The pink feather boa drifts weightlessly, now this way, now that, trailing droplets of champagne and incidentally obscuring my view of the Apollo capsule's main port, and its vista of Earth. Faint sounds come from off-camera.
The astronauts are fucking again.
They must still be lying on the slick vinyl Peter Max couch at the rear of the command module - there's not that much room even in an Apollo capsule - but this time they've turned the camera around to face the viewport so I can't see anything.
I flip 'em the bird, anyway, just in case one of 'em's watching the capsule's link to Mission Control, and then flip off my view of the live feed from Apollo '69. There won't be anything more urgent happening, anyway, until the mission reaches lunar orbital insertion point in a couple of days.
Then I turn the video on again. After all, it's in the mission profile.
And besides, I might miss something juicy.
* * *
Shelley comes up behind me and passes me the bong. I take the tube in my mouth, thumb the carburetor and light up, sucking down a big hit as she starts rubbing my shoulders, pushing those big tits of hers against my back. I lean into her and exhale slowly. The smoke splashes over the monitor without obscuring my splendid view of that damned boa still floating around.
Shelley keeps rubbing my neck one-handed as I return the bong and she takes her own hit. She's an all right chick, for an engineer, and she digs me. If we were alone in Mission Control I might make another move on her, but our SS overseer Karl is still standing in front of the big screen with his mouth open, watching the feather boa drift back into sight. I don't feel like making it a threesome, and I don't think Karl'd be too cool about letting us go ahead without him, either. He's very straightlaced, even for a Secret Service type, even if or maybe because of the fact that he can't take his eyes and ears off what's happening up in the command module. So I just go with the flow, getting into the groove...
* * *
The radio bleeps and farts.
"Langley. Langley. Do you read?"
It's Collins. They must be finished, finally, but nobody's bothered to appear on screen yet. I hear giggles and thumps, though. Collins must be "down" near the base of the command chair, holding the microphone.
"Langley," her breathy voice whispers. "We have a problem."
I sit up and key the mike, suddenly serious, trying to maintain my cool through the clouds of boo.
"I read you, Apollo. What's the sitch, Joan?"
She pouts prettily.
"We're out of champagne."
Even Karl laughs at that one.
* * *
I remember Smilin' Jack in '64, arms around Marilyn and Jackie on their big hideaway waterbed in the Oval Office, rehashing his big Moon speech for the TV news. You know the one - they even released an LP of it, backed with sitar and theremin: "Wee choose to go to de Moon. Wee choose to go to de Moon in dis decayed and do the udder tings, not because dey ah easy, but because dey make us HAHD."
Never thought I'd see Kennedy in the White House again, after the display he put on in the garden that evening in 1962... naked and tripping, howling at the moon while the cameras rolled. But he came out of the situation in control, somehow.
(I think his reply to Khrushchev's "We will bury you" speech had something do to with it. When Jack screamed "well, WE'LL rip your HEAD off and shit down your NECK" it turned out to be immensely popular with the hawks in the heartland - especially after Khruschchev backed down, his translators hastily explaining that all he'd really meant was just that they'd see us buried by outliving us. Nobody really believed it, but I think Jack kept out of a war that time.)
Then when Jack's own Vision of Dallas turned out to be true, and his handpicked Secret Service corps rooted out the gunmen on the Knoll, the Agency higher-ups who'd hired them, and the Congressmen who'd known all along... well, no one could touch him.
Nor wanted to, really... Camelot got very exciting when Jack moved Marilyn in and Jackie refused to move out. The journalists and their public wouldn't let the few old pols who were left try to take him down again - they were getting too much juice from the stories.
It's gotten very hard to tell which is the tail and which is the tiger. Kennedy's had the bug for space for a long time, both outer space and inner space, for getting high both literally and figuratively, and it's only bitten him harder since he's become the nation's First Guru. But the papers and the television stations have fed the frenzy for space too, at first maybe just humoring him, but later because of the increased interest they'd had their own part in creating. The country's changed fast, and anyone who hasn't kept the beat has been left behind.
* * *
After Kennedy's speech that night, for example, the network cut back to The Honeymooners. It had to've been planned: the first thing on the screen was Alice Kramden, taking it from Ralph one more time in one of my favorite episodes, "The Lunar Vacation."
"One of these days, Alice... to de moon!"
"Oh, really, Ralph? You always say that, but somehow you never deliver. If I'm goin' to the moon, where's my ticket?"
He pats his side with one pudgy hand.
"Right here in my coat pocket."
She breaks into a big sunny smile.
"Oh, Ralph! Ya mean it?"
"Yeah, honey. Dey got buses on de moon now, don't dey?"
"- and sewers!" chimes Norton.
"- and wit' the low gravity dere I'll only weigh thirty - uhh, fifty pounds!"
Yeah. No need for canned laughs on that show.
* * *
After that night, I had no trouble seeing what was coming. I changed my major from prelaw to engineering, dropped a few strategically-visible hits of pure Sandoz product, and got hired straight out of MIT for the big space push. Hoped for a spot up there where Leary, Collins and Kesey are now, but of course the brass wouldn't have anybody low-profile on such an important flight. Every Kennedy administration has been savvy about star power. Besides, there's a lot of action in Mission Control too, even if there aren't quite so many groupies.
* * *
Christ, the launch was spectacular. As always - the Space Corps' art and media divisions keep topping themselves. Warhol's red-and-white paint job on the big lower stages, the big soup cans streaming fog from their vents and rising slowly while the banana yellow command module sat on top, big electric blue bugeyes sparkling in the California sun, and the exhaust billowing red, white and blue as Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" rippled out over the flats from the speakers mounted all up and down the gantry... it was a trip and I wasn't even tripping this time.
Everything went nominally, too, at least during the launch. It was only later that things got really freaky.
* * *
We had our first moment of real trouble on board the capsule (Leary had averted the champagne crisis by bringing out his stash of Dom Perignon... he said he'd been saving it for the landing, but realized it'd be a waste to let it boil away in vacuum) when the astronauts had established a stable orbit and the time came to send the lander down.
No one wanted to stay behind.
Collins pouted, Leary persuaded, and Kesey just grunted "Who's the one driving the bus?" The mission profile called for one person to stay in the command module, but the brass hadn't thought to specify which - and now it was out of their control.
So all three of 'em went, driving us crazy on the ground because we hadn't thought to mount extra cameras in the lander. We had to be content with the single portable video camera that Leary'd brought to record the moment. But he kept pointing it out the windows of the lander while Kesey and Collins were getting it on. I've had better views from 42nd Street film loop arcades. Oh, sure, space was great, but what most of us in Mission Control wanted to know was how they could manage to do the bump in that cramped lander.
However, we had to applaud Captain Leary when he centered the viewfinder on the glowing thing that had appeared in middle of Mare Veneris and ordered the sweaty and exhausted Kesey to "Steer for that."
"That" was something new on the Moon, and Leary gave us a good long look. As if in response to humanity's near approach, something in a big red bullseye had just appeared midway between Mare Serenitatis and Mare Fecunditatis, right in the middle of a crater where there'd been nothing visible before but the gray Lunar surface.
* * *
Kesey set the lander down with a small bump and a splash of dust. The trio stopped for a celebratory toke before they suited up. Then Leary handed Collins down the short ladder, where she set one dainty space-suited foot on the soil of another world with the immortal words, "That's one, ohh... SHIT!" and fell flat on her ass. Then she said a few more words that even in these enlightened times didn't make it to the airwaves.
She went back up the ladder for a second take, and came back down elegantly, without a single bobble this time.
"That's one small step for a sister, and one giant leap for SISTERHOOD."
Then they all piled into the custom-machined Ghia lunar rambler for a trip out to the center of the bullseye, where something tall and slender glinted in the sun. Leary mounted the portable camera on the rambler's fender and they took off.
* * *
As the rambler ground its way across the pale and dusty lunar surface, the red disc ahead of it began to recede. At first the featureless redness moved at the same pace as the rambler's slow advance, but soon it was moving faster and faster, until it reached the base of the monolith and disappeared, then shot out again as a narrow tongue of carmine spearing straight at the lunar rambler's wheels. Several of us back at Mission Control couldn't resist squeaks of alarm. We were chastened, though, by the serene acceptance of our brave astronauts, who limited their exclamations to repetitions of "Oh, wow, man..." and the like.
When the rambler met and drove up onto the tongue of red, it found firm, smooth purchase, and began accelerating toward the tower's base faster than its wheels alone could carry it.
The mottled surface of the monolith drew quickly nearer as the red carpet retracted. Kesey leaned forward, becoming visible on the side of the portable camera's field, and burst out with,
"My God! It's full of... paisley?"
Closer. We could see it for ourselves, now, swirling red and purple paramecia swelling on all screens.
Then we heard Leary say,
"Why not? YEAH!"
The surface of the monolith filled the screens of Mission Control from wall to wall, curved shapes swarming in all monitors. Then the image went dark. We'd lost them.
* * *
Later, satellite telemetry revealed that the monolith had disappeared; the floor of Mare Veneris was as smooth as it'd ever been. We didn't even have a target on the Moon for our anger and disappointment.
* * *
The Congressional committees investigating the disaster were bad, but even worse for anyone who'd been in the program for very long was watching the sorrowing faces of the Kennedys on network TV, asking how NASC could have lost the whole mission. I was lucky, I guess. I hadn't officially been in Mission Control during those last few moments of the mission (although I'd been staring over Shelley's shoulders like everyone else when the rambler was sucked into that giant psychedelic popsicle stick) so I didn't lose my job in the purge that followed. Shelley did, though, and so did a lot of others whose only real crime had been punching in that day. Most of the crew who'd been on duty that day at Mission Control didn't wait around to be fired, though.
A few of 'em killed themselves.
I hung around. I don't know why; there wasn't much work for astronauts or their roadies in 1970. No one felt much like mounting a rescue mission to an empty rocket, and since that day the monolith hadn't reappeared. We kept busy planning the Sino-American joint mission still on the boards for the Bicentennial, and drawing up blueprints for the Mars ship rumor kept saying might never get built now, but there was no Apollo '70, and it looked like there wouldn't be a shot in '71 either.
I rose through the ranks, though it felt more like a torpedoed U-boat wallowing to the surface than a rocket rising to the Moon. Eventually I had a cubicle with a window and my own phone, and the rank of Assistant Project Coordinator on a project that was starting to look like the lowest priority on the government's long list of research projects to ignore. Most of my job came down to deciding which invoices to approve out of this month's shrinking budget, a job that got quicker every quarter, but every now and then I'd be able to sneak Shelley into Mission Control and we'd run through a satellite launch or weather balloon retrieval for old times' sake.
* * *
So it took a kid in Texas staring up through his Edmund Scientific telescope to point it out to us when the red bullseye showed up in Mare Veneris again. There was no way for us to tell how long it'd been there; no more than a week, certainly, since that was how long ago we'd run our own sweep from the somehow still-functioning Apollo '69 command module scopes. The images we saw now were static, though - no visible activity at all. We started scrambling; the Director was on the phone to Bobby as soon as he sobered up enough to speak English, and we got the go for an emergency shoot within the hour.
Of course, it'd take us the better part of a week to get a bird in the air, but we still had the mothballed Apollo '70, and a couple of the more obsessed techs down in Canaveral had made sure it was as flight-ready as it could be. Besides, the bullseye and the monolith presumably still at its center didn't look as if they were going anywhere this time.
* * *
In the middle of all the preparation we almost missed the call from the Haight... the phones had been ringing off the hook anyway what with reporters and scientists and ham radio operators and stargazers all calling in the news or their interpretations of it, or just trying to find out what the hell was going on. The call, in fact, ended up being transferred to me.
The connection was grainy, long-distance. I didn't recognize the voice at first, especially with the normal background noise of the Haight competing with his reedy enunciation.
"Gus? That you? Movin' up in the world, it seems. This is Tim Leary."
I'm afraid I couldn't begin to tell you what came out of my mouth as his words began to sink in. It was Leary, there was no doubt about that - I'd heard his voice through too many staticky radio connections to mistake it now that my mind had adjusted to the reality.
"We're back, Gus! All three of us are crammed into this phone booth in Haight-Ashbury." [I heard Joan giggling in the background as Kesey murmured something that sounded really lewd - more confirmation, though I didn't need any by that point.] "We wanna come to Langley and get debriefed. Get a transport out to SFO as quickly as you can; we'll be at the terminal in an hour."
Then there was a buzz as the connection was broken. I got on the phone to the Chief. What with the thing reappearing on the Moon, Bobby was suddenly as accessible to us again as Jack had ever been; he agreed with me that we should scramble the astronaut team back to Virginia as soon as we could, but he vetoed calling off the launch.
Guess that's why he's President - he pointed out things I should've taken into account, like the fact that the red dot was still on the Moon, and that knowing that the astronauts could get back without a spaceship made getting back up there even more of a priority.
* * *
The debriefing session was almost a riot despite the fact that Bobby'd detailed the SS to keep out the press with machine guns if they had to, at least to begin with. Even without the journalists, though, there were enough film stars, cabinet members, cultural heroes and high-ranking military brass to fill up Shea Stadium, and they were all clamoring to be in on the first public words from Leary, Collins and Kesey. A lowly Assistant Project Coordinator wouldn't've had a chance if it hadn't been for my personal connection to the President, and even at that I had to stand in the back of the auditorium and strain to see over the heads of the junior Senators and Congressmen near me, straining themselves to see the artifacts the Apollo '69 crew had brought back from their trip.
For their trip inside the monolith hadn't ended there. In fact, that spire on the moon wasn't really "there" at all... it was merely an opening between our Moon and... somewhere else.
Leary was out in front as usual, rapping quickly and fervently, on fire as he hadn't often been since Jack had tapped him to shape the nation's drug policy back in '64. He was waving a book, large and brightly-colored, a coffee-table book, and trying to shout over the multitude of questions being thrown at the astronauts from all the people who really should've known better. Eventually they calmed down enough that we could hear him speaking.
"Where have we been, these past ten months? We've been... to Earth."
The noise threatened to break out again, but subsided quickly. We knew Leary could explain himself.
"The Earth we visited isn't our own, however. It's a parallel Earth - an entire parallel Universe, in fact - and its people need our help."
"I have here in my hand volume 7 of the other Earth's Time-Life History of the Twentieth Century. It's a photographic record of history as it happened in the world on the other side of that gateway on the Moon. The other volumes are here with us and will be reproduced for all of you to see just as soon as we're able to get them out of here and to a printer's for reproduction. We also have microfilm, videotape and audiotape, and even some records which are only accessible via something called a "laptop computer with CD-ROM," which is itself a marvel I can barely understand. There's an incredible universe just next door...
"I must tell you, though, my friends, that this book and its companions are not pretty reading; they've taken some incredibly wrong turns and I'm not sure where the first one was... but I do know where one ill-chosen fork occurred.
"President Kennedy - Jack, that is; there was only one President Kennedy on that Earth - was assassinated, in 1963. As far as they can tell, he never saw it coming."
I couldn't resist a gasp at that one myself, just like the ones echoing from a thousand other throats, but Leary went on remorselessly.
"Bobby Kennedy never got to be President; he was also killed by an assassin, in 1968. Martin Luther King, dead the same way. Even Ambassador Lennon, even though in that world he was no more than a musician, was killed by a gunman, although not until much later.
"Without the Kennedys' courage at the helm, our conquest of space - our very national character - seems to be different. Oh, we made it to the moon in 1969 anyway; I don't think there would've been any way to change that. But it wasn't in Apollo '69, and Joan, Ken and I weren't the crew. The National Aeronautics and Space Corps doesn't exist, at least not in its present form - it's a quasi-military agency and all the astronauts are Air Force pilots. They do have a Tim Leary - at least, they did up until recently - but he was so old and frail, and nobody in that world will listen -"
He stopped speaking for a moment. Joan moved up and placed a hand on his shoulder. It was easy to see that they'd only grown closer during their adventures. Eventually Leary was calm enough to continue.
"Forgive me for focusing on the personal. The whole world's gone bad, on the other side - wars and the military, starvation, something called 'supply-side economics' which I won't even attempt to describe. They've been moving a lot faster than we have - it's the year 1996 over there - but I don't like where they've gone, and I don't think you will either, once you've seen all of these."
He slapped the Time-Life History down on the table with its fellows. The noise echoed in the silence before being swallowed by a thousand questions shouted at once.
* * *
Eventually we got it straightened out. The United States we saw through the monoliths which had appeared all over the country was truly in dire need of our assistance. There was nothing we could do about the wrong turns they'd taken in the past, but we could do something about their future. And we had exactly one chance to make it happen.
We streamed into the Haight, to the central monolith, the giant gateway that had deposited Leary, Collins and Kesey back on our world. Half a million of us in the first wave, gathered in and around Golden Gate Park, heading for the shimmering rainbow bridge to your world, each of us bearing our own chosen tools for your enlightenment - books, tabs, records, joints, the bounty of young bodies - but most of all bringing ourselves, each of us with open arms, hearts and minds, each of us with our love, reaching out to all of you to cure all the ills of your poor raddled world.
* * *
* * *
Original content on this page © Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.