Experiment #192

Lunar Eclipse Part 1

Mr. Thomas Erons exploded in the upper atmosphere during a standard atmospheric re-entry. Shrapnel rained over four states. Erons had been one of the first backers of the Pendleton Engine. A decade prior to the accident, he’d been the first hobbyist to build something capable of space flight. Now he was the first hobbyist, or at least the most public one, to die in space. Increased regulation and government oversight followed, as did widespread news coverage. Every person who’d dreamed of being an astronaut could now realize that dream. Decades of training and a giant fiscal apparatus were no longer required. The mid-life crisis vehicle turned from a convertible, jet-ski, or even an airplane into a rocket.

***

Jad looked over the backyard fence at the empty launch pad. Polished chrome flowed along every inch of the pad. Just two months before, Jad’s neighbor, Mr. Crisp, had built the launch pad and bought the shiny red rocket. Mr. Crisp had flown it every clear day since.

Just before Jad was born, Arthur Pendleton had brought the Pendleton Engine to market. Any military-grade, re-usable rocket could now push a payload the size of a short bus into the atmosphere. Every software engineer in the Valley bought one and took a loop around the planet before driving to work. It wreaked havoc on the FAA until most of Silicon Valley and similar locations became no fly zones. (Rocket hobbyists sat in enough high places to protect their mid-life crisis investment.) Jad’s Dad, like millions of men before him, had been more conventional. He bought a convertible. Unfortunately, he also took a trip with someone other than Jad’s Mom. Jad lost both his father and a drool-worthy piece of machinery.

Mr. Crisp often talked about taking Jad up sometime, particularly around Jad’s Mom, Lisa, but he’d made empty promises about his jet ski, convertible, and two-seater airplane too. Jad had never gone more than sixty-five miles-an-hour in his life, even on highways where you’re allowed. He held onto Mr. Crisp’s promises with every fiber of his speed-starved being.

Jad and Lisa lived in a large house in an upscale neighborhood. But the house, like the marriage before it, consisted mostly of empty rooms. Jad’s Dad “magnanimously” took on his ex-wife’s mortgage. It both prevented her from complaining about the emotional damage he’d caused and gave him an excuse to be cheap with his time. That didn’t stop him from buying his own big house, spending weekends on the golf course, and building his own launch pad out back, though. Jad saw his father, Carl, about once a month or so. Even then it was for little more than a “here’s a gift my assistant thought you’d love,” and a “see you next time.”

As Jad watched the skies, Mr. Crisp returned. The ship streaked into view. Then the retro rockets fired and he heard the boom of the engine as its sound caught up with it.

Mr. Crisp landed his shiny red capsule with pinpoint accuracy. The rocket, which he had named The Sun Skimmer, looked like something out of a 1950’s era sci-fi movie. Not the most aerodynamic design, but it did make a pretty picture landing in a backyard in the suburbs. Mr. Crisp climbed out in his black space suit and pointed a greeting at Jad as he walked into the house. Jad sighed and watched the metal cool.

***

In early May, Arthur Pendleton stepped off of his private island and announced the Pendleton Moon Prize. Three quarters of a billion dollars to whoever could bring back a fresh moon rock using a Pendleton Engine.

The government and a handful of corporations had landed on the moon hundreds of times. Enough that even the conspiracy theorists held their peace. But the dreams of the hobbyist expanded beyond a few dozen laps of the globe to that little rock just out of reach.

The main obstacle to moon hopping hobbyists was fuel. The heavier the object the more fuel you need to reach escape velocity. The extra fuel, in turn, increased the weight. Corporations had made many advances in finding both more powerful and lighter fuels. The added weight of the fuel necessary to get you to the moon and back, though, still overcame the lightening powers of the Pendleton Engine. More conventional means existed, but these were out of reach of the hobbyist. The amount of fuel a typical hobby rocket could carry would only get you into the thermosphere and back (with a handful of circuits around the globe thrown in for good measure). Going to the moon was something different entirely.

Experiment #193

Lunar Eclipse Part 2

That summer, Jad saw the convertible around the neighborhood. He even saw it in Mr. Crisp’s driveway a time or two. He did not, however, see more of his father.

A few weeks after Mr. Crisp got his rocket, Carl showed up one night at Jad’s house. Jad was home alone watching TV while Lisa worked the late shift.

“Hey, buddy.” Carl said when Jad opened the door to him. “I’ve got a proposition for you. You wanna come live with me for the rest of the summer?”

Jad frowned. He hadn’t seen his father in three weeks despite a half-dozen sightings of the convertible. Even so, that made him all the more interested.

“Why?” Jad asked.

“Awww, come on. You don’t want to live with your old man for six weeks?”

“Will Mona be there?”

“Nah. She’s on a trip to Milan…modeling or something. It’ll just be some quality guy time.”

“I’ll have to ask Mom.”

“Sure, sure, when’s she get home?”

“It’s Friday so probably not till one.”

“Ok, well, I’ll stop back tomorrow.” He turned to go.

“No, wait!” Jad said. “You could stay…And-and watch a movie.”

Carl smiled. “I’d like that.”

Carl came in and sat down on the couch. Jad made instant popcorn and got them two bottles of root beer. They watched an old 2D mad scientist movie marathon. They laughed themselves silly making fun of the characters, plots, and special effects.

When Lisa came home from work, Jad and Carl had fallen asleep on the couch together. An empty root beer bottle stood on each end table and a bowl of popcorn lay spilled on the floor between them. On the screen, a movie played about a mad scientist pining for the woman he turned into a monkey.

Lisa turned the movie off, cleaned up, laid a blanket on each of them and went to bed.

***

In the morning Carl and Jad presented their case to Lisa. She resisted at first. But when she saw the glint in Jad’s eye that reminded her of his father on their wedding day, she agreed. She stipulated, however, that she would visit every Sunday and could reevaluate the situation at any time.

Carl saw her stipulations and raised her an extra visit on Jad’s birthday.

Two days later, Carl picked Jad up in a different car, a four-door sedan. It was nice but a definitive step down from his convertible.

“What’s this?” Jad asked once his mother had kissed him goodbye and walked back in the house.

“Hey, what’s wrong with my ride?” Carl said in mock defensiveness. “Truth is I had to trade down, but that won’t be for long, I’ve got a plan that’ll put me back in the black.”

“What?” Jad asked.

Carl glanced at his son then back out the windshield. “It’s a secret, Jad. You can’t tell anyone, not even Mom.”

“Why not Mom?”

“Well, Jad,” Carl said. He rubbed his chin as if he was thinking it over. “I need your help, and I know you’ll be excited, but if we told Mom she’d think it was too dangerous.” He paused and looked at Jad. “But I think you can handle it.

“Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course I can,” Jad said.

“You pinky swear?” Carl extended his pinky.

Jad smiled and hooked his pinky around his father’s. “Pinky swear.”

“Ok, Larry and I are going to teach you how to fly a rocket.”

“What?” Jad wasn’t sure he heard correctly.

“A rocket,” Carl repeated. He looked over at his son and laughed. “You better tone that smile down, or your forehead’s going to fall off.”

Jad’s cheeks reddened, but he didn’t stop smiling. Suddenly his brow furrowed. “Wait, who’s Larry?” he asked.

“My business partner.”

***

Jad had only been to his Dad’s house once before. Darkness had fallen by the time they pulled into the driveway. The house was much like Jad’s: lots of empty, unused rooms. Last time Jad had been there, even unused rooms were lavishly furnished. The house had become cluttered too. Both his Mom and Mona were clean freak. But the house hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. Jad’s eyes flitted from one pile of stuff to the next and then landed on a week’s worth of dishes in the sink. Carl laughed and made a joke about firing the maid. Jad shrugged and asked more questions about the rocket.

Well past midnight, Carl insisted he go to bed. Sleep was out of the question. But Jad consented to go to his room and stare at the ceiling.

Before dawn had broken Jad and Carl were up, dressed, and walking to the launch pad, or rather the launch pads. As the sun came up over the horizon, Jad saw a steel and chrome launch pad beneath a battered, dull-gray rocket. Aerodynamics had come a long way since the 50s. This rocket could slice the air like a knife or, rather, could have when it was new. It now looked like a large child had banged on it with a hammer.

Carl put his hand on the dorsal fin. “This, Jad, is The Amalgam,” he said. He turned to the rocket, “Amalgam, this is my son, Jad, your new pilot.” Jad wasn’t quite sure what you say to a rocket when you first meet it, but Carl didn’t give him a chance. “The Amalgam is our test rocket,” Carl continued, “She may look a bit beat up, but she’s solid as a rock. Larry and I’ve modified her to increase her range. We’ve, well mostly Larry has, gotten the Pendleton Engine up to a 12:1 ratio.”

Jad’s mouth dropped open.

Pendleton himself had never gotten further than 10:1. 8:1 was the standard ratio for weight lightening. Eight pounds of weight reduced to one pound within the Pendleton engine’s field.

Jad looked up. A familiar bright red rocket shot out of the blue. As the sonic boom hit them the rocket landed with pinpoint precision on the other launch pad.

As the dust and smoke cleared, a man climbed out. The man wore a black space suit with red accents.

Jad turned to his Dad. “What’s Mr. Crisp doing here?” he asked.

The man approached and removed his helmet. “Jad,” Carl said, “this is Larry Crisp, my business partner.”

Jad took Larry’s outstretched hand and had his own crushed good-naturedly in a firm handshake. “You’re going to fly with us, Mr. Crisp?” he asked.

“I’m your support crew,” Larry said with a wide grin. “I’m gonna save your hide.”

Jad smiled. he liked this side of Mr. Crisp.

“All right, lets take a look in the cockpit,” Larry said.

They spent most of the day just going over the knobs, switches, and indicator lights of the cockpit. A few hours in, Jad asked whether he could go ahead and take a ride. “You know…” he said, “to see how all those things fit together.” Larry would not hear of it till Jad knew the cockpit backwards and forwards and had run three hundred flights on the jury-rigged flight simulator they’d set up.

Experiment #194

Lunar Eclipse Part 3

It took two long weeks before he had Larry satisfied and a clear morning dawned. Carl had found Jad a spacesuit that was only one size too big. The Amalgam did not have multiple seats, but there wasn’t much room behind the pilot seat anyway. Jad wedged himself in behind Carl and held on for dear life. The rocket zoomed to aircraft level within a few minutes. It leveled off at the outer stratosphere near the low-orbiting satellites. Jad had never seen so clear a blue or so deep a black. They fought for dominance of his vision, then got deeper as the blood rushed back into his face.

Larry took the opportunity to test rocket-to-rocket communications. He followed them up in The Sun Skimmer. “You two alright in there?” he asked in his deep baritone.

“He’s got orbit eyes,” Carl said.

“Ha! And you don’t?” Larry asked.

“That little blue and green ball gets me every time.”

“No time for sentimentality, we’ve got work to do.”

“Wait, we’ve got time for one more thing,” Carl said. Jad turned from the side window to the front viewport as Carl counted down from five. On cue the moon shot out from behind the earth, a brilliant beacon of white light.

Jad and Carl both caught their breath.

“Moonrise,” Carl said.

“It’s beautiful,” Jad said.

“You’re gonna land on that piece of heaven for me, aren’t you?”

Jad smiled and whispered, “Yeah.”

“Now can we get to work?” Larry asked, breaking the moment.

Carl spent the next two hours teaching his son flight maneuvering and navigation. Carl had been a pilot before he settled down as an engineer and married Jad’s mom.

Eventually Carl asked, “You wanna fly her?”

Jad’s heart skipped a beat. “Can I?” he asked.

There wasn’t a lot of room in the cockpit, but they managed to switch places. Jad’s hands shook as he reached toward the controls. When he got within an inch or two of the joystick though he paused, fear freezing his hand. With some encouragement from his father and a deep breath he went for the joystick, but instead of grabbing it he knocked it. The Amalgam rolled hard to the left, missing The Sun Skimmer, and starting a spin towards the earth. Jad screamed and tried to get out of the pilot’s chair. Carl spoke smooth and steady. “It’s okay,” he said. “You can do this. Grab the stick and pull us out of the roll. Just like I taught you.”

Somehow Jad found the processing power to listen. He grabbed the stick and tugged to the right until their roll leveled out. He pulled the joystick up toward a more stable orbit just like his Dad and Larry had taught him.

“Can we switch back?” Jad asked.

Carl squeezed Jad’s shoulder and said, “No. This is how we learn.”

They continued working until the fuel indicator lights came on. Then they switched places once more and headed home.

***

The next day was Sunday and they expected a visit from Lisa. They spent the morning eradicating every pile of clutter they could find. Mostly “eradicate” meant throwing it into an empty room.

Lisa arrived at four o’clock on the dot. She was warm and bubbly and excited. As much as she despised what Carl did to her, she also recognized that there was something she couldn’t provide Jad, something masculine that she couldn’t be. She hoped Carl could be that, would be that. That he’d help his son grow into a man.

The visit went well. Lisa was in a mind to overlook infractions and Carl was in a mind to have them overlooked. It did get dicey once when Lisa asked about the rockets out back. Carl point blank said he didn’t have the money to fly them.

Jad asked him about it later, but Carl said his statement was true.

***

The next day, Monday, they worked on take off and landing. Jad only crashed once. Luckily they had been just a few feet off the ground. There was little damage except to the neighbor’s petunia garden.

Day after day Carl and Larry taught Jad how to fly a rocket and day-by-day his confidence grew. One morning, five weeks into their time together, Carl turned to him. “Ready for a solo flight?” he asked.

Larry followed Jad up in The Sun Skimmer while Carl played ground control in an unused bedroom.

“Happy Thirteenth Birthday,” Carl said as Jad launched.

Everything was textbook smooth until they started their descent. A red light flashed at Jad as the proximity alarm went off.

“Mr. Crisp, are you getting this?” Jad asked as he tried to locate the object.

Carl smiled. Jad was almost unrecognizable from the boy he had brought home just five weeks earlier. Calm confidence oozed through his voice.

“Nothing here,” Larry said from a thousand feet away in The Sun Skimmer. “I can’t make a visual either.”

Jad scanned the scopes and looked out the windows. He saw the red oval of The Sun Skimmer, but nothing else stood out against the black of space or the blue of the Earth.

Jad stroked the instrument panel. “Ok, Mally, old girl, what are you seeing?”

Carl checked his scopes on the set of computers he used for ground control. “I’ve got nothing down here. Must be smaller than five feet wide.”

“What are you doing?” said a voice behind Carl.

Carl turned around. Lisa stood there holding a wrapped present in one hand and a Mylar balloon in the other.

Carl’s eyes widened. He pulled off his headset. “Lisa, you can’t be here!”

“It’s Jad’s birthday,” she said.

Up in orbit, Jad caught a flicker out the window. “It’s space trash,” he called into the comm link. “It’s coming in fast. Probably parts from an old satellite or a wreck.”

“Erons’ ghost,” Larry muttered.

Lisa had heard Jad’s voice through the external speakers Carl had set up for the press. “Where’s, Jad? What’s he doing?” she asked.

“You can’t be here,” Carl said.

“Where’s my son, Carl?” Lisa asked. Danger dripped from her words.

“I need you to get out of here right now.”

“Carl!”

“I’ve gotta bring him home!”

Lisa recognized the tone in Carl’s voice. Whatever she thought of the man, she knew enough to back down for the moment.

“Dad?” Jad’s voice came through the comm link. “Space trash. Please advise.”

Carl threw the headset on and jumped into the chair. “How close?” He checked the computer screens.

“I don’t know, maybe two hundred feet and closing fast,” Jad said.

“Roll away from it, toward a… stable E5 orbit. Larry, follow him, copy?”

“Copy,” both Jad and Larry said.

Jad flipped a few switches then rolled The Amalgam to the lower orbit. As he rolled, the forefront of the trash cloud hit. Alarms blazed in Jad’s cockpit as proximity, pressure, and oxygen alarms all sounded.

Experiment #195

Lunar Eclipse Part 4

“I’m hit,” Jad said. Air and gas and liquid spilled out from a gash in The Amalgam’s grey, dented side.

Lisa gave out a yelp.

“Keep calm,” Carl said.

“It looks like it caught my oxygen tank. Cabin pressure is going down,” Jad said.

“Is your suit intact?” Carl asked.

“Yes.”

“Make sure you’re on suit support. Then descend about a thousand feet to get out of the trash field.” Carl said. “Larry, can you get a visual?”

“I’ve dropped below him now,” Larry said. The comm link went silent as Larry assessed the damage. “Oh, crap. Looks like he’s leaking fuel too.”

Lisa’s fingers dug into the armchair. She started to speak, but caught herself. She tried to trust in her ex-husband’s expertise, for she did not trust in him.

“Where’s the damage?” Carl asked.

“Looks like… panel six, section four, toward the tail,” Larry said.

“Alright, Jad,” Carl said, “this is going to be tight, but you can do it. I want you to shut off valve six, seven, twelve, and uh…” he checked the schematic in front of him, “and thirteen on your fuel. Actually, shut off valve sixteen as well.”

“That just leaves four and eighteen with fuel in them,” Jad said.

“That’s barely enough for atmosphere maneuvering,” Larry said.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be enough,” Carl said. “Now are you on suit support, Jad?”

“Yes,” Jad replied.

“Jad, it’s gonna get hot in there. Between your suit and the backup inner heat shield you should be okay. But with the outer shield broken, you’re gonna feel like a fried egg.”

“Okay.”

“Now, once we get you through the hot zone—once you can hear my voice again—we’ll open the fuel valves and you’ll land fine, right?”

“Right.”

“Ok, Larry, I want you to take the lead and bring The Sun Skimmer down on flight path Delta seven.”

“Shouldn’t he follow Jad?” Lisa asked. Her body shook with worry.

Without changing his calm tone Carl said, “It’s going to get bumpy and Jad needs a point of reference he can trust. Plus if Jad’s got any loose debris that drops off in the descent we’ll lose ‘em both.”

Carl turned his attention back to those in the sky. “Alright, Jad, one last thing before we start.”

“What?”

“It’s gonna be tough, but you got this.”

Jad smiled.

“I love you!” Lisa shouted from the couch.

“Mom?” Jad asked.

“She’s here, Son, but don’t you worry about her,” Carl said. “Focus on the task at hand.”

“Am I gonna get in trouble?”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Carl said. “Focus on getting home safe.”

“Can we get on with this already?” Larry asked.

Carl smiled. “Ok,” he said, “on my mark, both of you begin descent.

“Three. Two. One. Mark.”

“Beginning descent,” Larry and Jad said almost at once.

When they hit the hot zone The Amalgam bucked like a bronco. The mangled metal caused friction with the air and prevented even heat distribution. Pockets of hot and cold air threw the rocket around in all directions. Jad kept his eye on The Sun Skimmer’s tail and centered his approach as best he could.

Carl watched his scopes. Every thirty seconds he said into the mic, “Larry? Jad?”

The white noise from the radio seemed to last hours. Lisa’s fingers dug deeper and deeper into the couch armrest. She used all her strength to keep from beating Carl senseless for putting her boy in peril.

“Larry? Jad?”

 

 

“Do you copy?”

 

 

“Larry? Jad?”

 

 

“Do you copy?”

 

 

“Larry? Jad? This is Carl.”

 

 

“Do you copy?”

 

 

“Carl, this is Larry. I’m through. Scopes are clear behind me. Probably got knocked off course. Turbulence was bad for me. Must have been terrible for him.”

“Jad?” Carl asked.

 

 

“Do you copy?”

 

 

“Jad?”

Experiment #196

Lunar Eclipse Part 5

Long moments passed.

White noise hissed on the receiver.

Lisa could not take a breath until a staticky voice finally came through.

“Dad, this is Jad. I’m through, but The Amalgan’s not doing well. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it.”

“How close are you?”

“Maybe fifty miles.”

“Have you reopened the fuel valves?”

“Yeah, but I’m still coming in on fumes.”

“Ok, try to get within ten miles and pull the shoot. Larry? I need you on reconnaissance.”

“We need him to bring it home,” Larry said.

“We need him alive,” Carl replied.

“Dad, the shoot’s got a red indicator.”

“Sarsaparilla.” Carl said under his breath. He wanted to say something else, but he’d long ago learned to watch his language in Lisa’s presence. His mind worked hard for a solution.

“Jad, you try kicking up the Pendleton?” Larry asked through the staticky comm link.

“Larry, you beautiful man, why didn’t I think of that?” Carl asked. “Ok, Jad, if we can kick the Pendleton into high gear we can make every ounce of fuel count that much more. The Pendleton dial is on the right hand side below and to the left of the main switches on a green board.”

“I don’t see it. Is it marked?” Jad asked. The engines coughed and sputtered as fuel began to run out.

“It’s marked ‘Lunatic Switch,’” Larry said.

Lisa’s brow furrowed.

“When you find it turn it up to twelve,” Carl said.

“That won’t be enough,” Larry said.

“Found it,” Jad called.

“Ok, turn it up to thirteen,” Carl said, “we’ve never gone this high, but you’re gonna need it.”

Jad’s engine coughed and spluttered some more as he turned the dial, but his speed increased.

“It’s working,” Jad said.

“Bring her home,” Carl said.

Ten miles out The Amalgam’s engines gave out completely. Every last ounce of fuel and fume had been exhausted.

“Dad, it’s empty,” Jad said. The Amalgam began to turn her nose down. Without wings, gliding the rocket to a safe landing would be impossible even for a seasoned pilot.

“Larry, get eyes on him,” Carl said.

“Going,” Larry said.

“Alright, Jad, keep your nose up and turn the dial up to fourteen,” Carl said. “Your maneuvering thrusters use a different type of fuel. What’s their gauge read?”

“It’s at an eighth,” Jad said.

“Perfect,” Carl said in a voice he hoped Jad wouldn’t see through. “More than enough.”

Jad turned the dial on the Pendleton. The unit sparked and began to hum.

“It’s on fourteen,” Jad said. Fear finally crept into his voice. “It doesn’t sound good.”

Lisa let out a squeak.

“Ok,” Carl said, “we’re going to have to time this just right. On my mark fire the bottom thruster for five seconds. Three… two… one… mark.”

Jad fired the thruster. The Amalgam hopped in the air.

“Two more hops and you’re home, mark,” Carl said.

Jad hit the thruster, and The Amalgam hopped again.

“I’m only at four thousand feet,” Jad said. “With five miles to go. I’m not going to make it.”

“Don’t talk like that, Jad. Stay with me. One more, this time burn for ten seconds. And… Mark.”

Jad hit the button and The Amalgam leaped into the air.

“Alright, Jad you’re right on target. Keep your nose up and brace for impact. You can do this.”

“Ok,” Jad replied.

Within a minute Carl and Lisa heard a crash in the back yard. They raced through the empty rooms and out through the back door.

The Amalgam had skidded across the yard, crashed through the fence, and landed in the neighbor’s pool. It floated next to the diving board in the deep end. The hatch faced the water. Without thinking Carl ran to The Amalgam, grabbed it by the nose and heaved it out of the water. It landed with a small plunk on the ground and rolled over. Then Carl heard a zap and the rocket sank two feet in the emerald grass of his neighbor’s lawn.

Carl and Lisa ran to the rocket. A dark scourge down The Amalgam’s side showed half melted innards. Carl’s fingers scrambled across the airlock controls. He yanked open the hatch once the seal released. He dropped into the craft and disappeared from view. Breathless moments passed while Lisa feared the worst. Soon Carl emerged, he pulled himself out then turned and reached down into the hole. With Carl’s help, Jad pulled himself, bulky spacesuit and all, out of the hatch and onto the hull. Before he knew what was happening his mothers arms were wrapped around him. She smothered his fish bowl helmet with kisses.

Experiment #197

Lunar Eclipse Part 6

The damage report from the crash was discouraging. Two fuel tanks had wide cuts and another three with puncture wounds. The Pendleton engine and all of its modifications melted into a solid block of metal. A large gash traversed The Amalgam’s side. Dents and dings covered every inch of the outer hull.

Six months of planning and work had crashed in his yard and nearly killed his son on his thirteenth birthday. Carl’s bank account had been running on fumes before the crash and now he didn’t see how he could go on. Until he remembered that it worked. They’d actually gotten their Pendleton up to one-fourteenth the pull of gravity. And, making the calculations, if they could sustain even thirteen for most of the trip it would work. With the Sun Skimmer’s aerodynamic failings, the pilot would still have to be light. But he’d already planned for that. He could do it. He just had to convince Larry and Lisa.

***

“No, I’m not retrofitting The Sun Skimmer. I was support craft and Pendleton modifications, that was it.”

“Come on Larry, you believed in this as much as I did,” Carl said.

“Yeah, and I’ve already lost as much too. If you crash The Sun Skimmer, what’ll I have left?” Larry asked. “My bank account isn’t much better than yours.”

“And what if we make it? You saw the dial. We achieved one-fourteenth the pull of gravity for almost ten minutes. And I’m sure the crash is what shorted it. That thing could have hummed along for hours out in space without any problem. All we have to do is modify your Pendleton and add a few gas tanks and the moon prize will be ours.”

Larry Crisp hemmed and hawed. His resolve waned like the moon.

Carl went for the jugular. “No more ugly girls for you, my friend,” he said. “With the moon prize under your belt, moderately attractive girls might actually start giving you the time of day.”

“Ha!” Larry said with a smile, but then became more thoughtful. “You think it’d impress Lisa?” As soon as it was out of his mouth Larry realized how awkward the question was, but Carl didn’t skip a beat.

“Of course it would, how could she not be impressed?”

Larry wavered.

Carl smiled. “Plus who knows her better than I do?”

Yet there were still obstacles in Larry’s mind.

“He’s just a kid though, Carl. He’s only been up once by himself. We can’t expect him to go all the way to the moon,” Larry said.

Carl’s eyes blazed. “He’s not just any kid, he’s my son. You saw how he piloted The Amalgam down. There’s only a handful of pilots in the world who could do that. He’s ready.”

Just as suddenly as the fire had come, it left. Carl smiled and held out his hand to shake. “You in?”

With reluctance, Larry extended his own. They shook.

“You’ve made the right choice,” Carl said.

“No,” Larry said, “but at least it’ll be fun.”

***

“Absolutely not,” Lisa said. “He is never going up in that death trap again.”

“Come on, Lisa,” Carl said. “He was great at it. He recovered like a pro.”

“He’s not going up in that disaster on a stick you call The Amoolah.”

The Amalgam.”

“Whatever. He’s not going.”

“I’ve been up dozens of times and Larry’s been up hundreds. We know what we’re doing.”

“And Jad? At thirteen, does he know what he’s doing? How could you think it either wise or safe to send a boy out of the atmosphere by himself?”

“You’re mad because he enjoyed it, enjoyed spending time with me.” His accusing eyes and frown turned into a self-satisfied smile. “I do believe you’re jealous.”

“I will not be the bad guy in this equation. I am the sane one who keeps him alive. You’re the one who nearly got him killed.”

“Maybe your ‘safe’ way of life isn’t worth living.”

“Out. Now. The answer is No.”

Experiment #198

Lunar Eclipse Part 7

Carl and Larry cannibalized unnecessary parts from The Amalgam. They used their collective engineering and electrical skills to streamline The Sun Skimmer’s systems. Larry picked up a used Pendleton at a rocket supply store on his credit card. Carl welded The Amalgam back together. Finally, five weeks to the day after Jad’s crash they were ready to launch. The Sun Skimmer’s friction profile was too high. Even with the Pendleton humming at fourteen, they realized they still needed a lighter pilot.

Then it happened. An Eastern European man by the name of Egor Ivanovitch did the unthinkable: he circled the moon. He didn’t land or bring back a moon rock, but it would only be a matter of time, and that’s when desperation took over.

“Lisa, he’d be great at this.”

“That’s not the point, Carl. The point is that it’s completely unsafe.”

“This is his shot at greatness, his chance to leave a legacy.”

His shot? His chance? His legacy?”

“Yes, Lisa, his chance to have his name go down with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, George Willard, Anthony Ford and the subsection of humanity who has set foot on another world. That could be his. At thirteen!”

“Or he could die in a fiery ball of burning metal. Or he could die gasping for breath on an alien landscape. Or crash in the ocean as his anti-gravity thingy gives out and sink to a dark and watery grave. And that’s just off the top of my head, if I put some thought into it, I’m sure I could come up with something really terrible.”

“Sometimes you gotta risk something.”

“Not our son. Risk your own life, risk that fool Crisp’s life, but don’t risk our son’s life.”

“You can’t keep him on your leash forever.”

“What are you fighting about?” Jad asked. He’d just come in from outside.

“We’re discussing,” Lisa said attempting to make it true more for herself than for Jad.

“Your Mom doesn’t want you to fly the rocket again,” Carl said.

Jad looked at Lisa.

“Really, Carl? How about we talk about this later?” She turned to Jad. “Honey… It’s just not safe and I don’t want you risking your life.”

“But you came home safe and sound, Jad,” Carl said. “You were amazing! I’ve seen seasoned pilots freeze under less pressure.”

“Carl…” Lisa said in a tone she often used during their marriage before exiling him to the couch.

But Carl barreled forward. “You’re probably the only thirteen year old who’s flown a rocket,” he said. “And not only that, you were fantastic.”

“Yeah, but I crashed The Amalgam,” Jad said.

“So what? It’s had more damage on a regular landing! You were great, Jad, and I want you to keep at it.”

“Carl, this conversation is over,” Lisa said. “Leave now.”

“Awwww come on, Lisa. He’s thirteen. He’s old enough to know what’s going on, what’s at stake.”

“I agree, Carl, but this is not how I planned to let him know. So please take your leave.”

Carl threw up his hands and walked out. Lisa sat Jad down and, to her credit, talked through every risk and reward of Carl’s proposed moon trip. At the end she told him why she would not let him go and how dangerous the trip really was. Jad agreed with her in the room, but her words weren’t the ones that kept playing in his head. No, those were his father’s words: the words of praise.

He loved those words and the way they sounded coming out of his father’s mouth. He held onto those words. He clutched them tight and lived on them for weeks until their truth and affirmation had drained away. Jad had to have more. He needed to twinkle in someone’s eyes who did not offer it willingly like his mother, but meted praise out in bits and pieces. Pieces that you fought and strove and wrestled out of them until you stood triumphant and perfect.

Two weeks after that safe, rational discussion with his mother, Jad decided to fly a rocket to the moon.

***

One night after Lisa went to work, Jad packed a bag and walked next door to Larry Crisp’s house.

Larry had misgivings about the situation now that Lisa was not behind it, but Carl came over before he could back out. Then they made their plans. Jad would stay at his house two more days until launch conditions were optimal. This would also keep Lisa from tracking them down before they could launch.

Experiment #199

Lunar Eclipse Part 8

The day of the mission dawned bright and cold for early October. Lisa had been granted one of her few day shifts to go see Jad perform in the orchestra that night. Jad had other plans. He got up and got ready to go to school. He caught the bus, stopped at his locker and went to home room just like every other school day. After home room he went to the office. His dad signed him out and blamed a dentist visit that they’d forgotten about. Carl drove Jad straight to his own house. Larry was finishing testing and preparing for launch.

Carl handed Jad a bag of takeout and went over configuration changes between The Amalgam and The Sun Skimmer. Jad visited a real restroom for the last time before his trip. Then Carl helped him into his spacesuit.

A car pulled up. A young, blonde woman got out of the car and knocked on the front door.

Larry came running in. “Someone’s here,” he said. His hands shook and his voice almost cracked.

Carl waved him off. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s the reporter.”

“You called a reporter?” Larry asked. “Are you trying to get us caught? What if Lisa-”

“Settle down, Larry,” Carl said. “We had to have a reporter to make this official. Plus, she’s cute.”

Larry protested, but Carl ignored him.

Carl answered the door and brought Mandy in to meet everyone. Carl started off telling her about the plan and each of their involvement.

Jad, of course, would be taking The Sun Skimmer to the moon, land on it, pick up a moon rock or two and return. Larry would be the orbital support. He would take a mostly repaired Amalgam on daily trips to the outer atmosphere. Otherwise communications would be difficult while Jad was at his farthest from the earth. Carl would be ground support and coördinate efforts from the control room.

Mandy, of course, was welcome to stay the entire four days if she liked. She smiled and said, “I’ll only be able to stay the night. My professors wouldn’t be happy if I skipped class.”

Larry shot a look of disbelief at Carl, but Carl didn’t look up to get it. Mandy asked a number of questions, some of which seemed off-topic to Jad. Larry finally cut her off and suggested they get started with preflight.

Larry guided Jad to the cockpit. He pointed out the little differences between the ships and a few upgrades he’d put in place. “Your Dad’s finishing fueling now. You’ll be packing enough to make it there and back at twelve,” Larry said. “If we run her at fourteen most of the way you’ll have enough to land and get your moon rocks. Let’s start her at thirteen and see how she goes. If she’s humming along we’ll up her to fourteen and get you on the moon.”

“Thanks, Mr. Crisp,” Jad said. “I really appreciate all you’ve taught me.”

“Take care of my ship,” Larry said with a smile.

“Will do,” Jad said.

“To the moon!” Carl yelled from behind them.

Larry patted Jad’s shoulder. He walked past Carl and got into The Amalgam.

“Remember this day. This is the day you became somebody,” Carl said, beaming from ear to ear. “You’re gonna make us all rich. Go get it, Jad!”

Carl walked back to the control room, sat down next to Mandy, and put on his headset. Not a minute passed before he heard sirens in the distance. “Ok, pre-flight’s gonna have to be short. Let’s get these buckets in the air.”

They blew through the preflight checklist as fast as possible.

Someone rapped sharply at the door. “Carl?”

“Who’s that?” Mandy asked.

“Carl, I know he’s in there!” Lisa yelled through the door.

Carl ignored Mandy’s question. “Alright, Jad,” Carl said, “you’re clear for liftoff in… Five.”

“Carl!” Lisa yelled.

“Four,” Carl said.

“We have a warrant!” A male voice called.

“Three,” Carl said.

“We have ignition,” Jad called out.

“Two,” Carl continued.

Boom. Police burst through the door.

“One,” Carl said. “Go, go, go!”

Jad hit the ignition and The Sun Skimmer shot into the air.

Larry looked out the cockpit window and saw police officers swarming the house.

“Hands up! Hands up!” the male voice shouted from behind Carl. Carl raised his hands.

“Larry, he’s clear,” Carl said into the headset. “Go, go, go!”

Against his better judgment, Larry hit the ignition. He charged into the sky on his grey, dented horse.

“Sir, where’s your son, where’s Jad?” The police officer asked Carl.

Carl spun around in his chair. His smile was broader and more disturbing than Lisa had ever seen it. “He just left,” Carl said. “Unless there’s a moon base we don’t know about, I suggest you sit down and wait.”

Experiment #200

Lunar Eclipse Part 9

“Carl Fitzworth, you are under arrest for kidnapping, child endangerment, and allowing the child to leave the state.”

“Even if you had enough evidence to bust me you won’t,” Carl said. “For the next four days, I’m staying put. I’m ground control for this moon visit and no one knows these systems or the modifications we’ve made like I do. In short, I’m the best way to get him home safe.”

“You’re going to hold our son hostage?” Lisa asked.

“He wanted to go. He chose to go. He came to me. Last Sunday after you went to work he ran away to Larry’s house. Pleaded with us to send him. He couldn’t wait to go, wanted to go that night. I told him to go back home, but he insisted we try. He insisted we go through with it.”

“How can you…” She faltered and her voice grew quiet. “Don’t blame Jad for this. You put the idea there. You wouldn’t take no for an answer. Whatever happens is on your head.”

“Ummm…” Larry’s voice came through the speakers. “Carl, you there? We’ve got nothing but silence, if you’re on mute we need ya. Jad’s going to need some help on an orbit vector.

“Jad, you ready for a slingshot?”

“You bet, Mr. Crisp,” Jad replied.

Carl waved off Lisa and the police officer and turned back to his monitors.

“Alright, Jad, I’m back. Give me a second for the calculations.” He stopped speaking while he scribbled on a piece of paper in front of him.

“Sir,” the police officer said. “Instruct the boy to return to Earth.”

Carl hit mute on the mic and said, “You have no jurisdiction.”

“Nonetheless, instruct him to return, before I haul you off for child endangerment,” the police officer said.

“Go ahead and try,” Carl said. He unmuted the mic and handed the headset to the officer.

“Jad, can you hear me?” the police officer asked.

“Who’s this?” Jad asked. “Put my Dad back on.”

“Son, this is Officer Mike Richards of the Mountain View Police Department. I’d like you to bring your…rocket back to Earth.”

Carl had prepared Jad for this possibility. “With all due respect, Officer Richards,” Jad said, “I am no longer within your jurisdiction and so I need not comply.”

“Son, your mother is here and would like you to return,” Officer Richards said. “She says she loves you. Would you like to speak with her?”

“No, Sir,” Jad said. “I’ve made my choice and I’m going to the moon. Tell her I’m sorry but it’s the chance of a lifetime.”

Officer Richards tried once more. “Son, now listen-”

But Jad interrupted. “No, Sir, you listen. I’m going to the moon and that’s final. Nothing you can say will change that. While we’re talking I’m burning fuel and decreasing the chances I have of making it home safely. I’m out of your jurisdiction so it’s no longer your problem. Now please put my Dad back on. I’ve got a mission to complete.”

Officer Richards held his composure. He’d been bested by a thirteen-year-old. Although it hobbled his pride, he was man enough to know when he was beaten. He handed the headset back to Carl.

“Ok, dial the Pendleton up to fourteen,” Carl said. “…then I need a burn for a full minute while we swing around the Earth. As the moon rises you’ll need to pull off toward it, OK?”

“Shouldn’t we start at-” Larry began.

“Larry, follow him around then set up a lunar synchronous orbit,” Carl said.

“OK,” Larry said, deciding not to push the issue.

“Ready to burn,” Jad said.

“OK,” Carl said. “On my mark. Three. Two. One. Mark.”

Jad hit the ignition and The Sun Skimmer shot forward. Larry followed suit in The Amalgam.

“Jad,” Carl said, “you should see moonrise in three… Two… One. Break off. Break off. Break off.”

Jad turned and using both his eyes and his instruments, set a course for the moon.

Carl checked his screens. “You’re right on target,” he said. “Nice flyin’.”

“Next stop, the moon,” Jad said.

Carl gave out a whoop. A chill swept through his body and he felt once more like the young fighter pilot flying jets in the third Iraq war. Victory was assured. Triumph was in reach. He would prevail.

Experiment #201

Lunar Eclipse Part 10

Beyond checklists and sleep, little happened during the first thirty-six hours in space. Larry stayed in a lunar synchronous orbit and did what he could to conserve power and fuel. He had not planned on staying up there the whole time. As with nearly everything Carl was involved in, though, plans change.

Officer Richards and his squad, to Lisa’s dismay, did not stick around. They had no real evidence that Jad was in danger or that Carl had gone against his visiting rights. It turned into a he said, she said that lacked any provable evidence. Officer Richards gave Lisa his card, and asked her to call if and when Jad came back. In the meantime they were overworked and understaffed. He couldn’t waste anybody for four days straight. No laws had clearly been broken and any evidence of such was, as so many had said it, “out of his jurisdiction.”

Mandy ended up staying longer than planned. Contrary to Larry’s assumptions when she slept, she slept alone.

Lisa also stayed. She mumbled prayers mostly and kept an eye on the notes Mandy took. Over the course of days she and Mandy became friends. Lisa too had studied journalism in her college days. They talked about almost everything in the vast hours of radio silence or while Jad completed mundane sounding tasks at Carl’s behest.

***

“Hey, Jad,” Carl said, “I’ve got an empty indicator on tank seven. What does it say up there?”

“Yeah, Dad, it says empty here too.”

“How about tank eight? I’m reading it at two-thirds.”

“Roger, Dad, same up here.”

“What’s the Pendleton at?”

“Oh, It’s on ten…”

“Jad! How long has it been at ten?”

“I don’t know, I must have knocked it in my sleep. You want me to turn it back up to fourteen?”

“Jad,” Carl could not keep the frustration and anger out of his voice. “No, we’ll never make the moon landing with it at fourteen. We’re going to have to go up to sixteen.”

“Carl,” Larry interjected from the upper atmosphere. “If that thing shorts out. He won’t have enough fuel to get back to earth, let alone land.”

“It’ll be fine,” Carl said from the ground.

“Umm, the dial only goes up to fifteen,” Jad said.

“Just turn it up all the way,” Carl said.

“Ok.” Jad turned the knob. “Uhhh, it sparked a few times, but it seems to be working.”

“Readings down here agree,” Carl said. “Sit tight. Moon landing in six hours. And, Jad?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t screw this up. I need you to bring home a moon rock.”

“Ok, Dad.”

Two hours later, Carl yelled into the microphone, “Jad, wake up!”

“I’m awake,” Jad said. “What’s wrong?”

“Did you knock it in your sleep again?”

“No, it’s still as high as it can go.”

“What are you doing up there?”

“I-I-I’m-”

“Stop your gabbing and get in this game, Jad. You’re running out of fuel.”

“Carl,” Lisa said from the couch. Warning seeped into her voice.

“What am I doing wrong?” Jad asked.

“At this rate,” Carl said. “You won’t have enough fuel to get that rock home.”

“What can I do?” Jad asked. “I did as you told me. I-”

“Stop it, Jad,” Carl said. “This isn’t my fault. Stop making excuses for yourself.”

“Carl,” Lisa said with warning giving way to danger.

Carl disregarded her. “I need you to stop piddling around, wasting fuel or this whole thing is going to be for nothing. Do you want that? DO YOU WANT THAT?”

“Carl, enough!” Lisa shouted.

Carl looked back at her. He threw his headset down and stormed out of the room. She walked to the table and put the headset on. She heard a muffled whimper.

“It’s okay, Jad,” she said. “I’m here.”

The radio clicked quiet.

“Best leave him alone for a bit,” Larry said through the comm link. “He’s got some diagnostics to run.” Then added, “He’s strong. He’ll be fine.”