… continued from Fifty Meters of Emptiness
The blue-green expanse of ocean covered the planetary disc, horizon to horizon, broken only by white wisps of cloud cover and the approaching dark terminator of night. The dissipating cyclone spun its radial ferocity in trailing spirals, peaceful grace from orbit’s distant remove. Where the blue and white of the planet met the blackness of space, a hazy glow hinted at the atmosphere, razor thin from this altitude. For a moment Anna flashed back to her view of this scene upon first arrival, months ago, when all seemed full of promise.
Intermittent bright flashes and sparks interrupted the velvety darkness around the planet, a silent light show of shrapnel collisions against the backdrop of the disintegrating ring station behind her, yet her focus remained on the solitary human figure spinning away toward the distant surface, limbs unmoving. She held on to the small antenna that saved her from a similar fate, legs dangling, her other arm still outstretched toward Jaci in vain, fading hope. Her heart thumped rapidly in her chest, her breath fogged her visor only to have the oxygen flow clear it. She still couldn’t quite believe that he had slipped from her grasp, that he was gone.
The airlock tether, forgotten in the rush, lazily snaked past her, loose coils and loops sliding across the lander’s curved hull. Anna ignored it, focused on the loss of her friend, until a thought forced its way past her grief. She turned her head inside her helmet, watching the tether slither past, then looked back at Jaci’s dwindling form. How far away had he gotten? How fast was he moving? Distances were difficult to judge, but with each passing second he grew closer to being forever out of reach.
Anna scrambled for another handhold on the lander’s hull, eventually finding a slender aerodynamic rung, and grasped it. Moving as quickly as she dared, she pulled herself toward the moving tether, always keeping one hand on a rung, one foot jammed into a vent or against a sensor. She reached for it, only to miss as momentum carried it away, but then another loop snaked within reach. Carefully, moving as quickly as she dared, she pulled its length through her hands, hoping she was pulling it the right way. She also studiously ignored the low oxygen alert flashing in her HUD.
Moments later it was clear she had indeed pulled the right direction as the loose end of the tether came toward her. She clipped the end to her belt at the small of her back, spun around toward the direction of Jaci’s fall, crouched, then leaped after him with all the force she could muster. The tether trailed after her, loops unspooling, straightening. A mass of glass pebbles whipped past, sparkling in the light of the westering sun, followed by a steel shard the size of her forearm, tumbling rapidly end over end before disappearing into the glare of the planet’s dayside brilliance.
Ahead, turning almost lazily about his axis compared to the station fragments, Jaci grew larger in Anna’s vision. She was gaining on him! This was going to work after all. As she grew closer, she could see that the rent in his suit was still spewing air into the vacuum, acting like a small thruster gradually increasing his spin. That meant his oxygen regulator still worked, struggling and failing to overcome the rate of loss through the tear, but if she could just get that patched up, there was a chance. A slim one, but a chance. He was ten meters away now, then six. Anna opened her arms, ready to grab him. Three meters. One.
The tether snapped taut at the end of its hundred-meter length, stretching slightly to absorb the shock, yet still the force of the sudden stop forced all the air from Anna’s lungs, her body folding at the waist, arms and legs flailing forward even as the tether’s elasticity yanked her hips back.
She railed at the uncaring universe, despairing as once again Jaci slipped beyond her reach, his long fall unabated despite her efforts. An arc of glass shards formed a halo effect around his receding form, sparkling and twinkling in a rainbow of colors that melted together in Anna’s vision through the tears gathering against her faceplate.
“Anna?” Her comm radio crackled to life. “Anna, are you there? Jaci? Anyone, please come in.”
Anna took a moment to gather her composure. She continued to ignore the low oxygen alert.
“He… he’s gone, Laxmi.” Her voice cracked as she toggled the transmitter.
“Who… Jaci… What do you mean, gone?”
“I tried to hold him, I really tried, but I failed, Laxmi. I failed. He saved my life, and I failed to save his.”
“Anna, what is Jaci’s status? Where is he?”
“He… his suit was torn. When the shockwave hit, I think. He jumped, he pushed us both toward the lander, but… but… Laxmi, he wasn’t breathing, wasn’t conscious, and I couldn’t hold onto him! I tried to reach him, but I just didn’t move fast enough.”
A moment of silence, then the radio crackled again.
“What about you, Anna? Where are you? Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine, I think. I’m clipped in. I… I just need to pull myself back to the lander.”
“Ok, but please hurry, Anna. I’m seeing a lot of debris flying around. I don’t think this is a healthy place to be outside just now. I’m not even sure if the lander is safe. We need to get out of here.”
Anna took one last look as Jaci’s form dwindled to where she could barely make out his arms and legs against the background. She took a deep breath, reached behind herself, and grasped the tether. She took another breath, and started pulling herself hand over hand back toward the lander.
“I’m on my way back. Make sure Ca-Tren’s strapped in and the cabin’s prepped for acceleration. Double-check the RCS is active and ready.”
“On it. We’ll be ready to go the moment you’re inside, Anna.”
“Not quite. Once I get to the airlock, I want you to fly the ship. We don’t have any time to waste.”
“Anna, I’m not a pilot! I can’t fly us out of here. Why can’t you come inside and take over?”
“We have one last job to do. Don’t worry, I’ll talk you through it. It’s like riding a bicycle. We’re not leaving Jaci to drift forever out here. We’re gonna go get our boy.”
Decision made, Anna focused on her task. She got her breathing under control, finally heeding that insistent alert in her upper right vision, and pulled herself steadily along the tether, gaining momentum, until she was certain her vector would take her almost straight to the airlock. Then she coasted, conserving energy and breath, the tether forming a large loop behind as it followed her in.
“I’ve never ridden a bicycle.”
“I’ve never ridden a bicycle, Anna.”
“Oh. Really? Well, never mind. It’s not really like riding a bicycle. It’s just a thing you say. Just grab the RCS joystick, and I’ll direct you. Maybe it’s more like a video game.”
“What about the debris? What if we get hit?”
“There’s nothing you or I can do about that, so there’s no point in worrying about it. Just focus on what you can control, and ignore what you can’t.”
The lander’s hull came up fast, so Anna twisted her legs in front of her right before making contact. She crouched to absorb the shock, grasped the tether by the airlock, and held on. She bounced a little off the hull, and using her grip on the tether swung herself around and into the open airlock. A larger piece of shrapnel struck the hull a glancing tangential blow where her feet had made contact a moment earlier, then bounced off to spin away in a new direction, leaving a deep scrape where it hit.
She steadied herself on a handhold inside and rapidly guided the tether’s loops in behind her, its own momentum carrying it right by the open hatch.
“Right, I’m in. Give the stick a tug to the right and hold it there. This should initiate a roll. I’ll tell you when to let go.”
“Ok, initiating roll to the right.”
Jets of compressed gas fired silently from small thrusters on the hull of the lander, and the entire craft began to slowly roll over. Anna’s view of the destroyed station slid away to one side, and she quietly gave thanks that the airlock no longer pointed directly at the source of all that flying shrapnel. Stars wheeled past and then the planet hove into the view frame.
“Ok, let it go now.”
All other things being equal, momentum would have caused the lander to continue its roll, spinning about its longitudinal axis endlessly, but the spacecraft’s computers interpreted Laxmi’s release of the joystick as an intent to stop the roll, so a different set of reaction control thrusters fired in the opposite direction to stop their spin.
“Perfect! You’re doing great, Laxmi. Now, grab the translation control, that’s the square knob on the left, and push that to the left. Hold it there until I tell you to stop.”
A different set of thrusters began to fire their gas jets, this time to push the entire spacecraft sideways. These were the same thrusters Anna had relied upon earlier to bring the lander close to the ring station, and now she was using them to push them away, albeit with the airlock side facing in the direction of their travel, toward the planet. Toward Jaci.
As long as Laxmi held the control over, the thrusters kept firing, so the craft very gradually built up more speed in its sideways push. The motion tended to push Anna toward the inner hatch, but she held onto the grab rail closest to the outer hatch in order to keep a nearly unobstructed view. The acceleration was modest enough that it was easy to hang there without strain.
“I see him! Ok, ease off the knob. We have enough velocity now, I think we’ll overtake him.”
Jaci appeared at first as but a small stick figure against the planet’s background, sunlight flashing off the reflective e-suit as he spun, head downward from Anna’s new perspective, looking like nothing so much as a larger piece of debris from the station’s destruction.
Her thoughts turned gloomy for a moment, then she returned her focus. The low oxygen alarm in her HUD began to flash faster, a small readout beside it ticking downward from 15% to 14%.
“Ok, give the translation a short rightward push to slow our approach. That’s good. Another one. Yep, let it go. Perfect, Laxmi. See? Nothing to it.”
Jaci lay perhaps thirty meters off now, and about twenty aft of the airlock, with the lander approaching at a meter per second.
“Pull the translation knob out toward you for a bit.”
This fired RCS thrusters in the nosecone, pushing the lander sternward. As they approached, Jaci gradually lined up with the airlock.
“Perfect. Now two seconds of translation to the right to slow us further. Stop.”
Jaci floated into the airlock at half a meter per second, and Anna caught him in her arms, cradling him as she would a baby, and with one glance at his slack open mouth and sightless eyes her tears flowed freely.
… to be continued.
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