Silver-Side Up (43 Seconds Bonus Short, 1900 words)

SPOILER ALERT: Have you read 43 Seconds yet? If not, stop, get yourself a copy, then continue (seriously, it's only 99 cents). Silver-Side Up follows along with James and William's storyline six months after the conclusion of 43 Seconds.

 

SILVER-SIDE UP

Bonus Short for 43 Seconds

 

William Pratt stands before the silver spaceship, waiting. Behind him, the Starstrider spans thirty meters of runway. Late-day sunlight gleams along the wing seams in golden flares while azure sky bends along the ship’s fuselage. The navy and crimson Hayden-Pratt logo adorns twin tails. William sweeps his arm out like someone showing off a new car. “Well?”

James Hayden walks up to the ship and runs his hand along a wing. He wears a pair of aviator sunglasses and a suede jacket. “You couldn’t come up with a better name than Starstrider?”

William smirks. “Oh, come on, we’re running out of birds to name things after. Live a little.”

James ducks under the wing. It’s painted sky blue on the underside, transitioning smoothly to silver on the top. “Variable-sweep wings, like the old Grumman F-14.”

“Yeah, they collapse for spaceflight and re-entry.”

“Comet silver, my favorite.” He emerges on the trailing-side of the wing and eyes up the stabilizers.

“So,” William begins, “you going to keep kicking the tires or you want to take it out for drive?”

He smiles. “Thought you’d never ask. Any advice for flying her?”

William points to the top of the ship. “Yeah, try and keep the silver-side up.”

James climbs the stairs and enters the cockpit. Two pilot’s seats, two jumpseats, a bank of trapezoidal windows, plus all of the controls and instrumentation you’d expect to find on a transorbital craft. The passenger cabin door is open and he peers back. Looks like a luxury apartment back there. He slings himself into the pilot’s seat.

William sits in the co-pilot’s seat and begins working the pre-flight checklist. He reaches for the tower handshake icon but James interrupts.

“Let’s do this right,” James says. He taps opens tower comms. “HP Nevada ground, Hayden-Pratt Echo Sierra Two Three requesting verbal flight instruction.”

William shakes his head. “You’re such a relic.”

“Mr. Hayden,” the voice on comms says, “we had a bit of a bet here. Thanks for helping me win. HP-ES23 is cleared to transit path Bravo Nine. Maintain runway heading.”

James smiles. “This is my favorite part. Ready?”

“This should be interesting. You did log all your hours in the simulator, right?”

James winks and clicks his harness closed. The Starstrider’s RF drive hums online as the boarding stairway folds up. Once the ship is secure James edges it off the pavement, one meter, two meters, then slows it to a standstill. William flicks a switch on the overhead and the landing gear retracts. The ship hovers motionless. “Oh yeah,” James says, “this is different.”

“Reactionless drive. You could blast straight up if you wanted to.” Will holds up a cautionary hand. “Don’t do that, though. You’ll rip the wings off. Gotta fly it.”

“That I can do.” 

The comms voice says, “Hayden-Pratt Echo Sierra Two Three, cleared for takeoff. Have fun, gentlemen.”

James takes the yoke and throttles the ship forward. It feels odd, the buttery-smooth push of the RF drive he’s used to in space but with something pushing back. Air resistance. As the ship picks up speed he feels its wings flex and needs to adjust his thinking to accommodate two separate lift forces. Wispy cirrus clouds fill a powder blue gradient through the front windows. When he’s a few kilometers high HP Nevada is a triangle of runway lines and square buildings nestled in endless tan desert. At fifteen kilometers a haze of sunlight and red rock wash out into a glowing white horizon before marrying polarized blue sky. Through the starboard window the Moon is a mirage suspended in the stratosphere.

HP Nevada is purposely nowhere near any flight lanes and the navcon is clear. “Nothing but us and sky,” James says. “So, you eat a big lunch today?”

Will glances over at him. He’s wearing mirrored sunglasses and James can see his own reflection in them. “James…”

“Here we go.” He kicks the throttle and pulls back on the controls. The Starstrider rockets up and pins them into their seats as the horizon falls out of view. Deep navy sky drops down the windows like a curtain. A few faint stars are visible, then the upended taupe Earth rolls across the sky. Will’s hair lifts off his head as his mirrored sunglasses slide towards his forehead. They’re inverted at the top of a three-sixty loop.

“Okay,” Will says, upside-down, “got that out of your system?”

The Starstrider dives down the remainder of the circuit until Nevada fills the windows. James levels the ground back to where it’s supposed to be. “Five gees, nice.”

Will pushes his sunglasses down. “I’ll tell Hitoshi you approve.”

“I have to give you a hand on this one. There’s probably a panic going on at VG. Looking forward to taking back some of their market share.” He flicks something on the pilot’s console. “Speaking of which, let’s punch it. I want to see some stars.”

Hydraulics whine as the variable-sweep wings angle back in preparation for supersonic flight. The Starstrider pitches up and accelerates, leaving white contrails from its wing tips before smoothly breaking the sound barrier. Will taps his watch and flicks a playlist to the ship’s computer. Late twenty-sixties fusion rock. Classic music.

“Oh, that brings back memories,” James says. “Air Force days.”

“Sweating our asses off on base. Seems like a lifetime ago.”

“Perfect choice.”

Comms chirps and a synthesized woman’s voice says, “Pacific LEO Bravo Control, we have you on radar Hayden-Pratt Echo Sierra Two Three.”

Will opens the channel. “Pacific LEO Bravo Control, HP-ES23 on approach to transit path Bravo Nine.”

“HP-ES23, climb and maintain one hundred and seventy kilometers.”

Through the cockpit windows the horizon bends into a great blue arc of sunlight and land. Far to the aft the California coastline slips away. James opens the navcon and selects new waypoints. “You up for a side trip?”

Will chuckles. “I had a feeling you wouldn’t be content with a Sunday drive. What’d you have in mind?”

“Well, it’s no fun if I just tell you.” He finalizes the flight plan and hits the transmit button.

After a few seconds the synthetic voice replies. “HP-ES23, flight plan received and approved. Climb to two two zero kilometers and fly transit path Bravo Twelve.”

James takes off his sunglasses and stows them in his jacket pocket. He glances out the starboard window. The Moon has solidified to a dazzling white semi-sphere. He peers back down towards Earth. Blinking red and green strobes drift slowly along different trajectories overlaying the horizon. Space traffic. 

The Starstrider climbs and levels. William smiles, takes off his sunglasses and flicks them between his thumb and forefinger. They spin weightlessly along their axis.

James looks over. “Never gets old does, it?”

Will snatches the glasses and tucks them away. “I think I know where we’re going.”

James leans forward. “Let’s see…and there,” he points, “there it is.”

A white star blinks ahead. As they draw nearer it splits into eight points and expands into a toroidal lattice. High-intensity lights nestle within the matrix like small suns. The skeleton of a great silver delta shape rests within the torus. Cargo containers are docked at different locations along the torus’s perimeter and a dozen robot arms move in precise choreography over the ship. Weld flashes flicker electric blue. Modular components are already in place. RF drives, reactor, crew cabin. None of the ship’s external hull plating is assembled and all of the vessel’s internals are visible.

Gossamer Goose,” James says, “Sarah’s ship. Sixty-one meters. Even bigger than Bernard’s Beauty.”

Will nods. “Still on track for end-of-month shakedown?”

“She’ll be ready.”

“How about Sarah? She’s a hell of a pilot, but you sure she’s ready?”

James quirks his head. “No doubts.” A pause. “Hope you’re not holding it against her for going rogue with me on that Mars flight.”

Will looks at him for a moment and says nothing. His poker face is pretty convincing. “No, you guys did what you had to. I’m just worried we’re going to have another accident. Sarah has a kid.”

James lifts his eyebrows, reads Will for a moment. “We’ll have twenty unmanned flights with Gossamer Goose before Sarah takes the conn. Ananke will be with her. I won’t send either of them out until I’m sure it’s safe.”

William’s silent a moment. “Last three flights of Bernard’s Beauty are this month?”

“Yeah. Saturn next week and Jupiter the following. I’m doing a little EVA video with Ananke. You’ll like it.” Gossamer Goose is visible through the starboard window. James motions towards it. “Best we can do with Bernard’s is ninety-eight percent light speed. Need a design change to go faster. Gossamer should be able to hit ninety-nine point nine with a gamma factor of twenty-two.” He looks back at William. “Gamma twenty-two is seventy-one subjective days to Proxima Centauri.”

William’s mouth opens slightly. “Wait, are you thinking of sending Gossamer Goose interstellar?”

“No, there’s way too much left to do from a design standpoint to manage the details of long-duration flight. We’ve got a research partnership with Addison Aerospace. Those guys are used to sending ships out for months at a time. So, not Gossamer, but the ship after Gossamer. Besides,” James motions to the Starstrider’s hull, “we need to integrate this tech so we can go atmospheric.”

William laughs and shakes his head. “There is no way U.N. regulatory will allow you to launch a Riggs ship from Earth’s surface. Congress might still yank our permission to launch from ESL2.”

James has a gleam as he quirks his head. “It’s not for launching from Earth. It’s for landing at our destination.”

Will stops laughing. “Are you serious?”

“If we’re going to go, we’re going to go big. We’re not going to fly four light years just to turn around and come back home. That’d be like Armstrong staying in the Eagle and never setting foot on the Moon.”

Something catches Will’s memory and his expression changes. “It’s subjective time we’ve been talking, right? One hundred and forty-two days for the passengers round-trip, but nine years back here on Earth.”

“That’s right.”

“So, whoever goes is gone for nine years, even if only a few months elapses for them.”

James nods. “Yeah, if we target Proxima. There might be better candidates that are a bit further. We’ll see.”

Will’s hesitant. “Who are you thinking will go?”

James is silent with a slight smile. The pause is a beat too long before he says, “I think we’re putting the cart before the horse here. First we have to make it all work before we even think about crew." A dismissive wave. "At least another three year’s of development.” He hits Will lightly in the arm with the back of his hand. “We’ll talk. Don’t worry.”

Will takes a deep breath and they both watch Gossamer Goose slip out of view. Glimmering gold stars fill the cockpit windows. “You know, the two of us in the pilot and co-pilot seats reminds me of the old days. We should do this more often.”

James grins. “You got it, buddy. Bernard’s Beauty has three seats. Come with me on the next flight.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Now’s the time.”

Will nods. “Alright.”

“Awesome.” James looks out to the infinite starfield. Yellow stars, blue stars, orange stars, all waiting. “Now let’s see what else this ship of yours can do.”