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Warp Speed: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Monday, June 21, 2004 02:15 EDT



    Two sleep cycles later I was on the line with Jim doing my preflight fire-up sequences. Zephram, the warp flight demonstrator, was itching to be put together and fired off - or at least I was ready for it to be put together and fired off. The computer bus for the three ECCs was placed on standby mode. The star trackers and the attitude control system (ACS) was brought online and the onboard command and data handling or C&DH was powered up.

    “Jim does the plumbing check for the ACS thrusters?”

    “Roger that, Anson. Lox and Hydrazine tankage is nominal. My numbers show the same as yours.”

    “Okay, I’m going to run the sequence to bring the data stream off the hardwire direct connection with the Shuttle to the temporary wireless UHF link.”

    “Have you cut the circuit breakers to the probe main communications bus? We don’t want to fry the TWeeTA system.” Jim reminded me.

    “Roger, Jim. Per the checklist the TWeeTa bus circuit breakers are open. Here we go. I’m cutting the hardline.” I waited to see if data still flowed through my laptop from the wireless digital UHF modem connection. “Jim, I read a strong radio signal with eight-seven percent signal quality. Copy?”

    “Roger, Anson. My numbers concur. It looks like we’re done until you go out there and start snapping some parts together.”

    “Yeah. Jim, I’ll start suiting up and will be back online in about fifty-six minutes or so. Anson out.”

    I made my way through the forward cabin to the flight deck. The air in the Shuttle was a little thinner today since an EVA was planned. I was trying to acclimate myself to it again. It was easier this time than before the EVA at the ISS. On the way to the forward section of the flight deck I bumped, and I mean that literally, into Tracy and Malcom Edmunds. They seemed busy. I’m not sure doing what. How could they have been training for a Shuttle mission while stationed on ISS for the past two or three months?

    “What’re you guys doing?” I asked.

    “Malcom and I are working on the video equipment. We thought we would help document your EVA.” Tracy smiled then turned back to her work.

    “Have you guys seen the boss?”

    “She’s up front,” Malcom responded.

    Tabitha was reading some flight data from a monitor and marking checks on a pad. I watched her for a second before I considered interrupting. I had a lot on my mind. An EVA, the first ever warp drive, and the woman I love - quite a bit to process while navigating close quarters in microgravity.

    “Just a sec, Anson,” she said without looking up. How she knew it was me I will never know. I didn’t even get to interrupt her. She finished flipping a switch or two and checking boxes on her pad. She stuck the pad to a Velcro patch on the side of her seat and turned to me, “Ready to go outside?” She had a big girly grin and looked less business-as-usual.

    “That’s what I was coming to tell you. We have about forty minutes of sucking pure O2 to do,” I said.

    “Yeah, don’t want to get the bends.”

    “But before we get to that…” I looked around and made sure we were alone. “Can we talk for a second?” I asked. I felt in my pocket to make sure the reason for this conversation was still there.

    “Sure, what’s on your mind? We’re about eight and half minutes ahead of schedule. We’ve got time to burn.” She looked at her wristwatch.

    I floated up close to her. “Well, uh. You see, uh. It is like this-”

    “Spit it out, Anson. We only have a few minutes.” Colonel Ames said.

    “Boy! You can sure spoil a mood. Anyway, I was just thinking that we have been seeing a lot of each other over the last couple of years and all. And that I have really enjoyed it.” She seemed to soften slightly.

    “I have also,” is all Tabitha said.

    “Uh, I mean, I like your daughter a lot. And your parents,” I stalled.

    “They like you too,” she added.

    “Well…” I began again, “Uh…” Major Donald stuck his head through the hatch into the flight deck.

    “You guys ready for your EVA? You ought to be on oxygen by now.” Tabitha snapped to attention as if she had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. I had to wait. The time would come. Maybe later. Maybe later! Damnit-all-to-hell!

    “Yeah Ray. Take over the checklists here. Anson and I are going to suit up.” We left for the aft section of the Shuttle.

    “So, what were you saying Anson?” She asked.

    “Never mind. I’ll tell you later. Besides, we have stuff to do.”



    Twenty minutes later we were in our Liquid Cooling-and-Ventilation Garments (LCVG) and had been on the oxygen masks for a while. The LCVGs are basically just white Spandex long johns with tubing running throughout them. Water flows through the tubes to keep the body cool. The water is handled by the Primary Life-Support System or PLSS. The PLSS pumps the coolant around the body and also accomplishes any air handling. The PLSS can handle up to a million joules of heat per hour. You have to be working really hard to generate that kind of heat. As an example, I like to tell students that if a postage stamp is burned only about 200 joules of heat is released. So, the PLSS is fairly robust. The major portion of the PLSS is housed in the backpack unit and interfaces to the LCVG through ductwork and ventilation tubes in the suit. Tabitha and I helped each other with the various parts of our suits.

    The Hard Upper Torso (HUT) and the Space Suit Assembly portions of the suits were snapped in place and we began running diagnostics. Finally, we managed to completely suit ourselves into the Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs). I still prefer to call them spacesuits or environment suits. But when in Rome!

    We did our final checklists for the EMU communications systems and then made our way into the airlock. The airlock of the Shuttle is just big enough for two fully suited astronauts to fit inside. The two D-shaped doors were closed and the pressure hatches were ready to be cycled. Tabitha and I did one last visual check of our suits. This being my second EVA, it was all old hat to me. The hatch for the outer exit has six interconnected latches with a gearbox and an actuator system. I looked through the polycarbonate plastic window in the hatch as Tabitha checked the actuators and then the pressure gauges on each side of the two pressure-equalization valves. Both the inner and outer hatches were sealed.

    “Okay, Ray, I’m going to cycle the pressure.” Tabitha announced.

    Depressurization of the airlock started. I could hear a slight hissing at first and then nothing. I checked my suit pressure one last time. Everything was A-okay at about four pounds per square inch.

    “The pressure gauge shows zero. I’m going to open the hatch.” Tabitha called out each step by the book. She grabbed the latch mechanism and the dual pressure seals let loose without a sound. I didn’t even feel it through my EMU. I could see the payload bay through the hatchway.

    “Entering the payload bay.”

    “Roger that,” someone from Houston responded.

    “Houston, this is Clemons. I am following the Colonel into the bay.”

    “Go for EVA, Anson! HOSC online here!” Jim had just come back online down in Huntsville. The warp probe components, soon to be call sign Zephram, was more than ready out in the payload bay.

    Several minutes of preparation and disconnecting and connecting things followed next. Rayford piloted the Remote Manipulator Arm from inside the Shuttle so that the end of the Arm seemed to hover ever present above - or was that below? - us. Final disconnect process had been checked through for the cylindrical warp field system and for one of the ECCs.

    “Houston, we’re ready to detach the containment system for the probe and ECC number one.” Tabitha started to work with her powered ratchet and removed a set of bolts. Once, just for fun, I held the ratchet on a bolt and turned it on while my feet weren’t planted to anything. I slowly began to spin about the bolt axis in a clockwise fashion. Tabitha wasn’t amused.

    “Quit clowning around Anson!”

    “Hey, I paid for this ride. I’m going to get some fun out of it!” I joked.

    She still wasn’t amused. Getting back to business I tethered both of us to the ECC as Rayford powered the Remote Manipulator Arm over to us. I worried with catching the Arm and attaching it to the ECC while Tabitha danced around like a busy bee in prime honey season connecting this, undoing that, and fiddling with the other thing.

    “That’s good there Ray. Houston, I have the Remote Manipulator Arm Platform connected and Tabitha and I are go for an egress from the payload bay.” I waited for a reply from Tabitha, Rayford, Houston and Huntsville, in any order.

    “Roger that, Anson.” Rayford said.

    “Houston here. Go for ECC egress,” Houston confirmed.

    “Hunstville here. Roger that. Go for ECC egress,” Jim replied.

    “Tabitha, are all the ECC egress connectors locked?” Jim’s voice came over the UHF.

    “Roger that. Connector cables linked and we are go.”

    Both of us were extremely busy. I really would’ve liked to have been able to stop and take in the incredible view, but we had to make sure that each of the three ECCs went through the same egress process and then were connected, via special thin-walled telescopic titanium connector tubes about ten centimeters in diameter each and ultra-strong polymer support cables about five millimeters in diameter each, before letting them float out into space away from the shuttle. Also, the main fuselage and spacecraft bus housing, the central cylinder, would then have to be guided by the Arm, Tabitha on one side, and me on the other making minor course corrections. We had to thread the central cylinder through the three ECCs like a needle and thread. Once the ECCs were in place, they looked like large ice cubes supported by toothpicks. The toothpicks were in turn stuck into a large cylinder (an analogously scaled object would be a toilet paper roll) about its circumference at one hundred twenty degree intervals. They were also closer to one end of the cylinder than the other.

    Being an astronaut nowadays is more like construction work than the glory of flying high-tech spacecraft. Tabitha and I had been turning bolts and making electrical connections for the better part of three hours. It was time for a scheduled break.

    Tethered to the probe, Tabitha and I watched as the Arm disconnected from us and folded back toward the payload bay. An incomplete Zephram, Tabitha, and myself simply floated there above the shuttle, Newton’s Laws still being in effect.

    “Rayford, you drive that thing like a pro,” I teased as he locked onto the final component of the probe, the ACS Fuel Supply and Science Instrument Suite Sphere. Tabitha and I watched and panted trying to catch our breath in the thin atmosphere of our EVA suits. Rayford manipulated the Arm right into the sweet spot of the universal connector on the probe component. The tank grabbed back at the arm and was connected. The internal circuitry kicked in and blew the circuit breakers for the other connectors around the tank. In a matter of seconds the tank was free from the Shuttle other than at the connection with the Arm.

    About fifteen minutes had passed and Tabitha and I had caught as much of our breath as you can at about a third of atmospheric pressure. Although the PLSS pumps an oxygen rich environment into the suit, it’s still like snow skiing, wrestling a bear, running a marathon, and attacking Mount Everest all at the same time. EVA astronauts had better be in shape. All that cardio kickboxing had paid off for me. All the extracurricular activities with Tabitha didn’t hurt either.

    “Until you’ve done it, you can’t imagine it.” Tabitha had told me that a thousand times about astronaut stuff. It turns out that she was right about this one. Actually, she was right about it all, but I didn’t tell her that. She’s cocky enough as it is.

    I connected a cable to the major portion of Zephram and then thrusted my way over to the upcoming final component. The Arm had halted about two meters from us. I slowed my descent to the Tank and lightly touched down on it. I had lined up on the hook perfectly. I grabbed the handhold with one hand and snapped the carabineer on the hook with the other. This was a lot easier than working in the neutral buoyancy tank in Houston - you can move quicker. Some astronauts had told me that the difference would be hard to get used to. I couldn’t understand why. It seemed more natural to me not to have the resistance from the water.

    “Probe tank is secure. Release the Arm.” I said over the UHF.

    “That was good work, Doc!” Jim said over the comm.

    “Thanks, Jim. Preparing cable engage and final component attach!” The motor on the other end of the cable started spinning. Tabitha ran the motor as she pulled the two parts of the spacecraft together, slowly pulling us together.

    As Tabitha and I slowly maneuvered the two spacecraft parts together, the Shuttle began slowly pulling away from us. Neither of us were concerned since this was part of yet another NASA scheduled event. As we began connecting the components of the probe, we would need to power them up. The immense electromagnetic fields created by the probe would wreak havoc on the Shuttle’s systems so it had to be backed off to at least a hundred or so meters from the probe. Once Zephram was completely constructed and brought online, Tabitha and I would use our SAFER MMUs (Simplified Aid for Extravehicular activity Rescue Manned Maneuvering Units) to fly back to a safe distance where the Shuttle could catch us. No problem!

    I could see the Shuttle in my peripheral vision (what little of it you have in a spacesuit) drifting farther and farther away.

    “Hey, that’s my ride home,” I joked.

    “Well, you guys finish all your chores and then we’ll think about giving you a lift.” Rayford announced. At least he had a sense of humor.

    I guided the Tank the last couple of feet with my SAFER MMU. The two components came together with a clank that I could feel through my suit. Tabitha quickly snapped some of the connection clamps that were closest to her. I began feeling around the tank, doing the same.

    “This is Huntsville. We read that all components of the probe are connected,” Jim reported.

    Tabitha and I completed closing the clamps around the circumference of the connection between the cylinder and the tank. We finished face-to-face with each other. She raised her visor and winked at me.

    “It’s your show.” She said quietly over the UHF.

    “Roger that Jim!” I said into the mic. “Call sign Zephram is complete. We just need to give a few bolts up here a couple extra turns and then kickstart it off.” I raised my visor and winked back at Tabitha. I could tell Jim was excited from the sound of his voice. I was equally thrilled. What am I saying? I was tickled shitless! If you’re from the South, tickled shitless is about as good as it gets.

    “Can’t wait down here Ans-” the communication blacked out.

    I could see a bright light glare off Tabitha’s visor and she winced as in reflex and tried to turn her head. Instinctively, I tried to turn and look over my shoulder. Then I realized that I was wearing a spacesuit and that isn’t a move you can do very easily in a spacesuit. I started to request that Jim copy me on the last transmission, but instead Tabitha snapped her cable onto my belt and hit her thrusters full reverse pulling me with her.

    “What are you doing?!”

    “Move, Anson!” she said as she dragged me with her. She said move so I hit my forward thrusters to go with her. Just after I kicked my thrusters toward her, Tabitha reversed thrusters and I flew into her, hard! We were now chest-to-chest. Our facemasks smacked together with a THWACK! I hugged her whether I meant to or not. Knowing that Tabitha knew what she was doing, whatever it was, I killed my thrusters, hoping not to counteract something she did. I also kept my mouth shut and just hung on for dear life hoping that she wouldn’t kill us. She fired her thrusters again. This time we moved toward the probe. The probe was only a half a meter away and it didn’t take long for her to sandwich me between her and one of the ECCs. Tabitha locked a safety cable onto the ECC and grabbed a handhold. I figured what’s good for the goose is good for the gander and started to follow suit. In order to lock onto the ECC I would need to fire my thrusters and turn around. Tabitha realized what I was doing and bearhugged me sandwiching me again.

    “Don’t move!” she cried.

    “What the hell is going on?” I had to know! How could I help if I had no idea what was going on?

    “The Shuttle exploded!” she screamed.

    “What!?” I wasn’t sure that I heard her right. Ignorance is bliss, I have always heard. It would’ve been nice in this case had I remained ignorant.

    “Hold on!” Then Zephram started vibrating and I could feel through my suit millions of small impacts dinging into it. I just prayed that nothing came through the ECC and into my suit from behind! A large section of one of the payload bay doors flew by us about fifty meters to my left - Tabitha’s right. There were like pieces passing below, above, and to the other side as well. A hard thud hit the warp spacecraft somewhere. I could feel it. Zephram was given a slight rotation by the impact of whatever it was that caused the thud.

    Tabitha and I held on for the ride of a lifetime. I don’t know about her, but I was scared to death. Earth rolled by underneath us. Then it was gone and then back again. We were spinning pretty fast. I prayed that no debris hit while we were facing the direction of the explosion. A cloud of tiny shiny debris zipped past us and made our rotation worse and more unstable. Then we were inside the blast wave and it was over - I thought. Whatever hit the probe must have hit the propellant or oxidizer tanks enough to cause a rupture, which let go just then. All at once the pressure vessel gave way spewing pressurized gas out of the tank. This increased the rotation of the probe we were holding onto an all-out random three-dimensional uncontrolled spin. The centrifugal force slung us away from the probe too fast for me to hold on. Fortunately, Tabitha had the foresight to snap a carabineer and a cable onto her handhold. But, the force was too great for her to keep her hold while the fuel was still spewing and accelerating the spin.

    “Hang on, Anson!”

    “Hang on to what?” I cried, not knowing if I should try to keep holding her, hold the cable, or try to grab at the vacuum. None of which seemed to help.

    “Just keep breathing as normal as you can!”

    My handhold on her slipped and I was flung away from her. The meter-long tether connecting us jerked taught. It felt like it cut me in half. The tether hung on my left leg somehow and caused me to be slung outward headfirst. I tried to unhook it, but the g-forces were too much for me to overcome. My head was on the outer end of the centrifugal force - my head felt like it would explode.

    “My head is going to pop!” I couldn’t stand the build up of pressure in my head much longer. The gees were approaching my limit.

    “You can take it, Anson! Just hold on. The tanks will empty soon.”

    “They better! I’m starting to tunnel out.” All I could see was a small white circle way off in front of me. Everything else was tunneling in around me. I tried to blink my eyes, shake my head, anything. Nothing helped.

    Finally, the angular acceleration stopped. The rotation didn’t. I was getting very dizzy and very nauseated. Tabitha fired her thrusters until she slammed into the ECC. She grabbed the handhold tight. This pulled me upright and into her back. I was still fairly useless, nearly unconscious. Tabitha expelled all of her thruster fuel over the next few minutes trying to stop the spin of the probe. She succeeded only in slowing the induced spin to a tolerable rotation. I was able to upright myself with her. I grabbed a handhold very tightly and panted near hyperventilation.

    “Anson! Anson, look at me! Focus on your breathing. You have to slow down your breathing!” she ordered me over the UHF.

    I closed my eyes and tried to relax and breath normally.

    “Focus!” she yelled.

    “Okay,” I puffed. “I…am…okay.” Just talking was tough. For a while I thought I was seeing red, but that faded within a few moments.

    Earth rolled by underneath us about every ten seconds or so. That was still considerable rotation, or so I thought.

    “Anson. My thrusters are out. You have to stop the probe’s rotation or at least slow it some more.” I was too confused and disoriented to ask questions right away. I followed orders and fired my thrusters a few times. That stopped the probe’s spin the rest of the way. We were now facing Earth constantly.

    “What happened?” I asked her.

    “Don’t know. How much air do you have?”

    I checked my Display and Controls Module (DCM). I ran through a few diagnostics on my suit. Tabitha was doing the same.

    “I have three hours fifty seven minutes. How about you?”

    “Same,” she said.

    “What do we do? We’re in space with no way to get home!”

    “I ain’t sure. First I think we should try communicating with someone. Although they’ll be out of range.” She was right. We both tried and failed to hail anybody. The UHF circuits on the suits only reach about ten kilometers or so. The Shuttle which relayed our signal to ground stations, was gone. Earth was about three hundred kilometers below us and the ISS was about twelve thousand kilometers on the other side of the Earth.

    “We’re so screwed. Oh man, we are so screwed!”

    “Anson, don’t ever say that again! you hear me?” she scolded. “Think! There’s a way out of this. We just have to find it.”

    “You’re right. I hope.” I was still trying to shake off the massive headache and the feeling of having been on that nasty roller coaster from a few minutes before.

    “I don’t hope. I know. That is the only way to see it in your mind. You know we will make it. Got it!?” That last was more of an order than a question so I didn’t answer.

    I could imagine Bob’s face while he was yelling at ‘Becca, “Never give up!” That look of determination on his face was the same that I was seeing on Tabitha now. I realized that by God they were right! I wasn’t giving up no matter how bad things got. Ever! I looked at Tabitha and realized that I knew we were going to make it somehow. I had a whole new fire burning in me. There was a way home. I just had to find it.

    Now you might think, what about those pour folks on the Shuttle that just got destroyed? Where’s the compassion for them? Weren’t they your friends? I remember a decade or so ago how I felt horrible and cried while watching all those folks die when the World Trade Centers were destroyed and I didn’t even know any of them. Well that was different – I wasn’t about to die myself then. At this point my main concern was survival – not compassion, anger, remorse, or any other emotion. Tabitha and I had all the time in the world to cry later - if we survived. My guess is that this is how soldiers must feel when they see their buddy beside them get blown away. They must know that they have to complete their mission are die too. Then, later when they are safe, they cry. Tabitha is a soldier – I was certain that she was operating in pure survival mode. So, that was the only way that I could think – that I would think – until this was over and we were safe at home drinking a beer. Then I would cry for hours or days.

    I touched the ring I’d tucked in my EMU in anticipation of popping the question during the EVA. “Tabitha, will you marry me?” I asked her.


    “Marry me! I said. “Marry me, Neil Anson Clemons.”

    “You are asking me now? We don’t have time for this.” She was frantic and looking furious.

    “Tabitha,” I began calmly and slowly. “I know that we’re going to make it. And I want you to spend the rest of your life with me and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. If we don’t make it, and we will, I would rather make it with my fiancé than my commander. Marry me!” I pleaded.

    Tabitha took a long pause and a deep breath, if you can do that in an EMU. Then she nodded.

    “Are you sure you aren’t just asking me this because you’re hysterical?”

    “No! I was going to ask you earlier. I just never got the time. I have a ring right here in my pocket! I haven’t let it out of my sight since we launched.”

    “Are you serious?” she asked.

    “Hell, yes, I’m serious!” I was hurt a little.

    “I will,” she said quietly.

    “Yes! I wish I could kiss you.” I laughed. I’m not sure if I was hysterical, but I probably appeared to be.

    After a few moments of silence, we set to work thinking about a plan to get us home. Communicating with those bright boys dirtside at NASA was our first priority.

    We spent the next thirty minutes reconfiguring the datalink system for the probe to accept the UHF signals from the EMUs and then relay them over the digital data dump back to the HOSC in Huntsville. Had Al Rayburn and I not redesigned the spacecraft bus as a graphical interface this wouldn’t have been possible. Any off-the-shelf spacecraft bus would’ve required actual rewiring that couldn’t be done in an EMU. The dexterity in the gloves just wouldn’t allow that. However, Al and I had the idea of making the entire spacecraft modular. Each wire connects to the generic connection point on the spacecraft bus. Then that connection can be allocated by the central computer system and some solid-state and mechanical relays. All the wires are the same but each has a different job as assigned by the computer. Al and I had taken the commercial bus we bought and spent a good deal of effort reverse engineering and reengineering it.

    Tabitha and I finally reconfigured the data comm system to accept our UHF signal as data in. Then we retransmitted that signal through the Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier or “TWeeTa” system. The TWeeTa was designed to handle more data than had ever been attempted with a spacecraft. The warp field data would be vast when operational. Standard communications systems just wouldn’t have been able to handle the data rates needed. So, Al, Jim, ‘Becca, and I spent a good bit of time and money designing a newer more updated system. This communications system works a lot more like the Internet than a radio. That amount of data required a lot of power amplification. A TWeeTA is the only way to go about that. Tabitha and I used this to our advantage. Since the communications dish hadn’t been deployed yet, we planned to use the omnidirectional antenna. We pumped plenty of power through the dipole so that the relay satellites could receive it with no problem.

    But there was a problem: the datalink was just that, a datalink. Nobody would be expecting a voice signal over it. Jim would have to realize that the data he was receiving was a frequency modulated signal then decode it to an audio circuit. Who knew how long that would take? The plus side is that with the Shuttle now destroyed, the folks dirtside wouldn’t expect anybody to turn on the warp probe, either. The fact that it came on should surprise them, if they were watching their consoles properly. Also, while in orbit the probe was designed to communicate directly with the HOSC through the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System or TDRSS (pronounced “tea-dress”), network. And we were in line-of-site with one of those constantly. This meant that as soon as we turned on the transmitter, the HOSC would be receiving the data. We weren’t worried about choking the bus of the relay satellites because an audio data file doesn’t require much bandwidth.

    “HOSC operations come in please. Is anybody there?” I began repeating.

    Tabitha followed. “Come in Jim. Are you there?”

    We kept talking so a constant audio file would be sent through Zephram, over TDRSS, to the HOSC, and hopefully to Jim.

    “Tabitha I’m going to survey the probe while we wait. There might be something on it we could use. Use for what I don’t know.”

    I powered up the forward thrusters and moved slowly around the spacecraft. Where the large thud had taken place was on the ACS Fuel Tankage and Science Instrument section. We wouldn’t be measuring the electromagnetic field strength and the gravimetric effects of the warp field today. We sure wouldn’t be firing the attitude control thrusters either. The rest of the probe looked okay. I made my way back to the GUI panel and did a system diagnostic using its graphical user interface. The probe checked out, although the warp field coils hadn’t been completely connected and the ECCs hadn’t been brought online yet.

    “HOSC, do you copy?” Tabitha repeated.

    “Come on, Jim, where are you?” I looked at Tabitha’s DCM.

    “Give me the bad news, Anson.”

    “We still have about three hours of air left. That is plenty of time.” I assured her. Plenty of time for what neither of us would admit. It takes days at best, usually weeks, to get a Shuttle ready for launch and about the same time for a Russian rocket. It takes even longer for a Chinese rocket. We discussed the possibility of the Crew Return Vehicle on the ISS.

    “HOSC, are you there?” I said. “The CRV could never get to us in time. At full thrust I don’t think it could make it to us in three hours.”

    “Maybe, Anson. Don’t give up.”

    “Who’s giving up? Jim, are you there?” I turned to her and approached. I hugged her suit as best I could and touched my faceplate to hers.

    “I love you Tabitha.”

    “Well, you may not live to regret that.” She smiled.

    Twenty or so minutes had passed and still no response from the HOSC. We were beginning to think nobody would find the signal.

    “Jim, are you there? Huntsville, is anybody there. This is Anson Clemons - come in, Earth!” I was ready to try something else.

    “Roger that, Dr. Clemons. This is Mission Control being patched through the HOSC. Is Colonel Ames with you? And what has happened?” It wasn’t Jim’s voice, but we didn’t care. Tabitha took command.

    “Mission Control, this is Shuttle Commander Tabitha Ames. The Shuttle Orbiter has been completely destroyed by some type of internal explosion. I repeat. The Shuttle Orbiter has been completely destroyed. The cause is unknown. Dr. Anson Clemons and I are the only survivors. We each have,” she looked at her DCM readout, “roughly two hours and thirty-nine minutes of air left. Please advise on possible rescue scenario. The probe ACS thrusters are off-line and out of fuel and O2.”

    “Roger that, Commander. Understand that we are working on escape possibilities. We will advise you momentarily,” Control replied.

    “Roger, Houston.”

    The response came five minutes later – it seemed like forever.

    “Colonel Ames, Tabitha, uh, we haven’t got a working scenario that will save both of you. If you two have any suggestions, we’re open for it down here.” Hal Thompson was talking now. He was the boss down at Mission Control. I had met him a few times. He was shooting straight with us.

    “Houston, this is Clemons. What do you mean by you can’t save us both?” I had an idea what he meant, but I had to hear it.

    “We don’t have another Shuttle anywhere near ready for launch. We have called the Russians and the Chinese. The Chinese have one on the launch pad but they won’t be ready for launch for at least another seven hours or so. The Crew Return Vehicle is your only hope. It’s already enroute to your location. The Hohmann Transfer required will take about four hours to reach you and another couple of minutes to match velocities with you. That’s all we have right now. Sorry.” Hal truly sounded sorry. I knew he was right. I had been running rough order of magnitude calculations in my head. One of us would have to survive long enough for the CRV to make it to us. Only one of us could with the combination of air from both suits – it would be Tabitha. At least she would make it. I told her it had to be her.

    “No way! Anson, there’s a better solution.” Tabitha cried.

    “Tabitha. It is the only way. You have a daughter back home. There’s no choice to be made here.” Heinlein always said (through his character Lazarus Long) that he wasn’t afraid of death and that he knew it was part of the deal. I can’t say that I’m that philosophical about it. Maybe I’m just not the superman he was. Death scares the living hell out of me. But I had to make sure Tabitha made it home alive. If I didn’t do that, what kind of husband would I be?

    “Stuff that, Anson. No way, period. End of that. You’re the smart one - figure it out!”

    “Houston, how long until I have to stop using my oxygen in order to give Tabitha time to wait for the CRV plus a few minutes of extra air?”

    “Just a second on that, Anson,” Hal replied solemnly.

    “We’ll see how long we have to work other solutions.” I told Tabitha.

    “Guys, this is Hal. Flight Surgeon says that one of you would have to stop breathing in sixty-one minutes for the other to make it long enough for the CRV to get there.”

    “Okay, Hal. We have an hour to work this out. Get Jim at the HOSC on the circuit now. He might can help.”

    “Roger, Anson. It’s already done.” Hal replied.

    “Jim, here, buddy. I heard it all so far. This bites. What do you need from me?” Jim asked.

    “I don’t know yet Jim. I do have one question for you though.”

    “Yeah, what is it?”

    “Will you be my best man at my wedding? Tabitha said yes!”

    “You got it Anson! Congratulations. Let’s get you home first.” Jim said.

    No brilliant ideas hit any of us. The one idea I had was to use the large electromagnets in the warp coil to generate a magnetic sail from the material in the upper atmosphere at LEO. The sail would then surf along the Earth’s magnetic field. The idea would be to set up a mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion (M2P2) system. The probe was far too massive and the coils would have to be reconfigured. Another task that couldn’t be accomplished from an EMU. I decided then that if I survived this I was going to invent a better damn spacesuit or better yet some sort of magical warp bubble that would wrap around you like Spandex. But, first things first!

    “There is no way to adjust the coils to set up the magnetic sail at all? We can’t get any thrust that way?” I asked Jim after we’d been through the math a few times. I looked at my DCM. I only had about ten minutes left before the big decision. Tabitha remained quiet most of the time.

    “Sorry, Anson. I don’t see how you could get in there and redirect the field. Zephram was designed to warp space not build plasma balls. Too bad you can’t just warp to the station. Damnit! What are we going to do?”

    “What did you say!?”

    “I said too bad-” Jim began again.

    “Skip it, Jim. I know what you said. That’s the answer. We’ll warp home!” I cried over the UHF. It could work! I would save Tabitha and myself!

    “Anson, you know as well as I do that you can’t warp around the Earth. The rotation causes to much frame dragging for you to know where you would end up. You can’t warp around the Earth to the ISS or the CRV. Our calculations just aren’t sophisticated enough for that.” Jim concluded sadly.

    “Jim, who said anything about the ISS. I said home. Earth!”

    “What?” Jim exclaimed.

    “The warp can be radially outward from the Earth so why can’t it be radially inward to the Earth? We just never thought of that. Start running the numbers. Tabitha and I will start preflight on the probe.”

    “Anson, are you serious? This could be risky. You might miscalculate and come out of warp too high or too low and smack!”

    “Jim don’t forget that the warp position errors will be along the Earth’s surface due to its rotation; the frame dragging problem will cause angular errors in our calculations by maybe as much as a kilometer or two. The radial position errors should only be a few meters or so. Theoretically at least,” I responded.

    I adjusted my visor and looked at Tabitha. “Tabitha, I can’t make this decision by myself. You can still make it to the CRV. My way is very risky. We could come out of warp too high above the ground and fall to our deaths are we could warp into the ground and who knows what that would cause?”

    “Then why not warp out over the ocean?” Jim interrupted.

    “Warping out over the ocean would have pretty much the same effect. Falling more than fifty feet into the ocean might not kill us, but we have no flotation gear so we will sink right to the bottom in these SAFER MMUs attached and the spacesuits at such a low inflation pressure we would be boat anchors. Also, if we ended up too deep we would be crushed by the pressure or just plain drown. Don’t forget, we’re out of air and these suits are heavy; the boat anchor thing is still the main problem! This spacecraft was only designed to fly in space so there aren’t any flotation devices, landing gears, lifelines, or you name it; we’re just going to have to do a controlled fall close enough to the ground. And one more thing, I would much rather try to walk home with a broken leg or something similar than swim home with one. Face it, anyway you look at it we’re screwed, but it is the only way I can think of to get us both home. Tabitha, what do you think?”

    Tabitha pulled her visor up and looked me deep in the eyes. She didn’t take her eyes off me as she spoke. “Jim this is Tabitha. Not only that, I’m not sure the Navy could deploy to rescue us in time, we can’t wait here without air and we can’t wait in the water in these suits and no air to inflate them, Anson’s right we’ll sink! I agree with Anson, I had rather take my chance walking home than swimming home. Get to work on those numbers Anson asked for. Houston you might as well call back the CRV. We won’t be here when it arrives.” Tabitha looked at me and said, “What the hell. Lets get this preflight started. You aren’t getting out of marrying me that easy.”

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