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art by Shannon N. Kelly

Joey LeRath's Rocketship

Julian Mortimer Smith has worked for a university (as a teaching assistant), a board games company (as an editor), and an army (as a clarinetist). His writing has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction and AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. He currently lives in a small lobstering village in rural Nova Scotia.

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.
Blastoff came at "Seven", and was sudden enough that Billy had no time to get scared. The ship bucked and shook as fire belched from its rocket engines. The heat and noise were so intense that Billy's eyes wouldn't work, but he felt in his bones that the ground was all-of-a-sudden very far below him, and was getting very-further with every passing all-of-a-sudden. The crush of acceleration held Billy to his seat, like a bully, and this feeling of terrible heaviness seemed in direct contradiction with his sensation of being borne upward at tremendous speed; and yet Billy knew the two feelings were really one.
The rocketship was fast and loud and on fire. That was all Billy could really tell from his seat. It punched through the Earth's atmosphere like a nail through cotton, like a gunshot through a dream. It roared and blazed and quaked, an explosion that wouldn't stop exploding. And then, with shocking abruptness, it did stop. Everything stopped at once.
A weightless silence flooded the ship. Billy realized he was holding his breath and he couldn't remember how long he had been holding it for, so he let it out, and sucked in a big, fresh lungful, just to be sure. The air tasted metallic and recycled, but it seemed to relax Billy and clear the fuzz from his brain, so he breathed some more of it. Then he poured himself some tea from the pot that sat by his elbow and gulped it down, grateful for its bitter warmth.
Billy untied himself from the captain's chair and rose into the air. The cramped, conical cockpit seemed newly voluminous with this third dimension to play in. Billy spun lazily counterclockwise as he rose, powerless to do otherwise, until he bumped gently against the burlap-and-egg-carton wall. A set of bicycle handlebars jutted from the bulkhead by his shoulder, perfect for grabbing, so Billy levered himself upside down and kicked off again. He spiraled and somersaulted around the ship; he tumbled and drifted and flew. He whooped. He took off a shoe and threw it. It flipped and bounced about without any indication that it would ever slow down or come to a rest. He tried to pour himself some more tea but found it billowed from the pot's spout in a wobbling blob instead of arcing into the cup like it ought to have done. While he was engrossed in the shapes that the tea made, his shoe took an unlucky bounce and kicked him in the back of the head. He laughed at the ridiculousness of it.
"Space," he said out loud. "I'm in space."
Then he looked down upon the majesty of the Earth.
It was an unthinkable vastness of blue and green and brown--strewn with cloud, sunlight, shadow--and yet it was somehow a single object. It filled all the portholes. Gray smears of cities were visible, and plumes of dark smoke from forest fires, strings of white-headed mountains, deserts in yellows and reds and browns. And far off to starboard Billy could see the terminator line, the battlefront of night, devouring color as it advanced, spoiling the Earth's too-perfect geometry.
Billy hadn't considered what he would do once he got to space, and he wasn't sure Joey LeRath had either, but he was happy to be there. He liked the cool solitude of orbit, the weightless freedom, the far-awayness of it all.
The flood of adrenaline that the launch had released began to drain out of Billy, and all at once he felt very tired, so he curled up in mid-air and went to sleep, spinning very slowly end-over-end.
Far below him, the sparkle of detonating warheads, the blooming of mushroom clouds.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 14th, 2012
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