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Audacity: Memoirs of a Kerbonaut


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  • 2 weeks later...

Blegh, something really messed up the font and text sizing when I copied this chapter over to the forums. I'm also not entirely happy with the middle part of this chapter, so while it reads OK right now I might come back and edit it in future.

Chapter 10 – Ablaze with stars, part 1

There were forty 'Rising Stars' when they started. The surprise test was sprung on them as soon as they were all present on day 10 (just before lunch) and by the time they all came back from lunch (just before classes ended and just after the sun had gone down) the papers were marked and a mere 12.5% of them were left.

Five.

Tina, as expected, aced the test with full marks; to her surprise, Megan scored 47 out of a possible 50 and only one of the remaining group got less than 60% in the test.

Protests and complaints from the 35 who got unceremoniously kicked out and sent home were given short shrift, angry parents were given the 'reserve the right to change the course structure and/or material at any time' clause in the program's small print and the thirty five who were expelled were stuck on the first available train the next day while the five remaining students were given an extra day off.

Tina was surprised when Megan asked her to go to the museum with her. Surprised that she had asked- they had never really spent time together despite sharing a room- but more surprised that there was a museum and she didn't know about it. They walked up to a rather nondescript building that was called the Heritage Centre; Tina was expecting a couple of rooms full of space-related paraphernalia and a few videos of old rockets, probes and such.

As soon as they walked into the first exhibition hall, her jaw hit the floor: looming in the centre of the hall was the broken wreck of the Dynamic, the same Dynawing shuttle that had almost squashed her all those years ago. An entire Lindor V lay along one wall in 'exploded' view; not, in this particular case, in the literal sense: the stages were separated out to show off the engines and one side of the service module cut away to reveal all the internal components and how densely packed they were.

Capsules and crew pods were suspended from the ceiling or mounted on the walls; the engine nozzle from a Clydesdale solid booster was set up so people could stand inside it and get pictures taken; interactive exhibits were dotted around with more information about the exhibits, little games for kids and a whole corner had been set up to use virtual reality sets.

They ran around the exhibits like children half their age who had eaten too much sugar and began quizzing each other on the different displays. Tina quickly realised that Megan's knowledge rivalled her own and felt bad about her previous misjudgement of her room-mate's character.

“Look! Over there by the Dynamic, it's The LayKerbonaut!” Megan whispered excitedly.

“Why are you whispering? He can't hear you from over-”

He turned towards them and waved, prompting a fit of giggles from Megan.

“Should we go over and talk to him? Would that be weird? It would be weird, right?” This was totally unlike the Megan that Tina had seen so far- she was acting like an excited schoolgirl, talking too fast and looking flustered.

“I didn't think you were one to be star-struck. Come on, he's not that terrifying.”

“He's the most famous space-related video maker on the internet, we can't just walk up and- he's coming over, hide!”

“SKS is better,” Tina said loud enough to be heard across the hall.

“I heard that!” He replied as he closed in on them. “Comparing that pitiful copycat's inane ramblings with my own witty and informative works is like comparing a firework to that Lindor V over there.”

“Speaking of fireworks- did I ever tell you about the time this astrophysical genius tried to launch a Firecracker drive from the Boomera launchpad in TSP? It really was BOOM-era that day!”

“The thing with the nuclear bombs? I didn't know that was in TSP!” Megan's eyes lit up as she contemplated all the fun ways to use a string of nuclear explosions as a propulsion system.

“And the worst part of it all is that he made more than one attempt before accepting that nuking the launch site wasn't going to get him to space!”

How many times?

Four.

“Wait... Tina?”

“Yep.”

“You know him?”

“We're on a TSP server together. If you ask me really nicely, I might have a word with SKS to get him to invite you too.”

“Is there anyone remotely related to space that you don't know?” Megan turned a shade greener with envy.

“Have you told her the one about how Jeb broke your phone yet?”

“I've heard the one about how he broke her rocket, is that the same one?”

“Wait- rocket?” TLK was confused.

“Sorry, I've forgotten your name and I'm too lazy to keep saying 'The LayKerbonaut'.”

Megan was horrified but TLK laughed.

“Jim,” said TLK- er, Jim. “And you are..?” He looked at Megan expectantly.

“Megan. The better looking, better smelling room-mate.”

“Who snores like a chainsaw and sings in the shower, very off key.” Tina countered.

“Has she told you the story about how she called our entire class 'brainless Kro-Magnons'?”

“You're just jealous because she got her picture in an exhibit.”

“What!?” Both girls shouted in unison.

They charged round to the main information display in front of Dynamic, and sure enough, right in the middle was the same picture that Tina had framed on her wall: her, with Val's helmet plonked over her head, a huge grin almost splitting her head in half, with the four Kerbonauts flanking her and a huge fireball rising from the very same shuttle that was now on display in front of them.

“Jeb took that picture with my phone, right before a big piece of debris bounced off my helmet and cracked it. That's how Jeb owes me a phone.”

“How old are you in that picture, five!? And you're already getting selfies with the most famous Kerbonauts ever?” Megan suddenly burst out laughing. “No wonder you think the rest of us are idiots, you've been training for the Space Program practically since birth!”

In that moment, Tina knew that her room-mate had no ill-feelings towards her and almost started crying as a wave of remorse hit her like a sledgehammer.

“I've been a horrible person and a terrible room-mate. I'm really, really sorry.”

Megan responded immediately.

“Moving away from home for the first time is always tough- and if you think you were horrible, you should have seen me when I started at college last year. Apology accepted.”

“Thanks.”

“On one condition.”

“Oh?”

“Get me an invite to that TSP server.”

“I'll have to ask SKS, it's his server.”

“Then ask him.”

Jim jumped back into the conversation.

“Ask him yourself, he's in the simulator room-”

Tina and Megan immediately ran for the nearest door, disappeared through it, then came back a few seconds later. “The Sim Room is that way,” said Tina, pointing to the door on the opposite side of the hall. Both of them studiously ignored the amused grin on Jim's face as they walked past.

They found the simulator room by simply following the sound of loud explosions, arriving just in time to watch a Dynawing demolish the north wing of the Astronaut Complex. The simulator pod returned to its resting position and a rather disgruntled SKS emerged, spotted his new audience and glowered at Jim.

“I thought we agreed no cheating!”

“Action replay, coming up.” One of the four others in the room said from behind a table covered in laptops, tablets and other electronic gadgetry. The big display on the opposite wall came back to life and showed the last few seconds of SKS' approach- and the moment the right landing gear clipped a landing light at the very end of the runway, breaking the wheel off and sending the shuttle careering off the runway and straight into the Astronaut Complex.

“See? Cheating! Those lights don't have hitboxes!”

“They do in version 1.26. It's not my fault if you don't keep your copy of TSP up to date,” countered Jim. “And it's not like we put them on the runway itself- it's outside the white lines, like all the other lights.”

It's outside the white lines,” SKS repeated in a silly voice, clearly unimpressed with the explanation.

“What are you two doing exactly?” Tina asked.

“Simple really- deorbit the Dynawing, fastest time from entering the atmosphere to stopping on the runway wins. I got 4 minutes 34, poor Scott here can't get below five minutes without crashing or burning up. And by the looks of it, he won't have time for another run.”

“Can we have a go?” Megan asked, trying to look cute but ending up going slightly cross-eyed.

“Your turn, Mr LayKerbonaut.” Said SKS.

“What do you say we let WeeTeeKay have a turn, Scott?”

“Scott?” Megan mouthed to Tina.

“Wha-?” SKS- er, Scott, finally recognised Tina and grinned at her. “Well if it isn't the fridge rocketeer herself! How's Kerbonaut training going?”

“She called our entire class 'brainless Kro-Magnons', and it turns out most of them actually are.” Megan answered

“You are never going to let that go, are you?” Tina grumbled.

“And how's little Sasha? You haven't stuck a fishbowl on her head and pretended she's a Terrin, have you?”

“She's good, thanks, and no I haven't.” Scott raised an eyebrow. “Not yet, anyway. I tried to explain Tsoilkerbsky's rocket equation to her a few weeks ago, but she puked on me then fell asleep.”

Scott and Jim both laughed at that.

“OK then, let's see what you can do. Fire up the simulator!”

Tina climbed into the sim pod, which resembled a big white box that had melted a bit at the front, and climbed into the chair. The pod had a panoramic view of the huge screen and a bank of displays which began to show flight instruments as the simulation loaded up. In a few seconds, she was in the cockpit of a Dynawing in a 100km circular orbit, half way around Kerbin from the Space Centre with barely any fuel left but a healthy reserve of monopropellant. A big countdown appeared on the screen- 3, 2, 1, GO- and the simulator started.

Her strategy was fairly simple- wait until she was about a quarter of an orbit away from the KSC then burn retrograde so that her trajectory dropped into the ocean just beyond it, using air drag to slow down the rest of the way and then glide to the runway.

The re-entry burn went without a hitch but as she was re-entering she realised that she was losing speed slower than she had anticipated and would soon overshoot the runway entirely. She tried pitching slightly higher to get more drag, but that led to dangerous heating that would have melted the wings so she had to pitch down again. Dropping to under 1km/s she was far too high to attempt a landing, but not high enough to try and turn around and land westbound.

An idea came into her head and she pitched the nose down aggressively, deploying the airbrakes to shed as much speed as possible as the shuttle plummeted nearly vertically towards the ground.

“What is she doing?” Scott asked. “Is she even aiming for the runway?”

Jim suddenly realised what she was doing. “No, she isn't. She's aiming for the VAB helipad.”

Everyone stared at him in disbelief.

“You can't land a Dynawing on the VAB helipad!” Megan protested. “It would never be able to stop in time!”

Tina was thinking the same thing, but she had a cunning plan to solve that problem. She eased the shuttle out of its dive by performing a slight spiral, shedding more speed and getting a bit more horizontal distance between her and the VAB, then pulled up just before hitting the ground and flew straight at the west wall of the VAB, climbing aggressively and losing speed at the same time. She deployed the landing gear and the drogue chutes at the same time, set the wheel brakes to maximum and pulled back on the controls with all she had, even engaging the RCS despite its inefficiency in atmosphere.

“Come on...” “Just a little bit further...” “You can do it...” Everyone in the room was watching intently, often forgetting to breathe.

The Dynawing cleared the edge of the VAB's roof, clipped the edge of the helipad with the main landing gear enough to bounce the nose down and then landed with all three sets of wheels at once, accompanied by the sound of screeching tyres as they skidded across the helipad. The speed was dropping, but not quite quickly enough and the nose wheel dropped over the edge of the helipad, scraping the belly of the shuttle along the edge before the nose wheel hit the railing around the edge of the VAB roof and just- just!- stayed on.

Tina emerged from the pod to be met with a standing ovation from Scott, Jim, Megan, the four technicians and a tour group who had stopped in the corridor outside to watch through the windows provided specifically for that purpose.

“We have a time for that run.” The lead technician spoke over the noise and the applause subsided.

“Four minutes.”

The room fell silent.

“Thirty.”

Even the cooling fans on the computers seemed to hush in anticipation. If it was lower than five, then Tina had just snatched the win in outrageous style.

Three.

Everyone started cheering and Tina was suitably embarrassed. “However- HOWEVER- the challenge specifically stated that the Dynawing must be landed on the runway, and while that was undeniably brilliant, it is quite clear that that shuttle” he pointed to the screen, “is not on the runway, so the time is invalid.”

“BOO!” Megan shouted, then realised just how loud she had been and cringed in embarrassment as everyone else laughed.

“I don't think I can top that,” said Jim, “and I know he can't!” Scott glowered at him. “We need an impartial judge to settle this.”

“We have ourselves a nice impartial judging panel over there,” said Scott, pointing to the windows. “Right you lot- everyone who thinks that time should be counted, raise your hand.”

The whole tour group and their guides raised their hands, with several cheers and whoops thrown in for good measure.

“It looks like they're unanimous. Viewers, the winner of the go-down throwdown showdown is our surprise contender- and future Kerbonaut- Tina “The Fridge Rocketeer” Kerman!”

Jim produced a trophy (if calling a cheap plastic model of a Dynawing that looked like it had been sat on then glued back together again (it had!), stuck onto a lump of badly varnished wood with her name written on it with a marker pen, could really be called a 'trophy') and presented it to her like it was the Kerball World Cup, complete with confetti (three party poppers, one of which didn't even pop) and rousing music (some pre-video adverts that nobody had thought to skip) and then Scott and Jim picked Tina up and carried her around the room on their shoulders until they nearly dropped her because they were laughing so much.

“Wait a minute!”

The lead technician rotated a monitor so they could see what was on it- a replay of Tina flying the approach, changing one of the simulator's displays to show an external 'chase' view of the shuttle.

“Uh oh, busted!” Jim said, giving Tina a disappointed scowl.

“What? Nobody said I couldn't do that.” Tina protested.

“Yes we did!” Scott insisted.

“No you didn't,” Megan came to Tina's defence.

“Actually, now that I think about it, we didn't.” Jim grinned sheepishly at them.

“Ignorance of the rules is no excuse for breaking them,” countered Megan.

“Whose side are you on?” Tina turned to her in mock outrage.

All the lights suddenly went out, along with the big screen on the wall and most of the monitors. The room was plunged into near darkness with only the dim green glow of emergency exit lights and the backlighting from the laptops and tablets not running on mains power left.

“Everyone empty your pockets, we need change for the electric meter!” Jim joked.

A few seconds later someone arrived at the door with a torch.

“Sorry everyone, we're doing some electrical maintenance and someone pulled the wrong breaker. I need you all to head back to the main exhibition hall until we get the power back on.”

Everyone filed out of the room and made their way to the main hall, where an impromptu four way battle began to see who knew the most about the various exhibits. Tina and Megan were clearly outclassed by the two professionals, but they held their own on all but the most obscure facts.

They almost forgot to stop for lunch (almost...) before discovering the 'Space Karts': a strange fusion of go-kart and shopping trolley where the front wheels were driven by an electric motor and could be steered in any direction and the rear wheels could be lifted off the ground with a lever, replaced by pivoting castor wheels. Pull the lever and you could go round corners sideways or even backwards and spin around 360 degrees without slowing down. The 'space' part seemed to consist of some bodywork that looked like rockets on the karts and the paintwork on the walls, but that didn't matter in the slightest as the four of them blasted around for lap after lap having the time of their lives until their karts ran out of power.

Which was rather fortunate for all concerned as both Tina and Megan were fiercely competitive and were starting to ram each other in the corners to get ahead.

By the time they were finished at the museum, tired and aching from the repeated kart collisions and walking a lot further than any of them realised, it was dark outside and Scott and Jim- sorry, SKS and The LayKerbonaut- left them to go back to the on-site hotel (called the Space Hotel, a cruel trick of somebody in the marketing department to make more money from the guests by making them think they were actually staying in a hotel in space, they had concluded) while the girls headed back to their room and collapsed into bed fully clothed. Megan was asleep in seconds and started making noises like someone dragging a heavy wooden desk across the floor, but despite the racket Tina was asleep seconds later.

The next morning Tina got up about fifteen minutes before sunrise, changed into her running gear and headed out for her morning run- out of the Astronaut Complex, round the south and west sides of the Administration Building, round the outside of the Spaceplane Hangar and Mission Control, then up the Crawlerway, round the Launchpad, back down the Crawlerway, round the nearest dish in the Tracking Station, through the tunnel in the R&D Department and then back to the Astronaut Complex for a shower and some breakfast- but made it to Mission Control before her body politely but firmly reminded her that she had spent most of the previous day walking and running for many kilometres around a museum, being bounced around on the Space Karts and, worst of all, she had only eaten two meals and one inter-meal snack too, so it wasn't going to let her complete her run that day and she really should eat something before going back to bed for a while.

She walked stiffly back to the Astronaut Complex, stumbled into the canteen and grabbed three slices of toast, eating them as she walked back to her room before falling back into bed.

Moments later Megan was shaking her awake again.

“Wake up, you're going to miss it!”

“Whaaat?” She blinked her eyes back into focus.

“The launch! Hurry up, it's already at T minus seven minutes.”

Tina was immediately wide awake. Both girls sprinted out of the Astronaut Complex and round the side of the VAB just in time to see the final pair of Kopernicus probes being fired skywards with a tremendous roar and a blaze of fire from the twenty seven 'Swivel' rocket engines of the Trident launch rocket. The ground shook underneath them, the air shook around them and it felt like their insides were shaking as well with the raw power being blasted out of the rocket's engines.

As they watched, the rocket began to pitch over to the east and began its gravity turn, streaking off towards the ocean at increasing speed as it continued to climb. They watched it climb until the secondary boosters ran dry and were detached, but couldn't follow it any further because the rocket moved too close to the sun, still low in the sky to the east.

Those two probes, just like their sibling that Tina, Megan and their classmates had watched in the Tracking Station on their first day, would be docked to their 'mothership' over the next twenty four hours, with the whole mission scheduled to depart for Jool in around five weeks. That was around eight days later than the optimal time to depart, but the difference in delta-V was a small fraction of the overall requirement to reach Jool at all and it meant that there would be minimal overlap with Trailblazer.

When classes restarted on Munday, the five remaining Rising Stars found themselves in the same room as the Cadets in the Astronaut Training programme; a temporary solution until their own course was rewritten, but one which gave them valuable experience and a chance to see just how rigorous astronaut training really was.

Some of the trainee astronauts were clearly unimpressed with the Rising Stars' presence in their midst, but most of them accepted the newcomers and offered their support. Tina and Megan ended up working in a small group with Derbal and Elon, who were both in the Pilot stream, and Miltrey, who was already a qualified Rank 2 Engineer with three orbital missions on her record and who was volunteering her time to assist with the training.

The grading system was much stricter than in Rising Stars, with the pass mark set at 65% and the cut-off for a grade 1 set at 90%. While much of the coursework was similar to what had been covered in the first two weeks of the Rising Stars lectures, the level of detail here was far higher and while Tina and Megan managed to keep up, their three classmates- Jennie, Gerald and Nathanael- were quickly getting overwhelmed. Despite Tina and Megan trying to tutor them, none of the trio managed to score above 40% in the exam at the end of the second week; in stark contrast, both Tina and Megan outscored several of the trainee astronauts and along with Derbal and Elon scored some of the highest marks in the entire class, all in the high eighties and earning them a surprisingly good grade.

Two.

It was like an undergraduate student being bumped from their second year to their fourth year but still getting second class honours, or a sports team being moved up a division and going on to make the playoffs.

Their results had a profound effect on the class as many of those who had achieved lower marks redoubled their efforts for the next block of lessons, pushing the class average even higher; even Gerald, Nathanael and Jennie managed to scrape a pass on that exam, which did wonders for their morale.

Astronaut training also included a sizeable physical element to it, with regular exercise sessions and fitness training included in the course. This led to a very amusing incident (for everyone except Jennie and Gerald, that is) where the entire class went to the on-site swimming pools to assess their swimming abilities; anyone going to space had to be a competent swimmer in case they ended up splashing down in the ocean on their return. Someone somewhere had been given a list of names and had split them by gender for the changing rooms, but hadn't looked beyond the names so assigned Gerald and Jennie to the wrong rooms- Gerald to the male changing room and Jennie to the female changing room when it should have been the other way round- and when they both arrived they each went to their assigned room.

Tina and Megan arrived seconds after to be met with a chorus of screams and a panicked “sorrysorrysorrysorry” before Gerald and Jennie both ran back out of the changing rooms with their faces burning. They saw the funny side pretty quickly and soon began pretending to be each other when a new lecturer or instructor came to teach the class. (As a matter of fact, they were the pair of late arrivals on the day Tina had first arrived at the Space Centre whose luggage tags got mixed up for the same reason.)

The biggest highlight was yet to come, and unsurprisingly it came in the form of two more rocket launches laden with historic importance.

These launches carried the remaining crew, including Jeb, Bob and Bill, to Trailblazer inside the DAVE landers. Each was lofted into the sky atop a 'Yellow Flower' launch rocket, its cryogenic engine cluster powering the rocket off the launch pad with the characteristic faint red fire of burning hydrogen.

Yellow Flower was the second of a new generation of launch rockets to enter service, sacrificing outright payload capacity and delta-V for the sake of reusability- all the first stage cores and most strap-on boosters could perform powered landings either at Welcome Back Island around thirty kilometres east of the KSC or the newly reopened Island Airfield 100km beyond that, with the additional option of floating barges if the launch profile made those two sites unreachable. In that respect, they were similar to the Trident, but that was where the similarities ended.

Unlike the evolutionary steps that had led from Skyseeker to Skyraider, to Skypiercer, to Javelin and finally to Trident, the new generation launchers were completely new designs with upgrades across the board, using almost exclusively hydrogen or methane as their fuels. They were leaner, cleaner and could fly more efficient launch profiles thanks to their improved avionics and flight control systems, which was enough to placate the environmental groups until the big Fox-Wagons emissions scandal blew up and they forgot all about the space industry for a while.

The Yellow Flower had more than enough thrust and range to put the DAVE into LKO, which allowed the cryogenic second stage's excess hydrogen fuel to be transferred into Trailblazer's main fuel tank before being deorbited and recovered just off the coast of Welcome Back Island. Under other circumstances the same rocket could have been used for both launches, but even without the drastic reduction in refurbishment capacity caused by the sabotage at Jeb's Junkyard and the knock-on effects for launch operations around the world, two separate and brand new rockets would be used; the Board of Directors still insisted that crewed missions use entirely new rockets until the reliability of using them again for subsequent launches had been proven.

They weren't complaining about the cost savings though: each booster was certified for at least five launches and even with the costs of recovering and refurbishing the boosters they were nearly 70% cheaper than a single-use alternative over that deliberately pessimistic lifespan, more environmentally friendly than dumping spent rocket stages into the ocean and- most importantly- they looked really, really awesome when they landed on their target pads especially in groups. Good for finances, good for PR, good for the planet- there really weren't any downsides.

(Why was it called 'Yellow Flower'? Megan had asked that question in a lecture and got this answer:

“In the old, pre-Unification days, there were a whole load of secret projects going on developing things like weapons and military hardware. Someone had the idea of inventing code words for their projects that had nothing to do with what said project was for, and so the rainbow codes were created. One colour, one noun, no patterns so nobody could guess what the project was doing based on its name.

We've taken the concept and applied it in a slightly more logical way, since we're not trying to keep anything a secret and it makes things much simpler- the colour relates to the first stage size and the name simply distinguishes between the different boosters of any given size. Red is for 1.25m first stages, White for 1.875m, Blue for 2.5m, Yellow for 3.75m and Green for 5m.

Yellow Flower refers to the configuration of 3.75m first stage, 2.5m second stage regardless of any additional boosters on the first stage. A 3.75m-1.875m booster would have a different name such as Yellow Pepper, and a 3.75m-2.5m booster with more powerful engines and/or more fuel would get the suffix 'Heavy' whereas one with less powerful engines and/or less fuel would get the suffix 'Light'.”)

With both launches completed flawlessly, the biggest countdown in the Space Program's history continued until the big display on the side of the VAB ticked down for the last time.

One.

The eyes of the world turned to the Space Centre. Journalists and camera crews swarmed the site, interviewing everyone and anyone who looked like an employee in the hopes of uncovering the slightest bit of information before anyone else. Huge crowds of onlookers gathered outside the perimeter fences; pretzel and hot dog stands turned up to feed them; three drones were brought down by the anti-drone defences when they strayed into KSC airspace, their owners forced to pay a hefty fine for their machines' return; and finally, it was time.

Time for Trailblazer to do what no other vessel in all of Kerbal history had done: carry its intrepid crew of twelve- three pilots, three engineers and six scientists, including three of the Big Four- out of Kerbin's clutches and off into interplanetary space, hurtling around the Sun until it reached the little red speck in the sky called Duna. Powered by huge solar panels and propelled by a gas-core nuclear engine that could heat its radioactive heart hotter than the surface of the Sun, Trailblazer was the biggest and best spaceship ever built: with contra-rotating centrifuge habitations providing a comfortable 0.3g of spin gravity (matching Duna's real gravity); a large greenhouse to both recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen and provide extra food in the form of highly nutritious but emphatically not highly delicious, kale; and an aquaculture module filled with fish tanks. It was an odd thing to include on a spaceship, but there were several good reasons for doing so: the fish tanks held extra water that doubled as radiation shielding and the fish themselves would help crew morale in the cold dark vacuum of space, millions of kilometres from home. They would also make for a convenient emergency food supply, should the need ever arise.

Nearly two years in the making, Trailblazer had also been the most expensive project ever undertaken by the Space Program, the most complex logistical operation ever undertaken by anyone who wasn't at war with someone else and it still wasn't clear what would become of the ship when it eventually returned- a second Duna expedition was unlikely, nobody wanted to go anywhere near Eve and its formidable atmosphere, Moho required too much delta-V and the solar panels wouldn't be able to power the ship if it ventured beyond Duna's orbit, ruling out Edna and Dres.

But all that was for later. Right now, the time had come for Kerbals to finally break free of their home world. The transfer burn had been calculated and refined countless times; now it was time to execute it.

In the dark.

While it was necessary to make outbound transfer burns on the night side from a prograde orbit, there was an unspoken consensus that making the burn in the dark was somehow the right and proper thing to do. Maybe there was a metaphor or a clever pop culture reference in it somewhere, but in any case it made the view from the ground far better as Trailblazer would be visible the whole time instead of being obscured by scattered sunlight or the sun itself.

“Trailblazer, Control. Three minutes to burn, report reactor status.”

“Reactor is at operational temperature and holding steady, thermal control systems at 62% capacity. Priming the fuel pumps now.”

“Copy, Trailblazer. Start burn in T minus two minutes, forty seconds, mark.”

A bright white dot appeared over the horizon and climbed lazily into the sky, its leisurely progress belying its true speed. Tina raised her binoculars and the dot resolved into an oblong shape that closely resembled the 'female' symbol ♀, travelling point first and with the 'arms' glittering with reflected blue light from Kerbin's surface and atmosphere. As she watched it slipped into the terminator and changed from white, to yellow, to red and finally faded from view.

“Trailblazer, Control. Cleared for Dunar transfer burn.”

“Trailblazer copies. All systems ready to burn, ignition in T minus 60 seconds.”

A minute later the sky gained a new star, a brilliant pink light that raced across the night at ever increasing speed. It was almost too bright to observe it directly but Tina could just see the light reflected on the huge spherical fuel tank and the solar panel 'arms' as liquid hydrogen was pumped through a nuclear reactor running at six thousand Kelvin and blasted out the nozzle at tremendous speed.

“Control, Trailblazer, all systems nominal. Maintaining 0.5g acceleration and reactor controls are well within tolerances. Escape velocity in three, two, one, mark.”

There was no visual difference from the ground but the significance was tremendous: for the first time in history, Kerbals were now going to leave the gravity well of their home world behind. A huge cheer went up from all the assembled spectators at the Space Centre, loud enough to set off car alarms in the staff car parks.

“That's something you don't see every day,” Megan murmured.

On the balcony of a suburban house, a single observer stood with her head turned skywards, watching Trailblazer as it hurled itself away from Kerbin. The day's heat was dissipating rapidly and a cool breeze made the watcher shiver but she never moved from her vigil, tracking the interplanetary vessel as it raced towards the horizon.

“You're going to freeze out here,” Natalia said as she came out onto the balcony and wrapped a blanket around Val's shoulders; the latter barely even reacted, still watching the bright pink star shooting across the sky.

“You'll have your chance, Val.”

“I know.” Her voice was barely audible over the sound of leaves rustling gently in the breeze. “Oh, but I was so close...”

“You are going to Duna; don't ever doubt it. And I'd bet you all the chocolate on Kerbin you'll be leading the landing party down to Jool-2.”

“Ugh... You had to go and ruin the moment, didn't you?”

“Throttle back in five, four, three, two, one, mark. Engine thrust and reactor power are decreasing as predicted, null thrust in three, two, one.”

The star faded and winked out.

“Trailblazer, this is Control. Final burn was within 0.5m/s of target, we have a Duna intercept.” Loud cheers could be heard over the radio link as Mission Control celebrated. “Cleared to safe the reactor and re-deploy the centrifuges.”

“Copy that, Control. Trailblazer is Duna-bound and rigging for the long haul.

Both Val and Tina eventually looked down from the sky, unknowingly mirroring each other's actions almost exactly.

“Next time.” Val said, quietly but with an edge of steely determination in her voice. She realised that her face was wet.

Some of it was from the wind.

“Next time, I'm going to be on the ship looking down.” Tina said, quietly but with an edge of steely determination in her voice.

“Oh, you think so?” Megan challenged her, but she was smiling. “You think they'd let you on board?”

“Oh, I know so. And if you ask very nicely I might even let you tag along. But I would have to put you in my hold luggage, you wouldn't fit in the overhead lockers.”

“You think?”

“All the time. You should try it.”

“Well if that's your attitude...” Megan put on an exaggerated pout and stomped away but stopped abruptly and turned round again. “I just remembered that gigantic bar of chocolate you have stashed under your bed.”

“You wouldn't dare...” Tina glowered at her.

Megan turned and ran for the stairs, shouting “CHOCOLATE!!!” as she did; Tina took off in hot pursuit shouting “GET BACK HERE!!!” and they disappeared inside the Astronaut Complex.

Twenty six hours later, Trailblazer slipped from Kerbin's gravitational clutches and began its long journey to the Red Planet.

Chapter 11

Spoiler

That little bit about Jennie and Gerald actually happened to me in KSP recently- I ended up with a Jennie and a Gerald and was surprised to learn that Jennie was male but Gerald was female.

Edited by jimmymcgoochie
Re-read my own story and spotted a few errors
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23 minutes ago, jimmymcgoochie said:

The Dynawing cleared the edge of the VAB's roof, clipped the edge of the helipad with the main landing gear enough to bounce the nose down and then landed with all three sets of wheels at once, accompanied by the sound of screeching tyres as they skidded across the helipad. The speed was dropping, but not quite quickly enough and the nose wheel dropped over the edge of the helipad, scraping the belly of the shuttle along the edge before the nose wheel hit the railing around the edge of the VAB roof and just- just!- stayed on.

Just finished! A new chapter is enough for a like, but that landing on the Helipad was overkill!

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36 minutes ago, jimmymcgoochie said:

That little bit about Jennie and Gerald actually happened to me in KSP recently- I ended up with a Jennie and a Gerald and was surprised to learn that Jennie was male but Gerald was female.

When I saw that Jennie, I remembered that you had a kerbonaut with that, after a bit of searching in @Misguided_Kerbal's JNSQ Space Race, I found:

On 8/2/2020 at 6:28 PM, jimmymcgoochie said:

the Board were surprised to learn that Jennie is actually male

Couldn't find Gerald though...

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  • 2 weeks later...

This chapter was nearly fourteen thousand words long, so I've split it up a little bit. This is a fairly short bit, there will be a few longer ones in the near future.

Spoiler

Those cryptic hints I've been dropping lately? This is what I was alluding to. Brace yourselves... :0.0:

Chapter 11 – Ablaze with stars, part 2

“MECO in three, two, one-” a slight shudder reverberated through the Dauntless' frame as its engines cut off and it began drifting to apoapsis. “Engines off.” Val turned to her co-pilot Gerzer. “We're about 20km ahead of the KST with an apoapsis of 153km, planes are matched. Current delta-V with main engines is 225m/s, RCS/OMS is 518m/s. Prepare a circularisation burn.”

“Plotting the burn.” Gerzer typed her commands into the Dynawing's flight computer and soon had a manoeuvre plotted that would intercept the Kerbble Space Telescope in less than half an orbit.

“Closest approach zero, relative velocity fifteen metres per second. Are you sure about that?”

“Yes.” Gerzer saw Val's look. “No?” She quickly flipped through the checklist book for orbital adjustment burns and changed her node slightly. “Closest approach 150 metres, relative velocity 4m/s. Followed by speed match burn at closest approach then docking on the day side 7 minutes after that.”

“Very good. Make it so.”

Billy-Bobny groaned behind them.

“You don't actually watch that rubbish, do you?”

Both pilots immediately turned their seats around to face him.

“Did you just call 'Endeavour' rubbish?” Gerzer challenged him.

“Yes I did. All they do is show up somewhere there's a problem, faff around for forty minutes then come charging in guns blazing and somehow they always beat the bigger, better spaceships just in the nick of time.”

“That sounds more like 'Deepspace'.” Miltrey chipped in.

“Ugh, don't even mention that drivel! Worst spin-off series ever.” Gerzer said, which immediately brought Val's ire down on her.

“'Deepspace' is a classic!”

“Oh please. The CGI is dreadful and there are more continuity errors than in those Transformabots movies.” Billy-Bobny argued.

“NOTHING has more continuity errors than Transformabots. Even that cartoon series about the little animals that live in plastic balls makes more sense than that.” Miltrey countered.

Val glowered at her. ”Never insult Monépok in front of me again, you uncultured-”

“Node execution in three, two, one.” The flight computer interrupted them before three clusters of tiny nozzles belched hypergolic fuel and oxidiser into the combustion chambers, emitting three burps of fiery flatulence from the trio of Vectors to correct their orbit and bring them to within spitting distance of their target.

(Not that spitting was possible in space, for obvious reasons- what do you mean, 'what reasons?'? They're in SPACE! You can't take a space helmet off in space because- no, they couldn't have just stood inside the ship with the door open- it was a metaphor- just forget it, OK?)

“Besides, if you want genuine space garbage I direct your attention to 'Armungeddon'.” Val resumed the debate as soon as the engines had shut off.

“Finally, you're talking sense!” Billy-Bobny agreed heartily.

“I haven't seen that one, is that the one where they try to fly the Dynawings into a comet?” Miltrey asked.

“Nah, that's 'Collision Course',” replied Val.

“I thought it was 'Megameteor'?” said Gerzer. “Or maybe there are just hundreds of terrible sci-fi films out there with the same basic plot repeated with slight tweaks between them.”

“Like 'Kerassic Park'?” Billy-Bobny suggested. Three angry scowls greeted his words. “Oh come on, you're going to team up on me because I'm the only one here who isn't a girl?” The scowls became outright glowers. “Woman? Lady?” The glowers became death glares. “Erm, I have to, um, er...”

Fortunately for Billy-Bobny, they reached the closest approach point to the KST and the two small monopropellant thrusters of the OMS brought them to a halt relative to the venerable space telescope.

“Control, Dauntless is station keeping on the KST. Waiting for daylight to commence docking operations.” Val radioed down to the ground.

“Control copies, Dauntless. Be careful out there, those old solar panels can be pretty temperamental in the sunlight.”

“Roger that. Dauntless out. Alright, I'm suiting up. Gerzer, you're in charge here; Miltrey, stand by to dock; Billy-Bobny...” She paused to glower at him again. “I'm watching you.”

She floated down to the airlock and put on her EVA suit in a matter of seconds while the rest of her crew watched enviously.

“How does she do that so fast?” Gerzer asked. “It takes me five minutes to put mine on.”

“Practice!” Val shouted up from the airlock. “Put your helmets on when I close this hatch, you don't want to be chasing after it if the whole cabin depressurises.”

All four of them put their helmets on at the same time as the inner airlock door swung shut.

“Control, Eva 1 ready to exit.”

“Eva 1, Control, you are cleared for exit.”

“Thank you.”

“I hope you kids up there were listening. That's how you're SUPPOSED to talk to your ground controllers.” Scattered laughter could be heard in the background as the speaker left his microphone on after he had finished speaking.

“Well, Jeb's out of town so I might have a chance with this lot.”

More laughter came from Mission Control.

“Copy that, Eva 1.”

The airlock depressurised and Val headed out into space, clipping her tether to the end of the robotic arm mounted on the front end of the shuttle's payload bay before fastening herself into the control chair. Practiced hands danced across the controls and brought the machinery to life, extending out of the payload bay and orienting towards the waiting telescope which was visible only as an angular patch of darkness against the star-spattered backdrop.

“Eva 1 in position, ready to start docking procedure. Miltrey, you're up.”

“Sunrise in five seconds.”

Dauntless moved out of Kerbin's shadow, the daylight starting as a dull red before shifting to orange, to yellow, to white. Val flipped her visor down to shield her eyes from the blinding glare and all the windows in the cockpit and the airlock automatically tinted for the same reason.

“Closing to ten metres.” Miltrey reported as she pushed the RCS controls to push the Dauntless closer to its target.

Not quite a first landing on Duna, but the view is still pretty spectacular. Val thought to herself as Kerbin's blue and white arc opened up behind/beneath/beside her. Besides, once Duna's been visited the next step would be a Jool 5, and you can bet your last penny who they'll want to command the landing party to Vall. Ugh, but they keep mispronouncing that moon's name to sound like mine- it's Vall with TWO Ls, like tall or mall!

“Ten metres to target, holding position.” Miltrey reported. The telescope nearly filled the sky above Val's head, the solar panels casting razor-sharp shadows across its control bus.

“Nice work, Miltrey.” She extended the robotic arm to attach the docking port at its tip to the matching port on the base of the KST.

“Aaaand...” CLUNK. “Huh. That didn't work. Toggling the port magnets.” She flipped the switch for the docking port magnets off then back on and tried again with the same result.

“KST says it's docked to the arm,” Billy-Bobny reported. “Or it's docked to something, anyway. The port's locked and I can't get it to release.”

“Try bypassing the core and triggering the release system directly.” Miltrey suggested. Billy-Bobny tapped some commands into the terminal and the KST's port suddenly moved, the locking mechanisms sliding into the unlocked position.

“Good work, Billy-Bobny, that's done it.” Val said, at which point the port locked itself again. “Well, it did it, but then it undid it again.”

“Working on it,” he replied. “I hate KOBOL. Whoever invented it should be made to eat a copy of that 'KOBOL programming 101' textbook, the sixteen hundred page extended version. Without any drinks.”

A few more attempts to free up the port were unsuccessful as it stubbornly locked itself within seconds of being overridden.

“I'll grab it with the Klaw instead, we can check the port over when we remove it.” Val rotated the arm's head 180 degrees, switching it from a docking port to an Advanced Grabbing Unit (or 'The Klaw' as everyone but its manufacturers called it) and retracting the rock-piercing tips before using its magnets to latch on to the KST then adjusting the individual 'fingers' to grip it securely. “We're locked on.”

“I'm suiting up now,” Miltrey reported. “Control, Eva 2 requesting permission to exit and begin KST refit.”

“Eva 2, you are cleared to exit.”

“Thanks.”

“You're welcome. A little politeness makes the world go round.”

“Don't spoil it, Mason.” Val warned the controller. “There's a fine line between 'polite' and 'insufferable'.” More laughter came from Mission Control, most of it at Mason's expense but good-natured rather than malicious.

Miltrey exited the airlock and climbed along the robotic arm by hand; on most other missions she would have just flown over using her EVA pack, but this time Val had forbidden them from using the packs to practice working in space without it. When she reached the end, she clipped her tether onto the same anchor point as Val's, then changed her mind and moved it to another anchor on the other side of the arm.

“KST stability and reaction control systems are shut down, propellant valves closed. I've shut down the power feeds from the solar panels so you'll need to plug in the umbilical feeds in the next nine minutes.” Billy-Bobny informed them.

It took a mere thirty seconds for Miltrey to plug in the cables that would keep the venerable telescope powered up and transfer data back and forth to the shuttle.

“KST is plugged in. Start the core system diagnostics, BB, I'm going to pop the port off and see why it didn't unlock.”

Removing the port was a delicate task and it took them almost an entire orbit to complete it, working with the light of their helmet-mounted headlamps when they were orbiting on the night side. And if I had a penny for every time I've heard that joke, I'd be able to buy a Dynawing of my own, Val thought to herself.

The fault was quickly apparent: an old servo had seized and the computer was interpreting that as the port being docked to something. Miltrey moved down the arm then across the payload bay, rummaged in the collection of spare and replacement parts until she found a new servo and then returned to the end of the arm to install it.

“I'm getting some weird readings on the FOD radar here.” Gerzer radioed out.

“Is that the technical term, weird?” Val replied dryly.

“It's like nothing I've ever seen- one moment there's nothing, then there's a whole meteor shower heading right for us, then there's nothing again. I can't explain it.”

“BB, can you take a look at that?” asked Miltrey.

“I'm nearly suited up, give me a minute and I'll go up and see what's going on.” He responded. “Where's my other glove got to? Oh hang on, it's inside the suit-”

Something flashed past in Val's peripheral vision.

“Uh, did you see that?” Miltrey asked, suddenly sounding very nervous.

“Yes, I saw it. Just a micrometeor, they're rare but I've seen them before. Nothing to worry about if it's travelling by itself-”

A second speck flashed past them on the other side followed almost immediately by a third that seemed to pass directly between the two of them.

“Woah, that was close!”

“Control, Eva 1, we're getting some micrometeors up here. I'm scrubbing the EVA until we're clear. Break. Miltrey, head for the airlock ASAP; Billy-Bobny, Gerzer, get your helmets on in case we get hit by something. This is why we always travel tail-first in these shuttles.”

Something PLINKed off the telescope's main bus leaving two tiny holes in a straight line near the edge and rocking the robotic arm as its mechanisms struggled against the nine ton spacecraft's oscillating mass.

“FOD alarm! It's coming right at us!” Gerzer shouted in terror.

“Releasing the telescope.” Val's voice was still calm despite the rest of her crew beginning to panic. The Klaw released and the KST began drifting slowly away before it jolted towards the Dauntless' tail and began rotating. Or rather, the Dauntless began moving forwards and rotating as its right wingtip disappeared in a shower of fragments and RCS propellant vented out of the severed fuel lines before an automated valve closed off to stem the leak.

“AAAAAAAH!! WE'RE HIT!” Gerzer screamed into the radio.

“Calm down, Gerzer, and stay focussed. Return to retrograde heading and prepare for maximum RCS impulse ahead, ventral and to starboard; we need to get clear of KST to avoid shrapnel damage.”

“Rotating to retrograde. RCS translate ahead, ven-”

Something burst out of the rear bulkhead, scattering debris from the main fuel tanks and the components stored at the back of the cargo bay in its wake, then slammed into the front bulkhead and punched straight through the cockpit, leaving an almost perfectly straight line of fist-sized holes the whole way through the shuttle.

Gerzer didn't feel a thing.

“NOOO! GERZER!!!” Billy-Bobny screamed in horror.

Val looked beyond the rear of the shuttle and saw a sky ablaze with stars.

Which was impossible. With the sun so close above the horizon and the combined glare of direct sunlight and reflected light from Kerbin's oceans and atmosphere, it was impossible to see any stars at all in that direction. As she watched, one of the stars shifted down slightly before flashing past underneath the shuttle at a speed her eyes couldn't hope to keep up with.

“Control, this is Eva 1. I have a visual on a huge cloud of FOD, inbound at extremely high speed. We have one-” Miltrey just disappeared out from under her, tumbling away ahead of the shuttle with her broken tether left flailing wildly inside the payload bay- “make that two, crew down and hull integrity is compromised, making re-entry unsurvivable. I have activated my emergency beacon and will attempt to clear the debris field to await rescue; Billy-Bobny, abandon ship in the emergency pod and burn to de-orbit immediately.”

Another hit shattered the robotic arm and sent the end, with Val still attached to it, tumbling into the payload bay before bouncing off the floor and rattling her head against the sides of her helmet.

The ruptured fuel tanks exploded as the hypergolics came into contact and instantly combusted, hurling a huge piece of the rear bulkhead forwards just as Val untethered herself from the broken arm. Stunned by the impact she rotated to face the shuttle's nose just in time to see the front edge of the payload bay hurtling towards her. Instinctively she raised her arms to protect her face and absorbed most of the impact, coming almost to a complete halt.

But the rear bulkhead was right behind her and crashed into her from behind, crushing her between it and the upper lip of the forward end of the payload bay and rupturing the small propellant tank for her EVA pack before bouncing over the edge and taking three direct hits one after the other.

The hits started coming in thick and fast as the cloud of micrometeors reached its peak thickness, impacts shattering the wings, the tail, the cockpit, the fuselage, the broken pieces thrown off by previous impacts; the KST was hit twice and broke apart, tumbling away with its solar panels floating behind it in pieces like a strange imitation of a comet's tail; the shuttle's emergency escape pod exploded inside the ship as a hit blew out its fuel tanks, its solid fuel igniting all at once and blasting the floor up like a shotgun; one of the OMS engines took a direct hit right down its nozzle and blew out spectacularly, hurling shrapnel in every direction.

Finally the onslaught abated, leaving the broken wreck of the Dauntless tumbling slowly inside an expanding cloud of debris, out of control and dropping towards the upper atmosphere.

Controllers on the ground could only stare aghast at their displays as two spacecraft and three crew members blinked out of existence to be replaced by a huge cloud of debris scattering in all directions. All that was left was the emergency beacon on Val's EVA suit, pinging forlornly as it drifted alone in space.

Dauntless, this is Control, do you copy?” Someone tried to raise them on the radio but got no response.

“Eva 1, do you read me, over?”

“Someone go get Gene.”

“Eva 2, please respond, over.”

“GC, Flight. Cut the live feeds and lock the doors.”

“Commander Valentina, this is Mission Control. Please respond!”

“LOS from Dauntless, orbit is degrading rapidly.”

“Anybody, respond!”

Chapter 12

Edited by jimmymcgoochie
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6 hours ago, GuessingEveryDay said:

This looks suspiciously like the premise of Gravity.:huh:

I don't see the similarity at all...

Spoiler

OK, maybe a little bit :P But no sign of George Klooney or Sandra Kerbullock though. I'm sure their agents will be in touch for the inevitable TV adaptation :wink:

Having said that, the music from that particular part of that particular film was playing in my head as I wrote some of it, so you're not far off!

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  • 3 weeks later...
On 8/9/2020 at 6:19 PM, jimmymcgoochie said:

The Dynawing cleared the edge of the VAB's roof, clipped the edge of the helipad with the main landing gear enough to bounce the nose down and then landed with all three sets of wheels at once, accompanied by the sound of screeching tyres as they skidded across the helipad. The speed was dropping, but not quite quickly enough and the nose wheel dropped over the edge of the helipad, scraping the belly of the shuttle along the edge before the nose wheel hit the railing around the edge of the VAB roof and just- just!- stayed on.

I wonder if Bradley Whistace read this. Because in his most recent video after dropping off the Monoprop SSTO, he lands on the VAB.

(I copied the video's link at the current time, which is his first attempt to land on the VAB, he lands on the 3rd.)

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4 hours ago, GuessingEveryDay said:

I wonder if Bradley Whistace read this. Because in his most recent video after dropping off the Monoprop SSTO, he lands on the VAB.

I’m not saying it’s a copy of what I wrote, but he even did the main gear bounce on the edge of the roof just as I described! BUT- it’s got jet engines, and jet engines are cheating...

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1 hour ago, jimmymcgoochie said:

I’m not saying it’s a copy of what I wrote, but he even did the main gear bounce on the edge of the roof just as I described! BUT- it’s got jet engines, and jet engines are cheating...

Albeit it's on the wrong side of the VAB. And he sticks the landing.

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This was originally in Chapter 11 but I split it out as a) it wasn't finished but the first bit was, and b) it was over 14 thousand words long at that point. Hence the rather awkward 'part 3' in the chapter title; it's really 'part 2.1'. If the formatting turns out weird, let me know; it was really bad when I pasted it into the forums and I had to reformat quite a bit of it before posting. (Edit: Why did I think this was chapter 14!? :confused:)

Spoiler

Spot the clever chocolate reference :wink:

Spoiler

And once you've done that... Brace yourselves :0.0:

Chapter 12 – Ablaze with stars, part 3

Twenty minutes earlier...

“Alpha Four Delta Papa contacting ground control, requesting taxi to runway 09 Left, over.”

“A-4DP, cleared to taxi via taxiway Alpha Echo, hold short runway 09 Left.”

“Alpha Echo to hold short 9 Left, A-4DP acknowledged.”

Tina nudged the throttle lever forwards and the little Aeris 4D trainer jet began rolling out of the hangar, followed moments later by a loud bang and a sound like someone had thrown a box of cutlery into a washing machine on a spin cycle. She shut the engine down and reapplied the parking brakes, sighing internally; her first flight at the Space Centre and she hadn't even made it beyond the hangar doors!

“That sounded pretty terminal,” Natalia's voice came from behind her and through the headset with a slight delay, creating a disorienting echo. “Nothing you did wrong, these old crates can be a bit cantankerous sometimes.”

“A-4BP, your aircraft is on fire. Recommend immediate evacuation.”

“I'll shut everything down, you go on and get out of here.” Tina wasn't about to argue with that, so she left her instructor to deal with the smouldering plane and beat a hasty retreat to an observation platform where Megan was waiting for her with a big grin on her face.

“Shut up.” Tina tried to stay serious, but when Megan started laughing she lasted all of two seconds before joining in.

“I can't believe we stayed behind while everyone else went down to the harbour, for this. How many milliseconds were you actually moving before it went on fire?”

“Maybe, hmm, four? It felt like I just touched the throttle lever and it self-destructed.”

Natalia came over to join them.

“Well, as you can probably guess, that's that plane out of commission for a while. We don't have a spare on site, so you're free for the rest of the morning and if I can't get hold of a new plane by lunchtime then you'll be going back with the rest of your classmates this afternoon.”

She looked up and frowned.

“Wow, that's one ugly plane.”

Both girls turned round to see for themselves, and sure enough a decidedly ugly-looking plane was flying a downwind approach leg to the north of the Space Centre. Even from a long way away, the plane's engine looked comically large compared to the rest of it, protruding from the rear of the fuselage far more than normal.

“OK, enough sightseeing. Let's get back over the runways before that thing tries to land on us.”

The trio boarded one of the ubiquitous yellow transport trucks that moved almost literally everything- rocket and plane parts, personnel, food- around the Space Centre and quickly crossed back over to the south side of the runways, stopping outside the Spaceplane Hangar. They could still see the plume of white smoke rising from their plane and leaking out of the air vents in the roof of the hangar it was still partially parked inside.

“Thanks, Pam,” Natalia shouted to their driver as she drove off, getting a quick wave in return. She looked back up at the sky.

“What is that?”

“Looks like a shuttle got rear-ended by a giant hairdryer.” Tina added her expert opinion.

“I think it’s coming back round to land.”

Megan squinted towards the mysterious plane. “I can barely even see it any more.”

“Too many hours staring at screens right in front of your face.” Tina teased.

“You’re probably right, actually. So, phphthththphth.” That last ‘word’ was accompanied by a stuck out tongue and a light misting of spit.

(Isn’t it strange how some sounds can be written down easily but others look like you’ve picked up the keyboard and mashed it against your face?)

“You said that like it’s something to be proud of. So, phththphththphth to you too.” Tina retorted with quite a bit more spit spraying.

The plane landed before any more salivary sharing could happen and as it taxied towards the hangar they noticed the big trefoils on the sides of the enormous engine- it was so big it had a small retractable wheel on the bottom of it to avoid tail strikes on takeoff and landing. A pair of NERV-like engines were mounted to either side, their reactor sections and nozzles noticeably longer than the normal NERV, and a number of square things were dotted around on the wings, tail and fuselage which they correctly deduced were retractable RCS thrusters.

"Mark 3 fuselage, Big-S wings and tail fins, the biggest engine I’ve ever seen and two NERV-y engines to boot. What is this thing?” Tina wondered.

“Name plate on the front says ‘Firebird’,” Megan answered. “Sounds pretty suitable for a nuclear SSTO. But surely it couldn’t make it to orbit, it wouldn’t have nearly enough fuel for that colossal main engine.”

“That's the Firebird?” Natalia was incredulous. “If this is the best answer K.V. Roe have to the MX-33, they're toast.”

A set of stairs on wheels was towed up to the plane’s door and the pilot descended, closely followed by three others. Tina recognised two of them immediately and managed to duck through the growing crowd towards them.

“Desdas! Thombert! Over here!”

Desdas looked over, had a very visible lightbulb moment and headed over towards her.

“Hello again! I wasn’t expecting to find you here so soon!”

“You’d be surprised how far you can get by falling through the VAB ceiling in a fridge bolted to a rocket.”

“You did what!?” Thombert joined them. “You’re completely nuts.”

“Says the guy flying around in a nuclear plane.”

“A plane which you had a significant part in making, too.” Desdas said. “We’ve got six different air-breathers of varying designs in the works and all of them are using variations on your design.”

“So this is a Project Elon?” Tina deliberately mispronounced it and Desdas rolled his eyes.

“Not on this occasion. There are still a few teething problems with the fuel switching system that need ironed out, but the pure air-breathing system is working as well as we could have wanted so we split that out to make this- the Fireflash.”

“So that thing is a nuclear reactor that produces propulsion from thin air?” Megan asked, having fought her way through the crowd as well.

“No, it’s a nuclear reactor that produces propulsion from thick air. It really struggles above 20km because the air’s too thin, but we’ve wrung 1600kN out of it at almost sea level doing Mach 4.”

“You’re totally mad.” Megan looked a bit pale just imagining hurtling at many times the speed of sound just over the waves being propelled by a big nuclear reactor with air blasting through it.

“How did you ever get permission to fly this thing?” Natalia asked as she too made it through the throng of onlookers. “Launching the Liberators into orbit caused enough trouble with all the conspiracy nuts, but if people found out you were flying along with a barely shielded nuclear reactor leaving a trail of irradiated air behind you...”

“As opposed to flying along burning ex-dinosaurs and spewing a trail of pollutants into the upper atmosphere where they can wreck the ozone layer and warm the planet?” Desdas had clearly had this argument before and Tina had a moment of deja-vu, remembering a nearly identical conversation with him on the flight home from Darude- wow, was that really this year?

“We ran this very engine in a sealed test chamber for two munths at full power and three independent assessors all measured the radiation inside afterwards as only slightly above background levels and nowhere near high enough to pose a health risk.”

“Try explaining that to the tinfoil hat brigade. As far as they’re concerned, nuclear = evil death rays trying to control their brains.” Megan replied.

“Which is precisely why, despite the obvious benefits to completely decarbonising the aviation industry, we’re restricted to operating this thing over the ocean. And why we had to build in a safety system that can jettison the engine if there’s a problem during flight or on re-entry and make the engine safely descend to the surface using parachutes.”

“So this thing can actually make it to orbit?” Tina asked sceptically.

“It can take a 5 ton payload into orbit and return at the moment, but when we get a Project Eeloo working we could probably push that up by a factor of five or even eight.”

“And right into the MX-33's ballpark with it,” Natalia added. “I've already flown in one of those, and I have to be totally honest: I don't see how you can possibly complete with it.”

“Two things: first, we're using mostly existing components- the wings, fuselage and landing gear are all already in use so it's a lot easier to get the whole design certified than with a totally brand new system like the MX-33, even though we're using nuclear engines which are a regulatory headache like you wouldn't believe.

 Secondly, ours will be cheaper. We’ll be running on liquid hydrogen, which is lightweight and low cost, and the local atmosphere, which is completely free, so we’ll be able to offer a lower price per ton than the MX-33 can even if they get it running on hydrolox, and the per flight cost will be lower too since we can operate from most conventional runways rather than needing a dedicated launchpad infrastructure.”

“Alright, but what about payload sizes? Unless you're going to stretch this thing out to nearly twice its length, MX-33 will trounce your payload bay volume.” Natalia wasn't letting them get away that easily.

“If we ever get the Mk4 space-certified, we’ll have two or even three times the payload capacity of the MX-33 per flight and be able to handle larger payload sizes too.”

“If you ever manage to make a Mk4 that isn’t heavier than an ocean liner and can actually fly,” Thombert grumbled. “That last thing you sent me up in was a death trap and I still have no idea how I got it back down in as few pieces as I did.”

“So why are you here?” Tina asked before Natalia could continue her interrogation. “KSC is usually off-limits to private aerospace companies because of anti-bias rules and such.”

“The Space Program is offering contracts for passenger and crew transport to LKO. We're in the running for some of the larger passenger runs and depending on our performance for those- and getting Project Eeloo working properly- we'll have a good chance of grabbing some cargo runs after the first year reviews.”

“What kind of passenger capacity are you aiming for?”

Desdas smiled mischievously.

“We're going for a capacity of between 80 and 160 per flight-” Tina and Megan gawped at him in disbelief and even Natalia was impressed- “but how we're going to do it is a trade secret.”

“Oi, blabbermouth!” One of the other K.V. Roe representatives shouted over from beside another yellow transport truck, where the rest of the delegation were waiting. “You planning to spend the rest of the day spilling company secrets to nosy kids?” It was clear from her tone that she knew who Tina was.

“Well, it's been great to see you again, Tina. If you're still around later, I have a few design improvements to show you for your next DAGGER.”

“Improvements!? My design was perfect the way it was.” Tina pretended to be offended.

“'Perfect' for a teenager in her shed and 'perfect' for a multi-billion aerospace company are two rather different things.” Desdas replied with his customary grin. “I'll find you after we're done with the presentation.”

Desdas walked over to the truck and climbed in before it drove off towards one of the new buildings on the other side of the R&D complex.

“You're not going with them?” Megan asked Thombert.

“Nah, they figured bringing a grumpy old man like me into the meeting would be bad for business. Besides, someone has to stay here and make sure nosey kids don't sneak on board and start poking around inside.” He paused for a moment before adding: “But now that I think about it, nobody ever told me I shouldn't let anyone on board, and since they're not here to ask...”

“Are we allowed?” Tina responded in a conspiratorial whisper.

“I don't see why not, it's not like we're going anywhere and the inside is almost entirely standard Mk3 cockpit. A bit pointier than the usual one, but all the interior stuff is pretty much the same.”

Megan looked around in a conspicuously inconspicuous manner to check that nobody was looking (apart from the forty or so technicians in and around the Spaceplane Hangar and around the same number of other onlookers nearby) and Natalia responded by wandering off, conspicuously not looking back at them, before the two Cadets and Thombert boarded the Firebird.

The interior of the cockpit was, as promised, almost identical to the standard Mk3 shuttle cockpit, with the only obvious differences being the more steeply angled windows and a prominent panel in the middle of the centre console with data from the main engine and the pair of nuclear rockets, which Thombert immediately turned off. It was almost exactly the same as the simulator over in the Heritage Centre and despite the fact that this version was attached to a real spaceplane that had gone into real space, it was a bit disappointing.

Megan went to open the airlock at the back of the cockpit which would lead to the cargo bay, but Thombert stopped her.

“We're carrying a payload for another company to do some re-entry tests with it; even I'm not allowed to go into it.”

With that avenue of exploration closed off, Megan quickly got bored and left in search of food.

“But you just had breakfast an hour ago!” Tina shouted after her.

“Exactly!” Megan responded from half way down the stairs. “One whole hour!”

“So did you really stick a fridge on top of that DAGGER of yours and crash it into the VAB?” Thombert asked her.

“I didn't crash it on purpose! Flight controls didn't work, I was just a passenger until it ran out of fuel.”

“And is it also true that Jeb tried to fly it but crashed while trying to go under the R&D bridge?” Tina nodded. “Serves him right: Jeb's a great pilot, sure, but he knows that he's a great pilot and he's far too keen to show off as a result. Did you know that back when the Space Program was just getting off the ground eighteen years ago, Jeb flew right through the VAB in a trainer plane? The worst part of that was that it was a two seater, and I was his instructor!”

“You were an instructor here?”

“Not for a long time, but yes. I did a lot of the pilot assessments for the initial Kerbonaut selections, back when the usual suspects were a bunch of baby-faced teenagers barely out of school. Jeb was always one to throw his planes around the sky, all brute force and running right on the limits- or beyond- but then Val turned up and she was the total opposite, so smooth and so gentle with the controls that you didn't realise just how fast she was going until the G-forces made your eyes water. Everyone thought they were going to have a massive showdown one day, but-”

He was interrupted by a loud klaxon that began blaring from all over the Space Centre accompanied by red strobe lights, followed by an announcement:

“Attention all personnel. We are now under condition red, repeat, condition red. All personnel report to your nearest muster point and await further instructions.”

“What's that about?” Thombert grabbed a headset from the pilot's seat and contacted the control tower.

KSC tower, this is Firebird on the tarmac, do we need to evacuate?”

“Uh, negative, Firebird. Remain in place and await further instructions.”

“Well, that really cleared things up.” Thombert turned and put his feet up on the top edge of the instrument panel. “Feel free to grab something out the fridge, we might be here a while.” He pointed towards a storage locker marked 'Snacks' set into the floor of the cockpit, within easy reach of the two rear seats. Tina opened it and found a veritable treasure trove of sugary goodness, grabbed a Duna chocolate bar and settled in for what could be a long wait.

***

“With our new passenger cabins, we're looking at a capacity of 80 passengers using the current design, rising to 120 when Project Eeloo is completed, with options for size 1 or 2 docking ports and-”

“Sorry, can you hold on a minute? Mission Control is pinging me.” Gene interrupted Desdas' presentation.

Most of the Space Program's department heads were in the room to hear the presentation: Flight Director Gene; Mortimer, the head of accounting; Dr Wernher, head of R&D; Walt, head of PR; and Jayson, the highest-ranking Kerbonaut still on Kerbin and who was acting as head of the Astronaut Corps as Jeb, Bob and Bill were on Intrepid and Val was on Dauntless.

“Huh, they're pinging me too,” said Jayson.

“And me,” added Wernher.

Gene tapped some commands into his tablet and the room's conference system booted up and connected to the situation room over in Mission Control. The call connected and Bobak appeared on the screen; as soon as they saw his face, everyone knew something very serious had happened.

“Gene, we...” Bobak was visibly struggling to keep his emotions in check. “We lost Dauntless.”

Even the air conditioning fell silent at the news.

Gene tapped some more commands into his tablet and was connected to Gus, the head of ground operations.

“Gus, set condition red.”

“Understood.”

Klaxons began sounding across the Space Centre and in every building, accompanied by red strobe lights and followed by an announcement: 

“Attention all personnel. We are now under condition red, repeat, condition red. All personnel report to your nearest muster point and await further instructions.”

“What happened?” Gene asked Bobak as soon as he had turned off the alarm in the room.

“Massive debris field came at them retrograde, they got hit at least fifty times. Dauntless and KST are both gone; Billy-Bobny, Miltrey and Gerzer are all confirmed KIA.” He waited for the tsunami of profanities to abate before continuing.

“Val's alive, but her EVA systems are badly damaged and she's sub-orbital and passing through the upper atmosphere right now. On her current trajectory, she'll drop too low on the next orbit and if the heating doesn't kill her it'll destroy what's left of her life support.”

A deafening silence filled the room after Bobak stopped talking.

“What about a rescue?” Jayson asked eventually. “If we time it right we could get a rocket right beside her before she re-enters or even just grab her with one of those debris de-orbiters and use its heat shields to protect her.”

“That won't work,” Wernher countered. “Plasma re-radiation would kill just as quickly as re-entering with no heat shielding at all.”

“A command pod on a Trident core would be able to reach her, then we would just need to jump out and grab her.” Jayson suggested.

“G-forces would be too high during re-entry and when the parachutes deployed, plus we would need to fuel the Trident up, get the pod ready and assemble it all before wheeling it out to a launch pad. It would take at least two hours before we could launch, and by then it would be too late.” Bobak answered.

“What happened to the rapid response rocket we always have on standby to launch a rescue mission?” Gene asked. “If ever there was a time for it, this is it!”

“Budget got cut to fund Trailblazer, like everything else lately. I tried to argue against it, but politics came first and I was overruled.” Mortimer replied dejectedly.

“What about other launch sites?”

“Yeager is in the completely wrong position, Woomerang-2 is still under construction, Darude is offline because of a huge sandstorm, Musgrave don't do crewed launches so they have no crew pods and McAuliffe is too far east.”

“You're telling me that we can send our Kerbonauts to Duna, but we can't rescue one from below low orbit? Surely someone has-”

Gene cut himself off mid-sentence, realising who else was in the room. He turned to the K.V. Roe delegation.

“You said your plane can make low orbit?”

“On a full fuel load, yes, but we're running at about a three quarters load right now.” Desdas replied.

“We don't have any hydrogen refuelling infrastructure on the tarmac, Gene, only the launchpads.” Wernher pointed out.

“Actually, we can take a bit of plain old liquid fuel in the wing tanks and use that for the engines; they won't like it, but it'll give us a little bit more range. If you can fill those up and top off the monopropellant reserves too, Thombert could get close.”

“Close is one thing; actually making a sub-orbital rendezvous, though... Could he do it?”

“It's... possible. But even if he did, it wouldn't help- Thombert is a test pilot, not an astronaut. Unless you want him to try and scoop her up into the cargo hold and come down with her playing pinball in there, I don't see what good it would do.”

“Unless...”

All eyes turned to Bobak.

“Unless what?”

“Unless we send someone else up with him to perform an EVA rescue.”

“Who? Most of our active Kerbonauts are either hurtling towards Duna or were on that shuttle.” Gene pulled up the roster and scrolled through it.

“Edgas broke his leg three weeks ago and won't be flying again any time soon; Steve's wife had a baby yesterday so he's out on paternity leave; Burbary is half way to North Station One with a team of engineers to repair the tracking dish; Natalia can't do it; Mardard and Sidzer are off-site doing an outreach tour; Jayson, you're already above the maximum radiation limits for this year; and if you think I'm letting Neilvin do a solo EVA again, you're mad.”

“I think a little radiation is a small price to pay to save Val; she'd do the same for any of us without hesitating.”

“You're saying that now, but in twenty years' time when you're on your deathbed, body riddled with metastatic cancer, will you feel the same way then? Will your next of kin?”

Jayson had no response to that.

“What's wrong with Neilvin?” Desdas asked.

“The last time he did a solo EVA, he panicked and tried to deorbit himself with his jetpack; we only just managed to grab him before he re-entered and he's been grounded ever since.” Gene explained.

“Oh, that Neilvin... OK, so why not Natalia?”

“Yes, why not me?”

Everyone turned towards the new voice as Natalia entered the room.

“First Dauntless reports micrometeors, then the feed gets cut, then condition red? I'm not an idiot, Gene, I know something's up. If the shuttle is damaged then whatever you're planning, I'm in.”

“Nate, sit down.”

She heard the tone of Gene's voice, read the others' expressions and all the colour drained out of her face.

“No...” She took a step backwards without realising it. “No no no no no...”

“Nate,” Gene stood up and started walking towards her, “you know why we can't send you up there.”

“I can't just sit here and do nothing while she...”

She abruptly turned and ran out of the room; Jayson went to follow her but Gene stopped him.

“Even if we ignored Directive 1.3 we still couldn't send Natalia up there; we can't risk the radiation exposure.”

“But Nate hasn't flown an orbital mission this year!” protested Jayson. “She can't be over the limits- unless...” His eyes widened. “Oh.” Then flicked to the door and widened even more. “Oh...”

“Is someone going to explain any of that?” Asked Patlin, one of the K.V. Roe representatives. “What is Directive 1.3?”

“Directive 1 is 'reasons to not go to space'; 1.3 is 'emotional impairment' and that's all the explanation you're getting.” Gene replied, surprising everyone (including himself) with his bluntness. Seeking to redirect the conversation back to the current crisis, he pitched his next question to Desdas and Wernher.

“How do we get Firebird up there to make a rendezvous, given the orbital parameters we have to work with?”

“We'd need to start from as far west as we can, otherwise we won't have enough time before re-entering the atmosphere.” Desdas answered. “I'm thinking we send it up flying westbound, turn around just past Musgrave and then punch it at full speed to intercept somewhere between the Island Airfield and McAuliffe, then descend towards Yeager and land.”

“Can it do that?” Wernher asked. “The margins are going to be razor-thin on this, a few seconds too early or too late-”

“I'm well aware of the margins, thank you!” Desdas snapped back. He and Wernher glared at each other across the table for a moment before both dropped their gazes and Desdas continued in a much less confrontational tone.

“I designed this thing and ran countless simulations on it, and Thombert is the best pilot we've got; if I say we can do it, we can do it.”

“That still doesn't answer the original question- who else can we send up with him? All our trained Kerbonauts are unavailable and all the Cadets are down at the harbour today; by the time we get one of them up here, it'll be too late.”

“Actually, that's not entirely true,” came a voice from the doorway. Natalia re-entered the room having regained most of her composure, although her eyes were red. “We've got two Cadets on-site as of twenty minutes ago: Megan and Tina. I was meant to be taking them up in a trainer plane this morning, but we had an engine failure before we even cleared the hangar. Last I saw of them, they were going up into the cockpit with your pilot, so there's a good chance at least one of them is still nearby.”

“You're kidding!” Walt protested. “A couple of untrained teenagers without a shred of experience between them, and you want to send them up for the most difficult EVA mission we've ever attempted? This is-”

“The only chance we have!” Natalia shouted, making Walt shrink back into his chair. “You all know Val wouldn't hesitate to do the same for any of you!”

Gene intervened to restore a semblance of order- and urgency. “Alright, let's vote on it. All in favour?” Everyone raised their hands except Walt.

“If anything goes even slightly wrong, we'll be finished.” He sighed deeply. “But, if it's the only viable option we have, then it's better than nothing at all.” Reluctantly he raised his hand.

“That settles it then.” Gene looked towards the video link. “Bobak, clear the airspace from Musgrave to McAuliffe and get a team ready to run this mission from the ground.”

“Got it.”

Gene switched the connection and Gus' face reappeared.

“Gus, get a tanker loaded with liquid fuel and monopropellant then fuel up the Firebird as much as we can; timing is critical so we need it done in five minutes.”

“We just pulled the fuel out of A-4BP so we've got a fuelled-up tanker already on the tarmac; it shouldn't take too long to get some monoprop in there too.”

“And someone track down those Cadets. Now!”

*

Firebird, this is Mission Control, stand by to receive fuel.”

“What are they up to now?” Thombert wondered aloud.

“Control, this is Firebird, say again?”

Firebird, this is Mission Control. Under Section 7, paragraphs 2-3 of the Space Program Charter we are requesting the use of your aircraft for a priority mission. Stand by to receive LF and MP refuel.”

“Wha-? They're commandeering the plane?” As far as Tina knew, this was only the second time that part of the Charter had ever been invoked.

Firebird copies. ” Thombert stopped transmitting but kept talking. “Something's rotten with this whole setup, Tina- first that alert, then this? If they're filling us up with monopropellant and putting liquid fuel in the tanks that says they're looking for some kind of low orbit or high suborbital trajectory, which says either the KSS or the Dauntless is in trouble and they need Firebird to go and bring them back home. It's going to really mess with the engines, though, those Neptunes are really finicky when they're run on liquid fuel before hydrogen and even worse when it's the other way round.”

“By 'finicky' are you referring to the phrase 'interestingly non-linear thermal feedback'?

Thombert snorted in amusement.

“That's one way of putting it! Hmm, I like that phrase, I might just have to steal it.”

“I already stole it from someone else, so help yourself.” Tina replied with a grin.

Someone came running up the external stairs, stuck their head through the door and immediately turned and ran back down the stairs again while shouting something into a walkie-talkie, their words lost in the wind.

Firebird, this is Mission Control. Uploading details of target, your mission is to rendezvous with the target and recover it. Target is unresponsive and status is currently unknown.”

A target indicator appeared on the central display, its orbit noticeably eccentric and dipping deep into the upper atmosphere at periapsis.

“Control, Firebird. What exactly is going on here?”

Firebird, switch to channel 7.”

“Oh boy, we're really up to our necks in it now...” Thombert muttered off radio. Tina agreed- channel 7 was only used in dire emergencies and the transcripts of the conversations would be kept secret for years or even decades afterwards. Channel 7 had previously been used when Acapello 9's second stage exploded in the upper atmosphere; when a resupply vessel approaching the Kerbin Space Station had been deliberately rammed into the station by a ground controller; after a midair collision between a KSC sub-orbital research plane and a civilian light aircraft that brought the jet down perilously close to a crowded city during rush hour; and during the Woomerang disaster that had caused dozens of fatalities as a failing booster crashed down onto the ground facilities and turned the whole complex into a raging inferno.

“Control, this is Firebird on channel 7.”

Firebird, this is Control. We've lost the Dauntless.”

Thombert let out an exclamation so profoundly profane that one of the controllers listening in fainted on the spot.

“Your current target is Commander Valentina. She was on EVA when the Dauntless was hit, condition currently unknown but our data suggests she's drifting without control and may be injured. One more pass through the upper atmosphere will most likely be terminal, so you have 31 minutes and 44 seconds, mark. Your mission is simple: rendezvous, EVA, retrieve Commander Valentina and return to the surface. Good luck, Control out.”

Firebird copies all. Val, if you can hear us, help is on the way at maximum possible speed.”

Thombert looked over to Tina who was staring blankly at the flight displays, her face shockingly pale.

“Tina. Hey, Tina!”

She looked round and had to blink a few times to focus.

“You better scram before someone finds you in here; I don't think they'll take too kindly to you joyriding into space with me, especially not today.”

She nodded silently and was half way to the door when the same kerbal showed up again with a colleague, carrying an EVA suit between them which they stowed in the main airlock.

“Pilot's got a suit already, batteries charged and tanks are,” he checked the gauges, “97% capacity. All good here.”

It suddenly dawned on her who the second suit was for, and with that realisation came gut-wrenching fear.

“Wait- I'm not going up there!” She spluttered in terror.

Another face appeared at the door, and to Tina's amazement it was Director Gene.

“Tina, I'm sorry to have to put you in this situation, but we have no other options; Thombert, we're all counting on you. Bring her home.”

Tina tried to speak, but no words would come.

“Copy that, Gene. Firebird is ready to roll.”

Thombert turned to Tina.

“Sit back and buckle up, kid, this could get rough.”

She did as he asked, fumbling with the seat harness because her hands were shaking. The outer door was closed and locked and the stairs wheeled away before Thombert began taxiing out to the end of runway 27L. As soon as he was lined up with the centre line, he gave the engine full throttle. Nothing happened for a whole two seconds before the engine spooled up and began powering them down the runway-

Much slower than Tina was expecting. Whatever else was said about the Fireflash engine, it wasn't particularly potent at low speed.

Once airborne they flew slightly north of due west, gaining some altitude and speed to avoid leaving a trail of shattered windows and eardrums in their wake when they went supersonic, before breaching the sound barrier and turning in a long leftwards loop that brought them directly underneath Val's trajectory, and almost directly over the S. Musgrave launch complex.

“Hold on to your hat, kiddo, you're going to feel this one.” Thombert said before he gave the engine full throttle again and the plane powered forwards. The little part of Tina's brain that wasn't curled in a ball sobbing in terror noted the increasing surge of acceleration as the aircraft gained speed, pushing forwards with two and then three Gs as the huge engine gulped in air and turned it into thrust. She looked out the window to her right and saw the Space Centre for a moment before it disappeared behind them.

They hit 1500m/s before Thombert pulled up into a 30 degree climb, powering into the sky with wisps of superheated air trailing off every surface. The Fireflash engine began to struggle as they passed through 20km before running out of air at 25km, and Thombert engaged the two Neptune rockets which took over propulsion duty as the Fireflash shut down. The Neptunes were efficient, but rather underpowered for an aircraft the size of Firebird and they barely managed to hold their speed as they continued upwards into the upper atmosphere.

“Just a little further,” Thombert murmured as if he was trying to talk the plane into climbing slightly faster. An alarm began sounding and he throttled back the left engine slightly to keep its core temperature under control. Once they passed 35km altitude their speed began to rise noticeably as increased engine efficiency, reduced atmospheric drag and Oberth effect combined to boost their acceleration.

They passed through the Kérmán line without any fanfare and the Neptunes exhausted their hydrogen fuel supply a few seconds later. Within seconds of switching over to the liquid fuel reserve, the same alarm began sounding again and Thombert fought a losing battle to keep the left engine's core from overheating, eventually shutting it down completely and limping upwards on one engine until the last of the fuel was exhausted. A small part of Tina's brain noticed that her arms were now floating at shoulder height, but the rest was desperately trying not to splatter her breakfast across the front windows so she stayed silent.

They were below and behind Val's beacon, about 3km short of a rendezvous, so Thombert used the RCS thrusters to close the gap down to a couple of hundred metres and set up their orbit so they would cross over Val's orbit ahead, pass around the outside and then drop back again behind her while staying as close as possible for as long as possible. That effort used up nearly all of their monopropellant reserves as well, but their closing velocity was still far higher than would normally be considered safe, or even sane.

“Alright, kid, suit up.”

“Whaaaaa-?”

“Get suited up, you're going out there to grab her.”

“But-but-but-but-”

“We have a few minutes before we're in range and 95 seconds to make this rescue before we'll drop out of range again. We only have one shot at this and Val is depending on us to get it right. Suit up; I'll keep an eye on you from here and guide you in.”

“I-I-I-I've never done an EVA before! I'll stay in here and-”

“If you don't do this, Val is going to die!” Thombert shouted at her, making her jump and float out of her seat. He grabbed her arm and half pushed, half threw her towards the airlock. “Get that suit on and get ready.”

Tina flailed helplessly as she floated to the back of the cockpit before grabbing hold of a handle at the back wall, but when she tried to turn around to go back to her seat she found Thombert bearing down on her and he propelled her at the airlock and the waiting EVA suit within. Too scared to argue, she stuck her legs into the bottom half of the suit before Thombert lowered the top half into place and attached the neck ring and helmet as she locked the gloves into place. He checked each section was properly locked together before checking the suit's oxygen supply tubes and power cables and the thruster systems.

“Good to go. Tap your heels together to toggle the boot magnets and take it easy on the thrusters, that propellant won't last forever.” He grabbed the sides of her helmet and looked her straight in the eye. “You can do this.”

And with that he closed the inner airlock door and began depressurising it.

Her brain had just enough time to process two thoughts- first, she was actually IN SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!!!, and secondly, she was about to jump out of a spacecraft, with no tether, try to meet up with a moving target, grab hold of it and then tow it back to that spacecraft which would by that point be in a completely different place relative to when she left it, and she had no training whatsoever besides a couple of videos from The LayKerbonaut to do it all with- before the outer airlock door opened directly above her head and she was confronted with the gaping maw of hard vacuum for the first time in her life.

She immediately and comprehensively soiled herself.

“Target position should be showing on your helmet display,” Thombert's voice came through a speaker beside her head. “Take a moment when you're out there to get your orientation right before heading over there and be careful in case there's debris around.”

“I can't do this I can't do this I can't aaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

Someone in Mission Control had taken remote control of her EVA pack and given her thrusters a quick spurt, sending her out of the airlock and into space. She would probably have profoundly soiled herself, but she had already done that and weirdly that made her feel slightly less afraid. She grabbed the controls from behind her and gave them a few experimental nudges to get a feel for them before orienting herself and setting out towards the blinking dot on her display.

“Control, this is Firebird, rescue is in progress.” Thombert radioed down to Kerbin which was spread out below her, taking up one 'wall' of the sky but the other three walls were empty black nothing as was the ceiling and so was the floor and she was falling she was falling SHE WAS FALLING!-

A piece of debris suddenly loomed ahead of her and she jammed all the controls down to avoid it, sending her spinning away uncontrollably before she recovered and stopped the spin, her pulse setting a new personal best without her knowing. She had lost the marker but followed the arrow at one edge of the display to aim towards it again, trying to ignore the unpleasant wet sensations in the lower half of her body.

“You're doing good, Tina.” Thombert reassured her. “Just take it easy with the thrusters and you'll be fine.”

She wanted to take a minute to get her breathing back under control, but there wasn't a single second to spare. She looked ahead and spotted the distinctive shape of an EVA suit. “I think I can see her now. Lights are flashing but she's tumbling.” Please don't throw up in the helmet, please please please don't throw up in the helmet...

“You're thirty metres out. Grab her, clip your tether on then tow her back here as fast as you can, we don't have much longer before we move out of range again.”

She closed the remaining distance and fired her thrusters to stop just in front of Val. It was clear that Val's EVA pack was badly damaged, the indicator lights all into the red. She spun her around and attached the tether, then looked up at her face.

It was bad. Very, very bad. The inside of the helmet had a thin coating of red frost on it and behind that Val's face was covered in bruises. Her breath rattled and wheezed through the radio link and there was something fundamentally wrong with the shape of her spacesuit from her chest down.

“I've got her! Coming back to you now.”

“Great work. Be careful, but be quick too. I'm sending you a vector to intercept me.”

A new marker appeared on her helmet HUD, a series of triangles leading into the distance along with an arrow pointing to Firebird which was too close to the Sun to look at directly.

She began following the marked path, accelerating gradually to avoid jolting Val too much but still eliciting a few groans as the tether snapped taut and pulled her.

“One hundred metres.”

She was fighting an oscillation in two dimensions as Val's greater mass created a pendulum motion that made it hard to keep going the right way. Her propellant reserves were dwindling fast, barely a quarter left in the tank now and something streaked past her in a flash of silver.

“Uh, what was that?”

“What was what?”

“Something just came right past me going really fast.” Whoosh. “There's another one!”

“FOD radar isn't showing anything, I'll try a shorter wavelength.” There was silence for a few seconds then Thombert came back with a note of alarm in his voice. Firebird to Control. We have a whole lot of FOD incoming, orbiting retrograde and spread from 130 to 175 kilometres in altitude and about as spread out laterally too. Tina, get over here as fast as you can and let's get out of here before that stuff arrives. Forty metres out.”

Firebird dropped below her altitude and changed from a patch of shadow with a white outline on one side to a dazzling white shape and briefly blinding her with the glare. She fumbled with the helmet visor then realised she was coming in too fast and blasted the thrusters in reverse only to have Val come flying past and a desperate struggle ensued between her thrusters and Val's inertia. In the end, Firebird arrived and ended the battle as both of them crashed into it at a relatively benign 6 metres per second; in a similar way that running into a brick wall at 6 metres per second is 'benign', anyway.

“Ow, my shin!” Tina yelped as she banged her leg against the forward canard and flipped around to hit the fuselage backwards, knocking the air out of her lungs with an audible 'whumph'. With the last dregs of the EVA pack she made it to the airlock and pulled in the tether to haul Val in behind her, wincing every time she felt her bounce off something as she did.

“We're inside, outer door is locked.”

“Pressurising the airlock. Don't take your suit off just yet in case something hits us and we depressurise.”

“What about you?”

“I've got my own suit, remember? Click on your boot magnets and hang on to something, we're about to start moving in strange directions.”

Firebird plunged into the debris field, Thombert doing his best to avoid the larger pieces with the diminishing monopropellant reserves and Tina just clinging on to prevent both herself and Val flying around the cramped airlock.

Without any external reference, the spinning and dodging was utterly disorienting and Tina felt motion sick for the first time in her life. Please don't throw up in your helmet, she thought to herself over and over again, and somehow she didn't. She heard a piece of debris clip the plane with an ominous plink and Thombert put all of his many years of experience to use flying through the constantly shifting cloud of debris, managing to avoid taking any hits beyond one small lump that hit at such a shallow angle that it bounced off without doing any damage. After around thirty seconds that felt more like thirty minutes to Tina, the cloud of debris abated.

It looks like we're clear,” said Thombert.

BANG

***

“Control, this is Firebird, we've got good news and bad news.”

The nervous chatter in Mission Control fell silent.

“The good news is, we've recovered Commander Valentina and she's still alive. The bad news is, whatever debris field took out your shuttle seems to have stuck around- we just got showered with a very large but diffuse cloud of FOD travelling retrograde, and we've taken damage.”

“How serious is the damage?”

“We've lost the left wing.”

A collective gasp rippled through the control room.

“How much is missing? Can you still return to the surface?”

“The whole delta is gone, both elevons, airbrakes, landing gear- everything. We're coming down no matter what, but there's no way we're coming down in one piece, not with a wing torn off.”

“Control copies, Firebird.”

“So that's it? We just sit here until we burn up and die!?” Tina was panicking again, but Thombert was almost unnaturally calm.

“I didn't say that, Tina; we still have a trick up our sleeve. Remember that secret payload I told you about?”

Tina nodded.

“It's a prototype mini shuttle. We were supposed to be testing its re-entry profile today; looks like we'll be doing it for real. Open the hatch up and let's get Val strapped in safely before we hit the atmosphere.”

Tina struggled backwards, trying to tow Val with the tether without bumping her into anything. The rear airlock hatch opened and she wriggled through into a small module with a single seat and a ceiling that was angled down from the end with the hatch in it, before carefully moving Val through as well; the hatch seemed to be built to match a half-size docking port and the module itself was barely big enough to fit them both. She strapped Val into the rear seat, trying be as gentle as possible as she pulled the harness tight, then headed forwards through an equally narrow tube towards the front of the shuttle, passing a junction with a second docking port in the middle. As soon as she reached the front, she realised that there was something very wrong.

“There are only two seats in this thing, Thombert.”

Clunk. Tina knew that sound- the hatch in the crew cabin had just been closed and locked. It became horribly clear what was happening, and she turned and raced back towards the other end of the shuttle to be met with a sealed port. She began pounding on the port and shouted through the suit comms.

“Thombert, open up! What are you doing!?”

“Sorry, kid, but the hatch is locked. You're going home without me.”

“Why!? There's room for three on this thing, you don't have to do this!” She was struggling to see through the tears in her eyes, already floating around inside her helmet and splashing against the glass.

“We're already kissing the atmosphere, and if I don't hold this thing steady you'll never clear the bay. Undock now.” Thombert's voice was incredibly calm.

“I can't just leave you-!”

“If you stay here, we all burn up. You still have a long and beautiful life ahead of you, Tina; don't throw it away on some pointless heroics, especially not for me.”

“Mission Control concurs.” Tina recognised Gene's voice over the radio. “As hard as this will be to hear, Tina, there's nothing more you can do.”

They were right. She hated it, and she hated herself for admitting it, but there was nothing she could do.

She closed the inner docking port hatch and locked it, then pulled her helmet off so she could see a little better before heading forwards and strapping herself into the front seat. The controls were very simple- no engines, just RCS and aero controls and the basic flight instruments, with some obvious gaps where displays or switches were still missing. There were two covered toggles for the decoupler on the rear module and the docking port, and she flipped the cover off the rear decoupler's switch, hesitated for a moment, then flipped the switch. A muffled clunk came from behind her and the opposite end of the cargo bay began creeping closer. The bay doors opened overhead, their edges immediately starting to glow with plasma as Firebird re-entered the atmosphere.

A few short bursts from the RCS thrusters and they were out of the hold, then swung around to point nose-first. The little shuttle was already vibrating as it hurtled through the upper fringes of the atmosphere.

“I'm seeing you clear of the cargo bay,” Thombert said, the signal already beginning to hiss with static. “The re-entry program should keep everything under control, just watch your angle doesn't stray above 60 degrees or below 45- too high and you'll black out or rip the wings off, too low and you'll overheat. And be careful to keep the wings level or it might end up rolling inverted and you'll pop every blood vessel in your brain with the negative Gs. Take it easy though, Val's in bad shape as it is.”

“I'm sorry, Thombert. You would be in here if it wasn't for me.” Her voice cracked and she barely stifled a sob.

“If you weren't here, Val would still be floating in space. It took both of us to save her, Tina; never forget that.”

The shuttle was losing speed more rapidly than the Firebird and dropping lower as well; Tina could see Firebird directly ahead as the shuttle's nose rose to its programmed pitch.

Firebird to control, emergency protocol 1 initiated.”

The trio of nuclear engines suddenly detached as a single module. An inflatable heatshield inflated and the increased drag made the engines drop away rapidly behind them with wisps of plasma flickering over the edges of the shield.

“Roger that, Firebird, we have a track on the engine module and a recovery team is standing by to launch once we have its predicted landing site.”

Tina heard Thombert chuckle.

“Never thought I'd be using that protocol for real, I always figured it w- just... -ing par...”

The radio dissolved into static, then silence. Tina's cockpit was glowing orange from the plasma racing past the window; the little temperature gauge on the flight display was climbing rapidly towards three thousand Kelvin, and the static from the radio was being drowned out by the increasing roar as the shuttle dropped at hypersonic speed deeper into the atmosphere. Deceleration forces pushed her into her seat and put an increasing strain on her neck, the headrest no use to her as it was positioned for a spacesuit helmet and she didn't dare try to adjust it for fear of making it collapse and breaking her neck.

It suddenly occurred to her that this was her first re-entry, and if something went wrong it would also be her last.

***

Jeltrey Kerman couldn't sleep. She had tried to sleep, clamping her eyes shut until they hurt, but it didn't work. Now she was bored, thirsty and not the slightest bit sleepy, so she decided to wake her parents up to get a nice mug of warm milk for her. She liked milk, especially milk warmed up in the little oven in the kitchen- not the big oven, that would just be silly, just the little buzzing one in the corner- and she clambered out of bed and stuck her feet into her favourite fluffy pink slippers.

She saw something strange on the floor, an odd orange glow that was moving slowly. She looked around to see where it was coming from and then looked out the big window set into the ceiling of her room and the roof of the house to see a bright orange shooting star racing across the sky.

“Mamma Dadda wake up! Wake up!” She shouted as she ran through and began jumping on her parents' bed, causing them both to wake up in a mild panic.

“What is it, Jeltrey?” said Mamma, blinking her half-closed eyes to try and focus.

“Shooting star out my window! Come see!”

She grabbed both parents by a hand each and tried to drag them out of bed, which they reluctantly did just to try and keep her quiet and not wake everyone else up. To no avail- Tengas and Milsey were both already awake and came out of their room to see what was happening.

They congregated in Jeltrey's room and looked out of the window, and sure enough a bright orange shooting star was just visible as it passed almost directly overhead. They switched rooms to the master bedroom and looked out the identical window on the other side of the house to see the same shooting star racing across the night sky.

“See?” Jeltrey said happily as her family tried to blink their blurred eyes back into service.

“I think there was a Dynawing shuttle mission launched last night,” said Tengas through a barely stifled yawn. “That must be it coming back down, but I thought they said it was a five day-”

The shooting star suddenly flared brighter, then split in two, then three, then a whole shower as the central star broke apart in a blaze of light. Jeltrey squealed with excitement at the spectacle, oblivious to the rest of her family who were now watching in horror at the trails of fire spreading across the sky.

***

Altitude- 61,000 metres, speed- 3517m/s, 1.1g. The vibrations were horrendous, shaking the entire shuttle and eliciting a chorus of moans from both it and Val in the back seat. Tina tried to push the nose down a bit more to reduce the deceleration force but the skin temperature was already dangerously high and she was worried about overloading the shuttle's wings if she pushed too far or even causing it to flip out and tear itself apart in the airflow.

52,000 metres, 3127m/s, 2.3g. A bright red light and a loud warning klaxon are never welcome in an aircraft cockpit, much less during atmospheric re-entry. The autopilot had failed and SAS defaulted to neutral, causing the nose to rise dangerously high. Just as Thombert had warned, the unstable configuration caused the shuttle to roll inverted and now the full force of the re-entry heating was coming straight in the front windows.

40,000 metres, 2618m/s, -3.9g. Tina's head felt like it was going to explode. Her vision was bathed in red and her legs weren't working properly. With immense effort she engaged the reaction control thrusters and pushed both aero and RCS controls to roll the shuttle's wings back to the correct attitude. The heat was building rapidly and she could feel a burning sensation across any area of exposed skin as radiated heat from the plasma shockwave blasted through the windows and started quite literally cooking her alive.

37,000 metres, 2278m/s, -4.1g. Tina rocked the wings left, then right, oscillating the roll angle until finally the shuttle rolled upright again- and stayed there. She could smell burnt hair but as far as she could tell her hair wasn't actually on fire, and she needed both hands on the controls anyway.

35,000 metres, 2012m/s, 4.6g. Deceleration was getting even faster as the air got thicker. She was sure the meter clicked up to 5.0g at one point before it began to decline.

31,000 metres, 1655m/s, 4.1g. They seemed to be through the worst of it now, but Val was making some very worrying sounds through the helmet radio. Tina tried to reassure her but her voice came out as a croak due in part to the stifling heat in the cabin.

27,000 metres, 1312m/s, 2.5g. The plasma had completely subsided, but there was nothing on the radio. They must be in a black spot where the ground stations couldn't reach, or else the re-entry heat had cooked the radio receiver.

21,000 metres, 952m/s, 1.6g. The terrain was three dimensional now, mountains and valleys appearing where before they had been one continuous surface. They seemed to be flying around the mountains though which was a relief, and Tina let the nose drop a little more to see what was directly ahead.

13,000 metres, 768m/s, 1.3g. They dropped through a thin layer of high altitude cloud, producing a slight shudder of turbulence. Still no communications and she didn't know what button to press to try and transmit.

7,000 metres, 624m/s, 1.2g. The shuttle didn't glide particularly well, shedding speed faster than she had expected. There was still a bit of altitude left but with no engines she was going to have to watch her speed very carefully to avoid stalling or crashing.

4,000 metres, 329m/s, 1.1g. The shuttle shuddered as it went subsonic, the ground was definitely getting closer and the previously flat area she had been aiming for was revealed to be covered in small hills and valleys without any flat areas in between, and carpeted in forest to boot. She looked around for a better landing site, but with altitude dwindling fast there wasn't much she could do.

2,000 metres, 175m/s, 1.0g. They were running out of land now, the sea was directly ahead and approaching fast. No time to try and turn around now, they didn't have the speed or the altitude to make anything more than a minor correction turn and the shuttle was handling very sluggishly as it was. The thought of attempting a water landing in a totally unfamiliar aircraft made Tina feel queasy, but it was looking more and more likely.

1,000 metres, 117m/s, 1.0g. The glide profile was getting a lot worse as they lost more speed and the controls were barely responding at all. They were going to come down either in the sea or close to it, neither of which were particularly good news. Tina pulled the lever to deploy the landing gear, but the three indicator lights stayed red. Not good.

500 metres, 88m/s, 0.9g. They weren't flying any more, they were in a barely controlled dive towards the sea. She tried firing the RCS thrusters to eke out a bit more speed but they were almost useless at this altitude. She could see a small flotilla of boats near the shore, ranging from speedboats to sailing yachts, and hoped that she didn't crash into any of them.

100 metres, 77m/s, 0.9g. Ninety, eighty, seventy, sixty, fifty, forty, thirty, level the nose, twenty, ten FLARE!!! ten, eight, speed 50m/s and dropping, five, three-

0 metres, 0m/s, 1.0g. Splashdown. Tina hit her forehead against the top of the instrument panel as the speed dropped to zero in a fraction of a second, leaving her dazed and dizzy. The shuttle settled at a noticeable nose-up angle, shrouded in steam produced by residual re-entry heat.

As soon as her head stopped spinning, Tina rushed back to check on Val. She didn't look good at all- unconscious and with a little trickle of blood from one corner of her mouth. Water lapped at the tiny window above the rear hatch; no way out there. Fighting against gravity and the tilted floor, she struggled to lift Val's suited body and had to drag her using the tether, moving feet-first up the extremely narrow tube towards the forward docking port. She turned the spinning handle, pulled the lever and pushed to open the hatch, but it only opened half way and the ocean flooded in, blinding her with stinging salt water. The nose-up angle became much more pronounced and the effort of holding herself and Val with just her arms, head still pointing towards the rear of the shuttle, was almost unbearable.

An ominous clunk followed by a hiss heralded a leak, spraying a small but high pressure fountain of water through a joint in the docking tube, followed rapidly by two even larger trickles and then a flood from the partly open docking hatch. The cabin filled up in seconds, leaving Tina barely enough time to gulp in air before she was submerged and the shuttle itself began sinking even lower in the water.

The water initially helped as it made them both float, but Val's spacesuit quickly filled up and began sinking to the rear of the cabin. The nose was now almost vertical but the air trapped in the cockpit was just enough to keep it floating on the surface.

Tina faced a terrible choice: with the pressure equalised, the docking hatch should now open and let them out, but the effort to drag Val's flooded suit was almost certainly too much for her to manage with one breath; but if she let go and went up to breathe, she would have to then swim down and carry Val back up from the very back of the cabin, adding even more effort. She could already feel her lungs burning even worse than her arms and knew it would only get worse.

She hauled on the tether and dragged Val's limp body up towards her, muscles screaming in protest. Her feet went into the tube towards the hatch and kicked it to open it further, but she couldn't see if it had worked. Her arms worked in a rhythm- pull with one hand, grab the tether with the other, pull with that hand, grab the tether again- until Val's head came into view.

Another problem presented itself: the tube was only just big enough to fit through with arms and legs tucked in tightly and a bit of wriggling; Val could do neither. Tina managed to get almost entirely outside the hatch and plant her feet against the sides of the port for extra leverage, pulling on the tether in the desperate hope that Val would slip through. She needed air, just a tiny little gulp would do- NO!

Too late she realised that she had just tried to breathe water, but now her lungs were full of it and instinctively her body gasped, trying to expel it and get air instead but finding only more water. She couldn't stop it and began gasping uncontrollably, feet slipping off the side of the shuttle and arms losing their grip on the tether. No no no...

Her body wasn't responding to inputs, arms and legs going dead, vision darkening at the edges until only a bright spot remained directly ahead of her. Please, no...

She felt like she was floating up towards it, tried to resist but couldn't, the brightness was getting closer and bigger and she saw an image of her parents and little Sasha all smiling at her and felt an incredible sense of peace as the brightness engulfed her and she floated away...

Chapter 13

Edited by jimmymcgoochie
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