Friday, November 24, 2023

Four Minute Read Sample - Vigilance

In the following excerpt from the Future Chron Universe novella "Vigilance," a rocket
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jockey has been hired by a mysterious contact to place an equally mysterious black box on the Mars moon Phobos. Rex, the rocket pilot, doesn't much care who, what or why, but he does care about getting paid.


Rex Stamford had worked around the clock to supervise the hopper modification. He had enlisted the help of his network of acquaintances he had worked with on both Mars and Earth. The main change to the hopper rocket was the additional fuel tanks strapped like a belt around its main rocket. The extra fuel would allow the rocket engine to burn long enough to achieve a rendezvous with the Mars moon and then provide the needed retro-burn to bring the rocket back down.

Rex had borrowed the results and necessary calculations from public documents filed by other expeditions. He had enough fuel to duplicate the orbital elements of those other expeditions and rendezvous with Phobos at some nine-thousand four-hundred kilometers altitude. He had chosen a small ridge on the trailing side of the moon as his target for placing the relay station.

Rex had contracted for an expensive, made to fit EVA suit for himself, something he could keep afterwards. Even so, at no time did Roscians balk at paying the bills and he never even requested an explanation for an expense. Because Rex was able to pay a premium for all services the hopper rocket was ready on time.

On Mars the operation of hopper rockets was so common that not much attention was paid to them. But since Roscians wanted this operation to be kept under wraps, Rex would make several hops before taking off for orbit so as to throw off any unwanted observers. One thing that was different about this hop was that Rex would have no ground crew support, something that would have dissuaded him usually except for the payday he was receiving.

Rex made one last check of his bank account to see the unusually high balance before firing the hopper's main rocket. This first hop would be a short one of a few kilometers. Several hops later he was ready to fire the long burn that would give him the over two kilometers per second velocity he would need for rendezvous. Except for a few trips to Earth's moon, 
Rex had never been over a hundred kilometers above the surface of Mars in a rocket. But so far everything seemed to be nominal.

The navigational ANI was right on the money, Rex was mesmerized as he approached Phobos. He had seen many photos but the clarity he had from just a few kilometers above the surface was unbelievable. Soon he would take over the controls to bring the rocket down to just a few meters above the moon's surface. If all went well the station would deploy from there with only a slight impact.

Rex busied himself taking detailed pictures of the spot he thought best to deploy the station. On the slight ridge on the trailing side of the moon, the relay station would almost always be in sight of the Martian surface.

Rex brought the rocketship down. A specially fitted compartment in the body of the rocket just below the command section would open and drop the station to the surface when Rex was ready. 

He was almost in position, intently concentrating on the moon's surface when his vision blurred.

He was taken aback. He tried to clear his eyes with the back of his glove even though he was helmeted. He looked again at the moon and saw the surface blur. He realized then that it wasn't his eyes causing the blurring, it was the moon's surface! The moon was vibrating, quaking, or something. He knew that Phobos was under stress from Martian tidal gravity but this was the first time he or anyone else had seen such an effect. He turned on the visual recorder for confirmation of what he saw.

Rex knew that the station might not be able to right itself if he just dumped it out the hatch from this height. Maybe the quake would stop if he waited, or maybe it would last long enough for him to run out of air. He couldn't take the chance of waiting, he would have to go in closer and wait just long enough for the shaking to subside a bit.

Unlike a hop on Mars the small moon's almost non-existent gravity required the approach to be similar to a docking  maneuver. Rex would use the reaction control rockets to lower the spaceship to within only a meter or so above the moon's surface. At that height even if the quake continued the station should be able to land and right itself.

He jettisoned the relay station. The station hit the surface after the short drop, righted and deployed its antenna just as the ground seemed to jump upward at the hopper. Rex reacted quickly by firing the attitude rockets. He heard a scatter-shot of rock pellets bouncing off the hopper's skin. When he had achieved a sufficient angle to the moon's surface he fired the main rocket motor. The hopper jumped into motion.

Damn, thought Rex, that was close.

He ran a systems check and found one of the reaction motors to be balky but nothing else. 

He felt lucky. I can handle that, he thought. Now let's get back to Mars.

The hopper rocket had been fitted with a carbon fiber shield along the bottom half to deflect some of the reentry heat. Reentry wouldn't be severe though because there wasn't that much velocity to shed. Rex oriented the rocket and fired the main motor to slow down and drop from orbit.

The hopper rocket had slowed and was almost stationary about a kilometer above the Martian surface. Rex would set it down, get his bearings and hop his way back to his launch site near Capri. He was thinking of all he could do with the lump of money in his bank account when he heard the main rocket shutdown. The hopper started dropping. He tried to restart the engine, no luck, he tried again, no luck. He was dropping faster. 

He remembered the old stabilizing para-sail which was a safety precaution for emergencies. He deployed it but wasn't sure it would have any effect on slowing his velocity because the height above the ground wasn't optimal. The hopper continued to drop but just before it hit the surface he felt the para-sail's tug.

It was a rough landing, Rex was shaken.

When he had collected himself Rex found he was still in one piece. But the hopper rocket was split open with the cockpit exposed to the elements, luckily his suit was intact. He scrambled to extricate himself from the wreckage.

On the ground, he opened his Annie, it still worked. The first thing he did was check his bank balance.

Anyone observing the scene would have been amazed at the animated gestures coming from the space-suited man that had just crashed a hopper rocket. But there was a reason.

The bank account was empty, or nearly, Rex now knew why he had crashed.


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