Cold And Steel Episode 1: Launch


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Cold and Steel

Image of the AEDF1 Fleet Command Emblem. An acoustic cover of Major Tom by Peter Schilling begins to play.

TEXT: AEDF Outreach Media Presents:

Montage of AEDF filmstrips throughout history- NG2 craft in black and white, photographs of primitive space-suits on the surface of the Moon, excavation of Lunar sites, NG vessels over Antarctica, censored images of Howler noocraft3, engine tests, space station construction.

TEXT: In Cooperation with the Department of Personal Efficacy and Wellness

Montage of AEDF personnel at work; donning spacesuits, conducting experiments in laboratories in low-gravity, constructing the keel of a torch vessel on the surface of the Moon.

TEXT: Cold and Steel: Stories from the High Frontier

Cut to black. Music continues.

TEXT: As part of the production of Cold and Steel, AEDF and U&IIB personnel were given personal cameras and told to record whatever they believed other Authority personnel should know about their lives and work. These are their stories.

Music fades, replaced by the sound of howling wind. Wide shot of a desolate Antarctic landscape, dimly lit by snow. A series of red lights outline the edge of several house-sized mechanical hatches protruding from the snow, all emblazoned with visible Authority emblems.

TEXT: Episode 1: Launch.

SUBTITLE: Created by Lieutenant Vasily Stepanov

STEPANOV (V/O): They recruited me when I was nineteen. Fresh out of flight school, but with a few black marks on my disciplinary record. I liked flying well enough, but, uh- well, maybe the Air Force wasn't for me. Russian flight instructors aren't known for their kindness, hahah.

Cut to the inside of a cramped spacecraft. Stepanovi, holding the camera, crawls past three rows of two seats and into a compact cockpit, speaking as he goes.

STEPANOV: The Thunderbirds are our latest- hah. First ones came out almost 40 years ago, but they've been upgraded and improved. Anyways, they're the best we've got for a, uh- a comfortable ride to orbit. This one is Ivan Tsarevitch- I didn't name him, but it fits- and it's been, uh, as you can see here, set up for a mix of passenger and light cargo.

We can haul give or take a ton and a half into orbit if we're doing things comfortably, or three if we switch the engines over to a low-efficiency regimen, but, uh… well, it's hell on your back, and we try to keep fuel costs low. Orbital launches consume more of our annual fuel budget than, well… just about anything.

He settles into the pilot's seat, and clips the camera into a stand on the dashboard.

STEPANOV: Welcome to my castle. Cozy, hah? I'm rated to fly Thunderbirds and Dynavanes both, but if you asked me to pick I'd choose the Thunder every time. They fly better, the launch is smoother- none of that being strapped to the top of an ICBM like the older orbital platforms. Back in the day they used converted Apollos, can you imagine? Just to get people into orbit?

Cut to Stepanov walking along a concrete-walled subterranean passage, which slopes upwards at a steep angle. The floor and walls have been scorched black, but Stepanov's breath fogs visibly.

STEPANOV (V/O): Antarctica is a terrible place to launch spacecraft from. Everybody admits it. But it's out of the way, we have all the room we need, and if something goes wrong, well… no civilian casualties to worry about for the most part. I normally work out of Launch-Site-003, which is one of our larger facilities. Two big tubes for cargo rockets or Dynavanes if we need them, and four spaceplane launch ramps.

They sent me down here because of my experience in extreme-weather flying. Half my colleagues were bush pilots or high-altitude specialists before they got recruited. The AEDF doesn't want fighter jockies- it wants people who can land something in a 100-click crosswind at minus seventy in complete darkness. Guess that's us.

Cut to the inside of the Ivan Tsarveitch, with systems active. Several passengers are visible through the cockpit hatch.

TEXT: 4 minutes to launch.

STEPANOV: Catapult hydraulics are locked in. Roger. Can you confirm, uh, thirty kph crosswinds, bearing one oh three? Thank you Control. Tell Anklebiter we've, uh, been having some problems with the docking clamp magnets. Got a hairline in number 2, so- mechanicals only today. Yes. That's right. Thanks.

Stepanov and the crew are wearing insulated jumpsuits and lightweight bubble helmets. They appear tense but excited, with an animated conversation proceeding in the crew compartment as the pilot speaks.

STEPANOV (V/O): This is a fairly routine flight. Delivering four replacement crew to AEDFS Anklebiter, plus a big tank of spare hydrogen in the back, some personal items, food stores, spare oxygen scrubbers, two new laser collimating lenses to be shipped on to the Inner-System Fleet… typical stuff. Thunderbirds can do the classic vertical launch- we prefer it when the weather's clear or we're in a hurry- but with passengers in and high winds the catapult lets the engines catch more efficiently. Gives us a run-up against the weather, and saves some fuel for maneuvers.

Stepanov presses several toggles, and the cabin lights dim. The passengers cease their conversation, looking expectant.

STEPANOV: Okay, final checks are complete everyone. It will take us about fifteen minutes to hit orbit, most of that in-atmosphere with the scramjets boosting us. You'll feel a bit of a kick eleven minutes in- that's the drop tank going. We'll be maintaining about three g for most of the launch, so keep your hands and feet inside your seats and remember your acceleration training. Sit back and enjoy the ride. Won't be an in-flight movie, but the little display in front of you will switch over to forwards view after we've cleared the launch tube. Hang on tight!

Cut to stock footage of a Thunderbird launching. The spaceplane, with its wings folded sits atop a hydraulic launch catapult, a streamlined drop tank pressed close against its belly.

AEDF LAUNCH CONTROL (V/O): Five, main engines start. Three, Ramjets to full, two, one, Launch. Catapult away, flight systems locked.

As the countdown descends, the spike-shaped main engine glows violently purple, its exhaust filling the launch tunnel with smoke. Two scramjet engines on the folded wingtips visibly vibrate, their heat distorting the air behind them. As the launch begins, the catapult throws the spacecraft down the tunnel. Repeated cuts as the cameras keep up, then it is out in the open, the catapult detaching as the engines grow brighter. Image holds on the nose camera view from the spaceplane as it ascends through the thick Antarctic clouds and up in the open.

STEPANOV (V/O): When I joined the Air Force I wanted to fly fighter jets. What dumb teenager doesn't want to try that kind of thing? Be a, uh, hotshot fighter jockey. Then I actually learned to fly and thought okay, maybe I won't be breaking speed or altitude records. Maybe just transport. Then the Authority found me, and, well… yes, I'm a transport pilot, but I hit Mach 14 in-atmosphere two, sometimes three times a day. Not the most glamorous job in the Fleet, I guess, but it suits me well enough. Get up bright and early, go to orbit, drop off cargo, and be back on the ground in time for brunch, haha!

Shot of a Thunderbird docking with an AEDF Yakov Bryus, from the point of view of the ship. The spaceplane detaches. Its engines fire silently and it slowly drops out of frame, towards the Earth below.

STEPANOV (V/O): There is an assumption, I think, that AEDF is some kind of force of elite alien-hunters. That we, uh, call Mister Scott to beam us into orbit and then go out and shoot aliens with laser guns. We train for that kind of thing, certainly- but for most of us it's just a job. There are a lot of people up the well- on ships, on stations, and bases- and without us to bring them food and oxygen and water and fuel, well… I'd feel a lot less safer. It's a big Solar System. Full of threats and mystery. We- transport pilots. We're, uh, we're the first link in the chain. Without us, there is no AEDF. The torch vessel pilots can brag all they want about fusion engines and orbital insertions and how many planets they've been to, but it takes a transport pilot to get them to their big, fancy ships. So maybe I do walk with a bit of a swagger, haha!

The spaceplane reenters the atmosphere, the plasma cone forming around it making the image wash out and distort. After a few seconds, the plasma clears and the spaceplane's wings unfold. It is buffeted by the rush of air, and begins to nose down towards the ground.

STEPANOV (V/O): It's not a big organization. Never has been. I can count the number of other orbital spaceplanes doing runs like mine from southern Australia, a few Pacific islands… well, not with one hand, but close enough. We don't need a big room for the annual pilot's Christmas party, hah! The AEDF pretends like it's military. We all have ranks, I guess. There is a chain of command- but what's more important is we all know the importance of our work. We know our jobs, we do them well, we put in the effort. And everyone benefits. Humanity benefits, I guess. My kids know their dad is a big-shot Antarctic transport pilot who brings scientists and important people to where they need to go. And it's true enough.

Shot from the nose of the spaceplane, showing an approaching ice-sheet runway. The ship touches down in a spray of snow and ice, skidding slightly as it rolls to a waiting hangar cut into the side of the mountains.

STEPANOV (V/O): I get paid to see the Earth from space twice a day. That makes it all worth it, I think. If you asked me at nineteen what I wanted in life, probably would have said something about fast planes and medals and girls, hahah! But this? This is good.

Video fades to black. Major Tom begins playing.

TEXT: Vasily Stepanov is one of the AEDF's most senior transport pilots, with more than 10,000 logged hours in orbital time. He continues to move vital materiel and passengers from Antarctica to low orbit, twice a day, five days a week.

SUBTITLE: AEDF Outreach Media, 2019.

Playback ends.

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