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SKELETON

CREW
HT AARON
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are
either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2018, by HT Aaron

This free sample is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-
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Cover night-sky background image (cropped original, no changes) from: “The Milky
Way” panorama. Credit: ESO/S. Brunier. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution
4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

CONTENTS

Escape ............................................................................................................................1
Escape

Monday

It’s my birthday. The big two-nine. Another year and I’ll be an old man. We were
supposed to be back on terra firma by now and, in truth, the timing was the reason I took
this flight. Launch mid-June, push a telescope into low Earth orbit, run a g-wave test, and
come home. Thirty days in the attic then two weeks vacation—my longest in seven years.
Yosemite had crossed my mind. Tahoe, too. Going down in flames … not so much.
We had one chance left.
Roger Young, our veteran captain, would lead us into the escape vehicle1 . Ethan Krole,
our rookie copilot, would follow him. Lara Duke, our mission specialist, was supposed to
go next. She objected. Said I should go third because, if push came to shove, it would be
easier for me to pull her out than vice versa. Captain Young concurred. Fine. There was
no time to argue.
From where we were, crowded behind the shuttle’s flight deck, an orderly exit through
the escape hatch—a shoulder-wide (plus twelve inches) slot in the aft ceiling—wasn’t
complicated. It did, however, require precise timing. Like a dance routine. Good thing
we’d practiced. Twice, in my case.
In zero-g, the trip was three parts: a float to the starboard-side U-hitch, midway
through the cargo bay, a float to the rear storage area, and then a push through the escape
hatch itself. The sharp turn before the push was the hardest part but, once you were
through it, you had an easy out.
Captain Young flew the route like a Blue Angel. Krole’s trip, more short bus than
supersonic, took twice as long. Somehow, he made it. My turn.
I took aim at the hitch and kicked off. Below, the cargo bay’s silica liner gleamed like
newly fallen snow. It looked whiter from up here, under the cold LEDs, than it had from
behind a gold-coated visor, during the scope float. I counted Mississippis to keep tabs on
my pace. Four was the objective. I made it in three.
On arrival, I grabbed the U-hitch to slow down. Its brushed metal was warmer than
expected but not hot. Looking right, pulling towards the wall, I honed in on my next
target: the escape hatch’s access step.
To call a bump on the stowage area’s port-side wall, glowing fire-exit red under an
emergency lighting strip, a “step” was generous; a “milestone on the road to hell” was
more like it. A wrist flick turned me clockwise and down, towards the chthonic route
marker, and part one was in the books.
Part two would be faster than part one; the turn following it, trickier. I had made a
similar turn once before—on our last weightless training flight, back in May, aboard the
old Boeing three-holer known as the “Vomit Comet”—but that didn’t stop little miss
anxiety from sinking her fangs into me this time.
Sweat coated my neck and face. A sleeve swipe, rough across my brow, mopped up the
oil slick. Better.

!1
The U-hitch, quivering like an electric razor, spread tingles to my elbow. A moment
later the shakes intensified. Slower and deeper now, penetrating into my shoulder socket
like the vibrations from a concrete-busting jackhammer cranked up to eleven.
The cargo bay’s lights flickered as I squatted against the wall, bracing to launch into
part two. I gripped the hitch harder, hoping a tight squeeze might transfer enough energy
into the metal to keep the lights on. It didn’t work. The vibrations subsided as the lights
went dark, leaving us in a hellish, Tron-like wireframe tube illuminated by emergency
lighting strips.
Pow. Pow. Pow. Brilliant flashes, sparked by rogue particles striking my retinas,
scattered white spots across my vision field. The light itself was a head-fake—solar
protons, not photons—but the comic book “POW!” effect was just as real for me as it had
been for the Apollo astronauts, who first saw such cosmic lightning strikes some six
decades ago. This time, the phenomenon wasn’t so much a scientific curiosity as an
omen. A good one, for a change.
The lights came back on, bathing us in white. Go time.
***
Floating again, back to counting Mississippis. The trip’s second part was supposed to
take five; three had come and gone. Jingles, courtesy of shaking fasteners and quivering
cam buckles, blanketed the bay. A throbbing hum surrounded me. So too, space’s
inescapable odor.
Some found the smell sweet, like a raspberry creme brûlée caramelized with a welding
torch. Others, like me, found the scent less burnt sugar than blackened steak, marinated in
diesel fuel and roasted over gunpowder briquettes set alight by the match that lit the stars.
Bon appétit.
As I closed in on turn two, Captain Young’s escape routine came to mind: stretch,
grab, and twist; then plant, bend, and push. Easy as ABC, 123. Rubbernecking wasn’t on
the list but, for us mere mortals, so close to the finish line, the temptation to peek back
was near impossible to resist. And so, right foot planted, leg flexing for launch, I took a
gander over my left shoulder.
Lara was missing.
Fuck me.
The adrenaline surge sprung me off the step. Too soon. Shit. This part, the last one,
was supposed to be a straight shot through the hatch after rotating enough to line up with
the neon-green aim-point (+) glowing on the escape plane’s ceiling, six feet beyond the
opening. So much for that.
In flight, there was no time to stew. Off course, procedures out the window, escape
hatch coming up fast. Stretch … got it. Somehow my sweaty fingers stuck on the hatch’s
rim.
Swinging like a pendulum, the rest of me continued on.
Contact! Legs, ceiling. A slight push, left hand against the hatch’s interior edge, rolled
me over.
From here, floating face down just below and behind the escape hatch, final passage
into the escape pod would be a piece of cake. Jerk forward enough to reach the I-shaped

!2
turquoise handhold on the slot’s far side, then pull up. Nothing to it. On arrival, blame
quantum entanglement for mucking up the trip’s third leg or crack some dumb joke about
putting this goat screw in the rearview. Hell, at this point, even Krole would be tickled to
see me pop through the escape plane’s floor like a human cannonball.
But first things first.
Lara was nowhere to be seen. The cargo area was empty; the airlock, vapors. On to the
Victoria’s digital brain, the data center between the airlock and the flight deck. Bingo!
Instead of trailing me to the hatch, she had returned to the computer rack on the
starboard side. Such a gamble would have been dicey under a standard, code-orange,
non-emergency evac. Under our code-red, it was flat out insane.
But I understood her perspective, hazardous as it was. The g-wave hypothesis (surfing
gravity, in essence) was hers and our tests of it were all for nothing without verifiable
results. And so, with no do-overs on the horizon, she had seized the last chance to save
the SSD (Solid State Drives) vault containing the Genesis Project’s experimental data.
It wasn’t going well.
Up front, a tremor swarm tripped the airlock’s floodlights. A moment later the aux
generator kicked in, restoring the floods to half-power and dimming the cargo bay’s lights
down to the same.
Squeaks and cracks rolled through the fuselage like an old rusty pickup truck speeding
down a rutted country lane. Lara, standing in floor-mounted foot loops, didn’t budge.
“We gotta go!” I yelled. “Captain’s orders.”
“Screw head’s stripped, gimme a minute,” she retorted. At this distance, about the
same as a baseball pitcher’s mound to home plate, she was hard to hear. One minute? She
couldn’t be serious.
“We don’t have a minute!”
“You’re distracting me,” she shouted, spinning the vault’s rack bolts with a pistol-
gripped cordless screwdriver.
Intervention schemes spun in my head like rickety carnival rides.
“Let it go!” Jesus. Rescuing an astronaut, stranded on Saturn, was starting to look
easier than this boondoggle. I mean, it’s not like the vault’s silicon flash chips could
protect us from atmospheric disintegration or a terrestrial impact’s bone-shattering g-
forces.
“Almost—” Lara called. A loud hissing from the starboard side, near the U-hitch,
drowned her out. The Victoria’s outermost carbon skin shedding. Or worse, superheated
shock-layer gas, three-thousand degrees Fahrenheit, flooding the wing after breaching the
inner skin’s silica thermal tiles. In either case, our goose was cooked. Our asses too.
“Get your butts up here,” Young barked.
“Give us a minute.”
“Thirty seconds,” he shot back, “and you’re on the clock.”
On the razor’s edge, more like it. Best case, I figured we had a minute until control
was lost and the Victoria broke up. Maybe a bit more, since she had been reinforced with
graphene between OE-20 and this mission—OE-23. Perhaps a little less, since, during the

!3
g-wave tests themselves, we had respected her operating envelope like a high-school gym
class respects a red-headed step-child.
In the end, fate would decide.
Rack bolts removed, Lara was tugging furiously on the vault. It didn’t budge. She
pulled again. Straight away, both hands. It slid out a little. She leaned left and right, then
rocked back and forth. The hissing trailed off.
“Clips!” I yelled. “On the sides! Push the clips!”
She looked back at me through the dim light. Even from sixty feet away, that what the
hell are you talking about? look was easy to recognize. Shit.
Fingers. Six guns. Right one pointing left, left one pointing right, I jabbed my digits
back and forth as though pushing a button in the middle between them. “On the sides,” I
yelled. “On the sides!”
Message received, Lara cocked her head and checked the vault’s side rails. She
pressed the right rail’s clip and yanked on the vault’s face. Progress. Ditto on the left and
… score!
The vault, which looked like a three-inch-thick aluminum briefcase, slid out. She
tucked it under her left arm, kicked off the foot loops, and pushed into the open airlock. A
moment later, through the airlock, she launched for the starboard U-hitch.
“You got it!”
She arrived at the access step ten seconds later, pulled a quarter-turn left, and kicked
for the escape hatch. Too hard. Overcompensating for the metal box under her left arm,
she had launched too right and too steep.
Angling at me, she drew back her right arm. Ready to push her towards the hatch, I
stretched out my left. Ignoring it, she socked my shoulder. What? The punch, sharp as a
hunting rifle’s recoil, altered her trajectory enough to shoot her through the slot. Bullseye.
For her, at least. For me, knocked loose and sliding into the no man’s land between the
escape hatch and the rear bulkhead, oblivion loomed.
“Rip!” Lara yelled from above. She dropped an arm through the hatch—and waved.
Gee, thanks.
“Hold still,” I screeched.
“Status?” Young barked.
“Negative on seal,” Lara shouted. “Rip’s outside!”
“Almost to you!” I lied, floating backwards.
“Hurry up,” she yelled.
“Hold on!”
“Grab my hand!”
“One sec!”
The lights, blinking like disco strobes, were on the fritz.
Hands up, fingers across the ceiling. Again, the other way. Back and forth now, like
wipers on a windshield. Faster. Something to hold onto—a wire tray, comms box, access
panel, something—had to be up there.

!4
In the distance, sparks geysered from the flight deck’s CW (Caution and Warning)
console, between the front barber chairs. A siren wailed. Tone up, tone down. Again.
Over and over, like a speeding ambulance. Class-1 emergency. No shit.
A crevice above caught my fingernails. Stir-straw deep, but enough to halt my drift.
Just in time, too; as the console sparkler’s sour smoke kissed my nose, the cargo bay’s
lights flickered and died.
“Ten seconds!” Young shouted.
“On my way!”
BOOM!
Holy Friggin Toledo. Another bang like that and we’d be toast. And worse, aside from
the godawful ringing in my ears, I had a bigger problem: the shockwave had shaken me
off the crevice.
“Grab my hand, Rip!” Lara’s voice, muffled as it was, gave me a shot in the arm. I
stretched ahead, as far as I could, and slid my fingers across the ceiling. Straight back,
gently. C’mon. Got it! Nails in the crevice; no time to think.
Just breathe and … pull.
“Five seconds!” Young bellowed.
“Hold still!” I blurted. The emergency lights had begun to spin, encircling me in
stoplight-colored swirls. Sweat flooded my eyes; searing pain soon followed. Squinting
didn’t help.
Through the storm, the escape hatch’s radiant glow gave me hope. Almost there.
Focus!
“Four … three … two … one,” Young chanted from above. His words, hollow and
distant, meant nothing.
Lara’s dangling arm brushed my shoulder.
“Am here!”
“Stop flailing,” she shouted. Simple request, tall order. Luckily, it didn’t matter.
Quick as a death adder’s strike, she locked a hand onto my wrist and yanked me
through the hatch.
“Rip’s in,” she yelled.
“Ah!” I yelped, head cracking on the metal oxygen canister over the rear bench’s port-
side seat. A moment later, bounced off the ceiling, I managed to pull down into the chair
and strap in for the long dive home.
Inhale.
Exhale.
The escape vehicle’s fresh air, its sole luxury, cured my vertigo faster than a gigaton
nuclear blast cures a toothache. Orbital’s life-support techs claimed the atmosphere had
been canned in the Bradshaw Mountains, near Prescott, Arizona. America’s best air—a
one-of-a-kind creature comfort included to make screaming through the mesosphere at
Mach 13 feel like a Saturday stroll in Sedona.
Nice touch, but all I needed was a towel for my face. Cotton preferably, but paper or
microfiber would also do. Dream on. As before, blue Nomex came to the rescue. Sleeve
to brow, and swipe. Mission complete.

!5
Sweat and tears aside, I could see again. Up front, Earth’s gentle curve split the
windshield. Space’s infinite black, starless around the white sun, occupied the top;
Sonoran desert, sprinkled with powdery clouds, filled the bottom. Sandwiched between,
the atmosphere’s thin blue line separated life and death. To a T, same as the simulators.
Captain Young, cucumber cool in the commander’s port-side chair, plucked the orange
plastic covers from the overhead console’s charge controls and pressed the square buttons
to arm the Jettison Pyrotechnic System. When fired, the jettison system’s small explosive
charges would cut through the tail fin’s eight anchor bolts, separating it from the fuselage
so our escape pod could lift off the shuttle’s rear. Four down, four to go.
Krole tapped the center panel’s top screen, checking the digital instruments. Good
luck. The Victoria’s main computer, a suitcase-size quantum box named Beta, had
crashed during a freak cosmic ray burst, three weeks ago.
“Eight ball’s up,” he said, referring to the craft’s attitude (artificial horizon) indicator,
“and the maps are loaded.”
Shocked, I leaned forward for a better look. Apparently, the particle storm had spared
the escape plane’s crude electronics.
Scrolling through the reports on the bottom screen, Krole echoed the separation
checklist’s final statuses. “Pressure, nominal. Thermal in-range, upper; life support’s
green. Batteries, check; voltage two-eight. Hydraulics in-range, lower.”
Systems golden, he moved on to the display itself. Knob left, light mode. Knob
middle, dark mode. Knob right, high contrast. Check, check, and check.
Unbelievable. Satisfied with the results, for which he would undoubtedly take
generous credit, Krole gave Captain Young a thumbs up. “Separation checklist
complete,” he said, glancing over, “parameters in range.”
On the deck, braced against our bench, Lara slammed the escape hatch’s handle into
its cradle and popped the safety latch’s pin into its hole. “Hatch sealed!” she barked.
“Confirmed,” Young said, touching an annunciator light, green on the front panel,
between the two flight displays. “Oxygen masks on; T-minus ten to separation.”


!6
1Known as the “orca” due to its distinctive black and white color scheme, and the “escape plane”
due to its X-37 (Orbital Test Vehicle) heritage. Orbital’s technical parlance and literature used the
acronym “EV,” for “Escape Vehicle.”

!7