“So this is your plan?” Rob asks, after a very awkward three-hour ride out into the middle of nowhere with Weaver. Before them is a bulbous, old-fashioned launch capsule the size of a house atop six rust-colored cylinders, in turn sitting on top of a six-foot-thick hexagonal plate of steel roughly the width of a baseball diamond. A shallow trench has been hastily dug out beneath it. The icing on the cake is a rickety-looking scaffold leading to the very top. The whole contraption is the size of an office building, and has clearly seen better days.
“It’s a brilliant plan. Do you know what this thing is?” Weaver asks incredulously.
“It looks like a big pile of shit.” Rob is fitting magazines into the bandolier strapped around his torso, and slaps the last one into place on his rifle.
“Did you sleep through every history class in school? This, my friend, is the Orion. The first interstellar ship ever produced. Your grandparents rode on this thing for thirty years! And then they got here and boned, and then had your dad. And some other people on this thing got here, and boned, and had your mom. And your mom and dad boned and had you! And now we’re going to fly it!”
“You’re going to fly it. I’m going to plug as many of those goddamn jarheads as I can before they kill me, just like all those poor bastards back at the bunker. Some leader, that Anton.”
“Dude,” Weaver sounds disappointed. “That was merely a distraction. Do you really think those kids would fight to the death? All they’re supposed to do is put up a fuss to buy us some time. Anton’s talking them in circles for a bit, but he’s going to send them straight our way.”
“And I suppose that’s also a part of your master plan?”
“Hell yes, it is. Do you know how this thing works?”
“No,” Rob sighs. “But I suppose you’re going to tell me.”
“Nope. That’s a surprise.” Weaver beams and smacks Rob on the back. “Come on, I busted my ass getting this thing working again. Get climbing.”
Kids these days have no balls. For all the ordnance they pack, they surrender without a fight. A sound, decisive victory for Sergeant Baker and his men. The foreign guy, however, shows a little more gumption. He loses ten teeth in as many minutes before he gives up the runaways. He seems more upset about his busted glasses than the fact that his boys are a pack of pussies. Still, no one dies, and that’s a good day as far as the Sarge is concerned. This calls for a cigar.
“Yes, Private Bullock?” Baker leans back in his seat aboard the helicopter and kicks his feet up, lighting one of his finest Cubans.
“How are supposed to know when to stop?”
“Apparently, Bullock, we won’t be able to miss it. That Slav back there said the LZ will be as clear as day, even all the way out here.”
And sure enough, it is. The jalopy is lit up like the Fourth of July. Bullock sets the bird down.
“Keep the engine running.” Sergeant Baker, along with Privates Jones, Goldstein, and Mbenga, hustles over to the scaffold next to the rocket. “Jones! Goldstein! Haul your worthless carcasses up that ladder and pull those sorry sons-a-bitches out of there! My dinner’s getting cold!”
Mbenga can just make out a dull thud coming from the bottom of the ship over the thumping of the helicopter’s blades. “Sergeant Baker, I think something just fell off the craft.”
“Well, shit, go check it out!” This useless hunk of crap has parts falling off of it already. How did they expect to go anywhere in this thing?
“Sarge! You wanna come take a look at this?”
“Jesus H. Goddamn Christ. You want me to hold your prick while you piss, too, Bengie?” Baker stomps his way over to Mbenga’s position and bends over to get a better look. A plastic cone with a dull metal base sits in the hole dug out from beneath the ship. “I’ll be a monkey’s bare-assed uncle!” Baker laughs. “This bird’s laying eggs!”
A red LED flashes twice before Baker, Mbenga, Bullock, and their ride are vaporized in a nuclear blast. The force of the explosion acts on the thick steel pusher plate, and Jones and Goldstein are a thousand feet in the air before they cotton to what’s happening. The scaffold gives way and falls free of the Orion just in time for another charge to come farting out the bottom for another boost.
Weaver is howling. He can barely contain himself enough to set off the charges they need to reach escape velocity, seven in all. His hysterical laughter dies down once they’re out of the atmosphere. “Nice surprise, huh? Man, I wish I could have seen the look on their faces while they still had faces.”
Rob is still rattled from the launch. The command capsule provides just enough protection from the blinding flash and deafening roar to keep him from losing any of his senses permanently, but not enough to keep Rob’s bladder under his control. “Yeah. Hilarious.”
Weaver leans forward and peers through the window to his left. He spots the Colin Powell as it breaks orbit and heads their way. His fingers dance over the myriad meters, switches, buttons, and levers in the cockpit. “See that joystick-looking thing in front of you? That’s the impulse thrust control. It’ll spin us in the direction we need to go. Push it to five o’clock.”
The Orion rotates to face the approaching TUG boat, its nose pointed just above where Weaver anticipates the ship will be. He slaps the release button to let another charge fly, before pressing the ignition. The flash is still there, but the roar is eerily absent as they sail over the top of the military vessel. It struggles to maneuver its cumbersome frame into position for a pursuit, while Weaver triple-taps the release to drop three charges in its path. A gleeful smile crawls across his face as he checks out the rearview display. When the timing’s just right, Weaver drops the hammer. Sturdy though it is, the Colin Powell is no match for three simultaneous 30-megaton nuclear blasts. It breaks into jagged pieces and burns up in the atmosphere over the dark half of Zarmina.
“Hot damn, what a rush!” Weaver cackles. He sets a trajectory that will take them past the dim red sphere of Gliese 581, and lets the autopilot do the work. Rob promptly passes out.
Leonard Lawrence is in a pickle. The cramped hallway aboard the Colin Powell has suddenly come undone in front of his eyes. Through the jagged hole into cold, black space, Lawrence can see the back third of the ship receding from view, drawn inexorably toward the rocky grayish-brown planet below. Shards of twisted metal break off and tumble end over end through low planetary orbit. The last bits of utility hose connecting the two now-useless fragments of space ship snap loose and jettison gas and liquid into space.
Leonard is now on the wrong side of the hull, since the door behind him has just been sealed shut. Leonard knows he’s got about fifteen seconds to save his ass, so he spits out all the air in his lungs (to equalize the pressure; any gasses inside of him are making a bee-line to the cold vacuum beyond the barrier of his skin, so he’s safer getting rid of his last breath than holding onto it and bursting his lungs like balloons), farts, and gathers up both feet behind him against the door. He aims himself at one of the bigger gaps in the now cross-sectioned frame of the ship and shoves off, hoping to find an open door. Leonard puts his arms out in front of him as he darts into empty space, and finds that his hands are in the process of swelling up to twice their original size.
As startling as this sight is, Leonard’s distracted by the sudden explosive disassembly of a good portion of the ship behind him. A torrent of debris engulfs him and shoves a couple of sharp chunks of metal through his back, little spheres of red liquid leaking into the space around him. Then a wave of concussive force rattles Leonard’s bones and changes his velocity. He flails his arms helplessly as he zips past his intended target. He’s now careening through the upper atmosphere of Zarmina, losing blood, and hoping that he’ll black out before he’s reduced to a long, thin line of ash dissipating into a twilight sky.
Rob dreams of Earth. He dreams of fields like the one back in the agricultural center, full of lush crops. In his dreams, the fields go on forever, and he can pick fruit fresh from the trees. The sun shines upon his face, and the wind at his back cools him. He lounges in green grass and drinks from clear streams and looks up into a deep cerulean sky full of beautiful, fluffy white clouds. Rob doesn’t know any better.
“Wake up, we’re here!” Weaver shakes his friend from his slumber. “Come on, man, I need my co-pilot! Look at this!”
Rob stirs and through the glass in front of him sees a hole in space, framed by a massive man-made ring, a particle accelerator constantly forging exotic matter to keep the portal to Earth open. The stars, usually scattered haphazardly in the sky, pool in a circle just inside the accelerator, their light warped by the gravitational forces contained there. Beyond them lies a bright blue marble, speckled with clouds: Earth. Rob imagines himself there for a moment. But it’s not like his dream. There’s no green anywhere, just vast patches of tan, from where the deserts have overrun their borders, broken up by geometric patterns of gray: giant, swollen cities. Zarmina may not be much to look at, but it’s better than this.
“God, what a shithole,” Weaver mutters.
“Let’s cut the cord.” Weaver grins maniacally.
For the first time in weeks, Rob smiles. “Yeah. What do I do?”
“It’s gonna take a little bit of doing.” Weaver double-checks his math. “Grab the stick. Give me a hard push to three o’clock.” After a few false starts, the Orion is finally in position, the wormhole centered perfectly in the rearview. Weaver rubs his hands together. “Now for the fun part. On the count of three, spin that bitch!”
Rob laughs. “All right.”
“One… Two… Three! Spin!”
Weaver spams the release button while Rob whirls the stick around. A dozen charges drift toward the particle accelerator.
“Rob, buddy, you do the honors.”
A cascade of brilliant white bursts breaks the seal holding the wormhole open. As the portal collapses, no longer able to sustain itself, it swallows all traces of debris. The light from stars surrounding it snaps back into its unencumbered arrangement, freed from gravity’s lensing effect. Rob sighs and sits back in his seat. “That felt nice.”
“Word.” Weaver ruffled his friend’s hair. “Now I just need to figure out how to land this thing.”