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Chapter 10 - Manning the Maiden Voyage.

Manning the Maiden Voyage (2022)


The weight of it all; quite literally. The weight of the suit, the boots, and the helmet the most. She thought back on her days when life was a little simpler. She spent most of it with her parents, in the plastic-cushioned seats of the great American pastime: the baseball stadium. She thought about the nights when her parents had to bribe her to go to the game with them. Season ticket holders, they had already spent enough money securing a decent view to every home game of their overpaid, abysmally played baseball team. They didn’t want to spend another dime on a babysitter. Some nights, they’d offer to take her to the bookstore beforehand (where she’d pick some science fiction novel, one she was bound to finish in a matter of three home games). Others, there were give aways from the stadium; bribery included in the price of admission.


As she walked across the jet bridge, she remembered the ceramic bobbleheads that lined her bedroom desk from those baseball games. She didn’t know the players; she didn’t understand what the point of the game even was. She did, however, enjoy the way their little heads would rattle in semicircular motions as she finished her homework. In this moment, she was one of those little bobbleheads, head bobbing in the same semicircular fashion as the weight of the helmet, and the weight of the moment, pressed down upon her.


“Mission control to Captain Schneider,” the intercom blared out.


“Shit, Jesus that’s loud. Did anyone test this thing before they plopped it on my head?”


“Captain, the whole Mission Control is listening in – let’s dial it back a notch on the cussing. Also, there is an audio input on the lower left side of the helmet. Engineering was supposed to instruct you on that.”


“Oh, Christ, yes – I knew that. I mean, ohh crackers,” she replied. A small chuckle was heard on the other end of the intercom as she pressed the subtle button to turn the audio down.


“Alright Captain, about 400 yards ahead, and then, your longing Lady awaits.”


The Ladybird. It seemed patronizing to name the ship The Ladybird simply because she was the pilot of the mission. She accepted it, and internally she renamed her vessel to appease the male minds that dominated her world.


“And a pretty one she is,” Captain Schneider breathed, trying to release her nerves on the exhale.


“Don’t worry Captain; you got this. There is no one better fit for this than you.” Internally, she thanked Mission Control. She nodded, took another deep breath, and continued to resist the urge to inspire the next generation of space exploration-themed bobbleheads.


After ascending the stairs, the hatch of The Ladybird whistled open. Inside, her home for the next month: a single leather seat, a series of complex dashboards, lined with computer after computer. Behind the main hub, a sealed door to the living quarters.


“She’s all yours, Captain,” whispered the flight engineer, standing next to her at the entrance. She nodded (with an extra bobble of the helmet) and entered the main flight cabin of the Ladybird. As she settled into her seat (the “ultimate Captain’s chair,” her father, a commercial pilot, called it), she looked to the cabin door. Exhilarated and terrified, she waited for the moment when the flight engineers would wave a simple goodbye and lock her in this scientific tomb. The anxiety started to creep up, demanding deep, yoga-like breaths as she listened to Mission Control in her audio, barking orders and examining pre-flight check lists.


And then, a familiar face.


“Jace!” she exclaimed, as Jason walked through the threshold in his army fatigues.


“I know we said goodbye, but these idiots accepted my military credentials and allowed me up,” he joked. Looking at him, the man she loved, she got a little emotional.


“Aw, babe – this isn’t meant to make you sad. This is to just say you’re my best girl, and you go get that fucking portal thing and make it your bitch.” Captain Schneider laughed through her tears.


“I’m just nervous and pissed that I can’t take this helmet off to get a good look at you and a proper kiss,” she whispered back.


“Schneider, get your head in the fucking game!” she heard Mission Control yell back. Turns out the mics on the damn helmet were pretty good after all.


“So much for no cussing,” she muttered.


“Do as I say, Captain.”


She held out her hands, covered in padded gloves like the little kid from A Christmas Story. Jason took them in his. He smiled at her, his wife; the only woman who knew to be ballsy enough to propose to him instead of waiting for the man “to do the romantic thing.” He loved that about his wife; she just took what she wanted. That included the Captain’s chair of a space mission to assess the belly of the beast – the first navigable black hole in the depths of space. He reminded himself, yeah, I know who I married.


“You got this, Allie. You got this, because you’re my best girl, and I’ve never known someone who has grabbed life by the balls as much as you.” She smiled back as one small tear formed.


“Ugh, fucker, I can’t wipe this away.”


“AS I SAY CAPTAIN,” Mission Control barked. She would never understand how her husband had served in the military for as long as he had, dealing with people constantly giving demands. This really wasn’t a natural thing for her.


“Captain Schneider, we are about to begin the processing of arming and sealing the door,” the flight engineer interrupted. A terrified look erupted across Captain Allie Schneider’s face.


“Hey, hey – you got this,” Jason said as he squeezed her hands affectionately. He dropped them and grabbed her large helmet with both of her hands. “Don’t tell mission control, okay?” He kissed the convex fiberglass exterior. Strategically, he kissed her helmet in the upper righthand corner, as to keep her sightline clear, but to keep a small impression of his lips visible to remind her that he was there with her, always. “Just don’t go meet some hot alien side piece, okay? Remember, you proposed to me.”


She laughed. “There’s not one that does it for me like you, hun.”


“I’ve seen the way you look at Diego Luna, Allie, don’t mess with me.”


“I repeat, soldier – no one else.”


He smiled back at her. “Go get em’, Captain Wife. Go be my best girl.” And at that moment, the flight engineer pulled Jason away by the shoulder, indicating to the soldier that time had finally run out.


“I love you, Jace,” she pleaded as he crossed the threshold of The Ladybird and back onto mortal land.


“Go be my best girl,” he shouted back.


Go be my best girl, echoed in her head as the doors were armed and sealed. The image of his brown eyes and clean shaven face burned in her immediate memory, as her suit sealed itself mechanically into the cold metal frame of the Captain’s chair. She stared at the outline of his lips in the upper corner of her helmet as Mission Control began the countdown.




For twenty-five years, The Ladybird was contemplated (all theoretical, of course) to be the first spaceship that could navigate the most superficial of the supermassives. In its earliest inceptions, it was not The Ladybird. It was, in fact, just a serial number: NASA’s 1122. The idea was conceived of on December 11th; a cold and brilliant Tuesday morning. The first sketches of its design, the first that were actually tangible, feasible – within the mental grasp of the world’s brightest minds – were handed to the Director of Deep Space Exploration on April 22nd; a crisp and beautiful Friday afternoon.


When the ship was submitted for consideration and administrative review, the Director needed to label the ship for the sake of bureaucratic organization. He peered through the design summary logs at the top of the file, looking for something of significance. Lazily, he created a four-digit serial code off of the first two significant dates he could see in the file – 1122.


While he found the design and thought intriguing, he seriously doubted the project would ever stand a chance. With the politics of Congress and the appropriations process of the executive branch, there was no way someone was going to invest billions of dollars into the design and execution of a child’s fantasy. He never imagined he would be sitting at his desk, above the hustle and rumble of Mission Control, holding his breath as the metal jet bridge pulled away from his 1122. Moreover, he never imagined some plucky kid – a girl, no less – from a hometown airport hangar would be the pilot just risky enough to man the maiden voyage.


Yet, there he was, pouring a finger of scotch, and saying a prayer for the safety of his biggest project, and he guessed he would also include the pain in the ass strapped into the pilot’s chair as well. He looked at the highball glass and realized maybe his nerves required a little more. On the government’s clock, he poured another finger – topped it off to three. In one fell swoop, he threw back his overpriced glass of scotch, and watched out the floor to ceiling windows of his office. As the flames blasted into the ground, propelling the spaceship off the ground with force and heat, he whispered, “Holy fuck, there she goes; and the 1122.”


Somewhere in the background noise of his racing thoughts, he heard over the Mission Control intercom: “And we have lift off.”




For five days, he waited for the call from Mission Control. While one of Allie’s friends from Mission Control would quietly update him before the head of the shift command, he often found he got his news about her flight faster from Twitter than he did from the source itself. As he sat at his desk, attempting to focus on whatever mundane task was before him, Jason continuously refreshed the news screen of Twitter.


“Go home, Officer; you’re no good to me here, like this,” his captain instructed. “You’re better off with a six pack of Kilian’s and your phone, rather than sitting here pretending that you're assessing the data that I gave you.”


Jason had to admit, it sounded nice – to be told to leave work, have a few beers, and do absolutely nothing. But he knew that he would be far worse off without something to get him out of bed in the morning, some sense of responsibility that could temporarily numb the overwhelming, paralyzing poison of the fear he felt in his veins.


“Thanks, Cap – but if you’re okay with it, this might be better for me,” Jason replied.


“Suit yourself, son.” But before his captain could turn away, Jason felt his phone vibrating in his hand. He flipped over the screen to see it read TIM DONWAY – NASA. One of Allie’s friends; he answered.


“Tim, whatcha got for me?” Jason’s captain lingered at the edge of his desk while he took the call. Technically this wasn’t part of the protocol, but it wasn’t every day that one of his soldier’s wives navigated the scariest depths of a brave, new world. His captain wanted to know the update, too.


He watched as Jason nodded, breathlessly answering, “Yeah,” and “Yes,” and “Oh, okay.” This proceeded for approximately thirty seconds, before Jason blurted out, “Holy fucking Christ – Cap, turn on the TV and NOW!” With the agility of his bootcamp days, Jason’s captain ran to the center conference room table and grabbed the remote to the satellite television that hung affixed to the office wall. He punched in the number of the national broadcasting center.


“We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming with an urgent news update.”


Jason watched as a picture of his wife – a picture that NASA snapped of her early in her training (and one in which she swore she looked at least five pounds too chubby) flashed in the upper corner of the news broadcast. He told her, repeatedly, that she looked great in the picture. He loved how badass his wife looked, regardless of whether she slightly resembled the Michelin Man in that suit.


“We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to provide the American public with an important update regarding Mission Far West. NASA has recently patched in all news stations to its satellite feed, within in observation range of The Ladybird as she, and her captain – Captain Allie Schneider – approach the first identified, navigable supermassive.”


“Is this seriously happening, LT?” The captain questioned. With Tim Donway on the other end of the line, Jason breathlessly replied, “Just watch, Cap – just watch.” Balancing his phone between his shoulder and his ear, Jason swirled his wedding ring around his finger; his last earthly connection to his wife. On the inside, Allie had inscribed their wedding date, and a lyric from their wedding song (played in the bar of their favorite Italian restraint on the night they eloped) – ain’t no mountain high enough.


It was just as Tim had described to him. If everything worked, they would see The Ladybird approach a swirling series of blue and white twinkling lights. If the supermassive accepted the material and the design of the spaceship, Tim said, it would be as if you blinked and missed the moment. With all of his might, Jason tried to keep his eyes open to catch the moment. He wasn’t sure if his dry eyes momentarily gave in to the need to blink, or if it was truly that quick and subtle. Whatever transpired, the last image of his wife – her ship, her headshot – flashed for not even half a second and then disappeared. On the other end of the phone, he heard the screams, the thunderous applause, the hollers of pure joy from Mission Control.


“What the fuck just happened son?!” His captain asked.


Jason, a man with a decorated career of service in the U.S. Army, stood in the presence of his immediate superior officer, and cried. Unashamed and unafraid, he leaned into his emotion as he replied, “Captain, my wife just fucking did the impossible.”


As his captain clapped his shoulder, Jason thought you’re my best girl; don’t you forget about me.



In her mind, she had not felt the sensation of normalcy, of rhythmic breath for an eternity. As oxygen filled her nostrils and rapidly traveled to her lungs, she felt as if her body plunged into the iciest body of water in the middle of hot desert. She remembered Mission Control telling her to mark her time before the supermassive either accepted or rejected her. She wasn’t sure what the extraterrestrial force has decided, but she knew, according to her earthly clock, a matter of 60 seconds had passed.


Still strapped to the Captain’s chair of 1122, she processed what had happened in that eternity of a minute. She opened her eyes, wondering if she passed out, or just blacked out in anticipation. Her body felt as if she had been ripped from the seat, stripped of her suit, and stretched into impossible contortions. She was sore, exhausted, and beaten. Yet, she wasn’t sure how, though – only 60 seconds had elapsed from “moment go” to this instant.


Catching her breath – sounding as if she had been sucker punched in the throat – she scratchily radioed to Mission Control: “Mission Control” – she coughed – “Mission Control this is 1122, Mission Control, do you read?” Pure static on the other end of the communications system. While her heart momentarily fluttered with panic, her brain tried to reason with her hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis that she and Mission Control had prepared for this moment. They anticipated that comms would go out if she were successful; if the supermassive accepted the 1122 into is existence.


After making the logical inferences of this thought, Allie croaked “Holy – fu-fucking – shit.” With the adrenaline awaking the rest of her senses, her eyes rapidly adjusted to the blue and white, swirling, twinkling lights that pulsated into the interior of the main cabin of the 1122. In its emanations she could see frost forming, subtly cracking the military grade glass windows. These were all credible signs that the supermassive had, in fact, accepted Allie and her 1122 into its temporal existence.


Short, rapid breaths took over. Inhale – oh my god – exhale – think, Allie, think. Inhale – what is next? – exhale – you know this checklist in your sleep, you got this. Although she felt slightly lightheaded, she ran through the internal checklist, searching for the secure release button to allow her to travel freely about the cabin.


“You don’t panic like that!”


It was a familiar voice. A familiar, deep, growly, comforting sound – as if warm whisky were anthropomorphized into a friendly voice.


Well fucking Christ, am I dead then? Allie thought. She was instantly beginning to doubt the success of the mission.


“You’re alive, Smalls. You’re alive and you’re here,” the whiskey voice replied. “Don’t close keep your eyes closed; it will make these next steps harder. Open them, kid. Open them.”


Allie opened her eyes slowly. When her eyes readjusted to the lights (he was right, it was harder the second time) she saw him. He was standing in the main cabin, no suit, no technology, no nothing. He was just there, just the way she remembered him – dirty, strawberry blonde, scruffy, flannel. It was the idyllic memory she had ingrained into her memory.


“What – uh, why – I mean, ack,” she coughed, trying to formulate her thoughts. She cleared her throat, but the words that followed were as harsh sounding as sandpaper. “What are you doing here, Josh?”


“Welcome to the supermassive, AP – welcome to the Upside Down.”


She tilted her head in confusion, yet recognition. Hoarsely, she croaked, “No one has called me AP in at least ten years.”


She watched as he walked away from the panel control and approached her. A tall guy, he crouched down to her sitting level and smiled into the observation panel of her helmet, “No better time than the present, no?”


She smiled back. No, she thought to herself.


“Good,” he replied. She was suddenly jolted with fear; could he read her thoughts?


“The upside down?” she asked.


“Yes, the upside down. Where everything that was normal, is not. You’re in the center most point of the supermassive now, AP – where there is a very delicate homeostasis. Normally, the supermassive is thought to be a place where matter is compressed down to an infinitely tiny point, and all conceptions of time and space completely break down. But you jumped to the center-most, inter-most point of the supermassive, where time, space, and gravitational force suspend like – ”


“Like a preserved oxygen bubble in water,” Allie replied.


“Exactly – where these rules don’t exist any longer. It’s all just flipped; upside down.”


“But isn’t that all just theoretical?” Allie questioned.


“Isn’t your whole mission theoretical? Isn’t your presence here on the 1122 the greatest lottery win of all time, if you think about it?” He isn’t wrong, she thought.


“Great name, by the way,” he commented as he looked around the interior of the main cabin.


“I mean, The Ladybird wasn’t my idea, but –”


“No, Jesus, no. I meant the 1122.” He smiled, subtly winked at her, and in a few moments’ time, she understood.


“Josh,” she interrupted the pause with. “Josh, what are you doing here?”


“Well, I’ve been waiting for you – for a very long time.”


“But, how? Aren’t you, I don’t know, somewhere on Earth, living your life or something?”


He smiled, and shrugged, looking over the complex nobs and keys of the control dashboard.


“Why, Josh? Am I alive? Did I die – wait, fuck, are you dead, too? Wait, wait, wait – I died, and I know how, but how – how – how – how did yo-you. . . “


“Woah, AP, settle your bones kid. You’re okay, breaths, deep, deep breaths. You’re okay, I’m okay. And no, I did not die doing something stupid, as I know you had prophesized many years ago.” Allie – AP – she couldn’t help but laugh.


“There’s my girl,” he whispered. Although her hands were still secured to the arm rests of the Captain’s chair, he took her padded hands into his.


“Why are you here?” She fought the urge to cry. “Why? I waited. I waited for years; why are you here now?”


“I don’t have a good answer to that. I really don’t. I know your massive, yet little brain, and I know you’re already thinking five steps ahead of me. But honestly AP, I don’t have a good answer for that. But I am here.”


“Screw you,” she softly cried.




“You show up, in this moment of all moments. In the moment when I did the thing everyone said I couldn’t. You show up in the time when I find my tiny slice of happiness, both on Earth and here in the sky. You show up, and you rip my ego and my heart out of this industrial space suit and out into the destructive fringes of the supermassive.”


He slowly collapsed from the crouch to a sitting position, his hands still linked with hers.


“I’m so sorry, kid. I just don’t have a good answer for any of that.”


“Fuck you,” she angrily cried.


“Don’t say shit like that, c’mon.”


“No, I’m going to. I’m going to because I can, and I will, and you cannot stop me.”


“Don’t be a child, AP,” he snapped.


“A child? A child?! Are you fucking kidding me? You chose to haunt me in the most important moment of my professional life after leaving me with your classic ‘no good answer’ when I asked you to spend your life with me.”


“I – I – I have no good answer to that, AP, and you know that.”


“Screw – you – then,” she huffed as she struggled to locate and press the release button on the Captain’s chair.


“What are you doing? Hey, hey, I am sorry, but I came here for you, I just called to say –”


“Save it!” she barked as she managed to release herself from the restrained of her pilot’s seat. Slightly weakened, but filled with spitfire passion, she pushed herself to the dashboard control panel.


“Yo kid, what are you doing?”


“Don’t call me kid, don’t call me AP, don’t call me baby, don’t –”


“Alexandra, what in the actual fuck are you –”


Slam, and her first came crashing down on the Mission Abort button. Per Allie’s training, this button was only to be utilized when she absolutely knew the mission had failed.


“Hey, even I know that can’t be a good thing to push, it’s real scary looking and red and aggressive and – ”


“Would you just shut the fuck up for two seconds? God, even my hallucinations can’t take a hint.”


“AP, I’m real and I’m here and I – ”


“Oh yeah, in the middle of space, in the middle of a supermassive black hole, no less, you are so real, Joshua.”


“Yeah, I’m here; you know I always loved space.”


The comment, so innocent, so true, so sweet, sucked the oxygen from the fuel of the fight. Floating in the hull of the cabin as Josh stood perfectly anchored to the floor, Allie – AP – had nothing to say. She let the moment settle before she let her thoughts free.


“I know,” she started. “I know; it’s the whole reason why I am here.”




“Ha, yeah. Why else would one stupid little stunt pilot agree to risk everything?”


“For the thrill of it all – that was my girl, once upon a time.” The words took her by surprise.


“Then why did you say no? Why did you walk away?” It was if she was beginning to plead the case she spent years and years and years crafting in her mind.


Before he could respond, the 1122 began to violently shake. The dashboard began to light up, intermittently blinking all of its buttons, as warning alarms began to blare out. Struggling against zero gravity, AP began to swim against the forces of space and zero gravity, down towards the control panel.


“You’re not dying; your mission didn’t fail, AP,” Josh said. “You have a choice.”


“Oh yeah, rocket man?” AP sarcastically barked back. “Then you tell me how to fix this, because I have set into motion the self-destruct sequence, so I don’t suffer a terrible death on the outer wall of the supermassive.”


“You can undo it,” he said.


“Fuck you, I studied for this for years, I know I can’t. I've started the process - I’m dead in 60 seconds.” I’m dead in sixty seconds began to echo through her mind as her anxiety rocketed through the roof and out of this universe.


“That one,” he said, as he pointed to a tiny button in the smallest crevice between the wall and the dashboard of the control panel. “That one will undo it all,” he said. "Or, continue down the path you've set and make certain your self-destruction," he said as he pointed to the Abort button. Not far off from the mysterious button she'd never noticed before, she'd need to push the Abort button one final time to secure her own end.


As the 1122 began to shake harder, AP looked at him longingly. “Are – are you sure?”


“You said I’m the rocket man, didn’t you?”


The tears came piling on – “Tell me, why are you here? Just really tell me why?”


“You’ve got a choice kid. That button, or the path you’ve set yourself on. One will take you home, because as much as you tell the forces to end this journey for you, space and time have a whole different plan for you. So, you decide – start this whole mission over, stay here, or self-destruct.”


“Sadly, choices I’ve been faced with before,” AP reasoned to herself.


“Funny how the space time continuum can be a poetic bitch,” he replied.


“TEN SECONDS,” the automated security system of the 1122 blared over its intercom system.


“AP, this is all up to you now.”


“Why didn’t you say yes?”


“I’m sorry, I don’t have a good answer for that now. But now, here – this is all up to you.”


“Why didn’t you? Why are you here now?” The panic was audible, palpable, as it began to rise in her chest. A fraction of a moment hung in the air.


With both of his hands, he grabbed both sides of her helmet. In the upper left hand corner, he left a simple kiss – one she had longer for, for years on end. She was so desperate for it, she could have sworn she felt it through the fiberglass of her face shield. It was so romantic, and so tragic simultaneously, as her heart broke in three different pieces. One piece for Jason, the man who knew who he married. One piece of Joshua, the one she always wished was brave enough to accept her. And one for herself, for this moment, for all the dreams she made smaller for the comfort of others.


She looked into his blue eyes as he pulled away from her and began to say, “I’m just here to say I lov – ”


It was all she needed to hear. Her hand came slamming down on the dashboard control panel. Neither of them could tell where her padded hand was headed in the moments before it landed on the panel.


The swirling blue and white lights of the supermassive pulsated aggressively, powerfully as the moments between the decision and the push of the button transpired within the main cabin hull of the 1122. Accepting the fates, accepting Captain Allie – AP – Schneider within its gravitational pull to correct the course of her own, star bound, stardom life.


One strong pulse of beautiful swirling colors and then –



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