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.