Thursday, November 19, 2015

100th Post -- The Orbitals in ePub!

I have been a pretty terrible blogger for quite a while now, but big changes are coming. For now, here take my space book in ePub format. It's got a couple of small formatting bugs, but it's readable! Cheap as free, and I guess I'm calling it a galley edition. Enjoy!

The Orbitals (ePub)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Orbitals, Parts XXI - ∞

So the rest of the novel is at WattPad, here. The copying and pasting was getting to me and now you can read whole dang chapters at a time. What a world we live in.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XX

This is Part XVI, the final part of the sixth chapter. Start at the beginning.

"Alright, you head toward the Comm Junction."

"Uh, Spencer, can you tell me which direction I'm supposed to go?" asked Jean-Paul. "I seem to be a little disoriented."

"Sure thing, sure thing. You're going to head down and starboard, which means that if you can see the fin structures at your feet and you're facing the ship, you're going under your left knee. You clip in right now, then again when you see a clip labeled ess tee ar tee dash one. Again, that's sierra tango romeo tango dash one."

"What if I see the fins at my head?"

"Means you're upside-down, but that's okay. There's no down in space, right? If you're facing the ship, you're going over your right shoulder. You should see a handle less than arm's length away, and the first clip should be under your right armpit."

"OK, I'm clipped in. I'm trying to grab the next handle and, oh God I can't. I'm so scared. I can't. I should come in."

"Hold on, Jean-Paul," said Zephyr's voice. "You've got this. Just remember now you're fully clipped. You can't float out into space this time. If you need to, just let go and see. You can still grab your big handhold."

"I'm not letting go," he said. His strain was apparent both in his vitals and in the breathing sounds over the comm. He shouted. "I've got it! I've got the handle!"

"Status update for Spencer: I'm past sierra tango romeo tango dash three, preparing for final clip in a minute or so."

"You're fast!" said Spencer, realizing how dumb it sounded as soon as it was out. Zephyr's vitals were a sea of green numbers.

"OK, Jean-Paul, I see you're moving. Soon here you're going to see three handholds right in a row. I need you to grab the center. Your clip-in will be right there. That's ess tee ar tee dash one."

Jean-Paul's breathing was still labored. "I...I think I can see it ahead. I'm working on it."

"You're okay, you're okay," Spencer adopted Zephyr's tone and rhythm. "Just keep going, and you'll get there."

"I see the code. That's ess tee ar tee one, right?"

"Yep, that's right."

"Spencer, I'm at Junction Tank 2. Clipping in, opening up," said Zephyr. "You're doing great there, team."

Spencer looked at his control panel. Something happened to him inside; the wave of nausea returned with violence. He lurched forward and only just prevented himself from vomiting on the port display. The tremendous gibbous moon in front of him seemed to laugh, its face taking up what felt like the whole window. He lurched again and did not vomit.

He pressed the handset. "Zephyr, what was our ox condition when you left?"

"We had niner percent. You should still be fine. Alarm will go off again at five."

"Uh, okay. Okay." Spencer reached for the black bag in time to fill it furiously. He was cognizant of the sealing problem from last time, and prevented any of his mostly clear sick from floating into the cabin. He closed the bag gingerly with the twisting metal-and-plastic tabs, leaving it just a touch loose in case he needed it again. His nostrils burned and he felt like he was drowning. He felt as though he would immediately pass out. Gritting his teeth and clenching all of the muscles he could power in his legs, he sat upright for long enough to change the center control over to the airmix panel. Zephyr was right. The ox was now eight percent—oh, he saw it flip over to seven—but it didn't continue to plummet further. The pressure was nominal. Spencer lurched again, holding his mouth with his hands. Aftershocks.

"I am at Junction Comm," said Jean-Paul. "I'm clipping...oh, I'm...there we go. I'm clipped. I'm opening the panel."

No word from Zephyr, but this was similar to the first EVA, which felt very long as well. She was troubleshooting, or at least that's what Spencer told himself. He was a mass of sensations—thirsty and afraid to drink, hungry but queasy, and he was starting to relax, even though he was abjectly terrified. He opened a fudge brownie and sniffed it tentatively. He stomach said no. He nibbled on the corner, and his stomach said no again. Ox at six percent.

"Got it," came Zephyr's voice. Nothing changed on the monitor. Then the reading for Tank 2 dropped, from 75 percent down to 31 percent.

"Uh, Zephyr?" said Spencer. "I'm reading a Tank 2 drop from 75 to 31. What's happening out there?"

"That's what you should see, Spencer. Means it's fixed. I'm coming back in."


"That reading is right now. We've got enough ox to get to the museum."

"Okay, okay."

Jean-Paul's voice came in. "Uh, okay everyone, I can't really figure out what's wrong with comm. There's no obvious wire crossing or broken stuff. What do I do?"

"That's okay, Jean-Paul," said Zephyr. "I've been prepared for this, looked it up while I was pre-breathing. You can take a picture through your helmet cam and send it to Spencer."

"How do I do that?"

"The green button on your right shoulder. If you're facing the thing head on, you should get it. Open up the blue compartment inside the panel and take a picture of it."

"Uh, oh, hold on. Okay. I've got it."

"Now Spencer, you should see a notification from the main screen."

Spencer went to the main screen and saw an image of a picture of a cartoonish crescent moon. He tapped it and a weird fish-eye shot of the comm panel filled the center panel. "I'm looking at it, and Jean-Paul is right. I can't see what's wrong at all."

“Hold on, everyone. Hold on. I’ve cut my suit. Repeat, I’ve cut my suit.”

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XIX

This is Part XVI, the third part of the sixth chapter. Start at the beginning.

The bed was always cold. It was the nature of its construction. Spencer was dreaming that he was buried in the lunar soil, cut off from the light of the Earth and Sun and stars by a thick layer of dust. He could sense that he was near a station, and his mind told him it was Peary, at the north pole. He could hear the hum of a buggy zoom past him, then he could hear the sound of it backing up, beeping madly. His brain told him he wouldn't be able to hear that beep through his suit and the almost non-existent lunar atmosphere, but his mind heard it all the same. It was slowly retreating toward him, toward him, until sound was on top of him. He felt the soil pack tighter and tighter around his helmet until he heard a crack. Then another. The beeping was violent. Insane. Murderous. His head felt like it was going to explode. Implode.

His eyes opened. There were orange lights in his room that he hadn't noticed before. They were flashing. The beeping hadn't stopped—it had become the ship's alarm. The clock said 05:38, and it felt like everything was on fire. He jumped out of bed. His door opened before he reached it. It was Zephyr, fully suited for the walk and floating.

"Come on, something's wrong. We're going to need you in the cockpit."

Spencer mumbled. Zephyr grabbed his hand, but could not pull him, as she was no longer magged to the ground. He walked to the hallway, and Zephyr followed like a helium balloon.

"Looks like Tank 2," she said.

"I knew it," he said.

"Yeah, we can have 'I told you so' time later. We're going to need to fix this right now."

"Why does Jean-Paul have the pre-breather?"

"Because he's going to have to come out," she said. And with that, she reached for her helmet. She popped it on and twisted it with a click. "You go to the front, and we'll coordinate while I get to Tank 2. Jean-Paul is going to fix the comm." This last bit was very muffled, but he got the gist.

Spencer tried to shake the sleep from his head. He felt instantly like he was going to retch. He had no time to think, much less gather his thoughts, so he ran to the captain’s chair and fired up the comm box. His head was ringing with a sleepy headache, his eyes were thick and puffy and his sinuses and throat were stinging with the sensation of waking up again in the dry air. He grabbed a silvery water pouch, not caring who had written their name on the side of it, and squeezed as he sucked the straw. The water did not sit well with him. He stood up, thinking now would be the time to go to the lav, before Zephyr did the airlock, so as not to abandon his post. He turned to the hallway and the airlock door was shut. He knew there was an override to the pilot’s airlock control that could be done from the vestibule, but he was right there and could have initiated the procedure the right way if asked. Spencer swallowed hard. As he headed toward the lav, Jean-Paul removed the breather and said, “She said to give you this and to ask you to go back up front.” It was a black sick bag.

In the captain’s chair again, Spencer read the left display panel. It was a de-press confirmation for the airlock. Zephyr came over the comm box. “OK, ready for you to do final confirm on airlock.” Spencer pressed Confirm.


The airlock door opened and Zephyr was in space once more. “OK, here’s the deal. Jean-Paul, do you have your helmet on?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said through the box. Spencer craned his neck and there was Jean-Paul with his helmet on, floating to him. He handed Spencer the breather, then pushed off again to aftward.

“OK. I am headed toward Tank 2. Jean-Paul will head toward the Comm Link Juncture. We need to complete both tasks within thirty minutes and return to the ship.”

Spencer felt the bile rise again. “Last time to completion was over two hours, Zephyr. Jean-Paul’s never done an EVA before. Is this going to work?”

“It has to work, Spencer. We have one hour and seventeen minutes before we have to begin our approach burns. We don’t have a lot of time. Can you confirm my mechanical assist?”

“Confirmed. Head to port and down to find alpha sierra romeo dash two. Then the same fore maneuver as last time to sierra tango romeo tango dash three. Then Tank Junction Two.”

“Copy. Jean-Paul, get ready to tether in the airlock.” Jean-Paul floated to the vestibule.

“Zephyr, can you give me a hint as to where the tether point is?”

Spencer immediately stood up to walk back. He paused, then grabbed the handset. “Zephyr, I’m leaving post to make sure Jean-Paul gets a correct tether.”

“Copy. And that’s a good idea.”

Spencer fitted the tether hook from Jean-Paul’s suit into the right eye in the rear of the vestibule, then hurried back to the front. “Jean-Paul, are you ready for blowout?” he asked. His stomach felt like it was about to blow out, too.

Spencer reached for the black plastic bag, hesitated, belched, and returned it. This was going to be a long walk. He tried to reuse his "get through it" mantra he was repeating during the first flight, but it was absolutely ineffective. He desperately tried to focus on the displays. He reached over to the co-pilot's display, and fumbled around the user interface for two minutes, wandering down dead ends, pausing to remind himself what he was looking for, pressing buttons he didn't mean to.

"Spencer, can you confirm?" said Jean-Paul's voice in the comm box.

"Confirm what?"

"Confirm my readiness for the spacewalk. I said I was good to go. Remember you have to press Confirm twice?"

"Right, right," said Spencer. He raced through the panel topography on his own display, until he found the airlock controls. "Yeah, there you are. I thought I had already pressed it," he lied. "We're going for blowout in," and he pressed Confirm the second time.

"Merde! Oh God oh God oh God!" came the comm. Spencer could not determine what Jean-Paul was screaming about, as he wasn't ready with the locator screen, which he had intended for the middle display panel. "I'm floating out! I missed the hold!" he shouted.

"Jean-Paul, you're okay. You're okay," said Zephyr's calm voice in the comm box. You just press the assist button. That's the big red button near your tether point. It should pull you back in."

"I can't...I can't..." he panted.

"Yes, you can," said Zephyr. "Spencer, see what you can do to help."

Spencer worked back through the center panel controls to the EVA menu. He had not been planning on using this until the end of the walk. He showed two mechanical assists active in the tethering system. He pushed Tether 2 Retract. Zephyr's voice came through.

"That's me, that's me Spencer. Stop!"

Spencer pressed the button again. He pushed Tether 1 Retract, and said, "Jean-Paul, I'm pulling you back in."

Zephyr's voice: "You grab on to the handhold as soon as you can see it."

"I'm coming in backward!" he shouted.

"That's okay. When you feel the ship, push off with your...left. That should send you to the handhold."

"Okay, it. I got it." Jean-Paul's heavy sigh and deep breathing were very audible on the comm box. He held on for a minute and a half.

"Alright, Jean-Paul. Alright. There we go. Spencer, how are vitals?"

"He's...doing alright. They're okay."

"Jean-Paul, are you ready to get back out there? Do you think you can do it?"

"I...I am trying to do it. I think...I think...I'm alright. I'm alright." Somehow, he swallowed audibly over the comm. "I can go now."

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XVIII

This is Part XVI, the second part of the sixth chapter. Start at the beginning.

Spencer wanted to go to the captain's chair right now. He wanted to check the ox levels and show Zephyr that she was completely off base, that Tank 1 was depleting fast and that there was no reason to believe that Tank 2 was open at all. At least, he was mostly sure that's what he would show her. That's what his gut told him. He sat at the computer instead, focusing now on the files from the media drive. He suspected the files were encrypted, but he had been forced to sit through enough one-sided phone conversations on Shackleton to have heard one of the IT guys talking about a quantum decryption service, and decided to try it.

The "shorifier" website, with an inscrutable URL, promised fast decryption of nearly any type of encrypted file. More importantly, they promised to decrypt the first thousand characters for free. He pulled a "notes.txt" out of the "Long Shadow" folder and dropped it on the website's interface. The cursor showed that the browser was working. It would be about a minute before he heard anything back from Earth, even if the process was instantaneous. It turned out the process was not instantaneous, and Spencer soon stood up and began to look around the room for a small object to play around with, or something else to keep him occupied for a couple of minutes. There was a rattling knock on the accordion door.

"Who is it?" shouted Spencer.

"It's Jean-Paul."

"Come on in."

The computer screen changed colors, indicating that the decryption was done, but Spencer was not sitting in the chair. Jean-Paul floated across the room, and held himself down on top of the food box as if he were sitting. He looked like a gargoyle on a roof in the weird light of the quarters.

"How's it going?"

"Alright. How are you?"

"I'm fine. So, I'm not going to tiptoe around this at all. You've got to stop fighting with Zephyr."

"Why don't you try telling her that?"

"We are in serious danger. I know you think it'll be easy to get where we're going, but you don't have the same experience as Zephyr. You have to let her lead. Even if she's wrong on something, we're better off having a single direction than being split in two all the time. I'm begging you. On behalf of Sabine and my two girls, I'm begging you. Get along. Do what she says. In a day or two, it'll all blow over and you never have to see her again."

Spencer sighed as hard as he could. "Fine," he hissed. "I just don't know why we have to follow so blindly. If she makes a mistake out there, we could all die."

"We'd all already be dead if she hadn't already acted."

"That doesn't mean we won't die tomorrow."

"Look. Spencer. You do what you need to so you can get peace. You look at all the dials you need. But when Zephyr says to do something, you've got to promise me you'll do it. Immediately. If you can give me that, I'll be happy."

"Fine, Jean-Paul. But I'm doing it for you. I'm not doing it for her."

"Understood. Thank you so much, Spencer. We'll get through this."

"I hope so."

"I didn't answer your question though."

"You what?"

"You asked a question earlier. 'Why don't you tell her that?' Well, I did."


"Just now. I told Zephyr the exact same thing I told you. I told her she needs to get along with you, and she needs to listen to your concerns, and I reminded her that you saved her life at least once already."

"Well, thanks, buddy, but I think you'd have had more success talking to a bulkhead."

"We'll see, Spencer. I think she'll surprise you yet."

When Jean-Paul floated out, Spencer sat back at the desk. He was fairly sure Jean-Paul hadn't seen anything on the monitor, and he woke the computer out of its screensaver mode to find the decrypted text. The service had worked. Spencer read the text. He swore deeply.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XVII

This is Part XVI, the first part of the sixth chapter. Start at the beginning.

Zephyr stood in what they tended to call the “hallway”. It was the juncture in front of the vestibule airlock door, where if you were facing the cockpit, on your left side would be the lav and the supply closet, and on your right would be quarters. There were two random foothold loops situated near the back by the airlock door. Because the ship was magged, the nylon fabric loops were rarely used and had been smashed down to the ground. There were loops in the other convenient locations as well: in the lav and in front of the supply closet. Jean-Paul, who was used to the footholds on Hermes, had found the set aboard the Twelve Parsecs particularly useless. He was holding on to a handrail near the threshold of the cockpit entryway. Spencer was standing, held down by the magnets' tug on his suit, near the handrail on the other side.

“OK, so here’s the deal,” said Zephyr, hands on hips again. “If we’re going to land at an unmanned facility, we’re going to need to do another EVA. The last diagnostic I ran showed that, while we’re still alright on air, our nav computer can’t access the comm system, which means that doing an autopilot landing isn’t going to work. This is probably related to the fact that our radio crapped out near Hermes, and one EVA should solve both problems.”

“Are we really good on air?” asked Spencer. “You said earlier we’d probably have to EVA for Tank 2.”

“Well, we are cutting it a little close, but the trajectory to the museum is a little shorter, and we know we won’t lose compression this time. We may have to end the trip wearing suits and the breather, but we should be fine.”

Spencer’s stomach turned, but Jean-Paul spoke before he could register his discontent. “Can you tell me what benefit we reap from landing at an unmanned facility? I thought we were looking for help.”

“Sure,” said Zephyr. “For one, there are no Orbitals there. That’s pretty important. It’s also a stable platform where we can do repairs to Tank 2 without the dangers of a third EVA. It’s also got an ox reserve we can borrow. And it’s a good place to hang out while we get more intel and figure out where we can go that will be safe.”

“Yes, but why are we not landing on other places on the Moon?”

“Peary’s fine, it’s a European station, and there wouldn’t necessarily be Orbitals there. But that’s exactly the problem, that ‘necessarily’ there. Who knows what the ESA is thinking? Do they care about what happened on the Platform? Are they going to rat us out to the Orbitals? Too many questions. Everything else on the surface has OLO tendrils running through it at the very least."

“I know you’re nervous, but we’ll find a safe way out. This really is the best option for now.”

“So, when do we do the EVA?” asked Spencer, again looking down at the floor.

“We’re scheduled to reach the last leg of the approach tomorrow at seventeen hundred UTC. We should get a good night of sleep tonight, then do the walk tomorrow morning. I’d like to keep the same stations as last time, but we’ll put Spencer in charge of operations if that’s OK.”

“I think I’d much prefer that,” said Jean-Paul.

“OK,” said Spencer. He began to walk away from the group.

“Where are you going?” said Zephyr with a bemused smile.

“Oh, nowhere. I thought we were done,” he said, focusing intensely on that magic spot right in front on his feet.

“Jean-Paul, do you want to go check on the trajectory, make sure we’re still on course?” asked Zephyr.

“Sure thing,” he said, and nodded as he floated away.

“Spencer, what’s eating you?”

“No, nothing, I’m sorry. It’s nothing.”

“It’s clearly not nothing. Are you alright?”

Spencer sighed. “I’m nervous about doing another EVA.”

Zephyr closed her eyes as if trying to ward away some unseen pain. “I was worried that might be it. Look, I know the last time was traumatic, but we’re not even touching the tanks this time. There’s no decompression going on here.”

“That’s the other thing. Didn’t you say we might have to EVA for Tank 2? Aren’t we going to kill off Tank 1 sometime in the night tonight? How can you say there will be no decompression when you don’t know?”

“Look, look, you’re right. I don’t know. I think, from my experience with dozens of different life support systems, that Tank 2 is open, and the readout's just stuck. That’s very dangerous, of course, but not nearly as dangerous as a premature tank shutoff, which is what happened with Tank 1. We’re doing the EVA tomorrow at oh-six hundred, so if that goes south, I’ll already be out there ready to fix it. We will have your breather ready, and I will recharge it, and we will have Jean-Paul wearing the other Z suit. Everything is going to be fine.”

"That's just the thing. I don't want the breather. I don't want the responsibility. I don't know if I can actually handle another EVA, and you want to make me the lead. I just don't think you're listening to me. You’re not even checking our ox levels right now."

"What do you want, Spencer? First you wanted to run the whole show. You wanted to turn us in to the Orbitals. Then you wanted to run the EVA. Then you changed our course without consulting us, and now you want to run away? I just don't get you."

"Sounds about right," he muttered, and slumped into the quarters and slid the accordion door behind him with a crash.

"The walk's at oh-six hundred tomorrow morning. You don't have to be there for prep, but I expect you in the pilot seat at six on the dot," came the voice from the hall.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XVI

This is Part XVI, the final part of the fifth chapter. Start at the beginning.

“Hey, I’m going to use the terminal in quarters, is that cool?” she asked when she emerged.

“Go for it,” shouted Spencer. “But it’s just a little laptop.” He rolled his eyes a little. He played the ace of diamonds on Jean-Paul’s three and completed another circuit.

“Good thing we’re playing for fudge brownies and not real money,” said Jean-Paul.

“Ah, Circuit’s always hard the first time you play it,” said Spencer. “You’ll get the hang of it.”

They started another round, and Jean-Paul overbid. Spencer knew he must have at least two already completed circuits or there would have been no reason to throw down three brownies and a Beef Stroganoff. He played along, though, to make it more fun for everyone. Zephyr returned to the cockpit, her sleep-worn face also showing a deeply ridged brow and a frown.

“Good morning, Zephyr,” said Jean-Paul with a smile. “I seriously hope you aren’t here to break up our game. I’m about to win all kinds of brownies.”

“Someone died,” she said. She was wearing the magsuit again, and standing with her hands on her hips.


“One of the Crisis Group on the Platform died while they were re-pressurizing. He was blown into the crack next to our gate, ripped his suit on the jagged metal, and then lacerated himself. He bled out into space.”

“Oh God, that’s awful,” said Jean-Paul.

“Mitchell Li was his name. Kid from Oregon that was doing charlie-golf as a stepping stone to one of the lunar stations.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Spencer. “I don’t even know what to say.”

“I am so done with whoever did this. And whoever sent us all the spacecops between here and Luna. We are getting free and then we are fixing this shit. I am gonna kill someone if I have to.” Zephyr pointed at the co-pilot seat. “Can I?”

“Sure,” said Spencer, and stood up, shaking just a little.

“How much longer to Shackleton,” she mumbled to herself. “Ohhhh...kaaaaay, Spencer, you and I are going to need to have a talk in the hallway, please.”

Spencer took off to the quarters. Zephyr followed very close behind, and shut the accordion door.

“I am gonna slap you, kid. If I hadn’t got a full night of sleep, you would be good and slapped right now. What in the name of all hell are you doing? Do you think this is a joke?”

“Look, hold on.”

“I will not hold on. A man is dead, we almost died, and we’ve got guys with guns and unclear motivations following us. You had better have a damned good reason for this.”

“My dad—”

“You’ve talked to your dad! Oh, thanks for the trip to jail, buddy! Well, that’s fine ‘cause you’re probably going to juvie or something too. We’ll see how a space kid fits in there.”

Spencer looked Zephyr in the eye, jaw set. “Look, my dad pointed out that if we go to Shackleton, there will probably be cops there waiting for us. It’s not like they don’t know who’s on this ship, and where my parents live. It was a nice idea, but we can’t do it. And my dad promised not to tell anyone where we’re going.”

“Where are we going? Nav says our destination is somewhere in the Sea of Tranquility. What’s there?”

“Oh, nothing, just some old NASA stuff.”

“Wait, what? No—”

“‘One giant leap for mankind’?”

“You didn’t.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XV

This is Part XV, the third part of the fifth chapter. Start at the beginning.
"Fine. I was frustrated that I haven't been told where we're going," Spencer lied. "And I was trying to figure out where that was."

"You and Miss Adamson have some serious issues to work out. You have no trust in each other. Do you fear she has a hidden motive?"

"No, I just..."

"Do you have a hidden motive yourself?" Jean-Paul asked, eyebrow raised.

"No! I just thought I was doing a fine job on my own, that's all. It has nothing to do with Zephyr's ability to be a leader or save our lives or whatever. I mean, we both know now that she can do one heck of a spacewalk, and that she knows how to fix an air tank sensor. I just—I thought I was doing alright on my own. I could have landed us at Hermes." He felt like he was falling down a hole as he built his story, even though some of the things he said were true. He started to think that the best thing to do now would be to shut up.

"Well, I have no quarrel with either of you, and I choose to assume that Zephyr didn't tell you where we were going simply as an accidental omission. We are going to your parents at Shackleton. I believe we are scheduled to reach the lunar south in roughly a day and a half. And there is no way that Space Security can reach us before we arrive, as we are in the fastest manned ship in the solar system."

"I think it's funny that you call them 'Space Security'."

"Is that not what they are called? 'Space Security Joint Task Force'?"

"Yeah, but everyone just calls them Orbitals. For 'Orbital and Lunar Operations'," explained Spencer.

"But then by that token, would not your father also be an 'Orbital'? He does operate the Apollo Museum under the auspices of OLO, does he not?"

"Yeah, but it's not the same. It's like how in the States we call the FBI 'The Feds'."

"I see. You associate them with the power of the organization that controls them."

"Well, I didn't until last evening. I just thought of them like security guards in the bank, only in space." Spencer stared out the window at the moon. It was the size of his fist, now, and he could even make out the quarry of small asteroids that now orbited it, pulled there by space tugs as the rocks made close passes to the Moon. That's where Zephyr's customers, the miners, worked and sometimes lived. He'd never seen their tiny twinkling as beautiful before, but something struck him.

"Are they dangerous, do you think?"

"The quarry asteroids? No, scientists keep their orbits stable constantly."

"No, no, the 'Orbitales'."

"Well, I don't know for sure. I'm inclined to trust them," he lied again. "But Zephyr sure doesn't seem to like them very much. Maybe we should humor her for now. After all, she's really good at saving our lives."

"I have a terrible question to ask you, Mr. Sanchez," said Jean-Paul, obviously restraining some hidden emotion. "Where..."


"Where is the food?" he smiled.

"Oh right, of course, I've totally forgotten. I had quite a bit at the party last night, so I hadn't thought much of it. Gosh, you both must be starving. Gosh, I'm starving. Also, I hadn't thought much about timing last night, but Zephyr's spacewalk ended at something like eleven-thirty. How miserable."

"Let's not talk about misery on an empty stomach. I presume you have gooey cookies and purees of things that should never be pureed?"

"That's the stuff. It's in my room—uh, the quarters, which you are welcome to use any time you want. I'll bring out a selection. Hold on."

Zephyr stirred as Spencer opened the door to quarters. He had forgotten the media drive in the computer again, so he sat down, closed some of the files that were left open, and put it back in his pocket. He opened the blue box in the corner, opened some cardboard packets, and pulled out a selection of bars and juices, along with a water pouch for everyone and a pack of cards that had been magged, and as such, felt strange as the only thing that had any weight in his hand.

“You’ve been holding out on me, Mr. Sanchez,” said Jean-Paul. “This one says it’s Chicken à la King!” And he waved a silver pouch in the air as if it were a winning lottery ticket. “Oh, where’s the heating element?”

“The galley cabinet is inside the quarters. Nella calls this a ‘flying bachelor pad’. I’ve been told the oven’s no good, but you’re welcome to try it.”

“Well, I think it can wait. I’ve also got ‘Healthy Cranberry Granola Bar’ and—what did I say?—’Gooey Chocolate Chip Cookie’ to keep me company. I would like to avoid waking up the young lady. After all she did for me, it’s the least I can do for her.”

Spencer’s fears slowly dissolved in a sea of ‘Rich Fudge Brownie’ instances, chatter about Jean-Paul’s family (wife Sabine and two daughters, Jeanette and Anais, both older than Spencer, living in Toronto) and card games (gin rummy and a game called Circuit that was popular on Shackleton). Things were going to turn out alright. About one PM UDT, the stirring in Zephyr’s sleep sack got a bit more intense and by one-thirty, she emerged and floated straight into the lav.

“That explains it,” thought Spencer aloud.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XIV

This is Part XIV, the second part of the fifth chapter. Start at the beginning.
Spencer waited the twenty something seconds, grinning to himself.

Dad: What? There's no one scheduled to be there for another week. I could get there, sure, but I'd be trailing spacecops like breadcrumbs. Besides, how will you land without Space Traffic Control?

Me: The autopilot can land at AMSM, you've seen it before. Don't act like that's hard. Besides, it's my second favorite place on the Moon. It'll be fun.

Dad: Fine. But you delete your chatlog right now, and don't contact me on the net anymore. The Orbitals will be watching, for sure.

Me: Sure thing. I'll send you one last text with the radio frequency, and then we'll talk for real when I get closer.

Dad: I'll call you, you don't call me, because you don't know when it's clear over here.

Me: Over and out, Secret Agent Dad.

Dad: Haha. Love you son. Be safe.

The scene had changed over the last six hours. Zephyr was now in a sleep sack, strapped to the wall of the hallway, opposite the quarters. "Why would you sleep so close to the lav?" muttered Spencer to himself. He walked through the doorway to the cockpit. Jean-Paul was strapped into the captain's seat, in his normal blue jumpsuit. Spencer eyed the co-pilot seat suspiciously, as if it were a wild animal encountered on the road. He did not want to sit there again, and felt the bile rising as he moved into it. He tried to bounce gently in the chair, but it absorbed shock without much recoil. Jean-Paul smiled.

"You get a good night sleep?"

"Sure did," said Spencer. "I wasn't even expecting it."

"It was a hard day yesterday, friend. I don't think I've ever seen anything like that in my whole life."

"You don't do spacewalks for your research? I would think that examining ancient satellites involves being out in space all the time."

"No, you know what they have me doing? It's docked at Hermes all the time, and it's the old, old Sentinel 2 craft that was there for the first satellite cleanup mission. It's a historical tour all the way. And that thing has a huge robot arm and we use that to grab the satellite, and pull it into the bay," Jean-Paul was now mimicking the arm and satellite with his hands. "And then I check it out, and then usually we let it go. Catch and release."

"Usually?" Spencer looked at Jean-Paul intently while tapping virtual keys on his display panel.

"Well, part of the deal is that since I'm going out there, and the ESA decided not to salvage all of those satellites, and all the cleanup missions are over, that I have to throw away thirty percent of the pieces I pick up, plus any of them that are just too damaged or too mediocre to be interesting. We do the standard thing to those."

Spencer typed more furiously, looking at the panel on occasion to make sure he was right. "What's the standard thing?" he asked absently.

"Oh the same thing you do to your trash on the Moon. Launch it into the sun."

Spencer tapped a few more times, then brought his hands to his lap and leaned forward, craning his neck at Jean-Paul a bit in front of the display panel. "Interesting."

"Spencer, what are you doing?" he asked.

"Oh, nothing. know. Stuff."

"Ah, yes, all the random things you do with a shuttle's control panel. Come on, friend, I'm not completely stupid about space, and I might know one or two things about people."

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XIII

This is Part XIII, the first part of the fifth chapter. Start at the beginning.

There were messages from everyone: the couple of school friends he had, Grandpa Pancho, Grandma Megan, Grandpa Will, five of his cousins. Parents of the friends he’d had as a child years ago. People whose names he didn’t recognize. His heart sunk even more. Nella. Dad. This was awful. Between his joyride plan, the accident, the diversion at Hermes, and the EVA, he had completely forgotten, or neglected to consider in the first place, that people he loved would miss him and worry about him. And why shouldn’t they? For all they knew, that diversion at Hermes pushed the ship out toward Mars, the Sun, up and away from the ecliptic, anywhere. For all they knew, there was a catastrophic decompression, or Spencer was kidnapped, or navigation had failed. For all they knew, his body was floating in space, never to be discovered.

He sent a message to his father. Dad, I’m alive, and we’ll let you know when we get somewhere safe. The ship is fine, and I’m with good people. Love you.

He looked at the computer’s clock. Six fourteen AM UTC. He got more than a nap, and it was now midnight in Albuquerque. So much for UTC minus six—he was now fully synced with Greenwich. Good thing he hadn’t tried to message Grandpa Pancho right away, he was fast asleep. He slid out of the chair, and stood up to go check on the situation outside of quarters, when he heard the ding of the text client. Probably Nella, he thought. She's the only one awake right now that would try this early. She's probably mortified. He looked at the blinking window; it was labeled 'Dad'.

Dad: Thank God you're alive. We were so worried about you. Where are you headed? We'll pick you up anywhere on Luna. We'll get someone to dock for you. Do you have a pilot?
Spencer typed in the box, and it appeared in the window proper, with "Me:" prepended.

Me: We don't have a pilot, there's only three of us, but we do have an EXAT aboard.Spencer waited the requisite twenty-something seconds for the signal to come back, bouncing off of satellites and stations thousands of miles away.

Dad: He's probably taken charge, huh? Guess if you can save dumbass asteroid miners, you can save smartass teens. :)

Me: She, and yeah. She's already fixed some stuff on the ship, and we should be just fine to make it to, well, somewhere on the moon.

Dad: You don't know where? Are they not telling you? Are you being taken somewhere against your will?

Me: No, it's fine. We just, well, we've had some issues with the ship and with the Orbitals, and I'm trying to figure it out.

Dad: Spencer, you can tell me anything you want. Don't hold back now, this is pretty seriouos

Me: Well ok. When we got to hermes, there were like eight orbitals there. Eight orbital cruisers, that is. The exat girl said that didn't seem right, like they were going to do something bad to us. So she swooped us out and we're headed to the moon.
Spencer waited for about three seconds, then hastily typed again.

Me: I know what you're going to say. She's not bad. She's not crazy, we're in good hands. I didn't want to go that direction, but like you always say: "play the cards you got dealt"

Dad: Oh wow.

Then a pause. He's not going to like this, thought Spencer. Dad is going to freak out and call someone, and then we're going to get Orbitals meeting us in open space. Then Zephyr's going to go crazy, and who knows what she'll do. I've done it. It's over.

Dad: No, no, I think she's right on the money. I've had my suspicions about OLO recently, and I'm not sure you can really trust the orbitals or really anyone with that badge on. They keep talking about closing stuff down, about needing more orbitals, about needing more security. Something smells wrong.

Me: You mean you, goodwill ambassador for the grand old Orbital and Lunar Operations Working Group itself, doubt the morals of your gracious hosts? Something is very messed up here.

Dad: Yeah, and I get the feeling you guys are caught up in the middle of it. I promise I won't tell anyone where you're going. Mom and I will keep it secret. Even from Papa.

Me: Dad, Grandpa and Grandma have no idea where any of this stuff is. They get lost in Rio Rancho. Anyhow, we're coming to see you. Our plan is to go to Shackleton.

Dad: I'd love to see you as soon as possible, but I really don't think that's a good idea. I'm sure the Orbitals will come to pay a visit this morning sometime, and I'm going to have to tell them something. I can't straight up lie to them, and I can't keep them from watching the port for Nella's shuttle. You should strongly consider going somewhere else. What about Glenn?

Me: Dad, the Orbitals go to the mining stations too. They'll probably be checking it out. I have an idea, but you'll really have to keep it quiet.

Before 23 seconds elapsed, there was another message.

Dad: Our story is that your nav computer died and you went to Peary or something. You got any Europeans aboard? I bet you could throw that in there, like this guy wanted to go to a Euro station.

Me: I think I'll take us to the museum.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XII

This is Part XII, the final part of the fourth chapter. Start at the beginning.

Spencer hesitated, then blanked the computer screen. “Sure thing.” He didn’t wait for her to come in. “Listen, I was really careful back then. I want you to know—”

“No, stop. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I didn’t give you any training at all,” she flipped on the light and stood blankly for a moment, puzzled at the ceiling lights’ ineffectiveness. “I put Jean-Paul in charge of vitals and I’ve been pushing you to the side since the beginning. I recognize that, and I apologize.” Her blue eyes looked like strange fire in the odd reflections and plutonic colors of the room. Her features, normally rather severe, looked almost inhuman with the wild shadows in the room. The combined effect was something of a polygonal monster, despite her kind attempts to apologize. Spencer sighed. She had saved their lives after all. He should at least give her the benefit of a doubt.

“Look, it’s OK. And I’m sorry too. I was so scared. I was so scared by that whole thing. I thought I was gonna die. I almost did die.”

“About that. I screwed up twice. First, by lighting into you for barfing, and second, I shoulda checked your decompression to see if anything went wrong. You looked fine, so I didn’t worry, but that’s the exact opposite of all my training. I totally ruined that. Come on outside for a second.”

Spencer reluctantly stood up and left the quarters.

“Jean-Paul’s in the cockpit,” Zephyr gestured to the top of the cockpit door, where a mass in a sleep sack could be seen, heaving, clearly out for the night. Spencer was tired, but nap-tired, not sleep-tired. He stayed on Mountain Time for most of his space trips. It offset him quite a bit from most people, but unless both parents were at Shackleton at the same time (as they were now), and he was planning on being there for a number of weeks (not the case now), the jet-lag was insurmountable. Zephyr was back in the too-big magsuit, her hair back in a ponytail fastened both close to the scalp and close to the end. “So, you’re tired and you have a headache, right?”


“Any pain in your joints?”

“No, not really.”

“Any hearing loss? Chest pain? Changes in vision?”

“Ears are fine, chest is fine, but I felt like I had tunnel vision there for a little while.”

“Itching or swelling?”

“I didn’t notice any itching, but I felt like I swelled up a lot.”

“I’m going to need you to take off your shirt. Promise this isn’t awkward, I’m a medical professional.”

Spencer blushed hard, then took off the magsuit, and the sweat-damp black tee underneath. He floated for the first time since boarding. It felt like waking up. He hadn’t spent a lot of time in zero-g or microgravity, but for the first time since his earliest flights, it felt good and natural. He pushed up to the ceiling with his feet and back down with his hands, and bounced like his body was a solid, straight, jointless object.

“Hold still.”

“OK, sorry.”

“Yeah, no pitting edema, no discoloration or raised areas. Hmm...”

“What’s the ‘hmm’?” Spencer put his shirt back on, but left the magsuit stuck to the ground in a clump, squashed by the false gravity.

“The ‘hmm’ is ‘if you had decompression sickness at all, it was a very minor case. A deep-sea diver coming up from a dive has it worse than you. You were nowhere near getting spaced.’”

“No offense, but what I felt was real. I really was about to die.”

“Hey, hey,” said Zephyr, stepping away. “I never said you weren’t in danger. I just said that you weren’t getting spaced. Your oxygen problem? That was real. And whether that low pressure reading in the cabin was real or not, you were in danger both from the oxygen, and honestly, from the thing that kills more people in high-speed machinery than any other single factor. You know what that is?”


“Stress. That’s the killer. It makes you do stupid things. It makes you freak out. It makes you give up. It can even make you hallucinate. But I think you did a damn good job for a fourteen-year-old kid on his first pilot gig pulling double-duty as EVA tech.”

“Thanks,” he said. Saying the word felt like releasing pressure of his own.

“So the problem with the tank was the sensor was dislodged, which fed the enviro computer bad data, which made Tank 1 shut off. At some point the sensor must have read ‘empty’, and that triggers a tank shutoff. I just reattached the sensor and manually opened the valve. And then you rebooted the enviro computer.”

“‘I pressed it!’” said Spencer, imitating his dopey voice from before. He immediately felt sick again, but fought it back.

“That you did, kid.”

“So, here’s something I haven’t had time to look up, but I think is really important.”

“What’s that?”

“Where are we going?”

“Oh, oh. Yeah, of course you might want to know that. Ha ha. I set the first course I could think of, but I’ve talked it over with Jean-Paul and we agree. We’re headed to Shackleton. It makes sense—it’s the largest facility on the Moon, it’s where your folks are at, and it’s got people that can do an in-flight dock with us and drive us in. See? That saves us having to do manual landing.”

“Hmm,” said Spencer, floating glacially slow, backwards.

“You don’t seem thrilled.”

“No, I’m just tired,” said Spencer.

“Well, you go back to sleep. I’m going to take a turn at the controls for a while. When Jean-Paul’s awake, he’ll take his turn, then it’s back to you. I hate to bring this up right now after that terrible event, but we may have to do another EVA before we get there. As far as I can tell, the sensor on Tank 2 is also acting up, but not exactly in the same way that Tank 1 was. Since the sensors are lying to us, we can’t know for sure if that tank is on or off until we use up Tank 1. That’s going to happen in thirty-two hours at the earliest. I assume we can’t get to Shackleton in less than forty-five hours from right here.”

Spencer motioned for help with the heavy magsuit. Zephyr pulled the collar apart and stood up easily. He fumbled into the suit.

“I think you could shave two or three hours off of that. This is a racing ship, you know.” Spencer considered saying more, but shut his mouth. He zipped his suit and turned to quarters. “Good night, and thanks again. Oh, and I’ll probably just be taking a nap. I’m UTC minus six right now.”

“So you’re two off of Shackleton and six off the platform? What is that?”


“Good night!”

Spencer pulled the accordioning door, and sat back down at the computer. His head hurt and his mind ached. He desperately needed sleep. He wandered over to the mattress-thing. It was a charcoal gray, and had what appeared to be a built-in pillow. He walked to the head of the bed, where there was a small space between the synthetic fabric of the mattress and the joint where the plastic of the mattress joined with the metal of the fused frame. He had seen something like this before, when he had had an overnight layover on JDSP, and he recalled a lightly magged sheet that went over top and was fused to the unit at the side wall. He hated sleeping without covers, and he wasn’t bullish on the idea of a pillow he couldn’t rotate in the night. It’s just a nap, he thought. Could be worse, could be dangling from the cockpit ceiling. He got himself into the bed, which felt like a normal inflatable mattress.

He was drifting off when he remembered the media drive. He staggered out of bed, removed the drive, and this time managed to get it into his pocket, not sticking on the velcro strip on his pant leg. He returned to bed and fell into a fitful sleep. His dreams were fragmented and incomplete, but involved variously: his body expanding to fill the entire quarters, getting into a fistfight with his father, Zephyr drifting off toward the moon without a spacesuit, and hanging from the top of the Sandia Man Cave out in the New Mexico countryside.

The lights were still on in quarters when Spencer awoke. They were so useless, Spencer hadn’t even noticed them as he drifted off. Finally, he thought. Let’s take a look at this data. Maybe I can figure out what’s happening here. He re-inserted the media into the laptop, and a window popped up with a group of file folder icons inside of it. They were labeled “Hawaii”, “Shackleton 5”, “Peary”, “Germany-Austria”, “Long Shadow”, “OLOCon”, and “DC”. Hawaii and Germany were obvious. Shackleton and Peary were bases on the Moon. DC might have been Washington? OLOCon was some kind of meeting for space administrators—his mom had given the keynote at OLOCon Science 3 back when she and Dad wrangled their first tours together at Shackleton. He remembered because he spent a lot of that weekend sending emails back and forth with Dad, hands sticky from syrup and belly reeling from the sheer volume of pancakes and horchata he’d had at Grandma’s.

Long Shadow sounded pretty creepy. That would have to be the most interesting for sure. He drilled down into the directory structure and found a labyrinth of oddly named text files, files with unfamiliar extensions, and folders whose only labels were bizarre strings of numbers and letters. He tried to open one of the files labeled “ops”.

Error: This file is *nix-incompatible, corrupted, or has caused Sernix to behave in unexpected ways.

“Aw, hell,” said Spencer. He right-clicked on the file for more information, forced it open in a text-editor (where it revealed garbled text and alien characters), and opened up his web browser to do some research. The dialog popped up to connect to a network, and this far out in space, there was only one choice: DTN (or Spacenet, as almost everyone called it). This brought up a second dialog to connect to a number of internet services, including the video chat client, the text messaging client, and the voice client. He connected to voice and text, but he was too far away for any video with the Moon.

Spencer’s contact list exploded. He had made a huge mistake.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XI

This is Part XI, the second part of the fourth chapter. Start at the beginning.

"I'ma hit the lav," Spencer mumbled to Jean-Paul. He ran back to the center of the shuttle and made a right, opening what amounted to a clinical-looking closet. At one point he had known the procedure for regurgitation into the lavatory equipment--he had found that a particularly amusing part of that chapter of the manual, at the time. Now, however, it was neither amusing nor clear how this was going to proceed. He entered and closed the door behind him.

Right, the bag, he thought. There was a long, hefty, black bag hanging from a hook. He reached it and clenched it in his hands around his mouth. He shuddered and retched into the dark void. Immediately, a small amount of the sick sprayed out of the imperfect seal with his mouth and floated away from his face until it collided with the gray siding of the lav wall. Most of it stuck, but a drop rebounded to the opposite wall, gliding gently in front of Spencer's eyes. He felt weakness in every muscle and joint, and moved slowly to push the plastic adapter at the bottom of the bag into the tube labeled "SOLIDS" and flush. The bag emptied through the bottom, shivering.

Spencer returned to the cockpit knowing he would have an interesting time later cleaning the lav. He sat down in the copilot seat, the sight and feel of which had become completely repulsive to him. He fought the urge to return to the lav. The scratching sound of Zephyr meddling in the affairs of Junction Tank 1 was back briefly. There was a long wait—it seemed much longer than the time it took Zephyr to get to the panel in the first place. She checked in at less frequent intervals. At long last, there was the communication Spencer had been waiting for.

“Jean-Paul, I’m at the back door. Can you start the airlock sequence?”

And soon enough, Zephyr and her jury-rigged green and white Z-7 spacesuit were back in the vestibule. The outer door closed. The pressure equalized, and the inner door opened. She twisted off her helmet, breathing heavily and floating.

“We did it, guys!”

“Well, mostly you did it and we watched,” said Spencer.

“Hey, no, you were both invaluable. Anyway, what’s our air situation? Has it held up on my way back in?”

“I just looked. That fifteen percent on Tank 1 has jumped to ninety-nine.  We have ninety-nine and ninety-one. Should be plenty to get anywhere we want.”

“OK. Now I’m a little worried that Tank 2 is acting up as well, but at least we’re not going to get another oxygen warning for a while.”

“What was wrong with the Tank?”

“It was really interesting, but I’ve got to go to the little girls’ room first.”

“Hold on,” said Spencer. He walked to the lavatory ahead of Zephyr.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’ll just be a second.”

He pulled two pre-moistened wipes from the top box of the paper area of the lav, and wiped down the walls where the vomit was already beginning to harden in the dry artificial air. “Got it. Go right ahead.”

Jean-Paul and Spencer were silent as Zephyr used the facilities. Jean-Paul looked around the vestibule over and over. He yawned and cleared his throat. He scratched his head. He rubbed his eyes. He sighed. Zephyr emerged from the lav.

“Were you sick in here?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Spencer. He looked away and put his finger in his ear.


“Right after we re-compressed. I think the decompression made me sick to my stomach.”

“Spencer, you cannot get up from your station when someone’s EVA. That is terribly dangerous. What if Jean-Paul had been incapacitated and I needed to be let back in?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It was my first time,” Spencer said.

“You’re going to need to be more careful if we’re going to get through this.”

“Fine,” said Spencer, and he walked to quarters. He pushed the door shut, its accordion shape expanding to a slightly translucent, nearly flat panel.

“Don’t you want to know what was wrong with the tank?” came Zephyr’s voice from the hallway.

“Not right now,” he responded.

The quarters were spartan by Earth standards, but they were weird and luxurious if you were used to normal orbital shuttles. In your average shuttle, even in the ones that Sierra sold that looked just like this one (save for the racing stripe), there was no magnetic gravity system. Passengers were stacked in from the end of the cockpit to the back of the vestibule, strapped in much smaller chairs. On a normal run, the vestibule was never used as an airlock. The quarters room was a supply closet. Sleeping was done by velcroing sleep sacks on every available square foot of ceiling and wall space, including in the supply room, like a dozen cocoons on a tiny leaf. And, of course, they wouldn’t have had this problem with the tanks—they had oxygen generation systems. The lav got very unpleasant, though.

On the Twelve Parsecs, however, there was room to spare. There was a strange little mattress in the quarters room, and a spare jumpseat was fused to some supports in front of a bench to make a desk, on which sat, fused and shielded against the magnetic field, a laptop computer. It could hardly be called a laptop anymore, as it was permanently stuck to the top of the desk. Everything in the room was silver and black. The ceiling lights did not brighten it much, but did cast strange purple shadows in unlikely places. In the corner of the room stood a large box made of supports and blue plastic-coated canvas. It appeared to be fused to a bulkhead or the floor, and it contained all the food and water bags.

Spencer sat down at the desk. A velcro sound surprised him, and he soon saw a black object the size of a pack of gum floating in the right periphery of his field of vision. It was the device the man in black had dropped, and which Spencer had completely forgotten about--a removable USB drive. It must have gotten unstuck when he sat down. He booted the laptop and figured out which port this device fit into. As the computer pulled up a folder containing the drive's contents, there was a weak, splashing knock at the flimsy door.

“Can I come in?” asked a voice that registered as Zephyr’s, but was so much softer than her usual tone that it was difficult to recognize.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Orbitals, Part X

This is Part X, the first part of the fourth chapter. Start at the beginning.

Chapter 4: Airlock

Spencer tightened up completely. He gripped the armrest with his left hand and looked straight forward out the cockpit window, past the moon to some unknown star right in front of him. He thought for a moment that this felt like being on a rollercoaster. Just face forward and you’ll get through it. He held the handset in his right hand, and squeezed the transmit button tightly.

“We...just got...a low pressure...warning. It...says...we’re decompressing.” The alarm continued to blare.

“I read you. I know it’s scary, but hang tight. I’m almost there. Almost there.”

Spencer now definitely felt like he was expanding. He felt twice his normal size. Three times. Just all one big bruise, one giant allergic reaction. His throat felt thick, and there was a knot where his stomach should have been. The haloes on the stars and on the panel lights were bigger, tiny rays bursting in and out from their bright centers with every motion. He tried to still them by remaining motionless, and as he stopped moving, slowing his breathing to fluid motions, the pulsing of his heartbeat began a rhythmic jarring of the circles of light in front of him.

He was reminded of all the times he'd had to stay very still. The dentist's chair, or the anesthesiologist when he'd had a tonsillectomy. The time he ran headlong into a bulbous cactus, and his mother had to pull the spines out. The dozen rocket launches. This was worse. This was darker, harder, like the cactus spines were sticking out of him instead of in. He desperately wanted to click the transmit button, to beg Zephyr to hurry up with whatever she was doing. To shout at space. He looked at the display, and pressure was holding, just above the top of the red band.

Spencer's head was swimming. He was ready to give up. He imagined himself at his grandparents' house on a Sunday morning. There was horchata and Grandma Megan's pancakes. He could smell them. He could almost taste them. He was lying in the guest room bed that was his home away from home. He could hear Grandma Megan saying "Come down! Come down! Spencer! Nella! Come down!"

"Come in. Spencer. Jean-Paul. Come in. This is Zephyr."

Spencer leered at the handset, still tightly gripped in his right hand. The black ring of the mask seemed to have grown. He felt like he was looking out of one of those tiny Service Module windows from Dad's museum. He didn't feel like he was in control of his arm or his voice, but he took the handset to his face and pressed the button.

"This Spencer."

"Hi! So glad to hear you! Would you please reboot the environmental computer?"


"Could you please reboot the environmental computer?"

"I...don't know how," he said weakly.

"Here's what you do. You press the house picture," Zephyr said, calmly as if addressing a small child.

"I pressed it!" said Spencer in an airy sort of voice that sounded alien by the time it reached his ears.

"Then you press the ENV button."


"That's right."

"I pressed it!"

"Then you press Control."

"I pressed it!"

"Then Reboot."

"I pressed it!"


The alarm sound ended. There was a different-sounding alarm noise, like a chime rather than the klaxon from before. "Environmental control computer is being reset. Please stand by."

Spencer felt very strongly that he would have to vomit soon. The mask started to sweat on the inside, and that profusely. His head was itchy and prickly. The saccades of the star-haloes subsided as his heart slowed its feckless march. He wanted nothing better than to sleep.

"Environmental control computer has been reset."

Jean-Paul stirred in his seat. Spencer lurched forward, put his left hand over the mouth area of his mask, and tensed up.

"Depressurization event has ended. Low oxygen event has ended," said the voice synthesizer woman.

Jean-Paul popped the helmet off. "Merci Dieu!" he said.

The backup radio crackled again. "Spencer, can you give me ox and pressure? Oh, and CO2 if you've got it handy."

Spencer tapped the controls without vigor. He pulled his mask back and said, "We got...standard pressure, two zero point three ox, and one zero three five papa papa mike on the CO2."

"I'll take it," she said. "Coming back in."

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Orbitals, Part IX

This is a story set in a relatively near future in outer space. National governments have built stations on the moon and private companies have started shepherding asteroids into the lunar neighborhood for mining purposes.

This is Part IX, the final part of the third chapter. 

There was a noise. A scraping, crunching noise like pieces of the shuttle were being gnawed by giants. It emanated through the cabin dully, but it came from just aft of the pilot seat, under the floor.

“Spencer, what’s that?” asked Jean-Paul, brows knit.

“Don’t know,” said Spencer. “It’s probably just Zephyr opening the panel and looking around. Sure sounds weird, huh?” He laughed nervously.

“Weird,” repeated Jean-Paul, with a vacant look.

“You guys still there?” called the radio.

“Sure thing, Zephyr,” said Jean-Paul. “What’s going on down there?”

“I’ve got the panel open and I’m looking at this pipe juncture. I can’t see anything wrong with it, but I need some technical specs from you guys.”

“Absolutely,” said Jean-Paul, who then turned to Spencer. “Do you know how to do that?”

“I’ll pull it up on my display for just a few minutes,” he said. “Don’t want to take our eyes off those vitals.”

“Phew, I’m tired,” said Jean-Paul.

“Me too,” said Spencer. “There they are.” He grabbed the handset, “OK, Zephyr. You should be seeing two pipe junctions. The one on top is...oh, that’s not the one from the ox tank. You need to kinda get under that one. The one underneath is the one you’re worried about. The fore-to-aft part is coming from the tank, the top-to-bottom one is the distribution pipe, and there’s a manual switch somewhere on there too.”

“OK, that somehow doesn’t explain what’s going on. I’m going to try a few things. You let me know if you get any warnings.”

They immediately got a warning. The alarm sound repeated and did not stop. The voice said, “Warning, life support has failed. Take emergency actions. Life support has failed.” Jean-Paul reached for his helmet, and Spencer nodded. He grabbed the pre-breather mask and put it on, tightening the strap around his face. Everything around was now the tiniest bit hazy. Lights had haloes, and his whole field of vision was surrounded by a black band. Even though he knew it was the nature of peering through the material of the mask, it felt like he was just about to black out. He felt like his body was expanding, distending in his seat. He tapped the display to return to the environmental gauges. The pressure level was on the low end of the safe green band. He tried to convince himself he wasn’t decompressing. The oxygen gauge did indeed read a large drop, and was now at the top of the red band that indicated the last, pointless gasp before the black band at the very bottom. The digital needle jumped up, back into the yellow warning band, then back down deeper into the red, like a swimmer gulping air before a dive.

Jean-Paul’s voice came from two places: muffled, from his helmet; and clear, from the backup radio. “Zephyr, we’re out of oxygen.”

“Completely out, or just in the danger zone?”

Spencer reached for the handset and tried hard to speak clearly through the mask. It fogged slightly. “We’re at the top of the red band. I can give you numbers if you want.”

“I can barely hear you. Is that Spencer?”

He spoke louder and paused between words. “I...said...we’re at...the top...of the red band...and...I have...numbers...if you want them.”

“Gotcha. I take it you’ve got your mask on. Good, good. Well, hold tight, and let me know if you lose pressure. You shouldn’t, but let me know if you do.”


Spencer just focused on breathing, taking one breath after another. It’s going to be OK, he thought, Zephyr is a professional. Life support is her specialty. We’re going to be fine. He looked at Jean-Paul, who looked like a machine now, a robot from his grandma’s comic books. The alarm blare sound stopped, as if the computer assumed they were docked, in suits, or dead by now.

“It’s going to be OK,” said Spencer, “Zephyr’s a professional. Life support is what she does. We’re going to be fine.” He was unconvincing and unintelligible. Between his mask and Jean-Paul’s helmet, it was unlikely those words went anywhere at all.

“Hold tight,” went the radio.

The alarm resumed. “Warning: air pressure is below nominal.”

Spencer stopped breathing for a second. There was no additional alarm blast, and the pressure needle was in the yellow. He reached for the handset. The alarm started again. “Warning: air pressure is failing. Depressurization within thirty minutes. Take emergency actions.”

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Orbitals, Part VIII

This is a story set in a relatively near future in outer space. National governments have built stations on the moon and private companies have started shepherding asteroids into the lunar neighborhood for mining purposes.

This is Part VIII, the fourth part of the third chapter. 

“This is a cowboy spacewalk,” said Spencer, shaking his head. It’s not that he really knew anything about spacewalks, but being a space kid, he felt like he should have an opinion on this sort of thing.

“Well, I guess it’s a cowboy spacewalk for an astronaut fireman,” said Jean-Paul, “What else would you expect?”

Spencer chuckled to himself. “Good point. Hey, Jean-Paul, look at that.”

“Uh-oh,” he pulled up the radio handset and spoke calmly. “Zephyr, we’re reading a little bit of variation on...oh. It looks like your breathing. It seems you’re breathing too fast right now. Can you stop breathing so quickly?”

Spencer burst out laughing, fortunately after Jean-Paul had released the transmit button. Nothing from Zephyr for fifteen seconds then:

“Sure, I can stop breathing so damn quickly when this is over! Where’s the next clip, damn it?!”

“Um, Zephyr, I am seeing this tether called ess tee ar tee two right around your location.”

“Spencer, can you translate that for me?”

“Sure thing, I can do that for you. That’s going to be sierra tango romeo tango dash two, and we’re going to ask you to go ahead and clip in right next to what appears to be your left foot.”

“There it is! Thank you both! I’m so sorry for breathing. Zephyr out.”

Another couple of minutes of relative silence. Jean-Paul seemed to be completely unfazed, both by his responsibility and by the gravity of the current situation. He stared out the cockpit forward window, which offered a fantastic view of a growing gibbous moon. He looked down at the panel. “Hey, the breathing is better. Look, we’re all green.”

A piercing alarm sounded once, then went silent. The synthesized voice said: “Oxygen levels are below nominal. Oxygen levels are below nominal.”

“That’s bad,” said Jean-Paul, and he grabbed his helmet.

“No, don’t put it on yet,” said Spencer. He touched the canister for the breathing mask with his right hand, then looked at his panel. “It’s just barely below the line, and it’s not dropping very quickly. I think we’re still OK. I’ll tell Zephyr.”

“Hello Zephyr, this is Spencer. We’re looking at a very small drop in oxygen levels in the cabin right now. Have you started examining the tank junction yet? We got the ox sub-nominal alert, but it doesn’t seem to be dangerous yet at all.”

“Cabin ox is low? Uh...I can’t tell you why that would be the case. I just got to Junction Tank 1, and was about to call and let you know I’m going in.”

“OK, we’re going to pretend like nothing happened then. Our pressure is still pretty normal. Be safe out there.”

“You too.”

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Orbitals, Part VII

This is a story set in a relatively near future in outer space. National governments have built stations on the moon and private companies have started shepherding asteroids into the lunar neighborhood for mining purposes.

This is Part VII, the third part of the third chapter.  
Spencer walked slowly to the co-pilot seat. His face hurt in two places: the temple, where the man in black had kicked him, and the jaw on both sides. He had been clenching it for hours now, and in the chair, his face relaxed painfully. He wanted to cry. He wanted to be in his bed in Albuquerque, or strapped in safe on Shackleton with his parents. He wanted to be back at the Yuri's Night Party with Nella. He wanted to be with Grandpa Pancho and Grandma Megan's, eating her terrible, terrible enchiladas. He wanted, desperately, and more than anything else, not to have to sit in the co-pilot seat of this infernal shuttle and watch the pressure gauges and the ox gauges, and hold on in terror to a small aluminum cylinder that might contain his last breath. He looked at the little mechanical gauge on the pre-breather. About two-thirds full. Zephyr pre-breathed for about half an hour. So, maybe an hour of oxygen?

Free from the magnetic gravity, Zephyr and Jean-Paul bounced and bobbled in the air, ludicrously, like a pair of used astronaut action figures. Jean-Paul carried his helmet by the lip in a closed hand and Zephyr's suit was bound up by metallic bands to fit her better. They cleared loose equipment from the suits' velcro pads on the walls, and stowed it in the closet beyond the vestibule door. Jean-Paul arrived at the pilot seat and used a long strip of velcro to strap the helmet to the starboard wall of the cockpit. Jean-Paul and Zephyr tested the radio and the backup comm, which had been strapped between the pilot and the co-pilot seats. Zephyr spoke on the radio again.

"Jean-Paul, I'm ready for depressurization. On the center panel, choose Specialist, EVA, then Begin Airlock Open. It'll ask you to confirm twice. Read it carefully."

Jean-Paul pressed some buttons, and then said something that was probably profane, in French, then started again. He turned to Spencer:

"They put the confirm button on one side the first time, then on the other side the second time."

"That's so you don't accidentally blow someone out into space."

"Good idea."

Spencer's jaw was unhappy again. He made a deal with himself. He would hold on to sanity for the duration of this spacewalk, and then he would let himself do whatever he wanted. He could cry, he could scream, he could throw things at the cockpit window. He could go find Nella's diary and blast it into the void. He could sift through the rations and eat all the brownies. He just had to make it through this one thing.

Zephyr's voice was attenuated now, as it was only coming through the radio, and no longer also through the air of the shuttle. She looked alright through her helmet glass and the airlock window. She floated out the back of the ship.

"Jean-Paul, I'm tethered. Can you confirm the mechanical assist on my tether?"

Spencer pointed at a spot on the screen.

"Zephyr, I can see that you are tethered. Go ahead with your spacewalk, I guess? Good luck out there, and don't get hurt."

"Promise. Spencer, can you get me a current press reading and our percentages?"

"Percentages are five one and one three. Yeah, that doesn't seem right at all. Pressure is holding steady zero one point zero. That's low, but not scary low."

"Thanks, Spencer. I'm headed up and over, Jean-Paul."

Spencer grabbed the radio handset. "No, don't!"

"What was that?"

"Don't go up and over. You have to go around the side. Unless you're double-tethered, you're going to get blown off by the thruster."

"There's a thruster on top?"

"It’s just a little nav thruster on top, but it's powerful enough to blow you off. It's probably not on now, but I can't tell you for sure, because honestly I don't know our flight plan anymore. Unless you want to wait for me to check."

"Thank you, Spencer, you may have just saved my life. Jean-Paul, can you show me the route to Tank 2 going around the side?"

"Sure thing. You should be going to your left, you'll find a secondary tether clip at a point labeled ASR1, then you keep going forward and you'll see a different clip below you at a point labeled STRT-2. You can get to the front of the tank on a panel labeled, well...looks like it's labeled 'Junction Tank 1'. That's easy."

"Easy. Sure it is," said Zephyr.

It was about ten minutes of regular check-ins, but little progress. Zephyr would say something like, “Still here, got the handle. Slow and steady.” Jean-Paul would say something like, “Looking good from here.”

“So, she trained you on all this when? While she was pre-breathing?” asked Spencer.

“Well, yeah, I guess. She said she’s done this sort of thing a few times and that all I had to do was make sure she remembered her directions and that her vital signs stayed in the green bars, and these other things stayed in the green bars too.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Orbitals, Part VI

This is a story set in a relatively near future in outer space. National governments have built stations on the moon and private companies have started shepherding asteroids into the lunar neighborhood for mining purposes.

This is Part VI, the second part of the third chapter. 

Zephyr looked into Spencer’s eyes, puzzled. “Whatever. That’s fine. I just have a hunch that the ox problem isn’t actually about what’s in the tanks. I think it’s about what’s getting out of the tanks and into the pipes. My theory is: not much.”

“What does that mean?” asked Spencer.

“You want the good news or the bad news first?” asked Zephyr.

“Good, of course,” said Spencer.

“OK. Good news is, we might have more oxygen than we think. Bad news is, it's probably trapped in the tanks. I’m not sure how we’re still breathing; we probably should be dead by now.”

"Guys!" shouted Jean-Paul. "What do we do about the police chasing us?"

Spencer's eyes lit up and he laughed. "This ship is way too fast for them. We'll die of asphyxiation before we even start worrying about them catching us." His smile disappeared.


Spencer, Zephyr, and Jean-Paul stood in the vestibule. Or rather, Spencer and Zephyr stood in the vestibule, and Jean-Paul tried desperately to appear to be standing, by holding on to a handrail and trying to wedge his shoe into a corner, having failed to locate the footholds. It was mostly working, but there were some darkly comical moments when he floated into a jaunty angle during the tense conversation.

“Look, I know you’re a first responder,” said Spencer. “But you just can’t spacewalk in a suit that’s too large for you. You’ll die.”

“I won’t die. These new Z models are fantastic. I’ll bump up the pressure and I’ll crimp the arms down.”

“It’s the torso. It’s—”

“‘Weirdly long’? That’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“It’s funny, that’s literally what everyone says about the Z-7. ‘The torso is weirdly long.’ It’s like you all read the same review on Space Times.”

“Please, ma’am,” said Spencer. “I only read Green Cheese." This was the satirical magazine published by former space kids in college.

“Ha, of course you do,” Zephyr smiled for the first time since before Hermes. “OK, we’re living on borrowed air, so let’s go over the plan.”

“I run EVA control from the pilot seat,” said Jean-Paul.

“And I’ll be in the suit, hopefully fixing the oxygen problem.”

“And I’ll stay in the car with the window rolled down,” sighed Spencer.

“Spencer, you have a serious job,” said Zephyr. “It’s actually incredibly important.”

“Fine. I’ll monitor the mix and flow from the co-pilot seat.”

“Spacewalks are not usually quick endeavors. This is likely to take at least two or three hours, perhaps more. I’m hoping to get at least one of the tanks fully nominal within thirty minutes, but that’s just a hope.”

“Pardon me, Zephyr, but I have a question,” said Jean-Paul. “What happens if we run out of oxygen while you’re still out there?”

“Well, that should be a lot less likely, since your total consumption rate will go down by about a third, but it is a possibility. Again, we have no idea how much air we actually have. My theory is that one of the tanks is disconnected and shut off somehow. I recommend you both take the other Z unit, and I guess Spencer should wear that. And then Jean-Paul, well, I’ll leave as much air in the pre-breather as I can for you.”

“What’s a pre-breather?” asked Jean-Paul.

“It’s this thing.” And she held up a simple contraption consisting of a facemask directly connected to an aluminum tank. “I’m going to have to use it now, so that I don’t get the bends out there. It’s essentially pure oxygen.” She strapped on the facemask.

“This Z is way too big for me,” said Spencer, pulling green and white material out of the fore closet. It must have been stowed for some oversized flight tech at Sierra.

Zephyr grunted over the light hissing of her pre-breather tank. She pointed at the large Z suit, then at Jean-Paul.

“Oh, maybe it’s my lucky day,” said Jean-Paul.

"Wow, I really don't want the pre-breather. Won't I...swell up like a balloon if we run out of air? Couldn't I die from decompression?"

"I don't think so," said Zephyr. "The nitro tank is still pumping, as far as I can tell, so we should have pressure. Of course, we can't really trust our instrumentation right now, so I must tell you that yes, it is a possibility. Decompression takes longer to kill you than you think, though, so I guess...chin up?"

"You realize that if either of us die, you're probably going to jail for a long time."

"I'm probably going to jail anyway, but I'm going to do everything I can to keep everyone alive till I get there," she looked at Spencer with unconcealed pity.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Orbitals, Part V

This is a story set in a relatively near future in outer space. National governments have built stations on the moon and private companies have started shepherding asteroids into the lunar neighborhood for mining purposes.

This is Part V, the first part of the third chapter.

Chapter 3: Twelve Parsecs

“Why did you do that?” shouted Spencer, his eyes meeting Zephyr’s, narrow and tense.

“Didn’t you see that? There are only twelve ships in the entire Orbital fleet. At least eight of them were there, maybe more.”


“Doesn’t that worry you?”

“Space cops don’t worry me,” said Spencer. The nearest Orbital police ship, almost laughable in its parody of earthbound police—a white shuttle with a wide black stripe and a blue mounted landing light on top—made a burn as they passed, likely breaking away from the group to pursue. “Running out of air worries me.”

“We’ll just go somewhere else,” she said flatly. “It cannot possibly be good for us to have that many cops here.”

“Do you have something to hide?” shouted Spencer. He put out of his mind the voice that was telling him to guard his own secret above all else.

“Look, I know you think you know your way around here, but I’ve been in space for four years now. I’m on eight-month shifts. I’ve seen things that no one on Earth has even heard about, and I have never seen more than two Joint Task Force ships at one place at one time. This is wrong, trust me.”

“Oh, now they’re the ‘Joint Task Force’, huh? ‘Space cops’ sounds too buddy-buddy? Look, I don’t care what you’re on the lam for. I’m just telling you, there’s nothing between here and Luna, and we have about enough air on board to play a round of Go Fish and say goodbye.”

“The hell we do.”

“When we left, we had thirteen in one tank and ninety-one in the other.”

“Percentage points or kilos?”


“Between the three of us, that’s...a whole day of air.”

“Why would they tell me it was ninety minutes?”

“I bet it was part of this thing with the Orbitals. They needed to make sure you didn’t make off with the ship.”

“Or maybe they saw a leak or some other depletion that I didn’t. Or—”

“Guys,” said Jean-Paul.

“Or maybe they read a failure somewhere that the computer didn’t,” continued Spencer. “Either way, this is almost worse. Now we don’t really know how much air we actually have. Could be thirty minutes, could be a day. Either way, not enough to go to the moon,” Spencer smiled a nasty smile, “Uh-oh, gotta go back and face the space cops.”

“Look, Spencer. I have had nothing but pleasant exchanges with the Space Security Joint Task Force—and yes, that is their proper name—but I can guarantee you, from my own experience and the experience of others, that when you see a show of force like that, something bad is happening. I want to go home. I want you to go home. I want Jean-Paul to—get back to his research. I don’t think going to Hermes is going to be in anyone’s best interest right now. The air problem is real, but it’s also my area of expertise. I know you don’t know me. I know you don’t trust me. I understand, really I do. But we’ve got to keep going. I promise to keep us all alive. That’s what I do.”

“Ugh. Fine. What do we do?”

“Well, depends on the answer to this question: Were the tanks full when you got on board?”

“Yeah? I think so? I mean, why wouldn’t they be, right? Nella was supposed to do a training run on Saturday, so you would think that breathable would already be taken care of.”

“OK, so there’s a reasonable assumption that we have more air than we think.”

“What? That’s not necessarily true. We had a blowout, remember. You know, the one you caused?”

“Yes, I do remember. I also remember that the dock was slow-leaking, not completely open, and that your secondary airlock worked just fine. A little too fine, in fact, because Jean-Paul and I had to knock on your door to be let in. There’s no way that blowout wasted more than ten or fifteen percentage points on one tank.”

"Guys," said Jean-Paul again, more insistently.

“Maybe they were filling when I got on board. I didn’t really check the ox. I wasn’t there yet—I mean, I wasn’t...worried about ox, because I was...just walking around.” Spencer struggled to keep his gaze steady and his secrets inside.