Six hours in the Florida summer sun wearing full firefighting bunkers and re-breather, even with the mask open, makes the sweat stream off your whole body and pool in your boots like swamp water. The old M113 'battle taxi' Armored Personnel Carrier was a scorching metal box, too; no chance to hide in the shade between rescue drills. I just kept sucking on my drinking straw, waiting for the launch rehearsal to end.
The Cape always changes rhythm as a shuttle launch gets near. Routine events take on added urgency; more care goes into what was simple during the rest of the month. Fire and Rescue crews practice for one-in-a-million disasters, which hopefully will never happen; instead of searching technicians' offices for illegally plugged in coffee pots. Everyone on both shifts came in. Since this would be a day launch, night owls like me got to work under the hot sun, blinking and cursing the heat.
Spang! The escape slide release pops as another test dummy flies down the wire toward us. I pull my mask over my face, ready to catch the simulated astronaut. Bobby waits behind me for number two, as if anyone would get out once a fire began. The first dummy's pulley smacks into the retaining stops, the sand-filled mannequin continuing forward into the cushions. I dash forward, remembering to look back up the wire for a second one, just in case. Bobby got smacked by 200 pounds of sandbags once last year; knocked him cold. Coast clear; I unhooked the harness from the dummy, hoisting the dead weight over my shoulder in the classic 'fireman's carry.' I staggered thirty feet to the rear ramp of the APC and dropped it onto a stretcher.
"We're clear!" Bobby throws himself inside behind me as Lemont the driver engages the ramp lift cables. He revved the engine to give more power to the winches. Clang! The retaining clips closed on the edges of the door, and he turned his driver's seat and shifted into drive.
"Rolling!" The APC was older than anyone inside it, but the big block, tuned Chevy gasser engine with its 4-barrel carb and straight-through exhaust made the carrier fairly leap out of the revetment, roaring off along the gravel track. The two of us bounced along in the back, sealed in a box. Eventually we arrived at the ambulance station, four miles from Pad 39B. Lemont dropped the ramp, while I opened the top hatch.
"Good run, guys. Write up anything wrong for the mechanics, and then we're through for the day." When he removed his own mask and helmet, the two of us took that as a sign and started stripping out of our bunkers. It had been a long day.
"Curtis," Bobby asked, "What you doing tonight? We're thinking about going downtown Orlando, wanna come?" I'd been afraid he was going to ask. OK, might as well start their fun.
"Rellah and I are going out tonight, she's got the night off, too." At least Bobby didn't rib me as bad as some of the guys did about my girlfriend. "I thought we'd go to a nice restaurant, maybe up to Daytona Beach."
"Yeah, I hear they have some good 'juice bars' up there, shouldn't have any trouble sneaking her in." Well, that one was less-than-original. I tried to preempt any more remarks on age.
"Look, guys. I know she's a lot younger than me, and she probably uses a fake ID when she goes out. But she's at least eighteen: the security office wouldn't give her a badge without seeing her real one, so just give it a rest!" I turned my back and hung up my gear, with one last remark as I walked out the door of the rescue station. "I like her, you've all seen her around the station, she doesn't act like a kid, so don't treat her like one. That's all I ask. If' she's a little young, that's why I'm taking this slow and easy. Plenty of time; I'm patient."
I steamed quietly about it all the way home. The way I overreacted to Bobby's lame joke showed how much I unconsciously agreed with him. Well, I loved Rellah for her mind, even more because of the tight young body that housed her personality. Especially after she'd stopped transparently 'hitting on me' act she'd used when she'd first tried get my attention. Once we started talking together, I'd found she was an engaging conversationalist; she was aware of the things going on around the Cape, once she discovered my interests she made more of an attempt than any other girl I'd seen to become knowledgeable. I won't deny the physical attraction, though. When we kissed that first time, it had been like fireworks. All week afterwards, whenever we were together unobserved, she'd throw herself at me for a big hug and repeat session. Thinking about where it might lead tonight made me squirm as I climbed out of my car as I arrived at my apartment. Good thing I was going to take a cold shower anyway.
Later, as I was dressing, there was a knock on the door, the loud three-knock pattern one of my base security friends told me they teach at the police academy. So, I wasn't really surprised to see two men overdressed in gray suits standing outside in the sun.
"Hello, I'm Agent Wilkerson, DEA." He flashed a badge and credential too fast to read more than those three initials. I think they teach that in school, too. "Would you mind if we asked you a few questions about the incident at The Fortuna Point club last week. We're investigating several individuals who were there; who might be involved in another case, and another witness mentioned you were there. You needn't concern yourself, we're just looking for people who can describe the incident."
I agreed, after all, you couldn't live in the area without being exposed to some counter-drug activity or other. They asked me about the fights behind the club, got names of the people I'd been with, descriptions of the other participants, asked if I'd seen anyone unusual. They showed me some unrecognizable mug shots, nobody I'd know if they walked up actually carrying the mug shot. They asked some more unusual ones, too: had I noticed any strange lights, unusual hardware, like radios or guns; even if there had been any exotic animals! Strange, but this is Florida.
"I'm sorry, all I saw was a typical bar fight, some idiots beating up a gay couple that rubbed their redneck sensibilities the wrong way. I did what I could to calm things down, did a little first aid, then I took my date home. I wish I'd seen all those other things."
"No, you don't." They thanked me and left. Weird.
I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the clock, until just before it was time to leave to pick her up. I was just about to go when there was another knock, two more gentlemen, these a bit more casually dressed, both older, but cut from the same mold.
"Hello, I'm Agent-" I interrupted him.
"Your friends were already here. I told Agent Wilkerson everything I know." He was a bit nonplussed. "Look, I'm just about to leave, why don't you ask them?" He asked me to describe the two agents, looked significantly at his partner, then left, shaking his head. I waited until they drove off, left for my date in my own car.
At seven prompt, I knocked on her apartment's front door, hair slicked back, dressed in my best casual shirt. Rellah was waiting, no 'fashionably late' from her. She looked wonderful, wearing some kind of short summer dress, a tropical flower print. I offered her my hand, and helped her into my car. Something was subtly different about her face; I finally decided she was wearing makeup. We drove up the coast to a pier-side restaurant.
We sat together at a table alongside the railing, watching the sea birds, talking about the weather, or nothing, really: just conversation. A porpoise begged for food from the water below, and she laughed as I tossed it my shrimp. As night came on, a band started to play, and we lingered over dessert. Tiki torches lent a golden glow to her face. I held her hand at every opportunity, and she occasionally ruffled the hair on my arm. Finally, we went for a walk down the bay front.
"I had a funny thing happen today." She looked, up, curious. I told her about the two sets of agents who came to my door earlier. Her hand momentarily squeezed my arm.
"That was weird. I wonder what they wanted?"
"They just wanted to see your papers," I kidded. She gave me a startled look, saw my grin, and then punched me on the leg.
"Don't joke about that. Most of my friends would have run off into the dark just at the thought."
"Rellah, Don't you think you ought to get your papers in order? You'd be mighty embarrassed, if INS picked you up in a sweep, then dumped you on the streets of Guatemala City, and you didn't know the language or have any relatives." I pleaded, "Nobody is going to make you go back to your folks, and you could stop pretending you're not American." I offered her a hug.
"Curtis, I'm not from here, I've said that before. Not Guatemala, certainly, but it's still better to have papers I can work with. As far as they're concerned, I can just stay Rosalie."
"Well, don't worry about it. None of those G-men were looking for runaway Canadian girls, at least, not unless you have a pet lion you've been hiding!" She hugged me tight, taking me by surprise, and that led to our first kiss of the night.
"M'rorrlll," she purred, surprising me with perfect mimicry of the cough at the end, not like a pretend lion. We leaned against a piling, and snuggled for a while. There was just a bit of chill from the sea breeze, but her skin was warm enough.
"Oh, you need to take Thursday off."
"It shouldn't be a problem. Its launch day, and we don't do any of the active mission areas then. Why? You're working, so what would I do?"
"I got you a pass to the Press Gallery. We're going to all meet at the firehouse, then you and the guys' wives go over there while we work the launch. We'll have a picnic afterwards." I was rewarded by another kiss, a deep one that took both our breaths.
"That would be neat! I wanted to see the launch, but couldn't get closer than the far shore. Of course I'll come!" We kissed for a while longer, walked hand in hand through the marina until we arrived back at my car. She kept her head on my shoulder the whole drive back to her place (which is really not very comfortable in a jeep with bucket seats.)
I was considering just how far we ought to take things, thinking she would probably ask me in if a wanted; when she stiffened, pointing at her front porch.
"Is that the same man who came to you place earlier?" She gestured forward. "Drive on past!" I looked. An unmarked sedan sat at the curb; a man in a suit was looking through the glass beside the front door. She ducked down as we passed.
"I can't tell. It could be. What do you want to do?" Looking in the rear view, it appeared we hadn't been followed.
"I don't want to take a chance that they're looking for me. You can drop me off at a motel. I can afford one night, I guess."
"Stay at my place. They've already been there, they probably won't come back tonight." She looked like she was wavering. "Come on. I'll sleep on the couch, you can have my room."
"Thank, you Curtis. You're a real gentleman."
I guess I am. It was clear that she had problems other than with Immigration: They didn't send plainclothesmen after illegal aliens. Before we got any more serious, I was going to have to ask some searching questions. I put my arm back around her shoulder, hugged her. Tomorrow.
The room stank of human sweat, lion and fox musk, overlain with old pizza grease. The maids would earn every cent of their tip once we checked out of the hotel. Although, once the inevitable federal agents finished their sweep maybe it would be already cleaned for them. Probably, the entire building would be disassembled, numbered, bagged and delivered to Area 51. Maybe not, though. My sister nudged me with her claws, so I stopped daydreaming and paid attention to the briefing once again.
"It's my judgment that the drug task force stakeout in her neighborhood, and the 'INS' raid on her employer's business offices are a cover for an attempt to capture her. I'm certain the government knows who Relloc is. Whether they suspect exactly what she is, I'm not prepared to say." Colin closed his notebook with finality. Dave tapped on the table with a pen, looking around at all of us before speaking. It was frustrating to him that we'd managed to locate the saboteur before she struck, only to find government agents in the way. He'd only reluctantly been persuaded not to seize both.
"You're probably right. I mean, it could be an unrelated police case, or even a normal FBI counterespionage case. Maybe. But we've got to assume it's the MIBs."
"It doesn't change our options." H'raawl-Hrkh began. "Unless you can snatch her off the street in the next 12 hours, we'll still have to leave right after dark if Dave's going to drop us on the island. It'll take most of the hours of darkness to infiltrate the space center. Let Colin and you Diyim'yi try in town. Dave, we've got to get moving." She included me in her gesture, and I tried to look tough and ready for her benefit.
"We can't go yet," Chessec interrupted. "The captain said he was going to contact us in a while. We'd better all know how he's going to pull us out if this doesn't work."
"Well, that is a point. It probably goes without saying that we'd better not let the Feds find anyone with fur near the Cape, if this goes wrong."
"I'd prefer they didn't find anyone," Marie stated, looking significantly at her husband. "We all need to be careful." Nothing new, boring rehash of old arguments. I found myself flirting with Gavin from across the room, running my tongue slowly around my front teeth. He squirmed, which earned me a nasty look from his friend Ed, and sharper claws to the leg from H'raawl-Hrkh. The discussion continued along that course until Captain Chopka's mobile phone call came in, and we all crowded around the speaker set.
"If the launch is delayed, they'll announce it on the radio. We can time everything off of that." Chopka's voice was a bit barky over the speaker. I could hear the rest of the crew faintly in the background. "Annas will try to look innocent, as long as she can. As long and straight as the landing strip is, she'll just keep dropping lower, like she's losing engine power."
"What if they try to force her away from the launch area," Colin interrupted. "There are bound to be some kind of patrols."
"I'll make it. I just need everyone ready and waiting right at the point on the ground I come to a stop. I'm not shutting down the engines, so you'll need to come at a run." Annas sounded like she looked forward to the challenge.
"Everyone who's going to go will be there." Dave's voice was grouchy. We'd all heard Marie and his shouting match when we discussed it earlier.
"Dave, you should come, too-" He cut Chopka off.
"No, I haven't changed my mind. This call's going too long. What about Mitzep and the shuttle? We can create the diversion on the ground, but he's going to have to escort her back to orbit. Let's go over the timing again…" I zoned out, and one of my paws fell off the edge of the table, shifting my weight, causing the whole thing to tilt. I leaned back, embarrassed. H'raawl unobtrusively pulled me into the adjoining room. Her angry expression, the slight curl of her lip warred with the laughter she was suppressing.
"You're not helping! Here we're about to go on a mission that could lead to our deaths, AND ALL you can do is mentally undress Gavin. At least try to act serious."
"What I want to do is physically undress him. And don't think I can't tell you want to drag Colin into the back bedroom, yourself."
"Of course I do. But we've got to maintain appearances. The two of us realize that we're down to the last rush to pull down the prey: too late to think. But the Captain, and Dave, too…they believe if they only can come up with a clever enough plans; everyone will get out alive. I don't think that's going to happen-you think so too."
"Well, I'll do it for their sakes. But I want to do one last thing before we go. Tell you what? If you hold Gavin down for me, I'll drag Colin in here for you, tied up like a package if you want."
"Better not. We'll just have to be extra attentive to Mitzep once he rescues us; once we're back on the ship."
"That I'll agree to. What is it that makes that fox so cute?"
"Tasty, you mean."
Soon enough, Dave and Chopka had thrashed out the timeline for our last attempt on Relloc and an extraction plan. H'raawl-Hrkh and I got to wade through the swamps, while the Diyim'yi and humans did their best to cause enough of a diversion to allow us all to escape afterwards. We finally climbed into the van as last light faded.
"Now you're projecting major doses of melancholy, sister-mine." Jena remarked after she accepted an ice cooler from me. "What're you thinking about now?"
"Oh, just looking around this cheap motel, thinking this might be the last place I stayed while I was on Earth. It's not like the stories."
"Oh?" She placed the cooler in the van, gestured a paw for me to keep working while I talked.
"Yeah. The ones where the aliens land and say: 'Take me to your leader' and everything goes on smoothly from there. This business of not wanting to admit we're even here I don't understand."
"We don't have stories like that. The Jaguars landed and shot anyone who challenged them. For myself, I'd rather we'd have been ignored."
"When you put it that way, I guess maybe this is better. Maybe we should just go home?"
"Yeah." I think that was the moment I stopped thinking of Earth as my 'home.' H'raawl-Hrkh put her arm around my shoulders, and we climbed into the van.
Dave drove onto Merritt Island just ahead of an evening rainstorm; the two of us hunkered down under a blanket in the back, out of sight of the bridge keeper as we crossed the drawbridge. Afterwards, there wasn't any traffic, and only the lights flashing on the tops of the various buildings and antennae of the Cape. He eventually killed the headlights and turned off the road onto a sandy trail, stopping just inside the trees. The only sounds were the cooling motor.
H'raawl-Hrkh directed me to keep watch as the two of them unloaded supplies. I stepped a few paces toward the highway, smelling the darkness. Vicious mosquitoes tried futilely to bite through my hide: my human skin would have been pin-cushioned in seconds. My ears and tail twitched away the more persistent insects. The forest was a simple live oak-with palmetto understory growing on sand; everything looked and smelled scorched from a recent fire. The trail we were on showed the tracks of small deer, possums and large feral pigs. I could hear the cry of nighthawks and the faint rush of the surf over the clank of whatever they were unloading. No cars passed on the highway, and finally they called me back to the van.
"This is as close as I'm likely to get tomorrow before the launch," Dave said, "because the crowds and increased security will choke this beach trail. I'll park someplace along the road, with the keys under the rear bumper; that's the last resort escape route: If it comes to using the van, we're just not going to make it off the island."
"Still, maybe we can hide inside it until the fuss dies down, then work our way along the island to the Banana River."
"Lets hope it doesn't come to that. If Annas can't land the plane, try to make your way to the Intracoastal Waterway side, and maybe we can pull you out by boat. I still think you will have better luck hiding in the swamp."
"The Diyim'yi could get away with that, but Jena and I are too big. There aren't any wild lions around here, you know."
"It's worth a try. I hate to think I'm leaving you stuck out here."
"Annas is a brave pilot. If you can make at least half of your diversions work, we should catch that plane. But no matter what, Jena and I have to catch Relloc. Even if we don't get out." She squeezed my shoulder reassuringly, although I could feel the doubt in her thoughts. "You'd better go."
Dave took each of our paws in his hand before he got into the van; I gave him a quick hug and a lick on the cheek. He drove off, turning on his lights as he hit pavement.
"Well, sister, lets make one last look around for anything we missed, then start hiking." A bit of brushing away footprints from whatever they'd buried beneath the tarp, then we shouldered our small packs and looked at one another. "Why don't you carry this," she said, offering me the bolt-action rifle with its scope wrapped in padding. "That way, it'll free my claws to deal with anything that we come across." She led the way through the underbrush, guiding off the flashing red lights on the tops of the Vehicle Assembly Building, and then later the launch pads themselves. We followed an irregular path, game trails, really, that skirted around the ponds, wading through ditches only when necessary. No alligators bothered us, to my immense relief. It was after midnight when we finally reached Pad 39B. We looked across the cleared area at the rusted chain link fence, and then backed into an enormous live oak motte for cover. I was spreading the ground cloth, when H'raawl suddenly projected sharp worry, then hissed. Something else hissed back, but before I had even begun to turn, she was laughing. She shone her light into the branches above our heads.
"Nice kitty!" H'raawl continued to laugh at the unfortunate puma, who in turn glared nervously at us over the goat haunch it was eating. "Why don't we move over a bit, and give him some privacy." She indicated a spot about 30 feet further away.
"Aren't you worried he'll come down from there?" I watched the wild animal, a bit nervous myself.
"He's more afraid that we'll want to share a piece of that leg. What a handsome little beast!" She lay down on her tarp, casually watching him eat. He growled, but she just yawned back, showing her teeth. Finally, he carried his kill as far from the two of us as possible on the opposite side of the tree. "Come and lay down next to me. He won't bother you."
The moon was nearly below the horizon, but the floodlights on the launch pad were a bright glare to our south. She had me scan the structure with the riflescope, while she used binoculars to search the brush between our position and the fence. We were about 300 meters from the tower; the first hundred were inside a rusty chain link fence, and well lit, while the rest was either grass or low bushes, offering little cover. To our left was a pipeline pump house of some sort, and to our right front was a concrete bunker. Both had an earth berm between it and the tower, doubtless providing protection from blast and flame. The white, black and orange-brown of the shuttle were hidden by the mass of the pad. There were some workers on duty even at this hour, their voices and the clank of metal-on-metal carrying easily toward us. H'raawl motioned for me to stay in place, and began to crawl forward.
"We have about six hours until launch. Before dawn, I want a scrape where we can hide under the tarp as close as possible to the fence. Someplace where we can shoot without being seen." She stayed gone until the moon was fully set, while I continued to watch through the sight. Experimentally, I lined up the crosshairs and post on a white-jacketed worker. I left the bolt of the rifle open, not even willing to risk an accidental shot. I didn't think I could do it, even if we saw her lighting a bomb. When a loud motor started at the pump house, I jerked my finger away from the trigger. No, I couldn't do it.
We lay there for the rest of the night. At dawn actability increased, and truckloads of workers were constantly coming and going from the site. One truck dropped three men at the concrete bunker. The pump finally shut off, and we could hear them talking, trading insults and jokes. An hour before launch, and they started an engine, racing it several times before shutting it off again. Now, most of the traffic was away from the tower. Presumably the astronauts were aboard, although we were on the wrong side to seen. I hadn't seen anyone who might be Relloc.
"Maybe she isn't here. They might have arrested her already."
"I've got Dave's phone. If we knew anything, Colin or he would have called. What's that up there?" She pointed. I swung the scope up.
"I can't see-" There was a small figure on the side of the tower nearest us. "It's a woman, I think. Hair and size is right. What's she doing?" She was leaning against the railing, messing with the end of a wire that led down to the bunker.
"She's going to slide down the wire! Don't shoot, we can catch her where she hits the ground." I nearly sobbed with relief. I horn sounded on the tower, and I almost reflexively pulled the trigger, again. I hastily put the rifle on 'safe'. H'raawl pulled the tarp off us and started toward the bunker at a run. Not having any other ideas, I followed.
"Range Eye Six, this is Laurel One. Laurel flight is clear of Orlando terminal area, entering Eastern Range RAS." I looked out the left side, spotting my wingman, Laurel Two. He was high and slightly to the rear, his lonely pair of Sidewinder missiles visible on either side of the centerline fuel tank. Their gray shapes jarred, used as I was to years of carrying training loads over Florida. I checked my own weapon status: Missiles safed; guns hot. Such were the rules of engagement when flying CAP for the Kennedy launch complex. The AWACS controller's voice on the radio interrupted my thoughts.
"Laurel One, this is Range Eye Six. You are acknowledged entering the RAS. We have you 220 nautical miles east of our orbit, 45 miles southeast of the launch pad. Alter course to one-zero-zero, elevation two-zero-thousand. Assume orbit track Whiskey. Special launch restrictions in effect in two minutes: launch is at T-minus 90."
"Roger. Changing heading one-zero-zero, climbing two-zero-thousand. What traffic is inside the RAS?" It would be our job to keep the launch area clear of intruders (usually sightseers) and intercept anyone who didn't respond to a bluntly worded threat by the FAA. I switched to channel two.
"Laurel Two, nice turn there. Keeping it closed up just fine." Lieutenant Donalson was a promising young aviator, I was sure he'd appreciate being chosen for this particular flight. "Looks like we'll be here through the shuttle launch provided there aren't any delays. Did you copy T-90 from Six?"
"Roger, Laurel flight leader. Will we be able to see anything from here?" I laughed. A shuttle launch would light up the whole area, and we had perfect seats. "Watch and learn, youngster!"
"Laurel, Range Eye Six." I toggled back to channel one. "Two other aircraft currently in the RAS. Navy F14s, Cat Four and Cat Five, Eastern Range CAP, 380 miles east of you." Well out to sea, we'd seal the two ends of this huge restricted area between us, with the AWACS in the middle as our eyes. He continued, "Scheduled, approved traffic is as follows: At approximately T-60, but no later than T-45, Air Force Two, B-737 will enter from the north and land at NAS Canaveral. At T-25, news helicopter, callsign SkyFOX4, on approved track sixteen miles northeast of pad. At T-2, NASA T-38 chase plane, callsign Talon Chase, will enter RAS from north at one-four thousand feet, following track Whiskey Delta. He will be climbing to Angels four-hundred, following the launch track southeast.
NASA SR-71, callsign Blackbird Chase will fly the same track at Angels eight-hundred. No worries about him getting in your way!" Hardly, the Blackbird would be barely visible at the edge of space. "Lastly, Search and Rescue MH-60, callsign Medevac 37, is on the Shuttle Landing Field on strip alert."
"Roger, Range Eye, any other concerns?"
"Only one, probably drug smuggler northbound low along the coast at 280 knots, could enter the area at T+3 if customs doesn't force him down. They're on an intercept now, it should be over in another twenty minutes."
"Roger, Range Eye. We'll just wait for the show."
My head feels like a melon someone dropped on a market stall floor. I'm seeing two, maybe multiple glowing reddish blurs of numbers, letters, symbols; something is glowing across the room. Hard squinting and much alternate closing and focusing eyes finally resolves it as: 00:12:32. Recognizing it as one of the ubiquitous countdown clocks that populate the launch complex, I realize I've lost almost three hours someplace. The pain in my head subsides enough to allow me to experience other, lesser pains in my wrist and leg.
Slowly moving my head, trying not to black out again, I discover my torso wedged into one of the two triangular support girders that support the crew access gantry, which must have broken my fall from the fuel hose crane. I know I've fallen, because I don't think a mob of disgruntled NASA engineers beat me with clubs and left me here. 00:11:48. I'd better do something. I search my memory, trying to find the last point I remember, while simultaneously trying to climb down off the girder. I spot a camera, and some sense of caution keeps me from crawling in front of it. That would be a last resort. At least, if they discover I'm here, they'll abort the launch. And arrest me as a saboteur/terrorist, of course.
The rotary service structure begins to pivot away from the shuttle with a raucous honk of warning horns, and I wrap my arms more tightly around the piping as the whole Pad 39B structure vibrates. The retraction of the bigger of the two main arms attaching it to the shuttle means I am out of time. I already knew I was out of ideas, and enthusiasm, for that matter. The past six hours had been a fiasco.
I woke before dawn on Curtis' couch, wearing my undergarments under one of his shirts. It's not as romantic as the commercials made you believe: the fasteners and buttons had permanently imprinted my skin, and the couch itself left its own pattern. He had offered his bed, even if I wouldn't share it with him. But I couldn't take any further advantage of the man, as understanding as he'd been. We said as few words as possible while we ate breakfast, although we hugged as he left me off with the wives' party. As a last farewell, it sucked.
Our group had the pre-approved passes to the bleachers near the press area given to employee's family, so we went through the gate with the other stickered cars. We then stopped at the rescue station to drop off our supplies for the post-launch picnic. I took the opportunity to recover my supplies, change into the stashed NASA jumpsuit, and lose the group. They say that the moment a covert operation is most vulnerable is the moment of the first overt act. The second I picked up my book satchel with the device, I was overt. I kept low between the cars while crossing the VAB parking lot, and quickly found my way to the fuelling complex on the west side of the huge building. Attaching an appropriate badge, likewise pilfered during cleaning, I entered their garage and did my best to look busy until the next crew truck left for the pad.
Holding another layer of protective clothing in my arms, I shuffled onto the truck and rode out to the pad. The outer perimeter gate was just an ID check (and I had one, after all) while we actually had to sign in at the inner fence, surrendering our badges to a range safety officer who hung it on the board behind him. This was the toughest moment: If an extra badge was still on the board, he could delay the launch until that person was found. I used a version of the shell game: hanging my badge on the board, I entered the fence, then abruptly reversed, mumbling about not having visited the restroom first. I palmed two badges, and when I came back through, I hung one on the board.
Launch Pad 39B (and it's twin, 39A, for that matter) consists of a fixed tower with two main movable bays that are swung out from the shuttle to minimize flame damage from the rockets. The larger of the two, a vast structure that allows access to the cargo compartment, was already retracted. The other, intended for crew access, would be swing free minutes before launch. Both were carefully monitored by cameras, and accessed from an elevator controlled from the launch control building.
Once on the tower, it was a matter of walking around with a clipboard until I could find a place to hide. I couldn't risk going into the crew access area until the hatch was sealed: that meant another security checkpoint, and 'clean room' conditions. But everyone would leave the tower while the shuttle was fueled and liquid oxygen pumped aboard, before returning to help with the flight crew. That gave me three hours alone with a very volatile mixture, just waiting for the right match. I finally climbed up into the overhead piping and pulled a sheet of plastic over me.
Plenty of time to think. I lay still, hidden from casual observation, although not from an intensive search. Most of my view was the structure of the tower, but I could see a peak of the mustard-brown color of the main fuel tank, and a wedge of blue sky. There were clanks and vibrations as the fuel crew prepared and made final checks of their connections. The modern shuttle engines used fairly harmless substances, not like the deadly fuming nitrous oxide of the Jaguars' liquid boosters, or the deadly _'stoffs_ of the primitive German program. Still, add enough liquid oxygen, and even candle wax is explosive. I was counting on that for my plan to succeed.
The sounds of the workers diminished and faded, several klaxons sounded, and the loudspeakers asked, "is the pad clear?" It wasn't, there was still me, hopefully with nearly an hour to cause an 'accident,' and yet still allow me to survive the experience. I waited until the roar of the fuel pumps began, and then climbed out of my concealment. I began to work my way to the top of the structure, to the arm that supported the fuelling collar attached to the giant main tank.
My plan was determined by the shoddy quality of the device I'd been able to afford. Four small pressurized butane cylinder lighter, the kind with the piezoelectric igniters that work with a touch. Wired together to face outward in all directions, one of them would be activated by contact with a hard surface. Careful filing ensured they'd not shut off. To penetrate the shuttle main tank, I'd surrounded the cylinders with percussion concrete nails. The plan was: when the nail struck, its explosive cap would fire, driving it through the skin of the tank. Liquid oxygen would spray out of the rupture, to be lit by the butane torch. The rest, as they say, would be history.
I continued to climb higher, staying within the tower structure for concealment. Since I had no desire for my own body to participate in this process (or anyone else, for that matter. Ideally, the blast would happen before anyone else returned to the pad), I planned to trigger this remotely. Again, budget wouldn't allow any kind of radio-controlled device, but did allow me to purchase a ball of string.
I tied one end of a fifty-foot piece to a point on the underside of one of the instrumentation cable arms, and the other to the device. I tied the device to the tower with a second piece with a slipknot, then slowly crawled back into the tower structure, unreeling line behind me. Once I was back in the main structure, I jerked the string.
The slipknot released, the device swung out toward the shuttle. I got ready to run. It missed, sliding across the face of the tank in a glancing blow. I stood absolutely still for five minutes, waiting for any alarm or movement toward the tower. Nothing. Slowly and cautiously, I climbed back out onto the arm, reeled in the device, and tied it to the other side of the crane.
Repeat the process. Miss.
On the third try, I moved my release point as far to the side of the tower as I could, stretching the full extension of my body outward, and giving a tremendous jerk. The slipknot did not release, but the sudden change in my center of gravity caused me to fall through the structure, striking several hard metal objects before I blacked out.
No more time for this, I'd better get out of here. I dragged myself across the crew entry level to the opposite side of the tower, to the emergency 'slide-for-life' escape. My legs weren't working to well, but I thought I could stand if I could find a crutch. I worked myself into the basket, reaching the release. A klaxon sounded above me as the cage began to pick up speed, which probably meant I'd been seen. I spent the ride downwards wondering what I could possibly say to Curtis.
The cage slammed into the springs, swinging me violently against the padding. My vision blurred, then cleared to see Curtis' face through a transparent mask, bending over me.
"Rellah!" I wanted to just close my eyes again, pretend he couldn't see me. "What are you doing-"
"Yes. Tell him what you're doing here." A voice, no, more a purr. A M'raeenn female, claws expressed, stood opposite him. Another human voice yelled an obscenity, and Curtis began to backpedal, dragging me by my injured leg.
"Nobody move!" Another lioness, this one almost certainly Jena. She held a rifle, trying to point it at everyone in the bunker, settling finally on Bobby, who had a fire axe cradled in both hands. The other cat held up one paw to get everyone's attention.
"Just be calm. We want the girl, and if you do exactly what we say, nobody will get hurt." Curtis sat and cradled me in his arms, pulling off his helmet. His eyes were wide, but he made a deliberate effort to look from the cats back to me.
"Rellah, what are they?"
"That's not important. There's no time. She," The cat pointed at me. "Is a saboteur. We must know, in the next three minutes, did she damage your shuttle?" Suddenly, Curtis' eyes were looking at me with a hard expression, not concern. I felt like crap, and not from injury.
"She's telling the truth. I tried, but I failed."
"So the shuttle is safe to launch?" He asked, not her. Love failed to overcome duty, I guess. I nodded my head.
"In that case, everybody into your vehicle. We're leaving." Jena herded the fire/rescue workers to the front of the boxy vehicle. We all took places along the benches on either side, the other lioness standing in the raised center hatch. Just then, the radio squealed, and Jena made Curtis turn it off. "Just drive straight, until you hit the main road." We lurched into motion.
Over the noise of the engine, he asked me, "What's happening?"
"They're aliens. I'm an alien, and a spy, besides. I'm sorry I got you into this!" I started to cry, disgusting myself, and he instinctively cradled me in his arms.
"A lot of important people, my people, are afraid of you. Afraid that if you get into space, you'll take over."
"That's stupid. We can barely leave Earth. That shuttle out there- HEY LEMONT! WHAT'S THE COUNT!" He shouted over the noise of the engine.
"THEY MUST BE ON HOLD! PLUS 30 SECONDS!" he yelled back. Jena gestured back to the radio.
"Can we turn that to listen only?" Without a further word, Curtis removed the microphone and handed it to her, then turned up the volume on the set.
"…Range Safety hold in effect. T-minus five minutes, and holding. Security alert in effect. This channel is not secure, all security traffic on channel 4555..."
"They're searching the tower, and they'll probably send a helicopter after us. You can't hope to get away."
H'raawl-Hrkh will get us out." Jena sounded certain.
"You two look related."
"My sister." I studied Jena. She held the rifle upright, muzzle almost against the ceiling. Her sister was definitely the more dangerous of the two, but if she was part of the assault team, it meant more of the Diyim'yi authorities than I'd first suspected were on to me. They must have already been on Earth, just in case. I wondered what my fate would be once they took me back, and if I'd be better off escaping. I looked at Curtis. No help there. He was looking at me like I'd slapped him, as if he couldn't believe it.
"Count resumed at T-minus five minutes." They must have searched the tower. I wondered where our pursuers were.
The vehicle dove into a hole, then the engine strained as it climbed back out. H'raawl-Hrkh was guiding the driver by the expedient of reaching forward with one hind claw and tapping him on the shoulders to indicate direction. Finally, she pressed on the top of his helmet.
"SHUT IT DOWN! DROP THE HATCH." The opening door looked back at the launch pad, still visible from more than a mile away. As we filed out, I scanned the horizon. We were sitting on the grassy edge of the main road that ran the length of the barrier island. To the south, toward the real airfield, a black plume of smoke rose into the air. Across the road…
Two Diyim'yi females and a human were planting some sort of pyrotechnic device, like a large Roman candle or fireworks mortar in the opposite grassy shoulder. All three were wearing pistols in black holsters. With a shock, I recognized one as Marie, Jena's friend. The human waved to the lioness that was still on top of our vehicle, while holding a brick radio.
"The plane is ten miles out. Get everybody ready; tie up your prisoners. They'll land as close to launch time as we can get it." Jena motioned with her gun, and we lined up in the shadow on the side of the vehicle. She grabbed my arm, and I looked back to Curtis.
"Curtis…I didn't mean it to end up like this." He looked away. "I'm sorry." I screamed as a loud, rolling explosion came from the pad, thinking for one horrible moment that my bomb had worked. The shuttle began its climb off the pad. Bobby let out a 'whoop!' of excitement, before looking back nervously our captors.
"Here comes Annas. Looking around the end of the vehicle, I could see a plane approaching low, from the south. As the shuttle climbed away on a plume of fire, it landed and coasted to a stop beside us. One fox climbed up the small boarding ladder, while the human steadied the lower end, calling: "You three. Sit down right there. The Security Police will be here soon. Everybody else get on board now!" Anything further he might have said was drowned by the scream of a high-performance jet buzzing us. Jena and H'raawl-Hrkh began hustling me toward the plane's door.
"Chessec! Light the decoys." The Diyim'yi applied a lighter to a fuze, which began to burn. A rocket sped into the sky after the departing fighter, which less than five seconds later erupted with decoy flares of its own, violently changing course. "There's one more fighter inbound. Let's go!"
She had just bent down to light the second rocket when the grass around her erupted in violent explosions. The sound of the next jet's passage followed, leaving behind a horrible silence. Her body had been flung halfway toward the plane by the gunfire and exploding rounds, falling onto the concrete pavement with a wet red splat. The human was already dashing towards her.
H'raawl-Hrkh snarled to Jena, "Nobody else leaves the plane. Tell Annas we're going in one minute!" She leaped onto the pavement and joined him. Jena and Marie were both screaming, but the lioness grabbed Marie in one arm, and me in the other, flinging us all into the back of the plane. Marie's pistol pressed against my side, and I thought about escape. The wild snarl and human shouting from down on the runway made me decide I didn't need to be outside. I looked out the porthole.
The human had what was left of the fox in both arms, and was arguing with the much bigger lioness. They weren't shouting any longer, so I couldn't make out the words. But finally, reluctantly, he handed the body to her.
Drawing his pistol, he gestured the firemen away from their vehicle and climbed inside. He drove away, heading straight west toward the Intracoastal Waterway. H'raawl-Hrkh climbed inside and dumped the blood-soaked body onto the aisle floor, causing Marie to sob horribly. She yelled for the pilot to take off, and then closed the hatch as the plane lurched into motion. She wiped the blood off her paws.
"Marie. Marie!" She sat in the seat facing the fox. " It's going to be alright. We'll revive her clone, she's not gone forever." She patted the distraught woman's arm. "I reminded Dave, too. He'll call before we leave the system." The acceleration of takeoff pressed us all into our seats.
"We didn't get to say goodbye…" My sentiments, exactly.
Marie was by now visibly gravid. Though not as obviously pregnant as a human woman, was definitely enlarged and showing the same class of symptoms beneath her creamy white belly fur. I reached my hand around her rump and carefully lifted her onto the swimming float.
"Oh, the swim felt good. Nice to have my weight supported, even if it does mess up my fur." She leaned against me, and I draped one of the towels over her back.
"The salt helps your buoyancy. We'll have to rinse it off when we get back to the motor home, or we'll both be miserable tomorrow." The evening air was warm, smelling of sage and creosote bush. We sat for a while as the float bobbed on the water, looking out into the darkness. I was camped near Bottomless Lakes (Marie's first comment had been 'depth; or attire'?), near Roswell. Back when I had been a student, far too many years ago, there had been a lakeside restaurant and bar, and tables alongside the water. Now, there was still a small general store/dive shop, but it was closed for the night. We had swum out to the old, disintegrating pontoon float anchored out in the water above one of the deep sinkholes that were the main attraction, maybe fifty yards from shore.
A shooting star brought my thoughts back to the present. Marie had been landed by Mitzep's shuttle at sunset, and would leave for Diyim'yi at dawn: They'd made a special trip to return any evidence of the Jaguar's I'd found, and to make a last effort to persuade me to come with them.
"…Chessec is basically missing two years of her life, after all. The last good brain wave recording is the one they made the night before she ended up in our living room. And without the telepathic link, she can't access my memories, this time. Oh, we're still as close as normal twin sisters might be; she can usually still complete my sentences for me. And I'm still feeling her emotions, of course. But it's not like it had been, and she's had too many shocks. I tried to get her to come down with me."
"Maybe things will change with time. But it's probably for the best."
"Don't say that. Remember, she's woken up to discover she's married to Chopka, who she couldn't even stand back then. And to you, and to me, as well. It's a lot to adjust to."
"I expect it is."
"And you're not helping. You need to be there for her. And me, too." She patted her belly.
"Eventually, just not now. I'm sorry. I realize those cubs can't be raised in a basket in kitchen of our house, like puppies. I'm just afraid if we don't keep up the work here…well, the Diyim'yi could just not ever come back to Earth if somebody isn't here to give them a reason. I'd hoped if you couldn't be here, it would be her. But at least if I stay, they'll have to keep coming back just to check up on me."
We had been over this ground at least a dozen times since she arrived. By mutual consent, we fell silent, watching the stars.
"I'll come back; just soon as the cubs are weaned. I promise. But I'm not staying. If you want to be with me, you know where I'll be."
"You know I do." That was the last we mentioned any of it that night. We stayed up all night, sitting beside my campfire, her eyes glowing in the flames. Mitzep landed just as the sky was starting to turn pink.
I silently handed him the 53 year-old smashed piece of a Jaguar lander's instrument cluster I'd remembered I'd seen years before, laying, mislabeled, gathering dust on a shelf in the local museum's Goddard exhibit. A large bribe had acquired it. I considered it a piece of a small bribe that would make it easier for Marie to convince the Diyim'yi to return.
He put his paw in my hand and shook. I hugged Marie again, then backed away from the ship, covering my eyes against the blowing dust.