David L. Burkhead
CHAPTER ONE (Part three)Jared Arthurs stared out the dorsal viewport in the living module of the C.A.M.P.E.R. Beyond the huge double dishes of the solar-thermal power collectors he could just make out the shining glint of A. C. Clarke, FTI's seven-year-old space station. He had to search to spot it. In a Geosynchronous orbit, it shone in the reflected sunlight about as bright as a second magnitude star. If he watched without moving, Jared could just see the movement against the star background.
From the corner of his eye Jared could see Michelle O’Brien, one of the engineering crew testing new zero-g machine shop tools, staring into her laptop computer’s display.
One week, Jared thought, returning his attention to the view outside. One more week and it's all over.
Clarke, and three other stations just like it, had put C.A.M.P.E.R. Incorporated out of business. He wanted to hate them, but he couldn't. FTI had done what Jared had tried to do--bring the cost of working in space down to an affordable level--only better.
Since Schneider’s company had been operating, clients for C.A.M.P.E.R. had dried up. For the few that remained, he had launched their missions, performed their research, and compiled their results. The current mission, to test equipment for a zero-G machine shop, was the last. When this one finished in another week C.A.M.P.E.R. Incorporated would be defunct. All they had going for them was one purchase offer--tendered by Richard Schneider.
Jared forced a wan smile. The Civilian Astronautical Manned Platform for Extended Research had had a good run, but now it was over.
"Mr. Arthurs?" Wade Nicks, senior engineer on the research team, called to him.
"What is it, Wade?"
"I think you'd better take a look at this."
At Jared's nod Wade led the way through the station with almost frantic haste. Jared considered calling him on the safety violation, but did not. In the three months they had been aboard, Wade had impressed Jared as a careful, serious researcher who never rushed anything. He would have a good reason for his speed.
Michelle followed behind him.
"Here." Wade stopped at a ventral viewport. "Look south, over North Africa. Tell me I'm hallucinating. Please tell me I'm hallucinating."
Jared looked. "Below" them the Mediterranean rolled by. Just to the south, from the North African Confederacy, scores of bright pinpricks, brilliant even against the sunlit Mediterranean, crawled northward.
Jared looked up at Wade's anxious face.
"Please tell me those aren't missiles," Wade said.
"I would," Jared stared back out through the viewport, "but I'd be lying."
"Who started a war?" Wade voice sounded half an octave higher in pitch than its normal tone. His face went white. His hands clenched and opened repeatedly.
"I don't know." Jared had to fight down panic himself. He swallowed at the gorge that rose in his throat.
As he looked back out the port, fully half the missiles flared briefly and died. Another wave started, more than a third exploding much too soon to be destroyed by missile defenses. Jared snorted. Was their reliability that bad?
A sound, like the rattling of a thousand hailstones on a tin roof, echoed throughout the station and ended almost as soon as it had begun. The lights died. Even the ever-present whir of the ventilation fans quit. A few seconds later, the emergency systems cut in. Jared sighed with relief at the reassuring whine of the emergency fans.
"What?" Despite the fear apparent in his voice, Wade reacted properly. He hauled himself by handrail to one side of the module, leaving the central corridor clear for traffic and placing himself by an emergency bubble--just in case.
"I think somebody's defenses mistook us for a missile," Jared said. He cocked his head to one side. He could not feel any pressure change in his ears so he assumed that the module had not been perforated.
The other two members of the crew, Crystal Gibson and Ralph Moulton, burst through the hatchway into the module, but Jared's chopping gesture stopped them before they could say anything. He turned back to the viewport to watch.
Their orbital path took C.A.M.P.E.R. within view of the United States as the remaining North African missiles began their reentry, burning bright as meteors. Rising points of light, the bright flare from powerful rocket engines, met the incoming warheads as the missile arm of the U.S.’s final stage defensive system fought back. Other weapons, invisible to Jared's eyes, would also be shooting.
As Jared watched, three reentry traces faded as the warheads slowed below hypersonic speed. Even seen from space, the fireballs left purple spots in front of Jared's eyes. One warhead exploded in Kansas, another in southeastern Ohio, and the third either in Montana or just across the border in Canada.
Almost before the light from the explosions had died away, the U.S. retaliated. About two dozen missiles flew. Six of them, however, followed a track different from the remainder, more northward. Jared’s breath caught as he realized those missiles were probably heading for Russia although he could not imagine why.
Russia lay below the horizon when C.A.M.P.E.R.’s next orbit took them around the world, but when they again passed over the U.S. a small flock of missiles, one not launched by the North Africans, descended on the US.
After the initial spasm, no more missiles flew. Jared watched for three more orbits before allowing himself to relax slightly.
"It looks like Earth may survive this war," Jared said.
The missile barrages had ended. It did indeed look like Earth was going to survive the war. Jared was far less sanguine about the crew of C.A.M.P.E.R.
END CHAPTER ONE