It's launch time.
As zero hour neared, Jase found himself dressed in his spacesuit and sweating on a low wooden stage beneath a glaring Texas sun. On one side, sat his mother, on the other, sat the Bishop of Technology; a frumpy man in wrinkled yellow robes who constantly moped his bald brow with a bright yellow scarf.
At the podium, Lopez addressed a crowd of onlookers. He’d been at it for the better part of an hour and showed no signs of stopping. As another gob of sweat tickled down Jase’s back, he decided boredom was how Lopez intended to kill him.
Jase leaned closer to his mother. “How long’s he gonna go on?”
She shushed him, drawing a frown from the Bishop.
For a while, Jase studied the trucks in the distance as, one by one, they lumbered up to the rockets, unstrung their hoses, and attached them to the rocket’s sides. After the trucks pulled away, a white mist swirled and eddied around each rocket’s feet.
Jase wondered about Lopez’s ring and why he’d been so reluctant to part with it. Drawing it from the chain he wore around his neck, he held the ring in his hand and studied it. The shank was thick and heavy and seemed to be made of gold. It looked uncomfortable to wear. Jase slipped it on. He made a fist and felt the hard surface press against his other fingers. Then he studied the face. He immediately recognized the opposing crescent moons flanking the image of a tree. A common theme in Gaean art. Looking closer, he noticed the tree might also be taken for the image of a pregnant woman, the knot inside the tree’s trunk the symbol of an unborn child, the uplifted branches the uplifted arms and swirling mane of the Goddess.
He slid the ring back into his suit wondering why the bauble was so key to his quest. Important enough that Lopez’s own advisor insisted Jase have it.
“And in conclusion,” Lopez said.
Jase looked up. Was the old blow-hard finally done? An hour ago, he'd been dreading the launch. Now, all he could think about was climbing into the Stardust, snapping on his helmet, and firing up his suit's air conditioner.
“We bid farewell to our future king,” Lopez said, “confident in his mission, and what it entails for all Texas and all humanity.”
Lopez motioned for Jase to join him at the podium. As he rose from his seat and clumped across the stage, Lopez turned to the crowd.
“Rumors have been flying regarding our new king and the nature of his mission.”
As Jase stepped up beside Lopez, the big man draped an arm across his shoulder. Inside his suit, it felt like a sponge had been crushed beneath Lopez's arm sending streams of sweat drizzling down his back and pooling at his crotch.
“Now we’ll open the mic to questions,” Lopez said.
The three state reporters sprang to their feet along with a handful of VIPs. A hawk-nosed reported for The Texas Times was the first chosen.
“Is it true the coronation for Sir Hildebrand won’t be held until he returns from Luna?”
“Of course,” Lopez boomed. “In fact, we've already begun preparing for the celebration.” He glanced back at Jase's mother. “Have we decided if the coronation will be held in Houston or at the Hildebrand estate?”
Jase's mother rose and crossed the stage. She leaned across the podium towards the mic. “No, your, Highness, we've not formalized plans as to the location of the event.” She cleared her throat and looked to Lopez. Her eyes flashed sapphire heat. “Although we know King Hildebrand will set up residence here in Houston upon his return.” She looked to the crowd. “Your future king feels quite strongly about tradition and family.”
Scattered applause from the crowd.
A chunky redhead from the much less popular liberal radio station was chosen next. “Lord Hildebrand, once you return, what are your plans for dealing with the rebels?”
An attractive woman at the base of the stage tugged down her blouse ever so slightly before fanning at her sweat glistened cleavage. Jase's attention was brought back to the present as his mother nudged him in the ribs.
“I'm sorry,” Jase said. “What was that?”
The reporter's brows narrowed as she repeated the question.
“I plan to hunt them down and destroy them,” Jase said.
Lopez's grin widened as Jase's mother leaned quickly in. “If current negotiations fail,” she added.
Jase's eyes shot quickly to his mother then back to the crowd. “Of course,” he said. “If current negotiations fail.” He tugged at his collar. “As your king, I’ll always welcome peace as a first alternative.”
“You there.” Lopez pointed to a purple-faced woman from the Texas Tattler. She'd been fanning herself with her notepad, now she stood, pen poised, ready to write. “King Lopez, who will be in charge of the kingdom while Lord Hildebrand is gone?”
Lopez and Jase's mother both reached for the mic. Lopez laughed and opened his palms in deference to Jase’s mother. “Please, m'Lady. After you.”
His mother grabbed the mic with a flourish.
“The kingdom will be run by a council of five until the true king's return.” She added emphasis on the word ‘true.’ “I and my sister, Priestess Anna Carlyle, will represent the concerns of Lord Hildebrand. King Lopez and his chosen councilor, Bishop Meecham, will represent the interests of the current order. A fifth representative from the seminary in New Ottawa, Cardinal Suzanne Veraldi, will be arriving within the week, to represent the holy church.”
Lopez, looking sour at this comment, consulted his watch. “I'm sorry.” He raised his hands. “But we've got some rockets to launch.” He lifted his arm and pointed to his watch. “T-minus, fifty-nine minutes.” He smacked Jase sharply on the back. “Come now, let's put this young man into space.”
Thank the Goddess he didn't have to wait until being situated in the Stardust before he was reunited with his suit’s A/C unit. As soon as Jase clomped clumsily from the stage, members of the flight crew were snapping on a hose attached to a suitcase-sized box. In seconds, the funky stink of his own BO was replaced by refreshing refrigerated relief of chill air puffing up his suit’s legs and cascading along his back. He shivered as a flurry of faces, well-wishers, and family appeared at his side. Even Lopez enthusiastically pumped Jase’s hand before his mother and Aunt Anna took his place.
“Stay safe,” his mother said. Her bloodshot eyes sparkled with tears. “and… and...” Unable to finish, she dragged him into a smothering embrace. Jase smiled and pulled her close. “Don't worry, Mother.” After a long pause, he pulled away and lifted her chin. “Don't I always come through?”
She laughed, dabbing at her eyes. “Yes, yes you do.”
Aunt Anna stepped up and stuck out her hand. “May the Gaean spirit guide you, King Hildebrand.” Jase took her hand and met her dark stare.
“Don't forget what I told you and keep the ring safe” she whispered. She clasped both hands over his and pulled him close. “The universe is a wide and dangerous place, young king. Your journey is known to many.” She stepped back and smiled. “Always pray for the will of Goddess, and you’ll find help from unexpected sources.”
With a nod, Jase snapped down his visor and marched to the elevator. When he reached the top, the doors clanged open and he stepped onto a platform high above the world.
From his vantage, Jase hardly noticed the other two rockets smoking and steaming beside him. He hardly noticed the thick woods radiating like spokes from the central hub of the castle nor the crowds gathered in bleachers outside its tall stone walls. He didn’t consider the people dotting the ground in a pixilated condensation of his world, the earthy pallet of commoners filling the bleachers and spilling into the fields, the bright blues, reds, and purples of the royals, gathered in the box seats above them.
What Jase noticed was the fireworks. They arched over the crowd exploding in kaleidoscopic sparkles before drifting across the sky in a train of octopus-shaped clouds. He was reminded of a frigid Solstice Eve with his father, standing at their balcony while fireworks danced across a midnight solstice sky.
“Father.” He remembered looking up at his dad thinking how majestic he was. “Do you think I'll ever fly to the moon?”
After all these years, he could still picture his father's face, the bright green eyes sparkling in the season's glow, his cheeks ruddy from dark, wheat ale. At Jase's question, his father’s lips had tightened, and his face grew stern in thoughtful consideration. Dropping to a knee, he’d pointed to the seas and swirled clouds of Luna. Jase remembered the warm muskiness of his father’s breath. The weight of his father’s hand upon his shoulder.
“Son, you can never tell what the fates may bring.” They stared at Luna’s blue orb for a long while. “But I do believe you will.”
“Sire.” An attendant tapped Jase’s shoulder and nodded towards the Stardust’s hatch. “It is time.”
Jase stepped through the opening and into the Stardust’s cramped cockpit. It took a moment to realize the craft was rotated 90 degrees from level. The rear wall of the bus-sized compartment was the floor on which he stood. On the ceiling, was the windshield, and flight controls. Except for a thin walkway to the center of the room, all the open space was taken up by pallets strapped to the floor, or rather from Jase's perspective, the wall.
“Your place is up there,” one of the ground crew said. He pointed to an empty seat mounted before the flight controls five meters above.
“How am I supposed to get up there?” Jase asked. “Fly?”
As if in answer, a ladder was brought in and propped beneath the seat.
“Sorry for the inconvenience, your majesty,” a bald priestess said. She took a firm grip on the ladder and nodded for Jase to ascend. “When the ship’s set for mixed cargo, the passengers always get the short end of the stick.”
At least I’ve got a good view, Jase thought once he’d climbed the aluminum rungs and been strapped into the seat. He lay on his back staring up through the windshield at the first stars of dusk.
“Good luck, Lord Jase.” The priestess double-checked his safety harness then disappeared down the ladder. A moment later, the hatch closed with a metallic clang.
The soft whir of his suit fan was interrupted by the flight director’s sharp, deep voice.
“T-Minus fifteen minutes,” the director’s voice echoed inside Jase’s helmet. “Just hold tight, m’Lord. You’ll be in orbit before you know it.”
Jase’s hand drifted beneath his seat. He felt the hard firmness of the bundle secreted beneath.
“On-board computers are a go,” a woman’s voice called over the radio. “Gyros a go. Stabilization gears are go.”
One by one, the craft’s status was ticked off. As they were, Jase studied the flight controls. He recognized the stick and pedals, but the rest of the Stardust’s dash was an indecipherable maze. Lights flashed, gauges clicked, dials bounced and whirred. Nowhere did he see a slot for the navigation card.
What the hell was he doing? This whole thing was a mistake. Jase looked around wishing for a way to call off the launch.
Upon hearing, “T-Minus sixty-seconds.” he forgot about the control panel. Jase gripped his seat in expectant fear. Ready or not, he was going to the moon.
A deep rumble thrummed through the Stardust, as a voice over the comlink announced, “The Virgo is away.”
Through his windscreen, Jase watched the orange flames of his sister ship climb into the night.
“Retracting oxygen vent arm,” the Director announced, “Ground launch sequence for the Stardust is a go.”
A low, crackling vibration rose through the Stardust again as the ship to his right clawed its way skyward. Twin trails of smoke ascended into the night.
Jase wondered what the launches looked like from the bleachers. He imagined the crowd’s hoots of awe as the ships rose on flaming columns and disappeared into the heavens. Jase wished he was watching from the grandstands and not strapped into this seat.
“T-Minus thirty seconds and counting.”
“Tank pressure readings in the green.”
“All systems go. T-minus twenty-two seconds.”
Heart hammering, Jase swallowed in a dry gulp. Excitement, fear, anticipation, joy, surged through his veins with every thud of his racing heart.
“T-Minus, nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen….”
A voice, tight with panic broke across the airwaves.
“Abort! Abort! Abort! We have a red light on vent control pressure. Repeat, abort launch, multiple red lights on vent control pressure.”
“Affirmative on the abort,” another voice called. “Observers have a gas leak on the starboard booster.”
The jabber echoing through Jase’s helmet might as well have been in ancient English for all Jase could make of it. In seconds, the cacophony of techno-babble had his head spinning. When he could take no more, he clicked his mic and broke in.
“What does this mean?” he asked. “Are we going, or aren’t we?”
A brief pause.
“It does not appear we will be launching, m’Lord,” the Director said. “At least not until we isolate the problem.”
Other than a lot of talk about a leaking valve, Jase couldn’t make out anything they’d said.
“Is it... dangerous?” he asked.
“Not unless the leak ignites, m’Lord. Then it would be catastrophic.”
Jase leaned back staring at the sky. The trails of the other two rockets were no more than misty ribbons tattered by the wind. Well, shit. Isn’t this just grand? Jase smacked the emergency release on his safety harness and spun around in his seat. If he had to wait, it wouldn’t be upside down.
The engineers returned to their river of conversation when suddenly Lopez’s voice boomed over the airwaves. “They’ll be no abort,” he growled. “On my authority, proceed with launch.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” the controller acknowledged. “Launch count proceeding from stop. Ignition sequence in fifteen, fourteen…”
“Wait as second, hold on!” Jase turned in his seat unsure of what to do. “What about the vent? I think we should check that out.”
The count continued.
“six, five, four…”
With cumbersome, gloved hands Jase tugged up the safety harness and pulled it across his chest. It was tangled beneath his shoulder and too short to snap shut.
“Three, two… “
Jase yanked the twisted belt from beneath him as the rumble of acceleration surged through the Stardust. He somersaulted over the back of his seat and tumbled towards the floor when a painful wrench in his shoulder and his grip on the harness brought him to a sudden halt, leaving him dangling like a piñata as the Stardust clawed her way towards the heavens.