In the small windowless room, the only sound was the hiss of static coming from a nearby speaker. It was late July and although the air conditioning at the Center was working heroically to fight off the heat, Walt Sinclair’s sweat-soaked shirt was sticking against his back as he listened to the scratchy words coming out of the gray metal speaker box—complete with NASA meatball logo—near the desk’s edge. He was trying to sit still in an old government-issued metal chair next to the desk, but it was hard to do. His legs had fallen into a nervous jerking game of their own accord, rising up and down, up and down, as the mission proceeded, as procedures were followed, as items on the checklist got ticked off.
He was in a small, windowless room at the Center, and for Christ’s sake, he wished he was out in the trenches, getting the visuals and direct mission feeds second by second, but his job this Sunday afternoon was to baby-sit a VIP visitor sitting near him, in a battered wheelchair, eyes closed, dozing during one of the most exciting days of Walt’s life He was an old man, and wore a cheap black suit, white shirt and skinny black necktie. On one of the lapels of his worn suit was an American flag pin. Save for bushy white eyebrows, he was bald, and age spots and freckles dusted the top of his head. His jowls were full and saggy, like the tendons holding them up had dissolved over the years. His name was Oscar Morrow and the Center’s personnel held him awe, for in addition to his NASA work, he had also spent years with that agency’s predecessor, NACA, the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics. In his worn and wrinkled hands, he carried a black ebony cane, like being in a wheelchair was just a temporary setback, and that he was ready for that day when he could miraculously walk again.
Walt had done a quick check on the old man’s background before meeting up with him, and found out that despite the wheelchair, he still maintained his pilot’s license Walt couldn’t imagine what kind of chicanery kept that license up-to-date, so the guy still had pull, even though—as his aunt would like to say—he looked like he belonged in God’s Waiting Room. His lips were pink and moist, and with the man’s eyes closed, Walt kept close look at his chest, to make sure it was rising and falling regularly. A hell of a thing, to have this visitor die here, on this day of days!
From the speaker on the desk came a burst of static, and voices:
“Eagle, Houston. If you read, you're go for powered descent. Over.”
A pause, and then another man’s voice, faint and hard to make out through the static.
“Eagle, this is Columbia. Houston just gave you a go for powered descent.”
Oscar’s eyes slowly opened up. “What’s going on?” he asked, his voice dry, raspy, weak.
Walt’s legs were still trembling. “They just gave Eagle a go for powered descent.”
The old man nodded, looked about the tiny room. Stained green carpeting, bare white walls—save for two framed photographs of the Moon—and not much else, save for the desk, Walt’s chair, Oscar and his wheelchair.
As he did in other moments of stress, Walt played with his class ring, spinning it around his right hand ring finger. It was a class ring from M.I.T., where he had gotten his degrees in aeronautical engineering, and the affectionately called “brass rat” had soothed him over the years after leaving school, every time he faced stress, like today.
As a child he had grown up on the Oregon coast, and the Moon had fascinated and entranced him, pulling him to a career in aviation and space. Service in the Air Force had never panned out—claustrophobia, he couldn’t stand being in enclosed spaces!—but he had done the next best thing: If he couldn’t fly in space, at least he could write the procedures and create the designs to support those who did.
Like the old man before him, who had flown in lots of aircraft over the years, but whose age had barred him from space travel. In that way, Walt guessed the two of them were alike, although on opposite ends of the age scale. In the hours since he was introduced to him by his department boss—who had said “Treat him nice and give him anything he wants . . . he doesn’t look it but under those wrinkles, he’s an honest to God steely-eyed missile man”—Walt had begun to like Oscar. Oh, he dozed in and out, he regularly passed gas—which in this small room was becoming quite pungent—but the stories he told . . .
If only the old man had asked to be out in the trenches!
Oscar shifted his cane about. “Keep an ear open, son, you bet things are gonna start moving fast.”
Walt managed to find his voice. “Thanks, I will.”
The old man stared straight at him, and his weak voice changed, becoming that of a teacher, an instructor, someone who had done and seen it all. “You getting excited?”
Walt just nodded.
“I can see why . . . but think of it . . . there’s nothing more you and anybody else can do in this building. The training . . . procedures . . . all been checked and re-checked, eh?”
He flopped a hand. “Then it’s up to the X factor . . . Eh? The one part of everything that can’t really be tested to the core . . .”
Walt was going to ask him what he meant, when the speaker came to life again. The second faint voice, still nearly buried in static: “Eagle, this is Columbia. You're go for PDI and they recommend you yaw right 10 degrees and try the high gain again.”
A wait. “Eagle, you read Columbia?”
A third man’s voice: “Columbia, Roger, we read you.”
Walt realized his sweated-out shirt had to be shrinking, because it was oh so very tight against his chest. The old man gently tapped his cane up and down.
“Mr. Morrow, you know, we could—”
“Please, call me Oscar.”
“Oscar, you could be someplace else besides here, you know. You could see a lot of what’s going on.”
He shook his head. “With these eyes? Be a waste of time.”
“But we could hook you up with earpieces, so you could hear everything that’s going on, not just from the public comm.”
Oscar smiled, his teeth the glaring white of dentures. “Nope, just satisfied to be sitting with an eager young pup like you, hearing just the minimum, just enough to visualize what’s going on out there.” A pause. “But I do thank you and your bosses, for allowing me here, for you to escort me.”
“Ah, no, you’re not thinking that for real, are you. I know you, what you want . . . you’d rather be out there with your folks, the ones you worked twelve hour days with, six or seven days a week . . . instead of babysitting an old fart like me. Am I right?”
It was like he was back in school again. The glare of the eyes, the sharp voice, the confidence that came from knowing what was going through a student’s mind.
“Sorry, yes, I wish I was out there,” Walt admitted. “That’s where I belong.”
More voices were exchanged over the speaker, and Walt listened to the LM pilot rattling off items from the descent checklist: “DECA Gimbal AC, closed. Circuit breaker. Command override, off. Gimbal enable. Rate scale, 25.”
“True,” Oscar said. “And I admire you for it. Coming to work every day, dodging the war protesters, trying to ignore those that say the money’s being wasted . . . saying money spent here should go for housing and the poor and everything else . . . hell, most of your generation probably don’t even look up at the Moon any more, they’re too –--“
Walt twisted his M.I.T. ring even more. “They’re too stupid, that’s all. They don’t understand.”
The old man gently smiled. “Understand what, son?”
Walt hesitated, but went ahead, knowing he could trust revealing what he believed to Oscar. “We can’t stay earthbound forever. We’ve got to get out into space.”
“They say it’s too expensive just to go out and explore,” he said quietly, repeating the old arguments. “There’s other priorities. The poor, ending the war, civil rights . . .”
“I’m not talking about exploring!” Walt said, voice sharp, the ring moist in his fingers. “We’ve got to get out there, so we can survive. War, environmental collapse, even a passing asteroid . . . we could go the way of the dinosaurs, all in a blink of an eye. This is our one chance.”
Oscar moved the cane around, slowly nodded. “That’s the problem with chances. They’re like fog. One moment it’s before you, another moment, it’s gone . . .”
More crackling from the plain speaker.
A few moments later, the Eagle’s commander simply said: “Ignition.”
And the LM pilot quickly acknowledged: “Ignition. Thrust at 10 percent.”
Walt nodded to his guest. “They’re off.”
“So they are,” Oscar replied, shifting some in his wheelchair. “Godspeed, and then some.”
Walt leaned forward, feeling like his shirt was going to split apart at the seems, his legs still trembling, and he was glad the old man couldn’t see them shake. He said, “What did you mean back there, about the X factor? What factor is that?”
“The X factor . . .” The old man’s voice faltered, his breathing labored, rattling. “The X factor . . .”
The old man suddenly coughed, hacked loudly and sharply, his pale wrinkly face suddenly turning red. Walt panicked, sitting up straight, thinking Oscar was going to have a heart attack and die right here and now in front of him. Holy Christ . . . and with a flash of a hard decision, he knew that if the man croaked in the next few seconds, he wouldn’t call for help. Not until the Eagle had safely landed. If Oscar was dead, so be it. Walt wasn’t going to miss the next few minutes of his life, of history.
There was a series of deep, rattling breaths, and then Oscar settled back against his wheelchair, his chest rising up and down rapidly, like he had just finished a 100-meter sprint.
“That’s your X factor . . . the body . . . the pilot . . . always been the weak point, hasn’t it . . .” A line of drool started down the left side of his lip. “You and me . . . the engineers, right from the beginning, designed and tested and re-tested all the gear we shot up into space, even before we knew what kind of hostile environment existed up there. The testing . . . with the telemetry, you could see what piece of equipment worked, what other piece of equipment failed. So you re-worked that failed piece, tried and tested again.”
Oscar slapped at his gaunt chest. “But this . . . this has always been the weak point, eh?”
Walt just nodded, glum. “We sometimes call it the G Factor.”
“I’ve heard that,” and the old man cackled. “We engineers, we always have our special codes and words, eh?”
Walt didn’t reply.
On this historic day, he wasn’t an engineer.
He was just a goddamn babysitter.
What a story to tell his yet-to-be-born kids, years from now.
In his years of flying and testing after getting his degree from M.I.T., Walt had been in some tight scrapes before, had felt that bone-crunch of pressure on his shoulders, had gotten scared when a piece of equipment had unexpectedly failed or an engine on an aircraft he had been a passenger on had flamed-out, but nothing seemed to frighten him as much as what he was hearing over the speaker, with the old man staring calmly across from him, like he was visualizing himself being with the crew of the Eagle. Every now and then Walt shivered, and another phrase from his aunt came to him: “A goose walking across your grave.”
Pretty goddamn heavy and persistent goose.
“Eagle, this is Houston. We’ve got you now. It's looking good. Over.”
The LM pilot crisply talked to the commander, voice a bit high pitched. “Okay, rate of descent looks good.”
Oscar’s eyes were closed. Had the old man fallen asleep? Even now?
Walt wondered what he should do. Oscar stirred, opened his eyes. “Sorry . . . drifted off there for a moment . . . did I miss anything?”
“Still descending. Still looks nominal.”
A nod from the old man. “Just minutes to go. Hard to believe. Just minutes.”
Walt was going to say something, but the speaker burst out again with static and voices: “Eagle, this is Houston. Roger. You are go. You are go to continue powered descent. You are go to continue powered descent.”
Oscar nodded with satisfaction. “So close. Maybe they’ll make it, eh?”
Then it all went wrong.
The voice of the Eagle’s commander was sharp with concern. “Houston, Eagle. We’ve got a Program Alarm.”
Houston quickly replied. “It's looking good to us. Over.”
“It's a 1202.” A pause, then with more urgency: “Give us a reading on the 1202 Program Alarm.”
“Roger. We got you . . . We're go on that 1202 alarm.”
“Are you sure, Houston?”
“We’re still go, Eagle.”
Walt’s hands started quivering. He put them in his lap so the old man couldn’t see them. Just like his legs. Oscar sighed. “That was close. Very close, eh?”
“Yes. Very close.”
Oscar leaned to one side, like he wanted to hear better from the speaker. The static and voices continued.
“Okay, Houston. We’re at five thousand feet. One hundred feet per second descent rate is good. Going to check my attitude control. Attitude control is good.”
“Eagle, you're looking great. Coming up nine minutes.”
“Eagle, Houston. You're go for landing. Over.”
“Roger,” the LM pilot replied “Understand. Go for landing. We’re at three thousand feet.”
“Copy that Eagle.”
Walt took a deep breath. His chest ached. He wondered what it was like, outside that door, with his fellow engineers and technicians, listening in and watching the telemetry. Imagine the excitement he was missing!
“How much longer?” Oscar asked.
“Just a few more minutes, that’s all.” He looked at the old man’s face, try to gauge what was going on behind those filmy eyes, what that ancient brain was thinking, seeing, remembering.
Walt said, “A few more minutes,” he repeated. “Can you believe it?
“You get to be my age, son, you can believe in almost anything.”
Then it was the LM pilot’s turn, voice high-pitched coming out of the speaker. “We’ve got a Program Alarm. It’s a 1201.”
“Roger, that Eagle. A 1201 alarm.” A long, long pause, then the CapCom’s voice, hesitant, shaky: “We're go on that alarm. Same type. Same type. We're go.”
“Houston, this is Eagle. What’s going on with those damn alarms?”
“Eagle, Houston, we’re still a go. Still a go.”
Oscar shook his head, the ebony cane trembling in his old hands. “Don’t like it. God, I don’t like it.”
Walt said the only thing that made sense. “Neither do I.”
And in the next few terrifying minutes, Walt recalled a high school history class, of seeing an old, old black and white movie newsreel, seeing the death of the Hindenburg, how the flames started so very small at the tip of the zeppelin, and then how it all went to ashes, in just a matter of seconds.
The LM pilot started narrating their descent: “Altitude is 700 feet, 21 feet per second down, 33 degrees.” And in reply from the commander, “Damn, that’s a pretty rocky area. Where the hell are we? How’s the fuel?”
“Eight percent.” A few seconds later, the LM pilot said, “One hundred feet, 3 1/2 down, 9 forward. Five percent of fuel remaining. Quantity light is on.”
Houston urgently interrupted. “Eagle, you’ve got 60 seconds of fuel left.”
A sharper hiss of static, then: “Houston, this is Eagle. Lots of boulders here. Lots. We must have overshot our landing area.”
“Eagle, we acknowledge,” Houston replied, voice nearing panic “Thirty seconds left for fuel.”
“Too many boulders. Too many! We’re going to abort.”
The LM pilot said: “No, you can do it, Neil, we can . . .”
“Too late . . . damn it too . . .”
A mix of voices, yells, another burst of static.
Hissing continued from the speaker.
“Eagle, this is Houston. Over.”
“Eagle, this is Houston. Over.”
Walt’s mouth was dry. He had to work to talk. He finally said, “I . . . I can’t believe it . . . Oh my God . . .”
Oscar’s voice was suddenly sharp and crisp, like he was the engineer in charge of old. “Quiet, boy! Let’s hear what’s going on.”
“Ah . . . obviously a major malfunction of some sort. Eagle, this is Houston, over.”
Walt’s eyes were filling with tears. All the planning, all the preparation, all the writing and testing of procedures, over and over again . . . and to come to this?
He looked to Oscar’s face.
The old man was silently weeping.
Walt wiped at his eyes, bent over, turned down the speaker’s volume. Long minutes passed in silence before the door to the tiny office slammed open. A man came in, followed by a woman. The man was short, plump, with closely-trimmed black hair. His face was sweaty, red, and he wore a zippered light green jumpsuit with Air Force flight patches, even though he was no longer active in the service. The woman next to him was also short and plump, and wore a similar jumpsuit.
Her nametag said P. O’HALLORAN. DataGlasses hung from a strand around her neck. His nametag said N. GIVENS. He swore and said, “That was a shitty sim, Walt.”
Walt said, “It was a perfect sim. You and Pam just couldn’t handle it.”
Givens strolled in further, standing right next to Oscar. He ignored the old man. “What kind of goddamn training program puts us in a simulator with technology more than a half century old? Tell me that!”
The woman slipped on a pair of DataGlasses, blinked a few times, cocked her head, and said, “That sim wasn’t fair! It was too old . . . . Neil and I did our best!”
Walt felt Oscar staring at him and also felt the sudden, unexpected weight of history bear down on his shoulders. He felt a terrible urge to play with his M.I.T. ring and ignored it. “The sim had nothing to do with being fair or unfair.”
Before Neil could reply, Oscar spoke up, voice weak but strong. “Excuse me . . . excuse me . . . young man, can you tell me how many flying hours you have?”
For the first time Givens seemed to realize Oscar was there. Face still flushed with anger, arms crossed, he glanced down and said to Walt, “Who the hell is this fossil?”
“He’s a guest of the Director. He worked here years ago . . . before it became a museum, before the Director bought it.”
Givens grunted and Oscar pressed on. “Please . . . tell me . . . how many hours have you had flying?”
There was now pride in Givens’ voice. “Close to four thousand,” he said, voice smug. “More than anybody else out there who signed up for this mission.”
Walt interrupted. “Good for you,” he said. “Armstrong had three thousand, and he didn’t screw the pooch like you did, Neil.”
O’Halloran took off her DataGlasses. “If we had the right technology and support, that landing would have been simple!”
“But it wasn’t a simple landing, was it,” Walt said.
O’Halloran said, “You made us use ancient technology, what do you expect?”
“We expected you to land like the original Eagle,” Walt said. “Look, with all of your technology and support, where have you flown, Neil?”
“You name it,” he said, voice sharp. “Iraq. Iran. Afghanistan. Nigeria. And you know it.” The Air Force pilot took a breath, went on. “This is goddamn ridiculous. Asking us to prepare for a Moon flight by using a sim and gear from the first landing is like asking me to prep for a Nigerian air support mission by taking up a P-51 Mustang.”
Oscar whispered, “Have you ever done that? Take a Mustang or anything else up in the air? A Piper Cub? A T-6 trainer? Anything?”
“I did what was required,” Givens said. “I fulfilled my training. Finished third in my class.”
Walt couldn’t help it. He lost it. “That’s right! You completed your training . . . to be a goddamn gamer! You sit on your ass in a comfortable chair, cold Coke at your side, in a pilot cubicle on a base somewhere, and you play with your keyboard and joystick. I’ve gone over your records, Captain Givens. You’ve been shot down eleven times in your career . . . without getting a fingernail broken. Because it was your platforms that were hit, not you.”
Givens replied but Walt talked right over him “Neil and Buzz and Mike, they were real pilots, damn it. What was once called old stick and rudder men. If the systems failed, if the computers got backed up with too much data flow, they still had the instinct, the training, the capabilities to complete the mission, a quarter million miles from home. But now we have you . . . and we have to plan for the G factor. Gamers.”
Walt looked at the angry Givens, and his angrier co-pilot, O’Halloran, and he said, “You’re both skilled, capable, and good at what you do. Which isn’t being a pilot for a Moon mission.”
Givens said, “Well, we’re the best the Company has, and if they want new footprints on the Moon, they’re going to have to give us more realistic sims, and more realistic procedures.”
He left the office, followed by his LM pilot. They didn’t close the door behind them.
Walt looked to Oscar, whose cane was trembling in his shaking hands Walt felt so weary. “Well, that’s that. If those two get their way, the cost of going back is going to increase a lot . . . as well as the risk . . . one computer foul-up, one burnt chip, one programming hiccup, and they’ll drive their landing craft right into the regolith.”
But Oscar was somewhere else.
“Oh . . . that sim . . . brought back so many memories. . . .” He smiled and another line of drool started down his face. “You young pup, you know your history don’t you . . . about the real pilots we had back then . . . and that was key . . .getting the right folks in place to take care of that X factor.”
Oscar coughed and wheezed, softly this time, not as harsh. “I remembered being here, in this very same building . . . watching the landing . . . seeing it succeed . . . and some of us . . . we were so proud . . . this was our first step . . . we had the heavy lift rockets . . . we had the infrastructure . . . soon . . . in just a couple of more decades . . . we’d be on Mars . . . we’d have a base on the Moon . . . oh, yes, we didn’t have the amazing technology of today . . . but we had the men and the women . . . but we didn’t have the political will . . . we didn’t have the grit . . .”
He took another, rattling breath. “Fifty years apart . . . you and me . . . and the others . . . fifty years apart, and that dream . . . what’s that they say? A dream deferred is a dream that dies?”
Walt wiped at his face, stood up and went to the wheelchair. “I thought today would be a celebration, to show you what we could do again, with the old sims, the old equipment,” he said, voice thick with emotion. “I’m sorry. We failed you.”
Oscar grabbed his wrist, with a surprisingly strong grip for an old man, lowered him down so his whisper could be heard.
“No, son, we failed you.”
The room was quiet again, except for the hiss of static and the sound of urgent, inaudible voices coming from the old NASA speaker.
Then Walt stepped around and in front of the old man, and then squatted down.
There was something in those old eyes, inquiring and skeptical but . . . hopeful?
Walt grabbed the man’s right hand and said, “We failed you today. But I’ll be goddamned if me or anybody else in the Center is giving up either. We’re going back. There’s been detours and setbacks—like today—but damn it to hell, we’re going back, and we’re going back to stay. Just you see.”
Oscar smiled. “I should live so long.”
Copyright © 2018 Brendan DuBois
Brendan DuBois is the award-winning author of twenty novels and more than 160 short stories. His short stories have thrice won him the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and have also earned him three Edgar Award nominations. He has recently collaborated with New York Times best-selling author James Patterson on three novellas for Patterson's Bookshots, and is currently working on his third full-length novel with Patterson. Brendan lives in New Hampshire. A former Jeopardy! champion, he also appeared on—and won—the game show The Chase. For Baen Books, he writes the Dark Victory alien invasion resistance novels, including Dark Victory, Red Vengeance, and series finale Black Triumph, coming in the fall.