Commander Tess Birch was awake at the first dawn, as it came speeding around on the most perfect day. She was awake for all the dawns, that day, in fact.
Strapped in to the commander’s console on the Shuttle Phaëton as it hurtled counter-clockwise across Earth’s upper atmosphere at many thousands of miles per hour, on this, her maiden voyage in near-Earth orbit.
Tess eased the tension on the controls, and eyed key vectors for telemetry, relative gravity and exterior hull temperature. There existed set definitions for the maximum values these could be pushed to, set values that defined safe speed and safe temperature. Safety. A whole universe of safe numbers for piloting one of NASA’s shuttles. Beyond these, where Tess now edged the Phaëton, lay what planeteers called, comically, the edge of the envelope, and she pushed it relentlessly, and hard. One day it would push back. One day – but not today!
Today, Tess pushed with a little more care, but also with a little more hunger. Hers was not the only life on the line, today, but she knew that her fellow journeymen, to a man, pushed just as hard. She was confident in the – ha! – beyond safe knowledge that to a man, they were silently egging her on, each one mentally pushing the boundaries, pulling at the controls, increasing Phaëton’s light-speed fractional.
She let out an audible breath – audible to her alone, in that bulbous, gold-visored helmet – and flipped the comms switch to ‘Home’ and in a calm, measured voice, spoke to her puppeteers, at space command:
“Canaveral, we have optimal values all round on Phaëton. I’m taking this bird by hand for the next seven revolutions. Phaëton crew are bringing home the record. Birch out.”
Tess jammed the comms switch back to off before the electronic chatter from home could oppose her statement. It was more a gesture than any form of retaining control – she knew well that if they so wished, the command team back on Earth could wrest control from any commander and their crew, via remote. It had to be so, and had been so since the days of the cold war, and it was a useful legacy. It was born out of political exigency but had technical and safety advantages too.
But Commander Tess Birch also knew that she had her backers on the team back on Earth, too. Men of experience, with many years and frightening amounts of power, who, if she crossed, would not hesitate to hall her ass before a court martial. She believed they all supported what she and the crew of Phaëton were doing, unofficially as much as officially. Officially, this was the first mission since the Daedalus, ten years previously. Unofficially, she was going to break the record the Shuttle Daedalus set, before it tore apart, killing the crew on-board. Six revolutions of the Earth, before the cataclysm, when it dipped into the atmosphere at such a high speed that all that was left to recover were satellite images of the fireball as the ship and its crew glowed brighter than the sun, for just an instant, before winking out of existence.
Phaëton shot on towards the approaching line of night, that came rushing in a darkening arch to swallow Tess and her crew. They dived into that darkness, bathed in the softer light of a billion stars whose magnificent, ethereal luminescence breathed into their souls as the sun was forced into a man-made eclipse for the first time this journey.
Myriad stars, and the brighter Luna – still a grey ghost – whipping past, all ignored, all unimportant, as the crew of Phaëton sped onwards. Silence on board. Concentration from the eight-man, one-woman crew. After a couple of hours, a brilliant yellow-white arc exploded around the lightening rim of the world beneath them, and all at once, dawn broke, for the second time.
At this speed, Phaëton would match Daedelus’ decade-old record of six revolutions in a single, contiguous twenty-four hour period. Tess was still a cadet, when that record fell. No shuttle had flown since. She was prepared to die for this record, knew her own skills well enough to know that the risk of that happening was remote, though a possibility. She was not prepared to kill for it.
“Crew of Phaëton,” she spoke firmly, flipping her comms switch to CC – closed circuit – meaning only she and the eight men on board could hear what she had to say.
“We’re not at terminal velocity yet, but we’re also nowhere near the speed we need to be at, to break dawn seven times.” she breathed in, out, once, twice.
“Team, I’m taking Phaëton past the point of no return, past the edge where Daedalus flew, and fell. But I’ll only take us there if I have your support. Are you with me?”
“Are you with me? I will not take your silence as a vote in the affirmative – I need eight affirmations, or I land this bird, with no record. And a possible court martial, in any case.
“Affirmative.” That was Nunes.
“Affirmative, Commander.” An echo of voices from Erich and Schuyler. Three, so far.
“You have my vote, Commander. Dickson out.”
Five votes, she wanted total agreement on this one, their lives were at stake if she or any one of them made the slightest of errors, if one piece of equipment failed – she’d take no hostages in exchange for this record.
Tess had come to stare down the Sun, that downed her colleagues on Daedalus. she was the first commander to pilot a shuttle since, and she had a score to settle with the Sun.
“You have the go-ahead from me, too, Tess.” Mark Ramirez almost whispered his vote, using her first name in deference to his seniority in years and experience, though not in rank. His tone, as always, bore out the respect he felt for Tess, fully twenty-two years his junior, but infinitely capable at the helm of the Phaëton.
“Jackson, Doyle – I need your votes. Silence means no confidence, we land this bird.” she barked at the remaining two as yet still silent crew members.
“Commander, do you need to ask?”
“Pretend Earth is listening, Doyle!” Tess smiled in answer to the question.
“What about you, Jackson?”
“You have it. You know you do, Commander!” laughed Jackson.
“Doyle and I had a bet on who could hold out longest. Guess I claim the greenbacks when we land, eh, Doyle?” Jackson’s laughter lifted the sombre, tense mood in the cabin.
Pride surged in tandem with the rocket boosters as Commander Tess Birch leaned on the controls. They needed more speed if they were to crack seven Earth revolutions in one twenty-four hour stretch. More speed, but more care, too. Death would be the only prize if one mistake, one error, one technical hitch crept in. Shame, eternally, would be its companion. Shuttle crew were heroes, but just as easily, they could be seen as arrogant fools, wasting billions if they screwed up. Phaëton sped on towards a third dawn.
A fourth, and fifth dawn passed without comment, silence a warm support of the task at hand for the crew. Tess appreciated the silence – it gave her space to think out the possible futures she was leading the crew towards: glory or ignominy, each dependent on success of failure and death.
As the sixth dawn approached, without any cataclysm to follow, and the alarms remained silent on all the gauges, Tess thought briefly how different this would be if it was a story told be Hollywood, and if theirs was to retold by the film-makers of home, would they be true to the story, or would they sensationalise it? Hype it up with a clattering of alarms and a thousand near misses? Not if she could have her say. True stories don’t need a million alarms, a thousand explosions, a hundred deaths – the stress of knowing what could go wrong, what had gone wrong on previous missions, these were sensational enough.
“You don’t need CGI when you’re living the dream!” Ibanez’ words gave her a start, more because he seemed to echo her thoughts, than break the silence.
“Damn straight, that man!” she said in answer.
“Dawn in T-minus twenty, Commander.” Ibanez informed. He didn’t need to – all nine pairs of eyes were set firmly on the daylight systems. the sun set the curve of the Earth on fire, lit the azure oceans and rose alarmingly in the cabin ports as the crew were swept onwards at a blistering pace.
Nightfall for the sixth time was met by the scream of alarms. So Hollywood gets their sound effects and drama, Tess thought, as she checked the display in front of her, surprised at her calm at this not unexpected intrusion.
“Fuel low in main rockets, Commander!” reported Nunes.
“Dammit, I can that on my screen, Nunes, keep it together, man!” She didn’t need emotion, and more tension, from her crew – not now.
“Team, we’re at the point of no return – we’ve matched Daedalus – but that’s all I want to match Daedalus on, from here on out we write our own history.”
She waited for a response. None came.
“I can land this bird with no fuel, I need that last punch of speed to take us through the records and through a seventh dawn.”
Silence. She didn’t need a response, though she cried out silently for one.
“Go, Tess.” Ramirez. Another whisper, though she knew all the men heard it.
She breathed in, leaned back, and yanked the controls, perhaps a little too hard, but felt satisfied and confident as Phaëton shot forwards, almost impossibly, accelerating. Silence, and tension, sank down on her, on the crew.
Ninety minutes later, the alarms screamed as the last of the fuel burned out in the boosters. She held the controls.
“Commander, fuel’s out, ease up the controls.” Schuyler almost shouted. She winced, knowing she was uselessly pulling at controls that were so much dead weight, and was possibly damaging their delicate parts doing so.
“Nothing to do but glide this bird onwards.” Ramirez added.
Tess eased the throttle back to its position of rest, and took up the pads on either side that controlled the huge ailerons on Phaëton’s wings. She was in complete control, complete silence.
“Dawn in T-minus ten seconds. Brace for the record books.” Tess spoke quietly.
Ahead of Phaëton the curve of Mother Earth cracked; a searing, golden light racing outwards from a point directly ahead of Phaëton. It was silent, but in the mind of Commander Tess birch and the crew of Phaëton, it cracked like the whip of God himself and the Sun shot upwards in their view, as they entered dawn for the seventh time, on this, their most perfect day.
© Dave Luis 2012. All Rights Reserved.