“We’ve lost our way.” The plump man’s heavy-lidded eyes took on a saddened look. “Give me a few minutes before you leave,” he said as he looked to the ground, shaking his head and turning away.
Mandisa Nkosi watched him pass under a crumbling concrete structure covered in rust stains and encroaching tropical greenery. Just over a century before, astronauts were looked upon as heroes and early launch vehicles as science fiction manifested. She sighed. All of that wonderment and awe reduced to this.
At one time, the structure had served as a launch pad for the massive rockets that had carried astronauts into orbit in the earliest years of space travel. Mandi gazed up at the ancient pillars. One of four colossal legs had fallen, and the side of the platform had collapsed. She reached up gently to the nearest support. As she traced her fingers along the ragged edge, her eyes came to a tarnished brass plaque. She rubbed it with her sleeve to make out the last sentences:
They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind’s final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.
Mandi shifted her gaze to the slate-gray sea and raised both her hands to her close-cut hair. She breathed deep, taking in the sea breeze that kicked small whitecaps into chaos on the surface of waves rolling in from the open Atlantic. The rumbling surf made a constant roar beyond the scattered trees and low scrub along the dunes. Palm fronds fluttered in the wind, their hiss mixing with the din of water crashing on the beach. Tall and slender, she leaned her athletic body into the humid wind. Her open jacket flapped in the breeze, and her shirt pressed close against her dark skin. As she scanned the scene, her eyes began to water against the unrelenting breeze.
Around the edges of the concrete launch pad, support equipment stood in decay. A pair of ancient metal blast deflectors—once capable of taking everything that massive rocket engines could throw at them—had nearly collapsed with age. The next tropical storm would likely do them in. Behind them, a series of decaying launch towers stood in a line that trailed off in the distance, testaments to a bygone era when rockets, not orbital shuttles, took people, satellites, and cargo to orbit.
Tires crunched on the coral gravel of the cracked and overgrown parking lot. Mandi’s source was leaving. Now it was safe for her to go as well. Suddenly, her somberness was replaced with excitement, her sorrow with growing euphoria. She looked at the diminutive data chip in her hand. If her source was right and his documentation thorough, this small piece of plastic held the key to the news story of the century. And it was hers to tell.
With excitement, she took another deep breath and all but ran to her rented vehicle.
“Take me back to the hyperloop station,” she said aloud as she slid into the front seat.
“Would you like the Orlando or Jacksonville station?” The computer replied automatically.
“Please secure your restraint system.”
Mandi strapped herself in, and the auto-driver took her down the ground white-coral access road. Palm fronds and tree branches brushed the rented car, threatening to scratch the paint. Any other time Mandi would have worried about paying for damages, but today she couldn’t care less. As the auto-driver turned onto the paved road outside the abandoned complex, Mandi flicked her eyes to the upper right, triggering her comm to power on. A contact lens in her right eye projected the screen into her retina. The date, September 5, and the time, 3:57 pm, showed while the comm loaded a plethora of waiting messages and news stories. She ignored them and called her office. The busy indicator flashed.
“What else?” Mandi muttered. “Message,” she said aloud. “Boss, you wanted me to work the story? Boy, did I just work the story. Get back to me ASAP. This is big.”
Mandi’s mind raced as the auto-driver passed the derelict spaceport facilities, went out through the chain-link security gate, and rolled onto the causeway heading toward the mainland. The palm trees and tropical brush swayed under menacing skies. Inland the clouds had darkened to nearly black with the onset of the violent thunderstorms common in late summer in this part of the world.
Mandi’s palm began to ache and she realized she’d closed her fist around the data chip in a vise-like grip. Slowly she opened her hand and looked down. A large smile grew on her face, and she raised the chip to her mouth and kissed it, before securing it in her vest pocket. It held a once-in-a-lifetime story.
The car left the island and sped into traffic along the causeway across the Canaveral River. The sea breeze had picked up along the brackish water estuary, pushing waves into the windward seawall flanking the road, sending spray high into the air. On the leeward side, the water rippled into small waves that would grow and roll to make their own splash on the next causeway down the river. As the car started onto the tall bridge spanning the channel, the auto-driver accelerated. At first compensating for the grade, the acceleration continued. Mandi looked up. The car swerved, clipping a slower vehicle and knocking her head into the side window so hard that she saw stars.
“Driver!” Mandi gave a dazed yell. “Emergency stop!”
The automated controls didn’t respond. The auto-driver dodged and weaved between other vehicles, as each fought to evade the malfunctioning car. Mandi braced herself with the door handle and lunged for the manual emergency stop, smacking the button on the console with her palm. The car sped on. Again and again, she pounded the button with no effect. At the top of the bridge, the car hit the left guardrail and bounced off violently. Mandi’s head hit the window even harder than before, stunning her. The car swerved again, and with a sickening crunch she was thrown forward.
In the second and a half of free-fall that followed, she had just enough time to gather her senses enough to see the murky, green waters of the Canaveral River come crashing through the windshield.
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