Soon the fireball from the engines was all that could be seen on the screen.
It gradually became smaller and smaller as the sound faded … until it was merely a bright point of light in the heavens.
The camera followed the light until it was out of sight, then returned to the tarmac. The cameraman focused on the spot where the spaceplane had begun its roll, a spot now empty.
"She's on her way," Egg said.
Rip Cantrell took a deep breath and exhaled very carefully. He surreptitiously wiped at the tears that were leaking down his cheeks. "Yeah," he whispered. "She's on her way."
Inside Jeanne d'Arc Charley Pine monitored the instruments as the ship roared away from the earth. To her left Jean-Paul Lalouette was similarly engaged. Her duties were to bring any anomaly she noticed to his attention. Her eyes swept the panel again, looking for warning lights, errant pressures, a gauge indication that hinted something, anything was not as it should be. Yet all was precisely as it should be, perfect, as if this were a simulator ride and the operator had yet to push a failure button.</ol>
Both pilots wore their space suits, complete with helmets, in the event the plane lost pressurization during launch. They planned to take them off after all the systems checks were completed in orbit.
The acceleration Gs felt good, pushing Charley straight back into her seat. The voices of the French controllers passing information about the trajectory and data-link information sounded clear and pleasant in her ears; the background was the low rumble of the rocket engines.
When the external tanks were empty, they were jettisoned explosively. The engines then began burning fuel from the internal tanks as the spaceplane continued to climb and accelerate.
Charley's eyes flicked to the windscreen, four inches of bulletproof glass. At this nose-up angle the night sky filled the windscreen, full of stars and a sliver of moon. As they climbed through the atmosphere the stars became brighter and ceased their twinkling, and the crescent-moon gleamed more starkly against the background of obsidian black.
She had little time to enjoy the scenery. The next task was rendezvousing with the orbiting fuel tank. She became engrossed in the problem, watching the display that depicted the spaceplane and the orbiting tank and the three-dimensional course to intercept.
When she realized that the join-up was working perfectly and Lalouette had everything under complete control, she glanced again at the moon. For some reason it seemed larger than it did standing on the surface of earth. Now it appeared as what it was, another world.
The obsidian sky full of stars, the weightless feeling, the earth hanging beside the spaceplane with storms over the oceans and snowy mountain peaks twinkling in the sun-Charley Pine had been here before and been forever changed by the experience. Now she was back. She was sooo excited … and just as her personal karma account began overflowing she remembered Rip and felt the tiniest twinge of guilt.
Yeah, so, he wasn't here! He was only twenty-three, for Christ's sake. He didn't earn a seat in a spaceplane's cockpit; she did! All those years in college, flying, test pilot school-yet she wouldn't be here if it weren't for Rip.
Well, she would tell him about it when she returned to earth. That was the best that she could do. She brushed Rip away and returned to the business at hand, controllers and trajectories and systems.
Charley Pine took physical control of Jeanne d'Arc for the first time over the Pacific Ocean to effect the rendezvous with the orbiting fuel cell. With the sound of her breathing rasping in her ears and her heart thudding in her chest, she made tiny control inputs as the spaceplane crossed the distance between the two orbiting bodies. She knew from her military flying experience and the simulator that it was necessary to check the closure rate on the instruments-not to rely on her eyes-since the rate would appear to increase as the bodies closed the distance.
With Lalouette monitoring the instruments and calling out the distance and closure rate, she flew the spaceplane into the rendezvous position and stopped all closure. Only after all relative motion had stopped did she nudge the controls enough to gently bring the spaceplane into the fueling port. The clunk of the hydraulic latches closing, locking the ship firmly to the tank, was the best sound she had heard in years. She breathed a huge sigh of relief.
"Nicely done," said a male voice, not Lalouette.
She looked around. Pierre Artois was watching. He was suspended in the cabin, floating, maintaining his position by occasionally touching something fixed to the ship. Even though this was his first journey into space, he looked quite comfortable.