OK, so I got on a roll this weekend and it's extended into today. I can usually crank out about 3,000 words a day. I still havn't a clue where this is going, but I didn't with my other novels either. They write themselves. I've gotten to trust my characters because they know what they're doing, I don't.
“Well, are we ready to become heroes again?” Mike asked the crew with a large grin.
Lana gave him a sour look, but didn’t break the narrative she was delivering to Moscow. Sharon was doing the same to Atlanta.
Mike could see the broadcast on one of the video monitors. There was a 4-way split screen showing the shots of the asteroid from Mike’s satellite, a shot of each reporter, and a wide shot of the interior of the command deck and crew.
The command deck was more like a luxurious living room with electronics on one side than a utilitarian cockpit of a space shuttle. General Gerasov was seated at the controls and his wife was next to him at the navigator’s console. Oksana sat next to Carol at the engineering console.
The three briefly went through their pre-flight checklist and the General turned around to Mike. “We’re good to go.”
Mike just said with a straight face, “Sounds good to me. What better way to start out to save the world than from a cow pasture?”
Oksana giggled and Mikhail turned back to his controls. The side and rear monitors showed that they were slowly lifting off. Soon the blackness of space enveloped them.
Carol rattled off a set of coordinates and Misha punched them into his console.
“We should be within range in about an hour and a half,” Mikhail said. “Normally I’d go make something to eat, but Olga’s got me so stuffed, I may not eat for a week.”
Oksana giggled again.
“John, like to join me in a beer?”
“No thanks. I’ve gotten used to the laws on the Reservation, so I never touch the stuff.”
“Admiral, a little bourbon and branch?”
“Don’t mind if I do. Everybody else is hard at work and I’m feeling a little useless at the moment.”
“I might join you for a soda,” John said as the three made their way to the elevator.
They exited on the second deck where the galley and staterooms were. They passed through the living area, which was like a large living room complete with couches and end tables. The quarters were set off around this area and the galley was to one side.
The galley was large with two walk-in freezers and a large table in the center that could easily seat 12. Through a door at the back there was another “wardroom” for more formal occasions.
Mike opened a refrigerator. “RC, right John?”
The young man nodded and accepted the soda.
Mike then took a mug from the freezer and drew a Guinness from a tap on the wall. He set that on the table, took a bottle of Maker’s Mark from a cabinet along with a glass, and set them down in front of the Admiral. He then removed a bottle of water from the refrigerator before closing the door.
The Admiral poured himself about two fingers of amber liquid and splashed some water into it. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to this. When I was you, we were sending people into space on glorified firecrackers. Now you take off from airports and cow pastures without spooking the animals.”
Mike sipped at his stout. “Don’t forget that we’re just about the same age. I remember that, too. I just figured there had to be a better way.”
“We may be the same age, but you still look 20 years younger. Moreover, the doctor here, and the three kids upstairs, all look like they are playing hooky from high school. I’ve got recruits that look older than the General.”
“I could take you up one of these days to visit D’am and Y’va.”
“Not on your life!” the Admiral snorted. “I told you once that your lifespan is more of a curse than a blessing. When it’s my time, it’s my time.”
Mike shrugged. “Suit yourself. The upside for me is that I get all that time with Svetlana.”
The Admiral raised his glass and nodded.
“That brings me to another subject,” Mike said as he turned to John. “You and Oksana aren’t getting any younger, either. Fourteen years ago you were a lovesick puppy. What happened?”
John looked embarrassed. “Nothing happened. Literally. I don’t know how to take her most of the time. I know she loves me and she knows I love her. Whenever I’ve started to approach asking her, she changes the subject.”
“Two things,” Mike said. “Never, ever, try to understand a woman. It can’t be done. Second, does the word shy ring a bell? That woman is still so painfully shy, it hurts me to watch sometimes. You’d think that at 32 with a PhD. and a full professorship, she’d loosen up. She hasn’t. This isn’t something you’re going to be able to go gently with. You’re going to have to take the lead and just come out with it.”
“I know. I’m just afraid she’ll turn me down.”
“If you honestly believe that, then I’ve severely underestimated both of you.”
“I totally agree with the Chief,” the Admiral pitched in as he took another swallow. “Now I’ve only known the two of you for a couple of years, but I’m not blind and I’m not stupid. That woman upstairs is head over heels in love with you. The General didn’t waste any time corralling Carol. Neither did the Chief here with Lana.”
“First Pavel, then Mike, now you…”
“Carpe diem; seize the day!” Mike blurted. “I thought I was happy being a bachelor. I will tell you right now, the happiest 12 years of my life have been being married with Lana.”
“Don’t you ever forget that, mister,” Lana’s voice came through the door of the galley.
“How long have you been out there eavesdropping?” Mike wailed.
“Long enough to know that you’re giving John a long overdue father-son talk.” She entered the room and sat down across from John. “I’ll be perfectly honest with you; I wasn’t particularly thrilled when Misha announced that he’d asked Carol to marry him. It was the best thing he’s ever done. Every time I see them together, I can feel the electricity and excitement. It’s tempered him and given him a purpose. The military was good for him; marriage is better.”
John knew he was cornered and was silent as he looked at his hands clasped on the table. Lana took the opportunity to remove a bottle of Putinka vodka from the freezer. She took a bottle of vermouth and a martini glass from the cupboard. She poured a shot and a half of the vodka into the glass, shook vermouth and then removed the cork and stirred the alcohol with it before replacing the cork. She then took a small onion from the refrigerator and plopped it into her drink before resuming her place at the table.
“Well?” She asked.
“All right, I’ll do it,” John mumbled.
“Good.” Lana took a long swallow of her gimlet.
“What are you doing down here?” Mike asked Lana.
“”There are only so many ways I can say the same thing. CNN is interviewing Sharon so I have Vesna translating for my feed.”
Mike looked at his watch. “We should be in position in about 15 minutes. I’ll want to be up there for that.”
They all finished off their drinks in silence and trooped out of the galley toward the elevator.
“How’s it going up here?” Mike asked when they entered the command deck.
“We’re putting the final adjustments to our position in now,” Carol answered without turning around.
“Vesna,” Mike called out. “Pull the satellite out of the way so we don’t suck it in also. I think your cameras are powerful enough for a bird’s-eye view from this distance.”
“Why do I even bother?” Mike said under his breath. Admiral Teramore smirked, as did Lana.
“We’re there,” Carol announced. “We’re 100,000 klicks from the asteroid and synchronized with it to the side of its trajectory. Oksana, you can set the aiming now.”
Carol rattled off a set of coordinates and Oksana punched them into her console.
“We’re all set, Sir,” Mikhail said over his shoulder.
“Vesna, keep a very close watch on this thing with everything you’ve got. We don’t want it to start breaking up or anything else weird.”
There was a giggle from all three youngsters at the controls.
Mike ignored the computer. “OK General. Five second bursts with enough time for Carol to check our position and the object in between.”
“Aye, aye.” The young man pressed a button on his console and then released it.
Carol’s eyes were glued to her monitors. “No effect.”
“Again,” Mike barked out and Misha repeated the process.
After the tenth time, Carol Called out, “It’s moving!”
“All right! Let’s keep it up until we get it where Carol wants it.”
After 30 minutes, Carol finally said, “It’ll miss the Earth and Moon by at least a million kilometers.”
“Anything else in its way?”
“Not that I can see. It’s now on a clean trajectory to impact the sun in about five weeks.”
“Fantastic. Think you can find your way home while I treat everybody to a soda pop?”
“Machines,” Mike muttered.
The entire Earth Defense Squadron as well as all of the airmen from Nellis were on the tarmac as Vesna settled down into her space.
They all snapped to attention and saluted as Mike opened the airlock door. Mike, the Admiral, and General Gerasov returned the salute before Misha called out, “At ease.”
The admiral addressed the troops, “This is what they hired us to do; defend the Earth against all problems from space. Today we had the opportunity to do just that. I know all of you would have liked to be in on the mission, but as you saw, it wasn’t necessary. My gut tells me that we’re going to have plenty of opportunity to use all of your skills in the future.”
A roar of jet engines drowned out the rest of what the Admiral had to say as the Air Force Thunderbirds made a low pass over the field in formation. Directly above them, upside down, were five of Mike’s pilots in their MiGs. The entire formation circled back over the field and began a steep climb with smoke trailing from their wingtips. All of a sudden, the MiGs stopped dead, hung suspended in the air while the Thunderbirds continued up another several thousand feet, and executed a bomb burst where four of the jets arc out and the fifth corkscrews down the center. At about 5,000 feet, they all leveled out and left in four different directions, crossing over the center of the field.
Suddenly Mike’s aircraft began to climb, performed the same maneuver, except they did full loops, and reformed climbing straight up until they were completely out of sight above the men.
“I don’t remember seeing that on the training schedule General,” Mike said as he half-squinted at Mikhail.
General Gerasov drew to attention, grinning. “Squadron, dismissed!”
The men all relaxed and broke out into spontaneous applause.
There was a knock on Mike’s open door.
“What can I do for you, sergeant,” Mike waved the man in.
“Sergeant Kowalski, sir. I have a rather large favor to ask.”
“I’m scoutmaster for the local Air Scouts troop on the base. I was wondering if I could get a tour of Vesna. The boys have always been impressed, but after today, I know they’re totally out of their minds.”
“No sweat, sergeant. When’s your next troop meeting?”
“I know this is short notice, but it’s tonight.”
“Great! Get me a list of their names, and I’ll arrange clearance at the gate.”
“Will do! And thank you sir. We’ll assemble here at 19:00.” The sergeant turned on his heel and exited the office.
Mike pressed a button on his intercom. “Vesna, have the crew on board at 18:00. I have a job for them.”
“They’re all still here except the Admiral and Mikhail. You’re not going to do what I think your going to, are you?”
Mike just grinned, “I’ll never tell.”
Sergeant Kowalski and 20 boys and 10 girls were at attention in front of the airlock at 19:00 as promised as Mike appeared through the door. The group snapped a salute, which Mike returned.
“Sergeant, bring your troop in. The elevator is on the opposite wall.
Mike closed the airlock and followed the group over to the elevators. Each of the youths were wide-eyed as they looked around.
“This is the science section. You’ll see the doors to the laboratories around the perimeter.”
One of the scouts raised a hand and Mike nodded.
“Sir, you made this in your backyard?”
“No son. That was the prototype for this ship. Sukhoi in Russia fabricated this section. The top section was fabricated by Lockheed-Martin in Atlanta.”
The youths looked around more.
“If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you the other decks. Sergeant, if you’ll bring up the rear, we’re going to the second deck.”
Mike took a group up to the living quarters and waited for the elevator to deliver the rest of the group. Now the group was incredulous as they exited the elevator into the expansive living area.
“Sir, I’ve seen photographs of the old space shuttle and even the International Space Station. My living room isn’t this large or comfortable.”
Mike just smiled. “I like my people to be comfortable.”
He walked across the space and opened his stateroom door.
Now it was sergeant Kowalski’s turn to be blown away. “The last cruise I was on, my stateroom wasn’t this big.”
“This is where I stay when I’m on base. It’s a little more comfortable than base housing.”
The group all trooped past his stateroom and gaped. Mike led them over to the galley where they were impressed once again.
They finally re-entered the elevator with Mike in the lead.
As they left the elevator, one of the young people behind Mike gasped, “Oh my God! They’re all here.”
The youths boiled out and Mike sent the elevator down for the other load.
Directly in front of the elevator they could see Misha’s, Carol’s, and Oksana’s backs sitting at their positions. The reporters were off to one side and Admiral Teramore was sitting in his usual seat.
This scene was repeated as the elevator opened again with the young people tripping over each other.
Mike started again, “I want all of you to meet General Mikhail Gerasov, my pilot.”
Misha got up and shook hands with the group.
“This is his wife and my navigator, Carol Gerasova.”
Carol repeated the gesture.
“And my chief engineer, Oksana Ivanova.”
Oksana also shook hands all around.
“Over to the side is Sharon Manson, Carol’s mother, and next to her is my wife, Svetlana Angelskova. She’s also the General’s mother. In addition, this is Admiral Teramore, my deputy around here.
“You’re all the people who went to Mars. I was only four at the time,” one girl said in amazement, “but I’ve seen excerpts of that trip on television. I also watched to go to another galaxy a couple of years ago.”
“That’s us,” Mike replied. “Mikhail was your age when he first flew this bucket of bolts and so were the ladies.”
“I resent that!” came Vesna’s feminine voice.
“Oh, pipe down.”
“Humpf,” came Vesna’s reply.
“Look! That’s neat! They’ve got a tape up of a space flight.” The boy pointed to a monitor labeled “down”.
“That’s where we’ve been. Here’s where we’re going.” Mikhail pointed to the large ceiling monitor without turning around.
“Wow,” said another youth as all eyes looked up. “That’s a fantastic video.”
“That’s not a video,” Misha said in a deadpan voice, again not turning. “That’s live.”
There was a scattered, “sure” and “right” from the group.
“OK Vesna. Turn it off for five seconds,” Mike said.
There was a sudden flip-flopping of stomachs in the room as Vesna cut her internal gravity. A few of the young people began to drift off the floor. Mike kept a close eye to make sure nobody went too high. He didn’t need any sprained ankles when the gravity came back on.
“Oh my God! I’m in space. I’m really in space,” one girl wailed as Vesna gradually increased the gravity to match Earth’s.
“We’re really in space,” she continued as the tears welled up and began running down her face. “I never dreamed I would ever make it into space!”
“Always dream,” Mike said gently. “There’s nothing you can’t accomplish when you set your mind to it.”
Tears of joy were evident now on several other faces.
“OK now, if you’ll follow me back to the second deck, I’ve got some snacks to set out.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Kowalski said. It was evident that, given the chance, he’d also break out in tears.
“My pleasure. Besides, the General needs to get us back before your 21:00 quitting time so that these kids can get home.”
Mike brought out several large trays of zakuskas and tretya before rolling out a large cooler filled with soda. The young people milled around talking excitedly, most still in shock.
The elevator opened and Oksana emerged with a box. “We’re home,” she told Mike.
Mike nodded, accepted the box, and held up a hand. “OK, people, we’re back in Nevada.”
They assembled again in front of the closed airlock.
“Nobody will ever believe this!” said one boy.
“Yes they will,” Mike retorted. He called out a name and the boy came forward. Mike handed the young man a paper and a jewel case.
“What’s this?” the boy asked.
“It’s a certification that all of you now are officially astronauts.”
The boy’s eyes bugged. “The CD?”
“It’s a DVD. Vesna recorded the entire tour and the trip. If anybody thinks you’re lying, play it for them. We didn’t have this on television because I’d have every group in the world on my back for tours and I’d never get anything done.”
When he got to the name of the girl who had broken out in tears, again she became weepy. “I will never again goof of in school,” she blubbered as she hugged Mike. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“Your succeeding will be all of the thanks I’ll ever need.”
Mike finished the list, including handing the sergeant his certificate.
“There is absolutely no way I can ever express my gratitude for what you’ve done tonight,” Kowalski say as the two shook hands. “I know there are a lot of lives that just took a right turn.”
“Believe me sergeant, it was my pleasure. If I can inspire even one kid, my life is complete. By the way, what do you do over at the base?”
“I’m in aircraft maintenance.”
“Would you like to work with my people?”
“What?” the sergeant’s eyes bugged.
“I like your attitude. You obviously believe that kids are our future because you’re a scoutmaster. I’ve said that many times and I need people like you around me.”
“You really mean it?” the sergeant was anxious.
“Of course. I’ve got some influence around here and I can talk to your C.O. first thing in the morning.”
“Oh my God, YES!”
“It’s a done deal, then.”
The sergeant exited to round up his troop and get them home as Lana came up behind Mike.
“That was a wonderful thing you did tonight. It even brought tears to my eyes.”
Then she completely caught Mike off-guard with an elbow to the solar plexus. “And if you ever cut the gravity on me again, this tin can will be your permanent home!”