“Ground Control to Vanguard, you are off course, I repeat you are off course.”
Valentina slammed her hand down on the console in frustration. She already knew, and had been desperately trying to correct.
“Nothing is responding,” she said, her voice calmer than the rest of her attitude. “I currently have no control. Switching to failsafe systems.”
Her hands moved expertly over the controls. The failsafe systems were tried and tested, but offered less functionality than the main systems. So little, in fact, that she would only be able to use them to turn around and go back home. She could imagine the headlines that would cause, after the fanfare that her departure had been given. Worse still, considering that she had been working towards this particular mission for over five years, the next bite at the apple would go to some other pilot and she would go down in history as the woman who failed-
A red light and a discordant beep made her mouth go dry. There was one thing that would be worse than returning home as a failure.
“Vanguard to Ground Control,” she said, pausing to take a breath and lick her lips. “Failsafe system is not responding.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. She looked up at the display. Her current course was shown as a blinking line that led inexorably towards the marker that the pilots called the Death Line, and from there beyond the reach of any rescue.
“Ground Control, do you receive?”
“Ground Control to Vanguard.” The voice that crackled back over the radio sounded concerned, but still professional. “Received. We are working on a solution.”
She looked back up at the display. There was time to fix the ship before they had to simply launch a rescue ship to come out and get her, but not a great deal of it. “Work fast, if you would,” she said. “Vanguard out.”
She rested her hands on the controls for a moment, trying to think through her actions and identify any errors she may have made, then started to work. Although she was hoping that Ground Control would come back to her with a solution, she wasn’t going to simply sit and twiddle her thumbs until they called.
She ran through the sequence to initiate the failsafe system again; the same red light and warning bleep. Gritting her teeth, she pulled the manual down and started running through procedures. It was the only thing she could do until Ground Control got back to her.
After what seemed like an age, Ground Control crackled through the radio again.
“Vanguard receiving,” she said eagerly. “What do you have?”
There was a long pause. Too long. Then a familiar voice came on the radio.
It was like a punch to the stomach. There was only one reason that they would bring him in to speak to her.
“My little star,” her father said. She bit her lip. He had called her that ever since she had announced, at the age of six, that she wanted to go into space so that people could look up and see her as a star in the sky. His voice cracked and broke. “I have always been so proud of you.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “How bad is it? Tell me, father.”
“Your navigation and failsafe systems are… beyond repair.”
“That’s not possible,” she gasped. “How can-”
“We received a package. It contained some vital parts of your navigation and failsafe systems. They must have been removed some time in the twelve hours prior to launch.”
She pressed the heels of her hands to her brow. “Sabotage?”
Silence. A crackle, and the voice of her father grew fainter. “I cannot-”
Ground Control spoke again. Still professional, as always. “We are investigating the claims of responsibility. We will find the people responsible for this.”
“Understood.” She looked at the blinking lights on her console, the systems which were not responding. “I have no navigation control to assist docking with a rescue,” she said.
There was a long pause. “We cannot launch any other ships until their systems have been checked entirely. If they could reach the Vanguard…”
She looked down for a moment, hearing the last window of hope slam shut, then nodded even though they couldn’t see her. “I understand. They could have done the same to the other ships. The risks are too great.”
“I am sorry,” he said.
“Get the scientists together. On my present course I will be able to receive instructions for approximately fourteen hours,” she said, shaking herself to clear her head. “If I’m going past the Line I may as well send back something useful.”
That was what it took to shake him. Ground Control’s voice shook as he responded. “The program thanks you for your dedication.”
“Tell the director – tell my father that I love him. Vanguard out.”
He hadn’t wanted her to go. She had fought him so hard, had needed to prove herself twice over above the other candidates in order to get this position, and this was her reward.
A chime announced that she had moved away from the direct glare of the sun, and she activated the window filters to look outside. The world hung there like a luminous gem, shining against the black velvet background of space, a billion tiny stars shimmering beyond it like diamond dust. She could even see the coastline of her home. Down there, her friends, her family, the people she had grown up with, they were all simply going about their business. Perhaps they would look up at night, trying to see the light of the Vanguard, moving like a star across their sky.
She smiled. She was indeed a star now, just as she had always wanted to be, and although she was never going to go home, she would at least go down in history.
She went back to the manual and finished running through her procedures. She knew now what did work and what didn’t – thankfully all of the life support systems were in the first category – and could begin to make preparations for a mission nobody would have planned.
Ground Control transmitted instructions from the program’s scientists – experiments for her to conduct, measurements to take, images to capture as she passed landmarks along the way. The list was long, but she knew it had been longer. She smiled as she imagined the arguments around the table as they decided what was important enough to request of her. At least she would be busy.
She set up automated routines for the first few experiments and measurements, then adjusted her chair to sleep settings and closed her eyes. An alarm would wake her before she reached the Line, and there was plenty to do on the other side. Best to get some rest now.
“My name is Valentina Rosen,” she said, gazing into the blank eye of the camera. “I am the pilot of the Vanguard, and I am at this moment further from home than anyone has ever been before. When we go into space, we have to balance the weight of our equipment with the weight of the fuel needed to take it up there and bring it home. The point at which you no longer have enough fuel to return is sometimes called the Death Line, because if you pass it you know that you will die in space. I have just passed that line.”
She paused, looking down for a moment. “I am not afraid of this death. The data I will be able to collect – data that unmanned ships could not have collected – will be vital to our scientists and to our program as we extend the capability of our ships and move the Death Line back. This is not an opportunity I expected to have, but it is an opportunity I will embrace. I will see you all again someday, beyond the stars. Valentina Rosen, out.”
She sent the video, then disconnected the camera. There was no point transmitting video any more – it would take too much bandwidth, which would be better used for the scientific data – and besides, she didn’t think that she could record anything else without crying.
She slipped out of her seat and moved to the back of the ship where the scientific equipment was stored. There were several experiments that she could set up now to run when they were needed.
© Kari Fay
(Author’s Note: A little longer than my usual offerings, to make up for the delay from yesterday. This is something I wrote earlier in the year.)