The Alternate History Fiction of Lou Antonelli

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Airy Chick"

"Airy Chick" was originally published in Alienskin magazine, June 2009:


I sucked down the last of a cheap tamarind bidi as I walked onto the sidewalk where Tom and his date waited.  The guys at the office were right--she was really “Airy”.  I tried not to wince as I got closer.  They had warned me.

She had blonde pigtails and bright yellow hair--“blonde” I think they call it--and bright blue eyes.
 She had blush on to highlight her high cheekbones and pink skin.
She looked really bizarre.

Her clothes were equally weird.  She wore a blouse with a tight “tartan” wraparound skirt and shoes with those spikes on the heels.

I walked up to Tom and we clasped elbows.

“This is Lydia,“ he said with a small smile.  She extended her hand.

Ah, yes.  Shaking the hands to dislodge weapons up the sleeve is the traditional “Aryan” greeting of friendship.

“Pleased to meet you, Lydia.  Tom had told me so much about you.”

Tom and I shared an office at work.  The four of us had planned to hit the West End for a good time Friday night--but then Raven dumped me two days earlier.

I knew it was too good to last.

Tom said it was no use for me to mope at home, and the three of us could still go out and have a good time.

We began walking.  “Where’s Raven?” Lydia asked innocently.

I shot Tom a look.  He shrugged as if to say, “None of my business, dude.”

“We broke up,” I lied.

“Oh,” she said. “I looked forward to meeting her.”

“Just as well,” I said. “We would have made a strange quadriga.”

Raven had classic cheerleader good looks–coal eyes, black hair, and a pale--not pink--complexion.
Like I said, too good to last.

Lydia giggled.  “Let me guess, she’s a real Goth, huh?”

I smiled at her, and then Tom.  “Yeah, you could say that.”

We walked into Sonny Byrum’s barbecue and sat down at the bar.  Tom and I ordered clover mead.

They dug up some of that corrosive whiskey for Lydia.  After a swig, I began to feel a little relaxed.   Tom hugged his date.  “Lydia works at the university--for Professor Welch.”

I had taken classes in anthropology with Professor June Welch when I maxed out of electives in the SMU accounting department.

“Hey, that’s interesting.”

“I’m his lead research assistant,” said Lydia.

Tom took a swig.  “I thought you’d like that.  That’s a reason I pushed you to come.  You two actually have something in common.”

We had a pretty good night--for a threesome--and after getting suitably loose and jovial at Byrum’s, we enjoyed some hot hopping klezmer past midnight at one of the nearby clubs.

The following Monday at work, Tom dropped something on me I didn’t see coming.

“So what do you think of Lydia?”

“She's kinda cute, for an Airy Chick.  No bitter aftertaste.”

“Think you would like to go out with her again?”

“Huh?  What’s with you?”

“Honestly, she’s an acquired taste, and my parents are so respectably Gothic…”

Ah yes, I forgot.  The Trust Fund Kid.  Tom’s rich and respectable North Dallas family didn’t like him zipping around town with some blue-eyed yellow-haired bizarra.

I stroked the dark stubble on my chin.  “Well, like you said, she is an acquired taste… but I’ll try anything once.”

He smiled.

“And my folks aren’t nearly as picky as yours,” I added.


Next Friday we went out again.  Tom gave Lydia a sob story about how I was still lonely and dateless.

This time, we went to the dinner theater.  For the weekend crowd they would be having a neat little Aztlan team jai alai match.  The meal was singed boar with blood sausages and turnips.  During dinner, Tom’s cell phone rang and he returned to tell us there was a problem at work and he had to leave.  Of course, that was bullshit.

I said that I should stay with Lydia so she wouldn’t miss the show.  “That sounds great,” she said with a smile.

Both teams played well, and afterwards the winners vigorously raped the first wives of the losers.

 The winning captain then lopped off the head of the losing captain and his first wife before disemboweling himself to honor the gods. In other words, a good time was had by all. All good clean fun--Lydia actually seemed to enjoy herself.  I could tell as we left that beneath those pigtails and blush she had enjoyed it.  More of a normal girl than she’d like to admit--or so I thought.

But I was proved wrong early in the morning when we made love--face to face.



We had been dating for three weeks when the routine changed slightly.  We were going out again but Lydia asked me--to save time--to meet her at the university.  She was alone in Dr. Welch’s office,
peering at a computer printout under a desk lamp, when I arrived.  “The department just received a crucial report, “she said.  “I’m still reading it… but I think Dr. Welch will be thrilled.  It’s on a subset of the humane genome project, on the Gothasian population.”

Dr. Welch was the foremost proponent of the Bottleneck Theory--that Europeans were descended from an extremely small group of related people who had moved from Central Asia at the end of the last Ice Age--and the fact they had been dark-eyed brunettes determined typical white “good looks”.

“It seems it could have been down to as little as one individual,” she said.

“I can imagine two brothers drawing straws to decide who goes east and who goes west,” I said.
“I wonder what would have happened if the roles had been reversed?” she asked.

I rubbed her shoulders.  She looked up and I saw her strange blue eyes.

“Then, my little airy chick,” I said with a grin, “you might have become Miss Amerika!”

-the end-

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Great White Ship"

"Great White Ship" was originally published in Daily Science Fiction in May 2012. It was a finalist last year for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and is the leadoff story in my latest collection, "The Clock Struck None".


I was poking at my drink with a swizzle stick, killing time waiting for my connecting flight. The American Airlines Admiral’s Club was nearly empty.  I stared at the D/FW runways and watched the flights taking off and landing.  I had lost interest in the television a long-time ago.

An elderly Mexican man was cleaning the table next to me.  He had stopped, and stared up to look at the television screen in the corner of the room.

“I once saw a ship just like that,” he said to himself.

His tone caught my attention, and I looked over.  There was a CNN Science Report on, about building airships in the future with futuristic ultralight materials.  It showed a large, white prototype of a dirigible, designed to be used as a cargo hauler.

I smiled.  “Hold on, old-timer, that’s a only a model,” I said.  “And there hasn’t been anything like that in the sky since the Hindenburg blew up.  You’re not old enough to have seen the Hindenburg.”
He looked down, and a crooked smile crossed his face.  “I saw it, in Tyler, in 1974,” he said, as if to convince himself.  Then he looked over at me.  “It was from another world.  The government swore us to secrecy.”

I’m a good judge of character,  I could tell he wasn’t kidding or crazy.  His eyes were bright, he seemed very rational.

I looked at my watch.  “I’ve got at least a half hour until my flight arrives,” I said.  “You’ve got my interest.”  I tossed a fifty on the tabletop.  “Get us two drinks, and then come back here and sit down for a few minutes.  Keep the change.”

I pushed the bill towards him.  “You sound like you have an interesting story to tell.”

He smiled as he palmed the fifty.  He went over to the bar, and spoke to the bartender, pointing to me.  The bartender nodded, and he came back with another Chivas and Coke for me, and a Sea Breeze for himself.  He sat down, took a long sip, sighed, and then began.


“I was an Air Force supply sergeant in Vietnam.  When I got back, I picked up work with American Airlines.  I was offered a job in Tyler.  I was from East Texas, so that sounded like a great idea.  I was assigned to the ground crew at Tyler Pounds Airport.  They had just started commuter service to Dallas.

“I’ve heard of Tyler,” I said.  “Never been there.  How big is it?”

“Biggest city in East Texas, maybe 100,000 people now.   Back then, maybe 60,000”  He took another sip.  “You ever been to East Texas?  You ever been in an East Texas thunderstorm?”

I shook my head.

“It’s like God dumps a big tin bucket of water on top of your head, then drops the bucket over your head, and then he pounds on the bucket.”  He chuckled.  “This all happened in April 1974.  I remember the date, April 3, 1974.  The weather was horrendous all across the country that day, dozens of tornadoes were dropping from the sky north and east of us, in places like Indiana and Alabama.  We all followed the weather reports.  By mid-afternoon American cancelled the flights for the rest of the day as some nasty thunderstorms began to form in our area, too.”

He rubbed his hands and then clasped them over his chin.  “Everyone else had gone home, but I stayed behind to catch up on reading a repair manual.  Around 6 p.m. everything turned completely black in the east.  The wind picked up like the devil, and a minute later my radio began to squawk.  I’ll never forget it. ‘American Airlines LTA Flight 5980, calling Tyler Pounds, request permission for emergency landing.’”

“LTA?” I asked.

“Yeah, I was puzzled, too.  Billy Mack, the controller, was still in the tower, and he came on.  He said they were not listed in the American Airlines flight schedule.  The voice shouted back on the radio: ‘Dammit, I have a wall cloud ramming me up the ass and I’m barely keeping control.  Get your ground crew out and get ready for lines!  Pronto!’”

“I had no idea what the guy was talking about, but as for ground crew, well, I was it right then.  I hung the radio on my belt and ran out, looking towards the storm.  I heard the radio again.”

“‘We have no record of your flight number,’ said Billy Mack. ‘We’re an H-Class LTA superliner, Flight 5980, New Orleans to Dallas,’ the pilot came back, sounding very nervous.  ‘Requesting permission to land on your Runway AZ-40.”

“You could practically hear a pin drop on the radio.  Finally, Billy Mack said, rather slowly, ‘You’re cleared for landing, there’s nothing on the runway, lights are on.  Good luck.’”

“My channel beeped.  ‘Pete, what the fuck is out there?,’ asked Billy Mack.  ‘There’s some damn thing on the radar the size of an aircraft carrier.’”

“I have no idea, it hasn’t broken through the wall cloud yet.  I’m still looking.”

“The air to tower channel lit up again.  ‘We could use a few people on the ground, we have 20 lines,’ said the pilot.  ‘We don’t need a mast, we have an auto-anchor.’”

“Billy Mack raised his voice.  ‘Twenty lines of what?!  What are you talking about?’”

“’Twenty mooring lines, you putz!  This is an airship!  LTA, Lighter Than Air.  What the hell’s wrong with you?!’”

“I clicked on my radio.  ‘Something is just breaking through the clouds, hold on, Billy,’ I said.  Then I saw it. ‘Oh, God!’ was all I could mutter.  It was like a giant ocean liner parting the clouds only 500 feet above the ground, and lumbering straight towards the main runway.  A long, pale cylinder coming at us like the finger of God.”

The old man paused in his story, grabbed his glass and took a gulp.  His hands were trembling.

“’You see that, Billy?’ I asked. ‘Uh-huh’, he drawled.  It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so unreal.  Billy’s voice came back on the radio.  ‘We’re not rated to handle craft like yours.  We don’t have the ground crew.  But you’re welcome to make an unassisted landing.’”

“The pilot came back with a series of expletives which clearly showed he had been in the Air Force, too.  ‘Any fuckin’ port in a storm,’ he concluded.  I could hear the engines, they were so loud, you know, like aircraft engines but moving slowly.  It sounded like God clearing his throat.”

“What happened next?” I sputtered.

“Thankfully, we were in the lull in front of the storm just then, and the wind was almost calm as the giant airship lowered its nose and dove towards the tarmac.  It was amazing.  The runway was 6,000 feet long, and I could see as it floated over the airship had to be at least 1,000 feet long.  It was a shiny white, almost reflective.  You could clearly see the American Airlines logo--the two As with the eagle--towards the front, and again on the tailfins.  There was a name along the side, I didn’t recognize it, I guess it was the name of the ship.  It said The William Lemke.  This giant thing lowered towards the runway, and I just stood there with my jaw dropped.  Just when it looked like it would impact, the nose rose and the whole ship began to straighten out.  It leveled off and water began pouring out its underside as it dumped it ballast.  It continued forward, and then the wheel under the gondola screeched as it made contact.”

“That must have been something!” I said.

“It was.  As the back part of the ship slowly settled down, cables fell from its side.  They dragged on the ground and anchors caught.  Then the rear wheels made contact, the ship bounced up once, and then stuck.  I looked and realized a man had jumped out of the gondola, which was still moving, and rolled onto the tarmac.  He picked himself up quickly and ran over to me.

“’How many people do you have in your ground crew?’ he shouted. He was wearing coveralls, like me. ‘I’m it,’ I said.  ‘Everyone was sent home.’”

“He cursed and then looked back towards the airship.  “We lucked out, it’s almost calm right this minute, we had a smooth landing.’ He smiled.  ‘I think we can handle it.’”

“I could see men pouring out of the undercarriage, running out and securing the cables to the ground on either side of the runway with heavy stakes.  A loud mechanical whining began.”
“’Excellent, that’s the auto-anchor kicking it,’ said the engineer.  “Hopefully, we can ride out the storm here.’”

”The co-pilot had walked over.  ‘We have 126 passengers and crew members to wait out the storm in your terminal,’ he said.  ‘Where is it?’”

“I pointed.  The terminal was barely the size of a McDonald’s.  His eyes widened.  ‘It’ll have to do.’  He gestured towards another crew member, who was closer to the airship and directing the people who were pouring out. They began to run towards the terminal, shielding themselves as rain began to pelt down.  The storm was picking up again as the greenish-black wall cloud came towards us.”


The old man had drained his drink.  I hadn’t touched mine.  He rubbed his forehead and seemed to be in some pain.  “Listen, old fellow, stay put, I’ll get us another round.”

The bartender nodded to me as I walked up to the bar.  “You’re being nice to old Pete.  That’s good of you.”

“He’s got an interesting story,” I said.

“About the great white ship?”

I nodded

“I heard it, once,” said the bartender.  “He doesn’t tell many people.”  He looked at me.  “You’re the first passenger he’s talked to about it.”

I smiled.  “I guess I just have a kind face.”

I went back and put the drink in front of the old man.  “Gracias,” he said, very seriously, and he went right back to the story.

“Billy Mack was still upstairs in the control tower.  The only other people there, a janitor and security guard, were with me in that meager terminal when the airship pilot walked up.  He was a young fellow, clean-cut and smelling of shaving cream and cologne.  The name on the badge said ‘Wilbanks’.  I’ll never forget that.”

“’Who’s in charge here?’ he asked rather loudly.”

“’I am.  I’m alone.  The crew went home after the remaining flights were cancelled,’ I snapped.”
“The wind and rain were now pounding the small building and shaking the windows.  The pilot’s attitude seemed to soften.  ‘Thanks for the hospitality,’ he said a bit more gently.  ‘I’m sorry if I sounded rude.  We’re all pretty rattled, you know.’”

“I looked out the window to see the airship being buffeted by the storm.  As dark as it was outside, you could still see the enormous white shape through the rain.  The pilot walked over.  ‘She’ll be OK, with all those cables staked, and we left the auto-anchor running.’”

“’It looks like it’s the size of the Hindenburg,’ I said.”

“’It’s on a Hindenburg IV frame, 400 feet longer,’ he said.  “Still considered Hindenburg class, though.  I guess you don’t have airship service here.  Nearest LTA aerodrome must be Shreveport.’”

“The co-pilot had walked up.  ‘Baton Rouge,’ he said.  ‘President Long Memorial Aerodrome.’”

“The pilot smiled.  “Never flew there.  I’ve been backup on the New Orleans to Dallas route since I got back from flying in Czechoslovakia.’”

“Billy Mack has snuck up behind us.  ‘President Long?’ he said.  ‘Huey Long was never president.’”
“The pilot and co-pilot looked at each other.  ‘We’re practically in Louisiana!’ said the pilot, with a laugh.  ‘Such blasphemy!  You’re daddy must have voted for Roosevelt.’”

“Billy Mack’s eyes narrowed.  “Yeah, actually, he did.  In 1932 and ’36 and ’40 and ’44 and he would have kept voting for him for president, but he died on us.’

“The co-pilot began to sputter.  ‘Huey Long was president until…’”

“I held up my hand and interrupted.  Something told me to ask a question.  ‘OK, I’m probably going to regret this, but…’-- I said pointing to the pilot -- ‘who is the president of the United States?’”

“’What a stupid question.  George Wallace, of course,’ he said.”

“Billy Mack’s jaw dropped as I nudged him in the ribs.  ‘Call Barksdale’ I said.”


“Barksdale was a Strategic Air Command Base during the Cold War, wasn’t it?” I asked.

The old man was halfway through that second drink.  “Yep, and Billy Mack called them.  I asked the security guard to unplug the TV, and the janitor disconnected the phone switch box.  I figured people would eventually start trying to call home.  We told them phone service was knocked out by the storm.”

He took another swig.  “Barksdale is just outside Shreveport, only 100 miles away.  There were SAC officers there by 8 p.m.  They grabbed the pilot and co-pilot and other crewmembers, and took them into a private office.  By 9:30, a two large buses had pulled up outside.  From what I overheard, they told the passengers that the weather was too threatening for them to take off again and they would take them to Dallas by the interstate.”

“After the buses left, some guy in a suit wearing dark glasses--indoors, mind you--with some Air Force officers standing behind him, took the four of us--me, Billy Mack, the guard and the janitor--into an office and said “I don’t know what you know or heard, but I strongly suggest you forget it all,” or words to that effect.  Billy Mack asked what was going on. The suit pounded a finger in his chest. ‘National security, none of your business, keep quiet,’ he said, going on and on, poking Billy’s chest at every period and comma.  He said they had an explanation for everything that happened, if we ever raised the subject.  It all sounded fairly ominous.”

“I bet you all kept your mouths shut, then?” I said.

“We were all re-assigned or transferred to different places by American,” he said.  “I’ve been at DFW ever since.  I worked on the ground crew for 30 years, until my knees went out.  Now I work here, piling up seniority for my retirement.  I don’t even know what happened to the others.”

“What happened to the airship?” I asked.  “Didn’t people ask about it?”

“The airport was isolated, miles outside the city, and I guess no one saw it land during the storm.  It was gone by the dawn’s early light.”  He stopped and drained the glass.  “I don’t know.  How you can make something that big disappear overnight?  It wasn’t there the next morning.  Whether it was flown out, or taken apart, or went through a black hole again, I don’t know.”

“Black hole again?”  I pushed my drink towards him.  “What do you mean, again?”

He took it.  “Remember what I said about East Texas thunderstorms?  I asked the pilot what had happened up there, you know, before the people from Barksdale arrived.  He said that when they got caught in the storm, he started looking desperately for a gap in the clouds to fly through.  The lightning was spectacular, he said, and the air was full of ozone.  After one incredible electrical barrage, he saw a dark spot ahead, and assumed it was clear air--but it wasn’t.  It was more turbulent than ever, and their instruments went haywire.  He just gunned the engines full throttle and decide to try push his way through.  It seemed to work, and they found themselves just ahead of the wall cloud and on our beacon.  That’s when they radioed us.  They had lost contact with Shreveport, anyway.”

“But something was, different?”

“Yeah, he didn’t have much time to talk, but he said Huey Long was never assassinated, and he beat Roosevelt for president in 1936.  Long was less hostile to Germany than Roosevelt would have been, and the U.S. let Germany have helium--so the Hindenburg never blew up.  That’s why airships were still being used, wherever he came from.”

“Uhh, what happened in World War II, then?”

“The U.S. didn’t declare war on Germany, it stayed neutral, and fought Japan instead.  But because the U.S. never invaded Europe, the Russians eventually took it over when they beat Germany after a ten-year’s war.  That made the Cold War a whole lot worse, and after Long died Joe McCarthy became president, and then Wallace replaced him.  Actually, it wasn’t really a Cold War, the Russians and the U.S. had been fighting a number of places for years.  The pilot had learned to fly fighting the Reds in Czechoslovakia.”

“Wow, there must have been a lot of nuclear attacks.  Things must have been really bad,’ I said.

“Oh, that’s the funny thing.  The pilot had never heard of an ‘atomic bomb’”.

He’d finished off my drink.  “I need to get back to work.”

I grabbed his wrist to keep him from getting up from the table.  “Why are you telling me this?”

He smiled.  “I guess I’m so old now I don’t care any more.  I’ve only told a few people, and only in the past two or three years.”

He got up.  “And only when I’m drunk.  Con dios, amigo.”

I went to wave, saw my watch on my wrist, and realized it was time for my flight.  I couldn’t afford to miss my connection because of being diverted by some bizarre tale told by a drunken old man, so I grabbed my carry-on and shot through the door.

I was in first class, so while I sat here--trying to relax and maybe forget the story I had been told--I could hear the cockpit chatter.  The pilot was a white-haired old fellow, and I overheard him say he was looking forward to his retirement.

“I’ve been flying these birds for American ever since I got back from ‘Nam,” he said.  “I am ready to relax and kick back.”

A few minutes later, he stood in the entrance to the cabin and looked over the interior.  I saw the name on his badge.


After a moment of shock, I jumped up as I realized he was turning away.  “Captain!”  I gestured for him.

“Yes, sir?” he said, perhaps a little irritated as well as puzzled.  I grabbed the edge of the luggage rack to steady myself.

I looked him in the eyes and asked quietly, “Have you ever dreamed you were the pilot of a great white airship?”

You could see the universe in his eyes.  “Who are you?” he asked softly, “to know my innermost dreams?  I’ve never even told my wife.”

“No one you’ve ever met before, but I think we have a mutual friend,” I said.  “After we take off, and you’re on auto-pilot, we need to talk.”

He looked at me, amazed.

“I want to tell you a story,” I said.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

"A Rocket for the Republic"

OTHERWISE kicks off with a reprint of Lou Antonelli's "A Rocket for the Republic", originally published in the Sept. 2005 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction:


"Well, I cain't believe you found me, way out here! I was only joshing when I told the old boys at the feed store you could come out and see me. Damn, you're determined, ain't you?

"I know I ain't got no telephone. At my age, I don't need no one bothering me, anyhows. Still, I gotta give you credit for coming way on out here. You just doubled the population of Science Hill, or what's left of it. Which is me.

"Yep, I'm the birthday boy. Done reached a hundred. I guess that's why you drove all the way out here. Well, I'd be inhospitable if I sent you home without at least visiting with you. We can sit right out here on the porch on this swing seat, just set your dispatch case over there on top the railing.

"What's that picture in there? Oh, that's a magazine. Right

pretty picture. Is that a rocket ship? You read science fiction, eh? Kinda like Jules Verne and Mr. Wells? Interesting.

"Ah know you came out to talk about some old fool who just happened to reach a hundred years old. Well, Mr. Editor, how about I give you a real story? I've never done told anyone about this before, but shayit, maybe it's about damn time.

"Would you believe I rode in a rocket once? Yep, and it wasn't like on TV. No, it was a lot longer ago than that. A lot longer.

"If'n you promise not to interrupt me, I'll tell you the whole story. I don't want no questions, because a lot of what I'll say won't make any sense until I finish. Agreed? Good.


"I thought my life was just about stove up by then, when this all happened. I was getting old, I was almost 40. Thirty-seven to be exact. I was a widower. I married late, when I was 20. That was in '23. We married in Tennessee and came out here with Hayden Edwards in '28. We had a little one, but she weren't but a year old when we all came down with Yellow Fever in '30. I pulled through but my wife and the baby died.

"We had lived in Nacogdoches, but after that I didn't want to keep the farm up. There was talk that boat men were needed on the Trinity River. Settlers were beginning to make their way to Dallas. I went to live at the ferry landing on the road between Nacogdoches and Waco.

"One day I was out hunting. When I came back, some of the other men said Jim Bowie had come through. He was heading towards San Antonio de Bexar, where a gang of Texians were fixin' to mix it up with the Napoleon of the West. Some of the ferrymen went with Bowie.

"They all died holed up in an old mission, too. Then Santa Anna began a march, like he was going to clean us all the hell out of the province. People got the word and scooted out without their coats and bonnets. It was called the Runaway Scrape.

"Thing was, I guess that great ol' Second Napoleon got cocky and Gen. Houston caught him napping with his arm around his yellow rose. That was at San Jacinto Bayou.

"I had done holed up at the crossing. I figured someone needed to run the ferry, whether it was for Texians or Mexicans. That's where I got the word Texas was free and a republic.

"None of the other ferrymen ever came back. I guess they must have got themselves kilt. I pretty much kept up things with the help of a few hangers-on, and worked my hams raw for a good four years. Then one day a regular damn procession came down the coach road from Nacogdoches.

"There was a good coach and seven wagons, some of the biggest wagons I had ever seen. I waved them down and asked how heavy the wagons were.

"This fellow who sounded like a limey said they weighed five to ten tons each. I just burst out laughing and told them there weren't no way that sorry little ferryboat could haul any of them, and I asked him where the hell he was going. He said he didn't know.

"He was a nice fellow, talked to me right respectful. He said he was a 'scientist'--first time I had ever heard that word--and he needed to find a place away from any cities where he could work with his engines and apparatuses.

"I knew a farmstead that had belonged to a family that came over with the Edwards group, that was empty since the Scrape. For some reason, the folks never came back. I told the limey that he didn't need to go no further, I knew a place he could probably have for a song if he bothered to go back to Nacogdoches and register the deed.

"He looked at my pissant ferry and across the Trinity bottoms and said it sounded like a good idea. And that whole damn procession turned around and I took them to where the farmhouse was.

"The teamsters left all the wagons there, and rode back to Louisiana. The limey asked me to get up a work crew for a barn raising and I did. I got men from the ferry landing, as well from Corsicana and Tyler, and we went to sawing and pegging the largest barn we could put together. It only took a month.

"He paid everyone in new U.S. silver, and afterwards asked me if I wanted to stay at the ferry. I told him hell no, and he asked if I would stay and help him at his labber-ra-tory. He'd always been civil to me, and I couldn't see hows working for him could be worse than pulling a ferry.

"His name was Seaton. I think his Christian name was Robert, but I always called him Mr. Seaton. He was a real British gentlemen, always talked to me polite and never cussed at me.

"Mr. Seaton told me he knew the men in England who were working on the steam engines, the railroad. I heard about them, although there were no railroads in the Republic then.

"He said he thought the railroads would be dirty and expensive, with steel rails running across country and the steam engines putting out soot and cinders. He had another idea, but had such a bad falling out with some of these men in England that he left and came to the U.S.

"The first time he said he thought people could travel between cities by air, I thought for sure he meant balloons. But he said he wanted to make a rocket, just like the ones they used in the Army, but large enough to hold people, and shoot them between cities.

"Of course, I thought that sounded like the biggest fool idea I ever heard, but when he explained it and made some drawings on paper, I actually began to believe him. He said the Congreve Rockets like they used in the British artillery could travel four miles, and if a rocket was bigger, it could farther. If it was big enough to carry people, it could go hundreds of miles.

"Instead of these locomotives running past you putting out soot and cinders, these rockets would just over your head. Nobody would notice them. And they could go from city to city in minutes instead of hours.

"The biggest problem would be a soft landing, but he had designed a set of a silk canopies--I guess you call them parachutes today--that would pop out and let the rocket drift down like a leaf. He sounded mighty reasonable.

"He got together his engines and equipment on the East Coast, but he figgered setting off rockets would spook the neighbors. Also, he met Sam Morse in New York City.

"Mr. Morse was working on what he called an electro-magnetic telegraph. It used electricity to send signals along copper wires.

"Mr. Morse wrote the new Republic's minister in Washington and offered the rights for the telegraph to Texas. I guess he hoped if the Republic used his telegraph system, it would help his reputation.

"Mr. Seaton said that after he talked with Mr. Morse, he thought about his rocket-powered coach system. He thought as large as the Republic was, it could use his system more than anyone.

"So he kilt two birds with one stone. He thought he'd find the empty space he needed and set up his workshop here in Texas, and once he got his rockets flyin', he could just go to Houston and offer the patent to the Republic's government.

"Those wagons he brought all the way from New Orleans, they had all the steel plate and boilers and engines he needed to make his rocket. And I helped him put it all together.

"Mostly, I did a lot of riveting. The winter of '40 I kept the doors of the barn open because of the heat as I stoked the coal and pounded those rivets. Mr. Seaton spent most of his time working on a steam engine he said he needed to make liquid air, from what I understood!

"He said back in England he had started to work on that. He said good old gunpowder wouldn't cut the mustard--too heavy. He said he thought alcohol would burn faster and hotter, and I had to say, I knew old boys whose white lightning would send you to the moon!

"Mr. Seaton said his helper in England had been a young fellow, Jim Jules, I think he called him, and together they made a steam engine that compressed air and could make it liquid. He said it was a big discovery, but when he said he was going to the U.S. Jules wouldn't come, which is why he needed a new helper when he got here. He brought the team engine they made and I saw him make liquid air and put it in a silvered glass bottle.

"He said when you mixed the liquid air and alcohol and lit 'em, it would burn like hell. Did, too, the time he showed me.

"Mr. Seaton never left the farmstead, and so nobody ever saw him. I would go to Athens every so often and get supplies. He pretty much had brought everything he needed. There was plenty of wood for his steam engine, and of course, I knew how to use a still for the alcohol.

"It took nearly two whole years, but by the spring of '42 the rocket's nose was out a hole in the barn's roof. It was maybe 50 feet high. It sat on a platform full of hay, with its vanes sticking into the hay and into the ground so it was steady.

"Mr. Seaton was real good with drawing and explaining his drawings and so I was able to rivet and screw everything together, although I didn't the hell understand half of it. I enjoyed the work, it kept my mind off thinking.

"Of course, I asked Mr. Seaton what would happen to the barn if his rocket shot off. He said it would burn like a bonfire, but by the time the flames went out, we would be in Philadelphia!

"When he thought we were ready to try the rocket, we moved the steam engine and some other equipment to the farmhouse and put it up safe.

"He had a setup in the rocket where he would sit on a seat and turn a wheel that spun the vanes on the bottom, so he could steer as it shot up. He had a second seat in front of a big mica window, maybe six inches around, where I would sit and tell him what I saw.

"We had belts and buckles and straps all around we could use to tie ourselves down so we wouldn't go bouncing around like inside a biscuit tin.

"When we were ready for the big test, I have to say, I was scared pissless, but after being with him all that time, I couldn't let him down. So I just gritted my teeth and prayed Jesus to come down safe.

"Mr. Seaton pumped gallons of alcohol in one side of the rocket and gallons of that freezing liquid air in the other side. Then we climbed a few bales of hay and lashed ourselves inside.

"He had some kind of battery set-up to make the spark to set off the stuff, and when he threw the lever, my heart just about stopped. I said to myself, "better luck in the next world." But we didn't explode!

"The rocket rumbled and shook and I thought for a minute we was blowing up from the outside. But then something caught my eye and I looked out the mica window. I didn't see the barn, but I did see the trees getting smaller.

"It felt like lead in my chest, and I could hardly keep my eyes open, but I could see the trees like the birds see them, and I knew we actually were rising up. I looked over to Mr. Seaton and he had his hands on the wheel with a big smile on his face.

"After a few minutes the pain in my chest let up a little, but I saw Mr. Seaton beginning to frown. I saw he couldn't turn the wheel, and he was cussing himself--that was the first time I ever heard him cuss. I think the problem was the rocket was moving so fast the wind was pushing so hard on those vanes at the end that he couldn't turn them.

"Finally, he called me, and I unhitched myself and scooted over to his seat. I held onto a strap with one hand and with my free hand helped him to try to turn the wheel. We could only turn it a mite.

"I could see Mr. Seaton begin to sweat. 'How could I be so stupid!' he said.

"After a while he told me to go back to my seat. He said that the higher we got, the thinner the air would get, and maybe in a while he could turn the vanes.

"It seemed like forever, but maybe ten or fifteen minutes later he began to turn the wheel. But I didn't feel no difference in the rocket. And then I noticed my straps were starting to coil around me like a snake!

"The alcohol and liquid air was all burned up, so the roaring sound let up. But we both heard a hissing sound. I thought maybe it was something outside, so I looked through the mica window again.

"I couldn't believe my eyes. It looked like I was looking down at a big billiard ball, but it was blue and fuzzy. It also had scum all over it.

"The hissing sound got louder, and I stopped looking because I was getting light--headed. That's what I thought, until I looked down and saw I was floating two inches above my seat, like a Hindu fakir!

"I looked over to Mr. Seaton, who had his head in his hands.

"’Doomed’ was all he said.

"Then I realized what had gone wrong. Because he couldn't steer, we didn't make a big looping curve like he showed me on a piece of paper once. We were supposed to make a big lazy curve up from Texas and come down in Philadelphia--like a rainbow.

"But instead we shot straight the hell up! That billiard ball down there was the earth, the blue was the ocean and that white scum was the clouds. We were somewhere between the earth and the moon.

"I knew that our doors were tight and the rivets solid, but the air out must have been thinner than the air on top of the highest Rocky mountain, and so our air was hissing out the seams. I guess it was because our air began to get thin that we started to float around.

"I knew it was curtains for us, so I cleared my throat and told Mr. Seaton I was honored to have been his employee.

"’Thank you, James,’ was all he said.

"I began to get real light-headed and it was hard to breathe, when I saw a bright light in the window. I thought for a second we were heading into the sun, but then the light passed us. A minute later, the rocket jolted like a giant baby had just grabbed its play pretty. Mr. Seaton bolted upright and asked me if I saw anything out the window. I looked and couldn't see anything except darkness.

"Then the levers on the door began to pop. I got a buzzing in my head and just as I blanked out I saw the door open."


"Well, as you can imagine, I thought the angels had come for me, but when I woke up I wiggled my toes and fingers and saw I still was alive, and in the softest feather bed I ever had seen.

"The room was simple, but clean and white. I propped myself up on my elbow and couldn't see a thing. Then Mr. Seaton walked in a door I hadn't noticed along with this strange fellow.

"He was tall and looked like he could be a Chinaman, but his slanted eyes were too large and he was as pale as a ghost. His outfit reminded me of a Roman's toga.

"Mr. Seaton was smiling now and he gave me his hand so I could get off the bed. He explained the other fellow and his posse lived on another world, like ours but far away, and they used rockets not only to go between cities but worlds.

"You mean like Mars?" I asked. He just smiled and said, "’Yes, like Mars, but much farther away.

"He said these fellows had like a lighthouse, I guess, out there between worlds, and the lighthouse keeper had seen us come adrift and sent out a lifeboat rocket.

"When I understood this, I turned and bowed with my hands together like I had seen a Chinee do once. The tall fellow bowed, too, and I thought he kinda smiled.

"Mr. Seaton said although his plan for a sky railroad had come a cropper, he was happier because of meeting his new friends, and during the days we were in their rocket, he spent almost the whole time talking to them and having a grand old time.

"Don't get me wrong, they were civil to me, too. I talked to them, and when they talked back at me, for some reason their voice always seemed to come from a pillbox on their arm. I don't know why they had to throw their voice.

"I think they knew I didn't have much book learning--actually, I had none--and while they were respectful, anytime we talked about anything very complicated, I lost the rabbit I was chasing.

"Mr. Seaton tried to explain things to me simple-like so I could understand better. But what it came down it was these fellows had saved our skins.

"Sometimes we could look out a window--a real big one, bigger than a window in a New Orleans whore house--and see the world turning below us like a gristmill. When the clouds were sparse Mr. Seaton would point out whole countries.

"See that boot? That's Italy."

"The pale fellows told me I could go wherever I wanted in their rocket--which was pretty damn big, I tell you.

"One day I went by a door and saw a glow like from a fireplace, 'cept it was blue instead of red. I thought that was funny, and I went inside. The blue fire glow was coming out from the walls and some filigree on the walls.

"Wasn't but a minute later a passel of the pale fellows came running in the door and they grabbed me like they was hogs and I was a pumpkin. Mr. Seaton came running down the hall, too.

"The pale fellows tossed me right quick into a bed and stuck needles into me like I was an old woman's pincushion. In a corner some of them talked to Mr. Seaton, who looked more worried by the minute.

"After all the hoo-rah died down, Mr. Seaton told me what the problem was. These fellows had a special coal they burned which made a special kind of fire, a fire that burned blue instead of red.

"Problem was, the blue fire was just as bad as regular fire—but you couldn't feel it! It was just like I had stepped into a furnace, when I went in that room with the blue glow.

"He said that although I didn't feel anything then, in a few minutes I would have shriveled up like bacon and died. A watchman saw me right quick and that's when everyone came running.

"They were doctoring me then, and I would be fine, he said, but he looked real concerned.

"A piece later--it's hard to tell days, when you're on top of the sun--Mr. Seaton told me the pale fellows realized after I had the accident with the blue furnace, that maybe it was better I go back home.

"Truth be hold, I was getting homesick myself. Mr. Seaton said he wanted to stay with his new friends, and so as he was happy, I didn't raise a whisper.

"He told me they could set me down right back where we started and soon, Mr. Seaton and I and a few of the fellows got into a kind of round lifeboat rocket and floated like a balloon in the middle of the night down to where the farmstead was.

"Mr. Seaton shook my hand like a brother and told me where the strongbox was with all his papers. He said I could have everything he left behind as my due for being such a good employee.

"I bounded down a metal gangplank and waved good-bye. They all took off like a cloud in the night. There was a half-moon and I found my way to the farmhouse. I lit the whale oil lamp and got ready for bed and slept in real late the next day, almost until nine.


"I thought we had been with the pale fellows in their rocket for weeks, but the windup clock in Mr. Seaton's room showed we were only gone two days. The barn was still smoldering.

"I was totally flummoxed when I went through Mr. Seaton's papers. He left me a wealthy man. He had thousands of dollars in banks in New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

"Over the next few years I used the money to hire some help and got the place fixed up better than ever and get some real croplands turned.

"In '45 news came the U.S. had annexed the Republic, which is what most people wanted all along. A widder woman who lost her husband in an Indian raid caught my eye and I took her as my wife. We had neighbors now, and when some of the people saw the books and tools that Mr. Seaton had left me, they suggested they be used for an academy.

"We set up an academy in the first floor of the new Masonic Lodge and hired a schoolmaster. With the academy and all, folks began to calling the settlement Science Hill. I reckon Mr. Seaton would've liked that.

"Of course, I never told no one about the rocket and the pale fellows. I never got into details. People saw the remains of the old barn and assumed Mr. Seaton done blowed himself up, and I never told otherwise.

"My wife and I never had no children, which was probably just as well. When the war started, I was 57, but I was strong and healthy and I enlisted. I guess I always felt guilty somehow about missing Jim Bowie when he visited the ferry crossing.

"During the Battle of Chickamauga I took a minie ball clean through the chest. They laid me out and waited for me to die. But three days later I got off my pallet and walked away.

"Everyone said it was a miracle, but I knew when I was lying there I felt my ribs and muscles knitting up. I figured the doctoring the pale fellows done to me when I had that accident in their rocket must have stuck with me for good.

"I came back to Science Hill, but a lot of other men didn't—so many that the settlement began to die. It happened in many other places. By '72 the academy had closed and the Masonic Lodge had its charter taken back.

"Sam Morse officially took back his offer of the electro-magnetic telegraph, I remember, in 1860, right before the start of the war. It was in the papers. Guess he was afraid of some patent problems with the Confederacy. The Republic never responded his offer. Makes you wonder if they would have ignored Mr. Seaton's rocket, too

"My wife died in '85. By then the railroad made it to Henderson County, but it ran through Athens and Eustace and skipped clear of Science Hill. That was the end of it.

"I knew by then, after having a few accidents with a knife or chisel over the years, that I healed up quick. I also saw that I was holding up well.

"Over time, everyone died or moved on, and I was left alone. The other farms crumbled away and no one noticed I was just out here by myself. I kept up the farm fine, there was enough for me.

"One time, when I was almost a hundred, I was at the feed store in Malakoff getting grain for the chickens. One old boy said, "You can't be James Reid, you're too young."

"Another old boy said, "Don't be ignorant, you're his son, right?"

"I agreed. Nobody knew any better.

"So over the years, I've used a hair dye and chin whiskers to fool people every so often into thinking Jim Reid's turned into the 3rd and now the 4th. I know, officiously I'm Jim Reid the 4th. Nobody ever sees or asks for Mrs. Reid or the rest of the family. We Reids are solitary, you know, and no one lives out here anymore.

"But when I had to fill out a form for social security a long time ago, I needed a birthday, so I just jumped ahead 100 years and put down 1903 instead of 1803.

"Some old boy remembered that, though, and when I was last in town, they had to shoot their damn mouth off. And I guess it got to you, Mr. Editor.

"When I buried my second wife--I never even told her what happened--I said to myself, if I live to be 100, I'll never tell anyone what happened with Mr. Seaton and the rocket and the pale fellows

"Well, here I am at 200. I guess it's time to come clean, huh? “You know, I heared the last time I was in town that the folks down in Houston are ready to shoot off more rockets like they did 40 years ago. I wonder if they’ll run into Mr. Seaton and them pale fellows? I’d sure like to hitch a ride, and meet Mr. Seaton again, and shake his hand. Maybe I’ll ask them to shoot me up there. Ain’t nothing I ain’t done before.

“Shut your mouth, son, you’ll swallow something.”

[the end]

"A Rocket for the Republic" was the last story Gardner Dozois bought before he retired as editor of Asimov's. It placed 3rd in the Best Short Story category in the annual Asimov's Readers' Poll in 2006. It has subsequently been reprinted in "Fantastic Texas" (2009) and "Texas and Other Planets" (2010). It will also be reprinted in the upcoming "Letters from Gardner" being published by The Merry Blacksmith Press.