Major Edward Jupp went through the countdown procedure the way he had a hundred tunes in simulation and twice for real. His gloved hands played over the switches, and he responded to the voice of the mission control agent at the Consolidated Space Operations Center in Colorado Springs. His mind was on the gaunt, taciturn passenger in the rear seat. This was his first mission as commander, and he ached for a perfect flight. So what did they do but pull the mission scientists, and substitute this bozo. Colonel Newman, putting him in charge of a half-baked kamikaze mission to snatch a live Russian laser satellite. On the other hand, thought Jupp, they're giving me a chance to fly this sweet baby, new engines, high orbit capability: we'll see what she can really do.
He watched from the corner of his helmet visor as the boom swung away from the top of the liquid fuel tank. He could sense the billion cracklings as the liquid oxygen sucked heat from the mighty vessel, and he lightly fantasized again that he could smell its cool freshness. The hum of a thousand organs, electrical, mechanical, fluid, and solid sang their readiness to him. He listened to the countdown and felt the Pavlovian rush of adrenalin as the count reached 'one.' With 'zero' the blast screamed its energy, first with the roar of the gigantic liquid fuelled engines and immediately the answering call of the solid boosters, a triumphant Tarzan cry, hailing the defeat of gravity. And then, just as before, the miracle was repeated and they were on their way, lifting, twisting away from the gantry, the thrill of unbridled acceleration coursing through his body.
They kept to established routine for the first several orbits. The idea was not to up their hand too early. Jupp knew, though, that the Russians would be watching them microscopically, anticipating precisely the move they now planned. The quiet passenger remained m his seat, not so much withdrawn as apparently oblivious to the activity necessary to establish a shuttle orbit. If he noticed that he was suspended head down two hundred miles above earth, he did not show it.
They switched to the briefing books for their revised mission, a mission they had studied and rehearsed for only a fleeting week. Only a week before that, the Russians had blown away a fancy new American reconnaissance satellite. Jupp was aware that the American military and intelligence communities had been in a retributive fury, little disposed to look past the surface act and examine the motive. The Russians, correctly or not, suspected a space-based attack on one of their carriers, and the recon satellite had shown an undue interest in the damaged ship. The Americans still did not have an operating laser in space. Now they knew the Russians did have one. The Americans wanted it. The shuttle would get it. Jupp had had only a few chances to discuss this change in plans with his copilot, Larry Wahlquist, but he knew Larry liked the whole dung even less than he did.
Jupp and Wahlquist stood facing the U-shaped console at the rear of the flight deck, their backs to the pilot's and copilot's seats and the nose of the shuttle, their feet anchored by velcro pads against the capricious lack of gravity. Each opened independent safety switches on opposite sides of the console, and then Jupp lifted a cover and thumbed a heavy toggle switch. They watched on the TV monitor as the twin doors on the large cargo bay swung open. Wahlquist fitted his hands into the manipulator controls. His gaze switched rapidly back and forth from the monitor screen to the rear window above the console which provided a direct view into the cargo bay. In the bay, the long, skinny, elbow-jointed manipulating boom came alive, an extension of Wahlquist's own muscles and nerves. He moved the boom to the only item in the large storage area. It was a cylinder twenty feet long and four 'feet in diameter. From the end of the cylinder extended a shaft that ended in a special fitting designed to be gripped by the manipulator boom. Wahlquist moved the boom to the shaft, then made the fine adjustments to align the clamp on the boom with the fitting. Slowly he closed the jaws on the clamp. Satisfied that the mating was exact, he threw a switch that locked the boom onto the shaft with an unbreakable vice grip. He threw another switch on the console and watched on the TV monitor as the tubular casing separated along its length and peeled back like a long skinny clam. He then used the boom to heft the shaft and hold it aloft, pointed straight out from the bay towards the earth below. Nestled along the shaft, cleverly and compactly aligned, were the segments of a mirror. At a signal, the many pieces would carefully unfold and arrange themselves like a gigantic polished umbrella, half again as big in diameter as the shuttle craft itself.
Jupp returned to the pilot's seat. They were in an orbit that carried them northward over China and Siberia, across the pole and down over the eastern seaboard of the United States. So far, so good. The shuttle. Cosmos 2112, and all other Soviet satellites capable of interference were monitored closely both from earth and from space. There was no sign of excess Soviet interest or activity. Shuttles did not usually adopt polar orbits, but they were not unknown, especially when a surveillance satellite had to be deposited in such an orbit. The mirror stayed folded against its supporting shaft to avoid adding premature confirmation to suspicions that must be growing.
The first tricky part was to close on the Cosmos, using the mirror for protection. The Cosmos was a long way out, in a parking orbit one day long canted a bit with respect to the earth's equator. In twelve hours it would swing from some distance north of the equator to an equal distance south, but at the same longitude since as the satellite completed a half orbit, the earth would complete a half revolution, maintaining the alignment. From the earth, the Cosmos seemed to drift slowly north and south, passing over a particular point on the earth twice a day. They would keep a maximum distance by going up in their polar launch orbit, at right angles to the orbit of the Cosmos. There was no place to hide in space from the weapon that shot beams at the speed of light, but at least aiming would be more difficult at greater distances.
To minimize direct ground-based surveillance by the Russians, they waited until they were over the west coast of South America headed for Antarctica and the Indian Ocean beyond. Then Jupp programmed the rockets to begin the meticulous ascent towards the Cosmos, which hovered near the spatial gravesite of its recent victim. They climbed in an open spiral, belly of the spacecraft up, the necessary orientation for ascent because of the preset angle of the rockets. They circled once every few hours at first while the Cosmos hovered near the northern swing of its cycle over the southern Urals. The time for an orbit lengthened as they rose until they were at an altitude slightly less than the Cosmos and also orbiting once in about twenty-four hours. They were high over Panama while the Cosmos drifted lazily southward over Ethiopia.
Wahlquist had tried to keep the mirror shaft pointed at the Cosmos out over the wing of the shuttle as they ascended. This was difficult at first. Since they were upside down, the Cosmos was apparently 'below' them where the boom did not extend easily. The heat resistant re-entry tiles might have offered some protection from the laser, but this was still a high vulnerability manoeuvre. As they rose, the necessary adjustments became minor. Their aspect changed little since, from their circular orbit, the Cosmos always appeared to be off their right wing. Nevertheless, Jupp could feel the tension rising in his copilot as time passed and still there was no activity from the Cosmos.
Once more, Jupp played lightly on the control thrusters until the nose of the shuttle pointed nearly at the Cosmos. The rocket thrust would now rotate their orbit until it aligned with that of Cosmos. The manoeuvre was a dead giveaway, however, and Jupp strained against the static of his earphones to hear the warning he knew must be only instants away. He hit a button to engage an automatic sequence. The rockets surged, and then were quiet. He used the thrusters again to align them perpendicular to their new orbit. The Cosmos was now at eleven o'clock out his window as they hung upside down in the dark. Wahlquist adjusted the boom.
The computer signalled readiness for the next firing sequence. Jupp was reaching his finger towards the button when the voice came up over the scrambled radio channel, the standard conversational tone heightened with tension.
'Shuttle, this is control. We've got action here. Standby.'
Jupp twisted in his seat to exchange a look with Wahlquist standing at the rear of the flight deck. He glanced at Colonel Newman who remained impassive.
'Cosmos has done a rotation and yaw. Alignment on shuttle suspected.'
Wahlquist did not have to be told. He threw a toggle switch and pushed a button, and the mirror unfolded, a dainty weapon against the ravishing power of the laser on board the Cosmos. The shuttle could provide a shirt-sleeve environment, but they wore their suits for double protection. Now they closed and fastened the faceplates on their helmets, switching to the oxygen supply of the suits.
In their present orientation the mirror completely obscured their view out the front. Jupp felt a twinge of nerves. With the computer, he did not need to see where he was flying, but his fighter pilot instincts rebelled. For all his training with instrument flying and targeting, he still did not like to have his vision needlessly blocked.
They sat in silence for ten minutes. Finally mission control broke in.
'No further action, proceed with orbital sequence.' Wahlquist spoke without removing his hands from the boom controls.
'They've got a bead on us.'
'I reckon they do,' Jupp replied. 'Maybe we're out of range. They know if they've guessed right we're only going to close on them. Maybe they're waiting to see the whites of our eyes. We've also given away our defensive strategy by popping the umbrella. They're probably working up their own tactics now.'
Jupp reprogrammed the computers for the delay and fired the rockets. Wahlquist rotated the boom during the firing. Cosmos was now at ten o'clock out Jupp's window, and the boom and mirror shaft extended at almost right angles to the axis of the shuttle. They were particularly vulnerable because the mirror could protect the cabin or the tail, but it was not big enough to shield both when they presented their side to Cosmos as they now did. By previous decision, Wahlquist adjusted the boom forward so the crew was shielded. Jupp rushed through another programming sequence.
No human could time the beam of energy that leapt from a portal in the Cosmos. No need to lead the target with this cannon, just point and shoot. Nor was there a mote of dust in space to mark its passage to any eye not in the line of fire. In less than a tenth of a second an intense beam of light crossed a distance greater than that between the poles of the earth and slammed into the upper tail of the shuttle.
The beam delivered heat but little impulse so there was only the faintest jolt and a tiny crackling carried not by the vacuum of space, but through the metallic walls of the craft itself. The three men in the cabin sensed the brief blue— white flare from the change in shadows and odd reflections, as if someone had struck up a welding torch out of their line of sight. The radio crackled to life as the man in the rear seat made his first overt move. With a single motion, smooth despite the constraint of his vacuum suit, he pushed a button on his wrist. To one side of his helmet visor, visible but not in his normal line of sight, the green luminous display of an electronic stopwatch leapt to life, its quickest digits whipping by at dizzying rate. He pushed another button and the display was once again that of a standard chronometer.
'Control to shuttle! Control to shuttle! Cosmos has fired. Repeat, Cosmos has fired! Are you hit? Come in shuttle.'
The battle was on! Jupp felt a calm of adrenalin-charged tension settle over him. He rammed the control thrusters, slewing the craft around to present a smaller, tail-on target to the Cosmos, as Wahlquist adjusted the boom until the mirror shielded them in the rear. Then he responded in his best Chuck Yaeger drawl.
'Aaaah, that's affirmative, control. We have taken a hit in the aft section. We've covered our rear and are having a look now.'
Jupp flipped a finger sign at Wahlquist who hit a switch to relay the image on the cabin monitor to the ground. Wahlquist adjusted the position controls on the boom camera and watched the image play awkwardly on the monitor until he was oriented and began to scan around. The boom extended directly to the rear so that the shaft lay against the right side of the tail with the mirror beyond. Everything seemed normal as he scanned across the base of the tail and then around the bay.
'Look higher up on the tail,' growled Colonel Newman from the rear seat.
Wahlquist gritted his teeth, turning stiffly in his suit until he could see Newman seated behind Jupp. He glanced quickly at him and then for a longer instant at Jupp. He turned back and fingered the controls to tip the camera upward and then let out an audible gasp.
'Son-of-a-bitch,' said Jupp slowly.
The upper third of the tail section was missing. A scorched crescent marked the damage, beyond which there were random ends of wires and shafts, and beyond them nothing, their intended connections vaporized. The lower part of the rudder that remained intact hung at a skew angle, its upper pinions blasted away.
'Aaah, you copy that control?'
'We've got it, shuttle. Evaluation is underway. Mandatory, repeat mandatory, shuttle, you must complete orbital adjustment with greatest speed.'
Jupp nodded to Wahlquist who swivelled the boom so that the mirror was abeam them, clear of the rockets, but once again exposing their tail. Jupp played with the thrusters and rapidly fed data to the computer. He hit the rockets again, and they felt the thrust of the final burst that would bring their orbit into alignment with that of the Cosmos. When they finished the manoeuvre, they were orbiting directly towards the Cosmos, but going sideways, their side exposed. Jupp rotated the craft until they were pointing towards the Cosmos, and Wahlquist rotated the mirror to the front, protecting them to the maximum extent. They were behind and slightly below the Cosmos, but orbiting more quickly so they would slowly catch up. Wahlquist sticky-footed his way over and budded himself into the copilot's seat.
At a critical point they would fire the rockets and rise into the higher, less rapid orbit of the Cosmos. In orbit, one could not simply fire rockets and catch up. You only went faster than the other guy if you were in a lower, quicker orbit. If you fired your rockets, you would be flung into a higher, slower orbit, a maddening reversal of fighter pilot instincts. If you wanted to go faster, you flipped ass over end and fired the rockets in the direction of your travel. Then you dropped into a lower orbit where your speed was higher.
They settled in to wait. The manoeuvre had taken fourteen minutes. In twenty-seven they would begin the final firing sequence that would raise them to within docking range of the Cosmos. Seventeen minutes had passed since the Cosmos had fired at them. Another six minutes passed in silence.
The intense white hot glow erupted in front of them, accompanied by static on the radio. Both Jupp and Wahlquist jerked, startled, in their seats. Newman punched a button on the wrist of his suit again, and a small satisfied smile creased his features.
'Shuttle, Cosmos has fired again! Please report!'
'Whoa, that one caught us by surprise. Scared the bejesus out of me. The mirror took that one head on, and it seems to be intact.'
'Roger, shuttle, that's satisfactory. You may proceed.'
Newman's voice croaked from the rear.
'The repetition time is twenty-three minutes and thirty— seven seconds, even a little slower than we guessed. We've got them now.'
Jupp looked at him in the small mirror mounted above the window.
'Twenty-three minutes.' He turned his head to see a count-down timer, and then looked back at the man in the rear. 'We'll be in the middle of the final lift.'
'They'll get one more shot at us. That can't be helped. But if it's just before we close on the bastard, we'll have the maximum time to get in and get it disabled.'
Jupp settled back into his chair and stared out the cockpit window at the thin mirror surface that shielded them from a fiery death. He understood the logic, but he was not at all happy about sticking out his chin and giving the satellite one more freebie punch.
They coasted in silence for five, ten, fifteen minutes. Without the obstructing mirror they might have been able to make out the pinpoint of light that was Cosmos 2112, hovering somewhere above and beyond them. Then as Jupp programmed the final burn, the radio crackled alive again.
'Shuttle, there has been a new development. This could be a problem.'
There was a delay during which a mumbled conversation could be heard. Harsh whispers of troubled voices.
'Shuttle, the Cosmos has gone into rapid rotation mode. We can't be sure but we suspect the purpose is to spread the next shot over the surface of the mirror.'
'Roger, control,' Jupp replied. 'What's the matter with that? Doesn't that just lessen the intensity in any particular spot?'
'A little,' came the concerned voice from the ground. 'but more important is that it increases the chance that some of the power will fall in the interstices. The cracks between the mirror segments. The reflection will be imperfect there, a lot more absorption of energy, and the chance for some real damage. You'll be a lot closer, so the power will be more concentrated anyway.'
'Copy that, control. What's the recommended procedure?'
'Shuttle, no change, repeat, no change in procedure.' The voice lost some of its adopted authority. 'Just a warning to be on the lockout. You're going to have to tough this one out. Fer Chrissake, shield your eyes!'
Just before beginning the burn they darkened their faceplates. Jupp set the automatic sequence and the rockets fired, lifting them methodically to their rendezvous. Jupp kept an eye on the clock. He sang out 'twenty-three minutes,' over the roar of the rockets. They closed their eyes and threw their arms over their faceplates. A minute passed. The rockets stopped. They floated in deafening silence for another minute. Somewhere just m front of them, at point-blank range, was the deadly Cosmos.
Finally, Wahlquist dropped his arms and turned again in his seat to look towards the man in the rear.
'Well,' he demanded, 'what's going on?!'
Without lowering his own arms, Newman could sense that Wahlquist had dropped his guard.
'No!' he cried. 'Cover -' But it was too late.
The beam seared out of the rotating satellite, sweeping rapidly but uniformly across the reflective face of the mirror, most of the power bouncing harmlessly off into space. The joint at the centre where the mirror segments all came together reflected too little. It rapidly heated red then white hot. The laser pulse lasted only a moment, but as it died away a tiny hole was burned open, and the fading radiation passed through, racing to the shuttle beyond. There was insufficient energy to damage anything but fragile human tissue, but enough for that. Wahlquist had averted his gaze when the beam struck, but it did him little good. Wahlquist neither heard nor felt the impact on his face nor deep in the base of his retinas. He saw the flash, the last flung he would ever see. He knew that immediately and screamed his bitterness.
'AAAGH! I'm blind!'
Jupp lowered his arms and tried to turn to his companion.
'It may be temporary.' 'No, goddamn it! I know it! I'm blind!'
The cold voice cut in.
'Major, we must move quickly. If he's disabled, you must help me into my EVA pack. I've got to get out there now!'
'But he's injured!'
'We can't help him! We've got a job to do. And precious little time to do it in. Another shot like that and we're all fried. Help me with that pack. That's an order!'
Jupp unbuckled and pushed out of his seat with his left hand, keeping a grip on a handle in the armrest on his right so that he pivoted, floating towards his copilot. He steadied himself by grabbing the armrest on the other chair and stared into Wahlquist's sightless eyes.
'Larry,' he said firmly into his helmet's radio, 'you'll be in shock, take a pill and sit quietly. I'll be back in a few minutes.'
Jupp gripped his friend's padded shoulder with gloved hand and then worked his way to the rear of the cabin using convenient holds in the deck. He dropped down through the hatch in the floor that led from the flight deck to the middeck. Newman was already disappearing into the air— lock that gave access to the cargo bay. Jupp waited for him to clear the airlock then passed through himself. Newman worked his feet into special braces in the deck that would hold him as they fitted the pack, then he twisted sideways to reach the extra-vehicular activity packs fastened to the bulkhead. He unbuckled one pack and lifted it from the rack, passing it around behind him. Jupp moved in and adjusted the pack into the special braces at the rear of the man's suit and fastened the clamps. Over his headphone he could hear Wahlquist reporting his condition to mission control.
'Okay, Major,' the Colonel growled when he was satisfied. 'There'll be some changes in the plans. Their rotating craft complicates my work, but gives us an advantage. You get back into the cabin. The laser fires out the side, in the plane of rotation. As soon as you can make out the orientation, you move us to just below it. That way they can't take a shot at the shuttle without changing the plane of rotation. That's harder for them to do than shooting at a target anywhere in the plane of rotation, so you'll be out of the line of fire, and I'll be able to go straight up out of the bay. You got that, Major?'
'Yes, sir. I've got it,' Jupp replied, striving to contain his resentment at taking orders on the ship he piloted.
'Okay. You holier when you're in position. I'll go in along the rotation axis; anywhere else, I'd get swatted away like a fly. I'll have to go without the umbilical. It'd get twisted like a spring as soon as I latched on.'
'Without the umbilical?' Jupp's voice betrayed his shock. 'If you lose your grip, get flung off, you're goner
'I know my job, Major. If I lose my grip, we're all gone.'
Jupp looked at the stern face, barely visible behind the darkened faceplate, and then yanked himself into the airlock. He floated up through the hatch to the flight deck and worked his way to the seat and buckled in. A glance at the clock showed that four minutes had passed since the blast that had Minded Wahlquist. Perhaps twenty more until the laser recharged.
Jupp took a few seconds to orient himself and then let out an exasperated sigh. All he could see out the window was the back of the mirror. He had to move it, but the controls for the boom to which the mirror was attached were twelve feet away at the rear of the flight deck. You weren't supposed to have to fly and handle the boom all by yourself, he thought.
Wahlquist sensed his presence and reached out an arm, grabbing Jupp for reassurance. 'What's happening?'
'I've got to move the mirror and then do a little flying. With them spinning we can duck down under and hide from the laser.'
'Listen, I'm okay now,' Wahlquist said. 'Talking with control calmed me down. I've got a good feel for that boom, and you can fly better if you're not jumpin' up and down. Why don't you tell me what you want done with the mirror, and I'll handle that part?'
It made sense; the mirror only had to be lifted out of the line of sight.
'Okay, buddy. You've got it.'
Jupp unbuckled Wahlquist and floated him around the passenger seat and over the open hatch in the floor to the control panel at the rear of the flight deck. The rear facing windows that opened to the cargo bay were now an unnecessary luxury for his friend, Jupp mused as he planted Wahlquist's feet on the anchoring velcro pads.
'Can you get your hands on those controls?'
Jupp watched as Wahlquist felt around the control console in front of him. He fought the instinct to grab the sightless hands and guide them to the controls. Wahlquist found the recess after only a long moment and settled his hands around the reassuring familiarity of the controls. Jupp regained his seat.
'All right,' he said, 'lift the boom straight up ninety degrees.'
He watched as the mirror lifted methodically from his line of sight. They were still upside down and as the view from the windows was cleared he could see the spectacular spread of earth out the tops of the windows.
'Okay, that's good,' he said when the boom was overhead, pointed directly at the earth below. Straight out the nose was the blackness of space.
A clutch of panic seized him. Where was the Cosmos? It was supposed to be right there! Had the computers screwed up? Could they find it before it unleashed another hellish blast? He forced himself to think calmly. He triggered a thruster and put the shuttle into a slow roll. They had done ninety degrees when, thank god, there it was, out the corner of the window about three hundred yards away, a little above them. He continued the roll until they were 'right side up' and the Cosmos was in clear view out the window.
'Now what?' demanded Wahlquist.
'I've got the Cosmos in sight. We're about a hundred yards below it and a few hundred yards away. We're at twelve o'clock now,' Jupp twisted around to smile towards his sightless colleague, 'right side up, if that makes you feel any better.'
Wahlquist appreciated the black humour. 'Right,' he replied with heavy cynicism. 'Blind and weightless, it makes a shitload of difference to me.'
'I'm going in.' Jupp eased the thrusters again and the shuttle drifted forward. As he flew, he narrated to keep Wahlquist at ease.
'It's much like the sketches they showed us. Impressive looking brute. Big cylinder, just the upper end of the SS-18 booster. What did they say? Four metres in diameter, ten metres long? That looks about right. There's a booster rocket nozzle on one end, some sort of antenna on the other. That's the end pointed earthward now. It's got these four weird stubby wings. They stick out about two metres, and run the length of the cylinder, equally spaced around the circumference. I guess they're what we're supposed to lop off to get the thing in the cargo bay. The whole thing is rotating once about every, oh, ten seconds. I can make out thruster nozzles. There are four pairs of them at each end, midway between the wings. Each of the pair points in opposite directions along the circumference of the hull. There are a number of small ports and one big one, maybe. a metre across, halfway along the cylinder between two of the wings.'
Jupp was silent for a moment, watching the dark maw swing across his field of view. 'I guess that must be the laser.'
When Jupp saw the Cosmos disappear above the cockpit window, he hit reverse thrust and stopped, hovering just beneath it. He spoke into the microphone.
'Colonel, there it is. Good luck.'
'I'm sorry, Major.' The voice was ice. 'I can't see it. You've got the mirror in the way.'
'Christ!' thought Jupp. 'Larry, can you move that boom on towards the tail?'
Wahlquist had not released his grip on the controls. Jupp strained to look through the overhead cockpit windows. 'Good, that's it,' he said crisply when the boom was pointed at a forty-five degree angle towards the tail. He leaned over and worked the controls of the camera on the boom until he could see the Cosmos clearly on the monitor. They were drifting just slighty. He brushed a thruster to give a small opposing acceleration. Eleven minutes since the last shot from Cosmos.
A small figure appeared on the monitor, heading slowly but directly towards the antenna on the lower spin axis. A white plume shot briefly from the top of the backpack, then a shorter blast. The figure hovered next to the projecting antenna just below the spinning base of the Cosmos. An arm reached back and unsnapped a tool from the side of the pack. In a moment a torch flared brightly and was applied to the base of the antenna. The antenna fell free and drifted off.
'That should prevent any control commands,' came the voice over the radio.
'He just cut the radio antenna off the bottom,' Jupp informed Wahlquist.
'Now what's he doing?' Wahlquist's voice betrayed his fear and frustration.
'He's got the torch on again. He's holding it up to the bottom about eighteen inches from the centre. I'll be damned. He's using the rotation as if the thing were on a lathe. Cutting a circle as slick as can be. I guess he'll try to cut a hole and then get inside to disable it.'
'Wait a minute!' The pattern shifted, drifting. The torch went out.
'What is it?' shouted Wahlquist.
'Major!' came the curt command. 'This thing is still alive. Must be an internal antenna. It's changing its pitch. Get your craft the hell out of the way!'
Jupp hit a thruster and backed the shuttle away and down. When it was in his line of sight again he could see the rhythmic puffs from its thrusters and see that the laser portal had already been slightly tilted down towards him. He began a frenzied game with the control thrusters, monitoring the Cosmos and keeping the shuttle out of the rotating, sweeping aim of the laser. He was not too busy to marvel at the actions of the diminutive figure that hovered around the massive contraption.
He watched the figure manoeuvre to the perimeter of the base of the Cosmos. An arm snaked out.
'What's he doing?' Jupp narrated to Wahlquist. 'Slapping at it? My god, no! He grabbed it! He grabbed the nozzle of the thruster!' The figure was suddenly whipping around with the Cosmos, feet flung outward by the centrifugal force.
'He's got a hand on it, but I don't know if he can hold on. If he loses his grip and it slings him off, we may not get him back.' A burst of white exhaust came from the thruster. 'Damn! There it goes again! Wow! He's still got his grip! I guess the suit gives him enough protection from the peroxide jet.' Jupp watched intently. 'Oh, oh,' he said. 'They've slowed it down and it's tilted towards us again. They're still trying to draw a bead!'
Jupp concentrated on the controls again, moving the shuttle out of reach. When he could look again, Jupp saw that the Colonel had once more fired up the torch.
'He's hanging onto the thruster with one hand and using the torch on the sidewall about a foot above the thruster. I don't know how he's holding on, but that should be thin skin he's cutting there. Why's he doing that? Yep, there it goes.'
A thin piece of the metal wall fell away leaving a hole about a foot across. The torch was released, dangling on its short cord.
'Now let's see, he's got a hole big enough for his hand. Yeah, he's reaching inside. Those edges will be sharp. He better not rip his suit! Okay, he's got a grip on something inside, a brace or something. He's hauling himself up. He's got a foot up, now the other. Oh, I see. He's standing on the wing.'
'He's standing?' inquired Wahlquist, perplexed. 'What the hell do you mean?'
'Well, he's got himself wrapped along the side with his head pointed in the direction of the rotation. That puts the flat surface of the wing under his feet, giving sort of an artificial gravity. There must still be quite a centrifugal force, but he's got some support.
'I can only see him about once every, oh, about every twenty seconds now, the thing has slowed its rotation as it's manoeuvred here. From our vantage, he's moving from left to right, clockwise if you look up from below. He's got the torch back and is poking it into the thruster nozzle. Ah, yeah, that'll fry the nozzle and the works inside. Now he's doing the opposite nozzle of the pair. He's cutting another hand hold. He's near the bottom end of the cylinder. There's another thruster at the top; he's going for that.'
Jupp watched as the man held on with his left hand and reached over as far as he could with the torch in his right hand to cut another hole. There was an awkward moment as the torch was released, and the change of handholds was managed, right hand into the old hole, left into the new one. That manoeuvre was repeated again so that the figure was holding on only with his right hand and had moved to the left. After a brief fumble the torch was retrieved from where it spun outward at the end of its tether, and yet another hole was cut. Repeating this pattern, Newman made his laborious way along the side of the Cosmos, pausing a couple of times to direct the torch into small ports that could be easily reached. Whatever sensors had peered out from within were now blind. Electronic eyes in exchange for the human pair in the shuttle. Newman was almost at the other end, at the second pair of thrusters, when his cold voice came again.
'Major, are you out of the line of fire?'
'Yes, sir -'
'Then make sure your eyes are goddamned covered!'
The laser! Jupp had not been watching the clock in his fascination with the laborious climb up the face of the Cosmos. He barely had time to throw his arms up over his faceplate. The laser port was between the protuberance Newman stood on and the one that followed in the sense of rotation. The timing was immaculate. The laser flared as the rotation swept it in the direction of the shuttle, the vast surge of energy passing several hundred feet above the shuttle. Jupp slowly lowered his arms and looked at the clock. About twenty-four minutes between shots, just as before. The remaining thrusters flared on the Cosmos, and it slowed and slewed again, a little erratically Jupp thought, the effect of the destroyed thruster pair. Hurriedly, Jupp eased the shuttle into a new safe position.
'Everything all right?' Wahlquist wanted to know.
'Yeah,' replied Jupp, 'we were out of the line of fire, but I shouldn't have lost track of the time. He's torched the upper pair of thrusters. Now he's leaning over and cutting a hole in the top edge of the wing projection. Another one in the hull just above the wing. Oh, man! He's using those holds to lower himself down towards the next wing, dropping back against the rotation from our point of view. It's not working! The centrifugal force throws him out. It's a little too far: he can't get a foot straight down!'
'He's hauled himself back up and is lying prone on the wing, reaching way down to cut another hole in the hull.'
Jupp was silent for a few moments.
'It's a foothold! He's hanging down again and has a foot in that new hole. He's down; he's got a foot on the other wing. He's got a hand in the foothold, both feet down. He made it! Damnation! That clown is good!'
Newman applied the torch to the thruster pair near him and then began to cut holds and work his way towards the pair of thrusters to his right at the bottom end of the long cylinder. Midway along he came to the large ominous port that housed the laser. It spanned the distance from his belt to his throat as he paused before it and reached for the torch.
The satellite had rotated the port away from them and Jupp felt more than saw a brief glow. Over the radio they heard what might have been the start of a scream, but the lungs that were attempting to drive it vanished, and the sound came out a choked sigh.
Jupp watched in horror as the satellite rotated, now in seemingly infinitely slow motion. Before the laser port came into view he saw the legs, thrown off by the centrifugal force. Legs, ending at the waist of the suit, twisting slowly off into oblivion, followed by a piece of the backpack with the torch still dangling from it. The next stubby wing swept by and he could see the remaining ghastly tableau. The left hand was still wedged into one of the freshly cut hand holds. The arm led to shoulders, another arm, and head above, but nothing below, the torso blasted cleanly away. The truncated assemblage, flung centrifugally out from the side of the satellite, rotated slowly out of view.
Jupp felt an intense nauseous sweat break out on his forehead and sweep down through his body. He breathed deeply to keep his stomach. Finally he realized Wahlquist was screaming at him.
'Ed! Ed! For god's sake what happened?! Ed? Answer me!'
'The laser,' he finally croaked. 'It went off when he was right in front of it. He's gone.'
'What do you mean went off? It couldn't have been time.'
'No. No, you're right.' Jupp looked at the clock. 'It could only have been about twelve minutes.' He lay back in his seat. 'Maybe it was triggered prematurely somehow. A trip device, some signal from the ground. Not full power, but enough to kill a man. I don't know. But it sure happened. God!' he exclaimed as the laser port and the remains of its victim swung into view again.
'We've got to get out of here!' exploded Wahlquist, near hysteria.
Jupp thought for a moment, his head spinning, rationality almost out of grasp. Then order settled in, years of training asserting its influence.
'Larry! Listen to me!' He spoke sternly, commanding his copilot to calm down. 'We can't go down.' 'We've got to!'
'Listen to me! We can't take a shot from that laser. A direct hit and we've bought it. I can't fly and position the mirror at the same time. You can't see where to put the mirror, and it probably won't give us much protection anyway, damaged as it is. Besides we came up here to do a job. A damn good man just got killed for this mission. We've got to see it through.'
'I'm blind, goddamn it. I'm no good. Are you going to take that thing on single-handed?'
Jupp was silent a moment, then answered.
'Yes. But you can help. I'll get into it and disable the power. Then I'll tell you where to guide the boom so we can grab on and tuck it into the bay.'
'You're out of your gourd!' protested Wahlquist. 'What happens when you're out there and it takes aim and blows the shuttle away? And the damn thing is spinning; that's a tough job with the boom, even if I could see!'
'Three of the eight thruster pairs are out of commission. It probably can't manoeuvre well. That gives us a margin. I'll have to kill the rest. And if you can't manoeuvre the boom, then you'll have to pick me up, and I'll do it. Hey, I know this is no picnic, but we can do it! We've got to do it. What we can't do is waste time talking. I've got to get us in position under the Cosmos, and then you've got to come down and help me with my backpack.'
Jupp knew it was necessary to get Wahlquist moving, give him something to do so he wouldn't work himself closer to panic. He had to remember that, desperate as he felt, he could at least still see. Wahlquist would be just that much closer to cracking up. These thoughts spun through his mind as he worked the thrusters and brought the shuttle up under the Cosmos, scarcely conscious of his actions.
He unbuckled and floated back to where Wahlquist stood. Ignoring his protestations, Jupp guided Wahlquist to the hatch in the floor and watched him drop through. Then he floated down himself. The two of them squeezed into the airlock and then out into the cargo bay. Jupp made sure Wahlquist was on a short tether. He detached a second backpack from its rack and gave it to Wahlquist. It took them several minutes of fumbling to get it attached, but Jupp could sense Wahlquist growing more assured as he let his training take over and worked the familiar catches, buckles, and straps by feel. Jupp helped him into the airlock, then detached the tether and watched him disappear through.
In their orbital minuet, they had tipped so that now they were not aligned with the earth beneath them. The fierce blue line of the earth's horizon made a cockeyed angle over one of the bay doors. Jupp looked up at the menacing hulk of the Cosmos spinning its grisly cargo a hundred feet over his head. His body felt encased in electric ice. He stared at the Cosmos, and then decided on a plan. He had to move before he thought about it too deeply. He selected and attached a tether. He reached for the thruster controls that extended forward on an arm from the backpack, gently fired the bottom thruster and rose up out of the bay.
The tether stopped him opposite the middle of the Cosmos. He watched the spinning craft carefully, calculating how long it would take him at full thrust to cross the void. He used the tether and his thrusters to line up precisely with the laser port, the easiest point to grab hold. Then he pointed himself headfirst at the Cosmos. He got himself as steady as he could and then detached the precious tether. The movement rotated him slightly. He resisted the impulse to grab for the security of the tether and used the thrusters to realign himself. He thought it would take about ten seconds, half a rotation time.
He watched the laser port pass from his left to his right, one stubby wing, another.
NOW! he screamed silently to himself and hit the thruster at the bottom of the backpack, producing a long continuous jet.
He accelerated towards the equator of the spinning cylinder. Another blunt wing passed. Too slow. Too slow!
Then the next wing passed, and he could see the port. He was almost there. But the port moved on. He had to get there before the next wing swept by, leaving him to crash into the smooth side, nothing to grip. Too close. Too close!
He was moving in rapidly, the crucial wing swinging towards him, right at him! He threw out his left arm, fending off the rotating wing, deflecting himself towards the laser port, menace and salvation.
The swinging appendage crashed into his arm, sending a jolt up through his shoulder. A moment later he collided headfirst with the hull of the Cosmos. The wing swept him around as the momentum of his impact rolled him into a ball. The force of his thruster kept him against the hull for a moment, but then he dizzily felt as if every force of nature were working against him. The centrifugal force of rotation tugged him inexorably outward, away from the hull. He extended his legs, and the thruster began to push him up along the hull, away from the laser port. He killed the thruster, but could feel himself tilting outward, falling away from the hull. He pushed against the stubby wing and lashed out desperately with his right leg, kicking along the hull until he felt the ominous opening of the laser port.
Only a few minutes had passed, but scarcely a few more had been enough to kill. He simply prayed that he would not somehow trigger a similar blast. He felt the upper side of his boot catch over the rim of the opening, his toe extending inside the port. The friction gave him some anchor, but his upper body tilted away, still at the mercy of the centrifuge.
A hand reached out, and he grabbed at it without thinking. Only after a moment of relief did he realize in horror what it was. No time to think, his boot could slip at any moment. He pulled frantically against the centrifugal force — grabbing hand, forearm, shoulder, then reaching beyond the helmet to grab another handful of suit near the other shoulder. He was too busy to look, too frightened to look, but he caught a glimpse of gaping mouth and eyes staring in perpetual shock. He stuffed his hand into the torch-cut hole, searching for the grip to share with a dead hand.
There! A reinforcing bar! Got to — Finally the infinite sinking relief of a secure handhold.
As he grabbed the fixture within the hole he became aware of the shaking of his leg from tension and too much adrenalin. Sewing machine leg, the rock climbers called it. He forced himself to breathe calmly for a moment. He could not wait for long. He was aware of his appendages as never before. His whole consciousness split and flowed to his left hand wedged against the dead one, gripping some frame member, his right foot, hooked upward, straining to keep a purchase on the rim of the deadly laser port. Would he trigger it? What if it goes off? Is his foot out of the way, or will it be seared from his leg? The terrible centrifugal force, pulling, pulling him away from the side. How did he do it, one-banded, with the Cosmos rotating twice as fast?
Jupp tensed his stomach muscles and slowly drew his dangling left leg in against the outward tug of the artificial gravity. His foot bounced against the hull, and then he slid it downward, trying awkwardly to keep it against the hull until he could reach the stubby wing. It was like hanging from the ceiling and trying to stand on the wall. Finally, he could feel the surface of the wing. There was some friction on the sole of his boot, precarious but precious support against the outward tug.
Slowly, he released his toehold on the laser port. He twisted suddenly, his left foot slipping on the wing. A surge of panic, primordial, fear of falling, ran through him. He forced himself to have confidence in his hand grip and got his left, then right foot planted on the wing. Now the rotating wing offered a floor under his feet, an artificial gravity giving some security against the perilous outward component.
He reached backward for the torch, every move awkward and twisted as if he were on a rapid merry-go-round. He grasped the torch in its clamp on the backpack. He dropped it! The torch slung out to the end of its tether. He grabbed the base of the tether and pulled it around in front of him, extending his arm, letting the tether slip through his hand until he could almost reach the handle of the torch. Then he worked his gloved fingers in cumbersome rhythmic fashion, inching along the tether and on to the handle until he had a firm grip. He pressed the button and the torch sprang to life, a flaring blue ally.
He worked the torch in a loose U shape two feet across below the laser port. The torch sliced the thin metal easily. The chunk of side wall fell away and he could see inside the Cosmos for the first time.
He saw that he would not be able to get through the hole. The bracework for the laser mount obscured the way. He shuffled his feet aside and cut another U extending to the left of the first. As the next piece fell away, he felt his perch shudder. To his right, he could see the cloud emerge from one of the undamaged thrusters. The Cosmos was manoeuvring again! He watched as the rotation carried him around. Yes! They had tilted down slightly towards the shuttle. He had to get inside!
Two heavy braces blocked the new hole. One ran along the side and provided his handhold in the smaller hole above. The bars resisted, but the torch did its work.
He replaced the torch in its clamp and reached inside the freshly— cut hole, seeking and grasping one of the bars supporting the laser. Then he released the grip of his left hand and withdrew it from the upper hole. As he did, the Colonel's hand came loose as well. The head bumped his and the hand slapped against his faceplate, a farewell pat, as the remains swung off into space. The sudden movement jolted Jupp again and he froze motionless for a long moment until he felt the thrusters shift the Cosmos once more. -
Rapidly, he crouched and snaked his left hand in for a grip. He pulled himself inward. God, it was dark! He needed the lamp, but could not release a grip to get it. He pulled again and inched inward but then stopped. Now what giant solid hand blocked his further movement?
The backpack. It was caught on the severed brace. He might cut a hole bit enough for it, but there was probably no room in the confined innards of the satellite. Cool daring descended on him. He had come too far. He adjusted his position until his grip with his left hand was as firm as possible. He transferred the torch and a lamp to fasteners on his suit. Then he began to release the straps and catches with his right hand, working awkwardly but methodically at a job meant for more than two hands. The partially freed backpack swung out tugging on the straps, fighting release. At last he had it. He held onto the final strap for one moment and then let go without a backward glance to see the mechanism spin off to join the severed body in eternity.
He twisted slowly one way then the other, testing for freedom, finding a contortion that allowed motion. He grasped for new handholds and worked his way in headfirst.
Finally! He could feel his feet clear the opening and planted them on the bracework surrounding the hole through which he had entered. He stood, the centrifugal force at last a friend, feet on the wall of the huge cylinder, head towards the centre. He found the lamp and flicked it on. The laser loomed alongside him, a huge enclosed box. There was room to manoeuvre, if just barely, a technician's access space. Elsewhere, equipment, snaking cables, wires, and pipes packed the interior of the satellite.
Now what. Mister brave guy commando? a cynical voice asked. You going to destroy this thing with karate chops?
He felt the satellite shift again, and through the frame around him could sense the flow of peroxide to the jets. Peroxide. The tanks must be somewhere. Could he puncture one with the torch and put the jets out of commission without blowing himself up? He scanned around and could not identify the tanks. They could be anywhere; why wasn't he briefed for this?
Power! If he killed the power, he would stop both radio commands from the ground and the laser. He played the lamp again and located a cable the thickness of his arm coming from the rear of the laser. That had to be the main power supply. He followed the cable around the hull to the point where it disappeared into the bulkhead that had been behind him as he faced the laser.
Stencilled lettering caught his attention, just out of the reach of the lamp. He swung the light and froze. He dimly felt the involuntary release that flowed down the relief tube of his suit. He didn't read Cyrillic, but there was no mistaking the purple and yellow international symbol for radioactivity. Of course, he thought, no solar panels, the thing has to be powered by a nuclear reactor, and no room nor need to shield it in space.
I'm a dead man. The words echoed in his mind as he swung to work. He started with the large cable from the laser, severing it with the torch. Sparks flew, arcing the gap he cut, but he felt no glory in the fireworks, only a grim determination. Then he methodically cut every other cable he could reach from his confined space that might carry electrical power. As he proceeded he could feel the cessation of certain hums and vibrations of which he had not been consciously aware. If it was killing him, he was killing it.
When he could find no more cables intact, he backed out of the hole very slowly so as not to catch his suit. When only his upper torso remained inside, he hooked an elbow around one of the laser braces so that he had a firm hold that would not tire his hands. The centrifugal force tugged his legs straight away from the satellite.
'Oh, thank god!' Wahlquist's relief came to Jupp as a palpable force over the intercom. 'I wanted to call you but was afraid to spoil your concentration. Control is frantic. I cut them off from you too.'
'Sorry, it must have been rough on you just sitting. I think I've disabled it. I cut the power lines.'
'Control says it's probably nuclear powered. Did you go inside?'
'Yeah, I had to, but only for a little while. I'm fine.' An extended silence echoed with Wahlquist's doubt. Then he spoke. 'Now what?'
'I sure want to get back home. How'd you like to play catcher?'
'I had to jettison the backpack to get inside. I want you to jockey the bird around where I can just jump into the bay. Can you do that?'
Jupp heard the forced bravado.
'If you can pitch it, I can catch it.'
'Great! Are you at the controls?'
'Yep. I've been feeling around; I'm into it. Talk to me.'
'You're about forty-five degrees from my plane of rotation. This polecat was trying to get you in its sights again, by the way.'
'Anytime. Let's start simple. Give me a little port roll to get the plane of your wings perpendicular to my rotation. Not too much. Smidgen to the right. Wait'll I go around to get another good look. Just a hair to the left. Okay, that looks pretty good. We'll tune it up later. Now let's see if we can get a parallel lateral shift to the right. You want to hit the front and the rear left thrusters by just the same amount. No. Too much nose! You're moving but spinning. A little right nose! Now some right rear. Let me get my bearings, I can only see you once every twenty seconds. You're still drifting. Give me just a light brush on the right. A little more. Okay, let me watch again for a minute.'
Jupp had realized throughout this exercise that they would never get a perfect alignment, with Wahlquist having no direct visual feedback. They might stop the spin of the shuttle, or the drift, but to get them both stabilized at once was asking too much. He could maximize his chances, but he was still going to have to hit a moving target from a merry-go-round. And he was the projectile.
He spent a few more minutes with Wahlquist until they seemed to have the drift minimized. The shuttle passed before his eyes once every twenty seconds, its open bay yawning a welcome to him. The craft hovered a little below him but had a slight upward drift. It was also in a slow clockwise spin from his perspective. He planned to push off from the Cosmos when he faced at right angles to the shuttle. His inertia from the spinning satellite would carry him sideways towards the bay. The problem was timing. Even if the shuttle were perfectly stationary, he could release too soon and be thrown past the tail; too late and he would sail helplessly past the nose. He could increase the target angle by bringing the shuttle in closer, but then there would be too great a chance of collision.
He waited until the shuttle was pointed with its long axis along his plane of rotation so that he had the best chance of landing in the bay. He worked his body around until his feet were under him. He crouched on the side of the Cosmos and held onto a brace with one hand behind him, like an ungainly swimmer about to begin a race. He waited a minute, three more revolutions, and then as he saw the tail of the shuttle come into view to his extreme left, he pushed off.
He immediately sensed his error, and the panic of falling gripped him again. He had concentrated so hard on timing his leap to the rotation that he had not paid enough attention to pushing straight off from the side of the satellite. He had pushed himself slightly upward, exactly the wrong thing to do with the shuttle a little below him. He felt as if the shuttle were drifting downward, even as he rocketed towards it, arms and legs flailing wildly in ungrippable space. He began to tumble, and as he caught occasional glimpses of the shuttle, he could see the edge of the bay drop below his inexorable path. He steeled himself to see the shuttle float by, his last connection to humanity fading in the vastness of space.
The blow nearly took his breath away, a surprisingly painful rap from his left shoulder blade to his right kidney. As he bounced back, he caught a twisting view of the bay rotating in his line of sight, and then a pole. He spreadeagled, reaching for his life. His left arm and leg hit it; he swung his right arm around, reaching, clawing, grabbing, bugging. And then he was still, legs tightly wrapped around the manipulating boom, his arms clasping it to his bosom. He closed his eyes and listened to the pounding of his heart, racing as never before. The sweat ran stinging rivulets into his eyes, clinched though they were. At last he opened them and looked around. The clamshell door. He had missed the cargo bay, but had collided with the edge of the extended door. He looked at the boom immediately before his eyes. Had it not been for the plastic barrier of his faceplate, he would have kissed it.
He tried to speak, choked, and then tried again.
'I'm home. Don't go away; I'll be right in.'
Jupp shinned his way carefully down the boom, and using handholds in the bay, made his way to the airlock. He rotated through and nearly collapsed with relief at being back within the confines of the familiar shuttle cabin. He drifted up through the hatch. Wahlquist was standing next to the pilot's seat, waiting for him, his faceplate up, listening intently, compensating already for his lack of sight. Jupp floated to him and without thinking grasped him in a bearhug. Wahlquist was surprised for a moment, but then responded in kind and the two figures stood for a long moment locked in a cumbersome space-suited embrace.
Finally Jupp felt control return. He held Wahlquist off at arm's length.
'Okay, buddy, we've got work to do. Let's bag that bird and get out of here.'
He guided Wahlquist to the copilot's seat and then settled into the comfortable familiarity of the pilot's seat. He jockeyed the thrusters and loved every response of his craft. He loved his eye-hand coordination, and he loved the total absence of the terrible repellant artificial gravity that dwelt on the object out his window.
He manoeuvred the shuttle until it was beneath the Cosmos once more, craning to see through the window over his head to position the boom. When he was satisfied, he moved to the boom controls at the rear of the flight deck. He released a catch and watched the life-saving mirror drift off to join the other detritus of their mission. Then he raised the boom until it was just beneath the Cosmos. He flipped the switch and set the rotatable stanchion on the end of the boom spinning and with it the payload interface claw. Monitoring the picture from the camera that spun with the claw, he adjusted the speed until the image of the bottom of the Cosmos was fixed, the claw, rotating at exactly the same speed. He then closed the gap to the Cosmos and thrust the claw up into the open wound where the bottom antenna had been. He could feel the shuttle rock as the spinning claw sought a purchase on the satellite and transmitted small torques through the stationary boom. He could see the claw span a frame member and he locked it on.
Now for the tedious part. He had to slowly decrease the speed of the claw. Too fast and he could snap the boom or the brace in the Cosmos with equally disastrous results if the spinning satellite should collide with the main span of the boom. As he decelerated the tremendous angular inertia of the Cosmos, it was transferred to the shuttle, setting it spinning. Jupp called orders to Wahlquist who operated the thrusters to remove the spin.
An hour later the Cosmos and the shuttle were one in motion. Jupp slowly lowered the boom until the Cosmos was just out of the bay,.the jury rigged wings that had abetted his entry blocking the final nesting. With some reluctance he floated back down through the hatch, passed through the airlock, and stared once again at the hulking satellite. He anchored a tether to his suit, pulled a torch from the rack and affixed it to his belt.
He started on the structure with which he had first collided. His skin crawled to see the gaping hole of the laser port, and its smaller, ragged companion where he had found his first grisly hand-hold. He was too fatigued to do more than a butcher job, but it still required fifteen minutes to sever the blunt structure and shove it off into space. He continued around, doing two more in three-quarters of an hour. He was bone tired. He floated back to the deck of the bay and scanned the remains. He was sure he could position the thing to one side of the bay so that the final wing would fit. God help him if it trounced around during re-entry. He hung up the torch, detached the tether and slipped back through the airlock.
More careful manipulation of the boom brought the Cosmos into the bay, the remaining wing just clearing the hinges where the port clamshell would close. He hit the switch and watched the doors swing shut on their captive with the relief of a beleaguered traveller whose suitcase finally closes. He journeyed once again into the bay and secured the huge bulk as well as possible with various cables and clamps.
For a final time he floated upon to the flight deck and buckled himself into the pilot's seat. He programmed the computer and they began the descent to near earth orbit. He suggested to Wahlquist that he discuss with mission control the best mode of re-entry with an evaporated vertical stabilizer, tilted his chair back, and slipped into a heavy sleep.
He awoke fighting the sleep, caught in a fear that if he did not arouse now he never would. He could sense without opening his eyes that the booster was not firing. They were in parking orbit.
'Back in a minute,' he told Wahlquist, as he prised himself out of his chair. Down on the operations deck he stripped off his gloves and undid his helmet. He went to the medicine cabinet and washed down a couple of Benzedrine tablets. Wouldn't do to sleep through re-entry.
Back in the pilot's seat, he listened intently to Wahlquist. They had immediately concluded that a routine landing at the Cape was out of the question. Emergency crews were assembling on the dry lake expanses of Edwards Air Force Base in the Mohave. Part of the vertical stabilizer was still intact and the guess was that it would provide sufficient stability during re-entry. The problem was that manoeuvring in the atmosphere would be severely hampered. They could make some gentle turns with judicious use of wing spellers, but without the rudder a proper coordinated turn was impossible. Not a job for computers: no programs were written for laser-blasted equipment. Jupp had to fly. He'd known that as he fell asleep, and as he had pawed for the stimulant.
His senses were keen as they did the final burn to start their descent. They began in standard orbital orientation, upside down, rockets pointed in their direction of travel. The rockets thrusted and they dropped into an ever lower, ever faster trajectory. As they entered the atmosphere, they flipped over to the normal atmospheric configuration, nose forward, tiled belly down into the heat. Jupp immediately felt the vibration. Something was wrong with the damaged tail. The mangled remains of the rudder still clung to the lower portion of the vertical stabilizer. The vibration grew to a teeth-clattering shudder. Jupp felt a cool wisp of irony amidst his fear. They would die now together, the shuttle and the Cosmos, after being through so much.
His mind raced, scenes of childhood, his technician's sense wondering what would give out first, a wing come off, a rupture in the hull? Then in a heartbeat it was gone. The shorn rudder succumbed to its own lack of aerodynamic perfection. The tremendous heat of re-entry ablated and then finally swept it away.
They came out of radio blackout only fifty miles off course. Jupp applied a little spoiler. Not the most perfect turn, his flight instructor would have washed him out had the ball drifted that much in training, but they were back on course. There were the chase planes. God, they were lovely! There was the strip. No graceful turns for position, they were going right down the pipe.
He was going to miss the painted centre stripe by a quarter mile, but he couldn't worry about that. Without the capacity for a coordinated turn he could not risk a destabilizing crab this close to the ground. A bit too hot, too. Can't be helped. Flaps down. Gear down. Nose up, drop the forward speed as much as possible. Wasn't this strip supposed to be long? Isn't that the warning marker? Nose higher, ease her down. Now, nose down, even her up, here we go, flare, flare! Down, bounce, down, down, DOWN!
Jupp heard the ground crew swarm over the craft. He began the post-flight shutdown, responding automatically to prompts from ground control. We're down, he thought. We made it. We brought the son-of-a-bitch back. I should feel happy. I do feel happy. He looked over at Wahlquist. Below the sightless eyes was a wide, relieved grin.
Then he felt the first grip of nausea.