June 28, 2020
“Launch minus five minutes . . .”
The space shuttle Renaissance faced the early-morning sky at Cape Canaveral. Its enormous fuel tanks and boosters dwarfed the vessel as it towered over the launch pad. The launch tower pulled away, leaving the shuttle and its booster rockets clear for flight. It was a beautiful morning, the last Colonel Shaun Christopher would see for more than six months. It would be winter the next time he set foot on Earth.
Assuming all goes well, he thought.
Inside the cockpit, Shaun was strapped into his seat, staring up at the nose of the ship. A flight suit and helmet provided meager protection from the titanic forces about to be unleashed. The Atlantic Ocean could be glimpsed out the starboard window. A pair of old-fashioned military dog tags dangled above the lighted instrument panel in front of him. A good-luck charm, the tags had accompanied him into space before.
“Ready to go, Colonel?” the pilot sitting next to him said. Commander Shirin Ludden was among the first of a new breed of shuttle pilots. She seemed shockingly young to Shaun, who was in his early fifties.
“You tell me,” he answered. “I’m just a passenger on this flight.”
Despite their banter, the launch procedure continued on schedule. The sound-and-heat-suppression system fired up far below the cockpit, but Shaun could feel the vibration from all that water where he was sitting. He and Ludden closed the visors on their flight helmets. He took a deep breath of piped-in oxygen. The entire shuttle trembled as the launch engines gradually came online. Shaun felt a familiar excitement growing inside him.
The Renaissance had been intended to be the first in a new fleet of second-generation shuttles, but then the aerospace bubble had gone bust, cratering the economy again and creating entire districts of homeless people in many of the world’s cities. The latest round of budget cuts had left the Renaissance as a one-of-a-kind prototype, kept alive primarily by private investors and international partners who couldn’t afford to build ships on their own. She was an impressive vessel, state-of-the-art. A shame she had to fly alone.
Still, at least she would get him where he was going.
“Launch minus ten seconds . . .”
The engines ignited, and the shuttle strained to escape the eight-inch metal bolts holding it down. The spaceplane swayed violently before turning its nose back up toward the sky. Computerized systems went through their paces. Even though Ludden was nominally the pilot, the launch was out of her hands now. Rattling inside the cockpit, Shaun braced himself for what came next. A grin spread across his rugged face.
This never got old.
“Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . .”
Explosive charges blew away the hold-down bolts. The Renaissance blasted into the sky atop an inverted geyser of fire and smoke. Shaun was slammed back into his seat, then shaken back and forth like a rat in a dog’s jaws. The shuttle rocketed up from the Cape, leaving Mother Earth far behind. The booster rockets fell away, having done the heavy lifting. Shaun felt a twinge of relief; like most astronauts, he felt safer rid of those enormous Roman candles. The bumpy ride quickly leveled off as the bright blue sky before him gave way to the blackness of the upper atmosphere.
The g-forces pressing down on him felt like an elephant standing on his chest. Shaun gritted his teeth; this part did get old after the first few minutes. He craned his neck to try to read the gauges on the instrument panel. So far, everything looked okay, although the elephant seemed to have gained weight since the last time he took this ride.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the elephant disappeared as though conjured away by a Las Vegas magician. One last jerk shook the ship as the empty fuel tank fell away. The pressure on Shaun abruptly went from three g’s to zero. His body lifted away from the seat cushions, held in place only by his safety straps. Glancing at the instrument panel, he saw the lucky dog tags floating weightlessly.
We did it, Dad, he thought. We’re in space. Again.
The tags had been worn by his father, Captain John Christopher, during his Air Force jet-pilot days. The senior Christopher had applied to the astronaut program back in the 1960s but hadn’t quite made the cut. Shaun had taken his dad’s tags up with him on every mission, so that even though the real John Christopher had only watched the liftoff from the bleachers eight miles away, he was also flying beside his son.
“So much for the fireworks,” Ludden said, sounding almost disappointed that the thrill-ride component of the launch was over. “Smooth sailing from now on.”
“Knock on wood,” Shaun said.
She used the shuttle’s smaller space engines to guide the Renaissance into orbit approximately four hundred kilometers above Earth. Circling the planet at some twenty-nine thousand kilometers per hour, she rotated the shuttle so that its belly faced outward away from Earth. The engines cut off, and the cockpit was suddenly so quiet that Shaun could hear the fans and air filters whirring, along with his own breathing inside the helmet. The payload bay doors opened, exposing their cargo to the vacuum. This was standard procedure in space and essential to the next stage of their mission.
“Tell you the truth,” Ludden said, “I wish I was going all the way with you.”
“Now, Commander, you know NASA frowns on that kind of fraternization.”
She punched him in the shoulder. “You know what I mean. This is just a taxi ride to the airport. You’re making the real trip.”
“Maybe next time,” Shaun said to console her.
“Well, let’s make sure you don’t miss your flight.”
The shuttle’s launch was just the first leg of a much longer journey. Shaun waited impatiently, occupying himself with routine flight operations, while the shuttle caught up with his destination. Hours passed before Ludden nudged him.
“Heads up,” she said. “There’s your ride up ahead.”
Peering through the cockpit window, he glimpsed a bright reflective object cruising above them. At first, it was only a shiny lure in the distance, but as they closed on the other vessel, a truly awe-inspiring spacecraft came into view. More than forty-five meters long, the ship was many times larger than the Renaissance and resembled several large tour buses linked together. Its modular components had been assembled in orbit over the course of the last five years. Shaun could count them off one by one: engine assembly, communications array, cargo bay, crew habitat, and command module. The impulse thrusters fanned out from the tail of the ship, while a docking ring was attached to the nose of the command module. Antennae, EVA rails, and signal dishes sprouted from the ship’s silvery titanium-polymer hull, although its delicate solar panels had been retracted in anticipation of breaking orbit. Additional insulation and padding protected the habitat. Lights shone in the windows. A NASA logo was emblazoned on the side of the cargo bay, along with the name of the vessel: U.S.S. Lewis & Clark.
Ludden whistled in appreciation. “Quite a ship.”
Shaun had to agree. Even though he had trained on simulators, had familiarized himself with the individual modules on Earth, and already knew pretty much every inch of the ship by heart, he took a moment to admire it in its natural environment. Savor the moment, he thought. There had been times, during the economic roller coaster of the last few years, when he had wondered if the Lewis & Clark would ever get finished at all.
But here it was, waiting for him.
“Renaissance to Lewis & Clark.” Ludden hailed the other vessel. Like Shaun, she had shed her helmet and flight gear in favor of a comfy blue NASA jumpsuit. “Initiating docking procedure.”
“Roger that, Renaissance,” a husky female voice answered via ship-to-ship radio. “We’re ready on our end.”
The shuttle approached the larger spaceship from below. Onboard computers and laser-guidance systems steered the shuttle toward the docking ring. The Renaissance’s own docking mechanism was located in the forward payload bay, just aft of the crew compartment, so the shuttle presented its open back to the nose of the other ship. Multiple redundant systems ensured that the shuttle remained exactly on track. Ludden eyeballed it through the window, while Shaun watched the docking ring grow larger on a small television monitor. Even with the guidance systems constantly checking the shuttle’s range, speed, and trajectory relative to the other ship, frequent small course corrections were required to stay on course. Ludden worked the brake and thruster control sticks like an expert, taking her time. By the time the ships were less than ten meters apart, the Renaissance was approaching the other vessel at roughly one-tenth of a foot per second. Pale yellow vapor jetted from the forward thrusters with each momentary burn.
Ludden’s face was a portrait of concentration. “Almost there,” she muttered under her breath. “Just a few meters more . . .”
Contact! The ships came together with a gentle bump, less jolting than a 747 touching down on the tarmac. Automatic latches grabbed onto the shuttle and pulled the two spacecraft together, creating an airtight seal, at least in theory. Shaun would have to double-check that carefully before they tried crossing over to the other ship, but he could not have asked for a more successful rendezvous with his new home away from home.
So much for the easy part, he thought.
“I believe this is your stop,” Ludden quipped. “Don’t forget to tip your driver.”
He patted his jumpsuit. “I’m afraid I forgot my wallet. Guess I’m going to have to owe you.”
“Okay, but you’re looking at six-plus months of interest.”
“Take it up with NASA.”
“Are you kidding? They’re more cash-strapped than I am.”
Ain’t it the truth, Shaun thought.
He unstrapped himself from his seat. He had never been subject to space-sickness, so he had quickly adjusted to the lack of gravity. Taking care to retrieve the dog tags, he floated to the back of the cockpit and opened the hatch to the mid-deck below. A convenient ladder helped him descend headfirst to the lower level, where the airlock to the docking ring waited. A red indicator light above the hatch warned that the airlock was not yet pressurized.
He rang the doorbell, so to speak. A video-com connected him with the spaceship’s flight deck. “Permission to come aboard?”
“Just give us a second to roll out the welcome mat,” the female voice replied. An attractive redhead appeared on a miniature video screen adjacent to the hatchway. “Pressurizing now.”
Pumps rapidly filled the airlock with breathable air, so that the air pressure in the docking ring matched that of both the shuttle and the Lewis & Clark. The process took place with admirable speed; within minutes, he was able to unseal the hatch and rise through the vestibule connecting the two ships. The hatch at the other end opened onto the lower deck of the Lewis & Clark’s command module. The ship’s onboard spacelab occupied most of the mid-deck. This was where he and the rest of the crew would be conducting many of their experiments over the next several months. Right now, everything was stowed away in preparation for their departure.
Two people floated just beyond the airlock.
“About time you got here,” astronaut Alice Fontana teased him, her arms crossed over her chest. An athletic redhead of Amazonian physique, she was oriented in the same direction as Shaun. Her blue jumpsuit proudly bore a Canadian flag decal in addition to its NASA logo. Microgravity had given her a slightly fuller face than usual and added at least an inch to her height. Her naturally flame-colored hair had been cut practically short. In her mid-thirties, she was younger than Shaun but not so much that he thought of her as a kid. She was his copilot on this mission.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he joked back. “Just be thankful you were safely up here, away from the dog-and-pony shows.”
Prior to the usual prelaunch quarantine, Shaun had spent the last few weeks doing publicity for the mission, in an attempt to drum up public and political support. Compared with the endless interviews, rubber chicken, and schmoozing, blasting off into space had been a breeze.
“Poor baby!” She gave him a hug that was slightly awkward, given their history, then disengaged quickly. “Better you than me.”
“I have to agree,” Dr. Marcus O’Herlihy said. Eschewing a hug, he shook Shaun’s hand instead, while holding on to a handrail to anchor himself. “Welcome aboard, Colonel.”
A distinguished-looking black man in his early fifties, about Shaun’s age, O’Herlihy had a slightly professorial air befitting his status as one of the world’s foremost astrophysicists. Combining disciplines, he was also the mission’s resident physician. His neatly trimmed beard and mustache had gone gray, and, like Fontana, he was slightly taller and rounder of face while weightless. His deep voice had a slight Irish accent.
“Good to see you, Doc,” Shaun greeted him. “You two been taking good care of my ship?”
“I think we’ve gotten everything battened down,” O’Herlihy said. He and Fontana had been conducting system tests and checks while the Lewis & Clark was in orbit. Everything needed to be working perfectly before the ship set off for its ultimate destination; after all, it wasn’t as if they could call for a tow if anything broke down later on. “We’re merely awaiting your final inspection and that last load of supplies from the Renaissance, of course.”
“Don’t worry,” Shaun said. “I remembered to get the groceries.” He drifted further into the module. “So, which one of you ordered the pineapple pizza?”
“That would be me,” Fontana confessed. “And don’t even think of breaking into my private stock—unless you ask nice, that is.”
“Duly noted,” Shaun said. “I promise not to raid the fridge when you’re not looking.”
“I’m sure we’ll all be on our best behavior,” O’Herlihy said. “Or this could be a very long trip.”
Shaun smiled. It was good to see them again. The three of them had been training together for months and had been judged psychologically compatible by the space shrinks back at Houston. Good thing we get along, he thought, given that we’re going to be stuck together for the next one-point-two billion kilometers.
He made a mental note to give Ludden a tour of the Lewis & Clark before she headed back home.
“Prepare to engage engines,” Shaun ordered.
Days had passed, and more than two thousand pounds of stores and equipment had been transferred from the Renaissance to the Lewis & Clark. The shuttle had returned to Earth, leaving the larger ship clear to depart. All final system checks had been completed. They were as ready as they were ever going to be.
Fontana and Shaun were strapped in at the helm, facing the front windows. O’Herlihy was off to the side at one of the auxiliary computer terminals. A steady stream of chatter flowed back and forth between the ship and Mission Control. The Lewis & Clark had orbited the Earth more than thirty times since Shaun had come aboard, once every ninety minutes. It was time to stop chasing their own tail and get on their way.
“Mission Control to Lewis & Clark,” a voice spoke to them from Houston. “You are cleared for departure. Bon voyage.”
“Copy that,” Shaun responded. “See you at New Year’s.”
He glanced over at Fontana. “You ready to get this show on the road?”
“Stop stalling and hit the gas,” she shot back. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting any younger.”
“All right.” He manually initiated the warm-up sequence. A chronometer on the instrument panel counted down to the precise moment they were scheduled to leave orbit. His father’s dog tags dangled around his neck. “Here goes nothing.”
The Lewis & Clark’s spanking-new “impulse” engines were state-of-the-art. To date, the technology had been tested on unmanned probes such as Nomad, but this was the first time it had been employed to carry human cargo out into the solar system. The system employed powerful fusion reactors to generate a propulsive stream of high-energy plasma. In theory, it would make interplanetary travel feasible at last.
In theory . . .
The reactors had been online for hours. The engines idled, ready to go to impulse. The chronometer clicked down to zero, and Shaun felt a sudden surge of acceleration, nowhere near as potent as what he had felt blasting off from the Cape, but the ship was obviously speeding up. He kept a close eye on the gauges and monitors before him, on the lookout for the slightest irregularity or sign of trouble, but everything seemed in order. He had run through this sequence in the simulator more than a dozen times before. It was almost hard to believe he was finally doing it for real.
“Breaking orbit,” he said. “One-quarter power.”
Not wanting to stress the engines right away or accidentally plow into any unexpected space junk at top speed, they planned to start off slowly and gradually accelerate to their maximum speed of 556,000 kilometers per hour. At that rate, they would reach their destination in a little more than ninety days.
“Goodbye, Earth,” Fontana said. “Next stop: Saturn.”
Just a few years ago, the prospect of reaching Saturn in only ninety days would have been nothing but science fiction, but the impulse drive promised to change everything. The stars were still out of reach, except for sleeper ships such as the late, lamented DY-100, but at least it wouldn’t take years to reach the outer planets anymore.
Or so they intended to prove.
“Ninety days,” Fontana mused. “Good thing I loaded plenty of crossword puzzles into my personal reader. Gotta keep my mind sharp.”
Shaun kept his eyes on the gauges. “If your mind was any sharper, it would draw blood.”
“Thanks,” she answered. “I think.”
In truth, they had plenty to keep them occupied on the way to Saturn: observations of Mars, Jupiter, and the asteroid belt, among other things. He had spent a lot of time over the last several weeks explaining why they were bypassing those nearer destinations in favor of Saturn, but they certainly had their reasons, only some of which he had been able to discuss publicly. Mars would have to wait, maybe for the Ares missions. Plans for future interplanetary jaunts were already being drawn up, contingent on the fluctuating economy and the success of this mission.
No pressure there, he thought wryly.
“What the devil?” O’Herlihy exclaimed.
His shocked tone immediately put Shaun on alert. He glanced back over his shoulder at the doctor, who was staring wide-eyed at the display panel before him.
“What is it, Doc?”
“Hold on,” O’Herlihy muttered. “This isn’t possible.”
“What?” Shaun demanded. “Talk to me, Marcus.”
“I picked up an odd transmission, a wireless signal, coming from the habitat module.”
That didn’t make any sense. There were no ship-to-Earth communication systems in the habitat, and nobody was there to operate them in the first place. “Must be a glitch.”
“That’s what I thought, but . . .” O’Herlihy hesitated, as though he could scarcely believe what he was saying. “There’s activity in the hab. One of the computer terminals has been activated . . . and it appears that someone has just, er, used the facilities.”
It took Shaun a second to realize what the doctor meant. “The head?”
There were two gravity-free toilets aboard the ship, one in the hab and one mid-deck below the cockpit. Shaun and his fellow astronauts had personally insisted on that particular redundancy. Nobody wanted to get stuck out beyond the asteroid belt without backup facilities.
But nobody was using them right now.
“That’s right,” O’Herlihy confirmed. He called up a systems report on his screen. “Waste-disposal suction was activated for approximately five seconds about two minutes ago.”
Shaun set the ship’s controls on automatic, then unstrapped himself from the pilot’s seat and floated over to see for himself. He peered over the doctor’s shoulder at the monitor. “Could it have turned itself on and off?”
“I don’t see how,” O’Herlihy said. “Certainly, it hasn’t been doing that while Alice and I have been testing things. Nor am I aware of any reports concerning such a malfunction.”
“That’s because there aren’t any,” Shaun said. He would have known about any problem with the ship’s systems and hardware, no matter how trivial. The toilets were not supposed to switch on at random, and neither were the computer terminals. And then there was that unaccountable signal O’Herlihy had noticed.
“You don’t think . . . ?” Fontana exchanged a baffled look with the two men. “A stowaway?”
“Get real,” Shaun said. There had never been an actual stowaway in the entire history of human space exploration. That was the stuff of silly sci-fi movies and TV shows. Granted, the Lewis & Clark was bigger and roomier than an old-fashioned space capsule, with a lot more places to hide, but still . . . “It can’t be.”
“What’s the alternative?” Fontana asked. “A ghost?”
There was only one way to find out. He activated the video-com and hit the speaker button. “Hello? Is anybody there?” He felt ridiculous even asking. “Please identify yourself.”
Nobody answered, of course. The small video screen above the speaker remained blank. Shaun wondered what the hell he had expected. O’Herlihy chuckled and shook his head. “I must say, I didn’t really expect us to go space-happy quite so soo—”
“Oh, hi!” a female voice interrupted him via the comm. A palm covered the video feed. “Is that our skipper speaking?” A playful tone made the moment even more surreal. “I have to ask. Is it now safe for passengers to resume use of personal electronic devices?”
The astronauts stared in shock at the comm. “Oh, no,” O’Herlihy whispered in dismay. From the sound of his voice, only the lack of gravity kept the blood from draining from his face. “This can’t be happening.”
Fontana, on the other hand, acted more pissed-off than chagrined. Turning away from the comm, she glared at the hatch separating them from the habitat. “Did you hear that? Who the hell does she think she is?”
Shaun just wanted answers, pronto. “Who is this?” He pressed down on the speaker button with more force than necessary. “And what are you doing on my ship?”
“Come and see,” the stowaway replied. “I’m not going anywhere.”
We’ll see about that, Shaun thought.
He launched himself toward the hatch.
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