Empire

We were nearly a kilometer from the LEM when I saw the ships.

We set the Lunar Module down on the eastern edge of Copernicus, a few kilometers from the inner walls. Copernicus is ninety kilometers across, a beautiful ray crater on the Ocean of Storms. Take a look at the Moon one night. The huge dark region covering a quarter of the Moon’s surface is the Oceanus Procellarum, the Ocean of Storms. The ocean is dark because it’s a flat expanse of basalt, a lava flood plain the size of the Mediterranean.

On the edge of the Ocean of Storms, just northwest of the Moon’s center, you’ll see a white point. Bright rays streak across the dark sea. The white point is the crater Copernicus, and the rays are ejecta. The impact that formed Copernicus sent debris flying eight hundred kilometers across the face of the Moon.

Fred Haise and I had taken the rover out for a spin. We were on our third EVA. From this distance the skeletal LEM was a tiny, fragile speck lost on the vast crater floor. Our rover tracks stretched back towards it.

Fred was in the shadow of a huge boulder, with his rock hammer in his right glove. His white pressure suit was dirty with black dust. He took a long, slow step around the boulder, and passed out of sight. For a moment I was alone on the Ocean of Storms.

I looked up at the crater rim. Copernicus was terraced, and the walls tumbled down towards the crater floor in a sequence of enormous, shattered steps. The terraces were broken by countless landslides. This part of the crater rim was spectacular, cut by lightless gorges. The crater was slowly being gardened, softened by eight hundred million years of impact erosion, but at this moment in human history it provided some of the Moon’s most beautiful scenery. I wished we could see the central peaks, where spurs of olivine rose a kilometer above the floodplain.

My eyes followed a line of boulders across the ramparts of Copernicus, and then I saw the ships. They were golden. There must have been thirty of them, oval and nearly featureless. Golden ships.

Oh, I thought.

After a few seconds I thought to reach for the Hasselblad. When I looked again, the crater walls were empty. There were only specular highlights shining on my golden faceplate. There were no golden ships.

We gathered our samples, and drove back to the LEM. A brilliant point sailed overhead, our Apollo Command Module, waiting to take us home. I glanced back at the crater rim, but only once.

Take a look at Copernicus one night, and remember that men once walked on the Ocean of Storms. Let us keep that much, even thought the rest is taken.

Merritt Island was murderously hot.

It’s nearly forty years since the end of Apollo, when twelve men walked on the Moon. I wasn’t even born when Harrison Schmidt became the last of the twelve, but I’ve interviewed three of them for Apollo Plus Forty. That’s not why I was in Florida. Leigh was at a conference in Pasadena, and then visiting her dad out in the Mojave. I was on holiday, although I could probably convince the BBC it was research. Leigh was meeting me here for the transatlantic flight. By good fortune, we could catch the end of another era before flying home to England.

Dan Hoffman – Leigh’s dad – worked for NASA, back in the Apollo days. Now he’s out in the desert, building boosters for private industry, but he’s still got a lot of friends in the Agency. Dan pulled a few strings and got me a guided tour of the VAB, the Vehicle Assembly Building.

I knew how big the VAB was, but that didn’t prepare me for stepping inside. The roof was one hundred and sixty meters over my head.

“If you look up,” said Jenny, “you’ll probably see clouds.”

Jenny was with NASA Public Relations, and she didn’t look a day over twenty. She wouldn’t even remember Challenger. The Apollo program belonged to my parents’ generation, but to Jenny it must be part of the distant past.

I could just make out wisps of cloud, near the VAB’s roof. It was much colder inside the building, and I wondered how much power they used on air conditioning.

“It only happens on really humid days,” said Jenny. “We try and keep the moisture level down, but on days like this it can even rain….”

The VAB was transitioning to a new and uncertain era. After thirty years, the Shuttle program was winding down. The final flight, STS-135, was due to launch later in the week, carrying the Atlantis orbiter and her cargo to the International Space Station. The four surviving Shuttle orbiters were destined for museums, and nobody seemed to know what manned vehicles might one day take shape in the VAB.

But Jenny was cheerful. The manned space program had always been like this, moving from crisis to crisis, barely surviving each budget. She took me around the VAB, pointing out the equipment for the Ares 1 and the Ares V and the rest of the aborted Constellation program, and she talked about the big old Saturn moon rockets as though she’d built them with her own hands.

I owed Dan for the tour, and he’d already pulled in the favor. It turned out that one of his old NASA buddies was in Florida for the launch. His name was Joe Barnes, a seventy year old veteran of the Apollo program, and he wanted a chat. As far as I knew Barnes had never flown, but over the next six months we’d have to put together a lot of background for the Apollo Plus Forty documentary. Getting a few backroom stories couldn’t hurt, especially if Barnes had been around for something like Apollo 13.

Barnes wanted to meet me in a bar just outside the Space Center, and it was exactly what I expected. It seemed to serve nothing but beer, hot wings and shrimp, but it was the walls that fascinated me. The walls were a museum of spaceflight, with black and white photos dating back to Mercury. Compared to the Shuttle, the early vehicles were tiny, but John Glenn had done three orbits in a Mercury capsule, back in 1962. Even the Gemini capsules weren’t much bigger. I stared at the silver-suited explorers of a lost age.

“Seems like a long time ago,” said Barnes.

He looked older than I expected, although I figured he had to be in his early seventies. He was shorter, too, but then I guess that’s an advantage for an astronaut.

Barnes insisted on buying drinks, and we found a table beneath a huge enlargement of Ed White floating outside Gemini 4, with Earth curving white and blue against the blackest of skies. Barnes asked after Leigh, and when he heard I’d toured the VAB, he launched into a series of anecdotes about the building’s construction back in ’66. Eventually he asked about Apollo Plus Forty.

“So,” said Barnes, “Dan tells me you’re doing a show about the old missions.”

He probably wants to be in it, I thought. I might be able to swing it, if Barnes had an interesting story, but if he was expecting a lot of money for his trouble he’d be disappointed. Or maybe he just wanted a fresh audience for some well worn tales.

“I’m part of it,” I admitted. “We’re in preproduction. It won’t really kick off for a few months.”

“Think there’s anything else to be said, after forty years?”

“Especially after forty years.”

Barnes grinned and raised his glass. “Good,” he said. “That’s good. Make sure people never forget what we did.”

“You were part of Apollo?” I said.

“I was on the backup crew for Sixteen,” said Barnes. “Sixteen was John Young’s trip to the Descartes Highlands. So when the rotation came round, I was on the flight crew for Nineteen as Lunar Module Pilot. Me and Fred Haise left poor old Gerry Carr in lunar orbit, and the two of us barnstormed the LEM over Copernicus. You’ve never seen anything like Copernicus up close. The ejecta blanket’s like snow….”

I stared at Barnes. The last moon flight was Apollo Seventeen, in December 1972. The remaining missions were cancelled. Barnes was talking about a flight that never happened.

“Haise was a damn good pilot,” Barnes said. “And he was on Apollo Thirteen, so he was a hero. But I got to fly the LEM, and she was a beauty. Dropped her fifty yards from the aim point, with forty seconds of fuel left in the tanks. When I stepped off the ladder it was the best moment of my life.”

“Mr Barnes,” I said. “Apollo Nineteen….”

“Joe,” said Barnes. “Call me Joe. And I know what you’re thinking. Nineteen never happened, right?”

“I know the later flights were cancelled.”

“Yeah, they were cancelled,” said Barnes. “That’s as good a way of putting it as any. Look, I know you’re going to think this is nuts, and that’s okay. But I’m not bullshitting you. You’re a friend of Danny’s daughter, so that makes you alright in my book. And you need to hear about EMPIRE.”

“Empire? It sounds familiar.”

“EMPIRE,” said Barnes. “Early Manned Planetary-Interplanetary Roundtrip Expeditions.”

“You’re kidding.”

Barnes laughed. “Yeah, we cooked up some real good acronyms back in those days. But damn if we didn’t come up with some exciting ideas too. None of this pissing around in orbit after Apollo. You could put 120 tons in orbit with the Saturn V, and that meant you could really go places. All you needed was the balls.”

“I always thought Apollo took a lot of courage,” I said. “Those guys were a long way from home.”

“Yeah,” said Barnes. “That we were. But EMPIRE went a hell of a lot further. We had a shitload of EMPIRE missions planned as soon as the Apollo-Saturn design got finalized in the mid-sixties. Venus flybys, trips to near-Earth asteroids. But everyone wanted Mars. Mars was the big dream, and we knew the Russians had their sights on it after we’d beaten them to the Moon. So in ’72, we got funding for Athena.”

“And Athena was a Mars mission? Like the Viking lander.”

“You’re not getting it,” said Barnes. “We sent a couple of probes first. Mariners. But Athena was manned.”

I wasn’t sure how to react to that. I knew Barnes was bullshitting me, but I couldn’t work out how much of his own bullshit he believed.

“Athena was manned,” I said. “And when was Athena supposed to launch?”

“The launch window was September ’75.”

I hit the bar for more drinks, and considered my options. This might be a good opportunity to make a break for it. I could say Leigh got an early flight, and I needed to pick her up. Barnes would find another audience soon enough.

I looked over at our table. Barnes nodded back at me. Compared to the old man who’d walked in the bar, he looked energized. Oh hell, I thought.

“So tell me how you take Apollo to Mars,” I said.

“It was easy,” said Barnes. “We got in an Apollo and a mission module, and we fired ’em off to Mars on a free return trajectory.”

“I thought Mars ships had to be huge,” I said. “Fleets of ships, built in orbit….”

“Athena was an EOR mission mode,” said Barnes. “Earth Orbit Rendezvous. We’d assemble Athena in Low Earth Orbit, then send the whole stack direct to Mars on a free return trajectory. It only took four Saturn V launches. Me, Gordon and Kimball, we went up in the first Saturn. It was just like a moon shot – we rode an Apollo, but instead of the LEM we had a mission module stowed behind us. We couldn’t live in the Apollo on a trip that long, but the mission module was roomy. Then we needed three more Saturn launches for the Earth departure stages. Our Apollo was a great little ship. Just like a moonship, but Rockwell adapted it for deep space soak. And the guys at Douglas had done themselves proud. They took the Saturn third stage and souped it up something fierce. Uprated the J2 engine, added a docking collar. Called it the MSIVB.”

He pronounced it em-ess-four-bee. I knew there had been a lot of variants planned for the Saturn stages. They even used a SIVB stage for the hull of Skylab.

“The MSIVB was full of cryogenic propellant,” said Barnes. “You couldn’t leave ’em in orbit too long, else the stuff would just boil off. So we launched all four Saturn V boosters in two days. It was like the fucking Fourth of July! We had crowds bigger than Apollo Eleven’s watching the show, and we had to build a third pad at the Cape so we could launch all four boosters in time. We had three Saturns on the pad and the fourth on the crawler, and it was one hell of a sight. The Cape’s never looked that good again.”

“A third pad?” I said. “But Apollo used 39A and 39B.”

“Sure it did,” said Barnes. “And we built 39C for Athena. On orbit we had to chase down the booster stages in the Apollo and dock with ’em. That was tricky, see, ’cause you’ve got to match orbits, and every time the stack was heavier. And then we had to transpose the Apollo, which was tricky. See what you had to do-”

The old astronaut gestured above the table, trying to illustrate how his imaginary Mars ship came apart. His glass hit the floor and shattered.

“Shit,” said Barnes, looking at the glass in dismay.

“I needed another one anyway,” I said, thinking: Barnes tried to leave the glass floating in mid-air.

“Waste of good Scotch though. Well, you get the idea. Once we’d gone through docking and transposition, Athena was fully fueled and good to go….”

We left Earth on 23 September, 1975. The three MS-IVB stages fired in sequence, throwing Athena onto an orbit that would, one hundred and thirty days later, take us within spitting distance of Mars.

We were going to be weightless for a long time, longer than any of the low orbit missions. We didn’t really now what that would do to a person, but there was only one way to find out.

Athena had a one-man centrifuge in the mission module, and we had some exercise gear, but we all knew what Mars was going to cost us. Bone and muscles loss, for a start. We were all just hoping the Sun didn’t throw us a nasty surprise. If there was a big storm, we had a radiation shelter in the back of the mission module, but even so we expected to clock up a lifetime dose on the trip out. On the trip back, we’d be in unknown territory.

I looked back at Earth. We had already traveled further than any other human beings in history. It was just the three of us, in a fragile bubble of air, fired into the darkness faster than a bullet from a gun. Behind us, Earth and the Moon dwindled into the night, slowly changing from a double planet to a shining blue star. We were a long way from home.

“Everything was copacetic until ninety days in,” said Barnes. “Three months of pissing in a relief tube and sending messages back to Houston, with the time delay getting bigger every day. And then we lost the signal altogether.”

“What was it? The transmitter?”

Barnes shook his head. “That was the first thing we checked, but the S-band was fine. We pulled the AE35 board, but there was nothing wrong with it. Our gimbals were good, so we hadn’t lost the lock on Earth, but we triple checked our trajectory with sextants anyway. Earth had just gone off the air.”

“What, the whole planet?”

“We didn’t know,” said Barnes, “but nobody was talking to us. We were pretty worried. Things with the Soviets weren’t too bad when we left, but maybe Houston had kept something from us, the last three months. Alice and the kids were in Houston, I guess. No point in us worrying about our families, right?”

“Obviously it wasn’t that, though.”

“No,” said Barnes, “it wasn’t that. It was worse.”

“What’s worse than nuclear war?”

“We were way past the point of no return,” said Barnes, “so we couldn’t use the mid-course propulsion system and the Service Module to get home. We were committed to a trip around Mars and back. And we were hoping the silence was just a communications problem we couldn’t lock down, so in the meantime we stuck to the checklist. A few weeks before Mars flyby we released the probes. A couple of long-term surface science stations for the guys back in Houston to play with. But Athena’s big gun was the Sample Return. That was going to land on Mars, scoop up a soil sample, then blast off the surface as we went zipping past. We’d grab it and take it back home.”

“Ambitious,” I said.

“And that was before all this shit happened,” said Barnes. “A few days after we released the probes, we got a good look at Mars, and thought maybe we shouldn’t have gone firing missiles at it. Mars was covered in lights.”

“Lights,” I said. Barnes had gone completely off the deep end, and I was his latest victim. I wondered if he had family to help him. “Exactly what kind of lights?”

“We all knew they were city lights,” said Barnes. “We didn’t say it out loud, but we knew. You could see the cities all across Marineris and up the Tharsis ridge. Bigger than anything on Earth. We couldn’t take our eyes off it. By the time we got to flyby we knew we were looking at civilization….”

It was January, 1976, and the nightside of Mars was a galaxy of lights. Cities blurred into vast conglomerations, and I could see huge engineering works across Tharsis. Fireflies drifted on the northern ocean and the Hellas sea. Green flares rose from the equator… to meet a brilliant ring that encircled the planet like a gaudy wedding band.

“Perigee,” whispered Kimball.

The ring was vast beyond human comprehension. Twelve huge towers reached down to the planet’s equator. I wondered what would have happened, if our trajectory had happened to intersect the ring.

We went through the checklist. Athena whipped around Mars, and the planet began to recede. We were on our way home, if home still existed.

Twenty minutes later we picked up the sample return beacon. The MSSR had worked perfectly, lifting off the Martian surface at our closest approach. When we picked up the beacon it was already in solar orbit, a few kilometers ahead.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“What do you think we did?” said Barnes. “We went and picked the damn thing up, that’s what we did. Gordon grabbed it with the boom, neat as you like, and swung it over to the Athena’s lateral docking port. That turned out to be a mistake.”

“Something went wrong?”

“Oh, hell no. Worked perfectly. We didn’t know what had happened until later. So there we were, three guys in a tin can heading for the asteroid belt, all of us thinking we’d gone fucking nuts. The only thing we could do was follow the flight plan. There was still no signal coming from Earth, but we figured if we just stayed on the free return trajectory, maybe everything would go back to normal. Maybe all this crazy shit was just something that happened once you got far enough out, you know? Maybe once we got back home it’d all go away. Seemed like it was worth a shot.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Barnes was too damn good at playing his part.

“So there you were,” I said, “heading for the belt.”

“It was pretty bad,” he said. “It was thinking about getting home to Alice that pulled me through it. I had a photo of her, and I kept it in my flight suit pocket the whole time. Never let it out of my sight. I had one of me and the President, too. I was never too sure about him, but he was pretty decent to me after Nineteen. The photos made me feel closer to home.”

“How far out did you get?”

“The free return trajectory took us out to three hundred million klicks,” said Barnes. “We were going to reach aphelion at twice the Earth’s orbit, and from there we’d fall all the way back home. Once we got near Earth we’d undock in the Apollo and splash down in the Pacific, just like coming home from the Moon. It was a hell of a slow way to travel though. From Mars back to Earth was going to take five hundred and thirty days.”

“This stunt was a serious mission plan, back in the sixties?”

Barnes grinned. “You still don’t believe a damn thing I’m saying, do you? Well, I don’t blame you. But listen: things get mighty strange, out there in the dark….”

After six months in space, the three of us felt like hell. We tried to keep to the exercise regime, but it was hard to stay motivated. I had one hell of a case of chicken legs. I’d lost so much muscle mass, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk when we landed.

If we landed. If there was still anywhere to land.

Kimball got pretty sick. Streptococcus, I think. Just ordinary bacteria, taking advantage of an immune system suppressed by radiation and microgravity. He had lesions weeping pus all over the inside of his throat, and for a couple of weeks he had difficulty getting water down. By the time he shook the infection, he was badly dehydrated.

And we had to care for the spacecraft, as we tumbled in sunlight and shadow, breathing our own farts and drinking our own piss. It was just one damn thing after another, but at least we were busy. When we didn’t have anything to do, it got pretty bad. We started talking about what was happening outside, and after a while we the conversation was going around in circles, and then we’d shut the hell up. And a few minutes later we’d start talking about it again.

We kept sending messages back home. I wanted to believe someone could hear us. Earth itself remained ominously silent. Through the big ‘scope the inner solar system looked normal. We could see Earth, and resolve the Moon. We could see Venus, and Gordon managed to catch tiny Mercury transiting the Sun. The ‘scope wasn’t big enough to make out any details on Earth. I wanted to believe it was all still there, waiting for us to make it home. I guessed Alice would still be in Houston, and she was probably going through hell.

As long as we kept looking Sunward, we could pretend this was an Apollo 13 situation. We were in trouble, sure, but with a little luck we’d make it home, and it would make one hell of a story.

We tried not to look out into the darkness.

Saturn was on the other side of the Sun, but Jupiter was about twenty degrees ahead of us, and getting closer every day as Athena rose towards aphelion. There was something very wrong with Jupiter. Through the ‘scope we should have seen the cloud belts and the Great Red Spot. We should have seen the Galileans and most of the bigger moons. Galileo’s miniature solar system, nicely ordered clockwork.

What we saw through the ‘scope was madness. Jupiter had – blossomed. The big gas giant was now a diffuse haze, and it looked as though huge geysers of hydrogen were venting into space, forming a brilliant coma around the planet. Gas mining, perhaps, on a scale that defied belief. We couldn’t make out the Galileans, but there were huge shadows cast through the cloud, shadows that might have been thrown by Callisto or Ganymede. Others shadows were moving… and there were lights, drifting between the ruins of Jupiter and the Trojan points. The lights looked like exhaust flares.

Further out, the zodiacal light was a brilliant haze, and the skies were changing beyond all recognition. As Athena followed its ballistic trajectory away from the Sun, one by one the stars were going out.

“Or maybe something was blocking their light,” said Barnes. “We got a pretty good look at Centauri through the big ‘scope. You couldn’t really tell, but I figured there were shells around both suns.”

“Dyson spheres,” I said.

“Or something even stranger. The ‘scope wasn’t big enough to tell. It didn’t matter anyway. The further out we got, the more screwed up things got. By the time we reached aphelion the universe didn’t look like anything you’d recognize. It was just completely fucked.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it didn’t look right,” said Barnes. “You couldn’t see it properly. It hurt your eyes, like watching a 3D movie without those stupid glasses, or looking at one of those weird illusions which look like two things at once, only a hell of a lot worse. We had to cover the windows.”

“I don’t really understand.”

“We didn’t either, but I think I figured it out, years later. The further away from Earth we got, the more we saw what it’s really like out there. And what’s out there isn’t anything like we think it is. It’s not like this-”

Barnes rapped his knuckles on the table.

“It’s not solid,” he continued. “It’s not like proper three dimensional space, where you’ve got one thing over here and another thing over there. It’s all just smeared together and turned around. And when we try and see what things are really like, our minds can’t take it.”

“Mr Barnes – Joe – that’s pretty bizarre, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“You bet it was,” said Barnes. “But we had bigger problems to worry about by then. We still had the Mars Surface Sample Return probe docked at the lateral port, and it was eating the ship.”

“It was eating the ship?”

“Piece by piece,” said Barnes. “It started off like this grey fungus, but it seemed to be building bigger pieces as it went along. Just turning Athena into more of itself. We had to go outside and eject it. I was terrified I’d get some of the fungus on my glove. I don’t know what it would have done to a person.”

“You couldn’t just eject the probe?”

I was picking holes in the story, and Barnes knew it. “Nope,” he said. “It’d already eaten most of the docking mechanism and the grappler boom, so me and Kimball went out. That was pretty bad, because there was no way to avoid looking at the sky. I tried to focus on what was in front of me, but I think Kimball saw too much. He wasn’t the same after that. We ditched the probe, but when we got back inside he was in pretty bad shape. He couldn’t speak properly, and he looked wrong. He wasn’t eating either. I don’t know if he would have made it back to Earth.”

“But you did, apparently.”

“Yeah,” said Barnes. He downed his whisky. “I’ll get us both another one of these,” he said. “Then I’ll tell you how I got back.”

We were a day past aphelion, beginning out long fall back towards the Sun. Outside there was nothing but madness. Gordon was in the Apollo. I was in the mission module with Kimball when it happened. Blue light shone through the entire module – not through the covered portholes, but through the hull itself. The whole stack was turning to glass.

The master alarm sounded. I pulled myself through the Apollo’s hatch and found the control board lit up like a Christmas tree. Gordon was in the left hand seat.

“There’s nothing out there any more,” he said.

I pulled back the curtain and looked through the Apollo’s window. There was nothing but blue haze, growing brighter before my eyes.

Gordon disabled the master alarm. I heard Kimball cry out, but he sounded a long way away. When I looked back through the hatch, the mission module was empty. The far end of the habitat was dissolving into electric blue mist.

I closed the hatch and dogged it. Gordon asked where Kimball was.

“He’s gone,” I said.

The power in the Apollo cut out. The floods went off first, followed by all the instrumentation. I glanced at the readouts. We weren’t getting anything out of the fuel cells.

“Well,” said Gordon. “That’s it, then.”

We should have found some suitable last words, for those final seconds. Gordon and I watched in silence as the electric blue light filled the Apollo. The little spacecraft dissolved like sugar in hot water. I felt myself follow. There was very little pain.

At first it was very blue: bright, electric blue. Then there was nothing at all, for what seemed like a long time.

Then it was merely dark.

I rolled over and looked at the alarm clock. It was nearly five AM, and there was a woman sleeping a few feet away. I could hear her breathing.There was cool blue light spilling across the bedroom; we’d fallen asleep with the television on.

I sat up and looked around. It was our bedroom in Houston. I was still wearing my blue flight suit. I looked at the woman. It wasn’t Alice.

“When I woke up back in Houston, it was like the whole thing never happened,” said Barnes. “My family didn’t know anything about it, and as far as they were concerned I’d never even been in space. Athena never even flew. Hell, as far as the whole world was concerned Apollo 19 never flew either. I was just another desk jockey at NASA, waiting for my wings. I still had a few things in my flight suit pockets, but nothing you could call proof. And I’ve got pretty bad osteoporosis and heart muscle loss, like you get from the microgravity, only I’ve never been in space. Funny that.”

“Doctors can check you out, though.”

Barnes shrugged. “Sure, but I wasn’t on the active rota anymore, and some people just get unlucky. I’m not stupid, and I figured out pretty quickly what was going on. The whole Athena program got wiped from history. Me and Gordon and Kimball, the trip out, none of it ever happened. Obviously I was pretty upset about that.”

“I can imagine. Did you tell anyone?”

“Sure, at first I shot my mouth off. The shrinks figured it was stress. I learned not to talk about it, but by then I was out of the program. Drank pretty heavily for a while. I came off better than the other guys, though. I was still alive, and I had a wife and a family, just about. After the hell I put my wife through it’s a wonder she didn’t pack up the kids and bug out. Her name was Gail. I think I’d met her once, but I wasn’t sure. We got on alright, I guess. As for Alice… well, I tried to contact her once. That didn’t go so well. From then on I kept my head down at the Cape until I retired.”

“So what happened to the rest of the crew?”

“Nobody else remembered them, but I did some digging. Gordon, he died in a carrier landing, back in ’58. He was lucky I guess, ’cause I couldn’t find any record of Kimball. I figure that poor bastard was never even born, which did for his kids as well.”

“Seems like a lot of effort, just to cover up one flight.”

“I figure they just erased Athena, and then history changed itself to fit. But that hit a lot of other stuff, and not just in the space program. It wasn’t long before I found out about the big changes in ’63, and I had to relearn a lot of history so I wouldn’t say anything stupid. Of course I’d never heard of Watergate, and a lot of good people seemed to be dead or missing. That clusterfuck in Vietnam had gone from bad to worse. NASA funding got stretched, Apollo got canned after Seventeen, and after that we were stuck in Low Earth Orbit. Looking at stars and pissing in jars. None of our plans for interplanetary flights came to anything. Apollo Applications only bought us Skylab. Instead we got Shuttle, and Shuttle was a mess. There’s no way we’re going further than the Moon in your lifetime, let alone mine.”

“But we’ve had Voyager, and Cassini, and all the rovers on Mars….”

Barnes laughed. “Oh, sure. Mariner got to Mars before we did, and it didn’t see a damn thing. It’s different with machines. They just send back the pretty pictures we expect to see, rocks and dirt. It’s easy to fake that, I guess. Once we send the machines out there, they’re part of the illusion and we can’t believe a damn thing they tell us. But when a man gets out there, the camouflage doesn’t hold up. People see what’s real. Always have.”

“And you think that’s why we never get very far.”

“Hell, no!” said Barnes. “We get out there alright. Me and Kimball and Gordon made it, so I bet others did too. We’ve had hundreds of different missions planned, out to Mars and some of the nearer asteroids. Not just with chemical rockets, either. We could have had NERVA, like what Danny’s dad was working on back in the fifties. Maybe we even built Orion, and made it all the way to Saturn. Now that would have been a hell of a thing. But once you get out there and you see what’s real, they make it never happen – whoever the hell they are. They just erase it, and everything changes around to fit. There’s an accident, or the funding gets cut, or the mission just gets pushed further and further back. That way the illusion holds up, see.”

“There are new possibilities on the horizon,” I said. “Private sector rockets. Mars Direct. The Chinese, maybe.”

“Maybe somebody can still pull it off,” said Barnes. “Then the people running the show will notice, and rewrite history so it never happens. We’re just a museum down here, and they can’t let us see what’s outside the walls. So all you’re left with is more crazy old guys like me. Remembering all the things that never were.”

Leigh flew in from Pasadena on the morning of the launch. She looked tired, but happy. I didn’t know what to tell her about Barnes.

“Did you hear some good war stories?”

“Joe Barnes is an interesting guy,” I said. “I think Apollo really affected people.”

“Dad still talks about it,” said Leigh. “He says hi, by the way. You’ll have to come out to California, next time. He’s actually building rocket ships. I’ve never see him so happy.”

We checked out of the hotel, cursing the exchange rate. Barnes had left a package for me at reception. It was an old cigar box, full of papers. I suspected they held the details of his imaginary life. I couldn’t imagine what Barnes expected me to do with it. Obviously I couldn’t use his stories for Plus Forty, unless we did another documentary on the psychological fallout of the space program.

The hotel air conditioning was fierce. Stepping outside was like stepping into an oven at one hundred percent humidity. Florida was a hell of a place to live, I thought, let alone build a spaceport. I found it hard to believe people actually wanted to retire here, but it was probably more bearable in winter.

Launch Complex 39 was built on the edge of the ocean. The crowds around the launch site were the largest I had ever seen – not quite up to the old Apollo days, but close. Atlantis stood on Pad 39A, mated to her orange external tank, as a huge digital clock counted down the minutes to her final flight.

“She’s beautiful,” said Leigh.

And she was. I knew the design was flawed, and desperately compromised. The fleet was old, and there had been too many accidents. But with her gleaming white hull and huge delta wing, Atlantis looked like the memory of an old-fashioned future that never came to pass.

I opened the cigar box and found the last clutter of an old man’s life: receipts and ticket stubs, notes in spidery handwriting, a few old photographs. Not much to show, for a man who nearly walked on the Moon. There was a souvenir mission patch, bearing the names Barnes, Gordon and Kimball. I could have one just like it made in the KSC gift shop.

One photograph caught my eye, and I held it up to the sunset light.

“What’s that?” said Leigh.

The photograph was faded monochrome and dated 1974. A young Barnes stood in the Oval Office, shaking the hand of Robert Kennedy. I turned it over. On the back, there was a scribbled note. I kept the one of Alice.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Just old memories.”

I closed the box. The solid rocket boosters lit, and Leigh’s face was lit by rocket light as Atlantis lifted off the pad. Thunder rolled overhead, and the vast crowd cheered in return as the orbiter stack rolled and headed for the stars, leaving a twisting plume of smoke over the ocean.

We watched the last Shuttle until it was just another light in the sky. There were still people up there, standing in the shallows of a greater ocean, but I knew that human history would always be written here, upon the ancient shores of Earth.

EMPIRE by MichaelJWatkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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