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.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Orbitals, Part IV

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 IV, the conclusion of the second chapter.

Zephyr's face fell a little, and her eyes became soft. "Alright, alright. I'm sorry. I understand. But please, let's just let me and Jean-Paul switch, and I'll stick to the port panel just to monitor our oxygen." Zephyr's words sounded agitated. She had a New York accent when she was upset, it seemed.

"Oxygen's actually on the center panel, Zeph," said Spencer, trying to look at the spot just in front of his feet, which was currently blocked by the flight controls.

"Sure thing."

The switch was a clumsy ballet: the walking Zephyr and the floating Jean-Paul trying desperately to swirl around one another. Eventually, Jean-Paul's head hit the back ceiling of the cockpit. He pushed off the ceiling with his right hand, and grabbed the base of the jumpseat with his left. He held himself by both ends of the seat belt, one end tensing and loosening, then the other. Eventually, he managed to extend the belt to fit him, then pull himself back down on the seat, strap in, then tighten up and grab the shoulder harness. Zephyr then managed to sneak by, plopping down in the co-pilot seat.

"Now, where were we?" she said.

"Comm panel reads no access to RF space-access bands. So, I guess that means no radio. I'm pretty sure the manual says you can reboot the communications array somehow."

"Would that be somewhere in this menu here?" asked Zephyr, and made to touch the center panel.

"No, I don't think so," said Spencer, then tapped furiously on the starboard panel. He muttered to himself. "Communications Array...Bands...Space-access...No, not set new frequency. What is it?...Equipment...Antennas? No..."

"I'm pretty sure it is," said Zephyr. "At least if it's anything like a Sierra tug. Ah, yep. There it is."

"Sure. Thanks," mumbled Spencer. "Let's reboot."

They waited the mandatory thirty seconds.

"It's coming online," said Spencer. "Oh, there's the X on the radio icon. Wait, it's gone. OK."

Zephyr pressed Transmit and spoke, "Juliet delta Central, this is sierra november...uh..."


"Bravo one two papa, do you read?"

Silence. Spencer spoke. "Juliet delta this is the Twelve Parsecs, do you read?

"Nothing. Oh, the X is back on the radio icon."

"Do you have a backup?"

"I don't remember reading that in the manual. Where would it be?"

"I don't know. On a tug, there's really only one place to put it. In the cockpit, 'cause there's only a cockpit."

"I'll go make myself useful and look," said Jean-Paul.

"It would be a big red or yellow box that says 'Backup Comm' or 'Backup Radio'."

Jean-Paul floated away.

"Look, Spencer, I'm sorry," Zephyr said. "This is a stressful situation for everyone, and you're a really smart kid. But you're a kid, and you can't expect us both to just trust you implicitly. We've got to work together if we're going to—"

"Found it!" came Jean-Paul's joyous shout from the back.

"Good work!" shouted Zephyr.

"I know all the space traffic control sites' frequencies are hard-coded in the computer, I just saw them. Ah! There it is, Hermes is: one six one point nine oh five. You got that, Jean-Paul?"

"One six one point nine oh five. There it is, friends. Talk away."

"Be my guest," said Spencer, so dedicated to looking at that point in front of his feet again that he was peering down through the controls.

"Sure," said Zephyr. "Hermes—wait. Why did you give me Hermes? I thought we were calling JDSP to tell them about the man in black?"

"I'd love to, but we're almost at Hermes now, so we better tell them we're coming."

"Hotel mike Space Traffic Control, this is sierra november bravo one two papa, requesting permission to dock."

"One two papa, this Hermes Space Control, what is your approach route?" came the voice of the woman from Hermes Space Control.

"Hotel mike, our approach route is being broadcast by autopilot. Can you confirm?"

"Negative, one two papa. I can see your ping on radar, but nothing from your computer. We're gonna have to take you in manually."

"Hotel mike, that might be a problem. We are three passengers, no pilot. No one aboard is authorized to fly. I repeat, we cannot pilot the ship into dock."

"One two papa, we've been apprised of your coming, and we'll walk you through as best we can. We've got Space Security here to guide you into dock."

Zephyr turned to Spencer. "Can we see Hermes yet?"

"Sure, we can. Don't you see that bright light? It's like...oh...eleven o'clock?"

"Oh. That's all?"

"It's a small station," added Jean-Paul.

"We've got a telescope," said Spencer. "You wanna see it up close?"


"It'll show up on your panel. Watch."

The port panel blinked out, then went completely black. Then, it fired up the purple-black LCD color. A fast zoom then focused on Hermes. It was ancient-looking to Zephyr: a couple of tubes, sealed together at the ends, with solar panels on sticks all around. It looked like old pictures of the International Space Station. There was a swarm of ships around it—many more than could possibly dock at Hermes at one time. Seven. Eight. All of them had a distinctive black-and-white pattern painted on them.

"That's almost the entire Space Security fleet," said Zephyr. "What are they doing here?"

"Like she said, guiding us into dock," said Spencer.

"Like hell," she said. "What have we gotten into?"

"No, this is good. This is the end of the run. Soon we'll be fine, and you'll go back to Glenn and I'll go back to Shackleton, and you'll go back to—what are you doing?"

Zephyr tapped on a number of controls, all across the board. Jean-Paul gripped the handrail, and spread out like an unfurling flag. The stars veered to the left.

"One two papa, come in. One two papa, this is hotel mike Control. You are off course. I repeat, you are not on course to dock. Please respond."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Orbitals, Part III

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 III, the second part of the second chapter.
“It’s OK, we’ll talk about something else,” said Jean-Paul. He tried to crane his neck around Spencer’s back to see the trip-progress indicator, a yellow readout behind his left shoulder. Instead, he pitched in the air awkwardly, bouncing his head off of Spencer’s headrest. “Oof,” he exclaimed.

Spencer actually laughed, and Zephyr looked horrified. “Jean-Paul, are you alright?” she asked.

“Yeah, classic novice blunder,” he said.

“You’re really new to space, aren’t you?” she asked.

“I’m not an astronaut, as you so astutely pointed out before.”

“If you’re not an astronaut, how come you know Hermes? I mean, EarthStation 1 I get, it’s for tourists. But I’ve never heard of a tourist going to mid-earth orbit at all. There’s nothing there,” said Spencer.

“Just a normal kid, huh?” said Jean-Paul. “Well, for your information, Mr. Normal Kid, I’ve got an academic variance on Hermes. I’m not a tourist, I’m a college professor.”

“Professor of what? I can’t imagine what you could do on Hermes that you couldn’t do remotely from Earth.”

“Anthropology, University of Toronto.”


“The study of people and their cultures. You ever seen those old, old adventure movies with Indiana Jones?”


“This is getting harder and harder,” he said to Zephyr. “The younger generation has no reference point,” then back to Spencer, “Well, you know what an archaeologist is, right?”

“Guy who digs up ancient temples and tromps through pyramids and crap?”

“Yeah, something like that. Well, I do that, but for old satellites.”

Spencer let out a long “ah” of recognition. “That would explain why you spend so much time at Hermes. But how do you get from there all the way to the junk orbit? That's where old satellites are, right?”

“Ha ha, Mr. Normal Kid. Good question. The Science Director at Hermes takes me out there herself, in a small shuttle. But we can only go when everyone’s orbit is lined up just right. So the rest of the time I live on ES1 and study some of the pieces that the Europeans have picked up from their cleanup project.”

“My mom always says, ‘God bless those Europeans’ on our way through the earth orbits. I guess that’s because they cleaned up the space junk?”

“Yeah. My research is all about the different countries’ attitudes toward satellite waste at the turn of the century. I’m looking at the design and the construction of all these satellites to see what I can see.”

“Sounds like you got a free ticket to space,” said Spencer, then hastily shut his mouth.

Jean-Paul had rotated back to a relatively normal position. He turned to Spencer and made an exaggerated wink. Spencer smiled again.

“And you, Miss, uh—”

“Just call me Zephyr. Or Zeph if you need it even shorter,” she said. A piece of red hair had come untucked and was now feathering and separating above her, giving her a ridiculous auburn halo. “I’m in lunar orbit. I’m an emergency responder on Glenn Station.”

“Cool, an EXAT!” Spencer said with awe. “Have you seen any—”

“Pilot, there is an urgent warning on the communications panel,” interrupted the ship’s voice.

"Oh crap," said Spencer.

"What's that? asked Jean-Paul. Zephyr, still strapped into the jumpseat, leaned forward.

"Your radio's out," she said.

"I caught that," said Spencer. "It was dropping out earlier, but it started working again when we came undocked. I thought it had something to do with the Platform’s intranet."

"Maybe you should switch places with me," Jean-Paul said to Zephyr.

"Maybe I should switch places with him," she said, pointing at Spencer.

"Excuse me, Miss—Zephyr, but I do know how to pilot the ship. At least, I know enough to fly-by-wire into Hermes. I know I'm just a kid, but I can do this."

"I understand, Spencer. But I'm a first responder, and I have experience with emergency situations in space. I'd really like to get access to that pilot seat. I think we'd all be safer."

"I...I don't mean to sound rude, but what exactly is your training specialty?"

"I'm the lead fire suppression tech, with certifications as an EMT and life-support tech."

"Well," Spencer closed his eyes and tightened his grip, as though he was worried the ship was going to hit something. "I don't think anything's on fire yet, life support is working fine for now, and no one needs a doctor right now. None of us is authorized to fly this thing, but I've studied the manual and I know how to work the controls. Please let me stay here. Please."

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Orbitals, Part II

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 II, the first part of the second chapter.
Chapter 2: Space Control

“You’ve had a rough go of it, kid,” said Jean-Paul, peering from the ceiling. “But we'll get through this. We'll be fine. Hermes is a great little station, even if you do have to float around like me.”

“Oh gosh,” sighed Spencer, still too nervous to swear in front of adults. “How did I get us into this?”

“Come on now,” said Jean-Paul. “You didn’t do any such thing. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. No crime in that. Just a freak accident. They happen sometimes.”

“The last time there was an explosion in space was when I was two years old," said Spencer. "And I hear they almost shut down the Platform for good because of it. Besides, this wasn't an accident."

“What do you mean?” asked Zephyr.

“Just before you got on, I heard a noise in the vestibule. I went back there and there was this guy banging at something inside the threshold. I scared him off, I guess, but I’d be surprised if that's not what blew up the docking seal," Spencer's face fell even more. "I shouldn't have been here. I shouldn't have been here."

“Passengers and crew of the ship Twelve Parsecs, prepare for departure to Hermes Mid-Earth Orbit Station,” came the ship's female annunciator voice. Spencer sighed and slowly rose to his feet, pushing up on the wall with a backward-facing hand.

“Better strap in,” he said to Jean-Paul.

“You got seatbelts up front?” Jean-Paul asked.

“Sure,” said Spencer.

“Then I’ll come up there” said Jean-Paul. And he pushed off. Zephyr walked out the door in front of him.

In the cockpit, the stars stood still in the windows, like decorations. Spencer thought they looked like nails in the glass, the tiny rays of glare like cracks. He tapped on the glass, scratched it gently. It wasn’t glass so much as the inner layer of a complicated, transparent sandwich of polymers, glass, gases, and who knows what else. The last barrier between this moving extension of the living, breathing, fragile Earth and the dead nothing of space. Spencer winced subtly.

“Sierra november bravo one two papa, this is Space Traffic Control - Joint Docking. You are synced with the tower and cleared for departure. If you have set autopilot, your ship should leave the platform within twenty seconds. Safe travels, and good luck.” The stars began to move, points swimming gently in the eternal night.

“Control, one two papa confirms,” said Spencer, without a trace of agitation.

“You’re really good at that,” offered Zephyr.

“Thanks, I...well, I guess I practiced a lot.”

“Following in your sister’s footsteps?” asked Zephyr.

“Well, no, not really. Truth is, I guess, I’ve always wanted to fly, but I never wanted people to think I was going to race,” said Spencer. He flushed.

“Now’s your big chance,” said Jean-Paul.

“Hey, did you ever tell Space Control about the man in black?” asked Zephyr.

“I never got time,” said Spencer.

“We should probably contact Space Control at JDSP right now,” she said, “He could be planning something else.”

Spencer tapped the button. “Space Traffic Control juliet delta, this is sierra november bravo one two papa, come in.”

No response.

“Control juliet delta, come in.”


“Huh. I wonder why they’re not responding,” said Spencer.

“Probably dealing with the blowout,” said Jean-Paul. “We’ll tell the folks at Hermes.”

There was about a thirty-second pause. “I’m terrified,” admitted Spencer. His brows folded in the center of his forehead. He breathed deeply and irregularly, and it sounded as though a broken machine controlled it.

“It is safe to move around the ship,” announced the synthesized female voice again.

Jean-Paul unstrapped his seat harness, and floated vaguely, maintaining the seated position.

“So, we’ve got a little while. Tell us a little about yourself. Relax. Everything’s going to be OK.”

Spencer forced a sigh. “There’s not much to tell—I’m just a normal fourteen-year-old kid. Pretty boring.”

Jean-Paul laughed again, and smiled like he knew a happy secret. “Perfectly normal in every way, huh? They teach dealing with Space Traffic Control and piloting a racing shuttle in school now?”

Spencer conceded a tiny smile. “No, I just...No, it’s that,” he paused, looking up, “I don’t really know what to say. I never know what to say when people ask me that. I've never been, you know, interesting.”

“Well, how about your family? We all know your sister. What about your mom and dad? Any other siblings?”

“Well, my mom and dad are named Ava and Oliver and they’re living at Shackleton Base right now. You know, lunar south pole?”

Zephyr interrupted, “Oliver Sanchez—I’ve heard that name before.”

“Yep,” offered Spencer, mildly annoyed. “You’ve probably been to the museum.”

“Museum? Oh, on the moon. That NASA Museum.”

“Yeah, he’s the director of the Apollo Mission Sites Museum, out in the maria.”

“It sounds like you come from a great family,” said Jean-Paul. “Or at least a famous one.”

“Tell me about it,” said Spencer.

“You don’t sound too thrilled about this fact.”

“No, it’s fine. I just...I guess I’m tired of people talking about them all the time. It’s...never mind.” Spencer looked down, as if staring at an imaginary stain on his suit.

Beta Reading to My Kids, Part 2

New insights after about Chapter 4:

The 5-year-old boy loves it when the dialogue gets cheeky. He doesn't understand a lot of the verbiage. This is still so totally not a young people's book, yet it stars a fourteen-year-old boy. So, yeah, neither fish nor fowl.

The 3-year-old girl falls asleep. So, mission accomplished?

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Orbitals, Part I

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 I, the entire first chapter.

Chapter 1: One Two Papa

It was a party traveling at 28,000 kilometers per hour. Most of the celebrating crowd had arrived from other stations hurtling through low earth orbit, as the Joint Docking and Supply Platform—"Gateway to the Moon"—was renowned for throwing the best family friendly Yuri’s Night bash around. It was the only station that ever had any teenagers present for the international celebration of spaceflight, or as some of the locals called it, “Space Christmas”.

In the JDSP dining hall, Spencer and his older sister Nella were standing near the front of a crowd assembled around a main viewing window. It showed a glorious view of Earth, currently centered on Central Asia. A number of people, mostly men, mostly much older than Nella, were attempting to engage her in conversation. The result was an avalanche of mundane and pointless questions. Questions about Nella's second home on the Moon, questions about her favorite race, questions about thrust and navigation. Yawn, thought Spencer, these guys again. They just appear, everywhere she goes. But this is what he had expected from a trip to a large station with his sister and her newfound shuttle racing fame. He scanned the room for a way out.

The social situation was also noxious to Nella, and Spencer knew it. If he tried to ditch her, she’d use that as an excuse to follow him, and the plan would be shot. No, in order to get aboard the Twelve Parsecs alone, he’d need a decent distraction. He scanned the distant faces in the room, looking for one. There was a rare twenty-something man, tall and green-eyed, looking vaguely mischievous, standing near the drink-pouch refill station. Absolutely her type. There was no way this man could see Nella over the crowd at the window, or the gawkers just around her. Spencer sidestepped them, snaked his way through the crowd at large, and found his way to the drinks.

He said to no one in particular, “I hear they’re about to see that big typhoon in the Pacific.” The green-eyed man gave a “huh” as a stock response. Spencer waited to see if he’d go over to the viewing window. He didn’t, so Spencer headed back through the crowd, slowly, looking back at him. Eventually the green eyes registered recognition through Nella's tight nebula of fans, and the man also wandered through the crowd and joined it to engage Nella, ultimately in the same kinds of pointless questions. She stopped looking bored, just a tiny bit, and began to speak primarily to him. Spencer slid out a side doorway to the docking section. Freedom.

As he entered the gate area where the ship was docked, he steeled himself for the incoming weird feeling. Once he entered the docking airlock, he would be weightless, as the artificial gravity on the ship would be off. He pressed the button outside the lock area, put his thumb on the scanner, and breathed deeply. He took one step forward and—nothing. The door didn’t open.

“Ah, it’s got to pressurize,” he said to himself. Spencer quickly tapped his foot during the wait. He went over the plan in his mind: get the ship ready, manually undock, pretend there's a communication error, head to the next station. No one would be the wiser, and Spencer would get a small joyride free of charge. Nothing doing. The pressurization was complete. The door opened, beckoning him in. “Time to go,” he said.

The ship's interior was an open field of lights—the black darkness diminished the slightest from small stars twinkling into the windows, a sliver of the sunlight reflected from Earth’s surface in the very far starboard glass, and a chorus of LEDs. Most lived in the blue-green part of the spectrum, but a few insolent reds and yellows flashed in and out, changing the looming specter on the back wall of the cockpit with every pulse. The two chairs, either one much too large for the ship’s usual pilot, pointed exactly the wrong direction on their swivels. No sound came from the radios. No light flooded the computer displays. No rumbling betrayed any action by the engines. It was space-still.

Spencer floated through the cockpit entrance, his teenaged frame casting a long, thin shadow into the hall. The magnetic gravity was currently deactivated on the ship, leaving him and his magnetic suit to the whims of physics in low Earth orbit, like underwater diving without the urges of buoyancy. He tugged at a handrail just behind his right armpit, then launched himself toward a switch whose location he had previously studied. It was precisely where he expected it, exiled from most of the rest of the panel, and strange in its silvery hexagonal stud. Most of the rest of the panel was touchscreens or little clicky toggle buttons, square and humiliated. This was a real switch, and it was labeled “MAGNETS”. He flipped it.

He remembered mag activation as a relatively gradual process, but this one brought him to the ground with a jerky, grabbing sensation. He landed on his knees and took a moment to right himself, then another. He forced himself to breathe. If there was one thing he had learned in space, it was to second-guess his instincts. Those instincts were trained on Earth, in normal gravity, among normal people. None of that existed in space.

One of the panels lit up while Spencer was bringing himself to his feet. It was red, green, and purple-gray color that passed as black on LCD screens. Spencer recalled reviewing the blue manual with the blocky logo, describing the operation of the Tiamat-ε type shuttle, and recognized that this was the home panel of the communications system. It must have been activated by Spencer’s thud. A hum filled the cockpit as various devices around the ship woke up from their standby modes. A camera above the left pilot seat panned to center, then began making a circuitous series of motions, as if looking for something. It circled three times, then gave up.

The comm panel screen timed out, changing to a schematic of the ship and the dock. A long gray line at the top of the screen represented the hallway of the docking area. Below that, the docking door in blue, and the rest of the ship in green. The aft vestibule was just below that—the ship’s “mud room” and emergency airlock. Then the juncture to the storage closet, the quarters, and the lavatory. At the very bottom, the cockpit, with a creepy red dot indicating exactly where Spencer was.

Spencer practiced a monologue in the back of his mind, Space Control this is Sierra November Bravo Dash One Two Papa, I've had a problem. I've got to undock. The magic incantation, or at least, the best he could figure for getting the ship off its hook and out into the black, remembering the call letters on the ship's aft. He thought ever so briefly about the effect this might have on Nella. It was her ship. It's not her ship, he thought. It belongs to a corporation, a group that's desperate to keep Nella on their team. They'll never prosecute. Besides, this ship will be just fine. We should be approaching alignment with Hermes Mid-Earth Orbit Station any time. It's a quick ride. Harmless fun.

There was a clicking sound in the back of the ship, near the docking seal. Spencer sighed to no one in particular and turned away from it, but it continued, irregular and organic. It’s what, the fuel mixers? he thought, The water pump? The sound became more intense, almost impassioned. Spencer walked to the back, pushing his legs against the drag of his magsuit, getting used to the weird feeling of weighted arms but weightless hands, heavy shoulders but floating head. Maybe this is a bad idea, he thought. Maybe it's time to abort my mission.

It was a short walk; it was a small ship. Everything was dark except the cockpit. As he breached the last threshold before the aft airlock, he felt an electric wave surge to his fingertips. It was fear—there was a man in a black jumpsuit, straddling the open docking door. One foot was on the space station, one foot was in the ship’s vestibule with Spencer, and he was using some sort of blunt tool on the threshold of the docking door itself, violently smashing. Spencer wanted badly to be back on the station now, not confronting this impossible situation. He knew that the fore section of the ship could offer no safety from the man or the damage he was inflicting. The only good place to be was beyond this dangerous person, who was bracing himself against the doorway and making violent hammering motions.

Spencer shouted wordlessly and loudly, and lunged for the man, who in his turn pushed off with his left arm and kicked, one foot off of the lip of the doorway, the other aimed in Spencer’s general direction. Spencer caught the foot and tugged, though he didn’t know why. A ripping sound and the man kicked again, catching Spencer in the left temple. Spencer reeled from the pain, and the man floated down the corridor of the station’s docking terminal. Another tingling wave washed over Spencer’s body, this time the cold of relief and of pain. His breathing began to deepen but quicken. He closed his eyes and winced. He wanted to get out of the ship now. The time for exploration had ended. But he worried. When he ventured down the hall, would he see the man in black again? He closed a fist and hit a brushed metal bulkhead angrily, grunting, almost crying. He walked back toward the cockpit.

“Central, this is one-two-papa in Docking,” Spencer started his pre-practiced magic incantation, showing no sign of pain or fear. There was no answer from the control tower.

“Joint Docking Central, this is one. Two. Papa, in Docking,” he said again. There was a red X on an item on the Communication System menu. ComSys Out1 was non-operational, apparently. He tapped it. It told him that the SIP system could not find the docked local network. Like Spencer knew what that meant.

“Juliet delta zero zero zero, come in. This is sierra november bravo dash one two papa in Docking, request emergency assistance,” he said, and it was punctuated by a dull crash. It felt as though someone had slammed a light machine into the ship from aftward. Lights dimmed and returned. The center and right hand touch panels lit up with red Xs and yellow triangles with exclamation points. Something had gone very wrong and it was definitely time to leave now. Spencer galloped to the airlock.

As he ran, his face was hit by what must have been flying debris. A scratchy piece of fabric attached to a small metal and plastic device, all black. It did not injure him, so Spencer grabbed it and tried to slide it into the small pocket in his magsuit. It instead decided to stick to the vel-strip on the side of the suit.

Smoke issued from the lower part of the airlock, and the lights in the vestibule were strobing irregularly. The emergency exit path was illuminated, indicating the closets with the rescue suits and the airlock itself, still fuming and violent.

“Voice control, please,” said Spencer, who then heard a chime. “Ventilate the aft vestibule.”


The hall outside the Twelve Parsecs airlock was shaking. Annunciators strung together warnings in a man’s synthesized voice: “Demagnetization in Docking Sector A. Depressurization in Docking Sector A Gate 7. Docking seal failure in Docking Sector A Gate 7. Fire event in Docking Sector A Gate 7. Docked ship in motion in Docking Sector A Gate 7.”

Huddled behind a jutting docking control station were two passersby, a short woman and a tall man. The woman sprung into action. Neither were magged to the ground—there would be no time to stroll, or even run, through the hall and out of harm’s way. She pushed off the wall and shouted over the sound of the annunciator and the blast of air escaping into the nearest docking seal, gesturing to the man still holding on to the control panel. “We have to get out of here, now!” The man was frozen, shaking in his blue jumpsuit. “Sir, you’ll have to come with me.” He slid his hand across the panel, then pushed off weakly. He just floated, right in front of the “low pressure event”, gliding toward the unseen breach. The woman shouted again, “We have to leave! We don’t have time!” He was frozen, and couldn’t seem to extend his hand to the wall of the narrow corridor. The annunciator had a new message.

“Evacuate Docking Sector A. Repeat. Evacuate Docking Sector A immediately. Crisis Group, prepare to seal Docking Sector A.”

The woman kicked off of the far bulkhead, her large red ponytail shuddering in the wind. She punched some buttons on the panel, reached out and grabbed the man, and then moved her other arm to the handrail on the airlock seal,  where all the wind was going. She shouted, “Grab that other handle!” and the man’s hand reached it. The airlock door to the Twelve Parsecs opened and air rushed out. The door on the far side of the empty vestibule had slammed shut, creating an airlock, but the woman and the man managed to pull themselves against the wind, into the ship, then close the door behind them with the punch of a single button on the other side.

The ship’s annunciator issued a message in a female voice: “Depressurization event in aft vestibule. Restoring pressure.”

The man and woman floated there for a moment, briefly engaged in the terrifying labor of trying to breathe without enough air as the ship restored room temperature at standard pressure. “Zephyr,” said the woman, extending her hand to the man. “Zephyr Adamson.”

“Jean-Paul Lefort. You saved my life, ma’am,” said the man in a difficult to place accent. He was enormous and very dark with a tiny amount of thick gray hair, “I am deeply indebted to you.”

“Not a problem at all, Mr. Lefort. Just doing my job.”

“You are Crisis Group, then?”


“Asteroid rescue. You’re a long way from the lunar quarry. What brings you to humble low-earth?”

“Have you ever been at a mining facility on Yuri’s Night, Mr. Lefort?” she said with a wry smile.

“Not at all.”

“Well, if you had, you wouldn’t be asking,” she chuckled. “But let’s get this crisis fixed before I tell you any stories. You don’t happen to know what ship we’re on, do you?”

“Here’s a placard. It says, ‘Sierra Nevada slash something something—one two P’. Then in quotes ‘Twelve Parsecs’. Ha ha!”

“What, what’s so funny?”

“This is the Twelve Parsecs. Don’t you know?”


“No, don’t tell me you don’t watch the rocket races!” he laughed, his face lighting up with joy, “This is a Swigert Cup ship!”

“A racing ship? OK, well, what do we do now?”

“We take it out for a spin?” Jean-Paul said. The sense of relief was like a gas, filling the room. “No, Ms. Adamson, I think we ought to undock from here, and move to one of the other docking sectors while they repair the corridor. How do we get that damn door open?”

“This one?” said Zephyr, indicating the forward doorway, “It should open when the pressure has equalized.”

“Feels pretty equal to me already.”

“You never know—it’s a pretty precise process.”

They heard a voice on the annunciator. This wasn’t the speech synthesizer voice anymore. It was a young man’s voice. A teenager’s voice perhaps.

“Space Control juliet delta. Space Control juliet delta, this is sierra november bravo one two papa, do you read?”

“One two papa, this is Space Control. You’re five by five. We’re looking at logs, reading de-press in aft, motion while docked, fire event in aft, another motion while docked, and...wired network defect. Is that correct and complete? Over.”

“Space Control, this is one two papa. That seems right. Request emergency teams immediately—I am unauthorized. Repeat, I cannot fly the ship. Over.”

“One two papa, that’s gonna be a problem. Crisis Group is dealing with de-press in your docking sector, and it appears your distance from dock has increased to unsafe levels. I will instruct you on holding steady, then we will initiate auto-dock when repairs are complete. Over.”

“Space Control, I can hold steady without guidance, thank you. Question: I am getting a reading of niner-one over one-zero-zero on Breathable Tank 1 and one-three over one-zero-zero on Tank 2. Can you confirm?”

“One two papa, I cannot confirm due to wired network defect. Can you switch to foxtrot delta bravo on your radio menu?”

“One moment, Space Control. There.”

“One two papa, I can confirm your oxygen readings, and that should do you for the estimated time of repair for Docking Sector Alpha.”

“Roger, Space Control.”

“Hold on, one two papa. I am reading a high depletion rate for your ox there. Looks like I’m reading 71 liters per hour at present moment—that’s way over nominal. We may have to do something else. Do you read a leak on your center panel, one two papa?”

“Space control, one two papa. I do not read a leak on my center panel.”

“One two papa, is it just pilot on board? No passengers?”

“No passengers, Space Control. Nobody here but me.”

“One two papa, can I get a name, please?”

Spencer heard another banging from the vestibule. Saved by the bell, he thought.

“Hold on Space Control, I’ve got a noise in aft. I’m going to check it out.”


He headed back to the back of the ship one more time, hoping that it wouldn’t be as terrifying as his last two trips back there. The vestibule door was closed, which he had known about, as the ship’s computer told him that the airlock briefly failed. The panel on the outside showed normal pressure. He opened the door and was rendered instantly tired. His body had had too much shock today already, but to find two more strange adults aboard the Twelve Parsecs was simply overkill. He slumped against the bulkhead, struggling to gather strength.

“Hold on, kid,” said a tall black man with some kind of French accent, “We’re not gonna hurt you.”

“What are you doing here?” Spencer asked, loud and shrill.

“We got on to escape the depressurization in the gate,” added a pale woman with long red hair and a sort of stern face.

“You’re stowaways,” Spencer said.

“I take it you’re not?” said the man. “Here,” and he held out his hand, floating still. “I’m Jean-Paul Lefort and this is Zephyr Adamson. You can check with Space Control or call Central directly. And you are?”

“Spencer Sanchez,” he said.

“Hot damn,” said Jean-Paul. “The little brother. Is Nella on board?”

Spencer rolled his eyes. “You know my sister.”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

“I don’t,” added Zephyr.

“She’s defending the Swigert Cup this August! They say she’s going to try Regatta X by the end of the year!” said Jean-Paul, gleefully.

“I have no idea what you just said,” said Zephyr.

“She’s not aboard,” said Spencer.

“A shame,” responded Jean-Paul. “So, were you taking the ol’ Twelve Parsecs out for a spin?”

“No, no,” said Spencer. His eyes began to focus on a point right in front of his feet. “I was just giving myself a tour.”

“A fine ship,” said Jean-Paul. “So, how long are we here for? I heard you know how to hold her steady?”

“I need to figure some things out from Space Control. You guys wait...oh. Well, you don’t have to wait here. There are some jump seats in the cockpit, or you can hole up in quarters. The lav is across from quarters, and there’s some magsuits...over in this closet,” He sized Jean-Paul up. “Probably none that will fit you, though. Sorry.”

“I hate magging anyway. Makes my head feel weird. ES1 spins and Hermes doesn’t even have magnets.”

“I didn’t know you were on EarthStation 1,” interrupted Zephyr, “I have a good friend who left the quarry asteroids to join the Orbital patrol on ES1...”

Zephyr and Jean-Paul continued chatting and Spencer left them for the cockpit without another word. Space Control told him there was a little bit of a problem—with the two extra passengers and the blowout in aft, there wasn’t enough oxygen for them to last the twelve hours it was supposed to take to get the gate and airlock repaired and the sector repressurized. They were considering two options: have them take off for Hermes Station, or try to move a ship from a different sector and dock them there. Wheeling around the Joint Docking and Supply Platform was better fuel-wise, but actually required a lot more finesse from the pilot. The danger of going to Hermes was that, if they deviated from course, it would be difficult to mount a rescue. Space Control had decided that they would try to go around JDSP. Spencer was currently stuck in a frustrating conversation with the control tower, trying to set the ship to be remote controlled by the tower.

“...Space Control, I don’t see the option you’re talking about. Over.”

“OK, one two papa. Select manual input, and type one four six mark six six zero. Over.”

“Error, Space Control. Cannot select manual input.”

“Hold tight, one two papa. I’m going to talk to Central.”

“Space Control, do you read? Why don’t we just go to Hermes? I can program that from here.”

“Let me get permission from Cent—hold on, we have permission from Central, you are go for Hermes. Set your route to delta five, zero zero niner. Please confirm.”

“Space Control, my nav is set to target Hermes Mid-Earth Orbit Station, route delta five, zero zero niner,” Which is exactly the phrase Spencer imagined he’d say when he thought he was going to steal the ship. It was the one he had practiced. He walked to quarters as the ship did an auto pre-launch.

“Hermes, is it?” asked Zephyr, now standing on the floor in an ill-fitting magsuit.

“Yup,” said Spencer, looking at that same spot right in front of his feet.

“Spencer...” said Zephyr.

“Is everything alright?” asked Jean-Paul, floating on the ceiling.

And then Spencer collapsed, sobbing, to the floor.

Beta Reading to My Kids, Update 1

So, I've now read them the first three chapters, and here are my thoughts:

  • Turns out The Orbitals is not actually a YA novel. It's a general audiences(?) novel with a young-adult protagonist.
  • I love jargon way more than I love explaining jargon.
  • I still like this story.
It's hard not to take it personally when your three-year-old girl falls asleep to your book, but to be fair, she fell asleep to Harry Potter too. Also very difficult to keep the five-year-old boy from prying into what happens next because the "I haven't read it yet" excuse is completely gone.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bedtime Beta Readers: Reading My NaNoWriMo Novel to My Kids

Last November, I wrote a novel. I have tried to write a novel for years and years, and I have never, ever written more than about two chapters. I think my max was 5,000 words on one project total. Then, last November, I wrote a novel.

It was a YA space novel. I figured I would try to make it as realistic as I can. The Martian for kids, I said. Golden-age sci-fi without being socially offensive. Astronaut firefighters! Space anthropologists! Rocket races! Moon stations, and a little bit of pie-in-the-sky politics. It seemed fun, and I finished with a couple days to spare.

But then it got awkward. I had a manuscript, it was a complete story at just over 200 pages—technically a full novel, but it was pretty clearly unedited. So, I got to re-reading it and found some problems. I had Crystal read it, and she found some problems. And then I submitted it to an agent. No joy, not even a rejection letter. I submitted it to a Pitch Slam. They loved my pitch, but didn't end up taking my novel. Too short, they said. (And probably some other things, let's not lie to ourselves here.)

So, as I was finishing up reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as the kids' bedtime story, it struck me: maybe I should read them my book! They're not really YAs at all, but they have loved other YA literature. Why not?

So that is the challenge: I am going to read my novel to my kids, make edits based on what comes out of that, and post both updates AND my full novel on this blog. I figure, what do I have to lose? I'll use the tag "beta readers" for updates and "the orbitals" (the title of the book) for story content.