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Hoodoo Sea - null

Hoodoo Sea

a novel by

Rolf Hitzer


© 2009 BluewaterPress, LLC
Jacksonville, FL

All rights reserved. No part of this book shall be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

International Standard Book Number 13: 978-1-60452-026-2
International Standard Book Number 10: 1-60452-026-4

Library of Congress Control Number: 2009904467

BluewaterPress LLC
2220 CR 210 W Ste 108 #132
Jacksonville, FL 32559
http://bluewaterpress.com

Information regarding the puchase of this book may be found online at
http://bluewaterpress.com/hoodoo
or on Amazon.com

To Irma, I'm forever grateful for your support. In memory of my Mom, Erna

Chapter One

White.

The room was a sterile, monotonous white. Had you been standing there blindfolded and then had the blind removed, you’d be convinced this was the cell of an asylum. But there was no padding on these walls. This was the briefing room at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Even the uniforms were white – with the exception of the bright blue NASA crests just below the left shoulder.

Wing Commander Scott Reed wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. His crew was at his side. Everyone stared at the white walls in complete silence as they awaited their final instructions. As a unit they had never been this quiet for so long. The hours, days and months of training drills were now over. They were ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

The mission they’d prepared for would be historic. These astronauts were about to perform the first test flight ever at the speed of light. “Warp speed” was the language they used at NASA. At the time of the selection protocol, there had been thirty potential recruits. After each training module and testing round came the elimination stage. Scott and his crew were the final four left standing.

Scott had absolute confidence in his team. They were disciplined and tough. Each member had a particular area of expertise that would contribute to the success of the mission.

Scott was the only Canadian. Considering the recent political mood since the Iraq War, he’d been surprised when NASA had called upon him to lead the mission. Not bad for a kid from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he still lived when he wasn’t on duty. The years he had dedicated himself in the Aeronautics and Astronautics program at MIT were now worth every minute.

In the silence of the white room, Scott’s mind began to wander. Shannon and the kids were at their pine log cabin at Bird Lake. Nestled in the pristine solitude of the Canadian Shield, their lake house was his true home. He looked forward to the day he could retire there. At the cottage, stress seemed to vanish.

Where had life’s journey taken him? Scott had never expected to become an astronaut. It had just happened on its own momentum. His passion for the outdoors had him often wondering why he’d never pursued a career in this field. Scott had spent his youth learning survival skills. He would have aced being a forest ranger.

Being away from home so often had eroded his marriage in recent years. Scott couldn’t blame Shannon for the way she felt. How many relationships could handle an absent partner? Scott had a constant fear that he’d come home one day and find his bags packed and waiting for him at the front door. Scott had grown up in a broken home and had promised himself he would never expose his children to a divorce. Was it time to consider a career change? In a blink, eight-year-old Shane and six-year-old Melissa would be grown up and he’d have missed most of their childhood. Perhaps this should be his last flight? Shouldn’t saving his marriage be his first priority?

His thoughts drifted back to the disconcerting silence of the room. Scott lifted his eyes from the white floor, to meet those of Major James Harrow, second in command.

“This has gotta be a first for you, James. Not one word for at least ten minutes, eh?” Scott smirked.

“Never mind, man. I’m good to go. I was born for speed, man. How about you, Deedee? And you Scurvy?” James sneered at the large man on his right.

“Born for speed? Ha! James, you have an ego the size of Texas, even though you are from California. I’ll be looking over my shoulder to let you know when you can keep up with me. I’m even so nice, I’ll serve you mustard for your dust sandwiches,” Captain John Heintz chuckled. He’d been given the nickname “Scurvy” because he was their medical expert.

“Hardy-har-har. That’s the best a Minnesota backwoods boy could counter with? Probably got brain freeze from living that far north,” James retorted.

“Okay guys, settle down. All four of us are sitting here like caged animals waiting to be set free. Let’s not get hostile now.” Scott looked over to Captain Polson, the only woman on the mission. “How are you, Deedee?”

Deedee locked onto Scott’s eyes and offered him a conservative smile. “I’m ready. Sure, the waiting is hard to take right now. Minutes feel like hours. I doubt I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”

Scott nodded to Deedee. “I’m sure…“ was all he had a chance to say before James cut him off.

“If you can’t sleep, sweetheart, I’ll give you my room number and…” Scott rose from his chair. At five foot nine, he appeared taller than his true height. He towered over Major Harrow.

“Enough of that, James, eh? Our final briefing should start any minute. By this time tomorrow, we’ll all be airborne, weather permitting. Let’s not lose it now.”

Refusing to meet his Wing Commander’s icy glare, James folded his arms across his chest and stared at the floor. “Whatever,” he murmured.

“What did you just say?” Scott snapped.

James looked up. “Sorry, I’m all revved up here. I was out of hand.”

“It’s not me you owe an apology to,” Scott growled.

James shifted his blue eyes back to the white floor and shuffled his feet. All Scott could see was the major’s sun-bleached hair.

“Sorry, Deedee,” James frowned. “What I said to you was uncalled for.”

Deedee leaned across Scurvy’s large frame in order to look at James, who hadn’t budged. “Apology accepted.”

Scott shifted his gaze back to Deedee. She looked back at him but quickly dropped her eyes when they connected. Scott scratched behind his ear and felt awkward. He was wondering what to say. Then Scurvy spoke up, “One of my patients called me last week in a panic because she accidentally swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. I told her to drink a lot of fluids…” He paused with a wry grin, as the crew waited for him to conclude. ”And get some rest.”

The room burst into laughter.

Scott sat down, still grinning, satisfied that his crew’s attitude was back where he needed it to be.

Chapter Two

There was only one way into that room—dry hinges creaked as the white door opened. With stoic bearing and a face void of expression Commander Walker entered, closed the door, and walked briskly to the front. His footsteps, loud as a stranger’s in the dead of the night, shattered the silence. He placed his black briefcase on the white table. He clicked the snaps open and removed a thin blue NASA-issued binder. The light from the solitary fl uorescent beamed off his shaved scalp as if he’d polished and waxed it specifically for this briefing. He looked each astronaut in the eye and then cleared his throat. When he said “Good morning,” it sounded like an order being issued.

“Good morning,” the crew echoed in unison.

“Welcome. By now, I’m sure you’re anxious to embark on your mission. I know I would be. It’s the first flight of its kind and I congratulate you all on having been selected. Any feelings of apprehension you might have are normal. Twenty-eight years ago, I felt the same upon being selected for the first shuttle launch. And seven successful flights later, that feeling never went away.”

“Within twenty-four hours you’ll all have become immortalized in the annals of history. Just as Captain Chuck Yeager was, for being the first to break the sound barrier.”

Walker dropped the blue binder on the glossy table. From his briefcase he extracted four additional binders and delivered them individually—along with a firm handshake—to each team member. He then returned to the opposite side of the table, and once again cleared his throat. “These NASA briefs outline your mission and final pre-fl ight formalities. Read them.”

This guy inspires me, thought Scott, as Commander Walker raised both hands dramatically and continued speaking. “At lift-off, your initial flight path is eastward through the Bermuda Triangle—also known as

‘Hoodoo Sea.’ And that is the code name for your mission. Your ship is SOLT-X1, the acronym for Speed-Of-Light-Travel-Times-One.”

Walker circled the table and sat down on it. He now assumed a more informal manner. “Your day will begin at O-five hundred…sharp! At your team pre-flight breakfast, you may order the meal of your choice. At O-six hundred you will be suited-up. O-seven hundred you will board the SOLT-X1 to complete your pre-flight protocols and system checks. Lift-off is at O-eight hundred.”

Walker now bowed his head and stared at the floor in deep thought. His silence was timed with precision. He paused before delivering his final words. Finally, he lifted his eyes and faced the team. “After orbiting our atmosphere three times, you will exit into space, and go directly to MIR-2. There you will refuel and also deliver some needed supplies to its crew. Your coordinates are pre-programmed into your navigational systems. Once refueled, you’ll then depart from MIR-2 and engage the zero-gravity combustion instruments. I have full confidence that I will witness the total success of your mission. Once your test flight is completed, you will return to Cape Canaveral by seventeen hundred hours.”

Commander Walker rubbed his chin. His penetrating glance met the eyes of each crew member, one by one. Upon facing Scott, he paused. Scott couldn’t quite put his finger on it. But the revered astronaut in front of him looked different today.

“May I conclude on a personal note? It’s difficult for me to play spectator because I wish I were on this flight with you. May your journey be a safe one. And Godspeed.”

Walker rose, turned his back on the crew, snapped his briefcase shut and said, “That is all.”

He then pivoted in classic military style and, without another word, exited as quickly and efficiently as he’d entered.

Walker’s first space mission, a shuttle flight, had been disastrous. But his heroic actions on that mission had become legendary. While they’d been orbiting Earth, space debris had collided with the ship. The damage had caused the gyros in the guidance systems to tumble. They’d lost all their navigational information, and were facing the deadly risk of Gimbal Lock—a total loss of rotational control.

Despite the crew’s extensive training and preparation the crew had undergone for emergency response situations, they had panicked. But not Commander Walker. His composure saved their lives that day, as he managed to somehow stabilize the ship. He returned it safely to Earth and became an instant national hero.

Does facing a life or death situation change a man? Scott hoped he’d never have to learn the answer. He now stood up and faced his crew. “What an honor to have had Commander Walker present our brief this morning. He…“

“He’s an inspiration, man,” James cut in.

Scott reddened. “Are there any questions before lift-off tomorrow?”

Major James Harrow raised his arm. “Yeah, I do.”

“Go ahead.”

James ran his fingers through his sun-bleached hair and turned to Deedee. “Wanna come to my room and compare each other’s briefs?”

“Let me think about that—oh—times up!” She shook her head. “I don’t think so, James.”

“I’ll still respect you in the morning,” he smirked. “I promise.”

Scurvy interjected, “I’ve showered with him, Deedee. And trust me when I tell you this, you ain’t missing a thing.”

“You’ve been watching me in the shower, Scurvy? James sneered. “Is there something you haven’t told me about, man? Something we should all know about? Looks like I’ll have to watch my back around here.”

“That’s right,” Scurvy said, waving a limp wrist. “You’re such a stud!”

Wing Commander Reed cut in, “Seeing that none of you have any real questions, may I be serious for a moment?” He moved over so that he could sit on the table, allowing him to face his crew. What he saw in their eyes mirrored the way he felt. “Like you, I’m chomping at the bit to go. It’s noon already and in less than twenty-four hours we’ll be in space. Let’s keep it together. We are an awesome team. I’m proud to be a part of this mission with you tomorrow. We’ve worked damn hard to get here, eh?”

“Amen to that,” Scurvy nodded.

“Thanks,” Scott smiled. He examined James for a reaction, then continued, “This is easier said than done, because I don’t think I can practice what I’m going to preach, no pun intended, Scurvy. After we depart from this pre-fl ight briefing, we’re solo until breakfast tomorrow. Try and relax as best you can, and get a good night’s sleep. Read your briefs, and do whatever you can to make your day go by quicker today. I look forward to our mission together.”

Scott now shifted his glance to Deedee. Their eyes connected for a second. She quickly dropped hers. He thought she’d fl ushed, but couldn’t tell for sure. Scott now faced the entire group. His tone was flat when he said, “Dismissed.”

Chapter Three

James paced back and forth in a room that felt hardly bigger than an office cubicle; even his five-foot-seven frame dwarfed it. Three solid raps on the door interrupted his tense stride. I wonder who the hell that could be? James inched the door open and peered through the crack.

“Hey,” Scott said.

“Hey yourself.”

“Have a minute?”

“I’ve got all day.”

Scott stepped closer and stood face-to-face with James, invading his airspace.

James flinched, turned his back on his Wing Commander, and retreated.

“All right, man…Come on in.” James resigned to the fact that Scott wasn’t about to leave, shrugged and sat down on his bed.

The Commander entered and closed the door. The latch clicked. He propped himself against the door and ran his fingers through his hair.

James fidgeted on his cot and folded his arms across his chest. “What’s up?”

“What’s with the attitude, James?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Come on.” Scott frowned. “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder over something. What’s the problem?”

“Jeez, are all you Canadians that sensitive? There’s no problem.”

“What you’re selling, I’m not buying, James! Every chance you get you’re hitting on Deedee. Now is not the time or the place. We have a one-day mission. You’re second-in-command. Keep it professional, eh?”

James scowled silently at Scott. No Canadian loser is going to tell me what I can or cannot do, he thought.

“That’s an order, James.” Scott glowered. “I expect you to do the right thing. You lead by example, Major.”

“Listen!” James pointed his finger at the Commander. “I can fly a jet as good as, if not better than, you. The only reason you’re leading this mission is ‘cause NASA is trying to foster good relations with your country. As far as I’m concerned, you and your cowardly people aren’t welcome here, man. I should be the commander of this mission…not you!”

“You know…” Scott paused. He was here to improve the James situation, not worsen it. “What you said is uncalled for. Many of us Canadians didn’t agree with our Prime Minister’s position. And we’re not cowards either, James. Why NASA picked me to lead this mission, I couldn’t tell you. And frankly, I don’t care. What I do care about is the success of our fl ight, and the four of us working cohesively. I know you’re a great pilot, James. I need you to be at the top of your game tomorrow. Not for me, but for yourself and the rest of your team. Can I count on that?”

James unfolded his arms and looked down at the floor. “It’s nerves, man. Just nerves.”

“So, can I count on you?”

James rose from his cot, walked over to Scott, and met his gaze. Neither said a word for a few seconds. It felt longer.

Finally, James broke the silence. “You bet.”

He stretched out his hand. Both men shook to seal their deal. James squeezed with maximum force.

“Thanks,” Scott said, withdrawing from the harsh grip. It had hurt his hand but he wasn’t about to show it. “See ya in the morning.”

James nodded, and watched his Commander exit. Staring at the closed door, he shook his head at the irony of it all.

He turned to his small nightstand, grabbed his Walkman, and popped in a Pink Floyd CD. He adjusted the volume to the max and then fl opped down on his bed. He pushed the play button. The ear-splitting acoustic guitar filled his head. Then the lyrics blared:

“So…So you think you can tell? Heaven from Hell?”

Chapter Four

Franco Zappia thumb-flicked open his Harley Davidson Zippo lighter, sparking a flame to light a cigarette and took a long deep drag, then exhaled. He was a short and portly man who enjoyed

living life to its fullest. He overindulged in everything and anything with no regrets. His motto was, “Work hard so you can play hard.” When he laughed, it boomed loud and boisterous from his gut. You couldn’t help but smile from the sound of it.

He demanded perfection from himself and those around him. Franco was the man in charge at Mission Control, Houston, Texas. He loved the job. His responsibilities fed his hunger for excitement and adventure, and there was never a dull moment, especially during a mission.

Franco put on his headset. Originally white, it had been customized in red, white and blue. A staffer handed him his coffee. Double cream, no sugar, no exceptions. He took another drag from his cigarette, followed by a careful sip of the piping hot java. As far as office coffee went, he liked it. In fact, he looked forward to his first cup every day and couldn’t understand why people constantly complained about its quality.

“Test—one—two—three. This is ‘Franco the Mano.’ Two hours to lift-off—get ready to rock-n-roll! Everyone check your systems. And when you’re finished, check ’em again. We go live in one hour and I will not tolerate any mistakes. Not on my watch!”

After Franco’s call to duty, the place began to buzz with activity. Mission Control was a large square room stocked with the latest and sexiest technologies. Front and center was the main big screen—Houston’s eyes and ears. The visuals were live: SOLT-X1 waiting on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The ground crew was scurrying to complete the final tests prior to lift-off.

The left wall held four small screens covering every angle of SOLT-X1. To the right, four more monitors took in the ship’s interior. NASA’s eyes covered every corner. No hiding from Big Brother. Once lift-off was realized, the onboard tracking instruments would relay their position home to Mission Control through satellite feeds. On the floor were banks of computers in parallel rows—navigational systems and communication technologies. No detail was overlooked in this high-tech environment. The flight path had been calculated to minimize any risk of encountering space debris. A safe mission was expected.

Franco made it a point to walk down each row on the “floor.” This was where he ruled at Mission Control. Passing each station, he’d check the monitors while sipping coffee from the bottomless cup. Never missed a “Hi” or a “How ya doin” or a slap on the arm.

Stopping at Tim Schultz’s workstation, he flipped open his Zippo and lit another Marlboro.

“Schultzy! How are ya?”

“Chilly today, hot tamale,” Schultzy grinned. “Doin’ fine, Franco. You know, those things are gonna kill you one day. You know it’s true.”

“Yeah, I know. But, I’m over forty—see? And that’s already way beyond my personal life expectancy. I’m livin’ my bonus years, and I plan to squeeze the most I can outta them years. That, Schultzy, includes smokin’!” Franco chuckled, which was equivalent to the average person’s normal laugh.

When Franco and Tim first met, they didn’t like each other. At times the friction had been unbearable, though they’d kept it professional for the most part. That all changed three years earlier, when a space launch had gone horribly wrong. Franco barked orders fast and furious for twelve straight hours as his team guided the shuttle to a safe landing. Total time required: eighteen hours. Frequently, after the stress of such a grueling shift, the Mission Control team went to the neighborhood watering hole, Rupert’s Bar & Grill, for a few stiff belts. On that occasion, Franco was playing eight-ball on a winning streak all night, several ounces of courage having improved his game. Schultzy was the next challenger.

“Rack-em,” Franco snarled.

This wasn’t going to be just any game of pool. It was the showdown at Rupert’s. Winner takes all, because the whiskey said so.

Halfway through the game, Tim called his shot. “Long-bank, corner pocket.”

He chalked his cue stick, hunched over and took careful aim. If he made this shot, he’d be a hero; if he missed…a bum. Smoothly he tapped the cue ball and saw green powder where he connected. His concentration blocked out the noisy beer-swilling patrons and the jukebox blaring “Symphony for the Devil.”

The orange five-ball hit the rail and rolled along the green felt towards the corner pocket as if guided by NASA itself. And then, that unmistakable hollow plop of a made shot.

“Lucky shot,” Franco sneered.

“Fuck you!” Schultzy fired back.

Jack Daniels took over from there. For a rotund man, Franco was quick on his feet. So quick, he caught Tim off guard. Franco shoved him hard, sending him sprawling to the fl oor.

The room started chanting, “Franco, Franco, Franco!”

Schultzy swayed to his feet, blinking in disbelief and fl ushed with rage. He grabbed a Budweiser off the top of the bar and smashed the bottom off. Then, cue in one hand and broken bottle in the other, he stalked towards Franco.

Standing there in a drunken stupor, Franco didn’t move. Schultzy was within three feet of him when Franco burst out into one of his trademark thunderous laughs.

Schultzy stopped dead in his tracks, completely puzzled. While he was ready to fight to the death if necessary, the short, fat man in front of him was red-faced from laughter. Now Tim couldn’t help himself. He too, began to laugh. Was it the booze? Was it the sight of his portly boss? Was it the realization of how irrational his anger was?

He didn’t care. He laughed hard, until the pain in his stomach forced him to stop.

Franco wrapped his big arms around Schultzy, who had to wipe tears of laughter from his eyes. They shook hands, played more pool and drank more Jack Daniels. At night’s end, both men staggered out of Rupert’s together. That incident forever changed things between them.

“Looking good out there today.” Franco scrutinized the main monitor.

“Yep,” Schultzy agreed. “There’s a dense fog hanging in the air around Bermuda. No big deal for SOLT-X1. I can hardly wait to see this newborn fly. She’s an awesome piece of equipment.”

Franco sipped his coffee. “You’re my eyes and ears today, buddy.”

Tim winked. “Good thing I’m not blind and deaf. You’d be in some kinda trouble then, wouldn’t you?

“I noticed you didn’t say ‘dumb’, at least you figured that much out for yourself.”

“That’s what I like about you Franco, nothing.”

Franco’s laughter filled the room. He liked the fact that the stubborn son-of-a-bitch never backed down. “Well, my friend, we have ourselves a busy day ahead.” Franco stood up and slapped Schultzy on the back.

“You betcha, boss.”

Franco put the red, white and blue headset back on, and returned to the back of the room where a fresh pot was brewing. He poured himself another cup and watched the steam rise like a slow dance. He switched on his instrument.

“Sixty minutes to lift-off, folks. Countdown is live in thirty. Be prepared! And be proud that we are here and a part of it all!”

He lit himself another smoke.

Chapter Five

The morning air was crisp, under a transparent layer of humidity. The crescent-shaped spacecraft was like a giant black boomerang, and its front windows refl ected the changing colors of the early morning light. At the ship’s rear were thrusters shaped like metallic soup bowls, ready to blast SOLT-X1 into its virgin fl ight.

Wing Commander Scott Reed stood still on the paved runway holding his helmet under his arm. He felt a chill, but not from the air. His heart was racing. This space machine was intimidating. What if they were mere guinea pigs for this test flight? The Challenger had exploded within seconds of lift-off, and that shuttle flight was not a maiden journey.

They’d be the first to fly SOLT-X1. When they finally engaged the Warp Speed technologies—what if they failed? Kaboom! Space dust in a split second. How could NASA possibly know there were no bugs in this magnificent craft? Scott couldn’t stop thinking about it. He rubbed the runway with his right foot. Then, he knelt down and kissed the ground. “I’ll see you tonight,” he whispered. He stood up. His three crew members watched the ritual in amazement.

“What’s that all about?” James sneered.

“For luck.” Scott smiled. “For coming home tonight, Major. Let’s get her done, people.”

Wearing one-hundred-pound pressurized spacesuits made walking on Earth awkward for the four astronauts, but it was the pressurization that kept their apparatus upright and bearable to move around in, once in zero-gravity. Then the weight of their gear would be non-existent. What was the worst thing about wearing a spacesuit? If you suddenly have an itch, it is impossible to scratch yourself. The only option available is to squirm around, hoping you were fortunate enough to somehow find relief.

Scott opened the door to SOLT-X1. Bowing like a hotel concierge, he motioned his team to enter. Captain Deedee Polson was the first, followed by Major James Harrow.

Captain John Heintz stopped next to the commander and placed his large hand on his shoulder. “Age before beauty, sir.”

“Wisdom and expertise will always win over youth and enthusiasm. Scurvy, you are a gentleman.”

They both chuckled as Scott entered SOLT-X1.

James and Deedee were ten feet ahead. They stopped to wait for the rest of the crew. The floor was a metallic charcoal gray and the walls were white and shiny like a polished, new car. Finally, Scurvy entered the ship and went to secure the hatch.

“Commander?” Scurvy’s long face looked concerned.

“What?”

“Sir, the hatch is not sealing properly.” His tone was somber.

Deedee’s long black hair twirled as she turned her head. James’ forehead wrinkled in disbelief. A situation like this could delay the mission…sometimes for months.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Scott approached his colleague.

“No, sir.” Scurvy looked grim. “I’m not.”

He stepped aside so the Commander could try the door for himself.

Scott closed the door with ease. It fit as snugly as a lid to a Tupperware container. He looked at the big captain, puzzled. Then, Scurvy beamed,”Gotcha!”

Scott flushed. Like the rest of the crew, he’d been had. It was just like Scurvy to pull such a stunt. Deedee giggled, and that was all that was needed to crack up the team. Leave it to a man from Minnesota to find a way to break the ice.

”Bastard!” Scott grinned.

“Sorry, Commander. With you kissing the ground like you did, I figured you needed some kind of diversion.”

“You’re killin’ me, Scurvy, killin’ me.”

“If you could’ve only seen that look on your face when you thought the mission might be jeopardized. I wish I had a camera! Your mug—priceless. And it looked good on you, I might add.”

Everyone had a chuckle at their commander’s expense.

The team followed the hallway to the front of the ship, where it opened into the central chamber. To the left of the great room were the sleeping quarters and, to the right, the kitchen and general storage. The SOLT-X1 resources included a small lab for scientific analysis and research, plus a storage facility. This was filled with the supplies needed for MIR-2.

The view from the front window overlooked the serene blue waters of the Atlantic. Above the window were storage compartments; below, the controls and instruments and computer systems. NASA did not waste

an inch. The control panel looked complex and intimidating with all the buttons and dials.

Scott felt like he’d been given the keys to a brand new Ferrari; with clearance to test drive it on the Autobahn.

The crew eagerly seated themselves and secured their belts for lift-off.

“Begin pre-flight protocols,” Scott announced, struggling to keep his cool.

Captain Polson’s area of expertise was the onboard electronics, including the guidance and navigation systems. Her tentative touch set the control panel alight. She tossed her long black hair back and glowed, “Commander, on-board systems are clear to go. This bad boy is beautiful.”

“Roger that,” Wing Commander Reed confirmed.

“Wow!” Major Harrow blurted. “This is gonna be one fun ride, man.”

“Ooo-yeah,” Captain Heintz concurred.

“Captain Polson, initiate systems check.”

“Yes, sir.” The control panel sprang to life with an impressive array of red, green and blue lights.

Out of curiosity, Scott checked the exterior thermostat. It was sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit this sunny Florida morning. Reality began to sink in. Their moment had arrived.

The minutes seemed like seconds when Captain Polson reported,”Systems are on and checked. I’m confirming we are clear to go, Commander.”

“Roger that, Captain. In five minutes we will be live at Mission Control. Prepare your headsets.”

From his breast pocket, Scott removed a photo of his children and placed it on the console facing him. Since their birth, he had performed this ritual before every flight. For luck. No pilot dared mess with his pre-take-off routine. Especially on this day. His other pocket held an old Swiss Army knife that also journeyed with him on each flight. As a boy, Scott spent his summers with his grandparents on Lake Winnipeg, north of Gimli, in Canada. Every morning, after breakfast, he’d grab his fishing pole. Grandma would have his lunch packed and ready, and would be waiting for his kiss before he left for the day. Summer vacation couldn’t get any better than this. Every day offered a new adventure.

At some point during the morning, Grandpa would walk down to the massive inland sea and check up on Scott. They’d sit together a while. Sometimes, they’d talk about nothing and everything. Other days they’d sit together in silence.

The morning of his tenth birthday, his grandfather had sat with him. They’d quietly watched the placid lake with not one ripple on its surface. That’s when Grandpa reached into his pocket and gave Scott the knife as a gift.

“Don’t tell Grandma.” He whispered. “It’s a knife my father once gave to me, and now I’m giving it to you, Grandson.” Then he left.

Scott would never forget that special morning. His knife had trekked with him ever since. After saying a silent prayer, his pre-fl ight ritual was completed.

James placed a photo of his mother on his console, much as Scott had done. He thus concluded his own routine. Having no previous fl ight experience, Deedee and John had no such ceremonies.

The crew was geared and ready for lift-off in thirty minutes.

Chapter Six

“Gooooood morning, SOLT-X1! This is Franco Zappia at Mission Control. I am your flight director today. Welcome to this fine Florida morning. Please confirm you are receiving, over.”

“This is Wing Commander Scott Reed of SOLT-X1 confirming you are loud and clear, over.”

“And we hear you loud and clear in Houston. Commander Reed, you have clearance to start your engines. I repeat, you are a go to start. Time to warm up NASA’s baby.”

“Roger that. Engines on.”

“I concur, over,” Franco replied.

The SOLT-X1 engines fired. The slick technology purred. As the crew beamed at one another, an indescribable sensation surged through each one of them.

“Wing Commander Reed confirming SOLT-X1 engines on. Houston, we are positioned to go, over.”

Franco’s chuckle was audible over their headsets. “Your baby sounds good all the way to Texas. Commander, how about officially introducing me to the rest of your crew?”

“I’ll start with my co-pilot and second-in-command, Major James Harrow.”

“Morning, Major Harrow, and welcome aboard.”

“Good morning, Mission Control,” James replied.

“Next, our systems specialist, Captain Deedee Polson!” Scott proclaimed. He could not suppress a smile in her direction.

“Pleasure to meet you, Captain. I read your bio earlier this morning. Very impressive. They must be proud of you back home in Buffalo.”

“Thank you, Franco. I’m pleased to meet you, too,” Deedee responded awkwardly.

“Last but certainly not least, Captain John Heintz, our medical and biological specialist.” Scott announced.

“Welcome to our mission, Captain Heintz.”

“They call me Scurvy. And, Texas, you’re welcome to the handle.”

“Scurvy, huh? Interesting nickname for the onboard doc. Hope you’re packin’ some Vitamin C?” Franco quipped.

“What can I say? The name has stuck like a tongue to steel on a winter day,” Scurvy chuckled.

“Pleased to meet y’all!” Franco boomed. “Captain Polson! Are the systems-check protocols completed?”

“Confirming all systems checked and rechecked, live and functioning. We are good to go, Houston.” Deedee replied proudly.

“Roger that. Excellent, SOLT-X1. Looking good, looking good. Commander, confirming we have twenty-five minutes to lift-off. Mission Control is ready and waiting, as are you. Houston is clear to go. I’m checking out now. I’ll be back atcha in five, over and out!”

Franco removed his headset, flicked the Zippo, lit a smoke, and poured himself a fresh brew. Everyone was ready for showtime.

The SOLT-X1 thrusters were humming. Waiting for lift-off, James was overcome by a euphoria he’d never felt before. All this power at his fingertips. They, no—he—was like a god. He was “the Man.” At day’s end, he’d be an All-American Hero; his picture on the cover of Time Magazine, plus every major newspaper. His face seen in every home where Americans were glued to their television sets. And the women— they would want him even more—after today. Even his unforgiving, ungrateful bastard of a father would be proud of him. Today he’d show him; he’d show them all!

“This is Mission Control. Twenty minutes to lift-off. Commander, you have clear skies… until you reach Hoodoo Sea. There, a dense fog stretches for fifty miles in your flight path. Piece of cake for SOLT-X1. Once through the fog, you’ll be back to clear and pleasant skies. Upon exiting our atmosphere, your ETA at MIR-2 will be just in time for a late morning snack. That should give your crew a greater appreciation for your steak dinner when you get back home tonight. Back in five, Commander. Over and out.”

“Roger that, Houston.” Scott’s heart raced.

From his seat, Scurvy admired the view. Turquoise-blue waters as far as the eye could see. His thoughts drifted to his boyhood home in Parker’s Prairie, Minnesota, where his mom and dad had encouraged him to follow a dream, the dream that was happening now. He’d give Mom a big hug next time he was home for a Sunday dinner. He was a lucky man.

Franco was back. “Fifteen minutes and counting, Commander.”

“Roger, confirming fifteen minutes to lift-off.”

“The big dance is about to begin and your Houston orchestra is standing by to play. Any last requests, Commander?”

“Sure, Franco. How about ‘These Eyes’ by the Guess Who? They’re from my hometown.” Scott grinned as he humored Mission Control.

“I would if I could. I like that band myself. Back in five, over and out.”

“Roger that.” Damn, Scott was exhilarated. “Helmets, everyone.”

Deedee tucked in her hair and put on her helmet. Nervously she checked the systems again, having lost count as to how often she’d done this. She’d always hated flying, and now she was about to experience space travel. Had she made the mistake of her life?

What if the technologies failed?

She wrestled with her apprehensions. She’d trained for this; everything was going to be fine. She was prepared, wasn’t she? She believed in NASA and in Scott. This was no different from sitting on a runway at the airport. Pre-flight jitters, that’s all. She checked her systems again.

“Ten minutes and counting. Houston is ready,” Franco announced.

“Ten minutes and waiting,” Scott replied.

At Mission Control, the tempo was peaking. Franco paced back and forth; it helped take some of the edge off. This was it. The future was now. Watching the digital clock, he reached for the lighter in his pocket. Enough time for a smoke before lift-off. He lit the cigarette protruding smugly from his lips and took a long deep drag. He paused before exhaling and then resumed pacing. He decided to visit Schultzy and walked over to his station. Standing behind him, Franco placed both hands on the man’s shoulders and gave him a quick acknowledging rub.

“You’re my eyes and ears, Jim. You know I’m counting on you.”

“I can’t take that kind of pressure,” Major Schultz quipped. “When have I let you down, Franco? Wait…you don’t have to answer that.”

Franco grinned and left his friend. Checking the official time clock, he fitted the headset onto his round head.

“Five minutes to lift-off, Cape Canaveral. How y’all doin’ out there?”

“Ready, willing and able, Houston.”

“Hear ya, Commander. Mission Control is clear to go. We will rock-n­roll today. Complete your final systems protocols.”

“Roger that.”

The crew eagerly performed their final systems check. Scott was keyed up for the flight of his life. Commanding SOLT-X1 would certainly raise the bar for his career, he thought with an adrenaline rush. This day was going to be a first for him, for NASA and for flight-speed capabilities. And it was just minutes from happening.

“Four minutes and counting.” Franco said.

“Roger, four.”

“Commander?” Deedee asked.

“Yes, Captain?”

“Systems have been checked and rechecked,” she announced

nervously. “We are set to go.” She realized after she’d said it that it hadn’t been necessary, but it was too late now.

“I know, Captain. Everything is going to be just fine, Deedee. I’ve done this many times before, as has Major Harrow. You’re in good hands today. Isn’t that right, Major?”

“Affirmative, Commander. We are on the cutting edge of technology, man. This beautiful baby will hum today.”

“It’s going to be awesome,” Captain Heintz agreed.

“Yes, it’ll be great,” the commander reassured.

“Three minutes and closing, SOLT-X1.” Franco’s voice was calm.

Scott confirmed the time on his onboard clock, perfectly synchronized with Mission Control. Actually, he was more accustomed to just getting into a jet, starting it and taking off when he was ready. Having a countdown for a flight was different. It took some getting used to.

“Two minutes and counting, Commander. By the way, allow me to introduce y’all to Major Tim Schultz—we call him Schultzy.”

“Howdy, crew!”

“Good morning, Schultzy,” the team chorused.

“The major will be taking over the countdown. He’s also the guy who’ll be tracking your flight. I can tell you this; he’s the best in the business.”

“We are now counting down from one minute. Mission Control is live with you and our systems are clear to go. I repeat, Houston is clear to go,” Major Schultz confirmed.

James was grinning ear to ear.

Deedee bit her lower lip.

John bowed his head for a quick silent prayer.

Scott gazed at the picture of his children.

“Thirty seconds and counting. Prepare lift-off sequence.” Major Schultz’s voice was now blasting over their headsets. “Good luck. And…Godspeed.”

Franco, hands on hips, watched the main monitor at front and center. Everything was perfect and precise to the Mission’s plan. The final moment had arrived.

Wing Commander Reed turned the engine thrusters from idle to thrust mode. The thunderous roar was heard all the way to Texas as the crew felt SOLT-X1 spring to life. And now, Major Schultz delivered into their headsets the moment they had waited for.

“Ten.”

“Nine.”

“Eight.”

“Seven.”

“Six.”

“Five.”

“Four.”

“Three.”

“Two.”

“One—lift-off!”

The roar of SOLT-X1 drowned out every sound at Mission Control. The building fell silent. As all eyes in Houston focused on their main screen, the black crescent spaceship rose from its launch pad as smoothly as an aged cognac.

Mission Control erupted in cheers.

Chapter Seven

Wing Commander Reed’s timing was perfect as he pressed the throttle switch on. Engines thundered as the engineering marvel did a vertical take-off, hovering like a Harrier Jet.

A perfect lift. Over his headset, Scott heard the cheers from Mission Control. Any pre-flight jitters he’d had were left a hundred feet below on the launch pad.

“Guys, we are airborne.” Scott glowed.

“That’s one big roger, man!” Captain Harrow confirmed.

“Yee-ha!” Captain Heintz bellowed.

Captain Polson let out a quiet sigh of relief. She remained focused on the SOLT-X1 systems, her keen and expert eye checking for any possible glitches. Satisfied, she reported, “All systems are clear to go, Commander.”

“SOLT-X1 systems are clear to go,” the wing commander relayed to Mission Control. “I repeat, systems clear to go.”

“Systems authenticated,” Major Schultz confirmed. “Wing Commander Reed, full speed ahead!”

“Roger that!” As ordered, Scott pushed the throttle lever, catapulting SOLT-X1 up and away from the Florida coastline.

He could feel the hairs on his arms tingling. The first leg of their mission was underway. He understood why they’d been instructed to circle the earth—within its atmosphere—three times. To test SOLT-X1 for any immediate glitches, and to monitor its stealth capabilities. The designs as well as the flight were top secret. The Pentagon had insisted on the secrecy of NASA’s mission from the project’s inception. The success of this scientific breakthrough could not be compromised.

In a blink, they crossed the invisible frontier into the Bermuda Triangle. NASA had adopted the name Hoodoo Sea for the triangle back in 1962. Since then, neither NASA nor the United States government had ever lost any investments in their naval or air equipment, not to mention human lives.

Call it superstition, but it worked. Christopher Columbus documented the eerie feeling he’d experienced when, days before discovering the Bahamas, he had sailed his ship through the Bermuda Triangle. Over five hundred years later, science still wasn’t able to solve the mystery enshrouding this region. So the name Hoodoo Sea was selected, and it stuck, inspired by a simple philosophy—luck.

“Take a look! Fifteen thousand feet below us,” Scott called out, breaching the hush of his crew. “Beautiful, eh?”

“The ocean looks so peaceful,” Deedee sighed, peering out the window. “Look at how the blue meshes with the turquoise—it’s almost unreal. It would make a great postcard.”

“Uh-huh, it’s awesome, man.” James said, also mesmerized by the spectacular view.

“As for me, I get to take in this scenery all day, non-stop; unless, of course, one of you were needing medical attention today.” Scurvy nudged James with his elbow. “I can hardly wait to see our planet from space. I’ve always heard it doesn’t even come close to any film footage we see on TV. This day, for me, is going to go by in a fl ash.”

“Yeah, but what a day that’s gonna be. When we get back, the media will be all over us. We’re gonna be famous, man, famous. Even you, Scurvy, who just tagged along for the ride.” James razzed.

“Actually, my major work will be on the next mission. I’m the guy who will deliver samples for NASA to analyze. And, you know, I hope they send the four of us on that; it would be great.”

“I’m also counting on being on that next mission, man,” James agreed.

Scott considered what Scurvy had just said. Maybe his own thoughts of retiring had been a bit premature. The concept of being on another space mission was appealing. The chance to explore new worlds? He didn’t think he’d be able to decline such an offer if NASA approached him. Glancing at the photo of his two children, Scott felt a pang of guilt.

“Commander, this is Mission Control.” Major Schultz’s voice was loud and clear. “Our tracking system has SOLT-X1 at fifteen thousand feet above sea level. Confirm your altitude, over.”

“Captain Polson, do you confirm that?”

“Steady at fifteen thousand,” she replied.

“Houston, fifteen thousand feet confirmed,” Wing Commander Reed declared.

“Roger that,” Major Schultz responded. “Further, be advised that you will encounter a dense fog over the next few minutes. I am assured by our technicians that SOLT-X1 should not experience any unforeseen difficulties with the approaching weather. We may lose visuals once you enter the mass of the fog, but we’ll retain your position at all times with our onboard tracking. When you exit the fog, you will then enter a thunderstorm. The weather disturbance will have you encountering some

turbulence. After that, sunny skies all the way to Germany. Your mission is cleared to continue, Commander. Captain Polson, please confirm your system readings.”

“Our navigations are confirmed with Mission Control’s, as is our system read and mapping,” Captain Polson authenticated.

“Roger that. Commander—we at Houston were hoping the fog would lift by the time you reached Hoodoo Sea. No such luck, though. Therefore, upon reaching clear skies, drop your altitude by five thousand feet. Once you achieve ten thousand feet, double your present speed until further notice. Please confirm your instructions, Commander; over.” Major Schultz leaned back, clasping both hands behind his head.

“Roger that,” Wing Commander Reed replied as ordered. “Captain Polson?”

“Yes, sir?”

As a pilot, Scott wasn’t a fan of flying in any adverse weather conditions, fogs and thunderstorms included. “When we exit the fog, Captain, what kind of storm can we expect?”

“From my radar, it appears to be a minor electrical storm, nothing drastic.”

“So, from what you’re telling me, I have nothing to worry about, right?”

“Uhhh, no. I mean, that fog is really, really thick. But our navigation systems can stick handle through much worse. I’m not worried about it at all. And if I were, believe me, Commander, you’d definitely know.”

“Thanks, Captain.” He had faith in Polson. She’d impressed him throughout their training regimen.

Scott guided SOLT-X1 on its course towards Hoodoo Sea. The fog was now visible. A gigantic gray wall had risen from the depths of the Atlantic. The daunting power of Mother Nature confirmed his belief that there existed a being far greater than mankind. Life was a beautiful thing, so simple, yet so complex. Every living thing had a purpose and, if one link in the chain of life were eradicated, it could have an astonishing ripple effect on all species. So many people didn’t get it; but he believed there was a God. The enormity of the fog was just one more humbling example of a force transcendent.

SOLT-X1 reached the gray barrier of mist. It was wrapped in a dull dark void as soon as it entered. This was the thickest fog Scott had ever encountered. He hoped nothing was in their flight path. He scanned to the right and to the left of the solid grayness and then checked his instruments. The systems were working, they were still flying, but this dark nothingness gave the illusion that they weren’t moving at all. He had no landmarks or clouds against which to gauge any motion. Looking out his front window was the same as looking at a blank screen on an unplugged television. The dense fog had swallowed them whole.

“Captain, can I have a systems read?” Scott’s voice seemed unusually cautious.

“Confirming we are continuing on course at fifteen thousand feet above sea level, altitude good. No change in our speed. Commander, all systems are go.”

“Major Harrow, status?”

“We’re blind, but everything is in order.” James shot a glance at Scott. He knew why the Commander was asking those questions. Any pilot would.

“Hey, what about me?” Scurvy hooted. “I must be able to do something around here! Can I check someone’s pulse rate or blood pressure?”

Scott smiled. “You beat me to the punch, Captain Heintz. I was just getting to you.”

Chapter Eight

Franco’s pace had accelerated a notch. “Schultzy, what’s happening? I’ve got no visuals, and that I don’t like. Talk to me.”

“They’ve entered the fog. It’s heavier than we’d originally anticipated from our radar.” Major Schultz pointed to a monitor on the left wall. “See that flashing red dot?”

“Yeah?”

“That’s them. We have ‘em; we just can’t see ‘em.”

“Get SOLT-X1 online, Schultzy. Check in on the crew. I don’t like this one bit.”

“Yes, sir!”

Franco was worried. His track record was flawless and he wanted to keep it that way. He stopped, flicked open his shiny silver Zippo, and lit another smoke. He took a deep drag, his eyes never wavering from the flashing red dot on the monitor. He could feel his blood beginning to boil. A glance at his cup confirmed it was time for a refill.

“Commander, this is Houston. Confirm your status.” Major Schultz waited for a response. And waited. He tapped his headset and checked his connections.

“Mission Control to SOLT-X1. Please respond.”

Silence.

“Commander? This is Mission Control. Can you hear me, SOLT-X1?”

Franco’s eyes were locked on the flashing red dot as he listened to the major.

“Mission Control to SOLT-X1. Come in, SOLT-X1.”

Deafening silence was all Major Schultz received from his headset. He tried again.

“SOLT-X1, this is Mission Control! Commander? Can you hear me, Commander?”

Tim again checked the left-hand screen and the red dot. They had