Star Force One

© 2016 - 2017 Scribe1971

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

These stories are copyrighted by Scribe1971, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.

Chapter 2 - A Hell of a Team

"You three astronauts are the first in the youth corps to fly a mission and earn your wings. You are now ready to begin training for your next mission. You will be assigned a mentor astronaut and you will be piloting this vehicle into space on 14 day mission," Ryan said as he opened the door at the side of the hanger.

Jake, James MacDougal and Peter Durand, all wearing blue astronaut jump suits and sporting gold astronaut wings followed him into the hangar.

Inside, looking more like a sleek aircraft than a spacecraft sat the new Arrow Space Plane.

"This is the Arrow," Ryan said. "It is designed to be the future of civilian access to space. It will be sold commercially and will allow cheap and easy access to space. The Canadian Space Agency has 25 of these in inventory and 5, including this one, are assigned to the Youth Astronaut Program."

"This is the new MOV program, right?" Peter asked.

"Affirmative," Ryan replied. "Medium Orbital Vehicle. This is MOV-121 and it is called Taurus. Jake, you and I will be flying this very spacecraft on your second mission.

Jake beamed and the other astronauts clapped him on the back.

"This spacecraft is crewed by 2 - a pilot and a commander. It can carry two additional passengers in the cargo configuration or up to 10 more in the crew transport configuration with a pressurized module in the cargo bay." Ryan said.

The young astronauts fanned out around the sleek spacecraft and examined it from every angle.

"It is equipped with ejection seats for use during launch and landing and it has a cargo bay that is about half the size of the one the old US shuttle had. Like the US shuttle, it has a docking port inside the cargo bay just behind the pressurized crew compartment." Ryan added.

"Tell them about the space station that goes with it," Jake said enthusiastically.

"For commercial purposes, this vehicle will be sold with a compact space station. We have a mock-up in the other hangar to show you. It is basically a small, single module station with a pressurized compartment about the size of a bus, solar panels, a propulsion system and a docking adapter with airlock. The Canadian Space agency is placing around 20 of these compact stations into orbit for training purposes as well as for emergencies - the docking adapter is universal and will allow astronauts from any country to seek shelter in case of emergency. When sold commercially, the stations will be configured as per customer request."

"Man this thing is like a sports car," Peter Durand enthused.

"No kidding," Jake replied.

"I just can't wait to fly it," James added.

"James, you will be flying MOV-122, known as the Silver Dart, Peter you will be flying aboard MOV-123 known as Hawk."

They climbed the steps to the hatch way and each took turns sitting in the commander and pilots seats.

"Hey all these controls and panels are identical to the simulators we have been flying in for the past few months," Jake observed.

"That is correct," Ryan replied. "Some of you," he winked at Jake, "are just about ready to tackle a real flight mission."

"What is our mission going to be?" Jake asked.

"This will be a check ride for you. After successful completion, you will have your Pilot-Astronaut certification. Whether you are flying this vehicle or one of the big Orion class shuttles, it won't matter, the controls and procedures are the same. The mission will be 14 days in length and will involve orbital rendezvous and docking with one of the compact space stations, a space station EVA.... a spacewalk.... and various other tasks to test your abilities to function in space." Ryan answered.

With that, the group walked through another door into an adjoining hangar. In its centre was a mostly white cylindrical object about the size of a bus. A small docking tunnel protruded from one end and the far end featured a cluster of small rocket engines. Wing like solar panels extended from the sides of the structure.

"This is the Centauri class micro space station," Ryan said. "We are placing a whole constellation of these things in earth, lunar and Martian orbit to act as emergency shelters for space crews of all stripes as well as using them as micro-research laboratories. We will also be selling these to individuals or companies."

"Is this one real?" Peter asked.

"No, this one is a training mock-up. The real things are being launched on unmanned Neptune Boosters. They are being given the designation MS-100 through MS-150 for the first production run of 50."

"So the MOV, Shuttle or other spacecraft docks here?" Jake asked placing his hand on the tunnel.

"Right. That tunnel leads to the airlock which opens on top for spacewalks and opens into the main body of the station," Ryan replied.

They climbed up the makeshift steps, passed through the airlock and into the interior of the micro space station. The inside was roomy - about the size of a full city bus. There were storage lockers, computer terminals and workstations on the various surfaces along with four sleep compartments and a galley.

"This is cool," Jake exclaimed.

"Wait until you get to try it in zero G!" Ryan replied.

"How long can you stay on this station?" Peter asked.

"It depends on how it is configured and the number of people. Generally, a minimum crew of four for 2 weeks without resupply. Those configured as rescue stations can hold more people for a longer period."

After the group left the hangar, they entered the simulator bay. It contained a full motion simulator for training on the MOV as well as the micro station.

"This is where you will learn to fly and command the MOV spacecraft. Much of the flight is automated. In fact the whole launch sequence is autopiloted, but you need to learn how to handle emergencies. You will also practice manual and automatic rendezvous manoeuvres as well as re-entry and landing. The re-entry and landing process is automatic, right up until the vehicle goes sub-sonic and then the commander takes over and lands on the runway. It is a glider at that stage just like the large shuttles."

After the tour, Ryan dismissed the youth astronauts to their quarters to have some rest and relaxation time. Later that afternoon, he knocked on Jake's door.

"Come in," Jake called from inside.

"Hey Jake," Ryan said as he entered the room.

"Hello, Sir," Jake replied.

"Would you like to take a short drive with me?" Ryan asked.

"Sure, sounds like fun," Jake replied.

Both were wearing blue astronaut jump suits. Jake threw on a navy-blue astronaut bomber jacket that matched the one Ryan wore. "Where are we going?" Jake asked as they approached Ryan's parked Jeep Grand Cherokee.

"A couple of places," Ryan replied. With both of them secured inside the Jeep, Ryan fired up the hybrid electric motor and they headed off in the direction of the launch complex and parked outside the massive vehicle assembly building. They entered the cavernous structure and Jake looked up in awe at the set of booster rockets standing on the launch pad, a massive crane was hoisting the Arrow spacecraft that they had toured that morning up to be mated with the boosters

"That is our bird, kiddo," Ryan said.

"How long until the launch?" Jake asked excitedly.

"Just a few days now. The 28th is launch day," Ryan replied.

"Very cool."

"Our micro-station is already in orbit ready for us to dock and check it out."

"I can't wait," Jake replied.

"Something else I want to show you," Ryan said as they headed back to the Jeep. This time they headed off base and into the city of Sydney.

"Jake, what are you doing for Christmas?" Ryan asked as they turned into a quiet residential street lined with neat and tidy houses.

"Nothing really," Jake replied. "Was going to stay on base and watch movies on my tablet I guess."

"Doesn't sound like much fun. As it turns out, I don't have much more planned myself. How would you like to come and spend the Christmas break with me?" Ryan asked as he parked in the driveway of his house. "I live alone except for Otis, my black lab. He loves kids so you will get along famously."

"Really? You'd let me stay with you and Otis? I love dogs," Jake replied enthusiastically.

Ryan unlocked the door and pushed it open and was immediately greeted by a very large and very friendly black dog. The dog stood on his hind legs and with a paw on each shoulder began to madly kiss Ryan's face with his tail wagging at an incredible speed.

"Good boy, Otis," Ryan stammered. "Meet Jake."

Otis looked at Jake and suddenly the big dog jumped on him and began to give him the same treatment.

"Otis!" Jake giggled as he rubbed the dog's head.

"Looks like he likes you," Ryan laughed.

Having greeted his master and guest, Otis went and stood next to the sliding screen door in the kitchen. Ryan let him outside and then hung his and Jake's coats in the hall closet.

"Make yourself at home Jake," Ryan said. "I'll give you the grand tour."

Ryan, with Otis following their every move took Jake all through the house. They started in the Living room with the huge HDTV and home entertainment system, progressed through the kitchen and then down into the basement rec-room.

"You have a pool table! Cool," Jake exclaimed.

A large slate pool table dominated the room with another HDTV on one wall and a small bar in the far corner.

"This is my man-cave," Ryan laughed.

They went upstairs and toured the upper floor with its large master bedroom and two smaller spare rooms.

"You can have your pick of the spare rooms while you are here Jake," Ryan said as Jake explored the rooms.

Jake spotted a photograph on the wall. It showed an younger version of Ryan along with a pretty-looking woman, a young boy close to Jake's age and a younger girl. "Who are they?" Jake asked.

A dark shadow seemed to fall across Ryan's face. Jake could see intense sadness in his eyes. "That is my wife Charlene, my son Ben and my daughter Rachel. They were all killed in a car crash while I was away on the Mars II Mission." Ryan said softly.

"I'm sorry....I," Jake stammered. "I didn't know."

"It's ok kiddo," Ryan replied brightening up. "Let's go see about dinner."

Back in the kitchen, Ryan discovered that he had neglected to defrost anything suitable so he ordered a pizza from the local joint. Jake went into the living room to check out the big TV while Ryan tended to Otis's dinner.

"This is a cool house you have here," Jake said when Ryan wandered in. "I'd love to stay here for Christmas, if you'll have me."

"Great! It'll be lots of fun," Ryan replied.

The pizza arrived a few minutes later, then they chowed down on it, tossing the crusts to Otis who ate them happily.

When they were done, Jake had a serious look on his face. "Ryan, can I ask you something?" he asked hesitantly.

"Of course," Ryan replied. "Any time you want."

"Well.... what exactly happened with the Orion accident?"

Ryan drew in a breath and looked at Jake.

"It's ok, you don't have to talk about it," Jake said.

"No, it's ok," Ryan replied. "We were nearing the end of a six-week mission that had involved deploying the initial elements of the lunar outpost. Everything had gone perfectly well. We had completed our Trans-Earth injection burn and were on perfect alignment for a direct entry and landing at the Cape. About 100 kilometers before re-entry interface, we were hit with a large chunk of space junk. It impacted the rear-super-structure knocking the primary reactor offline, destroying the starboard thruster cluster and causing a massive leak in the primary hydraulic system. We were already too far into the direct descent process to stop it even if we had both thruster clusters online. Mission control ordered me to try to abort the process anyway, but I refused."

"You were the captain and it was your call," Jake observed.

"Right. Anyway, we started the re-entry process and used thrusters and the failing hydraulics to limp our way down to a safe-enough altitude to bail out. The Flight director ordered me to attempt to land the spacecraft rather than bail out claiming that engineers calculate a 70% chance the hydraulics would last and that the damaged airframe would hold together and keep us aloft. I refused. They again ordered me to stay with it and my response was to tell the flight director, 'Fuck you and the horse you rode in on!' and then I disabled the comms and ordered my crew to abandon ship over the Atlantic. I stayed with the vehicle long enough to steer it away from the shore and then I bailed out as well."

"Did you really say that on the radio?" Jake giggled.

"Yep. That was apparently what they considered to be conduct unbecoming." Ryan chuckled.

"In the end, everyone survived except for the spacecraft which is in millions of fragments on the floor of the Atlantic right now and here I am."

"I'm sorry about how they treated you, but I am glad you're here," Jake said.

Ryan smiled back and then collected the debris from the pizza feast and took it to the kitchen for disposal.

"We'd better turn in early this evening Kiddo," Ryan said as he returned. "We have an early morning tomorrow at the Cape."

"Right!" Jake exclaimed. "The Plugs Out Test."

"That's right. A full dress rehearsal for the launch. One difference this time is that we are combining the Plugs Out Test with an FRF test."

"What is an FRF test?"

"Flight Readiness Firing," Ryan replied. "We are actually going to fire the main engines for around 60 seconds, but not the boosters and we are going to stay on the pad. It's the final test before the first launch of every new MOV spacecraft."

Ryan showed Jake upstairs to the guest room he had chosen and laid out towels, tooth brush and other things Jake would need in the morning. He then went down and secured the house for the night. When he came back upstairs he stopped at Jake's room.

Jake was in bed and Otis was curled up beside him. His tail thumped the bed a couple of times as Ryan approached.

He petted the big dog's head and Otis groaned appreciatively. "Looks like Otis definitely likes you," Ryan said.

Jake smiled "He's a good dog. Dogs always seem to like me."

"You know, I never fully trust someone who does not like dogs, but I always trust a dog who does not like a person," Ryan said thoughtfully.

Ryan reached down and tucked Jake in. Pausing briefly to tousle the boy's sandy brown hair and then he retreated to his own room.

Jake lay there in the dark next to Otis and felt content. He felt truly at home and felt that a need somewhere at the core of his being was at last being met.

Ryan lay on his back, his bed feeling empty without the usual presence of Otis and felt much the same way as Jake did. Jake was awakening feelings inside him that had been dormant, that he has indeed suppressed since the loss of his family. Since then, Otis had been the only other soul he had allowed himself to care about, but he was rapidly beginning to care as great deal about Jake.

Early the next morning, Ryan awoke just ahead of his alarm clock. He could hear activity in the kitchen and he threw on a robe and went to investigate.

Jake was up bright and early and Ryan found him standing in front of the stove expertly flipping a pancake. A stack of matching pancakes stood on a plate nearby. The table was neatly set and even Otis was happily chowing down on his own breakfast.

"Wow! I didn't expect this!" Ryan exclaimed.

"I like to cook," Jake replied. "I don't get to do it as often as I would like. I'm also pumped up for the test."

"It's a rush. I've done a few FRFs before and the final pre-launch dress rehearsal is always exciting," Ryan added, as he sat down.

Jake served them each a stack of pancakes, which turned out to be hot, fluffy and wonderful.

After breakfast, Ryan went back upstairs to shower and dress for the day while Jake cleaned up the kitchen and looked after Otis's needs. By 5:30 they were on the road heading back to the Cape.

"Look, I can see Taurus from here," Jake said excitedly.

Ryan glanced into the distance and he could indeed see the sleek spacecraft on its launch. The gantry was in the pre-launch condition and technicians were working to fuel up the vehicle for the mornings test.

Ryan parked at the Astronaut's quarters building and the two of them made their way straight to the Suit Up Room.

Ryan stood at the first couch while Jake stood at the second. They both stripped down to their almost identical boxer briefs and waited as flight surgeons gave them a once over and technicians helped them into the components their space suits.

Once they were suited up, they walked out to the ramp to the crew van. Unlike an actual launch day, it was quiet and only a few media were around to cover the test.

"We could really launch if we wanted to, couldn't we?" Jake asked as they neared the pad.

"Technically yes. The spacecraft is ready to fly and provisioned for our mission, but we don't have launch clearance and would be in a world of trouble when we got back!"

"Um yeah.... I don't want to spend Christmas in the Brig!" Jake exclaimed.

The van pulled to a stop and they were met by pad leader Tony Carmichael.

"Ok Gents, looks good for the test," he said jovially. You boys are in for a long day though.

He wasn't kidding either. The whole operation would take several hours and would simulate the whole count-down process from t-3:00 until ignition. They would also simulate several holds due to made-up malfunctions designed to test the crew and ground control. The culmination of the test would be a one minute firing of the spacecraft's main engines on the pad as a final readiness test before its first flight.

Ryan, was more accustomed to be strapped in first but this time he stood back as strap-down techs helped Jake into the spacecraft and into the Commander's seat on the left side of the vehicle. Jake was to fly the mission as commander under the watch of Ryan who would ultimately have to sign off on Jake's check flight to certify him as a spacecraft pilot.

"This is a lot roomier than the Polaris," Jake observed as Ryan climbed in and was helped into his seat.

"This feels strange sitting in the right seat!" Ryan laughed.

"I like the commander's seat," Jake laughed and winked at Ryan.

"Taurus Commander, this is mission control, radio check, over."

Jake keyed his mic and replied. "Control, Taurus Commander, Copy your radio check."

"Taurus Pilot, Control, Radio Check, over."

Ryan replied much as Jake had.

They spent the next three hours going through a simulated countdown to launch. The time passed quickly as there were many tasks to perform and checks to be made. There was little downtime.

"Ok Taurus, this is mission control, we are set to terminate this exercise and initiate a 10 minute countdown to FRF test."

"Roger Control, Taurus is ready for test." Jake replied.

"Control, Taurus, setting event timer to T minus 10 minutes on my mark...... mark."

"Copy that Taurus."

Ryan could feel a familiar anticipation in the pit of his stomach. After spending three hours on his back, he was ready for the familiar sensation of main engine firing. Although they were not going anywhere this day, the actual launch was just over a week away and they had Christmas break to look forward to in between.

"Taurus, we are go for Flight Readiness Firing test is T minus 15 seconds..... 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, Ignition sequence Start, 3, 2, 1, Ignition."

Far below them Jake and Ryan felt a shudder and then a sustained shaking sensation as the main engines ignited and roared to life. Within seconds they achieved full power. The spacecraft seemed to be straining against its restraints, wanting to break free and fly into the clear blue sky.

"This is pretty cool!" Jake laughed.

"Intense eh?" Ryan replied with a grin.

Jake felt his face flush when he noticed, that as during his first launch, he was rapidly getting an erection. He reached down and tried to adjust it so that it did not look so obvious.

Ryan caught the movement and chuckled. "Don't worry about that kiddo. We all rise to the occasion sometimes at launch!"

Jake turned beet read and laughed. "Glad the flight surgeon cannot detect that happening! I was more worried about that than anything else on my first flight!"

Ryan laughed. "No worries kiddo. My lips are sealed."

Finally, after what seemed to be a lot longer than 60 seconds, the engine shut down and an eerie silence settled over the spacecraft. Only the sounds of life support systems and other electronics could be heard.

"Control, this is Taurus, we show Main Engine Cut-off at T+60 seconds"

"Roger Taurus, that was a successful test. We are all systems go for launch on the 28th.

A moment later, the swing arm from the launch tower swung into position and ground crewed opened the hatch. The strap-down team entered the spacecraft and helped Jake and Ryan out of their seats. From there, the elevator whisked them to the ground and they boarded the crew van and returned to crew quarters.

Inside the suit up room, technicians helped the two astronauts out of their pumpkin suits and then they both headed straight to the shower.

"Even with the environmental controls, wearing those damn suits for that long is sweaty and uncomfortable," Ryan said.

"You're telling me," Jake replied. His sandy brown hair was matted and plastered to his head. He peeled off his sweaty boxer briefs and turned on the faucet next to Ryan.

Ryan was a bit surprised that Jake did not appear to be the least bit shy or modest. Having grown up military showing around other guys was nothing to Ryan.

Ryan rinsed his hair and turned to look at Jake who appeared to be lost in thought. "Something on your mind?"

"Well, not really. Sort of, I guess." Jake replied. "Kind of weird though."

Ryan laughed. "Believe me, I've heard it all before."

"Well, is it really normal to get a boner during launch?" Jake blurted out.

Ryan could not help himself and laughed out loud. "Perfectly normal! It's happened to me before too. Besides, you're a 13-year-old boy. You're at that stage where that," he pointed at Jake's flaccid penis, "has a mind of its own sometimes."

Jake blushed. "The worst is when it gets hard for no reason in the middle of class!"

"Been there too," Ryan replied. "Just remember which head needs to do your thinking for you!"

Once they were done, they dressed in the clean uniforms provided and headed to a brief meeting in mission control to review the rehearsal and the test and then at last headed back to crew quarters.

"Ok kiddo. We are pretty much done here for the Christmas break. How about you grab some things and we can head over to my place?" Ryan asked.

"Great!" Jake replied enthusiastically. He went to his barracks room and began to pack a bag with changes of clothes and other things he would need.

"So here is the plan," Ryan said as they drove to his place. We can settle in tonight and relax. We can hit the malls tomorrow and do some last-minute shopping and be done before Christmas Eve. I figured we could check out a movie or something on Christmas Eve, do the usual Christmas morning thing and have a nice turkey dinner. Relax on Boxing day and then head back to the Cape the next morning to enter pre-launch quarantine."

"Works for me!" Jake replied happily. He glanced over at Ryan as he was driving. He felt a funny feeling in his chest. He was not sure what it was, but he also felt drawn to the man beside him. He felt some sort of connection that he did not fully understand.

The next morning, they headed off to the mall. Ryan and Jake went their separate ways at the mall with Ryan heading straight to Walmart to do something he had no done in years, Christmas shop for a young teenage boy.

He picked up a pair of virtual reality googles that interfaced with the type of smart phone that Jake used and purchased a number of gift cards for the only app store to allow him to download apps, books and even movies that he could bring along on the coming space flight. He also picked up a bunch of small items from toiletries to joke gifts and junk food to fill a stocking for Jake.

With his cart filled, he paid for his purchases and then went straight to the charity gift wrap counter, dropped a substantial donation and waited patiently while the elderly women behind the counter cheerfully wrapped his gifts for him.

At the other end of the mall, Jake had been recognized at the entrance to the video arcade and was busy posing for an endless stream of selfies with other kids. He hadn't fully appreciated how much of a public figure he had become until that moment.

He thought about Christmas and how it was going to be his first Christmas with a family, however small, in years. He also looked forward to the coming space mission. When he finally managed to get out of the video arcade, he went to the pet store nearby and purchased some squeaky toys and some beef jerky treats for Otis. He really loved the big dog and it was apparent that the gentle pooch was taken with him too.

He sat down and gave some thought as to what he would like to get for Ryan for Christmas. He did not have a lot of money. Most of his astronaut salary was put into trust for him when he turned 18. He did receive a comfortable allowance and all his expenses were covered. He suddenly had a bright idea and figured he would try to put his newfound fame to good use. He pulled out his phone and dialed a number.

"Deputy Command NORAD's office. How may I direct your call?" a pleasant-sounding woman said.

"This is CSA astronaut Jake Collins calling for General Callahan."

There was a brief pause. "One moment, sir, and I will put you through to the General."

A moment later Mark answered the phone, "Major General Callahan Speaking."

"Mark, it's Jake. Jake Collins."

"Jake, how are you kiddo?"

"Fine sir. I do have a small favor to ask you. Do you have any copies of your book handy?"

"I am sure I can lay my hand on one. What's up?"

"I wanted to buy a signed copy of it for Ryan for Christmas."

"Tell you what I can do. I have a few first editions stashed away here. I will sign one and get it sent via courier right to Ryan's house by tomorrow. Would that work?"

"You bet it would! Thank you."

They chatted for a few more minutes and then hung up. Jake headed towards the food court where he was to meet Ryan.

"Have fun Jake?" Ryan asked.

"Sorta," Jake replied. He went on to relay the story of the selfies.

Ryan laughed. "The price of fame, kiddo."

They chowed on some Chinese food and then headed home to get ready for a relaxing Christmas break.

Ryan had already put up a small Christmas tree and he had selected a few old Christmas movies that he thought Jake would enjoy. On of them was the timeless classic "A Christmas Story".

Jake went out in the backyard to play with Otis while Ryan called launch control at the cape to check on the status of the spacecraft.

"We are good to go, flawless preparation and early countdown so far," Carmichael replied. "Just relax, enjoy Christmas and we'll have this bird ready to fly for you."

A few moments later Jake came running in with Otis at his heels. "Ryan, check this out!" he held his tablet out to Ryan.

Ryan looked at the screen and saw that a video clip was set to play. He tapped the play button and the sounds of "Yakety-Sax" began to pour from the devices speakers. On the screen, in what looked like double-time, Otis and Jake chased each other around the spacious back yard. It looked like some comical version of parkour as they jumped over snow-drifts and other obstacles. The effect was quite funny and Ryan laughed loudly.

Jake giggled and even Otis let out a comical grumbling sound.

"Have to share that one with the rest of the team!" Ryan remarked. Hilarious. "The man has been dead for more than 50 years but everyone still knows who Benny Hill was."

The following afternoon, Christmas Eve, Jake's phone beeped. He looked down and saw that there was a text message from a courier. He went out on the front porch and picked up the box that had been left in the mailbox. He took it back to his room and opened it. Inside was a first edition copy of "For All Mankind: Footprints on Mars" by Mark Callahan. Inside the front cover was a handwritten inscription, "To a legendary fellow astronaut and an even better human being. Your Friend Mark Callahan".

Jake smiled and proceeded to gift wrap the book

That evening Jake and Ryan settled in to enjoy a quite meal of some grilled moose steak that Ryan had shot earlier that year. It was done up with a thick gravy and mashed potatoes.

"I've never had moose before," Jake observed. "I like it!"

"I prefer it to beef myself," Ryan replied.

"Will you teach me how to hunt one of these days?" Jake asked.

"Sure, if you want to. It's not for everyone. Some people can't handle the idea of killing."

"They have to kill the cows that we eat as well don't they?" Jake replied. "This is just doing it yourself rather than having someone else do it for you."

"You're a smart guy, Jake," Ryan replied with a grin.

They settled in that night with a roaring fire in the fireplace and watched movies together. Jake found the old Christmas comedy "A Christmas Story" to be hilarious.

"You'll shoot your eye out!" he said with a laugh. "Oh Fuuuuuudge!"

"It's a major award!" Ryan added "FRAGEEELAY, must be Italian!"

Soon they were both laughing like lunatics.

At around midnight, Jake went off to bed with Otis following him. Ryan went and put the presents he had bought for Jake as well as some for Otis under the tree and then turned in himself. A few minutes later, Jake crept down the stairs and placed his gifts under the tree as well. He was caught by surprise when he saw a pile of presents already there, many with his name on them.

He felt a flood of emotions as he went back upstairs and climbed into bed beside Otis. The big dog curled up against him and rested his head on his chest. This was going to be his first real Christmas in years. He glanced out the window just in time to see a shooting star streak past. He recognized the feelings in his chest. He loved Ryan like he used to love his dad and the wish he made on that shooting star was that Ryan would come to love him like a son.

It was Otis's cool damp nose poking him in the face the next morning that finally raised Ryan from his slumber. That was followed shortly behind by Jake shaking his shoulder.

"Time to get up!" Jake said. "It's Christmas!"

Ryan mumbled something and then sat up and made his way to the bathroom. He emerged a few moments later wearing a robe and looking more awake. "Ok, let's go see what's under the tree."

Ryan handed Jake a large colourful Christmas stocking that was almost overflowing with goodies.

"Thanks Ryan!" Jake exclaimed as he dug into the stocking. Candies, magazines, fruit, new underwear, new socks and other items soon stood in a pile in front of Jake.

Jake then handed a wrapped package to Otis who barked happily and then tore into the wrapping revealing a stuffed goose doggy toy, some rawhide bones and some packages of treats.

"These are for you too," Ryan said as he handed Jake several wrapped packages.

"You didn't have to do that!" Jake exclaimed.

"Sure I did, every kid needs gifts to unwrap on Christmas morning."

"This is cool. I can load these onto my tablet and take them on the mission," Jake said of the digital download gift cards.

"Glad you like them," Ryan replied.

Jake set the gifts down, turned to Ryan, he leaned into him and wrapped his arms around his torso in a tight hug. "Thanks for giving me my first real Christmas in a long time," Jake said.

Caught by surprise, Ryan wrapped his arms around the boy and replied, "You are more than welcome, kiddo. Kind of reminds me of the way things used to be."

"I have something for you too," Jake said after releasing Ryan from his embrace. He handed him the neatly wrapped package.

Ryan unwrapped the gift and looked at the very rare first edition print copy of Mark Callahan's book. "Jake, I don't know what to say. Thank you."

"It's a first edition and look inside the cover," Jake said.

Ryan opened the cover of the book and read the inscription.

"This is very special, Jake, I will always treasure it."

They spent the rest of the day relaxing and watching Christmas movies. They even took Otis for a long walk around the neighbourhood. Along the way they spotted some people skating on a pond.

"I'd love to go skating, but if one of us got hurt, that would be it for the launch!" Ryan observed.

"Yeah it looks like fun, but 10 days of zero-G is going to be even more fun!" Jake replied.

On the evening of the 26th of December, they dropped Otis off with Ryan's neighbour and headed back to Cape Breton Space Center.

"Lets check out the ship before we go to quarters," Ryan suggested.

They drove down the access road to the launch pad, which was lit up with flood lights. Taurus was on the pad attached to its boosters and external tank and technicians were swarming the structure preparing the vehicle for launch. Not wanting to get in the way, they headed back to crew quarters and entered pre-launch quarantine.

Ryan retreated to his home-away-from-home while Jake went and joined the other youth astronaut corps members in one of the recreation halls. Crew quarters were mostly deserted except for those who were going to play a role in the upcoming mission.

The next day, their last day on earth before the mission, was spent rehearsing key moments of the flight and spending a lot of time in the simulator. Taurus carried multiple complex instruments and computer navigation systems that would aid Jake in performing most critical manoeuvre, but he had to know how to react in case of failures and certain parts of the mission such as the actual docking with the micro-station and the final approach and landing would be done entirely under his control. Automated systems were available, but they were normally only used in exceptional circumstances. The space agency believed that having a human's hands on the controls at critical phases was important.

Ryan's alarm went off at 4:30 AM on the morning of the launch. He hurriedly showered and dressed in a navy blue flight suit before heading down the hall to wake Jake. He knocked on the door and stepped back in surprise when it popped right open and Jake was standing there ready to go.

"You're up already? Did you sleep ok kiddo?"

"Yeah I woke up around 4:30 and decided to get ready. I can't wait for lift-off!" Jake's enthusiasm was contagious.

Ryan smiled. "Well, let's go join the team for breakfast," he said, as he placed a hand on Jake's shoulder.

Both of them carrying their personal gear bags and tablet computers headed to the dining hall.

"Good morning to the crew of Taurus!" Jacques Demers, head of flight crew operations, said as he shook hands with Jake and Ryan.

"How is the spacecraft looking?" Jake asked Tony Carmichael, the pad leader.

"Taurus is A-Ok. All systems are go and there are no technical issues at this time," Carmichael replied.

"Weather reports are all go for launch," fellow astronaut James McDougal added.

"Recovery and abort sites are good to go too," Beverly Thorn added.

James and Beverly along with Peter Durand and Mark Andrews were all seated around the table. They were fellow youth astronauts who had all flown their first mission and they were chosen to act as Capcom's for Jake's second flight and his first long duration mission.

"All telemetry readouts from the micro-station indicate is in optimal condition and we have sent commands to the automated systems to get the environmental systems out of power-saving mode and get them comfortable for you." Peter added.

"Yeah last thing we want is for you to freeze your balls off in space again!" Mark laughed alluding to the temperature control mishap on Jake's first flight.

After their traditional steak and eggs with coffee and orange juice breakfast, Jake and Ryan headed into the suit-up room. Two sets of technicians awaited and two pumpkin suits were laid out and ready for them.

Jake and Ryan removed their flight suits and the technicians went to work helping them into the bright orange pumpkin suits complete with boots, gloves and helmets, not to mention the heavy survival packs, which contained emergency oxygen, parachutes and floatation devices.

Once they were set, Jacques Demers arrived and escorted them out of the crew quarters and out to the crew van for the drive to the launch pad.

"Wow! Look at the crowds this morning," Jake exclaimed.

Ryan looked around and could not help but notice the large number of teenage girls in the crowd.

"You're a celebrity, kiddo!"

Both of them waved to the crowds as they climbed into the bus-like crew van.

They arrived at the pad and saw that the place was still a hive of activity. A cool mist surrounded the external tank to which Taurus was attached. Frost was visible in places due to the cryogenically cold liquid oxygen and hydrogen inside its massive tanks.

They rode the elevator to the white room and Jake, as the command pilot trainee, was the first to enter Taurus and was strapped down tightly into the left seat. Ryan followed shortly afterwards and was strapped into the right hand seat.

After final adjustments and successful radio checks, the strap-down team departed, closing and sealing the hatch behind them. The service arm retracted and pulled the white room away from the spacecraft.

They were sealed off from the rest of humanity and ready to launch.

"This is really happening, isn't it?" Jake asked.

"Sure is, Jake," Ryan smiled. He remembered his first shuttle mission and how surreal it seemed all those years earlier. In those days, Canadian astronauts rode American shuttles into orbit and now he was commander of the youth division of one of the most active space programs on earth.

The last hour of the countdown went smoothly with no glitches as they worked their way through their pre-launch checklists. Jake felt his heart rate accelerate as they passed the T minus 60 second mark.

"Taurus CDR, control."

"Control, this is Taurus CDR, go ahead."

"Take a deep breath Jake. Relax and enjoy the ride," Peter Durand said over the radio. He was the Capcom for the launch.

"Nothing to worry about, Jake," Ryan said. "We make a hell of a team."

Jake turned his head and smiled at Ryan as the final countdown began.

At the T minus 6 second mark, the three main engines roared to life and the whole vehicle jolted forwards. Just as it started to settle back into position, the solid rocket boosters roared to life. The whole spacecraft began to shake and vibrate like a paint mixer and there was a distinctive popping sound as the sleek vehicle leapt off the pad.

"Control, Taurus, we have lift-off and the clock is running." Jake said.

"Copy that Taurus, you have cleared the tower."

"Roll program," Ryan announced as the main engine nozzles and those on the SRBs gimballed and caused the rapidly accelerating vehicle to roll to the appropriate direction.

"Roll complete, we are pitching," Jake said as the vehicle, which was already moving faster than the speed of sound, began to pitch over into a heads-down attitude.

"Taurus, all systems are go, looking good, picture perfect launch." Peter broadcast over the radio.

"Roger that control," Jake responded.

"Throttling down to 65% thrust for Max-Q," Jake announced as the spacecraft reduced its engine power as they passed the moment of maximum aerodynamic loading.

Fifteen seconds later control called up, "Go at throttle up,"

"Roger throttling to 104%," Jake replied.

Ryan watched and listened as Jake expertly handled the radio calls and monitored the spacecraft. His heart swelled with pride in the boy.

"SRB separation motors armed," Jake announced.

A few seconds later a loud bang sounded from outside and the SRBs fell away leaving Taurus under its own power rapidly draining fuel from the external tank.

"Good separation," Ryan called out.

The violent shaking of the spacecraft stopped and the ride got much smoother. They could no longer hear any engine sounds, but they could both feel increasing weight pressing down on their chests as the spacecraft rapidly accelerated to orbital velocity.

"Taurus, Press to Heathrow, you are negative return," meaning that if they had to abort the launch at this point they could no longer return to Cape Breton and would have to cross the North Atlantic and land at Heathrow Airport in the UK.

"Roger press to Heathrow" Jake replied as he shifted the abort mode selector to TAL -or trans-Atlantic.

Outside the blue sky had given way to pitch black. They could see the blue of the ocean outside their windows below them

"Taurus, negative TAL, press to AOR," came the call from control. This meant that they were too high and too fast to land at Heathrow and in case of an emergency abort would have to abort once around and complete one partial orbit of earth before landing.

"Almost there Jake," Ryan observed.

At the five-minute mark they heard the news they had been waiting for. "Taurus, negative AOR, press to ATO"

That meant that they were high enough and fast enough that if they had to abort the launch they had enough altitude and speed to reach a low orbit and could use the orbital manoeuvring system to achieve their proper orbit.

"MECO in 60 seconds," Jake called out.

A minute later the main engines shut down and the sensation of acceleration disappeared immediately.

"Taurus we show perfect main engine cut-off, parameters are optimal, OMS 1 is not required, set DAP to OMS2 in 45 minutes. Welcome to space," Peter announced from mission control.

Jake reached out and keyed up the Digital Autopilot and launched the Orbital Manoeuvring System Burn 2 program. The timer showed just under 45 minutes until the engine burn that would circularize their orbit.

"Roger control DAP to OMS 2. We are going to get out of these suits after ET jettison."

"Roger that Taurus, you are go for ET jettison,"

Jake reached down and flipped open the safety cover over the ET jettison switch and pushed it. There was a dull thud from below as the explosive bolts blew and gently pushed the bright orange external tank away from the spacecraft. They watched it begin tumbling into the atmosphere on it's way to burning up over the Indian Ocean.

"Well Jake, that is how we do that. Great job!" Ryan said. As he unsnapped his shoulder harness and felt himself float free of his seat.

Jake smiled and followed suit. They both floated to the area behind the cockpit and helped each other out of their pumpkin suits. After stowing the suits in the proper lockers, they each floated over to their sleep station and put on navy blue flight suits.

"Taurus, we are t-5 minutes to OMS 2. Suggest you get seated," Peter called up.

"Roger that control, we are strapping in now," Ryan answered.

They strapped back into their seats and waited for the autopilot to fire the engines. Right on time the OMS engines ignited and the familiar sensation of acceleration returned. After about one minute the engines shut down and Jake studied the read-outs on the screens in front of him.

"Control, Taurus, we show OMS 2 shutdown and our orbit appears nominal." Jake said.

They spend the next hour going through post-launch checklists and transitioned Taurus from a rocket to an orbital vehicle. They opened the cargo bay doors and activated the various systems they would need to intercept and dock with the micro-station.

Ryan watched closely as Jake went through the proper procedures to begin the interception and docking process. He called up the Global TDRS network that tracked and handled communications between all spacecraft in orbit and locked onto the Micro-station. He then programmed the Digital Auto-Pilot to align their orbit with that of the station. He then brought up the Sync Orbit program and instructed the autopilot to enter a Pursuit orbit. This boosted Taurus into a slightly higher orbit than the station, which meant that they were moving faster than their target and would intercept in 12 hours.

"Ok, good job, Jake," Mission control called up.

"Ok kiddo, time for the hard part," Ryan laughed. What do you do if the DAP goes down or starts returning bad data?"

Jake went through a simulation of the manual processes to accomplish what he had just done automatically and he impressed Ryan when the computer feedback indicated that the manual intercept course was within a minute as efficient as the automatic one.

"Let's open up the cargo module," Ryan said, once they were on course to intercept the station. The cargo module was a large pressurised module in their cargo bay and it contained supplies and equipment to be installed on the micro-station.

They floated to the aft-console and ran a full pressure check on the cargo module and the docking collar. Once everything checked out ok, they opened the airlock door and floated down a short tunnel reaching the cargo module hatch, they opened the hatch and floated into the cargo module. Inside were racks of equipment and supplies. They made their necessary checks and then floated back into Taurus for lunch.

Jake pulled open one of the food cabinets and looked inside. "Lots to choose from," he said. "Beans and Franks, Spaghetti and meat sauce, Beef Stew. Lots of others."

"Toss me a spaghetti please," Ryan replied.

Jake tossed one of the sealed meal packs to Ryan. It floated across the cabin and he caught it effortlessly.

Space meals are similar to MRE - meals ready to eat in that each pack contains a complete nutritionally balanced meal. To save weight, the food was mostly dehydrated and preparing it for eating involved injecting hot water into the package.

Ryan opened his meal pack and placed the bowl of freeze dried spaghetti into the receptacle and closed the lid. The system whirred to life and a moment later steam billowed out and the hatch opened revealing hot and ready to eat spaghetti. His meal pack contained a tube of dehydrated fruit drink, freeze dried peaches, and a package of tortillas and a tube of peanut butter and one of honey. Bread gives off too many crumbs so tortillas are used instead.

Jake selected a pouch containing teriyaki Chicken with rice and prepared his meal.

"This is actually pretty good," Jake said after floating over to the folding dining table where Ryan floated nearby. The food packs had Velcro fasteners to hold them down. There was no need for chairs as everyone simply floated.

"Yeah a lot better than the old days," Ryan agreed. "It's hot and filling."

"Peter said they had something special stowed away for us for New Years," Jake said.

"Oh yeah?" Ryan replied. New Years was coming up in a few days and they would be docked to the station by then where the accommodations were much more spacious.

"How am I doing so far?" Jake asked as he dug into the nicely chilled pouch of fruit salad, which had been reconstituted using ice cold water.

"Nothing to worry about Kiddo. You are doing as well as any experienced astronaut I've ever served with."


"Absolutely. Let me tell you something. This program is building up to something really big. I don't know all the details yet, but we are talking deep space mission lasting years. I want to fly that mission and I want you on it with me when time comes."

"Me?!" Jake exclaimed.

"Yes you. You are smart, skilled and someone I can depend on. Besides...." Ryan trailed off not wanting to say too much.

"Besides what?"

Ryan looked at Jake closely and answered him, "Besides, I feel like a dad again when I'm with you and I like that."

Jake put down his fruit salad and floated over to embrace Ryan. "I like it too. I wish you were my dad."

"Maybe that can be arranged when we get back to Earth," Ryan replied.

They clung together like that for a few minutes. Both more than a little teary-eyed.

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