"Two minutes to drop, Zulu." Steady and calm, the SR-3 copilot's voice reached Zeller through earphones built into his astronaut-style helmet.

"Gaspipe's good to go," he replied, using a cryptic call sign that controllers had given the spaceplane early in its flight test program. His comments were transmitted to a ground-based control room at Groom Lake, a super-secret Air Force facility in north-central Nevada.

A glance at the clock showed double-digit seconds remaining until release. Zeller completed the last items on a prelaunch checklist, then verified his gold-tinted helmet faceplate was secured in the down-and-locked position. He felt a mix of heightened senses, anticipation and a familiar calmness. Years had passed since he'd flown the XOV-2, but other highly classified programs had taken him into low-Earth orbit in the meantime. He cracked a smile, wondering whether he'd ever be able to tell his wife and two sons that he'd logged hundreds of hours in space. Probably not, given a Mafia-like code of silence that ruled the closed, super-classified "black world" in which he worked.

"Mach three-point-zero; on-track. Launch in five, four, three, two, one, release!"

Zeller felt a thump of jaw-like clevices opening, freeing the sleek, titanium-gray spaceplane. It dropped rapidly, leaving him weightless. A blast of stark, high-altitude sunlight forced him to squint, despite being filtered through his gold-filmed visor. One-thousand-one, he counted, giving the XOV-2 time to fall well clear of the SR-3 mothership, which was banking sharply to his left. Zeller punched a button on the inside of the throttle in his left hand. A sharp kick confirmed the XOV's aerospike engines had ignited. Instant acceleration shoved his body backwards, forcing it deeper into a conformal seatback.

A glance at the engine display confirmed all four banks of 'spikes' were cooking, fed by a stream of boron-based gel fuel and what little atmospheric oxygen could be sucked from the air at 60,000 feet. Later, in space, liquid oxygen stored in pressurized tanks deep within the XOV's fuselage would automatically flow to the engines, keeping the fire burning.

"Gaspipe's clear; accelerating to pick up climb schedule," he radioed, easing the throttle forward. As the spaceplane's speed increased, he thumbed a trim button on the right-hand sidestick controller, ensuring the aircraft remained in level flight.

"Gaspipe, mission control shows you in the green. Cleared to climb."

Zeller acknowledged with a double-click of the radio-transmitter switch, jammed the throttle full forward, and smoothly pulled the control stick aft to pitch the vehicle's nose skyward. Eyes flicking between the instrument panel and the view outside his canopy, he noted the Earth's curved horizon disappear under the XOV's shark-shaped nose. Zeller locked the pitch angle at eighty-degrees nose-up, trimming out stick pressures as the spaceplane accelerated almost straight up. "G-forces," a measure of that acceleration, felt like a huge hand pressing on his chest, making it difficult to breathe normally. Mach numbers clicking by rapidly were testament to ever-increasing speed. Outside, a deep-purple sky gave way to the dark vastness of space.

"Gaspipe, on the zoom profile. Lookin' great, Zulu," a flight test engineer confirmed. On the ground, a team of experienced, exceptionally bright engineers monitored hundreds of parameters measured by a swarm of sensors throughout the XOV-2, their data continuously transmitted to sensitive antennas on the ground. A dozen sets of eyes tracked temperatures, pressures, fuel flow rates and other critical parameters, ensuring the spaceplane's myriad systems were all functioning as intended.

Somewhere above the 100,000-foot altitude, speed readouts automatically switched from Mach number to feet-per-second, a subtle reminder that the spaceplane was now above most of Earth's life-giving atmosphere. Zulu Zeller was back in space.

"Control, how's inclination?" he snapped.

"Nominally thirty-five degrees. Hold what you've got. Lookin' good." Zeller bumped the trim button again, then relaxed his gloved grip on the sidestick. He was on-track, his flight trajectory forming a thirty-five-degree angle with the Earth's equator, rocketing to a predetermined orbit. Indeed, the tiny XOV symbol on his pilot's flight display was inching along a purple arc, confirmation that he was flying the spaceplane to precisely the right location. That's what test pilots are s'posed to do, isn't it? he mused absently. Still, it was personally satisfying to put a flying vehicle exactly where it had to be in three-dimensional space. Damn few people could do that consistently.

"Gaspipe, Control: twenty seconds to engine cutoff...Mark!"

Zeller acknowledged, then focused on keeping his spaceplane astride that purple arc. This was where he earned the big bucks. If the nose dipped a tad too much now, he'd be forced to release his payload in a too-low orbit, where it would soon slow to a critical velocity, fall back into the thick atmosphere and burn up. Two microsatellites nestled in a tightly packed "Q-bay" a few feet behind the XOV's cockpit were vital to the U.S. Navy's far-flung operations. Designed and built by the Naval Research Laboratory, "Arthur" and "Lancelot," the highly classified satellites' code names, were dual-mission prototype spacecraft crammed with cutting-edge technology.

Satisfied that he'd done everything humanly possible to fly XOV-2 to the correct point in space, Zeller engaged auto-nav, the spaceplane's autopilot. It was now up to the navigation system's quad-redundant computers to coordinate with the aerospike engines hundreds of times per second, ensuring the XOV wound up in the targeted orbit.

"Gaspipe, Control shows engine cutoff...now. Confirm."

A sudden lack of acceleration threw Zeller forward against the seat's restraint straps. An eerie silence and peaceful sense of weightlessness greeted him, a welcome change from the persistent g-forces of sustained acceleration.

"Gaspipe confirms a clean engine cutoff. Are we on-track?" Zeller's multicolored flight display seemed to say "yes," but ground control had access to highly accurate tracking-radar data. He didn't.

"Roger, Gaspipe. Right where we wanted you. Congrats on another perfect insertion, Zulu."

"Nice to be back in the Blackstar business, guys," Zeller replied, grinning widely. Damn, how fantastic! And they pay me to do this! he marveled silently, stealing a moment to revel in the magical experience of drifting above a multicolored Earth, suspended in blackness. He turned his attention to the reason for being here: deploying two microsatellites. Time was the most-critical parameter now, and he had one h--- of a lot to do. Particularly critical now, since he'd picked up a secondary mission.

Over the next few minutes, Zeller remotely activated the clamshell Q-bay doors, extended a trapeze-like structure, and gently released the "Arthur" microsatellite. A few subtle nudges of in-space flight controls fired tiny vernier rockets, which moved the spaceplane well clear of "Arthur." A payload team at a classified east-coast location first commanded the spacecraft to deploy two surprisingly small, folded solar panels, ensuring the bird would receive a vital trickle of electricity for months to come.

Both microsatellites were powered by a new, secret "proton battery" developed by a small laboratory in Huntsville, Alabama. If it performed as advertised, the battery would discharge very slowly, while powering onboard electro-optical and radar imaging systems and a vital communications-relay package. Solar panel-generated electricity would top up the battery's charge, ensuring onboard systems could operate in orbit for years.

Together, the two birds would restore essential command-and-control communication links with two Navy carrier groups patrolling the North Pacific. Comm with those forces had been sporadic, at best, since that North Korean nuke had exploded, silencing a swarm of U.S. communications satellites in low-Earth orbit, as well as a near-space, blimp-like "HARVe" comm-relay platform shadowing the carriers. Thanks to the miracle of modern microelectronics and photonics, the two microsats could also acquire high-resolution, visible-light, infrared and synthetic-aperture radar images over politically sensitive regions of the globe. Granted, they could not stare continuously at one area, but their final, elliptical orbits would be optimized to give lengthy views of Southeast Asia and Eastern China. The intel guys must be in dire need of eyes on North Korea and China, Zeller surmised.

Working methodically, Zeller completed the deployment of "Arthur" and "Lancelot" ahead of schedule, a feat applauded by the control team at Groom Lake.

"Gaspipe, ready to initiate 'Operation Retrograde,' whenever you are," the flight test engineer announced.

"Stand by, Control. Reorienting," Zeller said. He carefully entered several navigation parameters and cross-checked them. "Confirm auto-nav settings, Control." Normally, all in-space nav data would have been preloaded in the navigation systems' computers, but there had been no time to do so prior to flight. The last-minute, add-on 'Retrograde' mission could only be accomplished by relying, once again, on a human being in space.

Zeller relished that thought. Somehow, it felt like he'd won a subtle victory in the inexorable, losing battle between humans and "cyber-borgs," as he called computer-centric systems. Yeah, 'borgs could do some things far better, definitely with greater precision, than a man, but 'borgs weren't as flexible. Human "gray-matter," the stuff between a man's ears, was still the most flexible, adaptable computer on the planet...or above it, in this case.

"Control, Gaspipe's in nominal position, 'spikes in the green, auto-nav armed. Ready to initiate cross-track burn."

"Control confirms positioning. Standby for five-second burn; ignition on my call... Five, four, three, two, burn!"

Zeller again punched the throttle-mounted engine-start button. He felt and heard two banks of aerospike powerplants fire, silently praying that the auto-nav system would deliver the perfect combination of thrust and attitude. If something went awry, he and the XOV could wind up hopelessly adrift in the wrong orbit, potentially unable to safely reenter the Earth's atmosphere and fly back to Groom Lake. He shoved that thought aside and focused on the XOV icon drifting across his pilot's display, inching toward the new orbit's magenta line.

"Engines auto-cutoff," Zeller announced via radio.

"Gaspipe, control confirms. Standby, Zulu. We're recomputing your new track." Zeller waited. He hated the waiting, knowing these next few minutes of cross-track drift spelled the difference between mission success or, worst case, new threats to his pink body.

"Gaspipe, Control confirms you're on-track. Nominal burn, nominal attitude. On-course to intercept VenezSat's orbit in two minutes...Mark!"

"Gaspipe copies. Great job, Control," Zeller replied, knowing his sense of relief was shared by those on the ground. Thanks, Lord, he added, to himself.

Zeller loved flying, and he was hopelessly addicted to the adrenaline rush that came with probing the boundaries of flight, the elite realm of test pilots. But he also cherished life. Since man had first taken to the skies, myriad test pilots had died "pushing the envelope," and he had no intention of joining their ranks. Zeller prided himself on using every tool and skill at his disposal to mitigate risk and minimize hazards. But, at times like this, a pilot's fate was beyond his control. It rested with the vagaries of mechanical systems, electronic circuits, microprocessor calculations and attention-to-detail diligence of some faceless software-code writer in a far-away cubicle long ago. That's when Zeller and his fellow test pilots privately turned their fate over to a higher power. There weren't a lot of atheists in the flight-testing fraternity.

"Gaspipe, two miles from your target. VenezSat should be at twelve o'clock, thirty degrees above you," the controller said, tension coloring his words.

Zeller searched the sky, slowly shifting his eyes left to right. Gotcha! "Control, tally-ho; target in sight," he announced. "Ready to go manual."

"Standby, Gaspipe. Auto-nav will get you a bit closer." The controller was subtly telling Zulu to be patient; let the 'borg do its job first, before turning control back to the pilot.

Zeller watched the slow-motion ballet unfold, as the XOV flew below Venezuela's "research satellite," the spaceplane's vernier rockets firing in quick bursts to bring the XOV onto a parallel flight path. He watched VenezSat drift overhead, maybe a hundred yards above his canopy, its solar panels glinting in the ultra-bright sunshine. He wondered if the spacecraft's optics were tracking him, but the bird displayed no outward indication that it knew he was in the neighborhood.

"Gaspipe, you're cleared manual. Good luck, Zulu," the controller said tightly. It was now up to Zeller. Gently, he initially maneuvered his craft to a position ahead and below the target satellite. A few quick bursts of verniers raised his orbital trajectory, allowing the XOV to slowly narrow the gap with VenezSat. Using only his fingertips to avoid an unintentional roll input, Zeller cautiously pulled the control stick back, starting a slow pitch-up, back-flip maneuver, guiding the spaceplane's nose until it aligned with what would be considered the leading-edge surface of VenezSat's body. A few bursts of the XOV's aft verniers closed the separation to about thirty feet, drifting slowly.

The pilot mentally reviewed his task: essentially flying tail-first, he would guide the XOV until its nose contacted the satellite. A short-duration burst of longitudinal-axis thrust would serve to decrease the satellite's velocity, causing VenezSat to start dropping toward Earth. At some point, it would settle into a much lower, "retrograde" orbit. If calculations performed by 14th Air Force's space wizards proved to be correct, Hugo Chavez's pride and joy spacecraft would not be able to boost itself back up to its former orbit. At that point, it would no longer pose a threat to Bigelow Aerospace's Sundancer habitat module and its three astronauts. Stuck in a lower orbit, Earth's upper atmosphere would increase drag on solar panels and other surfaces, gradually slowing VenezSat's velocity. The vehicle's trajectory would steadily grow steeper as velocity decreased, until the spacecraft fell into the atmosphere and burned up on reentry.

Without warning, Zeller was blinded by a white-hot flash. For a millisecond, his brain registered a ragged-edged object flying directly at him. Then his world turned black....[continued]

Courtesy of Erik Simonsen - Artist

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