OCTOBER 2004, MISSOURI
THE SLEEK LITTLE PLANE ZIPPED IN LOW AND FAST, dropping below the treetops as it flew along the runway just a few feet above the ground; then the nose pointed skyward and the plane rolled swiftly around its horizontal axis once ... twice ... three times.
Rip Cantrell was the pilot. The alternating sunny blue sky and colorful earth were almost a blur as the plane whipped around. He centered the stick and the plane stopped whirling.
Up he went higher and higher into the sky, then gently lowered the nose and let the bird accelerate. The plane was an Extra 300L, a two-place aerobatic plane with two seats arranged in tandem. The pilot sat in the rear seat; today the front one was empty.
With the airspeed rapidly building, Rip brought the stick back smoothly. The increasing Gs mashed him down into the seat. Fighting the increased weight of his helmet and visor, he steadied at four Gs as the nose climbed toward the zenith. Throwing his head back, he could see the ground come into view as the plane became inverted at the top of the loop. He backed off on the G to keep the loop oval. The engine was pulling nicely, the ground beginning to fill the windscreen, so asthe airspeed increased, he eased the G back on. The nose dropped until the Extra was plunging straight down.
Here Rip pushed the stick forward, eased back on the throttle and slammed the stick sideways. The plane rolled vigorously as it accelerated straight down in a wild corkscrew motion. The controls are incredibly sensitive, he thought, marveling at the plane's responsiveness to the slightest displacement of stick or rudder.
A glance at the altimeter, center the stick and pull some more, lifting that nose toward the horizon. The Gs were intense now; he was pulling almost six. He fought to keep his head up and blinked mightily to keep the sweat running down his forehead from blinding him. In seconds the plane was level. Rip eased off on the G and pulled the throttle back to idle.
The piston engine's moan dropped to a burble, and the plane began a gentle, descending turn to line up on the runway. With the power at idle, the plane floated into a perfect three-point landing, kissing the grass.
Rip steered his craft to a stop in front of the large wooden hangar beside the runway and cut the engine. He opened the canopy, snapping the safety line into place so it wouldn't fall off, and unstrapped. Still in the pilot's seat, he took off the helmet and swabbed the sweat from his face.
One of the men sitting on a bench beside the hangar heaved himself erect and strolled over to the Extra.
"Well, whaddaya think?"
"It's okay," Rip said. Lean, tanned by the sun, he was about six feet tall and in his early twenties.
"You sure fly it pretty well," the guy on the groundsaid enthusiastically, cocking his head and squinting against the glare of the brilliant sun.
"Save the flattery. I'll buy it."
The next question was more practical. "You gonna be able to get insurance?"
"I'm going to pay cash," Rip said as he stepped to the ground. "Then I don't have to insure it, do I?"
"Well, no. Guess not. Though I never had anyone buy one of these flying toys that didn't want to insure it. Lot of money, you know."
"I'll walk up to the house and get the checkbook. You figure out precisely what I owe you, taxes and all."
"Sure." The airplane salesman headed back to the bench beside the hangar.
Rip walked past the hangar and began climbing the hill toward his uncle's house. It was one of those rare, perfect Indian summer days, with a blazing sun in a brilliant blue sky, vivid fall foliage, and a warm, gentle breeze decorated with a subtle hint of wood smoke. Rip didn't notice. He climbed the hill lost in his own thoughts.
His uncle Egg Cantrell was holding a conference at his farm, so the house was full to overflowing. He had invited twenty scientists from around the world to sort through the data on the computer from the saucer Rip had found in the Sahara and donated to the National Air and Space Museum the previous September. Egg had removed a computer from the saucer and kept it. Its memory was a storehouse of fabulous information, which Egg used to patent the saucer's technology, and even more fabulous data on the scientific, ethical andphilosophical knowledge of the civilization that constructed it.
The visiting scientists shared Egg's primary interest, which was computer technology. He had spent most of the past year trying to learn how the saucer's computer worked. The Ancient Ones knew that progress lies in true human-computer collaboration. They had promoted computers from dumb tools to full partners capable of combining known information, new data and programs of powerful creativity and logic techniques to generate and test new ideas. In effect, the computer could do original, creative thinking, a thing still beyond the capability of any computer made on earth.
Egg and his guests were having a wonderful time. They spent every waking minute with a dozen PCs containing files Egg had copied from the saucer's computer or talking with colleagues about what they had learned.
Egg was on the porch in an earnest discussion with two academics from California when he saw Rip coming up the hill with his hands in his pockets, eyes on the ground. He had been like this since his girlfriend, Charlotte "Charley" Pine, took a job with the French lunar expedition. She had been gone for six weeks, and a long six weeks it had been.
Egg excused himself from his guests and intercepted Rip before he could get to the porch. Egg was in his fifties, a rotund individual with little hair left. His body was an almost perfect oval--hence his nickname--but he moved surprisingly quickly for a man of his shape and bulk. He had been almost a surrogate father to Rip after his real dad died eleven years ago.
"Good morning," Egg said cheerfully. "Heard the plane. Is it any good?"
"It's okay. The guy is waiting for me to write him a check."
"He can wait a little longer. What say you and I take a walk?"
Rip shrugged and fell in with Egg, who headed across the slope toward the barn. "It's been quite a year, hasn't it?" Egg remarked. Actually more like thirteen months had passed since Rip donated the saucer from the Sahara to the National Air and Space Museum. They had indeed been busy months for Egg as he mined the data on the saucer's computer, filed patent applications with his, Rip's and Charley's names attached and licensed the propulsion technology.
The money from the licenses had been pouring into the bank that handled the accounts. While they were not yet rich enough to buy Connecticut, each of them could probably afford a small county in Mississippi or Arkansas.
Having a lot of money was both a curse and a blessing, as Rip and Charley discovered. They didn't need regular jobs, which meant that they had a lot of free time. Charley taught Rip to fly, and after he got his private license they had flown all over the country, leisurely traveled the world and finally returned to Missouri in midsummer.
After a few more weeks of aimless loafing, Charley jumped at a job offered by Pierre Artois, who was heading the French effort to build a space station on the moon. One morning she shook Egg's hand, hugged him, gave him a kiss and left. Her departure hadn'tcome as a surprise. He had known she was bored, even if Rip hadn't figured it out.
"I sorta miss Charley," Egg said now to Rip, who didn't respond.
Inside the barn Egg seated himself on a hay bale in the sun. Rip stood scuffing dirt with a toe, then finally seated himself on the edge of a feed-way.
"What are you going to do with your life, Rip?"
"I don't know."
"Buying toys won't help."
"The Extra is quite a plane."
"Everybody needs one."
"Toys won't help what's ailing you."
"You could help me with this conference, if you wished," Egg continued, his voice strong and cheerful. "They keep asking questions about the saucer--you know as much about it as I do, maybe more."
"Don't want to answer questions about the saucer," Rip responded. "Talked about it enough. Time to move on to something else."
"What?" Egg asked flatly.
"I don't know," Rip said with heat. "If I knew, I'd be doing it."
"You aren't the first man who ever had woman troubles. Sitting around moping about Charley isn't going to help."
That comment earned a glare from Rip.
"The launch is going to be on television this evening," Egg continued blandly. A French spaceplane had been launched every two weeks for the last sixmonths, shuttling people and equipment to the new French base on the moon. Charley Pine was scheduled to be the copilot on the next flight. Since an American was going to be a crew member, the American networks had decided to air the launch in real time. "Are you going to watch?"
"She's going to the moon and you want me to watch it on television. How should I answer that?"
Egg sat on his bale for another moment, decided he didn't have anything else to say and levered his bulk upright.
"Sorry, Unc," Rip told the older man. "My life is in the pits these days."
"Maybe you ought to work on that," Egg said, then walked on out of the barn.
"Well, it is a mess," Rip told the barn cat, who came over to get her ears scratched. "After you've owned and flown a flying saucer, been everywhere and done everything with the hottest woman alive, where do you go next?"
The galling thing was that he knew the answer to that question. To the moon, of course! And he was sitting here in central Missouri twiddling his thumbs watching television while Charley did it for real.
Terrific! Just flat terrific!
CHARLEY PINE HAD JUST LIVED THROUGH THE BUSIEST six weeks of her life. From dawn to midnight seven days a week, the French had trained her to be a copilot in their new spaceships.
Unwilling to bet lives on just one ship, the French had built four of them. Two generations beyond theAmerican space shuttles, the French ships were reusable spaceplanes, launched from a long runway in the south of France. They carried two large fuel tanks, one on either side, which they jettisoned after they had used the fuel. They then flew on into orbit, where they rendezvoused with a fuel tank, refilled their internal tanks and continued on to the moon. After delivering their cargo, the spaceplanes returned to earth orbit and reentered the atmosphere. They landed in France on the runway they had departed from and were readied for another voyage to the moon.
Bored with doing nothing, unable to interest Rip in anything other than sitting around, Charley had instantly accepted Pierre Artois' job offer. She didn't tell Rip until the following morning. Then she broke the news at breakfast and was gone fifteen minutes later.
Sure, leaving Rip had been hard, but she was unwilling to retire at the ripe old age of thirty. Sooner or later, Rip was going to have to figure out life. When he did, then she would see. If he did.
Pierre Artois believed in maximum publicity. The French government was spending billions on the lunar mission, so he didn't miss many chances to get all the good press he could. This evening, six hours before launch, he and his lunar crew stood in front of a bank of television cameras to answer questions.
Before the press zeroed in on Artois and the French space minister, one of the reporters asked a question of Charley, who was wearing a sky blue flight suit that showed off her trim, athletic figure. Her long hair was pulled back in a ponytail. The reporter was an American, who naturally asked his question in English.
In addition to all the technical information she was trying to absorb, Charley was also taking a crash course in French. Her four semesters of French way back when allowed her to buy a glass of wine, find a restroom and ask for a kiss, but that was about it. She gave up trying to learn the names of all the people shoving information at her, and called everyone amigo. That froze a few smiles, but Pierre Artois said she was one of his pilots, so frozen smiles didn't matter. She was actually grateful the first question was in English, until she heard it.
"Ms. Pine, some American pundits have said that hiring you to fly to the moon is just a publicity stunt by Monsieur Artois. Would you care to comment upon that?"
"Not really," she said lightly, trying to be cool. "I've been in space before." Actually her flying credentials were as good as anyone's. A graduate of the Air Force Academy and the air force's test pilot program, a veteran fighter pilot and the pilot of the flying saucer that had made such a splash last year, she believed she deserved this job, so the sneering hurt. It also immunized her against second thoughts about Rip. She was going to do this or die trying.
The chief pilot on the first mission was a man, Jean-Paul Lalouette. He was five or six years older than Charley and seemed to share the condescending opinion of the American newspaper pundits, but he was too wise to let it show--very much. Charley picked up on it, though. She glanced at him now and saw he was wearing the slightest trace of a smile.
Lalouette and his male colleagues thought she should be very impressed with them. The fact that shewasn't didn't help their egos. "T.S.," Charley Pine muttered, which was American for "C'est la guerre."
After a couple of puff questions that allowed Charley to say nice, inane things about the French people and the lunar base project, the press zeroed in on Pierre Artois, to Charley's intense relief. She took several steps backward and tried to hide among the technicians she and Lalouette were flying to the moon.
Pierre obviously enjoyed the glare of television lights. A slight, fit man whose physical resemblance to Napoleon had occurred to so many people that no one remarked on it anymore, he looked happy as a man could be. And well he should, since he was making his first trip to the moon on this flight. His journey to the lunar base after years of promoting, cajoling, managing and partially financing--from his own pocket--the research and industrial effort made this appearance before the press a triumph.
Charley Pine didn't quite know what to make of Pierre, whom she had met on only three occasions. She had watched him in action on television for several years, though. The scion of a clan of Belgian brewers and grandson of the legendary Stella Artois, Pierre struck Charley as a man who desperately wanted to be somebody. An endless supply of beautiful women, a river of money and an exalted social position weren't enough--he had larger ambitions.
Charley had devoted ten seconds of thought to the question of what made Pierre tick, and concluded that the answer was beer. Every French farmer who ever squished a grape had more panache than Pierre did. France was all about wine, and Pierre was beer. Thistragedy fairly cried out for psychoanalysis by a topnotch woman--or even a man--but unfortunately Pierre hadn't bothered; like Napoleon, he had looked for a world to conquer. The French lunar expedition was his, lock, stock and barrel, and he was going to make it a success ... or else.
Despite Artois' love of the spotlight, Charley Pine admired him. Pierre Artois was a man who dreamed large. He dreamed of a French space program, with a base on the moon as a stepping-stone to Mars, which he defined as a challenge worthy of all that France had been and could be in the future. He had fought with all the will and might of Charlemagne to make it happen. His vision, optimism and refusal to take no for an answer had triumphed in the end.
The real reason for the French space program, or indeed any space program, was that the challenge was there. The moon was there; Mars was there; the stars beckoned every night. Charley Pine believed that people needed dreams, the larger the better. Our dreams define us, she once told Rip.
What a contrast the dreamer Pierre Artois was, Charley mused, to the modern Americans. Somewhere along the way they had lost the space dream. Space costs too much, they said. NASA had morphed into a petrified bureaucracy as innovative as the postal service. These days Americans fretted about foreign competition and how to save Medicare--and who was going to foot the bill. Rip once remarked that the current crop of pennypinching, politically correct politicians would have refused to finance Columbus. Watching Artois, Charley knew that Rip was right.
The press conference was a photo op and nothing more. One of the American reporters asked about the fare-paying passenger Artois had agreed to take to the moon, one Joe Bob Hooker, who rumor had it was paying twenty-five million euros for his round-trip ticket. "This is a profit-making venture," Artois responded. "He paid cash." He refused to say more about his passenger.
"Your wife has preceded you to the moon, has she not?"
Ah, yes--true love on the moon. No fool, Pierre knew the media would play this story line like a harp. He glanced longingly at the ceiling, then said simply, "We will soon be together. I have missed her very much." He touched his left breast and added with a straight face, "She is the best part of me." Charley Pine nearly gagged.
After a few more one-liners for television and a pithy comment or two for the newspapers, Pierre led his crew off the stage.
Soon they began the suiting-up process, some of it filmed by a cameraman with a video camera. Then the crew boarded a bus for the two-mile journey to the spaceplane, which sat on the end of a twelve-thousandfoot runway. The bus had to travel a hundred yards or so on a public highway, one lined with the curious and small knots of protesters with signs. Apparently even the Europeans couldn't do anything these days without someone complaining, Charley thought.
She found herself beside the American passenger, a stout man in his fifties. "You the American woman?" he asked.
Hooker's color wasn't so good.
"Glad you're going. Nice to have somebody to speak American to."
"'Bout had it up to here with the frogs."
"They kept you busy, have they?"
"Like a hound dog with fleas. You can really fly this thing?"
"No. I'm a Victoria's Secret model that Artois hired when he found he couldn't afford the real Charlotte Pine."
Hooker gave her a sharp look and said nothing more.
After a glance out the window she concentrated on lowering her own anxiety level. This is just another flight, she told herself, just like all those flights in highperformance airplanes she made in the air force. More precisely, like those saucer rides with Rip Cantrell.
She was thinking of Rip when the spaceplane came into view. Jeanne d'Arc. She had explored every inch of the craft during training and spent several weeks in the simulator, yet the sight of the ship sitting on the concrete under the floodlights, ready to fly, caused a sharp intake of breath.
She was really going to do it.
She was going to the moon!
I hope Rip is watching on television!
HE WAS WATCHING ON TELEVISION, OF COURSE. DUE to the time difference, it was early evening in America when the live coverage began. A dozen scientistscrowded around the television in the living room of the Missouri farmhouse with Egg and Rip.
"It'll be okay," Egg muttered to Rip, who didn't respond. He was intent on the television, listening to the commentator, ignoring everyone around him.
The countdown went smoothly. There were two minor holds, for only a few seconds each, and the commentator didn't give the reasons for either.
The spaceplane looked weird with the two huge external fuel tanks attached to its side. This particular ship, Jeanne d'Arc, was a proven platform, with three round trips to the moon already in her logbook. Rip thought about that now, reassuring himself that everything would go well, that Charley would come back safe and sound.
Still, better than anyone else in the room, he understood the dangers involved in space flight. Not to mention going back and forth to the moon. The French lunar project was mankind's biggest leap yet off the planet, akin to tackling the Atlantic in a rowboat.
His heart was pounding and he was covered with a sheen of perspiration when the first glimmer of fire appeared in the nozzles of the spaceplane's rocket engines. The flame grew steadily until it was as bright as the sun, overpowering the television camera's ability to adjust for light.
The roar came through the television's speakers, a mere shadow of the real thing. Still, it filled the living room and drowned out the last of the conversations.
The spaceplane began moving. Faster and faster, accelerating. The nose wheel stayed firmly on the runway as the ship accelerated past a hundred knots, then twohundred. A small number at the bottom of the screen reported its increasing velocity.
At 264 knots the nose rose a few feet off the pavement. At 275, the ship lifted off. Seconds later the landing gear began retracting.
The nose kept rising, up, up, up. The ship was exceeding four hundred knots when the nose reached fifty degrees above the horizon and the autopilot stopped the rotation.
Soon the fireball from the engines was all that could be seen on the screen.
It gradually became smaller and smaller as the sound faded ... until it was merely a bright point of light in the heavens.
The camera followed the light until it was out of sight, then returned to the tarmac. The cameraman focused on the spot where the spaceplane had begun its roll, a spot now empty.
"She's on her way," Egg said.
Rip Cantrell took a deep breath and exhaled very carefully. He surreptitiously wiped at the tears that were leaking down his cheeks. "Yeah," he whispered. "She's on her way."
INSIDE JEANNE D'ARC CHARLEY PINE MONITORED the instruments as the ship roared away from the earth. To her left Jean-Paul Lalouette was similarly engaged. Her duties were to bring any anomaly she noticed to his attention. Her eyes swept the panel again, looking for warning lights, errant pressures, a gauge indication that hinted something, anything was not as it shouldbe. Yet all was precisely as it should be, perfect, as if this were a simulator ride and the operator had yet to push a failure button.
Both pilots wore their space suits, complete with helmets, in the event the plane lost pressurization during launch. They planned to take them off after all the systems checks were completed in orbit.
The acceleration Gs felt good, pushing Charley straight back into her seat. The voices of the French controllers passing information about the trajectory and data-link information sounded clear and pleasant in her ears; the background was the low rumble of the rocket engines.
When the external tanks were empty, they were jettisoned explosively. The engines then began burning fuel from the internal tanks as the spaceplane continued to climb and accelerate.
Charley's eyes flicked to the windscreen, four inches of bulletproof glass. At this nose-up angle the night sky filled the windscreen, full of stars and a sliver of moon. As they climbed through the atmosphere the stars became brighter and ceased their twinkling, and the crescent-moon gleamed more starkly against the background of obsidian black.
She had little time to enjoy the scenery. The next task was rendezvousing with the orbiting fuel tank. She became engrossed in the problem, watching the display that depicted the spaceplane and the orbiting tank and the three-dimensional course to intercept.
When she realized that the join-up was working perfectly and Lalouette had everything under completecontrol, she glanced again at the moon. For some reason it seemed larger than it did standing on the surface of earth. Now it appeared as what it was, another world.
Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Coonts.