Copyright © Mark Langenhoven
Lifting away on its pillar of fire, the shuttle disappeared into the sky at an incredible velocity. The observers at the launch pad (of course they were not really at the launch pad or else they would have been cooked, but they were as close as comfort and a two metre high electrified fence would allow them to get) slowly packed up their camping equipment and started filtering away in their cars.
This was the sixth in a series of launches to deploy a set of
medium orbit satellites around the world to allow for cellular
Internet browsing. After the last of nineteen such launches a total
of forty five satellites would have been deployed allowing Internet
access from the middle of the Sahara desert, the Amazon jungle or
even Silicon valley. Inside the control room they had just handed
control of the shuttle over to the NASA station in Hawaii. (which
meant that strictly speaking it should now be called the non-control
room, but to avoid confusion we shall still refer to it as the
control room.) The launch director punched a series of keys on the
yellow phone next to his chair.
"Hi Jeff. Your baby is in the sky. In two orbits they will be at the required elevation. From there on it is your show."
"Thanks Carl. We will commence on your altitude signal. Cheerio."
Carl Cloman leaned back into the padded chair and waited for the shuttle to come around to this side of the world again. Within two more orbits it would be at the deployment altitude for the satellites. However, unbeknown to the outside world, in fact even unbeknown to 92.3% of the staff in the control room (currently the non-controlling control room, but you know what I mean) this particular shuttle would not be deploying the Iridium Internet satellites. This was one of those ultra-secret military missions. Carl did not even know what the shuttle was carrying other than that it was a military load. Luckily once he gave them the signal then it was their problem. He just had to make sure that the shuttle made it to the right place in one piece.
At the offices of GIZMO Brett Cobra was trying to download the latest browser from the Internet. Unfortunately it appeared as if you needed the latest browser to access the setup program to download the latest browser. Sighing in frustration, Cobra looked around to make sure nobody was watching and furtively unplugged the modem from the back of his archaic PC. Carefully holding the modem connector against two fingers of his left hand he quickly allowed the PX6000 to down load a tailor-made program. Giving a little grunt of satisfaction once he confirmed that the program had reached the desired server he unplugged his fingers from the modem again. Reconnecting the PC he waited a further twenty seconds. After that the progress indicator on the screen started chugging away at a pleasant rate. Smiling to himself, he was totally oblivious to a server in Richmond that had gone into Windows rejection after its last download and could now only be accessed, cautiously, via DOS 2.1.
"Houston, this is shuttle flight India-Six now entering your
airspace. Right now everything here is A-OK. We will commence testing
of satellite Helo fifteen in ninety seconds."
Ralph Fisher pulled a small keyboard closer to his chair and started typing on it. A small screen in front of him showed that the software had finished booting up and was waiting for his next command. Looking at the big clock in the middle of the cockpit just above eye level he waited until the ninety seconds were past and the shuttle was within view of the satellite that would relay his message to launch control via the Internet. He pressed the enter button and smiled with pleasure when he saw the browser hook up almost immediately. (This was mainly due to the fact that he was the only person allowed to dial into that specific server. This was done so that NASA would not look stupid in front of the whole world, who would be online waiting for the shuttle to connect, and then only being able to get a busy signal.)
The e-mail message that he would send had of course been prepared beforehand but he still had to pretend to think it up on the spur of the moment as he had a video link on the Internet connection. So to keep up with the pretense he sat and pondered away for a couple of seconds before leaning forward again and starting to type.
A small bit for the computer. A giant word for the world. (Or some such nonsense. NASA had a backup message ready to go out from within the server just in case something went wrong during this critical stage, so it did not really matter what he typed there. It just had to look good!)
Pressing the enter key, Fisher sealed his little bit of immortality away as well. He spent the next twenty minutes talking to people from all over the world as he automatically passed from one Iridium satellite to another in the wild dash around the earth. Once all the satellites were deployed then anybody would be able to connect to the Internet without the need for land lines. In the meantime, however, they were only able to make use of this in certain parts of the USA and Europe. This was quite fortunate for the current mission though, as they wanted to be as far away from prying eyes as possible when their cargo was deployed.
Cobra had just finished setting up the new browser and reconnected when he joined in the video link from the shuttle. He watched with envy as the astronauts waved happily at the camera while they continued with their ever-constant checks. Cobra wondered to himself why it was that a piece of machinery that could take off by itself, fly itself around the world a few times and then land itself would possibly need to have buttons pressed all the time by people not half as reliable as itself. Secretly he thought that the buttons were not connected to anything but were merely there to reassure the people onboard that they were still useful. Once the shuttle passed out of range of the last satellite Cobra started browsing other sites on the net to see what his new piece of software could do for him.
Cloman picked up the yellow phone and punched in the same numbers
as before. (These kind of phones did not have redial buttons for
obvious reasons.) When the voice on the other end answered he cupped
his mouth closer to the mouthpiece.
"Your signal will come through in about two minutes. We will relay directly to you from Hawaii control."
"Thanks Carl. We'll handle it from here."
The line went dead. Picking up one of those see-through phones that allow you to see all the ugly bits that they have been trying to hide from you all these years, he punched the redial button.
"Hi honey. I will be home at about seventeen hundred hours for supper."
After some more small talk with his wife he hung up the phone and sat back in his chair. The signal from Hawaii control came through on their screens right on cue. Five seconds later the yellow phone gave a single "Brrrrp" to show that the signal had been received at the other end. That meant that Cloman's job was over until the shuttle had to come in again, which would only be in another thirty six hours time. Getting up, he joined the rest of the crew leaving for a break at home.
The shuttle continued to hurtle through the sky. Slowing rolling
over it exposed small solar panels which were used to run the
housekeeping functions on the shuttle and thereby cut down on their
power consumption. It would still be another two hours before the
cargo bay doors were opened up to deploy the latest military gadget
but the shuttle crew did not have a moment to spare. Many checklists
had to be completed and verified before the cargo was even
unstrapped. Marsha Winslow propelled herself gently to the hold
directly before the main cargo bay. In here was stored the manned
manoeuvring units or MMU's as they were called. For the launch of
this satellite they would need all three of the units in operation at
once. The MMU's contained their own jetpacks to allow them to fly
around, as well as enough oxygen to last the user for three days. At
the back of the unit they even had an airconditioning unit to
maintain a comfortable body temperature. All this could be run off
the internal power cell or the solar panels built in all over the
It was her responsibility to ensure that the MMU's had survived the launch and were in perfect working order. The users lives depended on her attention to detail and she prided herself on the fact that not a single mistake had slipped past her in all the simulations. Marsha tipped over and, working horizontally, undid all the restraints holding the first MMU in place. Undoing the last catch she gave the suit a slight spin to get the suit in a horizontal position. From there it was easier to connect all the checking equipment. This was routine work that she had got done to a fine art on the previous three missions that she had flown. It was therefore somewhat of a surprise when the suit continued rotating past the horizontal and ended up suspended upside down in the middle of the room. Grunting in annoyance, she drifted over to the suit to correct it and was thus taken completely by surprise when the suit gave her a vicious shove pushing her completely out of the hold and propelling her against a pillar with enough force to knock her breath out of her body.
Cobra idly surfed the net, secure in the knowledge that if his
boss, Bob Jerosky, came in to check up on him that his work would be
complete. The latest report that he had to produce for them had been
on the social habits of the North Sea clams. Not surprisingly it was
a rather thin report as the most exciting thing to happen around the
clams would be the arrival or departure of oil drilling equipment.
Unfortunately the vocabulary of the average clam does not stretch far
enough to describe items like 'oil strike', 'drilling platform' or
'tanker'. So it would probably go something along the lines of;
"Did you see that large object here yesterday?"
"Yes. The one with the long bits sticking down from it."
"No. The other one with the bits dragging behind it."
"That wasn't so large. The other object with the long bits sticking down from it was much bigger than that object."
"Well, I didn't say 'did you see the largest object here yesterday' did I?"
"No, but you did imply it and that was definitely the largest object here yesterday."
"Actually I don't think so. I think the object with the long bits sticking down from it was just closer and it appeared bigger to us."
"You are talking hogwash. You don't even have two eyes to be able to judge distance with."
"Well, actually we don't have any eyes at all."
"Hmm, yes. Now that you mention that I remember that. So, what were you going to say about the large object, with the bits dragging behind it, that was here yesterday?"
"Oh I just wanted to know if you noticed it, because I wasn't sure if I imagined it or not."
"Oh sod off and go and suck on a pearl or something!"
Thus you can see that the conversation tends to get somewhat bogged down by the details rather than the content. Cobra hoped that his next investigation for GIZMO would take him somewhere a bit more exciting. He could study the nocturnal habits of the short-tailed slug commonly found in the Comores for example.
Before Marsha could react, the suit had moved over and released
the other two suits, which both started dismantling themselves.
Eventually the three men that appeared from the suits, each armed
with grenades and pistols waved her through to the cockpit. She was
mute with surprise and could therefore not warn the other occupants
of the already crowded cockpit of the arrival of the three stowaways.
"Captain Fisher. May I have your undivided attention please."
Fisher swung around slowly and jerked violently when he saw the three armed men crowding the opposite wall.
"Who the he..."
"Please keep quiet and listen carefully and then nobody has to get hurt."
The man indicated the grenades strapped to his waist.
"You can imagine what will happen to your precious shuttle if one of these had to go off. None of us are afraid to detonate these devices. We have been handpicked for our mission. So I don't want any heroics from anybody."
He signalled to one of the men carrying a small bag. The man moved forward and extracted a small box which he proceeded to glue onto one of the struts in the cockpit.
"Just to ensure that nobody gets any funny ideas. There are two more of these devices hidden on the rest of the shuttle. Only we know the locations of the other two. Every five minutes each of these devices needs to be made safe with a key that we are carrying. If the key is not present and turned within one minute then the bomb inside will explode. I guarantee you that you will not be able to find and disarm all three devices before at least two of them detonate."
He smiled at everybody in the silent cockpit in a friendly manner.
"Well, now that business is taken care of we can introduce ourselves. My name is Adam. That is Brian and over there is Charlie. Not our real names of course but it is a lot easier than referring to us as Thug 1, Thug 2, etcetera."
Fisher recovered from the shock first and pressed the video transmit button behind his back while everybody was watching Brian fix the bomb onto the shuttle.
"What do you want?"
"Oh that will come in due time. In the meantime, however, I am pleased to see that you have activated the video link to notify ground control that something has happened."
Looking over his shoulder Fisher realised with chagrin that the little red 'active' light above the video camera had come on the instant he had pressed the transmit button.
"I hope you realise that it's exactly that kind of foolish behaviour that we want to stop. Luckily for you I want the people on the ground to know that we are up here as soon as possible. Get them out of their suspense and tell them what has happened up here."
Fisher turned around and keyed the microphone.
"Houston, we have a problem."
Secretly he was thrilled. He had always wanted to repeat that dramatic statement, and now he had finally been given his chance.
"What is going on up there? We are picking up too many people in the cockpit."
"That is correct ground control. We have three additional persons onboard."
Before he could continue he was interrupted by the frantic questions from ground control.
"Where did they come from?"
"Three people. What will that do to their oxygen supplies?"
"How come we didn't detect the additional weight on the pre-launch check?"
"Do they come in peace?"
"Are they from our planet?"
Stabbing the transmit button viciously, Fisher finally managed to cut all the strident voices off.
"All I know at this stage is that they stowed away on the shuttle. Their demands will follow later. Once I have more information at my disposal then I will contact you again."
Fisher removed his finger from the transmit button and switched off the receive function. Adam pointed at the video camera which was still running. Fisher looked up and shut the video link off as well.
"I have done what you asked. Can you tell me what you want now so that I can start the negotiations please." Adam shook his head and floated backwards to allow Brian to get past and get on with the other explosive devices hidden in the shuttle.
"I will tell you when I am ready and there will be no negotiations. Either they give us what we want or we blow their precious shuttle sky-high. Or should I rather say 'blow apart' as we are already sky-high."
Smiling at his own little sick joke Adam gestured for everybody to carry on with their work.
"Please don't let me hold you up. We do still have a satellite to launch."
"Surely you don't expect us to continue with our work while you hold guns to our heads?"
"I do actually. The launching of your cargo is an integral part of my plan. Please don't try any funny stuff. My men and I are quite capable of doing the launch ourselves, so we would not hesitate to eliminate any of your crew that tried to obstruct us in any way. Charlie here will be assisting your crew and he will be using one of the MMU's to supervise the operation from outside."
Cloman jerked out of his chair in alarm when he heard his
cellphone ringing. The only reason that cellphone would be ringing is
if there was a problem on the shuttle. Pressing the button with a
sweaty, but steady, finger he placed the tiny phone against his ear.
After grunting a couple of terse 'yeses' and 'whats' he hung up.
Grabbing his jacket he shouted to his wife to cancel dinner after
all. Looking out the window all she saw was blue smoke left by the
tyres of his Mustang as he accelerated wildly down the street.
Turning back to the kitchen she shrugged her shoulders and slipped
the dished up plate of food into the oven.
Arriving at the control centre Cloman skidded his car into his spot next to the door. Rapidly completing the security checks, which were at their strictest with a shuttle in the air or on the launch pad, he arrived in the control room only slightly out of breath. Immediately his second-in-charge, Jake Pullen, came over to him and fully briefed him on the latest events aboard the shuttle. The team was busy preparing various scenarios to see how the astronauts could be kept safe. In essence they were only appeasing their consciences because until they knew what the hijackers wanted and how they were going to go about it, there was not much that ground control could do.
Once Cloman had been briefed he picked up the yellow phone again. It was answered immediately on the other side. Not bothering with pleasantries, Cloman got straight to the matter at hand.
"I assume you know what has happened."
"Yes we saw the entire thing on our link."
"I suspect that it is no mere coincidence that this shuttle flight was hijacked. I think it is directly related to your cargo. You had better inform me what it is now so that I know what I am dealing with here."
"That information is ultra-secret and is on a strict need-to-know basis."
"Well, as I just pointed out to you. I need to know! I don't care about your little military dos and don'ts. My crew's lives are at stake here."
Cloman could hear a mumbled conversation taking place on the other side of the phone.
"OK, but I better come over to your place. We can't discuss this over the phone, not even this phone."
The connection was broken from the other end and Cloman slammed the phone back into its cradle.
The shuttle crew continued their checks before the deployment of
the satellite. It become immediately obvious that Adam's statement
regarding the hijackers proficiency was no idle boast. Whichever of
them was present at the time went through the checklists without
referring to the lists once. They had the entire sequence of every
event memorised and seemed to be completely familiar with the layout
of the interior of the shuttle. At the planned time the doors to the
cargo bay were slowly opened up. They now had to remove the packing
around the satellite before it was ready to be deployed. Two of the
crew members and Charlie suited up in the MMU's and moved out through
the airlock. The remaining crew members crowded the cockpit to watch
their progress on the closed circuit TVs.
Fisher looked at Adam and cleared his throat. Adam nodded at him.
"Go ahead and inform ground control that the cargo doors are open and that work has started on uncrating the cargo."
Fisher turned and activated the video and audio circuits. Briefly he updated them on the current status of activities onboard the shuttle.
After his report Fisher waited for confirmation of the items that he had sent to control. Luckily he was facing away from Adam and Brian when ground control responded.
"Shuttle Mercury please note that initial docking with shuttle Ling has been delayed by sixty minutes. Docking will now commence at T+25 hours."
His hand shaking slightly Fisher pressed the transmit again.
"Confirmed docking delayed by one hour. Will contact again once cargo has been uncrated."
Before the voices demanding to speak to the hijackers could drown him Fisher killed the circuits again. Carefully composing his face to hide his surprise, and hoping feverishly that the rest of the crew were excellent poker players, he turned around. Adam had pushed himself across the width of the cockpit and stopped just short of Fisher.
"What is this about docking with another shuttle. That was not part of the programme."
"The programme changed six hours before the launch. We are docking with the other shuttle because they have further components which will apparently be added to our satellite before it is deployed."
Fisher hoped that is was not as obvious as he thought that he was lying through his teeth.
The rest of ground control looked at Cloman with surprised looks
on their faces. Pullen walked over to his chair and lowered his
"What was all that about docking with another shuttle?"
Cloman leaned back in his chair where he had arrived at the end of the conversation and just in time to add on his piece about the docking.
"Sorry Jake. I didn't have time to brief you. Just got out of the meeting with the military guys and they suggested the other shuttle. Apparently it is one of ours which is on loan to the Chinese for twelve months. It is ready to launch now. All we need is for superman to be on it so that he can save our chaps on the Mercury. In the meantime I think I better tell you a bit more about the cargo that we just pushed into space."
Cloman got up and ushered Pullen to the little conference room that he had just vacated a couple of minutes ago.
Cobra looked out of his office window and saw somebody double-park
in the street outside their office block. Totally ignoring the
hooting of the stranded motorists behind him, the driver got out of
the car and removed a bulky briefcase from the boot of the car before
walking into the office block. Settling down at his desk again he was
surprised to see the same man weaving through the GIZMO offices a
couple of minutes later. Cobra was even more surprised when the man
walked straight into his office. Closing the door behind him the man
set his briefcase down on Cobra's desk and extracted a small
electronic device. Holding up his hand he indicated that Cobra should
remain quiet. Activating his infra-red and x-ray scanning Cobra was
able to figure out that the device was checking for bugs in his
office. Finally the man seemed to be satisfied and packed the scanner
back into his briefcase. Sitting down he looked over at Cobra.
"Well at least your office does not have any bugs in it."
Cobra shook his head. "Actually my office has quite a few bugs in it."
Alarmed the man jumped up and reached for his briefcase again. "Where!?"
Cobra calmly pointed at a praying mantis sitting on the windowsill. It still took the man a few seconds to register what Cobra was talking about and then he slowly sank back into his chair. Giving Cobra a look that Cobra assumed was meant to be menacing, but instead came out more like a sneer he said, "We don't have time for little jokes Mr. Cobra. I am here on business."
Cobra nodded his head pleasantly. "Yes. So am I. In fact I come to this office everyday just to do business."
The look on the man's face intensified. "My name is X. I am from head office."
Cobra's surprised look seemed to give Mr. X some satisfaction as the previous look was removed from his face and replaced with a thin smile. "You have a new mission Mr. Cobra and I am here to tell you about it."
"Why didn't they send it to me in the usual manner?"
"You will see why once the mission is revealed to you, but suffice it to say that our Internet communications are not secure at the moment. So I'm afraid that you will be on your own on this one until we can restore the security."
Cobra nodded and Mr. X continued in an unnecessarily knowing manner. "This is a shredder."
Cobra nodded politely at this superfluous statement. X unpacked the bulky device from his briefcase and set it up on the desk. "Obviously nobody else is supposed to see what is written on your mission statement. So you will shred it using this machine."
X continued removing equipment from his briefcase and Cobra recognised a hand-scanner which checked your palm print to verify that you are who you say you are. Cobra did not wish to dampen X's enthusiasm by telling him of the reformable hypalon used on his fingertips which allowed him to change his fingerprints at will. At X's direction he placed his right hand on the scanner and waited while the machine did its thing. A couple of seconds later X nodded in satisfaction and returned the scanner to his briefcase. He extracted an envelope and handed it to Cobra. Cobra was busy opening the envelope when the bane of his life, Parker, opened the door and walked in. Cobra fixed him with a menacing look, which unlike Mr. X's attempt succeeded fully.
"Never heard of knocking have you?"
Parker looked at all the stuff scattered over Cobra's desk waving his hand in apology he backed out and closed the door again. Mr. X who had jumped up in alarm sank down in his chair again and mopped his sweaty brow. He looked over at Cobra who had his hand stretched out towards X as if waiting for something.
"Yes?" X asked cautiously.
"Can I have another copy of the mission please."
Mr. X looked flabbergasted. "But, but, you have the mission. I definitely handed it to you."
Cobra nodded. "Yes, but I shredded it when Parker walked into the office."
"How could you do that?"
"Quite simple really with this snazzy machine of yours. You simply feed the edge of the paper into the slot here and it does the rest."
"Yes! Yes. I know, what I mean is why did you shred it."
"You told me nobody else was allowed to see it. Thus when Parker walked into the office I shredded it as per instructions. Simple. So could I have another copy please?"
Mr. X who was almost foaming at the mouth now shook his head. "I don't have another copy. They don't make copies of ultra-secret instructions. All I know is that you must get to the airport because I have some tickets for you here. I will arrange for another set of instructions to be sent to you before you leave. Please read them before destroying them."
Frantically X threw the tickets at Cobra and ran out of the office leaving his briefcase behind. Cobra looked at the ticket and saw that he would have to leave immediately. Luckily it was lunchtime so there was nobody around to slow him down. Quickly he scrawled a note to his boss explaining that he had been called away and would update him as soon as he could. Once outside he got into the taxi that he had called from the office and used the cellphone in his shoulder to phone Maggie and tell her that a crisis had developed and he would be away for a few days. He hoped that he would be able to finish the assignment off in that time.
Arriving at the airport he was stopped by somebody who handed him an envelope and disappeared into the crowd again immediately.
The Mercury crew were working frantically to catch up on time lost
due to the hijack. To be able to launch on schedule they would have
to squeeze the unpacking of the satellite by an hour. Ken Noakes, one
of the MMU operators, spun back a bit fast from undoing a Velcro
strap on the base of the payload bay. His wildly swinging arm caught
one of the exposed arms of the satellite knocking it slightly out of
Fisher was on the intercom immediately. "What happened?"
"I knocked one of the lower stabiliser arms on the satellite. We will have to delay the deployment until I have realigned it."
"How long is that going to take?"
"About two hours. May as well call the other two in as there is nothing for them to do until I have finished."
"OK Ken, I will inform ground control. Tell the others that they can come in and de-suit."
Adam slowly floated over and shook his head. "Charlie stays out. We are taking no chances that your man tries to damage the satellite."
Fisher shrugged his shoulders and turned to the radio. "Suit yourself. That way we have more room in here for ourselves."
He opened the communication link only to find his hand painfully pressed against the panel with Adam's gun against the side of his head. "Don't ever try to do that again without my permission OK!"
Fisher nodded carefully. "Right. Tell them about the little problem but nothing else."
"Ground control this is Mercury. We have a problem with a damaged lower stabilised arm on the satellite. Repair time approx. two hours."
"Fine Mercury. Confirm Ling docking for T+25 hours."
"Confirmed Ground control. Mercury out."
Pullen stared at Cloman in disbelief. "I thought that we were
not allowed to do that sort of thing."
Cloman pulled up his shoulders indicating that he was none the wiser than Pullen.
"What if the rest of the world gets to hear about this? We will look like prime chumps. They will brand us as the villains of the piece."
"Yes, I know. At the moment, however, the main problem is getting our guys out of danger and stuff the military gadgets. They can always build another one. I believe the big boys from the military got together with our big boys and started pulling strings furiously. It seems that they have a man to go on the shuttle to rescue our people. All we need to do is give them a reason to be there or else two crews will be killed."
Cobra studied the mission directive in
detail. This was not immediately apparent as it looked more like he
was sleeping. He had scanned the pages into the PX6000 using the
scanner built into his right eye and was now looking at the document
on the computer. The original was long gone having been torn to bits
and then partially flushed down each of the eight toilets on the
plane. This process had drawn some curious looks from the other
passengers but nobody was going to ask him about it in case he got
airsick all over them.
The contents of the mission surprised him. The Mercury shuttle was carrying a military cargo which was a high-powered laser capable of knocking other satellites out of the sky thereby blinding the enemy in the event of a war. This was not what surprised him. He expected that each side had a couple of similar lasers hanging around in the night sky already. It was thus surprising that somebody would want to go to all this effort for something that was still in a developmental stage. There must be more to this satellite than met the eye. This was what concerned Cobra. The military had a habit of hiding information from people and then only telling them once the information is no longer needed.
"The enemy has launched a ballistic missile at us sergeant. Do something."
"Ah yes, I was wondering what had caused this nice shade around here all of a sudden. Would you like a pair of lead underpants?"
Thus Cobra's dislike of all things military was not unfounded. Well not as far as he was concerned anyway.
They are demanding a ransom for the payload which is a laser which can be used to wipe out other satellites. He gets onto a Chinese space shuttle because he is doing research on some zero-gravity animal experiments. he finds that the buttons in the shuttle are really connected to things. somehow he manages to get onto the other shuttle and regain control. We find that the military is behind the whole business because their defence satellites were not working properly and they wanted to sabotage their work to give themselves more time to work on the problems.