by Jon Wesick
"Early this morning above the Mojave Desert, OmniDyne Aerospace's Delta Craft flew out of Earth's atmosphere to the edge of space." The TV screen showed a white space plane trailing a huge orange plume of rocket exhaust. The blurred, shaky image could only have been shot through a powerful telephoto lens. "Pending FAA approval, the Delta Craft will be the first commercially-developed spacecraft to sell rides to the public. OmniDyne spokesman Marissa Gillespie says seats could be available as early as late summer. Ticket prices will start at two hundred thousand dollars." The picture changed to a view of a batter's back from behind home plate.
"Hey! Turn it back!" Mitch Connolly yelled.
The batter knocked the pitch into the outfield.
"Yeah!" Three patrons stood from their table and cheered. Fists pumped the air.
"Sorry Mitch," the Oak Barrel's bartender said. "Looks like you've been overruled."
"That's just what's wrong with this country." Mitch sipped his beer and wiped the foam from his graying Mark Twain mustache with the back of his hand. "No one gets excited about science anymore. I mean, where's the vision? When I was a kid we dropped everything to watch the Apollo 8 circle the moon or Neil Armstrong's first step. People had been dreaming of that day for thousands of years. After we went a few times, what did we do? We abandoned it. It's a goddamned crime. That's what it is."
"Waste of money if you ask me." Carl Philips wore a faded plaid work shirt and sat on the stool to Mitch's right. "Could have made better use of that money here at home." He took a last drag off his cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray.
"You see, that's just the attitude that's turning America into a third-world nation. Even if the dream of going to other planets doesn't float your boat, look at it in terms of economics."
"So you're saying we need another government welfare program for engineers?"
"No!" Mitch slapped his palm on the bar. "That's the beauty of the space plane. It's privately funded. All I'm saying is we should take an interest."
"I don't know." Carl lit another cigarette. "Two hundred thousand dollars sounds awfully steep for an hour ride."
"Are you kidding? You'd get a chance to step off this planet, something only a handful of people in history have done. You'd see Earth's curvature and the blackness of space. Who knows how an experience like that would change you?"
"So you'd spend the two hundred k for a ride into space then?"
"Absolutely!" Mitch said. "If I had it, that is."
All but a few of the bar's patrons had switched their attention from the heated exchange back to the baseball game after a few seconds. One, however, strained to hear every word from his seat in a booth by the window.
Art Franklin wasn't the kind of man to sit on a barstool. Even when it annoyed everyone in a crowded room, he took an entire booth or table. That night he did something he'd never done. As the stranger, whose ideas captivated him left, Art approached.
"Do you really think a flight into space would be worth it, the two hundred thousand dollars I mean?"
Mitch stopped outside the front door and examined the slight, balding man with plastic-rimmed glasses, who'd stopped him. "How much would the invention of agriculture have been worth to the Neanderthals? What about the Wright Brothers, Chuck Yeager, or Neil Armstrong? What would a ride into space have been worth to them?" In a motion he'd practiced many times before Mitch gazed at the sky. "We're at a tipping point, my friend. Humanity's future is up there, not squabbling over petty creature comforts on a tiny rock circling an insignificant star in a forgotten corner of the Milky Way."
"I think so too," Art whispered.
"Well, I'm glad someone around here can see the long term. What was your name again?"
"Art. Art Franklin." He shivered in the spring air that was too cold for shirtsleeves and too warm for a jacket.
"Listen, Art." Mitch moved closer. "You think you can loan me a few bucks? I'm heading over to Palladin's and need some ones to tip the dancers. Maybe you'd like to come too. That Wendy's got a hell of a rack on her, let me tell you."
Art looked at his watch. Maybe he could go for just an hour and still have the time he needed, but it was already past 9:00. "Afraid I can't, tonight. I've got to be at work early." He took a twenty from his wallet.
"Thanks, Art." Mitch snatched the bill from Art's hand. "It's been a real pleasure meeting you. See you around the bar sometime."
Normally Art would have waited a full hour after his last drink before driving, but that night he left for home fifteen minutes early. He located his beige Camry in the parking lot and put the key in the ignition. Old reliable Betsy! He stroked the steering column. She'd been a good friend. Thank goodness he'd bought her instead of that restored Mustang he'd had his eyes on. Art drove down the short stretch of Lincoln Avenue expecting the sound of a police siren or a random sobriety checkpoint, but he made it to his driveway without incident.
Two shirtless men wearing nylon stockings on their heads leaned against the neighbor's car and drank beer, while Spanish hip-hop spilled into the night air. Art nodded to them but kept his disapproval bottled inside. They'd catch their deaths dressed that way!
He entered his house and locked the reinforced steel door behind him. Home at last! Art bounded up the stairs to his office and retrieved disorganized papers from a battered black filing cabinet.
He swept the clutter from his ancient wooden desk and sat to examine his financial records. Checking account - $3,379, savings - $24,000, certificate of deposit - $27,500, retirement - $62,000, but early withdrawal would invoke a penalty. He'd have to take out a second mortgage. Where were those records? Never mind. Art punched the buttons of his calculator with a pencil eraser, $1,600 a month and 7 percent interest. He punched the equal sign and stared at the gray numerals on the calculator's LCD display.
By God! He could do it!
Two nights later the phone rang.
"Is this Art Franklin?"
"Art, I'm Chet Dodson from OmniDyne calling about your inquiry on our website. Listen, I'm going to be in your neck of the woods Friday. How about getting together then to discuss your space tour?"
"Well." Art's eyes darted to the Spirit rover poster on the wall and back to his telephone. "The thing of it is, I need to get the truck routes finalized by the end of business."
"I hear you. Must be tough running a company." Before Art could correct him Chet offered another suggestion. "How about getting together on Saturday, say around three?"
"Saturday's good." Art gave directions to his home.
"Excellent! I'll see you then."
Art looked back at the poster of the Martian landscape with its pink sky and reddish dirt dotted with black stones. He'd paid two hundred dollars for the photo. It was so detailed that he could almost reach out and pick up one of the rocks. What would it be like to stand on another world so far away?
The neighbor's stereo kept Art awake. He tried to ignore it, but the rapid-fire hip-hop lyrics were like coarse sandpaper on his brain. Art turned on the light and stared at his slippers. Should he ask them to turn it down? Maybe they'd stop in an hour.
Art went downstairs, put 2001: A Space Odyssey into the DVD player, and fast forwarded to his favorite scene, the shuttle docking with the space station to the strains of the Blue Danube Waltz. Even though it was filmed in 1968 no movie since had matched its elegance and realism. Art watched for forty-five minutes before drifting off to sleep sometime during the flight to Jupiter.
Friday afternoon Mr. Blumtrapster announced a new warehousing scheme forcing the operations staff to stay late updating the following week's delivery schedule. At 7:00 Ned Bundy bailed to attend his daughter's handgun tournament, leaving Art to finish up.
As was often the case Chloe Valentine offered to stay and help. She was a petite woman with prominent blue eyes and a chaotic mass of frizzy blonde hair that overwhelmed any attempt to control it with barrettes, ribbons, or headbands.
"That Ned's always taking credit for the work we do," she said. "I'm afraid they'll make him district manager, unless you speak up. I swear, if you don't say something to Mr. Blumtrapster, I will."
"I'm sure Mr. B. knows who pulls his weight and who doesn't," said Art, who found office squabbles unseemly. "Now let's check each other's spreadsheets so we can get out of here."
Chloe found that Art had misplaced a decimal point that would have resulted in thousands of dollars of wasted fuel. They finished at quarter to eight, and Art shut down his computer.
"You know Art, we've been working together for almost two years now." Chloe didn't seem to know what to do with her hands. She put them in her pockets, took them out, and held them in front of her as if they were two squirming lobsters. "I enjoy your company, and I'm sure you feel the same way too." She swallowed. "Anyway, our church is having a picnic Saturday afternoon, and I wonder if you'd like to go with me."
Art looked away from the bra strap that had worked itself free from under her sleeveless blouse and onto her freckled shoulder. Why did she have to choose Saturday? He felt like a guitar string stretched too tight. With each word Chloe used to describe the food and events the tuning pegs turned, until the string that was Art snapped.
"Can't," he said and dashed from the room.
Art went to the store on Saturday morning. Even though he'd be back in plenty of time for his meeting, he left a note with his cell phone number for the OmniDyne representative just in case. When he returned home and was putting the corn on the cob in the crisper, he realized he'd forgotten the dental floss. It was too late to go back.
He spent the early afternoon installing hardwood flooring in the den. At 2:30 he looked out the living room window to check for his visitor. The street was deserted except for a teenaged girl with a cast on her arm jumping a skateboard over the curb and onto the cracked sidewalk.
Art went to the bathroom at 2:45 and again at 2:57, 3:04, and 3:12. At 3:17 a metallic-blue BMW parked in front of the house. The driver, a muscular black man in a pastel golf shirt checked the address on Art's rusted mailbox, looked back at his car as if contemplating driving away, frowned, and came to the door. Art answered.
"Does Art Franklin live here?"
"You must be Chet. Come on in." Art shook the OmniDyne rep's hand and ushered him into the living room.
Chet paused before sitting as if reluctant to allow his crisply creased slacks to contact the shabby couch.
"You look familiar," Art said and took a seat on the edge of the Naugahyde recliner.
"Maybe you saw a publicity photo." Chet sat back. "I was on the crew of STS-121."
"You mean the shuttle that launched the Infrared Near-Earth Asteroid Observatory?"
"Why yes." Chet smiled. "I was a mission specialist. You know a lot about space, do you?"
"I follow all the shuttle missions. Russian and Chinese too."
"Well, have we ever got a ride for you!" Chet handed Art a brochure. The attached business card listed Chet's title as VP in charge of astronaut training. "That's the Delta Craft. It's a converted Learjet with a Hercules rocket attached. The Delta takes off like a conventional airplane and flies to forty-one thousand feet on air-breathing engines. That's when we kick in the rocket. The Delta'll pull three g's for about a minute and take you to an altitude of sixty-five miles."
"The edge of space," Art murmured.
"You'll experience four minutes of weightlessness before we fly back to the Norman Spaceport. Just got word the FAA's approved it, so we're scheduling the first passenger launch on August 16. Already sold four seats. Got one left. You interested?"
"Space shouldn't be just for rich guys, but we still got to run a business. I can knock ten percent off for you and get you into space for one hundred eighty thousand, but I'd need twenty thousand dollars deposit by Friday."
"Let me get my checkbook," Art said.
The bank demanded a home inspection before approving Art's second mortgage. He was watching the Discovery Channel documentary on cosmology when the inspector interrupted.
"There's something you'd better see." The inspector led Art outside and pointed to a brown strip on the foundation. "It's a mud tube." He brushed it away and dozens of hungry termites scurried for cover. "I'll have to check for structural damage. Hopefully, we caught them before they could eat too much."
Art waited by the TV, while the inspector checked the basement. An hour later the inspector carried his flashlight and clipboard upstairs.
"Sorry to break it to you," the inspector said, "but you're going to need some major repairs. Some of your supports are sixty percent gone." He signed the report and tore off Art's copy.
Ninety thousand dollars. After the repairs all that would be left of his equity was ninety thousand dollars. Art ordered another beer and brought it back to his table. The bank didn't usually offer second mortgages on damaged homes, but the loan officer agreed to an exception based on Art's excellent credit. Still ninety thousand dollars. There was no way he could ride into space without dipping into his retirement, and then he'd lose forty percent on taxes and penalties. If only he hadn't spent that twenty thousand on the deposit. Art's life resembled a B movie. Like the moving wall that crushes the intrepid explorer who enters the mummy's tomb, a sense of powerlessness squeezed the significance from his existence. Art glanced at the TV but the interview with the Houston Astro's pitcher didn't interest him. He wished Mitch were here. Mitch would know what to do. Art stared into his glass. The bubbles rising through the amber fluid had a hypnotic effect. The sound of the TV seemed to cut through the background of voices, as if the pitcher were talking directly to him.
"Last year you had surgery to repair a torn ligament in your elbow, and you just returned to pitching after ten months of rehab," the interviewer said. "How did your arm feel today? Did you take it easy to keep from injuring it again?"
"Mark, the only way to win ballgames is by total commitment. If I go out with the attitude that I'm going to throw only eighty, ninety, or even ninety-nine percent, then I might as well not put on my uniform.
"It's a funny thing." The pitcher looked skyward. "When you commit yourself totally to the game, it's like God looks out for you. All the little stuff -- torn muscles, contracts, bills -- He takes care of them for you."
"Ricardo Sanchez, thanks for talking with us and congratulations on pitching a great game."
The numbness vanished from Art's thoughts. Suddenly he was stone cold sober. Screw the retirement account and the safe little trap he'd built for himself! He'd sell his car if he had to, but Art Franklin was going to space.
The doorbell rang.
"Just a minute." Art zipped his toiletry bag and answered. Instead of the cab driver he found Chloe Valentine on his doorstep.
"Art, Mr. Blumtrapster said you were going on vacation." She glanced at the suitcase in the hall. "Do you need me to water your plants or anything?" She looked out into the driveway. "Where's your car?"
Chloe's features filled with concern. "Art, is everything okay?"
Art looked at his watch. "No, the cab's late and I'll miss my bus."
Art's story came out during the drive to the bus station in Chloe's nine-year-old Volvo.
"You mean, you spent your entire life's savings on a one-hour plane ride? Oh, Art." Chloe stopped in front of the entrance and shifted into neutral. "Don't you think you should talk to somebody about this?"
"Too late now. Money's non-refundable." Art pushed open the door. "Besides," he smiled, "I have a bus to catch."
Chloe watched Art head through the door. "God speed, Art Franklin," She murmured. "God speed."
OmniDyne's spaceport was a hanger at the Norman, Oklahoma airport. Art arrived feeling tired and in need of a shower after spending eight hours on a bus next to a man, whose round pink sores on his face and hands had made Art's skin itch just to look at him. The airport guards found Art's name on OmniDyne's list and let him pass. It was already after 7:00 and the office was deserted, so Art entered the hangar.
The Delta Craft was smaller than he'd expected. Except for the delta wing, rocket exhaust near the tail, and black heat shield underneath it looked like a run-of-the-mill corporate jet you'd find at any regional airport. A boa constrictor of doubt wrapped its coils around Art's confidence and squeezed. What had he thrown his money away on? Before Art could back out of the hangar, a technician on a ladder near the Delta Craft's tail turned and asked, "Can I help you?"
"I'm Art Franklin, one of the passengers."
"Oh, the others are already at the reception. Hold on." The technician climbed down the ladder and made a call on his cell phone. "Marissa, the missing passenger showed up at the hangar. Okay, I'll tell him." He replaced his cell phone on his belt. "They're sending a limo. Should be here in a few minutes." He climbed back up the ladder and returned to probing circuits with a multimeter.
Art went back to the office, dropped his suitcase by a chair, and sat. Fifteen minutes later a limousine pulled up outside and a slender young woman entered.
"You must be Art Franklin. I'm Marissa Gillespie, OmniDyne's marketing manager. How was your flight?"
Marissa's razor-cut hair and party dress studded with red sequins made Art keenly aware of the reek of stale sweat coming from his wrinkled shirt. The last thing he wanted to admit was that he could no longer afford plane fare. "Fine," he said.
"We booked you a room at the Radisson. I hope you don't mind. Some clients prefer to make their own arrangements."
"Great!" Marissa looked at her diamond-studded watch. "The reception will only last until 8:30. Do you mind stopping by before going to your hotel? I'm sure the other astronauts would love to meet you." She held open the door.
Art retrieved his bag and carried it to the waiting limo. The Boyd Barbeque was a few miles south near the university. Marissa led Art through a crowd of college students in casual dress to a back room.
"Everybody," she said, "this is our late arrival, Art Franklin."
Chet waved from the buffet table.
"Ah, the missing astronaut." A man with short salt and pepper hair set down a huge beef rib, wiped his hands on a stained napkin, and shook Art's hand. "Dan Waldron, CEO of Shogun Semiconductor, and this is my wife, Eva." The woman's sleeveless dress revealed an x-shaped tan line on her back. She had the muscular shoulders of an Olympic rower and couldn't have been older than her mid-twenties.
"If you have a daughter, you probably recognize Cardamom," Marissa pointed to a woman who seemed vaguely familiar. "Her new film 'Chasing Sandy Brown' is a huge hit with the tween crowd this summer, and she's celebrating her twenty-first birthday the day after tomorrow."
"Happy birthday," Art said.
Cardamom rose to shake his hand. A jewel dangled like a hypnotist's watch from her belly ring.
"And this is Half Miles, the rap singer." Marissa nudged Art's shoulder and pointed to a black man in baggy clothes.
"Hey." Half rose from behind his plate of salad and shook Art's hand, hooking thumbs.
Marissa introduced Art to other OmniDyne employees, including the Delta Craft's gaunt pilot. Dusty Weikoff had flown experimental jets for NASA before leaving the space agency for the private sector. He'd piloted the Delta Craft on all but one of its tests. Art helped himself to some garlic toast and a thick, bloody slab of beef before joining the other passengers at their table.
"So Art," CEO Waldron said, "you're kind of a mystery man. Marissa only gave us your name. What do you do for a living?"
"I'm an operations researcher at Vanover Freight." Art cut a piece of steak and lifted it to his mouth with his fork.
"Must pay pretty well for you to afford this trip."
Art nodded and tried to swallow. The plug of food in his mouth seemed to lodge like a tennis ball in his throat.
"I'm going for some more prime rib." Waldron stood. "Can I get you some, Half Miles? You're going to get awfully skinny just eating salad."
"Don't eat meat," Half said.
"Why not?" Cardamom asked.
"My aunt died of a stroke when she was forty-five. Lots of black people get high blood pressure, but I'm not going to be one of them. I'm going to live to a ripe old age, so I can spread the Lord's message."
"I'm curious about why all of you wanted to go to space," Cardamom said. Waldron was at the buffet table, so she turned to his trophy wife. "How about you, Eva?"
"I don't know. It was really Dan's idea."
"Man, I'm a science fiction geek," Half said. "Star Trek, Close Encounters, I'm into all that stuff. There's not many science role models for black kids, so I figured I'd do what I could."
Art felt Cardamom's golden eyes turn toward him.
"It seems like I spend my whole life working to buy stuff I don't really care about." Art set down his fork. "Just once I'd like to do something that matters, you know see the world through God's perspective, so they'll put something other than, 'He routed trucks and owned a house,' on my tombstone."
Waldron had returned with a heaping plate. "You spent your life's savings on this trip, didn't you?" he said.
"Pretty much." Art wasn't sure whether the others looked at him with admiration or pity.
Champagne, flowers, and a fruit basket waited for Art on a table in his Radisson suite. He drew the drapes in both the living room and bedroom, took out his wallet, and counted thirty-seven dollars. Was OmniDyne covering his lodging? Art's credit cards might have a little bit left before their limits. He carried his bag to the bedroom and opened the closet to hang up his shirts. There on a hanger was a pair of sky-blue overalls covered in transparent plastic. Art's nametag was stitched over the heart. A patch with the OmniDyne logo, a giant lifting a plane off the planet, was sewed below the opposite chest pocket. It read, "Delta Craft -- Maiden Passenger Flight."
The next day the passengers attended OmniDyne's astronaut training. It consisted of lessons on how to tighten their stomachs to withstand the rocket's g forces and a lecture on emergency procedures. There weren't many. If something went wrong, there was little the passengers could do. After signing liability waivers they drew numbers for seat assignments. The others would sit in the cabin, while Art took the seat beside Dusty Weikoff in the cockpit.
The day of the launch a stretch limo picked up the five passengers, all in their sky-blue coveralls. With no tasks to occupy their minds it was natural for their thoughts to turn to fear. Eva broached her worries first.
"Do you think anything will go wrong? The waiver listed a lot of scary stuff."
"Well, there's always a risk," Waldron said, "but they have good engineers anticipating problems and heading them off."
"That's what they said about the Space Shuttle," Eva countered.
"True, but that's thirty-year-old technology, built by a government program," Waldron said. "Our ride uses the latest, proven components, and it's the product of the free enterprise system. I'd stake my life on that any day."
"I don't fear death, because I've accepted Jesus as my personal savior," Half Miles said.
Without an unshakeable faith in either capitalism or Christianity, Art felt little comfort. The limo passed a cluster of spectators waving signs and several news vans with antenna dishes blooming like metal flowers from telescoping towers. Guards motioned them through the gate and they parked near the OmniDyne hangar. Chet opened the limo door and asked, "Are you ready to do this thing?"
"Hell yeah!" Half Miles climbed out.
"All right," Chet said. "Hit the head if you need to then climb aboard. The ride should take about an hour."
The ground crew had already rolled the Delta Craft out of the hangar. It sat on the tarmac and gleamed in the morning sun. Art followed the others toward the aluminum air-stair that led into the fuselage and history. Even the modest effort of walking in the muggy air made him sweat, and his coveralls stuck to his back. Once inside Art took his seat in the cockpit and shivered in the cold air blown from the vents.
"Just two rules," Dusty Weikoff said from the pilot's seat. "First, there's a barf bag under your seat. If you need it use it. There's nothing worse than vomit floating around the cabin in zero-g. Second rule, don't touch anything else unless I tell you to." He closed the access door, returned to his seat, and got on the intercom. "Ladies and gentleman, welcome to OmniDyne Flight One bound for outer space. Please be sure your baggage is stored in the overhead bins or under your seat. Ha ha."
Dusty flipped a few switches and pushed the thrust levers forward. The jet engines spooled, and they taxied down the runway. He tested the controls, and servo motors hummed moving control surfaces. A red light began flashing on the instrument panel.
"Norman tower, this is Delta Craft. We've got a mechanical fault and need to return to the hangar," Dusty switched from the radio to the intercom. "Everybody, we've got a bad indicator light and need to return for the mechanics to check it out."
"What's going on?" Art asked.
"Looks like a leak in the rocket engine's liquid oxygen line."
"Is it serious?"
"Everything's serious with a rocket."
"The mechanics are checking the problem now," Chet told the passengers back in the office. "We should know in less than an hour."
"So what's going to happen then?" Cardamom asked.
"If it's serious we'll delay the flight until next week," Chet said.
"Next week!" Waldron shot to his feet. "Do you have any idea how hard it was to clear my schedule this week?"
"Yeah!" Cardamom added.
"I understand." Chet loosened his tie. "But these things happen. To make it up to you we can refund ten percent of the ticket price, if there's a delay." He gave Cardamom a sheepish grin. "Happy birthday, by the way."
Still frowning Waldron sat down and placed a call on his cell phone. Eva and Cardamom went to the ladies room. Half Miles read his Bible. Art stepped outside and walked around the building. A week's delay might not be so bad. With a ten percent refund he'd have a little cash to work with. He sat with his back against the hangar wall and tossed gravel onto the asphalt. Yeah, maybe this was working out for the best. With eighteen thousand dollars he could pay back most of his credit card loans and even have enough for next month's mortgage payment. Of course, he'd have to arrange a few more days off, but he could swing it. Now all he had to do was wait for the flight to be scrubbed. He stood and kicked the gravel back against the hangar.
Dusty Weikoff dashed around the corner. "There you are! Come on, the others are already aboard."
Art followed Dusty around the hangar and boarded the Delta. Within minutes he was strapped into his seat. "What was the problem?"
"Faulty sensor," Dusty said. "The engineers didn't find any leaks."
Art opened his mouth but his objections caught in his throat. He imagined liquid oxygen dripping from a silver pipe onto a puddle of jet fuel and bursting into a fireball. It wasn't too late to race down the stairs and back into the hangar, but then what? Art stayed put.
Dusty buttoned up the access door and fired up the jets. "Let's get this thing in the air." After a few words with the tower Dusty pushed the thrust levels forward, and the Delta began to taxi. Whenever it hit a bump it rocked like a boat jostled by gentle waves, a boat loaded with nitroglycerine. They taxied to an empty runway. Dusty stepped on the rudder pedals. Brakes squeaked. The Delta stopped and rocked in place.
When the tower cleared their takeoff, Dusty pushed the thrust levers three quarters forward. The jet engines spooled. Dusty waited a few seconds before releasing the brakes. The plane sped down the runway. Dusty pulled back on the yoke to tilt nose up and raised the landing gear. They were airborne.
Art looked out his window at the college town receding below them. The horizon tilted to pure blue, as Dusty banked to head west toward sparsely-populated land. The Delta Craft leveled out of the turn and continued to climb. Art stared at the flat expanse of Oklahoma below. As always he marveled at the precise rectangular geometry of roads and crops. He located the altimeter among the round gauges on the black instrument panel and watched it rise until they reached 41,000 feet.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're at out transition altitude and will be firing the rocket momentarily. Be sure that you have your seatbelts fastened." Dusty switched off the intercom and handed Art a clipboard. "Do me a favor, partner, and read off the checklist."
"Enable maneuvering jets," Art read.
Dusty turned a switch, and an indicator light turned green. "Check."
Dusty opened a valve. "Check."
"Turbo pump on."
"Rocket engine ready."
"Hold on a minute." A button on the console glowed green. "Check."
"Jet engines off."
When Dusty pulled the thrust levers back, only the rush of wind could be heard as the now powerless Delta Craft glided in the Oklahoma sky.
"Close engine covers."
"Okay, everybody," Dusty said over the intercom, "let's start the countdown: ten, nine, eight..."
Art could hear the passengers' enthusiastic count even in the cockpit. When they reached zero, Art crossed his fingers, Dusty stabbed the green button, and the Delta's rocket came to life. The pilot throttled the rocket to full power and the Delta accelerated at three g's. Inertia pressed Art to his seat, as if a 540-pound Sumo wrestler sat on his chest. He tightened his stomach and panted in short gasps like a birthing mother. The sky became dark blue and then black. Then the rocket cut off, and Art felt like he was falling. His arms lifted from the seat's armrest, and a constellation of dust and litter floated in the cockpit.
"Venting remaining fuel." Dusty opened a valve, and compressed nitrogen purged the rocket motor of remaining kerosene and liquid oxygen. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the edge of space. We've completed our rocket burn and will now drift for about four minutes. I'll put us in a roll to give you a better view."
Dusty dimmed the interior lights and pushed the attitude-control stick to the right. The rocket plane's fuselage transmitted the hiss of the control jets into the cabin, and Earth's curved horizon rose to fill the right cockpit window. Art stared at the green and tan landscape, not very different from the scene from an airplane. The view of Earth slipped out the window bottom only to be replaced by the sun's blinding white light. Art looked away. When he turned back there was only the cold blackness of space shot through with the glitter of a million brilliant stars. Dusty stopped the Delta's roll after they'd completed one revolution.
Art took a pen from his pocket and suspended it in mid-air in front of him. He estimated that at one hundred eight thousand dollars for four minutes in space, he was paying seven hundred fifty dollars a second for this experience. He pushed his face to the window to see as much as he could. With only the occasional sound of the control jets to interrupt his musings Art imagined what it would like to go farther to the moon or perhaps Mars.
But Earth would not let him out of its grasp. Like a tenacious bill collector or a controlling relative gravity clutched at Art and drew him back to the tedious demands of everyday life. The thin atmosphere outside his window began to glow with wisps of purple and orange. The temperature gauge rose to over six hundred degrees Celsius. Soon air buffeted the craft. Art gripped the hand rest. Dusty pulled back on the yoke. It felt as if a giant hand squashed Art into his seat, as the Delta shed airspeed. Something banged in the cabin. Eventually the pressure let up.
"Restarting the jets." Dusty turned a switch to open the engine covers and pushed the thrust levers forward. The jets filled the cockpit with the sound of reassurance.
Within a half-hour they landed at the Norman airport. The smell of burnt chemicals from the Delta's heat shield assaulted Art's nostrils when he disembarked. Dan Waldron's face looked ashen, but Eva was radiant. TV reporters, all with plastic smiles plastered to made-up faces, waited in ambush by the hangar. Dusty and the space tourists joined Marissa and Chet in front of the cameras.
Marissa began the news conference with a brief history of the Delta Craft. In the past Art had dreamed of being on TV, but now all he wanted was to climb out of his clammy overalls and into a hot shower. He clamped his arms to his side, so the dampness wouldn't show. Marissa wrapped up by introducing OmniDyne's authentic astronaut, Chet Dodson.
"It's a proud day for America," Chet flashed a camera-blinding grin. "Today opens a new era in space exploration. From now on space is no longer reserved for the elites chosen by government programs but is for all of us. Right now only the rich can afford it." Chet glanced at Art. "But soon economies of scale will make the price of a trip to space affordable to ordinary Americans.
"Since the days of the Mercury program America's space explorers have worn astronaut's wings. Today's flight reached a height of sixty-seven miles giving these five brave passengers the right to wear them. I'd like to present each of you with a pair."
One by one the space tourists went to the podium, where Chet pinned a gold FAA astronaut's badge on each of their coveralls. Then the reporters asked questions. Cardamom described her experience in vivid detail, and Half Miles hinted that his next CD would be about space.
"Art Franklin!" A reporter with lacquered hair motioned. "You're the only astronaut on today's flight who isn't wealthy. Care to tell us why you did it?"
Coming within a nanometer of bankruptcy and riding a craft filled with explosive rocket fuel didn't frighten Art as much as the television cameras' unblinking eyes. The words he wanted to say dug claws of terror into his windpipe. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't drag them out. Dan Waldron came to his rescue.
"I think I speak for all of us," the CEO said, "when I say the one thing we've learned from the space program is the fickleness of government funding. Only when space exploration rests on a firm commercial foundation will we see humanity take its place among the stars."
The banquet featured seafood flown fresh from the coast. Art found the buttery scallops so delicious that he almost fainted from pleasure. Slightly tipsy from the champagne he made it back to his hotel around midnight.
Art woke at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. He had three hours until checkout time, three hours before he would return to his new debts.
He picked up the newspaper outside his door and ordered oatmeal from room service. The Presidents' latest accusations against Syria crowded news of the space flight off the front page.
The family movie on HBO didn't hold his interest. Neither did the women's shows on the other TV channels. When he heard the sound of the maid's cart in the hall, he hung a do-not-disturb sign on the door. It occurred to him that, just like Dave Bowman at the end of 2001, he was sitting alone in an empty hotel room.
Art brushed his teeth, packed his bag, and turned in his key at the front desk. The hotel's automatic door slid open, and he stepped out of the air-conditioning into the August heat. The doorman touched his cap. It was a two-mile walk to the bus station. Art Franklin had thirty-seven dollars to his name.
© 2008 Jon Wesick
Bio: Jon Wesick holds a Ph.D. in physics (so the technospeak in this piece is pretty much authentic) and is a long time student of Buddhism and the martial arts. This eclectic background gives him a unique viewpoint that he tries to express in his writing. Mr. Wesick's short stories have appeared in Zahir, American Drivel Review, Lullaby Hearse, Oracular Tree, MiniMAG, SamizDADA, Tidepools, Words of Wisdom, and The Writers Post Journal. He has published over a hundred poems in small press journals such as Pearl, Pudding, and Slipstream; one poem won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists contest, and his poetry chapbooks have been runners up twice in the San Diego Book Awards. Two of his longer works have appeared in the Serials and Novellas section of Aphelion, most recently The Human Cost, February 2005; his short story, Cameron Philips and the Great Cosmic Do-over appeared in the May 2008 Aphelion.
E-mail: Jon Wesick
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