…continued from Reaction
The last light of the star shone brilliant orange on the fierce cloud tops of the spinning cyclone, forty-thousand kilometers below. The terminator, dividing day from approaching night, cut the blue water world in half, chasing the storm westwards across the glossy mirror of the hemisphere-spanning ocean. Serene against the star-specked backdrop of space, the ring station from its great altitude remained longer in the light, gleaming silver-white, solar arrays and thermal radiators sparkling as if to defy its age and decrepitude, yet inevitably it still spun into night.
Descending in retrograde in resistance to the coming darkness, facing back toward the day, the shuttle cockpit remained lit only by the orange glow of the reflected light and the brighter insistence of console display screens conveying their messages of proximity, velocity, attitude, and alarm. Anna divided her focus between the indicators and the evidence of her own eyes as her spacecraft approached the station, compartment after compartment slowly advancing beneath her before disappearing behind the shuttle, out of her view. Ahead lay her target, a compartment relatively unencumbered by equipment and obstacles, a flat surface beckoning in the navigation guidance crosshairs, promising a respite from their inevitable descent.
“Laxmi, Jaci, strap in. We’re almost there. Fifty meters to contact.”
“Acknowledged. We’re ready here, Anna.”
The starlight dimmed, finally obscured below the planet’s horizon, and shuttle and station together orbited into the dark. The great arc of the ring station stretched before Anna’s sight, the far curve still gleaming in brightness, yet her target now became barely visible, a black shape limned against the dark globe below, in stark contrast with the sharp line between day and night. The shuttle’s lidar continuously pinged the structure, painting a virtual image on her console, and with the swipe of a slider she superimposed a faint green outline of the boxy compartments into the visual heads-up display across the cockpit windows.
She fired the forward RCS thrusters, slowing the shuttle’s closing rate to ten centimeters per second.
“Five meters. Four… three… two… one. Contact.”
A minor bump, followed by the dull roar of another thruster burst as Anna matched speeds and pressed the shuttle against the station’s hull. She cut power and monitored their drift relative to the compartment surface. Without any way to truly dock with the station, the rendezvous consisted more of matching orbits at a distance of zero meters, then putting the RCS in lidar-controlled station-keeping mode to keep them there.
“Right, let’s get the hull patched and re-pressurize. What’s your suit air status?”
“We’ve both plugged into the shuttle supply and topped up,” Laxmi responded. “We have six-plus hours reserve once we disconnect.”
Jaci said, “I’ve located two punctures in the pressure hull. It looks like a single strike that passed through the engine and the cabin. One of the punctures leads back to the engine compartment.”
“Ok, cabin pressure integrity is our first priority, and then we need to look at the engine. I’ll keep trying to raise David on Aniara.” Anna switched channels, hearing only silence across the gulf between them and the starship, now invisible against the blackness of space on the planet’s nightside.
Periodically she made the call, hoping against hope for a reply, listening to Laxmi and Jaci chatter as they worked to repair the hull, and checking diagnostics for the shuttle. Red lights continued to blink for hull and engine status on her display, while all else remained green. There was no fault indicator for the radio. Whatever reason there might be for David’s silence, the cause was with Aniara. Anna did not think it a coincidence that the starship went quiet at the same time the shuttle was damaged. She only hoped it was no more serious than a radio malfunction.
After some time she found herself dozing off, floating against the straps holding her to her chair, and she realized she had been continuously alert for nearly twenty hours. It would be the same for the others, but they simply had to get the cabin pressure restored before they could afford to sleep. Laxmi and Jaci had the work of sealing the hull to keep them alert, but blinking console indicators and a silent radio simply were not enough to keep Anna awake. She was aware of a sense of guilt, dozing in her chair in a pressurized cockpit, able to breathe without a helmet, while the others labored in spacesuits, sipping dwindling water reserves, and no doubt hungry, but she also knew there was little she could do to assist her crew. She could not open the cockpit hatch without releasing her air, and while she could restore it from the shuttle reserve if the situation called for it, she knew it would be a pointless waste of resources. As soon as they had cabin pressure, the others could rest. She would take over for the engine repair. For now, though…
She found herself floating through a long, dark tunnel. The wall of the tunnel was perfectly formless and featureless, seeming at once close enough to touch and impossibly far away, the boundary of an Einstein-Rosen bridge carrying her to nowhere. Behind her, the tunnel disappeared into encroaching blackness, an absence of light and color so profound it consumed the air, eating the tunnel as it inexorably approached. Before her, the tunnel stretched to a bright blue point, dazzling in hue and intensity, and Anna knew if she could only reach that point she would be safe. The point invoked sunlight and salt air, an image of rocky shores and the sound of seabirds, and waves lapping upon a tropical beach. Desperately, Anna reached out for it, but in the null gravity of the tunnel she could not move. She could not reach the wall to push off, she could not swim through the air, and she flailed her arms and legs to no avail as annihilation approached on the wings of collapse. Anna, the seabirds cried, Anna, come join us, and tears of despair welled in her eyes before floating away, perfect watery spheres reflecting her own face, distorted in their curvature. Her vision distorted with the salty tears in her eyes, but she could hear the collapse approach, a crackling and hissing noise, increasing in intensity, becoming louder and louder, until she screamed for her impending doom.
She awoke with a start, still strapped into her pilot chair, Jaci’s voice on the radio. She shook her head to clear her mind of the lingering horror of her vivid dream, but the hissing noise still filled her ears.
“I’m…” She cleared her throat. “I’m here. I must have dozed off.”
“Anna, you were screaming.”
“Sorry about that. I guess I was having a bad dream.” She could still hear the hissing. “What’s that sound?”
“That’s us. We finished the hull repair. The cabin’s pressurizing right now. We should be equalized in a few moments.”
Anna leaned her head back and let out a deep breath. Her tension eased and she realized she had been gripping the arms of the seat tightly. Glancing at her console, indeed one red indicator had been replaced by a yellow one, and even as she watched it switched to green. Pressure stable.
“I’m opening the cockpit hatch.”
That done, she released her straps and pushed herself through the hatch to join the others, their helmets already removed. Tension showed in the weariness of their faces, the darkness under their eyes. Before saying another word, Anna wrapped an arm around each of them, pulling them into a hug. Silently they held each other, until Anna lifted her head and her gaze fell upon the motionless form of Takashi, helmet still attached, strapped into an acceleration couch. She swallowed the lump forming in her throat, released the others, and pulled herself over to him, crouching in a floating ball beside his couch. She reached out and put a hand to his helmet visor.
“I’m so sorry, Takashi,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
… continued with EVA
header image credit: NASA
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