« Four-Legged Friends | Main | Dear Old Alma Mater? »

Denizens: 7 - Pilot

Calvin T Ferguson and his Navajo pal Joe McCulloch are climbing a vertical pillar of rock in Arizona – aware that this might be their last adventure together. For Cal is about to embark on the greatest adventure ever attempted by humankind…

Brian William Neal’s magnum space story gathers momentum. Brian not only creates compulsively readable plots. His characters are so believable that you one day expect to meet them. For earlier chapters if this great story click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

* *
Coconino Plateau,
February, 2033

Calvin T. Ferguson hung suspended against the rock face and removed another piton from his climbing belt. Steadying himself as another wind gust buffeted the cliff wall, he used his mountaineer’s hammer to drive the thin steel shaft into a crack in the rock above his head. When he was satisfied it was anchored securely, he fitted a carabiner, or snap link, to the piton and passed one end of the climbing rope through it. Then he let the rope pass down the cliff face to the figure below him, clinging to the wall like a human fly from an old comic book.

One more should do it, thought Cal. The top of the Needle was only a few feet away, and although there was a small overhang to negotiate, it looked pretty straightforward from here. He looked down at his friend again, and saw the flash of white teeth under the climber’s helmet.

“Only a few feet to go, Joe,” he called. “Hang in there, old buddy.”

Joe McCulloch grinned and nodded, and Cal turned back to the task of driving in the last piton. The climb they were engaged in was regarded as a difficult one for climbers of any level of expertise, and although Cal and Joe were very proficient, they were nevertheless not taking any chances, not with the Needle.

The Needle was a vertical spire of rock growing like a living thing out of the Arizona high desert. Situated thirty miles south of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, it rose seven hundred feet straight up from the red-brown plateau. It had, in its time, claimed the lives of six climbers, two of them as experienced as Cal and Joe.

The watchwords on this or any other climb, Cal knew, were patience and concentration. A climb that looked difficult was probably even more so, and there was always an element of danger. Too many climbers got into trouble because they wanted to get to the top before the top was ready to accept them.

This was something Cal had learned from Joe. On this, as on any climb, you had not only to physically climb the rock, you had to think your way to the top. The Navajo believed that all things, not just people, had souls, or spirits, and were alive in every sense. That meant that this rock was a living entity; to reach its summit, they required its goodwill and co-operation. Cal wasn’t sure whether he believed as Joe did, but he was willing to live and let live. On a climb like this, he reasoned, they needed all the help they could get.

Cal pushed off the last piton and pulled himself up and over the rim of the overhang and on to the flat top of the Needle. He rolled on to his back and lay still for a few moments, looking at the sky. Then he saw Joe’s big hand appear over the edge, and he reached out and grasped his friend’s reddish-brown wrist. With a grunt and a heave, the big Navajo swung up and on to the flat surface, where the two lay panting for a few minutes. Then they stood, and Cal removed his helmet and ran his hands through his curly black hair. He looked out over the desert from their lofty vantage point, then turned and looked over his shoulder at his friend.

“Man, that’s something. This is why we do it, Joe. This is what it’s all for.”

Joe looked back at him, deadpan. “And the white man says we’re crazy,” he said. “You get a better view in your Cessna, if the view’s all you do it for.”

Cal smiled to himself. He knew his friend was ribbing him, and he didn’t mind. It was a game they often played, and his smile died as he remembered why they were making this climb. If Joe noticed the change in his mood, he gave no sign.

“Let’s face it, man,” said Joe. “You saw better sights than this during your astronaut training, especially from orbit.”

It was true that Cal had once been a part of the space program, and had once piloted a shuttle into orbit, but that had been the extent of his career. During a routine medical examination shortly before the Mars shot of 2025, an irregular heart murmur had appeared in his EEG. It had not shown up in any subsequent tests, but it had been enough to finish him as an astronaut. Bitterly disappointed, Cal had taken early retirement from the Air Force rather than be relegated to flying a desk, and had spent the last three years proving to himself, and the world, that there was nothing he could not do.

Rock climbing, sky diving, base jumping; he had even entered a rodeo up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and had almost got his ass righteously kicked by an eight hundred pound Brahma bull. Joe had been there to pull him out of that one; come to think of it, he reflected, Joe always seemed to be there when he needed him to be. However, that was about to change.

As they took in the magnificent desert vista, Cal thought of his friend. In the white man’s world, Joe was Air Force Major Joseph McCulloch, but to his people he was Sky Eagle, a chief of the Navajo, and the last male of his family line. And likely to stay that way, reflected Cal wryly, barring a miracle. Because big, friendly, good-looking Joe McCulloch was totally, permanently and irreversibly gay.

It was not something that could be discerned from his appearance, because Joe certainly did not fit any stereotyped image of homosexuality. Big, almost six feet five in his socks, built like a tank with wide shoulders and narrow hips, and possessing the dark, smoldering good looks that most women find attractive, anyone would assume he would be beating female admirers off with a stick. But he was known and respected throughout the Southwest, and his orientation was known and respected by all who knew him.

Cal, while not quite the exact opposite of Joe, was at least different enough for them to be regarded as something of an odd couple. Five feet ten, slight but wiry, he possessed a strength that was as powerful as it was unexpected. At first glance, anyone asked to pick which one of them was gay would have gone for Cal. His dark, curly hair, full lips and hooded eyes had made him the target for a few unsolicited male advances in his time. When the would-be suitors found their attentions not returned, they sometimes switched their focus to Cal’s large companion. This arrangement, which often worked in reverse when women discovered Joe’s preferences, was a mutually agreeable one.

Tolerance of sexual differences had continued to improve during the last fifteen years or so. After the AIDS epidemic of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, when a vaccine had at last been found, every sane, thinking person in the world had had his or her shot, guaranteeing immunization. Now, the permissive society lived again, at least until fortune threw its next curve ball at the human race.

If things ever got rough during the course of their leisure activities, the two friends had more than enough firepower to take charge of most situations. Both men were adept in Tae-Kwon-Do, Cal also having trained in Aikido, the ballet-like martial art. On rare occasions, they had been obliged to instruct in basic manners Neanderthals who objected to drinking in the same room with a queer, or a redskin. The most amazing thing, to Cal, was that there were still some like that walking around. If it came to choosing, as he often remarked to Joe, between a redskin and a redneck, he knew whose company he preferred.

One of the most memorable of these encounters, a subject of local legend, had been a violent but short affair. Six out-of-state bikers, discovering Joe’s preferences, had decided to see how far they could push him one night in the Broken Arrow, the pair’s favorite watering hole in Eden, a small town just outside Flagstaff. Most of the time, Joe was an easy-going man, who could normally take a lot of ribbing, but the bikers went too far when they picked on one of the waitresses, who just happened to be a cousin of the big Air Force Major.

The offending biker had described a perfect parabola, exiting the bar through the picture window fifteen feet from where Joe had thrown him and into the street. Three of the others had jumped on Joe, and the brawl had been on. Fists flew, bottles smashed, two of the waitresses clung to the biker’s filthy hair and clothes and the whole group moved in a melee of whirling fury as people not involved tried to move out of the way, all the while clutching their beers. Joe, like Cal, was well known, and the fight, if it remained fair, was a foregone conclusion.

Cal had been sitting a few stools away, trying to charm the nicely filled pants off a legal secretary from Flagstaff, and had turned and glanced in mild interest at the commotion. He knew Joe’s abilities, would not have willingly taken him on himself even if they had not been friends, and he would have been quite happy to let the big man take care of things while he continued his pursuit of the young lady. Even when he saw the remaining two bikers approaching Joe from behind, he might have stayed put, and observed his friend’s technique in dealing with an unsuspected approaching threat, but he had caught a glimpse of steel in the leader’s hand. A fair fight was one thing, but knives were definitely something else.

Cal had slid gracefully off his stool as the bikers approached and stood in their path, waiting calmly. The leader glared at him, and made to push past, growling, “Outa the way, motherfucka, unless you want some too.”

Cal just stood there, looking from one to the other, a small smile on his face. A couple of stools away, off duty Deputy Sheriff Tad Hauser looked up from his beer, muttered, “Oh, shit,” and prepared to pick up the pieces.

Cal stood his ground, looking at the two unwashed thugs. “Well,” he said, “we can do it that way if you want, but it’d be better all round if you just left quietly. We don’t want any trouble.”

The biker flicked his wrist, and a seven-inch switchblade appeared in his hand. “Is that so?” he rasped. “Well, you got it, faggot, like it or not.” With that, he lunged at Cal.

What happened next was almost too fast for the eye follow. Cal went into attack/defense mode, utilizing a combination of his martial arts training and spiritual lessons learned from Joe’s people. All of his senses were concentrated on his opponents, and their movements appeared to slow down, as if they were wading through treacle.

A sharp block against the knife thrust broke the wrist of the first biker, and a graceful pivot brought his right heel into contact with the jaw of the second. Landing on two very steady feet, he turned and delivered a punch that traveled only a foot, but which contained tremendous power. It connected with the solar plexus of the first biker, who was still staring stupidly at his useless wrist, the pain not having yet registered. The man dropped silently to the floor to join his unconscious companion.

Joe, meanwhile, had made a rather untidy heap of the other three bikers, and the two friends returned to their barstools and ordered fresh beers. Deputy Hauser sighed, and reached for the phone to call the station, while some of the locals started dragging the comatose bodies outside, to join their comrade lying on the sidewalk amidst the glass of the window. Red, the man behind the bar who owned the Broken Arrow, was smiling. The front window had needed replacing for some time now, and the bikers’ Harleys were going to pay for a new one. The jukebox swelled up again, country rock filled the bar as The Eagles advised everyone to Take It Easy, and things quickly got back to normal.

Cal and Joe did not have this kind of trouble often; they were well liked and respected by the locals, and never initiated hostilities. They were friends, the best, and they enjoyed a special kind of relationship. The good-natured ribbing they engaged in was a regular feature of their friendship, and it was normal for them to say anything they wanted to each other, knowing it would not be taken in any way other than the way it was meant.

Now, on top of The Needle, seven hundred feet above the desert floor, they tossed their friendly banter back and forth for a while, then finally fell silent. As close as they were, they still found it difficult to talk about the reason for this climb, perhaps the last they would ever make together.

The Hermes project had been just a name of rumors to Joe; as a serving Air Force officer, he had known better than to ask Cal any questions. But when Cal had been confirmed as a member of the team, he had told Joe anyway. The big Navajo remembered the occasion well. They had been sharing a few beers at Joe’s house after a meal; Joe had been reluctant to pry, but it was obvious to Cal that his friend was curious about the mysterious mission. Cal had replied to Joe’s hesitant hints with casual openness.

“Well, old pal, you’ve heard about the new fusion engines, the ones they’re putting in the latest deep space probes?”

“Sure,” replied Joe. “They say they can run almost indefinitely, something about a new type of alloy being used, or something.” Cal nodded, and Joe said, “Jesus, man, the rumor I heard says those engines are at least two years away.”

“That’s what they want you to think, and you’d better make sure it stays that way, or you’ll be finishing your tour in sunny Greenland.” Cal hesitated, then went on.

“I’m telling you this because you’re my friend, and you deserve to know at least some of it.” Then he told Joe about the new metal, and the fusion engines that were being used in the experiment.

When he finished, Joe thought for a moment. “But a ship that can run indefinitely might also be able to accelerate for….” Joe trailed off as the truth of the Hermes project became clear to him. When he spoke again, his voice was just above a whisper.

“Oh, snake shit. Lightspeed? You crazy assholes are going to try to reach light speed?”

Cal smiled, attempting to lighten the mood. “Watch who you’re calling crazy, redskin,” he said.

“Jesus wept!”


“That’s why you’ve been so quiet lately, isn’t it? This is a suicide mission. No one comes back!”

“Joe, nobody knows for sure what…”

“Bullshit, they don’t! I’ve retained enough physics from college to know what the consequences are likely to be.” Joe’s uncharacteristic anger towards his friend abated a little, and he went on, more quietly. “What I don’t understand is, why you? You’re not even Air Force, not any more.”

Cal shrugged. “They asked me, and I said yes.”

“But why? With your record, they wouldn’t even let you get near a jet. That’s why you quit, took your pension. That’s also why you spend your time trying to find new ways to kill yourself.”

“It was a special kind of deal, Joe. They needed someone with astronaut as well as pilot training, someone who fitted….certain other criteria.”

Joe looked at him closely. “Like what?”

Cal shrugged again, a pretended nonchalance. “Single, no ties, no close relatives…”

“In other words, expendable.” Joe was calming down now, but his dark eyes still blazed. “Those sons of bitches! Why I stay in I’ll never…”

“You stay because you love it, Joe, just like I did. Still do. I quit because I couldn’t fly a desk but, if not for that heart thing, I’d still be there.”

“Doesn’t that bother them?” asked Joe. “I mean, if they canned you from the space program because of it, how come...?”

Cal smiled crookedly. “Let’s just say, they weren’t exactly spoilt for choice.”

They were silent for a few moments, and then Cal looked at his friend sadly. “It was my last chance, Joe. My last chance to get back into space. I had to take it. I have to go.”

Joe nodded, and they were quiet again. Then he asked, “Can you tell me when?”

Cal nodded. “About a month. I’ve been on a simulator for the past six weeks, same as the other team members. They’ve got us all training individually, then we’re going to meet up in Florida for final training and briefing.”

“How many are there?”

“Four, including me. Two from England, and two Americans. The Brits wanted fifty-fifty involvement, and I guess that’s fair. After all, it was their scientists that invented the new drive.”

Joe nodded again. They drank some more beer, then he asked, “Who are they?”

Cal shrugged again. “A doctor, female I think, an engineer, one of ours, and some kind of physicist.”

Joe took another pull at his beer. “Civilians, huh?”



“Copy that.”


That had been three weeks before. Now, Cal stood and stretched, looking towards the sun, which was low in the sky, reflecting the Painted Desert against the clouds above the horizon.

“Weather’s closing in,” he said. “Looks like snow on the way. We’d better move.”

Joe rose to his feet, and the two friends stood looking at the magnificent scene, imprinting it on their memories. Then Joe spoke.

“I’m gonna miss you, man. I want you to make it back, but like I said, I know enough physics to know that, if the thing succeeds, then it’s unlikely.”

Cal didn’t reply, and they stood there awkwardly, so many things unsaid. The desert sky blazed red and gold, and a light wind blew the first flecks of snow about them.

“You know,” said Joe, “you never did tell me what the ‘T’ stands for.”

“The what?”

“The ‘T’, your middle name.”

Cal looked at the ground, then at the sky, and shuffled his feet. Then he gave a small, sheepish smile, and said, “Tiberius.”

Joe stared for a moment, then burst into laughter. “Jesus Christ! Captain fucking Kirk, huh?”

Cal shrugged. “What can I say? My grandparents were Trekkies.”

They stood like that for a few minutes, smiling at each other, then Cal moved away and said, “come on, last one down’s a white man.”

Joe grinned, and replied, “no, last one down’s a Pawnee.”

They turned as one, then ran towards the Needle’s precipitous edge and launched themselves into space. Cal grinned madly as he heard his friend’s roar beside him, and then they were both yelling, at the top of their voices, the name of that long dead but still well respected Apache chief.


The two figures fell about three hundred feet, then the bright colors of their parachutes blossomed, and they drifted to the desert floor, where their jeep waited. From there they would drive the seventy miles back to Flagstaff, and spend their last night together getting roaring drunk. They both knew it could be the last time, and they resolved to make it a binge of which legends are made.



Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.