06 April 2012

"Have Spacesuit, Will Travel"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Don't tell me how to fly!" Angel said. "I know how to fly."

"You know how to play video games." Carolyn's voice crackled through the helmet radio. "There's a difference."

Angel nudged the throttle with her right index finger. "Just give me a map reading, okay? We don't have a lot of time."

"Almost clear," Carolyn said. "Another fifty meters, then turn forty-five degrees up."

"Pitch," Angel corrected.

"Why do I need to learn made-up words when I can just say 'turn?' " Carolyn asked. "I gotta tell you which way to go anyhow."

"We'll have this argument later," Angel said. "Pitching up, four-five degrees, now."

She pulled back on the vertical stick with her left thumb. Her view changed from the gentle curve of the habitat ring to the angular mess of the cargo docks.

"Okay, I'm lined up." Angel brought up the HUD overlay in her helmet. "Range painting on. Where am I going?"

"Straight ahead of you, two lanes in. Bay ninety-five. The ship is all the way at the end."

Before Angel could ask whether that was the spaceward or homeward end of the lane, an alarm started blaring, and blinking red lights lit up her HUD.

"What's wrong?" Carolyn shouted.

"Wait one," Angel said.

She felt remarkably calm as she worked both joysticks and pressed lightly on the triggers to change her thrust vector. Carolyn was right: it wasn't anything like a video game. Angel felt the backpack rockets pushing against her body as they fired, three different arrows of force joining to shove her out of the way of the approaching freighter.

It wasn't until she was safely out of the lane that Angel felt her hands shaking and her stomach fluttering. All sorts of audio and visual alerts filled her helmet, now that she'd exceeded speed limits in controlled traffic space, but all she heard was the blood rushing past her ears—until her mother's voice pierced the noise.

"Angel Daria Chace!" She did not sound happy. "What in the name of all that's holy are you doing out there?"

"I'm helping Granma," Angel said, braking and re-angling herself toward the target ship.

"Did you steal that spacesuit? And—what?" Her mother paused. "Angel! Did you take your grandmother's ashes?"

"She wanted to be buried in space." Angel slowed her approach, then slapped the magnetic case containing her grandmother's ashes onto the side of a cargo container. "I'm sending her into the Sun."

"Angel, you get back inside right now! And where is your sister?"

The suit radio buzzed, and a new voice filled the helmet. "Unidentified pilot, this is Galen Traffic Control. Please stop maneuvering inside restricted space and meet dock authorities at airlock three-nine. Repeat..."

Angel's face hurt from smiling so much. She'd never been called a pilot before.

"...additional," the controller continued. "Please hold at airlock three-nine for the captain of that freighter who almost pancaked you. He says he 'wants to meet any cowboy who can dance like that in a three-pointed tin can.' "


Image: Soviet spacesuit (with MMU) at Evergreen Aviation Museum, October, 2010