Fifty Meters of Emptiness

… continued from A Precarious Exit


Launching herself across fifty meters of emptiness between two spacecraft without a tether or a mobility pack, in nothing but an environmental suit not quite rated for hard vacuum, struck Anna as perhaps the most foolhardy thing she had ever done in her life. The moment her boots left contact with the surface of the orbital ring station, she knew two things for certain: first, her instructors at the EASEA academy, thirty-five years earlier, would never have sanctioned such a risky maneuver; and second, it was going to work. Her aim was true, and after twisting around her center of gravity she watched the lander’s airlock grow steadily closer between her boots. Roughly a minute later she landed, absorbing the meter per second momentum with her legs, crouching to soften the impact and grasp the airlock handles.

Moments later she had the outer hatch open and pulled herself and Ca-Tren inside. When she secured the hatch and saw the main status indicator switch from red to yellow, with Englese labels clearly explaining the status meanings, Anna first experienced a brief moment of disorientation and finally a sense of coming home, after the past week of interpreting ancient alien control indicators. No more wondering what pressing a certain switch might do or what a blinking light meant; Anna knew these controls as well as she knew the back of her own hand.

Under normal circumstances, re-pressurizing the airlock following an EVA would be an eight-minute procedure, but time was of the essence here, so Anna mashed the big red emergency button with her palm, then held onto the handle to avoid being blown around the small chamber as oxygen and nitrogen rushed in. Forty-five seconds later, the status indicator turned green, and she opened the inner hatch to the warm, familiar glow of lighting designed for human eyes.

After more than two months in the dim turquoise glow of the sunlight washing over Kepler 62f, the crew cabin seemed almost too bright, yet the sense of relief Anna felt almost overwhelmed her, momentarily eclipsing the urgency of the situation. She wanted nothing more than to remove her helmet and breathe the cool, clean recycled oxygen of her ship, her home. She reached up to do that, then stopped, considering. Much as she wanted to, she knew she didn’t have time to re-acclimate to the suit pressure before heading back out. Instead, she left her helmet on and pushed Ca-Tren ahead of her through the hatch.

Once inside, she quickly set to work getting Ca-Tren’s helmet off, then unzipped Ca-Tren’s suit. The young Kwakitl slipped her head through the neck ring, and even Anna could see the relief Ca-Tren felt at no longer having her neck forced into a downward position to accommodate her long beak inside the suit. Anna bundled up the empty suit, looked around the small cylindrical cabin with its six seats taking up most of the available space, then at Ca-Tren.

“Ok, touch nothing, right? Just wait here.”

She knew Ca-Tren couldn’t understand her words, but she assumed the Kwakitl understood the intent, and if not, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. She turned back toward the airlock and started to slip through, when a thought occurred to her. She pulled herself back into the crew cabin and opened a locker beside the airlock. Inside, she found six crisp, unused, and fully charged pressure suits, racked and ready. She tossed aside the quickly bundled one she had taken off Ca-Tren in favor of two new ones and dragged them after her into the lock.

After closing the inner hatch, she confronted the EVA checklist prominently attached to the wall. Properly following each of the dozens of tasks would, Anna knew, require a minimum of forty-five minutes, perhaps thirty if she cut some corners. She did not have thirty minutes. So, she flipped open the guard cover for the safety switch, toggled it to the override position, then pulled out the large red emergency button she had earlier pressed for rapid re-pressurization. An alert klaxon sounded and a red warning light began flashing. Beside that, on the touchscreen control panel, large text in red appeared.

Warning! Emergency depressurization cycle initiated! Please ensure suit integrity for all personnel before proceeding. Operator assumes all liability for damage or injury. Continue?

“Liability, my ass.” Anna touched the Yes icon, after which the lighting for the entire airlock turned from white to red, and a loud hissing commenced as pumps began removing all the air. As before, her suit puffed out slightly as the external pressure decreased, and as before, the hissing noise rapidly faded to silence in the relative absence of a medium to transmit sound. Once all had gone silent, however, Anna still had to wait a further four minutes before the outer hatch could be opened against the small amount of remaining airlock pressure. She spent those four minutes wondering why she didn’t pick up a mobility pack along with the two new pressure suits, but it was too late to go back now.

When the red light over the hatch turned from red to yellow, Anna twisted the large handle to release the dogs, then pulled the hatch inward against a brief puff of sublimating air and moisture escaping into the vacuum. She looked out and across the void to the shattered windows of the station lounge, took a deep breath, then unspooled the tether coiled beside the hatch and clipped it to her belt. One free jump was enough for a lifetime as far as she was concerned. She pulled herself outside the hatch, dragging the suit packs behind her, planted her feet on the hull, and looked again to the station. Another deep breath, and then she jumped.

In her haste, Anna pushed a little harder this time, so she had less than half a minute to twist herself around before she landed on the station’s hull. The force of her impact at two meters per second was not enough to break anything, but it knocked the wind out of her, and worse, she bounced. Quickly she scrabbled for a handhold on the surface, and finding none, managed to sling the suit packs through the broken window and hold on that way. She took a moment to catch her breath, then reached her other hand up to grasp the jagged window edge and carefully pull herself into the station. Halfway in, she jammed, and in annoyance looked down to see that the tether clip had caught on the window edge. She shifted herself about to find a wider gap, then finally unclipped the tether and held it in one hand while slipping the rest of the way inside.

Once in, she gathered up the loose coil of tether and, finding nothing obvious to secure it to, pulled in more length and bundled it against the inner window surface, trusting that friction and inertia would keep it there. Looking back across toward the lander, she could see that more of the tether was still slowly unspooling from the open airlock, creating a large, floppy-seeming loop of line between the vessel and herself.

No time to worry about that now. She was pretty sure she had enough gathered to prevent it floating away. Flipping herself over, with suit packs again in hand, she pushed over to the portal into the next chamber, then shut it behind her after slipping through. Another push and she sailed between the grab-bars of the departure lounge to the gate console, the silent alarm still flashing its urgent warning to evacuate, and started the pressurization sequence. This time she made no mistakes, working through the alien menu by memory.

While she waited the ten minutes for the room to fill with air, she floated up to the gate, with the dim glow of the elevator’s lights shining through the porthole. She tapped against the glass, and breathed a huge sigh of relief when Jaci and Laxmi looked up. She flashed them a thumbs-up, and saw them both relax a little. They clearly were just as tense about their situation as herself, and were clearly just as relieved to see she had returned.

The hatch indicator on the gate console turned blue shortly after Anna started hearing the alarm klaxon again, and quickly she opened the portal.

“Oh, thank all the gods, you’re back.” Laxmi hugged her, and then Jaci pulled in as well. “And Ca-Tren? Is she…?”

“She’s safe aboard the lander. All is well. But we need to hurry. I brought back two suits from the lander, so both of you, quickly…”

Anna tugged over the suit packs, floating by the console, and Laxmi and Jaci each grabbed one and started unpacking them and slipping them on over their legs, arms, and torsos. Jaci looked up while he tugged up his front zipper and caught Anna’s eye with a lopsided grin.

“See? I knew you’d make it ok.”

Despite herself, Anna laughed. “Oh yeah? Earlier you seemed a bit, shall we say, emotional about it?”

“Who, me? Emotional? No way!”

“Ok, fine, Mr Cool, now put your helmet on and focus on your air seal. Laxmi’s way ahead of you.”

Laxmi turned back toward the elevator vestibule to retrieve their packs, but Anna put a hand on her arm.

“No, leave them. We’ll move faster without them. Here, let me check your suit.”

Anna twisted around Laxmi, checking latches and indicators, and gave her a thumbs up.

“Jaci, are you ready? Let’s see yours, and give me a radio comms check.”

“Ready, and check.”


“Ok, comms good. Close that portal and we’ll get moving.”

Laxmi dogged the portal and Anna started the depressurization sequence for the final time. Somehow, with all three of them together, the time seemed to move faster, and she didn’t mind the ten-minute wait quite so much. Soon they were through into the view lounge, and Jaci stopped up short.

“Holy shit, Anna! What did this to these windows?”

“Don’t know, and I’m not hanging around to find out. Come on.”

“This is the way out? I’m not sure I’ll fit through that.”

“You’ll fit. One way or another, I’ll make it so you fit. Ok, Laxmi, you first, put a clip around that tether and pull yourself through.”

Gingerly, Laxmi slipped through the jagged hole in the glass, her nervousness palpable in the way she kept her focus on the edge.

“All good?”

“All good. I’m out.”

“Right, start pulling yourself over, don’t wait for us. We’re right behind you.”

“There’s a lot of slack in this line, Anna.”

“I know, I didn’t set a brake on it when I jumped back. It’ll max out at a hundred meters, so just keep climbing it and it’ll get you there. Ok, Jaci, you’re next.”

“Anna, really, I might get stuck. You should go first.”

“You won’t get stuck, Jaci. Come on, go.”

“Ok, but it’ll take a bit to squeeze through that. Seriously, I’ll feel a lot better if I know that you’re already outside.”

Anna thought about that, considering, not taking her gaze off Jaci’s face.

“Ok, fine, but you come straight through. I’ll wait for you just outside the window.”

“Anna.” Laxmi’s voice cut through the comm link.

“I’m coming out, Laxmi.”

“Anna, there’s something odd going on with the cable. I think you need to hurry.”

“Just pull it taut.”

“No, I mean the elevator shaft. It’s sort of shimmering.”

Oh shit, Anna thought. We’re out of time. Quickly she pulled herself out of the hole, just as she had done twice before, gripping the edge. Sure enough, far down the cable stretching toward the planet, it seemed out of focus, as though it were vibrating rapidly. It probably was, Anna realized, and looking farther down its length she could finally see the thin line curling up toward them in a westward direction.

“Jaci, get your butt out here now!”

Anna reached back in to give him a hand, grasping his arm while with the other he pulled on the window’s edge. From the corner of her vision, she half-noticed the cable’s shimmer reach the thick part by the station more rapidly than she could track, then the entire compartment bounced away from her, knocking loose her grip on the window edge and Jaci’s arm. With a sickening realization, it occurred to her that in her haste she had forgotten to clip onto the tether.

She twisted around, and there it was nearby. She reached toward it and… could not grasp it. It was centimeters beyond her fingertips, and as she watched in horror, it curled away from her even farther, knocked loose by the shockwave hitting the station, itself now several meters out of reach. She cried out in frustration, twisting herself around again, reaching and reaching, willing her arm to grow longer somehow, kicking her legs in vain against nothingness, but the physics of microgravity were implacable. A centimeter out of reach is still out of reach, and no amount of twisting or shaking could change that cold fact.

This is it, she thought. This is how I die. Not fast, but slow suffocation as my air eventually runs out.

Then something slammed into her, hard, making her think she was wrong again, that it would be fast, before she realized it was Jaci. Somehow, amazingly, he had gotten through the window and launched himself at Anna. Was this some last romantic gesture, dying slowly together? No, not that she would put it past him, but he had acted quickly and practically to jump and push them both toward the lander. Craning her neck around, she could just see that it was getting closer. They were going to miss the hatch, but that was ok, as long as they hit somewhere on its surface. It would be close, though.

“Jaci, am I ever glad to see you. Ok, we’re about to hit, and hit hard, I think. We need to get our legs out front.”

She started twisting herself, but Jaci didn’t move.


She craned her head around to see him, and that’s when she saw the tear in the side of his suit, his gloved hand trying in vain to hold it closed, his other arm around her. She could make out his faceplate, and through it his eyes, looking at her, losing focus while he gasped for air that wasn’t there anymore.

“Jaci, no! No, hold on, we’re almost there, you can’t do this to me, Jaci, not now, we’re so close. Please, my love, just hold on.”

The fog inside his faceplate cleared as the last moisture sublimated away, the oxygen regulator trying in vain to pump enough air into the compromised suit. They slammed hard into the side of the lander’s engine module, about ten meters aft of the airlock, not straight on but a glancing blow almost tangential to the curve of its hull. Their momentum carried them skittering across the metal surface, and Anna struggled to find something to grip, to stop them from sliding off into the void. Finally she felt something pass under her palm, and instinctively she closed her fingers tightly around it, a small communications antenna. It bent, but did not break, and along with friction against the hull was enough to stop her momentum. With her other hand, she reached for Jaci’s arm, grasping at his suit with her gloved fingers, but she could not get a firm grip.

Anna watched in horror as Jaci’s unmoving form slipped away from her and beyond into the blackness of space. Behind her, the curling elevator cable slammed into the ring station’s length, smashing into thousands of kilometers of the curving structure. Glass, steel, and carbon polymer shattered into millions of fragments, shrapnel sparkling like deadly jewels in the light of the distant sun, flashing more brilliantly than the myriad stars, but all Anna could see was a solitary figure drifting away, forever beyond her reach.


… continued with Recovery

header image credit: NASA-Imagery / via Pixabay License

© Matt Fraser and, 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matt Fraser and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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