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Front Range Spaceport, Denver, CO

“A thousand things can happen when you light a rocket engine. Only one of them is good.”

Marshall Hunter had heard that refrain from his old man and his extended family of spaceplane pilots so often that it had threatened to lose all meaning. As he’d learned to fly these powerful machines, it had become a mantra he repeated to himself before every flight.

As he approached his assigned plane, a westerly wind with a hint of vanilla from the nearby Ponderosa forests mixed with the odor of kerosene fuel into an aroma disturbingly similar to the floor cleaner from the junior officer’s quarters. With an annoyed wrinkle of his nose, Marshall shook off the unwelcome reminder of barracks life and began his preflight inspection.

The Puma suborbital trainer was a squat, flat-nosed craft sporting twin vertical stabilizers at the tips of its clipped delta wing. The little spaceplane’s cockpit had just enough room to seat two pilots in front of a pressure bulkhead that separated them from tanks of liquid oxygen and RP-1 rocket fuel.

Marshall moved methodically from nose to tail and wingtip to wingtip, measuring his progress against a checklist on the tablet he carried. He’d flown this little craft enough that the preflight routine was burned into his brain. Opening the checklist itself had become a rote formality—by now he could recite it from memory, but he didn’t trust the training squadron to not slip in some minor change just to trip up an overconfident student.

Finally arriving at the tail—the rocket plane’s business end—he opened an engine access panel to make sure all the plumbing was still in the right place and not leaking. The engine itself was sparkling clean but for the usual discoloration around the nozzle: the glazing of high-temperature alloys after repeated ignition cycles. If there were a fault hidden in there somewhere, there’d be precious little he could do here to detect it. If there were some dormant failure lurking in there with his name on it, then the gremlin would find him soon enough. That’s what the “Dash-One” emergency memory items were for. And if those failed, there was always the ejection seat. He tried not to think about that.

Moving on, he went back to the wing and worked his way out to the oversized winglets at either end. He paid particular attention to the reinforced carbon heat shielding around its leading edge: of all the potential catastrophic failures, this was one of the few he could evaluate with his own eyes ahead of time.

Satisfied with their integrity, he tapped an icon on the tablet marking his preflight checklist complete. It would show up immediately in the training squadron’s records and let his instructor pilot know that Ensign M. T. Hunter was ready to blast.

The IP, a newly-minted lieutenant named Wylie, hadn’t needed the automated records to let him know as he’d been watching from a distance the whole time. This being the check ride for Marshall’s “suborbital rocket vehicle” endorsement, he wasn’t about to let any detail slip by that might potentially fail a candidate on his final exam.

“Let’s go,” the IP said abruptly as he passed Marshall from behind, bounding up the access ladder and tossing his flight bag behind the seat in one motion.

Show off. “Yes sir,” Marshall said, dutifully climbing up the opposite ladder and carefully slipping his own bag beneath the restraining net behind his seat and securing his IP’s wayward gear at the same time.

Lieutenant Wylie stared impatiently at him as he locked down his shoulder and lap restraints. If it was a ploy to throw him off, he was determined to keep it from working. This was supposed to be a final check ride, not an exercise in tripping up the student. But if that’s how he wanted to play the game, so be it.

“Pre-departure briefing,” Marshall recited with detached cool as he pulled up the next checklist, apparently satisfying the IP’s unspoken demand. “Winds favor takeoff on three-four left, standard profile. V1 is 131 knots, if there’s an engine failure after V1 we’ll follow the emergency procedure. Otherwise we’ll maintain centerline heading into the warning area and start our pitch-up maneuver at the entry waypoint, maintaining sixty-degree climb angle until engine cutoff at four minutes, fifty seconds.”

“And is that time hack from launch or pitch up?”

“Pitch up,” Marshall confirmed. It always is.

“Important to know,” the IP said as if he were imparting hard-won wisdom.

Marshall nodded as if he’d learned something. “Predicted apogee is three hundred eighty thousand feet, max velocity seventeen hundred knots. MMO is Mach 3.6. Flight path will take us up along the front range, all inside the warning area.”

“Winds aloft?”

At which level? Marshall wondered, and decided on the most impactful. He looked up, studying the rows of thin clouds high to the east. “Jet stream core’s forecast a hundred knots out of the northwest, so I expect some mountain wave turbulence between flight levels three-six-zero to four-zero-zero.”

“Will that be a problem for us?”

“By that point we’ll be at Mach and blow through it fast on the climb,” Marshall said. “We’ll have to suck it up and ride out the bumps on our way down.”

“You might consider extending west after reentry, get on the other side of that turbulence and then cross the ridgeline back to base.”

Marshall felt his eyebrows lift and quickly changed expressions, hoping to hide his reaction. That was a dumbass idea if he’d ever heard one. “We’ll be a glider at that point, sir. I’ll have to see what our energy state is, but I’d prefer to avoid that scenario.”

“We’ll see about that,” Wylie said in words pregnant with certitude. “Word is your old man taught you a thing or two about flying gliders.”

And here we go, Marshall realized. One more prick who wants to make sure I don’t get any special favors. “Yes sir, I learned all kinds of tricks from him.”

* * *

The lineup and takeoff were uneventful but for the merciless kick in the seat that always came from lighting a rocket motor with thirty thousand pounds of thrust. Even at partial power, the little spaceplane hurtled down the runway and leapt into the cobalt sky.

Marshall kept still against the headrest, not fighting the steady two-g pull as they accelerated away from the field. His eyes darted across the control panel, alternating his instrument scan with quick peeks outside for any conflicting traffic that ATC might have overlooked. “Passing ten thousand,” he said for the IP’s benefit. “Initial point in five, four . . .”

“No need to count down, Ensign. Just do it.”

Arriving at “zero” in his head, Marshall silently pushed the throttle full forward and pulled back on the control stick until the nose settled at sixty degrees up: not vertical, but it sure felt like it.

Marshall watched the digital Mach meter tick upward as the little craft shot through the thick lower atmosphere. He could feel the high-frequency vibration building as they became transonic, the control stick buzzing against his hand as the shock wave crept along the wing and over the control surfaces. Even before his instruments gave him the cue, he could feel the spaceplane was ready for one final burst of power. “Max Q,” he said, and moved the throttle lever to its forward detent, applying the last few thousand pounds of thrust and watching the fuel and oxidizer totals head for zero. He’d burn through most of it up through engine cutoff, hoarding a few hundred pounds in reserve for the return leg just in case.

As expected, wind shear buffeted them as they pierced the coursing jet stream, fast enough that it was no worse than driving over a rough patch of highway. It would feel a lot different on the way back down, with less speed and a lighter craft. He expected to get tossed around like a leaf on the wind.

The sky ahead had already turned a deep violet as they left a final layer of wispy cirrus behind. The ride became strikingly smoother, the only vibration coming from the rocket motor as it began to burn itself out. Passing one hundred thousand feet, nearly all meaningful atmosphere was now beneath them. Marshall compared the predicted vector on his vertical situation display against remaining fuel. Main engine cutoff at 180,000 feet would send them vaulting well above the Karman line, officially into space with a good four minutes of freefall as they coasted over the top of an almost seventy-mile-high parabola.

The press of gravity vanished as Marshall chopped the throttle and began their coast into the black sky above. With the g’s subsided, he took a quick peek over his shoulder at the mottled brown and green hues of Colorado far below. A thin blue line outlined the curving horizon: the fragile shell of Earth’s atmosphere they’d briefly left behind.

“You didn’t call out main engine cutoff,” Wylie noted. “Good to know.”

I thought you didn’t want . . . oh, whatever. “Yes sir,” Marshall said. “That was MECO.”

The ride over the top remained smooth and quiet if only for the lack of conversation. Normally, Marshall would’ve let out at least one whoop of joy but set that aside today in the hopes of passing his check ride with this unpredictable lieutenant. Now, the only sounds were the whir of cooling fans and the occasional puff of a reaction control jet.

The g’s mounted rapidly as the plane fell back into the atmosphere belly first, aided by drag flaps which Marshall carefully manipulated in the thickening air.

“Extend to the west,” Wylie ordered. “Get us around that clear-air turbulence.”

It caught Marshall off guard. This was a check ride; the IP wasn’t supposed to be giving instructions. He glanced at his airspeed and altitude, making a quick judgment of their energy state. They could do it, but . . . 

“I don’t like it, sir,” he said, peering over the nose at the furrows of thin clouds racing below. “I’d rather take my chances with those rollers than double back over the ridgeline.” He could fly through turbulence; granite was different.

“I need to see how you respond to contingencies, Ensign. Are you uncomfortable with diverting if necessary?”

Not when all of my alternates are surrounded by mountains, not really. “Depends on the definition of ‘necessary,’ sir. Stand by,” he said, and thumbed the microphone switch on his stick. “Transition control, Puma Two-One requesting vectors to the west, changing reentry to descent corridor Bravo.”

“Puma Two-One, Control copies. Turn to heading two-five-five and contact Denver center upon crossing sixty thousand.”

Marshall looked over at his IP. “Guess we’re heading west.”

The turbulence was only marginally better on the windward side of the Rockies, forcing him to keep more speed and thus giving up precious altitude. “I don’t like this,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to extend back to base from here.”

“Diversion is always a possibility. Ultimately, you’re the pilot in command.”

Which means he’s pushing to see how assertive I’ll be, Marshall realized. He punched up a map on the center console and examined his options. Grand Junction was a good field but uncomfortably far. Aspen and Eagle airports were out of the question: surrounded by high terrain, they left no margin for error. Rifle wasn’t much better, but at least it sat along a shallow river valley. He’d still have to cross some ridges to get there, but once he was in the pattern it’d be fine. Just as important, they could tank up and fly out later without taking a big hit on climb performance. He punched “KRIL” into the flight management computer and recalculated their descent.

“You’re going to Rifle?” Wylie challenged him. “Any diversions are supposed to be to the nearest suitable airfield.”

“And if I’m the pilot in command, then ‘suitable’ is whatever I decide it is. Sir.” Marshall nudged the stick back, trading some speed for altitude, and reached down into his flight bag. He pulled up a monocular and peered through it, keeping its level bubble centered while he gauged the terrain ahead. He noticed his IP staring at him. “Trick I picked up flying gliders around here,” he explained.

The sharp peaks grew closer as they whispered past mountain ridges, descending deeper into the valley. Marshall checked his fuel levels—there might be enough in the tanks for one short boost if he got into trouble.

“You’re not going to clear that terrain. We can still make Eagle,” Wylie said, reaching for the controls. “My aircraft.”

Which meant he’d just busted his check ride. “What? We’re not over the ridge yet!” He looked at the airspeed, altitude, and angle of attack indicators. “We’ve got plenty of energy so long as we don’t do anything stupid.”

“Too late for that.” He began turning them away from the ridge.

Fuming, Marshall tightened his grip around the optical level in his hand. He looked back through it, judging the new terrain as it centered in the windscreen. “It’s too far!”

“No it’s not,” Wylie protested. “I got this.”

Which Marshall understood to mean he didn’t have this. He couldn’t take his eyes off the mountain ridges ahead of them: there was precious little time and few options to correct if this guy blew it. He did say I was the pilot in command . . . 

Marshall grabbed the stick. “My aircraft!” he snapped, rolling them through the turn and back onto their original heading. They’d wasted a good thousand feet in this circle, which would put them below the ridgeline. He reached down to the control pedestal and armed the rocket motor.

“You’ll bust your check ride.” Wylie stabbed at the checklist strapped to his knee. “No relights on descent; right there on the test card.”

“I already busted it when you took over a second ago,” Marshall reminded him. “I’m just trying to keep from getting killed.”

Wylie pointed an accusing finger at the engine instruments. “You’re not going to be able to relight anyway. Chamber temps are still out of range.”

“I’m not relighting,” Marshall said as they continued down. “I’m dumping weight.” He flipped a toggle switch and a cloud of kerosene and oxygen mist began trailing behind them. The craft eased up higher as it grew lighter; he hoped it would be enough. He noticed Wylie tugging at his harness and eyeing the eject lever. “Oh no,” Marshall snapped. “You bail on me and I’ll beat your ass as soon as we touch dirt. Hands in your lap!”

“You can’t talk to me that way!”

“You said I’m the PIC.” He eased back on the stick, sending them up higher as speed tapered off. The stall warning buzzed intermittently and he felt the nose grow mushy. He pushed down, carefully targeting their best lift-to-drag ratio as the final few pounds of propellant evaporated behind them.

The rocks were close but passed safely beneath them as they sailed over the last mesa and the Colorado River valley opened up beyond. He began a shallow, circling descent and pressed the mic button. “Rifle approach, Puma Two One is five miles east of the field, declaring minimum fuel. Request priority handling.”

With no other aircraft in the area, ATC’s reply was as he’d hoped. “Puma Two One, Rifle copies. You’re cleared to land runway two-five.”

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