March 14, 2006 -- "Orbit" is John Nance's 18th novel and is set, like many of his previous books, in the heavens. Kip Dawson, the main character, wins a seat on the Intrepid, a spacecraft that is set to orbit Earth. The craft is besieged by problems, and the pilot is killed in an accident. Dawson writes his last testament on the craft's laptop and is unaware that millions of people on land have received it and are following his every word. A massive effort to rescue him begins on Earth.
For Kip Dawson, the risks associated with being shot into space in a few hours are finally beginning to seem real. Am I really going to do this? he thinks, braking the SUV hard, foot shaking, as he casts his eyes up to take in the stark blackness of his destination, amazingly visible through the windshield. This last evening on earth -- the very eve of his windfall trip into space -- feels too surreal to grasp emotionally. He's sure of only one thing: At long last, it's scaring as much as exciting him.
He winces at the irritated blast of a trucker's horn and pulls to the side of the highway, letting the big rig roar past before climbing out to stare into deep space. He's oblivious to the sharp chill of the desert night, but aware of the double white flash of the beacon at Edwards Air Force Base a few miles to the east.
To the west, the barest remains of ruddy orange undulate on the horizon, a razor-thin band along the crest of it, whispering a vestigial message from the sunset. But it's the deep velvet black of the cloudless night sky that's entrancing him, and he hasn't seen the Milky Way so startlingly clear since he was little.
The highway beside him is quiet again, but the sky is full of silently twinkling strobe lights from the arriving and departing airliners frequenting LAX, a kinetic urgency energizing the lower altitudes above him. He feels like a child as he contemplates the vastness of all that void. Provided there's no explosion on the way up, he'll be there in person in a few hours, encapsulated in a tiny, fragile craft, closer -- even if only incrementally -- to all those stars.
There is no productivity in stargazing, the dutiful part of his mind is grousing, but he suppresses the growing urge to leave. The air is quiet and perfectly still, and he hears the song of a nightbird somewhere distant. A moment earlier a coyote had made his presence known, and he hears the animal call again, the howl almost mystical.
How small we are, he thinks, as he stands beneath the staggering scope of a billion suns strewn at least ten thousand light-years across from horizon to horizon, trying to embrace it -- even the largest of his personal problems seeming trivial by contrast. There's a barely remembered quote... perhaps something Carl Sagan once said: "Even though earth-bound and finite, the same human mind that can declare the cosmos too vast to physically navigate can at the same moment traverse its greatest distances with but a single thought."
His cell phone rings again, the third time in an hour, but he tunes it out, thinking instead about the details of ASA's space school he's attended for the previous two weeks and the awe he still feels when he sees the famous Apollo 8 picture of the Earth rising over the lunar landscape. Everything in perspective. It's the way he's been told every NASA astronaut feels when the sound and fury and adrenaline of reaching orbit subsides -- three g's of acceleration end abruptly -- and it's finally time to be weightless and breathe and look outside.
He recalls the video of sunrise from space, the colors progressing through the rainbow to the sudden explosion of light over the rim of the planet, all of it proceeding at seventeen times the speed of dawn on the ground -- where the Earth's surface turning velocity is less than a thousand miles per hour. He'll see four sequences of that during the flight. An incongruous desire for coffee suddenly crosses his mind, and he realizes he's longing as much for the tangible feel of something earthly and familiar as the drink itself. But he has a responsibility to achieve the sleep that coffee won't bring. Morning and caffeine will come soon enough. He should head back.
In some recess of his mind he's been keeping track of the number of times his phone has rung, and the newest burst is one time too many. He feels his spirits sag. Angrily he punches it on, unsurprised to hear his wife's strained voice on the other end. Like a wisp of steam, the humbling, exhilarating mood is evaporating around him, leaving only a duty to resume feeling guilty. He wonders if they're going to pick up at the same point in the argument.
"Sharon? Are you okay?"
There's a long sigh and he imagines her sitting in the dark den of her father's opulent home in North Houston where she's fled with their children.
"I may never be okay again, Kip. But that's not why I called. I just wanted to wish you well. And . . . I'm sorry about the argument earlier."
For just a moment he feels relieved. "I'm sorry, too. I really wish you could understand all this, but you do know I'll be back tomorrow afternoon, right? As soon as I get down, I'm going to fly directly to Houston, to you and the girls, and we can fly back to Tucson together..."
"You make it sound so routine. No, Kip. Even if you survive this madness, don't come here. Just go on back to Tucson. I'm too upset to talk for a while. We're going to stay here until I decide what to do." He keeps his voice gentle, though he wants to yell.
"Sharon, keep in mind that this is probably the only time I've felt the need to . . . not honor your wishes on something big." "Yeah, other than your so-called career."
He lets the sting subside and bites his tongue.
"Honey, you've been asking me to throw away the dream of a lifetime, winning a trip into space. I just wish you'd stop acting like we're in some sort of marital crisis."
She makes a rude noise that sounds like a snort, her tone turning acid. "Your wife takes the kids and leaves because her husband won't listen to her and the marriage is just fine? Wake up, Kip."
"No, dammit, you look! I only called to say I hope this thing is all you expect it to be, because the price you're paying is immense."
"Let me finish. I wanted to say that I hope you make it back alive, Kip. You've always belittled my premonitions. I want you to come back alive, regardless of what happens to us, but I don't expect you to. So I have to face the fact that this is probably our good-bye in this life."
"Sharon, that's nuts. I respect your premonitions, but they're not always right, and ASA does these trips twice a week. Over a hundred and fifty so far and no one's even been scratched." He says the words knowing the facts won't change her mind, but he has to keep trying. He's been trained that logic should trump emotion, whether it does or not. "I've loved you, Kip. I really have."
"And I do love you, Sharon. Not past tense, but now."
Silence and a small sob answer his words, followed by the rattle of a receiver searching for the cradle.
He lets himself slump back against the side of the SUV in thought, working hard to overrule the guilt-fueled impulse to give in, call her back, cancel the trip and drive all night and all day straight through to Houston.
That would be the Kip thing to do, he thinks. The way he's always responded. Must repair everything. Must atone for the sin of taking her away from Houston and not following her plan for his professional life.
From the south he hears another large truck approaching, probably speeding, the whine of his wheels almost alarming as the driver hurtles the big rig northbound. But Kip's attention pulls away from the present and he's suddenly back two months before in his den in Tucson, the memory of the late-evening phone call from American Space Adventures still crystalline.
A gently burning pine log had suddenly readjusted itself on the fireplace grate that evening, startling him, even though the "thud" was as soft as a sleeping dog rolling over in the night. He'd been wasting time in his father's old wicker chair and wondering with a detached calm what, if anything, life had left to show him. After all, even though he'd always followed the path of a responsible man, the promised land was eluding him.
Watching the flickering orange rays playing off the paneled walls of his den had been mesmerizing until Sharon walked in, naked and desirable beneath the ratty terry-cloth robe she knew he hated, and she opened the robe and flashed him as she shook her head, a signal that she was mad and that there was, once again, not a chance in hell of sex this evening. It was a weapon she'd grown too used to wielding as their lack of intimacy had progressed. There she stood, preparing to verbally batter him over something. Tonight, he figured, it was either the evils of the cigar he was smoking, or his pathetic recent campaign of systematically investing in lottery tickets.
She was right about that one, but he couldn't tell her how desperate he was for a windfall or any reprieve from what was becoming a conjugal prison. He was even becoming desperate for sex. But he couldn't win on any front, and he'd concluded that, at best, the universe was not listening to his needs.
At worst, it was plotting against him!
And the growing pile of dead lottery tickets was irritating the daylights out of Sharon Dawson.
The late-evening phone call had come as a welcome interruption, a lovely female voice on the other end asking a few identifying questions before getting to the point.
"And, Mr. Dawson, you did enter an Internet-based contest with American Space Adventures, to win one of four seats on one of our spacecraft into low Earth orbit, correct?"
"Yes. It's always been a dream of mine, to fly in space."
"And, you charged the entry fee on your Visa card?"
"Yes. Is there a problem?"
"No, sir. Quite the contrary. I'm calling because you've won the trip."
It was hard to remember exactly how much he'd whooped and smiled and jumped around in the moments afterward, before explaining the happy call to Sharon. Carly and Carrie, their five-year-old twins, had come running in to see what all the noise was about, followed by thirteen-year-old Julie, his daughter from his first marriage. Sharon had shooed them back to bed without explanation before turning to Kip, and he'd been stunned at the look of horror on her face, her eyes hardening as she forbade him to go.
"Excuse me?" he'd said, still smiling. "What did you say?"
"I said you're not going! I have this gut feeling and it's really strong, Kip. I don't want to be a widow."
Within minutes it became an argument spanning the house, and then it turned somehow to encompass everything wrong with him and a marriage he'd refused to see as imperiled.
"Once again all you think about is yourself!" she wailed. "You're never here for me and the girls and now you want to go kill yourself in space? Then go!"
"Sharon, for God's sake, I'm never here? That's BS. I don't even play golf anymore. What time do I take away from you?" "All you do is work! The girls are suffering."
"Name one school function I've missed."
"Even when you're there, you're thinking about business."
"Sharon, I sell pharmaceuticals. I'm a regional sales rep for a huge drug manufacturer. What's there to think about?" "You could have been in the oil business, but no! You had to go be a peon for Vectra and work your rear off for no recognition, no advancement, and no time for us."
"Of course. I didn't go to work for your father. That's always it, isn't it? I don't measure up because I went out to get a job on my own."
"Stupidest decision you ever made."
Except marrying you! he'd thought, careful not to let his face show it. The thought shocked him, somehow defiling the very walls of the den he had shared with Lucy before her fatal accident. But that was long ago, before Sharon came along and caught him on the rebound. Before he caught himself growing numb.
It ended as usual with her storming off to bed alone. But for once, this time he didn't follow her like the usual whipped puppy begging to be forgiven. He'd returned to the wicker chair and sniffed the sweet woodsmoke he loved and made the decision that for perhaps only the second time in his adult life, Kip Dawson was going to stay the course and cling to his dream.
Kip's thoughts return to night in the high California desert, and he realizes he's been clutching his cell phone with a death grip as he leans against the SUV. He checks his watch, grimacing at the late hour, but pausing halfway into the front seat to watch the beacon at Edwards AFB for a few more sweeps, spotting a late-night flight lifting off, maybe a test run of some sort. He thinks of Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield and the other early Edwards flight test pioneers, wondering if they ever stopped like this in the early desert night to stand so deeply humbled by a celestial display?
Maybe, he decides. But they'd probably never admit it. Believing in a personal aura of invincibility was important to test pilots who routinely challenged the edge of the envelope. And besides, he thinks, men like that were constrained by the code from discussing feelings.
The cell phone rings yet again and he answers without looking at the screen, letting his voice convey the weariness with this game she's playing.
But the voice on the other end is different.
"Mr. Dawson, Jack Railey at ASA. We couldn't find you in your room, so I thought I'd phone you."
Kip chuckles. "Is this a bed check? Am I in trouble?"
"No, sir. But we have a problem. Could we come talk to you about it?"
"What problem, exactly?"
"I'd rather not go into it over the phone. We do have some options, but I need to speak with you about them in detail." A kaleidoscope of possibilities, few good, flash across Kip's mind, depressing him. "I'm just a few miles south. Where can I find you?"
He listens to the brief description of Railey's office location before promising to be there in fifteen minutes, his voice heavy with concern before he disconnects and stows the cell phone. Sleep, he thinks, may not be necessary after all.