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THE launch, everybody was calling it around Cape Kennedy.
Big deal! thought Rolf Gunnarson as he opened the garage door. The door slipped out of his hands and rattled noisily up on its tracks, slamming against the end of the tracks with a loud thump! For a moment Rolf winced, thinking the noise would wake his baby sister, then he set his jaw. Let it!
Rolf squeezed past his father's white official NASA car to get to his old three-speed bicycle. So, I don't need a ten-speed, do I? he muttered to himself. He's just too busy with his space shot to listen to me. I really need that bike to get back and forth to the Wildlife Refuge. But he doesn't care about the ecology, the Refuge, or anything-except being Launch Director for this Mars flight!
His face set in an unhappy scowl, Rolf wheeled the three-speed out of the garage and through the half-dozen cars parked along the driveway. Out on the street a big TV truck was parked. Inside the house the TV men were laying cables and setting up lights and cameras. They were going to interview his father. THE launch was only a few days away.
"You'd think he was one of them-one of the astronauts going to Mars," Rolf said to Shep, who was lying in the shade of the orange tree in the Gunnarsons' front yard. Shep looked like a ball of brown and white wool with a red tongue hanging out.
It was as hot a day as Florida can produce in August. The sun blazed out of a brilliant blue sky that was flecked here and there with gleaming white, puffy clouds. But Rolf couldn't hang around the house any longer. First it was his father telling him, "Not now, Rolf! Can't you see I'm busy? After THE launch we'll talk about it." Then it was the TV crew bustling around the house, saying, "Hey kid, wouldya mind gettin' outta the way?"
Rolf whistled for Shep to come along, and started pedaling for the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. He had been going to stay home from it today. But now ...
"I should've brought some lemonade or something," he told himself as he pumped along the street, passing the neat little houses with their lawns and flowering bushes and trees.
For a moment he thought about going back, but then he shook his head. Maybe I'll never go back, he thought grimly, as he turned off the street and headed for the Old Courtney Pike.
He rode for several miles in silence, with Shep scampering along beside him. Hot as it was, the speed of his travel put a breeze in his face and set his unbuttoned shirt flapping loosely behind him, so that he felt the air slipping over his bare chest, blowing out the armholes of his sleeves, like his own personal air conditioner. Just like the astronauts, he thought, picturing in his mind how they must feel inside their air-conditioned space suits.
Riding the bike felt good-even in the heat. Not that any kind of heat could bother Rolf, really. He was used to it. Just like old Shep, looking as woolly as any other English sheepdog anywhere in the world, trotting along beside the bicycle with his red tongue hanging out. Anybody who didn't know better would think Shep was ready to melt. But Rolf knew the sheepdog could keep up with him like this all day. They were both Floridians born and bred. Shep would guess they were headed toward the Wildlife Refuge, a place he liked as well as Rolf did.
Most people didn't even realize that the Refuge existed. All they cared about, like Rolf's dad, was the Space Center part of Cape Kennedy. Actually, the Refuge was almost 85,000 acres in size. That was about ninety-nine percent of all the land the Space Agency owned on the Cape. The launching Center took up the remaining one percent. The Refuge was a haven for birds. Officially there were 224 different species of birds visiting there regularly-although Rolf himself had checked off 284 species last year. And there were the permanent residents, too; tough wild pigs, snakes, bald eagles and even alligators. A good place to get away to, when things at home got to the point where you wanted to kick holes in the wall.
Right now, however, the desire to kick holes in the wall was diminishing in him. As usual, the exercise of the ride and the prospect of getting back to the Refuge were working their good influence on him. Now that he was beginning to feel better, Rolf admitted to himself that it was not really things like not having a ten-speed bike that were bothering him. It was ... he could not seem to say what it was. Sometimes, when he was away from home, like this, he would make up his mind not to let things get to him when he went home again. But they always did. Or at least, since this summer started, they always did. Remembering the past weeks, Rolf scowled again. Summer vacation was supposed to be something you looked forward to. But nothing seemed to have gone right this year-from his slipping off the diving board and hurting his leg, right up until now. First there had been that accident, then the upset of the house after his baby sister was born. Now THE launch ...
Busy thinking, he reached the edge of the Refuge almost before he knew it. But then, suddenly, the road was in among the acres of wild land, and he looked around himself feeling good. Most people might have seen nothing much to enjoy. There were only sandy little hillocks covered with coarse grass and scrubby brush, in all directions, with an occasional bigger tree pushing crookedly higher against the glittering sky. But to Rolf it was a remarkable and fascinating place, busy with plant, bird and animal life, all of which were particular friends of his. From the wild sow with her four piglets right now trotting along in plain sight beside the road he was riding, to a brown hen pelican, nesting in a secret pool he knew of, far out among the brush-and who already had lost one of her three eggs because of the thinness of its shell, due to DDT-they were individuals with whom he was concerned.
The sow led her family off back into the brush, and a little farther on Rolf turned his bike from the concrete highway onto the asphalt road that led down in the direction of the Playalinda Beach part of the Refuge. Then, a short distance down the asphalt, he cut off the road entirely and bumped along on one of the old foot trails that wound through the Preserve.
Officially, no one was supposed to be here, right now. That was why he had not planned to come today. Playalinda Beach was officially closed when there was a rocket on the pad at LC-39, as the Mars rocket stood right now.
But who cared? All that the Beach's being closed meant was that nobody else would be around. And who wants anybody else around? Rolf asked himself. It's good to be alone. Nobody here except me and Shep.
Rolf suddenly realized that Shep was no longer trotting beside his bike. By itself that wasn't so odd, since the trail was too narrow in spots to let the bike and the dog go side by side. But in that case, Shep should be right behind him. Rolf glanced back, squinting against the glaring sunshine.
Shep was behind him, all right. But a long way behind. The sheepdog was sitting at the last bend of the trail they had passed, some fifty yards behind Rolf, gazing at him disapprovingly. Rolf braked the bike and stopped. He put his feet down on the sandy ground and half turned around.
"Come on!" yelled. "Shep! Come on!"
Shep didn't move. But he barked-which complicated matters.
Shep wasn't like other dogs, in a number of ways. One of these was the way he barked. He had a gruff voice, to begin with, but there was more to it than that. When most dogs bark they seem to be saying, "Hey, glad to see you!" or "Look out! Warning! Stand back!"
Shep's bark was more like the shout of an angry old gentlemen telling someone to mind his manners. "About time you got here," Shep would seem to say. Or, "Stop that nonsense immediately."
"Rrarhf!" said Shep now. It was exactly as if he had snapped, "Get back here at once!"
"Shep," said Rolf slowly, "I'm in no mood for that today. Do you hear me?"
"Huroof!" said Shep.
"What's wrong with you, anyway?"
"Rharf! Rharf rharuff!"
"Listen, I'm going down this trail whether you like it or not."
"Then I'll go by myself!"
"Suit yourself," said Rolf, turning around and getting the bike started again. "Just go on and suit yourself!"
He rode off. After a few minutes, and a couple of bends of the trail, he caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced down to see Shep once more pacing beside him.
"Mrrmp," muttered Shep darkly, deep in his woolly throat. But he kept moving alongside the bike. Rolf felt a small twinge of guilt.
"I do things you want to do sometimes, don't I?" Rolf demanded.
Shep was silent now. He trotted along with his black nose in the air. Rolf shrugged and gave up. Shep's reluctance to go down the trail was making Rolf all the more curious to see where it led. He must have been down this trail before, because he had roamed all over the trails in the Playalinda Beach area at one time or another. But just now he couldn't remember when, or which way this particular trail led.
They were mounting a small rise to a sandy top. Nothing could be seen beyond the top of the rise except the hot blue sky. Under Rolf's hard-pumping legs, the bicycle mounted to the crest and then pitched steeply down into a long dip.
Never saw this spot before! Rolf thought.
And it was just as the bike nosed downward that Shep reached up, clamped his teeth firmly on the ragged edge of the cut-off jeans just above Rolf's knee, and dug all four paws solidly into the ground, putting on the brakes.
It was Rolf's weak leg, the one he had hurt at the pool. The bike skidded wildly, crosswise off the path and started to fall over. Even so, it shouldn't have fallen all the way, since Rolf was an experienced rider. He stuck out his leg to prop up the bike and stop the fall.
But his foot slipped on the sandy soil, his leg buckled, the bike fell, and Rolf went tumbling down the rest of the slope to the bottom of the dip.
"Shep!" he yelled-or tried to yell. Oddly, his voice came out as a small squeak. Furious, Rolf tried to sit up, but he didn't make it even halfway. The dip around him seemed to fill up with a pearly white mist. It was impossible for him to see anything an arm's length away. His head buzzed with a wild dizziness that made it feel as though he were spinning madly.
Rolf collapsed back onto the sand and everything blanked out. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Hour of the Gremlins by Gordon R. Dickson Ben Bova Excerpted by permission.
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