Late-day sun drenches asphalt as the motorcycle winds along the coastal highway. James banks right and the sky leans left. Kate’s arms encircle his waist, her chest rising and falling with each breath. To their left, the Pacific is a tapestry of shining diamonds with a single sailboat silhouetted against a goldenrod horizon. They watch the boat bob against the waves for a moment before James rotates the throttle, the motorcycle’s engine whining, veering them off the highway onto a dust-soaked road.
“Going somewhere?” Kate asks over her helmet mic.
James glances back over his shoulder. “I want to show you something.”
The landscape flattens as the bike clears the crest. Two buildings stand to the right, the first a long-abandoned convenience store with sand-blasted lettering. Dirty windows show hints of counters and chairs inside. The second is a twenty-meter rectangle with a girder roof and two huge sliding white doors. Parallel one-kilometer roads run in front of the buildings, the closest overgrown with dirt and grass, and the furthest paved and clear with white dashed lines and huge block numbers reading 30. James pulls the bike beside the sliding white doors.
Kate removes her helmet and runs her fingers through her blonde hair. A silver ring dangles on a chain from her neck. She’s eighteen, same age as James. “Why do I get the feeling we’re trespassing?”
James grins and waves a hand. “No worries. I got permission from the owner.”
She arches an eyebrow. “You asked permission for something?”
He motions to the door and walks over towards the handle. “Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”
Her eyes dart to the structure. “Okay, now I’m curious.”
James anchors himself and tugs with both hands. As the sunlight spills into the hangar, the white wings and black propeller appear. Gold glares from chrome accents on the nose and the livery is marine blue with brick-red stripes stenciled with N147CP.
“Woah,” Kate says. “Will you look at that?” She walks over and runs her hand along the airplane’s cowl. “It’s a classic. Did you…did you buy it?”
James nods. “Found it in a salvage yard. Bought what was left, pieced it back together. Purrs like a kitten.”
“What’s it run on?”
“Good old gasoline. Nineteen-ninety-two Piper Arrow Three. They only built six that year.” He moves to the passenger-side. A foot-step juts out from the fuselage and the wing has a black non-slip surface next to the door. James leans over, opens the door, and steps up. He extends his hand and Kate accepts. They slip into the cockpit and settle into their seats. “What do you think?” James says.
She sets her hands on the yoke and turns it slightly. He points over her shoulder at the right wing and she watches the aileron move up and down. “Oh, this is awesome. I love it.”
James flicks the red battery switch on. Indicator lights illuminate. “Would you latch that door?”
She pauses a moment, a smile creeping across her face, and pulls the door closed. Without saying a word she slides the seatbelt across herself. “Where are we going?”
He hands her a headset and motions towards the plane’s nose. Rich blue sky awaits. “You know, that-a-way, just higher,” he says over his mic. When he flips the beacon switch, red light spins in the hangar. Leaning towards the window, he says, “Clear prop!”
The propeller sputters to life when he turns the starter. He adjusts the throttle and turns on the avionics and navigation lights.
Kate taps the Garmin in front of her. The individual pixels of the airplane stick figure are visible. “Oh, wow, look at this navcon. That’s….is that even a computer?”
James taps the power button off. “We don’t need it. Guys flew for half-a-century with nothing but eyeballs and radios.”
“You sure this is safe?”
“Safe as anything else in life. Wanna go?”
She eyes the crystal sky and glances back. “Yeah. A little different than your dad’s planes, huh?”
James snorts. “You’re just along for the ride in those. This…” He turns the yoke. “…this is real.” He clicks the thumb button. “Fairway Cove Traffic, Piper one four seven charlie papa at east hangar taxiing to runway three zero.”
Kate quirks her head. “Who are you talking to?”
“Whoever’s out there. Maybe there’s another James and Kate puttering around in a seventy-year old plane. Gotta do it right.”
She sets her hand on his. “I think the universe can only handle one James Hayden.”
He winks at her and edges the throttle forward. “Well, I’m lucky this one found his Kate.”
* * *
James at forty-one doesn’t look much different than he did at eighteen, one of the fortunate blessed with a baby face and sandy hair hiding any hint of gray. He taps the Sandpiper’s controls and watches Earth’s blue marble spin away. As the star field pans, Hayden-Pratt’s MEO2 shipyard swings into view, a brightly-lit lattice cradling a sixty-two meter wedge. Gold interior light glows from the wedge’s cockpit and spotlights illuminate patches of the fuselage. Black registry letters read HP-G01 Gossamer Goose. In the ship’s aft, robotic arms spin hull plates into place.
Ananke is beside James, her slate affixed to the dash. Blue ripples spill across her screen. “I remember the first time I saw Gossamer. I was so proud to be a part of fulfilling Bernard’s dream. With her ivory white paint, she reminds me of a spinnaker, catching starlight.”
James smiles. “I think that’s the perfect description of Goose.” As the shipyard grows, filling the cockpit windows, he stretches forward and examines the aft construction. “Looking good. On track for end of week.”
“Any word on launch authorization?”
A quirk of his head. “Larson wants to meet one-on-one.”
Ananke’s screen splashes orange. “Well, that should be interesting.”
“Yeah, curious what he’ll say when it’s off-the-cuff. I kind of like it. Two guys sorting it out, no audience.”
Green ripples slide across Ananke’s face. After a pause, she says, “If I could offer an observation.”
James arches an eyebrow. “Shoot.”
“Two guys sorting it out is often more brawn than brain, so to speak.”
He chuckles. “You think I’m going to deck him?”
“No. But ego might overtake intellect.”
A shrug. “I think I can handle it. Anyway, it’s a negotiation. He wants something. If it was just him digging in his heels there’d be no need to meet.”
James taps the comm. “MEO Control, Sandpiper four four three, ready to dock.”
A synthetic voice replies, “Cleared to dock Sandpiper four four three.”
A tap on the arm panel and the ship spins ninety-degrees. Thrusters hiss with corrections as the Sandpiper settles into the umbilical with a clank and a jolt. James picks up Ananke and tethers her to his flight suit belt loop, then pushes out of his chair and sails to the belly hatch. When it opens, he ascends through the umbilical to Gossamer’s starboard entry, emerging into the passenger cabin and a din of conversation. Hitoshi is here, peering through augmented glasses. Six other techs have bits and pieces of the cabin disassembled.
“Hey, boss,” Hitoshi says. “Don’t mind the mess. So, what’d you think on approach?”
“Cargo area looks good. Saw the new ventral heat shielding. Black, kind of like an old NASA shuttle.”
“Yeah, I thought you’d like that. Got confirmation that the last Bernard’s repair parts are fabbed and loaded.” He motions around the room. “You now have a level two starship. Plus five hit points, plus three dexterity.” A pause as he waits for a response. “And you’ve never played a video game in your life, have you?”
James holds up his hands. “Sorry.”
“You know, between you and Sarah, it’s like you two were separated at birth. She’s been very helpful, by the way, doing telepresence uplinks for questions. I know she’s supposed to be on leave, but she knows all of Gossamer’s quirks.”
James raises his eyebrows slightly. “Goose will always be her ship.”
Hitoshi extends his slate. “I’ve got something for you, Ananke.”
Ananke’s screen pulses orange. “Ah, beautiful! The new Boseman interference patterns, like peaks and valleys beating in a symphony. Ready for the low-power test?”
“With your approval, Friday.”
“Yes. It’s perfect.”
“Alright, you got it.” He shows the slate to James. “This started as a permanent fix for the strangelet event from the last mission, but Ananke ran with it. Some adjustments to the wave generator placements and parameter tweaks will give us a big efficiency boost. We’ll hit ninety-nine point nine six percent light-speed. Had to carve out more fuel space for the reactor. Best part is that it’s reapplicable to Bernard’s.”
“That’s fantastic,” James says.
“Told you. Plus three dexterity.”
* * * *