The incoming call was from his father. Ross ignored it, focusing on the space plane and its continued descent.
"So how do long you think it'll be before it breaks up?" asked inquisition.
Ross smirked. He'd known inquisition for years, but still had no idea what the guy's real name was, just his pseudo.
"Four, five more hours tops," Ross replied. His own pseudo was dorian.
"Are you willing to accept ‘never' as a possibility?" asked wisechick.
"What would be the fun in that?" Ross replied. With a few quick motions of his hands he was able to set up the pool. Submissions immediately began pouring in.
"Quiet, one twenty-four's about to do a live update," said inquisition.
Everyone else stopped speaking, and tuned in. The image of the space-plane shrunk into one corner, revealing a news anchor sitting behind the ubiquitous news desk, in the ubiquitous busy newsroom.
"It's hour four of the flight twenty-eight crisis. To recap, for those of you who are just joining us, four hours ago all contact was lost with the interplanetary plane Starry Night. The inter-orbital flight from New Shanghai to New York is estimated to have some nine hundred and thirteen passengers on board. At first authorities were not releasing any information, but channel one twenty-four was able to break the story thanks to this exclusive footage from our own surveillance satellite."
Ross, inquisition, wisechick, and everyone else in the forum had already seen the footage three or four times, and could replay it at will, but it was mesmerizing.
The image of space once again filled their vision. It was a wide shot - all that looked out of place was a glittering dot, a star moving faster than the other stars in the background. The image looked grainy, like it was a small part of a much larger image that the news service had focused for easy consumption. It zoomed in, becoming even grainier, blocky, but the space plane was more than just a dot now. It was the usual design, a flying wedge with a row of engines across the back.
"Now watch here," the news anchor advised, and a pointer appeared on the image, indicating the rear of the space plane. Just barely visible, a plume of glittering, reflective material suddenly shot from the indicated area, like confetti blasted from a cannon.
"Explosive decomp. That blows," quipped Ross. He could hear inquisition trying hard to keep it together.
"Quiet," commanded wisechick.
"Channel one twenty-four has managed to get a passenger manifest, and we've been trying to contact people on their portables. We've had no success at this point. We also understand that the OCC, or Orbital Control Center, has not been able to contact the pilots."
"They can't contact anyone's personals?" asked inquisition?
"They'll all be routed through the ship's booster, along with the pilot's communications. If that gets compromised, nothing goes out," said wisechick.
"You'd think there would be a backup," said Ross.
Ross began to motion to mute the forum, when he noticed the incoming call notification again. It was his dad. He sat looking at the display for a few moments, then checked to see if any messages had been left.
He told the system to ignore the call, and took his headset off. He spent a few moments gazing at it. He dropped the earpiece on the table, slender projection arm sticking up in the air. After a pause he cleaned the projecting point with his sleeve. It wasn't recommended - the arm didn't just hold a microphone to pick up his voice, it also held the low-powered laser that drew images directly onto his retina. The fabric could scratch the tiny lens in it, but he'd cleaned it dozens of times before without damaging it.
Finished caring for his projection rig, Ross gazed around his living-room. He wanted something else to distract him. Everything was much too familiar though. A few hung pictures, a dead plant, the view of the apartment across the street through his dirty windows.
He gazed at the dead plant for a while. He'd kept meaning to water the stupid thing, but somehow there was always something else to do. It hadn't been his idea anyway, it was a housewarming gift from his mother. He wondered what she'd think of the fact dad was trying to contact him again after all this time. He wondered if she would tell Ross to speak to him or not. Probably yes.
He replaced the headset. Might as well put it to the use it was intended for. He paged wisechick for a private conversation. Her real name was Allison.
"Hey Ross. What's up? inquisition driving you crazy?"
"Heh, yeah. He's not down to his usual standards today. Just when you think you know how much of a blowhard a guy can be."
"Hey thanks for the recording of your latest display. They're really starting to come together," Alison commented.
"Thanks." Ross smiled nervously. He actually had thought the display was still pretty simplistic. He needed to save up some more money, to buy himself a bigger stock of bugs.
The little robots were surprisingly expensive. Each one was about the size and shape of a dragonfly; their tails could shine with the intensity of a flare, and in a variety of colours. They came with pre-programmed behaviours that could be coordinated to create colourful displays, but Ross would reprogram them to create his own patterns and displays. He could already mimic the pre-set displays quite well, but his goal was to coordinate larger and larger groups of them into an intricate airborne ballet.
"My Dad keeps trying to call me," Ross said.
"You're not answering him?"
"No, I don't know what to say to him."
"I though you said you wanted to try and re-establish things with him."
"Well I do, but... What if he hasn't changed? I don't want to open myself up again, not if he's going to be like he was before."
Silence. Finally Alison said, "I'm not really sure what you want me to say here."
"I guess I'm just looking to hear someone else's opinion."
"Well it won't hurt to talk to him for a few moments, and you can try to see if he's changed. But if you don't think you're ready..." she drifted off.
"Ross, check back in on the news forum, they've got some expert on."
With a motion, Ross switched back over to the news forum.
"We have contacted Mr. Alan Kinsman," the anchor continued, "a retired director of the OCC." The image of the space plane shrank back into a corner of the display, revealing a three-way split display. The anchor woman dominated, taking up half the screen - the appropriately sombre-looking expert and the descending space plane each relegated to a quarter of the screen.
Ross noticed on his display he had an incoming call. Again it was from his father. With a quick, sweeping motion of his hand he told the system to ignore it.
"Mr. Kinsman, what have we just seen?" asked the anchor.
"Well Daisy, there are a number of possibilities," Kinsman paused. "It might have been some sort of catastrophic engine failure. I'm sure your viewers appreciate that propelling a craft into orbit takes quite a bit of power, and..."
"Whatever," interrupted inquisition, "Those things have so many fail safes built into them. And besides, they would've reached orbit in the first hour, then you just turn those suckers off and cruise until you're ready for descent..."
"You a space pilot, inquisition?" asked sad_samurai.
"No, been on enough of them, though. Talked to the pilots a few times."
"He's right," chimed in multch, "I'm not a pilot, but I engineer software to help fly those things."
"Yeah right," scoffed Ross, "you've designed software that runs just about everything in the universe at some point. You probably just worked on the drink-serving subroutines." He tried to focus on Kinsman's commentary.
"...fault in the hull somewhere, which could have resulted in a failure of integrity after multiple exits and entries into the atmosphere. It may also be a simple case of a service port not being sealed properly, which could result in the venting of waste or drinking water, or any number of non-vital materials."
"The lack of communications suggests a more serious problem Mr. Kinsman," Daisy paused and tilted her head. "Actually I've just had an update from one of our associates. The ship's single point transmitter is active. It's broadcasting some sort of encrypted transmission. "
"Mr. Kinsman, what about the possibility of a deliberate attack? Or hijacking?" asked Daisy.
Kinsman shifted in his seat and smiled "There has never been an instance of a deliberate attack on an interplanetary flight. There hasn't even been one on a sub-orbital flight since the early part of this century."
"True, but isolationist organizations have threatened to attack interplanetaries ever since the Jovian syndrome outbreak. Isn't it at least possible that one may have finally succeeded in smuggling a bomb onboard? Or weapons of some kind? This encrypted transmission seems very suggestive of an organized attack."
"From the brief glimpse your satellite gave us - as I said before - it's impossible to rule anything out, but in my opinion, it's highly unlikely."
"Thank-you for your time, Mr. Kinsman."
The split screen didn't close right away, and for a brief second Ross caught Mr. Kinsman's shoulders dropping, and the beginnings of a heavy sigh.
"They'd never get a bomb on one of those things, that's ridiculous." said sad_samurai.
"Don't be so cocky my katana-wielding friend," Ross advised, "All that security is there just to make you feel safe, and catch any amateurs that might try to pull something stupid. Anyone with the brains and determination can beat any system with a bit of luck."
"Maybe," said multch, "I'd be more worried about a code bomb than the explosive kind. The software handles a lot of the piloting and other functions. If some clever code cracker finds a back-door... That would explain the failure of the communications too."
The space plane was starting to glow now, and little spurts of orange flame could be seen along the lower edges of the nose.
"She's started skimming the atmosphere," Mr. Kinsman was back, "the friction will slow the ship down, and with less velocity the earth's gravity will start pulling it down more. This is a critical stage, if the crew has any kind of control over their craft this is where it's going to be important."
"What does he mean?" asked sad_samurai. A few seconds later the news anchor parroted his question.
"If they have enough control to do a successful atmospheric insertion, then they should be able to land the craft without difficulty. If they don't have enough control, or the hull is too damaged, they won't be able to enter the atmosphere properly, and burn up."
The flames were creeping all the way back to the wings now.
"Come on, come on," Ross could hear inquisition muttering.
The nose of the wedge was glowing red hot, as were the wings.
"I think they just might do it," multch said, "they seem to be making adjustments, he must still have some control."
It wasn't at all like Ross had been expecting. There was no catastrophic fireball, flinging debris everywhere. The plane simply shattered: one moment it was whole, the next it was just a collection of burning pieces, continuing their descent through the atmosphere. Almost like one of his displays.
The forum was silent. Ross watched the participant list start shrink, as people began dropping out.
"Hey ‘samurai, you won the pool," said Ross, "four hours, forty-one minutes."
Sad_samurai didn't say anything, just dropped off the participant list.
The last thing Ross heard before dropping the forum was inquisition muttering "Poor sports."
Ross just sat, stunned. Eventually he noticed that his father had finally left a message for him.
Ross played the file.
His father's face filled the screen, there was something dark in the background, but Ross wasn't focused on it.
"Ross," his Dad said, and paused, "Son. I'm sorry it's been so long since we last talked, hope you're doing OK. Must be up to something important, not being able to answer my page." He looked away from the camera. Ross could hear, something in the background.
"I wanted," another pause, "I need to apologize, son. I did something incredibly selfish, all those years ago. It's tough for me to say why I did it. Partly because I'm not sure I ever really knew why. I mean, your Mom and I loved each other, well I thought we did at some point, anyway. But that can't excuse what I did. What happened between us all those years ago.
"I was selfish, I was angry. I suppose I'm trying to say now that there was no justification for what I did to you and your mom, to our family. I can see that now.
" I should have come to you, asked for your forgiveness. But you might never have forgiven me, I wasn't ready to take that chance. I kept thinking I'd have more time."
The whole image shook, as if something just hit the camera. Ross got a brief glimpse of some overhead bins, and a few scared faces.
"I guess time's just about caught up with me though, as they say. I'd hoped that I could talk to your personally, but maybe things are better this way. I love you son."
The file ended. Ross watched the muted news anchor discussing the tragedy for a few moments, then slowly unhooked himself from the headset. He dropped it on the side table again. He sat in the chair for a while, his hands opening and closing. He swallowed and got up, walking across to the grimy window.
The sliding frame put up a fight, but Ross finally prevailed, forcing it open. He looked up at the sky. He could see tiny little orange streaks across the night sky.
"It's okay Dad."