Going to space - prompt for the Science Fiction Short Story Contest
|"We could still send someone else. NASA has a dozen candidates who would die for the chance to go."
Jake shook his head. "I'm doing this. I have the training, and I'll get it done right."
Oran Zibeck was one of the wealthiest men on the planet and not known for indecision. It was publicly said that he didn't understand the meaning of the word "no." But Jake was his son. "I do trust you, but this is dangerous, and the president is still demanding that we keep the public in the dark."
Jake shook his head. "That's why it's important I go. Why would you pay to send Simone Harris on a joyride by the asteroid belt? If I go, no one will ask why - they'll be sure they already know."
Oran winced. "And they'll hate you. The populists are getting louder."
Jake grinned. "Worried about the PR? My shoulders are broad - I can take it."
The father threw his arms up, though pride shown in his eyes. "Have it your way! I never could win with you."
Oran Zibeck stood with his hands behind his back, sparing a glance for the cheering crowd below. The celebrations were loud, audible even over the fading roar of the rocket engines. The manned Mars missions had been postponed time and again, and so this would be the first time a human being left Earth's sphere of influence and entered a proper solar orbit. For the men and women down below, this was the resumption of a march to the stars that had stalled out after America and China has proved once again that they could visit the moon - and then found little benefit in returning. Earthly concerns and domestic debts had turned attention from space - but Oran's company had built the rocket that made today possible. And not everyone was happy about that.
The mission control room was filled with screens, some showing the status of the second-stage engines (still nominal) following Main Engine Cutoff. But others were turned to the current feed from the popular news channels. On the left, the talking head of Jamele Mathews was superimposed over the image of another large crowd, this one in protest of the launch. A red sign was emblazoned with the words, "No Billionaires, No Poverty." At least a half dozen white signs featured rather phallic looking rockets with red X's upon them. Mathews was famous for speaking (with no little eloquence) of the social injustice that the investment in space flight represented. The man could give a Masterclass on PR. Unfortuntely, his skill was currently directed against one Oran Zibeck and everything he had labored to build. As much as he might want to ignore popular sentiment (and Mathews was wildly popular), Zibeck knew the power of public opinion to make or break space flight. In fact -
Oran's thoughts were cut off by a bright flash of light from the primary monitor, followed by a sudden hush from the crowd below. Something had gone drastically wrong. Oran swiveled instantly to the operations executive on his right, "Katie - I need an update."
"One second, sir," Katie replied absently as her fingers flew over the keyboard. "Capsule's still ok, so Jake's alive. I don't know much more than that."
She scanned readout after readout, brow furrowed as she listened to the chatter from her headphones, occasionally blurting out a question or an order to some member or other of the ground team. Suddenly, she inhaled sharply, then raised her eyes to the impatiently waiting Zibeck. "There was a small external explosion followed by a leaking in the oxygen tank - you'll remember we went with a hyperbolic solution for the secondary stage, to better fit with the refueling station at Gateway. The failsafe cut in, but whatever caused the explosion knocked out the com. Jake's flying deaf. We think he's ok, but he can't refuel. The mission - the mission's dead, sir. Even if the package is intact."
Zibeck's eyes squeezed shut for a moment. "No damage to the tertiary stage?"
Katie shook her head. "No indication of it, sir, but it's not firing at the moment. We're still looking into it."
Oran sighed. "Then don't let me keep you from it."
The silence had passed among the crowd below, replaced by a worried buzz, but the billionaire's attention was on the monitor displaying the news. There had been a hush among the protesters with news of the explosion, but someone had announced to the crowd that the pilot was still alive, and the silence was being replaced by jeers and laughter. Mathews was interviewing a young woman in the crowd with green spiked hair. "Our thoughts go out to Jake Zibeck, of course, but what do you think this moment teaches us about the hubris of billionaires?"
The young woman laughed, "I think a rocket dick just got cockblocked, that's what. Zibeck can take his blue balls home. Don't worry, won't be long till he's back to screwing his employees and all the rest of us too. All from his nice little mansion. Meanwhile, I gotta go home and eat my mom's Ramen. My heart fucking bleeds for him."
Mathews raised a hand to his ear, eyes widening. "I just got news that a group called 'Occupy SpaceX' has claimed responsibility for an explosive device designed to derail the launch. They say it worked as planned, and nobody's getting hurt. But they'll do the same to anyone else they try to send up while there's still poverty here. They've released a statement, and we'll leave the link below the feed for you to click on. What do you think of using violence to stop space launches?"
"Violence?" The young woman laughed at the absurdity of the question. "This ain't violence - nobody got hurt today. But even if somebody did, how many people die of poverty in a year? How many died of disease because the government wouldn't get vaccines out fast enough? Don't ask me about violence."
Oran stepped forward and pressed the power button on the display, watching it blink out.
"Was this sabotage, Katie?"
Katie Yang stiffened, and stood straight. "That would fit. We had to get a controller from an external supplier - that's what's regulating the coolant on the oxidizer. If somebody set it to overload, that could do it. If you wanted to wreck the engine and somehow not kill anyone, that'd be the way to go."
Oran's fist curled into a ball. "We damn well should have told them what the mission was about. There might have been panic in the streets, but at least we wouldn't have to worry about idiots taking down the rocket!"
The exec's eyes suddenly widened. "Sir, the readouts are showing the tertiary engine is online, and the rocket is course correcting. The window has changed, but not much. Jake's computer must be online, because he's hitting it dead on."
Oran rubbed his eyes, which suddenly threatened to water. "He's doing it. There's not enough fuel to get him home, but he's still doing it. That means the charge that's supposed to divert the incoming asteroid must be intact - he's going to save all of our lives. All it will cost him is his own."
Katie Yang met his eyes, her own full of sympathy. "You're right, sir. The mission is on - for Earth."