Royal Fortune is a Go by Douglas Kolacki – FREE STORY

The adventure of space. To go further and faster, to be on the top of those flying boys of space, to bend if not break the rules of physics, and test your endurance to win and set records. Well, what if the top of those flying boys…is a girl?

The two vehicles rose up from the Mojave runway, winged bullet clamped beneath flying catamaran. Blinding white they were painted, two jet engines rumbling on each of the mothership’s wings with the bullet hanging between them, the bullet’s nose sprinkled with round window-eyes. The rumble proclaimed liberation from gravity, another reminder to the Earth that it had been put on notice, it could no longer hold mankind down.

Strapped inside the bullet, Rake Hampton shifted in his sleek spacesuit and watched the desert fall away outside one of its fourteen windows. He was forty-two. Beside him on his right, Ginny was running down the checklist, holding it close to her visor.

Inhaling and exhaling through his mask, Rake allowed himself a minute of reflection as his eyes flicked over the gauges. The control stick, the rudder pedals beneath his boots, the whole spaceship Comet — or as Ginny liked to call it, the Royal Fortune after Bartholomew Roberts’ flagship — awaited its turn.

The altimeter closed in on 47,000 feet. He pushed the control stick forward, nose up ten degrees. “Clear for release and ignition, elevons to go,” he told Mission Control.

The International Space Station can take hours with spacewalks, from 250 miles up. We’re only going suborbital, arcing up and down like a thrown stone, with only minutes to spare.

Really, what were we thinking?

They could call off the EVA, of course — the extra-vehicular activity — but Rake knew his co-pilot Ginny Garner, the owner’s daughter who had “kept my hands full from the moment she was born,” according to Garner Senior. And kept the Air Force’s hands full for eight years, wheeling in F-16’s, before getting out and scaling Mount Everest.

“Three.” The voice from the mothership echoed in his helmet. “Two. One. Release.”

“Release,” confirmed Rake.

There was a bang of hooks snapping back, and the bullet-craft dropped. Rake counted silently to ten while Ginny got in a quick final check with Mission Control. A quiet settled over the two pilots — the calm, Rake thought, before all hell breaks loose.

Ginny armed the rocket motor; Rake gripped the control stick with both hands. Both pilots braced their heads back against their seats.

Then she held out her left hand, palm up. Rake took his right off the stick long enough to clasp it.

“Royal Fortune,” she said, “is a go.”

And she flicked the ignition switch.

A roar from aft slammed the two back. The ship shuddered, the motor burning synthetic rubber into a blaze of thrust. Rake pulled the nose up, the craft streaking to near-vertical as it blasted after the sound barrier, bucking and rocking, battling wind shears, whipping back and forth. “Good fire,” Rake reported, as if sitting back at home watching.

In five seconds, 300mph; after eight seconds, 600mph; after ten seconds — supersonic.

Outrunning the noise of the motor, quiet fell again. There was only the oxidizer tank gurgling inside the bulkhead, and air hissing over the exterior. After ten seconds, Rake looked out the window. The Comet was nearly vertical. After eighty seconds, the motor burned the last of its fuel and the craft had cleared 213,000 feet, a little more than halfway to apogee, coasting up through the ever-thinning atmosphere.

“Still in one piece?” Ginny asked.

Rake thought, but did not say out loud: Schurkness keeps three sixty-inch screens in his office. Despite all his tweets, I’ll bet he’s watching right now along with the rest of the world.

Among those tweets:

It’s my money, and my right to use it as I choose.

If NASA keeps failing at this, that’s their fault.

Tell me what law I’m breaking!

There was SpaceX; there was Blue Origin. But when Lionel Schurkness got in the game, only he scored the cover of Time, standing tall in his white suit with a black ballcap–he refused to either show his balding head or wear hairpieces–holding a red softball-sized model of Mars in one hand, and the other hand on his hip like a NASCAR winner posing with his trophy. The caption underneath read, MOVE OVER NASA.

Nobody scoffed. The space game ran on endless capital, and Schurkness commanded an empire of it. The Time article took pains to list every one of his enterprises, and the list occupied more than a whole page. They included Lockheed (bought out in 2007) and Boeing (bought out in 2010). More defense contractors lay under his roof than not, which had some people betting the government would go after him, like Microsoft in the last century. But, this had not happened yet.

And like Charles Foster Kane buying out all the best journalists, he hired engineers and builders away from NASA, a few more from SpaceX, and one from Blue Origin. He then called a press conference, his new employees lined up at parade rest behind him, and made his announcement: others would launch brief forays into orbit, but he was setting his sights on Mars. And do whatever it took, spend whatever it took on a bewildering technology chain of sample-caching rovers, sample-retrieval landers, and an Earth return orbiter, to bring a piece of Mars home to mankind.

But — Rake recalled as the sky darkened to black — that was not quite how Schurkness put it. His exact words were: I mean to be the first human to own a piece of Mars.

Fifteen years ago that was. Now, a movie marathon raged via the private satellite above his 1,588 acre ranch in Ferron, Utah: Mars Attacks. The Martian. Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Red Planet. And, of course, the classic George Pal War of the Worlds as well as the 2005 Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise remake, around the clock for a week now. A counter on the lower right of the screen, present throughout every film, ticked off the days, the hours, the seconds until the historic moment arrived.

And not only that — as a defense contractor in a league by himself, it was rumored he would fire twenty-one surface-to-air missiles in salute upon arrival of his prized possession. He kept such things on his property, presumably without the warheads. (“Where are those going to land?” Ginny once asked.)

Another tweet: Why is Garner Spaceways staging their extravehicular activity on my day? They’re not going above low-level orbit…I hate to break it to them, but spacewalks have been done, all right?

“We scheduled the EVA before he confirmed the arrival date,” Senior told the press. “Are we supposed to change it for him now?” Gray-haired, bearded and usually in sunglasses, Garner Senior saw his own vast corporation differently after the loss of Ginny’s mother.

Only she faded out slowly from lung cancer, Rake thought. She didn’t die all at once in a car crash, like Nan, after our first real shouting match in three years of marriage. Her last words to him: “You never really served the Navy, or your country. You just got all you could from them. You’ve never done anything for anyone but yourself —”

Rake shook the memory from his head.

###

Orbit reached.

All noise faded into silence. The Comet, now a true spacecraft, went still, gravity releasing its hold. The shaking and shuddering ceased, and only the pilots’ seatbelts held them down.

I’d almost forgotten… Rake and Ginny had experienced this weightlessness on the first two flights. This third mission kept the cabin depressurized for the EVA, the pilots-now-astronauts snug in their spacesuits. They now existed in vacuum silence except for Rake breathing through his mask, and a bit of squeaking when he moved inside his suit.

“Welcome back, Ginny,” he said. “Black Sam’s pieces of eight made it.” His own voice sounded different here, minus the modulation through air; lower.

For each of its trips, the Comet had carried tokens into space. Garner Spaceways employees threw in rings, bronzed baby shoes, a piece of the Berlin Wall. And Ginny brought her most prized possession, six Spanish pieces of eight said to have been recovered from the wreck of Black Sam Bellamy’s Whydah. Rake had secured what he called his lucky toolbox under his seat, as on the other trips. And for this mission, Garner Senior added an 18th-century boarding pistol with a curved handle and a muzzle that looked altogether too long.

Below lay the Earth. It gave Rake pause — the endless expanse, the green and brown of the North American continent and the blue Pacific beyond, the cotton wisps of clouds, and the blue glow that enveloped the whole Earth and nourished its five billion inhabitants with oxygen.

But now, the orbital clock was ticking. The Comet was not Apollo, did not achieve escape velocity; at 328,000 feet, gravity still had a hold. Once the ship reached apogee, it would begin a slow free-fall back to Earth. Rake kept his eyes fixed on the green Flight Director Display — three minutes since ignition, and only seconds now from that highest point.

Ginny unbuckled her seatbelt. Before Rake could catch himself, he twinged with envy — he had to sit tight while she floated free, pushing off from the top of her seat and over the two passenger seats behind, her face toward the overhead.

Rake pressed the rudder pedals all the way down, tripping microswitches. “RCS on.” The Comet now steered with gas jets on its wings and nose. Then, he pulled two handles on his left. “Tilt unlock…tilt moving.” He watched the instrument panel, not hearing the normal hiss of actuators as the rear half of each wing jackknifed up to sixty-five degrees. A safe reentry depended on this, and if anything went wrong, they would want as much time as possible to troubleshoot.

Ginny floated by the starboard hatch, holding her self-maneuvering unit — a small gas tank with a nozzle she could point in any needed direction.

###

From NASA’s mission website:

These first collected and returned samples could answer a key question: did life ever exist on Mars? Only by bringing the samples back can we truly answer the question…

Rovers were exploring Mars, it was true, but their mobile labs could only do so much. How did Mars end up in its current state? Martian soil, like moon rocks, could be kept available for future generations to study with future technology. More secrets unlocked…even, perhaps, the question of life.

Except, NASA couldn’t seem to follow through. Blueprints vanished, equations didn’t add up. When Schurkness confirmed his samples were on their way, NASA made him an offer. Just two tubes. Even one! Three times they offered, and the European Space Agency twice, upping the price each time. He refused.

Schurkness on Twitter: Garner Spaceways will only have five minutes up there at suborbital altitude. That’s it. What’s the point? Why is Garner risking his own daughter’s life?

Well then, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

All I can say is, don’t let my Mars Sample Return EEV hit you on its way in. (Champagne glass emoji) You could make it a little less dangerous by rescheduling for another day. Or better yet, canceling it altogether.

###

“Look!”

Ginny’s voice brought a jolt. For a moment, Rake forgot his array of instruments, the infinity of black velvet now bearing the Comet over the rim of the Earth, the glowing blue perfection of home’s curvature below, and looked where her gloved finger was pointing.

Holy. Hell.

It was what he thought it was, sure as blazes. The wide, snowy cone that was the Schurkness Earth Entry Vehicle, bearing thirty tubes inside: twenty-eight with soil samples, two containing Martian air. Any possibility of its being one of the 34,000 pieces of space junk littering Earth’s orbit was dispelled by its shock-absorbing conical shape and the blue SCHURKNESS INDUSTRIES lettering around its rim. Big as a truck tire, it was set to end its journey with a long plunge without a parachute, down to the sprawling ranch property where Schurkness and a truck crew (with cameras) waited to go out and claim it.

Rake stared. The EEV coasted slightly to port, nearly dead ahead at some fifty meters, as if out for an orbital jaunt like the Comet itself, and had not traveled sixty-five million miles over the past nine months: first in a rocket fired from Mars, then transferred to an orbital retriever, then taken to Earth in a return craft, and finally, once clearing the moon, released to complete the journey by itself.

Rake’s first thought after Holy Hell was: Well Ginny, you could go out and wave hi to it.

She was facing him now. Her blue eyes burned. “Rake?”

Rake what? And then it dawned on him.

He searched her face. He did not like what he saw there. “Ginny. You are not really thinking —”

She made a wild gesticulation of one arm, floating in the rear of the cabin, loose tether line floating all around her. Her legs seemed to join in the motion, since she did not have to use them for standing. With her right arm, she waved; with her left, she made slashing motions across her throat.

What? — Oh, the audio, the cameras. He mouthed back: Your EVA won’t be recorded! And Mission Control wouldn’t know what was going on —

Ginny did the honors herself, pushing off the bulkhead and shooting Supergirl-like over her seat, putting out a hand to stop herself while reaching for the audio switches, then the camera switches. Positioned to the right of her seat, they were too easy for her to reach. The Comet now hung isolated in space.

Rake stared her down, visors almost touching. “You can’t do this.”

“Rake —”

“We’ve got no time —”

“It’s our one chance —”

“We haven’t trained for this even if we did have time, it’s —”

“It’s for everyone, you know what NASA said —”

“It’s plain suicide!”

But, there was no convincing her. Senior had told him stories: When she was eleven, she found a rusty car in the desert and decided she was going to jump over it on her bicycle, like Evel Knievel. She built ramps out of old plywood, tried a jump, wiped out and skinned her knee, tried again and sprained her shoulder. She told her father it had simply been an accident, which may have been close enough to the truth, but by the time he found out the whole truth, she had made her jump and ran home out of breath, proclaiming her triumph. And Rake was willing to bet, that whenever Senior tried to reason with his blue-eyed daughter with the windblown blond locks, she gave him the same unwavering laser-stare she was showing him now.

Ginny floated back to the hatch. Rake’s own body held still, his mind racing to process all the implications of what he still could not believe she really intended to do. Keeping his voice level, he said, “You know we’ve only got about three minutes. If you stay out too long —”

“Bring us up alongside. We’re already gaining on it.”

It was true. The EEV had drawn closer off the port bow, its lead cut in half, as if daring them to try it.

“We’ll be right next to it in ten seconds.” Ginny hung in the hatchway, securing the tether line to a clip on her suit.

“How are you gonna get it in here?”

“I’ll push it in.”

The EEV was nearly even with the Comet now, appearing for all the world like the car waiting next to you at a red light. Except, a lot smaller. That would fit, he couldn’t help thinking, in the two passenger seats. And seatbelts were already there to secure it (but were they wide enough?). It might work… He had to admit, he liked the idea more and more. But time was not on their side.

Aloud he said, “If Schurkness ever finds out…”

“He won’t. How could he?”

Rake thought about it. Once the EEV fell to Earth, it would announce its arrival with an onboard beacon, activated by the impact, marking the spot. Or so Rake had heard; he’d had no reason to research Schurkness’ planned triumph.

Ginny, hovering in the hatchway and holding to the edges, pushed off gently with her hands and floated out into space, tether trailing behind her. In seconds, she reached the EEV, by all appearances hanging motionless instead of traveling at 17,500 miles per hour with the whole vast Earth looming below.

Rake stepped on both rudder pedals, fired the roll-jets on both wings downward. That might buy them a little time, but they were also heading off course. The first mission saw the Comet reenter thirty miles from the designated airspace, but he had been able to glide back to Mojave. This could take them a good distance further, and their glide range was sixty miles — or less, once the additional weight was brought on board.

And then he glimpsed something else, ahead and up high — way up high, little more than a speck, but he could make out its solar wings and, most of all, its blue S.

Schurkness’ broadcast satellite. Positioned directly above his ranch.

We are way off course.

And Mission Control? And Senior? They must be pitching a fit, scrambling to reestablish contact.

###

There was one more matter to consider as well.

Some warned of unknown contagions those alien samples might carry, like the diseases unwittingly brought to the New World by settlers, that devastated the native population. Might this mean poetic justice for Mr. Schurkness? Either bedridden for a while, growing extra limbs, turning green or dying in spasmodic fits, depending on who you asked.

We have a perfectly good space station, someone else tweeted. Can’t the samples be kept up there? And studied?

Once again: No.

###

Out in space, Ginny floated. Continuous jets of blue gas fired from the Comet’s wings, the wings’ rear halves tilted up in their jackknife configuration. She held for dear life to her self-maneuvering unit, hanging in the two or three meters of space between the Comet and the EEV with the blue SCHURKNESS INDUSTRIES circling its rim.

She reached out her right hand. The prize came to her, her hands contacted its smooth surface, too smooth, she kept floating past it. Raising her SMU and giving it a burst, she sent herself back to the ever-descending white cone. It began pulling ahead, toward the blue planetary glow seemingly just below her dangling, booted feet.

“Rake?”

Then she remembered, she had turned off the audio. Well, then. Holding to the edge of the EEV, she managed to maneuver herself — slowly, slowly, she remembered from her training in the pool — until she straddled it, and fired her SMU in the opposite direction. That did it.

The jets still burned from the Royal Fortune’s wings, but the ship did not seem to rise past Ginny’s own position. Gravity was reasserting itself…and the temperature was rising, the inside of her suit heating up, as if she was wearing it in the middle of the desert.

Ginny fired her SMU again — once more — the open, welcoming hatchway rushed up.

But she had misjudged. The EEV was not lined up exactly with the rectangular doorway. It approached at a slight angle and struck the edge, recoiling back. Ginny saw it coming an instant beforehand and tightened her legs around the prize, bracing for the shock, the blow shivering her whole body, feeling cut in two. Two more bursts from her SMU — the Fortune was beginning to pull ahead, visibly descending now. Beads of sweat floated around inside her visor. She dismounted and pushed the EEV with her left hand while firing a final burst with her right, and it coasted through the doorway.

This time, the loot entered cleanly. It had dented and sheared some paint off the fuselage by the doorway (Will that cause any problems sealing the hatch?), but it banged into the opposite bulkhead and drifted back, hitting Ginny like a refrigerator and pushing her against her side of the wall as she struggled to close the hatch, sealing it — yes, it would seal — she breathed a prayer of thanks, bathed in sweat.

“Mission Control, do you read?” Rake’s voice. He had turned the audio back on.

Ginny had her hands full with the stolen cargo. She had trained underwater, yes, in a gigantic pool with her suit and a replica of the ship with frogmen watching her, but that was nothing like this, and now, she just winged it the best she could. Wriggling behind the EEV that was clunking into the overhead and the bulkhead and the backs of the passenger seats, she managed a get a hold on opposite edges, the thing was too damned big, floating upside down, pushing her boots against the overhead, pressing the EEV nose-first into the two passenger seats. Then, she groped for the seatbelts and strapped it down, struggling to fasten the buckles, a safety seat for a big and very precious baby.

Senior’s voice crackled over her earphones. “Where are you? The chase planes aren’t getting a visual.”

“We’re all right, Dad.” She paused, catching her breath. “I think we’re somewhere over Utah.” Rake glanced over his shoulder at her. She gave him a thumbs-up.

“What happened?”

“One thing at a time. First, let’s get home.” She eased herself back into her seat, strapping herself in, as if they were still floating up at a safe altitude and able to admire the Earth below instead of plunging headlong toward it, friction driving up the temperature in a hurry.

“Here come the G’s,” Rake told her.

###

Rake took his feet off the rudder pedals. The tilt of the wings would straighten out the ship, however he entered. He watched the altimeter, gravity crushing him back in his seat. “One hundred fifty thousand.”

“There’s three,” Ginny said–the number of G’s.

“Peak G passed,” Senior called out.

“Seventy-five thousand.” Rake tracked the decreasing altitude. “Seventy.”

“Tilt at your discretion,” Senior said.

In ninety seconds, the craft slowed to subsonic. Rake moved the levers on his left, now able to hear the hydraulic hiss as the wings realigned, and the konk aft as they locked into place; the Fortune would go into loops if the wings kept their tilt. The ship was now a glider.

Senior’s voice rang in their helmets. “Guys, there’s something coming at you very fast.”

“What?” Rake looked here, there, saw only blue sky.

“Two of them now, from the east, they’re flying into your path. Three, four–damn! There’s a whole swarm of them.”

Rake’s pulse jumped. He and Ginny exchanged glances.

Schurkness? Who else? His twenty-one missile salute, it wasn’t just a rumor after all, and the Royal Fortune was gliding–just gliding. And it had just taken on extra weight Rake could only guess at. Leaning on the left rudder pedal, he brought the craft into a port turn, nose down.

Ginny was watching the starboard side. “I see them. Close to two dozen, by the looks of it.”

Rake saw them now too, streaking like bullets, trailing white smoke as the Fortune herself had done when rocketing up into orbit only minutes ago. He leaned on the elevons, bringing the ship down further (and reducing its glide range still more), but its normal sixty miles weren’t going to suffice in any case.

“Those should be heat-seekers. That’s what I heard.” Ginny spoke with a steely calm. “They can’t home in on us.”

“So no warheads either?” Still, if any of those hit…

A missile shot across their bow as she spoke that last word, here and gone, clouding Rake’s vision in smoke for an instant. Three more passed, whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, all overhead. Rake pulled back on the stick, the ship dropped, another whoosh sounded to starboard. Then all was quiet, as quiet as it was in space, as when the rocket motor had burned out.

Ginny craned her neck, her helmeted head turning this way and that. “I don’t see any more.”

Rake let out a breath. The altimeter read 500 feet, but the grassy, flat terrain outside looked closer than that. They had evaded the missiles, but lost too much altitude.

“Guys?” Senior’s voice.

Ginny replied. “I think we’re all right, Dad.”

“Where are you?” Senior asked.

She scanned the outside, squinting. “Mountains off to the west…I think we’re over central Utah.”

“There’s a two-lane highway about a mile east of us,” Rake said, “running north to south. I’m going to try for that.”

Silence for a moment, then Senior came back. “That could be I-15 or I-70. Or State Route 89. I’m flying out of here now, will get a car from the nearest airport.”

Even in a private jet, Rake wondered how long that would take.

Right now, the crisis was his airspeed of 140 knots. Too fast to lower the landing gear of twin wheels and front skid. He lined himself up with the Interstate and brought the Fortune around in a 360-degree turn, pulling the nose up, the speed slowing to 130, 120 knots. He lowered the gear. Traffic was sparse–thank God for that–the ship coasted down, its wheels and skid extended, and touched asphalt in the northbound lane, skidding, slowing to a halt.

The pilots unbuckled their seatbelts. Ginny took off her helmet — her blond hair fluffed out and fell around her shoulders, some of it plastered to her brow — and lifted herself out of her seat.

Then, she tilted her head. “Do you hear something?”

He did — a faint but steady beeping. Slowly, they turned their heads toward the stolen cargo occupying the passenger seats behind them. Behind its smooth white surface, dented in one place where it had struck the hull, came a steady beeping, one every second. Beep…beep…beep.

The world’s two newest criminals faced each other.

Ginny said it. “Is that the beacon?”

Rake broke into a sweat. Yes, it has to be, sure as hell, and it’s telling its owner exactly where to find us.

He climbed out of his seat, bent down and pulled his toolbox out from underneath. Getting busy with wrench, screwdriver and whatever else might be of help, he broke open the EEV and cut any wires he saw, until the beeping ceased.

“Well,” he stowed his tools, “now we’re vandals, too. But —?”

Ginny was already there, working around the EEV’s interior. After a minute, she got to it, and lifted it out with care: the white container, cylindrical with rounded ends and big as a basketball, with the thirty sample tubes sealed inside.

“Look at this.” Speaking softly, she hefted it in her arms like a baby. “Rake, these are actually from Mars. I’ve got goosebumps.”

He was looking outside. By now, a good two dozen cars, minivans, sedans and an eighteen-wheeler some ways back, were lined up behind the surprise roadblock. Had they heard yet? Did they know?

Maybe against all odds, Schurkness believed the EEV had simply flown off course…but no, Rake reminded himself, the missiles. That man had to be howling, screaming, blowing up Twitter. The word would get out quickly: he wanted his treasure back, and very badly indeed.

And what would the world’s wealthiest man be willing to pay the good citizen who returned it to him?

Ginny handed Rake the container. Heavy as lead, it sagged in his arms. “Take care with it — careful!” She grabbed.

“I got it.” He lowered it to the deck.

She approached the hatch, where only minutes before she had stepped into space as an astronaut and returned as a pirate. “I’m going out there.”

“Ginny — ?” But she slipped out the hatch and closed it with a thump behind her.

Rake pressed his face to the rearmost window. Ginny took her time looking over the traffic. Then, she hurried to a dark gray minivan at the front. A man in his twenties sat in the driver’s seat. She talked with him for a minute. Then she straightened up and waved toward the ship. “Over here!” she shouted. “Bring the cargo.”

What else was there to do? Hastily, he carried it out.

She indicated the driver, who had a peach-fuzz mustache and wore a blue ballcap with an American flag on it. “Rake, this is Jason. He says he’ll help us. Jason, Rake.”

“How dee do.” Jason tipped his cap, but didn’t extend his hand. Rake’s own hands were full of the hot property.

Ginny went around, slid open the minivan door, and climbed inside. Rake handed over the heavy container. Jason lent Ginny his phone and she keyed in a number, raising it to her ear. “Dad? Yes. We’ve got a ride. We’ll meet you at Fillmore Airport.”

“Hey, hey! Hold on!”

Rake looked up. Two men big as lumberjacks, one with a massive beard and the other with a black knit cap pulled over his ears, lumbered up. The bearded man held a Bowie knife. “Nobody move.”

Stay calm, Rake thought. “Yes?”

Beard looked from him, to the white container, and back again. “Is this really what it looks like? What we think it is?”

The man in the cap eyed the prize with a grin too big and too toothy. He pointed to the van’s rear tire. The bearded man moved toward it blade-first.

“Freeze!” Rake shouted.

The men jolted. Then their eyes opened wide. Rake was leveling Senior’s boarding pistol at them.

“Drop the knife,” Rake said. “Ginny, Jason, go.”

“Is that real?” One of the men eyed it.

“Would you like to find out?”

The two were lapsing into confusion, trying to figure this out, it showed on their faces. It wouldn’t last long. Rake jumped to the minivan, the Fortune would be left here on the freeway but it couldn’t be helped, and climbed in the side door Ginny was holding open.

Jason gunned the engine and veered off into the grass, around the abandoned spaceship, and accelerated up the highway with a roar of its engine.

Rake let out a long breath and handed Ginny the pistol. “Glad I brought it out.”

“That’s what I should have done.” She was watching out the back window, but so far no one was following. “Everyone saw it. Jason, you can say we forced you.”

The driver nodded, hands gripping the wheel, eyes locked on the road. The minivan’s engine hummed.

###

Senior met them at Fillmore Municipal Airport. Pumping Jason’s hand and assuring him Ginny’s promises would be kept, he added his own signature to the note she had scribbled for him. Rake served as witness. Schurkness could offer great rewards, yes, but Garner had one more thing besides.

“The note,” Ginny told Rake, “said that in addition to —” she named an amount — “we will, within one year, take him up into space. No charge. And you know what people have offered us for that.”

Yes. Two hundred and fifty thousand. Five hundred thousand…

After Jason drove away, Senior turned on his daughter. “Virginia Elizabeth. What have you done?”

Rake stood beside her. “Both of us, Mr. Garner. For everyone.”

No good — he wasn’t buying it, Rake could tell. The man knew his daughter too well.

“Dad,” said Ginny. “We don’t have time for this. Let’s get it to NASA — okay? And let them make the call. If they say return it, fine, we will.”

Senior threw up his hands, which he was probably used to doing, and waved the two to his rented BMW. “I’m just hoping you don’t spend the rest of your lives in prison.”

But Rake had to say it once more. “We did not do this for ourselves. This was for all mankind.”

Like the Apollo astronauts. They may have planted our flag on the moon, but they didn’t proclaim it the fifty-first state and ‘In your face, everyone else!’ No. They left engraved on a plaque, along with their signatures and President Nixon’s, on the descent stage of the Lunar Module that remains to this day: We came in peace for all mankind.

And Nan, he thought, wherever you are now…I hope you approve.

###

The cover story on the next issue of Time: SPACE PIRATES in glaring yellow caps, beneath a pre-flight publicity shot of Rake and Ginny standing in their spacesuits with folded arms and big smiles.

Newsweek declared:

 

BLACK BART WOULD BE PROUD

But should we?

 

Schurkness vented his spleen on Twitter, denouncing the two as common criminals and a disgrace to all astronauts, demanding they be put away for life, and Garner Spaceways shut down completely. What kind of enterprise is Garner running? was one of his 140-character invectives, rolling down his feed.

Responses and other tweets ran the gamut from It’s thievery plain and simple! to Even in space, you can’t trust anyone, to Mars was never S’s to claim as his own, to Schurkness surrendered the booty! #spacepirates. Along with the inevitable “Arrrrs” and “Hi-hi-heys!” with skull and crossbones emojis.

And analysts expressed concerns. It had to happen, some of them supposed, at some point. Man might have cluttered up space with all kinds of junk, but no one never committed a crime there. Now, that chastity had been lost. And more than one preacher delivered sermons on how sin knows no bounds and respects no bounds, and even the sky, it turned out, was not the limit.

But Lionel Schurkness had his own problems to deal with.

Six of his employees had come forward. They accused him of physical violence, striking and kicking, when the EEV’s beacon went astray and he guessed what was happening. And they were willing to testify that he had fired the twenty-one missiles at the Royal Fortune himself, despite their pleas.

That, in turn, snowballed into more allegations: Spies inside NASA, paid by Schurkness, sabotaging their progress for years. The Senate was looking into it.

Nonetheless, NASA, upon seeing their surprise delivery, asked the pirates to make restitution. Senior delivered the container himself to a Schurkness representative, offering his most sincere and heartfelt apologies.

But whether any of the sand, rock and air samples inside its tubes were the ones from Mars, or brought in from the Mojave Desert–who could ever say?

 

 

END

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