… continued from Compartmentalized
Small wonder the room was devoid of air. The chamber clearly had been meant as some sort of view lounge, with larger than usual windows providing unparalleled views outside the station, but those windows had shattered in some micrometeorite collision long before, perhaps hundreds of years before Anna set foot inside. As she floated deeper into the room, glints of reflected light sparkled from chunks and beads of polycarbonate embedded in the interior wall opposite the windows, providing a clue as to the force with which the collision must have occurred. Similar windows manufactured for use on human spacecraft could easily withstand the impact of a bullet fired from a handgun, but even the most powerful rifles achieved muzzle velocities less than half this station’s speed as it orbited the planet. Over a thousand years earlier, Anna recalled, there had been a shooting war around these parts. How many spent bullets and projectiles from that conflict remained in orbit, speeding endlessly around the planet, until eventually they met up with some other object speeding the other way, such as this station window? After all this time, would their orbits have decayed enough to sink down toward the planet? At forty-thousand kilometers altitude, there was no atmospheric drag to slow them down.
Could a stray thousand-year-old bullet have been what hit the shuttle? Or Tak, all those months ago?
Anna tried to push such thoughts from her mind as irrelevant, questions to which she would never find an answer, and a distraction from the mission at hand. She kicked over to investigate the broken windows as a possible exit.
Another thought wormed its way into her mind to worry her. Polycarbonate windows, especially if alumina-silicate treated, provided excellent UV radiation protection, but with large chunks missing from the windows then it was a logical assumption that the radiation load in this room was higher than in other parts of the station. The environmental suit provided some level of protection, but it was never meant for full EVA usage, or even really for extended periods in hard vacuum. Anna would be fine for brief exposure, such as stepping from the station airlock into the lander airlock, hopefully just a few meters away, but an extended period of exploration would not be healthy. She glanced to see if any of the windows provided a direct view of the sun, as that would be the most dangerous vector, and she was relieved to find that all the light filtering into the room came reflected from the planet’s surface. Nevertheless, best not tarry too long.
Four windows occupied the bulk of the surface area of the planet-facing side of the chamber. Of those, one was intact while three had fractured in the long-ago incident. One of those three exhibited cracks radiating outward from multiple punctures, but nothing larger than a few centimeters across. The remaining two windows had truly shattered into fragments, with large gaps open to space. Anna investigated these two, but quickly abandoned one for clearly not having any gaps large enough to pass a human body.
The one remaining broken window, however, did have a large section missing. For the most part, the hole in this window was mostly round, with a fracture pattern typical for high-temperature tempered safety glass subjected to extreme blunt forces. It appeared to be large enough for Anna to pass through, but it might prove a tight fit for Jaci. Anna inspected the surfaces more closely, concerned about sharp edges that might snag or tear through the thin material of an e-suit when passing through. She didn’t dare grip the jagged edge too tightly with the thin suit glove, let alone run a gloved finger along it, but she considered kicking with the solid sole of her boot at the most obvious protuberance of material extending into the otherwise circular hole to attempt to enlarge the opening. Unfortunately, there was nothing else beside the hole itself on which to get a grip, so her one feeble attempt achieved nothing more than propelling her back into the depths of the chamber.
Should she press on and find an actual airlock instead? There wasn’t one in this room, but maybe in the next, or the one after that, there might be. She pushed over to the far door, away from the one through which she had entered, and gave the circular latch a tug, only to find it locked.
Of course. The chamber on the other side was likely still pressurized, so the door had locked as an emergency measure to protect the remainder of the compartment when the windows of this room were shattered. There was no way to know if Anna could repeat her trick of evacuating the air from the far room, and if there was a way to do it, it was likely only possible from within the room itself and not from here. She wasn’t going to get this door open any time soon.
She returned to the fractured window and gave it another look. If she was careful, she could avoid the big snag, and it looked large enough. She poked her head out through the hole, and immediately her visor darkened as sunlight hit her helmet. Carefully she inched her shoulders through the opening, and then her hips, brushing up against the rough edge only once against her thigh. She caught her breath, heart racing as she anticipated the pressure drop, but it never came. All indicators in her HUD remained green, and the material over her thigh showed no damage.
She pulled herself the rest of the way out of the station, careful to hold on lightly to the fractured window edge, lest her momentum carry her even mere centimeters too far. She crouched there against the window, the planet gleaming over her head, the station around her brilliant in the sunlight, and tried not to think about what that exposure was doing to her body. Surely the e-suit would be protection enough for a few minutes of this.
Even in sunlight, when Anna looked away from the bright planet the stars shone sharp and crystal clear with no atmosphere, no thick polycarbonate windows, nothing but the thin visor of her helmet between her eyes and those far beacons of light and energy. Despite the danger, despite her urgency, she took a few seconds to appreciate their raw beauty, the simple purity of these distant nuclear furnaces, a myriad oases scattered through the empty firmament of space. They seemed so close, these faerie lights, close enough to touch if she would but extend her hand. For a moment, she considered letting go and reaching out to the stars, answering their call that she heard so clearly. Then she remembered Jaci, Laxmi, and Ca-Tren, remembered they depended upon her, and pulled herself back from the endless chasm.
She turned her gaze westward to follow the vast curve of the ring station reaching around the planet. At twenty-two thousand kilometers distance, Aniara was no more than the faintest of pinpricks of reflected sunlight, and though Anna knew just where to look, she could not be sure of picking her starship out from the other stars around. She could, however, clearly see one bright star, and over the course of a minute she convinced herself that she could see it move ever so slightly against the cosmic background.
The lander, with its saltwater fusion engine flaring brightly even though still angled away from her, was on its way.
… continued with A Precarious Exit.
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