CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
In the basement of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Center for the Advanced Study of Physics and Astronomy, Jade Cousteau wore a pair of wiry, military-green, over-ear, Koss headphones accenting her solar green eyes. Brown hair hid the audio cord along her neck before it emerged with a dangling section held captive between her lips. The inch of rubber casing disappeared behind the impulse of an oral fixation before snaking over penciled calculations, a thin metal protractor, stacks of yellow print paper, and a half-eaten Clark bar, before sneaking into a round port on the wall. Opaque beige masking tape labeled the port, SETI.
She preferred to stand in the dim light of the single-window basement, listening to signals captured from the stars until she heard something of potential. Something promising. She analyzed paper readouts in silence, often frustrated. The lower orbits were chaotic.
She had captured human voices before. Trivial radio signals bouncing around Earth’s atmosphere. Most often, she heard interference. White noise. Discarding humanoid sounds disrupting her research was nearing ritualistic status. Today was different. The voices, for one thing, were not from Earth.
ORBITER STATION 033
Captain Velarde prepared the battered station for re-entry. A lieutenant triple-checked the heat shields, twice electronically and once manually. They shot along the edge of the atmosphere, losing orbit, running final safety diagnostics. Station modules had long been dark and quiet, skipping along the shadow of Earth.
Extinguished ash floated through the command center, highlighted by the red hue of an emergency lamp continuing to pulse warnings. White foam clung to the ceiling in a spiral pattern along a set of hydraulic lines, masking the blackened, burnt casings hidden underneath. A single, red M&M floated alone, bouncing off the two-by-six-foot triple plate window that looked down on Earth. The diamond-plated steel flooring remained cold from temporary exposure to the vacuum of space, with scraping metal-on-metal boot markings slicing across the open canvass. Scars from the chaos. An emergency seal remained closed over the Hyperion docking hatch.
In the zero gravity environment of the colonel’s quarters, a transparent serpent of black audiotape spun around itself like a crumpled strand of DNA.
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
Climbing the rusted south fire escape to the roof that morning, she had pivoted her antennas toward the westward skies over the Pacific. Jade preferred to hunt above the ocean to avoid local human signal interference. She’d snag a rebounding SOS call from a ship that had taken one too many rogue waves, or gentle Hawaiian music that crackled through her headphones over the salty distance traveled. Her configuration of antennas, feed horns, low-noise amplifiers, spectrum analyzers and recording devices was a flawed, yet brilliant, mix of amateur achievement.
She was second-guessing. Vandenberg AFB was not far from her position, northwest of Pasadena. Maybe she’d caught the signal on its way down from space to Air Force ground controllers. It didn’t make sense she could listen in on space operations. She imagined the military had frequency scramblers and encrypted communication spectrum bands.
The Galactic Radiation and Background (GRAB) program was launched as late as 1960, transmitting classified satellite SIGINT to ground stations in California, relaying them to Washington where the NSA was tasked with analysis. Not long after GRAB development, the New York Times reported its existence under the codename, TATTLETALE. President Kennedy had personally travelled to New York to reign in the paper’s leash, and rumor has it the President showed the reporting journalist just what type of treatment tattletales received from his administration.
The newly formed National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) rolled out the follow-on program, POPPY. The code name derived from the small spherical targeting satellites’ shape, wrapped in black solar panels and antennas. OPERATION POPPY launched sixteen satellites into low earth orbit from Vandenberg for the collection of SIGINT, to include Soviet communications, nuclear missile intelligence and ground radar targeting. Jade, however, was not looking down on the Earth, as her government was. She was looking up, past LEO, as deep into space as she could engineer.
She had to rewind the tape, as her racing thoughts were too loud. Tuning her equipment, she amplified the wavelength of interest and silenced background noise as best she could. Her pencil shook as her brain salivated.
“Focus,” she said to the window high on the red brick wall, overheard by the dusty spines of one hundred and seven overdue library books. It was refreshing to focus on something other than extraterrestrials.
She hit rewind on the Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder. The Ampex was immobile, but recording fidelity was superior and the large magnetic tape was easier to splice. Eventually, she’d transfer final audio to a Philips compact cassette for convenience and storage. But first, she would listen to the full capture start to finish.
ORBITER STATION 033
A floating statue, Colonel Laika of the United States Air Force, looked on in content. His view of Earth was blurred momentarily by dark swarms of debris streaking through the LEO rings. Soviet nuclear tests at various altitudes had exploded legacy spacecraft and shrapnel from traditional orbits into high-speed, dangerous, elliptical orbits. His young lieutenant, strapped into a computer control station to his left, spoke.
“Sir, tracking objects outside the graveyard, moving at twenty-one- thousand MPH.”
Orbiter stations were equipped with debris-tracking radar (DTR) technology. The most dangerous pass was always the first, until DTR computers could log debris speed, size and orbit, leveraging algorithms to predict course. At the moment, they were safe. Upon completion of repairs after the violent escort through the fields, Hyperion 004 would soon dislodge and continue her mission to HULC in high earth orbit. She’d been docked for eighteen hours.
“Coordinates?” asked Laika.
“One hundred and sixty three feet inside Hyperion’s orbit; three hundred feet inside our station.”
The Hyperion ship was the current pride of American Cold-War military accomplishment and to destroy one was considered the ultimate failure. She was sleek. She was beautiful. She was expensive. Most important, she was nuclear. Hyperion weighed in at twenty tons heavier than the Apollo rockets originally designed for travel and return from the Moon. Getting her into orbit was a massive undertaking, requiring twice the thrust of traditional vehicles to escape Earth’s atmosphere. Post launch, Hyperion ships sat just below LEO orbiting in a state of constant free-fall around the planet until intercepted by an Orbiter team that would escort the vessel safely to higher orbit through the graveyard.
The rapid maturity of a nuclear space was unprecedented and considered the second military industrial revolution – Kennedy’s revolution. By the early sixties, rockets were carrying nuclear satellites into orbit, where massive military and communication systems were constructed. American nuclear satellites featured Space Travel Sixth-Generation Westinghouse (ST6W) reactor cores with miniature geared steam turbines. Fission empowered space militarization far beyond the limited capability of conventional solar power and rocket fuel. Refueling stations were launched from Earth in sections and assembled in Orbit. America’s newest rocket ships no longer needed to launch from Earth carrying hundreds of tons of dangerous rocket fuel for extended missions, as they could re-fill at orbital fueling stations in low and middle orbit. Under nuclear power, satellite and space station electronics were virtually infinite.
Following orders in space, an Orbiter’s duty was to assemble modules, transportation and logistics hubs, repair ship damage, install upgrades, re- fuel rockets at orbiting pumping stations, replace nuclear reactor cores, and execute search and rescue missions. Most important, their duty was to escort prized American Hyperion ships and their astronaut crews through the graveyard. They were the guardians of the orbital rings.
The space-soldier’s role became critical when nuclear detonations, the blame shared evenly between the Americans and Soviets, sparked an unprecedented Kessler event – a chain reaction of orbital destruction - wiping out the mass of commercial and military space-based systems. Dangerous metal particles, some shards as large as a tractor-trailer, others as small as sawdust, ripped apart Earth’s LEO orbits in a galactic game of uncontrolled pinball.
The colonel turned to glance out the darkside window bay. Looking away from Earth could be disorienting. His eyes focused on the abyss, his massive shoulders squared. Grasping handholds and locking his feet under a metal cable that ran like a running board throughout the station’s floor, he turned back toward easyside.
“Velarde,” he said without moving. “What’s Vandenberg tracking?”
“Sir, still out of touch with ground. Computer says another three minutes,” the captain answered.
“Typical COMMS loss lasts thirty seconds. Why are we still broken?” Laika asked.
Velarde looked to his Lieutenant for rescue. The butter-bar’s eyes widened behind prescription goggles. His sinking shoulder posture let Velarde know he wouldn’t be bailed out this time. He began the empty response his superior wouldn’t want to hear.
“Sir, I don’t —“
A red M&M zipped across the room and crashed into the captain’s forehead, stopping his words. Velarde watched the chocolate missile bound off the wall back toward where it came from. Across the cabin, a hand snapped up from the floor as if snatching a fly. The bandit, hanging upside down, was impressed with himself. He popped the candy shell into his mouth. Beneath the Air Force wings on his standard-issue tan undershirt, to the right of the American flag printed on his shoulder, the half-stitch nametag read, ANDERSON.
“Sir,” said the inverted soldier, enjoying his treat. “The EVA is accomplishing AEHF transponder repairs.”
Captain Velarde let the words carry through the recycled air to his Colonel. Laika turned his head, but didn’t answer. This time Velarde skipped over his young Lieutenant, looking directly to Emmitt across the station.
“AEHF,” Emmitt continued, “Advanced Extremely High Frequency. The COMMS signal we use to communicate with Vandenberg, i.e. Planet Earth. Zero-zero-four’s transponder was damaged during escort. That’s what her crew is repairing. That’s why they’re still docked.”
Velarde, strapped into the computer command module with the lieutenant, reached across his partner to tap a yellow, square, flashing icon. “We should still be receiving our own personal—“
“This station,” Emmitt interrupted, “is programed to piggy-back Hyperion’s signal when she’s docked easyside. She’s four times our size and blocks all signals. And, because the AEHF transponder is what they’re repairing, we can’t reach ground for another three minutes, assuming they fix the problem, of course.”
Laika hung from the wall with one fist clamped around the running line. His shirt was tight in the chest, a result of the morning’s pump carrying into the early afternoon. He hated resistance bands and considered them feminine in comparison to iron barbells, but utilized them to exercise in space out of necessity. The bands he used were thick as a garden hose and reached a resistance of two hundred pounds. Short sleeves struggled to contain his massive shoulders as bulging blue-hue veins snaked down his biceps, connecting at the elbow joint to a roadmap of forearm circulatory pipelines.
Active duty officers and enlisted soldiers alike often opted against wearing uniforms. Orbiters avoided the costumes as they delayed changeover time into suits during emergencies. His pants were desert camouflage which was another running joke – because, why? The only true uniform item Laika showcased was a pair of orbiter boots. Without context, civilians on Earth would have guessed he was an alpine skier, half undressed, waiting on a frothy après lager.
As the colonel extended his left foot to the floor, he brought his right foot near his hip and punched a clicker-button on the ankle. The first boot snapped to the metal floor. Taking three more clanking steps toward station center, everything else was silent.
“You should have been an officer, Emmitt.”
“It’s not for me.”
“You have a sharp mind but you’re an Orbiter for a reason.” “Yeah?”
“You were bored with your pedestrian existence and civilian rules, but instead of making a man of yourself as an officer, you enlisted as one of these
Laika took another magnetic step with his arms crossed over his pulsing chest. “Flying around the rings thinking you’re some superhero, while I’m busting my ass twenty-four hours a day, leading our nation’s finest to accomplish the HULC mission.” He gestured to the captain and lieutenant, then out the darkside bay before continuing.
“I’m trying to protect America’s future defense capabilities. Do you understand the mission, soldier, or has it been lost on you?” Laika was pointing to a constructed mass as far out into space as the eye could see. A glinting white dot. “The High Unilateral Cohort will solidify American orbital dominance and end the Cold War once and for all.”
“Sounds like a real hoot,” Emmitt answered. He tactfully floated a brown M&M down near his chin. His mouth made a vacuuming noise as he sucked the chocolate morsel from the air through pursed lips.
Colonel Laika boosted across the station floor to Emmitt’s position, torrents of vapor trailing his boot heels. He swatted the candy from Emmitt’s hand sending delicious BB’s zipping around the environment. Tick-tack sounds could be heard in the background as the hard candy shells pinged off the walls in unpredictable directions.
Without flinching, Emmitt remained hanging upside down. His only reaction was to cease chewing. Laika was crouched to match his eye level.
“We only eat MRE’s here, cowboy.” “Mary gave me M&M’s.”
Building on the awkwardness of the inverted conversation, Emmitt pointed. A female astronaut floated six yards off the station, ratcheting a new COMMS transponder battery cell to Hyperion with a glove-friendly torque wrench.
“You are not authorized to visit Hyperion crew. That’s a protocol violation inside of twenty-four hours. She’s fresh for Christ’s sake. Who knows what bacteria she’s carrying?”
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t believe activating thrusters inside the station is authorized, either.”
Laika grabbed Emmitt by the collar, the snakes in his arms transforming from sleeping pythons to angry anacondas. “I give the orders around here, cowboy.”
Behind them, the Lieutenant’s screen flashed red accompanied by a warning tone. “Incoming easyside!” yelled Captain Velarde.
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
Cousteau was a PhD candidate in her third year working on what she hoped was her masterpiece. As a freshman she built a close connection with Dana Ulery, the first female engineer hired at the Jet Propulsion Labs. Prior to Dana’s arrival, JPL women served only as human calculators, working trajectory computations for the male engineers. The NASA Ranger and Mariner missions headquartered at here set the stage for America’s first efforts to reach the moon, experimenting with rocket fuels and propulsion and orbital telemetry; the work paved the way for human space flight. Jade proved brilliant, impressing staff, but was drawn away by the gravity of an intriguing adjunct sophomore year.
It wasn’t the bald and potbellied professor himself that pulled her in a new direction, as he exited following a one-semester stint. The material he assigned, however, stayed. The Brookings Report, titled, “Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs”, contained a significant passage in reference to extraterrestrials.
Presented to Congress, the study emphasized the disruptive effect on society the discovery of aliens could present. Jade was spellbound. It captured her imagination, pushing her curiosity further than orthodox study. She questioned how her life would change upon such discovery. She couldn’t live without knowing.
She wrote Congress for grant money, less interested in forming policy and more in being the first human, first woman, to discover evidence of ET. The young, quick study became a recluse. Her four-point-zero became a two-point-three as she lost the trust of colleagues accustomed to relying on her brain. She spent countless hours in the basement of her building, monitoring her interferometric system of listening devices.
She devoured books on software applications, communications equipment, audio capture, satellites, UFOs, radar, radio frequencies, radio astronomy and anything SIGINT-related she could get her brains on. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, known as SETI, consumed her existence. Jet propulsion was a known science; aliens were not.
When at the end of her sophomore year her research grant was denied by Congress, she wrote directly to the Brookings Institute, NASA’s partner in drafting the original report. Possibly to justify their publication, or simply because they believed in the student that shared her name with the storied oceanic explorer, Brookings granted the Caltech Physics department two thousand dollars. Cousteau would stretch it to fit her means. Five draining years later, desperate for a breakthrough, signals from space continued to hold her captive. She listened.
ORBITER STATION 033
Laika clanked over to the console, barking orders. “Evasive action. Boosters six and eight, full!”
The Captain’s hands fell into a well-practiced routine of switch- flipping, dial-turning, and feedback-following. “Sir,” Velarde countered, “Current trajectory with full six-eight puts Hyperion inside particle trajectory. Confirm execution command.”
“Goddammit soldier, execute!”
Emmitt was right side up, hanging on the wall opposite the crew. He spotted the glittering debris closing in like tumbling diamonds from a shotgun. Instincts took over. Calculating, he shouted over the impact alert siren.
“Add booster five to the sequence!”
“What?” The captain was flustered.
“It will roll us ninety degrees and carry Hyperion out of the impact zone!”
“Disregard that order,” commanded Laika. “Anything else will slow us down.”
“Boost five!” repeated Emmitt.
Laika shoved Velarde’s paws aside, reaching to the control panel. He programmed six and eight and executed the boost order.
“You’re going to kill them!” Emmitt screamed.
“They’re already dead.”
The debris was traveling thirty thousand miles-per-hour in a crosscutting, highly elliptical orbit when it carved Hyperion 004 in half. The concussion blast blew the seal on the docking bay to the orbiter station. Oxygen, along with M&M’s and everything free-floating, shot toward the cavity as cabin pressure vanished into the death vacuum.
A fire burst out along the hydraulic lines running the station’s ceiling, spewing blue flames like an industrial broiler. Emmitt launched across the cabin, impacting the far wall before grabbing the number-two extinguisher from its catch. He sprung off the extinguisher panel toward the burning lines and unleashed a torrential spray of chemical retardant. Every Orbiter, and astronaut for that matter, knows fire is the number one enemy in space. The canister’s recoil pushed him down to the floor, pinning him. Exhaust from the flames and extinguisher rushed toward the broken seal in the airlock, sucked out under the unrelenting laws of physics.
Laika stomped toward the busted docking bay with heavy magnetic clanks. He reached to an emergency pull-down lever above the hatch. Nearing deathly low limits of oxygen, every emergency siren screamed and every warning light dutifully warned. The lieutenant remained strapped to his computer module, in shock and unable to muster any significant reaction. Outside, the Hyperion ship looked as if an M-80 detonated inside a tuna can. Disaster everywhere. Laika refocused. If he didn’t close the docking bay breach immediately, his crew would perish.
“Emmitt, get over here!” ordered Laika, wrestling with the emergency seal.
A piece of shrapnel breached the door making it impossible to close the seal over the top of it. The object protruded through from outside like a jagged spear, precious oxygen escaping around it. It appeared to be the thinner half of Hyperion’s COMMS antenna. Dropping the extinguisher to float away, Emmitt leapt from the floor to grab the shrapnel and pulled, his feet planted on either side of the hole against the wall, his body horizontal to the floor. Nothing happened.
“Goddammit Emmitt!” screamed Laika.
The heavy fire extinguisher flew by his head, missing killing him by less than an inch and impacting the docking hatch so hard it left a dent in the steel plating. He didn’t have time to acknowledge his mistake. At this point, all floating objects not tied down in the cabin were hurtling toward the breach as the vacuum of space continued to strip the station of life.
“Hang on!” Emmitt dialed a clicker-button on his heel plate and brought his magnetic boots to the floor until they locked. He lifted his right boot and swung. The impact was like a sledgehammer striking an iron railroad tie. Again and again he kicked, gasping for air. With a determined blow the antenna fragment whooshed away back into space, leaving an even larger hole where it vacated.
All remaining oxygen instantly evacuated the cabin. M&M’s blew through the opening like candied buckshot. Laika slammed the seal over the busted door and slugged the handle to lockdown. Gasping for breath he stomped to the control bay, keying rapid commands over his stunned Lieutenant. Within seconds oxygen re-filled the station and all parties fought to fill their desperate lungs with life. The hydraulic lines attempted ignition with the return of oxygen, but ultimately remained contained by fire retardant. Only a stubbed portion of the Hyperion ship remained attached to the station via the docking system.
“Detach Hyperion,” Laika ordered with his first breath.
“What about the crew?” Emmitt asked.
“They’re dead, soldier.” He turned his attention to the monitors. “Keep tracking incoming debris.” He took another replenishing breath.
“Goddammit Emmitt. What good is an Orbiter if not to protect us from debris?”
“I told you to roll us ninety degrees!”
“You were too late. Christ, you’d think an Orbiter would have us in a safer location.” He turned from chastising Emmitt to face his crew. “DTS should have caught that earlier. Be on alert, systems may be down or—“
From behind the colonel came the distinct snap of the starboard airlock. He spun with anger to realize what his ears had already learned.
Emmitt was inside the darkside airlock, dawning his Orbiter suit. He didn’t think twice. He would perform his duty as an American soldier. Until confirmed dead, he’d mount a rescue attempt for the Hyperion astronauts.