Rocket Man

Author: David Barber

“Hi, granddad. It’s Tom.”

His granddad’s puzzled gaze flicked between the brothers.

“Look, Corbin’s here. We’ve come to see you.”

“Christ,” muttered Corbin. “Probably keep them under the spell all day. Total immersion software is the new…”

Tom didn’t know how good his granddad’s sight was, so he scraped the plastic chair up close while his brother wandered round the room.

“Did you see the pictures from Zheng He?”

Seven years ago, the Chinese had sacrificed their Europa mission. A last-minute sling-shot round Jupiter flung its optics out into the Kuiper. Now we had snapshots of our peanut-shaped nemesis.

Corbin, peering through the blinds, turned to complain. “Thought we said we wouldn’t…”

Granddad had worked for the old NASA. As a child, Tom had watched him thumping Thanksgiving tables, ranting about the decline and fall of the space program. The family had learned not to ask. But somehow it had turned into nostalgia for an age Tom didn’t even remember.

Years later, Tom’s immersion software company had rode the retro wave with TIS Rocket Man: The future as it should have been, von Braun’s winged and shiny rockets docking with the Big Wheel, engineers in tin space suits, a Mars Fleet setting out.

Corbin went off to find somebody in charge.

His granddad had said Rocket Man should be more matter of fact. Like flying. That it wasn’t about heroes, just smart people doing difficult jobs well. Tom didn’t like to say nobody flew much anymore, but the thought lingered.

Corbin came back. He’d told people what they were doing wrong. Sorted things out.

He said Tom’s style was Reactionary. “You just wait for stuff to happen…”

Corbin bought and sold futures in global processing power. You jumped. You invented the parachute on the way down.

“Read an article said there was still a chance it could miss…”

“Only Deniers say that.”

It would sort itself out. Asia had all the money. Corbin admired and distrusted them. They’d zap it with a giant laser, nuke it, drag it away with solar sails.

“Point is, who knows…”

“…how that sentence ends. You do that every time.”

Take me outside, granddad said. It was like listening to birds squabble. He had no time for all that now.

“Over there,” he insisted. “Next to Max.”

Corbin’s eyes had screened over. They’d agreed to drop out the Net but he couldn’t wait. Tom parked the wheelchair next to the bench where granddad’s friend, Max, sat tucked under a rug.

Granddad beckoned Tom to lean down. “They cancelled Apollo, they cancelled Ares. Always cheaper to do nothing.”

Tom nodded vaguely. A whole generation had been careless of flying. They thought nothing of crossing continents, spanning oceans. With turbulence, night landings, air hostesses in tight skirts! There must be a market for a product like that. TIS Mile High.

“That rock’s a good thing, Tim. Forces us back into space, otherwise, we’re trapped here, and it’s gotten so small, so…”

Later, he explained it again to Max, about the space program, his grandsons, about the dread in his own heart. What sped towards him was incomprehensible, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. It would serve them right. Puzzling to think he wouldn’t be here to say I told you so.

Afterwards, his heart played up again and they wheeled him back for his medication.

“Or they’ll cooperate,” said Max out loud. “No one did before the Melt, but this time we’ll save the planet and feel good about ourselves again.”

Things would get better, he was sure of it.

The End

1 Comment

  1. Hari Navarro

    I loved the passage regarding what should have been, with its nice little shout out to Wernher von Braun.

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