“Leaping Dragon, Sleeping Eagle”
by George S. Walker
The boom sounded like Leaping Dragon had hit something.
As Chang watched from Earth, everything in its main mission module jerked, including the six crewmembers. Unsecured objects flew through the air. Alarms shrieked.
“What happened?” demanded Major Peng from the virtual.
“We lost thrust.”
Chang saw his daughter Liu’s face in the image: jet-black hair in a tight bun, eyes wide.
The virtual relayed the whine of hatches pinching shut.
“Pressure loss in the inflatable habitat.”
The image from the ship in transit to Mars froze briefly, then recovered. Alarms continued. Lights flickered.
“Breakers tripped in the ST module. No power from solar arrays 3 and 10.”
Through the virtual, Chang saw the crew releasing harnesses, floating. Something banged: a metal drum like barbarians at the gate. The image froze again. When it recovered, it had degraded to 2D.
“We’re spinning. Antennas having trouble tracking Earth link.”
“There’s a lot of spin to undo. I’ll try maneuvering–” The image froze again, then came back worse than before. The transmission was losing bandwidth.
Chang craned his neck, following his daughter in the virtual, but she was 2D and translucent against the cached images of the module walls.
“We need main thrust back! We’re going to overshoot Mars!”
“Gimbal’s O.K. The thruster–”
Abruptly the virtual from Leaping Dragon winked out, replaced by the China Public Affairs desk.
“Liu!” cried Chang. He was authorized for a priority feed, not just a media relations feed.
“All is well,” said a woman at the desk in the virtual. “Live broadcast will resume later.” Then the feed began replaying an earlier transmission, before Leaping Dragon’s deceleration burn.
Chang cursed the bureaucracy.
For the next few hours, from his apartment in Seattle, he pulled every string, trying to learn what was happening aboard Leaping Dragon. None of his connections knew, not even his ex-wife with the Ministry of State Security in Beijing.
Exhausted from worry, he finally fell asleep.
His watch chirped as Liu’s text woke him before dawn.
“Still here,” said the glowing Chinese characters.
Only a text. What did that mean? Leaping Dragon was eleven minutes away by speed of light, so it would take twenty-two minutes to get a reply. Assuming the link that had found its way to him in Seattle was two-way.
“What happened?” he sent.
But his daughter’s reply scrolled immediately, anticipating his question.
“Braking thruster. Major malfunction. Explosion. Lost two solar spines. Have attitude control now. Overshot Mars. Long elliptical. Over seventy-six hours.”
He wanted to ask, “Can you get home?”
“Lost an O2 tank. Inflatable habitat ruptured. Cramped now. Repair what we can. Twenty percent chance.”
Then an end of transmission symbol. Too late to ask questions. Twenty-two minutes too late.
Twenty percent chance of what? Repairs? Return? Landing on Mars?
He called his ex-wife. She hadn’t gotten a text. He needed better connections in China.
The next day China played a new broadcast from Leaping Dragon, showing the crew in free fall in the main mission module. They displayed a sense of bravado that struck him as false. He wondered how many times they’d rehearsed.
“Everything is under control,” said Major Peng.
Chang zoomed in on his daughter’s face in the virtual. He saw the strain of her smile and the puffiness under her eyes.
The broadcast was short, switching quickly to another that showed the surface of Mars racing beneath Leaping Dragon.
A question and answer period followed in the Space City complex outside Beijing, attended by tame Chinese reporters, each dutifully ignoring the questions that needed to be asked; not following up on evasive answers.
The American media was worse, trimming Leaping Dragon’s broadcast to only a few seconds and skipping the Mars images entirely. Then on to political feuds.
That night, another text from Liu.
Nothing more. What the hell did that mean?
He applied for a visa for the hyper-shuttle to Beijing: denied.
He asked his ex-wife to go to Space City outside Beijing and demand answers. She refused.
Later came another broadcast from Leaping Dragon. He suspected it was one of a series of rehearsed virtuals transmitted the day before. There was no news. The Mars footage was identical to the day before. That implied there’d only been one fly-by. Where was Leaping Dragon now?
Another text from his daughter.
“Started the ion drive. Landing in nine days. Crew of one: me. Twenty percent chance of return. Much thought.”
Nothing more. Did twenty percent mean she wouldn’t return from the landing? Or that no one would return to Earth?
And Leaping Dragon’s ion drive was for the trip there and back, not in-orbit braking. Tiny, continuous acceleration over months. But they’d lost two solar spines, leaving less power for the drive. Without the main thruster to break orbit, it was one way to leave Mars: a steadily expanding orbit with a gravity boost from Mars at the end. That could add months to the trip. Why not use the lander’s engine to take Leaping Dragon out of orbit for the trip home?
Any sane person would have abandoned the landing by now. Not Liu. She’d spent half her life preparing. Her honor and China’s were at stake. “Much thought” meant she’d volunteered, knowing she’d never come back.
If Chang couldn’t find the answers from China, he’d have to try elsewhere.
The journey by hyperloop from Seattle to L.A. took over an hour. He’d have asked his questions in virtual, but talking to an American like Dr. D. would attract the attention of both the NSA and MSS.
Where he disembarked, solar panels LEGO’ed the hills of California like toppled black dominoes. He’d arranged to meet the engineer not in Pasadena, but at Venice Beach. That was a cover that would only work once.
Warm air blew against his face from the ocean and he saw offshore windmills turning. Naked bodies on the sand glowed with fluorescent tattoos. LAPD drones cruised above the beach.
He spotted Dr. D. walking near the surf. Chang hadn’t seen the man since conferences years ago at Caltech, and his hair had since turned to snow. He walked with a cane that was a prototype of a Martian lander strut. Dr. D. raised a hand and Chang joined him, bowing.
“I watched the virtual of the braking maneuver,” said Dr. D. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”
“Not official,” said Chang. “Space City doesn’t talk to me.”
“But your daughter’s a taikonaut! She’s part of the landing crew.”
“My daughter is the landing crew,” said Chang.
He told Dr. D. what he’d seen in Liu’s texts.
“A seventy-six hour orbit? If Liu’s the only one going down, that means they’re extending the surface time and the lander doesn’t have enough air and water for a full crew that long.”
“Liu is very small.”
“Twenty percent chance? She needs to be five times smaller!”
“Seventy-six hours is only three days”, said Chang. “The original plan was longer than that.”
“Depending on orbit, it could take many passes before they can rendezvous.”
“But you’ve heard nothing?” Chang couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“When they defunded NASA to reduce the deficit, that was the end of JPL. I have no current space contacts. Can’t you change your daughter’s mind?”
“I never could. You have children?”
“In China, that would be an extravagance.”
Dr. D. raised his water bottle. “To the extravagance of daughters. I’ll learn what I can.”
“If I don’t make it, the samples will. And surface virtuals. I’m ready.”
Liu’s throat tightened. He fought back tears.
Dr. D. met him in a turn-of-the-century caffeine emporium.
“I talked to some people,” said Dr. D.
“Yes?” said Chang eagerly.
“Confirmed some things.”
“Like you said, it’s her decision. Can’t you talk her out of it?”
“Space City won’t allow contact.”
Dr. D. toyed with his cup. “There might be another way.”
“NASA had a sample return mission. Before they shut us down.”
“That was twenty years ago! Your robot lander crashed.”
“Yes. But the MRV, the Mars Return Vehicle, is still in orbit.”
“You don’t have any way to talk to it. You scrapped your tracking stations.”
“China has a Deep Space Network, including orbital arrays.”
Chang pursed his lips. “I see a Great Wall of obstacles.”
Dr. D. nodded. “But it’s possible. We have a rocket with fuel in Martian orbit. I can locate the people who worked the mission.”
“That was twenty years ago. It’s dead!”
“Sleeping. We left it in dream mode.”
Chang saw a scientist’s passion in the man’s eyes, not unlike madness. He wanted desperately to believe what Dr. D. was telling him. Common sense told him it was impossible. “The lander’s already using Leaping Dragon’s dock. And you have no computers, no Mission Control.”
“Give me two days for feasibility study. What do you have to lose?”
He didn’t tell his ex-wife. That would alert the MSS.
Leaping Dragon transmitted another virtual. Still tightly rehearsed, but the puffiness under his daughter’s eyes was gone. The crew displayed a sense of determination that had been lacking before. The selection of the landing crew was being “reevaluated.” No mention that one of them wouldn’t come home. They announced they were re-testing the ion drive and showed a virtual of Phobos, a tiny rock flying in vacuum.
That night, a text from Liu.
“More data. Twenty percent was optimistic. But I’ll get down. First person to walk on Mars. China’s flag.”
They met in the arboretum, the only surviving forest in L.A.
“We can do it if China cooperates,” said Dr. D.
“It’s a fossil. And your lander failed.”
“That wasn’t an avionics error, it was parachute deployment. And the MRV is suspended in vacuum, not a boat rusting in the ocean.”
Dr. D. took out a tablet. Not electronic, but the kind made from recycled trees. He began drawing.
“Here’s Leaping Dragon’s seventy-six hour orbit. Here’s the MRV’s. We’ll do a series of burns for interception.”
“That uses up your fuel.”
“Some. We’ll optimize for minimum fuel usage. The MRV can’t dock, but there are ways around that.”
“You’re not JPL anymore. How do you program it?”
Dr. D. waved his hand. “Details, details. Can we use your Deep Space Network?”
“Once I ask, word spreads. Will your government approve?”
“It’s not like they can use it for anything else. These are propaganda games. I think both sides will play to win.”
Within an hour of making calls, two men in black suits pounded on Chang’s hotel room door in Pasadena. He knew who they were before he opened the door.
Their questioning lasted late into the night. But he was their best link to something China needed badly. They came to an understanding.
He didn’t see the text from Liu till he woke the next morning.
“I’m only sad you won’t see me when Leaping Dragon returns.”
She didn’t know the plan.
The address that Dr. D. directed him to several days later was an old warehouse overlooking a flood control channel. The concrete basin was filled with shanties: it never rained in L.A. anymore.
Dr. D. regarded the MSS men warily, but let them in. Dirty skylights lit the interior. Old oil stains spotted the concrete floor. Chang counted ten people with wrinkled faces. They sat in the hot warehouse at school desks with Chinese Eedoo game decks. One was running Secret Red Flower Society 3D. The others were running Sun workstation emulators.
Orbital graphics and simulation telemetry scrolled down panes of structural light. The images resembled artifacts from a museum.
“Welcome to Mission Control,” said Dr. D. with a smile.
Chang had a sick feeling. His daughter’s life depended on a group of rogue JPL retirees and a twenty-year-old antique abandoned in Martian orbit.
He introduced the MSS men and they bowed.
“How did you pay for this?” he asked Dr. D.
“We pooled our Social Security checks. When do we get access to your Deep Space Network?”
“Beijing wants a demonstration first.”
“Our first test is to awaken the MRV. We need your DSN to send the signal.”
“That’s not… sufficient,” said Chang uncomfortably. He felt trapped between governments. “They want to see how you will dock without a docking collar.”
“Has your daughter ever played lacrosse?” called a woman with dyed green hair.
“Leaping Dragon has a robotic arm for Martian satellite deployment,” explained Dr. D. “They can use it to capture and secure the MRV. We need to see the arm specifications.”
One of the MSS men shook his head.
“It’s just an arm,” said Dr. D., “not a weapon! What did you change when you copied it from the Canadians?”
The MSS faces showed no expression.
“At least let us wake the MRV,” said Dr. D. “We can’t do anything till we verify it’s operational.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Chang.
Dr. D. frowned. “Your daughter’s time is running out.”
Chang was painfully aware of that.
One small step: Negotiations got the Americans two hours of restricted DSN access. He called Dr. D., then hurried back to the warehouse. The Americans were gathered around a long table covered with old JPL binders and empty pizza boxes. The scent of pepperoni contrasted with the musty smell of the warehouse.
Chang showed Dr. D. his phone with the DSN control tables translated into obsolete NASA format.
Dr. D. handed the phone to a man with a flowing white Mohawk, who fed the tables into the game deck network.
Chang and the MSS men stood back, listening to the Americans. The MRV was still in radio shadow on the other side of Mars.
“DSN connection established.”
From that point, the chatter amongst the Americans was all technical jargon. Telemetry scrolled down virtual windows like hieroglyphics. Keyboards clattered like a museum telegraph office.
Over an hour later, an engineer whooped. “The mummy wakes!”
Dr. D. smiled. “That was the easy part.”
That night, after he finished negotiating for more DSN time, he got another text from Liu.
“They tell us the Americans have a plan. A trick? Before, I was ready. Now what?”
Why wouldn’t they let him talk to his daughter? What kind of pawn was he in this game? He replayed that day’s virtual from Leaping Dragon, wondering what she knew, when she knew. There’d been no public announcement, either of Leaping Dragon’s problems or the MRV.
Tempers were high in the hot warehouse. The Americans had been arguing about how much to pre-program the MRV. The twenty-two minute signal round trip made it impossible to control anything live. Dr. D. kept asking Chang for more information about Leaping Dragon. China resisted.
“We need the exact mass!” demanded Dr. D. “How much did they lose when the inflatable section ruptured?”
“Trying won’t save your daughter.”
Dr. D. had grumbled that the NSA was monitoring everything. He quoted a line from an old 2D serial: “Should we be captured or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of our existence.”
Chang wondered if China was using this as an opportunity to mislead the Americans. If, in the end, they would simply pull the plug on the Americans, and Liu would descend to her death after false hope. Was that why he couldn’t talk to her?
Leaping Dragon transmitted another virtual: They were doing an EVA to verify there was no damage to the arm. The engineers in the warehouse replayed that virtual over and over. Chang didn’t know what they were looking for.
The game decks still ran Sun workstation emulators, but now the orbital simulations were 3D, interfaced to native game apps. The simulations showed how tiny the MRV was next to Leaping Dragon. They also showed how easy it was to fail. Repeatedly he saw Leaping Dragon spin out of control as the MRV’s thruster fired. Or worse, the MRV slamming into Leaping Dragon like a bullet, scattering orbital debris.
The retirees were sleeping in the warehouse, working round the clock. They’d used their DSN access to program the MRV for two burns. To Chang’s eyes, the orbits were still completely misaligned.
“We’ll be ready in two days,” said Dr. D., rubbing his eyes wearily.
“We’d better at least get tee-shirts out of this,” said the woman with green hair.
“If this ends in an international incident,” said Dr. D., “you’ll be wearing it under a prison uniform.”
Another text from Liu.
“They ordered us to shut down the ion drive. Weak as it is, it was throwing off the Americans’ calculations. What kind of dinosaur outfit are they?”
“We want someone outside during the capture,” said Dr. D.
“Why?” said Chang. “Leaping Dragon’s arm will capture the MRV. The arm controls are inside the ship.”
“We can’t simulate one hundred percent. And the intellect of the MRV is too low: a fraction of one of these game decks. If we bring the MRV too close, it could hit Leaping Dragon. By the time we find out from here, it’s too late.”
“How far away might it be?”
“How long is Leaping Dragon’s EVA tether?”
Another text from Liu.
“The American orbiter swept us with its radar. It’s real! Space City ordered an EVA for tomorrow. They must not trust the Americans’ planning. How long since they gave up on space?”
China was multiplexing its orbital DSN array, allowing the Americans a tiny slice of bandwidth while it kept the rest for its virtual link with Leaping Dragon.
In the hot warehouse, Chang sweated at a desk with a game deck. It projected the virtual from Leaping Dragon’s main mission module. The JPL engineers sat at their own desks, monitoring MRV telemetry. The two MSS men stood back, watching every move.
The virtual link was encrypted from Beijing’s Space City. No media access this time, and no Public Affairs cutoff if it ended in disaster.
Two of Leaping Dragon’s crew were outside the ship in the open satellite bay with the arm: Liu and Captain Wong.
Everything from the virtual was eleven minutes in the past. The Americans were transmitting commands eleven minutes into the future. His daughter floated at the nexus.
“Tracking orbiter approach,” said Major Peng. “Standing by with arm.”
The red planet turned beneath Leaping Dragon. Dr. D. and his team were ghosts in the heavens. Chang saw the MRV’s imagery of Leaping Dragon above a game deck, hanging in space like an elegant Ming vase, solar spines fanned out like flowers. In his virtual, the MRV floated closer, looking like a relic from a welding shop. Faint shimmers of gas puffed from its maneuvering jets.
“Booms retracting,” said a voice in English, one of the JPL team.
Chang saw the MRV folding up like an origami spider. Less things to collide with.
“Forty meters to Dragon… thirty-nine…”
Dr. D. had told him that at thirty meters, the MRV would go docile, a falcon submitting to its hood.
On cue, the MRV slowed, matching orbit thirty meters from Leaping Dragon. The JPL team clapped.
Leaping Dragon’s arm slowly unfolded, extending toward the MRV. Liu rode the end of it. When it reached maximum extension, she pushed off, the long snake of her tether uncoiling in free fall.
Her aim was perfect. She grabbed onto the MRV and wrapped the tether around a folded titanium boom.
“Pull,” she said.
Wong tugged on the tether. The MRV weighed thousands of kilos. Chang heard the man’s heavy breathing from his helmet mike. It took a long time before he could see the MRV starting to move. Wong stopped pulling. The MRV drifted slowly toward Leaping Dragon, like a truck rolling downhill.
Dr. D. warned Chang, “Every minute this takes adds to burn time and takes away precious fuel.”
Chang realized he’d been holding his breath. “They know.”
He saw the arm pivoting in anticipation of capture. When the MRV came close enough, the arm clamped the fixture the Americans had recommended. Chang heard creaking and saw the arm’s shock mounts absorb the MRV’s momentum into Leaping Dragon.
“Grip on,” said Major Peng. “Swinging the MRV to align vector with our center of mass.”
Chang glanced through the virtual to see the Americans discussing fuel and distance.
His daughter rode the MRV, her loose tether arcing sunward like a spider thread in the wind.
The pivot seemed to take forever to get the MRV to the right angle.
After a pause, Peng said, “Commit to burn.” In English, for the Americans.
“Initiate,” said Dr. D.
Chang released the breath he’d been holding. Now it would be eleven minutes till the braking maneuver started. Twenty-two minutes to learn if he’d saved his daughter. Or killed her.
Liu said something he didn’t make out. He saw her clambering along the MRV hull to where the arm had latched. On a monitor in Leaping Dragon, her helmet-cam zoomed in on the grappler.
Major Peng swore. “Incomplete latch. It’s going to come loose.”
“Retry?” asked the crewmember controlling the arm.
In the helmet-cam monitor, the arm’s grappler opened and re-closed repeatedly.
“No good. The fixture’s too big to grapple properly. Didn’t the Americans know the grappler limit?”
“We asked!” shouted Dr. D. “Over and over!”
“You’ll have to abort the burn,” said Chang.
“It’s too late!” said Dr. D. “And if the arm’s not latched, the MRV will ram Leaping Dragon.”
Liu was hanging in space, one glove on the arm, the other on the MRV.
“What about the boom in front of you?” asked Peng. “We can grapple that.”
“No!” shouted a JPL engineer. “The only thing holding it is the servo motor! It will swing as soon as the thruster fires.”
By the time they hear you, despaired Chang, they’ll be dead.
Liu was pointing within the helmet-cam view. “Can the arm mate here instead? It’s a smaller fixture than the other one.”
“That’s much better,” said Dr. D.
The arm operator spoke from Leaping Dragon. “The boom’s in the way. Either we attach to the boom or we need to move the MRV again.”
“Easier to grapple the boom,” said Major Peng.
“No!” said Dr. D., advice the crew couldn’t hear.
“It doesn’t look secure,” said Liu. “I can move the MRV before the burn starts.”
“But there’s no time for you to get back!”
Liu began pushing the MRV from the arm. Chang could hear his daughter’s panting. It was like shoving a cargo truck. In the helmet-cam monitor, he saw her heart rate climb. Two hundred beats per minute, like a trapped sparrow.
The boom crept out of the way.
“Time’s running out, Liu,” said Peng.
“I know,” she gasped. “Trying!”
Beneath Liu’s body, the grappler on the arm opened in anticipation.
“Move it in,” said Peng.
The arm scraped along the solar panel, showering splinters of crystalline silicon into space. It latched onto the new fixture.
“Secure,” said the operator.
“Burn in two minutes,” said Peng.
The arm was still extending, pulled by the MRV, but slowing.
In the audio, Liu panted.
“That was eleven minutes ago,” Dr. D. murmured. “By now, it worked or it didn’t.”
Chang swallowed. His daughter could be dead now.
“Ten seconds to burn,” said Peng. “Hold tight, Liu.”
Then the MRV engine fired. Everything in the virtual shook. Liu hung onto the MRV.
The burn kept going, seeming to last forever. Then abruptly it cut off, leaving Leaping Dragon in a new orbit, still mated to the MRV.
Dr. D., watching game deck telemetry, announced, “Orbit nominal.”
From the MRV, Liu waved at Leaping Dragon.
Major Peng turned and bowed to Chang in the virtual.
George S. Walker has sold stories to Abyss & Apex, Ideomancer, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Electric Spec, Every Day Fiction, Bastion, Plasma Frequency, and elsewhere. Anthologies containing his stories include Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism & Beyond, Bibliotheca Fantastica, and others.