Note: These stories are copyrighted.
Famous Last Words
by Stephen Drake
Frank Jessup was standing in the pre-boarding area looking out of the window at the mountains that separated Montana from Idaho, just south of the old Lookout Pass Recreation area, and the huge metal tube that ran down the side of the mountain.
As he stood there, trying to ignore the people around him, the thought of something going wrong after the shuttles exited the magnetic catapult tube, and the phone conversations, with his brother and sister, were running wild through his head.
“It’s perfectly safe, Frank. Me and Phoebe made the trip three years ago,” his brother Nels had said. “Don’t you ever watch the adverts? Trans-Terra has the best safety rating of any transportation company in the system. They’ve made space the safest possible way to travel.”
“Come on, Frank,” his little sister had enticed, “quit being such a baby and come up! It’ll be great to have the whole family here.”
He remembered that they argued back and forth for a while and the last thing his brother said stuck in his head. “Phoebe and I have worked and scrimped for two years to get you here. You are the only family we have left on Earth. Your ticket has been purchased, non-refundable, I might add. So, put your big-boy panties on and get drunk, or take more happy pills, do whatever you have to, but get your ass to Mars.”
Captain Byron Parker was sitting inside the shuttle Carpenter, on the command deck, performing pre-flight checks with his co-pilot, Tom Hardisty.
“Fuel,” Parker droned out of boredom.
“Full,” Hardisty answered, tapping a sizable gage with his fingertip. His voice also betrayed the boredom of tasks performed hundreds of times.
“Magnetic Catapult interlocks.”
Hardisty toggled a button and glanced at indicator-lights, “Check.”
“Ignition arming switch.”
Hardisty toggled a different button and glanced at indicator-lights. “Oh, shit! The fuel ignited and we just blew up! We’re dead!” he said sarcastically, but after the glare he received from Parker, he droned, more appropriately, “Working.”
The Captain started checking indicators and switches on his side of the command deck.
“How many more times is this tub going up before they retire her?” Hardisty asked as he ran down his own check-list, most of which he wrote off the appropriate status without physically checking, from being all too familiar with the Carpenter’s shortcomings.
“This is the last lift before she goes in for a major overhaul,” Parker said being more mindful of his own check-list than the banter between them. “She’ll be good-to-go for another twenty years.”
“Yeah, and you and I will probably still be herding her. What are you going to do while she’s in the docks?”
“I don’t know about the wife, but I’m planning on getting some fishing in. Lots of fishing! What’s the point of living on Flathead Lake if you’re too busy to fish and relax?” Parker shrugged. “What about you?”
“Vegas! I’m going to party, in Vegas.”
“Are you ever going to settle down?”
“Yeah, someday, maybe, when I’m old, like you, Skipper!” Hardisty chuckled at the jibe.
They exchanged their medical-check reports and began checking off the pertinent information on their log checklists.
“Your blood alcohol is a bit high,” Parker mentioned.
“It isn’t the highest I’ve had and still flew,” Hardisty defended with a shrug.
“Regs say it has to be below point-zero-three, or we don’t fly,” Parker reminded without looking up from his checklist.
“Point-zero-four isn’t that bad. I’ve taken a bunch of ‘fly-rights’, so, by launch time, I should be within the limits.”
“I’m going to enter it as ‘Counseled’ on the checklist, for the second time in a month.”
Hardisty shrugged, “You’re the Captain. You can do what you want.”
“I could cancel the launch, you know, and probably should.”
“You do and the company isn’t going to like it and neither is the union. You’re well-aware that the union doesn’t get our dues unless we fly.
“The company won’t like the twenty-four-hour delay, or putting up the passengers and the returns during that delay, but like I said, you’re the Cap, Cap. Personally, I don’t care. My vacation could start right now. I’d just as soon it did. Besides, what can happen? I’m supposed to spell you, should you need to use the facilities or hold some nervous Nellie’s hand. ‘Trans-Terra: the safest way to travel!’” Hardisty mocked and laughed.
“If you can say ‘my sister sells seashells down by the seashore’, I’ll sign you off as fit,” Parker said without smirking.
“Blow it out your ass, how’s that?” Hardisty responded sarcastically.
Parker chuckled. “You go inspect the airfoils, empty that flask, and then I’ll mark you as fit.”
Hardisty got a shocked look on his face, “Flask? What flask? I don’t have a flask!”
“Tom, I can see it outlined in your coat-pocket. I’m not blind.”
Hardisty took in a deep breath and let it out noisily. “Fine!” he said as he left his chair and left the cabin.
“Carpenter to flight, time-to-launch check,” Parker said into the microphone close to his throat after Hardisty left.
“T-minus three hours and counting, Carpenter. On profile for intercept with New Kennedy.” He heard in his ear-buds.
As soon as Hardisty exited the Carpenter and stood on the platform of the lift-truck, he pulled out the flask.
“Here’s to you, Mister Jack Daniels, for making my job easier,” he said as he looked at the flask, raised it high, and then took a long tug from it.
“Here’s to the Crappy,” he raised the flask to the shuttle. “May you bring me safely to Kennedy and back,” he took another long tug.
“And here’s to me, the luckiest S.O.B. alive!” He drained the flask.
Upon re-entering the Carpenter, he stopped at the facilities and splashed some water on his face. As he dried it, he looked at his reflection in the mirror, seeing his dark, brown hair, shot through with grey, and inspected the wrinkles on his face.
I’m only thirty-two, but look a lot older, he thought. That’s what subjecting myself to high gees will do, every time. Maybe I can put in for a milk-run. The low gees should help me to stop aging so quickly. I could even get a gig on a liner. The thought of two months between lay-overs turned his stomach. He preferred sleeping in his own bed at night and feeling gravity under him.
Frank Jessup checked his watch for the fiftieth time just as the loud-speaker came to life, causing his heart rate to rise.
“Trans-Terra flight 223 to New Kennedy Space Station has been cleared for boarding for seats one through twenty. Please have your boarding pass ready and proceed to the concourse. We wish to thank you for flying Trans-Terra.”
Jessup immediately broke out in a sweat and gripped the strap of his jump-bag tightly. He looked nervously at his boarding pass and saw he was in seat 42B.
Some passengers picked up their small jump-bags, which were at the weight allowance by the time the passengers got to this point, while others resumed their relaxed meandering.
A few minutes later, he heard, “Now boarding seats twenty-one through forty. Please have your boarding pass ready and proceed to the concourse.” His heartbeat was a little harder and the sweat was starting to run down the middle of his back.
A few minutes later, “Now boarding seats forty-one through sixty. Please have your boarding pass ready and proceed to the concourse.” His heartbeat was a hammer and the sweat was a river running down his back as he approached the concourse entrance with halting, dragging steps.
The flight attendant was checking boarding passes and arranging everyone in numerical order. Once that was accomplished, they all walked down the concourse and entered the shuttle. When he reached his seat, Jessup sat nervously, his legs beginning to bounce alternatingly.
“Jump-bags are stowed under your seat,” the attendant told him, “and fasten your harness. Ensure it’s snug.” Jessup complied and closed his eyes. In the nose, hold, out the mouth, he chanted to himself in an effort to calm himself. In the nose, hold, out the mouth.
Another attendant walked through the cabin checking everyone’s harness, tugging a few tighter.
She grabbed the end of his four-point harness and, after bracing her foot on the arm of his seat, pulled hard. The straps felt like they were cutting into him. “Tighter is better. We don’t want you floating free,” she said sweetly with a brief smile.
She could get a job at Mistress Maureen’s Pain Castle, Jessup thought.
After thirty minutes, or so, the intercom came on: “Prepare for acceleration!”
When Jessup felt the shuttle move, it caused the panic to rise in him. He had heard the acceleration warning, but his brain was too fear-consumed to acknowledge it. His muscles tried to make him jump, but the straps held him too firmly for that to happen.
The Please don’t crash mantra was running unbidden through his mind, repeatedly, as the shuttle pitched forward on the start of its trip down the catapult tube.
He could feel the first acceleration, as the electricity running through the tube’s magnetic coils did their work. He could feel his arms and legs tremble the longer the acceleration lasted.
“Passengers secured, Captain,” Hardisty said when the light indicating such lit. He fastened his own four-point harness.
“Carpenter to flight, passengers secured. Ready to launch,” Parker said into the mic.
“Roger, Carpenter. Engage computer flight plan in three…two…one. Have a nice trip.”
“Roger, flight,” Parker responded. “Engage pre-recorded flight plan,” he said to Hardisty.
“Computer flight plan running,” Hardisty responded. A few seconds later, they felt the ship, sitting on the cradle, start to roll.
“Prepare for acceleration,” Parker said into the P.A. and then clicked it off. “Thirty seconds to scramjet assist.”
Both Parker and Hardisty rested a finger on the button to ignite the scramjet, should the computer fail to fire it.
“Three…two…one.” Both men jabbed the twin buttons a millisecond after the computer fired the scramjet. The sudden acceleration pushed them, and their passengers, back into their seats. Both men held their joysticks loosely, ready for free-flight.
“Ten seconds to carriage release.”
Both men watched the countdown timer with their fingers on the release buttons for the undercarriage.
“Three…two…one.” Both men pushed the twin buttons a millisecond after the computer released the steel undercarriage.
As the Carpenter exited the end of the magnetic catapult tube it continued to climb as the undercarriage fell back to Earth. The ship encountered turbulence the higher it climbed shaking the ship.
“Main engine ignition in three…two…one.” Parker and Hardisty pushed twin buttons that would ignite the main rocket engine, should the computer fail to do so.
Everyone was pushed further into their seats.
“Scram cutoff in three…two…one.” Both men pushed the buttons to kill the scramjet engine.
The distinctive click of a microphone being keyed came through the cabin speakers.
“This is Captain Parker. We have been accelerating at a leisurely three gravities and have now cleared the atmosphere. In two minutes, we will begin transitioning from acceleration to free-fall with a one minute respite at the one gravity point.
“For some of you, this is your first experience in free-fall. As such, you are required, by regulations, to don your drop-sick masks in that one minute respite.
“We will be arriving at New Kennedy Space Station in precisely two hours, where some of you will disembark to continue your flight to Luna City, or on to Mars.
“On behalf of Trans-Terra, and the flight crew, we wish to thank you for traveling with us today.”
The microphone clicked off.
Jessup felt pale and was sweating profusely. He had regretted this trip the minute the transport left the ground. If I didn’t have family and a new job on Mars, I wouldn’t be on this deathtrap, he thought. This was his first trip off-planet and he hated flying, in all its various forms. Even the somewhat safer Jump-Buses, that took people to other continents, were detested, and avoided, by him.
He heard the annoying buzz of the Klaxon and then felt the three guys sitting on his chest, get off him, and the shaking he had to endure, diminish. There weren’t three guys sitting on his chest, he knew, it just felt like it.
As he breathed easier, he was nervously fumbling with the drop-sick mask located in the seat-back in front of him.
“May I be of some assistance?” the flight attendant asked pleasantly as she took the drop-sick kit from him and opened it deftly.
“Are we going to get hit by all the space-junk up here?” he asked, trying to be brave and keep the nervous tremor from his voice. “I’d heard there was still a lot of it and it’s a major hazard.”
The attendant bent to place the mask over his mouth. “Nothing has ever hit a shuttle in the years since I’ve been flying. Trans-Terra is accident-free!” She stood to leave, after smiling at him briefly, to attend another passenger.
“First time off-planet?” the man next to him asked.
Jessup looked at the man next to him. Younger, well-dressed, no drop-sick mask, and seemed pleasant enough. He nodded in response to the question.
“Name’s Grant, Rick Grant,” the man said as he extended his hand.
“Frank…Jessup,” Jessup said as he took his hand and shook it.
“Couldn’t help overhearing,” Rick said. “You have nothing to worry about. These ships are built pretty damned tough. Armored glass windows, titanium inner hull, and a composite outer hull of titanium, Kevlar, and weapons grade aluminum.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” Frank said, not feeling any safer.
“I should! I’m Exec on the milk-run, that’s what we call the Luna City to Kennedy round trip. I’m meeting my ship at Kennedy Station.”
“We have a light out on the RPAS,” Hardisty reported.
“Fix it when the boost is cut,” Parker said. “MECO in three…two…one.” Both men pushed the button that cut the main engine, but the computer beat them to it.
“Main engine cut-off confirmed,” Hardisty reported.
“Good, now get the Radar Proximity Alert System fixed!” Parker ordered.
Frank heard the buzzing Klaxon again and his stomach turned inside out and emptied its contents into his mask and the attached bag. After the third round of regurgitation, Frank was sure he was going to die.
“Don’t worry! No-one dies from drop-sickness, you just think you will,” Rick chuckled.
Everyone heard a shrill alarm, but not much of it. Frank had been turned toward Rick and glanced out the window. He saw the asteroid when it was just a few feet from the shuttle.
In the now empty concourse area, a ticker at the bottom of the news screen slid past: “Trans-Terra flight 223 struck by asteroid two hours from New Kennedy Space Station. No survivors.”
It was promptly followed by a commercial on the screen: “Trans-Terra: The safest way to travel. We’re accident-free!”
By Stephen Drake
Jake Springer was standing at the sink in the dismal, roach infested, fleabag hotel room. He had just finished washing the blood off his hands and splashing cold water onto his face.
You really screwed up this time, Jake, he thought. You were sent here to prevent the very act that had just happened. His attention was diverted to the reflection of the old-style clock. It’s two a.m.… and I feel the Eternal Fates have turned their back on me.
He noticed that his initial fear and confusion was gone. He shifted a little and the barrel of his Colt 1911 touched his side, from its place in his shoulder holster.
Gun’s still warm, he thought, and I’ve tried to make contact with my FTAIB connection, a Bill Weinstein, but the phone circuits seem to be down, or jammed. Maybe Weinstein is tired of taking chances on more changes to this timeline and is ignoring my calls.
A memory of his training officer in the Federal Time Adjustments and Investigations Bureau came unbidden to his mind. “Do this work long enough and you’ll come to know, when a bullet hits the bone.” When he had asked what he meant by that puzzling statement, “When you shoot someone, and hit a bone, you’ll hear it—you’ll feel it—you’ll know it. Just as much as you’ll know when someone’s shot hits you.”
There is going to be a shit-storm over all this, the cascading time-paradoxes will wreak all kinds of havoc, he thought, then paused. He would have sworn he heard sirens, but no, no sirens, yet. All was silent. It must be my guilty mind making me hear things.
He felt as though his life was beginning to spin off into a frenzy of surrealistic feelings, almost as if he was cloned and everything was happening to someone else, but with his name and face.
He remembered one of his previous assignments into the mid-1960’s and an old television show, “The Twilight Zone”. This situation would fit right in, he chuckled sardonically to himself.
When he checked the locater, in his watch, he noticed that the return beacon, the one he had placed prior to coming to this room, must have been moved. Has the whole planet shifted? Initially, he had placed it, and locked it, close to a huge billboard advertising the Moon and Star Lounge. Now, the locator showed the beacon was under that billboard, and thus, unusable, mostly from interference, in its current location. That should have been impossible, once it was locked.
When he had first arrived, his first thoughts were, “This place is a madhouse, a madhouse!” Visions of Charlton Heston screaming, in a cage, while he was getting hit by a high-pressure water-hose, invaded his mind. Maybe I should stop meeting people in darkened theaters when I go to the late 60’s, he thought. Those images seemed to be too easily fixed in my brain.
He knew he had to get out of this room and try to get home, and quickly, but where was he to go, especially given the fact that he had gone too far, this time? I’m allowed some latitude, but not this much!
Initially, his mission was to prevent Mickey “the nose” O’Haloran from dying at the hands of a hit-man, who had been hired by Alexander “the Snowman” McFadden and prolong the turf-war that was currently being waged, and thus, weaken the gangs with a protracted conflict. Well, you certainly changed that little bit of history. Right now, that hit-man, a certain Gary “Single-shot” Singleton was on his way to this location.
Historically, he was to arrive at half-past two. When Singleton gets here, he’ll know he’s been cheated out of his kill, which will make me his next target. He knew that Singleton was one of those that took pride in his profession and enjoyed fulfilling his own contracts. He didn’t appreciate, or tolerate, others doing it for him.
I was sent here, alone, as a messenger, to warn O’Haloran about Singleton. O’Haloran’s paranoia got the better of him and that fat-bastard double-crossed me. He shot at me, first. I was just defending myself. What was I supposed to do?
He went to the phone, which was close to the bed on a side table, and, once he heard the dial tone, punched the numbers Weinstein had given him. It took several seconds before he heard the phone try to make the connection and received a busy signal. Where are you, Weinstein?
Minutes later, he was outside. The darkness and the chilling fog seemed to weigh heavily on his guilty mind. I know I’m far from the invisible, but understood, borderline that divides the city into the different gangs’ turf. I need to get the hell out of Dodge and try to get somewhere safe, but where?
As Springer exited the building, he donned his hat and overcoat, thus blending in with everyone else on the street. He turned left at the sidewalk and continued down the street a few feet and stopped at the news stand to browse the newly arrived papers. He paid for, and received a paper and started to peruse it nonchalantly as he walked.
A few minutes after he passed the news stand, he proceeded down the street. Because of the hour and the relative quiet, he heard foot-steps behind him. He stopped and appeared to focus on the paper. He heard the foot-steps stop as well.
He turned and walked further down the street, turning down an alleyway. He started to trot and heard the foot-steps trotting as well. About three-quarters of the way to the next street, the alley dead-ended.
Springer panicked as he searched for an escape. He tried several doors, but none opened. He had his back to the person following him.
“I don’t know who you are or who you work for, but I know you bumped off O’Haloran. I’ve been following you since you left the hotel room.”
Springer froze when the man spoke and stood with his hands in plain view. He felt a warm piece of metal against his skull. He felt someone patting him down. The man, he could smell the strong, offensive aftershave, found his gun, and ammunition, removing everything he found that could be of use. Both men froze and turned their heads when they heard sirens.
“The cops have found your handiwork,” Springer said. The metal pressing against his skull went away to be replaced by a thicker, heavier one.
The man smirked a little, “My handiwork? I did nothing to O’Haloran, while he was alive. I did pop him shortly after you left, though. Just to make sure, you understand.”
Springer felt extra pressure against the base of his skull and heard the hammer of his Colt 1911 click twice, knowing the hammer was in the firing position. “I’m surprised you haven’t asked who I work for,” he said, trying to keep the panic out of his voice, with marginal success.
The man chuckled, “I don’t care who you are or who you work for. I have nothing against you, personally. I just don’t abide someone encroaching on my contracts. It’s just that simple. A professional code, if you will.”
The man’s cold tone sent shivers through Springer.
“Drop the gun!” someone ordered from behind Springer and his potential assailant. “Police! Drop the gun!”
Two shots rang out in quick succession.
“Who was the victim?” the Police captain asked. He was standing in the Observation room, watching Singleton, with his arm in a sling, in the adjacent interrogation room.
“The first victim is—was Michael O’Haloran,” the Detective answered flatly. “The other victim is still unidentified.”
“Unidentified? How is that possible?” the Captain asked.
“No ID, fingerprints, tattoos, or other distinguishing marks and his head was blown apart, so dental records are no help. They are still working on identifying the body, but I’m not hopeful.”
“How strong is the case against Singleton?”
“He was apprehended with a Colt twenty-two caliber revolver and a 1911 forty-five. Both weapons have been identified as the weapons firing the bullets that were recovered from O’Haloran’s body. The arresting officer was the eye-witness to the shooting of the unidentified victim, So, I’d say it’s pretty strong.”
The announcer sounded, indicating someone waited for admission into Thomas Hines’ office. Hines pushed the button on his desk as he closed the open file folder on his desk.
“Jacob Springer reporting, as ordered,” the man said as he stood in front of his supervisor’s desk.
Hines leaned back in his chair, looking the young man up and down. This is the fifteenth time this has happened, he thought. “Seemingly innocuous events can have far reaching effects” came unbidden to his mind. Will this time-loop ever change, he wondered.