Preparations for a journey
From Lopez’s throne room the night before, the rockets lined up in the distance had seemed romantic and picturesque. Now that he stared up at the Stardust One from the base of its six-story elevator platform, the craft took on a looming and frightening new perspective. Jase studied the stubby winged ship perched atop its sixty-meter tall boosters and wondered if volunteering to ride this mammoth machine wasn’t one of his less well thought out ideas.
Around them, the ground crew, in bright yellow, blue, and maroon jumpers, swarmed back and forth between the gantry and ship completing final preparations for flight.
“Are you ready?”
Jase’s mother was dressed in the crimson trimmed green of the house guard. A pistol and blade dangled at her side. He could smell her jasmine perfume.
“Of course,” he said too quickly to hide his unease. “Should be fun.”
A nervous smile played across his mother’s lips as she stared up at the Stardust, then back to her son. “I’m told she’s quite safe. Over thirty successful launches for this booster; over five hundred for the Stardust.”
Jase only nodded. He’d never worried about the launch. The launch was out of his control, an unknown to be endured, nothing more. He was more afraid of weightlessness. He’d heard rumors of brave men growing nauseous and throwing up when exposed to the vastness of open space. Stories of people losing their minds if exposed too long. At least if he died during launch, he’d be remembered as the brave adventurer who’d bested Lord Garcia. If he lost control in space, he’d forever be the puke-covered coward who’d embarrassed his family on the solar system’s stage.
“Yes, I’m sure the ship will perform superbly,” Jase said. “I just don’t want to let you down.” He looked to his mother and forced a smile. “Or the family.”
“Jase, if there was one thing you could never do, it’s let me down.” Chuckling, she stepped closer and laid a hand on his arm. “Remember when your father bought that champion bay from house Whitley.” She sighed twining her arm about his as they strolled beneath the Stardust’s shadow. “He hardly let anyone look at that horse, much less ride her. Of course, your sisters were wise enough to steer clear, but not you. Jase Hildebrand took it as a challenge.”
A horse-drawn wagon stacked high with boxes rolled up to the gantry. It was swarmed by the brightly colored workers who soon had it emptied and clip-clopping back towards town.
“I rode that bay all the way to the river,” Jase laughed. “I’d have made it back if she hadn’t thrown me.” He remembered the heart-pounding excitement of sneaking past the snoozing guards, the raw fresh smell of hay, and the smooth heat of the bay’s skin as he slid onto her back, the ripple of her muscles as they galloped through the moonlight.
“Yes, and you broke your arm if memory serves.”
Jase chuckled. “True.” He turned and met his mother’s eyes. “I’d never seen Father so mad.” His eyes fell. “Or so disappointed.”
Stepping from beneath the ship’s shadow, the Houston sun pressed on them with its weighty caress.
“Or proud,” his mother said.
Jase looked up in surprise. “Proud?”
“Of course.” She brought them to a halt. Having circled the Stardust, they stood once more at the base of the lift. “That story was one of your father’s favorites. He told it every time friends came to visit.”
She gave his arm a squeeze. “Of course.”
They stood in silence for a long while watching the workers swarm over the Stardust like ants.
“Your father and I loved you as our own.” She looked at him, eyes brimming with emotion. “You were every bit our son as if I’d birthed you myself. Finding out your heritage as you did must have come as a shock. I hope you’ll forgive me for not telling you sooner.”
Jase stared, confused, then swept her into a crushing hug. “You’re my mother.” He released her and stepped back. “I know King William and Queen Matilda are my birth parents, but they’re just names. It’s you, and Father, who raised me. It’s you who are my parents.”
She fell into his arms and he held her as she wept. Finally, she pushed away, dabbing a kerchief at her mascara streaked eyes.
“Thank you,” she said. “For being you.” She pulled out a mirror, wiped away her tears and smiled. “And don’t you dare tell your Aunt. I’m supposed to be preparing you for what’s ahead, not blubbering on your shoulder.”
“Aunt Anna was never one for emotion,” Jase agreed.
“Phtt,” his mother exclaimed. “You’re right about that, though she wasn’t always that way.”
Jase couldn’t remember a time when Aunt Anna was anything but an emotionless automaton. “Blade higher Jase; Solve this using the quadratic equation, Jase; What’s the capital of New Beijing, Jase; and on and on and on, never a smile, never a smirk, not even a flush of anger when he’d tried to antagonize her.
“Before she left for the priesthood, she was my best friend and confidant,” his mother said. “When she came back, she was… changed.”
She waved a hand between them shattering the moment. “But that’s not the reason I’m here.” Her face grew stern. “You realize Lopez hopes this quest will be your death?”
Jase cocked his head, brows knit as he studied her. “Surely not. He’s the king. The quest comes from the highest order of the church council.” Jase looked up at the rocket. “There would be no honor in it.”
“Jase, you need to understand, King Lopez is not a man of honor. He murdered your father and mother for the throne.”
Jase shook his head. “But those are just rumors.”
“True, but rumors with substance. Lopez’s relationship with the brigands who killed your father was well known among the family heads. They just couldn’t prove he’d ordered the assault.”
Jase’s jaw tensed as he stared back towards the castle. He stood for a long while his fists clenching and unclenching at his side. He spun suddenly on his mother.
“Honor demands I confront him, challenge him to a duel.”
He took two steps toward the empty golf cart parked on the tarmac before she stepped in front of him her hands upraised in a plea.
“Jase, no!” Then more softly. “Please. Hear me out.”
He stopped. “I’m listening,” said through gritted teeth.
“Challenging the king will be exactly what he wants. You know he won’t fight. He’ll have a champion take his place. Someone you cannot defeat.”
“Then how do I restore our family honor?”
“By taking away what he values most, the throne.” She stepped closer and took his hand. “This quest is the best way to achieve revenge for your parent’s murder. Don’t sink to Lopez’s level. Be the king he should have been, the king your father was.”
“Okay,” he said at last. “What do I do?”
Her shoulders sagged with relief. “Good. Now you’re thinking like a ruler.”
She stood beside him as he studied the castle and the tent city sprung up like toadstools at its feet. Lines of bleachers were being set up outside the launch zone as the grounds beside them filled with vendors eager for the evening launch and the crowd which would attend.
“You need to be aware Lopez doesn’t play by the same rules you do.”
Jase looked nervously at the rocket.
“Do you suppose he’ll sabotage the Stardust?”
She shook her head. “No, the priesthood maintains the rockets. They’d never risk an asset as valuable as the Stardust, especially on the whim of a regional king. No, the threat will come after. But make no mistake, he has plans to kill you. Most likely, once you reach Luna.”
“But I don’t even know where on Luna I’m going. How does Lopez?”
“He doesn’t,” she said. “Only the priesthood knows your destination, and they’re not saying. All we know, is you’re scheduled to dock with the Korolev space elevator on Luna twenty-four hours after launch. From there, you’ll take a westbound ship to points unknown.” She shrugged. “The only other thing our Lunar contacts mentioned was…” She paused and looked away. “It doesn’t make any sense, but they said when you get to your destination, to look for the cat’s eye.”
“The cat’s eye?”
“I know it doesn’t make sense.” She turned her head making sure they were alone. “Your Aunt’s spies were only able to send a single message, but it was garbled in transmission.” She frowned. “That’s all we’ve got. The mention of looking for the cat’s eye, and one other cryptic reference.”
“And what was that?” Jase asked.
“The Oracle.” She shrugged. “Just those two words: The Oracle.”
At Jase’s look of concern, she patted his arm and smiled. “Don’t worry, your Aunt assures me we’ll have more information once you arrive. And don’t worry about Lopez. He’s as much in the dark as we are.”
“That doesn’t leave many options,” Jase said. “Alone on a foreign world with no assets, no friends, and no weapons.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
Jase saw she was smiling.
“Come now,” he said, “you’re hiding something.” He shook a finger at her unable to suppress a grin. “That’s the same look you gave Father when you told him you were pregnant with Abby.”
“A most memorable Solstice Eve,” she chuckled. “But, yes, I have been hiding things from you.”
She reached into her pocket and removed a nickel-plated pistol. The diminutive weapon rested completely in the palm of her hand. “It’s called a derringer.” She pressed a button on the pistol’s side and the two stubby barrels tilted away from the grip revealing a pair of empty chambers. “Just put the bullets in the chamber.” She snapped the weapon closed with a metallic ‘snick’ and aimed it at the ground. “You’ve got to draw back the hammer and pull the trigger for each round.” She thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger. It fell with a sharp snap.
“Easy as pie.”
“Won’t the flight crew find it when I get on board?”
She shook her head. “It’s already on board.”
“Do you really believe your Aunt and I would send you into the void with nothing to depend upon but your wits?”
Jase’s brows rose in surprise. “Well, I... I guess not.”
“Lopez may have contacts, but so do we. Your Aunt's cousin works on the flight crew. As we speak, he’s hiding the derringer and four rounds of ammunition under your flight seat.” She withdrew a rectangular card the size of her palm and held it out. “Then, of course, there’s this.”
Jase took it. The card was firm, made of some lightweight metal or ceramic alloy. Its face was pitted with holes drilled at irregular intervals along its face.
“It looks like the cards on Grandma Wilkes player piano.”
“A very astute observation,” she said. “In fact, it runs on the same principle as your Granny’s old piano only instead of keys, it controls the Stardust’s guidance and flight control systems.”
Jase ran a finger across the card’s glassy surface and felt the rows of patterned indentions.
“What about the pilot?” he asked. “Won’t she do most of the flying?”
His mother stuffed the card in her pocket and shook her head. “There is no pilot. Even if there were, they’d still use a program card to make Lunar orbit.” She gazed up at the Stardust, lifting a hand against the sun. “No, pilots are only used to land the ships once they return to Earth. Most times, they send over a pilot once the ship enters orbit. This launch is a special case. They made room on a cargo run in order for the church’s representative to make the flight to Luna.”
She turned and met Jase’s gaze. “All of that was verified by your Aunt. The Stardust has been scheduled for this mission for over a month. If Lopez hadn’t been holding it back to impress everyone at his daughter’s celebration, it would have already dropped off the church’s representative and returned home.”
Jase scowled as he looked from his mother to the Stardust. “I don’t understand. Why are you showing me that card?”
“Because a card just like this will be stashed alongside the derringer.”
He shrugged. “And?”
“And once you’re in orbit, you’re going to replace the card that’s inserted in the flight panel with the one under your seat. You must do this as soon as you can. Understand?”
Since last night’s announcement and the impromptu meeting with the king, Jase had barely a moments rest. Once the meeting adjourned, at nearly 2 a.m., Jase was rushed to the launch site for last-minute training to prep him for flight. It consisted of sitting in a mock-up of the Stardust’s cabin while they lectured him on how to activate the escape pod, how to open the emergency hatch, and a dozen other things he should do if anything on the Stardust failed. It was impossible to remember it all. Jase couldn’t help but think his time would have better spent learning how to kiss his ass goodbye. Among all the lessons, the myriad buttons, gauges, and knobs there’d been no mention of flight control cards or where they might be located.
“Assuming I can even find the right slot to stick that thing,” Jase said, “why would I replace the program that’s taking me to Luna?”
“Because we’re afraid Lopez has plans to deal with you once you arrive. We’ve picked up a lot of radio chatter between Lopez and his people at the Korolev elevator. Your Aunt feels there’s going to be trouble.”
“And how does this flight card change anything?”
His mother’s lips tightened into fine pale lines; her eyes sharpened with concern. “That’s the part of the plan, I wasn’t in favor of,” she said. “These new instructions won’t take you to the Korlov space elevator, but to a location 500 kilometers to the west.” Her eyes narrowed. “This morning, during your training on the ship, I assume you paid attention to how the escape pod works?”
“Of course. The big red button labeled: ‘Pod Ejection’. Why?”
His stomach lurched at the direction the conversation was taking.
“And how confident are you with your flight training on the bi-plane back home?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” He waved his hands in the air between them. “You don’t expect me to land that thing?” His words came out in a stuttering laugh. “You realize there’s a significant difference between our rickety old biplane and … and” He waved up at the Stardust. “This... ship.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’d never expect you to land something like the Stardust.” She cleared her throat and went on. “We, well, we just want you to fly her a bit.”
Jase stared in disbelief. “Seriously?”
“Don’t worry, all you have to do is keep her on a slow glide until you’re over land. The guidance card will bring you in over the Daedalus plains, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Most of that hemisphere is land anyway. The oceans are further north and south, but there are some rather large crater lakes. You don’t want to end up in one of those.”
“And what am I supposed to do once I’m over land? Eject?”
She nodded. “That’s the idea.”
Jase shook his head. “So far, Mother, your plan isn’t making me feel any better. What advantage is there risking my life ejecting from a spaceship traveling at Goddess knows how fast, then landing in the middle of a wasteland? Assuming I even survive the trip down.”
“Don’t worry, the Stardust’s guidance controls won’t let her go too fast without a manual override. And the escape pod is well tested. It’s all perfectly safe.”
Her assurances weren’t making Jase feel any better.
“Okay.” he scratched at his chin and frowned. “If I don’t end up a grease spot on the surface of Luna. What then? I’ll still be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no protection other than the peashooter you showed me and four measly bullets.”
“Do you remember when your cousin Larry came to live with us for a while?” she asked. “I’m not sure you do; you couldn’t have been more than six.”
A pained look narrowed his eyes. “You mean Lazy Larry? From Kansas?”
“That’s right, I wasn’t sure you remembered. Larry was a few years older and not the most… well, not the most athletic of boys.”
“What’s Larry have to do with this?” he said. “I thought we were discussing how I’m not supposed to die in the next forty-eight hours.”
She crossed her arms, eyes flashing. “Since when do you talk to your mother like that?”
Jase rolled his eyes and huffed out a sigh. “I’m sorry I snapped at you.” He waved a hand. “Please go on.”
She stood for a moment taping her foot and weighing his apology before she continued. “Like I was saying, your cousin Larry wasn’t a very athletic boy, but he was a genius when it came to biology. He was recruited by the priesthood not long after his stay with us. When he graduated from Seminary, he was assigned to Baron Negusse. The Baron owns one of the largest cotton and bean plantations on Luna. And where is he located you may well ask? In the center of the Daedalus plains, a quite rough and tumble part of Luna, I’m led to believe.”
“And this Baron Negusse is going to help?”
For the first time since they’d begun the conversation, her expression lightened. “He already has.” She smiled. “In the years since your cousin, left Earth, Larry’s become quite a big shot on Luna. One of the foremost Agriculturists in the solar system in fact. He’s made the Baron a very rich and powerful man.”
A trail of white dust kicked up from the direction of the castle as a golfcart wheeled along the gravel track towards them. “And what, exactly, is the good Baron doing to help?” Jase asked.
“He’s sent out scouts all across his land, several thousand square kilometers of it. All of them await your arrival. If you come down within 500 kilometers of his castle, the Baron’s men will find you. Once they do, you’ll be taken to Korolev with an escort of 300 of his finest troops. There’s no way Lopez can touch you.”
The golf cart hummed up beside them and an acolyte sprang out. Her freshly shaved head was pinpricked with sweat.
“m’Lord.” She bowed with a floppy flourish of her arms. “The Bishop of Technology has summoned you personally for final preparations.” She stood, her impish face plastered with a grin. “And might I say, Sir, it’s an honor to meet you.” She bowed again.
Jase took his mother’s hand. “I guess this is it.” His eyes ascended the rocket and a lump rose in his throat. He gulped it down ashamed of his fear.
She gave his hand a squeeze. “I know you’ll make us proud.”
Jase climbed into the cart, enjoying the thick summer breeze as the girl drove them back.
“How long until launch?” Jase asked.
The girl lifted an arm and consulted her watch. “Only three hours and fifty-seven minutes.”