"All systems Go? You ready to broadcast?"
"Yeah, I think we're good. Lemme run the checks, diagnostics..."
"All greened up, let's do this."
On Earth, an announcer finished a dry joke and began introducing the next bit.
"We've got something special for you guys tonight, a celebrity that's garnered success akin to the famed Evel Knievel! Remarkably, this daredevil continues to rocket forward without a single crash. Whoa ho, someone knock on wood for me!
But seriously folks, Mr. Gregory Alfred Baker, a plain-spoken man with beginnings in Motocross Races and Movie Stunts is the man of the hour. Raised in Phoenix, Arizona, he grew up in a family of four incredible people. Both parents are successful artists and his sister is a popular actress. Now, at the age of 32, the man will be attempting the longest jump in history..."
During this last statement, the view pans and zooms on a display before merging seamlessly into a stylized representation of a trajectory shot, "From the Moon, Home! To the Green Fields of Earth!"
The crowd goes wild, cheering, because now the intro graphics fade and show that still youthful face of Greg Baker, suited up and smiling, "Hey kids, kiss your ma' for me." His voice is clear, a bit deep, "And hey world, ol' Earth, how's it going? Just thought I'd give a wave before my little trip. I figure you'll be seeing enough of me over this week, so I'll keep it short so you don't get sick of my face."
Greg winks, "Anyway, folks, don't try this at home, or any of that nonsense; though I'd be surprised at how ya' got the moon into your backyard if you did manage. A big thanks goes out to all the friendly helpers from NASA and the Taikonauts. The stay at Moonbase Orchard was great, don't go batty up here. See everyone when I get to the ISS." He smiles, genuinely happy and carefree, and the feed cuts to a long-distance shot of the moon. It zooms, closer and closer, then settles with its focus on the launch track.
It could still be called a motorcycle. It was precisely balanced, ran on two wheels, and had a finely crafted, heavily tuned engine. Other than that, it was kind of hard to determine what was going on with this machine. There was no open cockpit, and the wheels were train-like and track-based. Antenna clusters stuck out from the front and back with camera ports and sensory arrays that would make an MIT student blush. It was bulky, big, and looked like it should fit three or four people. It fit one.
Gregory was a very cramped, immobile, and restless one. He could move his hands and upper arms a bit, but everything else was strapped or wedged in. Across his home world, viewers glanced at screens or stared outright at the gloved hands flipping switches. His ride jerked forward with the acceleration of God's hot rod, electric engines in each wheel yowling like banshees. Beneath the "bike", a monorail dipped to the horizon. Earth would be coming into view soon.
The g-forces were maddening but the aging stuntman smiled into his mouthpiece, "Alright kiddies, time to teach myself rocket science. Here's that giant leap ol' Armstrong was talking about." Ahead, the end of his "roadway" zoomed closer. The rail ended in a slight ramping curve. Earth was a brilliant blue in the starry sky. Greg felt his body pressed into itself for a brief moment of nausea... And then he'd broken free and was sailing into the void.
Video feed cut back to the announcer's slick smile, "And he's off, folks! What you're witnessing is history in the making, a rocketless jump from one world to another, a leap of faith and science! Space junkies will know that Mr. Baker only needed 2.3 kilometers per hour to escape the Moon's gentle touch, but technicians worked out a perfect balance of speed and space so that Baker will reach his destination without too much of a wait and with a safety-net of food and air to spare. Over the next seven days we will check back in on Gregory Baker, interviewing his family and listening in as he speaks live to citizens of the globe. Until then, blue skies to you, Flying Ghost."
. . . .
The silence that followed was absolute. Even the flight over hadn't been so quiet, so empty. On a ship there were vibrations and hums, little noises that kept you alive. The air vents might rattle and small beeps gave status updates. In the SpaceChopper, a name granted by net voting, there was nothing.
Most viewers would tune in for two parts of the extended fall. They'd watch his departure from the moon and the riveting finale as Earth's atmosphere gave him fiery wings. People wanted to see things happen, not a floating speck. For, that was what Greg had become. On the Moon he was one of hundreds, but he was human and had enough gravity holding him down to affect the world. On Earth he was one of billions, a fly amongst the masses of flies. But there, too, gravity allowed him to use his strength to accomplish and achieve.
In space he was nothing but a speck. He had become helplessness, floating, falling toward the planet above. The chopper had no engines. It had no brakes. It was just a touch above being a coffin with cameras and radio-equipment.
Only the science nerds would watch the whole stunt. They'd pour over live broadcasts with eager fingertips reporting anomalies and insights. They'd notice his blood pressure falling or his temperature rising. Someone would write about the folly of his team's calculations. Someone else would post evidence that it was genius and perfection.
Truly, the stunt was one of science and technology. There would be fire and there would be noise, but those were the icing on the cake. They made it look pretty, but the real substance was inside.
Years of work had gone into this "jump." Architects and engineers worked tirelessly to calculate and plan. If the moon's ramp had been even a millimeter off there'd be miles of change. Greg might end up landing in the middle of Kansas. If the bike wasn't built with just the right amount of shielding he might end up burning alive upon reentry.
He still might, at that. The thought made him laugh.
Mission command came on over the radio, "Flying Ghost, Orchard. All systems reading nominal. What is your status, over?"
A fingertip waggled and he heard the chirp of his mic, "Orchard, Flying Ghost. Status is gravy green, thank you. Just having a chuckle at expense of my thoughts. Over."
Command buzzed back, "Flying Ghost, Orchard, read you lima charlie. We urge a reminder to vocalize said thoughts if worthy of the record. Out."
Greg smirked, craning his head back. The Earth was a bright beacon of life hung in emptiness. The stars, in all their brilliance, were dim nothings in comparison. He spoke, not to the mic but to the records. Everything he said and did was being videoed and streamed and shared, "They have to warn you before you do this kind of thing. It's litigation nonsense, like signing off against injuries when you go bungee jumping."
Below him was the moon, unseen on the other side of the SpaceChopper's body of titanium and steel. A ship had launched at the same time as Greg, he knew, and it was coming into view. It was a drone, a small cube of computers and fuel. It had a couple of cameras, and he wiggled his hand in a wave upon noticing its presence. The cube-drone would be his only companion, weaving back and forth for different shots.
"Anyway," he continued, only barely remembering to continue his thoughts vocally, "They warn you about stuff. You might lose oxygen and choke. You might get too cold and freeze. There is risk of death and grievous injury. It's amazing how paperwork can make anything banal and boring."
"So, that stuff's pretty normal for me. I've done a lot of jumps, a lot of stunts. Grievous injury is what I'm supposed to challenge. Otherwise, nobody would watch us extreme-sports types, right? We end up on those end-of-year compilations of cool things because, for at least a moment, we let people feel like they could do it too."
The cube-drone shifted, started backing off, creating distance. Greg continued, "But, this time, the warnings were crazy. They were the stuff of science fiction and childhood ignorance. Do you know, Earth, that if my speed had been a kilometer too fast I might've spun into a death spiral? It's true. It's one of those clauses I had to initial by."
His thoughts kept winding down that path but the showman in his mind replaced the voice, "But let's not be morbid, no. Let me tell you what, though. This is beautiful. Space is beautiful. Honestly though?" Greg stared, neck arching back yet again, straining. The Earth was huge before him. Yet, it was so small and fragile and the entirety of that massive entity was also just a speck. "Let me tell you, buddy. All this everything is nothing compared to home."
. . . .
Days later there was an even greater gulf of silence. Halfway to Earth, Greg could've just as well been halfway to eternity. It meant nothing to the mind. A human can't comprehend the vastness of space. Even a short trip from the Moon was incomprehensible to the naked eye.
Sitting in the SpaceChopper, Greg felt motionless. It was like watching mountains on a highway, blacktop fading to the vanishing point. You could rev the engine all you liked, but everything seemed suspended in space. But, in the chopper, he really was.
He was starting to feel a distinct paranoia in his isolation. The voices in his head were reassuringly calm, steady reminders of his connection to the worlds. When the voices went silent, the void encroached.
The small drone camera floated by. Its little jets spun it around in a slow pan from the chopper around to Earth. Greg saluted the little robot, "Wish I had your boosters, chap. Speed up this ride and really scorch the atmosphere."
Mission Command chirped over the radio, "Ghost, be advised, looks like some lively tectonic action is taking place on Terra, seems to be something volcanic. Over."
Greg craned backward to look for the planet, as if he would be able to see anything, "Roger that Orchard, where's this funky stuff happening at, over?"
There was a long break of silence, but Command finally answered, "Yucatan peninsula, Gulf of Mexico. Houston may lose communications due to their proximity. Over."
"Whoa buddy," said Greg, "That's a pretty strange place for a mountain to be popping up. Well, I'm not going anywhere, so I suppose I'll see them when I land." The news made him uneasy, but there was nothing he could do except float on.
"Alright, we'll be keeping in touch and assuming full operational control from here." The moonbase operator sounded a little distracted, hurrying on, "Orchard out."
Greg stared into the speckled void around him, worried and feeling helpless.
. . . .
An erratic cacophony of noise and static woke Greg from a fitful doze. Pulsing sounds of shuddering bass and high-pitched blips mixed with a wavering white noise. It poured from the craft's electronics.
He keyed his mic, "Orchard, you hearing this?" Mumbling, he added, "Over."
Command came through, faint compared to the vastness of the noise, "Affirmative Ghost, the signal is wide-range interference pouring out of Terra's atmosphere, over."
"Jee-sus," spat Greg, "Can't you do something about that? Cancel it out or something? What's Houston saying it is? Anything? Over."
The reply came back slow, voice reluctant, "Houston has gone dark. We can't cancel out a broadcast that strong. Advise you turn the systems down until issue resolves. Over."
Greg looked upward, peered at the planet he was falling toward. It was larger, closer, looming. Earth had a blemish, a long tail of volcanic ash pouring from the Gulf of Mexico.
In a daze, he eventually remembered to respond, "Wilco, I guess I'll hope for the best. Ghost, out."
He pushed his head back as far as it would go. The thick padding of his helmet made it tough, but he had to watch. From such great heights, the planet looked positively serene. Even the cloud of ash was just another kind of beauty.
Outside, the little drone was doing a lap around the SpaceChopper. It paid no heed to the volcano. It's AI was probably only programmed to move about and prevent collisions. It made it seem callous and uncaring to the drama of Earth.
. . . .
The timekeepers on board kept track of mission duration, checkpoint countdowns, and time since last radio contact. The contact counter was now at a full day with change. Mission Command had been unresponsive, each attempt met with the chaotic static.
Still, Greg tried again. "Orchard, this is Ghost. Do you read, over?"
Nothing. The pulsing sounds continued their electric dance across the airwaves.
He sighed, watching Earth with a yearning resignation. There were more plumes of ash now, and the clouds were increasingly a dusky orange. The world looked like it harbored some vast wildfire. Lightning crawled across the dark cloud cover in flickering tongues of light.
His orbit had begun changing, falling at a steeper angle. Earth's pull was playing its part in the plan. Now the continents stretched out in front of him. He had a front row seat for his crash landing.
But, that had always been the plan. Greg was just about to get to the good part: reentry. Hit the atmosphere just right and trail fire as a living-breathing meteor: as long as he didn't spin to death, as long as he didn't burn for too long, as long as a million tiny things went perfectly. Then the chutes would float him to rest.
A voice whispered through the static, "Ghost, is that you? Ghost, this is Silver Station, do you read?"
The marvel of human contact made Greg jump inside his skin. He fumbled with his glove, tapped the transmitter's contact, "Silver Station! I read you, read you like the happiest man alive! How's that ol' space heap doing?" He turned up his radio, ignoring the static.
"Ghost it's damned good to hear your voice. We've been cut off from everyone for days. Terra's magnetosphere is going crazy!" It was the International Space Station, a legend in its own right. It'd been expanded to a hundred times its original size, but some of those parts were antiques.
Greg felt tears on his cheeks, "Aww, blast. I love hearing from you guys, but damned if I wasn't hoping that only my radio was malfunctioning."
The station's caller sounded bleak after that, "Yeah, sorry, but it's the truth. Orchard is too far to break through the interference. Houston is probably evacuated, but no one on Earth is responding. Nothing electromagnetic is coming out or getting in.
"Well damn." Greg soaked in the news with silent brooding. He watched his drone companion do another flyby, the same pattern it'd repeated a hundred times. He thought of the Titanic's orchestra.
"Ghost, how is your ship doing? Everything still reading green?" Warbles of noise started picking up, the station was getting harder to hear.
The question brought him back, and he glanced over his readouts, "Green as gravy." He paused, setting his jaw, "So, think I can hitch a ride with one of you guys?"
His question was answered in the pause, or maybe he'd already figured it out unconsciously. Space flight was still expensive, rockets still rare.
The station spoke slowly, "We sent our last tug to the moon two days ago. The other went back planetside after the first anomaly showed up."
Greg peered into nothingness, "Yeah, I didn't figure I would have to ask if it was available. Anything you want me to bring back after I touchdown?"
"Just let us know what's going on down there. That would be enough." The voice was more distant, the static more chaotic.
"Anyway, it was nice hearing from you guys." Greg arched his head back, tried to find a speck that might be the station. It was no good, the planet was practically kissing him. He kept talking, "I enjoyed the visit too, you folks have some nice digs."
"It was an honor," said the voice, almost incomprehensible. Several people talked at once after that, a jumble of well-wishes and hopeful words. Most was lost to the static.
Greg stared ahead. The drone was beginning to burn. Reentry had begun.
. . . .
Total mission success. The entire operation had gone perfect. From his jump off the moon until splashdown, each checkpoint had a bold green checkmark to denote its success.
The Flying Ghost had made another successful landing.
The ocean rolled him back and forth, tossed him like a man being lifted by a crowd. Earth was congratulating him, welcoming him home.
Yet the sky burned red.
After hitting the water, the SpaceChopper had clipped the chutes and deployed a buoyancy raft. Now it floated easily atop an oversized bag of tough yellow. Greg was still safely tucked into the craft without a scratch. He sipped on the same meal supplement he'd used in space. There was no immediate danger to him or the craft.
Yet the recovery ship had not come.
Eventually he would hit land, probably before running out of supplies. Until then, the best option was to stay put. After all, maybe the rescue crew would still come. It'd only been a week since landing. Sighing, Greg turned the vents back off. It would've been so wonderful to get a breath of fresh air.
The sky stank of sulphur.