn’t know who you were,” Steve said, “Maybe he wasn’t actually dead, they just faked it for some reason. We didn’t have time to examine the body.”
Grapeape looked pleadingly at Lee, “I saved your life! I got shot for you! I can‘t use my arm because I saved your stupid life!”
“Again, he’s got a point,” Susan said, “I don’t think he hacked up the engine. Maybe the axe just broke lose and clattered around in there while we were flying. You might as well accuse me of doing it.”
“I am not a spy! I’m not trying to sabotage anything. Why would I? That’d kill me too! I don’t know how to fly this thing!” Grapeape got up, and huffed around the cabin in impotent, crippled frustration. He stepped to hard, and kept bouncing up and banging his head on the ceiling. He gave up and sat crossed legged, his head in his good hand.
“Please don’t kill me,” he said.
“Ok, here’s what we’re gonna’ do,” Lee said, ”Obviously, kid, there’s a spy onboard who’s fanatical enough to do himself in if it’ll stop us, and obviously it’s got to be the feds, since they knew we’d end up blowing their dirty little secret. You’re really the only candidate, so I’m going to lock you in the airlock with food and water and blankets and some issues of people. You’ll be perfectly safe, no one’s killing anyone, and then we’ll turn you over to the authorities when we get back.”
“He is one of the authorities,” Susan said.
“I said we’re going back.” Lee said, “but we’re not going home. The feds’ll kill us the minute we land. I don’t see as we have any choice. We’re going to have to go to the Soviets.”
“No, please!” Grapeape pleaded.
They spent the night on the moon. That night, after Steve was asleep, Susan came up to the lounge deck naked, and enticed Lee back down to his room.
“I want to give this another shot,” she said.
Whereas physics had worked against them in zero gravity, one sixth gravity was their friend. Everything was amazing, magical, wonderful, nirvanic. They made love until they quite literally couldn’t anymore. They kept trying, of course, but their bodies sore, their lips raw, bathed in sweat, bleary-eyed, they were simply done, beyond the limits of their endurance. As they drifted off to achy sleep, Susan said, “Austin’s a pretty good last name for an anchorwoman. You want to get married.”
“Sure,” Lee said.
The next morning, the airlock was empty, the outer door open. There was a semi-illegible note scrawled on the wall in magic marker that said “I can not allow myself to be captured by the Soviets.”
“Well, one less problem to deal with,” Steve said.
“I can’t believe I was wrong about him,” Susan said.
“Yeah, it’s pretty much cut and dried, isn’t it?” Lee said.
“Good ending for the story, isn’t it?” Susan suggested, “Bad guy overcome, defeated, intrepid explorers survive to fight another day. Happily ever after.”
“Happily ever after,” Lee agreed.
The flight back to earth had gone without incident, and then, Steve said, “Damn! We’re landing!”
“What? Why?” Lee said, scrambling up to the cockpit.
“We were in orbit, I put the disk in the TRS-80 to plot a rendezvous course for Salyut 6, but then the landing computer kicked in! We’re heading down!”
“Can you stop it?” Susan asked.
“No, once it’s on, it can’t be overridden until we land, then you can reset it,” Lee explained, “How could this have happened?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, obviously frightened, “Landing is a different disk than the one I was using. I’d have to physically take out the one floppy and put in another one to get it to do this.”
“Could this be some of Grapeape’s lingering sabotage?” Susan asked? Like maybe changing the labels on the disk?”
“No, Steve said,” I’d loaded up the Rendexvous program, which is on one disk, and when I hit ‘enter’, there was a different one in there that started to run. Someone would have had to sneak in and change it while I was working.”
“Grapeape,” Lee said, “We never saw the body, we didn’t even look for it. Maybe he crawled into an air vent or a locker or something, let himself out after we left.”
“Are we going to crash?” Susan asked, frightened.
“No, no, it’s safe as your mom’s lap,” Steve said, “It’s fully automated. We’re landing in Alaska somewhere. That’s pretty remote, the feds man not be able to get to us in time. So we touch down, I reset the computer, we lift off and head for the space station. Lee, you’ve got to find Grapeape! There’s no telling how much trouble he could cause! Check the engine room.”
“Just to confirm: So landing is entirely safe, and really we don’t need you to land at all at this point, right?”
“Well, yeah, but…”
Susan pulled a gun out of her purse and shot him squarely in the back of the head. Lee was halfway down the ladder when she killed his uncle. She kicked him in the face, and he tumbled down into the lower deck. She quickly slid down the handrails, and kicked him again in the face and the groin.
“I switched the disk,” she said, “He was deaf as a post, never heard me sneaking up behind him.”
“Framed him, killed him, chucked him out the airlock.”
“Yeah, yeah, ‘but, but, but, but.’ Here’s the short version: NORAD saw the Internal Bleeder take off back in July. We knew it took off from Nebraska. When you made your second flight in August, we were able to track it to the Mayfield area. We poured spies into the town as surreptitiously as we could - remember you said I only started working at the farm report a bit under a month ago?”
“You guys didn’t know who I was, you couldn’t have known I’d be watching you and ask you out,” he gasped through broken teeth.
“Oh, no, I was there to investigate the station owner, actually. Just dumb luck that you called me. I had something coy in mind to say as the final thing you’ll ever hear, but, meh, I’m just gonna’ shoot you instead. Good lay, though! Well done! Oh, and the mushrooms were nice. Remember those? ”
And then she killed him.
The government helicopters arrived to find the Internal Bleeder standing in the snow. It had been down so long the ground had stopped steaming. There was a light snowfall. A man in an expensive suit got out, and strode over to the spacecraft. Susan was huddled by a campfire.
“’Bout time you showed up. I’m freezing out here,” she said.
“You contained the situation, I see. The president will be very pleased.”
“Yup. Score one for the good guys. Happily ever after.”
Copyright 2010,2011 Republibot 3.0
Originally web-published May 2010