“United Space-Service ship USS-4271 calling … Mayday … Mayday … This is Space-Patrol astronaut John Plantain … we are in low orbit around IO, we have meteorite damage, Auto-Nav’s not working and we have less than forty minutes before our low orbit causes Auto-Ignite to fire and with no navigation control that takes us – God knows where. I know there isn’t much time, but please send help if you can … I’m broadcasting our co-ordinates.” John had no idea his communications system was out, along with the ship’s guidance system and that his messages weren’t reaching the local space station, any other ship that happened to be in the area, or the astronaut effecting repairs just outside the ship. John spent a few minutes perusing the ship’s operator manuals, hoping to find something … anything to help them.
“This job better go quick,” offered Walt, John’s co-pilot and fellow astronaut. “I won’t last long out here.” The Local-Com in his space suit cut out, though Walt had no way of knowing that John could no longer hear him. “How can I work out here with freezing hands and an Auto-Temp regulator that’s on the fritz?” he mumbled to himself, as his hands ran over tiny holes in the ship’s skin.
“We’re under thirty-two minutes, Walt … but at least you’re protected in that suit,” announced John, to no one at all.
“Damn micro-meteorites,” Walt mumbled, loud enough to be heard by someone else – if he had a working coms link. But there would be no excuses – he either completed the job on time or he didn’t. His heart sank as he surveyed the damaged area. The tiny rock had punctured the ship’s outer skin and left the guidance system inoperable. Walt had seen what such impacts could do to intricately ordered arrays of wiring and Navi-Com boards before – like what a cigar burn did to the woven threads and carefully applied dyes of a silk scarf. He unlatched the self-contained Accu-Torch from his tool belt and tested the Flexi-Tether – it felt secure.
“How are you doing out there?” asked John.
“Decaying orbits are a bitch,” said Walt, “They’re like bad dreams where you know you’re in one but you can’t wake up. They keep accelerating and they’re final,” as he thought of the forty-minute time window he’d started out with. The cold and the terror he felt kept him talking, so as not to feel so alone. “It’s okay if you don’t talk, John … I know you’re listening and don’t want to interrupt my concentration … better this way.”
“Hurry up,” said John, sounding almost as worried as Walt. “You keeping eye on your Holo-Watch? Walt … are you there? Never mind – I know your mind’s on the job, so let me do all the talking.”
Walt’s mind wandered as he imagined the death spiral he might very soon find himself in, then snapped back to the task at hand. “I know what Compu-Star’s saying. John. Time-Task-Management, my foot … I still have this job to do. Forty-minutes before ignition, it tells us – that was how long ago? And we’ve got how much time left? Then Auto-Ignite fires … what a life … what a job … what a universe.”
“Keep going,” said John. “Don’t let your mind wander; there’s not a second to lose. If you’re still out there when ignition commences, the ship will lurch up … I hope it’s up … your tether will snap … you’ll be left in this orbit. If you don’t get the damage fixed Auto-Nav won’t know where it’s going … we could end up in deep space or heading straight down into IO … or …or … Jupiter. Wish I was out there to help you, buddy,” his last statement sounding less convincing than anything he’d said in a long time. “You know I want to switch to manual,” he announced “and I’d do it for you, buddy … save you from Auto-Ignite … give you more time, but we could end up ….”
Walt imagined himself gradually spiraling toward the moon below. “I found the hole, buddy – no telling what else I’ll find.”
Back in the ship John re-considered his last statements. “But I’ve got to think of the ship. I can’t leave us too close too close to IO to pull out of low orbit with the fuel we have left. Switching to manual’s dangerous … we could …”
Walt recalled the panic when he and John realized how little time there was to repair the ship. The forty-minute time frame was back when he started, but collecting tools, putting on a space suit, getting through the air lock, finding the rupture in the hull, that all took a good part of the time he started with and now he had to survey the damage, cut through the ship’s metal skin and effect some sort of temporary repair. He knew that fixing a smashed, burned-out guidance system with hand tools and a torch was a joke. As he began to cut a hole around the charred metal, the Holo-Watch in his visor projected a 3-D pocket watch, about six inches across. It looked like gun metal and it had bright yellow markings and a black second hand.
“Twenty-four minutes” the holographic watch announced in its pleasing female alto voice, along with a chime at one of its prescribed three-minute intervals.
Walt didn’t sound like a name for a Space-Patrol ranger, but he’d been stuck with it all his life – funny he should worry about a thing like that now, with his life and John’s on the line, not to mention one aging United-Space-Service ship. This job was just a little too important for his mind to be wandering and he wondered why he had such trouble concentrating. “Must be a lack of oxygen,” he thought.
“Check your oxygen regulator, Walt,” said John. “What’s it say? Space Patrol’s fault, that’s what it is … nobody checks these suits anymore … hardly anybody does space walks. Our luck, all right … flying around IO … halo of meteorites … can hit you any second. Not as scary as a decaying orbit around Jupiter, though.” He imagined crashing into a planetary body at high speed and thought “let’s face it, dying is dying, no matter which orb you smash into … just our luck, to be spiraling into the most volcanically active moon in the solar system; perhaps we’ll be hurled into the open mouth of an erupting volcano.”
“Twenty-one minutes,” announced the holographic watch.
“Cutting a hole around the damaged area,” announced Walt, sounding hopeful for the first time. “You should see this John – gyroscopes and attitude control rockets and they look okay. I can’t believe our luck … only two wires and one Navi-Com board look fried … most of the meteorite must’ve missed all the complicated circuits … connections … gyros. Look here – it shattered on one of the ship’s supporting beams. With a little luck I can …”
“Auto-Ignite’s started the count-down, Walt,” said John. That means just twenty minutes left … God … how’re you doing out there? Walt? (pause) OK, I know you’re working hard out there, don’t have time to talk. Just keep at it, buddy.”
“Glad John’s not out here,” thought Walt. “Just get in the way … he’s lucky he can just push buttons to pilot a ship … never could fix anything. Ow!” he yelled as he felt a searing pain in his right forearm. He’d never felt anything like it before; it was like a bullet and a branding iron combined. He realized it could only be another micro-meteorite, one most likely the size of a grain of sand, but big enough to make a hole in his suit that would aggravate the freezing temperature and lack of oxygen that were already compromising his ability to function. As he held out his right arm and looked at the burned wires of the guidance system, a spray of red ice-bubbles blasted out of the tiny hole in his suit, reminding him of a retro rocket firing. The blood from his wound was being forced out by the air pressure still in his suit and instantly frozen into ice crystals.”
“Eighteen minutes,” announced the Holo-Watch. “The atmospheric ‘pressure will be out of my suit,” cried Walt. “I’ll suffocate and freeze … before I hear the ‘twelve minutes’ warning at this rate.”
Walt instinctively reached over with his left hand to cover the hole in his suit but before his hand could get there the spray stopped. He stared in disbelief then realized enough blood had coagulated around the tiny hole to block it and that the pressure inside his suit held the blood in place the way the atmospheric pressure inside a ship would seal an Insta-Patch against any hull breach small enough to fix from inside the ship. There was still enough air in his suit for him to breathe and he went back to work.
“Amazing,” thought Walt, “how complex most of these … jobs are … how simple … this one … is. We’ll just slide out the damaged board … plug in this new one … some soldering.” It was the kind of thing he’d done in secondary school, while learning to fix the antique receiving devices called “radios” and “TV’s” that taught him basic electronics, not to mention the mother boards that taught him how early computers worked.
“Walt? Walt? What’s going on out there,” pleaded John. “I put in a call for help. I sent a Mayday to anyone within hailing distance. I’m using full power to broadcast, Walt – even Earth should pick it up. The space station’s gotta hear it too – why the hell don’t they answer us? I know – they’re too far away to help us with the time we’ve got left … but they could at least answer.”
“Twelve Minutes,” chimed the Holo-Watch.
“It’s getting dicey, here, Walt. Auto-Nav’s dead and Auto-Ignite’s getting very unhappy. C’mon buddy … get back to the ship, will you? I can’t …”
“We’re getting there,” said Walt, practically shouting. “Burned-out board replaced, one wire soldered, tho’ it’s sloppy … it’ll hold, I guess.” Walt was reaching for the other wire when he thought he felt his Flexi-Tether cord holding him back.
Walt carelessly let his Acu-Torch swing freely on its own tether to his utility belt and yanked a little too hard on the main tether. As he grabbed the torch, he turned it on accidentally and didn’t even notice it cut through a loop of the main tether, which was coiling like a whip in the middle of a lash. Walt was now connected to his ship only by the guidance system wire he held in his left hand but still managed to use the Accu-Torch to inject hot solder onto the other frayed wire. From inside the ship John could see the cut tether as he screamed “Walt – your main tether’s cut! For God’s sake, don’t let go of anything … grab the part that’s still connected to the ship.”
“Six minutes,” warned the Holo-Watch.
“Repair’s done,” cried Walt. “Forget your stupid warning,” he said, looking at the Holo-Watch, I’ve done it!” he said, with a surge of pride as he let go of the wire. “John! There’s just enough time for me to get back to the ship … don’t take off without me.”
“Five minutes,” said the Holo-Watch, now counting down in one-minute intervals.
“Suppose this god-damned Holo-Watch is running late?” thought Walt, and then he practically shouted “Don’t let Auto-Ignite …” He made a conscious effort to calm down. “No worries,” he said as he turned toward the hatch and reached for the Flexi-Tether. “These tethers always have slack in them,” as he continued to glide away from the ship. His eyes bulged when he saw the cut end dangling and flailed to grab it, which only made him spin, as he continued to float further from the ship. In the middle of one of his rotations Walt managed a brief look back at the ship and saw John at the port side window, standing there helpless. In his panic Walt was distressed even more by the Holo-Watch as it continued to count down in one-minute intervals.
There wasn’t time for John to retrieve and enter the codes necessary to activate the Auto-Ignite’s manual override subsystem, don a suit, prepare and activate a Mini-Rocket, propel himself outside the ship, locate and retrieve Walt, bring him back to the ship and still expect to save them. The whole thing would take too long – by then the time window would have expired, both ship and rangers irretrievably lost to their decaying orbit and heading for the surface of IO. Saving himself and the ship was the only thing John could do now, and even in his despair Walt knew he’d do the same thing in John’s place. In his last look at the ship Walt imagined John at the window, mouthing the words “I’m sorry,” just before Auto-Ignite fired the engines. Fortunately, Walt was far enough away from the ship and its engines to avoid being burned to a crisp. “Not much of a consolation,” he thought, “but better than nothing.” With the air left in his suit … hell, he might live another …
“Three minutes,” heard Walt.
In his last minutes of consciousness Walt managed a few clear thoughts through his panic. He imagined his suit’s Astro-Life-Guard, monitoring his life signs and beaming them out into space. Then a less pleasant thought hit him – was Astro-Life-Guard working any better than the Local-Com that – he had by now surmised by the total lack of response from John – deserted him early on?
“Two minutes,” and the voice was louder now. Walt imagined John, standing before the United-Space-Service examining board, having to answer for the loss of his crewmate.
Just for a second Walt imagined he saw a flash of light, coming from nowhere in particular outside his suit, probably his semi-conscious mind playing tricks on him, like one of those “out-of-body” experiences people used to report, before it was understood that under stress the brain releases chemicals which induce such hallucinations.
This last warning was louder than all the others and it sounded final. As he began to slip into unconsciousness the last thing Walt saw was the pocket watch, now larger and spinning around in front of his face then stopping and disappearing, accompanied by the announcement:
Back in the ship, John strapped himself into one of the seats in front of the control panel as he watched the Auto-Ignite clock count down toward zero and waited for the ship’s engines to fire. He expected to feel the sudden jolt of acceleration, but nothing happened. Instead, he felt a sharp bump, which came from outside the control room.
“More meteorites,” thought John “Much bigger … they’ll destroy the ship … I’m done for.”
He felt a bump and heard a hiss from just outside the control module – something that couldn’t be happening, unless an object like a meteorite had breached the outer air lock. “Outer air lock’s gone,” he babbled, then “what the …?” as he felt and heard another bump then a second hiss, which meant the air lock door was closing, the air lock itself was re-pressuring and it dawned on him that somebody was entering the ship. A minute later the control room door burst open and two Space-Tek rangers burst in, carrying Walt, causing John to unlock his seat belt and jump up. One of them said “I’m Al – and that’s Tim,” as he got Walt’s helmet off, while Tim dashed over to the ship’s control panel, looked at the read-outs and started working the controls as John stood aside and stared.
Al reached into the Emergency-Medi-Gear kit attached to his belt and produced a syringe and a vial. He quickly injected Walt with adrenaline and other chemicals to oxygenate his blood and revive him. “I’m sure he’s oxygen deprived,” said Al, “but the body has a few minutes before any serious brain damage occurs. Hopefully we got to him in time.”
John looked frantic: “this orbit … we’re going to die,” he managed to blurt out.
Tim continued to work the controls then turned to face John as Walt started to moan, meaning he was waking up. “Your Auto-Ignite’s not working either,” said Tim. That’s why the engines didn’t fire up. I know we’re in low orbit, but the ship’s clock appears to be functioning perfectly. It just ran down a minute ago and there’s always a safety margin of a few minutes before it’s too late to pull out. I just put the ship on total manual control. The engines will fire in about thirty seconds, so strap yourselves in – I’m going to pilot this ship back to the space station. There are way too many things broken around here to let you guys remain in orbit in this old rust bucket and who knows what else the meteorites might have damaged? Our Rescue-Rocket’s securely docked onto your ship so we’re all set to go. By the way, your coms are out too – the only way we knew to come out here for a rescue was the Astro-Life-Guard in your guy’s suit … that must be one of the only things still working. It signaled the IO Space Station over a half hour ago and it took us that long to get here at top speed. Your ship didn’t respond to any of our messages and that’s how we knew you were both in trouble – now brace yourselves.”
All four men felt the rush of acceleration as the ship pulled out of low orbit and headed for the space station circling IO.
Doug Dawson hails from Brooklyn, New York, wrote extensively for the US Defense Dept. and as a freelancer had numerous articles and fiction published by car and trade magazines (“Vette Vues,” “Corvette Enthusiast,” “Corvette,” “The Big Reel”). He holds degrees in music and computer science, studied fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University and has had his short stories published by Academy of the Heart & Mind, Ariel Chart, Aphelion Webzine, Literary Yard, Scars Publications (8 stories), The Scarlet Leaf Review, Goats Milk and others and poetry accepted by Page & Spine and Short-Humor.