Nightwatch:  CSM-115

By Jeff Williams


Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams

Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama







The Lights of a Ship Far Out to Sea



“I’ve flown all the way from California,” she said while pacing Crystal Coast’s control room, “for this?  A random collection of noise probably thrown off by Jupiter or Saturn or some random gamma ray burst!”  Dr. Charlotte Simmons, of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Life Institute, paced angrily by the control console as Chris turned up the volume.  Kerry and Murray looked at each other wide-eyed, not sure what to make of the spectacle before them.  Simmons stopped pacing and absently tugged at one of her opal earrings.


A woman in her late forties, Simmons wore an outfit that was both professional and comfortable—black slacks and jacket subtly pinstriped with gray, black pointed and low-heeled shoes, tan stockings or hose (there was no way of knowing just from looking at her), and a crème-colored shirt opened lightly at the neck though not so far as to reveal cleavage.  Her reddish-brown hair (which was interrupted here and there by streaks of gray) was primarily pinned to the top of her head, though small, curled strands of it fell just below her ears. 


“You did bother to check it against known sources, didn’t you?” Simmons spoke sarcastically.  When she wasn’t looking, Murray rolled his eyes.


“Dr. Simmons,” he said, “believe me, we wouldn’t have bothered your organization at all if there had been a rational explanation for this, at least one we could have found.”


“And just how thoroughly did you look?” she asked, this time more calmly though she appeared to be fighting very hard to hold her disdain in check.


“All of the public databases,” Murray said, “most of the skywatcher bulletin boards, SETI’s publications.  Everything we knew to check.”  Murray looked down at the floor.  “I can assure you this isn’t some bizarre game I’m playing.  We have a mystery, and we’d like it solved, pure and simple.”  Simmons blinked her brown eyes and nodded slowly. 


“Play it again,” she said to Chris, and he recycled the loop on the player.  “I apologize, Mr. Marie,” she said.




“Right,” Simmons said, “right.  Long flight, very bumpy.  Not the kind I enjoy.”  She tugged lightly at her collar, her dark-red nails standing out in relief against the light-colored material.  “Well, I’m not changing my initial assessment.”  She sat down in one of the rolling chairs.  “You have to second-party verification of the signal.  You couldn’t find it again after thirty minutes.  You must understand, Mr. Murray, that we receive hundreds of inquiries a day, and if we chased after every one of them…”  She rested her chin on her right hand.  “All that I can say is that Nightwatch must have some very influential friends.”  She sniffed.  “Okay.  Show me your records, the angle of attack on the dish when the signal was picked up, approximate coordinates, the things you’ve already ruled out.  I have a few databases I can check.”  She looked at Murray.  “As I said, though, there’s nothing there to make me think this isn’t something natural, some pulsar perhaps.”


“You’re forgetting one little thing,” a voice said from the corner.  Simon had virtually vanished in the sheetrock, so much in the background that everyone had forgotten he was there.  “The signal was picked up on a laser communications system.  I’m not familiar with everything the universe has to offer, but outside of that one big star I read about, nature doesn’t usually produce lasers.”


“Eta Carinae,” Simmons said.  “Maybe.  We’ll see, won’t we.  Mr…?”


“Dr. Litchfield,” Simon said courteously but coolly.  “Trust me, you won’t find a natural explanation for that.  Technical, maybe, but not natural.”


“All right, Dr. Litchfield,” Simmons spoke sharply, as if the sound of her voice could slap Simon’s cheek, “I’ll see your confidence, and raise you two experts.  I know of two communications gurus in Virginia who should be able to get down here by this evening.  If it’s not natural, then it is a normal signal refracted off course.  Will that satisfy you?”


“Should be ample,” Kerry interjected.  “Dr. Simmons, if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you copies of the records in question.”  Kerry, Murray, and Simmons started to leave. 


“By the way,” Simmons said on the way out the door, “do either of you know where I can buy a hermit crab?  My granddaughter will kill me if I don’t bring one home…”  Simon felt himself relaxing and was caught off-guard by how tense he had been.  Shaking his neck and shoulders, he picked up some of the construction records Murray had given him and then left to find a phone and call for a cab.




It was 7:15PM, and Simon sat at the bar of the Sandy Towers Hotel.  The room was a typical hotel bar with low-lighting, a section in the corner dominated by sports fan gathered around a large screen television, and a doorway leading to a neon-lit dance floor.  Music, the typical all-beat and no melody kind, wafted in on occasionally loud waves of sound.


The bar itself, while nowhere near as opulent as many he had sat at before, suited Simon just fine as he slowly drank his whisky on the rocks.  His hat sat on the countertop.  His body was angled so that he could face the woman sitting next to him. 


“So you’re an engineer?  For a humanitarian organization?” she said before shaking her head and raising her glass.  “Well, cheers to you!”  She took a sip from her Kahlua and crème.  “I’m actually a little embarrassed now to tell you what I do for a living.”  Simon smiled lightly as he ran a finger over the top of his glass.


“Don’t worry about that,” he said.  “Everyone, Molly, thinks those of us in this business qualify for sainthood.  Believe me,” he laughed lightly, “we don’t.  What about it?  What’s your line of work?”  The woman laughed lightly, revealing the slight creases of age around her mouth, creases which did nothing to detract from her attractiveness.


“I’m with Gambella Sonata,” she said, the light barely highlighting her grayish red hair.  “We sell furniture.  Bedroom suites, actually.”  Simon cocked his eyebrow.  “I told you, next to a do-good engineer, I sound like some raging capitalist!”  She took another sip of her drink.  “I mean, I am a raging capitalist, but still.”  Simon laughed as he drank more of his whiskey.


“So, what brings you to Cape Hatteras?” he asked.  The music from the dance floor slowed considerably as a slow-dance ballad began.


“Retreat for the sales staff,” she said.  “Things at High Point didn’t go as well as we’d hoped this year, and we’re brainstorming ideas for getting the American consumer to buy more high-end bedroom furniture.  How about you, Simon?  You need a new solid oak four poster?”  Simon thought back to his damp apartment.


“Maybe,” he said, thoughtfully.  “Gambella Sonata?”  Molly nodded.  Simon took out a pen and wrote the name on a cocktail napkin.  He also motioned lightly for the bartender to refill the whiskey.  “Next time I’m home, I’ll take a look.  You available in the DC area?”


“Me, or the furniture?”  The two of them laughed loudly.  “Sorry,” she giggled, “you work around the guys at my office, and you just start zinging them off!  I have to actually watch my language when I’m not back in High Point with the zoo crew!”


“I have a very extensive and colorful vocabulary myself,” Simon said, “so don’t worry.”  The music sped up again, this time to dizzying heights of rhythm which defied any logical speed.


Molly crinkled her nose and made a sour face.  “Not very good, is it,” she said as she cocked her head towards the club.  Simon nodded as he took a sip of whiskey.  “I’m fond of shagging, myself.” 


For the first time in his life, Simon nearly did a real-life spit-take, and Molly looked at him in wonder.


“What?” she asked, smiling.  “What’s so funny? I really do it.  Any excuse I have for shagging, I take.  I mean, give me a partner, and I’ll shag all night long!  Why,” she asked again, “are you laughing?”  Simon convulsed with silent laughter as he waited for an opportune time to swallow.  Finally, he forced the liquid down, and he looked simultaneously amused and embarrassed.


“I’m so sorry, but that caught me off guard.”  Molly titled her head to one side as she tried to figure out what he meant.  Simon caught the look and laughed a bit more.  “Did I mention I was born in England?” Simon asked with some difficulty.  Molly still looked confused.  Then, however, realization dawned, and she started laughing, which renewed Simon’s laughter.


The clock pressed on to 8PM, and the two of them moved from the bar to one of the booths, and they ordered some of the appetizers off the menu.  The time passed on, and they kept laughing and talking until the clock read 9:30PM.  Simon looked across at Molly, at her delicately pale skin, and his expression must have changed because Molly smiled at him, a smile that was different from the previous ones that evening.


“What do you think of the view from here?” she asked.  There was, again, a long pause before she grinned.  “They’ve got me in the middle, 303 to be exact, and I’ve got a clear look straight out to the Atlantic.”  Simon grinned, swirled his drink, and cast a glance towards the door.


“I have a terrific view of some lovely hedges and the back end of a Mazda minivan,” Simon spoke, and the two of them laughed again, this time so loudly that others turned to see what the commotion was about. 


“How long are you in town?” she asked through the remains of the laughter.  Both she and Simon took sips of their drinks. 


“At least another day,” he said as he settled back again in the booth.  “My job here is a bit open-ended.”  Molly nodded and rested her chin on her hands. 


“We head back day after tomorrow,” she spoke.  “Well, they head back.  I have to go a’courtin’.  I’m trying to land a couple of accounts up in Boston.”  She sat back and then reached for her purse.  “Actually, speaking of day after tomorrow, I should probably be getting back to my room.”  She started to take out some money, but Simon waved her off.


“I’ll pick it up,” he said.  “I appreciated the company.  This trip has been something of…”  He paused and tried to find some combination of words that wouldn’t give away exactly what the trip had really been like for him.  “Well, let’s just say work’s a bit dreary right now.”  Molly smiled again.


“I appreciate that,” she said, and her voice conveyed that she sincerely was.  As she stood, Simon stood up as well.  “Well, Simon, it’s been a pleasure meeting you.  I hope to see you around before we head out again into the deep dark world.”  She reached out to shake Simon’s hand.  As Simon took it, he felt her room cardkey slip into his palm.  She smiled again, waved lightly, then turned slowly to leave the bar.


Simon stood there.  He turned the card over and over again in his, carefully studying the magnetic strip on the back, the generic instructions for how it worked, the name of the hotel.  He looked up again at Molly as she disappeared into the hotel lobby.  Moments later he paid the tab and headed for the elevators.


I deserve this, he thought to himself.  Damnit, enough things have gone wrong!  Now, it’s time for something right, for something good.  Both sets of elevator doors closed as he entered the lobby, so he waited for them to return.  Again, he looked carefully at the card.  She’s a sweet woman, he thought, remembering her smile.  A beautiful girl.  Lovely voice.  A splendid time was had by all.  He looked again at the magnetic stripe.  Slowly, a look of first puzzlement and then understanding crept across his face.  Molly.  Red hair.  Beautiful smile…  


The elevator doors opened, and several people stepped off, but Simon did not go in.  Instead, he sat down in one of the lobby’s chairs and twirled the key for several minutes before getting up and walking to the front desk.


“I found this in the bar,” Simon said to the man behind the counter.  After placing the card on the countertop, he added,  “I think someone must have dropped it.” 


“Thank you, sir,” the man spoke, a look of equal parts knowing and incredulous upon his face, and Simon returned to the elevator, punching the button for the fourth floor.




Simon heard Eddison’s lock click, so he opened the door and caught sight of the aging analyst, who was decked out in a set of white and red striped pajamas.  Using the wall and then the dresser as a prop, Eddison moved his way to a chair.  His face cringing, he sat down and then propped his leg on the edge of the unmade bed.


“So sorry that I had to bow out earlier,” Eddison spoke.  He put on a pair of reading glasses, which perched precariously on the edge of his nose.  He pointed at his leg and sighed.


Scattered on nearly every available surface were charts, graphs, and other visuals.  Eddison picked up his laptop from the bed. 


“You missed Charlotte Simmons,” Simon spoke cheerlessly.  “She seems to think this whole thing was a waste of her time.”  Eddison pouted.


“Really?” he said, sounding genuinely disappointed.  “Well, golly, she’s the expert, yes indeed.  I was, though, hoping the mystery would live a bit longer before having a stake rammed through its heart.”  Simon half-smiled as he looked down at one of the visuals.


“What have you gotten yourself into?” Simon asked as he tried to figure out what the strange plots of green, red, yellow, orange, and blue meant.


“That’s a draft visual,” Eddison warned.  “Only my people would know what it means in this state.  Or in any other state, except Oregon perhaps!”  He laughed heartily.  “Crazy people there, Oregon!”  Simon looked for a place to sit before noticing another chair in the corner.  “We have a commission from government of Argentina to help them…”  Eddison covered his mouth and then placed a finger over his lips.  “Sorry, mustn’t tell you.  All hush hush.  All on the QT.”  Simon shook his head.  “Dr. Litchfield, don’t look so smug over there.  These types of ventures help give Nightwatch the funds to go and save the world!”


“I would never besmirch the things that you do,” Simon said.  “From the looks of things, this one must not be going well.”  Eddison sighed.


“That report they called me about last night,” Eddison said as he looked at Simon.  “One of the governor’s aides shot the whole bloody thing down.  The…er…fellow just can’t wrap his mind around, ah, around power law distribution.”  Eddison tapped some keys on the laptop.  “If we don’t clear the governor’s aide, then, by gum, we don’t clear the governor, and the contract required us, under financial penalty mind you, to have that report in by the end of January.”


“So,” Simon spoke, perplexed, “why are you working on something for Argentina?”  Eddison looked at Simon, who felt the same, uncomfortable feeling he’d gotten when one of his teachers in high school had been displeased.


“Well isn’t it obvious?”  Eddison asked.  He laughed again and shook his head.  “Sorry!  Sorry there!  I keep forgetting you don’t work in my department.”  He snickered.  “They’re swamped, up in Georgetown, so I told them to transmit the Argentinean work to me.  I’ll take care of it.”  Simon blinked.


“All of it?” he asked.  “This sounds like…  Well, it sounds like it’s big.”  Eddison looked up again, and Simon had the same high school feeling.


“I’m sorry,” Eddison said, “I don’t see what you’re getting at.”  Simon shrugged, shook his head, and then took off his hat.  “So, anyway, Charlotte Simmons.  A real tempest, was she?” 


“Oh yeah, Simmons,” Simon said as he got himself back on track.  “She was insistent that the whole thing sounded ridiculous to her.  Extremely insistent.  So much so that I don’t think she’ll give this…signal…a fair evaluation.”


“You think so?” Eddison asked, genuine surprise in his voice.  “Good grief!  You’d think someone from, ah, SETI would have more of an open mind.  Still…”


“Still,” Simon interrupted, “I think I’d like to back up her findings with our own.”  Eddison nodded, and then he seemed to be distracted by what was on his computer screen.  “Dr. Eddison?”


“Oh,” he said in a startled voice.  “Lost in my own dimension.”  He chuckled though he didn’t take his eyes off the screen.  “Well, we have some contacts with a few communications firms, people who specialize in encryption.”  His fingers moved more quickly over the keyboard, and he mouthed a few of the words he was typing.  “I suppose we could pull a few strings with some SIGINT types in the military.”


“I have a different idea,” Simon spoke.  “Something in-house.”  Eddison stopped typing and looked up.  “If you don’t mind, I’d like to bring someone else down from Georgetown.  Stephanie Keel, from IT.  Do you know her?”


“Ms. Keel!” Eddison chuckled.  “Yes!  Lovely gal!  Helped me out quite a bit over the years!”  Eddison squinted.  “She, ah, she know a lot about communications?”


“I know her fairly well,” Simon said, trying his best to be nonchalant.  “This is something of a hobby for her, and I think if there’s anything to find here, she can find it, or at least get us close enough to know if Simmons isn’t being fair about all of this.”


Eddison nodded and then returned his gaze to the screen.  "No, Dr. Litchfield, I don't think I can do that."  He looked up, seemingly startled by his own words, and then he started motioning energetically with his hands.  "Good god!  Sorry, so sorry!  That came out much more harshly than I intended."


Simon reached into his pocket and grabbed his keys.  He began jingling them lightly.  "I can assure you that she's the one.  I trust her judgment and her skills implicitly."  Eddison looked at Simon and then leaned back into his chair, pulling off his glasses in the process.


"Well, well," he said, "you do seem pretty sure of yourself."  Eddison sighed and then scratched his chin, which was starting to sprout shining gray whiskers.  "I don't know, doctor, this is..."  He laughed.  "I can work many miracles, in my own way, of course, but Ms. Keel.  She's in such high demand with IT..."  Simon squeezed the keys, the edges digging slightly into his skin.


"Can I persuade you to at least try," Simon spoke calmly but firmly.  If you only knew what that woman is truly capable of, he thought.  Or, Eddison, you could just try sucking up to Callow.  He cringed at the thought of Callow’s name.


"Are you in pain, doctor?" Eddison asked.  "I am, by golly, a past master of recognizing pain."  He smiled.  Simon did not return the gesture.  "You're that sure about Stephanie Keel?"  Simon squeezed the keys harder and nodded.  "All right," Eddison said.  He put his glasses back on and used the fingerball to open a new application.  "This could take a few minutes.  Hah!  Maybe longer if the relevant people are sitting in a steam bath!"


“Trust me,” Simon spoke, “it’ll be worth the effort.”  He stepped over to the window and looked out at the view.  Through the darkness, he tried to decide what kind of view Eddison had, oceanfront or the butt-end of a parking lot. 




Simon sat on wooden walkway leading over a dune and out onto one of the beaches of Cape Hatteras.  The night was clear and cold, and the beacon from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse shone even through the lights of the hotel parking lot.  The surf made a near continuous roar in the background as Simon sniffed deeply the salt air.  As he looked out at the lights of a ship far out to sea, Simon pulled out his cell phone and inserted a card into one of the slots on the side.  Once the phone indicated that the signal was scrambled, he dialed Stephanie's number and waited through several rings for her to answer.


"Good evening, Dr. Litchfield," Stephanie spoke when she finally picked up.  "How's the fishing?"


"You're sounding chipper," Simon said without much cheer.  "I take it you've gotten the call?"


"Oh yeah," she spoke.  "I'm in my pajamas, settling down with a cup of tea, when Dawood calls me with the news.  'You're going to Cape Hatteras tonight.  Some problem with the data downlink.'"  Simon could hear the sound of a suitcase zipping up.  "I could see your fingerprints all over those orders."  Simon watched as two figures walked past on the white sand. 


"You, um, don't sound very pleased."  He licked his lips and scratched the side of his nose.


"Last I saw you," she said coolly, "you were accusing me of being part of some sort of conspiracy.  Remember that, doc?"  Simon moved the phone from one ear to the other.  "Not saying much, now, are you, Simon."  Simon took his hat off, placing the brim just under his leg.  "Well, say something, damnit!"  Simon heard a suitcase hit the floor.  "You were just full of fucking words earlier!"


"Stephanie," Simon said quietly.  "I've not been at my best lately.  I've distress, whatever you want to call it."


"People are hurt all the time," Stephanie said coldly.  "You know that, right?  You don't think..."  Stephanie's voice trailed off.  "You don't think I carry a shitload of hurt around with me?  For almost three years, three years, Simon, I couldn't even go out for a cup of coffee with a man, much less on a date!"  She paused, and all Simon could hear was the sound of her breathing.  "Except for you.  You only.  You were there at the hell pit of my life, and you were there at Nightwatch while I climbed out, and you were there when I learned krav maga…"




"You only," she said quietly.  "You came by the hospital, by rehab, everywhere.  You cheered me on.  You kept my spirits up.  You think maybe I should have suspected you of being in some conspiracy?  You think maybe I should’ve wondered if all this was your way of finding a new recruit for Nightwatch?”  The sound of something metallic falling onto the floor came over the line.  “Well, I didn’t, mister.  You were the only one I trusted, completely."  A loud wave broke on the beach, and Simon would've sworn that a bit of sea spray had flown on the wind to the steps.  "You hit your lowest point--and I know what you're feeling, whether you believe it or not--you hit your lowest point, and the first thing you do is accuse me?  Have you any idea how that feels?"


Simon sighed.  "I deserve that," he said plainly.  "I really do."


"Yes you do!" Stephanie snapped.  "And have you any idea of how many times I've had to drop everything to run off, in the middle of the night to God knows where, for you?"  Simon blinked hard in the breeze, and then he closed his eyes as he tried to flush out a piece of sand.


"I owe you an extraordinarily expensive drink when you get here, don't I?" Simon said sheepishly.


"Damn straight, doc!" Stephanie snapped.  "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get in my car and drive ten hours with no sleep to Cape Hatteras!" There was another pause, and Simon almost thought that she'd hung up.  "Oh," she added, "be sure to have three eggs hard-scrambled, yellow grits, and a glass of orange juice waiting when I get there."  And then the line went dead.







Bringer of Fire:  March 3, 1977



Marty McKay and Jack Harrison sat at a desk in a small, institutional white room.  Before them were strip charts, bound volumes of text, and sheets of mimeographed paper on clip charts.  Each man had a coffee cup sitting near him, and a portable radio sat in the back of the room, the volume just high enough for the music to be recognizable while not being distracting.


"What the heck is that?" Jack asked as he looked over his reading glasses.  Marty turned quickly and looked at the radio.


"Sounds like 'Dancing Queen,'" Marty said.  "Big hit.  Big, big hit.  You don't listen to the radio?"  Jack laughed and then looked back at the papers.


"I stopped listening after Acker Bilk disappeared," he spoke.  "Nothing but public radio and Voice of America."  Marty giggled before concentrating again on the clip chart.


"I don't understand these numbers," he said, "the ones on L4.  The thrust looks too high."  Jack nodded as he sat back in his chair.


"How do you mean?" Jack asked.


"I mean I know how many Newtons those H-1s put out," Marty said.  "205,000 pounds of thrust per.  I know what our rate of ascent is supposed to be with those numbers."  He pointed at the page and looked up at Jack.  Jack’s eyes scanned the sheet of graph paper which, among other things, graphically displayed the predicted speeds and altitudes at different points in the flight. "These just ain't what they should be.  The launch profile, the Delta V, it's all wrong."  Jack took his glasses off and seemed to really think about the words he should use.


"We're not launching from Canaveral," Jack said finally, after nearly ten seconds had elapsed.


"Kennedy," Marty corrected, and while Jack smiled slightly, his serious demeanor wasn't significantly affected.


"Kennedy," Jack spoke.  "I can't tell you where, but..."


"Vandenburg AFB," Marty said matter-of-factly.  Jack looked up, momentarily stunned.


"Where would you get an idea like that?" Jack stammered, and he looked genuinely worried as he spoke.


"Out in Clear Lake," Marty said, "I got sick and tired of hearing people say this, but this ain't my first rodeo.  I know about where we'd have to be for this kind of launch profile.  You might not be telling me everything, but don't think I can't make some good guesses."


"Okay," Jack said.  "Then you tell me why the numbers don't make sense."  Marty sat back and scratched his chest.


"Well," he said thoughtfully, "we're overweight, right.  I'm nearly," he flipped through some of the strip charts, "nope, completely sure of it.  The equipment module's fully loaded and a pretty hefty piece of hardware on its own.  The CSM's fully loaded.”  He cocked his head and looked again at the numbers before him.  “Whoah!  I hate to see what we're gonna have to do with all that thrust!  That's an amazing amount of hypergolics for an earth-orbital mission."  He looked up and leaned forward onto the desk.  "We're launching at a strange latitude and have to play catch-up with the cluster.  The projected positions of the workshop on all of the launch dates indicates  that we’ll have to be in a big hurry, so I'm guessing you've dusted off some of the old Saturn IB ideas."  Marty smiled.  "What is it, then?  Three or four solid rockets strapped on?"


Jack clapped.  "Bravo!  Bravisimo!"  Jack sat back and crossed his arms.  "It is, in fact, four solids.  It's the only way to lift everything and have the power and speed to catch up with Skylab."


"So what are they?" Marty asked.  "Minuteman's?  Titan's?"  Jack grinned and looked back down.


"Neither," Jack said.  Marty looked puzzled. 


"The ones they're developing for the shuttle?"  Jack shook his head.


"No, not really," he said.  "X-class, actually."  Marty blinked.


"I don't think I'm gonna like this," he said after a long pause.  Jack waved his hand.


"Nothing to worry about," Jack said reassuringly.  "They're a sound design.  Prototypes and never before flown, but perfectly sound."


Marty coughed.  "Um, not from where I'll be sitting.  Why are we using prototypes, pray tell?"


"Oh, that's pretty simple," Jack said as he looked over the papers.  "We couldn't get anything else."  Jack smiled, but Marty still appeared to be skeptical.  "Marty, we've got a Saturn IB!  We've got a Command and Service Module that was never officially built!  We've got equipment that as far as anyone else is concerned has been relegated to the junk yard!  There's only so many miracles to go around."


Marty smirked.  "And they aren't going to kill me?  I've got your word?"  Jack smiled.


"Better than that," Jack said enthusiastically.  "I'm betting they aren't going to kill me!  Is that assurance enough?"  Marty nodded, conceding the point.


"So," Marty asked, "who did build these X-rockets?"


"A small firm," Jack said.  "Really, their forte’s ideas.  This was their first experience with actual fabrication.”  The look on Marty’s face told Jack that too much information had been given, and none of it had been particularly reassuring.  “Who they are isn't important, really.  They designed these in conjunction with another firm for the new mobile missile program.  When they lost out on the MX, they had four prototypes on their hands and nothing to do with them."


"These solids have a name?"


"PRO-1583," Jack said, "better known as the Prometheus SRB."


"Prometheus, bringer of fire," Marty nodded.  "Well, let's hope it's the right kind."  Marty looked back down at the papers.  "Okay, I guess we should just start from the beginning then."


"How far back?" Jack asked.


"Let's say, er, T- three days.  I know we don't kick in until T- minus three hours, but it pays to know the progress of the count."


"Indeed," Jack said.  "Fly Like An Eagle" played on the radio as the two of them pored over the documents on the table.



March 12, 1977


The Apollo CSM simulator was just as Marty remembered it, down to the ambient sounds, the movements, and consoles in front of him.  For all he knew, this might have been the same simulator.  Marty sat in the pilot’s seat on the left of the capsule, and he looked through the rendezvous “window” and reticule.  The simulation had them at a point where the black, cylindrical equipment module—which was known in all of the flight documents as the EM— had already been docked with and extracted.  Now, they were closing in on Skylab.  TV images were fed through the window.


“I know I shouldn’t say this during the sim,” Marty said, “but it’s pretty distracting looking at Skylab the way it was supposed to look.  Couldn’t our masters of mayhem have at least updated the model?”  The two of them sat on their backs looking up at the control systems and at the simulated view.


“What’s wrong?” Jack asked as he threw a switch on one of the panels. 


“Both outboard solar panels,” Marty said.  “Remember, Skylab lost one during launch.”  He made a tsk tsk sound.  “I don’t even see the parasols over the meteoroid shield.”


“Rog,” Jack said as he responded to a call from the ‘ground.’  He then looked over at Marty.  “Okay, I’ll call it in after the sim’s over.”  He reached up to the communications panel and turned the indicator.  “Rog, control, omni bravo.”  Jack started to lean back but then cringed and adjusted the indicator again.  “Sorry!  That should be omni bravo.”


“First time doing this,” Marty said, staring forward while working the hand controllers, “the SimSups, whatever you want to call them…anyway, they probably won’t give us any gremlins to deal with.”  Marty squinted and cocked his head.  “Remind me later.  They’ve got to do something about this docking target on the EM.  At least here it’s not retracted out of my line of sight.”


“Can you see the docking port on Skylab?” Jack asked.  Marty nodded but then thought better of it.  “Equipment stowage is protruding out a pretty good distance too, and there’s a pressurization sphere just below my sight line that’s shining pretty bright.”  He reached over to the DSKYs control pad and punched a set of buttons.  “Okay, Verb 49.  We’re as flight ready as we can be.” 


“8 feet per second,” Jack called after scanning the displays.  “We’re out-of-plane.  Z+ 01.  1000 feet to go.”  Marty again adjusted the controllers.  In front of him, the image shifted ever so slightly, indicating a minor change of plane.  Marty shook his head. 


“I think I’m gonna lose what I have of Skylab’s docking target,” he said with frustration.  Marty again triggered the Reaction Control System, jockeying for the clearest view. 


“4 feet per second,” Jack called.  “820 feet.”


“No docking lights, either,” Marty said.  “Has anyone called up the bird in the last four years?”  Skylab closed in. From the front, it looked something like the opening of an automatic pencil sharpener, a round cylinder with a circular docking port on the front.  Two large antennae hung like an inverted V of whiskers beneath.  Above the cylinder stood and boxier structure, held on top of the docking port on support struts. Extending from that structure were four, ribbon like solar panels, like an X hovering above the space station.  They closed further. 


“4 feet per second,” Jack said.  “580 feet.”


“Do me a favor, Jack,” Marty spoke.  “Recycle the EM docking target.  See if you can get it to retract further.”  Jack reached up and threw the EM Dock switch, wondering in the process what the switch had been meant for in the past before it had been retasked for this mission.


“4 feet,” Jack called.  “568.”  Marty watched the EM docking target extend.  As with all Apollo targets, this one was a circle divided into three sections—one taking up an entire half, and the other a subdivided semi-circle—separated by black lines.  The bottom section of the EM target was colored a light gray-green.  Four seconds later, the target and its associated structure withdrew. 


“Still in the way,” Marty said, his voice reflecting his frustration. 


“And control,” Jack said.  “Be advised that we’ve recycled the EM Dock.  Marty says it’s in his line of sight.”  Jack laughed as he switched off communications with ‘the ground.’  “It’s just a simulation,” he said flippantly.  “Save the high blood pressure for the real thing, eh!”


“Something you better learn now,” Marty hissed.  “This is the real thing!  It’s always the real thing.  You don’t treat it as such, then you don’t learn.”  Marty shook his head and then looked back towards the window.  “If you don’t learn now, then something dies for real later…a piece of equipment, the target, you.”


“Okay,” Jack said, throwing up his hands.  “Good heavens, you’re right!  You’re right, you’re right.  3 feet, 550.  You’re Z+05.”


“Damn,” Marty said quietly.  “I keep doing it unconsciously, trying to make the target easier to find.”  They closed further, and as the seconds passed, Marty’s initial guess proved correct.  The people running the simulation had allowed everything to run by the book, exactly as it should play out under actual flight conditions.  However, in this instance Marty wasn’t happy about that at all. 


“3 per,” Jack spoke.  “50ft.  Y +01.”


“Okay,” Marty said loudly.  With a squeeze on the control, the simulated forward motion stopped.  “Tell them we’re station keeping.  Between the EM target and that damn glowing sphere, not to mention the EM itself, I keep losing Skylab’s target in the reticule.  You, me, and the ground need a new plan.  Let’s see if we can work the problem.”  Jack called in the information. 


“If this had been the real thing,” Jack said quietly, “this would be close to an abort situation, wouldn’t it.”  Marty said nothing, only looked at Jack’s eyes.  “Okay…  I’m glad we caught it now.”  The two of them continued trying for the rest of the afternoon to figure away around the docking target problem.


April 15, 1997


Jack and Marty, fully enclosed in their spacesuits, floated above the ATM, the Apollo Telescope Mount.  In this case, float was accurate.  The two of them, along with several divers whose masks hid their faces, were in a neutral buoyancy tank.  Their weight and the weight of the equipment were perfectly balanced, thus allowing a near perfect simulation of working in zero gravity.  Both of them were trying to maneuver a large black box, something the size of three men put together, to the disk-like area just above the various telescopes on the ATM.


Earlier, Jack had carefully climbed the support structure of the canister, using portable handholds and the access ladder, and, slowly, made his way to the top of the telescope mount.  Then, he rigged a strong support cable to the top and drew it taut against the other end of the line, which was anchored to a mount on the EM.  Both of them were then able to run the box to the top, and Marty followed, working his way up hand over hand along the cable.


Jack consulted the laminated checklist strapped with Velcro to his wrist.  “Now, it anchors into the apertures of the coronagraph and the H-Alpha..”


“Jack,” Marty spoke as they tried to position the box over the appropriate openings at the top of the telescope mount, “what’s this for?  You ever gonna tell me?”  Jack laughed loudly.


“I’m sorry,” Jack said, “all queries must be in writing and must be submitted outside the sim.”  Both of them maneuvered the box.  In the simulated zero gravity, the weight of the box itself was no problem, but the mass was the same, and it was difficult for them to place it accurately.  Their ballet, however, continued uninterrupted for several minutes.


“Damnit!” Marty shouted.  “My foot just went into the film retrieval slot!”  Jack sighed over the line.  “Control, CSM-115, Marty just said he put his foot into film retrieval.”  There was a pause.  Marty struggled and finally pulled himself free, but as he did so, the port for the film was clogged with debris.  “Roger,” Jack said.  “Okay, Marty, they want to know if…”  Jack looked down and saw the debris-filled slot.  “Oh,” he said. 


“You can see it as well as I can,” Marty said in a disgusted tone.  Jack was just about to respond when he stepped back.  As he did, however, he tripped and immediately fell.  His tether held him to the box, but the motion transmitted to Jack caused him to hit one of the ATM’s solar panels, putting a large hole through it.  Jack called it in just a soon thing were stable, and he pulled himself back onto the mount. 


“CSM-115, roger,” Jack said.  “Okay, Marty, they’re pulling the plug on this one.”


"Lloyd Bridges over there gonna reset the simulator?" Marty said as he motioned towards one of the divers.  Jack laughed, but then the two of them were suddenly pulled up and out of the tank. 


"No," Jack said as they were being extracted.  "The guys in the backroom want to rethink the procedure.  It's taking us too long to get the, er, 'black box' in place, and that's the eighth out of ten times that one of us has done something catastrophic."  There was a lengthy lull in the conversation as the two of them settled on the deck of the neutral buoyancy tank.  Masked technicians moved in to begin the process of removing the pressure suits.


"And they have us launching in October?" Marty asked.  "Wow, this is starting to feel a little too close to flight training.  I keep expecting one of these guys to walk up, take off his mask, and turn out to be Lt. Fitzpatrick."  Jack smiled and chuckled.


"I certainly hope so!" Jack said enthusiastically.  "I'll need some help for the next time you decide to pin me down with your fancy fightin' moves!"  Marty shook his head and then breathed deeply as his helmet was removed.


"I hate to put it this way," Marty said, "but I could still beat your ass."  Marty smiled, but there was a definite edge to the way he spoke.  "You can count on that, my friend."  Jack nodded, making a mock salute followed by as much of a bow as the pressure suit allowed.




Marty closed his locker door and started walking towards the showers.  He carried his soap and shampoo along with a white toothbrush and Colgate toothpaste.  His shower shoes clicked on the tile floor, and towel tied around his waste looked like a bleached-out kilt.  As he was about to enter the shower area, however, he caught sight of Jack.


Harrison sat on a bench in front of his locker, his arms by his side, his palms flat on the wood.  He appeared to be breathing hard.  Worried, Marty walked towards his crewmate.  "You okay there, buddy?" Marty asked right about the time he saw the prescription bottle sitting on the bench next to Jack.


Jack breathed in deeply and then sat up, reaching for the bottle at the same time.  "No problem," he said, managing a slight laugh.  Looking up at Marty, Jack even managed a smile.  "Don't worry.  I'm not having a heart attack or anything of the sort.  I'm just very tired."  He opened the bottle and took out two pills.  Jack placed them into his mouth and then swallowed them without water.  Marty didn't look convinced.


"Jack," Marty said suspiciously, "is there something you're not telling me?"  Jack looked puzzled by the remark.  Then, however, he looked down at the bottle and started laughing.


"No!  They're not uppers or greenies or whatever you call those things!" Jack said.  "Good grief, no!"  Marty smiled and started to walk away but then stopped and looked back again.


"Then, uh, what are  you taking?"  Jack held up the bottle.


"These?" he said. "This is just Motrin.  My physician gave me a prescription about a year ago."  Jack held up his left arm.  "Broke this going down some stairs.  Went head over heels down half a flight.  Hit my arms, my butt, my legs.  Managed to bounce at just the right moment to keep from knocking my head to oblivion on the bottom step.  Believe me, I was grateful there wasn't anything else wrong when the dust settled."  Jack shook the bottle.  "They gave me Motrin for pain.  I had some left over and decided to start bringing it with me to these little training soirees."


"Why?" Marty asked.  "What's wrong?"  Jack laughed again though there were tones of bitterness in the mirth.


"I'm an old man, Professor McKay!" he said gleefully.  "Well, not old, per se.  Older.  Older than you, anyway, and I had no Lt. Fitzpatrick teaching me to fly high-performance aircraft."  He smiled and pointed at his mid-section.  "I'm just really tired, and I want to sleep when I get back to my room.  I don't need sore muscles keeping me up, now do I!"  Marty chuckled and shook his head.


"Okay, old man," Marty said.  "Get your sleep.  You're the only one around here who knows what the hell is going on, and I can't afford to lose you!"  Still chuckling, Marty headed into the showers.


"Right," Jack mumbled under his breath as he again looked down and placed his palms on the bench.  "Okay, insert film cassette power adaptor.  Open Black Box panel 3 and enter 000 on ground test keys.  Confirm full power flow.  No!"  Jack closed his eyes and started rocking back and forth, beads of sweat on his forehead.  "Insert film cassette power adaptor.  Open Black Box panel 3 and confirm full power flow.  Enter 000 on ground test keys..."


August 15. 1977


Marty climbed up, bringing with him two bags of water.  "Fresh out of the gun," he said as he handed one of them to Jack.  Jack eyed the bag suspiciously.


"Have you tried it?" he asked as he moved the mouthpiece of his headset in anticipation of taking a drink.  With his black and white cloth communications "skullcap" in place, Jack looked like a man about to take a shower, albeit while wearing a gray outfit of thin cloth.


"It's okay, Jack," Marty said with mock reassurance.  "It tastes fine.  You  didn't put the chlorination tablets in the tank this time!"  Marty laughed as he crawled into his seat.  "Mind you, I didn't see what was wrong with the last batch.  I just can't get enough of that there swimmin' pool water."  Jack took a healthy sip, nodded approvingly, and then brought the mouthpiece back in again.  He reached over and toggled a switch on the communications cable.


"And, control, CSM-115. Be advised that Marty cleaned the pool.  Oh! And, we're still showing good O2 and CO2 levels.  How do things look on your end? Over."


Marty laid down on his couch.  CSM 115—both the command and service modules—was mounted upright in a large vacuum chamber.  The pressures outside the capsule had been reduced to near vacuum in order to check the integrity of the ship's primary systems--fuel cells, radiators, motors, cryo tanks, helium pressurization, the pressure vessel of the capsule. 


The fuel cells used a combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, both of which passed over the reaction plates and produced two things--power for the ship and drinking water, lots of drinking water, more, in fact, than a three person could have drunk on a flight to the moon and back.  Marty and Jack, in accordance with their training, were drinking as much as they could since the urge to drink was dramatically diminished in space.  Both wanted to be sure that water intake was motivated more by habit than by need.


The downside, of course, was that the capsule was designed to work in zero gravity, something which could not be simulated for long periods of time.  This made the capsule a very uncomfortable place to be, or at least more awkward than it would be in actual flight.  The seats, in particular, were not designed for comfort in a full-gravity environment.


"Affirmative," Jack said.  Marty rolled his eyes.


"You realize you sound like a damn idiot," he stated.  "It's like hearing one end of a phone call."


"They want us to test the SPS gimbal again," Jack said.  "They said they weren't happy with some of the readings they saw on the last test. Some," Jack grunted as he leaned forward to check a few settings, "erratic current flow." Light from the outside slowly rotated around the capsule.  CSM 115 was very much on the ground and very much stationary, but the conditions of space had to be simulated as much as possible.  The lights, meant to represent the fierce heat of the sun, allowed controllers to monitor the effects of exposure to hot and cold on the ship.


"I hope they're happy, at least with, with the barbeque roll," Marty said.  He reached for his checklist and pulled it open to the appropriate checklist, then reached for DSKY panel.  "Okay, Verb 50.  Noun 25.  00204."  He looked at the returns on the display.  "Okay, we're all set when they're ready to go."  Jack pressed the talk button and relayed the information.


"Roger," Jack spoke.  "Two minutes to start of test. Mark"  Marty checked the mission timer and then, again, rolled his eyes.


"This is really irritating, you know," Marty said.  "I'm nominally in command of this flight, but I don't even get to talk to the ground."  He scanned the capsule and, suddenly, as he had been at various times since the beginning, was grabbed by the wonder of what was around him.  It's a damn miracle, he thought.


"Jack," Marty said.  "I'm curious about something."  Jack looked over and pointed at the mission timer.


"Can it wait until after the gimbal test?" he asked.  Marty shook his head.


"If I don't ask now," he said, "I'll just forget later."  Marty scratched his chin.  "How are you guys paying for all of this?  I mean, I won't believe for one moment that this is being privately financed."  Jack smiled.


"I'm sorry," Jack said, "but I don't think I'm at liberty..."


"You don't have to tell me how you did it," Marty spoke with a good degree of irritation.  "You don't have to tell me who did it.  I just wanna know how this much money can be spent, and no one knows about it!"  Jack started to say something, but he stopped, made a horse sound, scratched his cheeks, then finally started laughing.


"All right,"  Jack said.  "In for a dime, in for a dollar.  A pint's a pound the whole world 'round."  Jack drank more water.  "Okay, it's sort of clever actually," Jack said proudly.  "We have help.  The DOD is actually carrying a good hunk of the load, not that most of them know it,"  Jack giggled.  "We...well...that is to say they came up with the cover program, making sure, of course, that it lives in the black."


Marty nodded.  "No kidding," he said.


"Congress appropriated money," Jack continued, "but since the program is black and, therefore, classified, it stays hidden for as much of eternity as any of us'll probably need."


"So," Marty asked with a smile, "what did you, that is to say they, call this clever thing, then?"


Jack smiled.  "I remember how much effort went in to this," he said.  "We kept running names around the loop.  As one fellow put it, we kept running the damn thing up the flagpole to see who'd salute it."  The last part was spoken in a mocking military cadence.  "We finally settled on a single name, and in any place where this absolutely had to be recorded we used this name."  Jack laughed again.  "The costs are spread out over several years.  Control, CSM 115, 5 by 5."


"Oh swell," Marty said when confronted with the site of Jack's half-conversation.


"CSM 115, roger," Jack spoke.  "Give the gimbal some gas," he said while making a thumbs up sign.  Marty leaned forward to hit the appropriate switches.  "Now, where was I.  Oh yes.  As I said, no one will ever know about this anyway, so we could have called it chopped liver for all that it will matter.  But, considering how much I love seeing the Northern Lights, Aurora just seemed like the perfect code name."


September 29, 1977


Jack sat and stared at his locker and was still dressed only in the white towel he'd worn to the showers.  Once or twice he shifted his weight before looking down at the floor.  "Okay," he whispered, "to prepare IMU for fine align, check sextant and shoot any two stars--Polaris, 11--Aldebaran, 15--Sirius, 22--Regulus, and 45-Fomalhaut."


"Or," Marty said as he walked around the corner, "any other of your choice of stars and planets.  Pick your poison."  Jack looked up and laughed.  "I never saw anyone, in my entire damn time in NASA, who ever loved torquing an inertial platform as much as you do." 


"It's the numbers," Jack said, chuckling.  He reached for the bottle of Motrin.  "I love working with the calculations.  It's why I wrested that duty away from you!"  Jack coughed.  "Polyester leisure suit, Marty?"  Marty bowed, and his earth-tone brown jacket puffed out, which matched perfectly the flare on the brown pants.


"Don't forget the gold!" Marty said as he pointed to his thick, gold chain, which nearly clashed with his mustard yellow shirt.  "Actually, it's the only one I own."  Jack eyed him suspiciously.  "What?  You think I'm gonna stay in my apartment, my last two days before quarantine, feedin' my damn pet rock or something?"


"Pet rock?" Jack asked, a quizzical look on his face.


"You never heard of pet rocks?" Marty asked. 


"I've heard of them," he said before smiling, "I just never took you for the pet rock type."  Marty shrugged his shoulders.


"I ain't this type, either," he said, pointing at the outfit, "but the women go crazy over it.  Eh, when in Rome."  Marty reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pair of brown-tinted sunglasses.  "I've got 48 hours off.  A bunch of that's gonna best lost on the flight back to DC, and a bunch of that's gonna be lost getting back here.  Well, Mr. Out-of-touch, I'm not missing possibly the last chance of my life to get laid!"


"Suit yourself," Jack said, and he looked back at the locker door.  Marty sat leaned against another bank of lockers.


"How about you?" Marty asked.  "What are you doing with 48 hours shore leave?"


"Me," Jack said, grabbing hard onto the bench, "I'm still trying to deal with Elvis dying.  I just don't think the world could take me in this lowly state."  Both of them laughed.  "Actually, a woman acquaintance of mine and I are going to the symphony.  I need something to purge all of your music out of my tanks." Jack chuckled.  "48 hours without ‘When I Need You.’  Such blissfully long periods without Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band or Andy Gibb or King..."


"Queen," Marty corrected.  "If you're gonna put me down, at least do it correctly.  Still," he added, "I'm impressed you know that much.  Admit it, you've taken a shine to KC and the Sunshine Band."  Jack almost looked as if he was going to be physically ill.


"Go," Jack said, "catch your plane before they make us run another simulation."  Marty smiled and headed for the exit.


"You take care," Marty said seriously.  "Don't get in any car wrecks. We've worked too hard to get this ride."  Marty then grinned and said, "Besides, I'm still hoping you might tell me what the hell we're doing in the first place!"  He pushed open the door and left.  Jack found himself laughing before, again, the serious expression overtook him.  Again, he looked up at the locker, again he shifted his weight twice, and again he started reciting stars.  "1--Alpheratz, 2--Diphda, 3--Navi, 4--Achernar..."






Stephanie’s Hammer



Simon and Stephanie walked along one of Cape Hatteras' beaches, the white sands placed there through beach renourishment.  The air was crisp, and the sea breeze infused the cold air with salt and particles of sand.  Simon's tan cloak fluttered in the wind while Stephanie, her arms crossed, tried to stay warm in a brown L. L. Bean Adirondack coat.  As the two of them talked, both appeared at times alternately elated, angry, in euphoria, in despair.  But, mostly, their expressions were solemn in a way that only those who shared certain types of experiences--tragic experiences--could ever understand.


The surf came in large, angry waves, crashing with tremendous violence onto the shore.  As they passed a fisherman, one of the hardcore type who often fished all night and left as the sun rose, Simon pointed out how much effort it was taking the fellow to keep a firm grip on the heavy-duty fishing rod


8AM, as a flock of pelicans flew along the shoreline, Simon and Stephanie sat down on the steps of the Sandy Bar Hotel's access way to the ocean.  Again, while their expressions veered all over the emotional map--Stephanie, in particular, appearing very upset and passionate as she yelled, got very close to Simon's face, poked him in the chest--for the most part they stayed in the same solemn zone, understanding something that most could never fully comprehend.


Once, just once, as the sun moved higher into the milky-blue sky, she started to cry; Simon, at first, maintained his distance.  The few times he'd ever seen her cry were usually followed by great, billowing explosions of temper.  But then, tentatively at first, he reached for her, took hold of her shoulder, and slowly pulled her towards him until she was enveloped in a huge protective hug, and he, too, started to cry.




"All right," Dr. Charlotte Simmons said as she paced the back of the control room.  "Let's hear the particulars again."  Simon was sitting in the back of the communications center near the Helix team. 


"Okay," Aaron Murray said, "5:43AM, Chris Belle activates the LaserComm, notes the system settings, current angle of the dish, and average signal integrity.  5:45AM..."


"Wait," Simmons said, holding up her hand.  "Let's hear those numbers specifically, shall we."  Murray and Gene Kerry looked at each other and then back at Simmons. 


"With all due respect, doctor," Kerry said, "you do have the data..."


"Just read it out," she said, sitting down, closing her eyes, and leaning in to her left hand.  "It helps to hear it."  Kerry sighed, and Murray looked back down at the data.


"Okay," Murray said, "5:43AM, Chris Belle activates the LaserComm.  Initial power settings:  Receiver..."


Simon leaned back further as he watched the proceedings.  He crossed his arms and appeared to be listening intently.  "Norgaard, was it?" Simon asked as the tallest technician leaned closer in order to replace a memory chip.  "Quietly, quietly," Simon added.  "Don't draw attention."


"Peter Norgaard," the technician answered softly as he continued his work.  "You are Dr. Litchfield?"


"Oh yes," Simon replied.  "So, you've been here from the beginning of this adventure?"  Norgaard nodded, and he inserted the new chip into the console.


"Oh yes," he said, though with his Minnesota accent it sounded more like O yash.  "We got here 4AM the day of the, ah, incident, yes."  Simon scratched his nose.


"..original dish angles, .001, +959, +.34, -56..." Murray continued.


"So, what's your opinion about all of this?" Litchfield asked.  Norgaard coughed.


"I don't like salt air," he said.  "My family were a long line of fisher folk, and I hate the sea." Litchfield chuckled quietly.  "I prefer indoors, nice climate control."  Another technician walked up and gave a cable to Norgaard, explaining the progress being made.  "Now, where was I?"


"Climate control," Litchfield said.


"Climate control," Norgaard said.  "I've worked for Helix for fifteen years, owned it for five."


"At 5:45AM, 0545 hours," Murray continued.  "Test program commenced.  Initial talkback was..."


"You love your job," Litchfield spoke.


"I," Norgaard said with satisfaction, "love my job.  I should be at the office in St. Paul these days, yeah.  But," he continued, “the lure of hands on work.  I just can't pass it up."  Litchfield ran a hand through his hair and shook out some of the sand he'd picked up during the morning walk.


"So we've established you love your work," he said.  "Dr. Eddison established your reputation."  Simon thought briefly about Eddison, whose sore leg had kept him back at the hotel again.  "Now, you have something to tell me?"  Norgaard closed the panel he was working on and then began connecting the cable.


"Maybe," he said.  "I see lots of things.  Some of them are intrinsically important to my job, and those are the ones I choose to concern myself with."  He made another connection.  "Others, I'm just not bein' paid to worry about, you know." 


"The thing that happened that morning," Simon spoke.


"The cascading failure," Norgaard added.


"You don't think it was an accident?" Simon asked.  Norgaard breathed in sharply and pursed his lips.


"Weeeelll," he said, "I wouldn't state it in that manner, specifically."


"5:54AM," Murray said, "Chris Belle initiates the slewing maneuver..."


"That part of the system isn't Helix's responsibility," Norgaard continued.  "But, if it was, I'd probably have to say something to Dr. Murray over there.  Then, I'd pull apart the system and track the error to its source.  Then, if I could make a recommendation, I'd strongly urge Dr. Murray to fire the source."  Simon froze momentarily then slowly nodded his head.


"You sound pretty confident that something's rotten in the state of Denmark," he said.


"That's a lousy thing to say to a Norwegian," Norgaard said with mock indignation.  "Everyone knows Fortinbras was the hero of that one, yeah?"  Simon chuckled.  "In any case, I know enough about this system to see something odd.  A random failure leading to cascade wouldn't have followed that path, not in a logical sequence of events."


"The path to the back-up and recording systems," Simon clarified.


"Uh-hmmm," Norgaard said.  "I've got to go," he spoke.  "Good luck, yeah?"  He stood up and walked towards the other end of the room.  Simon focused on Chris Belle, who sat at his console and followed the report as Murray spoke.


"There," Simmons said as she perked up. "There!  The slewing angle.  That, that patch of sky is," she started to chuckle, "is one of the most crowded in space.  You've got an almost limitless selection of satellites to choose from.  There's your signal!"


"But our analysts in Washington," Kerry said, "checked all of the catalogues, even some of the ones that aren't necessarily public knowledge, and they found no correlations."  Simmons waved her hand dismissively.


"Why did you call me in if you don't trust my judgments?" she asked.  "Okay, okay.  Let's assume you're right, a faulty assumption, but what the heck.  I like a gamble.  Let's move on to the analysis of this signal.  What have you found so far?"


Simon looked over at Simmons, trying to get a read on her from her body language.  So far, everything about her seemed legitimate, so he moved her from his mental 'suspect' file, but not out of the file room altogether.




“How do you think he’s coping down there?” Tom asked.  Static crackled over the line as Stephanie moved her cell phone from one hand to the other.


"How's he doing?" Stephanie said indignantly.  "I'm the one who hasn't slept in over 24 hours."  She then laughed, unable to maintain the facade of anger.  "I'm taking care of that problem very shortly, though."


"I've seen you stay up longer than that," Tom chuckled.  "This is just a regular day, isn't it?"


"Hardy har har," Stephanie said.  Despite her good cheer, her voice was definitely hoarse. 


"Okay," Tom spoke, "Simon..."


“I don’t know,” Stephanie said.  She inserted the CD with all of the information from the center into her laptop and pulled up various programs on the computer.   “I guess as well as you could hope.  The work seems to be doing him some good, but…”  Stephanie thought about the early walk on the beach, on his behavior, on her behavior.  Something about the conversation had been cathartic for both of them, she knew.  But...  “He’s still not himself.  I guess I can’t blame him.  God knows I understand a hell of a lot of what he's going through.”


"Well," Tom said as he shifted the handset to his other ear, "at least you sound a little better."


"A little," Stephanie said.  On the screen in front of her, a virtual representation of Chris Belle's console appeared, and it began displaying the information from Belle's logs.  Almost immediately, something didn't look right though she couldn't quite figure out what.  "I wish I was sitting at home with my Alaskan blinds pulled down."


"You're in a hotel," Tom said brightly, "so you should have Alaskan blinds."  Stephanie giggled.  The information in front of her, however, started to blur, and she realized anything depending on her vision probably wasn't a good thing to be working on.  She shut off the console display and then clicked again on the CD drive.  An audio display system popped up.


"Damn," Stephanie said, "I am tired."  She rubbed her eyes and then started clicking on other files.


“And what about this Dr. Eddison?" Tom asked.  "Just who is he, anyway?  The two of you have never mentioned his name before.”  Stephanie laughed as she began analyzing the information on the CD, clicking first on the file name and then on an icon labeled ‘Mimix.’


“He’s the head of Nightwatch’s analysts.  I’ve got to say that his department is pretty amazing a good chunk of the time."  She turned down the volume on the audio system, keeping it just loud enough for her to keep track of it.  A series of beeps, clicks, whirs, trills played though the character of the signal had altered somewhat.  "I’ve seen some of the presentations he’s personally made to our business and government clients.  Great, great stuff, and, believe me, it’s not just the product of his staff.  I've seen some of the things he's taken care of personally."  The signal altered again as Mimix did its work, and Stephanie listened even more carefully.  "Plus, his projections are sometimes used for calculating my department’s budget.”


“He sounds like he’s pretty good then,” Tom said.  “Is he…erm…how do I put this?”


“No,” Stephanie said.  The signal began scrambling again, and she cursed under her breath.  “He’s not briefed.  A few of his analysts are, but not him.  It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if Callow hadn’t slipped something through under his nose from time to time.”


“I wonder why he's not in all of this,” Tom said. “You’d think with that much talent, Callow’d want him playing for the home team.”  Stephanie laughed again even as she ended the software’s attempt to crack the information on the CD.  Pulling up another menu, she clicked on an option marked ‘Lockpick 3.5.’


“Um, no,” Stephanie said.  “Eddison’s brilliant, but, how can I put this.”  The computer chimed angrily, and an error message flashed across the screen.  "Fuck!" she yelled!  "Er, sorry.  Not aimed at you."  She started undoing the damage to the computer.  “Dr. Eddison’s a flake, an absent-minded professor.  I mean, this never happens when a client’s around, but I’ve seen him, literally, get his foot—his good foot—stuck in a garbage can.  One day, he got so fed up with an administrator that he tried to flash him the bird.”


“So?” Tom asked.


“Eddison extended his pointer finger.”  Tom laughed and nearly dropped the phone.


“Okay,” he laughed, “okay!  That explains everything.  Just let me know how Simon is doing, huh?  I’m still really worried about him.”


“Me too, Tom,” Stephanie sighed.  “Talk to you later.”  The two of them hung up.  Frowning at yet another failure, Stephanie scrolled through the options in her computer. 


“Too slow,” she murmured as she clicked past ‘VaporWare.’  “All right, let’s try ‘Stephanie’s Hammer,’” she spoke, clicking keys on the number pad.




Simon's cell phone rang, and as he left the communications room, he pulled it out and checked the display.  When he saw Stephanie's number--Stephanie's encrypted number--he quickly answered.


"This must be pretty serious, my dear," he said seriously. 


"Doc, I think it is," she said.  "Are you in the clear?"  Simon walked quickly to the parking lot, in the process pushing past several data processors coming in after lunch.


"I am now," he said once everyone was gone.  Several seagulls, apparently attracted by scraps of food fed to them by the processors, gathered around Simon, begging.  "Except for these winged rats."


"I tried looking at the data from the LaserComm control system this morning," she said, "and I thought I was going cross-eyed.   I tried a little code-breaking and then took a nap."  Simon was nearly blown over by a strong ocean gust.  Quickly, he pulled down the chin-strap from his hat.  "You still there?"


"I'm listening," he said.  She must not have slept long, he thought.  Her voice sounds terrible.


"I ran the control data again," she said.  "It turns out I wasn't going cross-eyed after all.  The recorded data's been altered."  Simon squinted.


"You know that for certain?" he asked, all the while thinking about Norgaard's words.


"Oh yeah," she said.  "I've got the control console right in front of me, and every few seconds there's a flicker in numeric displays.  The alterations are nearly undetectable, but there's just enough of the overlayed material left to show up if the data's run through a console?"


"Wait a minute," Simon spoke incredulously, "what do you mean by a console right in front of you?  I don't recall lugging in that much equipment."  Simon smiled.  "And since the elevator picked this morning to die and you're on the fifth floor...with an ocean view..."


"I don't have a real one," she said, "but I do have a virtual one.  It's a little something Mel's had me working on."  Simon saw a piece of bread left on the pavement.  Quickly, he picked it up and threw it as far onto the dunes as he could, sending the gulls away from him in a frenzy.  "He wanted something to send out to the field so that personnel would actually learn how to use something and not screw it up."  Stephanie laughed.  "I think you must have unnerved him when you wrecked that chromatograph!"


"So you've been building virtual versions of new machinery?"


"Including the LaserComm," she said.  "I loaded that onto the laptop before heading down here."


"Okay," Simon spoke.  "So, since you have a console..."


"I'm actually seeing this the way it should have appeared to the operator.  Any other way, and I doubt anyone would have seen the discrepancy."  Simon scratched his chin.


"How new is this virtual console?"


"The first LaserComm went out two years ago," Stephanie said.  "This was something Mel wanted retrospectively." The sun briefly dimmed as a cloud passed by.  "None of these simulations have gone out to the field yet."  Simon nodded, and then a smile started to spread across his face.


"I do so love the element of surprise, Ms. Keel," he said with great satisfaction.  "So, what data was altered?"


"The slewing angles for one," she said.  "The dish looks like it was being pointed at a slightly different area of the sky.  Then there's the beam width.  The log shows wide beam, but the hidden data shows narrow beam."  Simon shook his head in amazement.  "To me, intercepting a signal from space would be lucky enough on wide beam, but with the thing set to narrow..."


"Okay," Simon said, "here's what I want to do.  First, meet me for dinner at Austin Dock Restaurant, say about 5:30."


"Why there?" Stephanie asked.  "The restaurant downstairs..."


"Because Dr. Murray told me Austin Dock serves a great lobster bisque," Simon spoke, "and I've had a craving for it the last day or so.  Plus, I still owe you that drink, and I think I'd like to take you somewhere a little classier than a hotel."


"I can live with that," Stephanie said brightly.  "What else do I need?"


"Bring the computer," he said, "and whatever tools you need to examine the LaserComm as unobtrusively as possible.  I have a hunch, and I'd like to act on it while a few people aren't in the office."


"Okay," Stephanie said.  "I'll be there.  I think I've got just enough time to get a couple more hours of sleep."


"Don't let me keep you," Simon spoke.  He was getting ready to hang up when, with a start, he pulled the phone back up to his ear.  "Wait!  Are you still there?"


"Yeah," she said.  "What you need?"  Simon breathed deeply and then smiled.


"Thank you, Stephanie," he said.  There was a lengthy pause.


"Por nada," she said with a good degree of amusement.  "I'm going to bed now."  Laughing lightly, Simon hung up the phone.


"Dr. Litchfield?" Gene Kerry called from the station door.  "We're in a bit of a heated debate, and you're the closest thing we have to 'the official word from Washington.'  This Dr. Simmons is a real..."


"I'm coming," Simon called as he put the phone into his coat pocket.  "Imagine me as official.  That's a scary thought indeed."




Stephanie was on her back and chest-deep into a cabinet on the floor.  Simon sat at the LaserComm control system looking over the transmission and receiving orders as well as Belle's logs. 


"I was just wondering," Stephanie said, "we didn't have to pick the lock.  Where'd you get the key from?"


"Oh," he said, still reading, "just a little thievery.  I ran into Peter Norgaard--literally--coming out of the bathroom.  And as they say in England, I have a few footpad skills.  I'll make sure, tomorrow, that someone finds them in the parking lot."


"That the man from Helix?" Stephanie asked. 


"Yes he is," Simon said.  "Indeed he is."


"I can see some of their work from down here," she said as she slid out and got onto her knees.  "Very nice indeed.  As is this little thing here though Helix had nothing to do with it."  Simon looked up and then slid his chair over to where Stephanie was.  "This little innocuous thing," she continued, "looks very much like a hard-drive, only a) it doesn't belong in this space, and b) it's in the perfect location to intercept data on the way to the back-up recorders."


"Clever," Simon spoke.  "Is it on all the time?"  Stephanie shook her head. 


"See this cable?" she said, pointing at something just above the device.  "According to the LaserComm specs, this should be the pathway.  Somewhere upstream, and I could find it if I was being obtrusive, is a switch the operator can throw to move between the two."


"And anything going through that silver box is distorted?"


"I'd bet a bottle of champagne," she said.  "You can even pick the vintage!"  Simon whistled.


"That's a pretty serious commitment," he said.  "Do you think the path switch could be programmed in by someone other than the operator?"


"Oh sure," Stephanie said as she started closing the cabinet.  "You can preprogram anything.  But it's not very practical if you think about it.  The operator's the one running the machine, not the second party.  You can program anything you want, but what if the controller ate some bad shrimp and had to run to the bathroom?"  Simon nodded.


"That narrows it down," Simon said quietly as he leaned back in his chair and scratched his cheek.  "Ms. Keel.  Did you have any luck with the message?"  Stephanie wiped her hands off and stood up.


"Not yet," she said.  "I've really only run through a few of my decryption programs so far."  Simon nodded.


"Can you try it again now?"  Stephanie nodded.


"Why?  You have an idea?"  Simon stood up and walked over to where he'd had his conversation earlier with Peter Norgaard.


"Decrypt it using Nightwatch's code," he said flatly.  "I mean the one we use when...Callow...sends us on one of his little jaunts."  As Stephanie walked to the laptop, she noticed that Simon's body language changed, for a moment at least, to the coiled, crouched carriage of a person whose fight or flight instincts had kicked in.  Stephanie pulled up the audio file and then ran it through a program marked 'Rembrandt's Ghost.'


"Simon," Stephanie said slowly as information began spreading out in front of her.  "It's a data file.  I'm getting a visual out of it."  She clicked a few keys.  "You were right. This is pretty close.  It's not an exact decryption, but..." Simon closed his eyes.


"Can you tweak it?" he asked.  Stephanie pulled open the Rembrandt's Ghost code files, made a copy, and then altered the matrix.  She saved it as Rembrandt's Evil Twin and then ran the data file through the new program.


"Got it," she said before resting her chin in her right hand.  "Come take a look."  As Simon walked over, Stephanie moved over so that he could see the screen.  "I don't think I like the implications of this."


"Me neither," Simon said as he pulled up a seat and sat down next to her as Stephanie keyed a sequence of numbers into the signal matrix.  “Those are always the first numbers that flash by when we’re using the com suite on Nightbird One.  Is this whole sequence the same?”


Stephanie shook her head without taking her eyes from the screen.  “The encryption matrix used for this signal is so close to the one Nightwatch uses that I won’t, for one minute, believe that it was random.”  Stephanie looked at Simon as she finished entering the sequence.  Ten golden bars danced across the screen before fading away.  Simon watched as the blank screen was then slowly filled with an extremely strange image:


The image was then followed by a data set—twenty-four sets of six digit numbers.  Simon stared at the screen for a moment, eyes wide in disbelief.  Seconds later, the look transformed itself into one of amusement, and Simon started laughing, quietly at first before it grew into a loud guffaw.


“What?” Stephanie asked.  Try as she might, she couldn’t suppress a smile of her own.  “What’s so damned funny?”  Simon continued laughing and then leaned back into his chair.Post Horn


“That thing,” he said, pointing to the image.  “Whoever sent this has a terrific sense of humor!  Not to mention paranoia.  Imagine using that to lead off a transmission!”  While Simon was still chuckling, Stephanie started looking at the numbers.


“What do you suppose these mean?” she asked.  “Is it another code?”


“Maybe a one-time pad,” he said with a giggle.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.  I’ll get a hold of myself in a minute.”  Stephanie shook her head as she copied the numbers and loaded them into one of her decryption programs.  In truth, she was simply happy to see that side of Simon reemerging from the dark cloud he’d been under.


“So,” she said with a small degree of irritation, “are you going to let me in on the joke, or should I just fume a while longer?”  Simon smiled again and pointed at the image.


“It’s a muted post horn,” he said as if Stephanie should already know.  “Thomas Pynchon.  The Crying of…  Simon suddenly stopped and cocked his head to one side.  Leaning forward, he looked at the numbers, then down at the drawer next to the LaserComm controls.  “Oh my…”  Before Stephanie could ask what was wrong, Simon opened the drawer and took out the two books he’d seen earlier:  Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Crying of Lot 49. 


“This is it,” Simon said as he put down Gravity’s Rainbow and held up The Crying of Lot 49.  On the cover was an image that looked amazing like the one on screen.  “That muted horn.  Oedipa Maas keeps running into it.  An underground postal system, or maybe just a symbol of paranoia.”  Stephanie looked at the screen again, and a smile slowly widened on her face.


“The book’s the cipher,” she said.  “You were right.  It is a one-time pad, or at least a variation of it.” 


“Let’s see,” Simon said quickly.  “361183.  362183.  258114…”  Stephanie snapped her fingers.


“Page number and word number?” she asked.  Simon began flipping through the pages.


“No,” he said, “not enough pages.  But what if we flipped it?  Tried word number and page number?”  Stephanie nodded as Simon reached into his pocket and took out a small notebook and a black pen.  He opened the book to page 183 and started counting word.  “First word is ‘Lot.’  Second one is ’49.  Third is,” he counted slowly after turning to page 114.  “unsuccessful.”  They spent fifteen minutes going through all twenty-four sequences.  After Simon had made it through the first twenty-three, Stephanie read what they had so far.


Lot 49 unsuccessful due to outside interference alternate plan Maxwell’s Demon carried out subject acquired subject dead contracts completed relay to next station.”  She was looking down and did not see Simon’s expression when he found the last word.  “I’m pretty certain I can parse that out, but…”  She looked up.  When she did, she saw that Simon’s dead, sunken expression—one which had dissipated over the course of the day—had come back.  “What?”


“The last word,” he whispered.  “I think it’s the signature.”  There was a lengthy pause before he could finally say the word.  “Ramirez.”  Stephanie looked extremely confused.


“Why is that tearing you up?” she asked.  “It’s a common last name.”  Simon looked up and for a moment, Stephanie thought, he looked like the saddest man alive.


“It also happens to be Maria’s maiden name,” he whispered.  Stephanie looked at Simon blankly.


“There’s no way you can know that this is from Maria,” she said.


“Tom talks about my intuitive leaps,” Simon said quietly.  “They’re usually right, Stephanie.  Even you have to admit that.”  He pointed at the message they’d successfully unlocked, and Stephanie sat back, bit her lip, and then looked down at the note.


“Okay,” she said.  “Try this.  Lot 49 unsuccessful due to outside interference.  Period.”  She read ahead.  “Alternate plan Maxwell’s Demon carried out.  Period.  Subject acquired.  Period.  Subject dead.  Period.  Contracts completed.  Period.  Relay to next station.”  Simon stood up and walked towards the door.


“They tried to kidnap Jason Frost in Chicago without anyone knowing it,” Simon spoke, “but I was there, and I stopped them.  Then, while I was outside, Frost and Jane Messenger drove off with Maria in pursuit.  When I reached the wreck, Jane was dead and Frost was gone.”  He leaned against the wall, his fists balled up.  “They kidnapped him outright this time.”


“And Frost still hasn’t been found,” Stephanie added.  “One of the religicrats in the office sent a memo around yesterday asking us to keep Mr. Frost in our prayers.”


“They aren’t going to find him,” Simon spoke plainly as he walked back to the computer and pointed to the screen.  “Subject acquired.  Subject dead.  Period.”  He closed his eyes and hugged himself.  “When the first plan failed, Maria switched to the backup plan.  And now she’s killed him.”


“We don’t know that for sure,” Stephanie said, though she was beginning to sound more and more convinced.  Simon looked down at Gravity’s Rainbow. 


“That’s the next one time pad,” Simon said.  “He’s supposed to find the appropriate words—or at least the closest words possible—and send the message on to the next recipient.  The bastard,” Simon choked on his words and then turned and sat down.  “The bastard’s just waiting for a little quiet time.”  Stephanie moved forward and put her hand on Simon’s shoulder.


“The technician here?” she asked.


“The technician,” Simon spoke in dark tones.  He sat up and looked Stephanie in the eye.  “Belle.  Chris Belle.”






The Clock Is Running:  October 23, 1977



Marty McKay sat on his back, pressure suit fully inflated and immensely restrictive.  Despite protests from both Jack and, apparently, Jack’s superiors, it was the former astronaut who sat in the left, command couch.  The middle couch, which would have normally sat the command module pilot in the Apollo days, sat empty.  Jack sat on the right.


The instruments were before and beside them; the abort handle; the DSKYs display and keypad; the 8-balls showing attitude, pitch and yaw, and other navigational information, all of which were keyed into a stable platform of gimbals.  Marty’s eyes scanned over all of the relevant details needed for that specific point in the count, T minus 1 minute and counting.


“Rog, VHF Comm Sig,” Jack replied.  Of the two crew members, Jack was the only one with a headset linked in to what he referred to as Control.  Marty’s “talked” only to Jack.


“RCS indicators look good,” Marty said as he went over his final checks.  The cabin rumbled as, below them in the S-IB and S-IVB stages, fuel pumps and other pressurization systems sprung to life.  Marty consulted his checklist Velcroed on the panel in front of him.  “Okay, O2 Repress Relief—On, Suit Pressure Alarm—Off.”  Quickly, he reached up and pulled a handle, causing coolant to bypass the CSM’s radiators, devices which would be useless during ascent.  “Boilers are off.  What do our guardian devils have to say about everything?”


“You just let me worry about that,” Jack said, making a thumbs up sign as best as he could.  “You’ll be happy to know we’ve got two good buses.”


“Jolly Roger,” Marty said a little too enthusiastically.  Inside, he was felt the butterflies spinning harder and harder.  He guessed his heart rate by now must be close to 100 beats per minute.  “Reac valves open and locked.  Atomic batteries to power.  Turbines to speed.”  Jack looked over and rolled his eyes.  “Sorry!  Couldn’t resist.”


“T- minus 15,” Jack called out.  Marty took a last look over the panels and verified the final alignment of the inertial guidance unit.  Then he looked over the electrical system, verifying that the batteries were indeed online and providing the extra power needed during this busy part of the flight.  Finally, his eyes then settled on a set of indicators, a series of eight lights—four in a diamond clustered closely together, and another four in a bigger diamond surrounding the inner cluster.  He also checked the four recently installed lights for the solids. Last, he looked at the panel of abort switches, all of which were covered by special protective guards. The Saturn stack began swaying lightly beneath them. 


Both sets of diamonds illuminated. 


“Engine start,” Marty said just as a rumbling and noise greeted them from below.


“Minus 3,” Jack said, and the inner diamond went dark.  “Minus 1.”  The outer diamond went dark.


“Full thrust,” Marty called over the noise.  “Launch commit.”  The four newly installed lights suddenly came on, and the stack began vibrating like a serious earthquake.  “Liftoff!  The clock is running!”  Jack called in the information, his voice quavering from the intense vibrations.


Outside, the Saturn IB was surrounded by orange smoke from the solids, and the rocket flung itself almost too quickly into the air.  The dragon’s tail of flame from the S-IB was just barely visible within the smoke of the Prometheus boosters.


“Holy fudge!” McKay yelled, his old etiquette training the only thing between his mouth and his extensive collection of curse words.  The noise inside the cabin was intense, almost too loud to allow conversation.  “God almighty!  Those solids are gonna turn this thing into a milkshake!”  The cabin vibrated and corkscrewed, bounced up and down like a pogo stick, shook from side to side.  “We can’t be getting pogo already, can we?”


“Rog, cleared the tower,” Jack acknowledged over the noise.  Marty’s heart rate jumped dramatically, and he tried hard to focus on the gauges in front of him.  “Roll program,” he said as he watched the 8-ball.  “Pitch program.  Good roll and pitch!”  The ship bounced violently as it began the extreme dogleg over California and headed towards the northern Midwest.  The cabin was very quickly ‘upside down,’ the crews’ heads towards the rapidly receding ground


Jack turned and looked at his crewmate.  “This is a helluva ride!  Is a regular launch supposed to be this bad?”


“It’s those Prometheus things!” Marty cried.  He looked at the event timer.  “Mode…Mode One Bravo!”


“Rog, Control, Mode One Bravo,” Jack said at almost the same time.  Marty had to use nearly all of his strength just to move his arms as the G-forces kicked in.  “Marty,” Jack called though the vibrations were making it difficult to speak, “we did check the effects of the solids!  Everything looks good on paper!”


“Whose paper?” Marty yelled back.  Through his helmet, Jack suddenly looked a bit sheepish.


“Graduate students at Georgetown,” Jack replied.  Marty’s eyes went wide.  “Slipped the calculations into a couple of classes as ‘theoretical exercises’…”  The ship again bounced violently.  “Jesus wept!”


“Just friggin’ great!” Marty replied as he rolled his eyes.  His vision began to blur as the vibrations of the stack began matching the natural vibrations of the human eyeball.  For a few frantic seconds, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep an eye on all of the gauges, dials, and switches, a prospect which nearly drove him to terror.  “We’re in bucketful of trouble if any of those guys failed the class!”  Despite the growing tensions of launch, he felt himself laughing, almost involuntarily.  He could feel the rocket literally struggling to pass through an area where the pressures of launch and the pressures of the atmosphere conspired to place tremendous strain upon the Saturn stack.  “Max Q!” he yelled after checking the instruments.


“Control, CSM-115 at Max Q!” Jack cried.  Marty glanced back through the only clear window—on the hatch—and saw the sky go from blue to black.  “I tell you, Marty, if any of those students didn’t pass, Control sure as hell wasn’t going to tell me!”  The two of them laughed again.  Outside, the air was thinning rapidly, and the plumes from the H-1 engines and the solid motors appeared to engulf the base of the Saturn.  “About time for the solids to go?”


The ride was slowly stabilizing as the they gained altitude and as the fuel tanks in the first stage emptied.  Marty looked at the mission timer—110 seconds—and nodded at Jack.  The two of them continued the call-outs to both each other and to ‘Control.’  The timer continued clicking—111, 112, 113…


“Solid jet!” Marty called as the indicators blinked on.  Explosive bolts tore the now spent Prometheus boosters from the rest of the Saturn stack.  “30 seconds to staging.” 


“All our power numbers still look good,” Jack said after checking the condition of the fuel cells, batteries, and buses.  “It looks like we’ll be able to breathe, too!  Cryos are holding steady.  Man!  The ride’s a lot smoother without the solid rockets, isn’t it.”


“Cabin’s switching over to 100% O2 at 5 PSI,” Marty called.  “That’s good.  At least we won’t get the bends.  Say, Jack, those grad students the same ones who said the boosters are definitely going into Lake Superior?”


“Rog, solid jet,” Jack spoke to Control.  “Mode One Charlie Beta.”  He reached forward and flipped another switch; the cabin was suddenly filled with light as the escape tower and booster protection cover blasted away.  “Tower jet!”  He looked over at Marty and smiled weakly.  “Those are also the same ones who promise what’s left of the S-IB will fall into Lake Eerie.”  Outside, the air was more of a ghost than a reality, the noise of the H-1 engines a mere whisper.


“Stand by,” Marty said.  “Inboard 5 and 7 shutdown.  Outboard 1 and 4 shutdown.  Anyone ever really tell you about staging?”  The engine-out indicators continued coming on.  Jack, who was now quite pale, looked hard at Marty.


“You’ve never been through it before, either,” he reminded the former astronaut.


“Well, Pete Conrad said…”  The S-IB shut down completely.  “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”  The two of them were slammed forward in their restraints as the ship was affected by the sudden lack of speed.  A second later, pyrotechnics fired, pulling the now spent stage away.  Ullage rockets then ignited, pushing the S-IVB’s fuel into position.  Finally, the single, mighty J-2 engine burst into life, and both astronauts were slammed back into their couches.


Marty laughed the entire time.  “You sure none of what we say in here’s ever gonna be heard by the public?” Marty asked in the now eerily quiet cabin.


“Not for a long, long time,” Jack said, “if ever.”  Marty grinned widely.


“Oh, if the PA’s at NASA could hear me now,” he said to Jack before letting out a holler worthy of a professional bullrider.   “God damn!  That’s the most fucking fun I’ve ever had sober!  Fucking A!  Whoop-eeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!”


CSM-115 rose higher into the black of space, pushed upwards by a near-invisible blue flame of burning hydrogen. 


“No one’ll ever know,” Marty said, “but I’ve finally got my wings!”  He reached forward and switched the EDS to manual, taking most of the abort commands away from the computer and putting them under the crew’s control.  “All right.  You ready for this?”  Jack pulled out a new checklist, and Marty did the same. 


“Are you ready for this?” Jack replied, smiling.


“You know from the sims.  This is the part that scares me.”  The two of them called out the items on the checklist as Marty made sure that the CSM was ready to go the minute the S-IVB engine cut off.  “Douglas and North American never planned for something like this when they built this bird.”


“Remember,” Jack said looking over the checklist.  “Just like in the simulators.  The instant the S-IV shuts off, fire the pyros and get us turned around.  You’ve got ten minutes to dock with and extract the equipment module, spin us around again, and fire the SPS.”


“All from a live stage,” Marty said.  “Like I said, this is the part that scares me.  If I blow this…”


“…we go home,” Jack said quickly.  “But you won’t blow it.  We’ll light up right on the money, get in position, and catch Skylab, no prob.  Get ready with the DSKYs if you have to take control of things yourself.”


“Don’t say light up,” Marty replied.  “That stage is a bomb waiting to blow.”  Manifold pressures and igniters in the service propulsion system looked good.  .  “SECO in fifteen seconds,” Marty said as he finished his preparations, and the two of them settled in for the roughest ride of their lives.





Marty and Jack slept hard at the end of their first day in orbit.  The rapid transposition and docking, the extraction of the EM, and the ignition of the service propulsion (SPS) engine had been even more nerve-wracking than advertised, and following that was the desperate gallop to get in the right orbital plane to catch up with Skylab.  After that, they quickly changed from their bulky pressure suits to the more comfortable gray beta cloth outfits, and following that they configured the CSM for orbital operations, going through seemingly endless checklists, switch throws, Nouns, Verbs, and Programs.


Chores and stowage of equipment took up most of the rest of the day.  Space was particularly unforgiving of clutter as the two of them found out.  Items not properly accounted for tended to pop up at the most inopportune times, such as the moment Jack’s sextant sighting was interrupted by an empty, floating food tin.  Marty, in fact, worked so hard tidying up and taking care of tasks both assigned and found that he barely had any time to look out the windows at the view.  By the time there was a lull in operations, it was dinner time, and following that was the first rest period.  More surprising than the reality of spaceflight—the reality of his actually being in orbit—was Marty's next action.  Given the choice of finally getting his first sustained look out the window or going to sleep, he chose going to sleep.


"Whoa," Jack said as he jerked at his sleep restraints.  "What,” he said groggily, “what, what the hell was that?"  He scanned the console for trouble and looked at the drawn window shades.  "Marty!  Did you see something?"  Marty pulled his arms free of the restraints and rubbed at his eyes.


"Like, like what?" he asked sleepily.  "What's wrong, Jack?"


"I could've sworn I saw a flash of light, at least some type of movement in the cabin."  Jack unstrapped himself and floated quickly in the capsule.  The Apollo CSM actually had three levels.  The “middle” layer was the tunnel, a passageway originally intended to allow astronauts to cross from the command module to the lunar module.  This time, the tunnel, when pressurized, allowed access to the EM and to the docking hatch on the opposite end.  The “top” level was the cockpit itself.  Below that was another open area leading to storage and the sextant among other items.  Jack flipped upside down in the zero-g atmosphere and scanned, almost frantically, for anything going wrong in the lower section.


"Wait," Marty said, "just calm," he yawned, "calm down a second.  Don’t move so fast.  Were your eyes open when this happened?"


"Hell no," Jack said, his feet shaking to emphasize the point.  "I was a baby.  Best sleep I've had in..."  Jack's feet and legs disappeared, and then Jack emerged again head first.  "Damn!  That was a good sleep!"  He closed his eyes and rubbed the lids.  "Whatever it was woke me..."  His eyes popped open.  "By gosh, what the hell was that?"


"Did you see another one?" Marty asked as he looked over the information on the DSKYs display.  "Man, I haven't heard this much cursing out of you since that trainer made you ride a stationary bike."


"This isn't funny!" Jack hissed.  "I'm seeing flashing lights! Something might be..."  Jack’s skin color turned an ashy gray.  Suddenly, he swam through the air to the lower compartment, and the sound of vomiting—along with other sensory sensations—floated up.


"First Skylab crew took two days to get over their motion sickness,” Marty spoke sympathetically.  “It’s normal.”  In fact, Marty had been surprised but pleased by his lack of space sickness.  Several experiences on the ground had led him to expect an entirely different outcome.  “Anyway, before you say it, no, you're not losing it.  It's just our orbital position."  Jack floated up, closed vomitous bag in hand, and looked confused.  "Southern Magnetic Anomaly.  There's a dip in the magnetic field in the Southern Hemisphere."  Marty leaned back.  "No one knows what causes the light flashes; probably stellar particles making it through the Van Allen Belts."  Marty smiled as Jack shook his head.  "Look!  That was NASA's story, and they’re still sticking to it as far as I know!  Did a whole freakin’ experiment on Apollo 15 to figure out what was goin’ on.”"


“How long does it take to get over the light flashes?” Jack asked.  He stowed the bag in a nearby compartment.  Marty smiled and then started working his way back into the sleep restraints.


“Go back to sleep, Mr. Harrison,” Marty said as he closed his eyes and settled in for the rest of the sleep period.  “We’ll be out of it soon enough, and I’m beat.”


October 24, 1977


Jack and Marty were again dressed in their pressure suits.  Oxygen and other lines were attached though their helmets and gloves were off, and their suits were not inflated.  Jack floated up from the sextant and sat before the DSKYs.


"Program 52," Jack said smiling as he consulted his charts and entered numbers. 


"All hail Captain Torque," Marty said enthusiastically.  "What'd you shoot this time?"


"Aldebaran and Nunki," Jack said.  He keyed in more numbers.  "Last one, accept if..."  Jack looked around the cabin as if waiting for something.  "Aha!  GNC accepts the calculations.  Tell them I said thank you!"  He hit the final key, and the computer flashed up its acceptance of the figures.  "Platform realigned!"


Marty sighed.  "This close, you could have waited until we'd docked."  Jack settled down in the right couch.  Marty sat in the left and stared through the rendezvous window.


"How's that docking target?"


"Retracted fully," Marty said with a grin.


"Pressurization sphere?"


"Nice and dull," Marty said.  "All I need now is a nice, bright docking..."  Marty leaned back, leaned forward again, then slowly settled in his couch as a pencil came floating by.  "Um...Jack, can you take the controls for a second?"


"Sure," Jack murmured suspiciously.  "Why, by golly, am I suddenly so worried?"  Marty, unbuckled himself and floated down to the lower compartment, corkscrewing the last bit of distance as his pressure suit came in contact with Jack's foot. 


Settling in at the sextant, Marty keyed in a sequence on the secondary DSKYs. CSM 115 then, slowly, rotated so that sextant was angled directly at Skylab.


"Well, Jack," Marty said as he adjusted the sights.  "Did your friends at Control notice anything strange when they took the radar sightings of Skylab?"


"Not that they told me," Jack said.  Suddenly, he coughed as he peered forward through the rendezvous window as the ship moved back into a nose forward position.  "Are you seeing what I think I'm seeing?"  Marty pushed away from the sextant, righted himself (relatively at least), and then zoomed up to the flight deck.


Jack made way for Marty who again settled in to his couch. 


"What are the options?" Jack asked.  Marty put his hand over his mouth then scratched his chin.


"They could've told us the damn thing was tumblin'!" he said angrily.  "Damn! Damn!" He made eye contact with Jack and then shrugged his shoulders.  "Triple damn!"


"What’s it, six, maybe ten revolutions per hour?" Jack asked. 


"Ten," Marty said.  "It's ten.  But it's torquing, too."  He leaned back and sighed.  "Shit!" 


"Control, CSM-115," Jack spoke into his headset.  While he called in the report, Marty looked over the controls.  After a second, he reached up and flipped the Tunnel Lights switch.  "That's affirm...affirmative, Control, we're thinking ten."  Marty again looked over the console and reached down to a knob labeled 'LM Tunnel Vent.'  He adjusted the knob until the selector rested on 'LM Press.'  Jack looked over at that moment and cut off the 'Push-to-Talk' button.  "Just what are you up to?"


"What do you think?" Marty asked.  Jack shrugged then pressed 'Push-to-Talk' again.  "Control, that's affirm."  Hitting the switch again, Jack moved over closer to Marty.  "They can see your actions."


"There's a UHF controller in there," Marty said.  "They didn't give it to us, hell, train us on the damn thing for nothin'."  Jack shook his head.  "You have a better idea?  They have a better idea?"  Jack shrugged his shoulders and laughed.


"How much time are the cluster's solar panels in light?" Jack asked.  "We weren't supposed to start talking to the bloody thing until after we'd

docked."  Marty looked through the reticule at the approaching station. 


"About two minutes at a time, maybe," Marty said.  "All the reports said it still has a nitrogen supply left.  If the computer's working and we can talk to it, maybe we can command the thrusters to stabilize the fucking bird.”  Marty chuckled.  “Jack, I worked too hard learning how to dock with the damn thing to give up now.”  Jack, floating halfway between the flight deck and the tunnel, nodded and then hit the push-to-talk button.  “CSM-115, rog.”  He looked up at Marty.  “They just gave you the go ahead for your plan.  They’ll try to call up some procedures as soon as they’ve run them through the simulator.”


After twenty minutes and various checks of the EM’s structural integrity, Jack floated down, unlocked the hatch and stowed it in one of the holds.  Then, in short order, he removed the docking probe (which helped capture and pull in the EM for docking) and the drogue, finally allowing him access to the module.  The tunnel to the EM was well-lit though the module itself was still dark.  Floating back, Jack grabbed the electrical connections and carried them back in to the proper receptacles.  Moments later, the EM was awash with fluorescent light.  The interior was a little greater than the length of the capsule and was wide enough to allow a suited astronaut to pass through it.  On all sides were access hatches and storage lockers for various pieces of equipment.  Stopping by one of the forward hatches, Jack consulted one of the check lists.  Then, he twisted his body so that he was directly facing the hatch and attached the checklist to a piece of Velcro. 


“Okay, Marty, what’s the distance?” Jack spoke into his headset as he opened the hatch to reveal a UHF transmitter and attached digital computer.  The interface with the computer looked very much like a DSKYs (a glorified calculator merged with other buttons).


“500 and holding,” Marty said.  “The panels just moved out of direct sunlight, so you’ve got maybe four minutes to get ready.”  Jack switched on the transmitter and waited.  A small ‘Warming Up’ light illuminated.


“Rog,” Jack replied though he may very well have been talking to the ground as well.  “If we miss it this time, we’ll just catch it after the next rev.”  Still watching the light, Jack flipped the checklist to the next page and looked at the numbers he’d carefully written there earlier while talking to the ground.  If Skylab’s flight computer had anything left to give, and if they could make contact with it using the transmitter, then Jack would quickly transmit the computer commands to fire the station’s nitrogen thrusters.  Jack hit a switch on his belt.


“Okay, ground, I’m on VOX,” Jack said.  “I’m just waiting now for…bingo!  Transmitter’s on.  I’m going through steps two through seven now, and then we’ll talk each other through the commands.”


In the pilot’s seat, Marty stared ahead at the tumbling derelict that was Skylab, and, again, he was overcome by a feeling of sheer disbelief, that this couldn’t possibly be happening, but one look at the cloud deck below convinced him that he was farther up than he’d ever been before.  Before he could lose himself in the sights, however, his mind was drawn back to the task at hand.  He strained to hear something of what was going on in the EM, but the loud whir of cabin fans as well as the characteristics of air at 5+ pounds of air pressure per square inch prevented much sound from reaching him. 


“Rog,” Jack said over the communications loop, “.001, 4.34, -98, -65, +22, Push to Accept.”  Marty looked again at Skylab, seeing no difference in its motion.  In his mind, the pilot went through several potential maneuvers, none of which he’d trained for.  Activate the RCS quads, he thought, Attitude Controller, Translational Controller.  Match pitch.  Match roll.  Withdraw probe…  “Rog, I see it, I see it.  P57.  12111.  Push to Accept.”  The pilot reached up and rubbed his chin, watching for any sign that the whole thing was working. 


Marty squinted and looked hard at the cluster.  Is that what it looks like, he thought to himself.


“Rog, we have talkback,” Jack said over the loop. 


“It’s slowing down,” Marty said quietly, a large grin on his face.  Then, he activated his communications system.  “The bird’s still torquing, but the tumbling is slowing down.”


“Ground, CSM 115,” Jack said, “CDR says Skylab is starting to stabilize, over.”


“It’s gonna take awhile,” Marty said.  “You’re gonna lose contact in about a minute or so.”


“At least we know the computer is still alive,” Jack said happily.  Outside, the station was visibly slowing down as the nitrogen thrusters imparted their counterforce on the vacuum of space.  The station was nearly stable though some slight motion remained.  As the panels moved out of sunlight, the thrusters shut down due to lack of power.


“What’s the story from the ground?” Marty asked as he looked at Skylab.  Already, in his head he was making mental calculations concerning updates to the flight plan that would need to be made.  He was surprised when Jack emerged from the tunnel.


“Okay,” Jack said, “gun it.”  Marty blinked.


“Gun it?” he asked, puzzled.  “What do you mean by ‘gun it’?”


“Just that,” Jack said.  “We’re on a tight schedule.  There’s no room for lengthy delays in the flight plan.  We can’t wait any longer.”  Marty thought through the unplanned maneuvers he’d been contemplating earlier..


“If we do it by the book,” Marty said, “the torque will rip the probe right out and foul up the docking hatches.”  Jack shrugged.


“Just get us onto the station,” Jack spoke quietly but firmly.  “We only need it to work once.”  Marty again looked at Jack and then at the station.  He scanned the controls one last time. 


“I assume you’d like to actually get inside Skylab?  And you’d still like to have the EM around for company?”  Jack again shrugged. “Okay,” he said.  “Okay, buddy boy.  Strap in.”  Marty began flipping switches and then nudged the hand controller and closed the distance between them and Skylab.  Jack finished securing himself into his seat and started monitoring the controls and CSM-115’s progress.


“500,” Jack said.  “Five feet per second.”  Marty gave the controls a slight twist to compensate for Skylab’s residual motion.  He reached up and withdrew the probe.  “300,” Jack continued.  “Y +01.”


“You’re lucky I’m not Y +20,” Marty said testily.


“I’m just reading the numbers,” Jack replied, a slight edge in his voice.  “290.  Z +01.”


“I see it, damnit.  Tell me things I need to know like…”


“You need to know it!” Jack said.  “Do you want to run into…”


“I see it in front of me!” Marty blurted.  “The thing’s a wiggle worm.  You think I can’t see…”


“…the station too fast.  280, 4 per…”


“…the fucking thing twisting in the wind up there?  I’m doing the best I…”


“…second.  I know as well as you do how you can’t judge distances…”  The two continued bickering back and forth in rapid fire succession.  Sweat beaded up on Marty’s face and forehead.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing? We need to dock…,” Jack hissed.


“That’s what I’m trying to do…”


“SAFELY!” Jack yelled. 


“Who’s the pilot?” Marty hissed back


“Who’s the man trying not to die?” Jack screeched.


“Stop yelling and read me the damn numbers!” Marty yelled.


“40, 3 per.  Y -01…”


“I’m supposed to be a professional!” Marty barked.  Skylab loomed large before them, and Marty attempted to keep the ship on an even plane with the docking port.


“Then why are you yelling?” Jack yelled.




“33, 3 per!”


“It’s a record!” Marty yelled.


“What?” Jack gasped.


“Read, read, read!”


“27, 3 per.  You thinking of maybe slowing down?”


“I am slowing down,” Marty yelled, “but I want to get as close as I can and still be in alignment!  Too slow, and you have to stop and realign!”


“21, 3 per.  Too fast…” Jack stammered


“Then you shouldn’t have signed…”


“You’re making this worse, Marty…”


“No, I’m venting stress, Jack!  Numbers!”


“14, 3 per…”


“Too fast…”


“I told you…”


“…don’t want to rip the latches…”


“2 per…”


“…get ready for hard dock…”


“…5 feet…”


“…here it goes…”


“…2 feet…don’t kill me, Marty…”  The entire stack—Skylab and Command-Service Module—rocked as the two vehicles made contact.  Both Jack and Marty scanned the control panels, and both saw the gray flags pop up in the appropriate locations just as the twelve docking latches fired in sequence.  Marty breathed deeply and then let the breath escape slowly.  Through the rendezvous window, Marty could just make out some of the station’s solar panels “flapping” with the motion imparted onto them by the rendezvous.


“And, so, we have capture,” he said calmly, smiling.  Jack shook his head and grinned.


“Is that little display of temper why you never got your flight?” he asked as he hit the switch for his headset.  “Control.  CSM-115.  We have capture.”  Marty shook his head and unsnapped his seat restraints.


“No,” he said as he started to dive down to get a towel from one of the storage lockers.  “Never happened before.  You’re just the lucky little shit who got to see Marty the Mauler make his Apollo debut!”  With that, he dove headfirst towards the cabinets.




The interior of the Multiple Docking Adaptor—the cylindrical area mounted at the front of Skylab’s main airlock—was dark save for the illumination from a helmet-mounted light.  Jack, completely ensconced in his pressure suit, finished sliding in from the EM’s egress hatch.  As he twisted himself upright, he turned around and examined the seal around the hatch. 


“Ground, CSM-Skylab,” Jack spoke, “the seals look good.  I’m heading in to power up the MDA.”  Jack floated through, pushing his way past articles of clothing and food packets floating in the vacuum.


Jack made it into the main space of the workshop; then, consulting his checklists, he went through a makeshift process which slowly powered up a few vital areas of the stack.  Florescent lights flickered feebly as Jack took a good look around.  What had once been the S-IVB stage of a Saturn rocket had been carefully turned into America’s first space station, and despite being abandoned and forgotten, it still looked like it could be usable.  He did laugh, however,  at the space wasted by NASA in it attempt to create an ‘up’ and ‘down’ through the placement of equipment.  He laughed, though doing so was made more difficult by the squishy feel of the air in his space suit.  Once he was certain the power up procedure had worked, he floated his way back into the MDA.  After seeing the careful placement of equipment in the main workshop, he was immediately jarred by the seemingly haphazard placement of equipment in the adaptor, equipment which had usually been placed there because there had been no room for it in the main workshop.  His main interest, however, was the control console for the Apollo Telescope Mount, and as he stabilized himself before it, he made a quick visual survey.  The two circular monitors were on though nothing was displayed on them.  All of the switches and gauges appeared powered up.  Looking at his wrist, he read through yet another checklist as he activated two of the ATM’s telescopes, the coronagraph and the H-Alpha.  The talkback on the controls appeared to show the apertures on the two scopes opening, but there was no way to really know until he and Marty went up there, but that would have to wait.  Dinner was coming, dinner and a rest period, and then, after that…


“I’m on my way back, Marty,” Jack said.  And he moved back and waited for the all clear to move back into the EM.


This thing is so old, he thought as he looked around.  The computer’s working, we’ve got a battery charging, the gyroscopes are on. 


“About another minute, Jack,” Marty said over the loop. 


“Roger,” Jack replied.  As he stood in the weightless freefall, Jack winced and doubled over, murmuring silently until he could turn off his communication system.  “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he muttered with his eyes closed.  “Damn!” he yelled, and he shook inside his suit, sweat on his forehead and cheeks.  Almost as quickly, however, whatever was wrong seemed to pass.  He floated until his hand hit the bulkhead and he, finally, steadied himself.  How long will it stay working? he thought. 


He’d seen the reports on the condition of Skylab, on the things that had started going wrong near the end of the last manned mission.  “Just four days more,” he said to the station, as much as to himself.  “Just give us four more days,” he said quietly, “and then you can rest again.”






The Dark Side of the Moon



It was 5AM when Chris Belle unlocked the door to the communications room and walked in, being sure to lock the door behind him.  As he walked along, he shed his new looking leather trench coat and placed it on one of the metal hooks on the wall near the door.  In the dim light of the room, his white Pink Floyd T-shirt seemed to give off its own, strange bioluminescence.  Ignoring the main light switch, Belle instead walked straight to the LaserComm controls and turned on a small lamp.  After pulling out the keyboard, he made a series of quick keystrokes, and while he waited for the indicated tasks to execute themselves, he took out both The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow and placed them on the desk.  The message composition screen popped up.  Smiling slightly, Belle took out his keys and carefully unhooked a flash drive from the key chain, inserting the drive into the appropriate slot.


Belle started whistling “Ode to Joy” as he clicked on the screen and retrieved a file from the drive.  A picture of a V-2 rocket topped by a small second stage popped up in the composition screen.  Belle nodded happily and then opened up Gravity’s Rainbow.


“You do realize that’s a Bumper flight, don’t you?” Simon spoke softly as he emerged from the shadows.  Belle, startled, whirled around and nearly hyperventilated.  “You can tell it from a regular V-2 by the little WAC Corporal mounted on the nose.”


“You’re a history buff too, I see,” Belle said as he tried to catch his breath.  Forcing a smile, he continued, “Didn’t hear you come in.  I was just getting ready to send an E-mail to another history buff I know.  In fact, I’d swear I locked that door.”  Simon nodded and smiled brightly, the bags under his eyes seeming for a moment to vanish.  He crouched so that he could look Chris in the eye.


“Do you often use the LaserComm for personal communications?” Simon spoke.  “Seems a very expensive and overly complicated thing to do, don’t you think?  A bit like using a hammer to kill a gnat.”  Simon nodded at Belle’s shirt.  “I caught them last time out, too.  I’m really fond of ‘Dublin Street.’”


“I…I didn’t go,” Belle spoke almost apologetically.  “I can’t stand them; my boyfriend’s the fan.  He likes to get shitfaced on Lithium Burners and listen to Dark Side of the Moon.”  Simon blinked and stood up, nearly towering over the technician.


“Those are bad, bad things,” Simon spoke like a stern father.  “They’ll kill you in time, eat out your insides and leave you laughing while the spirit dies.  I’d leave him before he gets you into trouble.”  Simon smiled again.  “Weeellll, at least you seem to have avoided their charms.”  Belle nodded and then cocked his head towards the screen.


“Anyway,” he said, “the LaserComm sends such high fidelity graphics that I, uh, use it for personal communications sometimes.  My friend likes V…er…Bumpers.  Thinks they’re cool.”


“Ahhh,” Simon murmured.  “It’s nice to see you hold this equipment in such high regard.  Especially since the company you work for is footing the bill.  You know,” Simon said as he moved further into Belle’s space, causing the technician to back himself completely against the desk, “speaking of bills, it must be difficult, living with a burnhead.  All of those noxious fumes, those burners littering the apartment.  Not to mention how expensive those things are.”


“Who said I lived with Chad?” Chris continued, sweat starting to bead lightly on his forehead.  Simon grinned and motioned towards Belle’s clothes. 


“Don’t know why I ever would have thought that,” Simon said calmly, “well, you know, considering you’re wearing his clothes.  Come to think of it, hose pants look a bit big on you.”


“This is really isn’t any of your business,” Chris spoke, suddenly sounding very confident and assertive.  “In fact, Dr. Litchfield, I’d really like for you to leave now.”  He pointed at the door.  “Please, leave now.  Go on.”


“Oh, it’s too late for that,” Simon continued.  He stepped back and retrieved a chair, swiveling it around so that he could prop himself up on the seatback.  “You made it my business to understand this.  Say, Chris,” Simon cocked his head towards the hanging trench coat, “how cold does it get here these days, anyway?  And how much did that coat cost?  Looks great.  Looks very well cut..  Looks very expensive.  Genuine, high quality leather.”  Chris blinked, grabbed his books, and stood.


“I’m leaving now,” Chris said.  “I’m going home, and then I’m calling Mr. Murray to tell him what sort of lunatic is wandering around here.  This is harassment, Litchfield, plain and simple!”


“No,” Simon said calmly, “what’s plain and simple is that you’re working out here for peanuts compared to what you could be earning in a more cosmopolitan area.  I’ve seen what Murray pays you.  By the way, it’s a lot less than he could have paid you, meaning you didn’t negotiate much when you signed on.  Must have really needed a job,”


“I like the ocean,” Chris said testily, his forehead wrinkling as he grew angrier.


“I didn’t put the pieces together until just now, when you mentioned your burnhead friend,” Simon continued.


“Stop calling him that!” Chris shouted.  “You don’t know him!  You don’t know how kind he can be!”


“White Knight syndrome,” Simon continued, shaking his head.  He must love it here, and you, hopelessly, love him.  And you just know you’re the one who can save him if you can just get him through this.”


“That’s it, asshole!” Chris said as he started for the door.  The speed at which Simon leapt from the chair, grabbed Chris, and spun him around astonished both of them.  Chris was held with his head back, one of Simon’s arms wrapped around the neck and the other around the top of the head.  Chris’ arms waved helplessly, and he looked as if he were having a great deal of trouble breathing. 


“It must be a nightmare,” Simon spoke, a touch of sympathy inflecting his voice.  “You can’t leave him, but you can’t stop him from tearing apart his life with the drugs.  He won’t work, probably couldn’t hold a job if he wanted to, and that leaves you to provide everything—the home, the food, the recreational pharmaceuticals—and all in a place where you’ll never earn enough to cover the debts.”  Simon loosened his grip slightly, and Belle seemed to breathe with less difficulty.  “And yet, you have that nifty piece of clothing over there.  Which means when Prometheus came along and offered you a way out, you took it.”  Simon smiled almost despite himself.  “I can almost understand it.  You must have been so desperate…”


“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Belle said in a breathy whisper.  “Never heard of Promethe-USSSSSSSSS!”  Simon tightened his grip.


“I know desperation, too, my friend,” Simon hissed as Belle struggled.  “I know what it’s like to love someone, completely, totally, body and soul, and to lose that person.  But, my friend, knowing what I’ve read about Lithium Burner addicts, Chad’s never coming back.  He’s still here, but the drugs have him, and there’re not letting go.  The rehabilitation and recovery rates for burnheads are…”  Simon’s voice trailed off.  Seizing the opportunity, Chris started struggling harder, but a few increases in Simon’s hold were all it took to calm him down.  “Forgive the arrogance, or perhaps it’s just insensitivity arising from the rawness of this wound of mine, but my situation is much, much worse.  The woman I loved wasn’t taken from me; no, she left of her own accord.  But I didn’t know that.”  His voice trailed off to a whisper.  “And then she did come back.”  Simon’s expression grew blank.  “But it turns out I never knew her at all.  How, Chris, how am I supposed to live with that?”


“Get therapy, dude,” Chris spat, but the lightning in Simon’s grip told him that had been the wrong thing to say.


“Wrong answer,” Simon spoke.  “See, the people you’re working for happen to be involved in my little problem, so, I’m presenting you with two choices.”  Simon’s voice darkened.  “Very, very simple choices, the kind even your drug-addled boyfriend would understand.  Leave here in severe discomfort, worse than you’ve ever dealt with in your entire life, or…”


“Yes?” Chris whispered as he hung in Simon’s arms.


“Or die,” Simon said quietly and with a terrible air of menace.  “Your choice.”  As best as he could, Chris nodded his head, and Simon relaxed his hold slightly.


“They approached me about…about a year ago,” Chris said between gulps of air.  “My…my lease was about to expire, and I didn’t want to wind up on the street.”


“Go on,” Simon said encouragingly.


“All they wanted was for me to forward their messages, that’s all,” Chris sputtered.  “I swear it, dude.  I don’t know what the hell they’re saying.  I just translate the messages, recode them, and send them off again.  Bingo!  Goodbye!  And that’s it.”


“What about?” Simon asked.


“Things.  Plans.  Most of it’s fucking coded, words out of those books.  I have to find similar sequences in the next book.  But…I swear…I don’t know half of what they’re saying.”  Simon nodded.


“Where to?” Simon continued. 


“S-s-some place offshore,” Chris continued.  “I don’t know where.  I just bounce it along.”


“So,” Simon continued, “why did it look like this one came from space?”


“Haven’t I said enough?” Chris said, tones of desperation in his voice.


“No,” Simon spoke into Chris’ ear, “no it’s not. Not in the least.”  Simon leaned back, and Chris could feel his vertebrae popping.  Why did the signal look like it came from space?”  Chris said nothing, so Simon slowly lifted him off the ground.  His air supply completely cut off, Chris struggled to break free.  Finally, Simon lowered the man’s feet to the ground, and Chris took in deep, wheezing breaths.


“Safety feature!” Chris blurted.  “In case I was detected!  They…they bounce the laser signal off of one of those reflector things NASA left on the moon!”  Again, almost in spite of the situation, Simon smiled.


“That’s brilliant,” Simon conceded.  “If its intercepted, by the time you look, the transmitter’s gone.” 


“Are you satisfied now?” Chris asked.  Simon thought for a moment and then let the frightened man go.  Immediately, Belle slumped in his chair and started massaging his neck.  “If they find out, I lose my tax free cash.”


“Oh, it’s worse than that,” Simon spoke calmly as he spun the other chair back and forth.  “You’ve lost both jobs.  I think, under the circumstances, I can talk them into letting you off the legal hook…”


“Like hell I am, jackass!” Chris said, spittle drooling from his mouth.  “I’ve got you under my skin.  Or, at least,” he pointed to his throat, “I’ve got these.  Any cop could tell ya’ someone tried to strangle me, and I’m taking you down if you tell a fucking soul about this!”  Simon nodded. 


“Yes,” Simon said as he continued spinning the chair, “that could be an issue.”  Suddenly, he lunged forward, catching the unsuspecting Chris and slamming his neck into the back of the chair.  Almost as quickly, Simon snapped Chris’ head back onto the other chair.  Moaning on the floor, Simon’s victim moved his fingers and toes, hoping to find they still worked.


“W-wha…” Belle coughed.


“That’s a bad, bad fall you took there, Chris,” he said matter-of-factly.  “Good heavens, that bruising around your neck there looks pretty bad.  If I were you, I’d get myself to a doctor.  Now, I’m nearly certain, since you fell in such a lucky way, that nothing permanent has been done.  But you never know.  While you’re out, I’ll plead your case to Murray, and my guess is you’ll just be let go.”  Simon crouched and patted Belle’s shoulder.  “Take care, my friend.”  As he stood up and walked to the door, Belle managed to roll over.


“You fucking satisfied, now?” he hissed.  Simon stopped at the door and caught his hand on the sill.


“You won’t believe this,” Simon spoke quietly after a long pause, “but no.  Not in the least.”  He patted the doorway as he unlocked the door and headed out.  “Goodbye, Chris,” he said as he left the room.




The bar at Sandy Towers was filling up slowly as the dinner crowd came in, but Simon was already on his third whiskey.  In front of him sat an uneaten sandwich.  He was tired, very tired, and ready to simply crash in his room.  At some point, he knew Stephanie would come by to check on him, and he understood her reasons, appreciated them, warmly welcomed them.  But the visit, he was determined, would not last long.  After a day of interrogation and explanation, the time had come to simply shut down.


“Would you mind if I joined you for a moment before I head back to California?” a woman said as she sat down, and Simon was surprised to see Dr. Simmons from SETI.  She was drinking a Coca-Cola and carrying a box, both of which she placed on the counter.  “I didn’t realize you were staying here, too.”  Simon forced a smile and nodded. 


Sandy Towers,” Simon said as he raised his glass.  “The official Southeastern hotel of the Nightwatch Institute.”


“Here, here,” Simmons smiled as she clinked her glass on his.  “So, your Mr. Murray called and told me you’d confirmed the whole thing as a false alarm.”


“Oh yeah,” Simon spoke as he thought over the cover story he’d dreamed up.  “It turned out to be a legitimate signal, from, ah, from a recently launched satellite.  The thing,” he laughed, “the thing just hadn’t made it into the catalogs yet.  I hope we’re compensating you for your time.”


“Oh, the bills are paid,” she said reassuringly.  “I see this type of thing all the time, Dr. Litchfield. All in day’s work.”  She tapped her fingernails on the countertop.  “Well, I’ll be off, then.  Give my regards to Mr. Belle.”


“Oh, didn’t you hear?” Simon asked.  “Chris Belle, unfortunately, has decided to pursue other opportunities and has left Crystal Coast.  Such a pity, really.  Such a good kid.”  Simmons sat back and placed a knuckle between her lips.


“I hadn’t heard,” she said slowly as she looked towards Simon’s eyes.  “Such a darn shame about him.  He seemed like such a fascinating character.”  Simon was in mid-drink when he stopped and put it down.


“Just what is that supposed to mean?”


“Nothing really,” Simmons spoke innocently.  “It’s just a shame, that’s all.”  Simon stared into her brown eyes, and a bitter smile slowly spread across his face. 


“You’re Prometheus,” he said calmly, “aren’t you?  Here to check on your little boy.”  Simmons smiled and took a sip of her Coke.


“I’m from SETI,” she responded. “Here to assess the situation and report back my findings.  Nothing more.”  Simon raised his arm, and the bartender nodded as he added the bar tab to Simon’s hotel bill.


“Leaving so soon, Dr. Litchfield?”


“I’ve been playing games for days now,” he said as he put on his hat and stood up.  “Other people’s games.  And I’m tired, Dr. Simmons, very tired of playing by other people’s rules.  You’ll have to forgive me if, this time, I take my ball and glove and go home.”  He tipped his hat.  “Good evening, madam!  Be sure to have a bumpy flight.” 


“Have you wondered why Callow keeps you in the dark?”  Simon stopped in his tracks and slowly pivoted around.  “Well, have you?  I, of course, only know him by reputation.  But…”  Simon returned to his seat and stared intensely at Simmons.


“What about Callow, then?” Simon asked cautiously.  “He’s just some minor functionary in the institutional effectiveness area.  He’s not even the director, just an insignificant little assistant.”  Simmons nodded and slowly rubbed her cheek. 


“Of course,” she said, “I’d never imply otherwise, just as you’d never impugn my character by associating me with some nefarious, nebulous organization.  This…this…”


“Prometheus,” he said darkly.  Simon motioned for the bartender to refill his drink. 


“I’m simply saying,” Simmons continued, “that, by reputation, Callow keeps information from you that could contribute to greater…institutional effectiveness.”  She sipped her Coke.  “Those lower echelon administrators seem to enjoy wielding what power they have.”


“Perhaps,” Simon said before taking gulp of his fresh drink.  “Sometimes you have to bring fire down from the mountain to get him to tell you anything.”  Simon blinked innocently, and Simmons continued smiling.


“Exactly, Dr. Litchfield,” Simmons said.  “Maybe you should take a little of that fire to him, ask him directly why he’s so keen on withholding information, even from those with the most burning questions?”  She grinned.  “What, pray tell, do you think he’s hiding?”  Simon blinked and forced a smile.


“All right,” Litchfield, conceded, “Callow isn’t the most forthcoming person in the institutional effectiveness game.  Therefore,” he leaned closer to her, catching a whiff of her rose milk moisturizer, “since you seem to be knowledgeable on many subjects other than aliens and alien signals, you tell me about Prometheus and, especially, about a girl I used to know.  Maybe you’ve met her before.  Her name’s Maria.” 


“No,” Simmons said, wrinkling her nose and shaking her head, “doesn’t ring a bell.  Try asking Callow, though.  I bet he’d know the answer.  But, oh, that’s right,” she said, snapping her fingers, “he’s such an uncommunicative chap.  Even if he did know, I suppose he’d just sweep that under the rug as well.”  Simon grinned though anyone who knew him well would have seen the cracks forming in the façade. 


“What is your game, exactly, Mrs. Simmons?” Litchfield asked icily.  “Maybe if you filled me in on the rules of this game, I’d play it better.  I’m, by the way, adept at many games.  Truth or dare, for instance.”  His voice became almost malevolent.  “And I can think of some serious dares.”


Dr. Simmons,” she corrected, “and, since you put it that way, I’d better avoid playing with you today.  I’d hate for you to beat me.”  She started to stand as Simon’s conscious twinged momentarily.  “Also, please forgive the unintended double-entendres.”  She picked up her box and started for the door.


“Will you at least tell me what’s in there?” Simon asked, motioning towards the box.


“Hermit crab,” she said matter-of-factly.  “I told you when we first me.  My granddaughter would kill me if I didn’t bring one home to her.  Good evening, Dr. Litchfield.”  Simon nodded courteously at her, all the while gripping his glass so hard that it was in danger of shattering.  “Oh, one other thing, Dr. Litchfield.  You asked if I was this thing, this Prometheus.”  She smiled widely.  “Well, let me ask this in return.  Dr. Litchfield, are you Nightwatch?”  She turned and walked slowly and confidently out of the bar, and Simon’s eyes burned into her every step of the way.  Again, he motioned towards the bartender and then jumped up, moving as quickly as he could to the lobby and out onto the pool area...  He took out his cell phone and activated the encryption.


“Stephanie!  Where are you?”


“I’m out on the beach, enjoying the sunset,” she said.  The two of them had parted early that morning, just before Simon’s encounter in the control room with Chris Belle  You sound a bit excited.”


“I am indeed,” he said, almost breathlessly.  “I need you to go back to your room.  There’s something we have to talk about.  I don’t know how much of this was just mind games or her toying with me, but I think I’ve got a second lead on Prometheus.  I need for you to find out everything, everything, you can about Dr. Charlotte Simmons.  See if you can tie her into anyone or anything associated with Nightwatch.”


“What’s up?” Stephanie asked, the surf churning in the background.  “You mean the Dr. Simmons from SETI?”


“Same one, exactly,” Simon replied.  “And, to answer your first question, I don’t know, but I very much suspect you were right,” Simon said.


“Right about what?”


“When you said that you didn’t for one minute believe it was a coincidence that that Prometheus transmission was using a Nightwatch encryption matrix.  I don’t believe it either, not now.  We’ve got to find out as much as we can, and then we’ve got to get back home.”  Simon smiled.  “We have work to do, Ms. Keel!  We have so much work to do!”






Black Box:  October 25, 1977



The Black Box locked itself into place as the two astronauts finished positioning it over the H-alpha telescope and the coronagraph.  The two of them stood on top of the ATM, which itself stood atop the entire front end of Skylab.  Radiating out in the form of an X were four giant solar panels, which gleamed gold and silver in the sunlight.  Marty stood farthest away from the edge, Jack the closest.


“You ready to switch places?” Jack asked over the loop, his breath echoing inside his helmet.  Marty gave, a thumbs up sign, and they engaged in a ballet of movement as they walked around the box.  As he moved, Marty caught sight of the long line running from the edge of the telescope mount to the front of the equipment module, the line up which they had transported the black box, and the line to which their safety tethers were still attached.  The EM itself was black, but CSM 115 just beyond gleamed white and silver. 


“Are we just about done with this thing?” Marty asked.  The Black Box, the main object of their trip, the thing around which so much of their training had been based, remained largely a gigantic mystery, at least to Marty.  Despite his best guesses and all of his attempts both overt and covert to figure out what the machine was for, he never had learned its secrets.  Given that reality, the mission for Marty, at least the majority of it, was now over.  And that realization lifted a tremendous weight of responsibility from his shoulders.  Suddenly, he felt free to truly understand where he was, what he was doing, what he had accomplished. 


Marty stood on the edge of the telescope mount, two of the four solar panels spread out before him like a V, and below him, a giant, white stream of clouds flowed over the North Atlantic, almost acting like an ethereal bridge between Europe and North America.  The distance, he knew, was tremendous, yet he felt as if he could reach out and grab chunks of the cloud shelf as if it was a patch of newly fallen slow.  In that moment, exhilaration, greater than he had ever felt in his life, coursed through him.


From the Atlantic, Europe—both free and behind the Iron Curtain—was spread out.  The yellow-orange plains of Spain, the blue-green shimmer of the Mediterranean, smoke from Mt. Aetna, the boot of Italy  Marty closed his eyes to shut out the view, not because it displeased him but because of the tremendous emotions he was dealing with.  Crying was one thing, but a runny nose in a space suit was another entirely, and he was determined that one would not lead to the other.


“It’s too beautiful,” Marty said, a quaver in his voice.


“What’s that?” Jack said from behind the Black Box.  He hovered over the sun-end film slot and finished inserting a cartridge into it.  From the cartridge extended a cable which itself attached to the box.  “Ground, be advised that the box is plugged in.  Can you confirm that power is flowing?”


“It’s all too much,” Marty continued, “all too much.”  He sighed, and continued, “I didn’t understand, Jack.  I just…”  His voiced trailed off as he opened his eyes again onto the world below him.  At any given point he could see, some sort of war or conflict—either with open warfare or behind the cloak of secrecy and diplomacy—was in progress.  He knew this, but from here, the significance of it all vanished.  All that mattered was the Earth, was this perch, was this moment.  “I just didn’t understand.”


“Okay, Control,” Jack said, “I’ll initiate the program.”  There was a pause.  “I’ve been dealing with it myself, Marty, from time to time.”


“Yeah?” Marty spoke.


“By golly, yes,” Jack replied.  “I’ve been okay, but, then, I never entertained dreams of this.  You did, and they’ve finally come true for you.  I can imagine what this must be like under those circumstances.”


“Oh yes,” Marty said.  “Yes, indeed!”  Jack swung open panel 3 on the box and started entering a sequence of numbers into the DSKY-like computer.


“Look at it well, Marty McKay,” Jack said.  “Drink it in.  The box is ready.”  The Black Sea, the Russian plains…


“Even a few minutes of this is more than I ever could have hoped for,” Marty said quietly.  “More than anyone can imagine…”  More than any mere mortal deserves, he thought, and, again, he closed his eyes to stem the rising tide of emotion.


October 26, 1977


“Fifteen minutes to re-entry interface,” Marty said.  CSM-115 had, for thirty minutes, been simply CM-115.  The service module from the back as well as the EM from the front had been jettisoned, and the RCS quads pulled the service system safely out of the way. 


“Jack,” Marty said as he prepared to take over from the computer if anything went wrong during reentry.  “These friends of yousr, they did remember to install a heat shield?”  Jack blinked and turned to look at the commander.


“Well, that’s a bizarre question,” Jack said.  “What, pray tell, brought that one on?”  Jack looked over his controls.  “You’ll be happy to know, by the way, that the batteries are holding fine.”  Marty looked over his controls again.


“Your people seem to be trusting me an awful lot,” Marty said.  “They really seem to believe that I won’t tell a soul about this, and I emphasize seem.  But, what if I don’t…”


“You will,” Jack said.  “I have faith that you will.  They have faith that you will.”  Jack nodded and smiled.  “The heat shield will hold,” Jack added reassuringly.  “And, no, the frogmen at the landing site won’t be wielding glocks either!”


“Twelve minutes,” Marty said.  He wrinkled his forehead and scratched just beneath his chin.  “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what the box is for.”  Jack smiled, but said nothing.  “I didn’t think so.  You gonna tell me who you work for, then?”  Jack shrugged his shoulders.  “Can’t blame me for trying.  One thing I do want to know.  Why wouldn’t you let me boost Skylab’s altitude?  I mean, I wasn’t privy to the calculations, but I don’t think NASA thought it would be this low already.”


“Very low,” Jack agreed as he started fumbling through his uniform pockets.  “They’re just starting to realize the problems they face.  Our best guess is that Skylab will fall sometime in 1980, maybe 1979.”  Marty nodded, his eyes still on the controls.  “You know as well as I do that, by golly, that space shuttle of theirs isn’t going to be ready on time.  And that, frankly, suits us just fine.  That box must vanish into history.  And, in a few days, the box will send commands to restore the station to the condition in which we found it.”


“What happens to Skylab matters to those little ants on the ground,” Marty stated under his breath.  The reentry corridor numbers still looked solid to him, and since nothing was apparently being called up from the ground, he took the numbers to be true.  Then, he closed his eyes and started laughing.  “I’m not going to complain.  I’ve already lived something I could never have hoped for.”  He smiled.  “I’ll never be able to tell a soul, but, damnit, I made it here!”  Marty smiled widely.  “Fucking A, Jack, I made it!”  Jack pulled something from his side pocket.


“I want you to understand this,” Jack said firmly.  “What you’ve done will result in immeasurable good.  We’re not setting up some giant space bomb.  We’re not spying on either side of the Cold War.”  Jack closed his fist.  “We simply did something that couldn’t be done, overtly, by the usual parties.  I can’t tell you what we did.  I can’t tell you why.  But it was good.  Also, Marty,” Jack said somewhat sheepishly,  there’s something I should tell you.  Something, I guess, I owe you.”  Marty looked over. 


“What’s that?”  Jack, embarrassed, shrugged.


“Well,” he said, “Jack, um, you see, isn’t my actual name.  I can’t tell you my real one, but, I, ah, just thought…”  Marty was smiling, and Jack took on a puzzled expression.  “What?  What is it?”


“You think I didn’t know that?” Marty laughed.  “You think I’m that insane?  I figured out that little state secret right after you revealed yours at the Mall. ‘Jack Harrison.’”  Marty nodded.  “Harrison Schmidt.  Geologist on Apollo 17.  Nice guy by the way.”  Marty smiled.  “We all called him Jack.  The press knew that too.”  Jack nodded his head and conceded the point. 


“Okay,” he said, “perhaps not as delightfully obscure as I’d hoped.”  He opened his fist.  “In either case, I wanted to be as honest with you as I could before I gave you this.”  Above Jack’s palm floated a small box, and Marty, surprised, reached over and took it.  Through the clear plastic cover, Marty could see the gold pin given to all astronauts after they’ve made their first flight.  As they had on Skylab, Marty’s emotions started to rise again.


“I…I…,” he stammered.  “I…”  He breathed deeply and closed his eyes tightly.  “Jack, you don’t know how much this means to me.”  Jack grinned and leaned closer, almost as if he was going to whisper a secret.


“No one will ever know what you’ve done,” Jack said, “but, by golly, you do.  And, in the end, that’s all that matters.  You, Marty McKay, can go to the grave knowing that you aren’t a failed rocket jockey.  You are an astronaut.”  He reached over to shake Marty’s hand, and Marty gripped it hard.


“All right,” Marty said, choking back his emotions and putting the pin into one of his pockets, “we’ll blubber up later.  I don’t want to fry up in the sky before then.”  With that, the capsule of CSM-115 shot at over 17,000 miles per hour into the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, creating an artificial meteor visible to anyone who was fortunate enough to be looking for it.









“Yes, yes, Dr. Litchfield,” Eddison said as he stood in Crystal Coast’s poorly lit parking lot.  “I understand, completely.  I have to stay around here for a day or so more, you know, to help tidy things up a touch before winging my way home. So…”  Eddison leaned heavily on his cane.  “No! No need to apologize, dear fellow!  Glad you could be here.”  He smiled.  “Yes, good luck to you, too, and thanks for the condolences.”  He lowered the phone and, still smiling, shook his head.


“Good evening, Dr. Eddison,” Peter Norgaard said as he walked up, leather bags in hand.  “We’ve completed our upgrades, so the fellows and I will be heading back to the hub.”  Norgaard looked around as if checking to see if others were around.  “You still feel, strongly, that we’ll be receiving more contracts from Nightwatch?”  Eddison nodded.


“Oh certainly, certainly,” he said quietly but enthusiastically.  “You do good work!  Excellent work!  And, everything you say is clear as a bell!”  Norgaard nodded, a sly grin on his face.   


“Glad to be of service, sir,” Norgaard said, and he reached out to shake Eddison’s hand.  As he did, however, the old man winced and for several seconds was unable to say anything or to even move.  “Are you okay?  Do you need some help?”


“It’s just the leg,” Eddison said with great difficulty.  “The damn thing’s barking at me!”  Norgaard moved closer, and Eddison used the man’s shoulder as a support.


“Can your doctors do anything about it?” Norgaard asked with great concern.  Eddison shook his head and closed his eyes again.  Gradually, however, he was able to let go of Norgaard and rely again upon the cane.


“Treat the pain, as much as possible,” Eddison croaked, his eyes still closed.  “A few too many medical problems stacking up on each other.” Eddison winced again as he shifted his weight. “They didn’t understand at first what it was, in the mid-70’s, but, then, that was a long time ago.  By the time they figured it out…”  Eddison opened his eyes and then laughed lightly.   “Ah well, I’ve lived with it this long,” Eddison said with a grunt.  “I reckon I can make it a little longer.”  Norgaard cocked his head to one side.


“Longer?” he asked, concerning in his voice.  “That sounds a bit like you’re expecting something.  Are…are you dying?”


Eddison smiled widely.  “Why Mr. Norgaard,” he said, “we’re all dying.  Skin cells, brain cells, blood cells…all passing away every second, all being replaced.  But each year, more and more die, and fewer and fewer are replaced.  The secret,” he said, still smiling and slowly straightening himself, “the secret, by gosh, lies in what you do before the debits finally outweigh the credits!”  Eddison looked over and checked the time on his phone.  “Mr. Norgaard, if you’ll excuse me, but…”  The technician raised his hand, smiled, then waved and headed towards his rented minivan.  Second later, Eddison’s phone started to ring.  He nodded his head with each ring, counting them, snickering at the fourth one, and then activated it and raised it slowly to his ear.


"Ian," Eddison said cheerfully, "you're punctual as usual!"  There was a lengthy pause on the other end.


"That was dirty pool, Will," Callow replied, though his voice didn't sound truly angry.  "Everything happens in good time.  My way would have been best."  Eddison laughed lightly.


"Let's think this out, shall we?"  He looked around, making sure he was out of earshot of anyone else.  "Your best operative is a miserable sod, completely useless not only to us but to the rest of Nightwatch as well.  Why?  Because you went and involved him in an operation guaranteed to throw him off the deep end.  What condition did you really expect him to be in after confronting a living ghost?"


"You're not being fair, Will," Ian replied tersely.  "It was necessary!  That scenario was vital to..."


"You let slip the word 'Prometheus,'" Eddison continued without skipping a beat, "and then stonewall him when he finally recovers enough to start asking questions about what 'Prometheus' is in the first place.  Answer me this?  Just when were you planning to tell him?  When our dear Miss Simpson marched into the White House with a jar of genetically targeted botulism?"


"There's no evidence of Prometheus even dabbling with biological weapons, Will.  That’s not their style!  If you're going to scold, at least avoid hyperbole!"


"Point taken," Eddison said, "but I think you see what I'm driving at.”  Eddison breathed deeply and then spoke in a more serious tone. “They're becoming more of a problem, and I can't wait for you to play your little power games with our dear Dr. Litchfield.  He's aware of the problem now, and, all the better for the both of us, he thinks he stumbled upon this himself without me deliberately pointing him towards the evidence."


"Point taken," Callow replied half-mockingly.


"I think you'll find Litchfield much more effective now," Eddison said.  “At least he won’t be sitting around thinking only of his wife.  Now, he has Prometheus to puzzle over, and that should keep him sane long enough to recover from the other shock.  Besides, knowing what he knows now, he should be able to tease out a fair amount of this and be all the better for it as an operative.”


“You know what I’d like in return for your going behind my back?” Callow asked, and Eddison nodded.


“Of course,” Eddison said in a very patrician manner.  “I have no objections towards your borrowing him for your pet project.”  There was a lengthy pause.


"I only hope you know what you're doing," Callow finally said.


"Trust me," Eddison replied, smiling as he looked down at the ground.  "Ian, don't fade out on me now."  Callow laughed.


"You know I trust you, Will," Callow stated.  "I simply don't trust the rest of the bloody world."  There was an audible click, and with a smile Eddison lowered the phone, the gray hair poking from beneath his hat flapping in the sea breeze.


Another Helix technician approached Eddison as he methodically coiled a length of wire around his hand and elbow.  "Sorry things didn't work out," he said sympathetically.  "Damnit!  I was having so much fun being a fly on the wall for this whole drama!  I really thought we finally had it.  First contact!"


"I wouldn't worry," Eddison said reassuringly.  "Better luck next time, eh?"  The technician nodded his head and walked on.  As he did, Eddison cast a knowing glance toward the sky and smiled.  "Yes indeed, better luck next time."  And his mind drifted into the past…


October 28, 1977


Skylab floated around the earth, as it always did, continually circling, wandering aimlessly at one point or another over 70% of the planet.  Its panels gleamed in the unfiltered sunlight of space.  However, the character of them began to change, and after a few seconds more, pulses of light began flashing over the panels, blinking in what even to the untrained eye would appear to be a pattern, and they continued in this manner for nearly fifteen minutes before the flashing finally stopped.   Just above, a large, sleek, disc-like object seemed to inspect the station.


Moments later, the skin of the disc began strobing, using the same pattern Skylab had exhibited just moments earlier.


Inside the Multiple Docking Adaptor, Skylab’s teleprinter sprung to life in the semi-darkness of the dying station.  At first, a series of numbers and collections of gibberish printed out on the leftover paper.  Then, however, discernible words began to emerge:


We thank you for the warm greetings you have bestowed upon us and thank you for the information you’ve given.  We apologize deeply for any problems our initial parley may have had with your unofficial ambassadors and, again, thank you for your understanding. 


Now, regarding our original intent.  Sadly, we agree with your assessment of our offer.  As evidenced by the information received, your world is not yet ready for formal contact with us, and we respect your planet’s need to develop in as rational a manner as possible.  We, therefore, will depart for now, with a projected return date of…


And then, the printer ran out of paper.



The End


© 2005-2006 by Jeff Williams.  While struggling to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated consciousness of all people, Jeff occasionally produces poems and short stories such as the one you’ve just read.  If you wish to contact him concerning this story, you can E-mail Jeff at