Launch day; the day Colonel Jim Park would die. He awoke at 0430 hours to the sound of Flight of the Valkyries. He shit, showered, and shaved. He wrapped a towel around himself and walked into the living area when he heard breakfast being delivered. A technician in a clean suit was setting things on his table.
“Good morning, Jasmine,” he said as he sat down, “What’s for breakfast this morning?”
“Good morning, sir. I’m afraid you aren’t going to like it. Bagels and cream cheese, grapefruit, toast, and orange juice.”
“Au contraire, mon Cheri. This is exactly what I wanted,” he lied, “but you can take that grapefruit with you on your way out.”
She smiled at him from behind her mask, “Yes, sir.” She returned the unwanted grapefruit to her cart and headed for the door. It slid open as she approached, and she wheeled the cart into the buffer room. Before the door slid closed behind her, she turned and said, “Good luck, Jim.”
After breakfast, Park donned his pressure suit. He looked like an Alpine skier in the white, form fitting, two-piece body suit complete with hood, gloved hands, and glove-like footies. He had asked for and been denied permission to wear his uniform over the pressure suit. Even if he was the only person who would admit it, everybody knew this was practically a suicide mission. He was about to rip a hole in the fabric of space. The least they could do was let him do it with a little dignity.
He tucked his lucky silver dollar inside his collar, near his heart. He had found it by the bank of the river at his grandfather’s house when he was ten. 1999, D for Denver. His grandfather had told him the woman on the front was named Susan B. Anthony. He always carried it with him because he figured as long as he had that dollar, he could never be completely broke.
At 0530 a team of technicians in clean suits arrived to escort him to the launch bay. They strapped a rebreather onto his back. The rebreather was connected via a hose to a gas mask with a gold colored visor. He held the mask to his face and took a couple of breaths to verify everything was working. He held the mask out to reposition the drinking tube, put it back up to his face, and gave the tech to his left a thumb up. The tech tightened the straps around his head to the point of discomfort, and then he tightened them some more. A green bar appeared on the right of his field of view showing one hundred percent oxygen. One way or another, the mission would be over no more than twenty four hours from now. That’s all the oxygen the rebreather held.
They led Park out of quarantine and down a short hall to an elevator marked, “Authorized Launch Facility Personnel Only.” When they arrived at sublevel twenty, they ushered Park into a golf cart which drove him five kilometers down a wide tunnel to the launch bay. The tunnel buzzed with activity; mostly people walking or driving away from the launch bay.
A new group of technicians and a few administrators met Park at the entrance to the launch bay. They were all talking over each other as they escorted him across the gang plank. Asking him questions, giving him encouragements, wishing him luck, but he barely heard a word. He was looking at the X-88.
The X-88 was the eighth prototype in the X-80 series. The other seven had all suffered catastrophic failures, but the X-88 had something the others hadn’t; a pilot. The Krupp warp drive sat in the snub nose just ahead of the cockpit. An updated version of the elder Dr. Krupp’s sub-light propulsion system and the reactor occupied the bulk of the body of the craft behind the cockpit. The engine had been put into commercial use several years earlier. That model was governed at a maximum of twenty-five percent power, but some enterprising souls had already hacked it up to thirty-five percent. It had already reduced the flight time between Earth and Mars from three months to as little as just over a week. That had allowed for a far longer launch window, and the population of Mars was booming.
There were four tapered and flared main wings and two stabilizing tails at the rear of the X-88 to be used in the event that Col. Park actually landed on Mars. It wasn’t the prettiest bird, but it damn sure would be the fastest. From nose to tail it only stood about twenty-five feet. The ship would launch on rails to guide it out of the tunnel.
Two burly techs lifted Park into the cockpit and helped him strap in. They closed and sealed the cockpit hatch, and then everyone made their way back down the gang plank. He had to listen to a loud horn blaring every few seconds for another forty-five minutes while the launch bay was cleared. He went through the pre-flight checklist with Flight Control while he waited. Finally, he heard the call he had been waiting for.
“All systems go. T-minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, FIRE!”
A loud boom tore through the launch facility followed by an increasingly high pitched whine. The force pushed Park into his seat like an industrial press. His peripheral vision faded away, and his breathing became shallow and difficult. Survivable, yes. Pleasant? Not at all. Two more booms rang out just as he exited the launch tube when the ship broke the sound barrier.
“Payload is away.”
For several seconds the only sound was the roar of wind, and then there were several small cracks like a string of firecrackers.
“Sled jettisoned. Altitude ten thousand. Speed five thousand. All systems nominal.”
“Altitude twenty thousand. Speed seven thousand. Commence roll program. All systems nominal.”
At one hundred thousand feet the engine throttled back. The sudden change from six G’s to micro gravity felt like it would have thrown Park through his cockpit window if he weren’t strapped in tight.
Everything went silent for a second before flight control broke in again, “Altitude one hundred ten thousand. Speed seventeen thousand five hundred. All systems nominal. She’s all yours, Destiny base. Godspeed, Colonel.”
Park responded, “Roger. Thank you, White Sands.” He strained to look over his shoulder, but he was only able to catch a glimpse of the planet as it receded away from him.
“Destiny, this is X-88, over.”
“X-88, Destiny. We read you, over.”
“Powering up to ten percent then I’ll begin the warp drive power up. I should enter lunar slingshot in approximately two hours. Are you tracking? Over.”
“Roger, X-88. We have you. See you in a couple of hours, out.”
Park programmed the sub-light governor for ten percent and the g-force limiter for three G’s. He set a trajectory that would take him to within fifty kilometers of the surface of the moon. At the speed he would be traveling, he needed to get that close for the moon to get him pointed towards Mars. He confirmed the settings on his HUD and engaged the engine. When the ship reached speed twenty minutes later, he began working on the warp drive checklist. Once he had finished bringing the warp drive online, he settled in to watch the moon grow alarmingly fast in his window.
The lunar flyby took less than a minute, and Park was headed towards Mars. He set his new trajectory for Mars orbit, set the sub-light governor to maximum, left the g-force limiter at three, and activated the Krupp warp drive system. The computer would automatically engage the warp drive when he reached his target velocity. He double and triple checked his settings on the HUD and put in the call to Destiny base.
“Destiny, X-88, over.”
“X-88, Destiny, over.”
“All systems are nominal. Ready to begin test run, over.”
“Roger, X-88. On your mark, over.”
“On my mark in three, two, one.” Park executed the program, and the ship began to accelerate.
“Twenty percent. Speed two hundred thousand.” The band of the Milky Way began to turn a brilliant blue.
“Twenty-two percent. Twenty-three. Twenty-four.” Park’s world flashed blue then turned black. The X-88 disappeared in a flash of gamma rays. No wreckage could be found. No trace of Colonel James Park or the X-88 remained.