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Davis, Jerry - Abandon in Place

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Davis, Jerry - Abandon in Place

Copyright ?1996 by Jerry Oltion

    First Appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

ABANDON IN PLACE

    by Jerry Oltion

    Six hours after Deke Slayton, the astronaut, died of cancer, his racing airplane

    took off from a California airport and never came down. The pilot didn't respond

    to the control tower, and the plane vanished from radar shortly after takeoff,

    but witnesses clearly identified it as Slayton's. Which was impossible, because

    that same airplane was in a museum in Nevada at the time. The story made the rounds at the Cape. Engineers and administrators and

    astronauts all passed it along like scouts telling ghost stories around a

    campfire, but nobody took it seriously. It was too easy to mistake one plane for

    another, and everyone knew how fast rumors could get started. They had heard

    plenty of them over the years, from the guy who'd claimed to be run off the road

    by Grissom's Corvette after the Apollo 1 fire to the Australian who'd supposedly

    found a piece of Yuri Gagarin's spacesuit in the debris that rained over the

    outback when Skylab came down. This was just one more strange bit of folklore

    tacked onto the Apollo era, which was itself fast fading into legend. Then Neil Armstrong died, and a Saturn V launched itself from pad 34. Rick Spencer was there the morning it went up. He had flown his T-38 down from

    Arlington right after the funeral, grabbed a few hours of sleep right there at

    the Cape, then driven over to the shuttle complex before dawn to watch the

    ground crew load a communications satellite into the Atlantis. The ungainly

    marriage of airplane and rocket on pad 39A would be his ticket to orbit in

    another week if they ever got the damned thing off the ground, but one

of the

    technicians forgot to mark a step off his checklist and the whole procedure shut

    down while the foreman tried to decide whether to back up and verify the job or

    take the tech at his word when he said he'd done it. Rick was getting tired of

    waiting for somebody to make a decision, so he went outside the sealed payload

    mating bay for a breath of fresh air.

    The sun had just peeked over the horizon. The wire catwalk beneath his feet and

    the network of steel girders all around him glowed reddish gold in the dawn

    light. The hammerhead crane overhead seemed like a dragon's long, slender neck

    and head leaning out to sniff curiously at the enormous winged orbiter that

    stood there sweating with dew beneath its gaze. The ground, nearly two hundred

    feet below, was still inky black. Sunlight hadn't reached it yet, wouldn't for a

    few more minutes. The ocean was dark, too, except near the horizon where the

    brilliant crescent of sun reflected off the water.

    From his high catwalk Rick looked down the long line of launch pads to the

    south, the tops of their gantries projecting up into the light as well. Except

    for pads 34 and 37. Those two had been decommissioned after the Apollo program,

    and now all that remained were the concrete bunkers and blast deflectors that

    couldn't be removed, low gray shapes still languishing in the shadow of early

    dawn. Just like the whole damned space program, Rick thought. Neil had been

    given a hero's burial, and the President's speech had been full of promise for

    renewed support of manned exploration in space, but it was all a lot of hot air

    and everyone knew it. The aging shuttle fleet was all America had, and all it

    was likely to get for the foreseeable future. Even if NASA could shake

off the

    bureaucratic stupor it had fallen into and propose a new program, Congress would

    never pass an appropriations bill for the hardware.

    Rick looked away, but a flicker of motion drew his attention back to pad 34,

    where brilliant floodlights now lit a gleaming white rocket and its orange

    support tower. Rick blinked, but it didn't go away. He stepped closer to the

    railing and squinted. Where had that come from? Over half of it rose above the

    dawn line; Rick looked over the edge of the Atlantis’s gantry and made a quick

    guess based on his own height. That rocket had to be over three hundred feet

    tall.

    Three hundred and sixty-three, to be exact. Rick couldn't measure it that

    exactly, but he didn't need to. He recognized the black-striped Saturn V

    instantly, and he knew its stats by heart. He had memorized them when he was a

    kid, sitting in front of his parents' black-and-white tv set while he waited for

    the liftoffs. Three hundred sixty-three feet high, weighing over three thousand

    tons when fueled, the five F-1 engines in its first stage producing seven and a

    half million pounds of thrust--it was the biggest rocket ever built. And it had also been over thirty years since the last of them flew. Rick closed

    his eyes and rubbed them with his left hand. Evidently Neil's death had affected

    him more than he thought. But when he looked to the south again he still saw the

    brilliant white spike standing there in its spotlight glare, mist swirling down

    its side as the liquid oxygen in its tanks chilled the air around the massive

    rocket.

    Rick was alone on the gantry. Everyone else was inside, arguing about the

    payload insertion procedure. He considered going in and asking someone

to come

    out and tell him if he was crazy or not, but he abandoned that thought immediately. One week before his first flight, he wasn't about to confess to

    hallucinations.

    It sure looked real. Rick watched the dawn line creep down the Saturn's flank,

    sliding over the ever-widening stages until it reached the long cylinder of the

    main body. The spectacle was absolutely silent. The only sound came from closer

    by: the squeak and groan of the shuttle gantry expanding as it began to warm

    under the light.

    Then, without warning, a billowing cloud of reddish white smoke erupted from the

    base of the rocket. The eye-searing brightness of RP-1 and oxygen flame lit up

    the cloud from within, and more exhaust blasted sideways out of the flame

    deflectors.

    Rick felt the gantry vibrate beneath him, but there was still no sound. The

    exhaust plume rose nearly as high as the nose cone, roiling like a mushroom

    cloud over an atomic blast, then slowly the rocket began to lift. Bright white

    flame sprayed the entire launch pad as the thundering booster, gulping thousands

    of gallons of fuel per second, rose into the sky. Only when the five bell-shaped

    nozzles cleared the gantry--nearly ten seconds after liftoff--did the solid beam

    of flame grow ragged at the edges. A few final tongues of it licked the ground,

    then the rocket lifted completely into the air.

    The shuttle gantry beneath Rick's feet shook harder. He grabbed for support just

    as the sound reached him: a thunderous, crackling assault that sent him

    staggering back against the catwalk's inner railing, his hands over his ears.

    The gantry shook like a skyscraper in an earthquake, knocking him to his knees

    on the non-skid grating. He didn't try to rise again, just stared upward in awe

    as the Saturn V dwindled rapidly now and the roar of its engines tapered off

    with distance.

    The glare left afterimages when he blinked. He didn't care. He watched the

    rocket arc over and begin its long downrange run, picking up orbital velocity

    now that it had cleared the thickest part of the atmosphere. The door behind him burst open and a flood of white-jacketed technicians scrambled out. The first few stopped when they saw the enormous plume of exhaust

    rising into the sky, and the ones behind them piled into their backs, forcing

    them forward until everyone was packed near the railing. Molly, the payload

    foreman, gave Rick a hand up, and bent close to his ear to shout over the roar

    of the rocket and the babble of voices, "What the hell was that?" Rick shook his head. "Damned if I know."

    "There wasn't supposed to be a launch today," she said. Rick looked up at the dwindling rocket, now just a bright spark aiming for the

    sun, and said, "Something tells me Control was just as surprised as we were." He

    pointed toward the base of the exhaust plume, where the cloud had spread out

    enough to reveal the gantry again.

    "What?" Molly asked, squinting to see through the billowing steam. Then she

    realized what he was pointing at. "Isn't that pad thirty-four?" #

    Molly and her payload crew reluctantly trooped back into the mating bay to see

    if the shaking had damaged their satellite, but since Rick was on his own time

    he rode the cage elevator down to the ground, climbed into his pickup, and

    joined the line of cars streaming toward the launch site. The scrub oak and palmetto that lined the service road prevented anyone from

    seeing the pad until they had nearly reached it. Rick thought he should have

    been able to see the 400-foot gantry, at least, but when he arrived at the pad

    he realized why he hadn't. It had vanished just as mysteriously as it had

    arrived, leaving not a trace.

    Rick drove across the vast concrete apron to the base of the old launch pedestal. It looked like an enormous concrete footstool: four squat legs holding

    a ten-foot-thick platform forty feet in the air, with a thirty-foot-wide hole in

    the platform for the rocket exhaust to pour through. Off to the side stood the

    foundation and the thick blast protection wall of the building that had once

    housed propellant pumps and service equipment. Now both structures looked old

    and weathered. Rust streaks ran down their gray sides, and stenciled on the

    pitted concrete, the paint itself fading now, were the words, "ABANDON IN

    PLACE."

    Weeds grew out of cracks in the apron, still green and vigorous even right up

    next to the pedestal. Rick was beginning to doubt what he'd seen, because obviously nothing had launched from this pad for at least a decade. But the contrail still arched overhead, high-altitude winds snaking it left and

    right, and when Rick opened the door and stepped out of his pickup he smelled

    the unmistakable mixture of RP-1 smoke and steam and scorched cement that came

    with a launch.

    Doors slammed as more people got out of their cars. Dozens of them were there

    already, and more arrived every minute, but what should have been an unruly mob

    was strangely quiet. Nobody wanted to admit what they'd seen, especially in the

    face of so much conflicting evidence.

    Rick recognized Tessa McClain, an experienced astronaut whom he'd dated a few

    times in the last couple of months, climbing out of the back of a white van

    along with half a dozen other people from the vehicle assembly building.

When

    she saw him she jogged across the concrete to his side and said, "Did you see

    it?" Her face glowed with excitement.

    "Yeah," Rick said. "I was up on the gantry at thirty-nine." She looked up at the contrail overhead, her straight blonde hair falling back

    over her shoulders. "Wow. That must have been a hell of a sight. I felt it shake

    the ground, but I didn't get outside until it was already quite a ways up." She

    looked back down at him. "It was a Saturn Five, wasn't it?" "That's what it looked like," he admitted.

    "God, this is incredible." She turned once around, taking in the entire launch

    pad. "A moon rocket! I never expected to see anything like it ever again." "Me either," Rick said. He struggled to find the words to express what he was

    thinking. "But how could we possibly have seen anything? There's no tower here,

    no fuel tanks, nothing. And the launch pedestal is too small for a fully fueled

    Saturn V. This complex was for the S-1B's."

    She grinned like a child at Christmas. "I'm sure whoever --or whatever--staged

    this little demonstration was able to make all the support hardware they needed.

    And take it away again when they were done with it."

    Rick shook his head. "But that's impossible."

    Tessa laughed. "We all saw it." She pointed upward. "And the contrail's still

    there." Suddenly her eyes grew even wider.

    "What?" Rick asked.

    She looked across the rolling hummocks of palmetto toward the fifty-story-high

    vehicle assembly building--and the launch control center at its base. "I wonder

    if it's sending back telemetry?"

    #

    It took a while to find out. Nobody remembered what frequencies the Apollo

    spacecraft broadcast on or what protocols the data streams used, and the ground

    controllers had to dig through archived manuals to find out. It took

still more

    time to set up the receivers to accept the signals, but when the technicians

    eventually tuned into the right frequencies they found a steady information

    flow. They couldn't decode most of it, since the software to do that had been

    written for the old RCA computer system, but they did at least establish that

    the rocket had not vanished along with its ground support structures. Rick and Tessa were in the launch control center now, watching the overhead

    monitors while programmers in the central instrumentation building frantically

    attempted to adapt the old programs to the new machines. What they saw was

    mostly a lot of numbers, but every few minutes one of the programmers would

    patch in another section of translated code and another display would wink into

    place on the screen. They had already figured out cabin temperature and

    pressure, fuel level in the upper stage tanks, and a few of the other simple

    systems.

    By this point in a normal flight the whole project would rightfully belong to

    Mission Control in Houston, but there was nothing normal about this launch. When

    the Houston flight director heard what the Kennedy team was doing, he wanted

    nothing to do with it anyway. He intended to keep his own neck well out of the

    way when heads started rolling after this crazy debacle was over. But the spacecraft stubbornly refused to disappear. Radar tracked it through one

    complete orbit and part of another, when its altitude and velocity began to

    rise. At the same time, the fuel levels in the third stage tanks began to drop.

    That could mean only one thing: The booster was firing again. "Translunar injection," Tessa whispered. "They're going for the Moon." "Who's 'they'?" Rick asked. So far none of the telemetry indicated a live--or

even a ghostly--passenger in the command module.

    "It's got to be Neil," Tessa said. "And who knows who else is going with him."

    "Neil is in a box in Arlington cemetery," Rick said. "I saw them put him there."

    "And you saw the launch this morning," Tessa reminded him. "Neil being on board

    it is no more impossible than the rocket itself."

    "Good point." Rick shrugged. Every dead astronaut from Gagarin on could be in

    the mystery Apollo capsule for all he knew. This bizarre manifestation was

    completely new territory; nobody knew the rules yet.

    #

    Enough people claimed to, of course. Psychics seemed to crawl out of the

    woodwork over the next few days, each with their own interpretation of the

    event. NASA had to close the gates and post guards around the perimeter of the

    space center to keep it from being overrun by curious mystics, but that merely

    fueled speculation that they were developing a new super-secret space vehicle at

    the taxpayers' expense.

    The administration tried the silent approach at first, but when that charge was

    levelled they reluctantly admitted that for once the fruitcakes were closer to

    the truth than the whistleblowers. In a carefully worded press release, NASA's

    public relations spokesman said, "What appeared to be a Saturn Five moon rocket

    seemed to launch from the deserted complex thirty-four. This alleged launch was

    not authorized by NASA, nor was it part of any program of which NASA is aware. A

    complete investigation of the incident is being made, and our findings will be

    made public as soon as we learn what actually occurred." That was Bureauspeak for, "We don't have a clue either." Rick spent days with

    the investigation team, going over his story again and again--careful

to say

    "appeared to" and "looked like" at all the appropriate spots--until he could

    recite it in his sleep, but no one was the wiser afterward. They examined the

    launch pad, which revealed no sign of a liftoff. All they could do was listen to

    the telemetry coming from the spacecraft and speculate. Three days after its launch, the ghost Apollo entered lunar orbit. A few hours

    after that, the lunar module separated from the command module and made a

    powered descent toward the surface. It wasn't headed for the Sea of Tranquility.

    It appeared to be landing at Copernicus, one of the sites proposed for further

    Apollo missions before the last three had been cancelled. But when it reached

    500 feet, the telemetry suddenly stopped.

    "What the hell happened?" demanded Dale Jackson, the impromptu flight director

    for the mission. He stood beside one of the consoles on the lowest of the

    terraced rows, looking around at the dozens of technicians who were scrambling

    to reacquire the signal.

    Tessa and Rick were watching from farther up, sitting side by side at unused

    consoles and holding hands like teenagers on a date at the best movie of all

    time. When the telemetry stopped, Tessa flinched as if a monster had just jumped

    out of a closet.

    "What happened?" Rick asked. "Did it blow up?"

    Tessa shook her head. "Everything stopped," she said. "The command module too,

    and it was still in orbit."

    "Five hundred feet," Rick said. Something about that figure nagged at him. What

    happened at five hundred feet in a normal lunar descent? "Got it!" he said,

    loudly enough that everyone in the room looked back up at the screens. When they

    saw no data there, they turned to him.

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