He stumbled into his office, the weight of the nation, the weight of the Western world, bowing his shoulders. The television was now silent but its flickering, grainy pictures still showed the same scene on Merritt Island, Florida.
Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center was meant to witness the first seconds of America’s finest hour as the nation celebrated winning the space race. Instead July 16th, 1969 would forever be the anniversary of the country’s biggest disaster. Memorials would be built. Adults would weep openly. The United States would mourn together but all he wanted to do right now was to be alone.
He turned to his Chief of Staff and let his dark eyes bore into the younger man’s heart. “I’ve just addressed America. I’ve just told them that their three heroes won’t be coming home. What else could you possibly need of me?”
“Sir, Jack King is on the line. He wants to know if you—”
“You tell the self styled ‘Voice of Apollo 11’ that no, I don’t want to speak to him. All I want to hear from him is good words about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.
Do I make myself clear?”
Nixon turned his back on his Chief of Staff and strode across the room to the East Door.
“Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir.”
The door to The Oval Office closed and Richard Nixon was alone. He looked out over the Rose Garden and the words of J. F. K. echoed through his mind.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Nixon turned to his desk and poured himself a short glass of whiskey.
“Sorry, John, but that’s just not going to happen.”
He threw the drink down his throat and grimaced at the bitter after taste.
Thumping the crystal glass back to the desk with a bang he faced the muted television. One by one it showed pictures of the astronauts, posed in the build up to the flight, mocked up to show these all-American heroes as accessible superstars. Real life American Super Heroes. The kind of men that every U.S. school boy would aspire to be.
Would have aspired to be.
The day had started with triumph upon the horizon. Nixon, surrounded by his closest staff, family and cronies had been glued to the images piped in from Florida.
Vice President Agnew was on site together with Lyndon Johnson and the television cameras panned to their beaming grins as Saturn V broke the shackles of gravity and ascended, spewing rolling fire in its wake. Jack King was following his agreed script almost to the letter and the crowd could be heard, even over his distinct tones and the growl of the engines, cheering, screaming their rapturous roars.
Nixon closed his eyes as he recalled the moment that changed the world.
A massive explosion, just above the main engine’s exhausts. The launch vehicle tilting, taking the momentum of the moon shot out to sea. And then the fuel tanks blew and the screams overwhelmed Jack King’s stuttering ‘Oh my God’ and the camera trying to track one, two, three pieces of space ship as they began their descent eight days too early, the camera shaking and Nixon remembered how his breath stuck in his throat, as hot as it must have been, oh so briefly, for the astronauts.
Nixon opened his eyes and unclenched his fists. The palms of his hands were marked with angry, crescent moons where his finger nails had dug in.
Tears stung his eyes for the sacrifice that had been made. But he had vowed, live on television, to the nation that the loss of life would end now. That the Apollo program was over. That it was more important to make planet Earth safe than it was to explore the dark, cold and unforgiving reaches of space. That no one would ever be allowed to forget the three heroic men but that no one would ever be asked to step into their shoes while Richard Nixon was President of the United States.
That should earn me another term.
The telephone on his desk rang and Nixon startled. He reached across and plucked it from its cradle before it sounded out again.
“Yes?” he snapped.
“Sir, it’s Vice President Agnew on the line from Florida.”
“Put him through.”
Spiro Agnew. The perfect man to have on site. Thorough. Committed.
“President Nixon, I’m sorry to have to speak to you at such a sad time.”
“Don’t concern yourself with pleasantries, my comrade. We are on an encrypted line.”
“I thought as much but I wanted to make sure.”
Nixon smiled for the first time since the explosion. He ran his hand through his thick hair as he sat himself behind the Wilson Desk. His eyes sparkled.
“Meticulous as ever. Congratulations, Spiro. You did it.”
“We did it, comrade. And with good reason.”
On the television, a silent history of the space race was being transmitted. It was apparent to Nixon that his words on the end of the Apollo Program were being taken seriously. He closed his eyes again.
“We simply could not have them finding what’s up there,” he said and when he opened his eyes the whites had gone, replaced by a black, oily swirl that refused to keep still. “And when they recover the fuselage, what will they find caused this?”
Nixon could hear the pride in Agnew’s voice glow across the miles.
“Human error,” he sniggered. “The device I used was no larger than one of their hands. They really are quite primitive. Except for their weapons.”
“Of course except for their weapons.” Nixon’s tongue flicked out from between his teeth as he dragged out the ‘ess’ consonant. “These Class C beings always advance their ways to kill each other more quickly than they find ways to preserve life.”
Agnew giggled more loudly. “Lucky for us.”
“Yes, lucky for us but remember your role in this. Get back out there, comrade. Show them how you mourn.”
“Comrade,” Agnew said in acquiescence and was gone from the telephone line.
Nixon remained at his desk for a moment, the phone still to his ear, and considered how close they had come to the truth being exposed. He moved to place the phone back in its cradle and instead chose to lay it on the desk, so the outer office would still think he and the Vice President were consoling each other. Standing, he moved quickly to the television and let his fingertips run over the top of the set until the tips came to rest on a button no one else would ever find.
The images from Florida faded, replaced with the wide brow and bushed eyebrows of a face that Nixon had come to learn well over the years but would simply never trust.
“Comrade Brezhnev,” he greeted.
“Comrade Nixon. Congratulations. What I have done with the Soviet Zond space program now you have done with Apollo. Killed it dead.”
Nixon’s anger overcame him.
“You arrogant oaf. You think using your true name for a space travel program will not go unnoticed?”
Brezhnev frowned and shook his head. “If you believe they would monitor this backwater then you are as foolish as I am arrogant.”
“I am not the arrogant fool who stole a craft that they could not pilot. If I hadn’t have pulled you into the life pod in time then you’d be part of that wreck we left up there.”
Brezhnev’s eyes turned black. “What else what was I meant to have done? I was not the one who set the explosives, the one who—”
“Comrade, why do we bicker so when we have achieved our goal. Not only will they not find the wreckage but we have stopped them sending their primitive rockets to the stars like so many flares. They shall not find us.” He grinned. “And you and I have our fingers on the launch buttons of virtually every nuclear weapon this planet has. Just in case they do stumble upon us.”
Brezhnev raised his substantial eyebrows. “So you admit that I was right, that mimicking these forms has allowed us—”
Frantic knocking on the Oval Office door cut him short. “Comrade,” Nixon whispered as he once again found the hidden button and images of the Florida disaster surged through the static.
“I told you not to disturb me!” Nixon snapped. He blinked hard and the black oil seeped from his eyes.
The door opened and the Chief Of Staff stood, looking at his feet, ashen face.
“It’s NASA, sir.”
“I don’t want to speak to them. I’ve told the nation. We’re not sending anyone up there anymore.”
“That’s not what they want, Sir. They say they’ve found something up there.”
He paused. “And it’s coming this way.”
Craig Jones lives in Cardiff, South Wales with his wife Claire, nine month old son Shane and an insane ginger cat called Wookie! Craig is 42 but looks much younger (if even he says so himself!). Craig went to school with Catherine Zeta Jones, played tennis for Wales as a junior and coached Great Britain’s first ever world number one wheelchair tennis player. He has always had a love for horror and as a teen spent many nights hidden behind the sofa as Jason and Freddie rampaged across his television screen. His favourite authors are Bret Easton Ellis, Stephen King and Stewart Kirby. He has written two novels, Outbreak (UK Amazon top 20 horror) and A Stranger’s Welcome. He has also written the novella What Happened to Rhodri and the novella series Gem about a vampire hit woman working for the New York mob. To find out more about Craig and his writing visit craigjoneshorror.co.uk.