Science Fiction


by Andrew G. McCann

The exhaust burned brightly, white flames licking against the patio barbecue and
Mrs. Dalton's seven-foot-high wooden fence. With a shuddering roar the projectile, taller
than a tenement and wider than two retired astronauts, lifted slowly and mightily. Then, it
was up and away, arcing into the soft night sky of Brooklyn to become just another
pinprick of light. The smell of charred pine tar from the fence hung in the spring air.
Rhododendron leaves along the perimeter of the yard continued to burn and curl, then
winked out like a crowd departing.

Bob moved away from the screen door and pushed his protective Ray-Bans up onto his
bright-blond hair. I wondered briefly how some people could get them to stay like that.

"You did it, Chuck. The Arrow has launched. Way to go."

I moved to the kitchen table, scraped a chair along the maroon linoleum and sat
lumpishly. "Yup." I grinned tiredly, and then let it fade, as if a thought that in fact had
been bothering me for weeks had just occurred to me. "I dunno, though, I'm thinking the
neighbors are going to complain one of these days. Mrs. Dalton shot me a dirty look at Key
Foods today."

Bob sat down, and threw his arms wide. "Well, where else are you gonna do it? After
all, this is private enterprise entrepreneurialism the Future of Space, and junk like
that. That's what you keep telling me."

"I guess you're right," I said, giving a smile to show that, indeed, I was pleased. So far,

"'Nother beer?" Bob got up and opened the door of the heavy, old Frigidaire, which the
landlord long ago had touched up with off-white house paint. He leaned in and rooted
around; the rustle of shrunken lettuce heads in plastic wrap mingled with the clinking of

"Not for me, thanks," I said, "I want to see where we are." I picked up the clipboard.
"The Arrow should pierce the Van Allen Belt in about 30 minutes, dispatch the bird, and
then return for a neat, one-point landing. I guess everything's covered." I began idly
tapping my pen on the schedule.

Bob kicked the fridge shut and sat down. "So, tell me again, what's the point of putting
up a fake satellite?" With concentration, he opened the bottle and took a large swallow.

I let exaggerated shock show on my face. "I can't believe you're asking me that." Bob
looked at me blankly. "First off, it's not 'fake,' and secondly, it is one of two very serious
scientific experiments." Bob rolled his eyes heavenward, which I ignored.

"Now," I continued, "deploying the test satellite is a practice run, so that once the U.S.
space program becomes truly privatized my fledgling company will be well placed to get
many contracts. As to the secondary aspect of this mission, which I've told you about
countless times, it involves the effects of weightlessness and cosmic rays on mildew a
very simple life form for a very basic experiment. Any changes in the sample, attached to
a piece of thick polyethylene a shower curtain, in fact will be beamed back to me via a
narrow but unused sector of the amplitude modulation band, which you know as AM radio."
I gave Bob a prim, satisfied smile. "That, of course, is the simplified explanation."

"Still doesn't sound very practical, even when you use big words," Bob said, raising his
beer bottle in a smug, precise way.

I ignored the implied smirk. "Well, I had something set up with a counterfeit-perfume
maker from Ozone Park. We wanted to see how the stuff would react in a space
environment, with the idea we could sell liters of official perfume to NASA for all those
women who'll one day be living in space stations and starships for long, unglamorous
periods. But it was hard to find a skin sample in time for this space shot, so the deal fell

I paused, starting again to worry about how I would get these launches to pay for
themselves. I looked up at Bob; he certainly hadn't been exploding with ideas. "Anyway, I
can't believe you asked me that," I snapped.

"Sue me," Bob said, shrugging and finishing off his beer with a long, steady pull. He
belched. "'Nother cold one?" he said, moving toward the fridge.

"Not for me, I'm taking a quick nap," I said, standing and stretching.

"Okay, ace," Bob said airily. He retrieved a beer and sat down, causing the Ray-Bans to
flop back onto his nose.

"Keep an eye on things. I'll see you in an hour," I said.

"See ya later," he agreed.

I left Bob sitting at the table, among the cannibalized toasters, mixers, and other
appliance-whatnots that had given their lives so that The Arrow could fly.

The Arrow is launched!

Something woke me suddenly. Swinging my legs off the side of the bed, I grabbed
for the alarm clock, squinting dazedly. Dimly, I could see it was 4:30 a.m., but I couldn't
grasp what that meant. My face felt puffy and lined, slightly damp on one side where it had
faced the pillow. My ear felt plugged up. But there was something more bothering me
what was it?

Then it struck me: The rocket!

I stood up and flipped on the bedroom light. We had launched at 9 p.m. That was
seven-and-a-half hours for a one-hour flight. What had happened? Had the autopilot
returned The Arrow in one piece?

Hope and trepidation roiled within me as I stumbled out of the bedroom and down the
hall. My shadow loomed ahead of me like Frankenstein's Monster. In the kitchen, empty
beer bottles, worn plaid shirts, and greasy electric-motor parts were still strewn about,
but Bob was gone. I hurried to the back door and peered out.

No rocket! And no Bob.

Wait had Bob mistakenly been on the rocket? No, I remembered, he had been in the
kitchen, drinking heavily and quibbling.

"Where are they? They should be here," I said to no one. A cricket, perhaps from
behind the fridge, chirped twice amid the stillness. The 40-watt bulb continued to burn
unevenly above. I knew my mouth was hanging open, but I did nothing about it.

"The radio!" I dashed into the living room, tripping over a wrinkle in the threadbare
green carpet. Reaching back along the wall, my fingers found the light switch and flicked it
up. Nothing happened.

"No rocket, no Bob, and no living-room lights," I muttered. My hands fumbled along the
coffee table, touching sticky spots from long-gone TV dinners, until they recognized the
rectangular shape of the radio that had come free with a subscription to "Popular

I swept the kitchen table clear with the edge of the clipboard. Sitting down, I turned on
the radio and began searching through the staticky wavelengths for any communication, any
sign, any thing from the prodigal projectile.

The all-news radio station blared forth suddenly. "...crashed at Vandenberg Air Force
base in a fiery disaster. Tight-lipped Air Force officials would only say they have no idea
where the rocket came from. Meanwhile, a NASA spokesman said a preliminary inspection
of the parts indicate it isn't Russian, but more likely a crude, homemade device. More
details aren't available yet. Weather and traffic updates after this message..."

I switched it off hurriedly, guiltily. "Vandenberg? How did it get to California?"

* * *

The shades were all drawn. My repeated phone calls had only reached Bob's
answering machine. Maybe he had heard the news. Apparently, I was in this alone. Would
they trace the rocket to me? I knew the neighbors would be more than happy to turn me
in; it's a wonder they had never called the police, and here was their golden opportunity.

Then another thought hit: Had anyone been killed?


Then I heard a voice, muffled but loud, coming from the front yard. With one finger
crooked around the window shade I peeked out the front window.

My landlord? What was he doing here at six in the morning? What was he saying?
Was he drunk?

I listened closer. "...know yer in dere, ya lowneck. I'm giving ya da shovel! I'm sick of
hearing from da neighbors about yer motors and high-speed radio and bongos. Do me a
favor and get da hell out!"

Footsteps crunched down the driveway. A car door thunked shut and an engine noise
roared away.

Oddly enough, I was relieved. I had really wanted to move closer to town, anyway. And
this was a good reason. Good motivation. Rents on the East Side are comparable, and I could
even walk to work. Lots more going on, too. Night life, bars, movies and maybe I would
meet more girls, or at least one.

Then my rhapsodic line of thinking nose-dived again: What if someone had been killed?
Would they link it to me? Was I in big trouble? And where the hell was Bob?

But no, I decided to put it out of my mind. With quick resolve, I began loading my few
worthwhile possessions into my Hyundai to take a fast, perhaps permanent, vacation back

As I packed, I also decided I would call White Goods Repair later and tell my boss I had
been called back to Dayton on emergency family business. That should work.

* * *

I hurtled down an endless runway, amid the steady whine of tires chewing up the
concrete miles and the choppy roar of the half-open window, trying to drive faster than I
could think. I kept the radio off. Hearing even the smallest number of casualties would
have sent me over the edge, literally, the car snapping through the guardrail like it was
tinsel. Airborne, to land . . . where?

* * *

It was almost dinner time by the time I swung the cheap, foreign-made car onto
my parents driveway, and I realized I didn't have a cover story. What if they knew?
Would they turn me in? I resolved to wing it.

Daisy began yipping as I walked into the living room; then she recognized me, and
launched herself toward me, tail spinning like a propeller. Dad and Sis were sitting on the
sofa, drinking glasses of lemonade and reading big picture books about dinosaurs and

They looked up, surprised.

"Chuck, what brings you home besides your car?" Dad said.

I paused, and then blurted it out. "I had to get away. That rocket that crashed in
California; it was mine."

Sis just looked at me, stunned. Dad said: "Trouble with the autopilot, I'll bet. Maybe we
could go over your blueprints after dinner?"

"Okay," I said, feeling my fears already beginning to abate. "But tell me," I said,
looking back and forth at Dad and Sis, "did you hear. . . were there any casualties?"

Dad stuck his lower lip out in brief concentration. "I don't think so."

I heaved a sigh.

* * *

Over dinner, Mom, Dad, Sis, and I managed to laugh off the whole episode. "You
should have seen me trying to contact the rocket over the AM radio, flipping the dial every
which way. Oh, you would have died," I said with a chuckle. Tremulous relaxation
pervaded me, and a sound night's sleep was beginning to look possible.

The room eased into silence. Daisy's head was on my lap, her teary, brown eyes looking
up patiently.

I cleared my throat, and ventured: "Things had been going so well, even flawlessly. But
I guess that's life: Suddenly, no dream, and no best friend. I know where the rocket is now
what's left of it, anyway but I never did find Bob."

"Well, son. At least you tried. We may never know what happened to Bob, but I guess
this puts the kibosh on any further plans to conquer space on your own." He admonished
me with one sadly-but-lovingly raised eyebrow.

I smiled back, but shook my head slowly. "No can do, Dad. I'm going for a Moon shot

Story and illustration copyright 1994 by Andrew G. McCann

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