The walk from Flight Ops to the residential wing of the Roosa Barracks always felt too long, and doubly so after a mission had taken him away from home. Peter Caudell reminded himself that this place had gone through a lot of changes since the first time he'd been here, back in the days when this part of Grissom City was still "the moonbase," when Slayton Field was just a few landing pads.
Not to mention that one simply did not fail to visit the Wall of Honor upon returning home after a mission. Even if it took you out of your way to get from the debriefing rooms to your destination, you paid your respects to the fallen heroes of spaceflight, from the Gemini VIII disaster to the present.
At least Environmental Systems had finally gotten rid of the odor of old gym shoes that always lingered in his memories of his first tour of duty up here. On his walk through the residential wing, past the apartments of his colleagues and neighbors, one after another savory odor tickled his nose: real cooking, from the products of the vast greenhouse farms out on the Sea of Tranquillity.
Back in the old days, NASA had run things like a warship at sea or an Antarctic research station. You might eat in the dining commons with your colleagues or take your packaged astronaut meal to eat while you worked on a project, but food was still something your employer provided along with the other necessities of life up here. These days Grissom City had a regular civilian economy, and when you were at home you bought food like you would in family housing on an Earthside military base.
The odor wafting from under his own front door smelled at once foreign and familiar. Martha had texted that the biology labs had done a major cull of the mouse colony and Emily had brought home enough for all three of them to have a Roman feast. Of course the fish sauce would be nuoc mam from the Vietnamese grocery rather than actual garum, but was it that different from using lab mice instead of actual dormice?
A quick swipe of his key card and he was in. His wife and daughter were at the table, going over something on a tablet computer. The moonglass table might not look like the battered wooden one Peter remembered from his childhood, but it served the same purpose as hub of family activity.
Peter sat down beside his daughter. "I hear you're having some trouble with your homework."
He'd expected it to be math or science. Instead Emily answered, "We're supposed to write an essay for Memorial Day, and Mrs. Darden said I ought to do one on astronauts. But how?"
With so few young people up here, Emily was doing distance learning with the lab school at his old alma mater. It made for some interesting assignments.
"You do realize that most of the early astronauts were military test pilots. Even today, a significant part of the astronaut corps is recruited from the military, and pilots always come from the military aviation community."
"Sure." How could she not know, when her own father was a US Navy aviator, like his ur-brother before him? "But even when it was still a Cold War thing, they were on detached duty while they were with NASA. It wasn't like they were going to be shooting down Soviet spacecraft."
"She's got a point, Peter." Martha gave them a wry smile. "Even when the Kolya-Yozhik Affair turned ugly, the astronauts weren't going to be hunting Savitsky down and beating him up."
Peter chuckled, imagining the astrodynamic impossibility of an Apollo Command-Service Module in hot pursuit of a Soyuz. "True, the Space Race missions were symbolic combat, a way of pitting America's free market economy against the Soviet system. But by the Energy Wars the astronaut corps was making a significant contribution to the war effort. The Department of Defense has its own network of weather and communications satellites, but they're completely dependent upon NASA for on-orbit servicing."
A soft sigh escaped Emily's lips. She was trying hard not to sound like a sulking teenager. "But it's still not quite the same. There's not the danger--"
Peter tried not to laugh. "There was plenty of danger, kiddo. Dale Malton drowned in the neutral buoyancy pool during training for one of those DoD support missions. And when the Space Shuttle Independence had an OMS malfunction initiating re-entry, they had to make an emergency landing in the Gulf of Mexico, and only four of the seven crew members got out."
Emily nodded, eyes brightening with recognition. "You've told me how you and Uncle Bob helped raise the orbiter."
"Yes, he was in on that operation, and it was a hairy one." Peter recalled working alongside his clone-brother, who'd been an aquanaut the US Navy's undersea habitat program. "I can arrange for you to interview him and you could write it up."
He noticed his daughter's disappointed expression. "What's wrong, sweetie?"
"Nothing's wrong, Dad. It's a great idea--for a segment in oceanography in science class. But those kinds of accidents could happen any time, even on a purely civilian mission. It's not like actually getting shot at."
"Ah, that's it. Everybody else is going to be writing about combat heroes, and you're going to be stuck with REMF's. Then how about the day a group of terrorists broke into Johnson Space Center and started shooting up the heart of America's space program? I was there, you realize."
"I thought you were on staff duty during the E-Wars."
"I was. But General Grissom was in charge of Ellington Air Force Base then." At his wife's raised eyebrows, he added, "Yes, it's irregular for a Navy officer to be on an Air Force general's staff, but it's also irregular for a man of his rank to be running a minor base that mostly does support for NASA. Officially he claimed he wanted to free up someone younger for a combat command. Knowing him, I'd say he wanted to get into the fight somehow, and who was going to refuse the first man on the Moon?"
Martha allowed that point, and Peter began to recount the events of that terrible day.
Summer in Houston could make walking off the flight line an endurance contest. Peter felt as if he were forcing his way through a wall of soggy air. And here Gus thought that if we headed out before sunrise, we could get our flight hours in for the week and get back before it got hot.
However, Peter wasn't going to let his misery show, not in front of the boss. Definitely not in front of a man whose extensive scarring made this kind of heat even worse, but who walked across the tarmac with the stoic aplomb of a Roman legionnaire.
Still, it was a relief to get inside an air-conditioned building and out of that sweat-soaked flight suit. Some cold water splashed on his face and Peter felt as good as he had at 38,000 feet, where you needed the cockpit heater.
General Grissom was already at his desk, a pair of half-lens reading glasses perched upon his nose as he read through several faxes. At his elbow was a thick stack of binders, mostly performance reports from the looks of them, although Peter could see several NASA folders in there. Even while nominally retired, Gus had kept his hand in the space program, advising the development of the new generation of Space Shuttle orbiters.
He looked up from his work. "American Eagle lifted off without a hitch yesterday morning, and nobody's found the first hint of terrorists. Wonder how many more of these goddamn false alarms we're going to have to put up with?"
Peter started to say something about the cry-wolf problem when the phone rang. Gus answered with a growl of irritation.
His eyes widened, and up went his eyebrows. "Come again?"
It must've been bad, because he dropped the receiver and swore. "We were wrong. Completely ass-backward wrong."
"Sir?" Peter groped for an appropriate response.
Gus pulled off those reading glasses. "Those sons of bitches are at Johnson, not Kennedy."
Johnson? They hit Johnson? Peter realized his mouth had fallen open and quick closed it.
Gus was back on the phone. "Just got a call from Trent Dahlquist at Johnson. Somebody's shooting up the place."
Whatever the other guy said, Gus didn't like it. "Goddammit, I could hear the shooting. And then the connection went dead."
Trent Dahlquist was a naval aviator in the latest crop of astronauts, the first to include clones of the members of the third selection group. He and his wife had acquired the old Armstrong place and had renovated it to the point you could hardly recognize it.
And now he's taking fire. Peter wished he had spent some more time with the new astronauts, instead of using work here at Ellington to drown his personal problems. He only half heard Gus saying something about Air Police and meeting them at the gate.
All the way to the gate, Peter did his best to look like a competent staff officer accompanying the base commander. Behind the mask of professionalism his mind reeled. They're attacking Johnson Space Center. They're shooting at astronauts.
At the head of the Skycop squad stood a lieutenant who looked fresh out of college. His subordinates looked more like they belonged in high school. I know they're hurrying people through, what with it being wartime and everything, but isn't this a little much? Especially when we're complaining about the other side using child soldiers. Or am I just getting old?
Young as that lieutenant might look, he did stay calm and professional when the big boss came up. Peter had seen older and more seasoned officers melt into a puddle of awe when confronted with an angry three-star general or admiral. This guy listened as Gus described that brief telephone call and its abrupt end, and even asked good questions to clarify the situation.
Satisfied the Skycops understood what they'd face, Gus headed over to the waiting cars. "Let's get going."
"Sir?" The lieutenant stepped forward, not quite blocking his path. "You can't--"
Gus's expression darkened, the famous scars pulling taut. "When's the last time you were at Johnson?"
"Uh, I haven't." The lieutenant's voice became small and awkward. "I transferred in just last month and I--"
"I've been there since it was empty ground." Gus resumed his walk to the first car in the column.
Sirens blaring, the column of Air Police tore down NASA Road 1 to Johnson Space Center. They roared past the famous populuxe sign topped with the figure of an astronaut floating outside a Gemini spacecraft.
As tight as security usually was for employees and visitors, Peter expected to be challenged, need to show ID, maybe even wait for them to call in and get clearance. The guard took one look at the man riding shotgun in the first car and waved them right through.
Seated behind Gus, Peter wondered how the guard could be so casual. Hadn't word gotten out here that they were under attack?
This is a civilian agency with a civilian mindset. They see cop cars and assume we're the good guys coming to the rescue.
Still, getting in fast meant they could start hunting terrorists that much sooner. Gus was already growling about "goddamn ragheads."
Ahead loomed the famous facade of the JSC administration building, the Stars and Stripes flapping in front of it alongside the Lone Star flag and the NASA flag. That facade had been used as an establishing shot for so many shows, from news and documentaries to TV comedies, that it was people's go-to image for Johnson. If these kids' primary image of the facility came from reruns of My Other Car Is a Space Shuttle, they'd be lost as soon as they got past the main entrance and visitors' center.
They pulled the cars to a halt just past Picasso's famous Ad Astra sculpture. Everyone piled out and made for the main entrance.
The moment Peter got through the doors and saw the destruction, a lump formed in his throat and his vision swam. He blinked back the incipient tears with the knowledge that he had come to stop the people who had vented their fury upon the original artworks and irreplaceable space artifacts which adorned the entrance hall.
A sharp pop-pop-pop captured his attention. Small-arms fire.
"That way." Peter gestured toward the administrative offices. "They're still shooting."
Except they'd already been here and gone. Broken furniture and blood-spattered walls bore silent witness to the carnage, but any survivors had already fled. If anyone was still sheltering in place, they were scared enough they weren't coming out for an Air Force police unit.
Which was probably just as well, because right now the team's focus needed to be on the shooters. With a good knowledge of the building's layout, he and Gus could lead the Skycops through the place and determine the terrorists had done their damage and moved on.
After the air-conditioned building, the humidity hit hard. Peter wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead and scanned the area, trying to locate the intermittent sounds of gunfire. Much as he wanted to run across the open plazas, he knew they couldn't expose themselves to fire that way. In this kind of situation you used whatever cover your surroundings provided, and stayed ready to dive behind it if another round of gunfire started.
Which happened several times. Twice Peter thought he heard screams, but it was hard to tell with all the sirens in the distance. Still, it was small comfort to know civilian law enforcement agencies were arriving when he was hearing so much gunfire, when he expected bullets to go zipping past his ear at any moment.
A figure darted from behind one of the buildings, along the wall toward the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. What was that in his hand? A weapon? A cellphone?
The Skycops weren't of a mind to find out. "Stop! Police!"
The intruder shot a glance over his shoulder and bolted. Those Skycops might be in top shape, fast enough to leave their astronaut guides struggling to keep up, but their quarry had a head start. By the time they got around the corner to the entrance, he was out of sight.
The Skycop lieutenant grabbed the door, tried to pull it open. "Damn, they've jammed it."
Several of them looked around, barely glancing at the two astronauts catching up with them. "What can we use as a ram?"
"No, it's just locked." Gus reached over to enter a code on the electronic keypad. With a click the deadbolt retracted and the door swung open to let them in.
"Then how did he get in here?" The Skycops cast a dubious look down the corridor.
How do we know he came inside? Before Peter could get the words out, Gus and the Air Police lieutenant got to speculating about an inside job. Gus was grumbling about the questionable loyalty of certain people of Middle Eastern extraction who were allowed access to the historic materials from the Apollo landings, while the Skycop seemed more worried about people whose financial problems could tempt them to sell the necessary codes.
How to point out that this speculation wasn't the most productive use of their time and effort, without looking insubordinate to his commanding officer? Peter's thoughts were interrupted by the sharp crack of a pistol shot, followed by several volleys of fire.
He wasn't even consciously aware of taking cover. One minute he was in the middle of the corridor, looking for some evidence of their runner's path, and the next he was flattened against the wall, trying to stay out of the Skycops' way while they opened fire.
And Gus was right in the fight alongside them. Not surprising that he'd manage to arm himself, given the man's reputation as a scrapper.
A bullet ricocheted off the far wall and came altogether too close to Peter's head. An abstract corner of his mind wondered how Estelle would mourn him. If he'd come back from the moonbase when he'd been scheduled, their marriage probably would have bobbled along as it had through his other assignments away. But retrieving the Second Mars Expedition had meant an extra six months up there, by which time the strain had reached the breaking point. They'd agreed to stay together until the children were grown, but these days they were just going through the motions.
"Dammit, can we get those sons of bitches pinned down?" Gus switched magazines in his pistol, looking irritated that he'd gone through so much ammo so fast.
He looked up at Peter. "Take half the squad back to the cross-corridor and past the old quarantine facility. Then we'll have them pinned down."
Instead of a proper Navy 'aye aye, sir,' Peter blurted out, "Sure, Gus."
From down the corridor came a Texas-accented voice. "Gus? Who ever heard of a raghead named Gus?"
Gus fired back, "And who ever heard of an astronaut named Gus?"
"That is you." There could be no mistaking the awe in the voice of the man who stuck his head around the corner. "I was eight when you went to the Moon. I never thought I'd end up in a firefight with you."
"And you were damn lucky you didn't get yourself killed." Gus wagged the muzzle of his pistol. "Now get out here where I can see you. All of you."
Out stepped a squad of police in riot gear. Houston Police Department SWAT team from the looks of their insignia. At least they had the grace to act embarrassed. Probably imagining what would've happened to them if they'd managed to shoot the first man on the Moon.
Gus gave them a glower so fierce Peter shrank a little, never mind he wasn't its target. "What the hell were you thinking, opening fire like that without even making sure of your target?"
That question got a sheepish admission that they'd thought they'd seen one of the terrorists around the corner. Gus responded with a dressing-down so profane it could blister paint at a hundred yards. On consideration, Peter allowed Gus was probably exceeding his authority, but after getting caught in a friendly-fire incident with these guys, it was a satisfying sight.
"Now that we have that matter settled, we search the building for the terrorists we both thought we saw run in here. Since our radios don't work on the same frequency," Gus scowled at the SWAT team leader's radio, which had been squawking reports from HPD dispatch and other units the whole time, "we'll exchange people so we can talk to each other." He indicated two cops on each team to switch. "You search around the old quarantine facility, and we'll check the labs."
That settled, they broke up to make a thorough search of the building. Although Peter wasn't going to ask, he had a pretty good idea why his boss had divided the task as he did. Three weeks of quarantine might not be much compared to the three months Peter had gone through after bringing the crew of the Second Mars Expedition down to the moonbase, but he'd have no great desire to have to search that facility either.
As it turned out, they just found a number of scientists sheltering in place. If one of them was their runner, he wasn't going to admit that he'd panicked and fled instead of identifying himself. Peter had a strong suspicion that their quarry had never even come in, especially considering what he was overhearing from the chatter on the SWAT team's radios. Which meant the sooner they got done searching and moved on, the sooner they'd be back to looking for Trent and the other astronauts coming under fire.
By the time they emerged from the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, everything had gone strangely quiet. Not hearing any more shooting was good, but Peter was disinclined to just go traipsing through the open areas to the building that housed the Astronaut Office. For all they knew, some of the terrorists might just be keeping their heads down until a particularly inviting target presented itself.
As they passed the entrance of Building 54, someone whistled the first several measures of "Anchors Aweigh." Startled, Peter looked over to see a man crouching in the meager shelter of the doorframe. There was something familiar about that face.
Add about twenty years and some burn scars, and you'll have his ur-brother. Peter searched his memory for the name of the Chaffee clone in the new selection group. "Braden? Braden Maitland? Are you OK?"
"Bruised from diving for cover when the shooting started, and pissed about having to hide like a coward." Among friends once again, the younger astronaut stood up, brushed off his chinos. "If I'd had one of my hunting rifles, I could've bagged a couple of those assholes."
Peter suppressed a chuckle, recalling the admiral's stories about his various hunting trips. Could that taste for the sport be genetic?
No time to ponder such philosophical abstractions, not when they needed to find out what he'd seen and heard. Except all they got was a rueful shake of his head.
"Sorry, guys, but I was coming back from the simulators when I heard the first gunshots. I was trying to make it back to the Astronaut Office, but this was as far as I got when the alarm went off for everyone to shelter in place." He held up his lanyard with its ID's and electronic keys. "None of my key cards give me access to any of these buildings, so all I could do was hunker down in the best cover I could find and wait things out."
"Probably the best you could do." Gus might be known for his gruffness, but he had a special place in his heart for the clones of the men who'd served under him. "Let's get going. We've got work to do."
However, as they approached their goal, a tall man came jogging out to meet them. Braden's eyes widened with astonishment. "Trent?"
"Sorry, no." The solemn-faced Cernan clone held up a badge. "I'm Gregory Horn with the FBI. We're asking that all the other agencies stand down and let us secure things."
In other words, thanks for nothing. Peter quelled his annoyance at the news. Getting into a turf war with another Federal agency wouldn't help anybody. Not to mention that he didn't need to be speaking out of turn when his boss had questions of his own.
"So you've caught the terrorists?"
"Unfortunately, no. From the looks of it, they must've had orders not to be taken alive. The last one holed up outside Building 82 and got himself killed in a firefight with some Harris County sheriff's deputies. It means we're not going to be able to interrogate any of them, so it'll be that much harder to find out exactly who's behind them, or whether they had any other surprises planned."
Gus gave Agent Horn a curt nod. "Then we can get into the Astronaut Office? We've got a friend we're trying to find." He explained about Trent's call.
"Not possible. The whole place is a crime scene, and there's no way we can let anybody in. We're still trying to find all the dead and wounded." Horn paused, studying Braden, whose pensive expression was becoming actively painful. "I'm not supposed to give out information until the next of kin are notified, but you deserve to know."
"He didn't make it, did he?"
Horn shook his head. "No, but he was trying. We found him in the corridor outside his office. Near as we can tell, he was trying to drag himself to another phone and get the word out. He was a brave man, and damn tough."
"So what happened after that?" Emily was typing as fast as the tablet's virtual keyboard could handle. Her half-eaten meal was growing cold in front of her.
"We couldn't leave the grounds until the FBI finished securing the place, so Horn connected us with a group of astronauts who'd evacuated the Astronaut Office building. They were singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," and from there we went through just about every patriotic tune we knew. "America the Beautiful," "God Bless the USA," the various service hymns. One of the Air Police was from New England, and he started singing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'"
"Ouch." Martha was a native Texan herself, and knew how well that would go over in a state that had once been part of the Confederacy.
"Oh, the Houston cops might not be happy about it, but they weren't going to make a stink about it, not then. But I still made sure that the next thing we sang was 'Dixie.' North and South, we were all Americans right then."
"But what happened to Trent Dahlquist?"
Peter had elided over the grisly details of his murder, not wanting to give her nightmares, but he could tell Emily wasn't going to conveniently forget about his fate. What to tell her? "He was given a hero's burial at Arlington, and his name is remembered in the astronauts' roll of honor." He glanced over to Martha in query.
"I think this would be a wonderful time to take her to the Wall of Honor."
Fifteen minutes later, Peter and Emily were standing before the slabs of polished stone which had been quarried from an outcropping near the wreckage of the Soviets' failed first moonbase. Peter guided his daughter's attention to the names of the astronauts who'd died in the terrorist attack on Johnson Space Center. "Terry Wentworth was in the same selection group as I was. He was going over some technical specifications for the second-generation Space Shuttle orbiters when the terrorists burst into his office and shot him even as he was standing up to ask their business. And here's Lucius Belfontaine, who was shot while luring two of the terrorists away from the flight control rooms. American Eagle was right in the middle of a very difficult EVA, and things could've gone very bad up there if the terrorists had gotten at the flight controllers."
He surprised himself a little at just how much he remembered about each of the fifteen men and women who'd died that day. But then it had been right at the end of the era when the astronaut corps was still small enough that you could get to know all your colleagues. The years after the Energy Wars had brought a multitude of changes for the space community.
But there was no need to belabor the lesson. He could see by Emily's expression that it was no longer just an assignment for her.
Check out the next honorable mention of our Memorial Day contest!