Chapter 1: Another Accident
Of all the memories spacewalker Edred Starling could have recovered in the moment, this had to be the worst one at the worst possible time.
He rushed headlong into the vacuum. He’d never lost anyone on his watch. Never. The airlock cycled. He kicked across the threshold and confronted disaster. One astronaut screamed, her polycarbonate visor cracked and venting oxygen. Another cried out in disbelief, hands failing to contain the blood spurting from a gash in his leg. The final astronaut—the team lead—drifted away from the platform, silhouetted against Earth, off tether, and deathly still.
Panic welled up in an instant, then faded just as quickly, carving a pit in Edred’s stomach and leaving his head aching. He steadied himself against the bulkhead adjacent to the airlock, fighting to wring more from the flash of memory, but nothing else returned. What happened to his team?
The shriek of klaxons snatched him back to the present.
Mission Commander Jonah Cain’s voice cut through the clamor of the proximity alarms, unflappable as always. “Incoming objects detected. Potential impact in one minute. Emergency maneuver ASAP.”
Deep space vessel Aspire was nine days out from a Jupiter gravity assist. This close to a planet meant the risk of a micrometeoroid event was low, but not impossibly so. A mere pebble traveling at a few kilometers per second would tear through human flesh like tissue paper. Still, there were procedures for such occurrences.
Edred swallowed and checked flight engineer Crisjen Shaw’s position on the nearby monitors. “All right, Cris, we need to prep for a maneuver. First, check that your tether is secured to your suit and to the hull.”
Cris was outside the ship, halfway through what should have been a routine Extravehicular Activity. “Checking. Suit secure. Hull secure.” There was no hiding the quaver in her crisp Londoner’s lilt.
“Good. Lower your visor shield.” Her camera feed went dark when she flipped the opaque alloy faceplate down over her helmet. “Now, get down as low as you can, palms down, toes in contact.”
“Perfect. I’m boosting the power to your mag gloves and boots, just in case.” Edred manipulated the EVA screen with one hand while strapping himself into a safety harness with the other. “We’re prepped for maneuver,” he relayed to Aspire’s Command Cabin.
The voice of the pilot, Roberto Perez, rang into the comm in Edred’s helmet. “Thrusters non-responsive. Reinitialization failed.”
Edred’s blood ran cold. “What’s going on up there?”
“Another power fault, and this time it knocked out the thrusters,” Jonah answered.
Cris’s micrometeoroid armor offered some protection from the space debris, but it was no guarantee of safety. Her respiration and heart rate shot up even further on the monitor. “Try cycling power to the propulsion cards,” she urged.
“SOP, I know.” Roberto’s voice was tight over the comm.
More chatter from the Command Cabin, “… radar returns ambiguous—it might be a few small rocks—maybe a cloud of dust…”
They’d planned this very EVA to investigate the string of unusual power failures plaguing their vessel. Edred was helpless to act until the meteoroids passed. “Stay calm, Cris. They’ve got this under control. You’re fine.”
“Calm. Right. Got it.” Her heart raced at one hundred forty beats per minute, her breaths barely shallow gasps.
“Breathe deep. In and out.” The advice was as much for his benefit as hers.
“And… got it! Reinitializing thrusters,” Roberto barked. “Executing maneuver in three, two, one, mark.”
Aspire burst to life, all its maneuvering thrusters lighting off at once. The sudden acceleration wrenched his body, and Edred lurched against the harness, the straps digging into his flesh even through the skintight spacesuit. The comms crackled with cries of surprise at the maneuver’s violence. An instant later, a barrage of clicks and clunks ricocheted across the hull. Impacts.
A shriek of pain pierced the airwaves.
Cris? Roberto shouted her name over the radio loop.
An accident. Another accident. Mind racing, neck aching, stomach in his throat, Edred unstrapped himself from the wall, knowing that another maneuver could leave him bloodied against the bulkhead.
The internal comms exploded into activity and confusion. Frantic voices of the command crew talked over one another, spitting statuses and demanding answers.
“Impacts detected… losing pressure… interface unresponsive… where’s the leak?”
Escaping atmosphere hissed somewhere far in the background. The master alarm blared over and over, painting the Primary Airlock in bright orange. The ship’s artificial interface calmly announced a string of warnings.
All unnecessary noise, at least to Edred, at least for now. “Cris! What’s your status?”
She sobbed back. “Something hit me. My leg, I—I can’t move my leg.”
He triaged the warnings on the nearby EVA monitor. Her heart rate skyrocketed, and every ragged breath pushed her to the brink of hyperventilating.
A man’s voice—either Roberto or Jonah—shouted in the background. “Turn off that goddamned alarm!”
The master alarm went silent, though the orange glow of the indicators continued.
One less distraction to shake Edred’s focus. “Cris, I need you to take deep breaths. Your suit is intact. I’m going to get you back inside.”
The monitors showed her suit had only suffered a temporary drop in pressure, any puncture sealed by the thermal gel liner. Her gasps slowed as she attempted to remain calm.
Edred opened a private channel to the Command Cabin. “What’s the damage?”
Mission architect Mirela Ibarra replied, her voice razor-sharp. “We sustained several hits. Roberto is investigating a hull breach in the gravity ring, and we’ve lost pressure in hydrazine tank number two.”
Edred called up Aspire’s schematics on an adjacent display and overlaid Cris’s location telemetry. The fuel tank was several meters aft from her position and obstructed her shortest path back to the main airlock.
“Cris, we’ve lost pressure readings in the hydrazine tank astern of your location. Can you determine if it’s leaking?”
The monitor with her suit cam feed lit up when she lifted her visor and pivoted to view the tank. “Confirmed. The impact punctured the hull, and the ship is…” She gasped a couple shallow breaths. “… venting hydrazine. Oh, God. Edred, my tether is coated in it.”
The fuel was dangerous when exposed to the atmosphere—any contaminated gear was best left outside. The crisis—and any rescue effort—grew more complex by the second as the cloud crept ever closer.
Not again. Edred slammed a fist into the console. He fought to keep his voice calm. “Keep an eye on that leak. I’m coming for you.”
He surged into action, starting with a message to the Command Cabin while he strapped on magnetic boots. “I’m going outside for Cris. She’ll need medical attention. Is there a doctor onboard?”
Mirela, again. “Doctor Richter is still frozen. I tried to initiate the thaw procedure, but the software won’t revive him without gravity.”
He gathered the rest of his modular gear. “Keep the ACS idled until I can get to her. We can’t risk exciting that pocket of hydrazine.” Slewing the ship or activating the fusion drive could bring the fuel in contact with the engineer’s suit, making it impossible to bring her back inside.
“Copy that. Jonah’s trying to override the cryopod software and wake the doctor. Regardless, we’ll have the infirmary staffed.”
Edred pulled on a pair of magnetic gloves, frustrated by the mere seconds it took for the accessories to register with his suit.
Cris would be fine. Because everyone comes back alive. An hour ago, he’d been certain of his perfect safety record—ten years without a death on his watch. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
Fully kitted, he stepped into the airlock’s small staging area and latched a tether to his suit. The airlock cycled. He rhythmically clenched his fists and peered through the porthole with a huff. The ship’s structure silhouetted against the Milky Way’s ghostly backdrop. This was no place to die. “Hang tight, Cris. I’m coming.”
Aspire was almost seventy meters end-to-end, bisected by a gravity ring midway down its length, the cabin at the bow and fusion drive at the stern. The airlock released him near the fusion drive, and he crawled at the best pace he could manage, needing to transit some thirty meters of obstacles along the core to reach his stranded crewmate. Worst-case scenarios urged his every movement. Cris might bleed out, or the nearby hydrazine cloud might contaminate her suit.
Dead, or as good as.
Edred dialed his mag gear down to one-third normal. Caution was an unaffordable luxury. The only exception he allowed was the periodic unclipping and re-clipping of his tether when he moved from rail to rail.
The expanding fuel cloud was particularly troubling. Hypergolic hydrazine was a common spacecraft propellant because of its remarkable simplicity. It reacted when exposed to any oxidizing agent, like Aspire’s high oxygen internal atmosphere, no ignition source or moving parts required. The stuff was so dangerous that it was standard procedure to throw out contaminated gear rather than attempt salvage.
The engineer moaned in pain over the open radio loop.
“I’ll be there soon, Cris.”
“The hydrazine is settling nearby.” There was a tremble in her matter-of-fact tone.
“Can you crawl away? I need a few more minutes.”
The question was met with a yelp of pain. “No. I don’t think so. I… I feel so weak.”
Edred didn’t bother with a vitals check. With her wound still bleeding, her blood pressure was plummeting. He was running out of time. “Unclip your tether. Deactivate your gloves and boots. Give yourself a little push—”
Roberto cut in over the public loop. “Are you fucking crazy? Going off tether?”
It was a dangerous request that violated the most basic tenet of spacewalking, but the tether might yank her back toward the hull and into the hydrazine cloud. Leaving the lifeline attached was an even greater risk than floating free.
“Clear the line and let me do my job!” Edred snapped at Roberto. Silence on the comms. He returned to coaching the engineer. He needed her to trust him. He needed them all to trust him. “Cris, you just need to give a little push. Just a few centimeters per second to get above the hydrazine.”
“Tether off. Deactivating my boots and gloves…” she said. “Done. Pushing off… here goes.” The intervening seconds ticked by in maddening silence. “I’m tumbling.”
“Are you safe for now, above the propellant?”
“I think so.”
At least they’d bought a little time.
Edred crested the dorsal plane of Aspire’s central hub, bringing Cris into his field of view. She careened slowly, a meter and rising above the silvery cloud of propellant. The impact had pierced the hull a few meters from her original position. The liquid hydrazine fuel boiled, then froze, jetting out of the tank in crystalline form and painting the surface of the nearby hull. Safe for now, she floated in the void between the central core and the motionless gravity ring, unable to reach any part of the hull with her magnetic gear.
A pocket of red mist drifted nearby Cris’s discarded tether, the only blood to escape before the thermal gel had sealed the tear in the counterpressure suit fabric.
The flash of memory overwhelmed Edred.
Earth loomed infinite in his dive off the orbital platform. The deathly still body was a shadow against the blue brilliance, forever just beyond his grasp. The jerk of the expiring tether meant failure. Monumental failure.
He bit back the accompanying panic. One crisis at a time. “Cris, how do you feel?”
“Not bad for free-floating above a toxic cloud. Ha! Mum and Dad were right.”
Edred perched less than a tether-length away. Perhaps he could jump out, grab her, and let his lifeline yank them back to the hull? The whiplash would be nasty. Then, a long crawl back to the main airlock with Cris in tow, which, judging by her drifting concentration, would require time he didn’t have.
“What were your parents right about?” He kept her talking, needing her to focus on him for ‘Plan B,’ whatever that was. What other options did he have?
She gasped in a few shallow breaths. “You should know this.”
“Humor me, Cris. Remember my memory?”
“Oh, right. Cryo fugue. Bollocks…”
Edred half paid attention to her words while he opened a private channel to the Command Cabin. “Mirela, what’s Cris’s blood pressure? Is the infirmary set up? Is there an airlock on the gravity ring?”
The engineer’s words were slowing, but she recounted her parents’ attempts to talk her out of joining Aspire’s crew.
“Was it because of the mission’s length?” Edred prodded Cris while he waited for Mirela’s answers. A fourteen-year round-trip was no small commitment.
Mirela clicked on. “Seventy over fifty-five and dropping. The doctor is up, and the commander is preparing the medical bay. There is a secondary airlock on the inner side of the ring.”
Cris replied, her voice barely a whisper. “They worried space travel would be dangerous. Silly, right?”
“Completely silly. Tell me, what kind of engineering did you study at university?” Scanning the gravity ring, Edred located an airlock along the inner circumference, at eleven o’clock relative to his position on the central hull. The angle was incompatible with his plans.
Make it compatible. There wasn’t time to run her back to the Primary Airlock. He would fly her to safety.
Cris hadn’t answered his last question. He repeated it.
“Mechanical…” the word sounded uncertain, dreamy.
Out of time.
“Mirela, reinitialize the attitude control system. We’re going to meet you at the ring, and we need an airlock waiting for us.”
Incredulity crackled back over the radio. “Quoi? Seriously?”
“Yes. What’s the radius of the ring?”
“Confirmed. Make sure the ACS is primed and ready for my mark.”
Edred took a few steps astern to form a line from his position that would pass through Cris to the ring, some fifteen meters distant. Angled just right, he would intersect her at her center of mass and avoid the expanding cloud of hydrazine entirely. Elementary physics.
At least on paper.
Those same physics introduced a unique problem in space. In zero gravity, there was no appreciable friction, and thus nothing to brace against. Bending at the knees, Edred unstrapped his right modular magnetic boot and wiggled his foot out, his body still protected from the vacuum by his counterpressure suit. The boot’s capacitors would power the electromagnet for a few moments. He only needed seconds.
This was it. Tether detached, Edred deactivated his remaining mag gear. Exhaling, he pushed off the brace point with a firm tap of both feet. The engineer’s slow tumble rolled her around to face him as he approached. Her brown skin was pale, but her eyes were open. Fifteen seconds until he reached her, another thirty before they could enter the airlock.
If he reached her.
Edred was drifting astern slightly. He’d erred in his angle, or maybe the magnetic boot had slipped. He was off course, just enough to miss Cris by half a meter, maybe less.
Screams. Blood. A still body floating beyond his grasp...
Edred’s mind raced, every neuron grasping at a different desperate straw. Each futile permutation converged on death—his, hers, or both. Unacceptable.
His brain tripped over something so elementary, so fundamental, so elegant, so obvious, that he scarcely believed it.
Unless he could get a little help from the engineer.
“Cris, I need you to activate your gear. Cris!” Not waiting for a reply, he gently manipulated his wrist interface to activate his own magnetic gear. He dialed the strength to maximum and toggled the polarity. “Cris, turn on your mag gear! Crisjen!”
Addled by pain and only half conscious, her hand moved to the controller on her opposite wrist.
Ever. So. Slowly.
Edred’s momentum chewed up the meters. With a deliberate movement of his legs, he induced a rotation about his center of mass, bringing his outstretched arm to bear toward the engineer, as close as he could manage.
“Reach for me, come on!”
She strained as he drifted by, their fingertips passing a centimeter apart.
Time stopped. Failure overwhelmed Edred. He’d been too hasty and miscalculated.
Cris Shaw, his crewmate and responsibility, was going to die.