… continued from Recovery
With the inner airlock hatch opened, Anna floated Jaci’s lifeless body into the warmth of the lander’s crew compartment. Laxmi awaited her on the other side and gently took Jaci from Anna, quickly and efficiently moving him to a stable surface to remove his helmet. With a gasp of equalizing pressure, Anna removed her own, her vision still blurred by tear droplets clinging to her eyelashes. She watched Laxmi cut away Jaci’s e-suit to reveal the wound in his abdomen, red, raw, and angry, a deep two-inch gash of frozen blood and vacuum-cauterized flesh. She had to look away and focus on her breathing for a moment.
“Anna, there’s nothing more you can do for him now. He was exposed for a good ten minutes, and even without the other trauma, that would not have been survivable.”
Anna nodded, wiping her eyes. She turned back to look at Jaci’s face one last time, remembering his smile and his silly jokes. She put a hand to his cold cheek.
Laxmi put her own hand on Anna’s shoulder and looked her in the eye.
“If it’s any comfort, he would have lost consciousness within ten seconds, so he didn’t suffer for long. Now go, I’ll take care of him from here. You need to get us out of here. Ca-Tren and I are depending on you, Anna. Ok?”
“Right. Yes. Ok.”
Anna turned away and pushed over to the pilot’s chair at the front of the compartment while Laxmi strapped Jaci’s body to a bulkhead and took her own seat, next to Ca-Tren. Outside the cockpit window, debris continued to spin past the lander, with regular pings against the hull reminding her that not all of it was missing the spacecraft. Already Anna could see at least one scrape across the metal-coated polycarbonate glass. She wiped the last tears from her eyes and scanned the instrument panel, looking for any indicators of problems in the engine fuel supply system. All pressures looked good, but she well-remembered the last time she fired up a shuttle engine after an impact.
She focused on the navigation panel and gratifyingly the lander had a fix on Aniara’s beacon, so calculating a return trajectory was a simple button push. A half-gee of continuous acceleration should be sufficient, no need to stress bodies or systems. She mentally ran down the rest of the engine start checklist while the RCS thrusters oriented the craft toward the ideal vector.
“All secure back there? Everyone strapped in?”
“Very well. Initiating main burn.”
The deep-throated yet quiet roar of the saltwater fusion engine igniting at the rear of the spacecraft filled Anna’s heart with relief, and the half-gee of thrust pushing her back into her seat comforted her like a weighted blanket. Through the windows she watched the disintegrating station slip past. Their trajectory took them not so much away as along the ring’s length at an oblique angle, chasing the wave of destruction wreaking havoc through compartment after compartment. Almost counterintuitively, the spacecraft cut inside the ring’s circumference, so that from Anna’s viewpoint the splintering sections were above them. Silently she contemplated their near escape, her hands gripping the armrests tightly, until after about five minutes the lander’s constant acceleration caught up to and surpassed the shock wave, hiding it from view behind them, while ahead all appeared serene and at peace. Only then did she let herself relax slightly.
“Twenty minutes to the flip. Everyone all right?”
“Affirmative.” Laxmi spoke softly. “We’re still ok, Anna.”
“I-firm-tiv. O-k An-na.”
Anna craned her neck to look back, catching Ca-Tren watching her. Laxmi, too, looked at Ca-Tren in surprise. The kid was catching on faster than Anna had realized. She smiled and gave a thumbs-up to Ca-Tren, and when Ca-Tren lifted a wing tip in a similar gesture, Anna laughed.
“Ok. Yeah, just maybe we’re gonna be ok.”
She turned her attention back to the control consoles and cockpit window. All the indicators remained green — ordinary human green, not Kwakitl turquoise — so with nothing to do for the first time in several hours, she lay against the acceleration backrest and let her mind wander.
Immediately images from the horrible last half-hour replayed themselves, and inevitably Anna began wondering what she had done wrong, what she could have done differently. She recognized the familiar dark path she was about to tread, so with some effort she put that aside. Self-analysis could come later.
Instead, she thought about the ring station, arcing away ahead of and alongside them, and all its undiscovered mysteries yet to be resolved. How much would be lost in this unfolding disaster? Would EASEA, or any humans for that matter, return here? Probably, she reasoned, though not anytime soon. Aniara’s mission parameters called for remaining up to a year in-system, including three months of cross-system travel, before beginning the three-year trip home, so it would be at least four years before anyone suspected something had gone wrong. Even then, there was no other starship like Aniara ready to go, nothing capable of following them out here, unless the collective governments behind EASEA were ready to contribute billions more for a rescue mission. Eventually they would, but clearly it would be many years before such a mission could hope to arrive here. Assuming, of course, that Anna and Laxmi were unable to get Aniara moving again, and she dearly hoped they would.
Would the shockwave destroying the station reach as far as the next tether? Was Aniara in danger? Centuries ago there had been twelve such tethers anchoring the station to the ground, and today only three — make that two — remained intact. Clearly there had been cataclysmic failures in the intervening years, yet large sections of the station remained operable, if abandoned. The tether had curled like a fiddlehead fern as it snapped upward. The impact upon the ring remained immense, likely spread across a couple thousand kilometers, yet that represented but ten percent of the arc length to the next tether. Something would be felt there, surely, but would it be so absolutely destructive?
She couldn’t help herself. Anna’s thoughts drifted back to Jaci, back to what might have been, what now would never be. Her vision blurred, so she wiped the tears from her eyes, the moisture sliding toward her ears from the thrust gravity. She turned to look back — the thrust making it seem below her — to where Jaci’s body lay strapped to the bulkhead. To her surprise, Laxmi was tending to him, crouched against the aft wall, with Ca-Tren beside her.
Anna released her own seat restraints and carefully climbed down the bulkhead rungs until she could kneel beside them both. Laxmi looked up, tears in her own eyes, then reached out to gather Anna up into a hug. They held each other tight, saying nothing, for a full minute before Anna gently disengaged herself.
“Right, um…” She cleared her throat, as something seemed to be caught there. “So, I’m gonna set the tablets to charging. We’ve, uh, we’ve got about forty minutes to arrival, and we don’t know what we’ll find when we get there. Not enough time for a full charge, of course, but…”
Laxmi nodded, handing her tablet to Anna without a word, then turned her attention back to cleaning up Jaci, covering the wound and arranging his posture to one of peaceful repose, though nothing she could do would alter the sun and freezer-burned appearance of his skin.
Anna holstered the tablet against her thigh and stood, turning away from the sight, when she felt a soft touch against her hand. Ca-Tren had reached out, and while she couldn’t quite hold Anna’s hand with her wingtip, it was close enough. Anna smiled briefly, gave a gentle squeeze, then watched a moment more as Ca-Tren turned back to Jaci. Anna cautioned herself against ascribing human emotions to a non-terrestrial species, but Ca-Tren had known Jaci longer than any of the other humans. After all, he had sort of been a guest lecturer in her classroom, hadn’t he?
Finally Anna took a deep breath and hoisted herself onto the rungs to climb back up to the pilot’s chair. There she found a bank of eight charging slots, all empty. She placed Laxmi’s tablet into one, then her own — rather, Jaci’s — into another beside it.
Outside the station now seemed far away, as the lander’s direct course cut a secant line across the great arc. They were nearly to the midpoint of their journey.
“Five minutes to the flip. Time to buckle up.”
Anna watched the ETA countdown on the console. At thirty seconds, she reached for the thrust levers and RCS joystick, then hesitated. Normally she preferred to fly the ship, but she leaned back and let her arms fall to her sides. Let the computer do it this time, she thought.
“Ten seconds to MECO. Stand by for zero g.”
On schedule, the main engine cut out, the cabin went totally silent, and Anna’s inner ears did their familiar little flip. How quickly we become accustomed to even a small amount of gravity, yet still a part of her rejoiced at the return to what felt like her natural state of weightlessness. Without the thrust gravity, without the engine noise, all seemed perfectly still and motionless, belying their nearly seven kilometers per second velocity relative to the distant ring.
“Commencing rotation burn.”
The lander’s nose came up, flipping them over backwards to rotate the spacecraft end over end. Anna gripped the armrests and steadfastly watched the stars and station wheel past until the destruction they had escaped hove into view. The major force of the shockwave appeared to have slowed or stopped, but even from this distance it was clear massive damage had been inflicted. The previously perfect circle of the ring now had an outward bulge, an angry contusion upon this great work of an earlier technological age. At the bulge’s apex, where the twin tethers should have been, one down to the planet and one up to the counterweight, now only a gap remained, a gap large enough to just barely be discerned with the naked eye. Untethered from the ground, smashed by the whip-coiling elevator shaft, the counterweight had simply pulled an entire section of the station away as it was flung off into space, trailing ten-thousand kilometers of carbon-nanotube tether behind it.
The compartment they had been in not but an hour ago was lost. The elevator cab in which they had lived the past five days in relative calm and luxury — where she and Jaci had slowly grown closer and spent their nights together — lost. The departure vestibule, where Jaci declared his love for her — all of it was lost.
Staring at the distant destruction through misty eyes, Anna realized she never told him she loved him, and now he was lost too.
… to be continued.
© Matt Fraser and mattfraserbooks.com, 2023. 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.