“Ad Astra” launches STARSHIP, fresh episodic fiction from award-winning author Kevin O. McLaughlin. The first season of five episodes, released weekly, will carry the reader through a single novel-length adventure from Earth to the stars, and from broken spirits to humanity’s unlikely heroes.
If life knocked you down, would you risk everything you had left to reach for the stars?
He waved to the woman tending the tables, a middle-aged matron whose name he hadn’t tried to catch. She’d made a few attempts to clear his growing pile of bottles away earlier in the evening, but he’d shooed her off. Dan wanted the physical memory of the drinks sitting right there, like a badge. The woman saw his wave, but didn’t bother coming over. She just went to fetch another beer. He kept his eyes off her face. He didn’t want to see her disdain, or worse, her pity.
Instead he brought his eyes back to the bar’s TV, where the Ares rocket was still sitting on the launch pad. The countdown was frozen at four minutes and fifteen seconds. It hadn’t moved for most of an hour now, last minute problems delaying the launch.
“Hey Joe, can we switch the channel? Missing the game here,” a burly man called to the bartender.
“Yeah, Joe. This shit is boring,” said another guy.
Both of them were lumberjack big, wearing dirty work clothes. None of which bothered Dan even a little.
“Don’t touch that channel,” he snarled.
“Or what?” asked the first man.
“Wanna find out?”
“Man, don’t mess around. Who wants to see this stupid rocket sitting there, anyway?”
“I do,” Dan said.
“Larry, you can’t pick a fight with a gimp,” the guy’s buddy whispered to him, loud enough that Dan could hear anyway.
Larry blushed, noticing Dan’s wheelchair. “Hey, man, sorry. You can watch what you want.”
The bartender glared at Dan for a moment from behind his glasses, wiping furiously at a mug with a dishrag. But the TV stayed on the same channel despite what the local crowd wanted, so that was all right.
Finally the countdown kicked on again. Whatever the problem was, they must have solved it. There were four minutes left, now. Unconsciously, Dan activated his motorized chair and moved toward the TV. Three minutes left.
His eyes misted a little as the first plumes of steam appeared under the titanic rocket. The payload was a crew compartment and landing vehicle – and the first six humans from Earth to ever attempt bridging the vast distance to Mars. They’d be traveling for six months to get there, stay for six months, and then return. It was the adventure of a lifetime. It was supposed to have been the adventure of his lifetime.
He slugged down the last of the beer he was still holding. The bitter flavor matched how he was feeling. The matron plunked his new bottle down where he’d been sitting, and he reached for it without thinking, wincing as his back spasmed in protest. He grimaced. Wheelchairs went in reverse for a reason.
Less than two minutes left until takeoff. He leaned forward, willing himself into the cockpit of that ship with everything he had. He should have been there. Would have been there, if it hadn’t been for a stupidly random accident. There was something ironic about being taken down by a mini coupe after surviving dozens of missions into space unscathed. He was one of the most experienced space pilots in the world. He’d fought hard to win his berth on that mission.
All gone, now. The driver who’d lost control of his car, crossed the highway median, and smashed into Dan’s vehicle wasn’t going to have his license back for a while, but that didn’t help heal his badly fractured spine. NASA’s policy toward injury as severe as his had no leeway. As far as they were concerned, he was grounded for good. So he’d taken the early retirement with full benefits and disability that the Air Force had offered. A good deal, but as a consolation prize it sucked. He had some buddies in Panama who told him that income would let him live like a king down there.
If only he could find some reason to live at all.
Fifty seconds left on the countdown. The numbers ticked away on the corner of the TV screen.
With thirty eight seconds left, Dan’s phone rang. The sound startled him, but out of habit he answered it, not taking his eyes off the TV as he did.
“Dan Wynn here.”
He watched two more seconds tick away on the countdown before a distorted voice said “Dan! Was hoping to catch you. How’re you holding up?”
“Who is this?” Dan asked.
“It’s John,” the voice replied, after a short delay.
“John, you have any idea what you’re calling in the middle of?”
Another brief delay, and then John said “I’m watching it too, Dan. Why do you think I called you now?” Dan could almost hear his friend’s smile over the phone line.
“I think you’re interrupting,” he said, eyes narrowing. The last thing he needed right now was a pity call. Even from an old friend.
Another pregnant pause. “Dan, I’m calling to offer you a vacation, and maybe a job if you want it. I need people I can trust, and you’re top of the list.”
“I’m flattered, but–” Dan broke off in mid-sentence as the Ares rocket launched, huge plumes of fire obscuring it from view for a moment before sending it skyward. As it lifted into the sky, all his hopes and wishes vanished with it.
“Dan. DAN.” John’s voice was still nattering at him on the phone. “Listen to me.”
“What?” Dan said. His voice sounded hollow to his ears.
“Vacation, Dan. You need it. And I can use you, if you want to stay on, after.”
“I can’t,” Dan replied. “Still got paperwork to finish my retirement package, and the docs want to see me daily for rehab.”
“I’ve already cleared your paperwork up. Had a general who owed me a favor. And we’ve got doctors on site who’ll continue your rehab. But I need you here, Dan.”
The little delays in John’s responses finally made their way through Dan’s muddled thoughts. A couple of seconds of pause, each time he spoke.
“Where are you, John?” he said, curiosity leaking into his voice.
“I’m on the far side of the moon, Dan. Want to come up for a visit?”
Dan almost choked on his beer. He’d been expecting…well, something. With John, it was always something. But not that.
Another short pause. “Put the drink down, go outside. Car should be waiting for you there. The driver will take you to the launch. That is, if you are still interested in going back into space?”
Dan stared a moment at the TV again, where the camera was still following the plume of fire burning its way into the sky. For the first time all day, he could look at the ship without feeling like he was being stabbed through the heart.
“I’m on my way,” he said. He turned off his phone, slapped enough bills on the table to pay for his beers plus a healthy tip for the scowling waitress, and went out the door.
John was as good as his word. The young driver was already waiting out front, standing outside a large black SUV hybrid with a wheelchair lift built into the side. He expertly hooked Dan’s chair up to the device, chatting amiably as he worked.
“The boss was dead on right about you,” he said.
“Oh?” Dan replied.
“Yup. Called me, said you’d be out the door within five minutes. Took you three minutes thirty.”
“Well. John always did know what buttons to push on people.”
“He’s good that way. I’m Andy. You’re Dan Wynn, the astronaut?”
The simple question rocked Dan. “I suppose…I am. Again.”