PART ONE: Luna
It is human nature to take the body’s routine exchange of oxygen for granted until that most fundamental task threatens to become impossible.
Right now Simon Poole could barely think of anything else. This, despite having spent so much of his adult life at the mercy of machinery that protected his fragile body and provided for its every need. He’d learned how to escape from a crippled submarine and practiced surviving rapid decompressions in space, but throughout all of those exercises the simple act of breathing had always been something that just was.
His skin stung as if by a million needle pricks, a stern warning from his capillaries of the rapidly evacuating air. His lungs burned as they strained to absorb the pitifully scarce oxygen molecules—soon the ambient pressure would be so low that reflexively holding his breath would rupture them like overinflated balloons. He’d have to force himself to exhale, an act of will against the instinctive panic that would surely come when his brain ached for air. Before hypoxia and delirium set in. He just hoped his eyeballs didn’t freeze first.
He struggled with the release clamps surrounding the airlock hatch and cursed the engineers who made them so overcomplicated. What a damned stupid place to store the emergency patch kits in the first place. More items for his flight debrief when—if—they returned to Denver.
Sidewalls fluttered and rippled behind him as the supporting air escaped. Built around a central utility tunnel, the hab module was essentially a big cylindrical Kevlar balloon which now threatened to deflate like a worn party favor. The cylinder walls began to collapse inward, which his vacuum-addled brain strangely welcomed. It was getting awfully cold in here, maybe this would make it warmer.
His focus returned with a sudden piercing headache. Simon braced himself against the hatch rim and gave the lever a final, frantic pull. He recoiled from a stinging blow as the stubborn portal flew open violently and connected with his forearm. With higher air pressure on the other side, the simple act of breaking the seal had been enough to spring the hatch as if it had been kicked open by some invisible giant.
No matter. Keep going. Simon ignored the throbbing pain to push ahead, inhaling deeply as the compartment emptied into the void behind him. The near-blinding migraine mercifully disappeared with it.
Thinking clearly again, he moved to shut the hatch with his good arm. It was much harder now, having to work against the torrent of air. Grunting from the strain, he finally felt the door seat itself against the rim. There was a satisfying whistle as the pressure stabilized.
Peering back at his ship through a small porthole, he watched helplessly as the hab collapsed around its core. Now fully exposed to space, its once-rigid fabric hung like loose sails in doldrum seas. The blood stains he’d found along the crew compartment bulkheads had been shaken free, so that globules of his first officer’s vital fluids now undulated about the voided chamber.
Simon turned away and numbly took stock of his surroundings: some emergency rations, a first aid kit…and of course the caulk gun from the emergency patch kit. Fat lot of good that’d do now.
He took another luxurious lungful of air and exhaled with a sigh as he realized this tiny compartment was likely to become his sarcophagus. As the ancient Egyptian kings had once commanded their servants to face eternity buried with them beneath the great pyramids, so would he spend it in this small aluminum cylinder, doomed to forever circle the Moon.
Polaris AeroSpace Lines
Two hours earlier
Audrey Wilkes could have sworn her watch was running backwards. Hadn’t it already been two A.M. an hour ago?
The Omega Speedmaster on her wrist, a feminine version of the classic astronaut model, had been the one indulgence she’d permitted herself after Arthur Hammond hired her away from NASA. From the moment she’d removed it from the box, Audrey had kept it meticulously synchronized with the Naval Observatory’s atomic clock. She never took it off, save for her habitual trail runs through the foothills after work.
The night shift was becoming an almost inescapable fixture of her existence, though she knew this was where she was most needed. The boss still wanted his lead flight director on duty during the critical phases of each mission—cruise, she corrected herself—but they always seemed to happen after the sun had gone down. Those events were driven by physics and the needs of the passengers, and at times it was hard to know which was the more exacting.
In this case, taking paying customers into lunar orbit had been a constant balancing act between the two competing needs and her presence was probably the only reason Grant, or even Hammond himself, hadn’t been hovering around the control center in the middle of the night. Which was really a shame, as they usually brought plenty of food to pamper the night crew.
Hammond had practically lived here during the first proving flights into lunar orbit, at least until the Federal Aviation Administration’s new Office of Space Transportation had been satisfied that they could reliably run something more than a simple free-return trajectory. That Art had also managed to continue running the rest of the business throughout all of that FAA micro-management had been a stark reminder of why she preferred to stay in Flight Ops. Rocket science was a lot more straightforward.
This trip had rapidly become as demanding as all of the previous flights put together. A multi-national expedition, bankrolled by Middle Eastern oil concerns and led by a celebrity scientist who’d been keenly interested in surveying the lunar surface from orbit. They were 21st century prospectors, loaded out with optical telescopes, laser interferometers and even a compact magnetic mass driver instead of pans and pickaxes.
To Audrey it had made perfect sense. At the same time OPEC’s grip on the world’s oil supply had weakened, a new economy was opening up beyond Earth orbit. And wherever humans went, their need for resources quickly followed. Water and its base elements, oxygen and hydrogen, would be more precious up there than petroleum had ever been down here. And if it Moon held vast supplies of Helium-3 as many believed, the potential for a new clean energy economy would be staggering. Hammond’s engineers wouldn’t be the only ones building landers if that came to pass.
Audrey impatiently tapped a pencil along the edge of her desk as she stared at the control center’s giant wall screens and checked her copy of the flight plan against the mission clocks. Behind her, a gaggle of flight controllers and technicians kept tabs on the company’s fleet of suborbital Clippers. Having finally placed most of the world’s major cities within two hour’s reach, the spaceplanes had become as close to routine as they probably ever could. And “routine” didn’t carry much meaning around here. Hammond always seemed to have another big 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 conceived since childhood. Men and their toys…
Everyone had assumed the “Block II” orbital Clippers would be his last venture. Sharing the original model’s same stubby wings and wedge form, their upgraded engines and external drop tanks allowed regular flights to orbit from the old shuttle landing strip at Cape Canaveral. Instead of ending there, Hammond had in turn plowed the profits from those contracts into his next venture: cruise liners known as “Cyclers” that continually flew along a low-energy orbit between Earth and Moon.
The Cyclers were surprisingly less complex machines than the Clippers that serviced them. A barrel-shaped inflatable module held enough living space for less than a dozen people and was capped at either end by docking ports, one was surrounded by a cluster of tanks, antennae and solar panels. On its own this could host people in orbit for weeks, but when joined with a separate command and propulsion unit it could be pushed into a permanent orbit between Earth and Moon. The flight module was a fat cylinder of carbon fiber and aluminum, festooned with tanks, thrusters, and a bulky cluster of larger orbital engines at its rear. The tapered front end featured two large, drooping oval windows above its forward-mounted docking port which made it look for all the world like a hound dog’s snout. It was thus no coincidence they’d quickly nicknamed the two flight modules Snoopy and Spike.
Audrey had been skeptical of sending a big Kevlar balloon full of people off into the void, but enough ground tests with various oddball projectiles fired at it from a high-velocity cannon had finally convinced her the stack could survive several micro-meteor strikes. The first liner, Shepard, had been circling back and forth from the Moon for almost a year now with barely a hiccup. Once the second ship, Grissom, had finished its checkouts there would be a constant stream of new travelers coming and going around the Moon. When word got out that Hammond was also building reusable landers, mineral exploration groups and small countries with big ambitions had begun clamoring for their own private charters.
Audrey’s mental meanderings were interrupted by her trajectory officer: “Loss of Signal in five, Aud.” As “Big Al” fell tail-first just ahead of the Moon, its main engines would slow them down enough to let gravity capture it. This was a big enough event; that it would all happen after they’d slipped behind the far side and into radio blackout didn’t make it any easier for Audrey to project calm.
“Copy that,” she said coolly, silently chiding herself for letting her mind wander. She had to get off the graveyard shift one of these days.
. . .
Simon Poole had been around the world many times over, though the depths he’d navigated as a submariner had kept him from enjoying much of a view. Or for that matter, most of the world’s exotic ports. His second career in spaceflight had more than made up for it so far. As remarkably reminiscent as it could be to life on his beloved nuke boats, he relished the differences of life aboard a spacecraft: windows, mainly. It seemed like everyone asked about “weightlessness” which had always mystified him: wouldn’t they want to come up here just for the view?
One of the perks of being Captain was having plenty of opportunities to enjoy that view. While docked to the hab, the flight module’s forward view was mostly blocked which left the pilots with only their side and overhead “eyebrow” windows. Fortunately, the flight module was topped with a small, octagonal observation dome which afforded them with an extraordinary view. The entirety of their Earth-Moon transit could be seen at once in a stunning demonstration of the distances they traveled and the yawning gulf beyond.
Simon stole a glance over the pilot’s shoulder at his Primary Flight Display, getting his bearings before floating up to the dome. Outside, the darkened Moon loomed like an immense hole in the roof of stars. Earth’s crescent sapphire was alarmingly small as it crept towards the gray horizon, soon to leave them in the far side’s shadow and utter isolation.
There was a rustling noise behind him, and a stocky man in a company-issued jumpsuit floated into the cabin. Poole recognized their lead passenger right away by his neatly-trimmed goatee. “Good evening, Dr. Varza. Trouble sleeping again?” The interior lighting was turned down every twelve hours to maintain their circadian rhythms, as night and day had a way of quickly becoming irrelevant out here.
Kam Varza’s dark eyes turned sheepish. “I’m afraid so,” he said, embarrassed. “I find it difficult to get used to, and Dr. DeCarlo is too excited for everyone’s sake. He’s forever fretting over his instruments and muttering to himself.”
“Not much we can do about the latter problem,” Simon chuckled, “but we stock plenty of sleep aids for the former.” Adjusting to long-term microgravity was harder than expected, and having to deal with other people’s noise made rest all the more difficult. For many, the sensation of freedom wore off the moment they tried to sleep. There was much to be said for having a soft bed to settle into at the end of a long day.
“They’re narcotics, if I’m not mistaken?” Varza looked disappointed. “If so, I must decline.”
“Of course, Doctor,” Simon apologized. Some of their passengers held to strict religious preferences. “My apologies.”
His smile was disarming. “Think nothing of it, Captain. The truth be known, sleep is doubtful regardless. There’s much for us anxious about.”
“No need to worry yourself. We’ve done this before.” Though Simon would never let on that it still made him nervous. Worrisome as it could be to fall past a giant ball of rock at five thousand kilometers per hour, aimed just ahead of the thing and slowing down just enough to get flung into orbit without first crashing into the surface, he was more concerned with getting out of orbit when they were done. 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 not until they could expedite the other Cycler out to meet them. Depending on where they were in relation to each other, that trip could easily take a month. Free-return trajectories had felt a little less harrowing; physics ensured there was no way they wouldn’t emerge from blackout.
“Thank you for your reassurance, Captain,” Varza said. “Tell me, would it be possible to observe from up here? The view is so much better than from my room.”
Simon was tempted to oblige but their safety rules were strict: no passengers in the control cabin during critical phases of flight. There weren’t very many: entering and leaving orbit or rendezvousing with a Clipper were about it. “I’m afraid not. This is one of those times when we have to insist everyone buckle down in their cabins.”
Did Varza actually look relieved? “Of course,” he said, taking one more look around the flight deck. “I’m surprised your entire crew isn’t up for this.”
“All but one. Mister Brandt is off duty in his quarters.” Either Simon or his First Officer were always at work in the control deck or resting in the crew compartment.
Varza appeared pleased. “That is most reassuring,” he said. “Then I shall leave these matters in your capable hands. Good night, Captain.”
Poole nodded politely as Varza pushed himself off to fly back through the tunnel. Once the control cabin was clear, Simon came forward and pulled himself into the observer’s seat behind the pilots. Not entirely by accident, its position had turned it into a de facto Captain’s chair as Simon had overseen the cabin layout. “Sorry for the distraction, guys. Have to play nice with the payload.”
“We’d get that a lot on the Clippers,” one said, “but the passengers didn’t have as much time in zero-g. Tended to keep their wanderings to a minimum.”
“Hardened cockpit doors probably didn’t hurt either,” Simon pointed out. He unlocked a touch screen panel from overhead and rotated it down to face him. “Looks like I’m just in time,” he said, studying the situational display. “Anything change while I was socializing?”
“Negative,” the senior pilot said coolly, not turning away from his own instruments. “Just finished the LOI checklist. Loss of signal in thirty seconds, burn at plus two.”
Simon grunted his approval as he finished snapping himself into the four-point harness that kept him seated. He pulled his headset microphone in close and thumbed the intercom switch. “This is the Captain,” he announced quietly, hoping not to disturb any light sleepers. “We are two minutes from lunar orbit insertion. You’ll feel gravity return for a few minutes while we’re doing our braking burn, so please strap in and secure any loose items in your sleeping berths. Again, two minutes.”
The copilot finished one final check with Denver just as Earth slipped beneath the horizon. The reassuring buzz of their radios abruptly stuttered into silence, the tenuous link to home replaced by an eerie hiss: the background noise of the universe.
Simon purposefully tuned out the too-audible reminder of their isolation, instead watching intently as the two pilots kept busy. Satisfied that their orientation was spot-on, he finally reached up to kill the volume. The ship was utterly silent but for the hum of air circulation pumps. “You guys mind if I switch to low-light?”
“We’re good, skipper. Go for it.”
Simon reached up to a selector switch and turned the cabin lighting from cool bluish-white to red, preserving their night vision. As their eyes adjusted, the black sky outside turned ablaze with stars. One arm of the galaxy slashed diagonally across the void as if it had torn the fabric of the universe to reveal a treasure trove of delicate jewels behind it.
“Nice job, skipper.”
“I can’t take credit for that,” he said, “but you’re welcome anyway.” If the Moon’s shadow was going to cut them off from the rest of humanity, they might as well enjoy the view.
“Five seconds,” the copilot announced.
Simon slaved his panel to the pilot’s primary flight display. A computer-generated Moon rotated past as they followed a narrow corridor around it tail-first. A pulsating dot floated just ahead, the graphic depiction of an otherwise empty point in space which represented the culmination of all their efforts up to now. The big orbital maneuvering engines fired as they crossed it, pushing them into their seats and filling the ship with the reassuring rumble of properly functioning rockets. The command pilot spoke up over the new noise. “LOI on target. Nominal chamber pressure and propellant flow. Coolant temps—”
Simon whipped his head around. He’d long ago become familiar with Big Al’s odd creaks and shimmies, the random noises that eventually settled into familiar patterns and could tell a man more about the condition of his vessel than instruments ever could. This was more ominous, like the snap of a tree branch in still woods.
A draft tickled the hair on his arms: air movement. Not good.
A bang reverberated up the tunnel from deep inside the hab. The command pilot turned to him, his face a silent alarm as one hand hovered over the throttles. “Not yet,” Simon ordered after a quick mental calculation. “There’s still time until Abort One condition.” He punched the quick-release buckle on his harness and slipped out of his seat, twisting down to reach the access ladder embedded in the deck. As he headed down to the tunnel, the draft became noticeably stronger. A warning klaxon suddenly blared to life and the copilot began stabbing feverishly at the overhead life-support controls.
“Pressurization alarm! Cabin differential’s dropping fast!”
. . .
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