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The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself

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The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself

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Author: Ian Sales
Publisher: Whippleshield Books, 2013
Series: Apollo Quartet: Book 2
Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Hard SF
Alternate/Parallel Universe
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For fifteen years, Earth has had a scientific station on an exoplanet orbiting Gliese 876, humanity's only presence outside the Solar System. But a new and powerful telescope at L5 can detect no evidence of Phaeton Base, even though it should be able to do so. So the US has sent Colonel Bradley Elliott, USAF, to investigate. Twenty years before, Elliott was the first, and to date only, man to land on the Martian surface. What he discovered there gave the US the stars, but it might also be responsible for the disappearance of Phaeton Base...


1999. This time, when he returns home he knows she will have left him for good. Her decision weighs on him still, even as the J-2 engine ceases its muted roaring and the force pressing him into his seat abruptly vanishes. She has threatened to leave him before, many times; and she came so very close when he returned from Mars. Somehow they have stayed together. The fight four nights ago was the worst for a long time--she'd been in the right and he'd known it, which only made him argue all the more fiercely. After Mars, she had told him never again would she sit at home worried and afraid, putting on a brave face for the press, living a lie that consumed her, that consumed her from within like acid--

But he could not refuse this mission.

Someone bumps his elbow, and his attention returns to the here and now. His hands have lifted from the arms of his seat, and he can no longer feel the pull of the Earth. To his left, the mission commander, Carl J Springer, ex-USN, stares fixedly at the control panel from within the polycarbonate bowl of his helmet. In the right-hand seat, the systems engineer, Anna Gibson, has a gloved hand up to a switch beside a line of three thumb-wheels. He should know the function of the switch, but his training was rushed and it has been a long time since he last flew in space. It is only when Gibson says, Gimbals off, that he remembers the panel's purpose. He does not know this Apollo spacecraft as well as he once did; but it's not like it really matters--

Brigadier General Bradley Emerson Elliott, USAF, is the most senior officer aboard this spacecraft but he occupies the centre seat because he has the least senior role in its crew. He is the navigator.

Elliott is also a passenger on this flight. And he is going on a journey much further than his two crewmates.

Much, much further.

But, like his crewmates, he has tasks to perform. Springer and Gibson have already begun the Post-Orbit Insertion Checks on page 2-11 of the Launch Checklist--first the SPS Gimbal Motors, then a line of six switches for the abort system and emergency detection system from AUTO to OFF, disabling the various pyros on the spacecraft, making safe the systems they will not need for the rest of the flight. Elliott must do his bit, so he punches Verb 06 Noun 62 into the guidance computer DSKY to perform the first of these:

HA 100.8, Hp 96.4, RVI 25490, he tells Mission Control.

Capcom acknowledges his figures.

We got pitch up to horizontal, says Springer.

APS firing for orb rate, adds Gibson.

Houston, we are configured for orbit, Springer confirms.

The three of them work their way through the Launch Checklist, step by step, reconfiguring the spacecraft from its launch settings, readying it for its stay in orbit.

Once they have finished their tasks, Springer says, still gazing up at the control panel: Anna, you want to take your helmet and gloves off?

Cabin pressure looks good, replies Gibson; Sure.

There is a moment of silence. Gibson then adds, You the one got the helmet stowage bags, Carl.

Now that it is permitted, Elliott unlocks and removes his gloves, then reaches up to his helmet locking ring. He lifts the helmet from his head, and is briefly fazed by its lack of weight. He holds his breath a moment, and then breathes in cautiously through his nose. The cabin air is cold and stings his sinuses. He smells hot metal and plastic, the odour of electronics hard at work, some oil, cleaning fluids, and the rubber and sweat stink rising from the neck of his spacesuit.

He sits, strapped into his seat, his arms thickly padded in the many layers of the A7LB and pressing against those of his neighbours, and watches his upturned helmet float in the air before him. He looks away from its transparent curves, his eyes refocus... and the momentary fuzziness prompts a claustrophobia which seems to shrink his spacesuit until it presses uncomfortably upon every square inch of his body. He is hemmed in, confined, imprisoned. His world too is close, too close, and defined solely by what he sees: grey and grey panels, filled with switches and dials and readouts, and the great white presences of his two crewmates to either side. Over there, a small window lit with the nacreous blue of the Earth below, a blueness perverse in its unearthliness, is further proof, if the freefall isn't enough, that this is no simulation.

Elliott wants to feel excitement at being in space again, the sense of adventure he felt the first time he made orbit back in the 1970s. He wants that adrenalin high, the one that grips his heart in a vice, sharpens his vision to a knife-edge, and drains him of all emotion; and he wants to feel calm, collected, brimful of the "Right Stuff", professional, laconic, a goddamn astronaut.

He needs to feel many things, but the journey he is about to take fills him with numb dread. Such a distance, beyond imagining. And he once travelled one hundred and fifty million miles to Mars, and more back. At the time, that number seemed beyond comprehension.

But: fifteen light-years.

88,120,000,000,000 miles.


He can barely say it: eighty-eight trillion miles.

He sits, strapped into his seat, as the Apollo CSM and its S-IVB fly about the Earth, one orbit every ninety-five minutes, and he knows that soon the J-2 will relight and put them on their transfer orbit to L5 and the space station located there. And he's reminded of those final orbits before his Mars Orbit Insertion burn twenty years ago, in a spacecraft of a much earlier generation than this one--

As the CSM speeds about the Earth, Elliott wants to rubberneck and see the world below him in all its life-sustaining diversity and colour, but Springer and Gibson are busy readying the spacecraft for TOI as if they've seen the view many times before. So for three hours, Elliott remains strapped into his seat, doing his bit, and trying to maintain a professional demeanour, a gravitas in freefall, appropriate to his age and rank, until, right on schedule at MET 003:21:09, the S-IVB's J-2 relights for Transfer Orbit Insertion.

Three days of coasting at 34,223 feet per second now await them. Springer gives permission for shirtsleeves. They unstrap from their seats, and float about the narrow spaces of the Command Module, slotted between seats and control panel or seats and Lower Equipment Bay. Gibson is first to remove her spacesuit, and Elliott abruptly discovers he does not know what to do. He can't treat her like "one of the guys" and has to look away as she wriggles out of her A7LB in the LEB, strips off her LCG and pulls on her cotton constant wear coveralls.

Once she is done, it is Elliott's turn. He looks up halfway through pushing his spacesuit's legs down his hips to see Gibson grinning at him, and he reaches out a hand and spins himself about so his back is to her before he finishes undressing.

Elliott gazes out of a horizon window as behind him Springer gets into his constant wear garment and Gibson makes low-voiced jokes about privacy.
There is nothing to see outside; there is everything to see outside. The universe--creation--across which is spilled a thick splash of stars, and he thinks about unimaginable distances and the deadly vacuum of space inches from his face.

There is nowhere else he would rather be.

He has missed this--the freedom of freefall, the sense of purpose that comes from following mission checklists, the constant marvel of human engineering, the desperate desire to find a place for humanity in an implacable and indifferent universe.

Gibson's low female murmur puts him in mind of Judy, and he wishes his wife could be with him here and now, but he can't picture her--Judy always so neat and well-dressed, Judy always so carefully made-up--he can't imagine her in Gibson's place, Gibson with her boyish features fresh as air, her earthy swagger, her dark hair a mermaid's corona. And as Elliott thinks of his wife, he regrets she refuses to understand why he had to accept this mission, he is hurt she feels the only response available to her is to walk out on him; and he wishes he could feel some connection stretching from here to the home he shares--shared--with Judy... But whatever hold their house at Edwards AFB, their life together, has on him it's growing thinner and more strained with each mile he travels from the planet.

It's a kind of freedom, he thinks; a freedom from earthly concerns as distance lessens his past life's hold on him, though he will never ignore or forget her--and it occurs to him NASA named its space station well. Fourteen years it has floated alone at a Lagrangian Point, space flotsam occupying one of the Solar System's tideless nodes. Elliott has read about Space Station Freedom, the only permanent US presence in space, but only in science magazines and colour supplements. He has been out of the loop since he left the Astronaut Corps back in 1982 and, until he'd begun training for this mission, he had not missed it.

Space Station Freedom is not visible, of course; it is still hundreds of thousands of miles away, as far from the Earth as the Moon. He cannot see the Moon either--and he has never seen it from any closer than LEO. He wonders what might have happened had he one day walked on its regolith. Would he have ever set foot on the surface of Mars?

Would he be here now, just shy of sixty years old, about to go on the longest journey of his life?

1979. One hundred days after departing Earth orbit, thirty days before they reach Mars, Major Bradley Emerson Elliott, USAF, says farewell to his crewmate, Commander Robert Franklin Walker, USN. They shake hands, good solid bone-crushing grips, but superstitiously make no mention of luck or fortune. They possess total faith--in their own abilities, in the hardware, in the pencil-necks back on Earth. Neither doubts for an instant they will do this thing, both confidently anticipate a splashdown after a successful mission.

Elliott takes one last look around the hab module, his home for the past three months: its gridwork decking, its lockers and cubicles, its dumb up/down orientation as if designed for use in a gravity field; and then swims through the docking tunnel on the forward bulkhead and into the Mars Module. He's wearing his spacesuit, but without helmet and gloves. He'll put them on for the undocking, but for now he needs the dexterity of ungloved hands to perform the last few checks and programming changes to the MM. They've simulated the undocking twice before--on the day they pressurised and powered up the MM for the first time a week ago, and two days previously when they performed a full systems check of the spacecraft.

As he dives toward the floor of the MM, Elliott hears Walker close the tunnel hatch behind him. He somersaults clumsily until he is oriented as if about to fly the spacecraft. He pushes himself down until the soles of his boots touch the velcro on the floor and he sticks, but it doesn't feel secure. He stands at the commander's position and peers through the window before him. There is nothing to see: Ares 9 is hurtling towards Mars but the Red Planet is ahead of them, beneath his feet in fact, and so out of sight.

The earphones in Elliott's communications cap crackle--

Can you read me, Discovery?
Got you, Endeavour. Loud and clear.
We got a minute to go, Brad. You want to verify your hatch closed?
Wait, let me get the umbilicals... Right, closed and locked.
Okay, I'll vent the tunnel.
Give me a 06 20?
Sure... here's the angles: 35955, 10752, 36102. Got that? Um, MET is 2405:08:59. Brad, can you confirm tunnel is vented?
Let me get them down--uh, 35955, 10752, 36102. That right? And yeah, tunnel is vented, Bob.
Yep, you got 'em.
Okay, I got P47 up. I'm ready.
Ten seconds.
Roger. Going for soft undock.
Looking good.
Releasing capture latches...
What's your 06 83 say?
Nice and neat Sep.
[laughter] Just the way I like it.
That's it, I'm on my own now, Bob. See you in about two months. Starting Mars Intersection Sequence Intialisation...

There is something unreal about all this, preparing a spacecraft to land on Mars while still in interplanetary space, still thirty-five million miles from the destination. Once all the final changes have been made to the Mars Guidance Computer and the MM's PNGS, Elliott will put on his gloves and helmet, check the integrity of his spacesuit... and then he's go for hard undock. The MM, such an ungainly spacecraft, waiting impatiently in the saucer of the heatshield; it will separate from the flyby spacecraft, and Elliott will use the RCS to put the MM on an intercept course with Mars.

For now, his head is full of figures as he patiently punches VERB number NOUN number into the DSKY. He has the checklist in front of him, and he works his way through it methodically, as he has done numerous times before in simulation. And as he looks up at the control panel, and the "8-ball" FDAI centred in it, he remembers he has one task not on the checklist. Digging into the pocket on the right bicep of his spacesuit, he pulls out a folded photograph. He opens the photo and tries to press it flat on the Attitude Controller arm-rest with both hands, but all he does is rip free of the velcro and rise up toward's the MM's ceiling. Annoyed, he pushes his feet back down to the floor but his boots do not stick. He attaches the restraint cables to the D-rings at his waist, locks the ratchets, and now he is held down firmly and securely. But the photo has lifted from the arm-rest and is floating before the commander's window. He plucks it from the air, and tries again to flatten it, this time successfully. And he stands there, held in place by thirty pounds of force from the restraint cables, his thumbs and forefingers framing three sides of a creased and much-thumbed photograph. It's a picture of Judy, of course. He brought a dozen with him in his Personal Preference Kit, but this is his favourite. He has spent many hours staring at it over the past one hundred days, floating in his compartment, needing solitude, needing time away from Franklin. The photo shows her standing by the French windows of their house in Nassau Bay. The sun shines through the glass behind her, forming a golden halo about her long blond hair. She is smiling, but it is a weary smile. He can no longer remember what day he took the photo or for what reason--perhaps they were going somewhere, a neighbour's, a restaurant, he cannot recalls. Judy always dresses well, the smart dress and heels are no clue. He puts a finger to his wife's torso, and knows he will see her again. He is coming back, of that he is certain. She was angry when he was given command of Ares 9 and she stayed hurt right up to the moment he launched; but she will forgive him.

He slides a corner of the photo under an edge of one of the control panels. Judy will watch over him during the next thirty days as he flies towards Mars in this box with walls twice as thick as a soda can's. Apollo was dangerous--Apollo 13 proved that. But Lovell, Swigert and Haise got home, the pencil-necks brought them home. That was easy, that was local.

There is no hope of rescue on this mission.

Copyright © 2013 by Ian Sales


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