Rocket Frame 87: Escape from Spectrala
Chapter 1: Kaboom
Skip's head felt like it could split open as he regained consciousness. He was flat on his back and covered in dust and fine debris. He nodded his head forward to look around, shooting sharp pains down his neck and shoulders. How long had he been out? The room was completely dark, and disturbingly cold. The explosion must have knocked the power out, he thought, groping for his flashlight. As the most junior of the maintenance staff, he was always sent in first to the deepest, most confined, and generally unpleasant of the service tunnels and maintenance shafts. Spaces designed for utility, not ergonomics. Dodgy lighting was a constant issue, making a sturdy flashlight a vital component of his tool belt. He grasped the corrugated steel body of the flashlight and switched it on. A dull yellow shaft of light obliged him, its boundaries clearly delineated in the swirling dust.
The room was remarkably intact considering the powerful shock-wave that had flattened him against the back wall. It was a small service area with several banks of switches and fuse boxes, connecting to the rows of electrical conduit in the main corridor. He struggled to his feet, and surveyed the room. A quick scan of the fuses indicated that most of them were intact, and aside from a warped support, the conduit seemed unbroken as well. His ears were still ringing, but placing his hand on the conduit, he could feel a low vibration, indicating that at least one of the generators was still running. Peering cautiously in both directions at the junction of the main corridor, he noted only superficial damage. He remembered a hero running down a corridor ahead of an explosion in an action film he had once seen. Reality was less dramatic and far more painful, an experience that he wasn't eager to repeat.
Coughing and wheezing on the dust and biting acidic odor that the explosion had left behind, Skip collapsed to his knees in the main corridor.
"Uuugh, that's *Cough* *Gack* nasty."
Fishing through the commodious pockets of his maintenance overalls, he found one of the rags he carried relatively clean, and tied it around his nose and mouth.
I probably look like a bandit, he thought. "Reach for the sky, ya scoundrels, this here's a stick up! Ha ha *Cough*."
His characteristic optimism had begun to seep back into his mind when he arrived at the heavy metal door to the main staircase. The door showed no apparent damage on the outside, yet it refused to open. Perhaps the frame had warped, he surmised, and slammed his shoulder against it with all his strength. In addition to a reminder that most of the joints in his body were agonizingly sore, he was rewarded with a gap of perhaps 20 centimeters, along with a cacophony of metallic groaning. Poking the flashlight through the gap revealed various twisted metal beams and debris that he once knew as a stairway.
"Hello? Anybody up there?" he yelled into the stairwell. His query was met by the dull rumbling of shifting debris.
No matter, he knew the location of every secondary stairway in this wing, and beyond that there were access crawl-ways, conduit shafts, and even ducts that he could try. There had to be a way out. He retraced his steps to the service area he had been in when he was knocked out to pick up his toolbox. Might come in handy if he had to find a more creative approach to exiting the building. Making his way to one of the secondary staircases, Skip reflected on the events of the past weeks. A bustle of activity, more secretive than usual. Mysterious crates arrived and were kept under heavy guard. Finally there was the gradual thinning out of staff at the base. As a civilian, he was kept at arm's length from the more sensitive areas, however many parts of the base were expansions, constructed as an afterthought and not designed to incorporate a delineation between military and civilian staff. As a result, he saw and heard fragments of things he suspected he shouldn't have.
He rounded a corner of the nondescript maintenance corridor and grasped hesitantly at the door knob to stairwell 3e. This one opened effortlessly – a good sign, he hoped. He stepped inside and shined his flashlight up the staircase. Intact and remarkably dust-free compared to the corridor. He ascended the stairs to level two, just one level below the ground floor. The door was slightly jammed, but a solid shove convinced it to yield, treating him to a buffet of dust and smoke residue more generous than the prior floor. This floor had no exits to the outside, and despite his role on the maintenance team, he was much more interested in getting out, than in surveying the damage. He shut the door and proceeded up to ground level. The door again needed a bit of a shove to open, but aside from an unpleasant odor, the corridor appeared intact. The staircase opened to a secondary hallway, which soon connected to one of the main corridors.
Ground level was home to many of the key areas at the base, and from this main corridor, he would be able to access ops, storage, hangars, and even staff quarters. He, as a civilian did not live on base, but had worked in the quarters many times to adjust radiators, replace fuses and bulbs, and generally fix any of the many things that tended to break more often than they should have, due to the extreme climate. He paused at a main intersection to consider his options. At his right would be the main entrance, quarters were at his left, and the cafeteria was straight ahead. Any one of these could be a way out. Keep it simple and try the main entrance, he thought, and strode purposely in that direction. The main floor had light-shafts here and there, but the corridor ran through the center of the structure, with rooms on both sides and thus no windows. The dim light was, however, more inviting than the pitch-blackness of the maintenance sub-level, if only just. He had made it perhaps a third of the 100 meters to the main entrance, when a sharp voice startled him.
"Hey, who's there!"
Chapter 2: A Cantankerous Companion
"Hello?" said Skip.
"Hold there for a minute. I don't have a flashlight," responded a brusque female voice.
"Sure thing," Skip replied, gingerly scanning the corridor in front of him with his flashlight. As the footsteps drew closer, a form emerged into view. She was slightly shorter than he was, with short brown hair, and the darker complexion and the longer, more elegant ears indicative of someone from one of the coastal provinces. Patches of soot streaked her baggy flight-suit, a suit which although clearly of superior construction to Skip's maintenance overalls, made no concessions to a feminine figure.
"The main entrance is blocked. Completely crushed by fallen rock, so there's no use going back that way." she said, glancing at him appraisingly. Skip was shorter than average for a spectralan male, and on the slim side as well. His hair was a lighter brown tone than hers, and if his maintenance overalls hadn't marked him as a local, his lighter complexion and shorter ears clearly would have. "You're one of the civilian staff, right?"
"Yes, I'm Skip."
"I came from the barracks wing, so I can tell you that way is blocked. We'll see how it looks in the mess hall."
She strode past him purposely, turning back in his direction after a few meters. "You've got the flashlight – so keep up."
"Yes. Say, have you seen anyone else?"
"We were running on a skeleton crew, so fortunately there were not many around. Sgt. Thompson and Lt. Piersen were just outside the barracks when it happened."
"Really? Shouldn't we stick together? Where are they now?"
"Same place they were. They're both dead."
"Oh." Skip reflected. He hadn't seen a corpse before, and wasn't eager to. But today was not his lucky day. As a motionless, uniformed body came into his flashlight's beam he flinched. His companion knelt over the body to check for a pulse, then pronounced him dead.
"Don't think we're going to find anyone alive in the main corridor. The shock-wave and flash from the explosion passed directly through here. I was behind a sturdy, closed door at the back of the barracks, and still it blew open the door and knocked me out. Say, what's your story."
"I'm with maintenance. I was at the lowest level when it happened. What's your name, anyway?"
"I'm Flight Officer… actually no point in that anymore. Just call me Trillia."
"OK. Nice to meet you, Trillia. Do you know what happened? With the explosion. Was it an attack? I thought the Plains Warriors Confederation were still over a hundred kilometers from here."
"It wasn't an attack. To prevent the base from falling into the PWC's hands, we had been given orders to blow the entrance. But something must have triggered the explosives early."
Skip's heart sank. The rocket base was located inside a huge depression close to the top of the mountain. The ideal place to be out of sight – it was surround by cliffs on all sides, with only a single tunnel leading in. Aside from the tiny village that Skip called home, there were no settlements for dozens of kilometers in any direction.
"Did the tunnel collapse, or was it just the base entrance," he asked anxiously.
"Don't know. But the plan was to blow the tunnel and seal off the base. I don't know how much of the explosives they had placed, but it wasn't supposed to go off for at least another 48 hours. We were in process of removing or destroying some of the classified data and such."
"Why would you need to do that? If you were planning on blowing the entrance, couldn't you just destroy the whole base?"
"I don't know exactly what they had in mind, but you can't always count on an explosion to clean things up for you. It's amazing what by some freak chance can survive an explosion. A file cabinet in a corner someplace, someone's office safe that had been forgotten about. Anything. I'd bet there there's some legible text there." she said, pointing to a singed bulletin board with blackened notices and fliers posted to it. "Anything can survive."
"Even an apprentice handyman and a pilot," said Skip with a forced grin.
They rounded the last corner to the short corridor leading to the cafeteria. The brunt of the blast had been directed in another direction, but there had still been enough force to tear one of the double doors clean off the entrance, while the other hung by a single hinge.
"Anyone here?" called Skip cautiously.
"We don't need to call out – anyone who survived will have heard us."
The cafeteria was littered with singed and overturned tables and chairs. In the far corner the huge coffee machine that normally served as the cornerstone of social interactions in the frigid province was dented and tipped, while water trickled out of the smashed, adjacent faucet.
"At least no more bodies," said Skip.
"And the emergency exit looks intact," said Trillia.
A faint glow of daylight shone through the narrow, reinforced, frosted glass panels, and through a slit between the two exterior doors. The right hand door swung freely to Trillia's shove, and the alleyway behind the cafeteria was, aside from some scattered garbage, unobstructed.
"Looks like we're out," she said.
Skip glanced up at the overcast afternoon sky visible between the two story brick cafeteria, and a windowless industrial building made of corrugated sheet metal, never imagining he'd be so happy to see such a dull sight. The two of them strode quickly through the alley, around the corner of the cafeteria where they had a good view of the base.
In its position at the edge of the crater-shaped depression, the base was in shadows for most of the day. The base had a number of two and three story brick buildings – structures designed for people, like the operations building. However, most of the base structures were designed for things. Enormous sheet metal hangers, and other industrial buildings; nondescript, functional buildings with few windows and doors. The brick operations buildings appeared undamaged, but the main structure, which housed administration and security was partially crushed under fallen rock. As was the tunnel leading to the outside world.
In a hazy panic, Skip ran to the tunnel, and began to furiously pull away some of the smaller rocks.
"Forget about it," said Trillia. "It would take heavy equipment, and months of work. That tunnel is almost a kilometer long."
"I know. I know exactly how long it is. I walk through it every day. My home is on the other side of it. My home." His characteristic optimism seemed a distant memory. On the verge of tears, he dropped to his knees.
"And you're not getting out that way," said Trillia. "Let's check the rest of the base, and see if anyone else survived."
Chapter 3: Trapped
Darkness. Suffocating darkness. Was this a dream? Sallie sometimes had nightmares from which she couldn't wake up. Feeling trapped, unable to move. The situation certainly seemed to fit, but the utter blackness was new, as was the stench of smoke. She tried moving. Her legs wouldn't budge, and her left arm, pressed firmly against her side refused to move as well. Her right arm, extended above her head felt numb, but when she tried to shift her wrist, she was rewarded with a slight movement. And biting pain. She tried turning her head, and was able to rotate it just a little. More pain. It was not a dream, but if it were a nightmare remained to be seen.
But what happened, and where was she? She tried to retrace her steps. Things had been going badly over the past weeks – a brief, impersonal meeting with one of the ops staff letting her know that her services as a cook at the base cafeteria would shortly not be needed anymore. Despite the two-hour trip each way between her home in Greenburge, and the base, she valued her position's good pay; almost twice what she could have received near home. And the occasional surplus supplies were a welcome supplement in this era of wartime rationing. She had always done her best to follow the base rules to the letter, and keep her nose out of anything that might get her in trouble: her younger brother, and ailing father in Greenburge were counting on that income. The only positive was the promise of overtime as the base bustled with activity in preparation for an apparent closure. She was told nothing of course, but keeping the cafeteria open at all hours on a skeleton staff kept her too busy to worry about the future. She hadn't been home in three days; sleeping in the cafeteria storeroom for a few hours here and there, but the last time she was checked through the front entrance, it seemed eerie how few staff remained, and how tense the mood was.
The storeroom; that was it. She had gone to the storeroom to fetch a crate of onions for the midday meal. There was a flash, an ear-splitting shock-wave, and she was tossed against one of the tall storage shelves like a rag-doll and knocked out. She tried moving her left hand, and could feel something rough and round. She dug her nails into it and grasped at the uneven surface. A potato? One of the huge potato bins must have fallen on her. She let out a morbid laugh. What an ironic way for a cook to go. She would be mashed to death by potatoes.
The silence was broken by a dull crash. Something else collapsing? Another crash. And a voice. She yelled out for help. Indistinct voices responded. She yelled again. A rescue at last. Blackness gave way to slivers of light as the potatoes were plucked away from around her face.
"Who is it? Is he OK?"
"She. I think it's a she. And I don't know. That storage rack is way to heavy to lift. Let's clear away some more of these potatoes."
"Are you hurt?" asked one of the voices.
"I don't know if I'm hurt, but can't move," said Sallie.
More activity, as she felt the potatoes shifting. Still a crushing weight, but she could wiggle her left hand a little.
"If we dig out too many of these potatoes that shelving unit could shift and crush you," said the female voice. "I'm going to take the chance and pull you out. Skip; grab her under her right arm, I'll take her left, and try and support her head too. I really hope she has no spinal damage, but we don’t have much choice."
A dull, painful sensation enveloped Sallie, as she could feel the potatoes shift around her body, then finally release their grasp on her and tumble chaotically about the beige tile floor of the storeroom, as she was pulled free. The shelf settled with a dull thud.
Trillia began examining her for injuries, gently prodding up and down her body, asking "Can you feel that? Does that hurt? Skip – here, shine the flashlight here."
"Yes, I felt that a little," responded Sallie. The numbness began giving way to the sensation of pins and needles, and then a flood of pain began to wash over her body. "I'm starting to feel everything again. Maybe I can stand. Give me a hand up."
Skip and Trillia each grabbed her under her armpits, helped her to her feet, and steadied her as they made their way out of the storeroom into the dining area, which at least had some natural light. Supporting her as they were, her imposing figure became clear – almost a head taller than either of them, and an amazon-like physique that contrasted sharply with the slim build of both Skip and Trillia. Topping it off was a long, flowing shock of hair whose rich golden hue was apparent even in the dim light of the cafeteria.
"So what happened?" asked Sallie.
Trillia brought her up to speed on the situation, while Skip went back to the kitchen to fetch the first aid kit.
Skip set the off-white sheet-metal case down next to Trillia, and warily inspected its contents, most of which seemed more likely to cause pain than to ease it. A set of nasty looking curved needles to stitch up wounds, a number of sharp, shiny instruments whose exact function eluded him, and an ominous glass bottle labeled "disinfectant." Trillia cleaned and sterilized a few abrasions, but for the most part Sallie's injuries were bruises and possible broken ribs.
"The bad news is that there is no way we are getting out through the tunnel," said Trillia.
"And the good news?" asked Sallie.
Trillia had not thought that far ahead before starting this conversation thread, and paused to think.
"The good news is that we seem to have plenty to eat! Especially if we like potatoes," said Skip.
Chapter 4: Camp-out
"It’s going to get dark in about an hour," said Trillia, glancing at the long shadows falling across the cafeteria. "Say Skip, do you know where there are any more flashlights? With all the wreckage and broken glass around, we don't want to be bumping into things."
"Actually, I thought one of the generators was still running. I may be able to get the lights back on. At least in here."
"That would work too. Although if you can find a few flashlights, grab them. And I suppose we should find a place to sleep for the night as well."
"Some of the storerooms may have been clear of the main blast. I can check on the way back from the generator room," said Skip, striding away, with a sense of purpose again.
"So how ARE you planning on getting out?" asked Sallie.
"There's a recon plane here. In case one of the rockets malfunctions. It’s a STOL type, so it can manage without a real runway. Don’t know if it was damaged in the blast."
"The two of you could probably climb out too. I may take a few days before I’m ready for something like that, but don't let me slow you down."
"Actually no. The cliff face would be treacherous enough, but there are booby-traps as well. To prevent spying. Places that look solid enough, but are designed to give way once you put weight on them. An expert mountain climber might have a shot at it, but for any of us it would be suicide."
"Well, I really hope that recon plane of yours is working then."
"If that doesn’t work we could always take one of the rockets," said Trillia with a sarcastic grin.
"What, you mean the missiles? How would that help us?"
"That's right, another civilian. You don't know about Project Starlight. Well I suppose there's no harm spilling the beans now. The vehicles here are based off a dual purpose design. To save costs originally. A modular system that could carry a very big warhead, or a very small exploration ship. Project Starlight is a sort of coalition. Some scientists that wanted to explore, and some from the military that had a problem with the mission of the missiles. That had a problem targeting cities..." Trillia trailed off. "Anyway, that's Project Starlight: Re-purposing these mass-produced launch vehicles to carry a simple exploration ship. Room for four colonists, and a few tools and gear. A one-way trip to a neighboring planet."
Sallie was stunned. She hardly knew where to begin. "I... This base... How could you possibly keep it secret."
"I'm surprised the project has remained a secret for this long, to be honest," said Trillia, reflecting on the situation. "But the fact that we had contracts to supply various rocket systems to a number of other countries apparently made it much easier." She kicked one of the chairs in frustration. "Actually, I'm just speculating. I was pulled in at the very end of the project. Some of the guys that had been here longer would flap their mouth from time to time. That's all. But it doesn't matter anyway. You need the full support team to prep, fuel and launch one of the rockets."
"What's taking Skip so long? I hope he didn't get hurt. There's probably a lot of hazardous debris around," said Sallie, struggling to get up. "Maybe we should go look for him."
"He's fine, and you're not going anywhere," said Trillia, putting a hand on Sallie's shoulder to restrain her. "Possible broken ribs, and who knows what else. We should give it 24 hours at least."
Skip trudged into the room a few minutes later pushing an overloaded hand cart. "Great news. At least two of the generators are functional, and we've got plenty of diesel in the storage tanks." He stopped to catch his breath. "I brought some fresh bedding from storage, and a flashlight for each of us."
"Well, that's some good news," said Trillia. "But if it's just the three of us, maybe we should shut down the gennie when we don't need it. To conserve fuel. Say, if the gennie is up, why aren't the lights on?"
"The substation, and some of the high-voltage circuits got fried by the explosion," said Skip. "No, actually it was probably some debris causing a short circuit. And that might have caused a spike in voltage, which blew out some of the relays and fuses, which..."
"Enough already. So you can get them on, right?"
"Yes. The cafeteria isn't connected to the high-voltage circuit anyway, so it's probably just a fuse." Skip trotted back to the kitchen, where the fuse-box was, apparently undaunted by Trillia's shut down. A few minutes later, the spotlights over the serving counter came on, followed by every third overhead light in the dining area. He came back into the dining area with an unsuppressible grin. "So I only turned on a couple of the circuits – Trillia, you wanted to save power right? Oh, and the control circuits for the kitchen. I can maybe make us something for dinner."
"Let me take care of that," said Sallie, and attempted to get up again.
"You're not going anywhere yet," said Trillia, with a firm hand on her shoulder. "We need you to recover. Let the kid take care of it. It’ll do him good to stay busy. While he does that, let me shove some of these tables to the side so we can setup camp."
"Camp. Yeah, I guess it almost is like a camp."
"The quarters took a lot more damage, and there are a few bodies there as well. It will be better in here for the night."
After almost an hour, with the occasional muttering, and crashing coming from the kitchen, Skip emerged triumphant.
"So, what does garçon offer us this evening at this fine establishment?" said Trillia.
"I’m so glad you asked that," said Skip with a beaming smile. He placed a steaming hot platter on the table, and announced, "I call this dish: Sallie's Revenge."
Sallie glanced at the platter and burst out laughing. "Ha ha ha ouch! Oooh. Ha ha. Stop, don't make me laugh like that."
"It looks like meatballs on top of... what is that?" said Trillia.
"Gratin. It’s potatoes gratin," said Sallie, still trying to control her laughter.
Chapter 5: A Cunning Plan
The next morning Trillia checked Sallie's injuries. Apart from an alarming array of bruises, nothing seemed to had gotten worse.
Sallie stood up and began to move her arms and legs a bit more – definitely a painful sensation – but she didn't want the others to worry, and simply said "I'm a bit stiff. My ribs, hmm... yes, I can feel them. I should be able to get around though. Don't worry, I'll take it easy for a few days."
"I had all the standard first aid training, but I'm certainly no field medic," said Trillia. "I think there was something about watching for internal bleeding or blood clotting. But I don't know what the treatment for it was. Maybe there's medical manual somewhere on the base. But for now, I don't see any reason we shouldn't stick together. So let's go to the hangar and see what we've got to work with."
"Excellent," said Skip. The three hangars on base were part of the restricted area. On a single occasion he had been called to repair some power relays when they were short-staffed during a critical event. Now he would finally be able to see everything – especially the rocket launch infrastructure Trillia had talked about last night.
The base was ominously silent in the brisk morning air. It was almost never truly warm in this province, but in early fall the difference between mild afternoons, and chilly mornings was especially stark. The damage seemed to have been confined to the entrance area, with only a few shattered window panes here and there as they made their way though the ghost-town of smaller structures to the hangar area.
To an outsider, the base would have been bewildering. A sea of monotonous gray buildings with cinder block foundations and corrugated sheet metal walls. Uniform streets with no distinguishing features. Personnel assigned to the base learned to pick up on the subtle differences: here an extra vent stack protruding from a roof, there a sheet metal patch in a wall where a careless forklift driver missed a curve, and perhaps a weedy shrub poking out from a crack in the crumbled pavement. It may have been as large as a small village, but even when fully staffed, the base was devoid of the color and life of a village.
"The SR-3 should be in the first hangar," said Trillia.
They entered the hangar through a set of double doors in the corner, and were struck by the disarray inside. Subsections of rockets, boosters, engines, components of the launch apparatus, and machine tools were scattered throughout the massive hangar.
"What is this place?" said Skip, both in awe of the technology, and disgust of the disordered state of everything.
"This is the maintenance and repair area," said Trillia. "Some of the components had to be reconfigured, and some were declared factory rejects but were sent here for repair instead of being scrapped as was officially reported. And as the war started going against us, the quality of components we had to work with deteriorated. But don't worry, the SR-3 is old stock, so it should be fine. Shouldn't be too hard to spot. It's small, but has bright yellow wings. Probably shoved into a corner somewhere."
The three of them began their easter-egg hunt in the labyrinthine hangar for that small shiny object that would promise them freedom. The size of components for the main launch vehicles dwarfed something like a scout plane, but after about 10 minutes of diligent searching, Sallie spotted their quarry.
"Hey, over here. This has to be it," she yelled.
"Excellent," said Skip, zigzagging his way between the various rework projects towards the sound of her voice.
"But we may have a bit of a problem," said Sallie.
"Oh? What is it?" said Skip, rounding a pair of partially disassembled main engines that appeared to be being cannibalized for parts. "Oh! I see."
The little high-wing plane with its characteristically huge wheels, and bright yellow and blue paint scheme, was a cheerful addition to the hangar. It was remarkably intact compared with most of the contents of the hangar. Except for its engine, which was nowhere to be seen.
Trillia joined the two of them and suppressed the first thought that crossed her mind ('we're screwed'). Instead she responded with a much more helpful, "Maybe the engine is out for maintenance. There should be a maintenance log around here someplace. See if you can find it."
Skip jumped at the chance, and in less than two minutes had found both the engine and log. He read aloud, "SR-3, service number R-7620, engine removed due to failure to start. Disassembly revealed seized main bearings, and extensive internal corrosion, probably due to insufficient maintenance. Replacement engine ordered, given priority D."
"We're screwed," said Trillia, unable to suppress herself this time. "Priority C means essentially 'whenever there is time,' which as you can see by the number of projects underway here is basically never. And D is lower than that."
"Skip, you're on the maintenance crew – is there any other way to get this thing flying?" asked Sallie.
"I, um… I'm building maintenance… But I can try. Let me look around," said Skip.
"While you're looking, Sallie and I can check on supplies. In case we are stuck here for a longer period of time. Meet us back at the mess hall."
After about three hours of poking around the hangar, Skip returned with an uncharacteristic hang-dog look about him. He was no aviation mechanic, but with his natural talent for fixing things, he really hoped he would be able to help. "I don't see a way to get the plane flying. There's no replacement engine, and all other internal combustion engines I found are either way too big, or way too small. We've got diesel generators, and some smaller engines for portable power tools, compressors and the like in the maintenance shop, but nothing even close to the right size."
"Don't sweat it," said Trillia. "Even if you found one the right size, the gearing probably wouldn't have worked. Sallie and I found enough food and supplies here to last over a year, so we're not in trouble any time soon."
"So, we can wait until they clear out the tunnel?" said Sallie.
"It probably won't happen, unless the PWC decides to occupy the local town and gets curious. But from what I understand they don't much care for rocketry technology, and it goes against their military doctrine. Too complex, too expensive, and requires too much supporting manpower."
"But they MIGHT, clear out the tunnel and come looking," said Skip.
"I hope not. If they find us here, we're likely to all be executed. These rockets are similar to ones that have been used to bomb their cities," said Trillia.
"Well, I suppose we really do have to look into your crazy suggestion yesterday, Trilla. We could fly out of here on a rocket," said Sallie.
"Trust me, I signed up for this. I was slated for the launch just two slots away. I really intended to say goodbye to this planet forever," said Trillia with an uncharacteristic show of emotion in her voice. "But a safe launch requires a lot of ground crew."
"Umm, what about an UNSAFE launch?" asked Skip hesitantly.
"These are rockets! Full of highly volatile fuel and oxidizer. It's basically like setting off a bomb in a controlled fashion. And if you can't control it…" Trillia carried the logic to its conclusion in her head. If you can't control it, we are all dead, which is what our fate would be anyway. She also recoiled at the realization that she was usually the one railing against procedure, yet now she was defending it. "Actually, maybe you are right. Let's look into it." She paused again to consider. "Skip, it looks like we will have to depend on you. I know the launch procedures, but I'm no technician. So I know when in the launch sequence we need to fuel the rocket, but I haven't ever actually done it." Pausing again to consider the implications, even if they could launch a rocket, the ground crew would by definition be left behind. Since she was the only one qualified to fly the rocket, it would not be her. And leaving a man behind was not in her nature.
* * *
Sallie was glad that Trillia had agreed to let her cook that night. Trillia and Skip had been at it all afternoon, to get Skip up to speed on what was needed to launch a rocket, with nothing really for Sallie to do. She knew this province well, and always amazed her friends and family with her knowledge of different types of flora, and fungi. What was edible, what was in season, how best to prepare it. During this time of wartime rationing, her skills at scavenging extra food from the local forest were always appreciated. But there was no flora inside this frigid, barren basin, and even if there had been, there were enough canned goods to last over a year. At least her cooking skills could be put to use.
They took the time to hold a short memorial that evening. Trillia was the only one who knew any of the deceased, but they all felt something had to be done. The service did put a damper on the mood that evening, and made it difficult for them to escape the fact that the three of them had a high probability of joining their companions without a lot of luck on their side in the near future.
Skip and Trillia were at it first thing in the morning, having selected a large rectangular room known as 'the library' for their workplace. The room smelled of dust, chalk, and paper. It housed two long, narrow tables down the center, with walls covered either in floor to ceiling bookshelves, brimming with reference manuals, flight plans, and detailed launch records; or with sliding blackboards, many still with residual orbital mechanics calculations on them. A number of mechanical and electro-mechanical calculation devices were strewn about the main tables, and at the far corner, probably more out of sentiment than practicality was a 2-meter wide, mechanical brass model of their solar system, its most distinguishing characteristic being the enormous gas giant around which most of the habitable celestial bodies in the system could be found. The room was, save for a few cracked window panes, undamaged from the blast.
"Frame numbers 86, 87, and 88 are ready to go, according to the operations logs, with components for 89 and 90 on site, but not assembled," said Trillia.
"Let's focus on those first three: I don't think the three of us could assemble a complete system even if we did have the parts," replied Skip.
"The lower and upper stages are pre-assembled, but not fueled until the modular platform is wheeled to the launch gantry. The side-mounted solid fuel booster rockets are attached as well, then the support struts are extended to take the extra weight of the fuel, once the vehicle is in its launch position," said Trillia.
"A lot of these systems are more complex than they really need to be, so I think I can bypass many of them to allow just a few people to operate them," said Skip. "For example during fueling, there are systems to prevent fuel flow unless the interlock is engaged, and there is someone at the connection, holding down a dead-man switch. It makes sense, considering what would happen if someone were careless and there were a fuel leak."
More hours passed with Trillia and Skip hard at work, rummaging through ops manuals, exchanging ideas, and sketching how they could make good their launch.
"So it looks like we really could prepare everything in advance together, and the final launch could be manned by one or two ground crew," said Trillia, shuddering at the implications of that statement.
"If it's me, one will do," said Skip, apparently undaunted. "And why do you say ground crew anyway? I'm not going to be on the ground. I'm planning on being with you."
"I wish you could be, but disengaging the gantry is the one thing I can't do from the rocket. It has to swing away at exactly the right time. I know you're pretty handy jury-rigging things, but you can't put it on a timer."
"So? I was planning on controlling it from the cockpit. I could rig up a little control panel, and with the hatch open, and your commands at the right time, I could dis-engage it."
"But the rocket won't launch with the hatch open."
"So, I disengage that safety mechanism. I'm disabling just about every other safety system, so what's one more? I know you're thinking the wind drag from an open hatch will be a problem, but you said yourself that the rocket starts off very slowly. I figure I have 10 or 12 seconds from the time I swing the gantry away, to disconnect the electrical connections to the launch system, close the hatch, and get in my seat."
It sounded dangerous. Very dangerous. But Trillia didn't care. The thought of having to maroon one of them at the base sounded even worse.
Chapter 6: It's Hard to Say Goodbye
"I would have never dreamed that I would fly on a real rocket," said Sallie. "I was so amazed that I never asked how long will it take, and where do we land."
"Once we're fully loaded and prepped, we'll select a flightplan," said Trillia. "Each of the precalculated plans will have an exact launch time, waypoints, and flight time. But plan on about a week in space. As far as where we land; I can't tell you exactly. We try to come in as close to the target coordinates on Gestriff as possible, but re-entry is all manual, based on visual sightings of geographic–"
"Gestriff?" said Sallie, with an uncharacteristic tone of alarm.
"Yes, the only feasible flight plans with the planets in this position, are for Gestriff. A few months back, we might have been able to target Grell as well, but honestly we've lost contact with every–"
"I thought we were going to land back here on Spectrala. Why can't we just do that?"
"The program's top secret. I took an oath when signing up not to reveal it. A few people here or there babbling about it with no supporting evidence is one thing, but landing back on our planet with one of these babies would be a pretty obvious giveaway, don't you think? So anyway, the landing zone was selected to give us a wide margin for error; if we miss the target, there's no hazardous terrain in either direction, but as I was saying, we have to land based on visual cues–"
"I didn't take any kind of oath! People depend on me here–"
"And you, Sallie, are in effect already dead to them," snapped Trillia, annoyed at being cut off a second time. "Unless you have any other ideas for getting out of this valley, your options are to come with us to Gestriff, or stay here until your supplies run out. Either way, your time helping them is over."
"But… can't we vote on this or something?"
"No. And even if we did, since I'm the only one who can fly the ship, I would get all the votes anyway."
Sallie returned an emotionless stare many seconds long, then turned and walked off in silence.
* * *
Their preparations had gone smoothly for three days now. Almost too smoothly. Trillia and Skip had spent most of the time together, bypassing safety systems on the ship, selecting, then reviewing the flight plan. Sallie's injuries seemed to be healing, but her mood had not improved. Since there were only three of them, and the ship's weight was a critical parameter, they were able to take additional gear. However this needed to be packed and stowed carefully so as not to change the ship's weight distribution. Sallie had been diligently working on this, but it was clear she had not yet resigned herself to the one-way trip to an alien planet.
"The flight plan calls for a 23:02 launch, but with no ground crew, we'll have to leave a lot more time to complete the fueling. We have to get a good night's sleep beforehand, because you won't be able to in space," said Trillia.
"Why not?" asked Skip.
"Oh, you can try. But apparently a lot of people react badly to prolonged weightlessness and can't sleep well."
"So in addition to leaving our home forever, we also get to look forward to a week's worth of insomnia? This plan just keeps getting better. Anything else we can look forward to?" said Sallie.
"Yeah, as a matter of fact! Plan on no solid food for 18 hours prior to take off, and you'll have to purge yourself thoroughly."
Sallie's provocative tone seemed to evaporate. "What do you mean by 'purge,' exactly?"
"Do I have to spell it out for you?" snapped Trillia. "You've seen the interior of the ship. No sanitary facilities! We all wear a type of catheter for liquids, but we'll be subsisting on fluids for the entire flight."
Sallie stared back blankly, and wouldn't speak a word for the remainder of the day.
Chapter 7: Weather or Not
T-24 hours: The only thing that remained to be done with the ship was final fueling. But the weather took a turn for the worse, and an uncharacteristically early ice storm hit the valley. Sallie's mind drifted as she tried to get to sleep amid the pattering of icy rain hitting the plate glass windows of the cafeteria. She had been so upset about the personal issues, about never seeing her family and friends again, that the practical issues hadn't set in. She loved the sound of rain, and even loved camping, but every camping trip has an end. A time to go home, back to a dwelling with sturdy walls, with running water, electricity, and central heating. But tonight may well be the last night she would ever enjoy these comforts again.
The storm had let up a little the next morning, but the weather left the group with a grave decision.
"Look, we don't need perfect weather for a launch, but ice accumulation on the ship is not good. Not as bad as icing on an airplane, but it can change the weight distribution of the ship, and if it comes off in sheets, it can damage the ship. Could even damage or freeze up the radial decouplers."
"So do we pick a different flight plan," asked Skip.
"The problem is fueling. We can't leave the ship fueled on standby for an extended period of time. And since there's just the three of us, the fueling procedure takes a lot longer than it usually would. We basically have to predict what the weather will be like," said Trillia.
"Predicting the weather. No challenge there," said Sallie. "Hang on; Skip, you've lived here all your life, right?"
Skip stared back with the look of a deer in the headlights when he realized what was being asked of him. "I… I can't predict the weather," he replied softly.
Trillia changed her tone dramatically. "Hey, Skip, it's OK. Nobody expects perfection. Just give us your best estimate. It's icy now – do these types of storms usually follow a pattern?"
"Storms this time of year are rare," said Skip hesitantly. "Which means there is not a real 'pattern.' But if I had to guess, more often than not they are short."
"Well, the barometer is rising, and precipitation seems to be letting up," said Trillia. "Let's plan to go ahead with tonight's launch. If the weather takes a turn for the worse, we can scrub the launch and drain the fuel if we need to. Not without risk, but it's possible."
By late afternoon the sleet and freezing rain had turned to just drizzle, but the temperature started dropping rapidly. What precipitation did fall was light sleet, and all moisture was turning to ice. They wheeled the enormous launch platform into position along the triple set of rail tracks, specially designed to take the weight of the platform and a fully assembled rocket. By nightfall the freezing drizzle had completely abated, and the three of them fervently wiped down the rocket; that volatile little machine that their lives would depend on for the next week in the hostile vacuum of space. The machine didn't need to be completely dry, but every drop of water or crystal of ice on it's surface introduced a new variable into the equation. A little extra weight here, a little extra drag there… Trillia's skill as a pilot could compensate to some degree, but navigation errors, even minor ones, could have catastrophic consequences.
Sallie wiped down the crew capsule, running her cloth over the stenciled yellow paint indicating the frame number of their ship. "087." Just a number. Shouldn't they give the ship a name? Didn't sailors say that conferred good luck on a ship?
Skip cleaned the snow and ice off the mid section of the ship, paying special attention to the decouplers. If they jammed, the ship would be too heavy to break orbit, and if large enough shards of ice were sprayed in the wrong direction when the explosive bolts fired, they could puncture the hull. After he was certain they were clean, he ran a continuity check on the firing mechanism.
"Trillia! We've got a problem. The port side decoupler failed the check."
Trillia, after verifying the fault from the capsule's instrumentation, descended to the mobile maintenance platform Skip was on. Her expression, as usual, carried no concern. "Is there anything visually wrong with the device?"
"No. I cleaned all the ice off it, and tried to be as careful as I could – I used that wooden wedge and mallet anytime I was near the mechanism–"
"This happens sometimes. Moisture gets in there, some of the contacts corrode a little, and it fails the continuity check." Trilla bit into her lower lip and grumbled a little. "One of the techs once told me that if that happens, the decoupler will still fire. Something about the higher voltage of the firing circuit…"
"It passed the check before fueling." Skip's mind raced – the decouplers were not complicated devices, but they were compact and difficult to access. Would he have time to open it up and check the contacts?
"Can you replace the firing mechanism?" asked Trilla. "We have a little under two hours until launch."
"I can try. I'll have to go get the service manual. Never done anything like this before."
"Skip, if it looks like you're going to run out of time, just button it back up. It's probably just a fault with the check, rather than the actual device."
Trillia's words failed to comfort Skip, as he raced back to the main hanger to get the detailed service manual, and a replacement firing mechanism. Building maintenance was so much more straightforward. When faced with this type of problem, the obvious solution was to apply full voltage, and see if the device worked. But since the 'device' was in this case a set of explosive bolts; bolts which held a 50 ton booster rocket to the side of their now fully fueled vehicle, that solution was clearly not an option.
Removing the six screws from the tiny access panel took longer than he expected. The clumsy leather gloves cut his manual dexterity significantly, but if he removed them, his fingers would quickly be numbed from the cold. The panel finally popped off, and Skip began comparing the wiring inside with the diagram from the manual. He tried to put a certain sequence of events out of his mind. If he accidentally triggered the firing mechanism, his death from the concussive blast would be quick, Trillia would be incinerated a few seconds later as the main rocket exploded, and Sallie, who was currently suiting up in a blast-protected bunker would starve to death a few years in the future when the supplies finally ran out. If this were a normal launch, a safety mechanism would have prevented him from accidentally triggering it. But he had disabled most of the safeties in order to allow a launch with just the three of them.
"T-50 minutes," bellowed Trillia from above. "I'm suiting up. Get that panel buttoned up one way or the other."
Not helping, thought Skip. He had now cleaned and dried all but one of the contacts, and they all checked out so far. He glanced at the reading on his handheld multimeter, a deceptively heavy black Bakelite box with dozens of plug positions for the test leads, and a sweep indicator with a confusing array of markings. It also contained a battery powerful enough to potentially trigger the firing mechanism.
Skip breathed a huge sigh of relief when the final contact passed its check. He hurriedly reattached the panel, and with Sallie's help, wheeled the maintenance platform out of the way.
"T-16 minutes," yelled Trillia from the loading platform above.
"I brought your suit and gear," said Sallie in her characteristic soothing voice. "I thought you might be too short on time to run all the way back to the changing rooms."
"Thanks," said Skip, grabbing the bundle, and sprinting for a nearby maintenance alcove.
T-10 minutes: Sallie stepped onto lift. She would be wearing this blue flightsuit for over a week. Unless something went wrong, in which case it would be the last article of clothing she would ever wear. The well-made suit was reasonably flexible, with some protection from heat or cold, but not against the vacuum of space. If the little capsule lost pressure, they would all perish. But the extra weight of four pressurized suits, helmets, and their associated breathing apparatus would have meant a 25% reduction in the tools and survival gear they could transport, and the ship was therefore not equipped with them.
Trillia had insisted on following protocol with their personal survival gear, this was not pre-packed onto the ship like everything else. This gear was absolutely personal to each colonist, and each would have it on their person at all times. Despite being carefully designed conform to the body, and to restrict movement as little as possible, it still felt awkward to her. A silly rule, thought Sallie, as she pushed closed the gate, and pressed the "up" button. Nothing happened. So many things to remember about space flight; all of them so critical to know by heart, and now this. A safety switch to disengage somewhere that she had forgotten?
"Skip? I… feel stupid, but what am I doing wrong?"
"Gimme a minute!" he yelled from the confines of the a maintenance alcove, finishing donning his gear. After the fiasco with the decoupler, he had hoped to be able to shower one last time before changing from his maintenance overalls, but there was simply no more time. He stumbled over to the lift, his mind on too many things at once to focus. "Survival knife… here, survival pouch... check, canteen... check, catheter… Ouch! Check." He grimaced, blushed, then glanced up at Sallie. "Sorry. I didn't mean to grab my–"
"Forget about it. What am I doing wrong? Why won't this damn lift work?"
Skip pushed the up button. Nothing. Repeated pushing didn't change the mind of the stubborn lift.
"Oh crap!" With all his attention on the ship, he had neglected to check something as mundane as the little lift on the launch gantry. They now had a fully functional ship – set to launch in eight minutes – with no way for two of the three of them to get to it.
"No! We will not be stuck here because of a failed lift," snarled Skip. He pushed the down button, then up again, but the lift remained lifeless. His mind raced. There was a contact switch that stopped the motion of the lift at either end of its travel along the vertical track. Maybe it was jammed with ice? His toolbox was still in the alcove! He raced back for it.
"Hey you two, train to Gestriff departs in 7 minutes," yelled a displeased voice from far above. "What's taking you?"
"The lift is stuck!" replied Sallie.
"Skip, it'll be a tough climb, but I think we can make it," said Sallie, gazing up at the 35 meters of ladder that extended upward along the gantry.
"Gimme one minute to try to fix it, then we can climb," he said. A simple screwdriver sufficed to pry off away the sheet metal cover of the electrical box. Tracing the control wiring to a junction, he loosened one of screws and pulled the wire off. "Push the up button."
The lift lurched upward.
"Down. Push the down button!" yelled Skip.
The lift jerked to a stop, and then reversed.
Skip jumped on the lift. "The switch is jammed. So I have to manually break the circuit by removing the wire."
Sallie started the lift back on its upward climb. "Great job. I really didn't need a 35 meter climb with all this gear on me."
"Don't thank me yet. I have to manually reconnect this exactly when we get to the top."
But Skip managed to reconnect the switch, stopping the lift just 30 cm from the top of its track. Sallie leaped onto the loading platform of the gantry, striding hurriedly towards the small hatch, where a very impatient Trillia was waiting. Sliding on a patch of ice on the diamond plate metal platform, Sallie skidded for the edge, only to be caught by Trilla's firm grip.
"We're about to start the most dangerous venture of our lives. Can't have you miss it doing something stupid like plummeting to your death while trying to board the ship."
Trilla and Sallie strapped themselves into the contoured white seats that would serve as living room, exercise room, bedroom, and even bathroom for the next week, while Skip braced himself in the partially open hatch, a small jury-rigged switch box in hand. Was this the right approach? Maybe he should have tried a radio control. No, too unreliable. Concentrate. Double checking the support brace holding the hatch partially open. Check. His hands and feet in the correct position. Check.
"T-60 seconds," said Trillia, her voice strangely calmer than it had been all day.
Skip pressed the first of the two switches. The loading platform dutifully swung to the side. He had practiced the sequence dozens of times; where should his hands and feet be at every stage. It would be different when his body was subjected to as much as 3gs during takeoff. But he could do it. He was an astronaut now. How many boys from his school could only dream of such a thing.
"T-10, 9, 8" Trillia counted down with trained, clock-like precision. She knew the sequence. Had she badgered Skip and Sallie too much over this past week? Always telling them that she was in charge, that she was the only one who could fly the ship? Now she had to prove it. She had to get it all right or the three of them would die in any of a dozen different ways. No pressure. "3-2-1-NOW."
Skip flipped the second switch, and watched through the gap of the partially open hatch as the stabilization arm swung away. His whole body vibrated, and his legs began to burn as the g-forces increased. He threw the now redundant control panel though the gap, and yanked on the support brace – a precision device made from a sawed-off broom handle. The hatch slammed shut under the still increasing g-forces. Just rotate the locking arm to seal the hatch, and you can get to your nice, padded seat. His legs and back were now burning from the strain. Hatch sealed. Left foot on the corner of the radio housing, right hand to the lower grab handle. His legs nearly collapsed beneath him. He swung himself around, and released both hands, falling hard into the white padded upholstery. Padding sufficient when you are sitting in, not falling into the seat. His catheter jabbed him uncomfortably.
The ship vibrated alarmingly as it surged skyward. These ships just did that, Trilla was told. She throttled back the main engine, according to the flight plan. A second burst of shuddering.
"We just broke the sound barrier," she announced, calm as ever.
Sallie never flown in an airship or aircraft before, and the highest speed and acceleration she had ever experienced was that one trip to the coastal province on the express train, a train which would reach 140 kph on the straights. And now she was traveling faster than the speed of sound, her organs being pressed together at almost 3 gees. People were just not designed to travel this fast. Yet despite all of her misgivings, the sheer power she was experiencing was thrilling at an instinctual level.
According to the radio direction signal, they were on course. Trillia could jettison the boosters exactly as specified in the flight plan.
"T+105, 106, 107, jettison!" Trillia hardly felt the boosters separate. A gentle shock, and a reduction in g-forces. She didn't have to call every maneuver out loud, there was no ground crew to monitor her. But her two passengers. No, that was dismissive. Her two crew-mates deserved to know what was going on.
"Does this mean my repairs worked?" asked Skip, unsure what just happened.
Trillia adjusted the throttle again. "Skip, Sallie, congratulations. We are all now members of the astronaut's club. We are over 40 kilometers up, and almost 200 km downrange. We are over PWC territory flying at just above mach 5. Exactly on course. In about seven more minutes we separate the main stage, and then… then it's mostly a lot of coasting. This flightplan lasts another seven days, and then... no more plans – ever. An alien world. The unknown."
- End -
Copyright © Kululu17, 2018
Hello! This is a story in my RF87 universe, and not related to any of my Felarya works. Basically the introductory meeting of the main characters in the game (which I am still working on, but it's going slowly). It's a sci-fi universe, heavy on the science, under the premise "What is the lowest level of technology that would allow people to explore other planets?" No tricorders, no orbital sensor sweeps, no transporters, or phasers or blasters or whatnot. Better hope the local fauna and flora are friendly!
Originally started many months ago as a much shorter story that I wrote to try to keep myself consistent when writing dialog for the characters, and then sorta snowballed as I got into the story. Any comments most welcome. Hope you enjoy it!
What.a.story! You did a great job portraying the three characters and how different they really are without much description, but mostly dialogue - very nice. All the quotes and hints or stabs at our world - LOL - my 'favorite' one still being the great... PWC
This universe should make for some good stories.
There were lots of great lines to choose from, but I have to say my favourite must be about being mashed to death by potatoes. Now I know how I want to die!