I first wrote this in 2006. I’ve updated it. In many ways, this story is the real beginning of Issyroo. It was the first time we discussed why Space was so important and where the present space program had gone wrong in our estimation. I had planned to write an entire novel on this theme, but realize that it is best as a short story.
“Granpa, Who’s this man?”
“Vikki, this is Mr. Abbott, and he is going up with us today. Be nice,” Granpa said as he adjusted the straps on Gene Abbott’s flight harness.
“But I thought Nana or Granma was going with us today. Nana promised not to barf and roll her eyes up in her head again,” Vikki said with an air of disappointment.
“Yes, Nana was suppose to go, but she said that Mr. Abbott could go in her place. She and Granma were going to gather herbs instead.”
Vikki sat back in her seat and let Granpa check her harness. He tugged the straps in place and then moved back to his own seat at the controls. She wasn’t happy about the new person sitting next to her, but she knew that if she complained too much, Granpa would just send her home. Unkky Eric was co-pilot today and he was in a grumpy mood. She could tell by the way his ears looked all red.
“Dan, is it safe for your granddaughter to be going up with us?” Gene asked. He looked around at the small craft only somewhat bigger than a minibus and was beginning to have doubts himself. Granted, he would have thought it all one hell of a practical joke if he hadn’t seen the photographs earlier in the week. He was curious and puzzled all at the same time. Gene still thought that the potted plant in the background of the space station morning footage had been some elaborate joke.
“Sure Gene. She’s gone up with me almost as much as Eric or Bill. Doesn’t get sick and the crew up at the space station loves her visits.” Dan smiled and started his pre-launch sequences.
“The Merry Mechanics are giving us the thumbs up Dan,” said Eric. He pointed out the window and waved at the three guys removing chocks and tags.
“Good. I want to get this stuff up to Boris and Joe before it cools off too much.” Dan patted a bag between the seats. The smell of cheeseburgers wafted out of the cracks in the thermo blanket wrapping up dinner from the local Wendy’s. Dan did a few small adjustments and settled in for the short flight.
“Granpa, can I plot the flight trajectories today?” asked Vikki.
“Of course. Just remember that we will double check them though,” he said as he passed her an android tablet. Vikki turned it on and started up a program that looked vaguely familiar. She started inputting numbers in various fields that Eric gave her slowly.
“Is that STK15?”
“It sure is Gene. Just got it the other day. I’ve had the beta version for months, but they finally got the bugs out of it. Vikki loves it, so we let her do the math and double check it before we input it in the flight computer,” said Dan.
“Oh. okay. Sounds good,” he said as he watched Vikki work the tablet. He was still a tad uneasy and was trying to not let a ten year old be braver than he was.
Vikki saw him watching her and tilted the tablet towards his face. “This is how we go up. At the top of the arch is where Nana threw up last time. If you need to throw up, we have barf bags. Granma made them lavender scented so that they calm you down.” Vikki pointed to a pouch hanging from the back of Dan’s chair that held small cloth bags.
“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind. I usually don’t get airsick though,” admitted Gene.
“Nana does. She’s afraid of heights and so she tries not to watch when we leave the atmosphere. She gets better when the stars are all out though.” Vikki was very matter of fact about this. She went back to putting in numbers from a list at the side of the program.
Gene looked towards the displays in front of Eric and Dan. Most of them were modified flight control screens that you’d see in a high end computer driven flight simulator. There were surprisingly few actual knobs or buttons. The control yoke and a few levers were about the only hands on type controls he could see. Everything else seemed to be either displays or touch pads. He was also a bit concerned by the fact that there were no real ‘space suits’. He had noticed airlocks and seals that looked like they would do the job, but he was nervous. The suit Dan had given him seemed similar to what the shuttle astronauts wore, but he didn’t recognize the manufacturer.
“Hey Dan, who made the suits?” he asked.
“Oh. We have a family company that does them. Rose designed them and made up the prototype. Orphan Sewing does the actual production. Limited at the moment, but sales are looking up.”
“Don’t they do a line of children’s clothing?”
“Oh yes. That’s what the company started out as, but they do the suits for us. In fact, they do a lot of specialty sewing for Rose,” Dan said.
“Yeah! Nana had them make a special suit just for Granpa, with cool zippers. They were gonna use Velcro, but it sounded like farting.” Vikki piped up with this informations faster than Dan could turn around to stop her.
“Vikki, let’s not tell all of the family secrets, aye?”
“But Granpa, it’s really cool. And…..”
“Enough Vikki. Do you have those numbers for me?” Dan asked, his face tinged with red.
“Sure Granpa.” Vikki read off a string of numbers and Dan checked them off one by one.
“Shall we go?” asked Dan.
“Yes. That food is going to be cold, and you promised Mikki that you’d have her home in time for school on Monday,” Eric said as he started up a series of controls. “You know how peeved she got last time we were late.”
“Yeah, but it was a real celebration. Boris had just turned 35 and wanted to party,” said Dan.
Gene looked at the two men in front of him. He wondered just how long this charade would go on. There was no way this craft could ever get airborne let alone to the space station. He could feel a rumbling under his seat and yet still doubted that this was anything more than an elaborate hoax. The air around him started to circulate and his ears popped. The rumbling was getting louder. Almost a crump-crump noise.
“Hold onto your hats!” Dan called over the growing noise. He shifted his hands from yoke to levers and back. The craft started to shake and move. The crump noise became more of a vibration and suddenly Gene was pressed back in his seat. The craft accelerated and Gene saw the ground grow distant.
“Yeeeee-haw!” Dan said quietly under his breath. The craft was gaining altitude and moving fast towards the darkness of space.
“U-huh, u-huh. U-huh-uhuh-uhuh.” Eric hummed under his breath. His hands flew over the controls in a manner similar to a kid playing an X-box or Game boy.
Gene didn’t know what to think. This craft really was moving. Next to him, Vikki was humming away as her finger traced the flightpath. Her finger had almost reached the top of the curve when she turned to him.
“Mr. Abbott, you look sorta funny. Are you okay? Momma always told me to ask people if they are okay when they are with Granpa. He sometimes makes them act funny. Do you need a barf bag?”
Gene swallowed. He was not going to be sick. Especially not with Vikki looking like she was just sitting in a car without a care in the world. “I think I’ll be okay dear,” he said swallowing hard.
“Okay, but if you need it, grab one. It took Nana hours to clean up when she got sick. Granpa said she didn’t have to ’cause the Merry Mechanics clean planes. Granpa says Nana was stubborn and did it all herself. Granpa took her up to the mountains after she got done for a treat.”
“He did, did he?” asked Gene trying to distract himself from the flip-flops his stomach was attempting.
“Yes. Nana likes to go hiking. She and Granpa go hunting when they go camping. They make really good rabbit jerky,” she said.
“Yeah! Want some?” She started digging into a pocket on her flight suit.
“No thank you dear,” Gene said. He swallowed hard and tried not to look at the barf bags. He was determined not to be sick.
“Ooooooh! Look! Here come the stars!” Vikki pointed to the windows. She was bouncing up and down in her seat.
Gene looked up to see the sky darken and the stars begin to shine. He had seen this from countless shuttle missions via the on-board cameras, but he had never seen it for himself. “Oh my God. You,… you did it,” Gene gasped. His voice drifted off as he got lost in the sky opening up before him.
Dan and Eric smiled to one another. Once again, they had managed a miracle.
Twenty years before, Dan had chanced onto an engine design that used a combination of magnets and electricity. The prototype worked, but without funding, the designs sat on a shelf for ten years. In the meantime, working as a freelance engineer, Dan worked with various companies on projects that paid the bills yet left nothing for his dream engine. At a technology conference, he got an offer he couldn’t refuse. Even better in that he was able to not only fund his own research, but interested the company as well. The end result being that the plans came off the shelf and Dan stared Magna Plasmic Engines Inc.
Dan was also fortunate in that space travel was beginning to be taken over by private companies. Governments could no longer afford to try and keep up with the technology. This opened up opportunities that he and a few others couldn’t pass up. Investors were looking for projects and MPE Inc. fit the bill. Rose’s son Eric was one of the first to join MPE Inc. His skills as a pilot and computer geek meshed with Dan’s need for a test pilot who didn’t get upset at a computer glitch or error message. Better yet, he had the balls to fly some of the things Dan put together. Even when he blasted into the wall of the aircraft hanger, Eric laughed and asked how soon it would be before they could tackle the other wall.
Ten months ago, Dan, Bill and Eric took the first trip into low orbit. Three days later, they tested a higher orbit and ‘waved’ at the space station as they passed. Three days after that, using the public access channel, they spoke to the crew of the space station. Laughter and amazement passed through the atmosphere.
Six months later, the same crew made an excursion to the moon. Using waldo’s they picked up and bagged trash left by previous space flights. They also found equipment that they donated to the Smithsonian. The government in their gratitude arrested the three men and held them in jail for a week. That was the length of time it took to prove to the state department that they had no right to hold Commonwealth citizens. Rose and Nikki along with a bevy of lawyers badgered the government until they saw reason. Namely in the documentary proof given by both women. Emigration to the southern Commonwealth nations was a real boon to the family.
Three months passed while they perfecting a docking collar that matched the space station. Then Dan and Bill made their first run to the space station. The crew was delighted with the company and pizza brought by the two men. They managed to keep their jaunts hidden from the government agencies by the sheer luck of stumbling onto the satellite codes. They were able to skip between satellites and remain nearly undetected.
That was until Boris wanted to celebrate his birthday. Emailing Eric, he asked for chile with beans and vodka. The chile being something he had fallen in love with during a long vacation to the American Southwest. Dan and Eric laughed, thought it was a good idea and loaded up the space ship they had begun to call Fenris. As a joke, Eric grabbed one of Rose’s potted plants. Methane jokes abounded and diabolical plans to save the scrubbers on the air filter system began. It was also Vikki’s first trip.
Three days, two hangovers and a huge sack of empty cans later, Dan and crew made it home. Mikki’s ire over Vikki being gone that long made the men wince. However, it was all overshadowed a few days later when on world wide television the potted plant showed up in the background.
Dan cringed. Eric slapped his forehead and Boris lied. Badly. Finally, Dan called Gene and fessed up to having visited the space station with his experimental craft. They arranged to meet quietly and after a brief discussion, Dan offered to take Gene up on the next run.
Gene inspected the craft and figured it was still some hoax. He offered to go and held to his beliefs right up until take-off.
“Dan! Is good to see you!” Boris’ English suffered when he first woke up. He hadn’t expected them until much later in the week. He looked past Dan and saw Gene. He started to stammer and then froze.
“Hello Boris,” Gene said, enjoying for the moment the look of surprise on the astronauts face. “Is Joe asleep?” he asked.
“No. He is in the head. Shower day.” Boris nodded his head off to one side in the direction of the bathroom.
“Ah. Okay,” he replied. Gene was at a loss for what to say next.
“Hey Mr. Abbott! Move your butt! I can’t get in and I have a prezzie for Boris!” said Vikki. Vikki was pushing in from behind and almost knocked Gene head over heels. She had practice in zero gravity and he hadn’t.
“Vikki! Where are your manners?” asked Dan.
“Sorry Granpa,” she said. “Please move out of the way Mr. Abbott.” The sincerity was decidedly lacking from her request.
Dan gave his granddaughter a long look down his nose. She stuck her tongue out at him. Behind him Boris laughed. Dan threw up his hands, knowing that he’d lost this battle.
“Boris! I brought you a prezzie,” she said as she handed him a small flat package.
“Thank you little one.” Boris opened it slowly. You never knew with little girls what you would find in a prezzie. Inside a zip-lock baggie were strands of black licorice. Boris smiled. “Ah, you remembered!”
“Of course. Nana said you’d like this kind. It’s her favourite.” Vikki smiled at him and rocked back and forth on her toes, taking advantage of the lack of gravity.
“Tell Nana she is a beautiful lady and that I thank her very much.” Boris smiled.
“I will. Can I go play with the muscle machines?” she asked.
“Yes. Just remember that some of them are set for Joe,” cautioned Boris.
“I will. Joe is strong!” she said. With that, Vikki pushed along the upper pipes and headed for the weight room.
“Licorice? What other contraband have you brought up?” Gene asked as he was looking around getting aggravated.
“Gene, we have brought food, drink and computer parts. Nothing that is harmful. Oh….. that reminds me, I brought you lunch Boris,” said Dan. He reached back into the space craft and grabbed the thermal package.
“Oh goodness! Cheeseburgers! French fries! You are angel!” Boris exclaimed. He hugged Dan. “Joe! Good food! Our friends have brought us food!”
At this, a dark head came floating down into the bay. “Is that grilled meat and cheese I smell?” asked Joe.
“Wendy’s. Is that good?” asked Boris.
“Oh yeah! You guys are awesome. Did my girl come up?” he asked. Joe looked around and only saw the three men.
“She’s in the weight room,” Dan said as he handed out food. It was still warm.
Joe nodded and then asked, “And when is Rose coming back up?” He smiled knowingly at Dan.
Dan rolled his eyes. “She was suppose to come up today, but necessity made it Gene’s turn,” he admitted.
“Boris must be crushed to hear that,” said Joe.
Boris turned around at the sound of his name. “What? No Rose because of potted plant in camera shot? Because Gene had to come up here? Such frustration! Such sorrow. Let Rose know that I miss her.” Boris glared at Gene as he ate his burger.
Gene looked puzzled. “Isn’t Rose your… your…” He stumbled for the words as he looked towards Dan.
“She’s Dan’s partner. Don’t go calling her a wife unless you want your head taken off. However, before you trip on your tongue, she’s a flirt and Boris is smitten,” Eric smiled at Boris when he said this.
Boris sighed. “But, she is space sick too often. I tell her there is not enough meat on her bones and yet she is such a cuddly handful. I must wait till my replacement comes up. Then I will court her and steal her from you Dan!” he exclaimed.
“That’ll never happen. You’d just better get use to sharing her,” Dan said with a smile. “Even when she doesn’t plan it, she has ‘Flirt with Me’ written all over her.”
Everyone but Gene was laughing at this. They obviously knew Rose far better than he did. Conversation ground to a halt as the fast food was consumed by the two crewmen.
After the food was eaten, Eric started to collect trash and other bits that Joe and Boris wanted taken down. MPE Inc. had been hauling trash for the space station almost from the very beginning. Dan unloaded the other supplies that had been in the Fenris. Computer parts, comfort foods and little things like books. Gene watched this parade of stuff go back and forth and wondered just what it was that the governmental space program had missed so horridly. He also watched Vikki bounce off the walls and bring smiles to the men with her giggly antics.
“Time to leave Vikki,” said Dan.
“Oh Granpa, why can’t we stay longer?”
“You know why. Resources. Oxygen. Water. Energy,” he reminded her.
Vikki sighed. She hugged Joe and Boris goodbye and waved as she floated back into the Fenris. She got strapped in and waited for the rest of them.
“Goodbye Boris, Joe. See you next week,” Eric said. He joined Vikki in the space craft.
“I’ll see you from mission control if I can ever explain this,” Gene said shaking his head. How he was going to explain this was going to take a lot. Maybe more than his job was worth. He’d better have some good ideas by the time he got dirt-side.
“Goodbye you two. See you next load. Bill might come up as Rose has another grandbaby due soon. She’ll want me there for the birth.” Dan shook hands and moved towards the doorway.
“Good trip. Give my love to your family and Rose,” Boris said. He waved as did Joe and then shut the door connecting the two ships.
On the way home, Vikki hummed quietly to herself as she played with the tablet. She wasn’t as concerned with numbers this time around. Boris had given her a Russian version of solitaire to play. In Russian. Cyrillic alphabet no less.
“Dan, I know you didn’t bring me along just to get your ass out of hot water. Care to explain?” asked Gene.
“Gene, Before the rest of the private industries blow you out of the water, I wanted to show you where the space program went wrong. At least in my estimation.”
“What do you mean?”
“You and all of the men in the space programs had this great vision. These grand dreams of exploration. You got all of us on the planet excited and then stopped. For nearly forty years you sat on your hands. Teased us with new ideas or concepts. You dazzled us with new space crafts and promised missions. And yet, when taken as a whole, it was nothing but hot air. Every program you touted to the limit was castrated by the time it went into production. That space station is a prime example. Half the stuff promised was never delivered because of short changing the budget. Narrow-minded budget specialists stripped an eagle and turned it into a chicken. Anyone who stood up to you was canned, or dropped out of the program on the least excuse. Anyone who thought out of the space program’s box was gotten rid of.” Dan took a sip from a cup, checked his headings and turned back to Gene.
“Most of all, you forgot that it was suppose to be fun. An adventure. People didn’t sail the seas in tall ships just to get from port to port. They did it for the excitement of feeling the salt spray on their faces or to see the stars at night. You took us to the moon and then slammed the door. It would have been better to never have gone than to meter out this painful diet for the last forty years.” Frustration coloring his words.
Gene looked at the passion in his face. He thought about what Dan said and sat there quietly. “You’re right. And I’m as guilty as the next.”
“Private industry hasn’t forgotten it is meant to be fun. That is why they have been fighting tooth and nail to fill the gap. That’s why I’m a part of it. It’s why I’ll risk my neck to pick up trash off the moon or deliver pizza to the space station.”
“Is that why you bring Vikki with you? Or Rose?”
“Yes, because sometimes you just need a giggle in space.” Dan turned back to the controls and helped Eric on the decent into the atmosphere.
Gene thought about all that had been said as they descended to the ground they left so many hours ago. Climbing out of the craft, he handed a sleeping child to her Unkky Eric.
Dan walked him to his car. “What are you thinking?”
Gene turned and leaned against his car. “I was trying to figure out what to say to my boss in the morning as I tendered my resignation. I was also trying to figure out how to wrangle a job with MPE Inc.”
Dan smiled. “See you after you hand in that resignation. Rose will have all the paperwork ready.”
Gene got in his car and smiled for the first time in a long while.