Before the Phoenix: Insufficient


“Ah, Flight, we may have a problem here. Give me the telemetry numbers on thrust, commanded versus actual?”

Skyreach, we show 92% actual versus 100% commanded. We’re running diagnostics, but assume you are still go at this time.”

“Status on the Roughneck?”, Laras queried the Taliths.

“Roughneck is sub-nominal, estrev –”

“- thrust is now at 89% of commanded, still decreasing –”

“- we have amber warnings, combustion chamber press low, temp low –”

“- performing drive-running self-diagnostic –”

Laras broke the wire seal, and flipped up the cover over the sealed sequence switches. “Advise on readiness for mode two abort.”

“Negative on that,” came from the Taliths and from Nellis together. The latter pressed his headset to his ears, then continued. “Skyreach vetoes abort request unless diagnostics show red.”

“We’ve got no reds-”

“- still working the problem.”

“Very well. Fíöré, how is this malfunction affecting the delta-v? Enough remaining to reach some sort of orbit?”

“Ah, negative on that, fuel consumption is holding on the nominal curve –”

“- we must be achieving only partial burn –”

“- we can reach altitude, but my preliminary numbers show us far short of orbital velocity.”

“Right,” Laras said. “Recompute trajectory for the longest suborbital hop you can give me, and transfer it to guidance. Tell Skyreach the new mission plan, and to stand by to implement. We’ll dump the Roughneck at apoapsis and reorient.”

Before the Phoenix: Imperfect Tools

Launch Control
Spaceflight Initiative

Mission Coordinator Laras Stelliré looked up from his monitors and their unhelpful loss-of-signal markers, and barked, “Status! Status reports, by stations. Do we have the ship?”

Nellis Steamweaver, at communications, pushing his headset firmly into his ears, was the first to respond.

“Voice communications are still up, so we have the capsule. I’ve got a lot of roar from the solids, some voices…” He tapped his transmit key, spoke into his throat mic. “Either their receiver’s out or they plain can’t hear me, though. I’m not getting any acknowledgement, just muffled high-octane commentary.”

Even as he glanced over at the technical consoles, the flight dynamics/systems engineering team, Lauré and Fíöré Talith, spoke as one:

“Confirmed cleared the tower successfully –”

“– radar track is nominal to this point –”

“– negative telemetry input on main channel –”

“– most probable case a capsule connector failure due to unexpectedly high vibration on lift –”

“– switching to auxiliary.”

Laras glanced down again, and peeled his white-knuckled fingers off the edges of his console as the secondary telemetry – not as detailed, but enough – flooded in from Skyreach. The trajectory display on his central screen filled in the extrapolated earlier data; the capsule accelerating smoothly between the flight plan’s minimax lines.

* * *


“Booster neck-down – thrust dropping!”

Nellis glanced over at the Taliths, nodded in acknowledgement, and spoke into his headset.

“Skyreach, Flight, can you hear me now? Skyreach, acknowledge, please!”

“Skyreach copies, Flight.” A burst of loud static came over the air. “– can hear you, too.”

“How are you doing up there, Skyreach?”

“On the good side, Flight, all systems are blue. On the bad side, so is my ass.”

Nellis snorted. “Thank you, Skyreach, we’re all glad to hear half of that. In that case, you are go to commence Roughneck ignition while you’ve still got ullage thrust.”

“As you say, Flight. Hydropower transfer initiated and igniters to run. Turbopumps spooling up… and ignition.” The slowly decreasing acceleration numbers on the monitors leapt forward again. “Confirm thrust, Flight.”

“Climbing on the curve, Skyreach… and holding at 20% nominal.” The roar of the boosters fell away in Nellis’s headset, overtaken by the throbbing rumble of the liquid motor. He glanced up at his status monitor, where flight dynamics had flash-highlighted the booster combustion chamber pressure. “And we show burnout on the boosters per sched. You are go for booster separation.”

“Confirmed, Flight.”

Three muffled explosions sounded in Nellis’s headset; the red-highlighted booster telemetry flicked over to no-signal amber.

“Skyreach, we confirm booster separation.”

* * *


“Skyreach, Flight, we show you having passed max Q, confirm please?”

“Flight, this is Skyreach, we confirm max Q.”

“Skyreach, you are go for throttle-up.”

“Acknowledged, Flight.”

* * *


“Ah, Flight, we may have a problem here. Give me the telemetry numbers on thrust, commanded versus actual?”

“Skyreach, we show 92% actual versus 100% commanded. We’re running diagnostics, but assume you are still go at this time.”

Before the Phoenix: Countdown

Ienith Steamweaver tried and failed to restrain a grin as the techs tightened the straps holding him down, hooked up his oxygen mask, and slammed the hatch of the Skyreach capsule shut above him. It was happening. It was happening today. He was going to orbit.

…on top of a couple of hundred thousands of pounds of liquid hydrox.

Well, either way, he’d still end up in orbit.

* * *

“Flight, Skyreach Zero, primary comm check if you would?”

“Flight copies on the main, Skyreach, got you 12 by 12. Switch to aux channel and repeat, over.”

“Flight, Skyreach Zero on aux channel.”

“Comm check passed, Skyreach, ready to start the clock?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be, Flight.”

“Copy that, Skyreach Zero, ready to start MET clock at minus twelve minutes on our mark. Three, two, one, mark.”

“Clock is running, Flight.”

* * *

“Skyreach, Flight at minus ten minutes, ready for systems checkout. Life support?”

“Tank pressures are nominal, oxygen flow is positive, cabin pressure test shows no leaks. Life support is go flight.”

“Life support diagnostics show all blue here, confirming go flight. Power?”

“Batteries show full charge, drain is nominal on external power. Fuel cells are stable shutdown. Power systems are go flight.”

“Power is blue across, confirming go flight. Guidance?”

“Gyros at speed and clutched. Instruments show nominal values for index location. Guidance systems are go flight.”

“Guidance is blue across, confirming go flight. Motors?”

“The Roughneck shows tank pressures nominal and diagnostics all blue. Decoupler self-test circuits, blue and blue. Booster self-test, blue. Motors are go flight.”

“Our diagnostics agree, confirming go flight. Data systems?”

“Three cores up and running, in agreement. Diagnostic request gives all-zeros-optimal. Telemetry ping is positive, main and aux channels. Data systems are go flight.”

“Ground mirror agrees, confirming go flight. Cargo?”

“That’s Flight Commander Cargo to you, Nellis,” Ienith said dryly, “and I’m go flight.”

* * *

“Flight, Skyreach at minus six minutes. Fuel cells prestarted and ready for load, over.”

“Stand by, Skyreach… Skyreach, you are on internal power. Umbilical is disconnected.”

“Skyreach confirms internal power.”

“The pad is clear, Skyreach. You are go for hydro power unit start.”

“HPU start, stand by… Flight, we show HPU start. Hydro pressure climbing on nominal curve.”

* * *

“Skyreach, Flight at minus one minute. Sequencer is running in automatic. You are launch commit. Acknowledge.”

“Skyreach is launch commit, acknowledged.”

* * *

“Flight at minus twelve beats, launching on the solids alone, ignition at minus three with clamp release on burn-through. Good flight, Skyreach.





Even within the sealed confines of launch control, the remainder of the count was obliterated by indescribable thunder. 

* * *

Down in the launch control bunker, the mission coordinator shook off momentary paralysis and stared at his unhelpful monitors: the display from the pad showing nothing but clouds of fire, the downlinks showing loss-of-signal markers. 

“Status! Status reports, by stations. Do we have the ship?”