When you pilot a massive spacecraft, "cool your jets" takes on a literal meaning. I kick back in my pilot chair a solid twenty-five minutes with my empty coffee mug while the nuclear reactor cools. I can't help but wonder what scene will greet me when I step outside. Could be anything from angry bosses and Russians with torches and pitchforks to excited reporters shoving microphones and cameras in my face. Or, there could be an interesting combination of the three.
Soon, red and blue lights flash into all my cameras. I have my answer. I swallow the last possible drop of coffee, take a deep breath, and set the mug in a cup holder beside my chair (so grateful I put that in the design). I get up and plop a binder in my seat as I transfer myself onto the ladder.
The climb down seems so surreal. Actually, I suppose the last several weeks have all been surreal. But it definitely is strange to be in the vast outer space one day and perched in a field in rural Florida a couple hours later.
I reach the end of the ladder and leap down to the ground. I am on solid earth under the launch pad. I suck in a deep breath and tap a code into the keypad on the wall. A seam ahead of me in the wall splits apart and creates an opening. I squint into the moonlight that illuminates the grass. Red and blue lights dart across the trees, but there are no officers in sight yet. I do hear their voices in the distance. I am actually anticipating their arrival to my site. I scan the leather ferns until they split apart and spill officers with guns aimed at me.
"Put your hands above your head!"
I already have them raised when they shout at me. They surround me in moments, speaking into their radios while others aim their guns. I hardly blame them. Lord knows what NASA told them about me.
"Get down on your knees!"
I drop down to my knees one at a time. One of the officers comes up behind me and folds my arms behind my back. He slaps a cuff onto one wrist, then fastens the second one on the other. As he hauls me up by the elbow, he says:
"You are under arrest for the theft of NASA spacecraft."
"You know I made it, right?" I ask with a wry smile.
But the officer leads me by the elbow toward the ferns they exploded out of with a "Come on."
By the way, this is where most television police read a suspect their rights. That is not when it really happens. You have to be in their custody, which I am, but it also has to be when interrogation is imminent. Fun fact for anyone who may be asking why that isn't happening.
We traipse across the mushy soil. The officer reaches around me to move aside the ferns. More and more red and blue lights are streaking around us. The atmosphere is cool and moist beneath the stars.
After several layers of ferns and grasses, and after squeezing between and maneuvering over the branches of gumbo limbo trees, we emerge onto the roadside. Patrol cars absolutely line the street. Also on the grass, aimed at the launch site, is a Jeep. It looks like Elias is in there, mouth agape. I give him a nod of recognition, and he raises a hand in an awkward wave. An officer pats me down to check for weapons. Then a police car door is opened and the officer guides me into the backseat and slams the door.
So I'm not really sure what to do when the officer and his partner open their doors and climb in. Do I make conversation or maintain the awkward silence? The officer in the driver seat radios in that they are en route to the jail with me. He is probably around forty, with a good-natured face. As he maneuvers back onto the street, I look in the mirror at his partner. This one looks to be in his early twenties. Perhaps he is a rookie. Good looking kid, with blond hair and bright eyes. Calm demeanor.
The street is almost empty. There is silence aside from the occasional static and radio transmissions.
"Where do you guys stand in regards to the space race?" I ask abruptly.
The officers exchange glances before the driver says, "Excuse me?"
"What do you think of it? What would you say to NASA selling the Bullet to Russia?"
Another exchanged glance, but this one lingers.
"My opinion doesn't matter," says the driver.
"They're selling the Bullet?" the young officer twists around to look at me with a frown.
"To Russia," I confirm. The young man drops his eyes as he twists halfway back, lost in thought. I would like to believe after the scenario with my wife that I am a better judge of character than I was. She was always so interested in my work. I know now that it was to pass information along to the Russians. This kid is interested, but I'm not sure if it is genuine, or to garner information.
"You interested in outer space?" I ask him.
"Yeah," he answers thoughtfully. "I watch all the launches live as often as I can. Always had posters all over my room as a kid." He looks back at me. "Why would they sell to the Russians?"
I search his eyes. He seems sincere and surprised. Should I risk it with him? My eyes dart to the other officer. He is so uninterested that it leaves very little doubt that he is not a spy rooting for information. So I suppose his presence means accountability.
"All that information is in a binder in the pilot chair aboard the Bullet. All the reasons why the sale is illegal. You need to investigate this independent of NASA. Do you hear me? There is an access code into the Bullet that I will give you –"
The driving officer curses and the patrol car veers to the left, throwing me against the door. There is a hissing noise as the car's front right tire drops over the edge of an embankment. The driver cranks the wheel to the left and gasses the car, but all it does is tip and start to tumble.
We're in a spin cycle. We bounce down the embankment, jarred with every impact, the officer shouting into the radio, until crashing down on the roof with a splash.
My brain is stunned. I hear myself panting for breath as I evaluate my surroundings. My neck is strained and aches. The ceiling is smashed into the cab, close to my eyes as I stare at it. The officers are silent. Looks like the younger officer is slumped toward the dashboard. The driver is leaning against the door. His head is against the window, which is cracked and bloody. Creek water is streaming past it.
I have to get out of here. I know the officer was shouting into the radio earlier, but I'm not sure how much he was able to communicate in the amount of time it took us to crash. I struggle against the belts strapping me down, but they are not the same as a regular seatbelt.
The window beside me smashes open, startling me out of my mind. A pair of arms reach into the cab and pull the rest of a man inside. He is close to my age with auburn hair and grit teeth as he drags himself close enough to reach toward me with a pocket knife and saw at the belts.
I am not sure what the Russian letters of that word look like, but that it what it sounded like. The young man stretched the belt tight with one hand and sawed it with the knife in the other. As he sawed through the last fibers, the belt suddenly released. I crumpled to the ceiling on my neck in a heap. He grabbed my arm and backed out of the window in a rush, dragging me with him so fast that it was impossible to crawl and keep up.
"We have to get the officers out!" I shout as I splash into the creek on my hands and knees. The water is cold and soaks my jeans. I knew this was in vain, but I did not expect the man to clamp a hand around my mouth.
"Shut up!" he hisses. "Get up and come with me in silence, or you die."
He hauls me up by the elbow and splashed downstream. I hear sirens in the distance coming closer and closer. Good, those officers will get help. I am rushed down the stream until the trees lean over the water. There, I am snatched by someone else and wrenched into the brush.
"Keep quiet," the second man hisses in my ear. A flashlight clicks on, and I see the sand at our feet.
Then we're on the move again. He shoves me out and we splash downstream until we come to a hill with shoe prints. A rough trail. The second man, who is bearded, clamors up the hill first. I come behind, struggling to balance with my hands behind my back. My original abductor comes in third.
We come upon the road where we veered off. There are the tire marks. Close by are spike strips. This was an ambush. Now I know they came for me.
I can hear the other officers arrive on scene, but by now, we have rounded a bend so that we cannot be seen. On the side of the road is a tan car designed to look like a vintage Oldsmobile. The original abductor heaves open the trunk, and the bearded man wrestles me toward it. I elbow at him a couple times, but I'm not much use with cuffs. He essentially picks me up under one leg so that I'm sideways, drops me in, and slams the trunk.