[Author's Note: I built and orbited my first ever SSTO at the weekend. Been on a nostalgia kick through the KSP fanfiction classics recently, so decided to write a wee story about it all. Enjoy!]
Who was Roncald Kerman?
If you asked Linus, the head of R&D here at the Kerbal Space Center, he'd tell you Roncald was a brilliant but distracted student, whose mind tended to wander at the slightest provocation.
If you asked Gene, the leading CAPCOM controller, he'd tell you Roncald was a harmless layabout, scatter-brained and occasionally injury-prone.
If you asked Agani Kerman, head of Reconnaissance and Surveys, she'd flatly tell you Roncald was an aimless idiot with the common sense of a rock.
Roncald himself would probably um and ahh before forgetting the topic and swiftly, awkwardly, moving on. But I was there. I can tell you that while yes, Roncald was scatter-brained, distracted and certainly injury prone, he was certainly not aimless. He was an R&D intern, one of the new crop brought in by Linus after old Wernher died. Linus replaced Wernher as the head of R&D, but unlike Wernher, he was a practical kerbal, business-minded, realistic. The delusions of Duna landings and grand, gravity-assisted tours through the kerbolar system faded. Gradually, the R&D interns lost that special edge that had so defined the program in its early years. Sure, there were still brilliant technologies and ideas, but the mad grandeur and insane scale of Wernher's ambitions died with him. The Kerbal Space Program became a quieter affair, managing what little budget it was given on retreading the worn paths rather than striving for the unknown. That was simply the way everyone worked.
Everyone, that is, except for Roncald.
The spark of creative insanity hadn't been dampened from within him: rather, it had grown, with an unquenchable thirst for adventure. Imaginary motherships of interplanetary missions danced in his head when he slept, and visions of Mun bases swam in the diffused darkness of his daydreams. Roncald was a dreamer, a visionary, and a madman. He was also what the Space Program desperately needed.
One sunny afternoon, while retrofitting on the last Dynawing orbiter was taking place in the Spaceplane Hangar, Roncald was sent off the Island Airfield, a few miles east of the KSC. Whether it was for genuine use or because they wanted him to get out from under their hair for a few days, the technicians told him to inventory the spare parts kept at the disused hangars there, and Roncald happily accepted. I accompanied him, although I wasn't sure whether I was actually interested, or just going along to protect him from himself.
We had provisions, a radio, and the outpost barracks from the war a few years back to sustain us. It was a bit like camping, if you call being surrounded by silent trees and old aviation parts 'exciting'. For Roncald though, the main attraction were the radar-cloaking, high-altitude jet fighters secreted away in the back of the hangars. There were nine altogether in various states of dismemberment and disrepair: these things were nearly forty years old. Practically antiques. I couldn't deny, however, that the sleek, rocket-like fuselages and powerful Whiplash-class jet engines excited me. They were relics from an age of glory, discovery, and wonder...
When the ferry from KSC came to pick us up, Roncald told them he had to stay, finish working on something. The crew back home were all too happy to keep him away for any extra amount of time, and agreed hastily. I gave him a wave, and asked how he'd be getting home.
"Ah, um, I'm sure I can manage." he told me, scratching the side of his neck.
I never did tell anyone that Roncald had neglected to note down one of the jets in the inventory takings. Gus didn't either, he just took the 'eight fighters' for truth with no questions asked. A pretty lax attitude from our Head of Operations.
We didn't see Roncald for a while after that. I wasn't worried; he had more than enough provisions for a few weeks at the airfield. The poor bugger could've lived there for the rest of the year if he'd wanted to: like everyone else, I simply assumed he was taking some alone time.
Until, of course, the incident five days later.
I was roused from my bunk in the construction complex by a gibbering Gus, and ushered into Mission Control, to be met with disapproving glares from Linus, Gene, and PR Director Walt, making a rare appearance.
"Whass tha matter?" I mumbled, my speech slurred with the aftereffects of sleep.
Gene stepped forward and jabbed the nearest radar screen with a trembling finger.
"THIS is the bloody matter." he spat, indicating a small green dot rapidly moving away from the KSC.
Nonplussed, I stared straight back at him.
"So... what? One of the Survey pilots couldn't resist a view of home on his way past. It happens."
"We thought so too, until it appeared on the radar screens mid-flight. As you and everyone else at this facility well know, cloaking technology has been banned in any use for more than thirty years, so a random radar ping showing up from the middle of the ocean was very strange indeed." he continued, shuffling over to a small terminal to my left.
"Well, okay then," I reply, "but what's it got to do with-"
"We also," interrupts Linus, cutting me off abruptly and impatiently, "received this audio transmission from the aircraft."
He pressed a button, and a sibilant voice hissed to life from the terminal's speakers. "Unidentified flying object, this is the Kerbal Space Center. Please identify yourself or risk destruction, over."
There was a pause, and then a voice replied jovially. It was crackly and distorted with atmospheric sound and static, but it was quite clearly Roncald. "Kerbal Space Center, this is Roncald Kerman, flying the future. Just thought I'd let you say hello before I burned for orbit, catch a glimpse, you know. Say hello to Barkley from the Construction Sector for me."
Gene grabbed a remote from a nearby table and flicked it at the main plasma screen in the center of the room. he screen blinked to life and showed a picture clearly taken from Kerbin orbit. In it, Roncald grinned at the camera through the visor of an old spacesuit, with a crudely modified jet fighter visible off to the left: the central engine appeared to have been torn out and replaced with a prototype Aerospike rocket. Kerbin hung in the background, like a present under the Kerbmas tree.
"One of our lunar scopes picked this image up from Kerbin orbit. Care to shed some light on precisely WHY one of our R&D interns has entered orbit in a cobbled together, illegal jet-fighter and a load of museum pieces? Seeing as said intern explicitly mentioned YOUR name in his communications?" Gene shouts, his left eyebrow raised crossly.
Despite the slightly precarious situation, I can't help but look at the craft. It's hard to tell because the craft is partially obscured by the lighting and the angle the picture was taken at, but it looks like it's all in one piece. Which means, for the first time in the Space Program's history, there's a single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft actually orbiting Kerbin. I look up to the ceiling, tuning Gene's angry rant out, and imagining Roncald floating above my head.
Godspeed, you glorious idiot.