Rick Gauger

A PLACE FOR ALL THE STUFF CRAMMED IN ONE MAN'S MIND TO BE OFF-LOADED…

My Earliest Fiction

I’m not really a writer, I’m a reader. The idea that I could write fiction never entered my mind until one day in the mid-70s. I was wandering around the house annoyed because I was unemployed and because I hadn’t seen a ‘hard’ science fiction story in such a long time. ‘New Wave’ had pushed it out. Suddenly it popped into my head: if I can’t get what I want to read, maybe I could write something I liked instead! I sat down at my typewriter and wrote “Flying The Hotwire” in an afternoon. I had just read an article by Nobel laureate Hannes Alfven in which he suggests a propulsion system powered by the electrical flux between the planets.

Amateurishly, I wrote it in first-person mode. If you’re a would-be writer, don’t do this.

I wanted to see my little story in print in one of the famous old sci-fi magazines, the ones I grew up reading. How was I to know that the story was evil, a jinx that would help to kill three of them?! Woe!

I sent “Hotwire” first to Analog in 1978, where Ben Bova rejected it because he didn’t like my physics and couldn’t believe the hotwire concept. I did a little re-writing and re-submitted. Mr. Bova then liked the story, but he said he couldn’t buy it at the moment. I should try peddling it elsewhere and resubmit to him later.

So I sent it to Galaxy, the next rung down on the payment ladder. John Pierce liked the story and my illustrations. He bought it and paid me for it, but the magazine folded before the story could be published. I felt bad about this; Galaxy was one of the old classic sci-fi mags; my father subscribed to it throughout my later childhood; I grew up reading its stories and studying its illustrations, and here I am, one of the causes of its bankruptcy! But I didn’t send back the money. The guilt…!

I re-sent it to Analog in 1979, where now Stanley Schmidt edited. He rejected it because he couldn’t buy the hotwire concept. I re-submitted the story with a copy of Alfven’s article. Mr. Schmidt was persuaded, but not enough to buy the story.

So then it was off to Destinies with the manuscript, where James Baen, bless his heart, bought it immediately. The magazine collapsed before it could get printed. I have a letter to Ares about this story, so I must have sent it there too, in 1982. Two more dead magazines! This internet publication is the first time “Flying The Hotwire” has ever been visible to the public. I hope you, my dear readers, are entertained.

“Hotwire” and several of my first short stories are about the space frontier I hope will be opened up in the 21st century. These cowboy stories are narrated by Suarez, a freebooting employee of SPAMEX, the Mexican NASA. A shoestring budget forces SPAMEX to operate obsolete, oddball, surplus spacecraft. Suarez pilots them at the risk of his life.

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Read “Flying the Hotwire” now!

Flying the Hotwire

by Rick Gauger ©2009

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Tomorrow, if you’ve got time after you’ve inspected the new catapult, and if we can get this buggy again, I’ll take you to see the biggest and prettiest junkpile on the Moon. It’s named after me: Suarez’s Christmas Tree. It happens to be just a few klicks from here, on the far slope of that big crater on the horizon over there. It’s really beautiful with the sun setting behind it, the light gleaming through all those hills of plastic film and shiny aluminum strips.

    The Christmas Tree is where I crashed the last hotwire spacecraft fifty years ago. I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of them, you being a ballistic-unmanned specialist. They got some publicity when they were first built, but that was a century or more ago. The hotwire ships were a lovely idea, but they went the way of the light-sail sunjammers and the solar-powered ion propulsion jobs when the fusion afterburner was introduced. All those slow and stately spacecraft were sold cut rate to the smaller firms like the one I worked for. They’re all gone now, but the last hotwire is draped all over the landscape right over there. You should see it. That’s the trail to the site on our right. Careful you don’t bump your face on the glass.

    Yeah, I was a young, don’t-give-a-hoot pilot in those days. I got married and worked at a lot of things since then. I started as an overland driver when my kids grew up and left home, just so I could get out of the apartment now and then. I’d rather do that than try to live on my retirement. Hotwire? That refers to the power system of the ships. We used to get our power right from the solar wind by stringing out thousands of klicks of superconducting so-called hotwire in the solar wind’s electric field. The hotwire produced kilovolts of juice from all those electrons and protons blowing by. As the hotwire accelerated through the various planetary and solar magnetic field lines, even more current was generated by electromagnetic induction.

    Each hotwire ship was actually two ships, with the wire pulled straight between them. My ship was called Mutt and Jeff, I have no idea where the name came from. She was a pretty sight as we left Earth orbit on my last flight, The two spacecraft moved slowly away from each other as the hotwire unfolded. There were chemical boosters on both halves, and extra current was coming in from the electrical and magnetic field pileups around Earth, so there was no delay in departure even though it took a long time to fully deploy the hotwire. My life support module was attached to Mutt, and the running equipment, reaction mass, and cargo were more or less evenly distributed between the two ships.

    Damn right it was complicated. The so-called hotwire had to be kept straight, and it always had to be oriented properly to the local electrical field to get the maximum available amperage. This could get tricky during solar storms, but I didn’t mind because the higher solar wind particle density at those times gave the hotwire system an extra boost. Manna from heaven. I was the only guy in the whole solar system who was actually wishing for flares and sunspots. I used to listen to the sun forecasts and be smacking my lips while all the other pilots were raising their orbits and hiding behind their reaction mass tanks.

    Saving reaction mass was the name of the game. The hotwire ships used electro-thermal oxygen plasma rockets for almost everything: main propulsion, wire attitude and deployment, et cetera. The ion clouds from the plasma jets acted as the electrodes or brushes for the system, keeping it in electrical contact with the solar wind. Ship attitude control was the usual liquid hypergolic business. There were also the chemical starting boosters, which were cylinders of lox aluminum slurry that could move the ships at about half a gee for about five minutes each. They were for getting the hotwire array moving so it would start producing current faster. They were also used for making a relatively quick stop at the end of the trip. Saved a lot of travel time and their weight in consumables. Zero excess, zero redundancy, and one pilot.

    The company was too cheap to put anybody but me aboard the two halves of Mutt and Jeff, not that I cared. The second pilot, if there had been one, would have been stationed on the other half anyway. It was just as easy to talk to other spacecraft and bases I could raise on the radiotelephone. Still, though, if there had been another man running Jeff while I ran Mutt, I wouldn’t have lost her like I did. I don’t think the company worried, since hotwire operations were losing money by that time. It was a year and a half alone on the Mars run, but I didn’t mind. I liked books and movies. The old lady says that those years spent looking at the walls of the LS module have made me I used to like to watch the play of sunlight on the hotwire as it deployed, after the starting boost. The two spacecraft maneuvered to get it into the correct orientation. Parts of the wire with the right curvature would catch the sunshine and it would look like a line of huge stars or a string of brilliant diamonds slowly moving between me and Jeff. Before Jeff got too far away to see, it would look like a spark surrounded by a deep purple halo of ion exhaust. Since the computer did all the work, I didn’t have much to do except talk to my friends on the polar skystation and watch the stars come up from behind the Earth as my orbit elongated.

    I was supposed to be able to juggle the whole shebang by myself if needful. I never had to prove I could do it, thank God, but I’d rather have done that than go through what I had to go through on that last trip. I hadn’t even settled in for the long haul when the goddamn panic hooter went off. I almost jumped through the LSM canopy. I was on the horn with Traffic Control when it happened. I didn’t have to tell him I was in trouble, he could hear the hooter through my mike. I told him to wait and started scanning the status board, which was lit up like a road construction project with red lights. The right half of the board was easy to read; it was all dark except for one light that said COMM LINK OUT, bigger’n shit.

    The left half of the board, which described the status of the half of Mutt and Jeff I was riding, told me that I was accelerating away from Jeff at a steady .001 gee. That was the usual maneuver for deploying the hotwire between Mutt and Jeff. Both halves would accelerate away from each other, unfolding the hotwire as they separated. At the same time, you understand, the two spacecraft were accelerating out of Earth orbit on our way to Mars. Or, at least, my half was. The first thing I did was to cut the main propulsion on my half, Mutt. I did this because I had to assume that Jeff’s main propulsion shut down when ship-to-ship communications were interrupted. It was programmed to do that, but I was beginning to lose my innocent faith in the reliability of machinery.

    Then I uncurled my toes and took several deep breaths. How did I feel? I had the overwhelming desire to take a pee. The icy-nerved professional space pilot.

    Go ahead and laugh. It was my first inflight emergency. I saw that the hotwire was almost one hundred percent deployed, and it was drawing about half of the current it would get when it was fully supercooled. Although I could assume that the main propulsion aboard Jeff was off, I also had to assume that Jeff was still accelerating away from Mutt in the same direction and rate it had when whatever happened happened. When the alarm went off, the computer had been a few minutes away from completing the deployment of the hotwire, and was about to start stopping the movement apart of the two halves. After that, the two ships would have accelerated along parallel to each other, using a very, very slight acceleration away from each other, enough to keep the hotwire straight and oriented, but not enough to tear it apart. That was important, since the hotwire was nothing but a flimsy plastic tube. The computer could stop Mutt, all right, but in the absence of communications with Jeff, the unmanned half of the gangbang would keep on accelerating away until the hotwire ripped, leaving me with no power to do anything except float around in the LSM aging prematurely.

    So I turned to the computer panel-Did I tell you the computer works were all aboard Mutt with me? Excuse me. All there was on Jeff was propulsion, which wasn’t propelling, the comm receiver-sender which wasn’t sending or receiving, something over half of the payload which wasn’t paying or loading … Also a control panel, which, at that moment, I would have given a gonad to get my hands on. Fortunately, I knew Jeff’s last reported deployment acceleration, which was still going on. Point zero zero one gee, I’ll never forget. The only thing I could do was program Mutt to follow. That would keep the hotwire in one piece, doing its job, feeding the juice to both spacecraft.

    After that, I resumed my interrupted conversation with Traffic Control: “Traffic Control, I think I’m going to need a rescue mission out here, over.” We used to say “over” for emphasis in those days.

    Traffic Control wasn’t automated in those days. They used to get guys with flat nasal voices, like this: “Ah, roger, Mutton Jeff, I copy rescue mission. What is your purr-resent situation, over?”

    I crushed the mike button in my clammy fist and calmly explained what had happened. I added that I was stuck with my present direction and slowly incrementing delta-vee until they could get a mission out to me and fix whatever was wrong with Jeff or take me off, over.

    “Rrroger, Mutton Jeff, stand by. We will notify higher and get back to you heysap.” At that point in time I wasn’t getting my usual kick out of the jargon, not being in the right frame of mind.

    It was a long wait. I had a chance to go to the bathroom and take a look out of the canopy. I could see the sun shining on Mutt’s foil-wrapped backbone and the shiny hotwire going up, up, up until it dwindled out of sight among the stars. Since the propulsion was off, I could see Earth behind me like a big, moldy grapefruit. Everything looked normal as hell, except I knew that somewhere among those stars over my head, Jeff was tugging feebly at the fragile hotwire, oblivious to the entreaties of the computer. I began going over my vacuum suit, getting ready for my transfer to the rescue spacecraft. I clipped on my usual EVA tool kit in case repairs were possible for whatever ailed Jeff. I bit my fingernails, drank a lot of powdered lemonade, whistled a tune, went to the bathroom again. I knew I was in trouble, but after my first fright was over, I mostly worried about my future as a pilot. What would the company think? Happy ignorance.

    The RT beeped, and then began what I have to characterize as the most disillusioning conversation of my life. Instead of the first traffic controller I had talked to, this time it was a nice female voice: “Mutton Jeff, this is Traffic. How do you read me?”

    “Loud and clear, Traffic. What’s the good word?” Jaunty as hell.

    “Captain Suarez, I’m afraid we have some bad news for you. We don’t have a craft available capable of intercepting you inside your time constraints.”

    “Time constraints? What time constraints? My LSM isn’t damaged, as far as I know. I can wait out here quite a while, within reason, of course.”

    There was a pause before Traffic Control came back. Towing my mike wire, I had glided back up into the canopy. Forward, over Mutt’s whiskery nose, a thin sliver Moon was rising into view. It reminded me of something. I was beginning to get a cold, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

    “Captain Suarez, I’m sorry, but Traffic Central estimates that you, uh, will not clear the lunar terminator so long as your present trajectory stays what it is. Are you positive you can’t restart your main propulsion?”

    “Oh, my.”

    “Say again, Mutton Jeff.”

    I shouted into the microphone: “I said OH MY!”

    There was another pregnant pause. I had almost forgotten that the Mars launch window calculations included a close pass of the Moon for extra boost. My subconscious probably hadn’t wanted me to remember this irksome detail as I had busied myself, with the vacuum suit and other stuff. Now I had to face the idea that I was going to be expunged against the Moon’s stony surface in the bloom of my youth. The mike came out of my numb fingers and drifted toward the floor.

    Well, sure. You bet I went over it again. With myself, with Traffic Control, with teams of scientists and engineers from the government and the company. No matter how we looked at it, no one could think of a way to start or steer Jeff. I couldn’t just flyaway in Mutt, because, as soon as I did, the hotwire would rip and leave me with no power, still in the same predicament.

    Pardon me for overstating the obvious.

    The Traffic Control lady said she was sorry again, and I could tell from the tone of her voice she really meant it. The scientists were sorry, the engineers were sorry, but I was the sorriest one of all.

    More minutes passed. I decided to suit up and EVA out the airlock for a while. When I climbed out of the hatch and looked around, I felt a rush of acrophobia. I couldn’t understand why at first, then I realized that I was standing on top of the spacecraft. The slight, constant acceleration that Mutt was making toward Jeff to keep the hotwire from breaking was giving the universe an up and a down. Clinging to the radar outrigger, I looked down through Mutt’s airy framework of struts and spherical tanks into a black, bottomless abyss. I gritted my teeth and carefully sat down. Straddling the ship’s uppermost stringer, I was able to hump along the few meters to the comm sender-receiver unit. I was unable to keep from ripping off most of the aluminum foil micrometeroroid wrapping as I went along. The shiny flakes fell like autumn leaves, slowly at first, then faster and faster until they vanished in the starry depths beneath the ship.

    The sender-receiver unit was a gimbal-mounted double-barreled affair, a modulated laser transmitter and a telescope, with thick cables running out of it. The ships’ computer kept the laser aimed at an identical unit aboard Jeff. You can imagine how fast and heavy the communications were between the two spacecraft during normal operations, as they maneuvered in unison while keeping thousands of kilometers of delicate hotwire straight between them. That’s why lasers were used instead of microwaves or something. Less chance of noise getting into the communications. Also prevented electrical interference from the hotwire. As soon as I got close enough to see into the barrel of the sender, my last forlorn hope died away. I had been hoping that the laser had broken down and wasn’t transmitting despite the status board saying it was. I could’ve installed a new unit and been lightheartedly on my way, Mr. Fixit conquers outer space. Whatever was wrong, was surely wrong on Jeff, on the other end of the hotwire dangling overhead.

    Well, I just sat there. Bitterness was starting to set in. I couldn’t help looking around me wildly. Notice how people do that, when they’re desperate, confused, perplexed? What are they looking for, somebody to blame? I wanted to burst into tears, but I couldn’t, not with Traffic and all those people listening solicitously for my last messages and so forth. If I wanted to scream or whine, I would have to crawl back to the LSM and kill the RT first. Why ME, God? You know what I mean?

    Then my eyes encountered the hotwire. It was hanging above me like a silver pipeline lowered from the night sky. I stared at the point where it tapered to nothing in the distance above. An awful idea was creeping over me. Can’t fly. Right. Then we’ll climb up there, right up the hotwire itself, climb to Jeff, and fix up the malfunction with our-own clever-little hands, yes we will.

    The hell I will. I started scrambling back to the LSM as fast as I could go, scattering scraps of foil in all directions. The idea had too much going for it to be comfortable. Judging by the stability of the hotwire since the problem began, the malfunction involved only the comm unit on the other spacecraft. There was a complete set of spares for everything on Jeff. I could go most of the way under power with my EVA propulsion unit, which was right at hand in a locker outside the LSM. Then I could go hand over hand the rest of the way like a Hindu fakir climbing his magical rope to nowhere. Would I go poof! when I got to the top? What if I got tired and lost my grip? Better pass over that.

    As I was cycling through the airlock, the traffic lady, no doubt aroused by the low moans and heavy breathing coming through the RT, came back on the air.

    “Captain Suarez? Is everything all right?” She gulped on the last word.

    I was feeling too humble to take advantage of this opportunity for sarcasm. “No,” I replied, “it’s all right. I think I’ve come up with a way to get to the other ship, I hope. I’m in a hurry, now. I’ll get back in contact when I have some news to report. Thanks for everything, good-bye,” and I hit the MIKE OFF button. I was afraid I might start babbling.

    I topped off my suit tanks and started rushing around the cabin. Assuming I was really going to go through with it, what would I need to take along? Not a lot of weight; I was going to get worn out physically. Water? A darker sunshade? A pair of overgloves? I rejected a welding outfit and electronic test gear. If those kind of repairs were needed I wouldn’t have time to make them. I squirted all of the food syrup out of my suit supply, grabbed several LOX bottles and a coil of lifeline out of a locker, and jittered towards the airlock. No, I didn’t bother to perform any calculations about how long it would take, how far my EVA propulsion unit would take me, or what the deadline for dodging the Moon would be. Why should I bother? I didn’t have any alternative to climbing or hoisting myself up the hotwire until I got there or dropped off exhausted. I tell you seriously, I’m a weak person. I wanted to get going, to commit myself, before the wimp that lurks in me took over my willpower.

    As soon as I was outside again, I opened the tool locker, unlatched the EVA unit from its cradle, strapped myself into it, and blasted off like Flash Gordon. Almost, but not quite, forgetting to unhook my safety line. Short trip that would’ve been.

    Actually, the flight up the hotwire was rather exciting. The exhilaration seemed to settle me down. I had decided to go the max acceleration until almost all my reaction mass was used up. Holding the throttle wide open, I concentrated on staying thirty meters from the hotwire, more or less. The hotwire went by faster and faster, until it blurred into a silver streak. I guess I was the first pilot who ever inspected the full length of a deployed hotwire in-flight. It was an impressive sight, like a glowing wire stretched from infinity to infinity against a background of obsidian black and motionless stars. As I zoomed along, the hotwire would creep closer or further away, and I would compensate with touches of the EVA unit’s maneuvering jets. I don’t know if the hotwire had wide, shallow curves in it, or if it was faulty steering on my part. It looked arrow-straight to me. I was like surrounded by the Sun, Moon, and Earth as Mutt dropped out of sight below me, but I had eyes only for the hotwire.

    In only a minute I was down to the last kilo of reaction mass. I cut the jet and coasted. It seemed like a long time before my velocity relative to the hotwire decreased enough for me to begin to make out details on its surface: wrinkles, seams, patches, and like that. I carefully crept closer. Gradually, my motion ceased. Slowly, slowly, I began to fall backwards. The moment of truth was at hand, man. I poked the maneuvering jets one last time, hit the quick-release on the seat straps of the EVA unit, and did a Tarzan leap at the hotwire. It was like jumping at a hanging drapery. I snatched a quadruple armful and legful, and hung on as my momentum bent a big zigzag in the tubing. I caught a glimpse of the EVA unit slowly tumbling’ downward, looking like grampa’s easychair in the brilliant sunshine. Next time I was able to look that way, it was out of sight below me. Fuck up, Suarez, I told myself, and that’ll be you.

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    It turned out not to be as bad as I feared. I was able to support my weight with my thumb and forefinger pinching a fold in the hotwire tube, although my body would disconcertingly move downward until my hand was over my head. I should explain that the hotwire was really a tube of plastic film about two meters in diameter, which was kept inflated electrostatically. One side of the tube was aluminized to provide shade for the other side, which was the conductor. The ships’ computer kept the aluminized side facing the sun, which allowed the conducting side to radiate until its temperature approached absolute zip. The conductor was a sandwich of special plastics, carbon fibers, and I don’t know what all, that became superconductive at ultra-low temperatures. The thing should’ve been called a coldwire.

    So what did I do then? I climbed madly up the hotwire like a squirrel running up a tree. I don’t remember this part in much detail, just images: Shooting along easily at first, until I became tired. Many hours of going more and more slowly. Missing my grip and flailing madly to get my hands back on the tube. The sun gleaming on big silver waves moving majestically away from my frantic activity. Dropping my used-up LOX bottles. Arm-and-leg bearhugging the hotwire, helplessly weeping in panic and misery. Burning pain in my arms, shoulders, and back. All the time, the terrible drag of my pseudoweight, created by the acceleration of the hotwire, seemed to increase as I got weaker. After I don’t know how long, I gave up; I thought I couldn’t do any more. I was ready to let go and drop, just to have some rest before smashing through Mutt’s struts and cables.

    Well, you can always do more than you think you can, young man. What saved me was noticing that the waves in the hotwire above were moving toward me as well as away from me. I realized that they were the same waves I had been making since I started climbing. They were bouncing off Jeff and coming back to me. That meant that Jeff was no further away than I had come already, maybe a lot closer. Having this grasp of how much more climbing was required made it seem less hopeless, so I struggled on a little more, and a little more.

    Thank God, shortly after I started upward again, Jeff came into view above me, a tiny metal splinter. On and on. Finally, Jeff was looming overhead, and I was at the upside-down hot wire terminal. My fingers were on the lower edge of the terminal base. A leg over. Another leg over. I could never express to you how good it felt just to drape my body over Jeffs lowermost stringer. I was totally, utterly, completely zonked.

    But, I couldn’t rest long. Crawling painfully along on the stringer, I soon found the cause of all the grief. A goddamn piece of foil had somehow lodged right in the comm unit telescope aperture. I flicked it out with one finger. The plasma jet hotwire deployment unit, that had been running all this time, suddenly winked off. I had been lying on the stringer, now I floated gently over it. The ships’ computer was now in charge of both halves of Mutt and Jett again, and had stopped the acceleration.

    Yes, I realize I haven’t explained what all this has to do with the famous Christmas Tree. All things come to him who sitteth with his ears open. Jeff wasn’t equipped with a life support module, as I think I mentioned already. There was just a cluster of storage lockers near the forward end. Four of them contained spares and emergency LOX bottles, the fifth protected Jeffs control panel. Aided greatly by being in zero gee again, I changed my LOX bottle, then popped open the control panel lid. Plug in suit patch cord, key RT REMOTE, clear throat, and rejoin human race:

    “Traffic Control, this is Mutt and Jeff.”

    “Mutton Jeff, this is Traffic. Suarez? What have you been doing? I’ve got something for you. Have you regained control of your spacecraft?”

    “Roger that, Traffic. Where’s the lady I was talking to before?” My voice was slurred with fatigue.

    “Never mind that, Suarez. You’ve got to snap out of it. Is there something wrong with your LSM air supply? Why are you talking through your suit phone?”

    “I’m aboard Jeff now. I’m not feeling too good after the climb up.”

    “How the hell did you—? Never mind. Suarez, you got to get your main propulsion started right now!”
“I can dig it, Traffic.” The Moon was hanging over the edge of the control locker like a big stop sign. Like a gong waiting to be struck. Mars never seemed so attractive to me as it did at that moment.

    “Wake up, Suarez!”

    “Yeah, yeah … ”

    “Listen carefully, Suarez. If you can get your main propulsion started right now, you might be able to soft land on the Moon. We’ve got the program input for you right here … Do you copy, Suarez?” Ten pounding heartbeats went by. “Mutton Jeff, do you copy, over?”

    “Uh, er, roger, Traffic, I copy. I can’t believe this. Missing the damn Moon altogether is more what I have in mind, over.”

    “Negative, negative. The deadline for that was up an hour ago. You’ve got to try for the soft landing. Your main propulsion hasn’t got the thrust to get you out of there now, even if you dumped all your cargo. You can’t use your chemical boosters to evade because —”

    “I get the picture, Traffic.”

    The single-channel setup didn’t allow interruptions, so I was subjected to all the gruesome details. If I used my chemical boosters to parabola away from the Moon, I wouldn’t be able to make the standard quick slowdown for Mars orbit. I would have to use the low-thrust plasma main propulsion systems for all my end-of-trip deceleration. I would run out of consumables about three weeks before even an optimum intercept mission from Mars could reach me. And I’m a compulsive eater and breather, especially when I’m scared.

    “Come on, Suarez, you’ve got to hurry up. The engineers say you can probably do it, but your time is running out. Don’t think. Just punch the figures directly into your computer panel as I give them to you. Ready?”

    “Yeah, Traffic, okay: Go ahead.”

    My body wedged halfway into the locker, I tapped away at the computer keyboard as the numbers were read off to me. After that, I used my extra lifeline to lash myself to every available hold in the locker. Then I hit the EXECUTE button. Violet ion clouds swelled around Jeff as the ship surged around and started clawing itself away from the Moon. Several fortunate circumstances were in my favor: the hotwire had obtained extra voltage from Earth’s magnetic “bow wave” and my propulsion failure had occurred so early in the launch, my lunar velocity was low. I was also helped by lunar orbital motion, rotation, my angle of approach, and so on.

    This was all explained at the hearing I had to go to after I got out of the hospital. Meanwhile, I was hanging as quietly as possible in my spiderweb of lifeline. I kept passing out. I kept having a nightmare about falling out of the locker door under the pull of the ships’ feeble acceleration. I would wake up with a jerk just as I was plunging under the lunar soil.

    The grand finale came about ten or fifteen hours later. It was so weird, I sometimes don’t believe it myself. I once read an old American frontier story concerning a cowboy whose horse had fallen with him into the Grand Canyon. ‘How did you live through it?’ his listeners asked. ‘Nothing to it,’ was the reply. ‘I just waited until the last second and stepped off. My poor horse fell a mile, so he was kilt. But I only fell the last few feet.’ The same thing happened to me. Different, but the same.

    I came to, hearing angels’ voices in my ears:

    “Suarez, wake up. Oh dear. Suarez, please wake up. Suarez! Wake up, Suarez … “It was the Traffic lady again, and a sweeter voice I never heard.

    “Yes, Traffic, I’m here.”

    “Captain Suarez, there’re only a few more minutes before your boosters go on. You’ve got to get ready for the impact. The engineers say there’s a supply of packing foam in one of the lockers aboard Jeff.

    “I understand, Traffic.” I was feeling better, but my arms and shoulders felt as though they had been amputated, beaten with baseball bats, then glued on again backwards. Luckily, the foam was in the locker next door. I untangled myself, and peeked over the edge of the locker. Down was a solid floor of cratered Moon, visibly moving toward me, so close that it seemed that Jeff’s ion exhaust was brushing it already. The sight of that put some zip into my movements.

    I had to unplug the Traffic lady to get to the adjacent locker. Bang open the door. Throw out boxes, hose, and tools. I took the foam bottle and sprayed a thick carpet on the floor of the locker. When the plastic stiffened, I stood on it and sprayed myself a couch. I lay on that while it was still soft, held the bottle in front of me, and buried myself in the hardening foam. Only my helmet visor protruded from the foam. Above me, I could see the silver hotwire undulating off into space. Beyond where it became invisible, I could see a fuzzy blue speck: Mutt, my home away from home, with his plasma exhaust pointed at the Moon and me.

    Suddenly, the fuzzy blue changed to a brilliant white point, a flame of aluminum powder burning in pure oxygen. The ships’ boosters had come on. I felt half a gee pushing at my back, I heard muffled thunder coming from Jeff’s booster, through the ship’s structure, vibrating my foam cocoon. I lay there counting the minutes.

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    I landed on the reverse slope of the big crater I pointed out to you. Jeff hit stern first, with me clinging like a caterpillar in a falling tree. Most of the shock was taken up by crumpling structural members and bursting tanks. I struggled out of the wreckage and looked up. Miles of hotwire were falling out of the sky, right on top of me. Luckily, my legs were still okay. Hugging my aching arms about me, I bounded away in mad ten-meter leaps across the flatlands. When I was too beat to run any more, I fell into a little crater. Lying on my back, I could see the hotwire piling up in heaps on the spot where Jeff had come down. Faster and faster it came, coiling down all over the hillside, a vast plate of silver spaghetti. Landslides of plastic kept surging out over the flats, threatening to bury me in my hole. While I looked on in amazement, the center of the pile started hopping up and down and giving off puffs of steam, smoke, and snow. The LOX cargo tanks had exploded, and the plastic was on fire under the mound of hotwire. Streams of multicolored molten plastic lava kept spurting out in different places, to be buried immediately under more falling hotwire, which was now spiraling down so fast that the eye almost couldn’t follow it. Finally, Mutt came down in a huge splatter of scrap metal, reaction mass, and cargo, right on top of the whole mess. The explosion filled the sky with twinkling flakes of aluminum foil and other junk, tumbling through clouds of LOX vapor and snowy aluminum oxide dust. As I lay there, stunned, I heard a voice singing in my headset: “… in a one-horse open sleigh, o’er the fields we go, laughing all the way, ho, ho, ho, …”

[media-credit id=3 align=”aligncenter” width=”340″]Suarez Saves Himself[/media-credit]

    Naturally, the crash attracted a lot of attention over here on the main trail. The voice I heard singing was a buggy driver who came to see what was going on. He was a local boy, and had never seen such a colorful landscape before, or a bonfire either, except in pictures. I guess he became a little goofy as he drove up. And it’s been called Suarez’s Christmas Tree ever since.

    My gosh, how the time flies. We’re almost there. You’ll see the new catapult terminal right at the top of this grade. You better start gathering up your luggage. Don’t forget your sunglasses. What happened after that? Well, I had to quit flying and settled down here. I’d like to say I married the Traffic control lady, but I didn’t. Well, here we are. Your suit sealed? You sure? Okay: into the hatch. Say hello to the boys in the terminal for me, will you? Some of those guys like to tell stories, you know. Don’t let any of them pull your leg.

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