Plan B

… continued from Arrival, Interrupted

🚀

Beyond the open door, intermittent lights flickered on after a moment to break the darkness, revealing an ovoid chamber a bit less than ten meters deep. Most of the chamber remained dark, and when most of the lights that hadn’t failed switched from their initial white to red, the chamber appeared darker still. Poles, spaced a few meters apart, extended from ceiling to floor. Set into the middle of the floor, a round window provided some extra illumination, sunlight reflected from the planet far below. Panels of controls and indicators lined the walls, many of them with circular gauges flashing maroon colors.

An alarm klaxon, accompanied by a red light flashing on and off in one-second intervals, sounded from deeper within the chamber, slightly offset from the alarm still sounding within the cab, creating an unsettling echo effect. More alarms sounded from further away, through open hatchways at either end of the chamber, deepening the insistent reverberation.

The hiss of moving air, pumped into the chamber from vents in the walls, underlay the alarm, though not competing with it for volume. That was the sound Anna heard when the door first opened, she realized, that and equalizing pressure between the cab and the station chamber. Nevertheless, it took a few moments more for her heart rate to settle back to a normal rhythm even after she realized they were not all about to be sucked out into space or suffocated in a vacuum.

The air in the station chamber was cold, though, very cold, causing Anna to shiver when it mixed with the much warmer air from the cab. The ducted vents in the outer room blew warm air into the chamber, rapidly heating it up, but Anna imagined that a few moments earlier the room had likely been as cold as the vacuum outside. Somewhere, in one of the vents, something whistled like a tea kettle forgotten on a stovetop.

Another automated voice speaking Kwakitl sounded over the alarms, repeating a phrase over and over. Jaci gathered himself from the cab’s ceiling, where he had come to rest during their sudden arrival into the station, and listened carefully.

“It’s still telling us to evacuate.”

Anna pulled her attention away from the open door and the red alerts and pushed off the ceiling to float down to the floor.

“Right. I think it’s the escape pods for us. We’re out of time, I’m afraid. We’ll have to trust that the Orta can find us wherever we splash down.”

“Anna, are you sure? Can’t we go into the station?” Laxmi pushed down to crouch beside her.

“It’s not going to be a healthy place to be anywhere near this compartment when the shockwave gets here, and we don’t know how many other compartments will be pressurized or viable.”

Anna pulled open the floor hatch to the first escape pod, then flipped herself over and entered it head first. Inside the cramped pod, she settled onto an acceleration couch and examined the simple control panel. All of the controls were glowing maroon, which didn’t bode well. Was the pod damaged? She pulled herself back up through the hatch into the cab again.

“Jaci or Ca-Tren, can you…”

The next pod hatch over was already open, and Jaci poked his head up from inside. He looked grim as he turned to face Anna.

“The pods aren’t going to work.”

“Are they damaged?”

“No, it’s not that. But it appears they cannot be launched while the cab is in the station. That’s the gist of the message on the control display. Some sort of safety lock.”

Anna ducked back down into her pod, looking in vain for anything that might be an override, but not seeing or recognizing anything as such.

“Damn it! Can’t we just catch a break for once!” She slammed the heel of her fist against the panel in frustration. She looked around the pod, but nothing she could see here inspired her. With a sigh, she pulled herself back up into the cab.

“Ok, grab everything you can carry. I guess we’re taking our chances in the station after all.”

Meager possessions bundled and tugged along, Anna led the way through the main cab door and into the semi-dark station chamber. Without thinking, she grabbed onto the nearest pole, then cried out in shock and pulled her hand away after touching the composite material. She continued her drift toward the far wall while looking at the freezer-burned flesh of her palm.

“Ok, don’t touch anything with bare skin! The air may be warming up, but it’s going to take a while for surfaces to catch up.”

The cab, with light gleaming through its open door and wide windows, seemed like an island of security amidst the darkness of the unfamiliar station, and she found herself reluctant to leave it now. It was a false security, she knew, so she turned her gaze away and pushed over to the porthole.

The porthole provided a view straight back down the length of the cable toward the planet far, far below. For an instant, Anna’s sense of up and down twisted, as though she were looking up from the bottom of an incredibly deep well at a patch of sunlight far above her, while beside her the open elevator cab seemed turned sideways on its end. She blinked, and her perspective shifted such that now she was looking down the same well and about to fall down it head first. Bile rose in her throat as vertigo overtook her, and with some effort she kept it down, taking deep breaths, and hoped that none of the others noticed her brief discomfort. It had clearly been too long since she had been in microgravity, and she needed to get her space legs back again.

At the far end of the cable, near the planet’s surface, the mushroom cloud from the explosion had mostly dissipated in the hurricane. However, Anna could just make out some disturbance extending westward from the cable’s base. It was still too far away to make out details, but she knew that had to be the severed cable precessing away from its vertical position and curling up through the atmosphere. How long before the shockwave reached them? Earlier she had estimated it could take two hours, but the reality was she didn’t know, and it might be faster than that. What would follow after the initial shock would be even worse. This was about to become a very unhealthy place to be.

Jaci, Laxmi, and Ca-Tren caught up to her, careful to pull hands up into their sleeves, though in Ca-Tren’s case she didn’t seem to have much issue with cold against the bottoms of her clawed feet. Jaci looked around the gloomy chamber, the pulsating red emergency lighting giving his face a sallow complexion, then back to Anna.

“So which way do we go?”

“East. It’s a long shot at best, but the cable is wrapping up to the west, so our chances are slightly less slim if we can get as far east along the ring as possible. Come on, let’s go.”

“Hold on.” Laxmi reached for Anna’s cold-burned hand. “Let me see.”

“Laxmi, we don’t have time. We need to get as much…”

“You won’t get far if you can’t use your hand. I’ll be fast.”

Reluctantly, Anna let Laxmi take her arm and inspect her palm. She half expected to see blisters forming, but it didn’t look that bad. The inside curl of her fingers and the pad at the base of her thumb looked far too white, as if all the blood had rushed away, and she could feel a dull, deep ache building underneath.

Laxmi reached into her own bag, floating beside her, attached with a shoulder strap, and pulled out a smaller pouch. From within that, she extracted a squeeze tube, a gauze pad, and a bandage roll. She squeezed a thin layer of ointment onto Anna’s palm, laid the pad over that, then secured with rolls around the hand, base of the fingers, and wrist.

“It looks like you’ve probably got a bit of frostbite, but I don’t think it’s too bad. This should help prevent any infection and protect it in the meantime.”

“Thank you.”

Laxmi smiled while putting away her small medical kit. “Ok, now let’s go. Which way is east?”

“This way.”

Anna pushed off with her feet. She couldn’t help a small feeling of pride as she sailed neatly through the open hatch at the chamber’s end and into the next one along. Maybe she was getting her space legs back quickly after all. The others followed her through.

The next chamber proved larger than the initial one, but otherwise similar. Again, it had a generally ovoid shape, with the same composite poles strung through at regular intervals. Immediately past the doorway and just to the side they found a desk with the now familiar circular readouts and controls on it, and a set of poles forming a sort of funnel shape with the narrow end at the desk and door. Beyond the wider end of the funnel, many of the poles had vertically oriented flat surfaces attached to them, with loose straps dangling from the sides. Neat rows of these boards, strung side by side, stretched from one pole to the next, followed by a gap, then another set of boards. Together, the rows of boards formed several lines leading away from the desk toward another door at the far end of the chamber. Display panels, all featuring the same message in blinking maroon, clustered around the desk and the door, aimed back toward the center of the room, while windows lined the outer walls. Anna could see stars through the windows.

She knew what this was. This was a departure lounge for those waiting their turn to transit on the elevator, and the desk was clearly for gate control. She didn’t need to understand Kwakitl to know what the message on the displays so urgently wanted her to know. Like the automated voice with its endlessly repeating refrain, it wanted her to evacuate, and she dearly wished to comply, if only she could find a way. She pushed off again, guiding herself between the rows with carefully sleeve-wrapped hands, toward the far end of the chamber.

“Anna, have a look at this.” Jaci had detoured to one of the large windows on the side of the chamber facing away from the planet.

“We don’t really have time to play tourist, Jaci. We need to get a move on.”

“You said yourself we can’t realistically get far enough away through the station. But maybe there’s another way. Come look.”

Anna sighed, caught herself on one of the poles, and maneuvered her momentum to take her toward Jaci and the window he was pointing through. She twisted in mid-air and used her feet to stop her motion against the wall beside him.

“Ok, what is it?” She followed the line of his outstretched arm, looking through the window at the exterior of the compartment. Beyond the flat composite surface, dulled and damaged by centuries of micrometeorites and ultraviolet radiation, she could see a solar array extending far from the next compartment long the ring, gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight like a great tree with leaves of glass, though many of the leaves lay shattered and fragmented from countless impacts. “A damaged solar array. Jaci, we don’t have time…”

“Not the array. Closer, at station level. Don’t you see it?”

She wanted to shake some sense into him. Why was he wasting time on this? But she didn’t, so she bit back a retort, and brought her gaze closer to the station, near the base of the solar array, where a cluster of dish antennas pointed in various directions. These too had suffered over the centuries, with gaps in the parabolic dishes, and some of them missing the suspended reflectors from the dish focal points. Not all of them were damaged, however.

“Can we use that?”

“The antennas?”

Laxmi floated up beside them and looked through the window as well, then at Anna.

“Back at Ar-Velen, while we were descending the mountain, you said…”

“That I could remotely pilot the lander with a tablet, if I had access to a more powerful transmitter.”

“Will it work?”

“It’s an alien technology. Everything about it will be different, from the wiring connections, to the frequencies used, even the voltages. So no, it probably won’t work. And that’s even if we can figure out where a connection terminal would be from inside.”

“So it’s hopeless?”

Anna chuckled mirthlessly. “We’ve been hopeless almost since we left Aniara, yet here we still are. Besides, what have we got to lose? Escaping through the ring station is hopeless.” She turned to Jaci and grinned at him.

“But you never give up hope, do you?”

🚀

… to be continued.


header image credit: user:WikiImages / pixabay.com via Pixabay License


© Matt Fraser and mattfraserbooks.com, 2021. 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 mattfraserbooks.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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