He might as well have been standing naked in an Arctic wind. It was that cold. It whipped around him, biting into his skin until it was numb and then nipped at the insides of his nostrils until they burned dry. His eyes flew open and he tried to jerk his hands to try and wrap them around his shivering shoulders, but he couldn’t move them. A full inch of frost covered the plastic portal just inches from his nose.
He licked a dry tongue across swollen lips that were already numb from the cold. It felt like he was licking a soft piece of half-melted ice.
A harsh steady wind blew down on him from above, flowing out over his body and splashing against the plastic floor of his cylinder in a wash of cold white steam. Fans whirred just beneath the grate under his feet and he heard the hissing whoosh of air washing the sedatives out of his cylinder and into the discharge tanks somewhere in the bowels of the ship.
When the heat finally came, starting like a burning ember of coal on the top of his head, he screamed. The vents over his head opened wide and his skin felt like it was on fire as the cold sedative fog that had been washed away was replaced by a wash of hotness that felt like it was coming from a blast furnace.
His skin felt like it was burning and then every nerve in his body came alive with pins and needles as it reawakened under the hot geyser of air forcing his body back to life. Every muscle in his body was trembling when the door hissed open and he tumbled out of his cylinder and floated into the habitation module.
Floating through the darkened space naked, he blinked, trying to bring the interior into focus. He gasped for air in shuddering gasps as his body remembered how to do things that it had forgotten decades before.
The first thing he really saw was the rotating red lights spaced at one meter intervals along the honeycombed composite strip designated as the “top” of the module. A muffled voice droned in the distance, audible, but undecipherable as his ears could do little more than fill his mind with a high-pitched whine.
He could feel himself trying to breathe, but couldn’t hear his own breath. He winced as he gulped in air, a thin acidic taste of something metallic coating his tongue. He felt his chest rattle and his throat swell with a burning ache as he coughed hard enough he was sure he would see his own lungs floating out in front of him when it was over.
He felt bloated and his lungs kept burning even though he was sucking in as much air as he could. From somewhere in the back of his mind came the agonizing months of training that told him the chamber wasn’t pressurizing fast enough. The ship had spit him out of the safety of his hibernation cylinder before the module was ready to sustain his life. And so he could only see the blurred veil of red from the spinning lights and he could feel the burn of not being able to breathe and his ears rang as his mind swam through an oxygen-deprived ether. Hurry the hell up.
Breathing still hurt like hell, but his lungs were aching with a vague sense of fullness now, as if he had just finished running a marathon instead of floating through an air-deprived chamber in the middle of dead space. Come on.
He blinked again and could just see the outlines of the clear plastic encasing the flashing lights. Awake enough now to trust his own senses, a sharp burst of adrenalin rushed through his chest as his mind began to understand what was happening. Bits and pieces of words came through as he floated around the module, bumping along its bulkheads. A thought sizzled through his wakening mind as he realized he should find a hand grip and pull himself to a stop so he could orient himself and look for something to put on.
“Vector… Hohmann… Alternate…” Words, in between muffled bits of garble, were coming through now and more adrenalin pumped through his heart as he realized he was in trouble. The red lights pulsing, the mention of vectors – something lay just beyond his awareness, poking at the parts of his mind still clawing their way out of the numbness of hibernation.
He gasped sharply and his eyes flared when the phrase bubbled to the surface of his consciousness. Protocol Zero.
The ringing in his ears abated enough that he could hear the stuttering hiss of vents struggling to fill the void inside the module with breathable air. He forced himself to slow his breathing and take shallow breaths as the air around him slowly brought the pressure up so he felt like he was descending in an unpressurized airplane cabin.
Luminescent strips lining the bulkheads emerged from the darkness and he groped along the gray panels until he found the yellow loop of a hand grip and wrapped stiff fingers around its plastic molded grip to finally tether himself in place while he gathered his senses.
The air was almost thick now and the voice rang through the room with a mechanical calmness mocking the urgency of its own words.
“Protocol Zero. Hohmann escape vectors available. Victor one five four point one. Delta three five two point seven. Zulu one five six point eight. Alternates in progress. Egress soonest.”
The voice looped through the same information as he pulled himself down to a suit strapped to the bulkhead like an empty mannequin. He verified his own name, something else he had almost forgotten, etched on the chestplate: Jenkins.
His fingers still curled over and stiff, he clawed at the latches to swing open the front of his suit and wrestled his legs into the bottom half as he ducked down and squeezed his head up into the spacious helmet – another small prison for his face even tighter than the cylinder he had left just moments before.
Just as his feet slid into the smooth padding inside the boots, the suit sealed itself over him. The chestplate snapped closed and the rotary latches pulled the helmet snug against the body of his suit. Another rotary latch whined shut around the seams between the torso and legs. Air hissed to fill the suit and bring it to an even internal pressure so that he was now in his own personal vessel, independent of the module’s failing ability to sustain life.
The module shuddered and he heard the grinding strain of the bulkheads twisting around him. A metallic pinging and snapping sound rattled along the bulkheads, ghosts of noise ringing in from the trusses it was attached to. The same trusses that held the supplies, landing craft and ground modules they were supposed to assemble when they fell into the orbit of a planet that was to be the first human outpost beyond their own sun. Or maybe not.
Speakers inside his helmet linked up with the ship’s systems and he heard the mechanical voice streaming in around him, suffocating him with its incessant repetition. He knew the voice hadn’t really changed, but it seemed more insistent now.
“…Alternates in progress. Egress soonest.”
He tugged away from the bulkhead, wrestling with the bulk of his spacesuit. His body was still coming back to life and everything felt heavy and sluggish. Deliberately, he latched onto a grip and pulled himself towards the bulkhead capping the module. Groping for the next grip, he pulled himself towards the yellow bar in the center of the end bulkhead, surrounded by a box of thickly painted red and black lines with the word EGRESS stenciled along each side.
When he reached the end bulkhead, he slammed his gloved hand against its surface and pulled down the yellow bar. The luminous strips lining the module glowed red and a digital klaxon blared in his speakers. The mechanical voice calmly announced the obvious as the end bulkhead split apart and tumbled in pieces into the module. “Egress activated. Launch confirmation required.”
“Yeah yeah,” he muttered to himself. Bracing himself with one hand against the single clear round porthole on the escape module’s hatch, he tugged the handle next to it and the hatch pushed itself into the module and swung to the side so he could push himself through and float into the cramped lifeboat.
Once inside, he said, “Egress authorize Jenkins.”
As another shudder threatened to sheer the module from its mooring before he even had a chance to initiate the launch sequence, the mechanical voice calmly intoned, “Voice confirmation required.”
“Close the goddamn door!” Jenkins yelled. The hatch swung back into position and a soft bell chimed as a dull green light glowed next to the porthole.
He grabbed the grip next to a yellow cushioned seat large enough to hold him in his suit with a slight bend at the knees and pulled himself into it. He pulled a large yellow handle just big enough for him to fit his gloved hand through and tugged it across his body to cinch down the webbing of a harness that pressed him even tighter into the seat.
“Status board,” he said. An array of clear plastic sheets strung underneath the porthole flickered to life to reveal graphics and numbers depicting the current position of the ship, statistics about its orbit between the sun and their destination, the current condition of the ship’s multitude of systems and the escape orbits to known celestial bodies where a man could live marooned long enough to wait for the rescue hab.
His eyes flicked to the screens showing the escape orbits. There were only three and not one of them led to a planet that had more than the barest ability to sustain life. He would have to sort that out later.
He took a deep breath and clenched his eyes shut. Once he said his next word, there would be no turning back.
The screens changed to a series of lists that scrolled by, flashing each line green in a rapid succession of automated checks. When they reached the end, the mechanical voice said, “Confirm launch.”
He took another deep breath, nodded to himself and said, “Confirm.”
The escape module thumped and jolted back as the docking ring between the escape module and his abandoned home in space exploded to push him away from the dying ship. The pop-pop-pop of the reaction control system nozzles outside nudged the ship into an attitude perfectly aligned with what was left of the mooring dock drifting away from him through the porthole. Then they fired in a steady hiss for a full second, accelerating him away even faster.
As he sped away from the ship, he stared at the other five hab modules attached to a central hub like spokes in a wheel. They were just like his, dormant homes for the other five astronauts to drift in dreamless sleep until they arrived at their new home on a world further away than any man had ever travelled. The rounded knobs of their escape modules were still firmly attached. All along the truss stretching out from that central hub, sparks flew and balling licks of flame jetted out from the propulsion and power modules that kept the ship alive, breathing and aligned on course over its long journey.
The stark white ball housing the power module in the center of the truss glowed eerily green as control systems that tamed the nuclear fuel deep in its core began to fail.
Still, the bulbous escape pods remained quietly affixed to their hab modules. Come on you guys.
The truss twisted and warped, metallic sparks spewing out in bits of shrapnel that would travel for eternity into the endless void. The truss buckled and then glowed hot red just before the power module bloomed in a blinding ball of white hot light.
Jenkins forced his eyes shut and turned away from the porthole as his escape module sped away from the conflagration.
After a few seconds, he looked back out the porthole and saw nothing but the deep black of space. He yanked the harness handle so the webbing retracted to the sides of the seat and pushed himself towards the porthole. Holding himself in place by the grip next to the clear circle peeking out into the emptiness, he pressed the faceplate of his helmet against its surface and scanned the dark expanse engulfing his tiny ship.
The mechanical voice calmly reported, “Hakim, null signal. Shandel, null signal. Kai, null signal. Benazi, null signal. Hernandez, null signal.”
He pounded his gloved palm against the bulkhead next to the porthole and desperately strained his eyes to see as far out along it edges as he could. Then he stared at the space straight ahead, where the ship had once been. And everywhere he looked was just a deep wash of black and a swarm of stars flickering from a distant shore he knew he could never reach.
He was alone. All alone. Beyond alone. He didn’t even exist, really. If they had all punched out, they would be a lost squadron of refugees bobbing through the darkness together, fighting to keep each other alive. Awash in time and space, nobody back home would even know what had happened for years. If they were still listening. If they were still there. If they still even cared. He was a speck of life in the cold deep of dead space, where light tread swiftly and alone. And there wasn’t even any of that.
He settled back into his chair. The ship felt so cramped now, so small, as if he were in a bubble floating deep beneath the ocean surface, just waiting for it to burst so the water would swirl around him and engulf him in its drowning embrace.
* * *
Jenkins idly pulled the harness handle to strap himself back down to his seat so he could stop and think without worrying about floating around the cramped interior of his escape module.
His suit was producing a steady flow of pressurized air. It was dry in his nose and smelled like he was breathing inside an aluminum canteen. The folds of padding inside the suit pressed against his skin, making him feel like he was tied down in a blanket that did little more than make him sweat. Itches he couldn’t reach in and scratch flitted along his legs. The steady hiss and latching of the regulator valve clicked from the environmental control unit embedded in the back of his suit. The light from the clear plastic monitors splashed against the interior of the module with a cool glow, taunting him with the cold fact that he was floating quietly through the dark quiet of dead space.
He still had time to sort out his escape vector – he vaguely remembered three announced during the harried daze of his egress. He needed to get out of the suit now and make himself more comfortable so he could dig in to the work of setting of the ship’s navigation with as few distractions as possible.
“Suit release.” As soon as he finished speaking, the locking rings for his gloves twisted open and he shook the gloves from his hands, letting them tumble through the air and bounce lightly against the bulkhead just feet away from his seat. He flexed his fingers, which weren’t stiff anymore and curled back with a spongy flexibility that made him smile. Simple pleasures became fixtures of ecstasy when your world came down to a few square feet of warm air in the middle of dead space.
The ring lock for his helmet whirred open and he took that off next, letting it tumble and bounce next to the gloves. He wrestled out of the suit and thumbed a square button on the hatch to an overhead bin, pushing it into the surface a few inches until the hatch slid back to reveal a white cabin suit in a vacuum sealed bag.
He pulled down the bag and tore it open with his teeth. He slid on the pair of cotton boxer shorts, short-sleeved shirt and loose-fitting pants. The shirt and pants were made from a synthetic fiber that could be laundered with the small hypersonic cleaner hidden behind another hatch in the bulkhead while the boxers would be sterilized in a small centrifugal dry-cleaning tube. He finished the ensemble with a pair of synthetic slippers with toe protectors.
Once dressed, he depressed another square button above his seat. the partition it was attached to slid to the side to reveal a cramped closet where he stowed the bulky environmental suit – something he wouldn’t need again until he got… somewhere.
A vague sense of comfort washed over him as he settled into the rituals of tidying up and thought of all the little accouterments the engineers had been kind enough to include in his small house in space, as if they really did want him to live through the ordeal with his comfort and sanity in tact and eventually find his way home. It was as close to being cared for as he would be able to feel for… how long? He pushed the question from his mind. That was something he wasn’t ready to answer yet.
He slid the seat back into position and settled back into the padded contours of its embrace. He fastened a single-strip belt loosely across his waste to keep him from floating out of the seat and turned his attention to the monitors.
Staring at their glistening surfaces and the translucent graphics glowing inside them, he felt a slow pang of panic rise up inside him. He mentally tracked the feeling, as if he were stalking a wary animal in a cage that was only dangerous if it managed to escape. Because now he was going to have to do something that wasn’t expected. It was the last resort at the end of a long chain of failures that were never supposed to happen. It was the final emergency backup scenario that had been carefully planned, designed and built, but never really tested. He had to trust it now. He had to trust it to keep him alive. And then he had to trust it to take him home. But he knew it wasn’t just a simple matter of turning around and going back the way he came. There was so much more to it than that. And that’s why he had to stalk the panic rising up inside him, get control of it and push it back into the farthest corner of its cage. Otherwise, the long journey ahead would be over before it could even begin.
* * *
“Alignment status.” The center monitor flashed a graphic showing the swooping curve of the trajectory of the main ship before it exploded. Then two identical swoops emerged – one just to the right and above, the other one just below and to the left. A number flashed in the top center of the screen: 98%. The jostling of the escape module during egress had knocked its alignment off from the inertial reference of the main ship just enough that the computer wasn’t sure if the track was completely accurate. Still, 98% was good. In fact, it was real good, and he let out a sigh of relief.
“Astral reference. Brightest.” The left monitor went blank and then showed the glowing circumference of a star – a class B blue giant that was about 100 light years away. He had gotten lucky. But he really needed to be even luckier. Then he remembered, again, the announcements during the egress. The ship had found vectors. One step at a time.
“Align astral target. Longitude axis. Negative.” The RCS thrusters popped and his craft swung around until he could see the dim hazy spot of light that was the blue giant through the porthole. It stood out from the background swarm of stars and he could imagine it floating so much closer than the rest even though it was a lifetime away.
“Platform align reference target.” This was a big step. He was telling his ship to reset its guidance systems using the star as a reference, abandoning the inertial framework it had been using for nearly a hundred years. But it would be more accurate this way and give the system something more local to verify itself with during the coming months or years it would take to get to his egress rendezvous.
The monitors blinked out and then all three pulsated with large red letters that simply read: ALIGN. When the swooping lines of his orbital track through the space between Sol and their planned destination reappeared, he said, “Rescue hab status.”
His breathing grew shallow and he had to force himself not to hold his breath as he waited for the system to find the rescue habitation module that was supposed to be six months in trail of the main ship. It’s orbit was slightly different than the main ship and it was out of range of the bare-bones telemetry in his escape module, so he knew that whatever came back would be a guess. His next steps would be taken purely on blind faith that the automated rescue hab had maintained its position properly and that it was still there. That its systems hadn’t been fried by a radiation burst. That it hadn’t come across some rogue meteor in the deep voids of interstellar space. That whatever had destroyed the main ship had spared the rescue hab hurtling along six months behind it.
A new swooping curve and scroll of numbers appeared on the central monitor. The new curve was a dashed white line with thinner dashed red lines on either side. The system gave him an 85% precision factor for its track, which wasn’t the most reassuring, but it was close enough for what he needed. If it had been below 80%… If. He shook his head idly, reminding himself that contingencies were just something that would get in his way now. Everything had to go right, so he had to focus on making sure they did. If was not part of that equation.
“Show egress vectors.” Each monitor faded and then showed a separate track, swooping lines now arcing out from his current location to three different nearby stars. Blocks of text and numbers indicated distances, times of travel, hyperbolic orbit parameters and estimated fuel requirements for landing. Out of them all, the most important number was the Habitation Index. He focused on the one with the highest HI of 6.8. Anything above 7.0 meant an atmosphere he could breathe without any need for environmental assistance. But the number wasn’t a hard limit. 6.8 was pretty close. It just might be good enough. This was of course based on what information the main ship had managed to glean with long distance probing signals, sampling atmospheric properties with radio waves and light – analyzing the effects on those signals and making its best guess. He couldn’t really know until he got closer. For now, the shimmering digits that told him it was almost good enough was all he had.
The others were practically throw-aways and would require him to sit in the cramped confines of the escape module for months or even longer while he waited for the rescue hab to catch up to him. No, he would take his chances with the 6.8.
The only problem was it’s zulu class vector. It was the furthest away and he would have to endure more sleep while he waited for his tiny ship to drift along an intercept orbit at close to half the speed of light – the best it could do. But it wouldn’t be a cryogenic sleep. It would just be a drug-induced stupor to maintain his body with a minimal metabolism to keep him alive. But he would age. The sliver of space between him and the rendezvous would take a portion of his life and throw it into the darkness – the price for his survival.
He took a breath, huffed it out, his decision made. “Egress select. Zulu one five.”
The mechanical voice calmly replied, “Zulu one five. Confirm.”
“Confirm zulu one five.”
Two of the three monitors went blank, the center monitor alone in its display of his selected choice for groping his way back home. He brushed his fingertips over its surface. “Zulu one five, here we come.”
“Deploy rendezvous beacon.” Now that he had made up his mind, he needed to leave behind a small orb of metal, plastic and electronics fueled by a battery that would last for just one year as it endlessly transmitted the information about where he was going. If the 85% plot was correct, the rescue hab would float into range of those transmissions within six months, hear them and then fire off a series of complex automated tasks to adjust its own trajectory and follow him to his chosen rendezvous body.
And he wouldn’t know if it had heard any of it until he picked up its signal as it approached the rendezvous point – a chance meeting that was still years away.
With nothing left to do, he settled back into his seat and pulled the harness handle back so the webbing clamped him down in his seat. The RCS thrusters popped and he watched the stars beyond the depths of dead space swirl around and then settle into place like a photograph. The view outside his porthole would look like that for years to come, never changing, never different, never any closer.
A valve thumped behind him and then he heard the whine of the main engine, a simple throttled monopropellant motor, as it came to life in preparation for what was formally known as the Initial Staging Egress Maneuver. The motor fired. All he really heard was a soft hum, but his body pressed back against the seat as it accelerated the small craft for insertion into the orbital track to intercept whatever was waiting for him at zulu one five. When it was done, thin honeycombed metallic wings swung out to eject a steady stream of ion particles, a stream of low-thrust energy that he couldn’t even feel and would accelerate his ship for the months or years required to reach the half-way point, at which time they would reverse and slow him down until he was ready to enter an orbit around the planet that should be waiting for him. If…
Unexpectedly, his thoughts turned to the other five astronauts who were now gone. Memories from almost a hundred years before cascaded into his mind, fresh as if he had seen them just the day before. Faces creased with the tedious determination of grinding through all the minutiae of inspections, monitoring and final checklists in preparation for Primary Orbital Insertion, the last abort point where they would cut loose the nuclear propulsion modules for a long burn hurtling them into interstellar space. The timid smiles in silence as they all ate their last meal before retiring to their habitation modules and the deep cold of waiting while the ship plowed through endless years of emptiness.
The smiles did him in. He would see the same stars fixed in the porthole just a few feet in front of his face for the next several years. No smiles. No grim consults about system alignments. No grueling checklists and the shared look of numbing fatigue that came mostly from the anxiety of committing to the journey. Nobody to pat on the back or thank for a kind word. Not even somebody to have a heated argument with because the strain sometimes had no other way to escape. All tendrils of futility lost in the expanse of emptiness staring back at him through that porthole.
His chest shuddered and his face sagged into a hard scowl as tears welled up and then floated out from his face in crystal round drops that hovered around him like rain hung on invisible thread.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence