Adam knew that there was no time to waste. If the plan was to beat the rocket to the asteroid, they had to leave as soon as possible. He was happy that Craig was still asleep when he checked his room. He sat on his bed and shook him awake.
“Craig, I have to talk to you. It’s about the asteroid. You gotta wake up!”
Craig struggled from what looked like a much better place that he was in while dreaming and managed to wake up, rubbing his eyes. “What’s up? Is something wrong?” he asked.
“Well, yes and no. I have a lot of explaining to do, so let me go back to the beginning…” Adam started into his long story, starting from the weird dog, Poochers, and how he found all the parts for his car.
By the end of the story, Craig was wide eyed and sitting straight up. At first he thought that his brother must be playing some stupid trick on him. Sure, he thought, a flying car with a talking radio was an easy thing to believe in. Yeah right, it was Adam who made the new lake.
But when he thought back to the fire, he had always wondered about why the boxes he had stacked hadn’t burned before Samwise got out of his cage. And how did Samwise even get out, when he was sure he had closed the cage very securely? If Adam’s story was true, the El Camino must have helped the iguana to escape during the fire. Then he remembered how Adam had said that Samwise was in the car when it had appeared at school. Craig wondered whether the car and iguana had a friendship which would explain why Samwise had insisted on living in the garage next to the car instead of in his warm, cozy room.
Adam didn’t give Craig much time to spend mulling over the news. “So anyway after all that, this morning it told me that we have to go to the asteroid and somehow help the rocket to push it off course. And we have to go now if we are going to have any chance of getting there in time!”
If there is one thing we could count on about Craig, it was his courage. That, combined with his curiosity, helped him to make the quick decision to “descend into madness”, as he quoted from a novel that he had read in school. He got dressed while Adam threw some food and water into a backpack. Adam collected his old book on star charts, as well as his pocket calculator and some graph paper. He remembered at the last to get the family’s thirty five millimeter camera. This was an adventure that they would need pictures of to even believe themselves, if they managed to get back at all.
Craig finished getting ready in the meantime. He made one smart decision when he also brought along a couple of empty milk jugs. “Adam, I am not going to go into space without someplace to pee. It isn’t like we could go out the window or something.”
Their parents were starting to shuffle around in their room when they felt like they had all they needed. The boys knocked on their door, and went in to tell them the story they had previously invented about wanting to go for a long drive that day. Tony and Helene were pleasantly surprised by the intensity of their hugs when they left. But it never entered their minds that their sons were about to embark on a space mission.
When they both had loaded the car, Adam started up the engine. Craig tried to make light of the situation by talking to the radio. “Earth to Commander Camino, are you reading us, over?”
“…potatoes, potatoes, so many ways to eat potatoes…” “…the last straw…” “…the last straw…” the radio blurted out making Craig jump so high he bumped his head.
“What the…Is that thing talking to me?” he asked.
“…potatoes, potatoes, so many ways to eat potatoes…” “…the last straw…” “…the last straw…” Commander Camino repeated.
Adam was getting good at understanding El Camino-ease by now. “It’s talking to you, and it wants us to bring some potatoes and straws. You better go get some.”
“Potatoes and straws? Oh, of course. I should have thought of that. What else would you bring to space?” Craig was using his sarcasm to compensate for his fear and the complete insanity of what they were doing. But he got the items anyway.
It was extremely interesting for Craig to witness the next few steps Adam went through to get air born. Adam explained each step along the way. He was actually having a great time now. He had kept this whole experience an absolute secret for the last months. It had been difficult logistically, but also emotionally. The relief he felt in sharing overcame the shear madness of the situation, and allowed him to just concentrate on getting up into the air and beyond. Besides, now that Craig knew he might need a copilot at some point, so he better teach him how things worked, at least those things that Adam knew about.
Once they had lifted off and were coasting above the foothills that rise above Tesuque, Adam asked the El Camino what to do next. They weren’t going to get into space by doing any of the flying tricks that Adam had tried so far.
“…sit back and enjoy…” “…light my cigarette…” “…light my cigarette…” was the strange mix the car responded with.
“It wants us to sit back and light a cigarette?” Craig asked Adam.
“I guess. Try sitting back in the seat and trying the lighter,” Adam replied. “I made sure it worked, but I never used it while driving or anything.”
Cars in those days almost always had an electric cigarette lighter that you heated up by pushing it into the dashboard. It took about thirty seconds, and then it popped back out when it was heated up.
“…push that pedal till it roars…” “…push that pedal till it roars…” “…light my cigarette…” the El Camino kept insisting.
“I guess I better also hit the accelerator pedal while you push in the lighter,” Adam suggested, and the horn tooted agreement.
The brothers took a look at each other and both swallowed. They knew they had to try, so they turned to face forward and they set their jaws. Craig counted off three counts. At the end he pushed in the cigarette lighter. Meanwhile Adam pushed the accelerator pedal in to the extra notch and beyond.
At first Adam thought something was wrong. The El Camino started rising up, but it didn’t go any faster, or at a steeper angle, than usual. He knew enough about physics to know that there is a speed you had to go, called the escape velocity, in order to escape the Earth’s gravity. Their current speed was fine for flying, but it still wasn’t getting them into space.
He was just about to tell Craig that it wasn’t working and let up off the accelerator, when the cigarette lighter popped out to show that it was heated up and ready to be used. Suddenly both boys were slammed back into their seats. The El Camino quickly angled up to almost ninety degrees from the Earth’s surface, and started accelerating like nothing Adam had felt it do before. It wasn’t clear what force was pushing the vehicle, but it was strong enough to get them hurtling straight up into the sky.
They were jerked back and forth as the El Camino’s geometry was buffeted by winds. In order to get up to escape velocity, or about 25,000 miles per hour, they had to continue accelerating through the atmosphere. This creates a huge amount of wind drag. Luckily, the atmosphere got thinner with each second as well. After a couple of minutes the back and forth motion died down.
After a few more minutes they noticed that the color of the sky around them quickly turned from pale blue to a darker blue, and then purple. It wasn’t long before it was blacker than the darkest night sky, and it was only blue below them where their home planet stretched in a gentle arc on all sides.
They felt the seams of the car tightening as they rose higher. The car was trying to make itself secure against the increasingly intense vacuum outside. Their ears had popped several times, but that stopped after the car’s fan turned on by itself. The El Camino had some source of fresh air that it had started pumping into the cab of the car to pressurize it and provide air for Adam and Craig to breathe.
They realized that they continued to feel the pressure of acceleration on their bodies for a long time after it seemed like they were no longer captives of the Earth. They continued to be pushed back into their seats in a way that made them feel like they were still on Earth, with their chairs tilted over backwards and their legs in the air. The force they were feeling is called one G, for Gravity, because it is the equivalent of the force the Earth’s gravity pulls on your body when you are on its surface. In their case it was caused by the ship accelerating, or increasing speed, pushing against their body’s own tendency to stay at the same speed it was already going. The end result was that they quickly gained a great deal of velocity, since the rate at which they accumulated it kept increasing.
The boys didn’t really have time to think too much during this first part of their incredible voyage. At first they were just in shock and amazement. Then they were in awe of the sight of naked space as they looked out the windshield. It wasn’t until they found themselves weightless that they had time to react to what had just happened to them.
The acceleration stopped suddenly, and the El Camino began to coast at its vast rate of speed without change, which also ended the artificial gravity effect. It was the first time they truly had the feeling that they were in space. It can be a very disconcerting feeling at first, even for someone who has trained for it. These boys had been basically hurled into space from their beds that morning.
“Okay, that was some kind of ride!” Craig made them both laugh, until he turned green all of a sudden. Luckily they had a paper bag with their food. He had just experienced one of the effects of weightlessness that astronauts have described; space sickness. He managed to get the bag out and empty it, before refilling it with the contents of his stomach. But luckily, this effect goes away fairly quickly, and Craig felt fine once he had an empty stomach.
An hour after leaving the Earth’s atmosphere the radio started up again, “…explorers made crude maps to try to keep their bearings…” “…a three dimensional model was constructed…” “…the line passes through the circle…”
It was as if the El Camino had saved a whole set of phrases from news and documentary programs to use at this moment. The sophistication of the plan that it wanted to convey was more complicated than anything it had communicated before. Eventually the brothers got the idea that they were supposed to make a three dimensional map of some sort. They asked the car how.
The El Camino responded by repeating his song from before lift off, “…potatoes, potatoes, so many ways to eat potatoes…” “…the last straw…” “…the last straw…”
It wasn’t until an hour later that the boys felt like they had finally understood its plan. What the car had in mind was related to what they had done to save Tesuque and Santa Fe from the flash flood. The El Camino wanted to dig tunnels through the asteroid, from one end to the other. It wanted Adam and Craig to make sure that they made as many tunnels through the asteroid as possible in the remaining time that they had left before the rocket sent from the Earth got there. It told them that it was crucial that the tunnels be evenly spaced throughout the asteroid. This seemed to be of the utmost importance in making whatever the car hoped would happen take place. This also finally explained why it had insisted that they bring the potatoes and straws.
Since the asteroid was basically a solid iron rock hurtling through space, interference from the metal would make it impossible for the El Camino to know its position while digging the tunnels. The car used visual clues and information from the magnetic fields of planets to know where it was. So it wouldn’t be able to self-navigate below the surface of this solid metal object. The plan was that Adam would be responsible for steering as they dug their tunnels driving in reverse. Craig would be responsible for estimating the path each tunnel took. He would insert straws through a potato each time they dug a tunnel to represent the path they just took. This way they would have a three dimensional model of the asteroid, with the potato representing the asteroid and the straws representing the tunnels. If it worked they would wind up with a potato and an asteroid, both evenly pierced by straight holes all throughout their bodies.
After this conversation with the El Camino, the three settled into silence. They had a lot to think about. And they had a lot to look at. They found themselves in almost total silence, except for the steady whistle of the car fan pumping in life giving oxygen. They could hear their own heart beats and breaths as they contemplated the vast, pitch black darkness of eternity, just outside their windshield. The stars were no longer star shaped and glittering. They were solid, intense balls of light. Some were big enough to be round, like white hot pebbles floating in the blackness.
After another hour they saw that one of those points of light had become larger. It had become big enough that they could see it wasn’t perfectly round. It was the asteroid. The light that made it glow wasn’t from its own internal fusion reactions like the stars. It was reflecting the photons of light that were created by our own sun’s magnificent nuclear engine. The engine that has powered life on our planet since it began so many eons ago. As they progressed, the asteroid quickly took shape. It did in fact look more and more like a potato spinning in space.
It was such an extreme experience that both Adam and Craig were in shock. Their brains seemed to have adapted to the outrageousness of the situation by deciding it was a dream. They could figure it all out later. But for the time being, why not live for the moment, and see where the dream took them?
That was the frame of mind they nurtured over the next six hours before the radio sprang into life again. “…you better slow down…” “…you better slow down…” “…you better slow down…”
“I think you should hit the brakes,” Craig was nice enough to interpret for Adam.
By this time, the asteroid appeared as large as the Earth had an hour after they had left it. They knew that they must be pretty close to the asteroid since it was much smaller than the Earth. The El Camino told them to start slowing down.
They weren’t prepared for the shock they got when Adam applied the brakes though. They were both propelled by a severe force against their seat belts. American cars didn’t have shoulder straps in those days. The boys only had the seat belt to keep them from being thrown out the front windshield. The force was great enough that they were both bruised across their waists, and Adam banged up his arm on the steering wheel. When they had accelerated away from the Earth, the car had kept the forces at a comfortable one G. In their need for haste now, though, the El Camino had apparently decided that it better push the deceleration forces to two G’s. The boys had to spend this time with the equivalent of another body their own size bearing down on them, pushing them towards the dashboard. It was not fun, but luckily it only lasted forty five minutes.
They were grateful to find themselves weightless again and hovering over the asteroid at the end of this torture. It was a beautiful sight. Although the surface was much darker at this distance, it was also much more varied. There were dull, rust colored spots. But there were also polished areas that gleamed different colors in the sunlight. There were craters and long gashes that showed some of the ancient and brutal history of the space object. It made Adam and Craig sad to think that they were about to do so much damage to this visitor from the edges of our solar system. But they were fighting for the survival of every species of plant and animal on the Earth, so their choice was clear.
Adam was able to take control of the El Camino now. He slowly settled down on a flat looking field of polished metal. They didn’t have any time to waste and they knew it. They had a hard time getting the car to stop while landing, though. The asteroid was big and dense enough to have a weak gravity, but it was nothing like the Earth’s. Adam had to use the brake pedal very delicately and just allow the car the float to a stop.
They had enough time to take a quick glance around at the scenery before getting to work. It was very strange to have such a short horizon. Since the asteroid was so small, the horizon fell away quickly and was visibly curved. It almost felt like they were on the top of a hill, and that the rest of the land stretched away below, hidden. There were very few features to be seen on the surface but they could see a few crater rims, giving the horizon a jagged surface in those directions. The sun’s light was incredibly intense. They knew that if they opened the door, they would be both cooked and depressurized before they knew what hit them. Luckily the El Camino had somehow come equipped to protect them in its cocoon.
Almost immediately the car honked angrily to let them know that they had less than three hours before the rocket got there. The El Camino didn’t say anything to explain how it knew this, but they assumed it was by picking up radio transmissions from the computer in the rocket.
It was time to start digging. Craig took out the potato that looked the most like the asteroid from the bag that they had packed. He got out several straws to serve as markers. Craig prepared to push a straw into the potato in as close as he could estimate to their corresponding position on the asteroid. Adam started to back up. As soon as he could Adam pushed the accelerator pedal past the final notch, and they started tilting backwards as the El Camino started to dig in with its tailgate.
The digging wasn’t anything like what it had been the last time Adam did it in the loose New Mexican top soil, even with its hard layers of colichè. This was digging through a metallic rock. Sparks flew and the car was rocked from side to side. But Adam never let up on the pedal. He did his best to make sure that they were going straight through the asteroid, but it took some doing. The sound was so loud that they both put balled up pieces of napkins in their ears to cut down on the noise.
It took them roughly ten minutes to work their way through to the other side. The whole trip felt the same and they couldn’t see where they were going, so they were completely surprised when they literally popped out the other side. They were able to spot their location on the asteroid since they were propelled out into space with their momentum, and mark it correctly on the potato with the straw. But this also meant they had to waste time turning around and landing again before they could dig the next tunnel.
They decided to make the next tunnel through the long axis of the asteroid. They knew that they could carve through even the metallic sections now, so they needed to make sure their tunnels were evenly spaced. This trip took a lot longer, and didn’t go as smoothly. Apparently there were other types of metals in the asteroid, which they hadn’t encountered during their last trip through the short axis. They found out when there was a huge grating/crunching/squealing sound, and the car suddenly veered to the left as if it had been deflected off a barrier on a highway. They were able to right the car and get back on track, but it took a bit longer to carve through the denser metal deposit. They encountered another larger dense area later on their way through this axis as well. These obstacles made the trip take forty minutes, which wasn’t good news. But they knew that they could now take a few short axis trips before they would need to do another long one.
They had made two more long tunnels and several short ones, when they realized that their progress was becoming much slower. They looked at the El Camino the next time they found themselves on the exterior and noticed that the tailgate had been sustaining a lot of damage. It no longer had sharp corners. And one side had been bent back so badly that it wasn’t providing much digging surface at all. They knew that the time was growing very short before they needed to get off this metal ball, which was about to become the target for the Earth’s most powerful weapons of destruction.
They decided to take one more trip through the short axis before retreating to what they hoped would be a safe distance. They had been averaging about ten minutes a trip in the short direction, so they gave themselves fifteen minutes to be safe. Then they would just keep going in the direction they would pop out in, and flee the area as quickly as the El Camino could manage. At least that was the plan. Unfortunately, not only did they hit one dense pocket, they also hit a second one shortly after. By that time the bent part of the tailgate gave way and fell off. It wasn’t until they were able to angle away from the second dense region, and luckily find one of their own tunnels, that they were able to exit from the interior of the asteroid.
They had lost time and they had put themselves in danger. Adam managed to spin the car around itself almost immediately, and he pushed down on the accelerator harder than he ever had. Craig had pushed in the cigarette lighter while they were still inside the tunnel, when they had found their branch and were speeding out of it. This meant that they only waited ten seconds before the El Camino engaged its space travel engines and slammed the brothers rudely into their seats.
This wasn’t a gentle 2G acceleration. The car seemed to understand the danger they were in, and it used all the force it could, without doing the boys any permanent damage. It pushed the forces as high as 5Gs, and both Adam and Craig were battered and bruised by the experience. It is one thing to take high G forces in a specially designed seat, in a specially designed space suit. They were forced to endure the factory automobile seat’s irregularities, and lack of uniform padding. It hurt, and it hurt a lot.
But it hurt a lot less than what they would have felt if they had been closer when the rocket from Earth plunged its nuclear bombs into the asteroid. They had been traveling for three minutes when they saw the flash. The interior of the car was lit up as if a gigantic flashbulb had gone off behind them. The boys were lucky to have been facing the other direction when this occurred. As it was, the seats protected them from the worst of the radiation of this first blast.
If they hadn’t been so preoccupied with their current acceleration induced pain, they might have been terrified by the intensity of the flash. As it was, they noted it and waited to see what would happen next. It took several seconds longer, but they were soon hit by a series of concussions that rocked the car back and forth.
The El Camino must have realized that there was no sense trying to get any further away once the light had hit them. Since radiation travels at the same speed as light, if they were close enough to be hurt by it, it would have happened when they saw the flash. The car somehow knew that the radiation levels had been high, but not much more than an x-ray exam. The boys wouldn’t suffer from radiation poisoning. Neither Adam nor Craig was aware of that fact, though, so when the car slowed down and was buffeted by the expanding gases of the explosion they both assumed that they had reached the end of their mission, and their lives.
But the concussions of gases settled down after a couple of minutes. They found themselves floating weightlessly in space again. It was almost peaceful. Adam took control of the car and turned it around. They found themselves in front row seats to the aftermath of the explosion, and it was breathtaking.
Where the asteroid should have been, there were now many objects radiating away in all directions. They hadn’t knocked the asteroid off course as they thought had been the plan, they had obliterated it! It made sense once they had time to think about it. If the car had wanted to help push the asteroid, it would have just had them park on it and use the cigarette lighter to accelerate against it. But the El Camino had known that they couldn’t push it enough to get it off course, even with the bombs. But they could weaken it structurally. That way when the bombs exploded, the asteroid couldn’t hold itself together and it also exploded like one of the chemical bombs that they had made in chemistry class.
They were far enough away that they were out of danger of being hit by fragments, so they were able to watch the exploding asteroid bloom like a flower. The atomic explosion at the center provided the light and color, the gases and fragments expanding in all directions provided the petals.
Some of these fragments would later hit the Earth, although most of them were deflected off in other directions. But, the boys would find out later that in addition to providing a spectacular meteorite display, with hundreds of small asteroid fragments burning up in the atmosphere, only one meteor would hit land near Tokyo. It was fairly small, only ten feet diameter. But it destroyed an apartment building, and killed fifteen people.
The reason the pieces of the asteroid were faster than the El Camino getting back, was because Adam and Craig decided that they were in no hurry. They had succeeded in actually saving the planet, or at least helped immensely, and they thought they deserved some kind of reward. They discussed whether they were going to tell anyone what they had done, but after a few minutes of arguing, decided it would be best if they didn’t. Nobody would have been able to see an object the size of an El Camino digging tunnels through the body of the asteroid from Earth. They would just need to explain to their parents why they weren’t at home when the bombs hit. Adam decided to leave that excuse to the brilliant mind of his brother.
So they spent another twelve hours flying on a scenic route through the solar system. They didn’t have time to go too far, like to the moons of Jupiter for example, even though they did consider it. But in the end, they took a fly by of Mars and got exceptionally close to one of its moons; Phobos. It looked a lot like a smaller version of our moon, but up close it was a beautiful brown and deep green colored rock. They saw the other Martian moon, Deimos, from the distance. It looked more like the asteroid that they had just watched explode.
The sight they enjoyed the most was one the El Camino suggested. It was a practical way to gain speed for the return trip, and would provide a special scenic detour. By using the gravity of the planet next closest to the sun from our Earth, Venus, they could get it to swing them in a huge arc back towards the Earth. They would let the gravity of Venus build up their speed as they fell towards it, but they wouldn’t get close enough to hit it. Instead, they would be thrown back around towards the Earth. This would allow them to make up lost time, and get back home before their parents had started too big a manhunt for them. They would have to pass very close to the surface of Venus in order to maximize the speed they received in this slingshot-like maneuver.
What this offered them in the way of a view was literally out of this world. Venus is covered in clouds of carbon dioxide. In images from telescopes that the boys had seen, the planet appeared as a blurry brown lump. From close up, the browns broke up into shades of reds, yellows, and even purples. The swirling gases were churning with weather phenomena. They saw bolts of bright green lightning that occasionally shot out of the clouds into space. They saw collisions of different colored cloud banks creating a variety of effects similar to the lava lamps which were very popular were at the time.
What Craig and Adam were most intrigued by though was something different that they saw. It was while they were at their closest to the cloud surface. They noticed a flashing light obscured by mists, but visible. It only stood out from the other random flashes of light in the clouds because it was regular. It was flashing in a pattern that wasn’t random. But they could only observe it for a few seconds before they moved on. Later, Craig would swear that he also saw a huge dark surface below the clouds near the light that had a clear sharp edge. Adam always told him he was dreaming, but he had seen something big and dark hovering in the swirling mists for just a moment himself.
But their visit with Venus was quickly over. Thanks to the close orbital positions of the Earth and Venus at the time, and the boost they received from Venus’ gravity, they were soon in orbit around their mother planet again. From their vantage point it looked like such a magnificent, yet fragile, gem floating in space that they allowed themselves to slowly orbit a few times before starting their final descent. They were returning to a planet that they felt an even greater love for.
The mystery of life had also become so much greater thanks to getting to know the Enchanted El Camino. Although they knew that they would have to keep that knowledge and their part in the destruction of the asteroid to themselves.
But they returned to a world that had been taught a huge lesson. In their hour of need, the normally feuding nations of the world were able to come together. They had combined all their collective resources for the good of everyone. It was possible for humans to accomplish acts like this. Unfortunately, it seems as if we just have to be pushed into it sometimes.
Adam suddenly felt like he better say what he had been wanting to for a long time, but hadn’t felt comfortable enough to get out. “Craig, I’m sorry I got so weird when you told me you were gay. I was just shocked, and I didn’t know what to think. And I got scared, and I acted like a jerk. You’ve been an awesome little brother, and I wish you could just go on being you until you die happily of old age.”
“To tell you the truth,” Craig answered, “I always understood why you acted like that. You were just being realistic. It is a lot easier not being gay in the world we live in. You were just trying to protect me, and yourself, I guess.”
Adam continued, “All I know is that you are one of the bravest guys I have ever seen. I woke you up in the morning and told you that we need to fly through space to an asteroid to save the planet, and you got up and helped me. How many people would have had the guts to listen to me and do what we just did?”
Craig shrugged. “I wish it was guts. I didn’t believe you at first. I just wanted to see how crazy you had really become. I was actually more scared that you were hallucinating, not about going into space. It wasn’t until the car told me to get potatoes that I thought you might actually be telling me the truth.”
They both laughed nervously. Then they did something that they hadn’t done in ten years; they gave each other a big brotherly hug.