Here is a short story taken from my upcoming novel. Once I get some cover art I plan to put it up on Smashwords. Should have a second story from the novel available soon. Let me know what you think.
“Ninety seconds to launch,” rang the voice of the jump master.
Dave shivered in anticipation of the six g’s promised after countdown. Liam, finally respecting the demand for radio silence before launch, gave Dave thumbs up from the accelerator carriage to his left.
This was Dave’s fourth orbital jump, but the first time he would reenter without the aid of a piloting computer. Though he had hundreds of hours of simulator time on the surface, one thing the simulators left out was the all too real chance of being vaporized on reentry. Apparently Orbital Drop Adventures realized that vaporizing thrill seekers during jump training would hurt their bottom line.
“One minute to launch.”
Dave returned the thumbs up, hoping the suit masked his silent terror. Fear of standing over a cliff could be called fear of heights. Fear of being hooked to the bottom of a craft in low earth orbit with nothing but empty space and an adventure company’s dubious safety record between you and a fiery death is something else entirely. Fear of the abyss perhaps.
Liam, now waving his arms around like a space-bound bird, brought a twist of nausea in Dave’s gut, so he turned instead to the viewing window on his right. The station was a playground for the wealthy, and it was the wealthy that now stared back from the observation deck. Though the company’s major patrons were rich twenty-something year old adrenaline junkies, well-to-do families with spoiled teenagers were gaining ground. It was one of these families who stared back across the void at Dave.
The father clung tightly to both the rail and his wife’s arm, with a nervous smile on his face and his legs drifting aimless behind him. The wife seemed less jittery, but still kept both hands firmly around the clear plastic rail. Beside them an attractive daughter caught Dave’s eye, but she soon looked away, leading Dave to do the same. Next were two boys, similar enough to be twins, and both floating upside down, a common but nevertheless unnerving stance.
“Ten seconds … Nine …”
Dave returned his gaze forward, toward the Pacific coast of South America where the mountains cast long shadows in the morning sun. His retinal projection indicated their recommended landing zone with a green triangle. It was a recommendation they would be ignoring. Instead, they were shooting for a yacht belonging to Liam’s family, who, unbeknown to Dave, expected them to arrive by skycar.
“Five … Four …”
Dave gripped the bars projecting from the side of his suit and closed his eyes as the suit’s internal compression bladders pressed against his legs.
“Three … Two … One … Launch aborted.”
Sighing with the relief of a man saved from the gallows, Dave looked around quizzically for the cause of the cancellation.
“Red Jumper,” the jump master announced, referring to the red glow above Liam’s launch carriage, “the computer indicates that your piloting program has been switched off.”
Dave glanced toward Liam to see a wide grin, then cursed him aloud. While the original launch time put them comfortably within range of the yacht, now every second moved it further downrange and necessitated a higher reentry speed to reach it.
The jump master continued, “Orbital Drop Adventures would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the dangers of dropping without computer piloting.”
Once more sick of looking at Liam, Dave turned back to the viewing room. While before the glass revealed a single family, now it was full of wide-eyed spectators. Orbital jumping had become somewhat commonplace, but doing so without a computer was a mark of the extreme, and everyone wanted to get a look at the jumpers who might soon become high-atmosphere smoke trails. The beautiful girl again caught Dave’s eye, only this time she did not turn away.
“In our fourteen year history, no jumper using our piloting algorithms has received bodily injury during reentry.”
Dave did not listen to the warning, but the girl across the glass did. Her look of interest changed to one of concern while her eyes remained firmly focused on Dave’s.
“Because Orbital Drop Adventures holds safety in the highest regard, we will not initiate launch when a jumper has automatic piloting overridden. Please reactivate your suit’s … All systems ready.”
Smitten by the girl’s beauty and concern, Dave wondered if he could use the suit’s radio to ask for her number. He was a moment from trying when Liam reactivated his autopilot.
“Resuming countdown … Launch.”
Just like that, both the girl and her number dropped from Dave’s mind, along with much of his head’s normal blood flow.
Recreational deorbiting had come a long way since its inception. In the old days, jumpers began reentry with more than half of their orbital velocity, and the necessary heat shielding meant they spent much of the drop completely blind. Nowadays they dropped from a standstill, but the deceleration took more than two minutes at six g’s.
It never felt like two minutes to Dave. Compression bladders in the lower half of his suit meant he wouldn’t pass out, probably, but that didn’t stop the lightheaded feeling that now defined his existence. In seconds they cleared the station and approached the rings.
Those into extreme sports have a name for jumpers: rocket fuel. The term isn’t entirely accurate technically, but ‘reaction mass’ just doesn’t have the same ring. While Orbital Drop Adventures doesn’t appreciate the name’s fiery connotations, they are mostly to blame for its adoption. Early in the station’s operation they revealed that they didn’t need ion thrusters to stay in orbit. Instead, they claimed the station obtained the thrust necessary to counter atmospheric drag by deorbiting tourists. Hence, rocket fuel.
Dave and Liam now passed through the tethered rings. Each contained a powerful electromagnet that turned on as they approached and turned off as they passed. The rings soon became a blur, and Dave’s head stopped feeling like a balloon as they entered the first free ring. While the tethered rings were connected to the main station by long composite ropes, the free rings orbited independently.
Finally they passed through the last ring and the carriage’s flight computer lit the chemical rockets. To his left Dave saw Liam veer off until they were separated by a hundred feet. He silently thanked the kind people of O. D. Adventures for disallowing jumper control of the carriage, as he was sure Liam would be flying spirals around him if they had not.
With no more rings approaching from ahead, Dave’s gaze shifted to the world below him. He was still aware of the coastline moving, but as he watched its movement slowed till the world looked stationary. The g’s slowly decreased as the rocket neared the end of its burn and the compression pads on his legs deflated. Dave was glad to be conscious at this point, unlike during his first jump.
As the rockets cut out, silence returned to Dave’s ears. Despite having three jumps under his belt, the stillness was eerie. Despite being in a near total vacuum, he still expected the sound of wind. Its absence made him feel like he was hanging from a giant, invisible dome that surrounded the earth. He deactivated autopilot then studied the bright colors of the South American jungle as he hung there.
A glint of reflected sunlight woke him from his daydreaming. Off to his left he saw Liam detach from his carriage and fire control jets to reorient. With the carriage now in front of him, he grabbed hold of some bars then jumped off in the direction of Dave, entering a series of back flips as he did. The carriage tumbled behind him until it sensed Liam was far enough away for it to fire its own jets. It presently did so, then released four airfoils at its corners.
Dave waited for the click to indicate his own carriage had detached but it never came. Remembering the jump training, he reached back for the manual release and pulled it. Still he remained firmly attached. This had never happened in the simulator.
Beginning to panic, Dave pulled the manual release once more, then told his suit’s computer to check the status of the carriage. Unfortunately, suit-carriage communication had been blocked to prevent modified suits from taking control of the deorbiting rockets. The computer informed him of this when he felt a jolt.
“Daydream much?” came Liam’s voice over the radio, as he grabbed hold of the side of Dave’s carriage.
After clearing the computer display from his vision, Dave saw the reason for the bump. “No, my carriage won’t release.”
“Really? I told you to workout more. Let me give it a try.” Not waiting to be invited, Liam climbed to the bottom of the carriage and gave the manual release a tug. Just as when Dave tried, the coupling held fast.
“Your carriage is stuck.”
Not seeing the humor, Dave responded by pushing Liam out into space with his left foot.
Quick to forgive, Liam asked if his control jets worked. Dave tried to reorient to no avail.
“No, they are locked out until the carriage releases.”
Though they payed no attention to falling, gravity was not distracted. Dave’s panic was complete when he noticed the faint whistling from the thin air of the upper atmosphere rushing around them. What’s more, they both noticed Liam’s abandoned carriage had begun to autorotate.
“I thought the lock failed open!” Dave yelled, kicking back on the carriage as he pulled the manual release once more, claustrophobia rapidly closing in. As if in response to his attempts at escape, the carriage fired its control jets until he was on his back, then released its blades to begin autorotation. The carriage, it seemed, hadn’t failed at all.
Thinking fast, Liam grabbed hold of a blade and used his jets to stop the carriage from spinning.
Seeing Liam beside him with his jets firing pulled Dave out of his panic, “Hey, can you see the computer?”
“Yeah,” Liam replied after a second.
“Fire one of your rockets against it.”
“Just do it,” Dave said, “The lock should release when the computer fails.”
While the control jets used compressed air, the suit also had two rockets to extend it’s flight distance in case it’s wearer dropped between landing zones.
Losing sight of Liam as he climbed toward the computer, Dave felt as he did once as a child falling out of a tree. His back tensed in expectation of impact until he convinced himself it was still minutes away with the blackness of the morning sky. But the rotation speed of the stars soon returned his unease.
“You still with me?” he asked his radio.
“I’m here,” came the reply, “just give me a second … There.” Liam placed his left foot above the carriage’s computer, braced himself against a structural tube, and fired the rocket attached to his boot.
He let the rocket burn for five seconds, but the composite must have been heat resistant, because when he stopped the box’s surface was barely even marred.
“Well, it was worth a shot,” Liam reported. “Wait, it looks like the power supply is in another case. Let me have a go at the wires.”
Dave waited for another disappointment, now with eyes closed to avoid seeing the dizzying spin of the stars, but it wasn’t long before a familiar click reached his ears. Thinking he imagined the sound, Dave pushed against his prison and was surprised to find himself drifting above it.
“I’m free!” he said as he fired jets to stop spinning and get out from above the rapidly turning carriage.
“Good to hear,” came the reply, “Tell my mom I love her.” Liam let go of the carriage’s underside and yelled like a doomed man as he tumbled off to the side. After flying a good fifty feet from the carriage, he also fired his jets and navigated back to Dave.
“Nice to see the near death of your friend hasn’t ruined your mood,” Dave said, still watching the carriage as it rose above them.
“Brighten up,” came Liam’s cheerful reply, “They will probably give us both a free jump after we show them the recording.”
Dave felt no better.
“Now come on,” Liam said, deploying his suit’s wings, “The yacht is out of range, but we can still make my uncle’s place.” With that he flew high above Dave and the two spinning carriages with the increased drag of the composite airfoils.
Dave watched his carriage a second longer before turning and releasing his own wings. He doubted he would take the free jump.