peri·lune: the point in the path of a body orbiting the moon that is nearest to the center of the moon.
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
. . .
Colorado Springs, CO
It had been an uncomfortably silent trip down Interstate 25 (small talk being difficult when apparently everything is classified) when the driver of their black government SUV pulled onto a side road that meandered into the hills around Cheyenne Mountain. They wound their way past nondescript suburbs until arriving at the mountainside entrance to NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense command. They drove past a parking lot which was notable for its complete lack of any cars. It had apparently been turned into a hasty landing pad which was now filled with heavy-lift helicopters and tiltrotors. A camouflaged military policeman kept one hand wrapped around the pistol grip of his M4 carbine as he checked ID’s and waved them through the open blast doors. The massive steel slabs were designed to shield the underground base from every conceivable threat, up to and including a nuclear strike.
Ryan had always harbored doubts about that, but then again the men who’d built it had presumably known what they were doing. So everyone had hoped. Walking through the corridors and anterooms as they descended deeper into the facility, he was struck by its collection of Cold War anachronisms – the place might have been updated over the years, but there was no escaping its origins. For decades, America had been prepared to wage World War III from this location while fully expecting to have been directly targeted by multiple Russian warheads. What a thought to know that somewhere in the world there was a nuclear bunker-buster with your name on it.
As they continued down into the mountain, he realized it would’ve had to be one really big bomb with plenty more coming after it. Supposedly the entire underground complex rested on gigantic shock absorbers – he could only imagine how that ride would feel as nukes plowed into the mountainside.
His thoughts turned to the neighborhoods they’d driven through on the way up: nearly all were base housing, filled with the families of the people who worked here. And the city not far away – all civilians, all living under the threat of unspeakable destruction that could have been visited upon them within thirty minutes of Ivan pushing the proverbial big red button.
His body coursed with involuntary shudders. He was continually amazed at how his perspectives had been turned inside-out by simply having a family. Every experience was now judged against its effects on Marcy and Marshall, and he found himself going through life with his head on a swivel. I’m turning into my dad, he found himself thinking more often than not. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he dreaded the day when he’d inevitably blurt out “Because I said so!” in exasperation.
Ryan had barely paid attention during their quick courtesy tour. Once again he’d let his mind wander, another byproduct of being a rookie parent.
. . .
Penny was caught up in her own mental meanderings. As they went deeper into the complex, she couldn’t escape noticing that a tremendous number of collapsible shipping boxes had been stacked up along the corridors. She recalled that NORAD had supposedly been relocated to more civilized facilities in town years ago, while Cheyenne Mountain was supposed to have been maintained as a fallback site.
Somebody had decided it was time to fall back. Why?
They passed another hallway with a “crew briefing rooms” sign hanging above it. She sidled up to one of their escorts and gently grasped his elbow. “I’ll catch up in a second,” she whispered, flashing an embarrassed smile. It was all too easy for an attractive woman to throw a young man off guard, middle-aged or not. “I need to find the ladies’ room. Too much coffee on the way down.”
The sentry caught the attention of one of his partners and pointed down a side hallway. They soon found a restroom – latrine, she corrected herself – and she paused at the door. “You’re not following me in, are you?”
The young airman’s face flushed red. “No, ma’am. But I’ll have to wait out here for you.”
“Thanks. Sorry for the trouble,” Penny said, and shut the door behind her. She took a quick look around and was grateful to find another door across the room. As expected, things hadn’t changed all that much since her time in uniform – every facility seemed to be designed the same way. She pressed an ear against the metal door, listening for any noise on the other side. Hearing none, she inched it open into a crew locker room that was blessedly empty. She poked her head inside and quickly found what she was looking for: a good old-fashioned message board hung on the wall.
Penny ducked inside and rapidly scanned the postings for anything about unit deployments or other mass movements. As expected, there were lots of references to Cheyenne Mountain: schedules, pickup times, planning meetings…so they had been moved back recently. The mountain had been kept open under the assumption that they’d have time to ramp up operations after Cold War tensions had faded into a distant memory. It had always struck her as a foolishly optimistic move, but that was politics for you.
It looked like NORAD weren’t the only ones going to ground. She found references to other strategic sites being reactivated: old underground missile facilities in Montana and the Dakotas that had been mothballed for years. No information about warheads or missiles, which she wouldn’t expect to find on an open board anyway. But an awful lot of logistics and headquarters squadrons were on the move – big shots and their stuff.
Penny flipped another stack of papers over and found a penciled-in reference to coordinate something with Greenbrier. Greenbrier? Back in the bad old days it had been Washington’s fallback bunker, a duplication of Capitol Hill offices constructed underneath a mountain resort in West Virginia.
So the whole national command and warfighting structure was digging in?
Raucous voices erupted from the other end of the room; another door had opened as an outbound crew entered from an adjacent briefing room. Crap. She spun around and was relieved to see two solid rows of lockers between them and her. She stepped quietly back to the latrine door and slipped through with her back to them.
Safely on the other side, Penny leaned against the door and caught her breath. So what does this have to do with us? She quickly straightened her hair, then flushed the toilet and ran the sink for effect before stepping back out. She almost ran into her escort standing squarely in the doorway, about to knock.
“We have to hurry, ma’am; briefing starts in five. The President doesn’t take kindly to stragglers.”
There’s still some minor (I think) artistic tweaking left but overall this is pretty sweet, as all of J.T.’s work has been. I had been a little iffy on the title until seeing it in the cover art, but now I’m stoked.
Yes, this means the Perigee sequel is in the home stretch. In the meantime, if you haven’t read the first book yet then follow the link and get yourself over to Amazon. It’s on a $0.99 Kindle Countdown Deal and the clock is ticking.
In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at Perilune:
PART ONE: Vectors
Human nature is to take the body’s exchange of oxygen for granted, at least until that most fundamental task threatens to become impossible.
Simon Poole could now barely think of anything else, despite spending much of his adult life at the mercy of the machinery that protected his fragile body and provided for its needs. He’d learned how to escape from a crippled submarine and practiced surviving rapid decompressions in space, but through all of that the simple act of breathing had always been something he just did.
Poole’s skin burned from a million needle pricks, his capillaries warning against the rapidly evacuating air. His lungs burned—once the pressure differential became low enough, trying to hold his breath would rupture them like overinflated balloons. He’d have to will himself to exhale past the reflexive panic that would surely come as his brain began to ache for air, before hypoxia set in. Before he became delirious.
He just hoped his eyeballs didn’t freeze first.
He struggled with the release clamps surrounding the airlock hatch and cursed the engineers that had made them so overcomplicated. What a damned stupid place to store the emergency patch kits in the first place…more items for his flight debriefs once they returned to Denver—whenever that might be.
The compartment walls behind him fluttered and rippled as the supporting air escaped. The hab was essentially a big Kevlar balloon surrounding a central tunnel, and it now threatened to collapse like a child’s birthday decoration. The cylindrical walls began to fall around him, something his vacuum-addled mind strangely welcomed. It was getting awfully cold. Maybe this would be warmer.
A sudden, piercing headache sharpened his focus. Poole braced himself against the lip of the hatchway and gave the lever one final, frantic twist. The stubborn portal sprang open violently and he felt a stinging blow as it connected with his arm. With normal air pressure on the opposite side, the simple act of breaking the seal was enough for the hatch to release as if it had been kicked open by some invisible giant.
No matter. Poole had to keep going, and so he ignored the throbbing pain to push ahead into the welcome rush of air. As the compartment emptied into the encroaching vacuum behind him, he inhaled deeply and finally risked holding a breath. The headache mercifully disappeared with it.
Thinking clearly again, he used his good arm to reach back and pull the hatch shut. It was much harder work, pulling against the torrent of air flowing out. Grunting from the strain, he finally felt the hatch seat itself against the rim and heard a satisfying whistle taper off as the pressure stabilized.
Peering through the door’s small porthole, he watched as the hab module finally collapsed around its central structure. Fully exposed to space, it rippled aimlessly like a loose sail in doldrum seas. The blood stains that had pasted the sleeping compartment bulkheads were shaken loose, and he saw globules of his first officer’s vital fluids undulating across the voided chamber.
Simon Poole twisted away from the window and numbly took stock of his surroundings. There wasn’t much to inventory: some emergency rations and a first aid kit were about it. And there–the emergency patch kit. Fat lot of good it’d do now.
After another luxurious lungful of air, he exhaled with a sigh. This tiny compartment was likely to become his sarcophagus. As the ancient Egyptian kings had once commanded their servants to face eternity buried with them beneath the great pyramids, so would he spend it in this small aluminum cylinder, doomed to forever circle the Moon.
Polaris AeroSpace Lines
Two hours earlier
Audrey Wilkes could have sworn her watch was running backwards: hadn’t it already been two A.M. an hour ago?
The Omega Speedmaster on her wrist, a ladies’ version of the classic astronaut model, had been the one indulgence she’d allowed herself from the signing bonus Arthur Hammond had offered when he’d hired her away from NASA. She’d kept it meticulously synchronized with the Naval Observatory’s atomic clock from the moment she’d removed it from the box. She never took it off, save for her habitual morning trail runs through the foothills after work.
Night shifts had become an inescapable fixture of her existence, though she was forced to admit it was where they needed her most. The boss still wanted his lead flight director on duty during the critical phases of each mission – cruise, she corrected herself. And those were driven by physics and the needs of the passengers; at times it was hard to tell which was the more exacting. In this case, flying paying customers into lunar orbit had been a constant balancing act between the two and her presence was probably the only reason Hammond hadn’t been haunting the ops center in the middle of the night. He had to be here during the day to run the company, which was a bit of shame as the Big Guy usually brought plenty of food to share with the night crew.
He’d practically lived here while they had run their first proving flights into lunar orbit, until the FAA’s new Office of Space Transportation had been satisfied that they could safely pull off something more than a simple free-return trajectory. That Art had managed to also keep a handle on the rest of the business through all of that micro-management reminded her of why she preferred to stay in ops.
This trip had felt as demanding as all the previous ones put together: a multi-national expedition bankrolled by a planetary scientist who’d been keenly interested in personally surveying the lunar surface from low orbit. His team had lugged enough gear with them: optical telescopes, laser interferometers, even a compact mass driver…as she understood it, they were prospecting for new resources to exploit. It made perfect sense to her, as that region’s grip on the world’s oil supply had steadily weakened while a new economy was taking root beyond Earth orbit. Hammond’s engineers weren’t the only ones working on landers; when the time came they just might be able to do something with whatever might be find in the lunar regolith. Up there, water would be more precious than petroleum had ever been down here.
Glancing up at the control room’s giant wall screens, she checked the mission clocks against her copy of the flight plan and impatiently tapped a pencil along the edge of her desk. Behind her, a gaggle of flight controllers and technicians kept tabs on the company’s fleet of suborbital Clippers. Having finally placed most of the world’s major cities within two hour’s reach, the spaceplanes had become as close to routine as they probably ever could. And “routine” didn’t carry much meaning around here. Hammond always seemed to have another big idea waiting in the wings: his life’s goal had apparently been to amass enough wealth to finally build all of the fantastic machines he’d conceived since childhood. Men and their toys…
Everyone had assumed the “Block II” orbital Clippers would be his last venture. Sharing the original model’s same stubby wings and wedge form, their upgraded engines and external drop tanks allowed regular flights to orbit from the old shuttle landing strip at Cape Canaveral. Instead of ending there, Hammond had in turn plowed the profits from those contracts into his next venture: the Caravelle orbital liners.
The Caravelles were surprisingly less complex machines than the Clippers that serviced them. A barrel-shaped inflatable module held enough living space for less than a dozen people and was capped at either end by docking ports, one was surrounded by a cluster of tanks, antennae and solar panels. On its own this could host people in orbit for weeks, but when joined with a separate command and propulsion unit it could be pushed into a permanent orbit between Earth and Moon. The flight module was a fat cylinder of carbon fiber and aluminum, festooned with tanks, thrusters, and a bulky cluster of larger orbital engines at its rear. The tapered front end featured two large oval windows above its own docking port, looking for all the world like a dog’s snout. It was no coincidence they’d nicknamed the flight modules Snoopy and Spike.
She’d been skeptical of filling a big Kevlar balloon full of people and sending it off into the void, but enough tests with various projectiles fired from a high-velocity cannon had finally convinced her the complex could survive several micro-meteor strikes. The first liner, Shepard, had successfully been proving the concept for almost a year now. Once the second ship, Grissom, had finished its checkouts they would be able to take a new group of travelers on a leisurely swing around the Moon every other week. When word got out that they were testing landing skids and descent thrusters for taking the flight modules down to the surface, both mineral exploration groups and small countries with big ambitions had begun clamoring for their own private charters.
A call from Audrey’s trajectory officer interrupted her contemplation. “Loss of Signal in five,” he calmly reminded her. “Gimbals are right on for their burn vector.” As “Big Al” fell tail-first around the back side of the Moon, its main engines would slow them just enough to let the Moon’s gravity capture the ship into orbit. This was a big enough event; that it would happen after they had slipped behind the far side (and into radio blackout) didn’t make it any easier for her to project calm.
“Copy that,” she said dispassionately, simultaneously chiding herself for letting her mind wander. She had to find a way off the graveyard shift one of these days.
. . .
Simon Poole had been around the world many times over, though the depths he’d navigated as a submariner had kept him from enjoying much of a view – or many of the world’s more exotic ports, for that matter. So far, this job was more than making up for it. Remarkably similar as it could be to life on his beloved nuke boats, he relished the differences of life aboard a spacecraft. Windows, most notably. Everyone at home always asked about the zero-g experience, which he found surprising: wouldn’t everyone want to come up here just for the view?
His position as Captain afforded him the opportunity to see a good bit more. While docked, the flight module’s forward windows were dominated by the hab’s outer skin. Fortunately, the command deck was topped with an observation dome which afforded him and his small crew an expansive view. The dome placed the entirety of their Earth-Moon transit into view at once for a stunning demonstration of the distances they traveled and the yawning gulf beyond.
Poole stole a glance over the pilot’s shoulder to get his bearings before poking his head up into the dome. The ship was oriented tail-first in the direction of its orbit, so he spun about for a look at their destination. The darkened moon loomed outside like a hole in the roof of stars. The crescent sapphire of Earth looked terrifyingly small as it was about to slip beneath the horizon, once they fell into shadow and utter isolation.
He turned at a rustling noise from beneath. A stocky man in a company-issued jumpsuit floated into the control cabin. Poole recognized their lead passenger right away by his neatly-trimmed goatee. “Good evening, Dr. Drake. Still having trouble sleeping?” They turned down the interior lighting every twelve hours for the sake of continuity, but night and day quickly had a way of becoming irrelevant out here.
“Afraid so,” he replied. “It’s rather difficult to get used to. And I’m afraid Dr. DeCarlo is too excited for everyone. He’s forever fretting over his instruments and talking to himself.”
“We stock plenty of sleep aids for that problem,” Poole offered with an empathetic smile. Adjusting to long-term weightlessness was often harder than expected, and having to deal with other people’s noise made rest all the more difficult. He’d been exposed to both during his previous stint on NASA’s space station, but could never say he’d become truly accustomed to either. The sensation of freedom wore off the moment he tried to sleep. There was much to be said for having a soft bed to settle into at the end of a long day.
Drake braced himself against a handrail. “They’re narcotics, correct?” he asked, politely waving away the suggestion.
“Of course, Doctor,” Poole said. Most of their passengers held to strict religious preferences. “My apologies.”
Drake’s own smile was disarming. “Think nothing of it, Captain. The truth be known, it’s doubtful that I’d rest regardless. I’m a bit anxious right now.”
Now it was Poole’s turn to wave away his concern. “Don’t worry yourself. We’ve done this before.” Once. He’d never let on that it still made him nervous as hell. Falling towards a giant ball of rock at three thousand miles per hour, aiming themselves just ahead of the thing, then slowing down just enough to get flung into orbit without first crashing into the surface wasn’t nearly as bothersome as getting out of it. With my luck, the engines will work fine the first time and go tits-up the second. Which was when it really counted, of course. Otherwise, there would be no return trip home – at least until the company could expedite the other liner out to meet them. Depending on where they were in relation to each other, that could easily take a month thanks to the peculiarities of orbital motion and the limits of chemical rockets. Neither ship could just “turn and burn” and hightail it up to lunar orbit.
“Thank you, Captain,” Drake said. “Would it be possible for me to observe from up here? The view is so much better than from my room.”
Poole was tempted to oblige but the safety rules were strict: no passengers in the control deck during critical maneuvers. There weren’t very many of those: entering and leaving orbit or rendezvousing with a Clipper were about it. “I’m afraid not,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “There are a few times that we must insist everyone be buckled down, and this is one of them.”
Drake actually looked somewhat relieved. “I understand of course,” he said, taking one more look around the control deck. “I’m surprised your entire crew isn’t up for this.”
“All but one. Mister Brandt is off duty in his quarters.” Either Poole or his First Officer were always at work in the control deck or resting in the crew compartment.
Drake appeared satisfied. “I see,” he said. “Then I shall leave those matters in your capable hands. Good night, Captain.”
Poole nodded with a polite smile as Drake pushed off through the open hatch. When the control deck was clear, he floated forward and pulled himself down into the observation seat. Its position, centered behind the pilot’s stations, had turned it into a de facto Captain’s chair during his tenure. As he’d played a major role in the initial layout, it wasn’t entirely by accident. “Sorry for the distraction, fellas,” he said. “Have to play nice with the payload, don’t we?”
“We’d get that a lot on the Clippers too,” one laughed. “Our advantage was the passengers didn’t have as much time in zero-g. It kept the exploring to a minimum.”
“The hardened cockpit doors didn’t hurt either.” Poole unlocked a touch-screen control panel in the ceiling and rotated it down in front of him. He called up a countdown timer from the flight computer. “Just in time, looks like. Anything change while I was socializing?”
“Negative,” the senior pilot said coolly, not turning away from his own instrument panel. “Just finished the LOI checklist with Denver. Loss of Signal in…thirty seconds, burn is two minutes later. Propellant is stirred and settled but we’re keeping the blowdown fans on for good measure.”
“Good idea, but keep an eye on the temps.” Poole snapped into the four-point harness and snugged down into the seat. He pulled his headset microphone in close and thumbed the intercom switch. “This is the Captain,” he announced quietly, hoping not to disturb any light sleepers. “We are two minutes from lunar orbit insertion. You’ll feel light gravity for a few minutes while we’re doing our braking burn, so please strap in and secure any loose items in your sleeping berths.”
The copilot had finished their final checks with Denver just as Earth slipped beneath the moon’s limb. The reassuring buzz of their radio’s carrier wave abruptly stuttered into emptiness. Their tenuous link to home was replaced by an eerie hiss: the background noise of the universe.
Poole watched as the pilots busied themselves with final checks, purposefully tuning out that too-audible reminder of their isolation. Satisfied their orientation and velocity was spot-on, he finally reached up to kill the volume. It was utterly silent but for the hum of air circulation pumps. Outside was pitch black, being fully in the Moon’s shadow underscored their sense of isolation. Free-return trajectories had felt a little less harrowing; simple physics ensured there was no way they wouldn’t emerge from blackout an hour later.
As the flight computer ticked down to LOI, Poole watched a computer-animated version of their ship trace a curve around a computer-generated Moon. A pulsating dot floated just ahead, a graphic depiction of an otherwise empty point in space which held the utmost significance. The main engines fired as soon as they reached it, pushing them into their seats and filling the ship with a reassuring rumble as its rockets fired steadily at their backs. The lead pilot spoke up over the new noise. “Nominal chamber pressure, nominal propellant flow. We’re solid –”
Poole whipped his head around. “You hear that?” He’d long ago become familiar with the ship’s odd creaks and shimmies: random noises that eventually settled into familiar patterns. This was distinctly foreign, the snap of a tree branch in still woods. A barely-perceptible draft tickled the hair on his arms. Air movement. Not good.
Before he could mention this latest sensation, a bang echoed from deep inside the passenger hab, maybe the supply compartments…or the aft airlock. “I don’t like this one bit,” Poole announced, punching the quick-release on his harness and slipping out of his seat. He twisted down to grab an access ladder embedded in the deck and steadied himself against the fraction of gravity from their furiously burning engines. Heading aft, the draft became noticeably stronger as a klaxon blared to life. The copilot began stabbing feverishly at the overhead life-support panel.