Stanley backed the boxy twelve seat trans-orbit packet slowly away from its berth on the orbital Amazon fulfillment station. He jockeyed the craft to the propellant storage outrigger where an array of fluid and gas tanks were secured like tits on a hog and “gassed up.” He checked the system status board on his craft, then punched in the coordinates for US Station 12, a quarter orbit distant from his present location. Stanley was a skilled pilot and the orbital mechanics for transfer within the orbit had become second nature, but this time he wasn’t taking any chances. He would let the Orbital Positioning System (OPS) determine a least-energy route. It was his final mission, and considering the value of the payload at Station 12, it was understandable. Stanley hoped that Julia would be packed and ready for departure. He hadn’t heard from her recently. Busy winding things up, he thought. He turned on a Mozart recording and relaxed. The proximity beacon at Station 12 would wake him, should he fall asleep.
The Third Presence in space began at about the time the International Space Station was abandoned. Russia peeled off its modules to establish its own smaller station and NASA maneuvered the remaining part of the station into a fiery trail that ended in the Pacific Ocean.
At the same time, China, Russia and the United States concluded independently that the answer to a robust presence in space is in a community of small stations, about the size of the original Skylab. They would occupy the same 500 mile orbit. They would be turnkey stations to avoid years of expensive orbital assembly time and weigh within the lift capability of heavy lift rockets under construction in Russia, China and the United States, The stations would be styled for various purposes - research and development, manufacturing, hospitals, observation and tourist destination. All would be serviced by a common orbitial fulfillment center, which , in addition to providing food and supplies, berthed a fleet of transfer craft called packets, designed to both provision the stations and return materials, trash and waste to the center for deorbiting to Earth.
Earth to otbit routine transfer was solved by the successful development of Skylon by the English firm, Reaction Engines. Two were built. Each made a bi-weekly trip to the fulfillment center, carrying material, passengers and propellants.
Skylon 1, presently being loaded for the return trip to Earth, was due to depart within twenty four hours. Stanley gave little thought to the likely tumultous reception upon Skylon’s next arrival at Cape Canaveral. We’ll just have to wing it, he’d said to Julia.
Stanley became aware that he was was closing in on Station 12 when an audio warning began beeping. Still, he had nothing to do, as docking and securing were fully automated.
Julia was waiting just inside, fully suited for the trip except for head gear. She was surrounded by smiling well-wishers, aware they were taking part in a historic event.
Julia smiled as she handed Stanley a transparent acrylic box in which Stanley junior lay snuggled, fast asleep, wrapped in a soft blanket - the first baby born in space.