To celebrate Tor.com’s fifth birthday and continue the tradition we began last year with Charles Stross’ “A Tall Tail,” we’re happy to present our second annual Rocket Story! This year’s story is Jeffrey Ford’s “Rocket Ship to Hell.”
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
Author’s note: A tip of the hat to my friend, Tom Purdom, who let me use his good name in this story. Tom’s been writing and publishing Science Fiction since 1957. Back in the 60’s, he actually did have three short novels appear as ACE doubles. His recent work has appeared in Asimov’s Magazine and Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction.
Twelve years ago, I was at the Millennium Worldcon in Philly, and with the exception of the incident I’m about to relate, I only remember three other things about that long weekend.
1. I recall going to a cocktail party at night in a dinosaur museum.
2. Somewhere along the line, Michael Swanwick told me I should check out Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness.
3. I remember the walking. The convention center is enormous. I must have walked a hundred miles a day in that place—spacious, empty hallways with columns, rotundas, vestibules. With all the people attending, I couldn’t believe I could trudge for twenty minutes along some dimly lit, marble concourse and never see a soul. I suppose I attended panels and maybe even did a reading, but I can’t conjure one shred of an image of any of that—just the slogging from one distant point to another. Think Kafka’s “An Imperial Message.”
Somewhere in the middle of the third day, exhausted and confused, not having seen the sun since arriving at my hotel attached to the convention center, I found myself near an exit and seized the opportunity. I plunged into a hot, blue day and the light momentarily blinded me. A few moments later, when I could see again, I noticed there was a bar right across the street from where I’d exited. Unfortunately, the place was packed with fellow con-goers having lunch. I had a hangover from the dinosaur cocktail party the night before, and I needed a drink. Before I moved to Jersey, I’d lived in Philly for a while. I was almost certain that there was a little place called Honey’s a few blocks east and then one south.
I found it wedged into the middle of a block of grimy storefronts. It was dark inside and air-conditioned, cool relief from the August day. The walls were covered in cheap wood paneling and the floor was a black-and-white checkerboard that must have been laid back in the thirties. There were a few tables and chairs, and the bar was covered in the same splintered wood paneling. There was no mirror behind it or decoration, just rows of bottles of cheap liquor. I took a seat and the young woman behind the bar told me she had forty-ounce Colt 45s as well as the hard stuff. I ordered one. She gave me a forty and a glass.
Other than the two of us, the place was empty. She looked to be in her early twenties, tall and thin, her hair shaved into a crew cut. The blue-gray T-shirt she wore bore the words Cannibal Ox and The Cold Vein and carried an image of what could have been astronauts with guns. She was busy, wiping things down with a wet rag, adjusting the placement of the bottles, drying glasses.
“Are you from the neighborhood?” she asked, her back to me.
“No, I’m in town for a thing at the convention center.”
“The science fiction show?”
“That’s it,” I said. “Have you been over there?”
“I’d like to but I’m working this whole weekend. My daddy’s in the hospital, so I’m filling in for him.”
“Oh, hope he’s OK.”
“He’s got the prostate. You know what I mean?” She turned and looked at me.
“Not yet, but I’m sure someday I will.”
She laughed, put her rag down, and walked through a door to the left.
While she was in the back, the front door of the place opened and I heard someone come in. I knew they were headed for the bar because their labored breathing grew closer. A moment later, an old, heavyset guy in a floppy brown suit and white shirt, yellow tie loosened to the point of uselessness, took a seat a few down from me. I looked over and he nodded his big potato head in my direction. He was mostly bald but little squalls of hair erupted here and there across his scalp. His thick glasses were steamed and sweat drenched his jowls.
“It’s a fuckin oven out there,” he said.
Trying to avoid a conversation, I just nodded.
The bartender came back into the bar and, seeing him, asked, “What you want?”
He stopped gasping for a moment and said, “Gin, straight up, miss. Not a shot, a full glass.”
She set a glass in front of him and poured right to the rim. Due to past martini experiences, the sight of it made me gag.
“Seven dollars,” she said. He put two twenties on the bar and thanked her.
I knew that eventually the guy was going to start a conversation, and although I wasn’t keen on talking to him, at the same time I had no intention of leaving Honey’s until I’d finished a second Colt.
“You’re at the convention? Right?” he finally said.
I wasn’t wearing my badge and had a moment of panic over the fact that I could be so easily identified with that to which I belonged. There was no denying it, though. The bartender noticed my hesitation. “How’d you know?” I finally said.
“I saw you over there, walking the hallways.” His voice was breathy and slightly high-pitched. There was a kind of weird resonance to it.
“Some hallways. Place is like a labyrinth.”
“I had to rent one of those scooters,” he said and his laugh turned into a hacking cough.
“You a fan?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Me too,” he confided and took a long drink.
“Two writers at once,” said the bartender. “That might be a first for Honey’s.”
“It’s not as auspicious as all that, my dear,” he said. Then he looked at me and asked what I’d published.
“Last book of a trilogy came out this year,” I said. “I’ve only been at it since ninety-seven.”
“Live long and prosper,” he said and flashed us the Spock split-finger deal. “My first publications were back in the late sixties.”
“Novels or stories?” I asked.
“Always stories,” he said. “I only wrote one novel, and you can’t find that anywhere.”
“I want to write stories,” said the bartender. “I’m in my last semester at community college and I’m going to Temple to take fiction writing.”
“Three writers,” said the old guy. He took a drink and smoothed his wispy islands of hair.
“You like SF?” I asked her.
“And fantasy,” she said. “I’m taking a lit course this summer. We’re reading Ellison, Butler, Moorcock, Tiptree, Dick.”
“As long as you lay off that slipstream drivel—the lime Jell-O of subgenres,” he said.
“That’s next semester,” she said. “Do you guys make a lot of money?”
“Money can be made,” said the old guy. “But you can’t make a living now writing stories.”
I asked his name and he told me, “Cole Werber.” It didn’t ring a bell, but my knowledge of the genre was minimal. I told them my name, and the bartender told us hers was Breelyn.
“Where’d you publish your early stories?” I asked Werber.
“Back in the day, all over. Galaxy, Amazing, F&SF, If, and one you don’t hear about now, Venture. I wrote a series of stories about this alien named Pirsute. He lived on the planet Borlox, and he was a kind of vegetable creature—but arms and legs and a head like a human. Skin the consistency of an eggplant, a mop of greenery for hair, a thistle beard, and eyes like cherries. He was a detective. I based him on Poe’s Auguste Dupin. You know, ratiocination, etc. He had a sidekick, who was an orphaned earth girl with a photographic memory.”
“I love that kind of shit,” said the bartender.
“That sounds cool,” I said.
“Shit may be the operative word,” said Werber. “But my plan was to link all the stories in what we used to call a fix-up and then publish my first novel.”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean it like that,” said Breelyn.
Werber waved his hand and smiled. “I’m just joking.”
“How many stories did you have in the series?” I asked.
“Well, I published the first one in sixty-five and by sixty-nine I had a dozen and a half published.”
“Eighteen stories in four years? That’s pretty impressive,” I said.
“Not really, not for the time. Some of those writers back then cranked ’em out a couple a month. I think Silverberg published a hundred by the time he was this young lady’s age. I was twenty when I published the first one.”
“Did you have a lot of readers?” asked Breelyn.
“Actually, people liked them. They followed them from magazine to magazine. I’d get a lot of response when I’d go to the conventions.”
“So then why’d nobody read the novel?” I asked.
“It wasn’t that novel. The Pirsute novel was never put together. The one nobody read was called Rocket Ship to Hell.”
“Great title,” I said.
“Religion meets science,” said Breelyn and made herself a whiskey on the rocks.
“Maybe not religion,” said Werber, “but the whole thing reeked of mythology. I could tell you folks about it, but it’d take me a little while. It’s a remarkable story, though, no lie. I never really told it to anyone before, but with my health the way it is now there’s not much they could do to me.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Breelyn and took a long drink.
I could tell by this guy’s shtick that if I went for his story, I could be there for an eternity. At the same time, the way he stared at me waiting for an answer, eyes big behind those thick lenses, it was almost as if he was offering a challenge, writer to writer—Are you going to go back and walk the empty corridors or are you going to stay right here where the story is?
Although I’d not yet finished my first, I ordered another forty. When Breelyn put it on the bar, I said, “OK, let’s have it.”
The old guy nodded with a look of satisfaction and polished off about three fingers of gin in a gulp. “It was 1969, and I’d run out of Pirsute stories. I tried to go in a different direction, and my imagination always wound up back on Borlox, following the vegetable detective and the girl with the photographic memory, but nothing ever happened. My imagination was shot. The bad part was that I was broke. I’d been trying to live off the money from the stories—late on rent, phone bill, car payments. I was a mess.
“The day after they repossessed my car, I got a phone call from this guy who said he wanted me to come and do a reading and talk for his club. I told him, OK, but that I had no car. He said, ‘We’ll send a car for you. And the event pays three hundred dollars.’ I almost dropped the phone. For that kind of money, I’d have walked.
“Two days later, a limousine showed up in front of my apartment complex to the minute the guy on the phone, Mr. Masterson, had promised. The driver got out and opened the door for me. About twenty minutes later, we pulled up in front of this mansion. I don’t know where it was. The place was gigantic, from some time in the nineteenth century. We got out and the driver led me inside and through a series of hallways and rooms until we came to a closed door somewhere at the back of the house. The driver knocked; a voice inside said, ‘Enter.’ He opened the door, stood back, and I stepped in.
“There were books lining the walls and in the center of the room was a well-polished table at which sat four old gentlemen, dressed to the nines, each holding what looked like toy rockets. They put their rockets down and stood when I entered. I made the rounds, shook hands, got their names, and took a seat at the head of the table. Across from me was Masterson, who seemed to be the head of the group. ‘Welcome to the Rocket Club,’ he said.” Werber took a sip and said, “Are you with me?”
Breelyn lit a cigarette and I pulled the second forty closer. She said, “Yeah,” and he went back to it.
“I’ll try to speed it up a little,” he said. “The Rocket Club was these four old, white-haired farts. They were mad about science fiction. Knew just about everything going back to the thirties and could talk about any writer I mentioned. It was more an education for me than them. To top that, they asked me all kinds of intricate questions about the Pirsute stories. They remembered more about my own stuff than I did. I read them my most recent publication, ‘Slaves of Dust.’ Some solid vegetable love and death. When I was finished, they applauded so much I was afraid one of them would drop over. Instead, Masterson asked me if when I was a boy, I ever wanted to be an astronaut.
“I said, ‘Probably,’ and shrugged, but it was true, I’d dreamed of it when I was a kid. When I’d told my father, he’d said, ‘You’re a blockhead at math and you’re afraid of heights. Forget it.’ But I never did forget it.
“ ‘How’d you like to make fifty thousand dollars instead of three hundred?’ asked Masterson.
“I was stunned. I just sat there with my mouth open.
“ ‘We’re each exceedingly wealthy,’ said the grandpa next to me with the white goatee and sideburns.
“ ‘We can send you into outer space,’ said the heavy one with the ruffled shirt collar.
“I was floored and a little worried they were dangerously insane. When all was said and done, though, this was the deal as proposed by Masterson: They were funding a secret joint project with NASA. Because they were putting up the bread, they called the shots on the mission and rocket design. What they wanted to do was put artists in outer space to witness the experience and then transcribe it to the populace through some work conceived on the journey. In addition to me, who they wanted to be the mission’s official writer, they were looking for a painter and a musician. Four days in space and I collected for writing a story about it.
“At first, all I could think about was the fifty thousand, but then it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t in the best shape. I was seventy pounds overweight and smoked a couple packs a day. Besides that I didn’t know how to do much else but make up stories about the vegetable detective. I actually said, ‘Do you think I’m the best candidate?’
“Masterson looked at his cronies and they nodded. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we tried to get Thomas Pynchon but he turned us down.’ ”
“Come on,” I said to Werber. “Is that for real?”
“I wouldn’t mind doing that,” said Breelyn.
“You’d be a lot more fit for it than I was,” said Werber. “Is it real?” He took off his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt. “As god is my judge.” He put the glasses back on.
“You say NASA was in on this?” I asked.
“Yes. They were supposed to build the rocket. They used it as an opportunity to test out some new things and to simplify the control mechanisms of the ship all on the Rocket Club’s dime.”
“You did it, right?” asked Breelyn.
“Yeah,” he said, pushed his glass forward, and took out a handkerchief to wipe his face. She filled him up with gin and, after a prolonged coughing spree, he was off.
“I took it. I needed the fucking money. Oops, sorry, miss. I needed the money. We shook on it. Two weeks later, with a five-thousand-dollar advance in my bank account, I was in an apartment in downtown Vegas. I was there to train for the mission. My handler and apartment mate was an ex-astronaut named Maxwell Penfield. He was a sturdily built old man with a tan and a crew cut. At night, he’d sit by the air conditioner in his boxer shorts and drink a pint of bourbon while reading Herodotus. The night I arrived I told him I’d never seen his name mentioned in any of the NASA missions. He nodded and said, ‘I only flew secret missions.’ I questioned him about it and he said, ‘Do you think that every time the US puts men in space that it’s going to be on TV? Seriously, now.’
“My training started the next day. We had a breakfast that Max prepared—every meal was fruit and meat. I was on the can twice a day. You could set the atomic clock by it. After breakfast, we walked for two hours before the real heat came on. Then it was lunch, downtown at a place called Hoppy’s where we always had a burger, no bun, and the melon bowl. No time to digest, though, ’cause we were off to the Castaways Casino where we climbed the stairs to the top floor. That took me an hour and was agonizing. Max was patient, though. I’d complain and he’d laugh. ‘Come on, move that gravy,’ he’d say as I gasped on every landing.
“The afternoons were given over to gambling. Max said it would test my stress levels. He made me gamble every day, with my own money. It was exhilarating and depressing, sometimes at the same time. I lost three thousand dollars in the first week and in the second won four thousand. At the end of the two weeks I’d lost some weight. Actually, considering the time, a good amount, but I was still fifty pounds overweight. My nightly push-up tally had gone from three to fifteen. On our last day in the apartment, Max told me he was going to give me a final exam.
“We were in the living room, our bags packed. He reached into his pocket and took out a crisp bill. He held it out so that I could see it was a fifty. He folded it in half, creasing the fold, and then flipped his two fingers and scaled it toward me so that it landed at my feet. ‘If you can pick that up without bending your knees, you pass,’ he said. ‘And if you do, you can keep it.’
“I sucked my gut in, took a deep breath, stiffened my knees, and swept down on that note like a bald eagle grabbing a salmon out of a stream. Max said, ‘You pass, Werber.’ Then we were in the car, heading out to Groom Lake, what they now call Area Fifty-One.” The old writer took a drink and wiped his face again.
“Did you really go into outer space?” asked Breelyn as she ran around the bar to grab a stool. She brought it back to her spot next to the liquor shelf and sat down.
“One of my personal rules for stories is no foreshadowing,” he said.
In as amiable a tone as possible, I said, “This is getting pretty farfetched.”
“Patience, my esteemed colleague,” he said. “The best or worst, depending on your point of view, is yet to come. For on that first day at the testing range, out in the middle of absolutely nowhere, I saw the rocket. Now, I knew what a NASA rocket looked like. They were using the Saturn Five at the time. This didn’t look like any rocket I’d ever seen that made it into outer space. It looked way better than that, as if it had been designed by Frank R. Paul, Freas, or Finlay. It was a giant, pointy, silver bullet with four arcing fins at the back. There were three circular portholes lining two sides of the ship and there was a window near the top in what I assumed was the control cabin. I didn’t detect any stages to it, which meant the whole ship had to lift off into space and return in one piece. This is when I started to get nervous.”
“Who’s Finlay?” asked Breelyn.
“Those guys were magazine cover artists back before you were born. They did great rocket ships and aliens. Beautiful stuff,” I told her.
“The future they drew was always more futuristic than what the future ever became,” said Werber. “It was dreams and nightmares of the future.”
“Still no flying car,” I said.
“Yeah, but the Rocket Club had the money and influence to make it real. Masterson met us at the launch site. As I stood there gaping at what they’d wrought, he said, ‘The name of the ship is the Icarus, do you know what that’s from?’
“You mean the Greek myth? I asked.
“ ‘No, last year’s Planet of the Apes movie. That was the name of the ship in it. The club, to a man, thought that film spectacular.’
“The Icarus didn’t sit well with me under either interpretation.
“ ‘Both a hundred percent operational and a hundred percent sense of wonder,’ said Masterson.
“A long day followed—from the launchpad into the complex where I met my teachers who would deal with the technical aspects of the mission, and then on to my room. Max helped me bring my bags in from the car. He turned the air conditioner way up and called me into a corner behind the door.
“ ‘What do you think of that rocket?’ he asked in a whisper.
“ ‘I can’t believe it’s for real.’
“ ‘You ever hear of Operation Paperclip?’
“I knew about it, a move by the US to snatch up all the excellent German scientists after the Second World War ended. A lot of the people they brought in were Nazis. I nodded, wondering why he was whispering.
“ ‘One of those guys designed that thing.’
“ ‘Will it fly?’
“ ‘Probably,’ he said.
“ ‘I’m just thinking of the fifty thousand,’ I told him.
“ ‘You need to put that in perspective,’ he said. ‘A good space chimp costs at least a hundred and fifty thousand and gets about a hundred hours more training.’ He shook my hand and as he went out the door, he said over his shoulder, ‘Keep doing those push-ups.’
“The next day I met the other two members of the crew. The musician was a guy who went by the name Owl Parson. He composed for and played the theremin. Small stature and thin limbs, he had a haircut like Moe from The Three Stooges. During our initial conversation he used the word naturally a lot, like he was an expert on everything. Eventually he asked me what I wrote and I told him about Pirsute. He shook his head and said he only read pure science fiction like Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations.’ What could I say? He could read whatever he wanted and strum the air till the cows came home; I just wanted to get paid.
“Anyway, the painter of our trio, Tracy (she had only one name), was a nice woman—a young divorcée from Kansas. ‘I always had an artistic bent,’ she told me. She showed me some of her paintings. She was a big bony woman with a strict jaw and a sweet face. Her voice had a raspy quality to it—too much dust on the Great Plains. She stood, statuesque, in the middle of her room, holding one after another of her works for me to see. With only a couple of minor adjustments, they were all basically the same thing—a flat background of a solid color, with a bare tree forking and branching upward in straight black. That was it. The kind of thing kids do in fourth grade. Really lousy.
“The next day we got into the onsite training. They spun me in a chair at a thousand miles an hour or something and I puked. They took us up in a big plane and made us weightless and I puked. They dropped us into a thirty-foot-deep pool in space suits and my claustrophobia kicked in. I was terrified and stood on the bottom like a statue while Parson and Tracy completed the mission of three laps back and forth across the bottom. As far as the technical stuff went, yawl and pitch, zero gravity, what all the lights and levers on the boards meant, I tried to pay attention but most of it went through me. It was clear that the ultimate mission was for us to experience space flight, four days in orbit around the earth, and I did make an effort to listen when they told us how to use the toilet and also how to eat the brown toothpaste that passed for astronaut food.”
“How was that stuff?” asked Breelyn.
“It’d say on the packet something along the lines of Sunday Pot Roast Dinner at Mom’s, but it tasted like you scraped it off your shoe.”
“Didn’t they care that you did so poorly at all their tasks?” I asked.
“Nah,” said Werber and laughed to himself. “Everything was smooth as snot on a doorknob. They just told me, ‘We’ll get somebody to clean up the mess. You could have done a lot worse.’ ”
“That doesn’t sound like NASA,” I said.
“It wasn’t NASA. They just built the ship. The guys running the tests and teaching the technical stuff were on the Rocket Club’s bankroll.”
“How did the others do?” asked Breelyn.
“Parson was a little less hapless than me. Tracy excelled at everything and seemed to understand everything. She should have been an astronaut instead of a painter.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” said Breelyn and pointed at him with her cigarette between two fingers.
“Let me cut to the chase,” said Werber. “The days passed. I avoided the insufferable Owl Parson and spoke to Tracy when she was free. She was usually busy, though, studying her notes and painting more of her pointless trees. In that time I conceived of an idea for a new book, describing in full the mission we were about to undergo. It was, as far as I knew, the first privately funded project to put astronauts into orbit. What a scoop. I didn’t even have to make it science fiction. I could just tell exactly what happened and make a mint. I daydreamed about that book while the technicians lectured. And then the launch day was there, and they were strapping me into my suit. I woke up, so to speak, in a cold sweat to find the nightmare was real. I was actually going into outer space. It was a shame my old man had passed, ’cause I’d have liked to rub it in.
“The day of the launch we saw the inside of the Icarus for the first time. They waited till we were all suited up and ready to go. Somewhere there’s a photo of the three of us with those ridiculous fishbowl helmets on. After that they gave us a walk-through. Suffice it to say things were tight, and I presented a major obstruction when in the one long passageway that made up the ship’s center. The cabins were in two parts, half on one side of that main passage and half on the other. Bed and small closet on one side, and across the open expanse a work station. Both the bedroom and work station had round porthole windows. My writing desk had been set up so that when I sat at it I’d be staring into space.
“Remember now, we were on a ladder. This was prelaunch. The ladder retracted once weightlessness set in. I was seeing everything for the first time at a weird angle. The desk, like everything else welded in place, seemed to be hanging on the wall. They told us that when we were weightless it would all make sense. Parson’s cabin was closest to the back. The only thing beyond it was the crapper. Next came my cabin and after it, Tracy’s. Farther forward there was a storage spot and then the cockpit. They told us to strap into the three seats facing the large, rectangular window. They put Tracy in the middle, so she could handle the controls. All there was to it was a lever—you pushed it forward to go and back to slow down or stop—and a steering wheel that went up and down as well as around. I’d seen more complicated technology on the rides at Coney Island.
“While we were getting strapped into the chairs, I heard Masterson over my headset. He said, ‘Something a little special for our travelers. I will reveal it now. The red button on the console in front of Tracy fires a laser beam. What space mission would be complete without one?’ His wacky laughter crackled, echoing through my helmet, and I thought, behind him, I heard the rest of the Rocket Club applauding.
“The last thing the technicians said to us before they left the ship was that for liftoff we didn’t have to do anything. ‘We’ll light the fuse for you,’ one of them said and the others laughed.
“Parson yelled, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
“ ‘It’s a joke,’ said Tracy and then we heard the door to the outside clang shut. Instant nausea and trembling. At that moment, I knew the whole thing was a bad idea. Four old codgers with their musty heads full of pulps send a rocket into outer space. I mean, what would they call this in your class? Reality meets fantasy? Something like that? It looked to me like the former was gonna blow the latter to smithereens.”
“We’d call that the unwilling suspension of disbelief,” said Breelyn.
“This really happened?” I asked.
“I’m telling you,” said Werber. “How could I make this shit up? When you get home, look up Project Icarus on the Internet. There’s only two sites that have hearsay info about it. They’re only passing off rumors, but rumors of something that really happened.” Werber pushed his empty glass forward.
Lifting it, Breelyn said, “This’ll be your third and your last. If I send you stumbling out of here and something happens to you, they’ll shut us down.”
“Here’s a deal,” he said. “Pour me that third, and I’ll nurse it through the end of the story. If by then, I’m not slurring my words too badly and you’ve enjoyed the story, you will pour me one more. What do you say?”
Breelyn poured his drink and then slid it toward him. “We’ll see,” she said.
“Prepare for liftoff,” he said and we all took a drink. “When they hit the switch, it felt like the whole damn thing was blowing up. I saw a flash of orange outside the window and then smoke. There was a thunderous rumbling, an infernal shaking, and I passed out. When I opened my eyes, all was silent. I looked over and Tracy and Parson were gone from their chairs. Outside the window I saw stars. I unhooked my safety straps and was weightless. I drifted out of the command cabin and back down the center passage of the ship, floating like a ghost. Every now and then, I’d bump into the wall and I learned early on to be careful how hard I pushed off.
“I found my crewmates both back at the crapper, minus their fishbowl helmets screwed, taking turns puking into the urination contraption. Upon seeing them, the nausea hit me. In between her bouts, Tracy told us it was SAS, Space Adjustment Syndrome, and it would take a while to get over. I screwed off my helmet and took my turn. We stayed there for an hour straight, and then made our way to our rooms. I was just about able to get out of the space suit and put on my jumpsuit before I had to go back for another round. It was a horrible feeling, like the vertigo I once had from an ear infection, like I’d been on a gin bender for two weeks.
“It’s hard to breathe in space. Your nose gets totally plugged. So not being able to draw a decent breath and feeling sick as a dog with the claustrophobia ever on the verge of pouncing, I was miserable. I floated into my room and sat at the writing desk. There was a pad of paper affixed to the top and the yellow pages flapped upward. My writing implement was a pencil. It sat in a special holder that kept it continuously, automatically, sharpened. I looked up and there was earth, like a peeping Tom in my porthole window. I nearly gasped at the sight of it and the first notes of the theremin drifted through the rocket—creepy, liquid sound. I wrote nothing.
“Sometime later, I’m not sure how long, Tracy floated by and said she was going to get dinner. I left my chair and followed her. Parson was right behind me. At the storage area, we divvied up the packets. I had Aunt Jo’s Chicken and Dumplings—baby shit with streaks of carrot. Parson had Paradise Split-Pea Soup with Bacon and Potato—a pale green mess he pronounced to be ‘Pond Scum.’ Tracy chose the Coconut Shrimp and I begged her not to eat it. ‘My, it’s tasty,’ she said. Parson shook his head.
“More trips to the crapper followed, to be sure. We got a radio message from mission control and all gathered in the command cabin to listen in. It was, as far as I could tell, a bunch of static and mumbling. ‘All is well,’ said Tracy. That was it, then they signed off and it was the silence of outer space. Every second, I was thinking, was a second too much. I felt buried alive out there, cramped and wheezing for every breath. The Icarus was a tomb as far as I was concerned. I went to my cabin and lay down with the book I’d brought—The Butterfly Kid. It had been up for a Hugo Award.
“When I strapped myself in and opened the book, something floated out of it. I grabbed it as it drifted overhead: a green square of paper. Then I remembered it was the fifty I’d gotten from Max. I’d put it in the book as a good-luck token for the trip. I unfolded it and looked at the face. For the first time I noticed that there was writing on it. In a very light ballpoint pen, someone had drawn a word balloon coming out of Grant’s mouth. It contained two words in Max’s handwriting: Suicide Mission.
“Tracy found me floating in my cabin, hyperventilating. She pulled me down to her cabin and strapped me to the wall. Across from me she secured one of her paintings, a bare black tree on a jade green background, on an easel that was bolted to the cabin. She told me to stare at the painting and breathe steadily. ‘Concentrate on the life of the tree,’ she said. I did. I was in shock and barely moved, but my mind was frantic with thoughts of suffocation and a sense that the walls were about to close in.
“The inanity of the painting actually brought me back around. Its simplicity was infectious. I eventually calmed down, and when my breathing had returned to normal, Tracy said, ‘If you get scared, just think of the painting.’ I swore to her that I wasn’t scared, and she just gave me a flat midwestern chuckle. All this time, the theremin was playing, and now that I was free of my own fear, I began to notice how annoying the instrument was, like a relentless robot cat in heat with digestion problems.
“I wondered what Max was up to writing on that fifty. Beside my machinations about that and the yips it gave me, the second biggest problem over the next day and a half was that we were all space slobs. Man, by the second day there was all kinds of crap floating around the rocket ship. Tracy had this glass box they’d designed for her with gloves you put your hands in to work inside the enclosure. Inside, she had paint and a canvas. The thing was a disaster. The paint globbed up and went weightless and the box was so full of bubbles of color you couldn’t see the painting. The contraption started to leak. Every now and then, a small globe of cadmium yellow or scarlet drifted past my head like a miniature errant world.
“Other things in the slurry of atmosphere were a pair of Parson’s jockey shorts, my copy of The Butterfly Kid, empty food packets, droplets of water, scraps of paper. At lunch on the second day, while I tongued a packet of Ham and Swiss on Rye, Tracy announced that we needed to police the area. ‘You don’t want to breathe this stuff in while you’re sleeping,’ she said. Parson said, ‘You folks do it, I’m on the verge of a breakthrough.’ We decided to let the cleanup wait till after dinner.
“Parson’s breakthrough came a little later in the day. I didn’t even notice it at first as I’d finally gotten into writing something despite how awkward and annoying the process was in outer space. My imagination was hot on the trail of a tale about Pirsute’s young female sidekick, Molly Molly. She was down an alley, her back to the wall, and the Surrogate of Fruition had her cornered with his claws and atom-strangling ray gun, when all of a sudden this noise drew me away. It was Parson and that infernal device. He was playing one single note over and over again. I mean nonstop.
“My head was being drilled out by that note. Eventually I unstrapped myself from my desk chair and went back to have a word with him. On the work side of his cabin, his feet in the metal shoes bolted down that grounded him to the ship, he was leaning over his electronic box and pinching the air with two fingers at the exact same place in the tone field. He had on an expression like he was passing ground glass and droplets of sweat were being born and rolling upward off his brow. I called to him but he ignored me. I gave him a minute and then got right into his face and yelled his name. He suddenly looked up, angry, and said, ‘What do you want, Werber?’
“ ‘How about a different note?’ I said.
“ ‘Get out,’ he told me. ‘I’ve hit on the universal note of the universe. It’s all there.’
“ ‘Too bad you’re not,’ I said.
“He pinched the air again twice, achieving the exact same tone. I shoved him back out of his metal shoes and he flew into the cabin wall, ricocheting upward. While he floated above me, I pulled the plug on the theremin. ‘From now on hum it to yourself,’ I said. He reached the opposite wall and then pushed off fast at me. We space-wrestled around his cabin, across the ceiling and walls, and wound up out in the core of the ship. On earth I was a load and a half but in space I was Bruce Lee. I did a flip, bounced off the wall, and kicked him right in his cold equations. He grimaced, looking back at me, as he flew down the central passage all the way to the control cabin.
“I pushed off to go after him, and he pushed off to come back at me. We met and tussled outside Tracy’s painting area. She came out red in the face, with her arms folded, and sent us to our cabins, telling Parson to either move on with the music or turn it off, and asking me, ‘How old are you?’ Later, after dinner, I got a chance to apologize to her. We sat together in the control cabin staring out at the universe.
“ ‘My ex-husband was always fighting,’ she said. ‘And drinking.’
“ ‘What’d he think of your painting?’ I asked.
“ ‘He hated me going to the night classes.’
“ ‘Why do you always paint black trees?’
“ ‘It represents the darkness in my soul growing toward the sunlight,’ she said and stared at me.
“ ‘They’re nice trees,’ I told her.
“She smiled and then things happened fast, in this order—Parson stuck his head into the control cabin and said, ‘The toilet is broken.’ When the last word was out of his mouth, there was a great shuddering throughout the ship and a siren, like noon at a firehouse, sounded in the cabin. Parson and I looked to Tracy. ‘We’ve been hit by something,’ she said. ‘Get into your space suits.’ I grappled my way back to my cabin and suited up. ‘Put your helmets on,’ called Tracy as I was screwing mine into place. In less than four minutes we were back in the control cabin and it immediately became clear what the danger was. Fist-size rocks, like a school of fish, were all around us. Very faintly, I could hear them banging off the outside of the Icarus.
“Parson pushed his way forward and brought his gloved hand down on the laser-beam button. We saw the red beacon flash outward. It took a few seconds to realize that the space rocks weren’t even so much as sizzling. Mr. Universal Note kept banging on the button, though. ‘Don’t you get it?’ I said to him. ‘It’s just a fucking toy.’ Tracy tapped my shoulder and I heard her voice in my helmet say, ‘Push that blue one over your head.’ I looked up and saw a button above me I’d never noticed before. I hit it. ‘What is it?’ I asked.
“ ‘Abort mission,’ she said.
“Instantly, I felt the thrust of the boosters and had to hold on. I remembered them telling us that once that button was pushed, the rocket ship would immediately return to earth. Our sudden speed caused the rocks to hit us with more force, and the ship jerked from side to side and up and down. From what I could see ahead, we seemed to be veering out of the rubble field, and as we did the pummeling eased. From out of that growing calm, a loud screeching noise was heard, and the ride got instantly rougher. ‘We’ve lost a fin,’ said Tracy. She hailed mission control and said, ‘Mayday, Icarus is falling. I repeat, Icarus is falling. We are aborting mission, leaving orbit.’
“I heard the transmissions in my helmet. A crackling response from the ground crew was half-garbled. All I could make out were the words escape pods.
“ ‘There are escape pods on board?’ I asked.
“Tracy never got a chance to respond, because a small, clear stone, a space diamond, shot through the window glass like a bullet, shattered her fishbowl, and hit her right between the eyes.
“ ‘Oh, fuck,’ I heard Parson say.
I immediately felt the current of the atmosphere whistling out of the ship. Tracy’s lifeless body was sucked against the windshield, which was slowly cracking, a pattern of fractures in the glass growing out from her like those trees branching in her paintings.
“ ‘Where are the escape pods?’ I asked Parson as we clawed our way back along the passage. I couldn’t even recall them mentioning escape pods in our training. Ahead of us, his last movement bobbed like a flying mud slide in midair. ‘What the hell?’ I said as it hit us.
“ ‘I told you the toilet was broken,’ he said. His helmet needed a windshield wiper.
“ ‘The escape pod—where and how?’ I managed to get out. Fighting a vacuum is hard work. My trips to the top floor of the casino kept me moving. I was sweating and the water was pooling in my suit. There was something bad about that, but I couldn’t recall what it was.
“Parson was losing ground, his spindly theremin-playing arms weren’t enough for the job. ‘It’s the bed,’ he yelled.
“ ‘How do I activate it?’
“ ‘Save me,’ he yelled and grabbed my foot with both his hands.
“ ‘You gotta take your helmet off and say, “Take me home.” ’ There was a pause. ‘It’s voice activated.’
“I tugged him a couple of feet, and just when I made it to the cabin, I looked back and the control cabin window gave out completely. Amid a cluster of glass shards, Tracy flew off into outer space. I got a burst of adrenalin from fear of death and kicked hard with my leg to shake off Parson.
“ ‘You bitch,’ he yelled back at me as he flew away.
“I put everything into it and was able to get into the bed, strap myself down, and take my helmet off. The atmosphere was leaving the ship at hurricane force. I screamed, ‘Take me home.’ Nothing happened. ‘Take me home,’ I repeated and this time my desperation increased my volume and it managed to overcome the rush of air. From the wall side of the bed, a covering arced over my body and encapsulated me. My helmet was gone and I couldn’t breathe, but soon enough an emergency source of air came on. It was pitch black inside and the fit was tight. The ship was shaking and seemed to be tumbling end over end. The pod vibrated like a washer on the spin cycle. And of course my claustrophobia was stuffed in there with me.
“The last thing I heard before passing out was Parson’s voice from some speaker in the pod. He said, ‘I am the universal note,’ and his crazy cosmic bellowing followed me into unconsciousness. The next thing I knew, there was a terrible jarring, a shuddering thump, and the cover of the pod drew back. I saw before me a field of pure white. I was dizzy, fading in and out. I thought for sure I’d made it to heaven. I went out cold and when I came back again, the white field drew back and there were two huge men in dark suits and dark glasses. Behind them stood Masterson wearing a sour expression and shaking his head.
“They helped me out of the pod. We weren’t in heaven, but rather the white field I beheld was a parachute. We were in the Nevada desert. We walked over a small rise to a black limousine parked there in the middle of nowhere. The two big guys got in front, and Masterson and I got in the back. Thank god the car was air-conditioned. ‘What happened?’ I said, resting my head back. The driver started the car and we were off. There was silence until we reached a paved road.
“ ‘What happened, sir, was that you have severely deflated my sense of wonder.’
“I laughed, thinking he was joking, but when I looked at him, his face was red with anger. ‘Sorry’ was all I said because already I was thinking about the fifty thousand. When we came to a midsize desert town, a place called Numa, the car pulled over at a street corner and parked. Masterson handed me a bank roll. He said, ‘Here’s two thousand dollars. Buy some clothes, get a place to stay, and lay low for a while.’
“ ‘Out here?’ I said. ‘You’re dropping me off?’
“ ‘That’s right, and remember, do not mention the Icarus to anyone. If you do there will be regrettable consequences.’
“ ‘But my fifty grand,’ I said.
“ ‘We have to wait till things cool down. Check your bank account in three months. It will be there. Now get out.’
“ ‘I just came back from space,’ I said. The guy in the driver’s seat opened his door, and I knew he was coming to drag me out. ‘OK, OK,’ I said. I got out of the car. It was hot as hell on the street and I wasn’t used to standing under the influence of gravity. I fell to my knees on the curb. ‘Your rocket ship was crummy,’ I yelled as the door closed. The black car drove off.”
“They just left you there?” I asked.
Werber nodded and stared off at the liquor shelf as if he couldn’t believe it either. He finished his third gin and pushed the glass forward. “Well?” he said.
“Is that all of it?” asked Breelyn.
“Well, there’s the fact that I never got paid.”
“Get out,” she said.
“Never got another dime out of the Rocket Club. I went back east and lived for a while on the remainder of the initial five thousand in my account and what was left of the roll Masterson had handed me. A few months after the bank deadline came and went with no payment, I decided to write a fictional account of the mission. I figured if it was fiction, who would care? I really got into it. My best work ever. I sold it to ACE for one half of a double. Remember when ACE did the doubles?”
“I used to get them off a spinning rack at the local newspaper shop when I was a kid,” I said.
“This was two books in one?” asked Breelyn.
“Yeah,” I said. “A cover and story on one side, and then you flipped it over and there was another cover on the back and another story that read to the middle of the book. You can definitely still find them.”
“I made, for me, good-enough money on that book. The production went along. They sent me a finished copy of it a few weeks before it was to hit the bookstores, and then, all of a sudden, I get a call from the editor, and he tells me, ‘We’re pulling the book.’ I was heartbroken. When I asked why, I was told, ‘We had a visit here from some of your friends in the federal government. They told us the book never existed. They confiscated all copies before they shipped to the stores.’ A few days later, I was rolled on the street not far from my apartment. Four guys with dark suits and glasses roughed me up, bloodied my nose, and warned me that if I didn’t keep the Icarus thing quiet, I would permanently disappear.”
“I don’t know,” said Breelyn. “I’ve got a hard time believing.”
“I’ll say,” I added.
Werber reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a paperback book, and tossed it on the bar. “All aboard,” he said. And there it was, staring up at us. A picture of a rocket ship streaking through space, and in the background, a visage of Satan, laughing. The title was in red saber-style across the top and in the corner was the ACE logo. The ship was the same as the one Werber described in his story.
Breelyn poured the old man a fourth straight gin.
“Who’s on the other side?” I asked and turned the book over. On that side there was an illustration of a guy, at night, crouched down under a tree, holding a futuristic-looking rifle while overhead in the starry sky a spacecraft in a shape sort of like a telephone searched the ground in the distance with a beacon of green light. The title on this side was in block letters in the same sea green as that of the searchlight. It read Six against the Mind Barons by Tom Purdom. Breelyn picked the book up and turned it over to see Werber’s side again.
“Purdom lives in Philly,” I said. “He’s probably here at the convention.”
“That guy’s got a story in Asimov’s this month,” said Breelyn. She looked at the ceiling. “I think it’s called ‘Civilians.’ ”
“You can’t mention this book to him. He’ll say nothing about it. In 1983, I ran into him at the Worldcon in Baltimore. He told me how important that confiscated work was to him. He rewrote it, taking all the space opera elements out and setting it on earth in the twenty-first century. I think ACE was gonna publish it as stand-alone, but Purdom was so set back by them initially pulling the title that he missed the deadline by three months and that was it. Having Mind Barons confiscated was a kick in the nuts. I didn’t have it in me to tell him the truth, about the Icarus and everything.”
Breelyn put the book back on the bar and slid it toward me. I picked it up, took one more look at each side, and handed it toward Werber. I was amazed to see that the fourth gin was already gone. He waved his hands in front of him and said, “You keep it. I don’t want it anymore.”
“Sure you do,” I said.
He slurred his words. “Seriously, I’m through with it,” he said and belched. He smiled and put his head down on the bar. An instant later, he was out cold. Breelyn called the cab company. While we waited, she swept up and wiped down the bar. I sat there and finished my second forty. The taxi finally arrived and I helped her cart Werber to it. He’d roused a little by then and almost walked on his own. He shook our hands, and we poured him into the backseat of the cab. Breelyn told me that her father didn’t want her working in the bar by herself at night. The sun was starting to go down, and it’s not like there was a mob of customers, so she decided to close up. She went inside and turned the lights out. After closing the door behind her, she pulled the metal curtain across the front of the bar and padlocked it.
She walked along with me back toward the convention.
“That’s one buggin’ white man,” she said. “Like what’s a space diamond?”
“Yeah, he’s a hundred percent sense of wonder, but what about the book?” I said.
“That is weird.”
We walked a block in silence, and at the next corner she had to turn left. I held Rocket Ship to Hell out to her and said, “Do you want it?”
She shook her head. “I’ve got other destinations in mind.”
“Fair enough,” I said. Then I told her, “I’ll look for your name in the magazines.”
“I’ll look for yours,” she said. She flashed me a Spock and was off down the street.
Before heading back to Jersey the next day, I went to the dealer’s room at the convention. The bookseller Joe Berlant had a long table stocked three rows deep with old paperbacks. When no one was looking, I took the book out of my back pocket, shoved it in between two others, and walked away. Now, a dozen years later, and well into the new century, I sit by the window and dream of that book when evening comes.
“Rocket Ship to Hell” copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey Ford
Art copyright © 2013 by David Palumbo