Project Departure Demo Chapters

Here is a raw, unedited look at the first two chapters of Project Departure. Future updates and teasers will be available to Patreon supporters at all levels (Trainee and above). Enjoy!


Prologue

What happens when you don’t like your neighbors? You move (or you take every opportunity to annoy them until you’ve worn down their will to live and they move before you do). But what happens when you don’t like any of your neighbors. Like, any of them? And then what do you do if moving halfway around the world is too close? Easy, you move to another planet.

Or at least you would, if you could get there. Jumping can, at best, only get you a meter off the ground. Jumping off a cliff might technically make you feel like you’re flying, but that flight won’t last long. And you can’t really drive there since nobody’s built a road to the moon yet (and that sounds pretty difficult even if you use sticky tape and stuff).

With enough mental fortitude, hard work, and determination you can do anything you want. If that thing you want just happens to be going to another planet, you’ll eventually do it. How? That’s the easy part, figuring out the technological bits. The hard part is the dream.

Or is that the wrong way ‘round? Is the hard part the technology and figuring out how to get there? Hmm, that’s worth considering. Either way, you’re bound to reach your goals eventually, as long as you don’t ever give up.

Just don’t forget the pudding.

 

 

Chapter 1

The sky was most certainly blue—that overt fact had not escaped Larry’s grasp. It was blue every day, unless it was raining or snowing. That it was blue was interesting. Why it was blue was more interesting. Try as he might, however, the eight-year-old Larry could not find the answer. Every raised hand during his classroom studies was met with the same terse reply from Henrietta Able, Larry’s second grade teacher:

“Put your hand down and pay attention to the material!” Her voice grated and cracked on occasion, like a lifetime of hostility had broken her vocal chords but not her determination to see excitement in children doused and stomped into oblivion.

So the answer to why it was blue would remain a mystery (at least for now). But that was fine. It wasn’t the blue sky that captivated young Larry; it was the night sky. At night the blue vanished like a thin mist, like a curtain pulled away from the true sky. That sky was black. It was also shiny, colorful, active, and exciting.

Every day during school Larry would spend his time with his chin resting in his palms, his elbows on his desk, his eyes turned towards the window and up towards the sky. Sometimes it was sunny and the bright light would cause him to squint until his nose and brow were deeply furrowed. Sometimes it was cloudy and the abstract shapes would drift by, coalescing into imagined shapes, then pass quietly out of sight. Sometimes it would rain or snow and the deep layer of gray would block his view but not his imagination.

There was much more to the world beyond the terrestrial one that he was familiar with. There had to be. Birds soared through the sky with ease, something no Bearkle had done before. Clouds drifted by seemingly weightless yet bound to a steady track through sky, guided along their invisible highway by an unseen hand. And what was beyond the mundane terrestrial world? Larry didn’t know.

Stars. Planets. Asteroids. Other floaty things. Astronomers and scientists had discovered, studied, catalogued, and reported on these objects for hundreds of years. Legends from dead civilizations mythologized the objects in the sky and incorporated them into their views and beliefs of the realms beyond daily reality. These objects were seen, studied, and incorporated into each culture. But they were not well understood. No Bearkle had left Earth’s surface for more than a few seconds, and when they it was usually because they fell off something and were quickly reminded that when you lose contact with the ground there is only one direction you can travel—down. But knowing that they were there and understanding what exactly they were besides transient lights and objects in an untouchable ether were two different things. And try as Larry might, pushing his brain muscles with all his effort until sweat pooled in his hairy, gray, furrowed brow, he could not learn more about them through sheer willpower. He could not…

“Larry Kaldrin!” Ms. Able shouted. “Get back in your seat this instant!” Larry shook the cloud of imagined images from his eyes and focused on the reality around him. He was standing at the back window in his classroom looking out on the blue sky and the feet of the towering Origin Mountains. The window looked west towards the mountains where the late morning sun had fully bathed the green, gray, and white mountains in intense light.

“Sorry Ms. Able,” Larry replied. Though he said sorry, that his eyes remained focused outside suggested his words and feelings were in conflict.

“What do you think you’re doing this time?” Ms. Able asked.

A few birds, dark against the brightening sky, darted back and forth playing or chasing each other. Watching them, Larry answered, “I’m watching the birds.” He said it matter-of-fact as though it was justification for not paying attention.

“Larry, come here.” Ms. Able, who had been standing by the chalkboard writing words that related somewhat to anatomy, slammed the chalk into the rail beneath the board, cracking it in three pieces. She puffed out her bulging and prodigious chest, adjusted her floral dress, and took two steps towards the front of the class. Larry, lingering for just another moment, turned and walked down the center aisle between the separated rows of desks and stopped in front of his teacher. Larry was only eight years old but already he (and most the other students) were eye level with their teacher. Ms. Able was, using only slightly exaggerated descriptions, as wide as she was tall. Her pale green complexion always glistened from a layer of sweat cause by the massive exertion everything seemed to be for her. She wore only dresses out of necessity. The dresses were so large and required so much fabric it was a wonder there were any sheets or pillow cases to be found inside the city of Granite Heights, the city of 5,000 people in which Larry lived and which was located near the northeastern corner of the Origin Mountains.

As Larry neared the hulking mass of Ms. Able the sour smell of old dairy, her distinct aroma, met Larry’s sensitive nose. He scrunched his nose up reflexively to keep any air from passing through his nostrils. “Yef Miv Abuh?” Larry said, the words coming out stifled due to lack of airflow.

“Stand in front of the chalk board,” She ordered. Larry walked around his teacher and stood where commanded. “Flap your arms like a bird.” Larry raised his arms obediently and was about to flap, but hesitated.

“Flap my arms?” He was far enough away from the diabolical smell of his teacher that he could breathe (and speak) normally.

“Flap them!” Her grating voice raised a few octaves and her green face turned a bit brown as she blushed from the effort. Larry nodded, his eyes opening wide. He began flapping his arms quickly up and down. After a few moments his face began reddening and he panted from the effort. The harder he worked the more the kids in his class began to giggle. By the time a bit of sweat began forming under his brow the giggles had evolved into outright laughter. “Enough!” Ms. Able shouted and at once Larry stopped flapping and the children went quiet. “Did your feet leave the ground?” Larry looked down at his feet, lifting one off the ground and inspecting the sole of his brown school-issued boots. They revealed nothing.

“No,” Larry answered.

“Did you hit the ceiling?” she asked.

Larry looked up at the spackled ceiling that was distinctly lacking a head-shaped hole. “No.”

“Did you do anything that could in any way remotely be construed as flying?”

“What does construed mean?”

“Did you fly! Did you fly at all!” Ms. Able’s face had turned from green to brown to red now. Larry tried to take an instinctive step back but slammed into the chalkboard.

“No,” Larry answered.

“Are you at all like a bird?” Larry shook his head no. “Bearkles will never fly. Now sit back down in your seat and pay attention!” Ms. Able pointed vigorously towards Larry’s seat at the back left of the room. As her arm came to a sudden stop the gelatinous bulges that made up her meaty arms did not, jiggling slightly for a few moments afterwards.

Larry trundled towards his desk, hanging his round, gray head low to avoid the stares of his classmates. The first few steps were met with complete silence. By the time he was halfway to his desk Ms. Able began moving about. Just as he sat down she pulled the projector screen from its tidy roll above the blackboard until it stretched towards the floor.

Keeping an eye on Larry and the other on the rest of the class, Ms. Able said, “As you know, students, today we begin our health and anatomy module. We will be covering the Bearkle body for the next two weeks. We will discuss your module project after the slide show.” Ms. Able walked down the wide aisle between the classroom (set wider than most classrooms on account of her impressive girth) and stopped near Larry where the permanent slide projector was stationed on an old wooden platform. “No talking during the slide show. If you have a questions raise your hand and I will answer after we reach a stopping point.” She scanned the room for a moment. “Robert McDonald, please turn off the lights.” Bob McDonald, a wispy Bearkle with dark, intense eyes stood from his seat at the top right corner of the classroom and switched off the lights. A moment later the projector roared to life and a bright square of light filled the white projection screen at the front of the room. A distinct metallic thunk slightly preceded the first image on the board. Ms. Able then pressed the start button on the tape player and a peppy male voice whirred to life.

“The Bearkle body,” The disembodied voice began. “A marvel and a wonder of natural engineering and home to all of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.” On screen was a fuzzy picture of a dozen different Bearkles of varying ages, all of them, smiling as they stood for an informal portrait in what looked like a park or field.

“Next Slide.” This voice was different than the narrator, deeper and with less emotion. Ms. Able clicked the projector and another image appeared. This one was a cartoonish rendering of the inside of a Bearkle’s large, round head.

“Bearkles are unique in the animal kingdom,” The narrator continued. “They might not be the fastest, strongest, or largest creatures on Earth, but they do have something no other animal can claim—a giant brain capable of complex, rational thought housed in a nearly impenetrable fortress of a skull.” There was a pause in the narration as a flourish of dissonant instruments played a bit of fanfare. Coming out of the recorder it sounded like animals being tortured. “A Bearkle is made up of bones, muscles, ligaments, skin, and about 20% chocolate pudding. In today’s presentation we will begin with the head, perhaps the most amazing part of any Bearkle. A Bearkle’s skull is the thickest of any animal on Earth. Inside the thick skull is a secondary layer of a spongey material known as Squidgy Puddo-formus. This combination of rigidity and sponginess protects them from high velocity reading impacts and full contact knitting disasters, things most Bearkles are prone to experience.” Larry, as the recording continued, slowly lost interest and found his eyes wandering back towards the window. The sky was blue and bright, beautiful. His head might have been in the clouds, but his feet and amazing Bearkle brain were planted firmly on the ground.

 

 

Chapter 2

Arny Gourdman sat on the thick, curling green carpet of his living room floor playing with his plastic dinosaurs and army Bearkles. His living room was, at the moment, not a living room, but a futuristic jungle with mechanical trees and lakes of oil. Commander Arny Gourdman was leading an assault against the evil PuddingMunchers, a breed of mechanical dinosaur that had one goal—devour the world’s supply of pudding.

This battle was one of many, battles that took place almost daily. Each day Commader Arny Gourdman, military master and commander of the entire Ultra Bearkle Fleet. The war was leaning Commander Arny’s way, he felt, but there were still many battles to be had.

Today’s battle had been going on longer than planned. It seemed the PuddingMunchers were putting up more of a fight than usual, and forcing Commander Arny’s men to fight well past dinner time.

“Can we eat now?” Arny shouted, momentarily halting the battle and returning to the living room proper. Arny could hear his mother sigh before answering.

“Sweetie, I told you already, we need to wait for your father.” The usual sounds of cooking—pots and pangs clanging, bags and bottles opening, water pouring and dousing—had long vanished. The smell of a fresh cooked meal had filled the house and vanished as it cooled. Gerald Gourdman, Arny’s father, was late. He was usually late.

Gerald Gourdman worked for a company called Junk-O’s. Junk-O’s was one of Earth’s top Experience Points gathering and production companies, producing more of the world’s Experience-Points based things than any other company besides You Lack Experience, a company that managed to turn rocks into things that were altogether more useful than rocks. But Arny Gourdman did not know this; he did not care about this. He cared about his father, his father who was rarely home.

The battle resumed and continued for some time. The PuddingMunchers were beginning to retreat when Arny at once left the battlefield thanks to the front door opening. In walked a haggard, slouched, Gerald Gourdman. Gerald was balding and had a sharp widow’s peak in the center of his narrow, brown forehead. The lack of side hair and sharp widow’s peak gave him the appearance of someone going much faster than he actually was, especially considering baldness of the head was rare in the world of Bearkles. Gerald wore orange overalls that were stained and speckled with various blotches of colors ranging from dark brown to midnight black.

“Honey, guess what?” Gerald shouted, dropping his lunch bag on the ground and unzipping his overalls in the small tiled entryway of the house.

“What’s that, dear?” Arny’s mother, Hannah Gourdman, placed something heavy and metallic down in the kitchen and rushed into the living room. By now Gerald was completely out of his orange overalls and standing in his blue stripped underwear and stained tank top shirt.

“I took Explodey, the company cart out to the plains today,” Gerald began, his eyes wide with enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Arny had set his toys down and was shuffling across the carpet towards his parents. “I went out a little farther than normal to a spot where the ground was softer…”. He reached down to gather his heavy work outfit.

“And?” Hannah asked.

“And I found two Experience Points!” Gerald dropped his work uniform and raised both of his thick, hairy brown arms into the sky and shook at something Arny couldn’t actually see.

“Just today?” Hannah asked. “Two whole Experience Points? That’s…that’s amazing honey!”

“See, Roger said there wouldn’t be any out there, but I said to Roger, I said, Roger, there’s gonna be some Experience Points out there, I know it. And then when I came back with a chunk of Experience Points I told Roger, see Roger, I found some Experience Points like I said I would, and then I showed Roger the Experience Points.”

“Oh, honey, that’s so wonderful!” Hannah said, draping her arms over Gerald’s shoulders.

“Daddy, what’s a Explodey?” Arny asked. By now he has scooted to the edge of the carpet, not wanting to sit on the hard tile (or get to close to his dad’s fetid coveralls).

“Huh?” Gerald said, glancing down at the small, smiling brown child. “Oh, not now son. It’s just something I use during work.” He looked back at Hannah. “You know what this means, don’t you? I bet you do!”

Hannah pulled one hand from her husband’s shoulders and placed a thin finger over her mouth, tapping as she thought. “Tell me!”

“This brings the team’s total up to 20 Experience Points this month.” Gerald clenched his fists and held them near his face. “Which means, I’ll tell you what it means…it means WE GET THAT RIASE!!!” Gerald made like he was punching a flying PuddingMuncher hovering near his face. Hannah raised her hands as well, shaking them violently.

“You did it!” Hannah shrieked. “You really did it!”

“I bet I’m on my way to another promotion! Maybe now I’ll land that position in Project Planning we’ve always dreamed of!”

“Does that mean…” Hannah began, but Gerald cut her off before she could say more.

“That we’re going to move? I think sooo…!” Gerald let the “so” linger in the air and gave it a bit of inflection.

Young Arny stopped reaching for his dad’s leg, finding it too difficult a target to grasp as it moved this way and that. Move? What did moving mean. Not wanting to guess, Arny asked.

“What does moving mean, mommy?”

“Moving?” She glanced down at the brown lump near her feet. “It means we get a bigger, better house honey!”

A bigger, better house? For a moment Arny’s living room dissolved away and was replaced by the endless expanses of the mechanical forests inhabited by the PuddingMunchers. As quickly as it arrived it was gone. This house was already too much for the military master and commander of the entire Ultra Bearkle Fleet. And what about Leroy?

“Mommy, can Lewoy come with us?” Arny had a hard time pronouncing his best friend, Leroy Spudnick’s first name.

“What? Oh, no honey, forget about your friends. We get a bigger house!”

“Haha, we do honey, we do you know!” Gerald said with unrestrained glee.

The Gourdman family lived in what the parents considered a hovel and Arny considered an expansive battlefield that was proving difficult to tame. Their home was modest even by Junk-O’s employee standards. It sat at the very northeastern edge of the Dreary Desert, at the foot of the last mountain range before the Dreary Desert began in earnest. It was a spartan existence in a forsaken part of the world surrounded only by other Junk-O’s employees and the occasional wandering hermit who moved to the remote area for a bit of solace and quiet pudding time long before the mega-company moved in and began digging up and looking for all the bits of Experience Points the land had to offer.

That’s not to say that, just because it was a disgustingly boring and atrociously hot hell-hole type of place that little Arny was unhappy. His parents were certainly happy, if only for the steady source of Experience Points-related income. But Arny was happy because he had friends, and with friends, imagination, and some strong chocolate pudding, where you are and what you do are not limited by your physical surroundings. Leroy was Arny’s best friend and lived five houses down in an equally austere home with equally zealous parents.

“I put in for my transfer today before I left,” Gerald said, grabbing his wife and kissing her now shiny with excitement forehead.”

“Do you know where they’ll send you?” she replied. “You are a star now, after all.” She winked once and slapped his flat butt.

“I heard some of the bosses talking, and you know what they were saying? They were saying something about a special research and testing center to the west.”

“The west? You mean at the Dreary military base?” A bit of the light and excitement vanished from Hannah’s eyes as she thought about the reality of living not just near the desert, but in the middle of it.

“Farther,” Gerald answered, giddy. The light returned to Hannah’s green eyes immediately.

“Where?”

“I hope you like boats, because we might be going to the new research center on Flat Bit Shores!”

“That’s…” Hannah looked up and towards the ceiling for a minute, looking through the plastered and wood that supported the roof and into a realm she had only imagined or seen in promotional pictures from Gerald’s work.

“South of the Origin Mountains,” Gerald answered for her. “Home to ocean, mountains, and all our dreams.”

“When do we leave?”

“We can be out of here in a week,” Gerald said, dancing on his toes. Both parents proceeded to shriek and dance around the room with joy, jumping onto the couch and back off, slapping walls, taking each other by the arm and dancing. In their exuberance Gerald stepped on a PuddingMuncher, dismantling it completely. For today, the Ultra Bearkle Fleet had won, but somehow the victory felt a bit hollow.

 

 

Chapter 3

Vlad Axehead did not have a middle finger on his right hand. This was not a birth defect, for he was born with the requisite number of extremities. The blue stump where a finger used to be was not a handicap; it was a badge of honor. The wayward digit had not been lost for good, however. Vlad’s missing finger sat on a shelf in his kitchen. It was placed on a brown, wooden pedestal with a glass dome over the top. By now the finger had lost its blueish hue and looked more like a grayish-brown carrot that had been left in the sun for a few months. But it was still there, on the shelf, for Vlad, Florence Axehead, and Valentina Axehead to see. And for guests to see. Because Vlad loved showing off his missing finger and telling how it happened.

How did it happen? Nobody asked the question because Vlad was alone, walking from his modest home near the cliff’s edge and towards his laboratory one kilometer from his home.

Vlad lived with his family on the Cape of Misfortune, which was a relatively fat piece of land jutting into the ocean and towering an immense 800 meters above the sea. The nearby town of Eddington sat in a small basin about 10 kilometers west of the Axehead house and was known for its narrow streets, quiet neighborhoods, and residents who thought 10 kilometers was not enough space between them and the Axeheads but couldn’t do anything about it because the city was there first and if the Axehead home moved any farther it would be into the sea (which would make most of the residents incredibly happy but proved difficult for logistical reasons).

When Vlad visited Eddington the locals tended to cross the street and walk opposite the tall, thin man. Common logic held that too close an encounter with Vlad would cause one to catch his danger, as though it was a virulent airborne pathogen, virus, or ailment. When Vlad showed up to the market one day a few years ago sporting a bloody bandage where a finger used to be, most people stopped talking to the man.

Eddington was usually a quiet town where the locals lived off the land, worked as carpenters, electricians, or mechanics if they didn’t operate one of the few local businesses. Eddington itself was separated from the nearest major city, Rexburg, by 20 kilometers of rolling highlands and pastures. It was considered usually quiet because during the times other than “Usually” the air was rent with the sounds of Vlad and his various experiments. Hypergolic was another word for Tuesday in Vlad’s world, and orange mushroom clouds were almost as common a sight as non-toxic clouds. Normal cities saw children’s parents giving them barometers in order to help understand and predict the weather. Residents of Eddington gave their kids Vladometers. Vladometers were essentially clocks and Geiger counters packaged neatly in animal-shaped mounts where the clock face was on one side of a beast’s stomach and the eyes would glow according to radiation levels (pigs and cows were the most common, though some horses and sheep could be found too). The clocks were used to time the gaps between tests (and necessarily explosions). If you saw your Vladometer tick over a full rotation you could expect the ground to shake and the sky to light up at any time. The Geiger counters detected radiation, which was another way of saying they detected Vlad. Because if Vlad wasn’t already blue thanks to being a Bearkle, he’d certainly be green from radiation. Some also said he glowed in the dark, so the Vladometer wasn’t as necessary at night. But that was mostly a rumor and not a fact. Regardless, when you saw a Vladometer’s eyes begin to glow you knew it was time to take a brief holiday out of town. The animals in the local fields and farms knew this, and at least once a day you could find a stampede of cows, horses, and even chickens sprinting across the countryside to avoid the inevitable charring, searing, or decapitation.

Vlad looked at the stump where his finger should have been. Taking a deep breath, he began to gesticulate to an invisible audience, beginning the tale in his head once again.

“How did it happen?” Vlad thought. “You mean this?” He waved his stump in a manner that would have been a swear-gesture had the actual finger not been missing. He was waving to a crowd that only he could see. “Let me tell you.

“Val was about to turn one. A first birthday is always an important milestone, but for us Axehead’s it’s basically a rite of passage. ‘If you make it to one,’ my Grandma Axehead used to say, ‘You’ve got the right stuff to make to 100’. Grandma Axehead died in an explosion at the age of 99. Anyway, first birthdays are important in the Axehead family, and I wasn’t about to let my only child’s pass without notice.

“Val had taken a shine to fire (must run in the family because her great aunt Ana-Maria died in a house fire) in her first year on Earth. I decided at once that the best way to celebrate her birthday was with a show of flashing fire and color.

“During my work on Super Oven, an oven designed to cook a roast while simultaneously heating a vat of pudding in two minutes, I noticed that when sufficient pressure builds up in a cylindrical object…” Vlad held his hands out in front of himself like he was holding onto the handle bars of a bicycle. The chartreuse grasses of the highlands bowed and waved as the brisk coastal wind swept over the landscape. They bowed and danced in great swathes and looked like waves on the ocean. Vlad was glad that somebody was listening intently. “When sufficient pressure builds in a confinded space it has only one option—to immediately release that pressure. Most of the releases resulted in explosions that destroyed Super Oven. But on a couple of occasions the inlet pipes broke free of Super Oven before ending in catastrophic ball of fire. The first time this happened the flames shot out of the broken pipe for several seconds, eventually flashing out. But the second time…that’s when the magic happened.

“During an over pressurization event the pipe inlet pipe broke free of the back of Super Oven like the time prior. But instead of shooting a stream of flames something broke loose near the fuel pump. For a moment there was a spiraling death shower of sparks and fire. But after bouncing off the ground, spinning upward, and drenching the grass in fire, the pipe, now bent and broken at one end effectively sealing half of the structure, began to shoot into the sky. It reached approximately 100 meters before the high-pressure fuel ran out.

“The pipe hit the ground and landed on my bicycle near the back shed a moment later, snapping it in half. But what caught my attention was the trail of smoke and sparks left over from the pipe. During its ascent the pipe produced the most wonderful shower of sparks that looked as if someone had turned on a heavenly spigot and poured burning damnation onto the ground below. Once the sparks and fire had subsided, a trail of thick white smoke remained, tracing the pipe’s path through the sky like a transient photograph. Forget the pudding and the roast—Super Oven immediately turned into Super Candle.

“A week and one small house fire later and Super Candle was ready. Super Candle stood three meters tall, was .5 meters wide, and painted polka dots because polka dots are pretty.” By now Vlad was almost halfway to his new workshop. He was passing through what he called “Basically a Success”. Basically a Success was a patch of land about 200 meters in diameter, which was pocked with holes of varying sizes. Each crater was the result of one explosion or another, and they varied in size with the smallest no bigger than Vlad’s hand and the largest big enough to turn into a pool (which Mother Nature liked to do every time it rained). This was the location of his old workshop. Florence insisted Vlad move his workshop another 500 meters from the family home after accidently sending shrapnel through the front room and into the refrigerator where it missed Florence by a few centimeters and destroyed the top shelf’s supply of chocolate pudding. Vlad was testing a self-rocking baby crib at the time (because he and Florence were considering the viability of being parents) when a small over pressurization turned the crib into approximately 5,000 pieces, one of which nearly decapitated Florence.

To be fair the crib did rock itself for a few seconds before disassembling itself. But no amount of near success could persuade Florence that it was a good idea to keep Vlad’s workshop less than a kilometer from home. And so he moved it. And so Basically a Success was named as Vlad moved the contents of his workshop farther south.

“Super Candle was supposed to produce a shower of sparks and fire, a geyser of colorful flame and smoke, for up to 20 seconds. It was supposed to be liquid fueled, but transporting the fuels to the local park for the upcoming party proved to be too challenging for my limited time. That, and the mayor of Eddington banned my fuel carts, so I had to find a way of making Super Candle entirely self-contained. The great pillar of polka dot metal was designed to carefully release its solid fuel in a glorious display celebrating the lack of death of little Val. Serendipitously, it didn’t work as planned.

“I lit Super Candle not a few weeks before the big event. I set it up on the stand, stepped back a few feet, and prepared for ignition. Super Candle was lit by a long fuse. Again, it had to be highly portable, and an electronic starter was just too much trouble to haul to Eddington. But a spool of fuse was easy enough to toss over my shoulder or in the crib with Val.(spun around and shot into the air).

“For the first second everything went swimmingly and I couldn’t be happier. But the next several hundred seconds were much, much worse. A small gust of wind knocked Super Candle off of its stand and onto its side and pointed directly towards our home. Though the test was a kilometer from home, Florence made it abundantly clear that the next time I shoot a piece of burning death through the house that I’m sleeping in the workshop. I rather like my bed, so when I saw it aiming for the house I hurried over to move it. Unfortunately I had not yet achieved the ability to lift several hundred kilograms over my head. Super Candle was a hefty brute and rather difficult to move without my equipment. With the fuse rapidly burning there was no time to gather my equipment and remount the metallic act of love.

“When the fuse reached the base of Super Candle I immediately realized my mistake. I was holding the burny, fire-spewing end, not the safe and cappy end. The flames roared to life and engulfed my hand in searing death pain, forcing me to let go of the metal love tube.

“Since it was not secured to anything, Super Candle began trundling along the ground, slowly gaining speed. After a few seconds it reached one of the nearer craters of success. Super Candle bounced off the lip of the crater and aimed heavenward.

“Though I was missing a finger and experiencing immense amounts of sadness and pain, Super Candle was just too majestic a creation to ignore. The metal tower streaked high into the air, rising upward, gaining altitude and speed with every passing second. Bright flames and a thick cloud of mostly harmless (but possibly dangerous) smoke was like a dragon’s breath, if the dragon was wearing a sparkly dress.

“Super Candle must have reached a kilometer, maybe two, before exhausting its supply of solid fuel. It was a sunny day, early afternoon if I recall correctly, and thanks to its bright exterior and the direct sunlight I was able to watch the metal tube as it continued upward, losing momentum, eventually stalling, then descending mostly straight down like a duck after a sudden mid-flight heart attack.

“Super Candle landed on our house. It crushed the nursery and started a tiny fire (nothing worth getting fussed about). After a few quick repairs and some extra pudding for Florence to say sorry, I knew what my next project would be.

“Val’s first birthday was a resounding success. Instead of fireworks I made a bomb and dropped it into the ocean. We celebrated her birthday at the edge of the cliffs, as far from town as possible. For the main event and just before cutting the chocolate cake, I dropped a bomb into the sea and watched as the explosion created a massive column of water that sparkled and glistened in the afternoon sun like millions of tiny prisms. It was beautiful, so beautiful Florence patted me on the back and said I hadn’t messed it up, which is high praise coming from her.

Vlad had reached his workshop. He pulled a keyring out of his pocket. It was a large metal hoop that was once bright silver but was now dull, tarnished, and speckled with rust. Five large keys were affixed to the ring, each one fitting one of five large locks on the workshop door. The keys and locks were for safety, because his workshop was effectively better armed than most military bases. Under normal circumstances this would not seem excessive. But Vlad had not had visitors (besides family and a couple of friends who were as eager to see an explosion as they were to have a snack) in approximately two years. Not only had he not had visitors, people tried their best to stay as far away as possible. Vlad’s reputation was his best defense against prying eyes, thievery, and vandalism. But he did not know this. And so he continued using his five keys on his five locks.

“Which brings me to today,” Vlad said, finally making it into his workshop after a few minutes of twisting, turning, and pulling the heavy doors open. He was greeted by the smell of various fuels and explosive residues that, even should life pass away millions of years into the future, would always remain as a permanent part of the landscape, a reminder of Vlad’s experiments.

Vlad flipped a few switches that were nearby and a row of lights illuminated the long workshop. Lying on its side, cradled in several U-shaped clamps, was a tube. But it wasn’t just any tube. It was 10 meters long, 1.5 meters wide, and sported a large nozzles at one end. The nozzle was wrapped with all manner of peculiar looking tubes and rings. Surrounding the base were three fins, while at the top was a long, pointed cone.

“This here,” Vlad continued, gesticulating with glee to nobody but himself. “This here is not just an experiment, but a revolution.” Vlad walked to the right and around a long metal workbench. A few paces down was a large piece of paper and a stack of crayons. On the paper was a picture, drawn by Vlad (though it looked like two and a half year old Val could have done it). It was a picture of the tube, a rocket as he called it, lifting off of the ground and rising higher than the clouds and touching the stars. “This will finally tell us what’s above the clouds and beyond the sky.”

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