The long brown coat went on last. Grissom shrugged into it, taking comfort in the weight of its fire-proof fabric. The coat caught on his gun belt and Grissom tweaked it into place.
The lump in the bed moaned and rose to one elbow. The lump's sleep-tousled hair fell in layers around her face and the sight made the air leave him. Twenty years married and it happened every time he saw her. He sat down on the bed.
"Do you have to go?" she said.
He smiled. "You always ask that."
"I always will."
He leaned in and kissed her. "Betty Moore, Betty Moore, you are mine, mine, mine."
"Girlfriend, fiancee, wife ..." He shrugged. "You'll always be the girl I met at the malt shop."
She raised an eyebow. "And you'll always be the jerk leaving me."
He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. "I'll always come back."
"You'd better." She sighed. "Level with me, Gus. Is this one dangerous?"
He winked. "Piece of cake, darling girl. Mars is only a day out and a day back with the new Oppenheimers. John's already done it twice."
"And everything John Glenn does, you have to do, too."
He grinned and stood up. "Unless I do it first."
The Cape was 15 minutes away by car, but Grissom knew he could get there in seven on his motorcycle. He took another seven minutes to buy doughnuts for the crew, then spent his remaining 60 seconds on a scenic overlook above the Cape. Looking at the rocket towers and gantries always made him feel giddy, like a real spaceman.
Grissom tossed the pastries to a runner after snagging a chocolate-glazed from the box. "Get these to Big Swede."
The runner nodded and hurried away.
Grissom stuck his hands in his pockets and walked to the logistics office. He stuck his head in the door."What's in the wind, Mickey?"
The chief shrugged. "Not a thing. They say get 'em ready, I get 'em ready."
"Live ammo all around. Full pile."
Grissom whistled. "Sounds like bad news for somebody."
"You don't look too broken up about it."
He grinned. "Any day I get flight time is a good day. Everyone in brief?"
The chief nodded and stuck out his hand. "Good luck up there, Gus. See you on the other side."
The elevator took Grissom five levels down and opened onto the briefing room. Only mission command was deeper. The rest of the 7 was already there and Grissom dropped into a seat next to Ed White.
"What do you hear?" White said.
Grissom shook his head. "Not a thing. But we're loaded for grizzly."
"Interesting." He nodded toward the podium. "The party's about to start."
Pad boss Guenter Wendt kept the briefing simple: Launch in two hours, form up in orbit, wait for further orders.
Grissom raised his hand. "What happened to going to Mars?"
The thin-faced man straightened his bowtie. "That's all the information I've got, boys. This mission originated at the highest level." He switched off the podium light and spread his hands. "We're out of time. Please prepare your ships."
Grissom leaned in to whisper to White."Sounds like this might be worth getting out of bed for."
White shook his head. "High orbit with all weapons loaded. I don't get it. Who are we going to shoot that far out?"
"Guess we'll find out at 1350." Grissom clapped White on the back. "See you up there."
White nodded absently. "Good flying, Gus."
Grissom took the monorail to the launch pit, where his crew was already hard at work on his ship. The LRF-15 stood on its tails, umbilicals attached at every port.
Grissom's crew chief appeared out of a bank of steam, wiping his hands on an oily rag. "We're making it good for you, Gus."
Sven Larsson had a pHD in physics but no one called him "Dr. Larsson." Some of the other eggheads insisted on the honorific but Sven was always just "Sven," or occasionally "Big Swede" because of his height and broad shoulders.
Grissom stuck out his hand and Sven engulfed it in one big mitt. "Don't suppose you know where we're going," Grissom said.
Sven shook his head. "No clue." He shrugged. "Pretty sure you'll be going straight up for a few miles, though."
"Then I just take a left at the moon and stop to ask directions. Thanks a heap."
Sven grinned. "I just work here." He ran his hand through his thinning blond hair. "Go see your baby. After all this milk she may need burping."
Grissom paused a couple of times to exchange pleasantries with other members of the launch crew, but he only had eyes for his ship.
When he was close enough, he ran his hand over her buffed metal skin. From seven paces back every red, white and blue foot of her looked as smooth as a car fender. Up close, Grissom could see the seams, rivets and frequent patches that made up her skin. He patted her gently. "You ready for another show, darling girl?"
He circled the ship, keeping his hand on her, looking for flaws. He wouldn't find any — Sven's crew was top-notch — but it was part of his flight-check process, like kicking the tires before a long road trip.
The long-range fighter was aging but game to go. Grissom had dubbed her "The Molly Brown" after their first mission and she'd proven worthy of the name, surviving more than 75 combat and recon flights in near space. This year, Molly, along the rest of her line, had been saved from retirement when one of the eggheads pointed out how easy it would be to retrofit them with the new Oppenheimer Atomic Engine. The redesign exponentially increased the fighters' straight-line range and speed, while maintaining their inherent toughness and maneuverability. There were younger more sophisticated ships to be sure, but Grissom wouldn't trade Molly for any five of them.
Grissom climbed the short ladder to the hatch and ducked inside. A sliding door straight ahead led to a small bunk and refresher unit. A ladder anchored to the inside wall led down to the power and life-support plants and up to the cockpit. Grissom went up and was soon sinking into the familiar cracked leather of the pilot's chair. He flipped the switch to activate the control board and continued with the flight checks. In a little more than an hour he flipped his flightbook closed and switched on the radio.
"Sven, this is the Unsinkable M.B. We're all green in here, what's it like outside?"
The clear channel static sounded like a light rain. Sven's voice came in like an awning. "Looks good, Gus. We have about 30 more minutes to top off the tanks and then you'll be good to go. Want to come out and grab some coffee?"
Grissom shook his head and then keyed the mike. "Negative on the Joe, but thanks for the offer. I'm going to grab a quick nap on the couch."
"Sweet dreams, captain. I'll wake you up before the launch."
Grissom grinned. Sven knew he'd be up in plenty of time for final checks, just like he knew about Grissom's habit of catching cat naps where ever and when ever he could before a mission. Grissom put a bandanna over his eyes and stretched out in the seat. He was out in seconds.