It was all going so well. Better than I could ever have dreamed of, you know? I had found my unicorn at the end of the rainbow and my life was right on course.
I knew it couldn’t last. Nothing lasts forever, I know that much, but just throw me a bone here. Give me more than that fleeting glimpse of how it should be! I deserved more. I certainly put the work in for it.
From as far back as I can remember, I looked up into the sky and that’s where I wanted to be. That was where I belonged. I knew that from the very start. Even better was that there were two places I wanted to be. There was night as well as day.
Ain’t that a kicker? Goes against everything we’re told, doesn’t it? Ask anyone and they’ll say light triumphs over the dark. That day is the best and the night is a just a necessity. People are afraid of the dark, and yet when I looked up into that dark, night sky I saw the infinite and that was my home. In comparison, daylight was restrictive and stifling. It was the day that was the necessity and that was how my life panned out.
My grades at school were good. Better than I needed to do what I wanted to do. I think my parents were disappointed that I didn’t use those grades, and what they considered to be my potential, to be a doctor or a lawyer or some sort of scientist at the leading edge of another type of discovery. They didn’t fight with me though, and for that I am grateful. I don’t think anyone would have gotten through to me and changed my mind on what I wanted to do and they saw this from the start.
Mum once told me that her worst fear for me, was failing to get what I so obviously wanted. She confessed that she worried about what would become of me if I did not fulfil my dream. I knew the answer to that better than anyone. It would crush me. I wouldn’t just be nothing, I would be something a lot worse than nothing. This was all that I ever wanted and all that I worked for. I’m proof that if you ask, then you will receive. The trick is that you ask with every fibre of your being and you are relentless in your pursuit of your goal. Asking on the off chance while you do nothing to get where you need to go is just kidding yourself.
They accepted me into the air force, I passed the selection program with flying colours. I’d joined the cadet force at the age of twelve and I hit everything with gusto. Every single thing to do with the air force. Each and every detail. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t have a strategy. I just did it. For me, there were no boring elements to what I did. This was the life I had chosen and it was all a part of that life. There was no monotony, there was only progress.
Of course, flying was my bag. When I was in the air, I was in my element, and when I wasn’t in the air I dreamt of my return to that place, both day dreams and night time dreams. I never stopped looking up into that sky and at my place up there. There was nothing else.
I had an affinity with aircraft. I just kinda felt them. It was like they were an extension of my very self. The engineers I worked with were baffled by my insight, but loved me for it. They were switched on by my engagement with the bird they were responsible for and we forged successful partnerships throughout my career in the air force. What got them was that we were in the era of fly by wire and the tech had gotten to a point where the birds were kept in the air by a lot of clever code, not the aerodynamics of the bird itself. The designers of this new generation of birds threw out the notion of shapes that suited themselves to flying and thought beyond that. They changed the brief and did that thing that takes us further than we have ever been before…
The old school ‘planes, now they were different. Now don’t get me wrong, they were no easier to fly than modern, state of the art fighters, they still had character and you had to make the effort to get to know them so you could get along with each other. I had the privilege of flying a Spitfire once. I think that is the only time I have ever cried. I’m sure I cried when I was a little kid, but I grew up quick and didn’t have time for that sort of thing, I was too busy pursuing my dream. That Spitfire though. There was something spiritual about it even before I fired up that Merlin. Those guys knew what they were about, they even named the engine with about as magical a name as there is. I’m sure the very first time this Spit went up it had something otherworldly about it, but since that first day, it has soaked up all this history and something of every single pilot that has ever flown it. That bird was alive and when we took to the skies so was I. I was alive in a way that I cannot truly comprehend, let alone explain. The roar of that engine was a soundtrack to an experience that few ever come close to. I never wanted it to end, and so, as is so often the case, it was almost over before it began. A fleeting moment that leaves you addicted to a life in the skies.
The trajectory of my career was stellar. I had my pick when it came to the ‘planes that I flew, so it was perfectly natural and expected when I was asked to fly ‘planes that had previously only existed on the drawing board. Now that was a thrill! I was their first, and those ‘planes would never be the same again. I put something of myself into each and every ‘plane that I tested and the buzz on the ground was almost as good as that up in the air. There was a spark between me and the team of engineers making these ideas of theirs into the next big thing. Man, I could barely sleep I was so excited during those years.
Then I got my shot.
Even more engineers and the opportunity to fly higher and further than I had ever before. I was going to space and the selection procedure for this stage in my career and my life was a mere formality. I didn’t get at all superstitious over people telling me that. My place was guaranteed. They told me I was in, and they meant it.
Of course, I didn’t let up one bit. I never have. I went all in and I aced it. I made history yet again. The boy done good, so good they weren’t quite sure how I’d performed so well. I knew. I was sure. This was all meant to be. This was mine for the taking.
This was my destiny.
And so there it was. I was going into space. I was going to take my rightful place in history.
Then she came along. She came along and she changed everything.
Now this is no romance, don’t be getting the wrong idea. This is a plain old tragedy. A simple and oft told tale of how life is going swimmingly right up until the moment someone comes along and stuffs it all up.
For the first ever Mars mission they needed two pilots. For starters and to state the obvious, it’s a long way to Mars, but it’s not only a case of pairing up and sharing the burden. There are safety considerations too, including the loss of one of the pilots. The longer the duration of the flight, the greater the risks of something going wrong.
There is another reason for the two pilot requirement. The landing itself. One pilot takes the landing craft down to the surface of the planet and makes history whilst the other one waits up in orbit and collects the kids after they’ve had their fun time at the newly discovered playground.
Guess who was going to stay in orbit?
They said that I was the best they had and that the hardest piece of flying was up there in the orbit of Mars, getting the big bird in the exact place to collect the helpless little chick. So, it was the chick that got the glamour gig and the guy who was left so close to making his rightful mark in the Book of Mankind, but sorry mate, no cigar for you this time. Or ever. Not ever.
My moment was snatched away from me by her.
The team I worked with never came out and said it. When they broke the news they didn’t have the guts to tell me why, but when that news got out into the world, all everyone could talk about was that it was a woman in charge. A woman going out there, further than anyone had ever been and showing that it was possible, not only for women to do anything a man could, but to do it better, and she looked damn fine too! Like I’d lost in a last minute beauty parade.
A requirement of being a part of this historic mission were the regular psych tests. By then, I was used to being vetted and checked on. Our mental health trumps our physical health. We need to keep it together and regulate ourselves come what may. We’re supposed to be the very last component to fail. The thing is, I’ve been doing this so long I can do it all in my sleep, including the mumbo jumbo psych tests. All I have to do is keep both eyes on the goal and that is all there is to it. No problem. I am not the problem. I was never the problem. I have never failed. Not once.
She is the problem.
Why did she have to happen?
And to me?
I think I knew how this was all going to pan out the first time I saw her. OK, maybe not all of it, but I knew how it would play as far as she was concerned. She was on a free ride. She got the breaks. She was something special and eclipsed me just by being her. I couldn’t compete with that. I was the best, of that there was no doubt, but she was special and that trumped all of my hard work and everything that I was.
Thing is, I wasn’t after the limelight. I just wanted to do what I was meant to do. I was built for this. I was made to do the very thing they had passed me up for. And why had I been passed up? She made for a better story.
They treated me like a piece of the machinery all of my life and celebrated how I worked and how fit for purpose I was, then they changed the rules and made it all about personality and a gods damned smile!
Somehow she worked. I dunno how to describe it. I don’t know what she had, but she certainly had it. She kinda went viral. This was the mission. We were going to another planet for the very first time and she became the face of the future.
Her face fit perfectly.
Maybe this is how it is with rock bands. Did that make me the drummer? I found myself thinking of Ringo. He was the last name people rhymed off, if they even knew his name. But those guys had two front men! They managed to pull that one off and it worked. To a fashion it worked, although it polarised people. You had to choose, either you were a Paul fan or you were a John fan. You could not be both. The only alternative was to opt out and go elsewhere. Be a Mick fan instead.
Mick kept going, well after John and Paul tore that band apart and someone shot and killed John. So maybe two guys as the front men was not going to work. Not that I had a choice. It was like she was John and even though I sang better and wrote the memorable songs, I didn’t even get a look in. None of us did. It was Mars and her and we were the unremarkable back room boys.
I wouldn’t have minded if only I had got the gig I prepared my whole life for. She could do all the photoshoots and interviews and chat shows, while I got ready to go again and again. That would work and it would suit me down to the ground. Everything up to this point in my life had been like that and that was how I thought it was going to be for ever more.
Did I like her?
She was OK. She was just the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. She got in my way and I was never going to let that one go. I could not forgive her for that.
Then, there we were, and it was all happening. By the numbers. The way that it should. Of course it was. We’d all put the work in and we knew what we were about. So why in the hell did Chuck change the script?! Why did he open that hatch and then, instead of going out and doing his duty, deferred to her, ushered her through the door first instead?
Since when was it OK for a man to open a door for a woman again? He did that in front of the entire world. Where were her sensibilities then? Where were her principles? All I could do was sit helplessly and watch the monitor as she made even more history. It was too much, it really was.
It wasn’t my fault.
It wasn’t my fault, but no one will ever believe that. The reason I was left there in orbit was to mitigate any failures in either of the craft. I had the skill and experience to bring us all home, and that was why I was there. Once Baby Dragon One was on its way back, there was no room for anything other than the mission. My focus has always been total and complete. There is nothing else.
I knew something was wrong when I saw the capsule coming at me all wrong. The nose with the docking clamps was askew. She was almost side on to me and she didn’t correct it. I called her up on the coms and her face came into view. She didn’t say a word. She just smiled. I yelled at her to correct, but it didn’t make a difference.
There was nothing I could do.
How was I to know the volume control was down on my instruments?
They’ll say I muted it.
They’ll say that I failed to capture Baby Dragon One.
What would you have done?
She was on a collision course and she would have killed us all. I made a call and I avoided her as she tried to take me out with Baby Dragon One. It was only when it was too late and we passed each other. It was only as she took Baby Dragon One out into the infinite that I realised what she had done. She had martyred herself and used me as her executioner.
I never had a choice.
I never had a chance.
She played us all, but she played me in particular. The most gifted fly-boy of his generation and she took me out and made me the villain to her superhero.
That’s why I’m not coming back mission control. That’s why I can never come back. I’m switching comms off shortly. I’ll need all of my concentration for the descent to the surface. She may have placed the first ever foot on this planet, but where is she now? I’m going to land this bird on Mars. I’m going to do something no one envisaged, and no one made the calculations for.
I’ll show you.
I can do this.
I can do what no one else can do, and she knew it. That’s how she got me. She did something I wasn’t expecting and she made it impossible for me to do my job. She wanted to eliminate me from the competition. It wasn’t enough for her to eclipse my star, she wanted to snuff it out. Well, I’ve got something to say about that and I’m going to do it the way I always do. I’m going to fly this bird and I’m going to fly it only the way I can.
I’ll see you down there mission control.
I’ll see you down there…
“We lost comms before Williams took Mother Dragon One down, ma’am.”
“And Baby Dragon One?”
“Jones, are we sure about the depleted oxygen readings on Baby?”
Jones nods, his face pale and drawn, “they didn’t stand a chance, ma’am. It seems she…”
“I don’t want to hear it! None of this gets out, OK? Not one bit. We made history today and for all the right reasons. The rest is for people above our paygrade to explain to the world outside.”
The room nods.
History will be written elsewhere.