… continued from Flip and Burn
The blue expanse of ocean covered the planetary disc, horizon to horizon, broken only by white wisps of cloud cover and the approaching dark terminator. A cyclone, massive in scale, spun its radial ferocity in slow spirals, peaceful grace from orbit’s distant remove. Where the blue and white of the planet met the blackness of space, a hazy glow hinted at the density of atmosphere, thin from this altitude, yet thicker and moister than Earth’s.
Over forty-thousand kilometers distant, Kepler 62f was not so large as to dominate Anna’s entire view, not as it would from a lower, faster orbit, and yet its brilliance flooded the small shuttle cockpit with light. David, she knew, would be dividing his attention back on Aniara between monitoring her team’s status and his primary fascination with the water world below. With one ear tuned to the radio link, the rest of his senses, amplified by the ship’s massive arrays, would be entirely focused on the surface.
“Tethers secured. Commencing inspection of the hatch.”
Aniara spent three days in high orbit, allowing the planet and the ring station both to rotate beneath them, before descending to match up with the station’s altitude. Kepler 62f proved to be almost entirely ocean, with two small continental landmasses clustered together in a shared hemisphere. Chains of rocky, volcanic islands hinted at tectonic activity beneath the surface, but otherwise nothing stood in the way of winds and waves sweeping their path across the vast global sea. David reported the atmosphere as denser than Earth’s at the surface, higher in oxygen content, but also with higher levels of carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gases warmed this world, and the air would be soupy, but they would be able to breathe.
“The hatchway is circular, and approximately a meter in diameter. Whoever they were, the builders were not large creatures. Construction material on first inspection looks like titanium, with ceramic or carbon polymer components. It appears to be designed to hinge inward. There’s a handle in a hemispherical recession. Unsurprisingly, it’s small, but I can get my fingers around it. Permission to rotate the handle?”
“Wait. Laxmi, Jaci, make sure you’re well back from the hatch first. Takashi, can you get at it with a wrench, or another tool?”
The nightside of the planet revealed no lights, nothing but darkness a shade less dark than the surrounding space. The dayside revealed no cities… or at least none in active use. With telescopes they located ruins on some of the islands, tall, vertiginous structures hugging the rocky cliffs, or fallen, smashed about the rocky shores. No structures were evident on either of the two small continents, however. Continents might be too grandiose a word, Anna thought; both were really just overlarge islands. One, straddling equatorial climes, was covered in vegetative mass, a verdant haven of plant life, while the other, nearer the south polar region, showed the brown of expansive tundra where it wasn’t white with glacial ice.
The ring station was in not much better condition than the planetary ruins. Of the twelve tethers linking it to the surface, only three remained intact; the other nine extended downward from the ring, precessing eastward as they descended, until ending in tattered remnants at various altitudes, all high above the atmosphere. Even the three complete tethers exhibited evidence of past impacts, though whether from meteors or low-orbit satellites Anna could not determine. Two of the three met the surface in the ocean, descending beneath the waves, leaving a single tether connecting the ring to solid ground on one of the islands.
The station itself had buckled at the attachment points for the broken tethers. Each location had a matching tether extending upward, ten-thousand kilometers, ending in small captive asteroids, centrifugal counterweights rotating faster than the planet’s escape velocity. Where the ground tethers had broken, nothing remained to resist the inertia of those asteroids except the structural strength of the station itself. Nine of the twelve asteroids had thus been flung away to become small new moons, but not before inflicting serious damage to the ring.
“No joy on turning the handle. It’s either locked or frozen. I’m going to try the laser torch on low power, see if I can shake it loose with a little heat.”
After several high-altitude reconnaissance orbits, Anna fired the forward orbital maneuvering thrusters in a retrograde burn, effecting a plane change to bring Aniara in line with the ring station’s equatorial inclination, and descending to a new orbit one-hundred kilometers directly above the station. Anna chose a spot that put them just aft of the counterweight for the one intact tether reaching down to an island, again maintaining a hundred kilometer distance. The slightly higher altitude resulted in Aniara drifting backward relative to the station at a rate of ten kilometers each hour, but it would be months before this drift would cause the next counterweight tether to catch up to them, so Anna felt secure parking the ship in this orbit for the time being.
From this position, it was an easy descent for Takashi, Laxmi, Jaci, and herself in the crew shuttle to the station compartment anchored to the tether.
“No joy again. The handle remains stuck. I’d like to turn up the power on the torch, go for a cutting burn.”
“You’ve confirmed vacuum on the other side of that hatch, right?”
“That’s our best guess, based upon impact holes observed on this compartment, and echolocation attempts against the hull itself. Sonar gets no bounce beyond the thickness of the wall, so that’s consistent with vacuum.”
“Ok, proceed. Carefully, Takashi.”
“Come on, David, careful’s my middle name. Or, it would be if I had one.”
“You need a middle name, bro? I’ve got a few extras. I can lend you one.”
“Haha, good one, Jaci.” Takashi didn’t sound that amused. “Now, if you all don’t mind, I’m about to cut a hole in an alien artifact using a high-powered laser. So, if we can keep the distractions to a minimum, please?”
Anna positioned the shuttle ten meters off the target compartment and activated the automated lidar control. Using low-power lasers to measure precise distances and angles, the system would fire tiny reaction control bursts to correct for any drift. Once the shuttle was secure, the other three suited up and jetted across to the compartment hatch, and Anna settled in to watch from the comfort of her pilot chair and listen to the radio banter. She found herself quite content to stay in the shuttle and watch, enjoying the rare privacy that she otherwise only ever found in Aniara’s observatory. While Takashi and the others focused on the hatch, she studied the rest of the compartment.
It was a bit over a hundred meters in length, about half that in width and height, rectilinear in form with rounded edges and corners. A glorified box, metallic grey, dulled from centuries of micrometeorite impacts. From this angle, it appeared very similar to the compartment ahead of it and the compartment behind it, connected to each via an array of struts and a short central tube. Like the others, extension arms jutted out from all sides, bristling with solar panels and thermal cooling arrays, all in various states of disrepair. The remains of parabolic dish antennae extended toward and away from the planet.
What made this compartment different, however, was the tether. Approximately thirty meters in diameter, cylindrical in shape, and gleaming with reflected light, the tether passed into the compartment hull at the midpoint, and then exited again on the far side to extend farther into extraplanetary space. Unlike the dulled titanium of the compartment, the tether appeared unblemished, nearly mirror-like in its shine. After a career in space, Anna was not prone to a fear of heights, but if anything could produce a sense of vertigo, she thought, it was staring down that smooth length extending over forty-thousand kilometers to the planet’s surface far, far below.
Yet still it drew her eye. Anna had parked the shuttle close to the tether’s insertion point, in a spot that gave her a good view of its length as well as the target hatch in the compartment hull. While she payed close attention to the crew’s efforts with the hatch, nevertheless she imagined herself falling alongside that seemingly infinite pole, tumbling for hours, or perhaps days, toward a fiery death in the planet’s atmosphere.
“Ok, I’ve got a hot spot forming. Almost through. The material definitely conducts a lot of the heat away from the focus point, so it’s taking a bit, but… yes, here we go, and… oh shit!”
Anna snapped back to the crew, almost missing the warning light blinking on her control panel. A babble of voices erupted over the radio, stepping on each other so that Anna could not clearly determine what had gone wrong.
“…Jaci, help me, he’s…”
“…crap, we need to…”
“…going on? Someone…”
The insistent light drew Anna’s gaze, even while she tried to make sense of the chatter. It was the status monitor for the EVA suits. She hit the comm transmit.
“Guys, Takashi’s in trouble. His suit’s depressurized. Get him back here right now.”
Through the viewport Anna watched Laxmi and Jaci tether Takashi to themselves, then detach from the station hull. She resisted the temptation to use the thrusters to edge the shuttle closer to them, knowing it would only confuse the situation, but it was difficult to do nothing while her colleague — her friend — was in trouble.
Laxmi and Jaci each fired their suit jets, and understandably anxious, they overdid it and all three of them ended up slamming into the shuttle. Voice-activated mics picked up Laxmi’s grunt of pain and Jaci’s muffled curse. Anna held her breath, seeing them bounce off the shuttle hull, then breathed again when Jaci managed to grab on to the handhold beside the airlock. With a heave, he pulled Laxmi and Takashi past himself, practically throwing the two of them into the airlock, and then he tumbled in beside them.
Seeing them in the camera, Anna mashed the airlock cycle button on her console. The outer door closed, seeming laboriously slow but in reality taking no more than five seconds, and air rushed into the chamber.
Anna scrambled out of the cockpit and pulled herself into the crew deck to meet the others as the inner airlock hatch opened. She took hold of Takashi’s suit pack, braced her feet against the hatchway, and pulled him through, floating him to the center of the room. Laxmi and Jaci followed behind him, their helmet visors already open, and Laxmi helped Anna get Takashi’s helmet off his head.
“He’s not breathing. I think he’s gone into cardiac arrest. Anna, we’re gonna need some Gs.”
Anna stared at the three-centimeter hole in the front of Takashi’s suit. A wispy red droplet floated out of it, and then another, small globules of iridescent vermilion reflecting her face back at her.
She snapped back to face Laxmi.
“He’s in cardiac arrest. I need to start CPR, and I need some Gs to do that. Get us burning back to the ship, now! Jaci, help me get his chest pack off.”
Anna tucked her knees to her chest and flipped herself around, then pushed off back to the cockpit. She barely registered her near-perfect microgravity maneuver, sliding through the bulkhead hatch without a touch to the sides. She grasped the back of the pilot chair and flipped herself into it, once again all business.
“Stand by for rotation and acceleration. This will be a hard burn. Laxmi, let me know what he can take. David, we’re gonna be coming in hot, and you might want to get the auto-doc fired up. I’ll transmit an ETA once we’re under burn.”
“Acknowledged. Burn and churn, Anna. Bring our boy home.”
… to be continued.
image credit: NASA
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