The Alternate History Fiction of Lou Antonelli

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.

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