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Ember of the Past by Mike Kupari - Baen Books


Adrift

Terry Burlison


"No, no, no!" Dan Colton shouted, slamming the thruster control on his EMU backpack fully forward. Directly ahead, a truss beam swung out of control, another EMU clinging to it like a bug on a girder, jets firing frantically as its occupant tried to wrestle the beam under control.

"I've got it, Cole," Chris Brody's voice rang in Colton’s helmet. Colton shook his head. Damn kid, about to die from a rookie mistake.

No, he told himself. Not on his watch.

"No, you don't have it!" Cole jetted behind the beam and fired his grappler with a flick of his wrist. The grappler head shot out from under his seat like a startled rabbit, trailing a thin wire as it sped toward the beam forty meters away. It struck and instantly riveted itself. Cole applied the momentum brakes, then felt his thrusters firing, slowing the beam. A perfect shot: the grappler had snagged it just off the center of mass, stopping it in mid-flight and killing its rotation before it killed Chris Brody. Cole let out a slow breath.

"Sorry, Cole," Brody said. "Once it was moving, I just couldn't stop it."

Cole reeled himself to the beam, detached the grappler head, and stowed it back under the seat of his EMU. He didn't respond. Let the kid stew a little; it'll help him remember. Once he assured himself the beam was more-or-less stationary, he jetted over the top of it and found Brody waiting for him on the other side, still grappled to the beam and nearly pinned between it and one of the power satellite's main trusses, probably afraid to move for fear of killing himself. Cole suppressed a grin. He couldn't read the kid's expression through his gold visor, but he could imagine it—he’d worn it himself a few times.

"How many times have I told you?"

"I know, I know. 'Mass isn't weight. Momentum never changes.'"

Cole smiled at the frustration in the kid's voice. Maybe the lesson was finally soaking in. "Simulations don't really prepare you, do they? Just remember, no matter how confident you feel, you can never have too much—"

"—humility in orbit." Brody finished for him. "Do you have a saying for everything?"

"Just the important things. So, yes." Cole looked along the beam, comparing its position and orientation to the giant truss they were erecting on Solar Power Satellite Three. Looked good. "Call C&C and have them task an arm over here to stabilize it. Then call Smutty and Legs. They're by Truss Two. Tell them we're ready to attach this guy. I'll be back soon."

As one of SPS-3's shift foremen, Cole believed if you dress down a worker, you give him a new responsibility right away to keep his spirits up. In space, too little confidence can kill a person as quickly as too much. Brody would learn—assuming he lived long enough.

"Uh, you're leaving?" Brody asked, his voice a bit higher.

"Gotta top off my tanks. I just used up a bunch of prop saving some newb's butt."

"Sorry, Cole."

"Look, you'll do fine, kid; just use your head."

"Sure. And, uh, thanks. I guess that's why they call you the legend, huh?"

Another voice chimed in over the comm loop. "Yeah, he's a legend in his own mind!" Other voices snickered. Cole sighed. Now that the incident was over, radio silence wasn't observed. Unfortunately.

"Yeah, yeah," Cole muttered. He aimed the targeting pip on his helmet's HUD at the nearest refueling station, laid in a course, and headed over. Brody was a good worker, he thought, although he was so new he hadn't even been christened with a nickname. Cole remembered his own struggles during his first six-month tour, over two years ago. He never would have believed he'd be a foreman already, and he was pretty sure his own supervisor would have agreed. Maybe someday Brody would make foreman, too. Stranger things had happened.

But not many, he thought with a grin.

After refueling, Cole headed back toward the wayward beam. He took a wide, arcing trajectory to get a look at their progress. SPS-3 was early in its construction phase, still in low earth orbit and scarcely more than a giant aluminum X with a cluster of pressurized cylinders and gleaming solar-cell wings at the center. The lowering sun sparkled off a hundred surfaces and illuminated two thin lines radiating above and below: the twin 75 kilometer tethers. The lower cable attached the SPS to the cache of beams and panels awaiting their turn in the assembly sequence. The upper tether connected to the counterbalance, as large as the SPS itself, gleaming brilliantly far overhead.

He glanced at the sun, now just off the horizon. Better get back to Brody before dark, he decided. As Cole touched the thruster control, something exploded against his back. His head slammed against his faceplate, bolts of pain shot through his entire body, and everything went black.

#

Inside the Command and Control module, Shayla Rivard frowned at her data displays. Something was wrong; something had changed. She scanned the graphs, numbers, and indicators, trying to coax the anomaly from her subconscious. She found it just as a red indicator light flashed to life: someone's transponder had dropped offline. She cleared the indicator and ran a systems check. Everything seemed okay at her end. Wiping her palms on her jumpsuit, she pressed the footpad to toggle her mic hot and cleared her throat a couple of times. She'd been on SPS-3 only two weeks and still got nervous talking to the workers on EVA. Especially the foremen. And most especially Dan Colton.

"Um, Red One, C&C. Can you verify your transponder status?" she called and waited. Nothing. She frowned. "Red One, C&C, comm check." Still nothing. She scanned her console. Had she done something wrong, taken something offline by accident?

No. Believe in yourself, girl, her grandma used to tell her. Even if you're the only one who does. "Red One, C&C on UHF2," she called, changing frequencies. Still nothing. "Red One, C&C on all frequencies, comm check."

She wiped her palms again, then took a hit from the squeeze tube of water she kept on her console. "Red Two, this is C&C, do you copy?"

"Roger, Shay," came Garret "Smitty" Smith's voice through her headset.

"Do you have a visual on Red One?"

"Umm, no. Cole's probably taking a nap someplace, the lazy SOB."

"No, I don't think so. His transp—"

"Just kidding, sweetheart."

Shay glanced around; the other two techs at their C&C consoles were grinning at her. "Copy," she replied, trying not to imagine Smitty and the others outside laughing at her.

She scanned her console again looking for any clues, but the displays offered no help. Steeling her courage, she punched up another loop and cleared her voice again. "Supe, C&C. I, uh, I think we've got a problem."

#

Cole thought he had opened his eyes, but wasn't sure. They felt open, but he could see nothing but blackness. He reached toward his face and his hand hit something hard. Helmet? Spacesuit. That's right, Cole was strapped in an EMU, out on an assembly EVA. But then—where was everything?

He turned his head. Still nothing. No stars, no sun, no SPS, not even his helmet displays. Fighting back a surge of panic, he repeated to himself: Do no harm, do no harm. An expression EVA Ops had adopted from the medical profession. In space, conservation was law, be it oxygen, propellant, momentum, anything. A bad decision could make things worse in a big hurry. So when in doubt, think it out.

Air first, of course—every spacer's primary concern. Was he breathing from his suit's chest pack or the EMU's much larger oxygen supply? He fingers found the umbilical connecting his chest pack to the EMU and followed it to the redirect valve. He turned it to route the EMU's propulsive oxygen into his suit. Immediately, he felt the backflow valve click into place. Bad: the EMU's tanks were empty. If not for the backflow valve, O2 would be flowing out of his suit. He had maybe five hours in his suit pack. The recirc fan hummed faintly in his ears, so he wasn't going to die choking on his own CO2. At least not immediately.

Step two: power. He cycled his EMU's power, but nothing happened, no indicators, no HUD, just the secondary battery for his suit fan. He toggled to backup, even his portable supply—still nothing. Very bad.

Propulsion? Not much he could do there. If the tanks were empty, he wasn't going anyplace he wasn't already headed. He’d worry about that later. Assuming there was a later.

Communication? No primary power, so no comm. Really, really bad, and getting worse.

Location? That was a very good question. Where were the stars? Cole fought back the thought that he’d had been struck blind by some act of God or Man. He twisted as much as his suit and EMU would allow. There! At the limit of his vision, he saw a faint band of light, a few stars sprinkled just above it: the Earth's limb. He breathed a huge sigh of relief, then chastised himself for wasting oxygen. He hadn’t been struck blind; he was simply facing downward, toward the black ocean below, during a night pass.

As he watched, the band of stars moved slowly into view, the limb of the Earth slashing the sky into darkness at an oblique angle. That meant his EMU's attitude control was out and he was drifting, slowly tumbling. The gyros must still be spinning, or he'd be rotating a lot worse than this. Cole watched the stars' movement carefully, trying to judge his rotation. He wasn't a pilot, but he had a natural aptitude for how things move in space. No small thing, given that intuition bred on Earth had killed more than one spaceman. Another saying sprung to mind: In orbit, there's no such thing as "common sense."

Cole watched the horizon for a few more minutes, then carefully grasped the attitude hand controller. "Wish me luck," he muttered to the stars. He tweaked the controller and felt the EMU respond. Good, the gyroscopic attitude control system was still working. It ran off a different power bus from the jets. That meant he could change his orientation, at least until he saturated the gyros. If he couldn't fire his jets, though, he wouldn't be able to unsaturate them and would end up helpless, tumbling out of control. Very carefully, Cole stopped his slow tumble, orienting himself with his feet toward the Earth, facing in the direction he sensed he was orbiting. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

Then another surge of panic threatened him. The SPS, brilliantly lit even at night, was nowhere to be seen. Slowly, carefully, he tweaked the controller and turned a full three hundred sixty degrees. The SPS was gone.

Impossible, but undeniable. He was alone.

#

"I don't know. One minute he was there; the next, he was gone!"

Shay looked up into the dark, deep-set eyes of her boss, SPS Construction Supervisor Lucas Gage, half-expecting scorn or amusement. But he just nodded at her report. "What was his last position?"

Shay brought up a diagram of the SPS. "Right here," she said, pointing.

"You tried all frequencies?"

"Yes, sir. Oops, sorry. I mean, yes, Luke." She felt her face warm again.

Gage didn't seem to notice; he just stared at the display. "Who saw him last?"

Shay pressed her footpad to go hot. "Red Five, you had the last visual on Red One?"

"Uh, yeah," Chris Brody's voice replied. "We were working on Truss Four, adding a nadir beam. He, um, needed to refuel. That was maybe twenty, thirty minutes ago."

Gage traced a finger along the display. "So he probably took a path like this to the prop station. Refueled, then headed over to here, maybe to examine the work. But what happened to him then?"

Darkness swept over the viewing ports as the SPS coasted into darkness. "Great," Gage muttered. "We couldn't find him in daylight, how are we going to find him at night?" He turned to one of the other techs at another console. "Turn out all the exteriors. Shay, tell everyone we're going dark. We'll give their eyes time to adjust, then see if anyone can pick up his nav lights, either against the Earth or drifting among the stars."

How does he stay so calm? Shay wondered. Her own fingers trembled as she relayed the instructions. When the exteriors went out, she could sense the deeper darkness through the nearest viewport. She wanted to glide over to it and look for Mr. Colton herself, but that was silly: the workers outside had a much better view than she. Taking another hit of water, she talked patience into herself.

"Anything?" Gage finally called over the loop. Five voices called back with the same answer: Dan Colton was gone.

Shay shook her head. This was impossible. For a moment, she wondered if this was some kind of elaborate test, to see how she performed under pressure. That was stupid. She had already survived many simulations during training; they wouldn't waste a whole crew shift just to test her. Something was terribly wrong, and she had no idea how to identify it, much less fix it. She looked at Gage, drifting next to her, arms crossed, face creased in a frown, staring at her console like it was a bitter enemy.

"Dammit," he muttered. "I've tried for years to get an active radar up here." He looked over his shoulder. "Maria, turn the exteriors back on."

Then he took a deep breath and turned back. "Shay, call NORAD. Maybe a defense radar can find him."

#

Cole stared at the sky, then at the black Earth below, then back at the stars. On his first tour, on SPS-2 two years ago, he had always kept careful track of his orbital position. During his spare time, he memorized the light patterns of the cities they passed over: Quito, Nairobi, Palembang, Port Morsby off to the south. He even learned the constellations, almost impossible to find in the myriad of stars filling half the sky. The beauty and majesty of low earth orbit had enthralled him, the culmination of a dream forged in the dark skies of his Montana childhood. By his second tour, a year later, it seemed less like an exotic vacation and more like a second home, more comfortable than appreciated. Now, on his third and final tour, he had scarcely taken notice of the wonders surrounding him, above or below. Getting the job done had become his life's touchstone. Finish the job—everything else up here was just distraction.

He drove his thoughts back to the problems at hand. Since passing into darkness, a deepening chill had gradually settled over him; his suit's thermal controls no longer worked. The night pass was under thirty minutes, so he should be back into sunlight before freezing to death. And his food and water tubes still worked. But where was he? Over the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian? He tried to think where he might be, what had happened, but his thoughts refused to focus. Trapped in his almost-dead spacesuit, he felt his senses deadening as well: nothing to smell or hear, nothing to see but the remote stars. The cold, the utter deprivation, the aloneness sank into him like a narcotic. He stared into the blackness lurking below him. He could imagine that the planet below was utterly devoid of life—that he was a lone sentience orbiting a dead world in an empty universe.

No! He shook his head viciously to clear his thoughts. He was Dan Colton, age 30, from Bozeman, Montana. Married to Jenny Colton, with a beautiful six-month old daughter, Meredith, back home in Florida.

Jen and Merry. They seemed a thousand years and a million miles away, but he clung to their memory, willing them closer to him. Little Merry, with her bright eyes and wonderful giggle. Jen, holding Merry to her breast, gazing at her with eyes moist with love.

Cole blinked tears from his own eyes. "There is no crying in space," he whispered—it's too hard to wipe away tears inside a spacesuit. Buoyed by the memory of his family, he would face whatever the next few hours brought—by himself, maybe, but not alone.

A brilliant star flared to life in front of him. The torpor and isolation evaporated as he recognized it. The SPS! He could even make out the X shape of the structure. Then he gasped. Good God, he must be kilometers away! How the hell had he gotten here?

And more to the point: How on earth—or above it—was he going to get back?

#

"They got him!" Shay cried out, staring at the data on her console.

Gage was by her side in an instant. "Where is he?"

"They're still filtering the data," she said. "We were lucky; NORAD was able to task a Navy tracking ship. Otherwise it would have taken another—" She stopped, staring in horror at the solution as it converged.

"What is it?" Gage asked.

Shay's fingers flew over her touchpad. A wireframe view of the station appeared. She zoomed out, and out—and out. Another red dot appeared on the screen.

"There," she whispered. "That's him, Luke."

"Way out there?"

"Yeah. There's a ground tracking station coming up. We'll get another radar solution after that pass, then we'll know his orbit a lot better. But that's him."

"Okay, people," Gage said, over an open comm loop. "We've found Cole. He's adrift, about thirty kilometers ahead of us. I want everyone in from EVA, right now. The clock is running and we need a solution, fast! I want Red and Blue teams to C&C, ASAP. Everyone else, back to your stations or bunks, unless you've got something that helps."

Shay felt Gage lean closer to her. In a quiet voice, he asked, "What do you suggest?"

Me? Shay thought, then nodded. Yeah, me. She was the orbit specialist, the person responsible for propellant budgets, rendezvous support for uploading vehicles, everything related to orbital flight. Including, she realized, hopelessly lost EVA workers. She wiped her palms on her thighs.

"I'll need time," she said, already knowing time wouldn't help. At a glance, she knew that whether or not Dan Colton was still breathing, he was already dead.

"Work on it, Shay. I want your recommendation by the time Red Team is assembled. Make it twenty minutes."

Twenty minutes or twenty years, Shay thought, I can't change the laws of gravity.

#

"Okay, what have we got?" Gage asked the assembled team.

Everyone turned to Shay. She cleared her throat, her face warming. She hated being the center of attention at the best of times; now, when someone's life depended on her, she wished she could crawl into her sleeping bag and let someone else handle it.

But Dan Colton's life depended on her. Even though the situation was hopeless, she had to try.

Clearing her throat, she said, "Well, we know where Mr. Colton, er, Cole is. Right now he's about one hundred twenty kilometers ahead of us."

After a shocked moment of silence, everyone protested at once. Gage quieted them with a gesture. "You heard her—a hundred twenty klicks."

"We'll have a more accurate orbit for him once NORAD and NASA get more skin-track data."

"What do you mean? Isn't he in our orbit?" a stocky, dark featured man asked. Smitty, Red Two. He intimidated Shay. Broad shouldered, heavy browed, gregarious and well-liked. Everything Shay wasn't.

"Uh, no. Not any more. I've run an analysis using the data we have. The only way he could have gotten out that far is if he fired all his thrusters and ran through an entire propellant load more-or-less against track." She squirmed under Smitty's blank stare. "Er, the opposite direction we're moving."

"So that put him a lower orbit, right?" a handsome blond kid asked. Chris Brody. Shay had expected the construction workers all to be big burly people, like Smitty. Yet Chris was nearly as small as she, one of the reasons she noticed him—but not the only one. Until now, though, she'd never had the courage to talk to him off the comm loops.

"Yeah, a lower, faster orbit," she explained. "In the thirty-some minutes since it happened, he's moved over a hundred kilometers ahead of us. After a whole orbit, he'll be over six hundred kilometers away."

Gage raised a hand against the murmurs of disbelief. "Shay, any idea how this happened?"

This was one of the two questions she'd feared. There were only a couple of answers: one improbable, one unthinkable. "Um, no, not for sure. It might be a malfunction, but he's got overrides. Plus, I don't see how a single malfunction could also kill his transponder and comm."

"Then what?"

Everyone stared at her. She felt sweat beading above her eyes. "I guess, I mean, has he been depressed or anything?"

She expected an avalanche of protest, but silence swept the room. Some people stared at the floor, some at her. Lucas Gage scowled but considered her words. "Well, Smitty, what do you think? You know him best."

Smitty shook his head. "No way, Luke. He loves this job. He's got a new kid, for Christ's sake! No way he did this intentionally. Hell, this guy's saved more people's asses than I've kissed! Not Cole, Luke. Not Cole."

Gage nodded. "Then we'll assume it's an accident. He can't transmit, can't maneuver. That means he's on his own, and we have to get to him. Somehow."

"Can't we just go after him?" asked a tall blond woman. "Legs" Stanworth, Red Three. She also intimidated Shay—but so did everyone. "How about a double EMU? It has more prop."

Shay shook her head. "No." She paused. For her, orbital mechanics was second nature. Trying to explain it, however . . . "To catch up to him, you'll need a lot more delta-v than he burned, which you could get with a double EMU. But then you have to stop once you get there. That’s twice the prop. Then you need still more to stop the separation and come back, carrying his additional mass as well, then more to stop once you’re here. On top of that, the more prop you add, the lower your performance and the more you need. When you figure out how much all that takes . . . I've worked the numbers; it's just isn't possible." Her voice broke and she stopped to clear her throat. "It’s not even close."

Gage must have noticed the doubtful looks cast at her. "Shay's the expert. If that's her analysis, that's the way it is. Wishing it won't get Cole back. We need another solution. Legs, you checked the logs. How much O2 does he have?"

The tall blond said, "He didn't top off his breathing tanks when he refueled, so he's got maybe five hours left."

"This is unbelievable!" Smitty said. "We can freaking see him! You're saying we can't do anything?"

Since they had passed into daylight, they could, indeed, see Dan Colton—a bright speck below and ahead of them. But to Shay, he might as well have been on Mars.

"Don't panic, people," Gage said, taking a moment to fix each of them in his gaze. "Keep on task. We'll move heaven and hell if we have to, but we're getting Cole back. Shay, what can we do?"

That was the second question she dreaded. Shay stared out the viewing port beside her. From that window she couldn’t see Colton, alone, adrift. If it was an accident of some kind, he was probably already dead. Which was probably better.

Six months ago she had been finishing her Masters thesis. Now she had the most exotic job in the world. Danger. Excitement. Everything her life had lacked. Plus, a chance to forge real friendships among the twenty workers she'd be spending half a year with. Now, only two weeks later, she wanted nothing more than to be home, away from slow deaths she could do nothing about. Friendships? She still spent all her time working or studying. She had hardly even met Dan Colton—and he was already dead.

Tears welled in Shay's eyes. Her parents died in a car accident when she was young. Her grandma had raised her, and Shay wished she could call her now, take comfort in the old woman’s wisdom as she had so many times. Grandma wouldn’t know what to do, of course, but she’d know what to say.

Something moved outside. Shay wiped her tears away to clear her vision. Everyone was supposed to be inside. Could it be . . . her heart skipped before she realized it was just the crawler heading up the tether on its assigned run up to Cache Two at the counterbalance. Disappointed, Shay's thoughts returned to her grandma. Something nagged at her. What had Luke said, about moving Heaven? It reminded her of something her grandma used to say, about a mountain . . . and Mohammad.

She felt her instincts kicking in, her almost subconscious analytical gift. The answer flashed into her mind, fully formed. She turned to the others, grinning. "We don't have to move Heaven, just a piece of it!"

They all stared at her. She stared right back—and her face didn't feel warm at all.

Gage asked eagerly, "You have a way of getting him back?"

Shay shook her head. "No, like I said, there's no way to bring him back to the station."

He scowled. "Then what?"

She smiled. "We take the station to him!"

#

"It's some kind of magic, I tell you!" Brody said from the back of the room.

Shay sighed. He was cute, but kind of dense. "No, it's science. Let me try again."

With a gesture, she cleared the diagrams and equations on the wall's databoard and started over, her fingertip scribing glowing lines on the surface. Behind her, she sensed a dozen pair of eyes following her every movement. She hoped they couldn't see her fingers trembling.

"Here's our current configuration: our station in low Earth orbit, Cache One tethered to us from below, the counterbalance overhead. We're at the center of mass, which by the way is what prevents you workers from getting thrown off when you go EVA. Orbital dynamics keeps the tethers vertical. This means Cache One, down below, is actually moving too slow for its orbital altitude, and the counterbalance is moving too fast."

Gage said, "Right, that's what keeps the tension in the tethers."

Shay nodded. The rugged-looking supervisor always impressed her with his sharp mind. He probably knew some of this as well as she, but was allowing her to take the lead. Whether she wanted to or not.

Shay turned back to the board. "Now, if we separate the upper tether, the counterbalance flies off into higher orbit, like an Olympic hammer throw. By conservation of angular momentum, we and Cache One drop into a lower, elliptical orbit like this. In about one rev, we catch up to Mr. Colton."

"Magic," Brody repeated. "I mean, I understand how things move in orbit—relative motion and all. We work with it every day. But this . . ."

"If she says it will work, it'll work," Gage said. Shay felt her face flush with pleasure. "But it does seem awfully simple," he added.

"Well, it is and it isn't," she admitted. "The timing has to be right. And I'm working with analysts at Corporate to lock down the induced libration. We're not sure exactly what effect the extended LEO exposure might have had on the Young's Modulus of the—"

"We don't need the details, Shay." Gage said. "Have you heard the term, 'pearls before swine'?"

She smiled. She had indeed: her grandma often used it when Shay tried to describe her career. "But there is one problem. It's a one-shot deal; we have no control over it. If we did it now, we'd move too far ahead of where he is. So . . . we need to wait for him to get farther away from us."

"Wait?" Gage asked. "How long?"

Shay hesitated. "Um, it'll be another two revs. Three hours—a bit more, actually. Then about two more for the maneuver and retrieval."

Gage's disappointment darkened his face. "Five hours. He'll be out of oxygen before that."

Shay grinned. "Actually, I think I have an answer for that, too. But Mr. Brody won't like it."

#

Another orbit. Another sunrise, sunset, and now another thirty minute ordeal through darkness that would feel like hours. Cold seeped into Cole’s body and he wished again that he could clutch his arms around his chest for warmth.

A meteoroid, Cole had decided. Or, more likely, some run-of-the-mill chunk of space debris. He remembered the impact now, something slamming into his EMU. No telling the damage it did: the impact, the shock wave, the static field it must have generated. Probably shorted everything back there, frozen the +X translation valves open, God knows what else. All-in-all, Cole was lucky to be alive.

He snorted. Lucky? An instantaneous death versus this? he thought, teeth chattering. During daylight, he faced the sun to warm up as much as he could stand. It kept him from freezing quite to death on the night passes. He had never appreciated the work his suit’s environmental systems did every orbit, just keeping him warm and alive.

He had to be running low on oxygen, he figured. An hour left, maybe two. How would it happen? Would he just get sleepy, gradually drifting off and never waking up? Or would he die squirming and thrashing, gasping for another gulp of air?

Another sunrise was approaching. He had loved the sunrises on his first tour. The gleaming arc of the Earth's limb, the reds, then yellows, then the explosion of light as the sun burst into being. This would be his last, he decided. The station was many hundreds, maybe thousands of klicks back by now, nothing but another star among the multitude.

Teeth chattering with the cold, he faced his final sunrise. He would warm up one more time, then face the end with dignity, on his own terms. Dan Colton wasn't going to die struggling and gasping like an animal.

He thought again of Jenny. Had they told her what happened? Probably not; why wake her in the middle of the night just to terrify her for a couple of hours. Cole hoped they hadn't. After all, he couldn't even talk to her, would never have a chance say goodbye to her and little Merry. Even his suit recorder was out.

Cole remembered a story he had read as a child, about a stowaway on a spaceship who then had to die to save the ship. At least she had gotten to talk to her loved one before the end. Cole would give anything to hear Jen's voice, or Merry's cooing, one last time.

Anything? Dan Colton had nothing to give.

The sun was beginning to warm him. His chattering stopped. A melancholy peace enveloped him. The time had come. He couldn't open his faceplate while it was under pressure, but there were other ways. He turned his EMU to look at the distant speck that was the station, his home-away-from-home, one more time and reached for his helmet release.

#

Magic, no doubt about it, Chris Brody thought as the sled took him down the tether toward Cache One. He sat strapped in a double EMU facing the tether, loaded to the max with an extra propulsive pack and oxygen tanks. He had seen the doughnut-shaped sleds scurrying up and down the tethers, of course, bringing construction materials from the cache to the SPS proper. He had often thought it would be fun to ride one, but he was re-evaluating that opinion now.

"Almost there, Red Five," Shay's voice said in his helmet. "We'll be stopping and starting you a bit until you're at exactly the right spot. Don't look up; we're using a handheld laser."

"Copy," he acknowledged. His EMU was clinging to the sled by its two grappling claws. People occasionally rode the sleds for maintenance, and they had all come back fine, he told himself. Of course, their EMUs had safety lines attached to the sled. And none of them had ever attempted a crazy stunt like this.

He watched the triplex, triple-braided tether slide by, its cross-members a blur as he streaked Earthward. But even at fifty klicks an hour, it was taking him too damned long to get where he needed to be. Finally, he felt the sled slowing.

"Stand by," Shay said. She had a nice voice, he thought. And she was pretty cute, too. Funny he hadn’t noticed it until he saw her eyes light up with her magic solution.

The sled stopped, then crept down a few more meters, then slowed to another stop.

"Okay, you're there. You remember what to do?"

"Wait for your command, then detach. I think I can handle that. Are you sure you don't need me to thrust away a bit?"

"No!" The strength of her voice surprised him. The slender girl had some juice, he was beginning to realize. "Just release, that's all. Remember what I told you: you're now moving too slowly for the altitude you're at. The tether is all that's keeping you there. Once you release, you'll start dropping and picking up speed. Do not, repeat not, use your translation thrusters until you're closing on Mr. Colton. Use only your attitude gyros if you need to reorient."

"Whatever you say, Shay," Brody said. It was kind of nice talking to her this way. Much less formal than during work shifts, when there was an entire crew listening on the comm loops.

Gage came on the loop. "Let's go over it one last time."

Yes, please, thought Brody, but was glad not to have to say it aloud.

"Okay," Shay began, "I've loaded a two-maneuver sequence into your EMU's autopilot, based on our latest tracking data. After release, you'll be in a lower orbit that will help you catch up to Mr. Colton. About a half orbit after release, your EMU will execute the first burn, putting you on an intercept course. Less than a half-rev later, it'll perform the braking maneuver." She paused, and he sensed the worry in her voice when she continued. "That'll be the tricky part. Our tracking data isn't perfect; you'll have to use the targeting pip on your HUD and adjust the timing once you're close enough. Watch your prop; we don't have a lot of margin."

We?

"Don't worry about it, Chris," Gage said. "It's just like maneuvering around the station, except you'll be going a helluva lot faster."

Yeah, and I'm such a good pilot, Brody thought, frowning. But they had needed someone small and light so they could pack as much propellant as possible. And "small and light" meant Chris Brody.

"You'll do fine, don’t worry," Gage said.

Brody shook his head; that man could read minds. But he appreciated the comment, even if he didn't believe it. "C-copy," he said, and cursed his voice for breaking.

"One minute to release," Shay said. "Hey, Chris, where are you from?"

"Uh, California," he said, taken aback by the question.

"I'm from New Orleans. Since you're so interested in magic, I should take you to meet my grandma, sometime. She knows all about voodoo and stuff." She paused. "That's where I learned it."

"You what?" Brody began, then heard Shay giggling to herself. "Very funny," he said, then realized he was smiling as well.

She called me "Chris," he thought, his grin widening. Then it occurred to him that maybe she just didn't expect to see him again.

"Okay, here we go," Shay announced. "Three, two, one, release!"

Brody opened the twin claws, releasing his EMU from the sled. Just as he'd suspected, nothing happened. "C&C, Red Five. No joy. Nothing is—" He stopped, staring at the sled.

It was moving away from him! Had they fired the maneuvering thrusters on the station? No, they couldn't move the structure that fast, could they? As he watched, the tether and sled moved further away and seemed to begin a slow drift upward. He realized that in a few moments he would be racing ahead of it, in pursuit of Dan Colton.

"You were saying, Red Five?"

Brody grinned. "I'm on my way. Science or magic, I'm on my way!"

His grin faded. No one knew yet if this mission was a rescue—or body recovery.

#

Cole took a long, last look at SPS-3. They had done good work. Ahead of schedule, for once. He had a good team. He knew they would do him proud. Goodbye, Jen. Take care of Merry, he thought. With the image of his family fixed in his mind, he reached for his helmet release—

—and stopped. A barely moving dot had appeared below the station, a new star drifting against the black background of space.

"What the hell?" he said aloud. Its movement was so slow it was barely discernible. If he hadn't spent so much time staring at the station over the last few hours, he probably wouldn't have noticed it at all. Slowly, he lowered his hand from the release.

He watched the strange sight until the light began to dim around him. Another sunset was sweeping over him as he fell into darkness at nearly thirty thousand kilometers an hour, but the mysterious dot had already moved below the station, which meant it was getting closer to him. Cole continued to stare at the SPS, illuminated, it seemed, by every exterior light. He had lost sight of the dot, but had a feeling when he raced back into sunlight, his mood was going to get a whole lot better.

#

By the time daylight exploded on him again, Cole was shivering and having trouble breathing. He could again see the bright dot, close now, but well below him.. He rotated to face the sun. Within minutes, the heat soaked into his skin, but each breath was getting harder, more labored.

Warmer now, Cole reoriented the EMU until he spotted the object. It had moved beneath him, then ahead, and was slowly climbing toward him. Finally, he recognized it: an EMU! But that wasn't possible. Oxygen deprivation?

No. Cole was cold, exhausted, running low on air, but he damn well wasn’t hallucinating.

Within minutes, the EMU slowed and approached him. Cole saw backlit plumes of vapor erupt from its jets as it slowed. A double unit. A double EMU with an additional prop-pack attached. And a single person strapped in it. Someone waving!

Cole tried to wave back, but his arms felt sluggish. He realized his pulse rate had increased, his respiration now shallower and faster. Oh God, not now. His adrenaline surge faded, blackness tugged at him. The EMU was close now, maybe fifty meters away. Whoever was flying it wasn't very good, he noticed idly. It drifted directly in front of him, not stopping, the wrong jets firing. Staring through a gray tunnel, Cole tweaked the rotational hand controller, turned his EMU a bit, then pressed a button on his EMU's arm. The spring-loaded electromagnetic grapple ejected from under his seat, heading straight for the double EMU ahead of him.

"Nice of him to come visit," Cole thought as he slipped into unconsciousness. "I hope I didn't kill him."

#

"C'mon, Cole! Can you hear me?"

Someone was shouting down a fur-lined well to him. "Leeme 'lone," he muttered.

"Cole! Dammit, wake up!"

Warm air filled Dan Colton's lungs. His eyes fluttered open. He saw a bizarre, deformed spaceman in front of him, then realized it was his own reflection in someone's helmet. A couple of deep breaths cleared his mind.

"Where am I?" he asked.

"Thank God!"

"Who? What?" The voice was familiar. "Brody?"

"Yeah, Cole. C'mon, unbuckle and get over here. I already got your umbilical attached. God, that was hard to do by myself!"

Cole’s training took over. He unstrapped himself and pushed off, landing in the open seat of the double EMU, now only a meter away. Fresh, warm air flowed into his suit through the umbilical. What a great name for that device, he realized. "What happened? I thought I was dead."

"Well, I almost was: you tried to kill me with that grappler! I was able to turn fast enough so it hit the frame instead of me. The auto-retract pulled us together. I guess that was a good thing; I wasn't doing so good at closing."

Cole managed a laugh. Before he strapped in, he reached over to his EMU and disengaged the grapple, uncoupling the two machines. They separated from Cole's EMU. As they moved away, he saw the back of it, now an unrecognizable mass of wreckage.

"Jesus Christ, what hit you? I can't believe you're still alive!" He laughed. "Only Dan Colton could take an orbital impact and live to tell the tale."

Cole stared transfixed at the disaster. Even the tiniest, most insignificant difference in the object’s trajectory and it would have missed him entirely—or blown off his head. He tore his gaze from the EMU before he vomited. Some legend.

The background hiss in Cole's headset suddenly got louder as Brody switched the comm loops to high-gain. "C&C, this is Rescue One. I have a passenger on board who'd like to say 'Hi!'"

Distant cheers erupted in Cole's headset. He waited for them to subside. "Uh, C&C, Red One here. I—" There's no crying in space. "I'm all right. Thanks."

"Glad to have you back," came Lucas Gage's voice. "Hold tight and we'll be there shortly."

Cole looked over at Brody. He could see the kid's face through his faceplate and wondered what the hell he was grinning about. "What did Gage mean, they'll be—"

"Look!" Brody pointed a finger toward the SPS.

At first, Cole noticed nothing unusual. Then—

"What the hell?" he said aloud. It looked like a living thread, very slowly undulating above the station, like a single strand of spider's web released into the still air.

The tether? Had the upper tether snapped? He watched, fascinated. Its movement was so slow it was barely discernible. Cole squinted. Was the station—moving?

"I'm dead, aren't I?" Cole asked. "Or hallucinating."

"Oh, just wait," Brody said. "It gets weirder. Hey Cole, do you believe in magic?"

SPS-3 was definitely moving relative to the stars behind it. The problem was, it seemed to be moving away! He fought down another rush of panic. Forget everything you know about how things move, they had told him in training, a thought that had been reinforced countless times on orbit. Sure enough, the station soon began dropping, then growing, getting brighter.

As the station approached, well below and behind them, Brody briefed him on what had been going on the last several hours, giving particular attention to Shay's transformation from quiet rookie to the rescue team's leader. Brody was right—it did sound like magic. But Cole didn't care. He had oxygen, heat, and—most importantly—he wasn't alone any more.

They swept into darkness again, but this time, with warm air swimming through his suit and a friend's shoulder pressed against his, Cole didn't mind. In fact he enjoyed getting to know Brody better, and getting reacquainted with the stars and cities that punctuated the darkness with light. He pointed out places Brody had never heard of, and began to hear a familiar tone in the young man’s voice:

Wonder.

When daylight blossomed over them again, the station was almost directly below them, far closer now and following much the same trajectory Brody had. Within minutes SPS-3 moved ahead, climbing toward them.

"How are they going to stop?" he asked.

"More magic," Brody said.

"It's science!" someone called through the headset. The voice was familiar, though stronger, different somehow.

"Shay? Is that you?"

"It's me, Cole. Hang in there a bit longer, big guy!"

It was Shay's voice, he thought, but it sure didn't sound like her. Earlier, he had mentally tagged her with the nickname "Shy." Maybe he needed to rethink that.

About the time the SPS reached their altitude, maybe a kilometer ahead, he saw the lower tether go slack. It, too, had been released. The station was still approaching them, though much slower now. Cole stared at it, aware his mouth was open. He tried to think of something appropriate to say, something "legendary," and finally settled on, "So, what took you guys so long?"

Cole's helmet rang with laughter. Sweet human laughter. Until this day, Cole had never appreciated how silent space could be. He stared down at the lower cache, far below and already drifting away from them. "Corporate won't be happy to lose those," he observed.

"They aren't losing them," Brody replied. "Shay says they're tasking two orbital maneuvering tugs to recover them and stow them ahead of the station. We'll use the tugs instead of the tethers from now on. But it'll take a few weeks. Maybe we all get a vacation for awhile!"

No argument from me, Cole thought, with visions of Jen, Merry, and a wide white beach in his mind.

"We should be within range of your EMU lidar now," Shay's voice informed them. "Feel free to come on in. I've cleared all the runways for you."

"Copy that," Cole said, grinning. He looked over at Brody. "You think you can take us in?"

The kid's smile gleamed through his tinted visor. "You bet. That's why they sent me, you know: my ace piloting skills."

More laughter from his headset. "Actually, it's because Ace there is the least massive person trained in EMU ops," Shay said, "and we needed all the performance we could get."

Ace, thought Cole. And thus a nickname is born.

The background noise dropped; Brody had switched back to internal comm so they could talk in private. "Shay's the one who really saved you, Cole. You wouldn't believe how fast her mind works: radar data, orbital maneuvers, all that tether stuff. She's gonna be a real star, you watch. She's like a genius or something! Or maybe a genie."

Cole smiled at the admiration in Brody's voice. "Star, huh? You know, I like the sound of that. And she's pretty cute, don't you think?"

Brody's grin widened. "Yeah, I'd noticed that."

Cole felt the gentle push of the thrusters as Brody maneuvered them back to the station. He double-checked each move the kid made, feeling more like a driving instructor than a construction foreman, but when they finally arrived he had to admit the kid had done a pretty decent job. They berthed next to the air lock, unstrapped, and entered. Cole dogged the hatch closed and let his grip linger on the hard titanium of the handle. It felt good.

"Pressurizing," Brody said. Moments later, they removed their helmets and stripped out of their pressure suits. Cole took a deep breath, relishing the metallic scent of SPS-3. Before opening the inner hatch, Brody reached out and shook Cole's hand, which felt even better. "Good to have you back, Cole."

Cole grinned at Brody, whose blond hair was now plastered against his scalp with sweat, but didn't have time to respond. Someone opened the inner hatch and before he knew what was happening arms were pulling them into the EVA prep module. Cheers erupted around him. Legs Stanworth kissed him on the mouth and moments later Smitty grabbed him and nearly did the same. Every worker on the station was packed into the module to welcome him back. After the emptiness of the last few hours, he felt dizzy, claustrophobic, overwhelmed. And he cherished it.

Eventually, he found himself in front of Lucas Gage, who just grinned at him and shook his hand. "You know, we don't pay overtime for joyrides," he said.

Cole laughed. "As long as you don't dock my pay for the EMU, I'm good." Over Gage's shoulder, he saw Legs and Smitty laughing and hugging a petite, attractive black girl. "Be right back," he said.

As he drifted over, Smitty and Legs saw him coming and moved away to give him some privacy. He stared into Shay Rivard's big brown eyes. They began to shimmer with tears.

"Hello, Star," he said, and could tell she was blushing under that lovely caramel skin. Shay threw her arms around his neck and pressed her face to his shoulder. He felt her slight form sobbing against him, releasing the hours of pent-up tension. I guess there is crying in space, after all, he thought.

Holding her to him, feeling the living warmth of her body against his, Cole looked out the viewport behind her. The tip of Florida was barely visible to the north, dawn just creeping over it. Beyond that horizon somewhere, Jen and Merry were sleeping, dreaming about him even now, perhaps, and the day he would come back to them.

"Welcome home, Cole," Shay whispered.

Home? No, this wasn't his home. But it was close enough, for now.


Copyright © 2016 Terry Burlison


Terry Burlison graduated from Purdue University with a degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering: the same school/degree as Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men to walk on the moon. He then worked for NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Trajectory Officer for the first space shuttle missions. After leaving NASA, Terry spent ten years at Boeing, supporting numerous civilian and defense space projects. Until recently, he was a private consultant for many of the new commercial space ventures. Terry is now a full-time writer. His web site is www.terryburlison.com.

The author would like to thank Dr. Brian Tillotson of the Boeing Company for his assistance in analyzing the tether dynamics portrayed in this story.


© 2018 Baen Publishing Enterprises