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Authors: John Varley

Tags: #Fiction / Science Fiction / Adventure

Red Thunder

BOOK: Red Thunder
10.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Copyright © 2003 by John Varley.

ISBN: 0-441-01015-6


To Spider Robinson and Robert A. Heinlein for the inspiration; and to Lee, for that, and everything else.



INSPIRATION IS WHERE you find it. You can't force it,
and you can't predict when and where it will come. I had nothing to do
with the inspiration that made our great adventure possible. But the
inspiration that made it practical came to me while I was walking with
my friend Dak through a railroad freight yard in my hometown of Daytona.

Dak is a string bean, well over six feet, and could hide behind a
flagpole. African-American, though he doesn't use the term, and fairly
dark. Dak is short for Daktari, which is Swahili for doctor, "A hell of
a thing to wish on a newborn baby," he once said. He's my age, from the
same graduating class but different high schools. We often took these
long walks, often on the tracks. Here we sorted out the big questions
of life. Is there a God? Are we alone in the universe? Is Britney
Spears too old to stay on the Top Ten Babe of All Time list? Would Al
Johnson switch to Team Chevy before the next 500?

"Does it look like rain?"

I looked around and sniffed the air.

"Sure does." Thunderheads were towering in the east, and what else
is new? This was Florida, it rained every day. Today the temperature
was only about eighty, but the humidity was 210 percent.

Two minutes later it started to pour.

We ran to a line of a dozen rusting black tank cars that had been
parked on a siding for as long as I could remember, and ducked under
one. No trains came through this part of the yard anymore, and the
grass was thick where spilled oil hadn't killed it. I wondered if the
EPA had heard of this place. You probably should have had a hazmat suit
and a gas mask to even come here.

There wasn't enough room to stand under the tank car, so we sat on
the gravel and listened to the rain pelting on it. I think rain is
harder in Florida than anywhere else. I don't mean it comes down
harder, I mean the
is harder. We didn't say anything
for a while, just picked out suitable golfball-sized rocks and chunked
them at a rusty old fifty-five-gallon drum about twenty yards away. My
arm was better than Dak's, I was getting two hits to his one.

Not the worst way in the world to waste time. But we hadn't made any progress on the big question of the day.

"So, how do we go about building a spaceship on pocket change?" That was the big one. Some question.

We had been round and round it over the last few days. We weren't
going to get any help, we had been specifically told we were on our
own. Neither of us had ever designed a canoe, much less a spaceship. My
experience with rocketry was limited to a few illegal broomstraw-tailed
squibs on the Fourth of July. Dak's was no better.

We had what we thought were some pretty good ideas on many aspects
of the problem, all helped considerably by the fact that the central,
toughest problem of space travel, propulsion, was pretty much solved.
But now we had to build something, and what we kept coming back to was,
Where do you begin?

"Pressure," Dak said, for maybe the five hundredth time in the last
few days. "It's gonna be tough to build something that can stand up to
thirty psi for two months."

It really only had to stand up to 15 psi, but everything about the ship had to meet double the necessary tolerances.

We listened to the rain some more, and Dak tossed another rock, which made the drum ring like a gong.

"We can't start from square one," I said. "Too much welding, and every weld we make is a place for trouble to begin."

Dak sighed. He'd heard it before.

"We need components. Things we can slap together quick."

"Where we gonna get them? Go to the NASA junkyard, patch up an old ship?"

"A pressure hull," I said. Something was tickling the edge of my awareness.

"A globe," Dak said. "Or a..."

"A cylinder. A metal cylinder."

I jumped up so fast I hit my head on the bottom of the tank car.

I ran out and stood in the downpour, looking back at the old, rust-streaked, greasy, flaky paint, birdpoop-spattered tank car.

"Knock off the wheels," I said. "Stand it on its end..."

"...and there's your spaceship," Dak whispered.

Then we were laughing and actually dancing in the driving rain.


BUT OF COURSE that all came later. It started about a month earlier....





I ALWAYS THOUGHT the VentureStar looked like a
tombstone. When it was standing on end it was twice as tall as it was
wide. It wasn't very thick. It was round at the top. For a night launch
it was illuminated by dozens of spotlights like an opening night in
Hollywood. It could have been the grave marker for a celebrity from
some race of giant aliens. The stubby wings and tail seemed tacked on.

The VentureStar didn't spend much time flying, which was just as
well, because it flew about as well as your average skateboard. Sitting
on the ground it looked more like a building than an aircraft or a

That's okay. In about thirty seconds it would leave every airplane ever built in a wake of boiling smoke and fire.

"Manny, a Greyhound bus leaves Cocoa Beach every day for
Tallahassee. Why don't we go watch that some night? We could get a lot

That was my girlfriend, Kelly, trying to get my goat. Her point being that VStars left Canaveral once a day, too. Point taken.

"Who wants to neck at the Greyhound terminal?" I said.

"Hah. The only thing you've necked with so far is those binocs."

I put down my binoculars and thumbed up the brightness of the little
flatscreen on my lap. I got a view looking into one of the windows of
the cockpit blister. The flight crew were on their backs, going through
the final items on the prelaunch checklist with no wasted motion. A
woman with curly red hair was sitting in the left seat. I could read
the name sewed on her NASA-blue flight tunic: WESTIN. A younger man
with a blond crewcut sat on the right.

"VStars are noisier, I'll give you that," she said. We were sitting side by side on the tailgate of Dak's truck.

"Ain't you got no poetry in your soul, woman?" I used the tip of the
screen's stylus to touch 7, then 5, then ENTER on the tiny flatscreen
keypad. Camera 75 showed a view looking up from the massive concrete
abutments that supported the VStar. Center screen were the long,
pinched shapes of the six linear aerospike rocket engines that
stretched across the ship's wide tail. Wisps of ice-cold hydrogen and
oxygen escaped from the pressure valves and swirled in the warm Florida
night air. Down in the corner were the words "VStar III
," a mission number, and a countdown clock. In less than a minute camera 75 would be toast.

In a corner of the screen the countdown clock went from twenty-five
to twenty. I pressed 5, then 5, then ENTER. A head-on angle of the
cockpit crew, slightly fish-eye from a wide-angle lens. There were no
more checks to perform, no more toggles to switch. They were almost
motionless, waiting for the automatic launch sequence.

I pressed 4, then 4 again: Looking down the center aisle of the
passenger compartment. It was built to carry as many as eighteen, but
only seven chairs were filled, all of them toward the front of the

I knew those seven faces as well as an earlier generation of space
nuts had known the faces of Al Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally
Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter... the original
Mercury astronauts. None of this seven looked particularly nervous or
excited. The white-knuckle days of space travel were over, or so
everyone said. Mom says they'll never be over for her generation, who

I don't think they'll ever be completely over for me, either. I
mean, I didn't expect the ship to blow up or anything, but was I the
only guy on the planet who thought this VStar launch was just a little
out of the ordinary? Was I the
one who noticed the Ares Seven had discarded the standard NASA-blue coveralls for bright red ones?

Mars. They're going to Mars. The passengers in the VStar were the Ares Seven, the crew, on their way up to the
Ares Seven,
the ship.

Fifteen seconds.

3, then 1, then ENTER: The last gantry arm detached and quickly swung to the left, out of the way.

Eleven seconds.

5, then 4, ENTER: A view from a camera on a helicopter three miles away, vibrating slightly because of the long lens.

Nine seconds.

75, ENTER: I was looking up at the engines. The floodgates opened
and a million gallons of water streamed down, to cool the launch pad
and soak up some of the thunder that would kill an unprotected man
before the flames vaporized him.

Five seconds.

The candle was lit, with a huge cough of orange flame that quickly moderated to an icy blue.

Two seconds. Camera 75 melted.

45 ENTER: A camera looking at the hold-down latches.

One second.

The latches fell away and the VentureStar immediately leaped into the night sky.

62 ENTER: This one was perched on the top of the tower. The deep
blue body of the VStar roared upward, followed by a fountain of fire.
Camera 62 melted.

The sound hit me, miles away. As always, I thought I could feel it
blowing my hair, like an explosion. I looked up to see the line of fire
arcing in the night. I could see the VStar accelerate.

55 ENTER: The flight crew were pressed back into their chairs, their
faces distorted by an acceleration of two gees and growing. I looked up
again. The ship was completing a roll maneuver, and turning down-range.

44 ENTER: The Ares Seven were all grinning like fools. Cliff
Raddison held one hand out in the aisle, palm up. That took strength at
2.4 gees. Across the aisle, Lee Welles took up the challenge, reached
out and slapped Raddison's palm. Then they got their arms back as the
gee forces continued to mount.

39 ENTER: I saw four globular objects in a line. Two were very dark, the other two a much lighter brown.

What the hell? Camera 39 was supposed to be aft-looking, mounted on
the ship's tail. It was one of my favorite angles, looking back to see
light-spattered Florida shrink and vanish over the horizon....

"Dak!" I shouted. "You bastard!"

I jumped down from the high tailgate, raced around the pickup, and
was just in time to see Dak and Alicia straightening and pulling up
their pants. I gave Dak a shove and he was laughing so hard he simply
fell over onto the sand. Dak's laugh was a high-pitched giggle; Alicia
had more of what I would call a belly laugh, and she was not in much
better shape than Dak, leaning against the truck, holding her pants up
with one hand. I turned away; I didn't want Dak to see me smile.

Kelly came around to the front of the truck in time to see Alicia collapse in the sand beside Dak.

"Can somebody tell me what's going on?"

I went to the front of the truck and pointed to the

"There's a camera in there," I told her. "It's about the size of a
postage stamp." Kelly bent to study it, but couldn't see anything.

"Television camera?"

"Just in case," Dak said, sitting up with tears streaming from his eyes. "Bad things can happen to a
in the deep south. If the cops ever do a Rodney King on my nappy head,
I'm not going to cross my fingers and hope somebody has a camcorder."

"I still don't get it," Kelly said.

I showed her the flatscreen, thumbed the backup button until I had the image Dak had pirated into the NASA data stream.

"Yes sir!" Dak shouted. "That rocket ain't going to Mars, it's going to the

There was barely enough light for me to see the smile on Kelly's
face as she realized what she was seeing. I looked at the sky, where
the VStar had now dwindled to a very bright speck to the southeast. A
white vapor trail, barely visible by starlight, was twisted by the
high-altitude winds.

"You've got a big zit on your ass, Dak," Kelly said.

"Huh? Let me see that."

She held it out of his reach, then tossed it back to me. Dak
realized his leg was being pulled. He helped Alicia to her feet. The
four of us stood together a few moments, watching the VStar's light
dwindle and vanish below the horizon.

"Say hi to John Carter, swordsman of Mars, when you get there, guys," Dak said.

"Or Valentine Michael Smith," I added.

"Just so it isn't those H. G. Wells Martians," Kelly said.

It was a pleasant Wednesday night in the spring, one of those times
that almost makes up for the heat and humidity in Florida most of the
year. We were standing in a shell parking lot in Cocoa Beach. At the
north end half a dozen cars clustered under the flashing neon of the
Apollo Lounge. It advertised nude table dancing, pool,
no-cover-no-minimum, and "World Famous Astroburgers." We had the south
end of the lot to ourselves. Before us was a sand dune, the beach, and
the Atlantic Ocean. Not far behind us was the Banana River, which isn't
a river at all but a long, slender bay cut off from the sea by the
barrier island that contains Indian Harbor Beach, Patrick Air Force
Base, Cocoa, and Cape Canaveral, just a few miles to the north. There
were places to get a little closer to the launch complex without a
visitors' pass, but none that offered us a better view of the downrange
flight of most VStars.

BOOK: Red Thunder
10.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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