The year- 1983
Woolgathering was the rather archaic term my English teacher had used to describe my occasional inattention in class. While she attempted to instill in me the proper knowledge of the English language, my mind would roam to bare notebook covers that hungered for embellishment. My talent with a pen or pencil often furnished the proper touch. A precise compass rose, an NFL helmet or a mushroom cloud rising over Libya.
Mrs. Celino would say, "Whenever you are finished woolgathering, Mister LaSalle..." English teachers have a particular gift for such words and for delivering them at the appropriate moment.
Girls with mascara-laden lashes assumed woolgathering was a masculine but venial sin and giggled at my sudden predicament. Quiet and reserved as I was, I was something of an enigma to them. I concealed my embarrassment, grinned and maintained that cool, teen-aged facade.
My grades did not suffer despite my repeated mental side-trips. I chose to think that I simply used more of my available brain capacity than my so-called peers. However, upon later reflection, it is not likely that this was the case. I studied hard because a successful high school transcript was my supreme goal at the time. I felt that I had to escape the insanity that seemed to be growing around me. Somehow, I had to rise above the teeming hallways and avoid that dismal treadmill that turned bright, attractive girls into tedious matrons and athletes into slack-jawed laborers by age twenty-one.
Peer pressure affected me more than I let on. Adolescent male pranks and taunts alienated me. The girls were all in a rush to grow up. Their occasional libidinous glances made me too anxious about my appearance. My sensitivity and intellect branded me as an outcast by their measure. Yet, these same qualities preserved my sense of propriety and I managed to survive it all without shooting up the place, as seems the predilection of lost youths these days.
I felt that higher education would only prolong and intensify the social torture. Several of my teachers told me I had already reached college level proficiency in many subjects. This came as no surprise. I filled my leisure time with books rather than snacks and vacuous entertainment. I packed my head full of knowledge without the credentials a degree would document. I often took great pleasure in answering challenging questions that none of my befuddled classmates grasped. Of course this alienated me further. And when all other excuses failed, the costs of formal higher education were prohibitive.
The coaches could not understand me. They saw only my six foot, one hundred ninety pound physique that came from my mother’s Croatian heritage. I figured they resented my lack of interest in athletics. The assistant coaches were mental and emotional midgets who branded me a wimp. Their players often took this to mean I was a legitimate target for their shenanigans. The head coach just shook his head, grinned and accepted my position. His no-nonsense demeanor often restrained his boys but he was not always present when we crossed paths.
In junior high I had sought to follow in my father’s footsteps. That initially meant joining the Navy to me. I wanted to become a fighter pilot. I immersed myself in aerodynamic principles, fighter tactics and re-lived famous pilots’ exploits during REM sleep. I made annual pilgrimages to the air show at Naval Air Station New Orleans. Poor math scores and less than 20/20 vision, though, had grounded that dream. So I decided on what seemed the next best thing, the broad seas and steel towers of the Gulf of Mexico.
My father, a production foreman with Shell Oil for seventeen years, tried to warn me that the oil industry’s glory days were numbered as I neared high school graduation. I ignored his warnings and opted for heading offshore to the production fields. My career choice horrified my English teacher. She saw wasted potential. I saw four to eight years of impoverished academic toil in a deteriorating economy Law firms weren’t hiring. Budget cuts sent scientists packing. I wanted the security that a trade represented. And I assumed physical toil would help me ignore my unfulfilled dreams.
Naiveté may not be a sin but it is certainly not a virtue. The evening news had reinforced my sophomoric view of the world. I soon discovered that experience was rarely transferable from previous generations.
Somehow my inevitable lost innocence did not cancel out all of my teenage fantasies. I clung to the notion that love was the final answer. I knew there was someone out there for everyone, even me. Fantasies have no up-charge for optional accessories so I rolled up to the drive-in dream window. I ordered a green-eyed, natural blonde, medium height with a cheerleader’s body in a Spandex leotard... well, enough of that.
The most vivid reverie from my beardless, mind-excursion days was a far-fetched, unearthly one. I explored those limitless, black realms above my head on crystalline nights. I left this world, this cradle of man and bathed in the sea of lights beyond our atmosphere. I wanted to locate another inhabitable planet, a distant paradise. I wanted to escape, to find a tranquil sphere where network television, interstates and bad music played too loudly simply did not exist. As time went by, the daydream’s specific targets evolved from interest rates, government corruption and threats of nuclear war to confusion, deception, and plummeting morals.
But, I've gotten ahead of myself.
Such grand designs were absent on a certain humid summer evening in my hometown. I grew up in a unique place in America. City streets and crowded suburbs were within commuting distance but more abstract measurements placed Satsuma Grove, Louisiana trillions of miles from contemporary civilization. Satsuma Grove grew up around a now extinct nineteenth century plantation. It occupied the very tip of the state, sandwiched precariously between the powerful Mississippi river and the saltwater prairie marshes that fringed the Gulf of Mexico.
It was an eccentric place to grow up. The townspeople inevitably alluded to their independence when visitors asked why the second largest town in the parish elected only district representatives on the parish council, school board members and the justice of the peace. There was no town charter or council. Three people looked after the needs of three thousand citizens. Throughout my childhood there were no traffic signals and we mostly ignored two caution lights added later. Two parallel roads meandered into town. The only other way out was by aircraft or boat. Bridges were our ultimate links to the world outside. Five feet below sea level, the town required pumping stations to prevent flooding during rainfall. A fortified levee system that held back surrounding waters was more immense than any ancient walled city.
The town had its obvious advantages over other nearby towns in the parish. It had the only bank with a drive-through. It had two of the best-stocked grocery stores, the biggest full service gas station and the lowest crime rate. Its two main roads and the old River Road that interconnected with various streets gave it a broader feeling than its neighbors. Granted the levees limited the streets’ distance. They barely reached a mile in most places. It did create more pavement to cruise, a most important element for a teenager with his own automobile.
My car, a treasured gift from my father, was hardly new. Dad, despite his excellent salary, was not one to get a new car every four years. He got the most from his vehicles. His '77 Chevy pickup remained like new in the garage for his seven-day shift offshore. He drove little when he was home and maintained it faithfully. My vehicle was a black ‘78 Pontiac Firebird TransAm, just like the one in Smokey and the Bandit. It too, was lovingly cared for, under strict orders from Dad. I learned automotive maintenance under its hood and chassis, not to mention methods of wringing more potency from its four hundred cubic inch cast iron heart.
The TransAm's stereo was my particular pride. Wattage competition surpassed horsepower because there were few lonely streets for drag racing. We competed to see whose system could crank out the most power without exploding.
With the T-tops off, the music gushed beyond the car's black vinyl interior, overflowing to the empty sidewalks of Parkview Drive. There was no park to be viewed from it these days. The baseball field of the old whites-only private school had vanished beneath the new bank. Grass overgrew the abandoned football field. There had been a raid there a few nights previously. A bunch of kids, real renegades, were smoking pot under the bleachers. They had to be idiots. Breathing smoke of any kind on a regular basis, for enjoyment, seemed pretty stupid. Although a few of my friends did engage in it. In later years, I had no cause to criticize such behavior.
In those days of shrinking cubic inches, the TransAm's 70’s vintage engine had a nice rumble to it. My tinkering added to this. Gas mileage was poor but I rarely strayed too far at any rate. I had a part time job at a tool rental shop further down the road. It was close to the oilfield docks I would soon be arriving and departing from. It did not pay enough to finance regular trips to nearby New Orleans. But with a pooling of meager resources, my few friends and I managed to get to the city once in a while.
This was not one of those times. I was not feeling particularly adventurous. It was just a standard night out. The music was The Eagles’ "Hotel California". I liked to put my much-loved older rock up against the electronic funk and punk spewing from other, competing systems. It was a fascinating challenge. My destination that night was El Dorado Estates, the most attractive subdivision in the lower part of the parish. A remarkably tolerant young woman lived there. She was seventeen, like me, and was the embodiment of my fantasy woman. Okay, she was that because she was the first girl who had endured me long enough to be considered my girlfriend. And that description I already gave was not my original perfect woman depiction. I had changed it to that only after I met her. There had been dates in my past but I was apparently no Casanova.
Jennifer was the green-eyed blonde. She fit into her Chic jeans like a precisely machined part. Why she put up with a stiff like me was a mystery. She was beautiful but reserved, not shy but quiet. Maybe we were in sync somehow. I did not like to dance and was no party animal. I never had enough money to take her out "in style" and I hated crowds. She stayed anyway. Never let a good thing go, they say. I had no intention of letting her go.
Allow me to digress a moment here to tell you about why I believed Jenn stayed with me. Her father was a recovered alcoholic. Though sober for two years, the liquor had robbed him of compassion and fatherly love. He regularly ignored her and her long-suffering mother, who stayed through better and worse. I had great admiration for Mrs. Blair. She reminded me of a tough frontier wife from a Western novel, a matriarch who refused to be defeated. A lot of her spirit was evident in her daughter. I probably did not value that enough as a teenager but I did my damnedest to do right by Jenn. Or so I thought. I guess my fidelity got through to her. She cherished it and me. I made up for the love she lacked at home.
Back to my tale. We had a date that night. Unfortunately for any thoughts of the beginning of a nice evening together, Jenn's father had come home in a foul mood and we had to clear the premises quickly. I heard his voice from inside the house as I killed the engine. I recognized his loud and irritated tone. Jenn’s stride told me she was upset as she came out the front door. I turned the key and we joined the other bored adolescents of Satsuma Grove, looking for something to do.
I studied her expression carefully as she sank into the freshly cleaned black vinyl passenger seat that still smelled of Armor-All. She was dressed in a pair of cut-off shorts, the black Madonna T-shirt I had bought her and tennis shoes. Casual clothing but her makeup was perfect and her hair was teased and fluffed out meticulously. She neither scowled nor sighed. But I realized that she needed to escape into an alternate reality.
"A good evening to you, m' lady." I intoned chivalrously, as though astride a fine
Andalusian stallion clad in a brass-studded doublet, fencing pants and high leather boots, a gleaming broadsword hanging at my side.
“Hello, my gentleman.” She replied in a country lass voice that made my head swim.
"Where wouldest thou care to dine on this fine evening?" It was lame attempt at some humor. But she smiled at my T-shirt and blue jean clad form anyway. I could always make her smile.
"I'm not hungry, Josh. Let's just ride. I want to put my face out in the breeze."
"Thy wish is thy gentleman's command." Three hundred horses snorted carbon monoxide through glass pack mufflers and out chrome exhaust tips and carried us away.
I observed her face until we were out of the subdivision and then hazarded a question.
“What was the problem tonight?”
“Oh, he just had a bad day, I guess. And as usual, he can’t leave it at work. Sometimes I think he was almost better when he was drinking. At least then, he came home and passed right out. Most of the time.”
“How long’s it been now?”
“Two years.” She looked pointedly at me. “And don’t be so quiet about it. You didn’t think he would make it this long.”
I shrugged. Mister Blair was not one of my favorite people, drunk or sober.
Jenn shook her head and leaned over the console, resting her head on my shoulder. “Who cares? It’s me and you, big guy.”
“Yes ma’am. I shall stand between you and the forces of evil.” And I kissed her on the cheek.
“Just stand and let me lean.”
She returned my kiss and played with the radio dial until she found a more contemporary tune, John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane”.
* * *
Jenn's suppressed appetite only lasted for one circuit on the poorly lit blacktop of Satsuma Grove’s boredom circuit. The beginning of the second lap included a pit stop at Danny's Carry Out, our best fast food joint. We awaited our order at one of the pinball machines, Jenn clinging to me tightly as I abused the flippers. This was more to show evidence of our relationship to our classmates who were present than to actually rack up points on the gaudy machine. Once we noticed some of them whisper and point in our direction, we decided they had seen enough.
Unfortunately, it was not soon enough. Eric Lewis, or “Lewdness” as he was sometimes called, sauntered up to the counter as we picked up our order. The class smart ass and a mediocre wide receiver for the Satsuma Grove Marlins, he had had his eye on Jennifer since eighth grade.
“Hi, Jenn.” His tone was deceptively informal as his gaze roamed over her. He spared me a quick glance, like one would look at a fly. “Josh.”
“”What’s up?” I said in a neutral tone.
“My dick! Thanks for bringing your girlfriend in.”
Zero to asshole in no time flat. Jenn was ignoring him well and I gathered up our order, trying to keep myself calm. It was no good. I felt my face reddening and knew three of Lewdness’ teammates were only ten feet away. Seconds seemed like years as I deliberated my options. All eyes were on us.
Strangely, Eric suddenly vanished, replaced at the counter by a burly form in a gray tee shirt, jeans and cowboy boots.
“You’re disgusting, Lewdness. Go drink a bottle of bleach.”
Eric would never stand up to Bobby LaHaye. Bobby was the biggest defensive lineman on the team and the most decent fellow in school. And Lewis’s antics were something he could not stomach.
Eric deflated, having experienced more than one full body impact from Bobby in practice. His situation worsened when Danny stuck his head out from the kitchen, bawled Eric out for his language and ordered him out of the place.
I was gratified and embarrassed. Still, the whole affair had happened so quickly that the general mood in the room seemed to turn against Eric as he and his friends left. With one brief, surprising exception. Just as Eric passed through the glass doors, Jenn’s gaze swung around to follow him. I saw her eyes drill into the back of his head for moment before they locked onto me. For an instant, I saw resentment and fear, directed straight at me. Then she looked away. That glance left both a tiny wound and a lingering question in my psyche. I managed to put it aside in time to salvage the remainder of our date.
I gave Bobby a lopsided grin. “Thanks, Chewie!”
“Rarrr!” he replied. He was a Star Wars fan too and delighted in imitating the hirsute co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon. “Take care of your princess, man. And quit hogging the counter! I’m hungry too!”
Incident over and we were back on the circuit with two large Cokes and a large pepperoni and onion pizza. It kept our mouths from rehashing Jenn’s father’s troubles and my differences with the local lowlife. The much needed break evoked some normal conversation and finally lifted Jenn’s spirits. She suddenly gave me a serious kiss, rather early in the evening, for my troubles. The look in her jade eyes promised further appreciation later in the evening.
We rumbled up Highway 11, exchanging shouted greetings with fellow cruisers. A good song came on the radio, Hall and Oates’ “Kiss on My List”. It got Jenn swaying in her seat. We turned on Eads Boulevard, chattering about tomorrow night's Rick Springfield concert in New Orleans, which we did not have tickets for. After a quick acceleration up Highway 23, as if we were gunning for the best time in the quarter mile at Gulfport, we wondered where the heck we should chill out tonight. There were a few designated hangout spots around town, places where by default kids ended up on weekend nights. One was a point on the riverbank that was used for barge mooring by the Corps of Engineers when engaged in levee work. It was one of the few spots where one could drive right up to the muddy water's edge.
After a last mind-numbing circuit through town, we made for that spot. We roared down Pipeline Drive to the River Road, up the levee and a short, dangerous trip on the narrow shell road atop it. But we were not the first ones there. My two closest buddies thought much as I did. They had beaten us to it. Dave and Steve were seated on the tailgate of Dave's Chevy 4X4, guzzling contraband Budweisers.
“HEY, DUDE!” Dave hollered.
“That was my ear, dickhead!” Steve frowned. “What are you, a foghorn?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, man.”
I guided the TransAm carefully down the shell ramp, gave the engine a last loud rev and stopped it.
“Not you too!” Steve groaned.
“What are we doing? Running booze?” I did not ask where they had acquired the beer and being with Jennifer, I did not ask for one until she read my mind, playfully waggled a finger under my nose, smiled and said it was okay with her. Whew!
I will say here that up until I was seventeen, I had never drank a beer. In fact, stories of teenaged alcoholics and drug addicts were a wonder to me. Why do such things to yourself, when you had your whole life ahead of you and could see the effects it had on others? Of course, I found out why when I grew old enough to realize that life was rarely if ever fair nor was it always idealistically pleasant. I also discovered that a few beers could both deaden the impact of disappointments and loosen the spirits of a somewhat introverted young man, easing his interactions with his fellow man. It's no excuse for drinking too much or drinking at all but it is the reasoning behind it in my case. Jenn must have known these things long before me and understood them. She never once preached to me about it. Like her mother, she just dealt with it. So I assumed.
Dave and Steve were pretty much like me. Not the most popular guys in school and not part of the "in" crowd. We had found a lot in common back in junior high and had assembled as comrades on a regular basis since. In my case, it was partly because they tolerated my presence. I thought them wiser in many ways than me and hoped to learn something from them.
“So where you two lovebirds been?” Dave asked.
“Just doin’ a little cruisin’.” I replied
“What’s happening in town?”
“Oh, wild celebrations in the streets, free food at every restaurant and all night movies projected in Dolby seventy millimeter down at the baseball field. In addition, there’s a massive fireworks display at midnight and a powerboat race up the river!”
He just looked at me. “You have these dreams often?”
I looked around in feigned surprise. “Dammit, I been sleepwalkin’ again!”
“He really wanted to know if you’d seen Gwen anywhere.” Steve put in. “Say like with Harold Carter.”
“Uh oh.” Jenn mumbled.
“Hey, I hope they’re happy together.”
“The Lone Ranger rides again!” I said.
“We’re surrounded by Indians, Tonto!”
“What’s this ‘we’ shit, white man?”
That was how the evening progressed, rowdy but enjoyable. The sloshing the muddy water made surging past the rocks blended with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Def Leppard. The loosened voices of four teenagers and the occasional splash of a thrown rock or bottle punctuated this background noise. Dave produced a pack of Moon Travelers bottle rockets from his glove compartment and we lit off a few. We imagined we were manning the Confederate batteries that had opposed David Farragut's Union fleet on a dark night back in 1862. Talk between Dave, Steve and myself eventually turned to potential modern day battles here in our hometown.
We were budding right wing extremists in those days, who really did not know better. The movie Red Dawn had been one of our recent favorites and the tense escalation of the Cold War in those days bred such thoughts in us. As also did a normal male fascination with tanks, rifles and fighter planes. What would we do in such a situation? If the doomsayers were proved right and America fell? Hide out in the woods and marshes, living off the land? Not hard to do hereabouts. The bounty of the delta region made survival a less daunting prospect to its natives. We could fish, trap and hunt, we reasoned. The levees and marshes were abundant in driftwood and other flotsam that had uses. There were camps and boats galore. There were places hidden among mangroves and cypress trees that made great campsites. There was plenty of fresh water. And there was the fort.
Idealistic, immature fantasies of holing up in old Fort Jackson, seeking shelter under its thick fortifications made us feel overconfident and invincible. Besides, we declared boldly, were not our very homes surrounded by a twenty-foot earthen wall, plus river and canal? Were they not equivalent to ancient castle walls and moats? As late as the Second World War, armies were still firmly entrenched in such old works. Such objectives were taken only with heavy casualties. Losses that generals squirmed at today. Somehow, we overlooked air strikes and earth-penetrating bunker buster bombs.
Blissfully ignorant and youthfully drunk, we tossed our ideas around, read old issues of Soldier of Fortune and had a grand time.
A blurp from a siren interrupted our reveries and blue lights intruded garishly upon us. The strident voice of a deputy over a loudspeaker ordered us away from our makeshift shore battery. We scowled but obeyed, stashing our beer bottles and hoping he did not notice. He did not, or was merely content to move us on. We departed without further incident.
"Where to now?" was the question. "My house." was my suggestion. My parents were out for the evening and were easygoing on us at any rate. I sought Jenn's approval and she smiled consent. I weakly apologized for ignoring her and she dismissed it, saying she agreed with us. “Your conversation fascinated me. My gentleman must know how to look out for his lady. Remember those Roman women in Spartacus, choosing the gladiators?”
“Ooo! Getting bloodthirsty, aren’t we?”
She gave me that ferocious little grin.
Mom had just got an Apple 4 computer, our first step into the future, as I liked to call it. It was source of endless fascination to me that we had finally advanced to the point as a civilization where computers could reside in every home. Well, almost. And besides, that was a view based on science fiction rather than cultural need. Would computers really become almost a necessity or were they another passing fad? Who knew?
Naturally, being restless teenagers, our main interest was in games. They were rather limited in those days before 3-D graphics accelerators and six hundred megahertz processors and we wore them out quickly.
My pet computer project was nothing fancy. One half of it was a neatly typed file of detailed specifications (which really just looked cool in neat fonts rather than handwritten on notebook paper). The other half was a three-view picture, condensed from all my drawing pad sketches. It was a part of that second fantasy, an amalgamation of my hopes, fears, dreams and goals, real or wished for. All rolled together in a fuselage of titanium and depleted uranium.
Jenn squinted at the text on the TV screen. “What is that?”
“My spec sheet for my ship.”
"Oh, God. More airplanes." she moaned with mock annoyance. She had endlessly prodded me to forget my oilfield plans and join the Air Force. A frown was my usual answer. Dad had been a Navy man and there was where my admiration lay. Aircraft carriers and submarines. Cool. Still, I shrank from the thought of military discipline at the time, fool and rebel that I was. And I feared simply not being up to the challenge of being trained.
"No airplane, my sweet. A starship." I corrected her.
“Pardon me. I didn’t know spaceships needed wings.”
“Did you ever watch the space shuttle land?”
She smiled sweetly. “Being a smartass doesn’t become you.”
Dave and Steve sighed and turned up their longneck bottles. "Space... the final frontier." Dave muttered, grabbing my head and shaking it, no doubt to see if it was indeed empty, he then snatched up the hand drawn sheet I had dug out of the desk drawer. "Have you finalized the design of this thing yet?"
"Not really. It’s still growing.
"Well, hurry up and finish it so we can get somebody to build it!" Steve urged.
It appealed to the grandiose in them, as it was a reflection of that in me as well.
"Missiles bounce off it..." I reflected in a dream state. “We can fly it to the Caribbean and take over an island nation. Babes will flock to the men driving it!"
Steve and Dave looked at each other. The usual argument ensued as to who would be the better pilot. Then their conversation sobered a bit as both queried me again as to why I had never taken the new drafting course offered at school. I simply had not given it any thought.
After awhile, I assumed my ruminations on my fantasy ship were getting boring so I did not get too deeply into it that night. Conversation drifted to MTV and that extravagant video for "Thriller", repeatedly scored as pretty cool. Then, there were mechanical discussions about my car and jokes about sex. We watched a movie, Casablanca, did our usual second-guessing of the plot and called it a night. That is, we called it a night as far as the four of us were concerned. Jenn and I had no intention letting this time alone pass with taking advantage of it.
Sometimes I just liked to look at her, as though she were some ultimate form of art. An hourglass is an odd thing to compare a woman to, despite the similarity in form. She had no peaches and cream complexion. She was a bayou girl and her tan gave it more of a… peanut butter tone. And what the hell was it about blond hair, tossed either by the wind or her enticing movements.
She did not move gracefully, her sashay one of purpose rather than form. When she walked, her unrestrained breasts jiggled sassily beneath the t-shirt and her sleek, elegant legs moved with a cheetah’s functionality.
We did not say much at times like this. In fact, we never actually said the words “I love you” to each other. I guess we thought we did not need to
* * *
Later that same night, lounging alone in the dark with my notes and sketches and gazing beyond the dirty glass of my bedroom window, I lost myself.
Despite the evening’s previous enjoyment, I still simply did not much like the world as it was. Small wonder. Being young, I did not stop to think that I was not the only one who thought that. Reasons abounded that I could not fully grasp yet, as to why it was not a better place. There were economic and political considerations, human pettiness and greed. How righteous would it be, I reflected again, to have an instrument with which to impose some harmony upon mankind? Or at least scare it into them. Something to make the planet a better place for Jenn and me.
My starship might be able to do that, were it real. It was no 1970s, drug-inspired metaphysical vehicle that moved with the help of transcendental meditation. Far from it. Nor was it some hulking giant nearly as big as a planet and restricted to just space flight. Nor some flying saucer relying on purely made up propulsion to defy gravity. My design, bearing the simple appellation Starhawk, was far more practical. Like the space shuttle, it had an aerodynamic configuration, as Jenn had noted, for both takeoff and landing. It had blended, cranked delta wings with canards forward, twin tail fins and twin ventral fins. The control surfaces of these were linked to a digital flight control system that allowed both superb maneuverability and would not allow the inherently unstable ship to depart from safe flight regimes. It utilized thermonuclear reactions for propulsion, something first investigated back in the 1950s and today lacking only the advent of fusion technology. Four engines propelled the ship on the elemental fire of plasma resultant from what were essentially small nuclear detonations. And its computers did not talk back. They merely watched over the operations that human reaction time could not keep up with. When they did have something too say, they related it clearly, being extremely user-friendly. They also processed faster than any of the current generation of Earth computers, being about a hundred times faster than a Cray 2 supercomputer. I had figured the starship's exact dimensions, designed comfortable accommodations within it and placed its weapons batteries, electron beam lasers at the time, to provide overlapping fields of fire. It was the ultimate exploration vessel and the ultimate instrument of war. Or, at least, it would be, if it ever existed.
My ambitions about saving the world from itself, though, never lasted long in the face of cold reality. As my adolescence faded, I decided again that it was more practical to bug out. Let mankind figure itself out down here. Jenn and I would be gone!
Without the drive, the will, the means to act, imagination could be a curse. I would accept that later in life. I would strive to be ordinary rather than chock full of ideas without substance. Was it wrong? Should I have been more active with my concepts? And my life as a whole? But sometimes you just can't get past yourself. Little did I know that my time would come, no matter what position I took. That was a greater constant of life.
I ruminated on it all that night, stretched out there and watched the immeasurable reaches of stars beyond my grasp. A meteorite began its plunge. It’s sharp green sparkle left a flaming trail behind. I accepted the heavenly gesture as a grand acknowledgment of my dreams. Another rode in behind it, probably one more fragment of the same cosmic rock. It left no trail but fell further before vanishing.
Off to bed and to more intangible ways of relieving stress.
Years passed, as years are fond of doing. The fourth dimension of the space/time continuum waited for no one. It was all little more than poetry to me now-silly dreams reality had siphoned off.
Upon my graduation, and after an all-too-short vacation, I put in my application with a contract company that supplied roustabouts to Shell Oil Company. My name was known- being the same as my father's, except for the "Jr." at the end- and I was hired right away. That boosted my still-young ego, until I found out that, despite my heritage, I was just another much-needed warm body in the booming oilfield.
My responsibilities, as I was instructed on my first day on West Delta Block 30A facility, included cleaning up. This was a nasty and potentially hazardous task. Petroleum extracted from the ground was mixed with various chemicals and circulated through pipes, separators, heaters, and stock tanks. Anything that could leak did, at the worst possible times. And there were the usual menial tasks. I fetched tools; broke bolts loose; loaded and unloaded crewboats, supply boats and barges’ I helped the welders; mated flanges and made pipe connections on wellheads. Many tasks had the added thrill of slipping in and getting covered with seagull shit. But all the while I learned the ropes of the oil production business, and stopped thinking about other things I once deemed important.
I endured two years of malodorous chemicals, wire brushing rusty metal, painting decks, and getting banged about in horrendous weather. Along the way I barely survived the reversal of oilfield fortunes in the mid-eighties. Then Shell hired me. I was now a “company man”. That meant they expanded responsibilities beyond fetching tools, loading and unloading boats, smelling noxious chemicals and slipping in seagull shit. I also got to take readings, change chokes (hard steel tubes that regulated the flow of crude from the wellhead), figure production, open and shut wells, and share a portion of the responsibility for making the platform run smoothly and safely.
The money was excellent for someone my age with only a high school diploma and the oilfield was an education in and of itself¾ a real-world education. It taught me the facts about the actual human beings I shared this world with, their lives, and how they thought and felt about everything from peanut butter to plutonium. The conversations in passenger compartments, welders’ shops, and operators’ shacks and on top of wellheads and engines were as diverse as the people who now surrounded me. One grizzled, oil-smeared forty-seven-year-old veteran had a hardhat covered with so many stickers that its true color was unknown. I often listened to him rattle on about how much he enjoyed Walt Disney movies and how much fun he had had taking his family to Disney World. It was eye-opening. I watched hardened men in gaugers’ shacks glued to the television during The Price Is Right and Days of Our Lives.
Around town, the scenery changed as a decade and a half passed. The department store went out of business. A discount store ultimately cropped up to replace it. One of the grocery stores changed names. Trees grew to new heights as the number of hurricanes subsided. Then those one eyed monsters made a comeback and trimmed them down again. Cars grew to resemble lumps of melted plastic. Engines looked as if they belonged in the space shuttle and required graduate engineers to service them.
Computers and digital instruments arrived in the oilfield, with the usual growing pains inflicted on us, the human components. Those middle of the night automatic shut-ins triggered by improperly set instruments were awfully fun! And those economic realities my father had warned me about eventually brought the Louisiana petroleum industry close to a screeching halt. Somehow, I held on to my position, kept my mouth shut and did my job.
In the wider world about me, pop music grew stranger. I fell back on my favorite oldies before I became a country fan. I realized how much I had changed one day when I came across an old photo from my senior year. Damn, I was thin. My driver's license still said 180 while my scale laughed 210 at me. I stopped cutting my hair and had let my beard grow in to camouflage a face I still thought unbecoming. I was tan and my clothes were darker and less expensive. The TransAm was sporting primer spots over encroaching rust. Despite my best efforts, I seemed to spend as much time under the hood as behind the wheel. By the time I hit thirty, these things mattered less. They just were and that was that.
As for Jennifer, well, this was a sore spot in my soul. She had left Satsuma Grove not long after graduation. The usual promises to return went unfulfilled. First, she had gone to college at LSU and we persevered through my regular and then irregular visits to Baton Rouge. Then one day, not long before her starting nursing school, I heard from a friend who hung out at her aunt’s bar that she was pregnant. I called her number and got the disconnected message. I wrote her a letter, nothing demanding, just a subtle inquiry. No reply. I went and talked to her mother and received a strangely cool reception. Her answers to my queries were evasive. Then, I heard that Jennifer had married the guy, a baseball player at LSU whose father owned a tractor dealership in Amite. So that ended it, just like that. It was at this point in my existence that my curiosity at why people became alcoholics began to fade.
My only guess was that she finally came to her senses. It did not really hit me all at once. It was more like a slow, creeping gloom as memories of her became more distant. When I fully appreciated that I was wholly miserable without her, hopelessness gradually became a permanent fixture in my soul. Too much beer to sad country songs only exacerbated it.
The pain came when I become conscious of how being in love with her affected me, made me better than what I was alone. And that I had not understood that until she was gone. I wanted to kick myself when I thought of all the simple, affectionate things that I could have done to express my feelings but had not. Foolish pride, fear, who knew? She was gone from my world but not from my thoughts.
When memories of Jenn tormented me I would go stand on the back levee, brood and curse myself for being a fool, about my squandered opportunities. I spent time with other women in The Blue Velvet and the other bars around town, except the one owned by Jenn’s aunt. Some of the women were fun to be with but most left me cold. Steve had left town also after a brief law and forensics course of study in college. He ended up with a gun and a badge in Dallas. That left only Dave and I as drinking buddies. Dave’s one night stand and shotgun wedding made his complaints about married life sound like a George Jones tune.
Still, he and I maintained our old haunts and habits. When I was not on my seven-day shift at West Delta 30, I would see if he had any free time, which he invariably did. He was a construction foreman with Thibodeaux Contractors Inc. His jobs took him all over the Gulf of Mexico and gave him a flexible schedule. When we got together we fished the same old places, shot up the same old abandoned tanks and barges then ate too much pizza. We ran the roads, looked at women and read Power and Motor Yacht magazines. We wanted to believe nothing had changed. But everything had changed. It was all gray and dingy. Rusty like my car.
When reality became too oppressive, I lapsed discreetly into my fantasies. After all I now had a more socially acceptable reputation to uphold. I still had my books. However, age had narrowed my literary focus to more conservative subject matter. Volumes about combat tactics, survival, historic battles crowded out the old fiction paperbacks. I first added shelves for famous sailing ship voyages, and diary accounts of twentieth century wars. Navigation manuals, space flight and astronomy followed. And the Starhawk had matured along with me. I kept up with the latest advances in theoretical physics and computer technology. More powerful graphics and CAD software helped me refine her aerodynamic shape. Technical research on the Internet evolved more powerful and sophisticated weaponry. Her scanners and sensors adapted new techniques and gear.
When even my dreams seemed useless to me, I drank. A Budweiser for breakfast was not an uncommon occurrence. And those odd tales of drunken adventures I heard in younger days suddenly became my own. I rarely went anywhere without a case iced down in my Igloo on my days off. Too many times I found myself intently concentrating on the dark blacktop between Satsuma Grove and New Orleans, trying to make it home before my faculties lapsed entirely. How I never got arrested for DWI I’ll never know.
Somewhere along the way, I quit my job. I let my frustrations bleed over into matters of reality and walked off without so much as a good-bye. All well and good until the money runs out. I was very sorry for what I did but correcting it was another matter. My penance was going from high paid facility operator to just another warm body again. I went from deckhand to sandblaster to carpenter’s helper. But no matter where I was, my first stop on the way home after work was the nearest store and its beer cooler.
One morning in the midst of all this mayhem, I woke up on my living floor. My right knee was glued to the carpet with my blood. Vaguely, I recalled falling down somewhere on the riverbank and something about oyster shells. They could be pretty sharp. My next coherent thought was to wonder what Jennifer would think of me if she could see me. I shivered at the thought, embarrassed with myself. But I finally shook off reality long enough to pop another top and forget it all again. The incident did not slow me down. It finally took a series of very painful kidney infections to force me up out of the bottle, at least to the point where I could see over the rim!
Even when I did not drink, there remained days that I the cursed life’s uncertainties, pined for my lost love and just plain got restless. Midnight solitude on the riverbank had always helped me find answers when there were too many questions. One such evening as I sat beneath a cloudless sky full of stars near the river’s edge, I met a man. He was no ordinary man. He may not have been a "man" by our standards at all. But he looked like one. The only name he gave me that night on the riverbank was Sandrake. He never said whether that was his first or last name and I did not ask.
The Year- 2005
Down here we called it a nort’wester. A cold front was descending upon Satsuma Grove, trailing out from a low-pressure cell over the Great Plains. The dark and dismal forecast extended to human matters as well that night
This time it was my father. His way was always best, reasonable or not. He worried about the world and, more specifically, my worldliness. He ignored the fact that I was a man who had long since left home. I think my greatest sin was that I had fallen short of his lofty expectations. That angered him. He often denounced me as a failure. The wind-driven rain on my mobile home roof reminded me of his latest harangue that afternoon. The confined space only served to concentrate my frustration. So I stepped out in the cool, rain-scoured air to escape and cool off.
The TransAm, though, could not be spurred like the steel horse it once was. The arthritic universal joint had endured too many burning-rubber takeoffs. I let the car roll slowly onto the glistening blacktop streets so as not to awaken the ominous clunk from beneath the floorboard. I made one stop at the Handy Pac, the little store up the road, to pick up some Bud Light and cigars. Hell, even it had changed hands. The rack where I had bought my Batman and Star Wars comic books had disappeared. Microwave snacks and lotto tickets had outdrawn the fresh vegetables and the little butcher shop that used to be in the back.
My ultimate destination lay several miles down Highway 23, the still incomplete four-lane highway once planned for the influx of oilfield workers. It led me to that broad expanse of dark sand deposited by the muddy river just below Fort Jackson. We had mockingly nicknamed it Diamondhead. There was nothing exotic about it. Drooping willows stood in for palms and the only crashing surf came from the passing ships. But it was convenient. Oddly for a coastal town, the good beaches could only be reached by boat.
The old beach was empty when I arrived. The willows swished among themselves in the stiffening breeze. The rain had stopped and I sat in silence, smoking and drinking and allowing events of the past hour to dribble away with the running river. The skinny, plastic-tip cigars were a recent vice. When matters infuriated me at work, I had decided that if I could not drink on the job, I would smoke. The buzz was not as good but it sufficed.
Lightning from the passing storms illumined the towering clouds in the northeast. They reminded me of the Lord’s presence on Mount Sinai. No man-made light projections could possibly equal it. I watched as the sky began to clear before the tightening, clockwise isobars of high pressure. The wind howled from the north, returning the stars in their gem-like grandeur. As I watched, one of their numbers tumbled from the firmament in a slow, strange manner before it winked out.
I promptly forgot about it. Such astral poetry was wasted on me that night. Perhaps for good. I reconsidered recent thoughts of taking advantage of my work schedule. Perhaps it was time to move to New Orleans and return only for my seven-day hitch offshore. I could start over somewhere else before I burned out completely.
Aaa, shit! Who was I kidding? I did not even like the city any more. I really wanted peace and quiet. Someplace in the country would have been better. But then, there was the long drive every week. And I had doubts about how well the TransAm would hold up. And gas costs. Maybe I needed to buy a new car… or a truck?
Hell with it! I’m gettin’ drunk! I turned my attention to the six-pack on the front seat.
Sandrake surprised me about an hour later. I was sitting on the hood, had emptied my last can and was pondering all that was ponderable and imponderable. He walked up alongside my car from out of nowhere. I tried to act as if it was normal for strangers to just pop up here. He was tall, with white hair and unremarkable features. He was obviously too well dressed, albeit in a somewhat odd fashion, to be wandering on the beach at night.
“Excuse me.” He introduced himself, “I am visitor to… these parts.”
No kidding! A foreign accent. Lost tourist, I figured with an inward frown, wondering what inane, broken-English prattle he was about to spew forth. Then he surprised the hell out of me.
“You are Joshua, cor-rect?” Then he said he had come here to meet me. And I got a little scared. Who was this nut case, anyway?
Sandrake said he was not human, or at least, not Homo sapiens, like me. He was a breed of extraterrestrial human or humanoid. This abrupt revelation caused me to wonder about my sanity and his and whether or not he was safe company. His smooth, sincere manner soon dispelled my obvious concerns. He withdrew a small shiny sphere covered with irregularly fitted, neatly machined metal plates from his pocket.
“Here. I will prove to you.” He said calmly.
It had several black spots on it that gleamed like lenses. I froze when it rose from his hand under its own power, making a tiny whining noise and several clicks and beeps.
Whaa-at??!! Okay, keep a grip here, Josh!
He told me it was basically something like our camcorders, only with more extensive capabilities, and that he was just making a home movie of things. I watched it in drunken astonishment for a minute and wondering whether or not I was actually awake or in an alcoholic coma, despite the welcome implications. He called his race the Tyreyth, a civilization inhabiting a planet remarkably similar to Earth in a solar system about a thousand light years away. They were an introspective race, at this point in their history. He said they had no interest in extensive and costly space travel despite their advanced technology. He related the tale as to why in a cheerless tone. A bloody war with another race that had only recently moved out into the cosmos had both devastated his world and spurned it to greater technological achievement. Finally they rallied and beat back their foes, who he called the Kai Numan. His people had fortified their home world and intended to fully devote their energies to rebuild a physically and emotionally scarred society.
Sandrake had grown up during the war and had seen too much violence and horror. Still, he disagreed with his government's current philosophy. He believed that the best defense is good offense. His attitude was remarkably similar to those I had read of American officers in the Second World War and in most conflicts since, I pointed out. He said he knew this, which was why he came to Earth.
On his home world, his people considered him a renegade. He wanted to create an alliance between his own people and the Earth populations, to become a beacon of hope for the future. He shook his head and said in his strange accent, "I can not do nothing. It is difficult. I cannot stand by idly. I know the Kai Numan will re-turn. I have heard ru-mors of their conquests and pillaging other weak worlds to build up a re-source base for another attack on my world.”
I was staggered. His flying “camcorder”, obvious sincerity and my six empty Bud Light cans had blurred my sense of reality, which was never very firm anyway. I was actually having a conversation with an alien being about galactic current affairs that no one on Earth knew anything about. His baseball-sized sphere levitated around us and video-recorded our conversation. I was suddenly light years ahead of all those astronomers and cosmologists who spoke guardedly on probabilities of extraterrestrial life. I was watching a clean energy source operate a free-floating reconnaissance device! My dream had come true!
Thank you, Lord! I looked at the last beer can and promptly flung it into the river.
I asked the obvious question while the little flying camcorder watched and listened. "Why tell me all this?"
Sandrake smiled in a manner that would have been comical on a human. He began his
explanation with a discussion of something he called "objective generation, a matter-energy manufacturing process". It was a friend’s pet project back home, where traditional manufacturing interests had suppressed its broad-scale development.
Sounds very human, I mused, the poor guy most be related to Tucker and Tesla! Objective generation involved creating objects out of raw matter, disconnecting binding energies and reorganizing the matter at a molecular resolution level. Massive computer memory stored every dimension and nuance of the object being produced. It turned out small finished products with ease and could also just as easily manufacture components for larger objects, such as structures and vehicles. Sandrake had even designed a self-contained automated assembly unit to put together the larger products. It was mobile, moved with insect like ease and needed little more to operate than enough area for finished product to fit in.
The big money interests on his world despised the concept, hiding their fear of lost profits behind false concerns for potentially unemployed workers. But he said he had brought all the equipment with him. It was in orbit, on his ship.
"Ship in orbit?" My boyhood fantasies arose from the dust-laden crevices of my mind. Was this truly my opportunity? Good-bye, cruel world? Or was it a scenario from a National Inquirer headline? I tried to tell myself that my youthful plans to run away from everything were just that. If that were true, why did suddenly feel so damned giddy?
Running away was not exactly what Sandrake intended for me. His thoughts were of my Starhawk.
"How do you know about that?"
He suddenly seemed embarrassed. "I first observed this planet some years ago-o. Yours was a com-puter I tapped into. Very sorry for invading your privacy.”
“That’s okay.” I shrugged. What the hell…
“I also came back to it in la-ter years and all-so observed your writings and line reproductions."
"Ummm... draw-ings! Yes, and graa-phics."
"Drawings! CAD drawings! Of the ship!"
"Yess! I... must confess to some vi-o-lation of your rights...I have used them ...ummm...” His excitement seemed to overcoming his command of English. “Forgive me. I study your world but did... not spend enough time with your particular... language! Some students of mine were much bet-ter at it." I promised to help him with that. "Good! I actually speak better Russian and…Swedish. But I digress. I...used your specifi-cations and draw-ings in my machine."
It took me a moment to catch my breath. He had... used my designs and specifications of the Starhawk... put them in a machine that manufactured things from raw matter and energy? He had… dare I think it… produced it?
Indeed he did. He had seen a wonderful simplicity about it and my concept for it. It was something to people of Earth could comprehend, unlike galactic politics and strange cultures. And it would eventually lead them beyond their planet, away from the fate that awaited the Tyreyth should they remain complacent. An example to his people, maybe. An eventual road to interchange that might strengthen both worlds before the Kai Numan returned to plunder again. Sure, the Tyreyth knew of other civilizations, that they were not alone in the universe, unlike the people of Earth. But they shunned them, not wanting the most informal contact. His people lived in fear. The Kai Numan had arrived peacefully, inciting great fervor among the Tyreyth. But the first interchange between the two peoples had been an exchange of weapons the newcomers had initiated. Contact with Earth might help the Tyreyth see all was not bad with universe.
The damned beer was working against me now. I felt unable to stay focused. Was he really saying that he had built, or produced, or whatever, the Starhawk? As complex as aerospace vehicles were, he could just... crank one out? Then he asked where there would be a suitable place nearby to deposit the ship. I was at a loss again. Then a gust of cold wind sharpened my senses and I recalled the weather report from the evening news. Those tightly packed isobars on the map indicated strong winds through tomorrow. That wind would likely drive most boaters from the waters till then. Surely there was somewhere back of town, beyond the levee, in the now frigid and forbidding marsh?
He informed me that it need not take more than one night. I could leave in few hours if I wished.
From somewhere deep in myself, images from a tortured mind arose again. On their heels was a great excitement.
The only immediate problem I saw was getting to the lonely, sandy island on the western shore known as Tiger Point. It was a dark, moonless night and while I was certain that I could conn my twelve-foot flatboat out through the twisting bayous and washed out bays in the blackness, there was nowhere to launch it. The marinas and launches were closed for the night, save for those that solely peddled alcohol after dark. There were the less developed backdown ramps, those hastily and sometimes illicitly carved out of the marsh at certain points on the back levee. They were now inaccessible because the rain had turned their approaches into mud trails. But apparently, I was thinking in limited terms.
That was when Sandrake showed me a better way. He raised his left wrist. He wore what naturally appeared to be an oversized watch, with a calculator and other digital gadgets built in. His version looked sleeker and more substantial than any I had seen at The Sharper Image. No buttons protruded to snag on shirtsleeves. All controls were flush touch pads. He tapped a pad or two with what looked like a pen and a sudden faint whining noise penetrated my foggy senses.
It looked like a boat, an old runabout from the 1950s, with a 1950s airplane nose instead of a bow. But it was hovering just above the dark surface of the river, making ripples on the water with the exhaust of its nearly silent powerplant. It was seemingly the same color as the moonlit night sky but some parts of its smooth skin seemed to change color as my perspective of it changed. I temporarily wrote that off to my state of inebriation. Sandrake eagerly bid me to climb aboard as he hopped effortlessly behind the controls. This I managed to do with too much stumbling and fumbling. The right side passenger seat was remarkably comfortable and welcome warmth emanated from within it.
Sandrake then asked me if I knew the sandy island’s coordinates. Tiger Point’s latitude and longitude were not something had committed to memory, despite my many hours spent there in sunburned, inebriated bliss. It was only six miles from West Delta 30. I passed it ever time the crewboat that delivered me to work took the short cut through Pass Rouge. Normally, I got there by following the Forty Arpent Canal to its intersection with Bayou Delilah. I then followed the bayou to the cut to Jack's Bay. From there it was just a quick trip across the shallow bay to Tiger Bayou and up that short waterway to the back of the island.
Sandrake frowned again. It was a comically overdone expression. The corners of his mouth sagged and drew his elastic cheeks out. He produced a remarkably detailed if outdated local chart display on his wrist unit. He had obviously tapped into the Coast Guard’s forty-year-old database. He found the island and entered its coordinates.
Then, without any warning from him, there was a mild hum and we were off at an incredible rate of speed. Dark shadows of trees, levee and highway flashed by. When I made the mistake of looking over the side to see water flash, then land, and then water again, I realized I was going to be sick. I closed my eyes and held on. When I opened my eyes again, we were there. I had barely had time to get nervous. I stumbled out and shook my head several times as my brain sought to catch up with my body. I looked around. We were there all right, the beach where we used to camp out as kids. Where I had wasted away many a day in Margaritaville.
Helluva ride...! I threw up, finally.
I shook my head again, spit my mouth dry and lurched around in the dark patches of hardy marsh grass. When my mind cleared enough to comprehend the world around me again, I realized I was freezing. This did not help matters.
“Are you…okay? Yes?”
“Sure. Just a little…dizzy.”
“My apo-logies. I introduced you to the...geefector... a little too fast!”
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m fine!” My stomach disagreed and cursed me vehemently. “What was that called again?”
“A gee-fector. Grav-ity effect vehicle.”
A real live landspeeder, aircar, whatever. I indicated that I grasped the concept.
My alien friend approved of the site but complained about the chill wind as he began to work. In a short time, he had set up his own sort of campsite. A portable desk unfolded from a large briefcase he pulled from his vehicle. He opened up a built-in computer workstation, an antenna array of some sort and unfolded a black fabric tarp from his pocket to block the wind. He apologized again for his illegal use of my designs and sought my total approval for the proposition. He explained that it was a formality to do so, a holdover from his business days and knowledge of his people's versions of patents and copyrights. I consented and he recorded my verbal acceptance in his workstation's memory. Then he set to work immediately.
The workstation apparently linked him to his ship, which he all too cheerfully described to me as I shivered and the software silently digested the specs. His ship was a long endurance, converted military craft, according to him. She was scaled up but similar in form and function to one of our strategic bombers. He had her fitted with civilian amenities but retained her powerful combat-rated powerplant. Being the person I was, I saw the wisdom of this despite my chills.
Somehow, I managed to wonder aloud coherently how his machine had compensated for my lack of formal engineering knowledge in my designs or mistakes I had made due to technical ignorance. He dismissed that as a minor issue. The software would make the proper adjustments for aerodynamic and astradynamic principles, as well as airframe engineering, superluminal physics, control and computer design. It would even simulate the finished product and go back to correct any errors automatically. He admitted that I had not been terribly far off in my suppositions.
I mumbled a question about the speed of his processors. He said in my terms it was well into the exahertz range. That brought forth a low whistle of admiration from my cold-numbed lips.
“One other thing! Where do you get… the matter! You know, the…mass for something that big?”
He shrugged. “Matter is… re-organized, yes? Much, as you would, say, pound a block of metal out into a sword. Only it is done at the sub-atomic level. And some matter can be… trans-formed, from one element to another!”
“Good Lord, you’re an alchemist!”
“Never mind! Please, continue!”
Then without warning again, a much louder sound of power than that that had accompanied our passage here began to pound on my eardrums. Whatever it was seemed to piling up a bow wave of air in front of it. And there was light! Sharp and blue-white and seeming to carve brilliant circles in the marsh grass. Behind the light was a massive shadow with a distinctive avian shape. It settled to earth about fifty yards away from us atop the highest dune on the island.
There it was, like a winged blue ghost in the moonlight. Even the breeze seemed in awe of it as marsh grass and canes swaying down and away from it. I have no idea how long I stood there and gawked, oblivious of the air temperature on my skin. I even tried to wake myself up; some part of me was convinced I had not awakened since last Tuesday. Finally, my legs started to work again. I trod the damp, mushy soil toward my sleek chimera, my phantasm of metal, now quite tangible.
Ooooo, boy! Woo-woo-wooooo, BOY!!
There were a few minor differences readily apparent between this... solid object and my drawings. Similar to those between prototypes and production models, they served to reinforce the reality of it. "This is pretty damned awesome!" I heard myself slur several times as I paced about like a hungry tiger in a cage.
"You like?" Sandrake asked, walking up behind me.
"Yeah, I like.”
I saw him smile. “Even myself is still a little...in awe of this pro-cess.” He sighed.
“W-what do I owe you? My firstborn?"
"No.” He clapped me on the forearm. “You will be my… test pilot.”
“So… you’re offering me a job?”
“Not really.” He said strangely, turning to walk back to his workstation. “But, this is good. I go."
The noise of the "gee-fector" came again. I whirled around to see that Sandrake was gone, the dim outline of his vehicle disappearing across the marsh. Just like that. He melted into the night. Suddenly, it did not even matter that his manners were pretty rotten or that I had not thanked him. I was simply too entranced.
“Okay. Alright, I’m obviously losing it. This is cool. I can handle it.” I looked off in the direction of the vanished alien.. “THANKS!! I’ll try not to scratch it!!” Deep breaths now! Walk slowly!
I approached the ship eagerly and found myself doing a walk-around. It’s what pilots do before every takeoff, examining their craft for flaws. Flaws! Who the hell was I kidding? The boarding stairs were down and I forgot such things and rushed up them. It was warm! And it was familiar. I had been here a thousand times in my daydreams. I was in the airlock that led to the lower deck. It was a ten by ten compartment, unpainted, with stark, thick, titanium frames lining the bulkheads. Exiting the well-built chamber after running my hands across the bare metal sides, I found myself in the main lower passageway. It was faithful to the permanent images from my head that I had painstakingly transferred to paper and silicon chip. I ambled aft with the drowsy gait of a sleepwalker, my steps soundless on the dark blue carpet. I found the crew quarters on my right and stowage lockers on my left.
I had to still be dreaming, right? I just lost myself for an untold minutes rummaging through some of the lockers’ contents, pawing over common items like personalized bath towels, sheets and soap. That damned machine had not missed a blessed detail! The wardrobe in the captain's stateroom, the larger of the two, held flight suits, black and camouflage ones of Nomex and Kevlar. I could not resist. I practically jumped out of my jeans and pullover and pulled one on. It felt like a second skin, a perfect tailored fit. There was also a supple black leather pilot's jacket with plenty of embellishments. ID plate with wings. Confederate battle flag. Louisiana state flag. And a swooping bird of prey superimposed over a starburst, the colorful patch that identified the ship itself.
The stateroom was a more elegant and tasteful echo of my own bedroom. There was none of the old sci-fi movie austerity here. The walls were paneled in mahogany, the desk was teak and the carpet a thick dark blue pile.
Now properly attired, I climbed the forward circular stairs to the operations compartment. Everything even fit as though tailored. Brother, was my poor head swimming! I was now a well-outfitted male protagonist in my own screenplay!
The first thing that caught my eye in this electronically and militarily extravagant compartment, despite the colorful LCD plotting board and fiendishly complex workstations, was another ladder aft, down the upper deck passageway. I knew where that led and I sprinted toward it. A quick, red-alert scramble up this ladder and I was in the dorsal turret, the ship's topmost weapon mount. It was a fifty-six inch diameter sphere of transparent composites, framed with titanium ribs and holding a pair of wicked looking, gleaming black cannon barrels extending out from a rectangular receiver assembly. A B-17 gunner’s position on steroids!
I did point out my decidedly right wing tendencies earlier and despite the plain fact that I had mellowed some with age, I still believed most firmly that, in the words of Thomas Paine:
...Arms discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order
in the world as well as property. Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding
deprived the use of them.
Sandrake’s tale of the Kai Numan was just confirmation. Some of the more idealistic aspects of my fantasies had been to impose justice upon aspects of my world that sorely lacked it, shades of Batman. The Starhawk's weapons were originally for that purpose. It is literally gospel truth that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. But I believed that there were times and situations where having superior firepower could decide a situation favorably, without a shot having been fired. To subdue an enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. So said Sun Tzu. He was correct. So to you pacifists, I say, trust, but cut the cards.
I drifted into the gunner's saddle with a grim relish and took hold of the textured black firing grips. A smile that was probably hideous and childish at once crossed my face as I realized how much power now rested at my tingling fingertips. This was a deuterium-fluoride laser, a bit more practical than the previous electron beam design I had toyed with. Deuterium, helium and nitrogen trifluoride burned in the optical resonator chamber, which amplified the emitted photons into a narrow, short wavelength beam. Diamond focusing mirrors in the cannon apertures kept the beam tight. The gun mount had a one hundred megawatt rating. That was ten times more powerful than any laser on Earth. It was enough instant sunshine and explosive potential to pluck every remaining Russian ICBM from the sky in a matter of seconds without recharging. But then, that was one of their original purposes. To rid the world of the Red menace. Technically, the Communist bloc was already dead but those missiles still existed.
I was sorely tempted to test fire the gun, to watch white-hot plasma tear some hapless object down to its constituent atomic particles. But I finally decided on keeping a low profile for now. There would be other times. I climbed down before I could change my mind.
I moved on to the cockpit, while I struggled to slow my breathing down. I seemed to be sobering up quickly now. As I neared the compartment, the door sensors detected me and slid the hatch open before me. I let out my low whistle again. It looked like the throne room of some cyber-spaceman king! Gloss-finished woodwork mingled with flat gray and black plastic panels. Indicator lights and bright screen icons trimmed the scene like a Christmas morning.
Thud-thud-thud. That was the throbbing sensation behind my ribcage.
I immediately looked to the engineering station behind the pilot’s chair. I read the legends on neat, ergonomic instrument clusters and trim displays, finding what I sought. Specific words like MAGNETIC FLUX, CRYO TANK, and PLASMA OUTPUT. And ANTI-MATTER CONTAINMENT.
No shit, bubba!
I had to finally let myself sag into the comfortable, oversized, high-backed seat that swiveled to face the pilot's station as my body trembled beneath me. The seat automatically adjusted to my posture, lumbar support inflating, and cool air issued from the air conditioning ducts at the sides.
Home…home at last! I had never felt so comfortable and at ease since… Humph! Since before Jennifer left. I shoved that thought out the window but it caught onto the ledge and hung on.
I sat up suddenly, the seat automatically following my movements, slid it forward along the floor track and swiveled to my left. There was the pilot's workstation, an ergonomically designed padded gray keyboard with roller ball mouse control and a nineteen-inch flat, high-resolution LCD monitor. It accessed the computer core aft; nine point seven petabytes of main drive memory linked to three 355-terahertz processors and 1200 bit data buses. Eat your heart out, Bill Gates! And within it, every scrap and bit of useful knowledge I could have thought up. The entire Encyclopedia Britannica, a hundred issues of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science, Jane's Fighting Ships, Webster's Dictionary, Dutton's Navigation and Piloting. The list went on. Every major desk reference book, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, every NASA mission ever flown! Every book in my personal library!
I started to browse through and punched in random subjects. Everything came up in the detail I had intended. Excellent. Damned fine workmanship. Then I tried the modem link. And bingo, I was on line. The entire Internet lay before me, free of charge.
That thought caused me to become mischievous. I typed in the keyword U.S. Government on a search index called Network, Invasive and searched all sources. And there it was. Everything from the White House to the Pentagon and on down. All the government’s networks, non-secure and secure, were bare and helpless before the onslaught. From there, the decryption algorithms in the obligatory code-breaking software made it terribly easy to defeat security and break into the military’s classified files. Next I hit the Internal Revenue Service's.
Too excited to read, I ordered a quick download of whatever I could get and logged off.
And next there was the autoflight-interactive mode. This feature allowed the ship, under certain instructions and codes from myself, to fly, fight and respond to my commands, even if I was outside, on its own. Aw, this was too good! I knew I had to try this. I selected that mode on the workstation and the primary CPU responded with a pleasant musical tone. The word READY printed out on the monitor.
I took a deep breath. "Starhawk, this is Joshua LaSalle, recognition code one-one-one-seven-one. Acknowledge."
The ship did so. "WELCOME ABOARD, CAPTAIN".
"LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEMS AT OPTIMUM. CRYO TANK TEMPERATURES OPTIMAL. DEUTERIUM FUEL LEVEL, MAXIMUM. ANTI-MATTER CONTAINMENT CONSTANT. MAGNETIC FLUX OPTIMAL. ELECTRON BEAM GENERATORS ON STAND BY. PRIMARY AND SECONDARY COOLING LOOPS UNRESTRICTED. WOULD YOU LIKE A WEAPON SYSTEM CHECK?"
"ALL LASER MOUNTS OPERATIONAL. CAPACITORS AT ONE HUNDRED PERCENT EFFICIENCY. AMMUNITION COMPONENTS AT MAXIMUM. EXPENDABLE WEAPONS LOAD AT MAXIMUM. SHIELD ARRAYS AT ONE HUNDRED PERCENT, FORE, MIDSHIPS AND AFT. WOULD YOU LIKE A PROVISIONS AND SUPPLIES CHECK?"
On it went, the CPU giving me one glowing report after the other. During the computer systems check, it even asked me if I was aware that we had illegally downloaded government and military files. I said "Yes.' and it conceded that it must be okay just by confirming my voiceprint. Then I had to ask more serious things. "Can you show me how to fly this thing?"
"OF COURSE, CAPTAIN. IT WOULD BE A PLEASURE. SPECIFY ATMOSPHERIC FLIGHT, ORBITAL FLIGHT, INTERPLANETARY FLIGHT OR SUPERLUMINAL."
This could take awhile.
* * *
After a brief reality check, I felt I was ready! Ready? I don’t even have a toothbrush. What about saying goodbye? Get a grip, Josh! Those are mighty minor considerations... considering...
"How do you like it?" a familiar voice asked.
I did not leap straight into the overhead, though I wanted to. It was Sandrake again. Only this time, his silly grin appeared on one of the communications station monitors behind the co-pilot’s seat
"It's terrific! It's... well, ...what the hell else do I say? Other than...thank you!"
"Say nothing, my friend. Your enthusiasm has val-ida-ted my procedures. You have helped me very much. Follow your heart, as you say. I will contact you from time to time, check on your pro-gress, yes? Reports from the test pilot, okay?"
"Sure! Great! You got the number I guess?"
Sandrake said yes and laughed a hearty laugh for one so seemingly insubstantial in physical form. And then, he was gone again.
Should I have been suspicious of him, this alien who picked me out of five billion Earth souls for this ...great gift? What were his real reasons for it all? Surely he could have validated his technology and equipment much closer to home with something less drastic as contacting an alien race all on his own. What exactly did he mean, my enthusiasm had validated his procedures?
Maybe he just liked grand gestures. Maybe he was as idealistic as I once was. Maybe he was not idealistic at all. Maybe there was money wrapped up in this deal for him. For certain, he had the aspects of a businessman about him. A contest? A bet? A competition for a production contract back home? Who knew? I might as well take advantage of it.
Now for the part about doubt. You know, that little nagging in the back of your head, almost like an itch you can't scratch. Here I was about to disappear. Completely. From my home, my hometown, the lives of my family and friends. I chose not to think about what they would feel when they realized I was gone and knew not where or why.
I pushed aside their impending anguish like some foul-smelling, staggering drunk on the street, afraid it would poison my dreams. I suddenly found myself on the verge of an internal war, as my emotions ran into conflict. Was I really just a self-centered son of a bitch? Was that why I was alone today? I quickly came full circle under the seduction of my high tech surroundings. If I was alone today, then why not go? Maybe no one would miss me at all!
I realized that all my books about the cosmos, all my dreams and speculations, gave utterly no practical experience for the voyage as was about to undertake. I was easy prey for something as cosmically simple as a micrometeorite through the windscreen or a poor orbital entry that would burn me up or splatter me all over some alien plain. Who knew what cosmic hazards lurked beyond the gulf of space between Earth and its Moon. There was no one from my world whose first hand navigation I could refer to. I might encounter radiation whirlpools, solar currents and rouge asteroids. Hungry black holes waited to devour me. Reason gained the upper hand, though. I had the ship. Its scanners and sensors would spot such things. She was her own lookout. Now, did Sandrake provide files on dangerous phenomena to be avoided? I checked and he had. Magnetic storms... cosmic strings... dark matter... extra-nebular high dust and gas concentrations... More uncertainty faded as I read the menu
And then there were the stupid doubts. Should I go back and get my favorite books? My Montague Dawson painting of the clipper ships Ariel and Taeping? My favorite pocketknife? Some music to remember home by? A silly human frets for his material goods!
I found most of these items were already here, either already produced with the ship or stored in the hard drive cores. A smaller version of Sandrake’s gadget was onboard for emergencies. I could easily reproduce my favorite things. But still, I decided on one last trip to my old home.
How did I get there, you ask? Since Sandrake had brought me here and left me no simple, physical means for a quick jaunt back to the house? The smaller version of his objective generation manufacturer required only twenty minutes to master its simplified control icons and menus. But had only plans and photographs to work with, no detailed specs like the Starhawk’s. So, I improvised and turned out a titanium-hulled twenty-five foot center console sport boat powered by three 225 horsepower outboards and equipped with digital radar and thermal imaging night vision. I realized that I could get to like this!
I parked my new toy in a dead-end canal just behind the back levee and walked from there. It was less than half a mile to my trailer. It looked lonely. It would never get the complete renovation I had begun. The new paint job would remain half-finished. There would still be several pieces of warped molding and paneling. The sliding closet door in the bedroom would stay off its track.
Oh, well. I grabbed clothes, CDs, photographs, books and assorted memorabilia. A cookbook. Some satsumas, that particular breed of citrus fruit that gave this humble burg its name; a bottle of orange wine. and a picture off the wall…
My impatient spirit cried, Enough! Get out of here! I fled the trailer.
* * *
Was I through wrestling with my doubts, I wondered as I returned over the choppy waters to my steel bird of prey. Not likely. There was still Jennifer.
Yes, I know. Get a life. Forget about her. Move along. Forgive me, gentle readers, but I unfortunately have an obsessive/compulsive personality. Bear with me.
Despite her absence and lack of communication, some stubbornly optimistic part of me held out faint hope of her return, of our reunion, rekindled feelings. If I left, that would never happen. Yes, somewhere in my casehardened soul, I still loved her and wanted to marry her. Old story, but I could not allow that vague hope to stop me now. After a while, I managed to throw some more dirt on that long-smoldering fire.
It was time to go. I had to leave before such nonsense crawled inside me and gnaw away the only future I had. The adrenaline rush of events finally chased away my fears. Later, I was sure, my reason would finally prevail over all. It always did when I had found myself in a new place or with a new responsibility. Besides, who said that I could not return one day, bringing back knowledge that might help my people? That was supposedly Sandrake's hope or goal. Else why had he done this marvelous deed for a pitiful groundlocked Earthling? Who knew?
But even now, my thoughts were no doubt betraying that purpose.
Think about it later!
The manufacturing device was nothing if not efficient. Apparently, it could recycle things it built as well. Thus, I did not have to leave the boat behind. It was simply “dematerialized” back into whatever holding bin the machine kept its matter. Now it was time to fly, something else I had never done. Oh, I knew the basics of aerodynamics and of standard flight control systems. And I knew about escape velocity and something about orbital mechanics. All this came from well-spent hours within the fantasy pages that were spiced with technical information.
The Starhawk did not require a runway. Lucky me for the nearest one belonged to the U.S. Navy. I doubted they would clear me for takeoff at any rate. The starship utilized vectored thrusters in a vertical takeoff and landing configuration. Once the main engines were on line, bleed thrust from them would be directed to nozzles in the belly. Sounds simple. But I doubted if handling a three hundred thousand pound starship in hover would be that effortless
Fortunately, the ship helped me out, guiding me in the right direction with displayed instructions and control feedback.
“Start up procedure, reactors one through four.” I mumbled to myself as I swiveled and slid back to the engineering station. “Electron beam generator pre-heat.” I touched a blue-lit key, which turned red. “Magnetic flux control of reaction plasma to "idle". Positive fuel flow.” These were entered commands on a touch screen menu. The rumble that suddenly emanated aft of my comfortable seat was like distant thunder that made me jump. Then, I remembered that this thunder was at my command. I wondered how far the sound would carry in the rain-scoured air. Who would wonder about it in the town?
Displays indicated all four engines coming smoothly online. Burn chamber temperature was steady at 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit and the magnetic field readout was 200 tesla. The product of confinement time and plasma density exceeded 1014. In simpler terms, the engines were running smoothly at idle. I took a deep breath. Then I took hold of the lift quadrant on my left and tapped a button on it, redirecting thrust. At first, he Starhawk lurched beneath me like a skittish horse. Then, she trembled as she rose. All my own fault. I would likely get plenty of practice very soon. I played with the maneuvering jets for a moment or two until I could keep her in a steady hover. Once secure, I reached over to my right and gripped the main throttles tightly. Too tightly. Relax! Then, in one smooth, deliberate action, I pushed them forward.
She began to move! Slowly across the marsh, over the dim gray sandy shore and out over the dark, turbulent water. She responded instantly to the slight movement of the throttle levers. The Flight Profile monitor centrally located on the pilot station panel indicated my airspeed was one hundred knots already and climbing. On this same display, the ship reminded me that one eighty was the proper transition speed when her massive wings would create enough lift to keep her airborne. That number clicked off and I relinquished the lift jets.
Good Lord, I'm flying!
The Flight Profile monitor also reminded me that at this acceleration and altitude, I would smash into the old living quarters platform at West Delta Block 24 Facility 4 in exactly seventeen seconds. My position and projected flight path came up on the Nav monitor, between the pilot and co-pilot stations.
Whoops! I gently pulled back on the control yoke. The nose came up, clearing the platform. I knew the place was abandoned but I really did not want to scratch my new vehicle's paint job!
I assumed an ascent angle of forty degrees. The ship passed Mach one, still accelerating. That was simple enough. Just point her up! I also idly wondered what the air defense radar operators would be thinking right about now. Blinking icons on the Tactical display told me that 500-megahertz range, low frequency surveillance radar was caressing the ship's skin. No matter. I would be long gone before the F-15A Eagles on alert from the 159th Fighter Group could arrive and investigate. Again the Flight Profile monitor reminded me that there were no other aircraft in the vicinity. We were clear of commercial air corridors.
I finally forced my eyes from the growing celestial spectacle beyond the windscreen and checked all my displays. These were multi-function monitors, with a couple of back up digital gauges. Nav was the largest. It produced a comprehensive situation display. My angle and rate of climb and airspeed/Mach number were on Flight Profile. Infrared sensor and active scanner data and a projected flight path all integrated on Tactical. Each one even asked me if I wanted to change views or add other modes and displays. I did. I tried them all. And got very confused very quick. So, I went back to the original default displays. Then, I remembered the heads up display and touched a key to put all this data before me on the windscreen.
Slowly, as I got the feel of the input controls, I put in orbital tracks of known satellites and spacecraft in my flight path. As it turned out, I would miss a weather satellite, GOES-8, by two miles and then pass close enough for a visual sighting from Space Station Alpha. That would be funny but…not good. Time to alter course slightly. Then I added threat data. I had left air defense radar behind by now. But I was still under the more powerful Space Command radar coverage that tracked orbital targets. Might I be causing a stir at NORAD?
Then the ship politely informed me that I had cleared the uppermost boundary of the atmosphere and had a null-G reading. I was in orbit and I could ease my trajectory angle now, unless I was ready to depart orbit. No, not yet. I pulled the Starhawk over onto her backside, checked my orbital angle and attitude and killed thrust.
Wow. The view was... beyond mere words. I just sat there; drinking in the sight of the planet below and the vast black sky beyond, astounded at the utter clarity the lack of atmosphere gave objects. All before me was a huge curve of blue in varying shades, white wisps and streamers and globs, forest and grass green, arid yellow and rugged brown and gray.
My first impulse, despite the old burning desire to leave this planet behind, was to observe it at my leisure from this new angle. The ship's reconnaissance cameras used complementary metallic oxide semiconductor, CMOS, chips, rather than film or tape, just like the spy satellites we have all read about and the more prosaic digital cameras that were fast becoming the standard in photography. But the cameras in the Starhawk’s nose had a photo resolution measured in hundredths of an inch at three hundred miles altitude and incorporated radar and thermal imaging to see through clouds, rain, buildings, even the ground itself.
So I looked around. Hawaii and Tahiti were nice. So was the Caribbean, especially when I zoomed in on one of the topless beaches. Okay, enough of that. I watched Russian submarines come and go from Murmansk, saw the flags waving at the World Trade Center memorial, watched gangs of Somali thugs terrorizing vendors in Mogadishu. I saw tankers come and go from the loading terminals off Bahrain, Kuwait and Kharg Island, saw yachts drop anchor off Majorca, saw Japanese fishing boats picking up their illegal drift nets. I observed elephants on the African savannah, herds of reindeer in Finland, pods of killer whales off Alaska, masses of cars and trucks in Los Angeles and flocks of pelicans back home.
Then, I zoomed in on Satsuma Grove. It was dawn there. I found my trailer. It still looked forlorn. I avoided gazing at my parent’s house. I watched my former co-workers on the platforms at Thirty and my current ones over at Delta Fabricators.. Were they wondering about me? Doubtful. I was not due back until tomorrow. I looked over my whole hometown. It was a futile search for any indication that someone missed my presence.
Some strange impulse caused me to remember a thought I had had at the trailer and I turned to the multi-function communication panel, multi-function and accessed the Bell South phone system. Too gutless at this point to do anything else, I called my number. My own voice answered and asked me to leave a message at the tone.
"To whoever gets this, it's me. Don't worry. I'm okay... I'll be home... one day. 'Bye."
I originally wrote Flight of the Starhawk when I was still in high school and did also draw up the plans for the ship itself. The old handwritten manuscript languished in dusty boxes for years while I toyed with other story concepts and characters. The ship also went through several redesigns as I read about new aerospace concepts of recent years.