Menu
Paul Preuss

“Paul Preuss is a writer of real intelligence, and manages to treat his human characters as actually Wanted on the Voyage…. near space seems once again nearly possible. And that is good news.”

— John Clute,
Washington Post Book
World

“Above all, the characters are real…. Starfire is a true story, true in the way that only the best fiction can be true, and I heartily recommend it.”

— Orson Scott Card,
Fantasy & Science
Fiction

Starfire (Large)

Watch for the new digital editions from Diversion Books

Starfire is a fusion-powered spacecraft, with astronaut and celebrity daredevil Travis Hill a member of the crew, on a mission to an Earth-crossing asteroid. An immense solar flare cripples the mission and forces the crew to bury the ship inside the asteroid, hoping to survive a close pass around the sun.

Read a chapter.

1

Seconds before impact, Travis realized the pilot was unconscious. Too late. The station loomed in the windows of the little satellite tender; the screech of metal on metal drowned his surprised yelp. Even as he bounced his head off the deck he noted with amazement the brilliant flares that spewed past the window, aluminum shrapnel burning in an outrush of pure oxygen from the ruptured air lock.

In the Newtonian exchange—one slow billiard ball against the rack—the several-thousand-tonne space station was nudged into an imperceptibly different orbit. The satellite tender that had smacked it, in which Travis was a passenger, was now skidding away at a flat angle, its cabin air whistling through a thin rupture in the gasket of its docking collar.

Inside the little tender Travis struggled to get the unconscious pilot’s helmet over his head and seal it to his suit. Travis was taking big gulping breaths as he did so, filling his lungs from what air remained in the cramped cabin. As the whistle dwindled to nothing, a suspiciously giggly sense of what-the-hell crept up on him, warning him that he had to get his own helmet on. That took about four seconds, longer than it should have in the tender’s lazy spin. He punched his chest valve, and air hissed into his suit.

Travis allowed himself a quick sigh. It was going to be one of those ODTAA days, just one damn thing after another. He dragged the pilot free of his straps and quickly taped him to the wall with tape from the roll he kept at his waist. He wrestled his wide shoulders forward and clambered into the single control seat, buckling down, slapping at the panel switches to douse the hysterical alarm blinkers.

“Uh, Euclid, this is Twinkletoes. Do you read?”

“Copy, UT-two. Trav, this is Takumi. Everybody’s in the cellar but me and George and Lizzy. What’s your ES?”

“Let’s see, looks like we got total loss of cabin pressure. Max passed out, I don’t know what’s wrong. He’s suited up, and air’s flowing in his suit.”

The star field outside the trapezoidal windows wobbled drunkenly, then was sliced away by the brilliance of the blue North Atlantic 400 kilometers beneath the ship. It was a beautiful, almost cloudless early fall day down there, but Travis had no time to appreciate it. While he talked, Travis wiggled the joy stick. In the absence of air to carry sound, he heard—if you could call it that—the hiss of the attitude jets through the seat of his pants. Like a series of long, low farts after a bowl of Uncle Albert’s industrial-strength chili. Comforting.

“Travis, do you have control of your vehicle?”

The blue ocean went away and the white-painted space station swam into view—pooot—and out again—poot, poot—and in again, each time staying a little longer.

“Give me about five more seconds.”

Euclid Station was a small, ungainly thing, a confusion of spidery trusses and flimsy panels and random spheres and cylinders, feebly floodlit against the brute glare of subarctic September. The station housed a score of astronauts, engineers, scientists, and government busybodies; all but the short-timers among them were presently huddled in the big “storm cellar,” a tube of sheet iron surrounded by many cubic yards of plain sand. Ten minutes ago Houston had relayed warning of a major solar flare from sun-watching satellite sensors. Euclid was sliding toward the blue-white polar region, pursued by a hail of lethal protons incoming at a quarter of light speed.

Caught outside the station with Travis and his pilot in the satellite tender was another ship and the six people in its crew, a high-orbit shuttle that was at this moment urgently trying to redock at the main launch bay.

In the tender’s windows the ocean and the stars stopped contending. Travis eased the joy stick forward, and the tender moved slowly toward the station. He spoke cheerfully into his suit mike: “Takumi, my friend, my updated ES is that I’ve got a pilot out of commission and a piss-ant little tin can of a spacecraft with no air in it, but it’ll still fly. I reckon we’re ready to come in out of the heat now.”

A few seconds passed before he got an answer. “Travis, I’m trying to figure out how we can help you. We have severed gas lines in the utility air lock.”

“No sweat, we’ll use the launch bay, soon as you evacuate that high orbit choo-choo and shove it out of the way.”

“We’ve run that option. Estimate is a minimum one hour to dock and clear the hatch. She’s loaded, Trav. We’ve got to off-load some of that fuel to vent overpressure.”

Travis didn’t bother asking for details. The big shuttle had been interrupted in its launch sequence, and like an airliner lifting from the runway, it was a flying bomb, bloated with toxic and explosive fuel. It had to be secured in place in the launch bay until excess fuel could be bled off into the station’s holding tanks, blocking the only remaining pressurized entrance to the station.

The ratio was cold and simple. Six lives in the shuttle to two in the satellite tender.

“An hour, huh?”

“Yeah, Trav. Houston’s putting a tiger team on your situation. We ought to have some fresh options for you soon.”

Euclid Station completely circled the Earth every ninety minutes, sixteen times in a day; now heading north to the Arctic Circle, in forty-five minutes it would be approaching the Antarctic. At both poles the Earth’s magnetic field lines curve down to the ground, steering captured charged particles into the atmosphere—producing delicate auroras below but leaving orbiting objects naked to the electromagnetic storm. Unlike its sister, Archimedes Station, whose orbit never took it outside the magnetically shielded middle latitudes, Euclid was exposed to radiation eight hours in every twenty-four.

“Patch me into Houston, okay?” Travis requested.

“Wilco.”

“. . . investigating opening the weld in Corridor Z. That’s in the schedule for next week anyway “ Caught in midsentence, the relaxed, gently concerned female voice of Houston’s mission communicator, the Capcom, sounded in Travis’s headset. “Another alternative is to put all hands in pressure suits and blow one of the emergency hatches. Aside from the inherent risk, however, we have to calculate how long it will take to resupply your oxygen. First approximation is not promising.”

“Houston, this is Travis Hill.”

“Go ahead, Travis.”

“What are the likely dose numbers?”

“Current estimates are that you and your pilot will have taken approximately twenty-five rads from early fast protons by the time you get over the hill. You could collect another hundred rads on each pass over the poles, as long as the flare lasts. “

“Good-sized flare.”

“That’s a roger.”

If exposed to 500 rads in a short time, a human stands a fifty-fifty chance of dying within thirty days. Two hundred rads produces serious illness, although the chances of recovery are favorable. Workers on Euclid were monitored and sent home if they got seventy-five rads in a year. After three years they were retired in any event.

The Capcom spoke again. “Travis?”

“I’m listening.”

“It doesn’t look like we can get you inside the station in this nightside pass. Suggest that when the shuttle is in the launch bay, you tuck up Earthside of its number three tank. The liquid H-two in the tank will give you some shielding, with minimum secondary radiation risk. That could reduce the dose to about seventy-five rads over the Antarctic.”

“Gee, I feel better already.”

“There’s a reasonable certainty they can move the shuttle out of the way within this orbit.”

Takumi, aboard Euclid, chimed in. “We’ll do it, Trav.”

“We’re pretty confident they can do it,” said Houston.

Travis was being told to give in, to stop thinking of escape. He was being told to exceed his career limits for radiation exposure. They would never let him go into space again.

“What kind of retirement benefits you offerin’?”

The woman in Houston tried to put a smile into her voice. “We can’t do miracles with physics, Travis. But we’ll see what we can do with Uncle Sam’s red tape.”

For a long moment Travis was silent. The ungainly station was directly over his head now, slipping past by millimeters each second. The high-orbit shuttle was settling into the launch bay, its three bloated fuel tanks clustered like a clutch of ostrich eggs beneath its stubby torso.

Travis wiggled the joy stick. The satellite tender responded instantly. “Houston, I am proceeding to dock the UT-two under the shuttle’s number three tank, per your advice.”

“Copy”

“Say if we can assist,” said Euclid.

“Thanks, Takumi, this is the easy part.”

Minutes passed as the tender approached and scraped gently across the orange fiber-glass skin of the fuel tank. Travis manipulated the tender’s articulated arms with practiced skill, hooking the claws through D-ring hard points in the tank’s surface until the tender clung fast to the shuttle with a steel grip.

Travis twisted in his seat and studied Max’s peaceful face through his lightly misted faceplate. He poked at the pilot’s shoulder, where blinking biomedical monitors were clustered for display. “Houston and Euclid, copy this for the record. Max’s biomeds show a normal and stable heart rate, normal and stable blood pressure, normal and stable respiration, brain-wave pattern consistent with ordinary sleep, no signs of distress”—talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve—“and I don’t know what the hell’s the matter with him, but I can’t do anything about it while he’s inside that suit. Euclid, assure me you will be able to reach Max if I am incapacitated.”

“No sweat. Soon’s we move the shuttle out of the way, we’ll come get both of you.”

“Copy that, Euclid.” Travis slapped the chest plate to release his suit harness. “You come get Max as quick as you can, Takumi. Don’t bother about me, I’m bailing out.”

“Say again, Travis?” Euclid spoke first; Houston’s nearly simultaneous reply was delayed by distance.

Travis was already yanking at the tender’s ruined docking collar. He shoved hard against sprung hinges, moving the hatch aside with effort, squeezing through. He floated free of the little ship, under the orange belly of the shuttle tank.

He spoke in bursts into his communications cap radio, spacing his words for economy. “I figure if I can launch an escape pod . . . in the next five minutes . . . I can hit air a couple of minutes after that . . . be in the water in half an hour.”

The orbital escape pods distributed at various handy points on the exterior of Euclid Station were generally regarded by astronauts with amused contempt—another inept safety gesture on the part of ground-bound bureaucrats, sops less practical than an airliner’s floating seat cushions.

“Hill, this is not a life-threatening situation.”

Travis recognized Taylor Stith’s voice in his headset, querulous, trembling on the edge of temper—the Wunderkind flight director had just violated etiquette by grabbing the Capcom’s mike. “Those pods have not been operationally tested,” said Stith.

“Copy.” Travis continued his progress around the outside of the shuttle’s bulging hydrogen tank, flying hand to hand from D-ring to D-ring; behind him the abandoned tender, with Max inside, looked very small, like a mosquito poised on an oversized female breast. Travis was breaking the rules even more grandly than that ground pounder Stith, of course, maneuvering freely in space without an umbilical, without a maneuvering unit, without even a safety tether.

Bright dots of ice floating in water the color of Aqua Velva formed the convex sky above Travis’s head, while beneath him the flimsy raft of Euclid Station floated in a bowl of unblinking stars. A brief leap across the open space between the shuttle’s tank and the edge of the station’s launch bay took him to the nearest pod storage bin. He flipped its barn doors open.

The escape pods were lenticular ceramic heat shields with thermoplastic covers, hardly bigger than Porta Potties. Stored inside each was a parachute and an inflatable raft in an ejection rig and—the only really specialized gadget—a hand-aimed, gyro-stabilized, solid-fuel retrorocket. An astronaut who had to leave orbit in a hurry was supposed to climb in, lie back, clutch the retrorocket to his or her chest, adjust position and attitude with its gas jets, then take aim at an easily identifiable star specified by mission control and pull the trigger.

The impulse from the solid-fuel rocket would gradually slow the pod until orbital velocity was lost, whereupon the astronaut threw away the rocket, closed the flimsy hatch with its little bubble window, and tried to relax while falling through the atmosphere, on fire, decelerating at five gees plus. Below about 7,000 meters or so the pod’s cover would pop off, spilling the astronaut and deploying the chute.

Simple.

In seconds he had the nearer pod free of its straps. Lifting the thermoplastic lid, he found all the neat packages of equipment nestled where they should be. He ripped open Velcro fastenings of yellow webbing, yanked at cotter pins festooned with red warning strips. One of them activated a SARSAT radar beacon.

“Hill, we just ran some quick numbers and we want you to consider that the calculated uncertainties in your re-entry show a damn poor chance of getting any helicopter ship near you in less than two days from Hawaii. Assuming you land in water.”

“It’s gonna be dark soon. How about giving me a star?”

“Astronaut, this is a direct order. I’m ordering you not to attempt to use that escape pod. We can’t be responsible for your safety.” While no one had ever used a pod, it was not strictly true that none had been tested. What was true was that in no test had an unmanned pod ever been seen again.

“You can’t fire me, Taylor . . . and I won’t quit.” The pod drifted free of its mooring. Travis kicked off and went with it. For a moment he had a bizarre image of himself as a surfer launching a surfboard while standing on his head. It made him irritable. “Give me something to aim at, dammit. Or I’ll shoot from the hip.”

Flipping over to squat on the pod, he shrugged off his lifesupport backpack and hooked into the pod’s portable emergency oxygen supply. He wrestled himself onto his back and tugged the parachute straps across his chest and shoulders, pulling the life raft package up under his rump. The strap edges scrunched thick layers of suit material into an oppressive lump in his crotch. It was exhausting work, and he heated up fast without the coolant flow from his abandoned backpack, but it had to be done right; parachutists had dismembered themselves with loose harnesses.

Now Euclid was overhead, and the dazzle of the north Greenland ice pack was rolling unseen below him. Euclid’s orbit was inclined several degrees from true polar coordinates, and within moments the whole orbiting miscellany—station, shuttle, pod, and all—would be heading south across the Northwest Territories of Canada.

“Travis, this is Houston.” The voice was Capcom’s again. Flight director Mr. Taylor Stith had evidently realized that ambition was not to be served by putting himself in the front lines on this one. Travis imagined the newsheads. SPACE STATION CRISIS MISMANAGED: ASTRONAUT LOST/ ASTRONAUT INCINERATES SELF/ ASTRONAUT DROWNS/ ASTRONAUT EATEN BY SHARKS. He forced a grin. His mother was always telling him that acting scared scares you, that acting brave makes you brave. “Go ahead, Houston.”

“We have acquired your beacon. When you are secure, we want you to aim on Altair and do a one-second gas burst to separate from the station.”

He nudged the rocket canister into place with his knees, deflecting it at a low angle, and aimed across its verniers through its wide cross hairs. Altair was one of the brightest stars in the sky, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, now just rising in the southwest above the twilight rim of the world. “I have it.” Like all pilot astronauts and countless mariners before him, Travis had long ago committed Altair’s position to memory.

“Whenever you’re ready, Travis.”

“Firing.” The gas cylinder on the barrel of the bulky rocket pack puffed compressed gas into space. Travis saw nothing but the indicator light on the butt of the rocket pack, but he felt feathery pressure against his diaphragm from fractional gee forces. “One, one thousand,” he murmured, and lifted his thumb from the gas button.

The stars had shifted. Euclid Station had rotated perceptibly to his right. There was silence in Travis’s headset. “Still with me, Houston?”

“We’re with you. Give us a moment before we finalize.”

“Copy, Houston. Thanks for the help.”

The pause was a fraction of a second longer than it had to be. “We aim to please, Travis. You do likewise.”

Travis ignored the implied rebuke and took comfort in the promise. He really wasn’t ready to think about what state his life must be in, that he’d rather stake it on this desperate chance than allow himself to be barred from space forever. It wasn’t the time for that kind of introspection, anyway.

“Travis, assuming you’re lying down in that thing, you should find Beta Aquarius straight ahead. Do you have any question about its identity?”

“No. I have Beta Aquarius in the verniers.”

“Copy.”

Again there was silence. He lay supine in a cockleshell raft, adrift on the river of night, judging its current by the stars and nebulae that washed over the gunwales.

“Travis, we want you to take aim on Beta Aquarius and initiate the preset charge precisely on our mark, T minus thirty seconds. Do you copy?”

“Copy.” Again he nudged the fat barrel of the retrorocket and sighted through the open cross hairs at the white star.

“Travis, I have a note here from Guidance. Says the common name of Beta Aquarius is Sadalsuud, if I’m pronouncing that correctly. It means the Luckiest of the Lucky.” The Capcom’s voice was without emotion, as if she were afraid to jinx the omen by regarding it as anything other than a useful datum.

He would need the luck. The first unmanned test pods had had an attitude problem. The pods were meant to skitter across the top of the atmosphere like a pebble on a pond, until they slowed enough to sink straight in. With the wrong attitude, a pod didn’t even bounce before tumbling into meteoric ruin. After NASA had licked that, the test pods began making it into the atmosphere, their beacons beeping right up until ionization blackout—but after that, nothing.

“Ten seconds to de-orbit burn . . . ”

He listened to the numbers and thought of nothing but keeping the retrorocket braced, the star in his cross hairs. When the count ran all the way down, he squeezed the trigger.

This time flame spurted between his toes. His stomach sank. The impulse was gentle, but it seemed to go on forever. The stars slowed, and Euclid wheeled away into darkness before the rocket flickered out.

“A good burn, Travis. Now all you’ve got to do is roll into eyeballs-in position.”

“Roger.” With quick bursts of gas he rotated the pod until the surface of the planet was rolling away beneath his feet. Below him the Earth was darkening, and scattered lights winked on in the great glacier-planed desolation of central Canada. The regions of middle air were hung with milky veils of northern light. He unlatched the spent rocket and gave it just enough of a shove over the side to ensure that it wouldn’t re-enter on top of him.

“We’re scrambling ASR from Johnson Island. See you in Waikiki.”

He knew this communicator, a red-haired kid, pretty and smart and tough as nails. “You meet me in person and I’ll buy you a mai tai.”

“Can’t pass up an offer like that.” She paused. “Go with God.”

Choked good wishes from other voices in Houston and aboard Euclid joined in, whispering in his headset—writing him off, he thought.

He kept his amen to himself.

Like a tetherball wrapping around a pole, the escape pod accelerated as it dove toward Earth. The first widely spaced molecules of air offered resistance. Travis began to feel a bit sludgy. He pulled the thermoplastic cover over his head and peered through its fishbowl window; between his helmet and the window there was so much refraction that he could no longer make out the stars.

A bead of sweat trickled from the inside of his brow, down the side of his nose, into his eye. Stung like hell—that’s gravity for you. He could feel his weight now, pressing against all the ridges and wrinkles of his clammy suit. The wad between his legs was as oppressive as a loaded diaper.

Something whispered in his ears, and a flicker of red licked over the glass, inches from his eyes. Perhaps he was imagining it, but the pod seemed to vibrate with febrile energy, nervy as a wet fingertip sliding around the rim of a glass.

The window was all red, tending to orange—not the red of flame, but the diffuse red of a neon sign, glowing with gas discharge. The abused air molecules outside the pod were hot, excited enough to glow, but too far from one another to transfer much heat to the pod.

That proved to be a temporary state: molecules swiftly swarmed closer as the diving pod continued to accelerate against the braking force of the air. The window was ablaze with pearly light, and inside Travis’s spacesuit the air was getting unmanageably hot. Vapor clouded his faceplate. Sweat poured into his eyes.

Steady white flame outside the window, and a banshee’s wail rattling his eardrums . . . he hadn’t been prepared for the noise, inexpressibly louder than the controlled bellow of a returning space shuttle, a painful shriek drilling into his head, straight through his solid helmet. He groaned but couldn’t hear himself. Neither could anyone else, for by now the falling pod was deep inside the cone of ionized gas that blocked the passage of radio waves.

Each second was a minute, each minute a year. Ten minutes in real time he basted in his juices in the howling furnace, waiting for death. The gee forces increased as fiery air slowed the onrush of the escape pod from 29,000 kilometers an hour to 19,000, to 9,000, all the while piling stones on his collapsing belly.

His brain force-fed on blood, and black flecks swam before his eyes; his oppressed guts threatened to heave. He closed his eyes, but that was worse: he began sliding dizzily toward unconsciousness as an inner voice said calmly, as if it had no stake in the matter, this may have been a mistake.

The white glow flickered again, fell back through pearl to pink to red, and once more to black. The shriek subtly altered, and groggily he perceived that he was hearing not just the vibration of metal and plastic but the sound of wind. A drop of condensed moisture fell from his faceplate onto his cheek.

The ride got bumpy; the pod encountered seemingly solid layers of air, then dropped into wells of vacuum. He was slammed from one side to the other as the pod bucked in the turbulence. He knew he had five minutes to fall before he got down to air thick enough to grab his chute, but his time sense had been destroyed. Was the blackness outside the window due to high altitude or merely to night? He had no choice but to trust the pod’s altimeter.

The turbulence increased; his helmet bounced painfully off the useless window. For a moment he was sure he was traveling up, not down, and he heard a rattle of hail like a handful of birdshot thrown against the pod cover. Lightning glared through his window. Thunderhead! He had to suppress momentary panic—a primitive fear, left over from student pilot days.

Not that a thunderstorm couldn’t still destroy him.

Suddenly the ride was smooth again. As his throat relaxed into the beginning of a sigh, the pod’s cover ripped away and the mortar shell he was sitting on blew him into the night. He tumbled like a rag doll through the air. The unsecured oxygen package slammed into his face, shattering his faceplate, and he pawed at it and tore it from its connection. Somewhere deep in the back of his skull the self-that refused-to-get-involved noted another useful design change.

The drogue caught and the chute spilled and streamed out behind, tugging him upright just before it blossomed and braked him with a bruising jerk. He craned his head back to check the shroud lines. His shattered helmet got in the way; he twisted it, dragged it off his head, hurled it aside. He saw that the shrouds ran taut up to a small round canopy high above his head, darkly silhouetted against a sky of blueblack clouds and moist stars.

He twisted the wrist locks on his gloves and consigned them to the air. He lifted his waist flap and worked at the waist ring until the top and bottom of his suit were detached, but the parachute harness prevented him from shedding more weight. He hung there, swinging in the night, with a fragrant breeze pushing into his nostrils and a wad of fabric crushing his balls, and he began to worry.

He could not yet see the surface below him, but he imagined the rolling immensity of the ocean. Already he was faint from the effort of pulling off his helmet and gloves—a few weeks in microgravity is sufficient to decondition the hardiest body—and he dreaded what was to come.

Inky ripples resolved out of the darkness beneath his white-booted feet, liquid black running on gray, teasing the eye to imagine a curve of moonless sea. Travis fidgeted with the parachute harness release. The ripples became swells; waves textured the swells. A tang of salt mist . . .

He pulled up his knees and flipped the releases as the heaving floor of black water rushed up and struck him. All was dense and ringing darkness, with something yanking hard at his foot, tumbling him into boiling confusion. There were bubbles all around him, he could feel them bulging and slithering between his inner and outer suit and wobbling over the skin of his face, but he could not see them.

Whatever it was still dragged at his foot, but his attention was completely focused on the mass of aluminum and nylon that swaddled his upper body. With a deliberation born of terror he held firmly to his open left sleeve while withdrawing the arm inside it, inevitably also pulling the garment over his face, where it clung. He did not panic—he had moved through panic to a place where the universe was reduced to a single dimension, a straight space-time line, allowing one act only, and then another—but reached outside with his free left arm and taking hold of the right sleeve, forcing his reach against the rigid metal of the upper waistband now levering into his neck, pulled those arms apart . . . until the smothering whiteness of the upper suit was gone.

The lower half next: he pushed at its waist ring to no effect; his feet were stuck in his boots. He tucked himself as if doing a sit-up, but his abdominal muscles were so much spent elastic. He could reach to his boots, but he had no strength to pull at them.

He lay back then, and almost inhaled ocean. It seemed much the easiest solution, not only the easiest but really the only sensible course, because he was so very tired, and after all he had done his best . . .  after all . . .

. . . his all . . . over . . .

That damned thing tugged on his leg again his shoulders slammed into the dirt a rock pounded into his ribs an oak thicket tore the side of his face and his ankle was about to snap the hooves were slamming into the caliche throwing yellow dust up his nose no goddam horse is gonna do that to me you sonofabitch all he had to do was reach up and grab that stirrup strap and haul himself up to where he could grab the saddle horn and grab that fancy long mane and he’d kill that fucking bonehead animal by God he’d put a .45 slug right in its ear if it was dumb enough to run all the way back to the barn with him still on it my Daddy’ll give me the gun to do it too you’ll see

His arm was over the side of the raft and his right leg was out of the spacesuit bottom. The floating parachute harness still tugged at the empty boot. Irritably Travis kicked at the other leg, and the garment slithered off and silently sank.

There was a lot of stuff he was supposed to do now. Flares. Radio. Salvage the chute and all that. He’d get to it. Right now he needed rest, with his cheek snugged against this hard rough bosom smelling of rubber cement, the salt water dribbling into his mouth. . . .

He gagged and choked. He raised himself and screamed an obscenity—against the night, against his weakness and cowardice—and with strength he got from some unknown place he pulled himself into the bottom of the raft.

 

He had passed out before he knew he was safely aboard. When he woke he felt nothing but his own immense weight, and something punching him rudely in the stomach. The sea. Six inches from his face was a curved wall of textured yellow, brilliant in sunlight—the raft’s inflated gunwale. His soggy Snoopy hat, its radio dead and worse than useless, muffled his hearing, but beyond the lap and gurgle of water under his ear he could make out another sound, a distant rhythmic hiss and sharp intermittent crack, which puzzled him. Until he recognized it.

Surf.

Travis rolled carefully onto his back. The sky was soft blue, the clouds were benign billows of vapor, high and white, and the sun on his face was a warm caress. He dragged off the communications cap and hauled himself up, half sitting, half lying against the gunwale. The water beside the raft was of a startling blue—not the royal blue of the deep sea but the turquoise blue of a sandy lagoon.

A meter away, floating belly up just beneath the surface, was a three-meter-long hammerhead shark, dead as a plank. Did I land on it? Travis wondered, and started to giggle.

Repeatedly jumping up over the jagged horizon formed by the little nearby waves he saw, on the farther horizon, a long curl of white water curving away to the right and a flat strip of yellow sand beyond, surmounted by a uniform fringe of coconut palms. And on this side of the surf, coming toward him, were two palm-log canoes powered by outboard motors, driven by fat brown young men in orange and purple undershirts.

Travis tried to stifle his giggles, but it was really too funny. This wasn’t Johnson Island. He wondered what the boatmen would think when they found this guy in a raft wearing this ridiculous suit of long underwear.

Still snorting and chuckling, he went back to sleep.

 

Later, waking in the bottom of a canoe to the racket of a two-cycle engine and the smell of unburned motor oil and fish, he did ask, but he couldn’t understand the answer. He had never taken French.

 

Later still, in Houston, after they’d pumped him full of electrolytes and nutrients and reassured him that everybody on Euclid was in good health and fine spirits, including his friend Max, the pilot of the tender, whose undetected neurological aberrations would have grounded him even if he hadn’t OD’d on solar protons, a bureaucrat who was still trying to decide whether to treat Travis as a hero or a dangerous madman showed him on a map the exact point where he’d impacted: twenty-seven miles east-northeast of Manihi atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago.

He’d drifted for half a day, asleep the whole time, while search planes homed on his beacon. He was not implicated in the death of the shark.