MahnAz sat at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport waiting for whatever crop duster would take her to Odessa. The glow of the vodka had cooled and she felt dull and lethargic. She hated that feeling: needing sleep and knowing it wouldn’t come. Should she stubbornly pursue it or resign herself to a miserable day of deprivation? Then her mind flashed on her attack and it was off to the races. There’d be no respite; she might as well do what she’d been putting off all night — examine the contents of her thumb drive.
She opened her laptop and inserted the drive. How had that — what the hell was his name? — that irritating Brit gotten hold of it? He must be very close to D’Arcy. But not too close; he obviously saw her for what she was. Vicious, vain. Whoa!
MahnAz opened the file she’d targeted and there they were — the complete schematics of Lone Star’s third generation space cruiser. But, apparently, not as they’d appeared when they’d been pilfered. Green edits were scrawled prominently across the design, highlighting aspects of the craft Federated could appropriate to its advantage. There were some red markings also with ominous warnings. Fatal flaws so obvious any competent aerospace engineer should have flagged and corrected them.
MahnAz recalled the failures of LS I and II. Three NASA pilots lost. Lone Star had suspended operation for a year or more. After all that time, they hadn’t cured the problem of retro thrusters breaching the fuel containment, causing catastrophic explosions. There could only be one explanation: someone in a prominent position at Lone Star was sabotaging the company. D’Arcy knew this. And if D’Arcy wasn’t pulling the strings, she’d at least kept it to herself, and now she was going to let Lone Star suffer another catastrophic re-entry simply to give Federated a competitive advantage.
MahnAz almost laughed out loud. After five years of slaving under that insufferable _____, she finally had the goods on D’Arcy Sinclair. Easing back in her seat, MahnAz tipped a glance up toward the TV screen. Tedious CNN commentators were droning about something. It didn’t matter; she had D’Arcy Sin–
Oh no. Lone Star III was in orbit. Lone Star had effected the ISS rescue. Now they were preparing to shuttle five astronauts home. But for some reason they hadn’t immediately returned to Earth. CNN reported that Lone Star had scheduled re-entry for five a.m. It was four now. MahnAz would never get there in time to warn them. She reached for her phone. She must have a contact number for Lone Star, but who’d be there to answer at this time in the morning? Maybe they’d have an emergency line? Her phone chimed in her hand, startling her and detonating her right temple. Unknown caller. Wincing, she closed an eye and fumbled to put in her ear buds.
"It occurred to me you might have the necessity of contacting Mr. Westermann ahead of your arrival." It was him: that British twit with the cattle prod and bad teeth. How did he get her number? "Hello, are you there?"
"Um, yes. I’m here."
"Clear-headed?"
"It’s four-fifteen."
"Quite right," he conceded. "I’ll give you his cell."
"Go ahead."
He read off the number, adding, "Now, lives in the balance, yes? So, careful not to slur. Don’t want to sound like a crank. Or a spurned woman."
She hung up. Oh, for the days when you could actually slam a phone down! "I was fired," she muttered. "I’m en…" MahnAz clamped her jaw. She didn’t like the word entitled in any context. And she hated the impulse to justify her thoroughly unremarkable behavior. She tapped in the phone number and listened to it ring.
*
Cornell had fallen asleep in his office. To no one’s surprise D’Arcy Sinclair had been unavailable for his call and failed to return it. Hector had transmitted LS III’s diagnostics and everything had checked out, yet he held fast to his decision to wait for re-entry. Wait for what? Cornell had wondered. Still, he’d decided before ever getting into this business he’d never override a technical decision from an employee he’d hired for his expertise. After all, he wasn’t Jerry Jones.
When Hank Williams, jr. exploded from his cell phone at 4:20 a.m., his first thought was catastrophe. Unknown caller? At least it wasn’t a death in the family. D’Arcy Sinclair? Unlikely.
"Hello?"
"Cornell Westermann?"
"Well, it’s my damn phone."
"This is Dr. MahnAz Roshanzadeh. We met a few years ago."
"Then you’ll pardon me for not remembering."
"I work, worked, for Federated Space Flight."
"Go on."
"I have evidence that D’Arcy Sinclair hacked your cruiser schematics. I also think she may have sabotaged Lone Star III."
"Sabotaged? She damn near shot it out of the sky. Or space." Now, that’s not right, he thought. You can’t shoot it out of space. Grunting, he tried to focus his foggy mind. "Where are you?"
"Dallas, the airport. I’m waiting for a flight to Odessa."
"I’ll send my jet."
"That won’t be necessary, just…"
"My jet comes with my security personnel." If this woman had the goods on D’Arcy Sinclair, D’Arcy had to be keeping tabs on her. He waited for a response.
"Alright," she said, quickly adding, "But, Mr. Westermann, this is vitally important. Lone Star III must not re-enter the atmosphere until I’ve had a chance to speak to your engineers and show them…"
"You want to keep our bird in space?" Was this a ploy? Federated was racing to repair their Talon and they’d be back up there finishing the job.
"I want to keep it intact," she insisted. "I have schematics that show a design flaw. Please, I just need for your engineers to evaluate this evidence."
"Okay, Doctor," Cornell grumbled. "Just tell me this. Under what circumstances did I meet you?"
"A job interview."
"And I didn’t hire you."
"Well," she seemed to coo, "that was an innocent mistake. And nobody died."
*
Hector was awake at 0400 and initiated one last round of diagnostics. No change. All systems had checked out. Still, he couldn’t disregard a gnawing feeling in his gut that something was amiss. His sixth sense had never betrayed him. It had turned him into a fierce ball hawk; amidst the chaos of gridiron collisions and misdirections he’d always known where to find the rock. His intuition had served him in combat, too. Kept him alert, agile and one step ahead of the enemy. But now he had his doubts. Could be he just didn’t trust the geek squad. They’d explained the failures of the previous LS cruisers with various physics equations that had gone straight over his head. Maybe he didn’t have the knowledge base to comprehend, but there’d been something essentially empty and unsatisfying in their gobbledegook and the remedies they’d offered had seemed…hopeful. Even wistful. He’d trusted because he’d wanted to believe. But now, well, either he’d lost his nerve and had developed an irrational fear of re-entry, or, according to his never-yet-failed intuition, he was sitting at the controls of a disaster waiting to happen. He gazed at the Earth and somehow felt…orphaned.
"What say ye, Hamlet?" Grijalva whispered. She’d crept from her station and was perched over his shoulder. He didn’t turn to her, but studied her reflection in the glass. "Still weighing "to be or not to be"? Better to "bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know naught of."
"Do you have a point to make, Doctor?"
"The data haven’t changed," she said. Hector glanced at the time. 0500. Time to initiate re-entry.
"Are you questioning my judgment?"
"No," she said. "I’m saying I’ll follow it. Without question or reservation. We’re astronauts, not an astro-naughts."
Hector tipped a glance toward his co-pilot. As always, Toma was ready to go. Hector flicked Grijalva back towards her post and tapped his headset to signal Lone Star Command.
"Captain Gaines," Chief Thurber cut in. "I have instructions that you are to maintain orbit. Over."
"How’s that, Command?"
"We need to ascertain a few things on the ground here."
"Ascertain, sir?" Hector could practically feel Toma fuming. "We do have an O2 timeline, sir."
"Understood. Over."
"We gave several of our reserve tanks to ISS."
"Understood, Hector. Just sit tight. We’re processing as fast as we can."
"LS III out." Hector tipped his head back against the headrest. Ills we know naught of? Score one for the old ball hawk.
*
MahnAz had waited at her gate until–for lack of a better phrase–the cavalry arrived. Even without a bugle and horses, Westermann’s security made a formidable charge, swept her up and ushered her out an adjacent jetway. On Westermann’s private jet, she teleconferenced with Lone Star Command and, through their secure network, uploaded the schematics she’d pilfered from Federated. The stunned faces in Odessa confirmed her suspicions. These schematics had been altered after approval to introduce a defect that unsuspecting technicians had built into the system and subsequent inspections had missed. Simply put: sabotage. A very inside job.
*
Cornell decided that now was not the time to hang a traitor. He had people suspended in orbit that he needed to bring home. But that didn’t prevent him from scalding the assembled engineers with a glare that prefigured the prairie justice to follow. When the sweaty, stammering gearheads got over their own horror at the obvious betrayal, they quickly reached consensus that the fix would be easy once the bird was on the ground. The problem, as Cornell was best able to decipher nerd-speak, was that under pressure of re-entry, the ship’s oxygen circulation system would leak into a chamber where over-taxed electrical panels controlling stabilization of the wings and tail might spark the pure O2, sending a small fireball towards the fuel chambers.
"So," Cornell coughed. "You’re going to ask my pilot to shut down the ship’s oxygen and land the bird without ailerons?"
A googley-eyed gearhead stopped biting his fingernails to respond, "No, sir. That would be impossible."
Cornell waited, raising one eyebrow to provoke a response.
"He needs to shut down circulating oxygen and feed it directly to the crew and passenger flight suits. They must flood the panel area with fire retardant. Then after orienting the ship towards home, they must purge the remaining fuel and hope that, if the ailerons cause a spark, there’s nothing to catch fire."
"Damn fine plan, gentlemen," he grumbled.
The rack of white lab coats waxed self-congratulatory and chittered amongst themselves until they realized the boss was being facetious. As they wilted, one brave soul, perhaps in the glow of a man-crush, spoke up quite chipper, "For Hector Gaines, a piece of cake."
*
David crouched and reached his arm deep into the space below the open floor panel. He depressed the lever on the fire extinguisher and shot the white repellent, coating the electrical unit. Sparks in an oxygen rich atmosphere. David knew that’s what had killed the crew of Apollo 1, but that was thirty years before he was even born so it might as well have happened to the Wright Brothers. But he well remembered visiting his grandfather, Abuelo Paulo, in the nursing home. "Lo que no puedo fumar un cigarro, maldito sea!" He’s wheezing from emphysema and he still wants to smoke. "Because," he told him, "you’re hooked up to oxygen, Abuelito." That didn’t stop him from pilfering a butt and a lighter from some inattentive attendant, torching his trademark mustache and giving himself third degree burns across his face.
David pulled his arm out of the hole. That was the last space they’d been told to coat. He stowed the fire extinguisher and returned to his seat beside Hector.
"You think they’d insulate those panels better," he said, just for the sake of saying something.
"You’d think a lot of things," Hector answered, apparently for the same reason.
"I think," David muttered, "that…" He starred ahead through the craft’s windshield, not daring to look at Hector, but only at his ghostly reflection.
"Yes, Lieutenant?"
"That, if I was in command… we’d have headed for home eight hours ago. And we’d all be dead." He watched Captain Gaines control a wry smile that threatened to curl the corner of his mouth. "So, thank you."
****
A secretary brought MahnAz a mug of what she called "cowboy coffee." MahnAz accepted but cautiously weighed the consequences of additional caffeine. She’d been awake now for thirty straight hours and was feeling the jitters of sleep deprivation, but she’d also been struggling to batten down those tremulous emotions that had scratched their way to the surface in the bar last night and had only abated when she’d been put in fear of her life. That which kept her awake might also cause a crack in her facade. Given that she hoped to parlay this visit into something more than a pat on the back, she dreaded that crack coming at an inopportune time. She sipped the coffee, acrid and black, flavoring it with imaginary brandy. She laughed to herself, half lamenting her lack of a purse flask, and half grateful she hadn’t yet sunk that low. The coffee, at least, washed the west Texas dust from her mouth.
The secretary told her Mr. Westermann would see her after the cruiser had landed. She pointed to the glass ceiling and the bank of windows and indicated that MahnAz could see the approach and landing in just a few minutes. But it was only seconds before the cruiser appeared in the western sky. Aeronautics were not her specialty, so MahnAz spotted nothing aberrant in the approach, but the cruiser did abort its first entry and make a wide circle to return and try again. She took that to mean the ailerons were giving trouble, or at least that the pilots were being extra cautious with them. The return saw the cruiser touch down farther down the runway than she’d expect, but it seemed Lone Star had anticipated such events, and had taken advantage of the expanse of Texas to accommodate that issue.
The late touchdown did have consequences. Sudden braking made the tires of the landing gear blow, and the vehicle spun out. The bare hubs carved concrete until snapping off and the cruiser skidded on its belly for the last hundred yards. For a second, MahnAz’s breath caught in her throat. Disaster. All for naught. But a fire crew was immediately on the scene, projecting enough beery foam to float the cruiser to San Antonio. Crew and passengers emerged from the side portal and waded through the hip-deep suds.
Still MahnAz waited. After about twenty minutes, three jump-suited crew members trudged into the waiting area. She imagined walking over to them and declaring, "I saved your lives, you know," then laughed at herself again. Surely, that moment would come. She’d leave it to Westermann. Let him play the Southern gallant.
The double wooden doors opened inward. The secretary poked her head out and swept the crew in before bidding MahnAz join them. The office was a striking amalgam of traditional Texas decor and state of the art electronics. A lot of heavy, hand carved wood, from the straight-backed chairs with hole-to-hole wicker caning to the cherry corbels supporting every shelf and exposed beam. Yet, dominating the room was a huge video screen behind Westermann’s massive desk. Cornell stood behind his desk facing an IMAX closeup of D’Arcy Sinclair, in all her chilling android beauty.
"And here," Westermann boomed, "are some of the people you tried to kill."
"I’ll caution you again to refrain from defamation," Sinclair responded icily. Even at this magnification her glacier-blue eyes betrayed no emotion, her pale brow revealed not a single crease or bead of sweat, and her cheeks flushed no bolder than rose dure. "Talon could not have fired on LS III. International Spaceflight Compact specifically forbids weaponizing cruisers. Our compliance with ISC is thoroughly documented. I suggest you take your sour grapes and mash them into whatever passes for wine down there."
"I believe her," one of the crew whispered, the woman to a rugged black man. His eyes widened, the remark triggering something in him.
"If Talon didn’t fire…" he muttered.
"Then let’s not talk about overt attacks," Westermann countered. "Let’s talk about sabotage." Westermann stepped slightly to the side and tipped his head toward MahnAz. "We have evidence that you knew of sabotage against Lone Star. How do we know you didn’t direct it?"
"I don’t know what you’re talking about."
"Now she’s lying," the female crew member whispered.
"Though, I can offer some unsolicited advice about tales from disgruntled employees. Ask Little Miss Taqiyya where she got her evidence. It did not come directly from the Federated database."
Westermann stared at her and MahnAz thought, oh shit. That British…what the hell was his pompous name? Had he played her? It didn’t matter, did it? The specs had been right. The crew had been saved.
"You can’t believe I had anything to do with the sabotage?" she asked.
"Some people will do anything," Sinclair mused, "to get a fatwa lifted." The eyes of the crew burned into her, but before MahnAz could say a word, Sinclair continued, "But first, for your viewing pleasure, we’re going to patch you through to Federated Talon which is about to rescue the remaining ISS crew and effect repairs to its damaged systems."
The screen switched to a dashcam view of Talon bearing down on ISS. They could hear the rumble of retros reverberating within the craft. The Lone Star flight crew tensed.
"That’s just mop up duty, D’Arcy," the young Latin yelled. "TD in garbage time."
"That’s probably not how ISS sees it," his mate, the woman, shushed him.
But their leader, their captain, squinted into the screen, speaking lowly. "If Talon didn’t fire…. Abort, Talon! Abort!"
They heard a dull thud as Talon touched its belly to ISS, then an explosion ripped through the floor. There was a flash of white light and the screen went blue.
*
Cornell squinted into his scope and brought the beast into view. A beautiful animal, the Arabian oryx was the size of a medium antelope but had horns reaching straight up at least a yard. A rare trophy, it was native to the Arabian peninsula, but today, the largest herds existed on private gaming ranches in Texas. Mottled in white and black, it was as if the Arabian beast wanted to blend in with the palominos of the western plains. Cornell squeezed the trigger and the oryx dropped.
He returned to the elephant and climbed up beside the governor. It was an awkward jostling ride, and Cornell regretted again not opting for a horse, but the governor had insisted he needed the full African experience, and Cornell needed to indulge the man as much as possible.
"So you really think it was terrorism?" the governor asked. He hadn’t mentioned the ISS "tragedy," as the press had dubbed it, since last evening’s cocktail hour.
"Fits the pattern," Cornell answered. "Blow some target up, then wait for the rescuers to arrive and blow it again."
"Are we so infiltrated with radicals?"
The elephant stopped and Cornell climbed down. He strode over to his trophy, posed for a few shots with the governor, then waited as the guides loaded the carcass onto an ATV.
"I need your help, compadre," Cornell said. He gazed into the unlimited, pale blue sky. "We went into space because wherever men go, free men must lead the way. I need your help to keep space free."
The governor pointed to a far ridge. "Let’s see what lies over there. You got a fine trophy. It’s my turn."
*
MahnAz spent three days in Odessa waiting for a private audience with the great and powerful wizard of Lone Star. When she was finally in his office, he didn’t mince words.
"What were you doing for D’Arcy Sinclair?"
"I didn’t actually work for D’Arcy."
"For Federated then."
"Faster than light."
Westermann pursed his lips as though his chaw had suddenly gone sour. MahnAz was relieved when he didn’t spit.
"I’m told FTL is a pipedream."
"I don’t think so."
Westermann rocked back in his chair. "Why’d you come here?"
"I had evidence–"
"And you haven’t told me where you got it."
"I downloaded," MahnAz started. "To a thumb drive."
"And that drive stayed in your possession?" MahnAz dropped her eyes to her lap and Westermann pounced.
"Who?"
"A man," she said. "St. John something-or-other."
Westermann smacked his palms on the arms of his chair and hoisted himself up. "Templer-Mayberry."
"Maubray."
"I knew that snooty, blue-blood twit was mixed up in this." He paced between his desk and the jumbo screen.
"I take it you don’t approve."
"No, Little Miss Taqiyya, I don’t," he confirmed.
"Don’t call me that."
"Why did D’Arcy–"
"Because D’Arcy Sinclair is a mendacious bitch!"
Westermann smiled. He crossed to a sideboard and poured himself a drink. He held up a bottle of what MahnAz took to be bourbon. She nodded and he poured. He brought two tumblers back to the desk, placed one in front of her and sat down. He raised his glass. "I’ll drink to that last statement." After a swallow he seemed to relish, he continued, "But how do I know you’re not working for her? Or for Temple-Marlboro? How do I know this isn’t all taqiyya?"
"I’m not a Muslim."
"How do I know?" He took another sip. MahnAz did also; hers was more of a gulp. She placed the tumbler down carefully. Her fingers trembled as she withdrew her hand.
"You’ve got connections with people I don’t like, a questionable background and, if D’Arcy was truthful on this last point, a fatwa on you. Now, Dr. Roshanzadeh, why are you here?"
She sat on her hands. "I want a job."
"You come with an awful lot of baggage." He drank again. "Why should I take the risk?"
"Because," MahnAz declared, "I can give you Mars." Westermann’s brow lifted. "In your lifetime."
Westermann sucked in his cheeks. He gazed over her head to the glass dome, its shades drawn against the fierce Texas sun. Then he looked down at his empty tumbler. "That calls for another."
*
It took sick weeks to repair Lone Star III, by which time David was jonesing to get back into space. He’d run endless simulations, many with Nadine, which only convinced him more deeply that simulated spaceflight was like simulated amor. So when the mission came in, just a simple satellite repair jaunt, David nearly popped out of his flight suit. Westermann had scheduled an unveiling and a christening and, for the first time since David had arrived at Lone Star, the press was invited. That’s something David did miss from his NASCAR days: the roar of the crowd. Not that he was an adulation junkie, he just needed the occasional tweak. Not so, Hector Gaines. He’d been in dark ops too long, David figured. As they stood in the sun, waiting for someone to pull the cord to hoist the canvas draped over their bird, David watched Hector work his neck against the collar of his flight suit. He laughed, thinking he’d found Superman’s kryptonite: he was camera shy.
"We’re gathered here today," Westermann drawled, "to rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of private spaceflight. And like our forbearers in noble pursuits, we know that posterity will little note what we say here, but will judge us by what we do up there. We are on an epic quest, and so it is only fitting to draw inspiration from epic tales. Thus it is my pleasure to introduce the re-commissioned Lone Star III Cruiser, the LS Persephone!"
With a sharp tug the canvas was pulled back from the cruiser’s nose and David could read the name emblazoned on its side.
"This has got to be a joke," Nadine scoffed.
"What’s it mean?"
"Persephone was kidnapped and taken to hell."
"That’s kind of the opposite direction."
But suddenly a commotion arose. Some guy David had seen, some kind of inspector, was in Westermann’s face, barking at him.
"You think this is a joke, Mr. Westermann?" he spat. "I assure you, you will never get this ship off the ground." He held up a folded paper and slapped Westermann’s lapel. "This is a federal injunction. The EPA has officially grounded your space program."
The press surged forward, pushing the crew off to the side. Smiling, Westermann turned to a gentleman beside him, whom David later learned was the Texas governor. The governor withdrew a paper from his coat and handed it to the EPA guy. He addressed the cameras.
"Ladies and gentleman, and you, Mr. Long, I have an announcement to make. Last night, in special, secret plenary session, the state legislature passed and I signed into law a statute nullifying within the boundaries of the state of Texas those federal EPA regulations that target only the environment of Texas and not its impact on any other contiguous state. This injunction, based as it is in the ecology of Texas and Texas alone is thereby null and void." He then waved a hand forward and files of uniformed officers came forward. "I am ordering the Texas Rangers to escort officers of the United States Environmental Protection Agency off these premises."
Mr. Long continued to rant as the rangers escorted him out. "Nullification? You know that will never stand up in court! This is nothing but a corrupt political contrivance…"
"Say ‘hello’ to D’Arcy for me," Westermann called as Long’s head disappeared into the back of a patrol car. Then with a look of sheer jubilation, the boss waved to Hector. "Captain Gaines, please get your crew aboard your craft. We are free and the stars are waiting."
*
Check out the next story in this release, Aaron Tallent’s Man At His Best!
"Gaston Suarmer pondered the small puddle of whiskey that sat in the bottom of his tumbler…"
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