art by Shannon N. Kelly
Joey LeRath's Rocketship
by Julian Mortimer Smith
Billy met Joey LeRath the same day he lost his family in Crouchtree market. His parents had gotten into one of their rows over at the nuclear weapons stand and his little sister had started to cry, so Billy had run off, not really paying attention to where he was going. He hated hearing his parents fight and his little sister cry. These last few days he had heard little else, and he was sick of it. So he ran until they were drowned in the market hubbub, and never found them again.
Billy ran past stalls selling fishing rope and spiced nuts and sundries and secrets; he ran through crowds of men in top hats, thickets of women with parasols and prams, gaggles of grimy children playing conkers and booboo and shake'em; he ran until he was tired, and when he finally stopped running he realized he was thoroughly lost.
Just as Billy was starting to wonder if he should be scared, there was Joey LeRath in his filthy duffle coat, holding a piece of caramel wrapped in wax paper between his corkscrew fingernails.
"Hey, kid," Joey said, his voice like unoiled gears grinding together. "Want some candy?"
Joey smelled like smoke and oil and sweat and his face was smeared with engine grease. He hadn't bathed in at least a year. He was skinny and twisted, and his duffle coat clung tight and awkward to his frame, as if it were holding on for dear life. On his head, he wore a tattered beret that was held together with safety pins and bits of string. He had a wild look in his eyes, one of which was much bigger than the other.
"C'mere," he said. "I've got something amazing to show you. Something you ain't never seen before."
Billy liked the look of Joey, so he took the candy, ate it, and followed the old man into Crumblefoot Alley, to the trash pile behind the crematorium.
Joey had fashioned his rocketship from cardboard and tin, with soup-can radar and portholes made from the doors of salvaged tumble dryers. It stood at the center of a crater of charred trash, like a fat, battered dart that had been dropped onto a blackened bull's-eye and then flipped onto its flights to point triumphantly--or rudely--at the sky.
The rocketship was powered by a deuterium-tritium hybrid inertial confinement fusion reactor, which Joey had built from scratch. The reactor was housed in a rusty old steamer trunk, bolted to the body of the ship, its latches long-since broken, its lid askew. Clouds of steam billowed from its innards.
"C'mon on in, kid. I'll show you round," said Joey. Billy followed him up the fraying rope ladder and they crawled into the cramped cockpit. Inside, it smelled of rust and mildew and Joey had to bend double to avoid bumping his head. Somehow he looked more comfortable, hunched and crooked like that, as if his very bones were twisted.
"This is just a prototype," Joey explained. "One day I'll build a full size one and fly into space myself, exceptin' if I die first, heh. This one's built to one-third scale. That's why I need a kid your size to test her out. See if she works right."
Joey sized up Billy with his mismatched eyes, then clapped him on the shoulder, too hard. "You look like a plucky kid. Yeah, you'll do all right. Oh I ain't saying it ain't dangerous. This baby's dangerous as hell. But you look like one hell of a pilot. You'll get her into space or die trying, am I right? What didja say your name was?"
"Didn't," said Billy. He told Joey his name, and Joey told Billy his in return. They shook hands, like grownups did.
"Anyway," said Billy, "it was nice meeting you, sir, but I should really go and find my parents now."
Joey shook his head sadly: "Oh Billy-me-boy," he said, "I'm afraid not. You lost your parents in Crouchtree Market. And when you lose something in Crouchtree Market you never find it again."
Billy looked at Joey wide-eyed, full of sudden panic. "My parents? My little sister? No, I don't believe you." He scrambled out the hatch and down the rope ladder, clambered over the rim of the trash crater and dashed to the mouth of Crumblefoot Alley.
Billy emerged into unfamiliar streets. The neighborhood was filling with afternoon shadow, emptying of people. There was no sign of Crouchtree Market, or of his family. Everyone had gone.
Joey LeRath appeared by Billy's side and put one bony hand on the boy's shoulder. "That's what Crouchtree Market is like," he said, sadly. "She's a restless old market. Never stays in one place for long. Not a place to bring children. I hate to say it, Billy-me-boy, but it looks to me like your parents lost you accidentally-on-purpose."
Sobs grabbed for Billy's throat, heaved themselves up and out of him. "No," he managed, spluttering teary outrage. "It was me who ran away from them!"
But a horrible uncertainty rose in Billy like puke. Just the night before, he had overheard too-loud whispers coming from his parents' bedroom--angry accusations, whispers that wanted to be screams, whispers he wished he could unhear: You want to tear this family apart... You would do this to our children?... You don't love us any more?
"They..." started Billy, but he was crying hard now, and the words came out as ragged gulps. "I'll never see... them again? Mum, dad... little sister?"
"I'm afraid not, Billy," said Joey, gently. He stood for a moment in silence with his hand on Billy's shoulder as snot and tears dripped from the boy's face. But then Joey crouched close to Billy and grinned. "Bah. Forget about them," he said. "Where you're going, you don't need families. The sun and the moon'll be your parents. Shooting stars will be your little sisters. Space is waiting for you, Billy. The countdown has already begun."
Joey tied Billy into the captain's chair with lengths of fraying rope, "for safety." He showed him the gear shifter, the steering wheel, and the ejector seat. He explained the basics of six axis maneuvering and orbital dynamics. He made Billy a pot of tea and set it beside the captain's chair, "for emergencies." Then he began the countdown. "Ten. Nine." Joey crawled out the hatch and locked it behind him. "Eight," he said, his voice tinny and muffled.