Author: Chana Kohl

In the smallest nook of my consciousness, there is a tiny computer that tabulates risk vs. reward. It guides my decisions at any given moment. The ‘reward’ is clear, like a B-roll on a constant loop inside my mind. A split-level cabin built with my own two hands, it sits off-the-grid with a wrap-around deck overlooking a pristine lake in Somewhere, Alaska. Lana is there, working in the greenhouse, fretting over stink bugs on her heirloom tomatoes. Sometimes, when I’m feeling bored, I even throw in a little crumb-snatcher or two. What the hell.

Then, there’s the ‘risk’ side of the equation.

I’m not talking about the burst of adrenaline before launch, carrying payloads at hypersonic speed in a cat and mouse game of catch-and-release. Or the knot in my belly, inching past my throat, as I near Mach 12.

No. I’m talking about the risk from not taking these jumps…

Same as every other Joe, I was up to my pacifier in debt the day I was born, a 2nd-generation Red-Ledger. With what remained after The War, many of the few left in charge agreed—as part of sweeping fiscal reforms—to eradicate government-funded education. Now, a kid’s best shot in life today is a private teacher, if their parents can afford, after that, e-tutoring vouchers or, if that’s not feasible, taking out crypto-loans at the age of six to attend a proper brick and mortar school.

By the time I was sixteen, I was eager and ripe to earn off my family’s debt working construction for the United Republic. Eventually I worked my way onto the Skyhook team, piloting hybrid scramjets like a flying trapeze artist to transfer the consortium’s precious cargo into high orbit. I made just enough will-o’-the-wisp crypto that I could actually dream of retirement.

Now, if all goes as planned, today’s my last jump. My body can’t take these gravitational stresses forever. At least I’m spared from excessive radiation exposure, unlike the poor saps earning their supper on the Ring. Lana’s a worrier though: made me freeze some of the boys just for contingency.

Receiving an all-clear from Space Force Command, I have ample time to make the rendezvous window for Tether Facility 6. Approaching Mach 7, my orbital altitude and flight angle matching tether rotation rate and phase, I switch to jet propulsion. Coming in for the soft dock I can almost smell the breeze from Denali Mountain and savor the scent of Lana’s marinara simmering on the stove, but I get a warning light. Some problem with the hawser cable.

No big deal, I’ll miss the soft dock window. It’s happened before. I release the mechanical arm, angling to maneuver a hard dock. The payload transfers successfully, but the clamps don’t release. I get an alert from ground control to scrap the jump, the facility is losing too much altitude. The payload starts to tumble.

My tiny computer boots up, powered by fear. The amount of credits the consortium will surely subtract from the no-damage/no-loss payload clause in my contract will set me back eighteen months; even that’s no guarantee.

No way I’m going to abort.

So I punch the thrusters and drag that SOB payload up earth’s magnetic field like Santiago’s Marlin. I burn the last of my methalox reserve, pushing it back on its trajectory. Too far up for rescue ops—the consortium’s not known for wasting fuel—I relish the view of Alaska. Buoyed in the strange sensation of weightlessness, I transfer my last credits and death benefits to Lana.

Catch and release: I’m finally free.