The escalator is a masterpiece of art and engineering, combining stainless steel, titanium and carbon fiber. It moves upward at a smooth, rapid pace. Hank Mckenzie looks up expectantly as he approaches the hatch, looking not unlike a trap door. He presses a button on the left side of the band around his midsection, stopping his ascent. A mechanical, digitized voice comes out of nowhere.
Without hesitation, Hank says, “Dixie Cup.”
The heavy metal door slides open and the escalator continues upward, stopping once he is safely inside. He greets his partner with a smile and gives a thumbs up sign. The hatch slides closed.
He walks around to each external viewing port to see who is watching from the ground. His peer’s wave. He feels like waving back, but knows they can’t see him. He turns to Sledge, his partner on this, and almost every other mission he’d been on. “How long have you been waiting?” he asked.
“Got here just a few minutes before you. Why?”
“Just wondering if you checked any of the systems yet?”
“Nope. I wanted to run through them together. This is the most important thing we’ve done.”
Hank knew he was right. Nothing in their formal education had prepared them for this. He knew his peers on the ground were envious, but they hadn’t put in the hours he had. All his training, hard work and sacrifices led up to this mission, and he was going to give it everything he had. He’d picked Sledge to accompany him because he knew he could be trusted. He knew his friends and his parents would be proud, if only he could tell them. But like everything else he did, it was on a need to know basis, and anyway, it would be hard to explain. Unless someone had his background and experience, it would be close to impossible to make them understand.
Together, Hank and Sledge checked each and every operating component. They had not only designed a lot of them, but installed them as well. They left nothing to chance. Hank was proud of their work, and felt an internal glow when everything functioned without flaw.
“Time to shut down the auxiliary unit and rev up the main power supply, Sledge. You bring it up to operating temperature and I’ll get permission from Command Central to lift off,” he said as he picked up the headphones.
“Roger that, Captain.”
Even though they considered themselves equals, Hank McKenzie had been chosen to lead this mission because of an apparent, but never mentioned advantage. Very seldom was he not in charge. It had been this way ever since he could remember. Hank had the brains; Sledge had the brawn. They worked well together because of this, and Sledge never complained.
Hank remembered once in school, when a bully was making his life miserable, Sledge jumped out of the bushes about a block from the kid’s house, pounded him senseless, told him to never pick on Hank again, and left him moaning on the sidewalk. Another time, when his neighbor woman told Hank’s parents he was destroying her lawn riding his bike across the grass all the time, Sledge had hung her metal lawn chairs from the climbing spikes on the corner telephone pole. Hank took the blame for that one, but only to protect Sledge. It had been that way ever since they had known each other.
“Let me know when you’re ready, Sledge. I’ve received permission to hover, but not for very long. Command doesn’t want us drawing attention to ourselves, or the mission. They’d rather we warm up completely on the ground than taking a chance of being seen.”
“I understand,” Sledge answered, “Give me a few more minutes then. I want to check the Refisted Tabers on the port side.”
“Go ahead. I’ll inform them. How long do you think?”
“Less than five minutes, I’d say. We don’t want to be detained by ‘The Disturbance’ again.”
“Roger that, partner. It’s the only thing that could abort our mission this time. Let’s hurry then and get this thing off the ground.”
The Disturbance, as they referred to it, was a force so strong it would affect all power, shutting down all systems, including the auxiliary generators. It would take a full day to recover, and that’s if they were lucky. It made no difference where they were in the Universe, it was that far reaching. Other Captains had different names for it, but for Hank and Sledge, it disturbed and shattered the airwaves, aborting more missions than they cared to remember.
“Command Central says its time, Sledge. If we’re ready, we can lift off.”
“Let’s do it then, Captain. Ready?”
“Ready,” said Hank, as he settled himself into the large, leather Captain’s chair and pushed the power thrust levers upward in one smooth motion.
The noise was deafening, but to them, it was the sweetest music they’d ever heard. The ship tilted slightly, corrected itself with its autogyros, and hovered at tree top level. Hank again looked out the nearest port to see other Captains watching from the mouth of the number one hanger. ‘Eat your hearts out,’ he thought.
Although he was in charge, he found himself from time to time, emulating the moves and gestures of Sledge. He admired the way he stroked his chin as he watched the instrument panel, deep in thought with undivided concentration. Or the way he went from task to task, with an economy of movement wasting no time or energy.
They looked at each other. Nothing had to be said. The flawless performance of the craft spoke volumes. They both smiled.
Hank saw it coming before he heard it. It put out its feelers, rotated, accessed their position and locked on. Like the most powerful laser ever contrived, it zeroed in. He took cover and yelled at Sledge, but it was too late. It was over. The Disturbance had found them once again.
“Hennnery? Henry. Time to come in, Henry. It’s getting dark, and you’ve got to take a bath.”
“Ah, Mom, just give me five more minutes, okay?”
“No deal, Henry. Your five minutes are more like half an hour. It’s a school night. Now come on.”
“Oh, all right, but I’ve just got one little thing to do, and I’ll be right down.”
“Henry, don’t make me come up in that tree house after you again.”
That was it. That’s all it took. Captain Mckenzie didn’t want any unauthorized personnel on his ship. “I’m coming, Mamma,” he said with no hesitation this time. As he opened the wooden trap door, and dropped his foot down to the first rung on the rope ladder, he looked around for Sledge. But Sledge was gone. The Disturbance always got him first.