… continued from Coffee and Control
The last day.
Anna tried to stop thinking of it that way, but the past two days had been so much more relaxed than any in the prior two months that she almost found herself wishing the ride up the elevator cable would take longer. Almost. Her innate drive to take action still kept an edge of restlessness beneath her calm, so a part of her looked forward to their impending arrival at the ring station, even though she did not know what they would find when they got there.
Laxmi shot her a knowing glance with a sly smile at breakfast the morning after Anna first invited Jaci into the dormitory cabin.
“I’m happy for you,” she said quietly, leaning in close.
Jaci, always upbeat himself, seemed even more so as he spent his days conversing with Ca-Tren, expanding his Kwakitl grammar and vocabulary and helping her to develop her Englese. They still relied upon the translator, but less and less so each day. From time to time he glanced over to Anna, and when he did so he could not repress his grin.
That smile, she thought, could get infectious.
Anna stopped worrying about the propriety of her developing relationship with Jaci and allowed things to happen naturally. There would be time enough later to figure out the implications. If there was a later, of course, but time enough later to worry about that, too. For now, she did her best to enjoy the ride, the view, the challenge of figuring out the engineering controls for the climber, and Jaci’s company in the evenings.
There would be no more relaxing evenings, not for a while, anyway. By her estimation, after nearly five days in the climber, they would arrive at the station within a matter of hours. Already, it had become more than a bright line in the sky, taking on depth and dimension, and if she looked closely enough, Anna could make out some details. The individual compartments, strung together to make the ring, became discernible. Radiators and solar arrays flashed in the sunlight as they revolved with the planet far below, three-thousand meters per second, though to her eye all appeared stationary, velocity matched with the cable and the ascending climber.
After five days of ascent, with the climber’s own increasing angular momentum approaching free fall velocities, their sense of gravity toward the planet had gradually diminished. More than once Jaci stepped up too quickly, launched off the floor, and bounced his head off the ceiling. Each time, he winced and looked sheepish for forgetting to shuffle and slide his feet.
Ca-Tren, never having experienced microgravity, nor even really understanding the concept, seemed alarmed at first as her weight decreased. By this fifth day, however, she had become as adept as the humans at moving about, perhaps even more so, and she found an evident sense of fun from it all. Several times she launched herself across the room, flapping her stubby wings as if to fly, each time trying to see how far she could get before returning to the floor. When Jaci yet again bumped his head, Ca-Tren jumped and flew gracefully past him, turning and squawking at him in avian laughter, and in turn Laxmi and Anna both laughed with her. Jaci rubbed his head ruefully, grimacing, before ultimately joining in the mirth.
The Coriolis effect became pronounced even before the last day, making the pouring of liquids an interesting exercise as centrifugal forces worked upon the stream between kettle and cup and tricked the eye into seeing the water fall in a sideways angle. For their final breakfast in the climber, they abandoned any pretense at soups and stews, and they resorted to straws and covered cups for coffee and water. Fortunately, the bar alcove was well stocked for this eventuality, designed as it was to accommodate passengers during the transition to microgravity.
The station, though noticeably closer, still appeared distant when Anna felt a subtle change in the climber. She stepped toward the center control console, then realized that instead of coming back to rest on the floor, she floated all the way across. She would have floated right past it if not for the handholds extruded around the console. Sure enough, the turquoise band around the dial indicating ascent velocity gradually diminished.
“What’s happening?” Laxmi asked from where she floated above one of the couches, holding on to it.
“The climber is decelerating, though gradually, which is why we aren’t all on the ceiling right now. I think it’s just stopped applying the magnetic thrust and is letting momentum carry us the rest of the way. That’s good. I assumed it would be automated somehow. Well, I hoped it would be, anyway.”
“How much longer until we arrive?”
“I’m not sure, but maybe twenty minutes or thereabouts. We need to talk about our plan. When that door opens, we can’t be sure there’ll be air on the other side.”
“Yeah, that would be a problem.”
“There isn’t really an airlock in here. I think the builders assumed there would always be a pressurized space in the arrival area. The dormitories are probably pressure-sealed when the hatches are closed, but we can’t really be sure about that. So, I want the three of you to shelter in the escape pods, with the hatches shut, while I wait up here in an e-suit.”
“And if there’s no air?”
“I shut the door and we go back down. And, we make our peace about living the rest of our lives here. Or make peace with the Orta, but even so, it’ll likely be too late.”
“Wait, what?” Jaci turned around a bit too suddenly and found himself spinning in the center of the room. After a moment, he grabbed a corner of the couch and steadied himself, then he turned more carefully toward Anna. “Why will it be too late?”
“It took us five days to get up here. It will no doubt take five more to get back down. In roughly eleven days from now, Aniara is going to finally drift backwards into the next tether. With just six of those days remaining when we arrive back at the island base station, where we have no working boat, do you think we’ll be able to make contact with the Orta, convince them we mean no harm, and furthermore convince them to very nicely give us a lift back to our ship? I mean, we’d try, but…”
“Yes. Yes, I think…”
“Anna.” Laxmi had floated over by the windows, where she looked down at the planet, far below.
“Jaci, I know you’re great at what you do, you’re the best at it, in fact, and that’s why you’re here, but this would be not only a double translation of language, but a double translation of cultures, and..”
Anna and Jaci both turned toward Laxmi.
“I don’t think we need to worry about attracting attention, and maybe not about the trip down, either.”
An insistent beeping and flashing maroon gauges on the console interrupted Anna’s question and drew her attention. Before she could puzzle out what they meant, the cab lights switched from pale yellow to red and a loud alarm sounded throughout the chamber. Laxmi kept her gaze focused out and down, and the fact the klaxons and lights failed to pull her attention away alarmed Anna even more. She pushed off from the console and over to the window, alighting beside Laxmi, and looked for herself.
From forty-thousand kilometers altitude, the planet appeared only half as large in their field of view as it had during the first day of their ascent, yet it remained the most dominant feature by far, consuming over twenty degrees of any arc, roughly forty times as large as the Moon appeared from Earth. The hurricane they had first observed shortly after lifting out of the island base station still churned directly below them, now obviously smashing into the island itself, though no evidence of that transmitted itself through the cable. That, however, was not what captured Laxmi’s attention.
Three plumes of rocket exhaust arced upward from the surface, through and above the clouds. Two of those plumes terminated in bright flares of booster engines lifting toward space, bright even against the daytime blue of the planet’s vast ocean. The third plume, already shredded and dissipating in the ferocious winds, lifted out of the hurricane itself, but instead of arcing toward space it veered below their view, toward the island and the cable. They could not see the cable itself, but they didn’t need to in order to know the rocket had crashed. An expanding mushroom cloud, torn ragged by the massive storm yet flaring with angry reds, oranges, and blacks, swirled around where the cable should be. Even from their great altitude, they could see lightning flashes of electromagnetic discharge within the churning smoke and ash.
“Anna, you need to see this.” Jaci stood at the control console with Ca-Tren.
“I can see it from here, Jaci.”
“No, really, you need to see this alert.”
“Yes, there’s an error code on the console. We can read it.”
“I can see the error outside. Something hit the cable.”
“It’s worse than that. The cable has been severed. The console is telling us to evacuate immediately.”
Laxmi turned away from the awful view outside at that, her face white.
“Severed? But… wouldn’t we feel that? Shouldn’t the cab be shaking, or something?”
Anna thought back to her engineering classes, decades earlier, during her training to become a pilot. Something about wave propagation through various materials. She did some quick calculations in her head, not worrying about details right now.
“The cable is probably snapping upward toward us right now, but it’ll take a while for the shock wave to reach us. I think… I think the shock will travel at the speed of sound, but I don’t know what that would be for a carbon nanotube. In steel, it would be… hmm, about five kilometers per second? So, we have, um… we have about two hours.”
“Yes, so, everyone, get into the escape pods. Jaci, Laxmi, put on the e-suits. Here, take…”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be in there with…”
Before Anna could finish her sentence, the view outside the windows of the cab disappeared, replaced by complete darkness, and the cab’s upward momentum ceased with a small jolt, pushing them all roughly to the ceiling in a jumble.
Jaci grimaced in pain, putting his hand to his side. “What just happened?”
Another alarm sounded, lights flashed over the main door, and an automated announcement in Kwakitl sounded.
“I think we just arrived.”
To Anna’s horror, the main door slid open to reveal a black void beyond, and a loud hiss of escaping air competed with the continuing alarm klaxons.
… continued with Plan B
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