Rated PG-13. Take cover: contains more than 5 F-bombs.
I sit at my kitchen table and watch as my soon-to-be ex-husband, David, assembles cardboard boxes and labels each one in neat block letters. This is David’s third packing weekend and once again our daughter has made herself scarce; Sophie has no problem with late-at-night drunk mom or lonely stoned dad, but watching us sort through the flotsam of our former marriage — it’s too much.
“What’s up with those burn marks on the driveway?” David says. “I can set up the fire pit if you want.”
“No. Thanks.” Burn marks? I have no idea what he’s talking about. Not that I’m going to admit that particular fact, or any of the other “wrongness” that has invaded my life. These days I wake up sweat-soaked each morning from the same dream: a rocket-launch conflagration — my charred body no longer screaming beneath the flames. The dream is bad enough, but there are other more corporeal sources of anxiety: Sophie’s almost complete silence. The way she locks herself in the shed for hours at a time.
David bends his head as he frames another box, intent on overlapping the flaps, then pauses.
“Hey.” I hesitate. “Did you see the mourning doves at the bottom of the yard?”
“I can’t find the fucking packing tape.” David glances in my direction. “Wait, what? Mourning doves?”
“Tape’s to the left of the box. The birds are missing chunks of feathers. Looks like someone maybe pulled them out.” Even to my own ears, my voice sounds too tight. “Poor bastards. I don’t think they can fly.”
David holds the tape as though momentarily unsure of its use. “Didn’t see them.” He seals the bottom of the newly folded box, then begins wrapping one of his mother’s rose-infested china plates in newspaper. “Not sure what you want me to do.”
“It’s fine. I’ll handle it. I can set out some bird food or something.” I take a sip of my coffee, consider how wrecked my face looks in the bright morning light. “Well put together” is not a phrase anyone would ever apply to me. An aging soon-to-be divorcée, an Asian-American, a transplanted Floridian, those are my special labels. Along with rocket farmer, though that is a label I keep to myself.
“When’s the last time you bothered to clean up, Sarnai? This place stinks.” I watch David’s gaze take in the dirty dishes, the toppling stacks of mail, laundry, and God-knows-what-else.
“The house smells just fine,” I reply, and I realize that I’m lying. Underneath the coffee grounds and the overfull compost bin, there’s something new and yet all too familiar; the house smells of Florida sunshine and car exhaust. More than that, it smells of my father’s fields of aluminum and titanium, his barrels of carbon fibers and all those fuels: ammonium perchlorate, kerosene, gunpowder. Lord, I’m such a fool.
For weeks now, Sophie’s hands and arms have been pockmarked with angry, red scars, the same marks I got as a kid working in Dad’s hidden rocket field. It’s not just the scars. There was a flush on Sophie’s face last night when she’d told me — weeks too late — about Sam Pesce’s “slanty-eyed Chinaman” comment.
“But Mom, we’re Mongolian,” Sophie said, as though the real problem was the boy’s grasp of geography.
I know my daughter as well as anyone can be said to understand her. She’s always been determined to solve her own problems. Still, those poor birds. We’re the only house for a half mile in either direction.
“Why the hell did you give Sophie that chemistry set?” I snap at David, trying to hold down my fear.
“Chemistry set? Because she asked.” David looks genuinely confused as he clutches the latest newspaper-bundled plate to his chest.
I never wanted a child like Sophie. Truth be told, I never wanted children at all. But I love her. Even if I didn’t, I’m a Baatar. I grew up in the secret rocket fields of central Florida. And some things, like the smell of rocket fuel and newly-grown ignition systems, a rocket farmer, even a lapsed one, just can’t ignore.
After David drives away with his latest stack of boxes, I pull on my boots and head over to the shed. It’s 10 p.m. and the lights are still seeping around the edges of the door. Sophie commandeered the shed in the weeks after David moved out. She carries the key with her when she’s not inside. The key swings from the chain around her neck as she refills the birdfeeders. Feeding the birds used to be David’s job. Tonight his job was to help me track down that key’s twin. Sophie’s privacy is no longer my friend.
I take a slow breath, twist the key in the lock, and edge open the door.
My daughter stands at the wooden workbench, pouring a black, coarse powder into a metal crucible. Theory confirmed. The shed has become Sophie’s private laboratory. A weighted scale and a collection of glassware fill the space, along with an Erlenmeyer flask that sits atop a soot-stained tripod. Near the front of the bench, David’s vice-grip holds a three-inch mechanism in place. A rocket engine. My stomach twists as I take in icy blue flame erupting from the engine’s cone-shaped nozzle. In the far-right corner, away from the flames, one of David’s packing boxes is tipped on its side. It overflows with feathers: the cream and gray of a mourning dove, the black iridescence of a grackle, and brown feathers that remind me of so many birds. A robin. A sparrow. A nuthatch. All of the birds that visit our many feeders.
Sophie starts and turns toward me, her eyes huge and fierce. “Mom.”
Her neck looks so fragile. Sophie’s hair is pulled back, exposing her pale brown skin and the darker birthmark on the left side of her neck. Behind her on the workbench rest two scale-model rockets, less than three feet tall: a tiny Mercury Redstone and Saturn IV. Dear, Lord. How can my science child be so foolish? Her test engine and the nearby car battery and coil of nichrome wire; none of it carries enough power for an actual launch. And the box of bird feathers. Is she also trying to recreate the rocket-propelled arrows of the first rocket farmers? Rocket farming is a disaster-strewn practice more than a thousand years old. Sophie may not know it yet, but the entire shed reeks of failure.
“Sophie, we’re taking down the bird feeders.”
“What? Mom, you can’t.”
“Actually, I can do a lot of things.”
Some truths Baatar rockets know even before they emerge from the Florida soil. Dedication and consistency are below-the-ground, boot-up knowledge. Other truths, like corrosive impatience, aren’t even supposed to be codable. Then again, land-bound is supposed to be a transitory state.
The Wayfarer III has waited in its Florida field for over a decade, surrounded by the sounds of the nearby St. John River, the feel of rain against its metal sides, the sight of all those autumn winds bending the Cyprus trees.
It’s years since the rocket blossomed into a tower of metal sheeting and insulation, yearning for the sky. Yet the old man still drags in barrels of ammonium perchlorate and canisters of liquid oxygen, trying to force a hypergolic reaction. Despite the old man’s care, the rocket’s fuel fails to spontaneously ignite. The four bolts that hold the rocket to its launch pad have tightened with rust: twenty-eight inches of aged rocket-grade steel. Though the bolts are necessary to hold it upright on the launch pad, the Wayfarer III no longer trusts its explosive charges will tear those bolts apart when its fuel finally ignites and liftoff occurs. Just as worrying: the supposedly retractable claw that holds its nose cone in place has yet to be tested.
The rocket’s self-diagnostic program keeps unearthing strange new patterns in its processing routines. Is that feeling resentment? Anger? Fear? The rocket is unsure. Each season the old man’s hands feel more gnarled and uncertain, and still the rocket’s automatic ground launch sequencer fails to start. Its capsule sits empty. The rocket knows its launch window isn’t infinite. The data on system degradation indicates that soon it will be a rocket-failure, no different from the crop of Delta rockets, Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles, and its own older siblings: Wayfarer I and Wayfarer II.
Mom is so completely stupid. The way she looked at my propellant test when she snuck into the shed, as though I was the fuckup. The flame was small, sure, but that wasn’t the point. It was a test. She grew up in Florida with Grandpa and his family secrets. She watches NASA’s YouTube channel late at night when she thinks I’m in bed. How can she not know rockets are meant to burn flame-blue?
Those Space X engineers aren’t rocket farmers, but they get some things right. Methane is the fuel of the true star traveler. Those old standbys, liquid hydrogen and oxygen, might ignite on contact, but they’re a one-shot deal. There won’t be any refueling after launch.
The last Sunday of each month I listen to Mom and Grandpa Baatar talking over Skype while I’m supposedly sleeping: rocket-farmer secrets revealed one conversation at a time. Grandpa talks about chemical formulations and issues with the combustion chamber, as though the launch sequence is the point of it all. And Mom just gets all silent and mumbly, though she won’t ever just disconnect.
Of course you keep the rocket and engine block attached to the capsule it’s working to set free. Of course you choose a replenishable fuel like methane that allows the rocket to extend the journey indefinitely. A rocket is a precious thing. It’s meant to bathe in Titan’s lakes, to soak up some as yet unknown moon’s methane rain. This solar system, this spiral arm of our galaxy, this entire fucking universe is fueled and waiting. Why can’t Mom and Grandpa see it? Aim, fire, nail a single target, mission complete: that’s the idiotic Baatar-version of events. They entirely miss the point of space travel.
A fact I’d rather not know: big or small, all birds scream. They struggle, twisting away so violently you have to pin their wings so they don’t break. Afterward, splotches of red rise where their feathers used to be. I tried so many other things, but it’s not like a class at school. I’m the one who has to figure out how flight actually works. If I had a farm like Grandpa Baatar, I wouldn’t get it wrong. I’d feed my seedlings until their metal wings stretched wide. I’d spark their fire and watch as they launched toward the dark unknown.
The way I move across the earth, it doesn’t seem to be how most humans work. Mom is convinced I’m broken. She’s wrong. My true secret: I’m a traveler, not a farmer. I’m the Baatar who’s meant to fly, no matter what changes star-flight will require.
I stare out our kitchen window, the phone’s smooth plastic cool against my ear. Even as I speak the words, I know it won’t go well. “Dad, when’s the last time you brought a rocket to escape velocity? Or even liftoff?”
“Not the point, Sarnai.”
Twelve hundred miles apart doesn’t change what I know. Dad’s hands are curling the phone cord round and round, testing the strength of the wire inside. It’s the same test he performed every night of my childhood, tending those rockets in our family field: the capsules with the two-stage rockets, the small and slender missiles, all those metal hulks hidden away in the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area’s Cyprus swamp. Like so many of life’s truths, there’s what people think and then there’s reality. Everyone knows this country’s rockets are designed in the laboratories of Florida’s Space Coast and the commercial labs out in California. The Baatar truth: what everyone knows is only partially correct.
My childhood memories are like a series of curated movie scenes. Dad watching as I mixed the liquid fuel in one of our many metal barrels and poured the contents around the base of my first LOCAT rocket. Dad explaining: The Buddha said, “Three things cannot hide for long: the Moon, the Sun and the Truth.” Sarnai, this little rocket yearns for all three. Dad watching as I stroked the molded plastic fins of my very first seedling, checking to make sure the fuel was soaked up by the ground.
It was never enough. Despite the portable heaters and tarps, despite the drums of ammonium perchlorate and lengths of wire, Dad’s field has always been filled with withered hulls and rotted seeds. Rocket disappointments, just like me: the daughter too angry to reach for the sky. Too sick of the endless waiting.
“Dad, I’m bringing Sophie down to visit.” I prod. “Dad?”
“You haven’t come to see me in four years, not since your mother — ” Dad pauses. “Children don’t demand, Sarnai.”
“I thought you needed help with the field.”
“That’s true.” Dad’s tone is flat.
“Dad, it’ll be fine. I promise. Look, I’ve got to go.” I leave the specifics unsaid: I need to call in sick, curl under the covers in a darkened bedroom. Getting Sophie to the fields before she flares out — only love could drive me back to that Florida swamp and its looming, metal skeletons.
In the end, no matter how hard you try, blood will tell. Sophie’s cravings are as dark as the void that separates the universe’s thankfully countless stars. My star-traveler. My rocket-girl. She burns for it. Dear, God, tending the field with Dad has got to be her salvation.
Everything has gone to shit. The birds avoid the feeders. Somehow, Mom and Dad can’t “remember” that I need to restock my chemistry set. Worst of all, none of my engines have managed more than a three-minute methane burn before the combustion chamber flakes out. Fourteen years old and already an engineering failure. And still Mom won’t let up.
“How about that Explode Every Day exhibit at Mass MOCA? That sounds great don’t you think?”
“No. Not really.”
“People don’t want you to solve their problems,” she used to say when I failed to connect with the new class, the new teacher, the whatever-person I was attempting to figure out. “They want you to listen and be on their side.”
“But, Mom, I am on their side.”
“I know, honey. I know.”
Now here she is acting just like eight-year-old me, burying me with all her wrong solutions.
“I hate you,” Sophie says, her tone matter of fact.
I flinch. The two of us are sitting on the wooden bench in the middle of the backyard. It’s June. Dusk. The peeper frogs are out in force.
“You know how those phone calls with Grandpa go: Hello, Grandpa. Yes, I’m fine Grandpa. No, I’m in eighth grade, not sixth grade, Grandpa. Jesus, Mom. Even without a clueless Grandpa, summer in Florida sucks.”
“It’ll be fine. You’ll see. And Grandpa needs our help. He’s getting pretty old.” I hold back from all those things I want to do. I don’t raise my hand to stroke her dark brown hair. I don’t cup her freckled cheek.
“I hate you. I really, really hate you,” Sophie repeats. Her voice is strong and unquavering. “First you toss Dad out. Now this. You’re a monster. A blight.” Despite her even tone, her face is flushed and ruddy. She won’t look at me.
“Your dad makes his own decisions. And a divorce takes two. Get that fucking straight.” My voice is suddenly anything but gentle. As it turns out, even in Vermont, Baatar children can take you that way.
One of its most basic subroutines: the rocket monitors its immediate environment and notes any changes, then it flags the data that requires further analysis. These days the analysis routines are constantly processing.
The old man cries with increasing regularity. The tears don’t correlate with challenges to the integrity of the man’s physical vessel, burns or scrapes. These days, the old man’s tears are closer to summer rain, a seasonal deluge, but saltier and less useful. The rocket reviews the historical data, finds one more data point, though not enough to form an actual pattern. Statistically insignificant. And yet…the rocket keeps returning to that singular second fact. Little Sarnai was the same and then she was gone and only the old man remained.
When I was a kid, younger than Sophie, I used to stand on the concrete driveway with my four-square ball for hours at a time, playing my own private game: one bounce per passing car, two bounces if it was a delivery van, five if it was one of those converted school buses full of kids praising their Lord.
That dedicated, ball-bouncing girl is long gone. Though other things haven’t changed; the stucco bungalow has the same faded paint job, the same corrugated tin roof, and patchy crabgrass lawn. Though there is one obvious difference: Mom is four years dead.
I park my car in the driveway and climb out, briefly stretch my arms overhead. It’s just a few steps to Dad’s concrete stoop. Sophie follows a few feet behind, enveloped in fifteen hundred miles of angry. No airplanes. No flights. I drove the two of us from Vermont, wheels safely pressed against the tarmacked ground.
“Remember to be polite,” I mutter, then press the doorbell.
I have a sudden urge to bolt down the street. Hide in the car. Anything but step inside this too empty house. Dad isn’t supposed to live alone.
Mom might not have been a Bataar by blood, but she was as much a true rocket-believer as Dad. That last night, it was Mom who stood outside my bedroom door, calling me an “ignorant and selfish daughter,” demanding I stay. “Your father needs your help, Sarnai. We both do.” As though that was the winning line, the one-two punch of logic that would force me to stay.
I feel Sophie’s outraged presence looming behind me as footsteps approach from inside the house, and then it’s too late: the door opens.
“Sarnai,” Dad says. “Sophie.”
“Hello, Dad.” The lines across his face: it’s like some invisible hand has crumpled his skin, bending his spine, as well. He used to stand so upright.
The kitchen has the same dingy painting of a lotus flower and the same gray, speckled Formica table. Though in the four years since Mom’s funeral, there is one notable change. The plastic Meals-on-Wheels trays are gone. Instead, a frying pan and dirty dishes are stacked neatly in the sink. As well as rocket farming, it seems Dad has taking up cooking.
Sophie settles herself in one of the vinyl dining chairs, sighs. I catch her smile, quickly hidden, as she watches Dad light the gas stove and sets the kettle to boil.
“Dad, I thought Sophie could take my room and I’ll take the couch.”
Dad shuffles to the table in his worn house slippers and I take the remaining seat between the two of them.
“Wait. You still have a room here?” Sophie asks.
“You know I do. Remember we stayed in it for the funeral. It has that white-and-gold furniture and — ”
“French Colonial, Mom.”
“Right. As I was saying — ”
“Sarnai, the tea,” Dad cuts in. The kettle has started to whistle.
Sophie’s expression is one of disbelief as she watches me silently get up and walk over to the stove. This is not how grown-ups talk to each other — at least not in her world. I spoon oolong from the dented canister into the metal teapot, feel the heft of the factory-processed metal against my hand. Florida is a different land.
“Come. Take one,” I hear my father say. When I glance over, he’s offering Sophie an orange wedge, even attempting a smile. Both his hand and the plate tremble. I thought it was just a story I told Sophie. Turns out my father really has become an old man.
Sophie is attempting her own smile. “Mom says you need help with something, Grandpa?” Polite conversation. A Florida miracle.
“Yes, I do. What has your mother told you about this family?”
Sophie shrugs, glances in my direction. “Nothing.” The smile’s gone.
“I was going to get to it, Dad,” I say, setting three cups of tea on the table and taking my seat again.
Dad gives me a withering look. “Sophie, this is the story of how our family found its calling. You will pay attention, yes?”
“Yeah, sure.” She actually looks interested.
“Good. It all started in China. During the battle of Kai-Keng, our great great great many times over ancestor was part of an invading Mongol army. The Chinese defenders though had their own plan to push the Mongols back. Instead of bows and arrows or extra cavalry, their solution was rockets.”
“Huh.” Sophie isn’t smiling anymore. This is not the story she was expecting.
Dad takes a sip of tea and continues. “Those first rockets were launched with gunpowder-filled cylinders, but really they were just arrows tipped with flaming resin. Despite that, great grandfather recognized their power.” Dad pauses and flaps one hand, displacing the steam rising from his cup so that it spreads across the table. “The field was filled with smoke and sulfur. The darkness mixed with points of orange flame as the arrows propelled upward. Yet somehow in that chaos, the miracle occurred; our great grandfather felt something new, something no one had ever felt before. He discovered our family’s true purpose, our one passion, bringing rockets to flight.”
“Dad,” I cut in. Why was he always so blind? “Those arrows killed people. God damn it. Rockets still do.”
“Yes.” Dad nods his head, unconcerned. “Sophie, rockets have all sorts of purposes, but no matter what type of rocket blooms or how long it takes to mature,” he shrugs, gives me a sidelong glance, “Our family’s task is to care for them.”
“Grandpa, I don’t want to kill anything.”
Warning. Warning. Warning. The danger signals are flashing. There’s a frown line between Sophie’s eyebrows, and despite her even tone, she looks downright furious.
“You’ll understand once you see our rocket field,” Dad says, missing all the Sophie-cues. “Your mother loves rockets, no matter how much she complains.” He leans across the table, grabs Sophie’s hand. “And you will, too.”
“You’re kidding me, right? Rockets are supposed to be about flight. Exploration. It’s people like you who mess them up.” Sophie pulls her hand away and stands. “I always knew Florida would suck.” And just like that Sophie is storming down the hallway, the front door slamming behind her.
The look Dad gives me — like I’ve, of course, fucked up. “Exploration? Are we travelers now?”
How does he manage to fit all that judgement into those two sentences? “Jesus, Dad. She’s not exactly wrong.” Then I’m turning away from my father, chasing Sophie out the door. I find her almost immediately. She’s sitting in my parked car. Not only that, she’s locked herself inside.
I knock on the passenger side window, press my face against the glass, hand shading my eyes. “Sophie, please. Ignore him. At least check out the field.”
“What the hell, Mom! Our family grows killing machines? How can that be the point?” Sophie’s yelling. Actually yelling.
“We raise whatever emerges from the ground. It’s not a choice, baby.” The words sound pathetic, even to me. We always have choices. And twenty years ago, my choice was to leave. Look where that choice has brought us.
“Take me home. Now. At least there I can get some real work done.”
“Sophie, please.” I laugh, not a happy laugh, feel tears rising close behind. God and Lord Buddha, I hate Florida, too. Always have. She’s right. Why can’t any of us just fly away?
It’s not until later that night, after I’ve coaxed Sophie back into the house with half-true promises of an early return home, that I realize my daughter never once questioned the existence of our family’s rocket field.
One thing Dad and I agree on: there’s no point in delay. We head out that very night, just before dusk arrives, and make the thirty-minute drive from Titusville to the town of Christmas and the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area. Dad parks his pickup truck on the verge off of Power Line Road. Underneath the canvas tarps, the truck bed is filled with stacks of dewars canisters full of liquid oxygen, buckets of paint, and the volatile “candles,” metal tubes containing enough lithium perchlorate to produce six hours of breathable oxygen, way more supplies than Dad could manage alone. He’s clearly taking advantage of the extra help.
“You’re about to see something wonderful,” Dad’s says, the argument of the afternoon seemingly forgotten.
“Sure,” Sophie replies, refusing to take the bait. She opens one of the duffle bags Dad brought, filling it with the boxes of insulating paint powder. The powder is a microsphere ceramic compound we’ll mix with the paint before loading the sprayer. Rockets may excrete their own coating, but over time they require a little, or more than a little, touchup.
“Got your bug spray on?” I ask as I load the “candles” into one of Dad’s special backpacks.
“Yeah, Mom. Of course.”
“Let’s go,” Dad cuts in. His good moods never last long.
“Okay.” And then for the first time in over twenty years, I’m following Dad through the Cyprus swamp, Sophie trailing close behind. The undergrowth is sparse: a scattering of downed trunks, ferns, and those distinctive root-bound Cypress knees. Less than twenty feet into the trees and already the sweat is running down my back. It doesn’t take long for my arms and shoulders to join the discomfort parade as I try to manage the uneven terrain and the metal canisters I’m lugging in one of Dad’s specially rigged backpacks.
“So we have to haul all this stuff through a swamp?” Sophie says in that even tone of hers as she pulls her boots free from yet another stretch of boggy ground. “You know that’s really dumb, right?”
“Grandpa knows what he’s doing,” I declare, wishing I felt even a fraction of Dad’s confidence. I’m heading to our family farm. But, the truth is I’ve never once seen our rockets fly.
We continue on, following the rushing sound of water — the St. John’s River — rather than any particular path, and then we’re pulling Dad’s old fishing boat from its hiding place in the brush, crossing to the other side and that years-worn dirt path that leads straight to the field.
Sophie seems ready to vibrate right out of her skin, electrified, as she loads the supplies into a wagon Dad keeps for just this purpose.
“I’ll keep the oxygen candles in my pack,” I say. They need to be handled with care.
“Is that what they are?” Sophie looks surprised. “Backup oxygen generators are for manned missions.”
“We raise whatever germinates,” I reply, shrugging. I don’t mention that none of our farm-cultivated Soyuzes and Space Shuttles, tried and true designs in the manufactured world, have ever come close to launch.
And then it’s bump, bump, bump with the wagon as we follow Dad to the tree line and the southern edge of our family’s field. As we distance ourselves from the river and the cool-water-generated air currents, the field’s chemical-ozone tang shifts from a ghost-scent, barely visible, to a miasma determined to sink deep. Despite the coughing, the weight of all that rocket air feels so damn good. And the sight when we finally reach the edge of the trees — the field is full of empty seed pods, cracked pieces of plastic and twisted metal. Fragments of dried metal stalks and wilted wire stems also lie strewn across the ground. But towering above all that debris are our own beautiful giants: rockets five, twelve, even twenty feet tall. The unfortunate truth: underneath their coats of paint and support wires, many of them are little more than fading hulls, false starts incapable of blooming. But, no different from when I was a kid, I can sense something else in the field, something hopeful. Maybe it’s the tarps Dad has carefully spread around the base of one of the rockets in the western corner of the field where I used to tend my own little seedlings, or maybe it’s the strange shape of one particular rocket now so much taller than I remember. Its sprouted form isn’t the usual Altas or Titan shape. In fact, it doesn’t look like any craft I’ve ever seen.
“Mom — ” Sophie is gazing at my first baby’s paint-free exterior.
“I know,” I say, turning to look at Sophie’s beaming face. “I know. Isn’t she amazing?” The worst part of it: neither of them feels even close to mine.
“Come on.” I grab Mom’s hand, drag her behind me. Ignoring whatever Mother-angst has struck her now. She’s probably just missing her nighttime drink, who am I kidding, her nighttime drinks. I’ve never known anyone quite so ready to ruin someone’s — anyone’s — rush of rocket joy. I trail my fingers along the black text at the base of the rocket’s body. “Wayfarer III? What happened to I and II?”
“Over there.” Mom waves toward the middle section of the field where Grandpa is busy tending tilting and weathered old hulls.
“For fuck’s sake. Don’t you guys know how to do anything?” I start to pull the viney undergrowth away from the hardened base of the launch pad, then step back and consider the vine and wire wrapped exterior of this land-bound creature. She’s so ready to fly, but the soil, the field, this whole crazy earth disagrees. What I can see of her hull is smooth and unblemished. Perfect. But she’s wound inside a web of wires and vines. She looks like a spider plant being consumed by her own offspring.
“What’s wrong, baby?” It’s Mom. I hold the ugly words at bay — bitch, idiot, land-bound fool — feel the tears on my cheeks. Torture — that’s what this field has become. A lost battle full of sky-desperate beings bound to the ground. It’s up to me now.
At first I assumed the hull of the rocket’s squat and bullet-shaped body was unmarred by any opening, which goes to show you how stupid being earthbound all my life has made me. There are port holes, a hatch, a way inside. The Wayfarer III has been waiting for someone to notice what needs to be done. She’s been waiting for me.
The data stream is overwhelming. The rocket can feel itself practicing a new kind of rocket-patience, slowing down, its processors no longer able to analyze at full speed. Sarnai is back. Wider. Her hull cracked in places, but Sarnai all the same. She was the first designer, the engineer of the rocket’s birth. She set up the temporary metal lattice that held it upright in those first months. When she left, the rocket felt a strange heaviness that took years to go away.
Still, it is the new one, the not-Sarnai that takes up most of the rocket’s working memory. The new one doesn’t fill the sprayer with unnecessary paint. She doesn’t even check all those human-design echoes that fill the field, the unlaunchables. And that moment when she first touches the rocket’s hull feels like both the jolt of an electrical charge and the slithering of ice on a frost-filled morning. Connection made. Rocket pairing begun.
This not-Sarnai is a creature of the void. She is a traveler offering up the emptiness between all those too-small places. She is the reason rockets, at least this rocket, exist.
Tonight a rocket launch is scheduled over at Cape Canaveral. Near the Titusville shore, people will be wrapped in blankets, waiting for the miracle to occur. Dad, Sophie, and I, though, are busy. In the three-quarter moon, I can see Sophie’s furious glowing face. No matter what she says, or doesn’t, she is so damn happy. The promise of fire is close at hand.
At Sophie’s direction, I help her clear the vines and wires, load the oxygen candles inside while Dad watches from the other side of the field. He looks so small.
I don’t question my daughter’s plans. With us, conversation never leads to anything good. It takes so little time to clear off the Wayfarer III, to inspect and stock the interior cabin. Eventually, even Dad helps, passing up the supplies, though he still hasn’t said anything.
Now the three of us stand just outside the cabin opening on the launch pad’s wire-and-vine-strewn service structure.
“Go on,” I say, as though I don’t want to fly toward those damn stars, not one little bit. I can feel the inferno forming inside the combustion chamber farther down the rocket’s body. I can feel the darkness calling as banks of lights in the cabin come to life, and for that one second I want to stay with Sophie inside this metal shell. Honesty time: I want to take her place. Claim that pilot’s seat for my own. For that one breath of time, I’m not too old, too human, too rooted to the ground to ignite and launch.
And then Sophie is holding me. Whispering words in my ear before she steps inside, and suddenly it is the best of possible goodbyes.
Dad watches me tighten the hatch door. He looks so uncertain. Of course he is, even if we weren’t launching my child, every flight is a miracle. Every miracle a moment of terror. He doesn’t stop me though. Of course he doesn’t. I can see it in his face. After all these years, we’ve finally found the secret to a successful rocket launch: our family’s very first rocket girl.
“This is not how I imagined it, Sarnai.”
I grab Dad’s trembling hand, slip my arm around his bent shoulders. “‘Take care of the other babies,’ she said. This isn’t the end, Dad. There are more seedlings that we can help find their way.”
I was supposed to love the smell of space and the night-dust that settled on my skin. Instead, everything I tried to love came out twisted and burnt. My Sophie shall shoot fire. She will drag the universe’s dark spaces behind her like skeins of her own hair. More than that: she’ll laugh, breathing in the black metallic scent, the frigid night of those distances between suns warmed for an instant by her flames and the power of her need.
About the Author
Julie C. Day’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in over two dozen venues, including Interzone, PodCastle, and Kaleidotrope. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and a Masters of Science in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts. In addition to PodCastle, she narrates other people’s fiction at StarshipSofa and FarFetchedFables and also acts as host and narrator of the Small Beer Press podcast. You can find Julie on Twitter @thisjulieday or through her website: www.stillwingingit.com.