Go For Broke

I’m sitting here on a lazy snow day looking at my National Novel Writing Month project from this past November.  (That’s right.  Fifty-thousand words in twenty-six days.  Thirty days in November minus four because I don’t write on Sundays.  Crazy, huh?)  Oh, sure, I have another 50,000 words to go to finish a complete draft, and then I need to polish and revise like crazy.  But you know what?  My initial crack at the first 50,000 words isn’t half bad — if I do say so myself.

So, here’s the opening chapter of Space Corps Academy: A Rocket Rider Story for all of my adoring fans (that’s you, Mom!) — or just if you happen to be curious:

Space Corps Academy:  A Rocket Rider Story

 Act I

Scene I

Go For Broke

Vanguard burst up through the clouds, and J.R. Rider was certain the sky had never been so blue.  He twisted a dial on his computer panel, then yanked hard on the throttle to give the engines another jolt.

“Easy there, partner,” said his co-pilot, Steven Bowman, from the back of the command module.  J.R. gritted his teeth.

“Not a chance,” he said.  The Onboard Computer Drive sounded worried.

“Young Mr. Rider,” the OCD said, “I would advise greater caution.”  J.R. smirked as he gazed into the viewscreen.

“Yeah, what else is new?”  His smirk turned into an all-out grin. “But OK,” he said, “if you insist.”  His fingers flashed across the panel in front of him, and he abruptly flicked off the engines.  The entire ship creaked.  Their ascent slowed, then stopped, and soon they were falling backwards, plummeting toward the Earth.

“Not again,” the OCD said.

“I hate it when he does this,” Steven said.  Truth be told, J.R. didn’t care much for the sick feeling in his stomach brought on by freefall either, but he also couldn’t get enough of the thrill.  Vanguard plunged back down through the clouds, and J.R. kept one eye locked on his computer readouts and another trained on the altimeter.  Vanguard’s downward velocity was increasing with the force of gravity.

“I must inform you, young Mr. Rider,” the OCD said, “safety protocols will require me to automatically fire the ship’s thrusters in 45 seconds.  Forty-four …”

“Oh, no they won’t,” J.R. said.  “Disengage all safety protocols.  Authorization Alpha 1. Execute.”  The computer system audibly clicked.

“Safety protocols disengaged,” the OCD said glumly.  “I really hate it when he does that.”
“You mess this up,” Steven said, “and we’re all gonna to be a grease slick in the middle of a cornfield.”

“Come on,” J.R. said.  “You know me better than that.”  J.R. flipped the viewscreen from Vanguard’s forward camera to the aft camera, and now the seriousness of their plight became even more real.  The ground was rushing up to meet them.  The countryside was mostly barren, but the houses and vehicles that dotted the landscape were growing steadily larger.  There was something incredibly disorienting, J.R. thought, about feeling yourself falling backward one direction and seeing the ground shooting up at you from another.

“I’m gonna be sick,” Steven said.  J.R. couldn’t agree more with the sentiment, but he refused to say so out loud.  The ship rattled all around them.  J.R. felt he could almost hear the whistle of the wind whipping past.  The altimeter reading dipped below 1,000 feet.  J.R. could see individual shingles on rooftops and a few worried faces looking up at them.

“Thrusters,” the OCD said.  “Now would be an excellent time to fire them!”

“Supposing the engine sputters when you make your move?” Steven said.  “Maybe you shouldn’t wait quite so long.”  J.R. shook his head.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Well, no, not really.”

“Three,” J.R. said, “two, one.  Now!”  He ignited the engines with a full-handed slap of his computer panel.  J.R. and Steven were both thrown back hard in their chairs with a blast that surely left the most insidious crop circle and certainly must have singed the back of every cow within a ten-mile radius.

“YEEEEE-HAAAAA!” J.R. shrieked, though his entire body was now plastered in his seat.

“That would not be my first choice of words,” the OCD said crossly.

“Oh, come on, OCD, live a little.”

“Believe me, I would like to,” the OCD said, “but my whole life flashes before my eyes nearly every time you sit in that chair, young Mr. Rider.”
“Give it up,” Steven said, “you don’t have eyes.”

“Not funny,” the OCD said, but it went mostly quiet after that.  Vanguard now careened gracefully back into the sky.  J.R. found he was smiling.  Nowhere did he feel more comfortable than up, up, and away.

It was strange, J.R. thought, to remember how just over a year ago, he and Steven barely spoke to one another.  Not until a wild summer vacation to the edge of the galaxy and beyond had the two of them bonded, but now they were practically inseparable.  Plus, they’d learned since that time that they made an extraordinary team.  J.R. was a natural-born pilot while Steven, it turned out, had an engineer’s eye for detail.  The combination of their skills had gotten them out of more than one scrape over the course of the last year.  Frankly, despite the incessant warnings of the OCD, it was starting to feel as if they could do no wrong.

“Excellent work, J,” Steven said.  “Gets me every time, but let’s focus on the mission, all right?”  J.R. swiveled the command chair around to face his friend.

“Of course,” J.R. said.  “I need some telemetry readings yesterday.”
“I’m on it.”  J.R. swiveled back to face the viewscreen and switched over to the main camera angle just in time to see Vanguard pierce the clouds once again.  He fiddled with the controls, brought the ship into a hard spin, pushed on into the stratosphere.  “Begin the clock on my mark.”

“Yes, young Mr. Rider.”
“Mark.”  Red numerals appeared at the bottom center of the viewscreen and began ticking off the seconds.  Meanwhile, the sky-blue peeled away, replaced by a velvet star-speckled black.

“You know,” J.R. said without looking up from his readings, “it took Neal Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins about three days to get to the moon.  We’re gonna do it in under three minutes.  That’s right, Earth orbit to moon orbit, under three minutes.”

“We’re gunning for the record today, are we?” Steven asked, but he didn’t really have to.  He already knew the answer.

“Oh, yeah,” J.R. said.  “This is the day we knock ol’ Nelson Okeke out of books.”

“Two minutes, fifty-nine seconds, right?  We gotta come in under two minutes, fifty-nine seconds.”

“Yep,” J.R. said.  “We got this.”  He spun hard on the controls.  The smoothness of their ride was interrupted by a sharp crash below that reverberated throughout the ship.

“What was that?” Steven said.  J.R. checked his readings.

“Looks like we took out a weather satellite.  Oops.  I hope Dad doesn’t notice the ding on his paint job when we get back.  OCD, really, you could’ve warned me.”

“Remember,” the OCD said.  “I was not the one who deactivated the safety protocols.”
“True.  They’re still deactivated, right?”

“Yes.”

“Good.  Let’s go.”  The engines revved once again, and Vanguard plunged into the breach.  “Steve, give me real-time data, comparing our present course and trajectory with that of our best run and Captain Okeke’s time.  I want to see exactly where we stand.”

“Coming right up,” Steven said.  In moments, a chart appeared on the left-hand side of the viewscreen.  The chart depicted the Earth and the moon.  A blue streak represented their present position between the two.  A green streak represented their best-ever run, and a red streak represented Captain Okeke’s record pace.  At that moment, they were just ahead of their best time and just behind that of the legendary starship captain.

“OCD,” J.R. said, “I want more speed.”

“How does it feel to want?”

“I’m serious.”
“So am I.  The ship cannot give you any more.”

“I’ve heard that before.  I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now.  What if we divert power from the deflector grid?”

“And expose you both to unnecessary levels of cosmic radiation?  What would your mother say if she knew?”

“Who’s gonna tell her?  We’ll be fine, OCD.  Just do it.”

“I will not be responsible.  I could never face your mother.”

“OCD,” Steven said, “you don’t have a face.”

“Is it just me,” J.R. said, “or has the Onboard Computer Drive gotten mouthier of late?  Someone remind me to do some adjustments to your personality programming when we get back, but fine.  Steve, would you please divert power from the deflector grid to the main engines.”

“On it,” Steven said.  J.R. could feel the difference as soon as Steven input the command.

“Now that’s more like it,” he said as he watched their blue streak on the viewscreen inch ahead of the red one.  “Sorry, Captain.  All good things must come to an end.”

J.R. heard a pop and a crackle and then tinny alarms began to sound throughout the command module.

“Now what?” Steven said.

“Looks like we blew a power coupling,” J.R. said after taking a moment to investigate.

“Did I or did I not tell you that diverting power from the deflector grid was a bad idea?” the OCD said.
“You just warned me about the radiation.”
“Am I to warn you of every potential negative outcome of your reckless behavior?  I assure you it would be an exceedingly long list.”
“Not-so-sorry to say I don’t have time to discuss it with you.  We’re losing power.”  Now their red streak had fallen behind not only Captain Okeke but also their own personal best.

Darn it,” Steven said.  “We’re losing it.”

“No,” J.R. said.  “No, we’re not.”  His wild eyes flew all about his computer screen, then to nearby screens, desperate for an answer, but he could feel his victory slipping away with every passing nanosecond.  Suddenly, he had an idea.  “Steve, boost the aft manifolds by twenty-five percent.”
“Aye-aye.”

“Now switch the stabilizer to manual.”

“Yes, sir.”
“I see what you are doing,” the OCD said, “but I do not believe it will work.”
“Did I ask you?”
“No, but I thought you should know.”  The moon now filled most of the viewscreen.  J.R. could see every last pockmark on its surface.  They were approaching fast, but would it be fast enough?

“Thanks, Steve,” J.R. said.  “That gave us a little something, but I still need more.”

“Of course you do,” the OCD said.

“Two thoughts,” Steven said.  J.R. was impatient.

“Yes?”

“What if we offload some weight?  We’ve got some extra cargo in the back we could eject.”  J.R. hesitated.

“Uh, not sure I wanna explain that one to Sally.”
“What?  You afraid of your sister?”
“Not even.  You said you had two ideas.”

“Yeah, two, we could disengage the secondary turbine and route all the power through the primary.”

“Now you’re talkin’.  Do it.”  Steven nodded.

“Both of them?”  J.R. thought about facing his sister after he dumped some of her most prized possessions in high lunar orbit.  He didn’t relish the thought, but she’d get over it.  She wouldn’t have much of a choice, really.  He nodded to Steven.

“Yeah, both of them,” he said.

“That’s the spirit,” Steven said.  Then he added, “Opening aft cargo hold … now.  Bombs away.  That should give us a cushion.  Say, what did she have in there, anyway?”
“Don’t worry about it,” J.R. said.  “I’ll tell you later.”  He could already see they were making some progress.  They were suddenly neck and neck with their record time, and the lunar surface filled the entirety of the viewscreen.  “Now for step two of your ingenious plan.”  Steven beamed.

“It was pretty brilliant, wasn’t it?  Disengaging secondary turbine and routing all power through the primary turbine.  Right.  Now.”  The ship gave a slight hiccup, and J.R. was all but ready to kiss the record books goodbye, but the engines quickly realigned and the ship lurched ahead.

“We got this,” J.R. said.

“I suppose now is a bad time,” the OCD said, “to inform you both that you are presently in violation of the Sol system speed limit.  Should the authorities catch wind of this, you may be grounded for a good, long while.”

“But the authorities aren’t going to find out about this,” J.R. said.  “Isn’t that right, OCD?”

“I can give you no such assurances.”

“Spoil sport.”
“Spoil sport, indeed.”

“OCD, it’s been a pleasure, but we’re on final approach, and I really need to concentrate on my instruments.  Let’s talk again after we’re in the record books.”  All around J.R., lights flashed, monitors buzzed, and displays dazzled, and he felt at ease with every single one.  He was in command, and he knew what to do.  It was sometimes hard to remember that he was living a life that had seemed impossibly far away just a little more than a year ago.

He glanced at the viewscreen to see that they were still running a half-second behind Captain Okeke’s pace.  Where could they make up that time?  Think!  There had to be a way, J.R. thought.  There’s always a way.  Think.

Steven shook his head and slammed his hand against the railing beside him.  “We’re not going to do it,” he said, but quietly enough that J.R. couldn’t hear.  Captain Okeke’s run all those years ago really had been impossibly, inhumanly fast.  The ship hummed, and then every other sound and thought seemed to fall away.  J.R.’s sole focus was on this one goal.  His thoughts and emotions and movements melded into one fluid, unified motion.  He was not in a million years going to be denied his triumph.  He could already see his name in the record books.

“J,” Steven said warily.  “We’re coming in too steep and too fast.  You better pump the brakes.”

“My safety protocols are screaming for attention,” the OCD said.  J.R. didn’t answer, but he knew reducing velocity was simply out of the question.  Adjusting their trajectory, no matter how slightly, would also rob them of speed and any hopes of reaching lunar orbit in time.  No, there was no choice but to ride this out, no matter how bumpy things got.

“Yes,” the OCD was saying, “my safety protocols would have put a stop to this rubbish a long time ago.”
“J!” Steven said.  “Pull up!  You’re gonna run us right into the dirt!”  J.R. quickly shut off all computerized flight support systems.

“Unwise,” the OCD said, but J.R. needed to be in complete control if this was going to work.  The rugged lunar surface was screaming right at them.  His fingers flew feverishly over the sleek surface of his computer panel, but Steven, who was helpless, gripped the edge of his tightly and simply waited for whatever came next.

“J?” Steven said, but he got no response from his friend.  They were oh-so close to lunar orbit.  They had Captain Okeke in their sights, but was there time to catch him?

“This is lunacy,” the OCD said.

“Exactly,” J.R. replied, the first audible response he’d made in over thirty seconds.  J.R. made one final adjustment, jerked back on the throttle yet again, closed his eyes.  This was it.  Vanguard flashed over ashen rock, narrowly missing rugged peaks, and cruised into a tight orbit over the lunar surface.

“We made it,” Steven said.  His entire body relaxed back into his seat.  J.R.’s eyes were still closed.

“I can’t bear to look,” he said.  He too leaned back.  “I just can’t.”
“Ha!” the OCD scoffed.  “Perhaps you should.”  J.R. sat up.  He leaned forward.  His eyes snapped open.  He couldn’t stand the thought of the OCD knowing something he didn’t.  “Ha!” the OCD repeated.  “Poetic justice.”

It took a few moments for J.R. to find the readout and then to digest it.  The red numerals that told the story stared back at him.  They had managed their personal best time, all right, but …

“How can you tie,” J.R. said, “when you’re taking the numbers six digits beyond the decimal point?”  The clock read two minutes, 58.720189 seconds.  Indeed, they had finished in a dead-heat with Captain Okeke’s legendary score.  The feat was nothing short of remarkable, and yet …

J.R. slammed his computer monitor in rage.  He felt like saying something wholly inappropriate.

“It was a great run,” Steven said.  “We’ll get it next time.”
“Or die trying, I would assume,” the OCD said.  J.R. stood up.  He was practically shaking.

“Cork it, OCD.  I don’t need to hear it right now.  Not from you.”  On any other day, J.R. would have taken the time to admire the barren beauty sliding past beneath them.  Today, however, the grandeur was lost on him.

“On the bright side,” Steven said, “the flight recorder will prove our time.  We’re still gonna be in the record books.  Right next to the ‘ol cap’n.  Imagine that.”  J.R. threw himself back into the command chair and continued to brood.

“I’m in it to win it,” he said flatly, “and, as far as I’m concerned, a tie is as good as a loss.”  J.R. was so upset, he didn’t even notice when Vanguard slid out of the sunlight and around to the dark side of the moon.  The command module dimmed to match his mood.

“Maybe you’re right,” Steven said, standing up to stretch, “but I still think it’s pretty awesome.”  He tilted his neck from one side to the other.  His face froze with his head cocked to one side, and his eyes practically bugged out.  “What the—”  J.R.’s eyes followed Steven’s to the viewscreen.

The object was hard to make out in the black night behind the moon, but just ahead of them was a starship hovering above the lunar surface at nearly the same altitude as they were.  Not just any starship.  It was the most massive starship either J.R. or Steven had ever seen. Black armor encased a sleek, triangular body that surely housed an entire army.  J.R. whistled through his teeth.

“OCD,” he said.  “What the heck is that thing?  I want a full scan.”

“Already on it,” the OCD said, “but I might mention that whoever it is, they have already completed a full scan of us.”

“Not exactly comforting,” Steven said.

“No, Steve,” J.R. agreed.  “No, it’s not.”

“Young mister Rider,” the OCD said, “the vessel is deflecting most of our scans, but I can definitively state it is Space Corps design.  Just a configuration I have never seen before.”

“At least we know it’s the good guys,” J.R. said.

“Even so,” Steven said, “they might not be too happy about your fancy flying back there.”  J.R. shrugged.

“Should we turn around?”

“Too late,” the OCD said.  “They just latched onto us with a tractor beam.”


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