"I address you tonight, not as the President of the United States, not as the leader of a country, but as a citizen of humanity. We are faced with the very gravest of challenges. The bible calls this day Armageddon, the end of all things. And yet, for the first time in the history of the planet, a species has the technology to prevent its own extinction. All of you praying with us need to know, that everything that can be done to prevent this disaster, is being called into service. The human thirst for excellence, and knowledge, every step up the ladder of science, every adventurous reach into space. All of our combined modern technologies and imaginations, even the wars that we fought have provided us the tools to wage this terrible battle. Through all the chaos that is our histories, through all of the wrongs and the discord, through all of the pain and suffering, through all the time, there is one thing that has nourished our souls, and elevated our species above its origins. And that is our courage. The dreams of an entire planet are focused tonight on those fourteen brave souls travelling into the heavens. May we all, citizens of the world over, see these events through. God speed and good luck to you."
Kelly wanted to smile, to show the world how proud she was, but her lips were frozen to her teeth, and her eyes threatening to overflow and let tears of fear, of confusion, and of anger pour out. She could hear the president's voice in her earbud, giving words of encouragement to the entire world, but it just made things worse. She just had this dreading feeling in her gut that things were going to go terribly wrong, and that they were going to end up as the only survivors or something like that.
It didn't help that Oscar was commenting in front of her on how excited and scared he was.
"Take a deep breath, maam," The technician gave short warning before tightening her straps.
Kelly had to take a few more as panic washed over her. She was trapped in this little chair, strapped to a rocket and a nuclear warhead. She had watched the news reports on shuttles blowing up before. And these were the new prototypes not yet fully released yet. That was hardly comforting. Kelly tried to focus on the droning words in her ear. She tried to turn her brain off and count to ten, then to one hundred, but kept having to start over every time her mind played out her death.
She wouldn't be so scared, she wouldn't let herself be. Harry was on the other shuttle, and he hadn't been scared. But if there was ever a time that she needed her father, it was now.
Grace scrubbed at her eyes and took a sip of the black coffee. It was cold, now. She vaguely remembered being handed it by a young man, but that felt like ages ago. How much longer was the president going to talk? How much longer before her family was taken away from her? How much longer until she could breathe again, feel again, hear again? Her mind still played out AJs last words to her. That was her only comfort. He was going to come back and he was going to marry her.
Harry would just have to live with that.
And Kelly wasn't going to just slip away like before. Like she always did. No, Grace would keep the family together after this. They deserved it, they needed it. At least, she needed it.
"Grace, if you need anything else, please let us know. Anything at all."
"I'm fine. I just want my family back."
"I know. And I will do everything in my power to bring them back. I promise you that. I will not let anything happen to them."
"Thank you," Grace forced the coffee down her throat in one gulp. The bitter aftertaste was a welcoming sense to her dulled brain.
"The countdown is going to start soon. I have to go back downstairs, but there will be someone outside the door."
Grace nodded at Truman and smiled. It made her face hurt. "Where can I watch the launch?"
"There is a viewing station outside. I will have someone take you, if you want."
Truman ducked outside, and returned with the coffee man. With a few bows the young man took her arm and led her carefully past running aids and scientists to a small outdoor patio. There were a dozen military men here already, and a huge flag in the background. She could see the two towers and shuttles clearly from here.
She couldn't see which was which from her perspective, but it didn't really matter.
A large countdown clock resonated with each passing second as the time dropped from three minutes to two, then one, then the final thirty seconds. Grace dug her nails into her palms as a voice began the countdown as well. Cameras flashed from all angles around the shuttles, and a great cheer went up as they reached ten seconds. To Grace, it was a morbid new years countdown, where at the end there would be a great celebration.
A celebration for her husband, her father, and her sister to fly into space, and possibly never come home. Grace kept trying to shove those thoughts away, but no matter how she tried to convince herself that it was all going to end okay, her heart was ice. There was no more happiness in her.
As the shuttles lit up in two great burning fires and left their docks, she willed them to keep going up, to keep flying, to reach the stars. She did smile, then. The first challenge was over. They had survived. Now they just had to come home.
AJ wished he had a window to see out of, or at the very least something to watch other than the tech crews preparing for take off. Each was stoic and mechanical about the motions, and none was comforting. Was it too much to ask for a joke?
Though listening to Oscar was becoming painful. The other man just would not shut up. He kept blathering about how tight he wanted his harness so that he didn't fall out. Where did he think he was going to fall to? They were going to frickin outer space.
All too soon the techs were gone and the doors sealed. It was really here.
A voice boomed over the radio in the cabin and cleared the shuttle for final countdown.
AJ closed his eyes and sent his heart out to Grace. I'll be back before you know it, he mouthed. Just wait a little for me.
AJ heard a stifled grunt and opened his eyes. Turning his head as far as he could he saw Kelly. Her face was a stone, but her lips were tight and her body rigid. AJ knew that she was afraid of flying, that and something was messing with her mind. So long as she could stay focused once they were on the rock.
He wished he knew what to say to her, what to do. He hadn't really gotten to know Kelly before she left the crew for school. After that, he had been able to go out with her and Grace a few times, and the other guys who had raised her had told him stories, but he had never really had a heart to heart with the woman.
Now probably wasn't the best time, but when this was over, AJ was going to find out what kind of sister he had adopted.
"How ya doing back there? Bear treatin you alright?"
Kelly cracked an eye at him and tried to smile. She looked in pain.
"In the seat pocket before you are the barf bags, just saying," AJ laughed quietly. At least her smile was now somewhat real. Though she did look like she wanted to hit him over the head. "The worst part is taking off."
"How would you know? You gone to space before?" she snapped.
"Well, I just figure it can't be much different from flying."
That brought a laugh from Oscar and even a grunt from Bear. At least they were laughing, and that was important. AJ had seen from Harry that charisma was important among men, and that happy men were more likely to take your orders and do them than men who thought they could lead better.
He had promised to do his best, and he was going to bring them all home.
AJ realized with a start that even though he had his own business, his own drills, he didn't have a team. He had employees, but none that he was ready to invite into his life. Harry had his entire family here. Harry was truly a great man.
An ass, yes, but a great man.
And his father, if Grace had her way.
Well not everyone could say with honesty that their father had shot them in the leg.
That had to be something.
Harry wished he had someway to contact the other shuttle. Kelly must be a mess. And AJ really wasn't ready for this. Why were all the kids on one team, with only Bear to keep an eye on them? Maybe he should have kept Kelly with him, and sent Chick over. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
He had been running these questions all day, all week for that matter.
And every time he could find some rationalization. There were strengths and weaknesses that balanced each team. That was vital.
Bear was a more efficient driller than Max. That meant that Harry wanted Chick to keep an eye on the armadillo that Max ran. Kelly always did her best work out from under Harry, which lined her up with Bear. He wanted to keep an eye on Rockhound. And the younger three would just work better together than broken up and forced into tighter positions. They would take orders from AJ better.
Harry just hoped AJ was up for the task.
There was no going back now.
Their fate was in God's hands, now.
The president's speech ended and the radio fell silent. It was time. There was no pushing it from his mind, the time was now.
He could see Grace's face in his head. And Kelly, and AJ. Then a fourth. Cassandra's face swam into view. Her long brown hair framing piercing brown eyes. She had always been so beautiful, even angry. Harry remembered his wife everyday, but he didn't tell anyone that.
If the others knew that Harry was still in love with the woman that had left him with a business and two daughter to raise, that he still wanted her back despite the way she had hurt him, they would go berserk.
She had left all of them.
And for what? What had she found that was so much better than her family? Her daughters?
Kelly had blamed him for Cassie's actions. Maybe not anymore, but for years after her mother left Kelly had gazed upon him with despise and hatred. Grace had forgiven him, and had stood beside him, but not Kelly.
Harry in hindsight wished that he had worked things out with Kelly rather than simply pushing her away. How much had they lost because he didn't want to be in pain? Had he forced his own daughter away to protect himself? And why only with Kelly?
Was it because her laugh was Cassie's, or her temper?
Why had he given her up so easily?
Was it too late to bring them back together? Maybe bringing AJ in would pave the path for fixing problems, or at least trying to work them out.
When they got back, they would be a family again. No more calls and emails. They would be a family and keep in touch and create memories. And no more painful memories. Kelly and Brian would see reason and make up, Grace and AJ would marry, and Harry would make sure his family was happy.
When they got back.
Brian finished his seventh cup of coffee and third slice of pie while listening to the president speak.
It was almost time, and now he was out of the care package the waitress had given him as he had left the lot. That had been kind of her, and she had refused payment for them too. Said something like if the world is going to end soon, what was the point of charging? She said it with a laugh.
He had promised to bring his wife with him the next time he passed through.
Traffic was backed up to a standstill at the state crossing, and soldiers weren't letting anyone move. Constant shouts for patience and that normal flow would resume after the launch did little to appease the crowd. They wanted to get into the state for a hundred different reasons.
Three different fights had broken out, and more than one set of insurance cards was passing from hand to hand as careless boredom turned into small accidents. Brian just tried to stay in his corner of the world. He would deal with the scratches and dings from other car doors and various items being dragged past his car later.
More than once a soldier had tapped his window and asked for id. And every time Brian had cooperated, and then returned to his own devices. His radio was at full volume as the news chatter counted down the time to the launch. Twenty minutes. Apparently the crews were aboard and final preparations were being made.
Brian leaned up and looked at yet another soldier's face. He returned his seat to its upright position and rolled down the window. "You guys have already checked my id six times. I haven't changed in the last ten minutes, so if you really want to check again you are welcome, but-"
"Are you Brian DiMarco? Husband of Kelly Stamper?"
"Uh, yeah, yeah she is my wife."
"Come with us, please. You have other arrangements. Your car will be picked up later."
"Harry Stamper asked us to keep an eye out for you and bring you to Kennedy. We are in a bit of a hurry, sir."
Brian grabbed his coat from the chair next to him and practically stumbled out the car door. Other arrangements, huh. Thanks Harry. I owe you one.
He was bustled from the road to a waiting chopper. From there he was given a birds eyes view of the launch pad. And of the grid lock that spanned most of the state as he passed overhead.
A crackling radio came to life in his headphones. "T-minus five minutes. We have been denied permission to land and will hover until the shuttles have left. Should be another ten minutes or so till we are back on the ground. You will be escorted from there to a waiting room with Grace Stamper where you will be filled in and taken care of."
"Got it," Brian shouted. Leaning to the window he watched as the sun finished its descent and deep blue blanketed the sky. Great spotlights illuminated the two shuttles, but he had no clue which was Kelly's. The surrounding crowds were huge, and cameras were flashing non stop beneath him.
The shuttles were separated from the tall elevators and the final countdown began. Great fires began to burn beneath the twin behemoths and smoke enveloped the entire site. As bright as flares, the two shuttles emerged from the cloud and gained speed. The blast wave from the ignition hit the chopped and he was tossed a bit, but not enough to tear his eyes from the rising stars. Soon they were in the atmosphere, and then gone from sight.
"We are going to move in to land, now, sir."
Brian nodded at the watching soldiers and braced himself. It had begun.