1. Joe309
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    Onward Ancora

    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by Joe309, Nov 19, 2013.

    In the domed city of Stavenport, a crowd had gathered in front of the home of a family of the privileged class. Anxiously, they waited for news concerning the governor of the planet Ancora, Mathew Senn. Standing under a starry sky, women wept openly while men stood in somber silence.


    A detachment of Stavenport’s finest, in dress uniform, guarded the doorway like opposing chessboard pieces. Two additional officers, in duty uniform, stood at the curb, ready to greet invited guests and VIPs.


    Kelvin Stephenson draped his arm around Laura Jasper’s shoulder. Whispering a bit too loudly, he said, “I’m sad for Governor Senn and his wife.”


    Laura responded, “If it weren’t for him, Ancora would be at war with Prospero. Did you hear about that new export tax?”


    “It’s just another example of Prosperan oppression.” Kelvin gestured beyond the clear dome toward the horizon. “Ah, there it is. I’ve been waiting for that all day.”


    Laura craned her neck to see. Others in the gathering observed the skyline, and suddenly, the universal, implicit vow of silence collapsed and many chatted among themselves.


    What Kelvin was talking about was the rare alignment of Ancora’s moon, Mobius with its yellowish-white sun, Rigil, and its orange-yellow companion, Actaeon. On Earth, they called the twin stars Alpha Centauri A and B. The eclipses and shimmering colors made it an astonishing sight.


    “This will not occur again during our lives,” said Kelvin. “Doesn’t it make you feel tiny and insignificant?”
    “It happens every eighty years,” said Laura. “I’d like to think that we will live to see it again.”


    Unexpectedly, the crowd shifted, and Kelvin and Laura stepped out of the roadway to allow a sedan to pull up to the curb. An officer opened the gullwing door, and an elegantly dressed man stepped onto the walkway. It was the well-known, evangelist, Lawrence Siason.


    The reverend stopped and gazed in wonder at the sky. “Lord,” he thought, “if you’re taking Mathew to your side, you couldn’t have picked a better night.”


    * * *


    The Senn family home was a marvelous architectural aggregation of heavy masonry. Romanesque columns supported the front porch, which was festooned with flowers. The reverend stepped through ornately carved doors into a grand parlor where a group of dignitaries and officials had gathered, sipping warm beverages, and snacking on pastries.


    He walked up the curved, grand staircase, holding on to the balustrade. On the wall to his right were tall, Renaissance style paintings of Mathew and Kathryn’s ancestors. In the master bedroom, keeping a solemn bedside vigil, were the governor’s wife, Kathryn; his son, Troy; his physician, William Pierce; and the Stavenport police chief. Behind the assemblage, David Cordes, lieutenant governor of Ancora, paced back and forth, exchanging verbal messages with assistants. Kathryn eyed him suspiciously.


    As Reverend Siason approached, everyone except Kathryn stepped aside. For nearly a minute, he stood next to the bed, solemnly gazing at the governor. He put his hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Kathryn, that I could not arrive while Mathew was conscious. I wanted him to pray with me, to get ready to appear before his Judge.”


    Kathryn sobbed loudly, and her son held her hand and wiped her tears.


    The reverend stroked his silvery beard. Pushing back the cape from his shoulders, he prayed over Mathew Senn. “Dear Heavenly Father, holy and full of grace, we come to you with heavy hearts. A life is leaving us. Death surrounds him. Take the hand of our dear brother, Mathew, and bring him to the promised land.”


    Finally, Doctor Pierce pronounced Ancora’s first governor, Mathew Senn, dead. He folded Mathew’s hands over his chest.


    Siason took a small bottle from his pocket and applied oil over the governor’s eyes. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me…”


    Meanwhile, David Cordes, now the new governor, continued his muted conversations, much to the consternation of others in the room. Kathryn tried to pay him no heed.


    When he completed his prayer, Reverend Siason held Kathryn’s hand and kissed it lightly.


    They placed the body on a gurney and covered it with a sheet. They moved it down the stairs and outside through the crowd to a waiting hearse. Slowly, it traveled to the Stavenport Funeral Home while mourners, Kelvin and Laura included, followed on foot.


    When the governor’s body was gone, Kathryn sat in the bedroom alone, staring at an empty bed.


    “Why don’t you get some sleep?” asked the reverend.


    “Oh, Larry, I didn’t know you were standing there.”


    “Mathew is in a much better place. Be glad for him.”


    “I’m worried, not for me, but for everyone. Will you pray for us, the citizens of Prospero and Ancora?”


    Siason looked around. “Very well.” He cleared his throat. “Our Father and our God, we praise You for Your goodness. The peoples of Ancora and Prospero profoundly need moral and spiritual renewal. Grant them wisdom to discern light from darkness. Endow them with courage and strength to preserve the peace. Give our new governor, David Cordes, your blessings. Give him the insight to know what is right, and give him the courage to do it. May he usher in a new era for Ancora. This we pray in Your holy name, Amen.”


    * * *


    Kathryn Senn checked her alarm clock for the twentieth time. It was 5 o’clock, and the sun had not yet risen. She knew she had a busy day ahead of her, but she had not taken the sleep aid Dr. Pierce had given her. She had not slept a wink, not without Mathew beside her. She cried quietly, “Oh, Mat, why did you leave me? What am I supposed to do now?”


    She lumbered to the bedroom door, and it slid open. Family members, housekeepers, local officials, and people she didn’t recognize moved about the house. She did not consent to this intrusion, but she understood that someone had to organize the governor’s funeral. She observed the commotion with detachment. Without her husband, the big house felt strange like she didn’t belong.


    While she had her morning toast and tea, she watched a video news program. As she had expected, Mathew was headline news. Politicians and common citizens hailed him as a model public official. The news commentator said that the cause of the governor’s death was unknown, that there were theories about how he had died. He said that Mathew Senn had bequeathed a sum of money to Ancora’s three cities, Stavenport, Hammton, and Jenkinsville for educating young Ancorans in the sciences. This she knew; she had helped Mathew set up the fund. However, she was astounded when the reporter said that President Talbert had announced that Prospero would honor Mathew by erecting a statue of his likeness. “That duplicitous son of a bitch,” she said.


    While she sat, the funeral director arrived to help her select her husband's burial clothing. She found the process distasteful, but she handled it as best as she could.


    The coroner, Steven Odel, a man that Mathew had detested, paid her a visit. “Madam Senn,” he said, “I know you had given instructions that you didn’t want an autopsy. That is your privilege as first lady, but I ask you to reconsider. The governor’s death was most unusual.”


    “No, I will not subject the people of Ancora and my family to any more pain and anguish. What is done is done.”


    The doorbell rang seemingly continuously. There was a never-ending stream of flowers, gifts, and messages of condolence from all over Ancora and from Prospero. She answered them all personally. To Malcom Talbert, President of Prospero, she wrote, “Your Honor, thank you for the letter that you have so thoughtfully sent me. I am immensely grateful for your heart-felt compassion, for your understanding of the deep grief and sorrow that I feel.”


    While she was writing, a housekeeper handed her an envelope. In it was Mathew’s death certificate – signed by Dr. Pierce. The cause of death was a brain hemorrhage. Kathryn sighed and let the document fall into her lap.


    Determinedly, she returned to her bedroom. She took a metal box from the uppermost shelf and opened it. “Yes, there they are,” she whispered. “Mathew, they are all here.” She put the box under her arm and walked to her husband’s office down the hall. In a corner, next to other office equipment was a disintegrator whose primary purpose was to destroy sensitive information. She placed the contents of the box into the unit. Before she started the device, she reached in and rummaged through the contents. She pulled out a memory storage unit containing Mathew’s letters and stuffed it into her bosom. This she could not destroy even if faced with death.


    * * *


    That evening, Kathryn and Troy stood by as pallbearers carried Mathew’s casket into the home. The coroner and the physician, assisted by Reverend Siason, laid the coffin in the parlor.


    Siason was about to open the coffin, when Kathryn said, “No, don’t open it now.”


    “The people are outside, waiting to see the body.”


    “I just can’t bear to look at Mathew’s face, not now.”


    * * *


    Citizens and dignitaries from the cities of Jenkinsville and Hammton traveled to Stavenport to attend the ceremonies honoring the memory of the late governor, Mathew Senn. Rigil had just dipped below the horizon, and people began to form long lines to view the body in the darkened room.


    Kelvin held Laura’s hand. “I wonder what happened to Jake. Why isn’t he here?”


    “He’s attending to his rocket,” said Laura. “Perhaps, that is what you should be doing. Takeoff is in less than three hours.”


    “My spacecraft is ready to go, but attending this viewing is more important than any shipping contract. Governor Senn was a great man. We should pay our respects. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t defend Jake. He just doesn’t like to stand in line.”


    “Kel, have you listened to the news reports? They say Mathew Senn’s death was suspicious.”


    “I know, Laura, the governor’s wife doesn’t want an autopsy. Some say that she doesn’t want to stir up trouble, that she probably knows how he died.”


    “Perhaps, she is doing the right thing. I hate to think about the alternative.”


    * * *


    In the study of the Senn home, isolated from the endless procession of mourners, sat Jaska Rasimus, mayor of Stavenport, capital city of Ancora, official seat of planetary government, center of learning, education, and wealth. He picked up a photograph and gazed at it absently; it was Mat and Kathryn at their wedding. He sipped a drink and impatiently glanced at the wall clock. “Where the hell are they?” he thought.


    The door to the study whisked open.


    “Sorry, I am late, Jaska,” said Belinda. “I was detained on important matters.”


    He took her hand. “Belle, you’re still the loveliest mayor on Ancora.”


    “Why do you always say that? You know I am the planet’s only female mayor, you rascal. And, please don’t call me Belle.”


    “Sorry, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the old days.”


    “We did have some fun back then, if your wife only knew,” she laughed.


    Belinda Bots was mayor of Jenkinsville, manufacturer of steel, metals, and consumer goods. It was also famous for its gambling halls and brothels. Belinda got her start as a massage therapist. Her influential contacts had helped her to ascend social and political ladders. One her closest friends was Jaska Rasimus.


    “By the way,” said Belinda, “where is Otto?”


    “He’s probably digging potatoes,” he chuckled.


    “I heard that!” said Ottavio, throwing his jacket. “Have you two been canoodling again behind my back?”


    She giggled. “Yes, indeed, we were, Otto, but now that you’re here, we can have a threesome.”


    Ottavio Lombardo was mayor of Hammton, a farming community, the producer of fruits, vegetables, and grains.


    The three laughed then moved to a table in a corner.


    “I received a message from the Prosperan chief justice, Valeria Mironova,” said Jaska. “She is en route to Ancora, but she is going to be late.”


    Belinda asked, “Is she reliable?”


    “Don’t worry; she is as judicious in her conduct and speech as she is in her courtroom.”


    “Does she have any idea about how Mathew died?” asked Otto.


    Jaska looked into his glass. “I think she has evidence, but we must wait for her to get here and tell us herself. I believe that is the sole purpose of her spaceflight. She could easily have backed out of the funeral.”


    Ottavio whispered, “In my view, Mathew’s death strongly implicates President Talbert. Those Prosperan aristocrats wheedled the public into electing him, last year, on a platform of Ancoran order and submission.”


    “A lot of people suspect that he is guilty,” said Belinda, “but if Jaska is right then only the judge can prove it.”


    “Why did Mathew choose David Cordes as his lieutenant governor, anyhow?” asked Ottavio.


    Jaska said, “Cordes was a close friend of Talbert, who was a prominent member of parliament.”


    “Cordes is a sleaze; nobody trusts him. How did he become a colonist? He must be the oldest living person on Ancora.”


    “On Earth, Cordes had money and influence. When he was sixty, even though he was a health risk, he managed to finagle his way onboard the Endurance. Not long after arriving at Prospero, Cordes’ life signs were irregular, so the crew attempted to revive him. It was touch and go, but they succeeded. He recovered and settled on Prospero. Meanwhile, the Endurance had set off for Aeolus without him.”


    “Governor Senn tried hard to work with President Talbert’s coalition. He had several long-standing issues with the Prosperan government, all of them pending, unanswered, or totally ignored.”


    Belinda frowned. “What about this new export tax? What are Talbert’s reasons for it?”


    “The tax is for expenses incurred by Prosperan law enforcement and defense,” said Jaska.


    “We don’t have any crime to speak of; Ancoran police guide traffic and stand at school crossings. And, who is this unseen enemy from whom we need to be protected – Aeolus?”


    “Hardly, we have too many friends on that planet. Think about it,” said Otto.


    Jaska said, “Talbert has heard the persistent talk on Ancora about autonomy and self-reliance. His troops would discourage such sentiments. Indeed, soldiers could arrest troublemakers.”


    “Like us,” said Belinda.


    “He probably thinks that with Mathew Senn out of the way, leadership for such a movement would be absent.”


    “Well, he is utterly mistaken.”


    At that moment, a housekeeper entered and handed Jaska a note. He read it, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes.


    “What’s wrong, Jaska?” asked Belinda.


    Ottavio grabbed the note. “Oh, my god!”


    “What is it, Otto?”


    “The spaceship carrying Chief Justice Valeria Mironova was struck by a meteoroid. There were no survivors.”


    Jaska said, “And so it begins.”


    * * *


    Kelvin waited for the airlock door to open. Even though he had stood there many times before, his ears popped as they always did. There were many things going through his mind, the contract, the race, and the pre-flight check. Did he forget anything? Most of all, will Laura meet him as she had promised? Finally, the air pressure equalized and the door opened. Kelvin pushed his fingers through his hair, took a deep breath, and put on his biggest smile.


    In the center of the Veranda, Laura Jasper sat alone on the low stone wall encircling the fountain, gazing at the granite likenesses of Arthur Staven, captain of the Starship Endurance, and his bridge crew. Two hours had passed since the last of the viewers had departed the Senn home. A pall hung over the Veranda. Workers quietly hung banners and flags over the surrounding shops while others arranged flowers around the square. Laura leaned forward, pick up a daisy, and looked around nervously. When she saw Kelvin, she dropped the blossom and waved.


    Relieved, Kelvin ran to her, clasped her arms, and kissed her. “Laura, I’m so glad you’re here. Today is the big day. I’m off to Mobius.” He gestured toward the sky.


    “You’re late, as usual.”


    “I was working on my ship.”


    “I can scarcely believe it, Kel. I am glad for you, but I’m worried too. You’ve never done anything so dangerous.”


    “Why, Laura, I’m disappointed, I’m hurt. I thought that you had confidence in me. I’ve worked and trained for this moment since I was a child. I cannot possibly fail.”


    “Kel, I don’t care if you get that shipping contract or not. The moon will always be there and your whole life is ahead of you.”


    “This is my life, Laura; it is what I want to do. It is in my blood, in every cell of my body. I refuse to hunker down in this cave colonists call home. I’m not a miner, and I am not a farmer. I have big dreams and a life of my own; I want to live out among the stars.”


    Laura flung her arms around him, trembling.


    “There, now, Laura, don’t cry.” He held her face in his hands and kissed her again.


    “How can you be sure that those engine modifications will work? Jake’s ship is faster than yours.”


    “I know what the Avenger can do. That is why I have outfitted the Nemesis with full flow turbo pumps. The Nemesis runs cooler than the Avenger does, and it has greater thrust. Before Jake reaches low orbit, I will be half way to Mobius.”


    “The G-forces will be tremendous. You will black out.”


    “You observed my training. I spent hours in the centrifuge. I am in much better physical shape than Jake will ever be, and I am going to wear that G-suit I had modified.”


    “But, Kel, that suit is an antique, and so is your ship.” Laura stepped back and looked over Kelvin’s shoulder. “Hi, Jake, what are doing here?”


    “I came here to wish buddy boy good luck. He is going to need it.”


    Kelvin grimaced. “Jake, I told you never to call me buddy boy. I do have a name.”


    “Okay, Kel, have it your way.”


    “You’re going to need some luck, as well. Sam Jasper is competing for the contract too.”


    Laura said, “My dad is not going to let two youngsters win that shipping contract.”


    “There is absolutely no way that your dad or this kid’s hunk of junk is going to beat the Avenger to Mobius,” said Jake. “She is just too fast.”


    “Hey, wait a minute, calling me a kid is one thing, but calling the Nemesis a hunk of junk is hitting below the belt.”


    “Ha! That bucket of bolts will never get off the launch pad. It will fizzle like a Roman candle, and I will be laughing my ass off.”


    Kelvin reddened. “Okay, Jake, you’ve had your say, now, say goodbye and move along.”


    Laura glared at Kelvin. “Kel, I didn’t know that you could be so rude!”


    Jake leaned into Kelvin. “Yeah, you’re quite impolite, you and your whole ill-mannered family. Now, step aside, I want to talk to Laura.”


    Kelvin pushed back. “Laura and I were having a private conversation until you butted in.”


    “Don’t you touch me, buddy boy! Laura is a free woman. I don’t see a ring on her finger.” Jake shoved and Kelvin lost his footing.


    “You’ve insulted me and my ship, but when you verbally abuse my family, you’ve gone too far!”


    “Yeah, what are you going to do about it?” He pushed Kelvin once more.


    Kelvin widened his stance and angled his body away from Jake. He raised his hands, palms out, at neck level, covering his head and vital organs. “Calm down, Jake. You have a choice. Make the right one.”


    Jake’s face turned white and he gritted his teeth and dropped his chin. “You god-damned idiot!”


    “That is a typical adrenal response. Come on, Jake. Compose yourself.” Kelvin prepared himself for a strike.


    Jake attempted a right hook to the head, but Kelvin blocked it. He braced himself and Jake took another swing. Kelvin knew that once an attacker’s adrenalin had surged, he was not likely to back down. In a split second, he decided to take a pre-emptive strike and walloped Jake in the jaw, hoping to disable him and allow him time to reconsider his actions.


    Disoriented, Jake raised his arms again. Kelvin did not wait for Jake to regain his momentum and delivered rapid strikes to the chin and neck, forcing Jake back.


    Spectators had gathered and Laura screamed, “Stop it!”


    Jake fell on his back and Kelvin executed a knee drop to the chest. Jake gasped and curled into a fetal position.


    Laura screamed and knelt next to Jake, taking his head into her arms.


    “I only knocked the wind out of him. He will be okay.”


    “You almost killed him, you beast!” She kissed Jake on the forehead.


    Jake looked up at Kelvin and smiled.


    Laura glowered, “Kel, don’t you ever call me again!”


    “Very well, I will leave you two alone, you deserve one another,” and he stormed toward the airlock.


    * * *


    Kelvin's heart pounded in anticipation. He adjusted his facemask and leaned backward in order to get a total view of the rocket. The Nemesis stood regally on the launch pad, its bow pointed majestically toward the black sky.


    Peeking over the rim of the crater was the star, Actaeon, burnishing the haze to a dull yellow. It was about as bright as the moon on Earth. Its big sister, Rigil, was right behind it, ready to scorch the gravel and rock around him.


    Samuel Jasper and Jake Hardwick were not going to beat him to Mobius, Ancora’s moon, and claim the prize. Kelvin had worked through the night fine-tuning the rocket engines. He had adjusted the full flow turbo pumps until he couldn’t possibly get more mass to run through them. The hard part was keeping the temperature down. His only concern was that the improved acceleration would put enormous strains on the hull and his body. Nevertheless, he was prepared. He had reinforced the hull and had taken out unnecessary equipment to save weight. His daily training in the centrifuge was going to pay off, and he had tweaked his high-G space suit. No matter what, Kelvin Stephenson was going to win that shipping contract.


    He listened appreciatively as the engines hummed a low dissonant harmony that vibrated the ground beneath his feet. A mist enveloped the spaceship, summoning him, no, daring him to board her. Kelvin took a deep breath and stretched his arms.


    A lone technician stood next to the gantry elevator, looking anxiously at the skyline. Once Rigil came over the horizon, surface temperatures would be intolerable. He turned quickly toward Kelvin and signaled to him, urging him to hurry.


    “This is it,” he whispered. “I'm going to do it.”


    Inside Kelvin’s helmet, the headphones crackled. “Kel, can you hear me?”


    “Laura, what are you doing here?”


    “I came to assist with the launch.”


    “I thought that you didn’t want to speak to me anymore.”


    “You are going to kill yourself. You know that.”


    “No, this rocket is the reason that I live. Anyway, shouldn’t you be worried about Jake? I thought you were in love with him.”


    “Jake was never in any danger. He was on his feet before you reached the airlock.”


    “I knew what I was doing when I hit him, Laura. Where is he, anyway?”


    “He will be here shortly, I am sure. Kel, your mother is lying on her bed, sobbing.”
    “She sent you here, didn’t she? You can tell her not to worry. I will pay her back – every penny – with interest.”


    “It isn’t money that worries her. You are her youngest son, her pride and joy. Don’t do this to her.” She lowered her voice. “And, please, don’t do this to me.”


    “You said I was a monster.”


    “I said that you were a beast, and you are.”


    “Okay, so I am a beast, now, please leave, the rocket blast will ruin that pretty dress of yours.”


    “No, Kel, as long as you are aboard that ship, I’m staying in the control room.”


    “I will be gone for three days, maybe four.”


    “I don’t care; I am not going home.”


    “Let's go, Mister Stephenson,” said the tech. “We don't have all day.” He looked over his shoulder. “It’s going to get hot real soon.”


    Kelvin climbed aboard the launch tower elevator. “Look, Laura, I’m committed. I paid the launch fee, and it is not refundable. When I return to Ancora, I will have that shipping contract in my pocket, so go home.”


    When the lift stopped, the tech grabbed Kelvin’s gloved hand and guided him onto the ramp that led to the bridge. As he neared the end of the walkway, Kelvin stopped and gazed at Jake Hardwick’s ship, the Avenger, on launch tower number 2. There, on the ramp, wearing a yellow jumpsuit was Jake, pointing at Kelvin, laughing.


    Kelvin glared at the spectacle.


    Jake cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, “Hey, buddy boy, what’s that outfit you’re wearing? Can’t you take a lousy three Gees? Holy crap, get a load of that bucket of bolts! You call that a spacecraft? Oh, my god, this is going to be an easy race!”


    “In a few minutes, you’ll be laughing from the other side of your face – buddy boy, indeed!”


    Kelvin climbed onto the flight deck, scooted around the center console, and settled into the commander's seat. The Nemesis normally seated four crewmembers – two pilots and two mission specialists, but Kelvin had removed the two rear seats. He attached his G-suit D-rings to the seat harness and connected the biotelemetry cable. He pushed a button and the chair reclined.


    Above him, the fire from Rigil interrupted his concentration. He dimmed the three forward windows and began his pre-flight check.


    Behind him, the hatch slammed shut with a loud clang.


    “Kelvin, this is Jake, can you hear me?”


    “Oh, so now, it’s Kelvin.”


    “There is nothing quite like the thrill of a race, is there?”


    “Yes, Jake, piloting a spacecraft out of a planet’s gravity, into the void, well beyond the speed of sound, squashing your organs, and pressing your face against your skull. There is no experience quite like it.”


    “You’ve always had a way with words, buddy boy.”


    “And you have quite a punch, Jake.”


    “I tried not to be too rough with you last night.”


    “Thank you for permitting me to escape your wrath.”


    “You’re welcome. Hey, Kel, have you noticed that Sam Jasper didn’t show? There is no ship on pad 3.”


    “I heard that he was taking off from the other side of Ancora.”


    “Really? That is going to cost him time and fuel. He must be absolutely certain of himself.”


    “Of course, what sort of a threat could we be? We’re just two snot-nosed kids, and he is a seasoned spacer.”


    “He is also going to launch in the dark.”


    “That’s Sam Jasper’s style.”


    “Hey, I heard that,” said Laura. “What are you two implying?”


    “Oh, nothing,” said Kelvin. “It’s just that your dad has been known to do things beyond reason at times.”


    “Daddy will tackle any endeavor, and he will work relentlessly until he wins. He is a man of his word.”


    Jake said, “If you’re going to make a contract with Sam Jasper, you’d better analyze it very carefully and figure out what those words really mean.”


    “That’s why he is called the most successful litigant on Ancora,” said Kelvin. “His business agreements are always interpreted to his advantage.”


    Laura responded, “He is smart businessman, that’s all. You two could learn a lot from him.”
    Jake said, “Of course, Laura, those dumbfounded and beat-up partners he left on the roadside, they learned a lot, I am sure.”


    “Will you two leave my dad alone? Don’t you have flight checks or something?”


    “I’ve done my flight check a dozen times. I’m ready to go, and you, Jake?”


    “I was ready to go last week, and I slept like a log last night, how about you, buddy boy?”


    “I’m just peachy, and I will feel even better when I win that contract.”


    “This is Stavenport Launch Control calling the Avenger and the Nemesis. Are you ready for take-off?”


    “Roger, Avenger is ready.”


    “Nemesis is ready and waiting.”


    “Your launch is T-minus three minutes and counting. Both ships will launch at the same time.”


    “What about Sam Jasper’s ship, is he launching at the same time?” asked Kelvin.


    “You mean the Stardust,” said Laura. “It launched several minutes ago from the night side of Ancora. It is in low orbit waiting for your takeoff. T-minus two minutes and counting.”


    Perspiration trickled down Kelvin’s face, but he had no way of wiping it beneath the faceplate. He gripped the joystick between his legs and moved his feet away from the rudder pedals.


    Ten seconds before liftoff, launch control severed all connections to the spacecraft and swung them away. Eight seconds before launch, Kelvin began the ignition sequence. A second later, the engines moved to liftoff position and ignited. At T-minus one, onboard computers confirmed thrust at 90 percent, and the tower’s hold-down arms released the rocket. Then, tapered metal pins pulling through dies slowed down liftoff. The Nemesis had passed the point of no return. If the engines failed now, it could not safely settle back down onto the pad.


    Ten seconds later, the Nemesis had cleared the tower. Because of the crater’s winds and updrafts, Kelvin yawed the ship two degrees to clear the tower safely. At an altitude of 150 meters, Kelvin moved the joystick slightly and rolled the rocket to the correct flight azimuth. Then, he pitched the ship down gradually to an angle calculated by the onboard computer that would compensate for prevailing winds. At the same time, the computer tilted the engines so that they would thrust through the rocket's center of gravity. His weight increased, but his G-suit compensated beautifully. At 1,600 meters, the Nemesis had achieved a speed of 100 meters per second. Kelvin’s safety harness dug into his shoulders. At just over a minute, when his altitude was nearing 6 kilometers, Kelvin heard a boom behind him, the signal that the Nemesis had broken the sound barrier. His vision blurred.


    From the ground, Laura saw a shock collar or condensation cloud forming around the bottom of the crew cabin. When the Nemesis had achieved maximum atmospheric dynamic pressure, or max Q, Kelvin throttled back to 70 percent. Then, keeping his eyes on the computer screens, he gradually increased acceleration to near maximum throttle as engine efficiency improved in the thinning air.


    At 170 kilometers, the Nemesis had achieved orbital velocity. For a minute, he thought the Nemesis was going to break apart, but she held together. Kelvin throttled back again. He signaled the computer to calculate the most fuel-efficient trajectory to reach the designated parking orbit around Ancora.


    As the spacecraft approached 180 kilometers, he announced, “Control, this is Nemesis, I have cut the engines. I am approaching parking orbit, ready for injection into trans-Mobius trajectory.”


    “Nemesis, stand by, there is a problem with the Avenger.”


    “What? What’s going on? What happened?”


    “Stand by, Nemesis.”


    “After what seemed like an eternity, his headphones shrieked, “Kel, this is Laura, Jake has experienced engine failure, and he has lost attitude control!”


    “Where is he?”


    “He is in a low equatorial orbit. You should be able to see his contrail.”


    “He can’t maintain that orbit; he is going to be incinerated.”


    Laura sobbed, “I’m afraid! Oh, Kelvin, you must do something! Please, help!”


    “I’ll contact him, out here.” He flicked a switch. “Avenger, this is Nemesis, are you in trouble?”


    “You asshole, this is just what you wanted, isn’t it?”


    “Jake, I had nothing to do with this.”


    After a minute of silence, Jake responded, “Okay, I’m through ranting. My orbit is decaying. I am going to die, and nobody can save me. I don’t want to burn up in the atmosphere. I’d rather die a fast, clean death.”


    “You’re not going to die, Jake. I’m coming to get you.”


    “Impossible, I don’t have a spacesuit.”


    “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.”


    “You have never even been in orbit, much less rendezvous with another spacecraft.”


    “I’ve had plenty of simulator training. It is an age-old technique from the days of the Gemini and Apollo missions. I will pilot the Nemesis to match your orbital plane and orbit phase and approach your ship from below.”



    “That could take hours, and I will be a pile of ashes.”


    “It should take me only a couple of orbits to gain on your ship. Control, how much time does Jake’s ship have before its orbit decays?”


    “The Avenger will dip into the atmosphere in 2 hours 5 minutes. Nemesis, your computer is not programmed for intercept and rendezvous. How do you propose to accomplish that, let alone get the pilot from his ship to yours?”


    “I haven’t figured that out yet. Send me the Avenger’s orbital elements and I will deal with it from there.”


    In seconds, Nemesis’ computer had the numbers it needed. Kelvin adjusted the spacecraft’s attitude, pointed the nose toward the horizon, and pushed on the joystick.


    “Control, this is Avenger, I’ve performed an inspection, and there is damage to the flight control system. I didn’t detect it during my pre-flight check.”


    “Avenger, this is Laura, the launch security people are reviewing their video logs.”


    “That’s going to comfort me while I am on fire.”


    “Jake, calm down, I’m coming, Nemesis, out.”


    Kelvin maneuvered the Nemesis into an orbit just below the Avenger. Using thrusters, he pushed his ship into an intercept course.


    Minutes later, a video screen displayed a white blip.


    Kelvin smiled. “Avenger, this is Nemesis, we are making a flyby. We will catch you on the next orbit.”


    “This is Avenger, roger.”


    At a precalculated moment, using his reaction control system, Kelvin gradually reduced the closure rate to 3 meters per second, and the Avenger appeared in the forward windows.


    “Avenger, this is Nemesis, I can see you, slowing to 0.03 meters per second… now matching your speed… Got it! Okay, I am aligning the hatch. Avenger, the Nemesis is in position.”


    “Kel, you are nuts. How am I supposed to get off this ship and into yours?”


    “Have you ever seen the movie, 2001 Space Odyssey?”


    “I did when I was in grade school. No, wait; tell me you don’t mean it, Kel.”


    “There is no other way. Either we do this or you die.”


    “Fine, okay, what do you want me to do?”


    “I’m going to depressurize the Nemesis then open the hatch. While I count down from 5, you take a deep breath then open your hatch, and the vacuum will suck you out. You jump into space and into the Nemesis. I will close the hatch and pressurize the cabin, very simple.”


    “But, my body will explode!”


    “That’s not true, Jake, you will be just fine. Your exposure to vacuum will be brief. There shouldn’t be a problem.”


    “How much time do we have before I ...”


    “About 1.5 minutes, but you will be aboard the Nemesis and safe in less than a minute.”


    “Okay, if you say so, I’m ready.”


    “One more thing, as soon as you open the hatch, I want you to exhale and empty your lungs, you got that?”


    “Got it.”


    Kelvin checked his space suit. “Here we go… commencing depressurization… 0.5 atmospheres…0.2… All right, cabin pressure is zero… opening the hatch… counting down… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… go!”


    The Avenger’s hatch exploded open, and a cloud of water vapor rushed out into space. In the midst of the whoosh was Jake in his bright, yellow jumpsuit, his eyes swollen, and his cheeks puffed out. He soared toward the Nemesis, missing the hatch with one leg dangling, frantically clawing his way into the cabin. Kelvin jumped to the opening and yanked him inside. He pulled the hatch closed then flicked a switch to begin pressurization. Kelvin flipped Jake’s weightless body over as it floated above the deck. He was unconsciousness from hypoxia, his eyes, mouth, and nostrils covered with frost. He steered him to the copilot’s chair and strapped him in.


    While Kelvin secured himself into his seat, Jake began to move. “Kelvin…”


    Kelvin removed his helmet. “You’re going to be okay, Jake.”


    “Nemesis, this is Control, status report.”


    “I have Jake Hardwick onboard. He is fine.”


    “Thank God!” screamed Laura. “Kel, you’re wonderful!”


    “Save it, Laura, we haven’t landed yet. You need to send me some numbers so I can bring this thing to the ground.”


    “Nemesis, this is Control, we are transmitting landing instructions. Also, while the launch security people were reviewing their video logs, they found something. An unknown person walked onto launch pad 2 at 0230 hours. He entered the bridge of the Avenger and exited a half hour later.”


    “That was fast. Have you identified him?” asked Jake.


    “Not yet, we are checking.”


    Jake said, “He was in my ship while the three of us were at the Veranda. Kel, I’m sorry I doubted you. Will you forgive me?”


    “Of course, don’t mention it, Jake.”


    * * *


    An alarm sounded on Kelvin’s instrument panel.


    “Nemesis, this is Control, Kel, we are receiving a low fuel warning from your computer.”


    “I see it, Control; it was okay a minute ago. Hold on, I am checking.” Kelvin scrambled out of his seat and drifted to the rear of the crew compartment. “Damn it, that’s impossible!”


    “What is it, Kel?”


    “We have a fuel leak in the OMS tank.”


    Jake said, “Two system problems on two ships, a strange coincidence.”


    Kelvin jumped back in his seat. “Control, our orbit is degrading. I am turning the ship around to fire the engines.”


    “Do we have enough fuel for that?”


    “We have no choice.”


    “We won’t be able to slow down enough.”


    “Control, stand by, we are coming in hot.”


    Laura said, “We are praying for you, Nemesis, good luck.”


    Kelvin fired the RCS thrusters until Nemesis traveled tail first. “I’m firing the main engines, hold on.”


    Pilot and co-pilot leaned into their safety harnesses. Several minutes passed, and the shaking and shuddering ceased, abruptly pushing Kelvin and Jake into their seat cushions.


    Again, Kelvin fired the thrusters until Nemesis glided nose first, entering the atmosphere at 40 degrees.


    “You’d better purge the leftover fuel from the forward RCS,” said Jake.


    “Good idea, we don’t need a fuel fire.”


    Outside the spacecraft, Hell’s fury raged with contempt.


    The vibration set Kelvin’s teeth chattering. “Hull temperature is approaching 2,000 degrees centigrade, my beautiful paint job…”


    “We are in ionization blackout, no radio for a while, Kel.”


    Outside, Nemesis’ skin burned with a diabolical rage. Bits of the forward nose and wing structures blackened and flew off, leaving a long, white, hot, smoky contrail, the bridal train of the Devil’s wife-to-be as she descended with an ear-shattering scream toward her lover.


    Kelvin and Jake looked at one another and smiled as if saying goodbye.


    Finally, after interminable minutes, the radio speakers crackled. “Nemesis, do you copy?”


    The men beamed with elation.


    “Roger, Laura, we have attitude control. We’re landing on the night side of Ancora.”


    “Yes, we see that. We have a problem; a big sand storm is brewing in the desert.”


    “Roger, there’s nothing we can do except land.”


    Jake said, “I hope you can land this thing.”


    “You and me both.”


    At 40 kilometers altitude, Kelvin said, “Maneuvering into a circular flight pattern.”


    At 1,500 meters, the forward windows darkened to a chocolate soup. Nemesis shook, pitched, and yawed violently.


    “She’s a fine ship!” yelled Jake.


    “We are making our final approach.” He steepened the angle of descent sharply to minus 20 degrees. With eyes glued on the instruments and video screens, perspiration flowed from his face as he struggled with the rudder pedals and joystick.


    Motors whirred as the landing gear extended, and the Nemesis shuddered and slowed dramatically.


    “600 meters.” He pulled up the nose, and the rate of descent dropped abruptly. The forward windows were completely black.


    “Wheels are down, applying speed brakes, deploying parachute.”


    The Nemesis came to a stop. Outside, powder and grit blasted the ship, the sand hissing as it scraped the hull.


    “Wow!” yelled Jake. “That was one heck of a flight!”


    “I’m glad that’s over, but I’m totally spent. Would you mind performing the shutdown procedures? We might be able to salvage the electronics later.”


    “Sure, Kel, I’d be happy to. You sit and rest. I’ll get you some water.”


    “Thanks, Jake.”


    They both laughed.


    * * *


    The spaceport control room was a flurry of activity with people running and shouting.


    Laura clasped her headphones, struggling to hear in the din. “Roger, Nemesis, just wait out the storm. It will be hours before we can get any aircraft to fly to your location. How’s Jake doing?”


    There was a long pause, and Laura’s face turned ashen. She had said the wrong thing at the wrong time. It just came out and she didn’t know how or why.


    Finally, her headset hissed. “Laura, this is Jake, I’m fine. Kel is exhausted from re-entry and landing; he’s resting.”


    “Thank you, Jake, out here.”


    “Wow, what an idiot I am,” she whispered to herself.


    Then, her headphones crackled. “Control, this is Stardust.”


    “Dad? Is that you? Where are you?”


    “Sorry about my radio silence, I’ve had some electrical problems. I have just been able to repair the trouble. Good thing I carry spare circuit cards. Hey, I think we have a saboteur in Stavenport. This could not have occurred by accident.”


    “Oh, Dad, I’m so happy to hear that!”


    “What? Say again; repeat your last transmission.”


    “I mean… I had doubted you… but not anymore, I’m sorry.”


    “You’ll have to explain that to me, honey.”


    Laura gave her dad the details of what had happened to the Avenger and the Nemesis. “We are still trying to identify the saboteur, and Kelvin and Jake are stranded on the night side of Ancora.”


    “There’s a sandstorm on that side of the planet.”


    “We know; we’re trying to dispatch aircraft.”


    “Laura, slow down, breathe calmly. This is your dad speaking. I will rescue Kelvin and Jake. I’ll stay in orbit until the storm blows over.”


    “Can you land in the desert?”


    “I don’t have one of those vintage ships, girl, this is state-of-the-art – vertical takeoff and landing; I do this all the time.”


    “Dad, you’re wonderful.”


    Kelvin called, “Stardust, this is Nemesis, how are you, sir?”


    “Kelvin, you and Jake sit tight. I will be there in a couple of hours.”


    “Jake and I want to apologize for the things we’ve said about you.”


    “It’s okay, son, don’t mention it.”


    * * *


    Laura waited anxiously as her dad’s ship approached. It came down on its tail. Through the smoke and flames, she could see the bold, proud words, Ancora Space Lifters, Inc.


    Before the elevator had reached the ground, Laura ran to the ship. She embraced her father while Jake and Kelvin observed. Then, she kissed Jake on the cheek, “I’m sorry, Jake,” she said with regret in her eyes.


    Kelvin, downcast, walked toward the terminal alone when suddenly, arms engulfed him as Laura’s lips meet his. “But, I thought…”


    “You thought wrong, mister.” Laura took his arm.


    Just as suddenly, Jake took his other arm, and the trio walked together, beaming.


    “What about your ships?” asked Laura. “The financial loss…”


    “Don’t worry,” said Kelvin, “your dad said he needed two good pilots, so he hired us.”


    “Before you go traipsing into the sunset,” said Sam, “let me remind you that a war is brewing.”


    Kelvin halted the group, took hold of their hands, and looked into their eyes. “The road ahead is uncertain, my friends, but we can take comfort in the fact that when one of us falls to the wayside, another will be there to offer support.”


    They stood in silence and met one another’s eyes.


    “Laura,” said Sam, “I have a question.”


    “What is it, Dad?”


    “After the sandstorm had died down, I spotted some unusual spacecraft at the Prosperan research center on the far side. They looked like transport vessels. Do you know why they are there?”


    * * *


    Kathryn Senn, dressed in a long, flowing, black dress and veil, stood on the walkway in front of her home on the Veranda. Standing beside her were Governor Cordes and the mayors of Stavenport, Jenkinsville, and Hammton along with legislators from Habers, the capital city of Prospero. The night sky was dark and menacing. She had hoped that the moon would provide some illumination, but she was disappointed. “How can anything be bright and cheery with Mat gone?” She thought. She was grateful that Ancoran custom dictated that public events were held after sundown. Although the city’s domes offered excellent protection from the sun, except for the young and hardy, the air was still unbearably hot during daylight hours.


    Townsfolk along with well-wishers from the cities of Jenkinsville and Hammton lined the streets. They were dressed in their best attire, and Kathryn’s heart was glad that the people loved and respected Mat so much. Most wore the customary colorful electric lights tied to decorative cords around their necks. Many also carried small Ancoran flags, which they waved proudly.


    Mayor Rasimus was the officiator for the funeral procession. Kathryn nodded to him, and the caravan started. The black, electric hearse, its hood displaying two banners with the gubernatorial seal, made one circuit around the Veranda and stopped in front of Kathryn and the delegates. They stepped aside as pallbearers brought out the flag-draped casket. Slowly, one step at a time, they marched to the hearse and respectfully placed the casket in the vehicle. Four police cyclists joined the motorcade with two escorting and two following, their flashing lights in discord with the spectators’ illuminations.


    The procession, followed by the VIPs, traveled at walking speed around the Veranda. The only sounds heard were the occasional cough and muted cries of babies.


    “I didn’t think this many flowers existed on the entire planet,” whispered Belinda.


    Ottavio responded, “We pulled every flower grown in Hammton’s greenhouses; I made sure of that.”


    “I thought they’d be here by now,” whispered Jaska.


    “Don’t worry, they will be here,” replied Ottavio, “and we are ready.”


    Belinda gasped and nodded her head toward a formation of soldiers approaching from a side street.


    There were more than fifty soldiers, all in dress uniform, carrying disruptor rifles at port arms. Gradually, imperiously, they encircled the town square while even more troops, these in battle dress, approached from another side street. This second group marched in a deliberate fashion, the rhythmic thumping of their boots echoing from the roof of the Veranda. All wore side arms. Most carried disruptor rifles with every fifth soldier carrying an ominous, unrecognizable crew-fired weapon.


    When the second force appeared, some onlookers scurried in all directions, but many held firm. Nevertheless, before they reached the square, a mass of citizens and police surrounded them, aiming handheld and shoulder-fired disruptors. The soldiers came to a halt, confused by the unexpected reception. At once, a larger number quickly exited shops and houses and converged on the Veranda’s epicenter with weapons trained on the soldiers encircling the square.


    Jaska said, “Excuse me, Madam Senn, I have a duty to perform.” He ran to the water fountain and stood on the low stone wall.


    “What is he doing?” asked Kathryn.


    A citizen handed Jaska a bullhorn while David Cordes pulled at him roughly. “This is treason. You will swing for this, Rasimus!”


    “No, Cordes, this is not treason; this is heroism.”


    “You will address me as Governor!”


    “You are governor of nothing, you murderer.”


    Kathryn heard, and her face darkened.


    Jaska turned to his followers. “Take him away. Bring him to the spaceport, and these legislators, take them too.”


    “What? What about my family?” asked Cordes.


    “We’ve rounded them up, as well; they are waiting for you.”


    Kathryn said, “Jaska, how could you? You could not have known unless you… I had forbidden it.”


    “I’m sorry, Madam Senn, but we had to know. We had an autopsy performed. We know that Cordes had poisoned your husband.”


    “But, now there will be war.”


    “That prospect became inevitable when Talbert sent troops to Ancora. Now, please step aside.”


    Jaska brought the megaphone to his lips. “Greetings, soldiers and welcome to Ancora,” his voice boomed. “Just so you know exactly who I am so that you can inform your superiors, I am Jaska Rasimus, Mayor of Stavenport.”


    Cheers erupted from the crowd.


    He continued, “As you can see, you are surrounded. As I speak, armed citizens are approaching each of you. You will hand them your weapons. Yes, commanders, you will order your soldiers to give up all arms or I assure you, these brave Ancorans will fire, and you know the pain and misery a disruptor can inflict. In addition, the spaceships in which you traveled, they are under Ancoran control. As I speak, our people are stripping them of armaments and all equipment and supplies not essential to spaceflight – a short spaceflight. Your spacecraft will have just enough fuel for a return trip to Prospero. When you get there, I want you to give your commander in chief, President Talbert, a message from us. It is this: This is Ancora. This is our planet. You are not welcome here. Now, you will leave Ancora, never to return.”


    The onlookers delivered a deafening roar. Cheers and shouts of jubilation and anger filled the Veranda. Men near him grabbed his hands and shook them while shouting praises and thanks. Women pressed their faces against his cheeks. More than a minute passed before Jaska was free of the onslaught and was able to hear his own thoughts.


    Belinda kissed him on the lips.


    “You haven’t done that in a long while, Belle.”


    “You deserve it, you rascal.”


    * * *


    Thousands of Ancorans crowded the Founders Cemetery. Reverend Siason offered a prayer. A squad of uniformed police fired into the air. Pallbearers took the flag that draped the coffin, folded it into a triangle, and handed it the widow. Then, reverently, they lowered Mathew Senn into the ground while a bugler played a mournful tune.


    “Now, we’ve done it, Jaska,” said Ottavio “The fat is in the fire for sure.”


    “Have courage, Otto.”


    Belinda said, “The future is uncertain, but certainly, we will face it together.”


    * * *


    Belinda sat alone in the conference hall, awaiting the arrival of the other council members and the parliament. She reflected on her life’s choices, the road she had chosen, how it had led her to this moment. Deep down, she regretted that she had never started a family of her own, but her road did not lead in that direction. Today was Sunday, and she knew that back on Earth, people considered Sunday a sacred day. She thought about what was important in life, what she believed to be sacred. For her, it was not one particular day or time, but her quality of life – her life and the lives of all Ancorans. She hoped that she was not going to regret the challenging, perhaps grim decisions in which she was about to participate.


    “Hello, Belinda,” said Ottavio, “I see you are deep in thought.”


    “Ah, Otto, it is good to see you. How are the people of Hammton?”


    “As usual, they are clamoring for war.”


    “Not so the people of Jenkinsville.”


    “I know, Belle, listen, my city produces food. The people of your city are manufacturers of durable goods, appliances, cars, and the tools of war. Without the cooperation of Jenkinsville, Ancorans will live under the watchful eyes of Prosperan soldiers, under Prosperan domination. Is that what you want?”


    “No, I don’t, Otto. I just don’t want Ancorans to suffer and die because of a bad decision I make here today.”


    “When you, Jaska, and I formed the Council of Mayors, we talked about the difficult decisions we will soon make. We fashioned a planetary parliament made up of our own city councils, the most respected people on the planet. Together, we will choose the right path.”


    “And where will that path lead us?”


    “To freedom.”


    Belinda met his eyes. “What is freedom, Otto?”


    “That’s a difficult question. Briefly, freedom is right to live your life the way you see fit, not the way someone else wants you to live. Freedom is having a voice in one’s government. Right now, you have no say on Prospero, none at all. Under Prosperan rule, you are a citizen without a vote, a subject of Prosperan oppression.”



    “It is going to be a difficult sell. Hammtonians are supporters of law and order. Most of all, they cherish order.”


    “We could discuss this endlessly, but let me leave you with this one thought: When people are frightened of their government, it is called tyranny. Are you frightened, Belle?”


    “Yes, Otto, I am frightened; I am terrified.”


    Ottavio smiled grimly and whispered, “Be afraid; be very afraid. Onward, Ancora.”


    The End
     

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