Al, still under spore domination, spoke on his office telephone at the Directorate. His voice was flat but firm. This time he didn’t engage at any silly banter.
“I haven’t the time to listen to you shout, General. Does my woman have access to that rocket or shall I the President back?----What do you mean, ‘what President?’ President Carter, dammit!....Of course I talked to him. If you doubt me, you call him and ask him. I appreciate your cooperation, General....No, I didn’t tell her you were thinking about sending a combat MP outfit in here. I thought it in your best interests not to tell her you might launch such a foolish action......You’re welcome, General. Now, just how long have we got before blast-off?----Three hours and eighteen minutes....No, sir, it’s not impossible from our end. You just make sure everything’s smooth on yours.”
He hung up the phone and picked up the radio-transmitter mike. “Penny Robinson? This is Al Calavicci.”
“Have we got access to the rocket?” Penny asked quickly.
“If you can get there in three hours and seventeen minutes. That’s all the time there is.”
“Al, may I ask you something?”
“Do you know what this is all about it?”
“No, I do not.”
The radio went dead.
Penny’s suspicions were confirmed---nobody knew what it was all about but she, despite the fact that the spores had invaded all the others. In a way, she was relieved. It would make everything easier. But in another way she was not relieved at all. For all the pressure, the total responsibility for saving everybody and everything, the full weight of the job rested solely on her shoulders.
She turned to John and Nelson, standing stonily nearby. “How long will it take the submersible to return to base?”
They made no response. They were like statues, except for their chests rising and falling with perceptible breath. She realized they could not answer her.
She raced out of the lab, through the airlock chamber, and into the control mod.
Chip stood facing the forward ports. Penny almost feared asking him, supposing that the empty-eyed captain would be as unresponsive as the others. She kept her voice low and calm. “Captain, how long will it take for us to get back to our base?”
“Three hours and ten minutes, at maximum speed,” he said to a grateful Penny. “The closest point of shore to the launch site is beach five-blue.”
Then the captain returned to his dazed state.
Penny stepped to the communications compartment and swung back the curtain.
Roy was already on the radio, speaking in the same monotone as Chip. “Al, Penny will need transport from beach five-blue.”
“We will comply,” came Al’s flat answer.
Penny was momentarily dismayed by the fact that the mission seemed to be half in her hands, half out of them. Yet she had no choice but to proceed with all possible haste.
She ran back to the airlock sphere. John and Nelson, as if precisely programmed, entered the sphere at the same time, shuffling over to stand in front of the airlock door, still aglow with spores, and stood there waiting.
Penny stopped short. They were blocking her way to the lock. She didn’t know if he was to shove them aside, or wait himself, or what. In the seconds she stood wondering, the glow left John and Nelson and the spores flew across to Penny, scrambling over her skin and vanishing into it.
Then John and Nelson stepped aside.
Carr opened the door with machine efficiency, and Penny stepped into the lock. In seconds the water flooded in, and the outer door opened.
Penny, radiating her blue glow into the dark water around her, slipped out into the sea and took off at top speed.
She flashed through the water, never slowing or veering off her course. She had a long way to go. After a while she checked the Timex on her wrist. The hands were at 5:30.
On and on she sped through the sea. Ordinarily her smooth swimming motions left virtually no wake, but so fast was she now piercing the water that behind her a wake swirled in a vicious turbulence.
She checked her watch again. It was 6:10.
Could it be they knew it couldn’t be done? Was it possible they had given her an impossible task? Was it likely a base trick underlay this whole assignment?
She couldn’t answer those questions, nor was there any point in answering. The only chance was for her to try. If it worked, it worked. If it didn’t.....
The rocket stood poised on the launch pad, its silver skin shimmering in the glow from the array of powerful floodlights. It rose many stories into the sky and was surrounded by a latticework of black-steel gantries manned by technicians who were engaged in final checks of its sensitive systems. White smoke of evaporating liquid oxygen drifted from it like fluffy clouds, sometimes obscuring the large black letters on the side: UNITED STATES.”
In the main control bunker, teams of technicians and engineers, in white shirts and black ties, bustled with activity, looking into monitors that provided scenes of work from the gantries, checking computer readouts, speaking into various microphones to other teams of technicians.
A voice came over the loudspeakers: “We have begun final fueling and final ground check.....”
Various technicians nodded, moved around, adjusted their small headsets, trailing wires behind them.
Another announcement came: “Countdown is at forty minutes and twenty seconds to launch, and counting....”
Some of the technicians flipped switches and adjusted dials. On the monitors the countdown numbers were superimposed in one corner of the picture.
“.....Fueling proceeding normally. Counting down from forty minutes....”
With each passing minute, the mood of the technicians and observers became more attentive and sober. Even with the now-routine procedures, the years and years of successful and easy launches, the final minutes were filled with tension. Partly there was the excitement and anticipation of the launch---the mighty roar and tide of the flame, the awesome rise of the huge rocket. Partly there was always the fear that if anything went wrong, anything at all, fingers would be pointed, harsh questions asked, careers threatened and even destroyed.
Launching a rocket, even a moderate-sized one like this with no astronaut aboard, and only a small space probe payload, was an ominous occasion. Minutes from now this bunker would be filled with lined and tired faces, daring not to look at each other, eyes filled with the images of a fiery explosion that would mean failure to each and every one of them.
Not many minutes from now.
“Fueling is complete. We are eleven minutes, thirty seconds and counting. All systems are go....”
Far from this dramatic hubbub, at an isolated beach, a small helicopter thumped through the air and dropped smoothly to the sand. Al climbed out the passenger side, ducked under the rotor, and plodded across the sand to the water’s edge. Under one arm he carried a white “clean suit,” and under the other he held a helmet.
He stood still and stared out over the dark sea with glazed eyes. The beat of the helicopter engine mixed with the splash and hiss of the surf as Al stood waiting.
He didn’t have to wait long. Penny, aglow with his colony of spores, thrashed through the waves, struggled to gain a footing, then slogged the last few yards up onto the beach.
Al handed him the clean suit and helmet. “We have ten minutes,” he droned.
Penny snatched the gear and ran toward the helicopter, dragging Al along behind her by the arm. They climbed aboard and buckled themselves in. The craft lifted off, spun around, and headed inland through the night sky.
Penny was surprised, but not particularly disturbed under the circumstances, to see that not only was Al obviously taken over but also that the pilot was clearly host to invasion by a spore. She quickly slithered into her white suit and pulled on the thin gloves.
The voice of the ground controller came over the radio. “’Copter 3-8-4-Z-7-5, we cannot give you permission to land. Repeat: Your request for landing permission is denied at this time. Please circle away from the launch site and wait until after launch. We will be able to accommodate you at that time.”
“We can’t wait!” Penny cried, looking at the stony faces beside her. “We have to go in!”
Al picked up the mike, moving and speaking methodically. “Air Control, we have NASA and Air Force permission to land before launch.”
“Yes sir, we copy you, sir. But we are now just six minutes to launch. It was not our understanding that you would arrive so late. We cannot honor that permission at this time. Please comply with previous instructions.”
“Air Control,” Al continued in his monotone, “we are coming in to land at the launch site. We are coming in now. We will land before launch.”
“Sorry, sir, but I have my orders. If you try to land now, we’ll have to shoot you down. We’re on final countdown. Please circle away from the launch site. Maintain your altitude of two thousand feet. I cannot impress upon you too strongly, sir, that we mean business. Do you read? Over?”
Al turned his empty-eyed face toward Penny., “They’ll shoot us down,” he said matter-of-factly.
“I have to get to the rocket! It is the most vital thing in the world right now!”
Al turned slowly to the pilot. “Make a pass to the side of the launch site at two thousand feet. Then turn, drop quickly, and come in very low. Maybe we’ll avoid their guns.”
The chopper maintained altitude for the first pass, and nothing was heard from the radio. The lights of the launch site passed by and dimmed to the rear.
“Now,” Al said.
The pilot moved his levers and the chopper went into a gut-wrenching drop of several hundred feet. At the same time he turned back toward the gantries and opened the speed up full. The needles on the gauges went past the red-line danger points, and the craft shuddered at maximum power.
The gantries rose higher and higher in their foreground as they roared in on their approach. Suddenly spotlights crisscrossed around them and came to a brilliant focus on them.
“’Copter 3-8-4-Z-7-5,” came the air controller’s frantic voice over the radio, “have you received our warning? Over!”
Al casually put the mike to his lips. “Controller, we do not read. Please repeat. We do not copy your message. Over.”
“You are ordered to stop descent and go to your original altitude of two thousand feet and circle away from the launch site!” the controller screamed, running his words together.
“Please repeat,” Al drawled. “We do not read you, Ground Control.”
The voice on the radio became hysterical and garbled. The chopper swung in over the launch area a few meters above the roofs of vans and bunkers, and headed straight for the rocket. Penny’s eyes were riveted to the spidery main gantry.
And suddenly they were down. As Penny sprung out, two spores from the pilot and Al flitted across to join the rest in him.
Two MPs screeched their jeep to a halt and jumped out near Penny, M-16s ready at their hips.
“I’m Penny Robinson!” she yelled. “I must get to the rocket! It must not be launched before I get there! Hasn’t anybody....”
“We have instructions to pass you if you arrived in time,” said one of the MPs. “They’ve already removed the elevator outside the rocket, ma’am. You’ll have to use the stairs. It’s one hell of a climb to the payload, ma’am, doubt you can make it. My understanding is they’re not going to hold the countdown for you.”
Penny was already racing across the concrete toward the rocket. Over the loudspeakers, she heard, “All systems are go. We are three minutes from launch and counting...”
Penny leaped onto the gantry stairs. Flight after flight she covered, whipping around the landings without the slightest pause. Up, up he went, passing through halos of lights and clouds of steam from the liquid oxygen fuel.
“.....Two minutes, ten seconds, and counting.....”
The ground spun and dropped away beneath her as she wound around and around the landings and tore up the flights of steel stairs. She glanced skyward toward the payload, and the small, plexiglass-covered clean room clinging to it, where technicians were about to seal everything up.
The steps clanged beneath her as she pounded her way close and closer to the payload.
“.....All personnel will now leave the launch area......”
The warning siren wailed, piercing the night air, echoing off the steaming, silver rocket. Penny heard it and knew what it meant. Hundreds of steps were behind her, less than a hundred to go.
Finally she reached the base of the canopied chamber. A metal door separated the last step from the entrance. Penny slammed her fists up against the door over her head. “Penny Robinson!” she bellowed. “It’s Penny Robinson!”
A soft buzzer sounded. The door slid open. Penny hurled herself through.
Two engineers were locking down the last two openings in the middle section of the complex unit. Their silver wrenches glistened in their hands. Seeing her, they stepped back.
“I must have fifteen seconds!”
“Knock yourself out,” said one, handing Penny his wrench and backing off toward the waiting cheery-picker that would take the two engineers down.
Penny lunged to the half-sealed panel and wedged her gloved hands into the tiny opening. For a second nothing happened. Her hands rested motionlessly next to the maze of tiny wires and electrodes and transistors and gadgetry in the payload.
Then suddenly the spores flowed from Penny’s hands, pouring into the innards of the payload.
“....One minute, thirty seconds and counting....”
The glow faded from Penny, and was gone. She pulled her hands out and turned to leave.
One solitary spore remained on her glove. She shook her hand to dislodge it. The spore clung.
“It is as you wished,” Penny said softly, looking down at the spore. “It is done.”
Abruptly the spore hopped into the air and vanished inside the payload with the rest.
Penny spun the wrench to seal the panel.
The cherry picker was gone. For Penny, there was only the stairs.
To get down in time, she performed a circus act. Grasping the railing of the stairway with hands and feet, she slid down, section after section; she dropped upon landing after landing, springing back to the rail at each one to slide down another flight.
As she thudded onto the ground, the loudspeaker announced: “Thirty seconds and counting.”
She jumped into the waiting jeep and was hauled off toward the bunker.
Engineers and technicians were hunched over their consoles, not even aware of her entrance. Penny went quickly to a port and looked out at the gleaming rocket. She could detect a faint blue glow on the nose cone, and that caused her to smile a bit.
“We have ignition!” blared the announcement.
A wild yellow and blue flame gushed from beneath the rocket, blasting out over the launching pad, bathing the entire complex in a quavering, dancing, multi-colored illumination that overpowered the gigantic floodlights.
A second later came the deafening roar of the titanic engines.
Penny pressed against the window, her eyes not on the amazing flame, but firmly on the nose cone.
The rocket seemed to quiver on its pad.
The rocket lifted slowly, and elegantly off the pad, liquid oxygen streaming down its sides like tears from a dear departing friend. The roar of the engines swept over everything, drowning out even the climactic words, “We have lift-off!”
The mighty rocket rose into the sky, its skin still glistening from the land-based floodlights. Then further, dimming, finally out of range of the lights, the flame from its engines was the only thing visible.
Cheers went up from the crew, fists were raised, backs were slapped.
Penny stood leaning her face against the window, watching the flames climb away into the sky. It was not until then that she felt her knees buckle slightly and weariness wash over her. Unnoticed by all the celebrants, Penny’s body sagged. She remained standing, leaning against the wall, her shapely body sapped of its fantastic strength and endurance. Her mind reeled with exhaustion. Still it was not quite over.
In the submersible, risen now to the surface but still miles from the shore, another set of cheers---not unlike those in the bunker---rose and filled the control mod. The crew, returned to its human state, jammed in to see the launch over the main viewscreen. They saw the rocket climb into the sky, saw it silhouetted against the blackness, saw the wonderful hues of the propelling flame burnish the night sky behind it.
John and Nelson were packed in the midst of them, and several hands came over the top of the crowd to pat their heads and shoulders.
The fatigue in John’s eyes seemed akin to that in Penny’s, miles away. “Penny saved us,” he said softly. “He saved all of us.”
“I’ve always said”----Nelson smiled, tears brimming in his eyes---“she was a good kid.”
Nelson was, himself, aching with tiredness. Suddenly he straightened. “Shelly! Crank up that radio. Get us Penny Robinson!”
Roy wrestled his way through the bunched-up crew toward the communications compartment. “Where?”
“We don’t know where she is,” John shouted joyously, his eyes, too, filling with tears. “But you can find her!”
Amid the exhilarated, milling crew in the bunker, Al found the helicopter pilot and seized his arm. “We could’ve been shot down. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
“Me neither,” said the pilot, shrugging. “It was like I was flying by the numbers or something. Damnedest thing. Hope it doesn’t cost me my job!”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be a celebrity!”
An engineer went up to Penny, who was leaning her face against the concrete wall, and tapped him on the shoulder. “Got somebody on the radio for you, Ms. Robinson. Take it right over here.”
Penny followed him to a table mike and sat down. The engineer clamped a set of earphones on her head. She stared at the mike for a moment, then leaned to it. “This is Penny Robinson.”
“You made it, Penny!” came the powerful voice of John. “You made it! It’s hard to believe---everything!”
“Are you all right, Father?” she asked, holding the mike tightly in her hands.
“We’re all fine---everybody aboard.”
Penny closed her eyes, waiting.
Just then the announcement came over the loudspeaker. “We have booster separation. All systems still go. Now entering orbit.”
And immediately following that came the ear-splitting screech of the spores, shrieking from space, their sounds amplified over the monitors, filling the bunker. All eyes turned toward the monitors, but there was nothing to see.
Then the sounds began to fade, and then they were gone.
Penny shivered slightly. Then she opened her eyes. “Did you hear them, Father?”
“Yes, we all heard them.” There was a pause. “Could Earth have been so ugly to them that they’d volunteer to suffer like that to leave it?”
“They are not suffering,” Penny said.
“But that scream of pain....”
“Not pain, Father. Laughter. They were laughing. It was at that instant they were being returned to their place. Isn’t that what one does when one returns to a happy home?
“Yes. They never wanted to come here. The first space probe kidnapped them, in a way. All they ever wanted was to return home in peace. Now they have returned. They have peace there, and we have peace here.”
They bade each other fond farewells, pending their reuniting back at the Directorate, and Penny leaned back in her chair.
Yes, she had been waiting to hear that exact sound from the spores. Now it was truly over. She was entirely satisfied. As she looked around the bunker at the waning celebration among the launch crew, she felt the deep satisfaction of having justified her place among human beings.
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