APOGEE, Chapter 1


As promised, here’s the next round of Apogee sneak previews.

If ya’ll haven’t guessed, we pick up where Perigee left off: that is, with Art Hammond hell-bent on sending people around the Moon. The tech combines elements of Buzz Aldrin’s “lunar cycler” concept, Bigelow/Transhab type inflatable modules, L2 depots, and a few other things that I’ll try and surprise you with. The “LV” prefix before a ship’s name stands for “Lunar Vessel”, something I made up.

Hints and Spoiler Alerts: Remember that Ryan and Penny were both ex-military? That’s going to come back and bite them.

The excerpts posted here are from the first round of revisions. Details may change along the way, but the story arc and all that goes with it will not. Enjoy!

UPDATE: speaking of details…interesting how seeing something you’ve been looking at for months suddenly changes when you post it somewhere in a different format. There were some things about this first chapter that bugged me, so I’ve done a little editing. I think this flows a lot more nicely, hopefully you will too.

. . .

Polaris AeroSpace Lines

Denver, Colorado

Two hours earlier

Audrey Wilkes could’ve sworn her watch was running backwards. Wasn’t it two A.M. an hour ago?

Nights seemed to be a permanent fixture of her existence, though Audrey had to remind herself that this was where she could do the most good. The boss still needed his lead flight director on duty during the critical phases of each mission – cruise, she corrected herself. And those were driven entirely by customer demand and physics, though sometimes it was hard to tell which carried more weight.

Glancing up at the big wall monitors, she checked the mission clocks against her copy of the flight plan. After one hundred and eighty three hours elapsed flight time, they were down to just ten minutes until the main event: Lunar Vessel Armstrong had been in transit between Earth and Moon for over a week and now had to slow down enough for the Moon to capture it into orbit.

Lunar Orbit Insertion must have felt considerably more dramatic to the old-timers she knew back in Houston, though they’d found the country had become frustratingly indifferent about the whole affair almost as soon as Neil and Buzz had returned from the surface. Despite the same hazards that had stalked every flight, they could always count on something else grabbing the public’s fancy. Human nature never changed.

Just as well, it was better to lay low and keep her team focused on the mission. Behind her, a gaggle of flight controllers and technicians kept tabs on their fleet of suborbital Clippers that had finally placed most of the world’s major cities within two hour’s reach. They’d become as close to being routine as they’d probably ever get, though “routine” didn’t carry much meaning around here. Art Hammond always seemed to have another idea waiting in the wings – his life’s goal had apparently been to amass enough wealth to finally build all of the fantastic machines he’d dreamed about since childhood.

The “Block II” orbital Clippers were proof enough of that. Sharing the original model’s same sculpted-wedge fuselage and stubby wings, their upgraded engines and external drop tanks allowed regular flights to orbit from the old shuttle landing strip at Cape Canaveral. From there, tourists could spend a day in space or meet up with Hammond’s new lunar cyclers that regularly swept past Earth – which was Audrey’s main reason for being here at oh-dark-thirty.

Surprisingly, the cyclers were rather less complicated machines than the spaceplanes that serviced them. Primarily an inflatable habitation module that held enough living space for up to a dozen people, it was capped with control and propulsion modules on either end. The finished complex was then pushed into a long orbit that permanently looped – or “cycled” – between Earth and Moon. As each ship arrived on its biweekly swing past Earth, it was met in orbit by Block II Clippers carrying fresh loads of supplies and passengers for the next fortnight around the Moon. With the liners Armstrong and Conrad continuously circling back and forth, every week or so a new group of travelers could embark on a leisurely trip to lunar orbit.

She’d been skeptical of filling a big Kevlar balloon full of people and sending it off into the void, but enough tests with various projectiles fired from a high-velocity cannon had finally convinced her they could survive a micro-meteor strike. Having one of the inflatables spend almost a year in orbit attached to NASA’s space station had sealed the deal, but there was still an awful lot of stuff that could go seriously wrong up there.

And this particular trip was more complicated than normal: a multi-national, multi-faith pilgrimage of noteworthy religious leaders, bankrolled by a Saudi royal, had been keenly interested in spending an extended time in lunar orbit with an eye towards scouting eventual landing sites. The Apollo astronauts had often described walking on the Moon as a religious experience, so maybe the time was right for some off-planet ecumenicism. They’d set out with all sorts of high-minded goals, centered around a confluence of major holidays across all of their faiths. And for good measure, the Pope’s personal astronomer was along for the ride (it was not well-known that the Vatican had its own observatory) and had brought as much observing equipment as they’d allow.

Most of the other passengers weren’t exactly light travelers, either. “Saudi gaudy”, the customer service reps called it. Some of the old airline hands had regaled Audrey with war stories: these groups were notorious for packing up the whole caravan for even the shortest trips. Once, a wedding party had literally tried to bring everything and the kitchen sink: gold-plated, with platinum fixtures. And true to form, Audrey’s flight planners had been forced to squeeze out every ounce of reserves to allow for the heavy baggage they’d been warned to expect. What they needed all that crap for up there, who the hell knew? Survey equipment, they’d been told.

Audrey’s trajectory officer interrupted her contemplation. “LOI in twenty,” the NASA vet she’d recruited said calmly. “Blowdown pumps are primed, all systems go.” Armstrong’s main engines were warmed up and ready to fire, enough to slow down so the Moon’s gravity could catch them and do the rest.

“Copy that,” she acknowledged, perhaps too dispassionately, and chided herself for letting her mind wander. She had to get off the graveyard shift one of these days.

. . .

LV Armstrong

Simon Poole had been around the world many times over, though the depths he’d traversed as a submariner had kept him from enjoying much of a view – or any of the world’s more exotic ports, for that matter.

Remarkably similar as this was to life on his beloved nuke boats, he relished the differences of life aboard a spacecraft. Windows, most notably. Everyone asked about the zero-g experience, but to him it was all about the view. Being designed for tourists, they had made certain to put in as many windows as prudent design would allow. Hammond’s engineers had managed to fit one ten-inch porthole for each sleeping compartment, so the Kevlar-blanketed cylinder sported five rows of three.

His position as Captain afforded him the opportunity to see a good bit more. The command deck, a smaller cylinder ahead of the big passenger hab, was capped by a ring of trapezoidal windows which afforded him and his small crew a 360-degree view. The entirety of their Earth-Moon transit was usually visible from “the greenhouse” no matter which direction the ship was pointed. It made for a stunning appreciation of the distances they traveled on each month’s tour, and of the yawning gulf beyond.

He peeked over the pilot’s shoulder at their position display, then poked his head up into the cupola and shielded his eyes from the Sun glinting off of their solar panels. Their ship was oriented sideways to the direction of its orbit and the Moon’s crescent dominated his view, as they were now several thousand miles beyond the far side. It hung like a hole in the roof of stars outside, utterly black except for the slashing arc of light reflected along its limb. Beyond it, the blue-green Earth appeared impossibly small. It would soon slip behind the lunar horizon as they passed into shadow and utter isolation.

He turned at a rustling noise from behind. A stout man wearing a white robe over his Polaris-issued jumpsuit (which billowed about all the more in zero-g) floated into the control cabin. Poole recognized their lead passenger right away by his neatly-trimmed goatee.

“Good evening, Dr. Hassani,” he said. “Still having trouble sleeping?” Night and day were of course irrelevant up here, so they kept the interior lighting turned down every twelve hours for the sake of continuity.

“I am afraid so, Captain,” the man replied. “It’s quite difficult to get used to. And I’m afraid Father DiLonzo is perhaps too excited for everyone. He is forever fretting over his instruments and talking to himself.”

Poole smiled and nodded empathetically. “We stock plenty of sleep aids for that problem,” he offered. Long-term weightlessness was often a harder adjustment than most people expected, having to deal with other people’s noise made rest all the more difficult. He’d been exposed to both during his previous stint on NASA’s space station, but could never say he’d become “accustomed” to either. The sensation of freedom wore off the moment he tried to sleep at the end of each day. He found that having a soft bed to settle into was far preferable.

Hassani braced himself against a handrail and waved Poole off. “Yes, but they are narcotics, correct?” he asked. “My faith forbids it.”

“Of course,” Poole said. “Please accept my apologies.”

“Accepted, Captain. And if the truth be known, it is doubtful that I’d rest regardless. I am a bit anxious for this maneuver.”

Now it was Poole’s turn to wave away his concern. “Don’t worry yourself, doctor. We’ve done these retro burns a few times now.”

Poole would never let on that it still made him nervous as hell. He wasn’t as worried about entering lunar orbit as he was about getting out of it: with my luck, the engines will work fine the first time and go tits-up the second. Which was when it really counted, of course. Otherwise, there would be no return trip home, at least until the company could expedite the other cycler out to meet them. That could easily take a month, depending on where they were in relation to each other. Thanks to the peculiarities of orbital motion, neither ship could just “turn and burn” to hightail it up to lunar orbit.

“Thank you, Captain,” Hassani said. “Would it be possible for me to observe from up here? The view is much better than from my stateroom.”

Poole was tempted to oblige, but the safety rules were quite strict: no passengers on the bridge during critical maneuvers. And there weren’t very many of those: entering and leaving orbit, or rendezvous with one of the Clippers – those were about it.

He finally gave a sympathetic frown. “I’m afraid not, Doctor. There are a few things that we must insist everyone be buckled down for, and this is one of them.”

The man actually looked somewhat relieved. “I understand,” he said with a disarming smile, and looked around the control deck once more. “Should not your entire crew be here for this?”

“All but one. Mister Brandt is off duty back in his stateroom.” Either Poole or his First Officer were always working in the control deck or resting in crew quarters.

“I see,” Hassani said, satisfied. “Then I shall leave those matters in your capable hands. Good night, Captain.”

Poole nodded and smiled as the man in the flowing robes pushed off through the open hatch. He turned back to the two pilots. “Sorry for the distraction, fellas. Have to play nice with the payload, don’t we?”

“No problem, skipper,” the senior pilot answered. “We’d get that a lot on the Clippers too. Pax just didn’t have as much time to fart around in zero-g.”

Poole glanced over his pilot’s shoulder at the countdown clock. “Just in time for us, as a matter of fact. We still good to go?”

“Affirmative,” the second pilot said coolly, not turning his focus from the control panel. “Just finished the go-no go checklist with Denver. Inclination burn still go in…twenty seconds.”

Poole pushed himself down into a seat behind the two men and strapped in. He picked up the ship’s intercom mic and spoke quietly, hoping to not awaken any light sleepers. “This is the Captain,” he announced. “We are about to begin orbit insertion. You’ll feel gravity for about three minutes while we burn the main engines. Please strap in and ensure any loose items are secured in your sleep compartments.”

The main engines fired almost as he finished speaking, pushing them into their seats as Armstrong fell tail-first towards the Moon. The ship filled with a sonorous rumble as its rockets fired steadily at their backs.

Crack.

Poole whipped his head around at the sudden, piercing sound. He’d quickly become familiar with every creak and shimmy of this ship. Ordinarily random sounds always managed to find their own familiar patterns eventually. This one was distinctly foreign, like a snapping tree branch.

“You guys hear that?” he asked just as a faint breeze began to tickle his arms.

Air movement. Not good.

Before he could mention this latest sensation, a bang echoed through the ship. It sounded like it came from deep inside the passenger hab, maybe even back in the supply compartments…the aft airlock. “I don’t like this one bit, gentlemen,” Poole announced, unbuckling from his seat and steadying himself against the unusual sensation of gravity. As he headed toward the sound, the draft became stronger as a klaxon began blaring overhead. Looking back at the pilots, he saw one of them feverishly stabbing at the life-support panel.

“Pressurization alarm! Cabin differential’s dropping fast!”

. . .

Denver

“One minute to acquisition of signal.”

“Copy AOS in one,” Audrey replied. Not much else to say, as the automated system checks just before blackout had all been perfect. It was amazing how much better they got at this stuff when the ships weren’t expendable – another lesson they could learn back in Houston, she thought.

Five seconds…three seconds…time.

Armstrong, Denver control; comm check,” she heard a controller speak quietly into his headset.

His call was answered with the same hiss of background static they’d been listening to for the past hour.

Armstrong, this is flight control. Acknowledge.” Still quiet, but he spoke with a more authoritative timbre.

Despite the two-second time delay, the crews usually answered on the first hail. Most often they would beat her team to the punch, eager to be back in touch. Being in the shadow of the Moon’s backside tended to drive home how isolated they were from the rest of humanity.

On the next call, her capcom sounded a bit more strident. “Armstrong, Denver; please respond. Over.”

Audrey cast an anxious glance at the mission clock: AOS plus twenty seconds. It felt like a lifetime. “NavCom, how’s your telemetry looking?”

The technician answered immediately and did not sound pleased. “Nothing, Aud. Everything’s still blank…all of our screens are dead.”

She pushed her chair back from the console and sucked in her breath. Like someone tearing away a warm blanket during a deep sleep, she was suddenly overcome by an unwelcome chill that she’d not felt for many years.

“Where’s our spaceship?”

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