Homecoming

by Robert H. Prestridge

Dedicated to Glendy and to the Memory of Pat Cornette


Now he had it all.

Jon Hayak smiled. The Mark Twain, a floatworld he had designed, would soon leave Earth.

Floatworlds weren’t unusual. Hayak’s, however, was the first-ever commercial floatworld. Tugs would propel the floatworld through space and “attach” the floatworld to the tail end of Halley’s Comet. The comet’s gravitational pull would take the floatworld, its crew, and its passengers on a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

The floatworld had made Hayak famous and had made spacecraft design hip and happening. The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, and other magazines had done features on Hayak. MIT, Cornell, and Cal Tech had invited him to teach.

Hayak didn’t care about fame or prestigious teaching positions, though. He was more concerned about the lottery, which would decide who was going to Halley’s Comet. Hayak — and the hundreds of prominent and super-rich people gathered in the Paris Hilton Ballroom in the South Beach Hyatt Regency — would soon discover who had won. Stauffer, Hayak’s business partner, had come up with the highly lucrative way to market the floatworld.

The spacecraft designer sipped his champagne. Stauffer appeared with a blonde on one arm and a redhead on the other.

“So, you gonna take my advice and invest in those New Rio properties, Jon?” asked Stauffer.

“I’ve got other plans,” Hayak said. “I’m going to open a mining operation on Mars.”

After floatworlds, mining operations interested Hayak the most.

Stauffer waved a hand at Hayak. “You can have Mars. Give me New Rio any day.”

The women giggled.

“You made sure about the final inspections, didn’t you?” Hayak said. Besides marketing, Stauffer handled bureaucrats.

“Of course,” Stauffer said, looking at the redhead. “Everything’s a go.”

A hovermic man said that the lottery was beginning. A huge board floated above gathering people. Numbers flashed across a screen like billiards shooting around a felt pool table.

The flashing stopped.

“One hundred nineteen,” the hovermic man said.

A woman dressed in a gossamer dress screamed, hopping about and thrusting her arms in the air. She hugged a woman. “We’re going to Halley’s Comet!” the two women shrieked, hands on one another’s forearms.

Numbers flashed. The hovermic man called out another number. A man wearing a tuxedo yelled something in Spanish and struck the air.

“Let me go!” Hayak heard a woman yell.

He turned and saw a woman — many would have called her a very old woman — at the entrance doors, held back by a hop who looked like an organ-grinder monkey. Near the woman stood an exasperated-looking younger woman, obviously a caregiver, who tugged her ward’s arm.

“Annie, please,” the caregiver said.

The older woman made feeble attempts to shove the caregiver and the hop aside.

“I deserve to go!” the older woman said. “It’s my birthright!”

Hayak furrowed his brow. The older woman looked familiar, like someone he should have known. That lack of recognition irked Hayak, who liked to believe that he had an excellent memory, especially for names and faces.

He stepped towards the melee. Another hop appeared, and the two hops pushed the protesting woman from the ballroom.

Hayak stepped into a parquet-carpeted hallway.

“I was afraid something like this was going to happen,” the caregiver said. “I didn’t want to come here, but you know how they can be — ”

“Just get her out of here or we’ll have to call Metro,” one of the hops said.

“You don’t understand, I must get to the comet, that’s what Buzz Metzger would want.”

“Annie, that’s enough,” the caregiver said.

Hayak put a finger to his lips. Buzz Metzger?

Outside, Hayak watched the caregiver take the older woman away.

“Dr. Hayak?”

Hayak turned. A hop held a door open for him. The spacecraft designer felt a rush of cold air conditioning.

“No thanks, I’m leaving,” Hayak said, donning his shades, heading towards his vehicle.

“Have an excellent evening, sir.”

A sprinter appeared and asked Hayak if he would give an interview. Hayak told the sprinter no. The sprinter sped across the street and shot upward into the night air. On the drive home, Hayak thought of the older woman, and later, drunk on champagne, celebrating his newly earned riches and looking at stars while lying on the beach, he thought of her.

Why had she mentioned Buzz Metzger?

Sometime after midnight, the waves high on the beach, Hayak fell into a deep sleep and ceased thinking about her, Buzz Metzger, and everything else.

* * *

Hayak awoke late the next morning, sat up, and sniffed the air, which tasted of brine. Down the beach, men and women played nude volleyball, the latest exercise craze. Hayak ran a hand through his hair and wondered how he had come to spend the night on the beach.

Less than a second passed, and he remembered the lottery and the billions he had made. He smiled, then remembered the older woman, Annie.

Annie.

Hayak blinked. He had never known an Annie. Sure, an Anne, an old girlfriend he’d met in an elective undergrad art history course at the University of Kansas. But not an Annie.

Hayak stood, feeling unsteady, and in his bungalow, popped a pill. The hangover disappeared instantly.

The spacecraft designer hydrated himself, took a long hot shower, toweled himself dry, dressed, contacted Stauffer, discovered that he had made over nine hundred billion after taxes (Stauffer wasn’t quite sure of the exact amount because of some niggling with one of the contractors), and contacted Mars Now, a travel agency. Hayak booked a pair of tickets. He wasn’t sure who his guest would be, but it would be a woman like the redhead or blonde, except that his companion would be intelligent.

Hayak was preparing to go shopping for his trip to Mars when he thought of Annie.

“Who cares?” Hayak said to himself. “Come on, let’s go.”

Instead of leaving, however, Hayak sat down. There was something about her determination that reminded him of his own when he had undertaken the designing of the Mark Twain.

And then there was her mentioning Buzz Metzger.

Hayak contacted the hotel’s chief security officer, who provided Hayak with the woman’s name and address, garnered from image ID on InstaInfo.

Hayak gave his vehicle the address, and thirty minutes later, after getting past a traffic jam, arrived at 1977 Van Zant Drive. The bungalow reminded him of his, except this one wasn’t on the beach. An abundance of tropical plants and palm trees surrounded the bungalow, almost obliterating it from view.

Hayak knocked on the front door. He heard footsteps, which caused the antique mailbox near the door to rattle.

“Yes?” a woman inside said, and Hayak guessed it was the caregiver.

“I’m Jon Hayak. I was at the lottery yesterday.”

“Yes?”

She obviously didn’t know who he was. He hoped he didn’t end up playing an inane version of Twenty Questions.

“I want to speak to Annie Aldridge, please.”

“Why?”

Hayak told her who he was and that he wanted to know why Annie Aldridge was so determined on going to Halley’s Comet. The front door opened, held fast by a chain. The caregiver peered at him.

“Would you please tell her that I wish to see her?” Hayak said.

“Just a moment,” and the door closed.

A few moments passed and she opened the door for Hayak. The bungalow was dimly lit, like a church Hayak had once visited in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. Candles and incensed burned, but instead of statues of Jesus and Mary and the saints, there were models of planets and galaxies.

“This is where she stays,” the caregiver said when they came to a door, making it sound as if Annie Aldridge were an animal in a cage.

The caregiver knocked on the door.

“Please come in,” Annie Aldridge said.

“She’s all yours,” Marjorie said, opening the door and motioning Hayak to enter.

After he did, the caregiver closed the door. Hayak looked at holograms of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Orion, and the Milky Way. Medical equipment — next to a bed that took up most of the room — hummed. The air smelled of lemon.

Above the bed floated a live-feed hologram of Halley’s Comet. Hayak felt as if he were a kid once again, stargazing in the Wakarusa Valley with his grandfather, a professor of astronomy at the University of Kansas.

Hayak cleared his throat. One thing he hated was beating around the bush. “What does Buzz Metzger have to do with your wanting to go to Halley’s Comet, Ms. Aldridge?”

“Buzz Metzger was my father,” Annie Aldridge said.

Hayak nodded. Now he knew why she looked so familiar and why he couldn’t place her.

Roy “Buzz” Metzger was called the Last Astronaut because the North American Science Union had absorbed NASA shortly after Metzger made a solo flight to Halley’s Comet.

Hayak’s grandfather had told many stories about the Last Astronaut, inspiring Hayak to enter the Space Academy. Unable to meet the rigorous physical demands of the program, however, Hayak had returned to Kansas to do the next best thing: studying spacecraft engineering and design.

“Please have a seat, Dr. Hayak,” she said, adjusting a medical device attached to her elbow. “I’ve seen you in news reports. That’s how I found out about the Mark Twain. You gave the floatworld an apropos name, don’t you think?”

Of course he had. Twain had been born with the arrival of Halley’s Comet and had died with its return.

“Thank you, Ms. Aldridge.” He sat down. “And please, call me Jon.”

“You can call me Annie, Jon.”

She coughed and her face turned red.

“I’m Gen1, in case Marjorie didn’t tell you.”

Hayak felt sorry for the older woman. Science had done great things, like increasing life spans, but being Gen1 meant science could do nothing for you. Annie Aldridge, he knew, would die soon. Hayak thought about asking what her disease was, but decided it would be in poor taste, so didn’t.

She seemed to breathe more easily. “I was born on a space station, right when the Orionids arrived,” she said. “Don’t you think it’s fitting I make one last wish in space as the Eta Aquarids arrive?”

He nodded yes. Indeed, it was more than fitting that she see the May meteor showers with which Halley’s Comet would bathe the Earth. It was a deserved homecoming, a coming of full circle.

But the choice wasn’t his. Legally, the lottery had settled who was going to Halley’s Comet.

Hayak explained the situation to her and stood. He was surprised to discover he had spent almost one hour with Annie Aldridge.

“Please let me know if something changes,” she said. “I don’t have much, but I’m willing to give all that I have.”

He shook hands with her. “If I can do something, I will,” he said, feeling his chest constrict because of the false promise he was giving her. “Have a good day, Annie.”

“You too, Jon.”

Shopping that afternoon for his trip to Mars helped relieve his feelings of guilt, and so did getting on the SuperNet and going through personals sites for an adventure partner. He found a brunette, an industrial controls engineer in Jacksonville, and sent her a message. Twenty-three seconds later she replied and said she was off to Mars with him.

At home, Hayak flipped through a short-life brochure about Martian golf courses.

The bungalow announced the arrival of a sprinter.

“What do you want?” Hayak asked.

The sprinter pushed its way into the bungalow. Hayak closed the door.

The sprinter blipped. “We want more,” it said.

Hayak frowned. “What are you talking about?”

The sprinter said it was from Hastings, one of the inspectors. It continued to talk, and Hayak felt his stomach churning. The sprinter told him about Stauffer. Told him about the final inspections. Told Hayak that Hastings and a few others required additional funding.

Or else.

“You gonna pay now?” the sprinter said.

Hayak moved to his desk. “Of course,” he said. “If you come over here, I’ll glip you.”

The sprinter floated to the desk. Instead of glipping the sprinter, Hayak short-circuited it. The sprinter squealed. A minute passed and the sprinter collapsed to the floor. The air smelled like fried circuitry.

The short-life brochure evaporated. Hayak contacted Stauffer.

* * *

Stauffer agreed to meet at Lazlo’s, a restaurant in the heart of what was once known as Little Havana.

After receiving much berating, Stauffer told Hayak everything.

The spacecraft designer wanted to reach across the table, grab his business partner’s throat, and throttle the man until his face turned purple.

Instead, Hayak refrained himself. He consciously unclenched his fists, put his hands to his sides, and took a deep breath.

“How could you be so stupid?” Hayak said, his voice a hiss. “You’ve ruined everything.”

Stauffer motioned with his hands, obviously attempting to calm Hayak down.

“It’s not as bad as you think,” Stauffer said. “Legally, we still get twenty-five percent of the take, if we work things our way. If not, we can always take the money and—”

Hayak slammed a fist down onto the table, rattling it and the utensils upon it. Restaurant patrons turned to look. Stauffer made a face and nodded. The other patrons returned to their own conversations and meals.

“That’s not the point and you know it,” Hayak said, voice low, jabbing a finger. “The point is that you screwed up the final inspections and bribed officials to cover it.”

Hayak was beyond tears. He felt an emptiness he never knew he could feel. Even washing out of the Space Academy didn’t feel half as bad as this.

“What do you want me to do?” Stauffer said.

“I want you to take care of this,” Hayak said, “and I want you to take care of it now.”

“It’s not possible, Jon.”

Unfortunately, Stauffer was right. It would take months to repair what needed repairing. As Hayak knew, he and Stauffer faced felony fraud charges.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Hayak said.

He ordered his vehicle to take him to the Gillette Space Center, where government and commercial spacecraft, like the floatworld he had designed, launched.

Hayak did his BioID scan at a security station and had his vehicle take him to the Mark Twain.

The spacecraft designer stepped out of his vehicle and studied the monolithic craft and the tugs on each side of it. The floatworld resembled a basalt asteroid, but if one looked long enough, one could see that it resembled Mark Twain: the forehead was the foredeck, and beneath the mustache were the equipment and storage areas. The back of the head acted as a propulsion unit, if needed.

Inside the floatworld, Hayak took several spiraling escalators to the foredeck. He took a deep breath, enjoying the scent of never-used equipment.

Hayak thought about high-tailing it to New Rio. He knew he would never face extradition there.

Or he could go to Mars: in its farthest regions, Mars was like the Wild West, and one could easily obtain a new identity. And with the money he had, Hayak knew that he could start a mining operation.

Wouldn’t the money allow him to live a new life?

Hayak grimaced. He hadn’t gone to the Space Academy for money. And he hadn’t studied spacecraft engineering and design for that reason, either. The desire for riches had been an afterthought, if that.

He had designed the Mark Twain because he loved space. He even loved old Star Trek episodes, not because of their laughable, inane plots involving Captain Kirk and his crew, but because of the names of the planets and their brilliant colors.

Hayak remembered what his grandfather had told him one July evening. “Always do what you love, Jon,” his grandfather had said, running alongside Hayak as the two chased bottle rockets across a sunflower field at twilight. “That and making others happy are the things that make life worth living.”

The memory faded. Hayak sighed. “What am I going to do?”

Silence answered him.

Then something — no, not a memory of his grandfather, but something deep inside of him, something that went beyond his own DNA — spoke.

Hayak listened. He argued with it. No, it wouldn’t work. Couldn’t work. There was no way he could salvage the Mark Twain for any good purpose.

Yes, there is, the thing within him said.

He leaned back in the captain’s chair.

“Who do you think you’re fooling?” he said.

He stroked his chin and donned his shades.

“Not me,” he said.

And with that he stood and went into action.

* * *

Doing what needed to be done was easier than Hayak had first thought.

The first thing was stopping the transfer of lottery money to New Rio. The second was notifying the feds about Stauffer. The third was getting to Annie Aldridge’s. The fourth was knocking out Marjorie the caretaker with a Liquid G-soaked cloth. The fifth was getting Annie Aldridge to the Mark Twain. The sixth was activating the floatworld and its tugs.

Hayak ignored warnings from Ground Control and piloted the floatworld and its tugs past interceptors. The floatworld and the tugs exited the Earth’s atmosphere.

Hayak knew they wouldn’t make it to Halley’s Comet. But that wasn’t the point.

He stood, went to a hoverbed, and lifted the sleeping woman from it. He carried her down spiraling escalators and took her to the portal, just as the Eta Aquarids arrived. Annie Aldridge awoke, smiled at him, and looked out the portal. Her eyes widened in obvious surprise.

“Make a wish,” Hayak said.


Copyright © 2008 by Robert H. Prestridge

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