"Sorry, Unc. I'll take this thingamabob outside." With that, the truck crept forward out of the hangar. It slowly accelerated until it was moving at about the speed a man could trot. It crossed the runway, heading for the trees on the other side.
Egg could hear Rip cussing. He was saying some rather nasty words in a loud, clear voice when the truck smacked into a large tree on the far side of the runway.
There it sat intimately embracing the tree, the nose several feet in the air, the rear still sagging dangerously. Rip climbed out of the cab and jumped to the ground. He was standing with his hands on his hips staring at the damaged grill and bumper when Egg reached him.
"Another technical problem rears its ugly head," Egg murmured.
Rip shook his head in frustration.
Then the batteries powering the antigravity device began losing their charge. The truck eased toward the ground inch by inch until it was once again sitting on all four wheels.
"Darn," Rip said mournfully.
Egg couldn't help himself. He exploded in laughter.
When he finally calmed down, he asked, "Why, pray tell, are you putting antigravity rings on that old truck?"
"Actually I'm trying to figure out how to put them on the Extra. Then I'd have a fast, maneuverable airplane that could land anywhere. We could make airports obsolete. Thought I'd start with the pickup to see what the problems were."
"Yeah, I know. If I'd done this two months ago maybe Charley would still be here." He raised his hands and dropped them. "What can I say?"
The sliver of new moon had set hours ago. Egg and Rip were lying side by side in the grass looking at the stars through gaps in the clouds when Rip said, "She's on her way."
"Wish you were with her?"
"Well, heck yeah. Big adventure. 'Course, she's an older woman and all. You just knew a romance like that wouldn't work out. She's a good pilot, though."
"So what are you going to do with your life, Rip?"
"Get on with it. Nothing else I can do, is there?"
Jeanne d'Arc left earth orbit with a long burn designed to accelerate her to escape velocity. With the Global Positioning System (GPS), automatic star trackers and the small onboard computers that didn't exist in the mid-1960s when the Apollo craft were designed, the French ship was much more self-contained than the American moon ships had been. Due to the vast strides in computer technology, each computer on Jeanne d'Arc contained more computing capacity than all the NASA computers together had when Apollo 11 successfully voyaged to the moon.
The crew had taken off their space suits, positioned the ship in the proper orientation, checked the computer programs, locked in the autopilot and waited.
The burn, when it came, was a rush of acceleration and emotion. The trajectory they hoped to achieve was a parabola that would take Jeanne dArc to within sixty miles of the lunar surface. If the spaceplane didn't decelerate as it circled the moon, it would slingshot around it and return to earth. Tears leaked from the corners of Charley's eyes and were pulled back into her hair by the acceleration, which was designed to raise their velocity to a trifle over thirty-five thousand feet per second.
An hour later, with the engines secured, all the checklists finished and the planet slowly falling behind, Charley and Lalouette unstrapped and floated out of their ergonomically correct couches.
Lalouette gave Charley a big grin and said, "You did very well. I have never before flown with a beautiful woman." Apparently the fifty hours he had spent with Charley in the simulator this past month didn't count.
"I'm so happy for you," Charley Pine said sweetly.
"We'll get to know each other much better in the coming weeks," he said confidently.
"Down, boy. Remember the cameras." Small cameras in the cockpit were sending continuous streams of audio and video back to Mission Control in Paris. Unfortunately there were no cameras in the sleeping compartments.
Well, she had known the French were romantically challenged when she signed up for this gig. She hadn't given that aspect of the adventure much thought, though, because she had been so busy. She didn't even know if Lalouette was married. Hadn't asked, hadn't looked at his ring finger, wasn't the least bit interested. The worst of it was that the more difficult she was to conquer, the more the Frenchman would enjoy the chase.
With that gloomy thought in mind Charley Pine floated down the passage toward the head.
"Jean-Paul Lalouette said you are rich. Is it true?" The person asking was Claudine Courbet, an engineer on her way to the lunar base for a six-month stay. She and Charley Pine shared a tiny cabin. Neither had any say in the pairing since they were the only women on the flight.