… continued from A Myriad Oases
“Laxmi, Jaci, come in.”
“Laxmi here. Go ahead, Anna.”
“I’ve identified our exit. I’m coming back. Time is tight, so get Jaci suited up and have him ready to go as soon as I get the door open. It’s a bit of a narrow squeeze, and we need to be sure he can fit.”
Anna slipped through the broken window out of the sunlight and back into the darkened station. She kicked over to the door through which she had entered, closed it behind herself, and then across the empty gate lounge to the agent’s console. Silent alarms continued to strobe red throughout the otherwise dim room. On the console she tapped at the alien icons, cursing silently when she found herself in incorrect menus, but after a couple false starts was able to retrace the steps to the room’s environmental controls. A few minutes later the sound of the klaxons accompanying the alarms reached her, quiet but steadily gaining volume, as air began to fill the space.
“Come on,” she whispered to herself, tapping her foot against the side of the console, holding onto the grab rail so that her motion didn’t send her spinning back into the center of the room.
Despite the rapidity of the initial inrush of oxygen, at least another frustratingly slow ten minutes elapsed before the pressure equalized close enough that she could open the door to the elevator vestibule where the others waited for her. As soon as the status light turned blue and she heard the lock unlatch, she pulled and twisted the handle.
Jaci smiled when he saw her, but Anna frowned when she saw his uncovered head.
“Why aren’t you suited up?” She turned to an equally unsuited Laxmi. “Why isn’t he suited up? I told you he should be ready to go. We don’t have time to waste.”
“Ca-Tren is ready to go.”
Jaci nudged a floating and wriggling ball of e-suit, mostly empty arms and legs floating free. Somehow they had managed to position the helmet so that Ca-Tren could see through it, her long beak angled down through the neck into the body of the suit. It didn’t look particularly comfortable, but she seemed somehow to be enjoying the experience all the same.
Anna turned her gaze from the Kwakitl back to Jaci, scowling.
“I can’t really leave her alone on the lander while I come back for you. I need either you or Laxmi there.”
“Anna, look, I know that would make sense. But you asked us earlier to figure out how to get Ca-Tren into the suit, and we did that. It took a while, but we did it. And it would take a while to do it again, yet here she is, ready to go. Really, it’ll be fine. What’s she going to do on the lander? She’s young, but she’s not an idiot. She won’t touch anything. Meanwhile, though, we’re wasting time, and we would waste more time trying to take the suit off her, only to have to put it back on again later.”
“And what if at the end we find that the hole I found isn’t big enough for you? We need to know that up front, so we have time to look for an alternate. I mean, I think it is, but what if it isn’t?”
Jaci said nothing for a moment, just looked into her eye. Then he gave his lopsided half-grin.
“If it’s not big enough, it’s not big enough. You know there won’t be time to go looking for an alternate. So, better the rest of you are already out before that happens.”
“Jaci, if this is some sort of martyr impulse, I’ve gotta say, I don’t like it. You can’t…” She looked away for a moment, caught her breath. “You can’t say things to me like you did earlier, talk about there not being more chances, and then go and play this tragic hero! God damn it, I’m going to get us all out of this!”
“Yes. Yes, you are. But right now you’re gonna start with Ca-Tren, because she’s ready to go, and I’m not. It’s not a martyr thing, Anna. I don’t wanna die anymore than you do. I’m just being practical. Ca-Tren was already set when you radioed that you were coming back.”
Anna started to say something else, then realized he was right. Ca-Tren was ready, and Anna was wasting time arguing instead of getting on with the program. She turned her attention to the ungainly suited Kwakitl and checked the status indicators on the helmet’s collar. All green, good seal, good oxygen, she was ready to go, just as Jaci said.
She faced Jaci one more time. On an impulse, she stopped her oxygen flow and removed her helmet. Holding it in her left hand, she pulled herself close to Jaci with her right and kissed him.
“For luck,” she said to his surprised expression, then she settled the helmet back over her head and re-engaged the seals and restarted the oxygen flow.
Tugging Ca-Tren behind her, she passed through the door into the gate lounge and sealed it behind her. Quickly she found the console control to evacuate the air from the lounge. She didn’t wait for it, but with Ca-Tren under her arm pushed off to float straight to the far door.
The process to evacuate the air took less time than it did to fill the room. Or rather, the emergency locking mechanism in the door would release sooner, without having to wait until the air pressure was all the way to zero. A status indicator on the door complained to Anna as she opened it, no doubt about the waste of oxygen escaping into space instead of being sucked into tanks for reuse, but Anna really didn’t care about wasted station air at this point. That was soon to be moot, anyway.
At the window, she looked out and was gratified to see the bright flare of a rocket engine decelerating toward her. Apparently her calculations were good, as she hadn’t sent the lander off to the far reaches of space. She pulled out Jaci’s tablet, wondering if she could still reach the console’s wireless network from here, then realized she didn’t need to. The lander was close enough that the tablet automatically connected to it without any need for a hacked alien WiFi.
It would arrive at its preprogrammed destination in six minutes. It had burned a lot of fuel to get here quickly, but there was plenty for the return trip and some spare.
Six minutes. Six minutes to worry about everything, wondering what critical piece she had forgotten. Six minutes to wait impatiently, wondering if she should have pushed the lander to two Gs after all. Six minutes to watch the flare outside grow brighter and brighter as it approached.
Anna stole a glance at Ca-Tren floating beside her. The e-suit had puffed out in the vacuum, with internal pressure filling the empty arms and legs, previously wrapped around the body, so they stood out almost comically straight. Behind the semi-darkened visor, Ca-Tren looked back and forth between the scene through the shattered window and then up at Anna, perhaps seeking clues as to what she should do. Anna smiled at her, hoping to reassure the young avian, then realized that Ca-Tren might still not understand human facial expressions at all.
The engine flare became almost impossibly bright, then it cut off so suddenly that all became darkness until Anna’s visor could readjust to the new normal level of light. The lander had come to a nearly perfect stop, matched with the station, floating serenely about a hundred and fifty meters away. Seeing it there, so close and familiar, Anna relaxed her grip on Ca-Tren, only now realizing how tightly wound up she had been, and heaved a sigh of relief. A tear formed in the corner of her eye, and when she blinked to clear her blurry vision, the droplet floated away to mist against the inside of her visor.
A hundred-fifty meters was still too far to jump, however. Anna didn’t trust that she could launch herself toward the relatively small lander, Ca-Tren in tow, with that level of accuracy. She pulled up the tablet and expanded the virtual display.
7% battery. Would it be enough? It would have to be. There was no other choice now.
The tablet connected to the lander’s network almost instantly. Anna cursed silently that Jaci didn’t have the remote pilot app installed, but that would burn through the remaining battery life more quickly than the command line interface in any case. It would take a moment longer, but she could do what she needed to do with the terminal screen. She tapped away commands, activating RCS thrusters on the far side of the craft. She looked up, mentally crossing her fingers that everything worked, unable to see the thrusters directly in action, and again relaxed in relief when it became apparent the lander was slowly getting closer. A few quick calculations, then she tapped in more commands for a timed delay, to be followed by a brief reverse thrust to stop the lander’s momentum toward the station.
Without waiting for the lateral translation maneuver to complete, Anna stowed the tablet, turned to Ca-Tren, and attached a short tether line between their suits.
“Ok, I don’t know if you’ll understand me — you probably won’t — but it’s ok. Don’t panic. Stay calm.”
She looked Ca-Tren in the eye and tried to convey confidence through the visors, but she was pretty sure the message was lost in translation.
Carefully, Anna nudged Ca-Tren through the hole in the window, pushing the inflated, extended arms down against the body to get the suit to fit through without scraping against the jagged edge. Having navigated that difficulty, with the legs floating clear, she let Ca-Tren drift with the tether while pulling herself through as well, careful to maintain a hold on the window’s edge as before. She then slowly reeled Ca-Tren back in close, gathering the Kwakitl into her arm. She could feel Ca-Tren squirming inside the suit, but with the visors now darkened against sunlight she could not determine what else was happening, so she turned her attention to the approaching lander.
Gratifyingly, the RCS thrusters on the near side displayed puffs of released gas as they slowed the craft’s motion, bringing it once again to a near stop relative to the station. It was not as close as Anna would have liked, still fifty meters distant or thereabouts, but it would have to do. She looked Ca-Tren square in the visor and held up a single finger, hoping the message to stay still and not squirm would be understood. Then she planted her boots against the station’s hull, let go of the window, and pushed off.
… continued with Fifty Meters of Emptiness
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