…continued from Geostationary
“Brace him on the floor. Yeah, like that. Ready? Starting CPR. One, and two, and three, and four, and five…”
“Come on, Tak, don’t you give up on me, bro. Breathe, damn you.”
“One, and two, and three, and four, and five…”
Laxmi and Jaci’s voices came through the open cockpit hatch, tense with worry, impinging upon Anna’s awareness as she fired the reaction control thrusters and rotated the shuttle, aiming the point of the wedge-shaped craft back toward Aniara, a bright star shining a hundred-forty kilometers away, hanging above the arc of the station.
“Stand by for burn. Accelerating to one G.”
Anna smoothly eased the thrust control forward, and behind her hydrogen and oxygen combined and ignited, driving the shuttle forward and scorching the station compartment behind them. Acceleration pushed Anna into her contoured foam seat, and while not heavy, it was more than she had been subject to since leaving Earth three years earlier.
“One, and two, and three, and four, and five…” The mild strain in Laxmi’s coolly professional voice told a tale, but whether one of acceleration or one of exertion, Anna could not determine.
“Shuttle, Aniara. Anna, I’m picking up a heat bloom from one of the station compartments. Some kind of power surge, perhaps.”
“Acknowledged. David, we’re eighty seconds from flip, three minutes from arrival. We’ll need… What the heck was that!”
A pulse vibrated through the shuttle, and Anna’s first thought was that something was dangerously miscalibrated in the engine. Within moments the hydrogen-oxygen reaction ceased and the engine ramped down to quiescence, leaving an ominous quiet and a return to weightlessness to replace the furor of rocket-propelled acceleration.
Laxmi called out from the crew compartment. “Anna! What’s going on? Why are we stopping?”
Before Anna could reply, the alarm klaxon sounded, red error lights on the console display flashed their desperate message, and the hatch behind her slammed shut automatically, sealing the cockpit off from the rest of the shuttle.
“Laxmi, Jaci, we’re losing cabin pressure! Get your helmets back on immediately!”
Anna unstrapped herself and reached behind her seat, finding her own helmet fastened there. She pulled the metal and glass globe down over her head, mating it to the rigid collar of her flight suit, and snapped it sealed with a sharp twist. That done, she took a moment to scan the console, and realized that the cockpit was maintaining pressure, but the crew compartment was rapidly losing air. She silenced the klaxon, then touched the intercom.
“Status report. Are you ok back there?”
Jaci replied, ”We’re good, boss. We’re both back on suit air. Laxmi’s securing Takashi’s helmet. I’m trying to find a way to seal the hole in his suit, though.”
“There’s foam sealant in the emergency locker. Use some of that. Don’t use it all, if you don’t have to; we might need it to patch the hull.”
“I’m on it.”
Anna slipped back into the seat and activated the inter-ship comm while she studied the console diagnostic readout. The primary combustion chamber apparently lost integrity, and the pressure fluctuation tripped an emergency engine shutdown.
The crew compartment began losing air pressure at the same time the engine destabilized. Was one the cause of the other? Or were both caused by something else?
“Aniara, this is the shuttle. David, are you there?”
“David, if you can hear me, we’re in trouble. We’ve lost thrust, lost cabin pressure. I think something hit the shuttle. I’m analyzing our vector now, but I don’t think we’re going to reach Aniara’s orbit.”
No response. Anna switched over to the internal circuit.
“Guys, I can’t raise David on the comm, though I’ll keep trying. Diagnostics indicates that something put a hole in the engine. The safety cutout activated and shut down the reaction, and that’s the only reason we’re not in thousands of flaming pieces right now. I don’t know what it was, a micrometeorite or… or something took a shot at us. Whatever it was is probably what holed the crew compartment as well. What’s your status back there? How’s Takashi?”
There was a pause, then Laxmi spoke. “Anna… he didn’t make it. I think… well, he had a hole in his chest, he lost a lot of blood, but I think we could have saved him… but sealed back in his suit, there’s nothing we could do. I’m… I’m sorry. I tried, I… I’m so sorry.”
Anna took a deep breath. She looked at her hand, shaking just a little, then clamped it into a fist, closed her eyes, breathed again.
“You did the best anyone could do. Both of you.”
“Ok, we have to focus on other priorities now. See if you can find that hole and patch it, so we can get air in there again.”
Jaci spoke up. “What do you mean, something took a shot at us?”
“David said something about a heat bloom and power surge from the station right before we got hit.”
“I thought there was no one here.”
“Yeah, we all thought that. It still might be true. It could be some kind of automated defense mechanism, activated by us trying to cut our way in, or by the shuttle engine blasting it, or… guys, we just don’t know. All we know is that something put a hole in the shuttle, we’ve lost our engine, and we can’t reach David on comms. We were under power for maybe ten seconds, but it was in retrograde, so without continued power it didn’t even come close to lifting us to Aniara’s orbit. We’re drifting about five-hundred meters above the station, but we de-circularized and we’re losing altitude toward perigee. We’ve got about ten minutes before we descend to the station’s orbit.”
“Are we going to hit it?” Jaci asked.
“I’m going to try using the RCS to prevent that, but we might need to dock with it to stabilize.”
“Can’t we use the RCS to get back to Aniara? I mean, now that Tak’s… I mean… well, we’re not in as much of a hurry, right?”
“Jaci, reaction control thrust isn’t going to lift us to higher orbit. It’s really only powerful enough to spin the shuttle around and make small moves for docking. But if we can fix the hole in the combustion chamber, then we might be able to get the OMS going again. That’s gonna take us a lot longer than ten minutes, though, so we have to stabilize first. Let me worry about that. You worry about getting the hull patched and air back in there. How’s your suit air? How much have you got left?”
“I’ve got, uh, fifty minutes of air left.”
“Ok. Keep an eye on it. Patch into the shuttle reserve if you need to.”
Anna turned her focus back onto the console. Red error lights continued to blink on the screen, but the reaction control system indicators glowed a steady green. She activated the attitude directional indicator, and guidance lines superimposed over her forward view in a heads-up display, indicating the shuttle’s current vector. Twisting the flight control stick and momentarily firing RCS thrusters, she adjusted the shuttle’s descent path to line them up with a flat, unbroken surface on one of the station compartments ahead of them. That done, she once again activated the inter-ship comm.
“Aniara, shuttle. Come in, David.”
“David, I’m guiding us down to rendezvous with the station again. We’re going to stabilize there and evaluate the situation with the OMS. Um, Takashi… Tak didn’t make it. The rest of us are ok for the moment. If you can hear me, acknowledge.”
Ahead of her, reflecting the glow of the blue planet, Aniara brightly gleamed, the Alcubierre rings indiscernible to the naked eye from this distance, yet clear under magnification. Why don’t you answer? What’s happening up there? Close, yet like the other stars across the sky, silent and completely out of reach.
… continued with Pressure
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