… continued from Radio Frequency
Anna tapped away at the tablet screen, her fingers nearly a blur as she worked quickly in the dark command-line interface, white text against a black background. Jaci looked over her shoulder, trying to make sense of her rapid-fire commands and the cryptic responses, while Laxmi watched the play of emotion across Anna’s face, trying to determine if things were going well or not so well.
“So what’s happening right now?” she asked.
“The lander is powering up in the docking bay while I calculate the trajectory to get to us. It’s already fueled, because lithium-3 deuteride water is stable enough to just store in the tank, so we don’t have to wait for that. I need to figure out the course angle and thrust time and make sure that’s programmed into the autopilot before the lander exits the bay.”
“Won’t it take hours to effect an orbital change and advance to our position?”
“Normally, yes, that would be the case. With the shuttle, that’s what we would have to do, firing thrusters retrograde to push down to a faster orbit and get ahead of us, then firing again prograde to lift the orbit and let us catch up to the shuttle. That would easily be a two-day maneuver, although in an extreme case we could push all the way down to the Karmann line and back up, and maybe it could be done in a few hours, at a huge cost in fuel the shuttle just didn’t have.”
“We don’t have a few hours.”
“No. But the lander, of course, has an engine designed for descending to the surface of a high-G world and then lifting back up to orbit again, with a fuel tank to match. The lithium saltwater fusion engine has more than enough thrust and specific impulse for a brachistochrone trajectory straight to our position, and we’ll still have fuel to spare afterwards.”
“Think straight-line. With enough thrust… Ok, give me a sec. I’ve gotta figure out… Yeah.”
“I’m making a guess, but I estimate that Aniara is about twenty-two thousand kilometers behind us in roughly the same orbit, plus a hundred kilometers of altitude, of course. So that’s… hmm.” Anna opened another window on the tablet and made some quick calculations. “15.34 degrees nose down from the tangent should do it. Now, if we burn at one-and-a-half G for… yep, for 864 seconds, then flip and do the same to decelerate…”
“So the lander will be here in half an hour?” Jaci looked up from the tablet in Anna’s hands and floated over to the window, turning his gaze to the outside.
“Not quite. It’s about thirty minutes of burn time, but it’s going to take just as long to get the lander launched out of the docking bay, and then probably another quarter hour to translate north so that we can avoid slamming into the ring station and instead come in beside it, plus get the nose angle correct before initiating the main sequence burn. So, closer to an hour and a half.”
Laxmi looked alarmed. “That’s cutting it pretty close, isn’t it?”
Anna didn’t answer, but instead she just continued typing in commands to the tablet. She spared a glance at the battery indicator, noting it had crept down to 11% while she worked, bit her lip, and finally hit one more key. She shut down the tablet, looked up into Laxmi’s worried expression, and smiled.
“It’s happening. The flight is loaded into the autopilot and the lander is launching right now. In twenty minutes, give or take, we should be able to see the flare of the engine, even from here. It’ll be pretty bright.”
“Can the lander burn harder? Can you push it up to 2 Gs?”
“Sure we can, but it only cuts two minutes off the flight time, yet it burns a ton more fuel, not to mention adding more stress on the systems. Most of the time isn’t really during the burn, it’s just getting the spacecraft into position before lighting the torch. Jaci?”
“Stop staring out the window and come over here. We’ve got work to do to get ready for the lander’s arrival. First order of business is to make sure the e-suits are fully charged with power and air. I’ll get the lander as close as I can, but we know it won’t be able to dock here, so we’re gonna have a jump to do. Second, while the suits are charging up, we need to find a place…” Anna looked around uncertainly.
“We need an airlock.”
She looked back at Jaci and nodded. “That’s right. We need an airlock.”
“What about the one that Tak tried to open? That’s gotta be close to here. This is the same compartment we first came to in the shuttle, right?”
“Yes. That’s right. But that hatch had vacuum on the inside, didn’t it?”
“That’s what Tak said at the time, and I have no reason to doubt him. He was the engineer. But we didn’t see any other hatches on this module, and we don’t know if hatches are common to every module, or only on utility-oriented ones.”
“You mean, like a module that connects to an elevator.”
“Yeah. Like this one.”
Anna thought more about this. They could spend time finding their way into the next module and hunt for an airlock there, and then the next one after that, each of which would take them farther from the position where she had preprogrammed the lander to finish its deceleration burn. Or, they could find the airlock they knew was in this module but which had the known obstruction of an evacuated compartment behind it.
And they already knew the location of an evacuated compartment.
“Ok, here’s what we do. You, Laxmi, and Ca-Tren, take one of the e-suits and all the other gear, and you retreat back into the cab vestibule, and shut the door. I’ll don the other e-suit, and after the hatch is secure between us, I’ll go open the door to the chamber where the airlock is.”
“Anna, what if you need to do something for the lander? I’ll suit up and go investigate the lock.”
“We’ve got an hour before the lander gets here. And I need you to talk to Ca-Tren, make sure she understands what’s happening, and start working with her to figure out the best way to get her into the e-suit.”
While she talked, Anna pushed her feet through the legs of the e-suit, her momentum slowly spinning her head over heels. Once her arms were through, she reached out with a gloved hand to stop her spin, then zipped up the front and locked the zipper into the collar clamp. Before putting the helmet on, she pushed over to Jaci, who had joined Laxmi at the gate console.
“Before you go, though, help me find out if there’s an override here to control the pressure in this chamber.”
“No need. I found it while you were suiting up.” Jaci pointed at the console, and Anna followed his gestures. “It’s in this menu. It looks like you have to hit several confirmation prompts, which makes sense, but I think this can pump air into the chamber, or out.”
She heard something in his tone of voice, and she wasn’t sure what it was, so she paused for a moment, took a deep breath, then laid a hand on his shoulder. He looked up from the console and met her eyes, and then she saw the concern, the worry, and maybe even a little fear in them. With a start, she realized his fear was probably not for himself, but for her. She put her other hand on his other shoulder.
“Jaci. Hey, I’m going to be ok. We’re going to be ok. We’re getting out of this.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “Yeah, I know. It’s just… You know, back in the lagoon, when you and Laxmi were up on the mountain and the Kwakitl picked me up, which seems forever ago now, well, while a part of me, the professional part of me, was super excited about meeting actual aliens, another part of me, the personal part… Anna, I really thought then that I was never going to see you again. Or Laxmi, of course, but… God, I’m blubbering on here, and I know you didn’t know it then, I tried to always be professional, but I was already very much in love with you, and I feared that I was never going to have the opportunity to tell you that. And, even after we all got back together, it wasn’t until the elevator, and… I still haven’t told you that. And now, for some reason, I can’t help it, but I just have this fear still that this could be the last chance.”
Anna’s heart seemed to flip over inside her chest. Wordlessly, she just kept looking into Jaci’s eyes, kept breathing in and breathing out.
“So, I’m telling you now. I love you, Anna.”
She pulled him in close and without saying a word, she kissed him.
Then she pushed herself away.
“Ok, if you want…” Her voice hitched. “If you want to have a chance to say that again, now it’s time to scoot into the vestibule and shut the door.”
She turned away and busied herself with settling the helmet over her head and latching it to the collar. To her annoyance, there seemed to be some moisture on the inside of the faceplate, and of course she had already locked the latch. So, she just faced away, watching the indicators turn green one after another, until the source of the moisture stopped leaking. She couldn’t let Jaci see that.
By the time she turned back, Jaci, Laxmi, and Ca-Tren had exited the gate compartment. Jaci watched her through a small window in the portal. She smiled and flashed him a thumbs-up, then turned to the console and pressed the icons he had indicated, confirming all the prompts and final “Are you sure?” warnings.
Although the flashing red lights continued their endless alarm of imminent destruction throughout the otherwise dark chamber, the accompanying klaxons lost volume relatively quickly until all was silent except for the sound of Anna’s own breathing. The nearly skin-tight e-suit puffed out once there was no more external atmosphere to counter its internal pressure, though not so much as to impede her movement. She pushed across the room to the closed portal which previously she had been unsuccessful at opening. This time it opened without hesitation, and she looked through into another chamber, lit by the light of the planet shining through shattered windows.
She looked back one last time at Jaci, still watching from the other side of his closed portal, then turned and went through.
… continued with A Myriad Oases
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