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Jack Yeovil

Comeback Tour

Dark Future 4

PROLOGUE

Cape Canaveral, 1978.

The Dream was dying.

Commander Lawrence Jerome Fonvielle gritted his teeth and held back tears as the console lights went out, bank by bank. The technicians were calmly proceeding with the shutdown, going from desk to desk, flicking switches and pulling wires. They were as thorough and efficient as he would have demanded them to be, had he still been responsible for issuing their orders. His title was almost purely honorary, now. You couldn't be a Commander when the Suits took your command out from under you.

'We have a splash-down, sir,' said Wardle, still monitoring the Big Screen. 'Dead centre of the target area.'

The Old Magic. American Know-How. It was still there.

'The USS Eisenhower is deploying the Sikorskis to pick up Santini's men.'

Fonvielle nodded. He could not count the number of splashdowns he had anxiously lived through. This, he knew, would be the last.

Bobbing out there in the South Pacific in their Vulcan capsule were the last generation. Eleven men and three women in a tin can, waiting to be choppered out before the spacecraft sank.

'Camp Glenn is still operational, sir. Good steady signals.'

Fonvielle could not reply. He looked at the monitors. The base in the Sea of Tranquillity, so recently evacuated, would continue its measuring, evaluating and transmitting long after there was anyone on Earth interested in the data. These days, if there wasn't any money in it, no one gave a damn. Fonvielle was an old-time fighter jock himself, and the new math gave him a headache, but he could appreciate the beauty of the data. He understood the gleam in the scientists' eyes as they pored over the rock samples or the graph curves.

The Dream wasn't about money. It wasn't just about data, either, but that was part of it. The Dream was about Victory. This was America's purest conquest, the fulfilment of a national destiny. The wars were still being fought, the war for the ownership of the sky.' Fonvielle still believed what he had heard all through his training. The sky belonged to the men who could take it, to the men with the Right Stuff. The Dream was about sticking your hand into the sky and making a fist, holding it fast.

'Edwards has been monitoring steadily since last night,' said Wardle. 'I'm closing our contact.'

Fonvielle had done his year in Tranquillity back in the '60s, when Richard Nixon was president and the Needlepoint System was still in the planning stages. He remembered Camp Glenn as a peaceful place; his off-duty time spent suited up outside the dome, his intercom down, the silence and stillness stretching out forever, had been the most intense experiences of his life. None of his marriages had offered any hours to compare with those. He had been withdrawn from the spaceside of the programme after a psychiatric evaluation diagnosed him as prone to what they were calling Raptures of the Stars, that curious detachment that affected long-term astronauts. A lot of space jocks got religion when they flopped down to Earth, or cracked up. Fonvielle had just hiked himself up the chain of command. If he couldn't have the sky himself, he would make sure that his country kept its grip on it.

'Excuse me, sir.'

An orange-suited technician slipped between him and the Tranquillity Monitor, and broke the contacts. The screen winked out. Glenn was still transmitting, but its signal was being fed into a computer bank at Edwards now. The administration trusted the machines to alert them if the automatic sensors came up with anything interesting.

The Needlepoint System. That was where the programme had sailed into choppy waters. It had been President Nixon's legacy. Trickydick had done so well with his 1960 inaugural promise to put an American on the moon by 1965, with Glenn and Schirra touching down a full nine months ahead of schedule, that he had resolved publicly to do something about the balance of power, and sworn to ring the Earth with a series of weapons satellites capable of knocking out a flight of Soviet bombers scrambling in Tashkent, or, indeed, a cockroach scuttling across a loft floor in Harlem.

A woman came into the control room with an armful of semi-opaque polythene sheets, and doled them out. They fitted over the equipment like loose condoms, and gave the consoles, monitors, terminals and databanks a ghostlike feel. Now the dust could settle in peace.

Fonvielle had been second-in-command of the Needlepoint Project when Nixon gracefully bowed out in '68, passing on the presidential seal to Barry Goldwater. Then, NASA had really screwed the pooch. During the years of struggle and failure, as system after system crashed, he had fought long and hard with his subordinates at suppressing the nickname everyone in NASA was using for the programme. The Needledick System.

Wardle took off his headphones, and dropped them on his desk. The usual clutter—pictures of his kids, coffee cups, markerpens, scribblepads, the Mickey Mouse mug—had been cleared away. He was the last of them. And he would be transferring tomorrow. A few ot the lesser lights were dim enough to put up with the travesty at Edwards. The rest were quitting the service. The private sector was dangling fat contracts in front of more than a few NASA personnel, particularly ex-astronauts with high-profile names. But Fonvielle knew those jobs were just glamour assignments, with no guts. The corporate space programmes didn't need men, they needed human adding machines with currency symbols carved on their hearts.

'The Eisenhower just hauled Santini and the rest out of the drink. That's over with.'

Fonvielle couldn't trust himself to reply.

'Chrissie Farren says 'hi'.'

Fonvielle nodded. Chrissie had been the third woman in space. He remembered her as an eager-beaver lieutenant. The jocks had taken bets about who would get first into her electrically-heated long Johns. He couldn't remember who, if anyone, had swept the pool.

Wardle was disengaged from his console now. He pulled on his civilian jacket, and walked away.

Fonvielle had been among the first to transfer to NASA, shifting from the X-11 programme in the '50s. And now he was one of the last to get out of the kitchen.

The heat had really started with President Agnew. Spiro T. had insisted on seeing some return for the billions of federal dollars that had been flushed into the bowl of the Needlepoint Project. Fonvielle had argued the System wasn't ready for testing. He knew only too well that the bugs needed a through ironing-out.

After the moonbase fiasco, when Needlepoint had come within fifteen feet of breaching the dome during the test run, Agnew had ridden hard on NASA. Senate Committees were set up, and the Suits descended on Houston and Canaveral. Men with ledgers eased men with vision out of their seats.

The space programme had had a twenty-year run, and the gravy days were over. America had conquered the moon, and left the Soviets and their sputniks standing. Russia had had too many internal problems to divert the funds to Star City, and their programme had fizzled when the first man into space rained back on the steppes as microscopic ash. His name had been Yuri Gagarin, Fonvielle remembered. The Soviets could have recovered, but the pointless war in Vietnam had drained all their military and scientific muscle. Star City had been a ghost town for ten years.

A ghost town. Just like Canaveral would be tomorrow.

'Sir?'

Fonvielle was distracted. The matronly woman in charge of the shut-down shoved a clipboard at him.

'Your signature, sir. By the X.'

She handed him a pen, and he scrawled.

'Thank you, sir.'

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