Short Fiction: Parabola

I thought I’d post a snippet of steampunk for your delight and delectation. This piece was inspired by the Forgotten Futures story contest in New Scientist. You can hear me reading it on my blog: Can’t Backspace ยป Short Fiction: Parabola. It took me all day to get the recording to work with my iPhone so if no one listens to it, I might cry. Just sayin’.

by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Tom approached the rocket launcher, tugging a silk handkerchief from his pocket.

“She’ll be right as rain,” said the grease-smeared young man as he twisted the final bolt and slapped the gear door shut.

Tom wiped away a streak of oil dripping down the side. “She’d better be.” He paced around the launcher and peered at each screw. The rocket was only just bigger than a man but the launcher was broad and bulky, a disappointment. Over the winter, he hoped to streamline the design, make it more aesthetically pleasing. But first the damned thing had to work. “I’ll never get funding for a second chance. There’s no room for mistakes.”

“You’re telling me!” He rubbed his hands on his trousers. “I need to clean up.”

“No time for that. We can’t delay.” They were launching the rocket at noon with enough gunpowder to burst it straight through the stratosphere. According to Tom’s calculations, they would have a two hour journey, dining on the train, to arrive at the landing spot with an hour to spare. He checked the connections for the parachute once again. “It would have been better if you’d worn a suit.”

“I know.” He brushed ineffectually at an oil-stain on his shirt. “The cog slipped and I had to pull the entire mechanism apart. Lost the morning to it.”

Last minute tinkering, the mechanic’s curse. Tom bit his tongue to keep the peace but then the young man rested his hand on the launcher as if it were an old friend.

“Stop that.” Tom wiped the fingerprints from the polished brass. He glanced at his pocketwatch and gave the hinges a final rub with his handkerchief. “Come on, get inside before anyone sees you all mucky. We need to get started.”

He strode to the press podium, now all smiles and laughter as he waved to the mayor giving an interview to a skinny man scribbling his every word. “We’re making history today,” he called out, hopeful that he would get quoted on the front page.

Finally, it was time. With a flourish, he raised a flag to the naval crew. They lit the spiral lines of propellant and, with a flash, the capsule thundered into the sky. Minutes later, all they could see was the sun reflected off the polished brass and then the rocket disappeared.

Everyone applauded. Tom laughed out loud with excitement. “We’ve done it! We’ve taken the first step towards discovering the stars.” He spoke to the press men with studied tranquility. “Come join me for lunch in the first carriage?”

Two hours later, the passengers disembarked for the triumphant return of the rocket, champagne at the ready. But after waiting an hour and then another, until the skies grew dark and the wind grew chill, Tom’s exuberance faded. By midnight, he was the only one left on the field.

High above, a young man with oil stains on his trousers pressed his nose against a steamed up window, staring at the green and blue earth beneath him. The launcher had worked, it was perfect.

Now, all he had to do was get back down.