by Catherine H. Shaffer
Sabrina Smith navigated Roswell’s back roads on autopilot, barely aware of the turns she was taking, as she made her way home from a late night at the clinic. The special of the night was a Great Dane with bloat, touch-and-go all day long. Sometime after midnight, the dog turned a corner. Her breathing grew easy, and she drifted into a comfortable sleep. This late at night, a comfortable sleep was probably not happening for Sabrina. Not with surgery at seven a.m.
She fumbled with the radio and tuned in to WOBN, 89.3 FM “God’s Country.” The station pumped the airwaves with commercial-free, Christian-themed programming by mainstream country icons. Sabrina hadn’t been a regular churchgoer since the ninth grade, but she figured she and Jesus were still on friendly terms, and the station was her favorite for late-night, stay-awake-without-getting-a-headache, driving home tunes.
She made two more turns that she immediately forgot, her mind already zooming ahead to the complex orthopedic surgery she had scheduled for the next morning when Carrie Underwood’s voice abruptly cut out and was replaced with an odd, otherworldly keening. It was another minute before Sabrina’s tired brain registered something wrong. She was already pulling into her driveway. She sat there a moment, staring at the dial. She punched the buttons and found the other stations functioning normally. It was only 89.3 that was out. Must be a tower malfunction, she reasoned. Even so, she sat listening for a few seconds more. Whatever it was?she presumed an electronic whine?had the quality almost of a voice or an animal crying. She shrugged and switched the car off. Time for bed.
By the next day, she’d pretty much forgotten about the station malfunction on 89.3 FM. She screeched into the clinic driveway practically on two wheels, a travel mug full of coffee in one hand, and fixed a schnauzer’s broken leg.
Sabrina had not always planned on becoming a veterinarian. At one time, she wanted to be a spy. A veterinarian-spy. Well, technically, a veterinarian-spy-astronaut-princess, which became her father’s nickname for her. She hadn’t actually become a spy, but a stint as an army intelligence analyst had helped her pay for veterinary school. In the end, she found helping sick animals more rewarding than pushing endless piles of intelligence reports back and forth across a desk.
She was examining a llama in the back pasture of her clinic when she noticed two men, who definitely didn’t fit in, standing at the rail. They obviously wanted her attention, but she let them hang while she decided who and what she thought they were. With their black suits and sunglasses, they looked like government types. More likely, they were lawyers. They didn’t have an animal with them, so that was a pretty big clue they weren’t customers. The taller one looked impatient, like he had some place else he needed to be and soon. The shorter man looked more relaxed, almost like he was enjoying the view.
Curiosity finally got the better of her, and she handed the llama’s halter to her assistant technician. She walked over to the fence and addressed the taller visitor. “If you’ve brought your friend here to get neutered, I’m all booked up until Tuesday.”
The taller man chuckled, and the shorter one flushed. “I’m Roger Sears, NASA mission support specialist. We came about your application to the astronaut corps.”
“What? I filled that out ten years ago,” Sabrina said. Now it was her turn to blush. She’d applied to NASA in a manic period between the army and vet school. It had been kind of a crazy thing to do.
“Well, we have a job for you.”
“I don’t understand,” said Sabrina. “I thought the manned space flight program was disbanded, ever since the Soyuz accident.”
“It was,” said the shorter man. He hadn’t introduced himself yet. “But something has come up.”
“Is there someplace private we can talk?” said Roger.
“I’ll need to see some identification,” said Sabrina. “A couple of black suits and sunglasses are not enough to convince me that you work for the government.”
They flashed their IDs, and after holding them up to the sunlight and examining both sides, she led them inside the back door of the clinic and into a tiny break room.
“Okay, let’s hear it,” said Sabrina.
“Dr. Smith, are you still interested in going into space?”
“Sure. I guess,” Sabrina began. “Well, hell, of course I am. I just don’t understand the situation. This isn’t SOP, I know that for sure.”
“The president has authorized an emergency moon mission. The launch is twenty-nine days from today.”
“What? Are you crazy? NASA doesn’t have a moon ship and hasn’t since before I was born.” Sabrina’s generation had been orphaned by the Apollo program, raised on aphorisms like, “If we can put a man on the moon, then?” but destined never to see a moon landing in their own lifetime. It rankled.
“When the Apollo program was canceled,” said Roger, “there were a number of unused hardware components.”
“I know,” Sabrina said. “I’ve seen the rockets at Kennedy Space Center.”
“One complete Saturn V was on display at Johnson Space Center in Houston until 2010, when Zack Mahoney bought it.”
Sabrina blinked. Zack Mahoney was a notable biotech billionaire, but she hadn’t followed his exploits since he had retired as CEO of Lifesys, Inc.
“He collects antique aircraft,” the shorter man offered.
“For the past five years, he’s been refurbishing this rocket to nearly new condition. He has salvaged spare parts from dumps, other collectors, other NASA spacecraft?anywhere he could find them. What he couldn’t find, he recreated using a 3D scanner and digital fabrication technology. The rocket is now the closest thing that exists to a viable moon shot.”
“And he’s just going to give it to you?” Sabrina said.
“That’s not my department,” Roger said. “The boys and girls upstairs do all the shuffling of the ducats. For this mission, I am sure Mr. Mahoney is just as motivated as we are.”
“And what’s the mission?” Sabrina said.
The two strangers glanced at each other, then the shorter man, the one who had never given his name, took a breath and said, “At one-forty-three Mountain Time last night, we began receiving a radio transmission from an alien spaceship. The transmission was heard all over the western hemisphere on FM 89.3.”
Sabrina remembered the radio malfunction from the night before. “I heard it,” she said. Her gaze drifted out the window and up to the sky. “That was an alien? Really?” She felt suddenly weightless, as if her body was already in space. “And you want me to. . .what?”
“Go get it,” Roger told her. “We feel that you are uniquely qualified, and we have a volunteer who is willing to give you a ride.”
Hours later, Sabrina gazed out the window of a Leer jet as Roswell grew smaller beneath her. They’d had her at “NASA.” It turned out they needed a flight surgeon for their alien. And Sabrina was the only exotic animal veterinarian in the United States who had a high enough security clearance (which they had already updated before they even spoke to her), was within the height and weight requirements for the Apollo command module, and hadn’t turned them down already. She got the distinct impression that she hadn’t been the first choice for this job. Seemed like they were a little tired of telling the story and then finding out that their recruit didn’t want to drop everything for a month to ride a half-century old bucket of bolts into space.
That was just fine with Sabrina. Most of the accomplishments of her life had been earned by being a second alternate or something and then showing up and working her ass off. Tests and interviews were not her forte.
Bottom line, she was going to be a veterinarian-spy-astronaut after all. You don’t pass up an opportunity like that.
The plan, now that worried her some. All of the historical Apollo missions had three astronauts. But they needed to leave one space in the command module for the alien, if it was even the right size and shape to fit. So that meant just two astronauts?herself and the pilot. Apparently, they had dug up a real Apollo pilot, maybe found him in a nursing home somewhere. Yes, this was going to be quite a mission for the history books.
The plane banked, and Sabrina got a look at the Florida coast in the distance. Closer, she could see Highway 528, running from Orlando to Cape Kennedy, and she realized it was completely empty of traffic except for something huge moving down the center of it. The thing occupied three lanes.
“That’s your chariot,” said the shorter NASA man, the one she had offered to neuter, who had not actually told her his name, yet. He held out a hand. “I’m Tom.”
Sabrina took his hand and nodded. She realized the plane was circling. “The pilot wants us to get a good look at it,” he said.
“Or wants a look himself,” said Roger, joining them at the window with a soft drink in his hand.
“That is the largest rocket known to man,” said Tom. “The first stage of it, at least.”
From the sky, the first stage booster of the Saturn V looked like salami sitting on a matchbox race track.
“It has five F1 engines; that’s the biggest one ever in service. They test fired them back in California. All five checked out perfect. It’s good to go.”
This was the first time Sabrina had felt any fear. She had done her homework, had it sitting in a large folder in her lap. In less than a month, this rocket would be propelling her into space with thirty-three million Newtons of thrust. That was one hell of a kick in the pants.
“Next to the Saturn V, a shuttle launch is just a bottle rocket,” Tom said.
Sabrina turned to stare at Tom in surprise. “I’ve seen five of them,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine.” Each time, the growing fireball beneath the shuttle had sent a thrill through her body. She couldn’t help remembering Challenger, the shuttle that blew up a little over a minute into its launch, and she would hold her breath until it was safely away from Earth. As it rose, the shuttle became a glorious daytime star, then twin falling stars as the boosters fell away. She had never seen anything more awesome in her life. But then, she had never seen a heavy lifter like the Saturn V launch.
They watched the rocket booster make its way toward Cape Kennedy as the pilot circled one more time, then they flew ahead.
“I envy you,” said Tom. “I’ve flown three shuttle missions. I volunteered for this, but I didn’t have the skills they needed.”
“You didn’t have the right stuff?” Sabrina smirked.
“That’s true, ma’am,” Tom answered amiably. “Not this time.”
Sabrina sat at a desk the size of a Volkswagen in her new office. Despite the fact that her desk already overflowed with paperwork and assignments pertaining to Apollo 18, it seemed she was allotted at most fifteen minutes a day to work on them. She ruefully wondered why so much government work seemed to come down to piles of paper on a desk.
Meanwhile, she ran from training to meeting to briefing and to training again. They seemed determined to run her through a standard two-year shuttle astronaut training program as well as some kind of Apollo moon mission training that they cobbled together out of historical documents and parts ripped out of the museum.
Sabrina, who had never suffered from claustrophobia before, experienced a moment of blind panic when she climbed into the command module for the first time.
On the other hand, all of NASA’s attempts to make her vomit had failed. She had come through all simulator training sessions with her lunch intact. Her younger self, the veterinarian-spy-astronaut-princess wannabe, had long-ago been desensitized to G-forces and rapid changes in orientation by means of an extensive college break tour of America’s wildest roller coasters. A little glorified airplane ride was nothing compared to the Bad Baby Beast.
A tap at the door interrupted Sabrina’s paper shuffling. She looked up and smiled. It was Ben Grasinski, the real Apollo pilot they had recruited to lead the mission. “Hey, where have you been hiding?” she asked.
“Simulator,” Ben grumbled.
Sabrina beamed. Ben was one of her personal heroes. A veteran of three Apollo missions, he was one of a scant handful of living humans who had traveled to the moon, though he had never walked on it. At seventy-five years old, he didn’t look a day over fifty. Ben was a living legend and a god, in her personal pantheon.
Back in the Apollo days, he’d been known as “the kid.” He was a good ten years younger than the rest of the Apollo cohort. NASA had chosen a younger astronaut for its later missions as a way of boosting the lagging popularity of the space program among the baby boom generation. It didn’t work, but it did leave them with a qualified Apollo pilot fit to fly in the year 2015.
“They can’t tell me what kind of critter this alien is,” Sabrina complained. “I have to write a care plan for ten different injury scenarios based on five different possible types of alien physiology. Some of these sound like bad Star Trek rip-offs. I mean, really. ‘Silicon-based life form?’ Am I supposed to mind meld with it?”
“Can you? Because that would be totally rad,” Ben said, stepping inside her office door.
“People stopped saying rad twenty-five years ago, you old relic,” Sabrina said.
“How fitting,” Ben said. “A relic flying a relic?to the moon!” He lifted his arm and pointed heavenward for emphasis.
“Did you want something, or are you part of the conspiracy to keep me from getting any work done?”
Ben’s mood turned somber. “Bad news and bad news. What do you want first?”
“Oh, let me see. What should I choose? Can I phone a friend? Are you sure one of the choices is not pie? Because I would choose pie.”
“No pie. Okay, item one. The alien stopped transmitting last night.”
Sabrina’s heart sank. This meant they might be too late. Her orders, if the alien appeared dead, were to photograph and sample it, then bring back as much hardware as possible from the ship.
“That doesn’t mean it’s dead,” Ben said. “The eggheads are telling me that the moon is waxing, and the crash site is facing away from us right now.”
“Eggheads? Ben you have a Ph.D. in astrophysics. You’re just trying not to make me feel dumb.”
“Did it work?”
“No, because I am trying to figure out what the symptoms of shock would be in a hydrogen-sulfide-based hexapod with an exoskeleton, and right now, I am feeling rather smart because they actually think I can do that.”
“Well, onto the next item, then. STS-401 may be scrubbed. One of the booster rocket tanks failed pressure testing.”
Sabrina shrugged. “That was a long shot, anyway.”
It was ironic that the rescue craft for Apollo 18, the Endeavor space shuttle, turned out to be in worse mechanical condition than the lovingly restored Saturn V rocket. The shuttle had been on display at the Smithsonian since its last mission in 2011, and the years had not been kind to it. This was the third scrub for the old shuttle, parked in an adjacent bay to its older, more glorious cousin in the massive vehicle assembly building.
“It can only rescue us from low earth orbit, anyway,” said Sabrina.
“If I got into trouble in low earth orbit, I would be glad of a functioning rescue craft,” Ben shot back.
“There’s Spaceship Two and the Chinese thing?”
“They won’t be ready in time,” Ben said.
“Then let’s not screw it up,” Sabrina answered.
“Word up,” Ben said.
It was striking, Sabrina thought, how much the walk out of the gantry and into the space ship resembled a walk to the gallows. In spite of all the calming and relaxation exercises she had done in preparation for this moment, nothing could really prepare her for the enormity of making her way across a narrow catwalk more than three-hundred feet from the ground. The vista out over the ocean was breathtaking, and in the other direction, crowds of ant-like people lined the causeway.
In a few minutes, once she and Ben had been safely strapped into the capsule, the support team would screech away in a white Suburban to a minimum safe distance of three miles. And yet, she and Ben would remain, sitting atop the equivalent of a half-kiloton nuclear bomb. It was not too late to chicken out, even now. But she didn’t. No one ever had.
She felt practically out-of-body as the team cinched the straps over her shoulders and shut the heavy outer door. The countdown droned in her ears, unheard. Her every nerve was singing, and her mind became utterly calm, like a reflecting pool. It was T-minus thirty seconds. Too late to back out now. Finally.
The engines rumbled, and she was pressed back into her seat. Time dilated to individual, endless seconds. She was a star rising into the sky. Thousands of people were screaming and taking pictures of her right now, the famous veterinarian-spy-astronaut.
An eternity later, after everyone below had put away their cameras and started walking back to their cars, they were in space.
In spite of Sabrina’s extensive roller-coaster self-training, she found her stomach did rebel, after all, upon reaching orbit. The persistent weightlessness and excitement took their toll, and she gratefully accepted a barf bag from Ben.
“Eighteen, you are go for orbit,” advised launch control.
“Roger, Houston, eleven and twenty, and we are go,” Ben answered.
“Engine cutoff at twenty.”
“Copy that, cutoff at twenty.”
Sabrina wiped her face and took a few deep breaths, then went back to work. “Altitude ninety-four miles and twenty-five thousand feet per second,” she said.
“Copy, ninety-four and twenty-five. Good work, Eighteen.”
After a tense two hours orbiting the Earth, it was time to prepare for firing the third stage S-IVB booster for lunar injection. Sabrina barely had time to think, running through the list of tasks she had memorized in training. The third stage booster fired, accelerating them toward the moon, then separated. Ben deftly docked the command and service module with the lunar module, and they began their three-day journey to the moon where, if all went well, she would be meeting an alien.
At least the backup rescue shuttle was go again. The boosters had been replaced, and Endeavor was already sitting on launch pad 39A, ready to pick them up in low earth orbit, which was better than nothing, she had to admit.
“I guess you’re the kid, now,” Ben said, as he helped Sabrina prep for her moon landing and EVA.
“Stop it. I am a lot older than you were when they called you that,” Sabrina said. “I am almost as old as this damn ship,” she said.
“And I’m older,” Ben answered. He tousled up her hair before lowering the helmet over her head.
She felt suddenly very lonely as he backed down the tunnel to the CSM.
“Don’t worry,” he said through the suit radio. “I’ll be with you every step. This is going to be easy.”
Sabrina took a deep breath and began the LM separation sequence. Every activation of the half-century old hardware gave her a tiny thrill of fear. She’d watched Apollo 13 the movie too many times.
Sabrina’s training on the lunar module was solid. She located the alien crash site in Ritter Crater inside the Sea of Tranquility, about eighty-five kilometers from Tranquility Base where Neil Armstrong had first walked on the moon. White knuckling all the way down, Sabrina managed to land the Lunar Module, now a spaceship in its own right, called the Kyrie. Sabrina had chosen the name, which meant mercy in Greek. Ben had been given the honor of naming the command module. He called it Buckaroo, after his dog. Actually, it turned out he’d had two dogs named Buckaroo. He just really liked the name Buckaroo.
“Houston, Kyrie is down,” Sabrina reported, letting out a long breath.
Mission control acknowledged her transmission. “Copy. Kyrie is on the moon.” The words were simple, but she heard a smile in the voice.
The wreckage of the alien ship was extensive. The long, cylindrical ship had once been nearly the size of the fully stacked Saturn V. It had broken into at least three pieces. She guessed that the alien was sheltering inside the largest piece. She maneuvered the large case of rescue equipment into position by the door, then lowered the ladder and clambered out, carrying the two hundred-pound case with relative ease by one handle.
Although the alien ship seemed completely lifeless, she did find a sealed compartment inside the largest chunk. There was a circular door in the exact middle of the wall. The size of the door gave her hope that the alien would fit inside their capsule.
Feeling strangely mundane, she tapped on the circular hatch and waited. After several long minutes, the hatch opened, and she entered an airlock. She waited again while the air cycled, taking dozens of pictures of the switches and workings. Then the inner door opened, and she was face-to-face with a real alien.
Sabrina’s tests indicated that it was carbon-based, and it seemed uninjured, at least, so far as she could tell. The alien seemed to have made use of some kind of medical robot on the ship. It had a very long neck and four limbs, with two bulbous eyes, and a shaggy gray coat. Unfortunately, it was about twice the size of a human. It would not fit inside the CSM.
She reported back to mission control, trying to put the alien at ease as well as she could. Translation was minimal. The language experts had not been able to derive much vocabulary from the distress call, and the alien had not responded to communication attempts during the time it had been in radio contact with Earth. It had probably been inside the medical pod recovering from its injuries.
It made up for lost time. Its name was Mm, and it had nothing that resembled a weapon. It offered Sabrina food, which she refused. It spoke often in its sing-song language. Sabrina found “Mm” too difficult to pronounce, so she nicknamed him Ums.
“We have some new orders for you, Kyrie,” the suit radio interrupted.
“Go ahead,” she responded.
“You’re going to look for the drive and navigation systems and bring those back instead of the alien,” mission control informed her.
“We’ll help you explain to Ums that he is too large to fit in our spaceship.”
“What? You want me to leave Ums behind?”
“Affirmative,” said mission control. This time there was no smile.
“He’ll die,” Sabrina said.
“Acknowledged, Kyrie.” After a long pause. “We’re sorry.”
“What about the shuttle? We can put Ums in the LEM, and you can come and get us in Endeavor.”
“Negative. Shuttle launch for Endeavor was scrubbed at oh nine hundred this morning due to concerns about the exterior heat shielding.”
Sabrina looked at Ums and then back at her hands. “Well, fix it,” she said. There was dead air for several minutes while she searched her mind for solutions. “I’m bringing Ums back in the Kyrie. You have three days to figure out a way to pick him up.”
Sabrina had no way to turn her radio off, so she had to listen for half-an-hour while mission control tried to talk her into salvaging the hardware instead of the alien. Meanwhile, she pulled out the special space suit NASA had fashioned for Ums, not knowing his exact size or shape. It was essentially an airtight sack, legless, armless, headless. It wasn’t going to be comfortable, but it would get him back to the Kyrie.
Ums did not allow her to put him into the sack. Instead, he opened a cabinet in his compartment and pulled out a spacesuit for himself. All four of his limbs had hand-like things at the end of them, with six long, many-jointed fingers. Relieved, Sabrina waited until he had sealed himself into the suit, then led him to Kyrie.
Ums was a tight fit in the lunar module’s cargo compartment. Sabrina discarded the heavy medical kit and other rescue supplies she had brought. She uploaded her images and discarded the cameras. Then she unbolted the spare couch from the cockpit area and threw that out onto the lunar surface as well. When she was done, it looked like a lunar eviction, with some poor soul’s belongings piled on the curb. According to Sabrina’s calculations, this removed enough weight from the moon ship to lift off with Ums’s added weight. She congratulated herself on passing her livestock judging classes with flying colors back in college. She never thought she would use them again, much less in this particular manner.
With Ums secured in the cargo hold, Sabrina engaged the thrusters and lifted off from the surface of the moon. Already jaded from her long days as an astronaut, she watched the lunar surface recede with weary familiarity.
“This is Kyrie, approaching lunar rendezvous.”
“Copy that, Kyrie,” said Ben’s voice over the radio.
“You’ve sure got Houston’s panties in a wad,” Ben said when Sabrina drifted through the hatch of the command module.
“I heard,” Sabrina answered. After the initial bombardment of feedback and instructions, launch control had fallen quiet. Now that her decision to bring the alien back was a fait accompli, with no turning back, there was no sense in arguing. “Ums may die in earth orbit, but at least he won’t die alone on the moon,” she said.
After a mandated seven hour sleep period, Sabrina floated down the tunnel to the lunar module to check on Ums and introduce him to Ben. Little could be exchanged between the new acquaintances except eye contact and vague gestures. Sabrina gave Ums a reassuring pat and then followed Ben back to the command module to begin the journey back to Earth. Ben guided the command/service module back toward Earth orbit with the ease and energy of a much younger man. Sabrina thought her father would have been such a man, if cancer hadn’t taken him so early in life.
Ben shut off the engines after their first burn and adjusted the attitude of the vessel in its trajectory. “Three hours until the next burn,” he said, rolling his shoulders. “I hope you went to the bathroom before we left.”
“Yes, Dad,” Sabrina said.
“Very funny, young lady. Sure, yes, I’m your dad’s age. What was it he called you? Veterinarian-assassin-astronaut-something?”
Sabrina barked out a laugh. “Veterinarian-spy-astronaut-princess, actually.”
“Your highness!” Ben answered. “I had no idea we had royalty on this boat.”
“I’ll thank you to remember it.”
“At least until we get back to Earth. Then I think you’re going to be totally fired.”
“You’re right about that,” Sabrina said. “So much for my glorious career as an astronaut. Insubordination on my first mission. I couldn’t leave him there, Ben.”
“I know,” Ben said. After a moment. “Me neither. I admire your courage. And I’m behind you all the way.”
Sabrina grinned at him and offered a fist for him to bump.
“I think I will take you up on that bathroom thing. Turn your back!” Sabrina ordered.
Sabrina woke after her second sleep period in a state of anxiety. It was one thing to make a bold move when she was on the moon, two hundred thousand miles from Earth. But soon, she would have to face the consequences of her actions. Ums was stuck in the lunar module, and the lunar module was not designed to survive re-entry. Earth’s orbit was the end of the line for Ums. No amount of foot stamping would change that.
She checked Ums quietly, shining a light into his eyes, peering at the gauges on his suit that she guessed tracked his vital signs but didn’t make any real sense to her. The gauges hadn’t changed, and that was probably good. Still, she couldn’t guess how well his suit was meeting his physiologic needs. Did he need nourishment? Water? Sunlight? And would his suit provide these things? She had no answers.
“We’re approaching Earth orbit,” said Ben. “What happens now?”
Sabrina floated into the seat next to him. “How about the ISS?”
“It’s been abandoned for three years,” Ben said. “There’s no telling whether it’s even possible to power it up. Besides, if we left Ums there, we would still have to figure out how to get him down.”
“So it’s out of our hands, now,” Sabrina said.
“Eighteen, this is ground control. We have some new instructions for you.”
Sabrina held her breath.
“Copy that. Go ahead, Houston,” Ben answered.
“Endeavor is on the launch pad and go for launch at 17:42.”
Sabrina’s breath exploded out of her as she laughed. “Yes!”
Ben picked up her hand and squeezed it. Sabrina gripped it back, squeezing as hard as she could through the space suit gloves.
The shuttle appeared suddenly in the window. One moment it was nothing but stars. The next, something ghostly and gray blocked it. Sabrina and Ben forced themselves not to rush through the docking procedure. Then the hatch opened, and a figure appeared in the doorway.
Sabrina squealed and rushed into the astronaut’s arms for an awkward, space-suited hug. It was Tom, the guy who had stood in her back pasture a month before. He felt like her oldest friend, now. He bumped helmets with her.
“Let’s get you into that shuttle,” Ben said.
“What? You’re not coming, too?”
“I plan to ride Buckaroo down. For old time’s sake,” Ben said.
“Then I’m staying with you!” Sabrina said.
“You have to stay with Ums. You’re his doctor.”
Sabrina closed her eyes. “You’re right,” she said. “I can’t leave him.” There wasn’t much she could do for Ums medically, but she felt certain her presence was a comfort to him.
They spent the next two hours transferring Kyrie into the shuttle’s cargo bay. It would be the first lunar module to return to Earth after touching down on the moon. When it was fully secured and stowed in the cargo bay, Tom and Sabrina returned to the crew cabin to strap in with the other astronauts.
“Sabrina, I’m not sure you should ride the shuttle down. There are questions about the integrity of our heat shielding. Everyone who volunteered for this mission understood that,” Tom told her.
Sabrina opened her mouth to answer, but ground control interrupted. “Negative, Endeavor. We recommend you evacuate the Apollo Command Module. Our simulations show that Endeavor has better re-entry integrity.”
“Roger that, Houston,” said Tom. “You hear that Ben? Haul your senile butt over here.”
“Negative, Whippersnapper. I plan to ride this tin can down.”
“Ben, what are you doing?”
“This here is a reusable space craft, Princess. You don’t just throw something like this away. Haven’t you heard of reduce, reuse, recycle?”
“Ben, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Houston, can you confirm that Buckaroo’s heat shielding is defective?” Ben asked.
“No, Ben. However, some of our simulations ended badly. We would need to examine Buckaroo’s exterior to get a more accurate simulation.”
“I like that option. Pie would be better, but I’ll take it,” he said.
“Can you repeat that, Eighteen?”
“Never mind. Just take the pictures.”
Sabrina and Tom sat in Endeavor‘s crew cabin, waiting for the results of the camera survey. After about forty-five very tense minutes, ground control reported back.
“Eighteen, your heat shielding is intact, but there’s a section 180 degrees away from Endeavor that we can’t see.”
“Good enough,” said Ben. “Endeavor, get out of here!”
Endeavor landed first, coming in for a textbook landing at Cape Canaveral. A flatbed arrived to whisk Kyrie and her precious cargo away to a clean room somewhere deep inside the complex. Sabrina went to climb into the truck, but Tom stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “There’s going to be about two dozen biologists and doctors in there with him. He’ll be okay. I think someone is even fetching him an umbrella and a speak-and-spell.”
“Right,” Sabrina sighed. “I guess we should see Ben down.”
The best possible view of the command module’s descent was from the cameras mounted on the F-15 fighter escort planes. Sabrina stood, tense, in the back of the control room, wearing a spare headset, as Ben began his descent.
“It’s getting warm up here!” Ben said and then let out a whoop.
“Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,” he sang. “Ninety-nine bottles of beer!”
Ben kept up the song, tracking his descent by bottles of beer. He got to ninety-five and inexplicably cried out, “Dammit!” Then the air went silent.
Sabrina’s stomach clenched.
“He’s in the ionosphere,” Tom explained. “No radio contact.”
Sabrina bit her lip, waiting for something to happen.
“Ninety-three bottles of beer!” Ben sang. At the same time, a bright spot appeared in the corner of one of the images from the F-15s.
“Ben!” Sabrina shouted.
“Princess!” Ben answered.
Cheers erupted in the control room. The fighters fell in behind Buckaroo as it headed toward the ocean.
Tom grabbed Sabrina in a hug and spun her around. Then other people hugged her. Then she hugged some more people. She was laughing, and her face was wet.
“Crazy old coot,” Tom said.
“A relic flying a relic,” Sabrina answered. “That’s how he told it.”
“Heroic relics, then. Both of them,” Tom agreed.
©Catherine H. Shaffer