The State Fair was out at Spaceport America this year. Sue contemplated a slow death from boredom.
“It’ll be fun,” Dad said, and Mom utterly refused to put her foot down, so off they went to White Sands. Dad let the car drive for once. Mom downloaded a book. Sue ignored the racket of Billy’s handheld game.
It was after ten when they reached the fair with the crowds and lost balloons floating free. Sue wished she could take off like they did. The sky was clear and blue, the white contrails of jets the only accent notes in the heavens.
Inside the gate Dad and Billy spotted the Army’s precision drone team and Mom wanted to see the exhibit on soy biodiesel so ditching the family was easy. “Stay hydrated!” Dad called.
Sue meandered, paying no attention to robotic displays or GMO pumpkins, surrounded by strangers who actually looked interested in dumb things like that. The talking dog was amusing until she figured out he wasn’t any smarter than Rusty back home even if Rusty didn’t talk.
The sun was high and a Coke was $25, so she started looking around for someplace to get out of the heat.
The booth ahead said, “Fly to Spce!” It was almost empty, so she ducked in to cool off.
A large man in a faded sky blue uniform said, “We’re going to need permission from a parent or guardian, miss.”
Sue rolled her eyes. “For what? Coming in here?”
A little guy in greasy coveralls took the cigar butt out of his mouth (gross!) and said, “Like the sign says. Fly to space. Twenty thousand dollars. Minors gotta have permission.”
“It says, ‘Fly to Spce’,” Sue said.
The big guy laughed and said, “Fair enough. One letter fell off back at Mojave. Here, come on, kid.” He headed out.
Sue knew about going off with strangers, but there were plenty of people in screaming range so she followed.
Outside, he waved eastwards. There was a rocket standing up on one of the pads, gleaming white in the desert sun. “It’s a Russian booster. Scaled Composites capsule. We pop up to eight klicks and glide right back again. Six passengers and they get gen-you-wine pilot’s wings at the end. Twice daily for the length of the fair.”
That sounded pretty cheesy. Sue popped a stick of gum in her mouth and offered the pack to the big guy. “When are you launching?”
He took a stick and grinned. “Soon as we have six suckers lined up and get clearance. Ralph was hoping you’d be number six.”
Sue chewed her gum, thinking about it. She could squeeze $20,000 onto her credit card, but it’d take her four months of double shifts at McDonalds to pay it off. “No thanks. Not today.”
Behind them a high school band was mangling the Liberty Bell March. Ralph came out of the booth accompanied by a heavyset man in a cowboy hat. “Here’s your passenger, Captain Williams,” he said, ignoring Sue. “Your launch window is in five minutes. I’ve called the others.”
“What happens if they don’t answer?”
Ralph scowled at her. “Paid in advance. No refunds.”
The magic words. Others arrived – a couple thrill-seeking teenagers, a man and his son, a middle-aged woman with a determined expression on her face.
Captain Williams told Sue quietly, “You can’t see the launch for crap from the grandstand, and we’re coming in on Runway 3. You can see best from right here, okay?”
Sue popped her gum. “Okay. What the heck.”
There were announcements on the PA. The Emcee was working the countdown for all it was worth. “Another flight of danger and daring for the intrepid Captain Rance Williams,” she barked. “Ten seconds to liftoff on a pillar of fire, ladies and gentlemen … Four! Three! Two! One!”
It wasn’t anything like TV. The engines fired, flames brighter than the sun, the sound beating at Sue’s chest. Then the launch, starting ever-so-slowly, the winged capsule atop the slender booster reaching for the sky. Sue bent backwards, shading her eyes to watch it roaring upward. She found herself whispering, “Go, baby!”
“The booster comes down off to the east, on a couple big chutes.” Ralph was standing next to her. He pointed out a tiny mote high in the blue sky. “That’s it there. The capsule will be coming in from over that way.”
Come in she did! Captain Williams brought her in low and fast. Sue’s pulse rattled.
The sonic boom rattled the bleachers, rang in Sue’s ears and made the crowd go, “Ohh!” Captain Williams pitched the capsule’s nose up and rolled it hard, then drifted around for another pass on the landing strip. The capsule slid down the runway on her skids, stopping less than a hundred yards from the “Fly to Spce” booth. Sue watched as the passengers climbed out, clothes stained with vomit and faces red with excitement, and her heart beat so hard she could feel it.
“There you are, kitten.” She heard her father behind her. “It’s about time we were going home.”
Now? Sue knew better than to groan. “Okay.” She glanced back one more time. A tiny tractor was hitched up to the capsule, the driver bored and without a care for Sue’s exhilaration. Standing on the back of it, Captain Williams waved.
Sue waved back until her arm hurt, then turned to her father.
“Dad,” she said, “what does it take to be a rocket pilot?”