Marc hefted his gear onto his back and walked through the accordion connector from the terminal to the main airlock of the single stage to orbit shuttle. It had a wide lifting body design made of black ceramic tile. Control surfaces and thruster banks extended fluidly out of main body. A giant oblong intake ran along the ventral surface, filled with rectangular airflow spikes. Marc had sailed countless times and he usually lifted in SSTOS's newer than this, but he had decided to go up at the last minute and none of the nicer ones had been available, so he had to settle for this old "Clipper" class. This one was clean and well kept, however. He waited for the lock's inner door to allow him in, the commander having apparently already switched to internal air. The door unsealed with a hiss and swung into the SSTOS's interior. The cramped flight cabin held twenty acceleration couches divided down the center by a narrow aisle.
Marc walked into the small cabin and took a seat near the front. There was only one other person in the cabin, an older guy with white hair and stocky build, seated in the lefthand seat of the cockpit. He was dressed in one of the old pumpkin suits. The bright orange pressure suit used to be standard issue attire for the Clipper SSTOS when it was the primary orbital transfer vehicle. Apparently the SSTOS wasn't the only old thing around here. Marc shook his head in dismay and grinned. Upgrade, dude! he thought.
Marc sat close to the cockpit and fastened the five point harness around himself. He looked around the empty cabin and then spoke to the back of the commander's head, "How long before the other passengers arrive?"
The commander didn't even turn around. "Before you signed on, Mr. Naughton, this was a cargo flight." His voice had a heavy, resonant timber, which if spoken gently could soothe anyone within earshot. It was, however, not used gently now. "Now instead of making one short jump to the Kylie LaGrange station and back, I have to make two orbital insertions rather than one, fill out twice as much paperwork since I'm dropping you off, and expend half again as much fuel. All of which blows my profit margin to Hell. On top of that, I missed lunch, so if you will keep your questions to a minimum, I can get done with my pre-flight and I can get you on your way." Throughout his words he had worked continuously, flipping switches and tapping out guidance codes.
Marc grimaced. Someone apparently wasn't in a good mood. He had met this guy's sort before. Working themselves to death for a miniscule pension and some sort of sense of accomplishment, taking out all their frustrations on the first guy they see that has his act together, because they realize that they never will succeed. Pitiful. Well, no reason Marc couldn't add to his troubles. He waited till the commander began to carefully lay in their planned course and then asked loudly, "So, what's your name? You obviously know mine and that puts me at sotime of my life. I watch people like you play it safe and get sullen. I've had thrills that you can't even imagine. I've ridden sunlight. Nothing can top that. Yeah, I think I know why you're so sour. You saw who I was on your manifest and you realized that you can never be what I am. Your war and your time in the Sun are over, while my time is just beginning. I'm somebody and you're nobo-"
Gregor's hand shot out and jerked the throttles back to full at the same time as he released the parking brake. Five gravities of acceleration slammed Marc and Gregor back in their seats. Tounges of flame stretched from the rear of the SSTOS as its jets drew in massive amounts of air, compressed it almost to a liquid, and then burned it with equal amounts of septazine fuel. Right after the wheels left the runway, the old Clipper broke the sound barrier. Gregor pulled back on his pilot's stick. The SSTOS's nose lifted up until it was going up almost vertically.
Gregor turned his head in the massive acceleration and grinned at Marc, shouting, "I knew there was a way that I could shut you up!"
Marc's face was crimson. He could just barely force air into his lungs. He was used to the gentle takeoffs and ascents to orbit that one had with the newer SSTOS's which finessed their way free of the Earth's gravity. He had forgotten about the brute force method favored by these old Clippers. He closed his eyes and tried to stay conscious.
Gregor laughed and turned his attention back to the launch. The ceramic skin of his SSTOS was beginning to heat up as they gained altitude and speed. Around Mach 10, the air began to thin enough for acceleration to suffer. Using his thumb, he switched off the compressors and closed off that section of the Clipper's engines. Liquid oxygen began to spray into the jet then, mixing with the septazine and igniting. As the SSTOS switched to rocket boost, the sky turned night black, showing that he had escaped the bulk of the atmosphere. The glowing form of the SSTOS yawed over and applied thrust along a new vector. Gregor made the final adjustments and waited for his speed and altitude to match the parameters for this low of an orbit. Eventually he tapered off the acceleration and shut down the engines. Using retros, the commander rolled the SSTOS so that the cargo hatch and cockpit faced Earth.
Gregor looked back to see if his passenger was being discomfitted by the microgravity at all. Marc was panting and bright red in color, but he didn't show any immediate signs of nausea. It was not what he had hoped for, but apparently the boy was used to freefall. Gregor disconnected his console from the computer, unfastened his harness, and floated to the rear of the cabin to the cargo control center.
Marc opened his eyes and saw the commander float past in his bright orange pressure suit. Marc unfastened his harness and pushed himself out of his seat, stretching. His chest was sore. He glared at Gregor and asked, "Where are we?"
The commander kept working at the cargo panel, checking the cameras and sensors in the cargo bay to make sure everything had come through the launch alright. He answered without turning to face Marc, "Low Earth orbit with a period of about 70 minutes. We're tracking right over the Equator. The hull should be cool enough in a few minutes for you to egress safely."
Marc braced himself and jerked his pack out of the seat beside him. "Good! I'll be glad to get off this heap and begin some real flying." He unzipped the pack and pulled out a thick metal-rimmed disc of bright blue material. He doubled over in midair and pushed one foot through the material. It clung to his foot in a thin, skintight layer. It came up to his knee before he pushed through his other foot, pulling on the disk like a pair of leggings. The disk came up over his hips, then he inserted his hands and worked it over his torso and arms. When he was finished a wide metal hoop hung over his shoulders and his body was covered in the blue material. The material consisted of a highly elastic memory plastic and had layers of heating filaments, cooling lines and gas transfer pathways so his skin could breathe at a nice even temperature. Marc reached up and slid the ring along its internal track so that its diameter was cut in half and hung in a wide circle about his neck. He returned to his pack and withdrew his helmet and lifepak. He snapped the two pieces together and looked at the status lights on the inside of the helmet.
Gregor watched the entire process, marvelling that anyone would risk their life not only at such an insane sport as solar sailing, but in such a flimsy and lightweight space suit. He knew that people that excelled at such sports felt a right toward a bit of arrogance, but he also knew that Marc's attitude was totally out of the bounds of reason. "You certainly are a cocky bastard."
Marc checked his batteries, computers, and temperature control system. He now spoke with his back to Gregor as Gregor had done to him earlier. "I'm not cocky, just assured."
The commander pushed off and nestled into the far corner of the cabin, upside down to Marc. "You know, you were wrong earlier."
"Oh really? Do enlighten me." Gregor shook a gnarled finger at the young sailar. "I don't envy you, Mr. Naughton, I pity you."
Marc snapped his head around and choked back a laugh. "How could you possibly pity me? I have someone like you beat on all counts."
"That may be true. You may be richer and younger. You may even be better looking."
"That's a fact," Marc said, grimacing at Gregor's scars and splotchy skin.
"Be that as it may, I still pity you. Why? Because my life means something while yours is just a mindless rush from one transitory thrill to another. I've impacted people's lives and I've given my own life depth and purpose. You? You're just living a fad."
"So what you're saying is that I'm a shallow person?"
"Yes, Mr. Naughton, that's exactly what I'm saying."
Marc laughed. "Gregor, I know I'm shallow! You can't truly enjoy yourself unless you can clear out all the rest of the crap that junks up your mind. I may very well be shallow, but I'm having a great time."
Gregor shook his head. "I have a good time, too, but my life still has value. People aren't going to remember that I was always bored and depressed, because I'm not. They are going to remember that I was a good person who tried to help my fellow man. What are people going to say about you when you're gone?"
Marc's face filled with a thoughtful expression. "Marc Naughton: He had a damn good time."
"And that's acceptable to you?"
"Sure." Marc turned back to his preparations.
Gregor played with the earring in his left ear. "When was the last time that you did something for someone besides yourself?"
Marc checked his oxygen tanks with a hiss of the valve. "Well, gee, I can't recall."
"Then that's the problem. You haven't joined up with the rest of the human race yet. You're still off in a corner playing by yourself, letting opportunities to evolve just pass you by."
"That's me, Marc Neanderthal Naughton."
"Mr. Naughton, I believe that there are a finite number of chances that we have to turn our lives around. A finite number of moments that truly define us. You've let many of them just slip away, but, for your sake, I hope that a few more are still on the horizon."
Gregor removed his earring and let it float in the expanse between them. The seven pointed star gleamed as it slowly rotated about the tiny black pearl. "One of those defining moments can change things forever. See, these cusps have a certain momentum to them. If you catch hold when it occurs, it shunts your life onto a new path, so that even when it passes, you're changed. Even if it wasn't what you had anticipated, you're still caught up. That one decision affects every other decision that you will ever make. Back before your grandfather was even born, probably, I had one of those life defining moments."
Marc sighed. "Is the hull cool yet? I really don't want to hear this."
"The War was on. Spending and graft had broken the countries of the world. The Third Nation became the premier world power, no longer content to run things behind the scenes. America was overrun. They began to conscript any able bodied person for one final rally. My friends all defected to the Latin arm of Third Nation. They had the best drugs, cheap technology, no overbearing morality. Damn, I was tempted. But that's when my moment came. I was driving to meet my friends to go with them, when I passed by a mass recruiting station. I didn't have to stop. I could have driven by and gone down south where life was easy and frivolous, but for some reason I did stop. I don't know if it was guilt, or wonder, or some last surge of patriotism. It doesn't really matter now. I joined up and became an aerospace pilot. Earned this little trinket." Gregor pointed to the earring.
"Hey! All that and a chance to bomb your friends that defected out of existence. Well, great story, Gregor, but I'm burning daylight." Marc loosened the battery straps and stuffed his backpack into the storage compartment of the lifepak.
"Listen damnit! The momentum of that one right decision has carried me toward a life that has value and meaning. It didn't end with just changing the world to what we have today. It continued on. By making that one choice, I had a background, a springboard on which to base the other decisions of my life. That cusp changed me. I'm deeply satisfied with my life. Are you as satisfied with your 'shallow' one."
"I like it, yeah. Gregor, I don't chose to live my life according to how other people see me. I couldn't care less about what you do or what you base your decisions on. Now open the cargo bay and get ready to cycle the lock." Marc angrily jerked on his helmet and lifepak, causing him to drift around the cabin. He snapped his straps closed, locked the helmet down, and grabbed hold of the seats. Then he pulled himself to the airlock.
Gregor went to the cargo panel and keyed the cargo bay open. Then he turned to Marc, his hand hovering over the control for the lock's inner door. He yelled to make himself heard through Marc's helmet, "Someday soon, you'll realize how empty your life really is. Hedonism is great in small doses, but its not a very good way to live. I only hope that when your defining moment comes, you make the right decision."
"Open the door, Gregor!"
The commander slapped the button and the airlock's inner door swung into the cabin. Marc flew in, maneuvering the lifepak's negligible mass easily. The inner door swung shut and sealed itself. Marc seethed. He had tried to mess with the old man, and Gregor had turned it completely around to use it on him instead. And I'll be damned if it didn't work, thought Marc. He closed his eyes and began to breathe deep from the cool air that filled his helmet. Slowly his heart rate began to slow.
With a slight hiss, air began to pump out of the lock. The scintillating blue skin of his suit expanded slightly, pressing down more on Marc's skin to make up for the lack of external pressure. The internal light in the lock flashed from yellow to red as the outer door unsealed.
The bit of remaining air in the lock puffed out around the door edge and then Marc was truly in the vacuum of space again. He was able to push down the few disconcerting thoughts that began to form at the back of his mind and he focused on this experience. He had been solar sailing 15 times before, but each one thrilled him as much as the first. This was the most dangerous sport in existence and he was one of the premiere practitioners, a sailar in the truest sense. Solar sailing combined elements of skydiving, stunt flying, sailing, and dancing to form a beautiful and deadly performance of the laws of physics. A grin began to form on his face.
Marc swung the outer door into the airlock and floated out. The black ceramic of the hull was still hot, but not too much for the suit to handle. He reached back to his lifepak and pulled the end of his spooled tether out, attatching to the ring outside the airlock. Once he had done that, the outer door swung shut and sealed itself. Tethered to the SSTOS, Marc now took a moment to look at his surroundings.
Earth hung wide and bright, filling three quarters of the sky. Dazzling whites and deep blues flowed past his gaze, interspirced with light browns and verdant greens. The horizon was a long gentle curve crested with a halo of light and colors. Unblinking stars swirled about him, bright, tiny, and hot. From the east a dark line appeared across the wide planet, widening and approaching. Soon the terminator would cross the globe and he would spend a short time in the shadow of the Earth. Since that was the only time that he could unfurl his sails, he had to get ready quickly.
Marc began to crawl across the SSTOS, using the handholds that wound around the shuttle. It was a short but careful trip from the airlock to the cargo bay, Marc taking his time to keep from pulling free. Even though he was tethered, valuable time would be lost if he were to go adrift.
The cargo bay was a wide rectangular hole in the dorsal surface of the SSTOS. Marc maneuvered around the open doors and saw his sails tied down on top of the rest of the load. They looked like a large, rounded, oblong box, bulky and a bit larger than Marc himself. Despite their size, they massed a mere 20 kilograms. He quickly crossed to them and undid the fasteners.
The sails drifted slightly in the microgravity. Marc turned around and settled back into the sail module. His lifepak snapped securely into its receptacle on the sails and a whole range of status lights blinked green. The system conducted a diagnostic and Marc nodded when it came up nominal. Time to sail.
Marc keyed the tether to disengage and retract. It spooled up and locked into place. Everything was ready. With a touch of a button, positioning jets fired, lifting him from the cargo bay and out into the airless void. In moments he had become an independent satellite.
The SSTOS receded. A few minutes later, the cargo bay closed up and attitude rockets ignited, pushing the vessel farther from him, faster. The SSTOS was only a bright dot when Gregor fired the main engines, streaking the ship away into the night. Marc was alone.
The terminator met the other side of the globe and the brilliant circle of Sol dwindled away behind the curve of the Earth. Everything went so dark that Earth became just a black blot on the starscape, spotted with the light of her cities. Now was the time to deploy his masts and unfurl the sails. Marc reached back with his arms and legs and locked into the actuating rods that extended from the surface of the sail module. As soon as he connected himself to the spidery arms, the masts popped out and extended. Each of the eight masts was a tube of reinforced monomolecular filament, light, stiff, and strong. The masts powered out, lengthening and narrowing. Eventually the masts stopped, each having extended two and a half kilometers.
Marc grasped the two joysticks that lay at the tips of the actuating rods attatched to his arms, and inserted his feet into the straps that lay at the tips of the actuating rods attatched to his legs. Then he bent his wrists and ankles back, deploying the sails. A silvery membrane, only a few molecules thick, began to unfurl from the recesses of the sail module. Four membranes, bounded on each side by a mast, crawled up the length of the masts, kept straight and taut by the charge deposited on the membrane's surface. The sails were not unlike a soap bubble spanning a loop of wire except for their high reflectivity and immense size. When the sails were fully unfurled, they formed four triangles arrayed like a gigantic diamond behind Marc.
Now he just needed some sunlight.
Marc brought his arms and legs forward. The sails mimicked each limb's motion. The pyramids form framed where the Sun would reappear. Moments later, a brilliant shaft of light exploded from the eastern curve of the Earth as the corona emerged. The light caught within the sails and reflected back and forth. The cone of energy dazzled his eyes as well as causing a slight hum to fill his suit. Photons collected in his battery straps and in the masts, recharging the sail module depleted from the sail deployment. The renewed module then activated its host of sensors, flooding Marc's helmet with information.
Photon flux showed as a golden mist. Charged particle flux was depicted as streams of red and blue points. Gravitational gradients were lines of purple and air molecules that existed even at this altitude were depicted as white drifts. All of these overlays colored the Earth and space in a surreal mix of hues. Not only was it essential and informative, it was also the most chaotic and beautiful picture that he had ever seen.
Energized and informed, Marc was finally ready to sail. He threw back his arms and legs and caught the full force of the morning sunlight. Photons struck the membrane, reflecting back and imparting their momentum onto Marc. He dropped and sped up, going faster around the Earth as he was forced into a lower orbit. Marc bent forward, interplaying the forces of gravity, angular momentum, gyroscopic motion, drag, and photon flux.
He banked and swooped, climbed and twisted as the Earth spun below him. His orbit changed continuously, moving away from the equator and back, moving up out of Earth's gravity well and then screaming down to scrape right over the atmosphere. Marc bent his wrists, ankles, and all the other joints along his arms and legs to throw the sails about, furling and unfurling them to make the best use of all the forces present. Acceleration changed abruptly, tying his stomach in knots and putting a grin on his face. Here he was truly in his element.
Yet, something was wrong.
Normally, his heart hammered with the excitement and exertion. Some trips not one coherent thought beyond controlling the sails and playing against the light passed through his mind. Nothing about this experience was different, but this time he was not caught up completely in his actions. Vague, unformed thoughts hung in the back of his mind, strenuously pushing forward to be noticed. Instead of joy and excitement, a slight feeling of disquietude filled him. Had he already tired of this sport, as he had so many others before this? Marc couldn't believe that. The thrill of the sailar was what he had sought for so many years. He was completely satisfied with it and always looked forward to doing it again. He would live out here in the solar wind if he could. But something about this time was different from all the others. There was only one thing that it could be, he realized. It had to be Gregor.
Marc let loose with a string of curses that would have made a seagoing sailor proud. The commander had actually managed to make Marc question his life. Since he had entered his teens, he had been only concerned with his own pleasures. He had the money, the looks, and no responsibilities to get in the way of simply enjoying himself. Life before had been perfect. He let the arguments that he had been mentally suppressing rush forward. Was there more to life? Could helping others actually be as satisfying as merely helping himself? Was there a better way to spend his countless idle hours? Did people really look down on him as an egotistical fool?
Marc cursed Gregor again and maneuvered to turn his back to the Sun. The light now came from the western horizon and added energy to his motion. He rose and slowed down into a higher, more stable orbit then turned the sails parallel to the photon flux. He was once again in freefall as the Sun sank beneath the curved horizon. Darkness enveloped him.
Marc floated, quietly fuming. Tidal forces began to pull at his sails until the edges faced the Earth. He looked out into the infinite sky. Was his life as empty as Gregor had said? Was he just sailing to distract himself from the worthlessness of his existence. Marc closed his eyes. If Gregor was right then his whole life up to this point had just been an exercise in futility. No! he thought, He has to be wrong! Marc's pride could not accept that. The commander had been wrong and he was right. He simply had to be.
Once again, Marc pushed the unpleasant thoughts back into the recesses of his mind. He struggled to refocus on sailing, not allowing Gregor to ruin his whole trip. Marc began to calm himself. Soon he would reemerge into the light.
A shrill beeping suddenly broke his concentration. "Bishop to Naughton, come in," came Gregor's voice over the comm net.
"Damn," Marc said. "Link." The computer in his lifepak now was transmitting at the same frequency as the SSTOS commander. "What do you want, Gregor? You've already completely screwed up my trip."
"I need your help. I just got a wideband S-O-S from one of your fellow sailers. She's in a highly eccentric orbit and she's starting to fall into the atmosphere. For some reason she can't gain any altitude."
Marc sighed. "So go pick her up."
"I'm not able to. My SSTOS is too high up. I didn't bring enough fuel to match her orbit as well from here."
"Then call one of the LEO stations and have them send somebody out for her. Why are you bothering me with this?"
"You idiot! You're the only one in the area with a good chance of reaching her before she burns up on reentry. I want you to go after her."
"What! No way! If I try something like that I'll be killed. She probably not cut out for handling sails and went too low. Serves her right."
The link was silent for a few moments. Then Gregor said, "You're going to sentence her to death all because you don't think that she's a good sailer?"
"Hey, stupidity is the great equalizer. You screw up, you die. Simple law of nature. I wouldn't expect someone to rescue me if I fouled up enough to get myself killed."
"Listen to yourself! Don't you realize how asinine that sounds? Someone needs your help to stay alive and you have to make up your mind right now or it'll be too late." Marc said nothing, unsure. Gregor came back, "This is your cusp, Mr. Naughton. It's exactly what I was talking about. From here your life either stays exactly the same or it'll be pushed in a new direction. Which do you really want?"
Marc was silent for several heartbeats as his own doubts and misgivings battled with his thoughts. Eventually he said, "Damn it. What is her orbit?" Gregor didn't say another word, instead he transmitted all the data he had on the foundering sailar. Marc's sail module extrapolated it and showed him where he could intercept her.
The sun flashed out from behind the eastern horizon, its light catching in the membranes of his sails. The pressure pushed against his orbit, dropping him lower and speeding him up. As he dropped and the sun emerged fully, Marc canted his sails and moved away from the equatorial plane he had been moving in. His orbit became lower and more eccentric.
In just a few moments, he saw a fast moving flash of light below him. Soon he could make out the immense masts emerging from a sail module. Something had struck her sails, knocking loose two of her masts and destroying the membranes of two sails. The remaining two sails spun her about unstably. Down where she was, there was a much smaller vacuum and the crowded air molecules struck her at tremendous speeds. Her blue and black, tiger striped suit was beginning to glow as it overheated. Sail suits were cooled by a heat pumped laser that shed the excess heat as light, but they needed two widely different temperatures to operate in. In space there was a huge difference between light and shadow, so it worked fine, but in the thickening atmosphere friction wrecked the heat differential. Before she burned up, she might well die from heat stroke.
Drag from the two sails was dropping her ever faster. Marc could either use the light pressure to shove him down and ahead of her, or he could us the flux to drop him below her where he would orbit faster and catch up to her. The former method was less dangerous but might take too long, killing her. The latter method would be faster but he might begin to burn up as well, killing him. He didn't even think, choosing to act instead.
Marc turned his sails fully into the sun, letting its light drop him. She passed below him, then he passed behind her. He looked around at his sails. The sail membranes billowed and shook as the individual molecules pounded them. Marc hoped that they would survive. When he was far enough below her he turned over so that his sails would drag less. Above him, the girl stopped moving forward and began to drift back.
Warning lights flashed all over the interior of his helmet as his cooling system began to fail. The temperature climbed steadily, passing through uncomfortable, well into being unbearable, and on its way to being painful. Marc started to pass out in the heat, but the sudden shaking of his masts woke him up. The sail module wouldn't last much longer, and its demise meant his own death. Marc didn't relish being a meteor.
The sun passed its zenith and moved back behind him. Marc caught its light and began to lift and slow down. The unconcious girl approached. Her sails had stabilized in the drag, allowing him to reach her. He swooped behind the sailar, for a moment becoming motionless, immediately behind her. Marc reached out and grasped hold of her sail module, There were plenty of things to grab ahold of since it had been ripped completely apart. The act of grabbing it caused his own sails to flutter, and for a moment he thought he would tumble them both to their deaths, but he stabilized in seconds. Marc turned his sails fully into the sunlight and lifted slowly, their combined masses making them sluggish.
Minutes passed and cool air began to flow in his helmet again. He felt the girl stir and he broadcast to her, "It'll be alright. We're headed for the Tierra Del Fuego LEO station. What happened?"
She spoke back in a slurred gasp, ". . . hit piece of an old commsat. I . . . ."
They rose to a stable orbit as the sun disappeared behind the Earth. The shrill beeping sounded in Marc's helmet.
"Naughton, did you get her?"
Marc smiled. "Yes, Commander. I got her. We're heading for a medical facility now."
Gregor laughed. That was the first time that Marc had spoken to him respectfully. "Call me Gregor. I'm used to it. I actually didn't think that you would do it, but I'm glad you did. Whether you want it or not, things will be different from now on."
"To tell the truth, Gregor, that rescue was the wildest ride that I've ever been on. This helping others might not turn out to be that bad." Marc laughed and sailed on.
About the Author: "I am an Ensign in the U. S. Navy posted to the USS STETHEM. I am from Texas and have B.S. in Physics from UTA. I am currently stationed in Newport, RI but I will soon be moving to San Diego. I am 25 years old. I am also a student pilot and an amateur fencer."
You can E-mail Tom Mays by clicking here. firstname.lastname@example.org
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