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Big and Bright
by Mizhowlinmad (HBF), 2009
Summary: Response to the ATSB Quick Pick "Midnight." Every night, Murdock's been looking for something. Will tonight be the night he finally finds it?
Disclaimer: As always, the A-Team belongs to SJC and Universal. I'm just borrowing their characters and taking them for a trip among the stars.
According to the two hands of Woody Woodpecker, pointing vertically on the face of the little alarm clock, it was very nearly midnight.
Time to go.
The bed's occupant sat upright, stretched, ran fingers through an unruly mane of dark hair. He'd been too anxious to sleep, just like every other night for the last month.
Nothing else stirred, just the clock ticking away softly in the darkness. Even Billy dozed, fast asleep in his favorite position at end of the bed. The silence, and the near-perfect darkness, made his post-curfew activity, somehow more…what was that word?
Surreptitious. He liked the sound of it.
He didn't bother to change clothes or slip on a pair of sneakers. The faded t-shirt and shorts he wore were enough; it never really got chilly where he was until after Christmas. From the nightstand, he took his binoculars and a well-loved black baseball cap. He was ready.
The window was already unlocked. He felt the night's warm breath on his bare arms and face. The sky beckoned, pure black velvet, cloudless and shimmering with starlight. There was no moon tonight.
His room was on the second floor. With practiced ease, he swung his lanky frame out and onto the narrow foothold he knew was right below, then, from his awkward stance, sprang onto the ledge three feet away, and then, atop the roof. Nothing to it.
He'd been up here so many times, and still the sight of it never failed to take his breath away. Pegasus the mighty winged horse, Orion the hunter, the reclining figure of Cassiopeia…they knew him. In some way, he felt he knew them just as well.
But he was not looking for a star. The object he sought was tiny, enigmatic, fleet. It had also proved to be extremely elusive. Almost forty days now, and no sign of it. Not even a glimpse.
It only made him want to try harder.
He scanned the heavens with the binoculars. Nothing yet, just what would have normally been a spectacular glimpse of bright Jupiter and its moons. The warm breeze tickled at the back of his neck. He licked his lips and wished he'd thought to bring a cold Dr. Pepper.
Patience was needed. It could be an hour, or several. He absently felt at the underside of his cap brim, and frowned. The lining could use a replacement, and soon. Another thing he should have done.
His sharp eyes searched. There were the usual false alarms: a small airplane making its way to points west, a couple of meteorites. A family of bats feasting on a buffet of insects. His quarry stayed maddeningly out of sight.
Now his eyes had begun to water. He blinked. How long had he been up here? Long enough for his bladder to begin to complain, for sure. A quick pit stop couldn't hurt.
The acrobatics required to get off the roof were more tricky. One wrong step, and they'd be scraping him off the asphalt when the sun rose. He reminded himself not to look down. One, two…
"H.M.?" The voice was alarmed, and nearby. "What're you doin' up on that roof?"
One bare foot slid. He quickly regained his balance. "Well, y'know, I was, um, sleepwalking?" He grinned, looking like a cat next to an empty canary cage.
"Get on back in here. C'mon, careful, now…"
H.M. did without blinking. His carefree grin vanished as he looked up and saw the stern expression on the normally kind face.
"Now," said Alistair Murdock, "you wanna tell me what you were doin' up there?"
H.M. gulped. He knew better than to lie to his Grampa Al when he used that tone of voice. Wordlessly, he held out the binoculars and his baseball cap, which had been painstakingly lined in aluminum foil.
"Lookin' for the night fliers again?" A smile pulled at Al's lips. He respected his grandson's fascination with all things aeronautical.
"No, Grampa. Somethin' much more dangerous." He lowered his voice. "Sputnik."
"That crazy Rooskie space satellite? The one's been in all the papers? That's why you were up there?"
H.M. nodded, his brown eyes huge.
Al put one wrinkled hand on his grandson's shoulder. "Kiddo, lemme tell you somethin'. There's a lotta strange things happenin' in this world, but I don't think one little flyin' potato can do us much harm."
"But, Grampa, it's gonna shoot mind control beams into our brains, and take pictures of us from outer space while we're out playin' tetherball, and…"
"That's what they want you to think, tiger." The old man closed the window and led the lanky boy away from it. They sat on the bed. "That's why you made that foil hat, right? I know the thought of it's scary. But the more you're afraid, the easier it is for anybody to control you."
"I'm not afraid." H.M. puffed out his skinny chest.
His grandfather chuckled. "I know you're not. But if you spend all your time frettin' about somethin' you can't do anything about, then where does that leave you?"
He hadn't thought about it. "Worried, I guess. But, Grampa," he continued, "the Russians are trying to get us, right?"
For a moment Al was silent. He rose gingerly, his old wounded leg trembling. Then he gently ruffled his grandson's hair. "Maybe they are. But they'd have to get through the best damn military the world's ever seen before they could get to you or Billy, or me, or Granny Emma." He turned his head so H.M. wouldn't see the tears beading at the corners of his eyes.
"Yeah." H.M. smiled, then yawned. He pulled the patchwork quilt up to his chin. "Grampa, can I have a Dr. Pepper? Pleeease?" he implored.
Al glanced at the Woody Woodpecker clock, which now read half-past two. "Sorry, kiddo, you'd be up all night. And you've got school tomorrow. Didn't you say somethin' about a spelling test?"
"Please? I promise I won't go looking for Sputniks or Martians or Red spies in the middle of the night anymore…" His mind galloped, thinking of anything except spelling.
"No soda pop. We both know you'd be bouncin' off the walls. But I'll get you a glass of water, all right? Then you have to get some sleep." Al hobbled out of the bedroom and returned with a Dixie cup.
H.M. drank it in a single gulp. He frowned. "Grampa?"
"What if the Russians make a better Sputnik? Like, one that does shoot laser beams, or can drop an atomic bomb?"
Al thought about it. "Well, you just gotta believe that the best and brightest here in America are workin' around the clock to keep us all safe." He leaned down and kissed H.M.'s forehead. "You sleep tight, and like I said, don't worry."
"What about the Red Chinese?" H.M. whispered.
"I'm sure ol' Ike and the boys in uniform are right on top of things, kiddo." His voice bore the slightest bit of impatience. "Sweet dreams, and I'll see you tomorrow."
"Good night." The door closed behind him.
On his back, H.M. gazed up for a long time at the construction paper stars he'd glued to the ceiling. Not as spectacular a view as the real thing, but at least it was free of the menacing, unseen Sputnik.
Feeling his eyelids droop, he turned onto his side. On the nightstand, the little framed picture of a tall, rangy man in a flight suit remained where it always had been. The man in the photograph flashed a thumbs-up and grinned.
Best and brightest. It sure sounded great. Dad and Grampa Al had been. Why not him?
H.M. slept. For the first time in many nights, he did not dream of Sputnik.
(Author's Notes: I was inspired to write this story after a repeat viewing of The Iron Giant, not just a great animated movie but a great movie, period. I figured H.M. Murdock and Hogarth Hughes were roughly the same age growing up during the Fifties and the Red Scare era. The story is set in late 1957, shortly after the launch of Sputnik I. I hope to write more about Grampa Al's days flying during WWI, and maybe the infamous Granny H. Emma Murdock too.)
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