From the author: A brand-new market for 100-word stories opened. Within an hour I wrote this as a 100-word story, submitted it, and they purchased it. Months later, before pay and publication, they closed down. This was purchased by Jean Asselin of James Gunn's AS ASTRA and the editorial staff feels it's the flagship story for the magazine.
One gray rocket lumbers along to the launch pad. Earth-bound and clumsy now, gorgeous with potential. Washed with harsh spotlight that illuminates the flag and the corporate decals, the rocket is like a fresh girl wearing Mom's makeup, badly applied. The companies paid for the rocket and bought you to fly it. This is the last rocket. It’s yours. You’re the last as well. You should be proud of that.
You are lucky to get one, they say. The program’s defunded and there’s nothing afterwards. Forget all the money spent on training you, on building those rockets. They must have paid too much because they refuse to pay for more.
Your angry sweat smells bad, like dirty feet and swamp gas. Their defeated sweat smells worse.
We’re done. Someone else will carry the flame. China, France, India. Perhaps even the new Russia. But not the red, white, and blue. Not us.
You fit the pressure suit designed to your measure. You fill the capsule, all the instruments within your reach. The analog countdown ticks away at eye level. Your heart pounds with anticipation but you don't sweat, not now. You have no fear. Any outcome now, good or bad, is the final outcome.
You grow more calm as the countdown reaches zero. The sudden expected excited 'Go flight!' forces your smile. The rockets flare. Acceleration fights against gravity, seeming to push you into Mother Earth’s arms, snugging you into her bosom. A farewell hug before you cut the apron strings.
Into the mic you mouth the expected words. Country, God, family. Unspoken are the superlatives that occupy your mind. Best. Most. Greatest.
You mouth more words, you trained monkey. You’re not even sure which words they are, because you’re thinking of your family. Your proud husband, your children with their Earth-bound jobs, your ageing parents. Your friends, colleagues, students. People who know you, love you, understand your dreams. All these people, all that support. Will it be such a great loss in your life when the end of the program takes space away from you?
Yes. And yes. And yes.
There's a button, a special square button, hard plastic, cold to the touch, and your entire right hand hovers over it. You resent its smug solid green. The color taunts you, says you'll do your job, nothing more, then walk away from your dreams. If you push the button, the color will change to dangerous pulsing red. That red will stay with you for the rest of your life.
You decide. No, you decided some time ago. You aren’t returning home. Ship’s batteries will last a while, your air a while longer. If they chase, they’ll chase you to the stars. You push the button. Ad astra.