Today's Reading

But outer Space,
At least this far,
For all the fuss
Of the populace
Stays more popular
Than populous

—"But Outer Space," Robert Frost

CHAPTER ONE
SCHRÖDINGER'S SPACEMAN

The stars blurred into curved lines of silver, crisscrossing the spaceman's field of vision as he tumbled and spun. He flailed his arms and legs, his grasp searching for something, anything to arrest his motion. Which way is up, Henry Gallagher asked himself. There was no "up" in space, but when one is in a free fall, rationality takes a dive as well.

He awoke in that state, shaken by a floating piece of debris. A rock, or more possibly a torn-off hunk of satellite. The loud thud to the back of his helmet roused him from unconsciousness just as much as the spinning that immediately followed. Soon enough, his movement had slowed to what felt like stillness, his body having found its own orbit.

"Comms," Henry called out weakly. The inner screen of his helmet came to life with icons and graphs.

<Communications System Out of Range>

"Find Altaire," he stated. Even as his screen zoomed in on the station, he could barely see it. Space Habitat Altaire floated far beyond him, at the edge of the Earth's horizon where much of Asia slowly disappeared from view.

The screen flashed a directional arrow and a number too big for him to comprehend.

"Holy fuck," he muttered under his breath. "How did I get here?"

He got no response; apparently, the smart suits weren't as smart as he'd been promised. All it told him was that it was Saturday, October 10, 2089. 5:53 p.m. station time.

He pulled up his vitals, which showed his oxygen saturation, his pulse and breathing rate, his blood pressure. All stable, all things considered. Most importantly, his tank had enough O2 for another three hours and change.

Henry knew that the Altaire orbited the globe about eighteen times in the span of a day, and he assured himself with this fact. The station would circle back around to where he was well before he ran out of air.

He checked that his signal beacon was still transmitting, then pulled up his coordinates to see when this flyby would occur.

The display told him that he was 1,400 kilometers above sea level, on an orbit well below the Altaire's. The station could float directly above him and he would still be too far to establish comm range.

Blind panic began to set in, but all was not lost. Henry reached for the control arms of his jetpack. All he needed to do was propel himself toward the Altaire's orbit, close enough for its scanners to pick up his signal beacon. Cheered by the prospect of rescue, he held on and pressed the buttons on the jetpack controls, only to be deflated by the display on his screen.

<Propellant: 0%>

"Fuck!" Henry screamed. As he did, a crick in his jaw radiated pain.

Instinctively, he raised a hand to feel his head. He'd been knocked around, and not by the slight piece of space junk that shook him awake. He'd sustained some sort of blunt force injury, and if he weren't marooned in space, Henry might have been more afraid. As it was, the only emotion he could muster was confusion. He checked his reflection in the glass and saw a reddish bruise on his left jaw. He saw, too, that instead of the standard base layer for an EVA suit, he wore a spread-collar button-down shirt and a black bow tie. Even his spacesuit was wrong. He was wearing a standard-issue silver-gray EVA suit with the Altaire logo. One of the station's loaners. Why would he have this on? He had a custom designer suit—bright red, with racing stripes running down the sides.

Henry attributed the memory loss to a head injury, but he at least remembered his civilian aerospace training and all the math that it required. Having a computer helped too. Judging by his straight-line distance from the Altaire and his distance from the station's orbit above him, Henry estimated that he'd been off the station for about an hour. The Altaire's orbital speed was constant, and so was his; he may have gotten knocked around by debris, but the impact wasn't too fast or too forceful to have changed his position by much. Looking back now, Henry thanked that piece of junk for having just the right size and velocity to wake him up without throwing him farther off course.

His angle was the bigger conundrum. To end up in an orbit well below the Altaire would have required sustained thrust—and someone intending to steer him into a trajectory that diverged from the station's.

That explained the empty jetpack.

He was shunted off the station. He had to have been. Henry drew some satisfaction in answering at least one of his questions. He'd get his answers soon enough, but for now he needed to focus on one: how to get back to the Altaire.
...

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