Buddy Ray Earl Buddy Ray Earl
Author and Humble Observer of the Human Condition

Trippers: New Beginnings

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With Kim supervising, every joint carefully watched, photographed, and studied, one arm after another was carefully deployed, unfolded, and refolded. It was almost a week and they were unfolding the last one when Murphy’s law struck. The second joint out, with its bearing cap improperly tightened, had slipped, cocked and jammed. The joints operated synchronously, when one jammed, they all stopped. No attempts to get it to move worked. Next, Fred donned a space suit, and went out with a spreader tool and tried to push it back into alignment. Next, they tried loosening the caps a bit, and tried again. Three days had gone by, and the arm was still stuck. They had a conference. No really easy ideas emerged. Finally, Chief Crusty said; “You know, they had no great problem towing loads around with my little boats on the moon. We always had visions of these hovering around the ship doing heavy maintenance work. Maybe that magtenna can be towed or jerked into position. I know just the pilot to do it, too, “Preston the Perfect Pilot”. They called Preston in. After studying the pictures, Preston said, “Piece of cake. That docking ring is strong. With that spreader pushing the bearing sideways, and if I drive up and bump it gently right here (pointing to a picture), I’ll bet euros to beignets, that it will pop right into place. Then all we have to do is tighten the bearing caps, and we are on our way to the stars”!

After much discussion, there was no better idea. Kim asked Preston, “Do you think you can do it”? Preston laughed and said, “Hell, I know I can do it. But first, I need practice. That boat is no trainer. I’m gonna have to learn to drive that boat, real good”. Chief Krustoff said; “That’s it. Pilot Preston begins practice tomorrow. See to it, First Officer”. Kim said “Aye Aye, SIR”, with a grin, just to rile him a little.

The next day, Preston’s practice began. A fun romp for Preston, and a frustration for the Chief. Preston hadn’t got around to practicing towing or bumping anything. Instead, right away, he was doing barrel rolls, summersaults, and trick stunts all around the ship, to the applause of the entire crew. The Chief roared; “Knock off that skylarking, Preston, and get down to business with some serious practice”. Preston answered, “Who is the pilot, Chief, you or me? This practice is as dead serious as I can make it, just what I need to make myself totally familiar with this bucket. If you order me to do this job before I think I’m ready, without total feel for this bucket, I’ll try. But, if I screw up, and that Magtenna is lost, and everyone ends up dead meat in the void, that would be your responsibility, not mine”. The Chief turned purple, certain he was being conned. After a moment he said. “All right. Preston, you’ve got me snookered. Do it your way, Dammit”.

Preston went right back to doing more flamboyant tricks than ever, while whooping and hollering like a total nutcase. And the crew, watching, whooped too. He ended with run-ups to the ship’s hull, stopping millimeters short. Then he gently bumped it, then harder. He said, “Okay Chief, I’m ready now, is tomorrow soon enough”? Crusty only grunted.

The next morning, Kim, in a new space suit, elected to be the guy with the spreader, pushing the joint back into place. Preston put the boat through a few flips, then approached the Magtenna. Kim applied max power to the spreader. The Chief, Kim and Preston were on the same circuit, patched into the intercom, so everyone could hear. Kim said “Ready”. Preston bumped the arm. The joint popped right into place, and then Murphy’s law struck. The Magtenna started folding up, very fast. The crewman slammed the emergency stop control, but nothing stopped. It kept right on folding toward the hull. From squatting on the Magtenna, Kim was thrown against the hull. Instantly, he kicked out with both feet, hoping to kick the hull and kick himself out of the way, but he had bounced too far from the hull and his feet hit nothing. His long tether was flopping around, much too long to reel up in time. He watched the twenty meter wide wall of steel coming at him, certain to crush him. He said the one word, now almost a family tradition, that he’d expected to say at his death; “Love”, and watched the steel death coming at him. His peripheral vision caught movement, out of the corner of his right eye. Looking, he saw Preston’s boat coming at him like an express train, much faster than the Magtenna. Expecting to be ran down, Kim flinched, and thought he saw Preston grinning, in the front port.. Then attitude thrusters fired, all over the boat. Preston spun that lifeboat ninety degrees, where it wedged between the hull and the Magtenna, and began to be crushed, like an accordion. Preston said, “Crusty, you old fart, tell everyone how I died. I’m a legend in my own mind, why not in theirs? Kim, you piss-poor Pilot, you owe me one”!

Just then the boat’s front view port fractured and blew out, bits of quartz spraying out into space. Right behind, Preston was blown out, unprotected in only his coveralls. As Preston drifted away, against the backdrop of the milky way and bits of quartz flashing every color in the sunlight, he reached both arms toward Kim. Kim was riveted on the painful grinning grimace on Preston’s face, and didn’t notice his hands until he saw the video record.

The boat held, giving Kim plenty of room to escape. By then, the crew had cut the Magtenna’s power cables, and the Magtenna wasn’t going anywhere anyway.

Preston was not known to be religious, but Captain Hasheed Shah, in his religion’s simple White Robe, performed his sect’s traditional short service.

He said, “We gather to mourn our Friend Preston, and it is right that we mourn our loss. But it is also right that we celebrate his unique life, and his Heroic death. Like every living creature, and you and me, Preston was a unique miracle, never to be duplicated in the history of the Universe. He is gone forever, and he will never be again. His body is now drifting to the sun, where it will be blessed with a purer funeral pyre than we could ever provide. Every element in our bodies was once in a star. In eons to come, the elements of Preston’s body will become parts of many living creatures, all doing well if they are capable of a life like Preston’s”.

“The Spirit that gave him life, lives on eternally, unharmed. That same Spirit Holy who gives life to the universe, and to us. That Spirit remains, alive and well, at the bottom of all our souls. That Spirit rejoices at the eternally unique wonder that was Preston, and the wonder of his unselfish death”.

“So, my shipmates, let us mourn our loss, while we rejoice for our friend and shipmate’s life”.

Then he put his palms together, bowed slightly forward, and in some ancient and long dead language, said something like; “Ohm Manu Ramnu Das”. Through the entire short service, tears rolled down Kim’s cheeks, and his shipmate’s, too.

Then the Captain picked up a white pillow, with a small plaque on it, that he’d ordered made, with some of his words on it. He asked Preston’s fellows and his officers to come with him, to place the memorial. They floated along slowly to the Pilot Simulator room, and fastened it to the wall. Everyone read it. Later, the entire ship’s company filed past it. It said:

Preston P. Preston, Pilot
In full knowledge of the cost, he gave his life for his shipmate’s.
The finest Pilot ever known, he had no equal, and was quick to say so.

Pilot, Hero, Friend.
May your Spirit live forever.
May your story be told as long as men have memory, on distant worlds.

Preston’s final picture was at the bottom, in some ways a beautiful thing, with him floating away, against the background of the Milky Way, in a field of ten thousand twinkling colored quartz lights. His face was grimacing in pain, but still with a lopsided grin. He was giving Kim, or the whole crew, the finger! Not with one hand. There was no thinking it was accidental. He was giving them a double finger, with both hands!

In Kim’s little cabin, there were two small pictures on the wall. One was of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, with happy children playing on the shining sand.

The other was the picture of Preston, grinning and giving him the double finger. On its frame bottom was a little plaque, printed, “You Owe Me One”. When he put it up, he said, “Preston, I’ll try to live my life so that you won’t think I’m neglecting my debt”. When he was most upset, he could gaze at those two pictures, and find peace, new hope, and courage.

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