"Dr. Roshanzadeh, you’ll come this way, please."
MahnAz stiffened, but did not look up from her computer screen. Reflexively, she hit "save." But she did not dare wait for the command to finish, nor could she risk pocketing the thumb drive. She rose from her swivel chair to find her workstation surrounded by blue-coated security guards, who’d quietly set up a perimeter.
"The Director requires a word with you."
MahnAz had expected a command appearance. In the months since the twin strikes at Galway and Oslo, the mood at Federated had changed. On the surface, the company line seemed to be that the Republic of Ireland had been due for a Sha-Sep attack. Ireland had allowed Muslims to immigrate for decades with nary an incident. But as the immigrants reached a critical mass in County Galway, they’d demanded concessions to sharia law, prompting western Irish to reassert their Catholic or even Druidic pride, so such a slaughter was bound to happen. Oslo had been a different matter. Scandinavia had been dealing with contrived Muslim outrage — and young men on rape sprees against blond women — since the dawn of the new millennium. But the breach of a research facility and the deliberate destruction of scientific data and equipment had opened a new frontier. The group’s claim that the research had violated sharia had sent shockwaves through the global scientific community, especially at companies like Federated that were also working to perfect interplanetary and faster-than-light travel. Within days, every contractor of Middle Eastern descent had disappeared from Federated’s Chicago facility.
MahnAz expected that, as an at-will employee of Federated, she’d get her pink slip at any moment. Hence the hacking spree and the thumb-drive. She wanted proof that Federated’s D’Arcy Sinclair had, in fact, committed industrial espionage.
The Director was succinct. "Dr. Roshanzadeh, your security clearance has been revoked."
"May I ask why?"
"You can ask, but I’m instructed not to tell you."
"Because you’d have to admit to violating Title VII?" she asked. "You realize I’m not Muslim."
"Then I guess we’re not violating Title VII," the Director smirked. "The guards will escort you to HR for processing."
"And my things?"
"As per your employment contract, Federated reserves the right to inspect all possessions at your work station before returning what are deemed to be purely personal items. That is all, Doctor."
MahnAz nodded, but she knew that wasn’t all. At HR she would be stripped and subjected to a body scan and cavity search. The joke at Federated was that employees left the company as they’d entered the world, only drier. Of course, HR would find nothing. The all-important thumb-drive was still inserted in her desk computer. But by the time that little bauble was processed, and word made it back to D’Arcy that at least one of her former employees was onto her, MahnAz would be lying on a Caribbean beach hoisting a well-earned pina colada.
The alarm shattered the air–probably from San Angelo to Odessa–with heart-stopping urgency. The command that followed did nothing to take the edge off, despite the whimsical code word and Texas twang of its delivery: "Staubach! Staubach! This is not a drill."
Staubach meant mad scramble before a deep launch. A bit of levity that Mr. Westermann–a boyhood fan of Roger, the Dodger–had come up with to keep his ground and flight crews loose. As David (pronounced Dah-VEED) Toma (accent on second syllable) tore ass toward the launching pad, he pictured what would be his end zone: space, a field of stars and a giant blue marble rotating beneath.
"Crew of Lone Star III report for launch."
They still haven’t named her, David thought. That’s not good. While he’d admit "third time’s the charm," he’d feel luck was more on their side if they’d properly christen the shuttle. Lone Star I and II were now dust covering the west Texas panhandle, as were its three fatalities. Lone Star III had so far proved a superior vessel, especially on re-entry, but this would be her fifth launch into orbit, and the other vessels had failed on flights five and six.
Mechanical defect? Pilot error? Data on the explosions had been inconclusive. The geeks had shut down the operation for 18 months in search of answers, and had modified several aspects of the design in creating Lone Star III. But the company had no more NASA pilots. That task had fallen to an ex-Delta Force helicopter jockey and himself, a NASCAR driver who’d gotten bored with left turns.
David’s immediate superior, Sergeant (now Captain) Hector Gaines was a legend. He’d started as Hector "Heck No" Gaines, the Oklahoma State safety who’d led the Big Twelve in sacks, interceptions and fumble recoveries in a signature season that had made him a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Drafted third overall in 1999, the one-time Cowboy became a Bronco Buster in Denver, as Defensive Rookie of the Year. He seemed headed toward a Hall of Fame career and–with his chiseled good looks and carved-from-mahogany physique–tens of millions in endorsements. But that came to a screeching halt after the events of September 11, 2001. He’d played through the season, but when the 8-8 Broncos missed the playoffs, "Heck No" Gaines said "hell no" to the NFL. He walked away from a multi-million dollar fortune and enlisted with the U.S. Army Rangers.
Hector’s army career was shrouded in mystery, since he quickly ascended to Delta Force, but rumors swirled around the Lone Star compound that he’d been active in many raids around the Tora Bora region in search of Osama bin Laden, and was bitter that he’d come up empty. He’d become a helicopter pilot–another rumor said by necessity under fire–and, after leaving the service, a commercial airline pilot for Delta Airlines (no relation to Force). That "career" had lasted one flight. After touching ground in San Francisco on his maiden voyage from Newark Liberty, Heck No had said "no, thank you" to Delta. A week later he was on the grounds of Lone Star, the cock of the walk. He’d trained with, and waited in line behind, several NASA astronauts, but they were now gone, either to their great reward or — feeling that might come prematurely — to safer aeronautics opportunities. Hector Gaines was now "da man" at Lone Star, even though, if he’d been at the old NASA in his mid-forties, they’d have been looking to retire him.
David didn’t share in the pervasive awe of Hector Gaines; whatever he’d achieved, he was past his heyday. It was up to the next generation to take the baton and run. And speaking of running, David had bested the old man to the equipment room. He was completely suited up by the time Nadine burst through the portal and started tearing off her coveralls.
"Dr. Grijalva, so glad you’re joining us."
"Toma," she sneered. "Just get on the bird."
But David felt no urgency to board Lone Star III when Nadine Grijalva was there in front of him, stripped down to her skivvies. He watched her long, sleek legs–the tastiest shade of nougat outside a Milky Way bar–step into the flight suit, pull it up and over her curvaceous tail and zip it past her wondrous breasts to her tender throat.
"Enjoy the show?" she snipped. Indeed he had. As a red-blooded American of Cuban heritage, David’s taste in women ping-ponged between the extremes of pitch-black and albino, depending on who happened to be within his line of sight. But Dr. Grijalva was his perfect cup of cafe con leche.
"I might as well," David replied, handing her a helmet.
She rolled her eyes and pushed past him into the jetway. "I wish you’d keep your mind on space."
"I was. I was just thinking of the Milky Way. Besides, we’re still waiting on our Captain."
"He’s already there, nino pequeno." Nadine stooped and entered the cockpit. As David bowed his head, he met the scalding glare of…Aw, Heck No!
"Buenos tardes, Lieutenant Toma," Gaines rasped. "Good of you to join us."
The intercom twanged, "Bullet Bob Hayes in 30, 29, 28…."
David strapped himself in behind the console and looked out at the three-mile long runway. "Any word on the mission?"
"ISS rescue," Gaines replied. "They’ve got an oxygen breach and we’re bringing them home."
"How many?" Nadine asked.
"Their crew numbers eight."
David flinched. "Our capacity is eight."
"Maybe I should stay," Nadine offered.
"Negative," Gaines barked. "We need you to complete the mission." He turned toward them, the horizontal scar below his right eye adding gravity to an already stark message. "Our mission is to provide transport home for five persons."
Nadine sighed, "I guess that makes our task the easy one."
"Bullet Bob Hayes in 10, 9, 8…"
Cornell burst through the automatic doors and marched toward the railing on the upper tier. He fixed his eyes on the display screen covering the command center’s north wall. The EPA hound nipped at his heels and squatted at his right elbow. The dozen or so engineers, technicians and ground support crew rose abruptly.
"Stay seated, everyone," Cornell enjoined them. "T-minus what?"
His Chief Engineer, Mr. Thurber, answered, "Two minutes, sir."
"Mr. Westermann," the EPA flack chirped in his ear, "You must stop this launch."
"Think so, do you?" Cornell raised a wary eyebrow. "Worried we’ll traumatize that beetle?"
"I know you find this amusing," he prattled, "but extinction of a species is a serious matter."
"Yes, a matter of the utmost gravity," Cornell drawled. He eyed the flack, this Mr. Arsdale Long, trying to take the measure of the absurd bureaucrat. "But I’m in the business of defying gravity."
"You joke," Long sputtered, "but this launch threatens vital habitat of an endangered species."
"I joke, Mr. Long, because you are a joke, because your federal EPA is a joke." Cornell clenched his jaw as he continued. "Your beetle, your–what is it? Raudis Persephone?–is a creature less than one-eighth of an inch in length. Inhabiting caves in central and west Texas. And for the sake of this bug, you would cancel this launch and doom the crew of the International Space Station?"
Long sniffed, then retorted, "There are other contractors capable of performing this rescue. Without loss of vital habitat."
"Other contractors who helped elect your boss?" Cornell snarled. "Which is why you’re here trying to shut us down. Well, let me tell you, boy, you are in Texas now, not Washington, D.C., and we’re not gonna let a little quid pro quo corruption sideline mankind’s greatest adventure."
"The magnitude of your hubris is unbelievable," Long scoffed.
"Must I remind you again you’re in Texas?" Cornell watched the jetway retract from the cabin portal. A side monitor showed the flight crew strapped in. "Mr. Long, perhaps you are sincere in your ecological OCD, but if you are saying mankind must never touch the stars because to do so would require us to squash a red ant, I’d retort that your meticulous adherence to petty rules is downright Pharisaical."
Chief Thurber announced, "T-minus 20."
But Long wasn’t finished. "Mr. Westermann, soil samples clearly show spikes in cadmium, iridium, mercury…"
"Well, it’s a damn good thing we’re out in the desert, isn’t it?" he retorted. "On privately-owned land, by the way."
"I could shut you down right now."
"Really?" Westermann asked. "Have a gun, do you?"
"I could issue an injunction."
"Serve the damn papers then. Always need kindling for the barbecue."
"Bullet Bob Hayes in 10, 9, 8…"
Cornell chuckled and glanced again at Long, sweating in a collar that must have been two sizes too tight. "You know who Bullet Bob Hayes was, Mr. Long?"
"No, I do not."
Cornell fixed his eyes on the image of Lone Star III. "Then you and me is done talkin’."
The jet turbines whirred and Lone Star III rolled forward, accelerating down the runway. It lifted gracefully from the surface and arched along its parabolic path. As the craft achieved a virtual upright position, the rockets blazed and Lone Star III soared like a comet.
Cornell clasped his hands behind his back and cracked his knuckles nervously. Just let us be first, he prayed. We need to make this score.
Hector Gaines was no stranger to rescue missions. Most of the flight hours he’d logged for Delta Force had involved search and rescue ops for allies lost or kidnapped behind enemy lines. He knew that the key to getting the job done was disciplined flexibility. A commander had to be ready to improvise, but not to the extent of compromising the mission. A commander had to know going in what his least acceptable outcome was, and not take any risk that could lead to something worse happening. On this mission, his LAO was getting LS III back on the ground intact, empty-handed, but with his crew safe.
Hector had a visual now on the space station. He ordered Toma to fire retros to slow the craft for docking. Hector contacted ISS. The commander, in a thick Russian accent, informed them the crew had approximately 35 more minutes of oxygen.
His conversation was abruptly interrupted. "Ahoy, the Lone Star. This is Federated Talon 3-A. Requesting you stand down and allow Talon to dock at ISS."
"That’s a negative, Federated. Lone Star III has already fired retros, we have slowed to initiate docking procedure." He addressed Toma. "Let’s get her nose up and tail down."
Toma tapped the touch screen, prompting a series of short bursts fore and aft. LS III flattened out over the ISS main portal.
Talon squawked again, "Federated claims contractual right of primacy to this operation."
Hector tipped his eyes up slightly, asking "What is your basis, Federated?"
The Talon pilot rattled off some legal jargon about right-of-way in ties going to the craft that launched first. This cat did not know who he was dealing with.
"Federated," Hector calmly interrupted, "First, you cannot invoke that clause, since this is not a same-time arrival. Instruments show you are still eleven-hundred miles away. Second, you’ve presented no data regarding your launch time that Lone Star is obligated to recognize." Hector felt the belly of LS III come to rest on ISS. "Thirdly, your remedy is at law for damages, you cannot demand a docking vessel to yield right of rescue. In other words, sue me."
"What’s your capacity, Lone Star?" the Talon pilot demanded.
"We are taking five," Hector answered.
"Then yield, Lone Star," the Talon demanded. "We have capacity for the entire crew."
"You can take the remainder. Cycle once, and we’ll be out of your way."
"Negative, Lone Star, two docking maneuvers are wasteful and expose ISS crew to unacceptable risk."
Hector clenched his jaw, calculating minimum time frames. Grijalva said what he was thinking.
"He’s right, Hector."
"Lone Star," Talon demanded, "abort docking procedure."
The temperature in the cabin shot up a hundred degrees. Hector could sense Toma’s head ready to explode. "Who the hell does he think he is?" he snarled.
Hector recalled his LOA. The ISS oxygen level. His blood was up, too, but he couldn’t let that cloud his judgment.
"Continue docking," Hector told Grijalva, loud enough for transit to Talon.
Grijalva stated simply, "Umbilical extended. Initiating seal over ISS portal."
"Lone Star III, this is Lone Star Command." Through the static, Hector recognized the boss’ voice. "Lone Star III…you are to stand down."
Hector’s heart sank. He tamped down on an emotional flashback to Tora Bora, a night in 2009 when they knew he was there, in their sights. And the Commander-in-Chief had aborted the mission. "Aye-aye, Lone Star Command," was all he could say. He ordered Grijalva to break the seal and retract the umbilical.
"Stay in the neighborhood, Lone Star," Command requested. What else were they going to do? They’d lost speed, they were simply hanging in orbit, in pace with ISS, just slightly ahead of the Earth’s rotation. Hector set of a short sequence of bursts from the underbelly booster rockets, and LS III peeled off ISS.
"Federated Talon, this is Captain Hector Gaines of the Lone Star III. You are clear to dock."
Cornell gripped the railing and stretched the tension out of his shoulders. It had killed him to give that order. And if it turned out to be the last one he gave as CEO of Lone Star Space Transit, he’d live to regret it. But he couldn’t risk letting three people die so he could collect a bounty on five. If that damned, sidewinding D’Arcy Sinclair could get the whole ISS crew back to Earth in one flight, she deserved the contract.
Hector ran a complete systems check as Lone Star III lolled in the Earth’s thermosphere. LS III’s nose was pointed directly at ISS, but Hector didn’t care to watch. He kept his eyes down on his instruments. He wasn’t aware of any trouble until Toma exclaimed, "Whoa! That can’t be right." Hector looked up to see ISS rotating downward. It spun clockwise, and like a meshed gear, Talon peeled off counterclockwise. The umbilical between the vessels stretched, then tore.
The radio squawked as pilots of the two vessels screamed accusations, each blaming the other for an event that never should have happened. Talon claimed it felt an engine burst from ISS, but the Russian commander vehemently shouted, "Nyet! Nyet, nyet!"
"He’s gonna use up his oxygen arguing," Toma chortled. Hector didn’t like wise-cracks when lives were in the balance, but considering the poetic justice, and the opportunity that had just opened for him and his crew, he let Toma’s remark pass without comment. Whatever the cause, Talon was out of the rescue game until they could repair or replace the umbilical.
Hector opened a frequency. "Federated Talon, stand down. This is Lone Star III. We are ready to initiate docking."
There was a slight delay before the Talon pilot responded with forced civility. "Lone Star III, you are clear to dock."
The Russian commander was nearly apoplectic, and Hector tried to reassure him that, though they would not rush the docking procedure, they would affect rescue in time. Reminding him they could only take five crew members did not go over well, but Hector made an additional offer of supplemental oxygen.
"We have some tanks, also," Talon piped in. "We can drop them in your cargo bay."
Hector felt LS III come to rest on the ISS landing port. After a few moments, Grijalva opened the floor hatch and welcomed five very relieved members of the ISS crew. Hector handed the Commander two supplemental oxygen tanks. Grijalva closed the hatch, broke the seal and retracted the umbilical. As Grijalva checked on the well-being of their guests, LS III rolled gently off the back of ISS and dipped her nose towards home. Hector oriented the craft, then looked out a side portal at Talon, looping back to drop off more oxygen. The job was almost done, except…
"We’ve got two bogeys," Toma exclaimed.
"Space junk?" Grijalva hurried to her seat and belted herself in.
Toma concurred. "Could be fragments from ISS blown into orbit."
But the bogeys were accelerating. They were self-propelled.
"Fire primary flares," Hector ordered.
"Firing." Toma released two flares, which shot from port and starboard at angles of thirty-five degrees. The bogeys broke off from their course, pursued the flares momentarily then reoriented themselves toward LS III.
"Are we being fired on?" Toma exclaimed. "’Cuz, that would kind of suck."
In seconds, LS III would re-enter the mesosphere. If flairs couldn’t lure these missiles away in space, they’d do even less good once LS III started radiating intense heat from its underbelly.
Hector called to the passengers, "Prepare for turbulence!" He slammed the retros, pulling the nose upward, forcing LS III into a belly flop on the skin of the mesosphere. The craft bounced off, like a stone skipping on a lake, but sparking as it did. Hector added a charge from the underbelly boosters, torching the thin air. The missiles bent toward the sparks, then, warming as they plummeted, the two missiles converged, exploding in a white flash.
Hector never saw it; LS III pitched forward, tail over nose, and spun laterally. Hector fought the controls to keep the craft in the thermosphere. Scraping or planting the nose against the lower layer could flip the vessel onto its back, where it had very little protection from superheating. Dipping a wing could snap it off. Contact with the mesosphere anywhere but on the belly could rupture the vessel. Hector thought of his LOA. He remembered the acronym’s alternate meaning: lose our asses.
Cornell pounded the railing as he leaned toward the display screen. "Just what in the name of Tom Landry is going on up there?"
"Hector took a bad angle; LS III bounced off the atmosphere."
"He said bogeys!" Cornell exclaimed. "Explain that."
"Space junk? It can get awful thick up there."
"What’s happening with our bird?"
"Pin-wheeling, sir, and rotating nose over tail."
"They heading out to space?"
"They can’t escape our gravity. They’ve got to stabilize the craft before they hit the atmosphere again. Or they’ll burn up." The Chief paused before adding, "It’s up to Hector, sir."
Cornell stared helplessly at the empty, blue video display. Eight lives pin-wheeling toward immolation. If the ship flared out, those lives were gone. And on top of that tragedy, it would be the end of Lone Star. Cornell needed the bounty on this rescue to keep the corporation afloat. But losing the bird would surely bankrupt them. They’d be toxic to investors and NASA, Russia, China–everyone!–would write them off as civilian contractors. No revenue, no capital. Might as well stick a fork in this steak.
It’s up to Hector. Cornell recalled their first encounter at a Disabled Veterans’ benefit. Sergeant Gaines had introduced himself as a retired helicopter jockey. "I want in at Lone Star," he’d said. "I want to fly to space." Cornell had rocked back on his heels and reflexively laughed him off. "You find someone else crazy enough to let you fly a hundred million dollar aircraft, then maybe I’ll let you fly mine." So Hector’d gone out and convinced that airline to let him fly a 777. One flight cross-country and he’d made a beeline for Lone Star, intending to hold Cornell to his word.
Hector strained to focus his eyes on the sight picture dancing on his console. He needed to see the bird lie flat on the dome: the image of the craft at a tangent point to the arc of the Earth’s mesosphere. Then he could fire. But it fluttered, spun and flipped. C’mon bird, perch! He’d only get one shot. If he fired the boosters at the precise moment, they’d get another bounce off the skin, high enough to buy time to stabilize the craft. Too soon or too late, and they’d accelerate towards Earth and instant cremation. C’mon, bird on dome, bird on dome. But could he even trust his eyes? Blurred out, split vision. He’d have to trust his mind to interpret. And his reflexes to function. He poised his index finger on the toggle. Bird on dome. How much pressure to flip the switch? Would the boosters respond immediately or hang fire? Hector squinted, waiting for the images of his sight picture to align. Gimme the freaking bird on the freaking dome! The bird perched and Hector fired.
A cheer went up from ground control, startling Cornell from his reverie. "What?! What is it?"
"They just bought some time," the Chief informed him. "They’re at L2."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"L2 is an orbital sweetspot. The pull of the Earth and the Sun are equal. They don’t have to come back home until they’re ready."
Cornell tipped his eyes upward. "Thank God." After a moment to batten down his tear ducts, Cornell ground his fist into the railing and barked, "Get me D’Arcy Sinclair."
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