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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Sun Oct 22, 2017 5:41 pm

Chapter 20- The Launch

 

Cutting through the open seas at an impressive rate, both submarines kept a tight formation and the journey proceeded quite uneventfully. The four in custodial care did little but eat and sleep and make use of the amenities generally, after first taking turns to have a much needed shower.

            Steve and Jimmy particularly welcomed the respite, giving their injured bodies an opportunity to mend. Conversations drifted from their situation to considering the fate of Malcolm. Jimmy, in an interlude between his exaggerated moans and groans, asked about the General’s initial plan. Steve remembered that Kelly was fretting about her father and tried to douse the topic.

“I wonder if Sally and Anne are coping with things.”

Kelly seemed to compose herself, ignoring Steve’s comment about what was happening at his work.

“Dad had great hopes for setting up a lunar community. It was going to be a trial mini city which was to be a forerunner to a larger, viable, science settlement. It was meant to be self-sustaining, eventually harvesting frozen water in polar craters and using plants for air treatment.”
“You mean our cultures?” interposed Jimmy.


“I guess so, I know that he wanted vegetable cultures to grow and to be used for food, but I think the plan was to eventually develop a tree arboretum in the centre of a large dome. And they were planning on setting up mining operations and develop research labs.” She enthused in a way that showed her pride in her father.

“What sort of power supply?” Jimmy was becoming even more interested.

“That was Dad’s,” Kelly stopped herself, her voice breaking slightly, “is Dad’s area of interest... producing a sustainable energy system. They have a huge solar array planned. Panels for a small system are already set up.”

“What about the two weeks of night?” Jimmy chimed in.

Steve answered him. “I read about that when I was reading data files with Malcolm. The idea was to use fuel cells, electrolysing the gases out from water with excess energy from the two weeks of day and using the fuel cells during the night. He has a small nuclear power plant there at the moment as backup.”

            Steve sat and thought about the base and their predicament when the conversation faded. A nagging question formed in his mind. Why were they still alive? They lost a lot of specialists in their dreadful toxic purge. Again he reasoned, maybe they really did need their horticultural expertise, but what about Kelly? Why did they keep her alive? What use was she to them? He grew restive as possibilities began to accumulate in his mind. The fact that she had worked for them meant she would be a poor choice as a mole in their little group, though he conceded to himself that that didn’t rule it out. Although her apparent anger at Klein seemed genuine.

            The realisation that she was the General’s daughter carried with it a sinister fore-boding. Perhaps the main reason she had been recruited in the first place was to exert leverage on the General.

‘Serve our purposes’, that’s what Klein had said. He shuddered at an image of how they might make an uncooperative General Roberts bow to their demands. Then, as he reviewed Kelly’s interesting intrusion into his life, an unsolved query solidified in his mind.

            It wasn’t long after that Steve had an opportunity to satisfy his curiosity. They had been taken to the ship’s storage hold to tend the plants. Supervision was minimal because the hold was easily isolated from the rest of the craft. One sailor, who had some sympathies for the four incarcerated passengers, appeared to enjoy working with them in watering and placing fertiliser granules on some of the more mature plants. Steve took Kelly aside by slipping his arm around her waist and drawing her behind some pallets; unaware that Jodie had observed this move. Jodie watched them disappear behind the pile. The experience left her with a tightness in her throat.

            Steve’s serious expression quenched any hope in Kelly that he was about to convey his affection, but all the same his touch, any contact was a comfort—a comfort for which she yearned so much.

“What is it?”

“I have a question that’s been rattling in the back of my brain.”

“Well go on, I’ll answer it if I can.”

“When you were ‘interviewing’ me about the explosion you said it was my car, it was meant for me... how did you know it was my car?” Steve, ironically, realised that he knew the answer already.

Kelly responded a little sheepishly, “I’d been following you, remember, and watching you for a while,” then added as if to mitigate the admission, “That was my assignment.”

 Steve continued without thinking, “So you relayed to them my movements and information about me including what car I drove.”

“Yes...” and then her face dropped, “Oh Steve, I’m so sorry. I... I didn’t know,” she sobbed, “They killed Peter because of me, and they meant it to be you.”

            Steve bit his lip as Kelly broke down and became inconsolable. He didn’t intend to place blame but his blundering questioning had virtually labelled and convicted Kelly as an accomplice to Pete’s murder. Steve took Kelly in his arms and hugged her as she wept on his shoulder. He felt like an idiot, and even more so when he noticed Jodie come into view and then turn away when she saw his upward glance.

“Listen Kelly, you weren’t to know. You were just as much a victim as we were.”

“I was stupid,” she said in a strangled utterance brushing a tear away, and then looking up at him she went on, “but thanks for the thought.” She wept a little whimper and then gave him a light peck on the cheek as more tears streaked her face. The two returned to their task re-joining Jodie, Jimmy and the sailor working methodically from one end of the plants to the other.

            Jodie became quite distant after that, saying little and becoming very meditative. If the truth be known she was trying to reconcile all that she had witnessed with the sovereign will of God. How could her kidnapping and that of her friends work ‘for the good’? How could evil people like the colonel succeed? She knew that she was reiterating a despairing complaint of the faithful across the ages. Amongst all this she endured personal discontent. Her heart ached for Steve but he was heading in another direction. She felt she didn’t have the strength to let go and rely on His Divine will.

Rebuffing queries from Steve with quite curt claims that everything was fine, Jodie spent more and more time chatting with Jimmy and asking about his injuries.

            Having become almost inured by the normality of their horticultural chores, shipboard customs and the awkwardness of their close confinement, the trip unexpectedly came to an end two evenings later.

             They were bundled out of their beds and taken ashore to an island base. A long, heavy wooden pier accommodated the two sleek submarines. Standing on the oily boards the four took in their anchorage. Sweet tropical scents carried by the balmy night breeze were a pleasant variation from the bland processed and recycled air inside the submarine. Alongside them was a bay, narrow and recessed and set against a steep hill on the far side, which culminated in a near vertical rock face at the end of the bay. On the right a fresh water stream emptied into the bay almost opposite where they were, mostly obscured by a swathe of heavy rain forest that displayed the full palette of greens.

            Looking to the left, on the side of the bay they were on, there were large hangars and a tarmac of an old runway extending onto a flat promontory. The promontory reached for the breakers frothing against a belt of reefs. Just past the hangars their gaze was drawn to what looked like an overgrown, swept back version of an old NASA Shuttle. It lay reclining against a substantial gantry. The gantry was designed, it seemed, to lift it into a launch position.

            Given almost no time to acclimatise to their new surroundings, the four were set to work loading the impressively large space ship. Bold black print on its side declared its name; ‘Transit 1’. Steve recalled the specifications he had read and even though the craft was concisely equivalent to the numerical descriptions in the plans, he was still in awe of its physical presence. Carefully taking in the smooth aerodynamic contours and the imposing, unique looking fluted rocket cowlings, he was astounded by its sheer size. 

“It’s huge isn’t it?” Jimmy said to Steve noticing his fixed stare.

            Small vehicles towed trailers loaded with gear and supplies from the pier to where they were near the launch pad. Frenetic activity and the whines and humming of the tow cart motors and fork lift engines surrounded      them.

            They had been carrying trays into the spaceship for some time when Steve and Jimmy paused for a rest. Standing back they once again took in the majestic form of Transit 1.

“I can’t get over it. I mean, how do you hide an operation like this? And they have been sending this to the moon to set up a base there. How can they do that without everyone knowing?”

A scrape behind them caused them to turn, a little startled. It was the formidable form of Lieutenant Shelley. He had heard what they had said.

“Yes, it’s amazing what you can do when you say you are setting up a complete air-space defence system... need lots of rockets and lots of test firing.” He shook himself out of his reverie, “You need to hurry and finish the loading. We’re leaving soon.”

            Jimmy and Steve stood stunned.

“Do you think he meant what he said?” Jimmy whispered loudly as the two carted trays up an incline into storage bays where Jodie and Kelly were placing them into well-designed sealed tubs that fitted snugly into space saving compartments.

“That we’re leaving?” Steve offered.

“You think that they’re taking us into space?” He couldn’t conceal his excitement.

“I think that’s the plan. It would be more of a thrill if we weren’t prisoners and this whole thing wasn’t part of a plan to commit some unprecedented atrocity.”

“Will they do it?”

“Do what?” Kelly lifted her head from a lower rack and had just picked up on the tail of the conversation as they approached. Steve had a heightened awareness of his surroundings. ‘What would it be like launching into space?’ Anticipation revealed itself. There was the symptomatic ‘butterflies’ nervousness—a queasiness in his stomach.

“Will they do what?” Kelly repeated louder this time.

 “Release the virus,” Jimmy answered, handing his end of the tray gently to Kelly. Steve moved close to the next vacant rack. Jodie bent to take it but Steve smiled, “I got it Jodes.”

Jodie leaned back, the hint of a tired smile appeared on her smudged face. Long vagrant wisps meandered across her forehead, her dark hair unusually unkempt.

“Thanks Steve.” Her eyes lit up for a second then a look of concern crept onto her face when Steve and Kelly positioned the tray.

            “Only a couple more to go then we might be going on the flight of a lifetime,” Steve said as an aside to Kelly, then seeing Jodie’s horrified expression, directed a quiet query at her.

“...You all right?”

Jodie nodded and then turned away and gave the last tray a distracted rattle as a wave of panic hit her. Steve knew something was wrong. He’d never seen Jodie so edgy, so depressed. He stood behind her and touched her on the shoulder.

“...You sure?” he felt her stiffen.

Jodie was struggling. She clenched her jaw and managed to utter, “I’m fine.”

Like cold water on his face, the words hit Steve and shook him. ‘Was she angry at him?’

            Jodie endured the final few minutes of work avoiding eye contact with Steve. With the last load on board Steve noted the large sliding panels that the crew used to enclose the tightly stacked plant racks, and how the other storage compartments were sealed off with doors and hatches. He appreciated the thoroughness of the important task—assuming that they were securing goods to minimise movement.

            Once this was complete Steve, with the others, was meekly led up front past various sleeping and eating facilities to a small airline like cabin capable of taking thirty passengers. Only part of the three rows of ten seats were occupied, but the four ‘guests’ were ushered to the back row and then manacled by hand cuffs to the seats. Regardless of that tethering, they were still required to fasten their safety harnesses. A task made more difficult by their restricted movement.

            It wasn’t long before the spacecraft started to hum and it was clear launch systems were being initialised. Jodie was terrified. Unknown to the others, she was fearful of flying on a normal jet airliner. It was an irrational fear, she knew. She had tried to argue herself out of it logically. Statistics showed that driving a car was more dangerous than flying. Nevertheless she had flown only a couple of times because of the phobia. Both times she had been a mess at the end, having struggled to contain her dread.

            This... this was much worse... inconceivably more terrifying. She wished the ground would swallow her up. Having her childish fears on display was more than embarrassing. It was demeaning. Would she curl up into a foetal position like her first flight, or would they have to drug her with sedatives like her second, as much for the benefit of the other passengers as for her? It had certainly calmed her down. She had been almost tranquillized out her mind and most of the trip was a hazy memory. Steve, sitting next to her observed her white knuckle grip on the arms of her chair. Her eyes were closed and her lips trembled.

            He spoke quietly in her ear, “Are you scared?”

It didn’t register, or she was ignoring him. With thirty centimetres of chain between the cuffs there was reasonable scope for movement. He put his hand on her rigidly clutching fingers. Her hands were clammy. Jodie opened her eyes wide in fright at his touch. Again he was struck by their intense blueness.

“Are you scared of flying?” he tried again. She nodded chewing on her lip nervously.

            He tried to imagine the horrors that she contemplated, but knew he couldn’t understand her private torment. It was no point saying things would be fine. He had no way of knowing how safe they would be. Even on a regular passenger flight his rationalisations about safety would be wasted on someone who harboured illogical fears.

“I think we’re all a bit scared. Here, hold my hand.” He forced his fingers under her hand and enmeshed his fingers with hers. She warmed to his touch.

“You don’t understand,” she quaked softly, “I go crazy, I go hysterical... Last time they almost threw me off the plane.”

“But you survived... and I’ll go through it with you, and we’ll survive this together.” He patted the top of her hand with his other hand and breathed a prayer that it would be all right.

“You guys okay?” Kelly asked from the other side of Steve and winked at Jodie when their gazes met. Jodie felt suddenly self-conscious. Did Kelly think I was having ‘my shot’ at Steve she wondered?

“We’re going!” exulted Jimmy, superficially oblivious to the reality of their circumstances.

            The craft vibrated as it slowly tilted to a few degrees off the vertical. Their weight was now almost entirely supported by the backrests of the seats. Chimes sounded. A voice announced the intended blast off. Steve envisioned the focusing lasers stimulating highly energetic beams of plasma as the ship shuddered and roared into a jarring acceleration. An intense glow glimmered through the thick glass portals as they hurtled skyward, rapidly attaining supersonic speed. Steve felt the thrill of adrenaline charging through his system. His form was snugly supported by the padded chair. Glancing at Jodie, he saw a white face contorted by a silent scream. He gripped her hand harder until the searing ache drew her attention. Grimacing at the painful, vice like grip she turned her angst filled face toward him; tears welled up in her eyes.

            “You’re hurting me,” she tried to say, but nothing came out. A spark of anger ignited into a glare. Jodie’s glistening eyes locked onto his blue eyed gaze and saw a quiet, deep compassion in his tanned face. Tiny wrinkles materialised at the corners of his eyes and he offered an awkward grin. Her anger subsided. He wished she could experience the exhilaration he evidently felt. She sensed him experience a rush from the avalanche of sound and sensations. The launch sent a riot of spine-tingling emotions through him. She wished she could know the excitement expressed on his face.

            Instead, overwhelmed by the incredible noise and vibrations, the tugging acceleration weight on her body and the firm grip of Steve’s hand in hers, Jodie felt she was having an out of body experience.

“I’m still alive Lord, I’m still alive,” she thought, and repeated it in her head like some protective mantra.

            Ever so slowly the thunder of the rockets diminished. Through the nearest portal they could see the thin, arcing, bright blue verge of the atmosphere that was now tinged with the darkening blackness of space.

            Still gathering speed from the immense pressure of the ion drive, the sleek vessel was now tearing its way through the stratosphere.

            A lone yacht with four relaxed sojourners sailing quietly in the balmy, gentle South Pacific breeze were mesmerized by the solid beam of intense, white incandescence. Tracking it from a small island on the horizon they followed the tiny silver craft with fascination. Only now, when it was almost out of sight, did they hear the booming of the powerful force thrusting the strange projectile.

 

            On board the hurtling spacecraft most of the passengers felt elation, hearts were thumping with the thrill and there was an occasional youthful, exhilarated whoop. On-going thundering vibrations continued to surround them as they blasted into orbit. Dark blue transformed to pitch black with a rim of refracted, ion-propulsion glow just illuminating the edge of the glass portal. Out of an observation port closer to the front, faint pin points of light grew in prominence.

            Tearing away from the effects of the remaining shards of gravity, Transit 1’s velocity matched Earth’s mass related attraction, and was suddenly shockingly silent. Taken by surprise, the military passengers and their captives were similarly muted. They were slow to break the stillness. In contrast to the launch phase, orbiting without the push of rocket engines was weirdly hushed. Voices began to break the spell and enthuse with others the shared excitement of the launch.

            It took a while for Jodie to realise that Steve was still holding her hand and she flushed slightly, attractively. Was it his touch or her embarrassment at the way she had just lost it that made her blush? Steve conjectured as he watched her. She breathed more easily and took in the features of the craft. She was gaining a growing perception of her surroundings for the first time since boarding. Anticipation of disaster had subsided.

Weightlessness brought on a different sort of queasiness for Jodie and she was not alone;   it affected everyone.

            Notice was given by a computerised voice that seatbelts were no longer needed. Had the four captives not been attached by manacles to the arms of their chairs they would have released their restraining belts and done what some other passengers were now beginning to do—float.  Others, who had experienced the sensation before, seemed content to either stay in their seats or begin to carry out various assigned tasks.
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