After a solar flare accident in orbit, Travis is a hero: the first astronaut to bail out of a spacecraft and live. NASA, however, had advised against the bailoutand as punishment for violating orders, Travis is grounded on earth, never to fly again.
Then comes Starfire, an experimental spacecraft that could be capable of interstellar flight. Travis fights a desperate political battle to become a crewmember, and his go-it-alone attitude makes for some rough going. Starfire’s planned maiden voyage is to land on an asteroid that is heading toward a close loop around the sun, stay long enough to explore, then return to Earth by way of a gravity boost around Venus.
But during the mission, disaster strikes again: the ship is hit by a huge solar flare and must take shelter in the shadow of the asteroid, even while falling ever closer to the sun. The aim of the mission now becomes desperate survival...
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Seconds before impact, Travis realized the pilot was unconscious. Too late. The station loomed in the windows of the little satellite tender; the screech of metal on metal drowned his surprised yelp. Even as he bounced his head off the deck he noted with amazement the brilliant flares that spewed past the window, aluminum shrapnel burning in an outrush of pure oxygen from the ruptured air lock.
In the Newtonian exchange — one slow billiard ball against the rack — the several-thousand-tonne space station was nudged into an imperceptibly different orbit. The satellite tender that had smacked it, in which Travis was a passenger, was now skidding away at a flat angle, its cabin air whistling through a thin rupture in the gasket of its docking collar.
Inside the little tender Travis struggled to get the unconscious pilot's helmet over his head and seal it to his suit. Travis was taking big gulping breaths as he did so, filling his lungs from what air remained in the cramped cabin. As the whistle dwindled to nothing, a suspiciously giggly sense of what-the-hell crept up on him, warning him that he had to get his own helmet on. That took about four seconds, longer than it should have in the tender's lazy spin. He punched his chest valve, and air hissed into his suit.
Travis allowed himself a quick sigh. It was going to be one of those ODTAA days, just one damn thing after another.
He dragged the pilot free of his straps and quickly taped him to the wall with tape from the roll he kept at his waist. He wrestled his wide shoulders forward and clambered into the single control seat, buckling down, slapping at the panel switches to douse the hysterical alarm blinkers.
"Uh, Euclid, this is Twinkletoes. Do you read?"
"Copy, UT-two. Trav, this is Takumi. Everybody's in the cellar but me and George and Lizzy. What's your ES?"
"Let's see, looks like we got total loss of cabin pressure. Max passed out, I don't know what's wrong. He's suited up, and air's flowing in his suit."
The star field outside the trapezoidal windows wobbled drunkenly, then was sliced away by the brilliance of the blue North Atlantic 400 kilometers beneath the ship. It was a beautiful, almost cloudless early fall day down there, but Travis had no time to appreciate it. While he talked, Travis wiggled the joy stick. In the absence of air to carry sound, he heard — if you could call it that — the hiss of the attitude jets through the seat of his pants. Like a series of long, low farts after a bowl of Uncle Albert's industrial-strength chili. Comforting.
"Travis, do you have control of your vehicle?"
The blue ocean went away and the white-painted space station swam into view — pooot — and out again — poot, poot — and in again, each time staying a little longer.
"Give me about five more seconds."
Euclid Station was a small, ungainly thing, a confusion of spidery trusses and flimsy panels and random spheres and cylinders, feebly floodlit against the brute glare of subarctic September. The station housed a score of astronauts, engineers, scientists, and government busybodies; all but the short-timers among them were presently huddled in the big "storm cellar," a tube of sheet iron surrounded by many cubic yards of plain sand. Ten minutes ago Houston had relayed, warning of a major solar flare from sun-watching satellite sensors. Euclid was sliding toward the blue-white polar region, pursued by a hail of lethal protons incoming at a quarter of light speed.
Caught outside the station with Travis and his pilot in the satellite tender was another ship and the six people in its crew, a high-orbit shuttle that was at this moment urgently trying to redock at the main launch bay.
In the tender's windows the ocean and the stars stopped contending. Travis eased the joy stick forward, and the tender moved slowly toward the station. He spoke cheerfully into his suit mike: "Takumi, my friend, my updated ES is that I've got a pilot out of commission and a piss-ant little tin can of a spacecraft with no air in it, but it'll still fly. I reckon we're ready to come in out of the heat now."
A few seconds passed before he got an answer. "Travis, I'm trying to figure out how we can help you. We have severed gas lines in the utility air lock."
"No sweat, we'll use the launch bay, soon as you evacuate that high orbit choo-choo and shove it out of the way."
"We've run that option. Estimate is a minimum one hour to dock and clear the hatch. She's loaded, Trav. We've got to off-load some of that fuel to vent overpressure."
Travis didn't bother asking for details. The big shuttle had been interrupted in its launch sequence, and like an airliner lifting from the runway, it was a flying bomb, bloated with toxic and explosive fuel. It had to be secured in place in the launch bay until excess fuel could be bled off into the station's holding tanks, blocking the only remaining pressurized entrance to the station.
The ratio was cold and simple. Six lives in the shuttle to two in the satellite tender.
"An hour, huh?"
"Yeah, Trav. Houston's putting a tiger team on your situation. We ought to have some fresh options for you soon."
Euclid Station completely circled the Earth every ninety minutes, sixteen times in a day; now heading north to the Arctic Circle, in forty-five minutes it would be approaching the Antarctic. At both poles the Earth's magnetic field lines curve down to the ground, steering captured charged particles into the atmosphere — producing delicate auroras below but leaving orbiting objects naked to the electromagnetic storm. Unlike its sister, Archimedes Station, whose orbit never took it outside the magnetically shielded middle latitudes, Euclid was exposed to radiation eight hours in every twenty-four.
"Patch me into Houston, okay?" Travis requested.
"... investigating opening the weld in Corridor Z. That's in the schedule for next week anyway." Caught in midsentence, the relaxed, gently concerned female voice of Houston's mission communicator, the Capcom, sounded in Travis's headset. "Another alternative is to put all hands in pressure suits and blow one of the emergency hatches. Aside from the inherent risk, however, we have to calculate how long it will take to resupply your oxygen. First approximation is not promising."
"Houston, this is Travis Hill."
"Go ahead, Travis."
"What are the likely dose numbers?"
"Current estimates are that you and your pilot will have taken approximately twenty-five rads from early fast protons by the time you get over the hill. You could collect another hundred rads on each pass over the poles, as long as the flare lasts."
"That's a roger."
If exposed to 500 rads in a short time, a human stands a fifty-fifty chance of dying within thirty days. Two hundred rads produces serious illness, although the chances of recovery are favorable. Workers on Euclid were monitored and sent home if they got seventy-five rads in a year. After three years they were retired in any event.
The Capcom spoke again. "Travis?"
"It doesn't look like we can get you inside the station in this nightside pass. Suggest that when the shuttle is in the launch bay, you tuck up Earthside of its number three tank. The liquid H-two in the tank will give you some shielding, with minimum secondary radiation risk. That could reduce the dose to about seventy-five rads over the Antarctic." "Gee, I feel better already."
"There's a reasonable certainty they can move the shuttle out of the way within this orbit."
Takumi, aboard Euclid, chimed in. "We'll do it, Trav."
"We're pretty confident they can do it," said Houston.
Travis was being told to give in, to stop thinking of escape. He was being told to exceed his career limits for radiation exposure. They would never let him go into space again. "What kind of retirement benefits you offerin'?"
The woman in Houston tried to put a smile into her voice. "We can't do miracles with physics, Travis. But we'll see what we can do with Uncle Sam's red tape."
For a long moment Travis was silent. The ungainly station was directly over his head now, slipping past by millimeters each second. The high-orbit shuttle was settling into the launch bay, its three bloated fuel tanks clustered like a clutch of ostrich eggs beneath its stubby torso.
Travis wiggled the joy stick. The satellite tender responded instantly. "Houston, I am proceeding to dock the UT-two under the shuttle's number three tank, per your advice."
"Say if we can assist," said Euclid.
"Thanks, Takumi, this is the easy part."
Minutes passed as the tender approached and scraped gently across the orange fiber-glass skin of the fuel tank. Travis manipulated the tender's articulated arms with practiced skill, hooking the claws through D-ring hard points in the tank's surface until the tender clung fast to the shuttle with a steel grip.
Travis twisted in his seat and studied Max's peaceful face through his lightly misted faceplate. He poked at the pilot's shoulder, where blinking biomedical monitors were clustered for display. "Houston and Euclid, copy this for the record. Max's biomeds show a normal and stable heart rate, normal and stable blood pressure, normal and stable respiration, brain-wave pattern consistent with ordinary sleep, no signs of distress" — talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve — "and I don't know what the hell's the matter with him, but I can't do anything about it while he's inside that suit. Euclid, assure me you will be able to reach Max if I am incapacitated."
"No sweat. Soon's we move the shuttle out of the way, we'll come get both of you."
"Copy that, Euclid." Travis slapped the chest plate to release his suit harness. "You come get Max as quick as you can, Takumi. Don't bother about me, I'm bailing out."
"Say again, Travis?" Euclid spoke first; Houston's nearly simultaneous reply was delayed by distance.
Travis was already yanking at the tender's ruined docking collar. He shoved hard against sprung hinges, moving the hatch aside with effort, squeezing through. He floated free of the little ship, under the orange belly of the shuttle tank.
He spoke in bursts into his communications cap radio, spacing his words for economy. "I figure if I can launch an escape pod ... in the next five minutes ... I can hit air a couple of minutes after that ... be in the water in half an hour."
The orbital escape pods distributed at various handy points on the exterior of Euclid Station were generally regarded by astronauts with amused contempt — another inept safety gesture on the part of ground-bound bureaucrats, sops less practical than an airliner's floating seat cushions.
"Hill, this is not a life-threatening situation."
Travis recognized Taylor Stith's voice in his headset, querulous, trembling on the edge of temper — the Wunderkind flight director had just violated etiquette by grabbing the Capcom's mike. "Those pods have not been operationally tested," said Stith.
"Copy." Travis continued his progress around the outside of the shuttle's bulging hydrogen tank, flying hand to hand from D-ring to D-ring; behind him the abandoned tender, with Max inside, looked very small, like a mosquito poised on an oversized female breast. Travis was breaking the rules even more grandly than that ground pounder Stith, of course, maneuvering freely in space without an umbilical, without a maneuvering unit, without even a safety tether.
Bright dots of ice floating in water the color of Aqua Velva formed the convex sky above Travis's head, while beneath him the flimsy raft of Euclid Station floated in a bowl of unblinking stars. A brief leap across the open space between the shuttle's tank and the edge of the station's launch bay took him to the nearest pod storage bin. He flipped its barn doors open.
The escape pods were lenticular ceramic heat shields with thermoplastic covers, hardly bigger than Porta Potties. Stored inside each was a parachute and an inflatable raft in an ejection rig and — the only really specialized gadget — a hand-aimed, gyro-stabilized, solid-fuel retrorocket. An astronaut who had to leave orbit in a hurry was supposed to climb in, lie back, clutch the retrorocket to his or her chest, adjust position and attitude with its gas jets, then take aim at an easily identifiable star specified by mission control and pull the trigger.
The impulse from the solid-fuel rocket would gradually slow the pod until orbital velocity was lost, whereupon the astronaut threw away the rocket, closed the flimsy hatch with its little bubble window, and tried to relax while falling through the atmosphere, on fire, decelerating at five gees plus. Below about 7,000 meters or so the pod's cover would pop off, spilling the astronaut and deploying the chute.
In seconds he had the nearer pod free of its straps. Lifting the thermoplastic lid, he found all the neat packages of equipment nestled where they should be. He ripped open Velcro fastenings of yellow webbing, yanked at cotter pins festooned with red warning strips. One of them activated a SARSAT radar beacon.
"Hill, we just ran some quick numbers and we want you to consider that the calculated uncertainties in your re-entry show a damn poor chance of getting any helicopter ship near you in less than two days from Hawaii. Assuming you land in water."
"It's gonna be dark soon. How about giving me a star?"
"Astronaut, this is a direct order. I'm ordering you not to attempt to use that escape pod. We can't be responsible for your safety." While no one had ever used a pod, it was not strictly true that none had been tested. What was true was that in no test had an unmanned pod ever been seen again.
"You can't fire me, Taylor ... and I won't quit." The pod drifted free of its mooring. Travis kicked off and went with it. For a moment he had a bizarre image of himself as a surfer launching a surfboard while standing on his head. It made him irritable. "Give me something to aim at, dammit. Or I'll shoot from the hip."
Flipping over to squat on the pod, he shrugged off his life-support backpack and hooked into the pod's portable emergency oxygen supply. He wrestled himself onto his back and tugged the parachute straps across his chest and shoulders, pulling the life raft package up under his rump. The strap edges scrunched thick layers of suit material into an oppressive lump in his crotch. It was exhausting work, and he heated up fast without the coolant flow from his abandoned backpack, but it had to be done right; parachutists had dismembered themselves with loose harnesses.
Now Euclid was overhead, and the dazzle of the north Greenland ice pack was rolling unseen below him. Euclid's orbit was inclined several degrees from true polar coordinates, and within moments the whole orbiting miscellany — station, shuttle, pod, and all — would be heading south across the Northwest Territories of Canada.
"Travis, this is Houston." The voice was Capcom's again. Flight director Mr. Taylor Stith had evidently realized that ambition was not to be served by putting himself in the front lines on this one. Travis imagined the newsheads. SPACE STATION CRISIS MISMANAGED: ASTRONAUT LOST/ASTRONAUT INCINERATES SELF/ASTRONAUT DROWNS/ASTRONAUT EATEN BY SHARKS. He forced a grin. His mother was always telling him that acting scared scares you, that acting brave makes you brave. "Go ahead, Houston."
"We have acquired your beacon. When you are secure, we want you to aim on Altair and do a one-second gas burst to separate from the station."
He nudged the rocket canister into place with his knees, deflecting it at a low angle, and aimed across its verniers through its wide cross hairs. Altair was one of the brightest stars in the sky, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, now just rising in the southwest above the twilight rim of the world. "I have it." Like all pilot astronauts and countless mariners before him, Travis had long ago committed Altair's position to memory.
"Whenever you're ready, Travis."
"Firing." The gas cylinder on the barrel of the bulky rocket pack puffed compressed gas into space. Travis saw nothing but the indicator light on the butt of the rocket pack, but he felt feathery pressure against his diaphragm from fractional gee forces. "One, one thousand," he murmured, and lifted his thumb from the gas button.
The stars had shifted. Euclid Station had rotated perceptibly to his right. There was silence in Travis's headset. "Still with me, Houston?"
"We're with you. Give us a moment before we finalize."
"Copy, Houston. Thanks for the help."
The pause was a fraction of a second longer than it had to be. "We aim to please, Travis. You do likewise."
Travis ignored the implied rebuke and took comfort in the promise. He really wasn't ready to think about what state his life must be in, that he'd rather stake it on this desperate chance than allow himself to be barred from space forever. It wasn't the time for that kind of introspection, anyway.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Starfire"
Copyright © 2015 Paul Preuss and Gary Gutierrez.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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