Chapter 8. Outward Bound

Log Entry 08:55:12 – 01.19.2186

Nervously, I took a deep breath, as if I were about to submerge myself in water. I was standing in the airlock, preparing to depart the SM5 and make a solo excursion across a huge void. The hatch to the ship was sealed behind me and the Extra Vehicular Hatch was still closed in front of me. I was tethered to the Umbilical Interface and I had a steady flow of O2. Beyond the EV Hatch was empty space, a massive expanse of dark nothingness… and the other ship.

I have been with JAXA and the International Deep Space Administration for decades. I’ve made more stand-up EVAs with an umbilical than I can count. Still, I filled my lungs with air and pursed my lips. This is an old habit I’ve never been able to shake. Holding my breath, I activated the equalization valves and pulled the hatch lever. The hatch moved inward and slid smoothly to one side of the compartment.

“CREW LOCK EVA HATCH DISENGAGED,” the ship’s AI reported.

“I know that,” I replied.

“ACKNOWLEDGED.”

I grasped one of the internal handholds firmly. With a nervous hand, I reached to my side and pulled the umbilical away from the Heavy Evac suit. My stomach fluttered. Red light flooded the compartment. A warning light flashed in the helmet’s display. Suit support functions and reserves began a countdown.

“WARNING: EVAC SUIT UNTETHERED. RECLAMATION FUNCTIONS WITHOUT ADDITIONAL CREW MEMBERS IMPOSSIBLE.”

“I know that as well,” I stated.

“ACKNOWLEDGED.”

I began to tremble. At first it was slight, a nervous shiver in my hands and arms. Then, quickly, my whole body was shaking uncontrollably. I gripped the handhold as tightly as I could.

Leaving the protection of a ship is a frightening experience. In orbit around a planet, you don’t normally want to find yourself in unprotected space, as the risk of having your suit (and body) perforated by space debris traveling at 7.7 km per second is fairly high. Here, there was nothing but empty space between myself and the other ship. I had maneuvered the SM5 into a position that was near enough that I could travel the distance on the meager propulsion system the suit offered. It was also far enough that any strange emergence of unexpected gravitational anomalies – like the event that wrenched away the survival pod – won’t threaten to destroy my ship.

“Target distance count, please.”

“DISTANCE TO SM5 IS FIFTEEN POINT EIGHT KILOMETERS.”

Although the shaking hadn’t subsided at all, I gathered my strength and launched myself from the hatchway door of the SM5 as best I could. I met the nothingness head on.

[Communication sent: 19JAN2186 Shinkai Maru 5]

Log Entry 16:54:12 – 01.20.2186

I remember it so well. In the dead of night, while the weather was warm and the stars shone brilliantly in the night sky, I secretly slipped into the outdoor pool at Atsugi, the base where my father was stationed. I was ten years old.

In a few strokes, I reached the center of the pool and rolled onto my back. There I floated weightlessly on the calm water, under the stars, enveloped in the blackness of night and the brilliance of the twinkling lights above me. I was so young. At first I felt insignificant and exposed. Then I realized that I was part of the whole grandeur of the sky, the galaxy. I too, was one small part, one little light. I lost track of time, there under the blanket of stars. As I stared into the depths of space, my mind drifted away. I wanted so badly to close my eyes and let the night sky fold around me forever. My eyelids grew heavy. I was tired. I was almost… asleep… and then the red lights came on and the alarms blared.

My eyes fluttered open for a second or two and were assaulted by the red warning lights flashing across the helmet’s display. It was too much to read. I couldn’t focus. It said something about gas mixtures. There was a graphic showing the tanks in the Evac suit. Red lights and streaming data were everywhere, blinding me. The AI was shouting, volume was up to an ear-splitting, emergency level.

“… AGAIN, WARNING. OXYGEN MIXTURE IMBALANCE. DANGER OF LOSS OF CONSCIOUSNESS. WARNING.”

My head, my eyesight, my thoughts so blurry. I couldn’t think. My tongue felt swollen. The AI continued to shout… something about impact.

“DISTANCE TO SM5 IS THREE HUNDRED METERS. IMPACT ALERT. TWELVE SECONDS TO IMPACT. WARNING.”

Then, a moment of clarity. I was in the suit. I was traveling from one ship to the other. Something was wrong. My eyes shot open. The black shape of the other SM5 sped toward me at nearly twenty-five meters per second. I was heading for an impact that would certainly rupture the Evac suit and send me careening off the hull into space.  I would decompress in seconds and spiral out of control. I was a dead man.

I took a deep breath. The air was sweet and strange. The AI was still screaming at me. Without another breath, I shouted over the noise and confusion

“Purge suit environment and switch to reserve tank mixture!”

“ACKNOWLEDGED.”

There was a deafening hiss and the suit went immediately cold. I began to shiver uncontrollably. Jets of gas streamed from exterior suit vents in all directions. For a long second, nothing else happened. Now that I was hyper-alert, I panicked and wondered if there was any reserve tank mixture available. In my mind, I quickly retraced my steps in the process of re-tethering the Evac suit prior to departing the ship. Did I check the reserve tank? I couldn’t remember. Before complete terror seized me, the suit gushed with oxygen from the reserve tank. I took one deep breath. It was a perfect mixture.

I shook my head inside the helmet. My vision cleared and I was able to focus again. Looking forward, I saw the hull of the other SM5 dead in front of me. I had to stop. Momentum was too great. I shouted at the AI again.

“All forward braking at once!”

The suit let off a gaseous nitrogen discharge from all forward ports, slowing the speed of the approach. It wasn’t enough.

“Brake again,” I shouted. “Continuous!”

The suit gave off a flood of nitrogen from the forward ports. The gas release was so great that I couldn’t see the SM5 dead in front of me through the exhaust cloud.

There was a terrible collision.

[Communication sent: 20JAN2186 Shinkai Maru 5]

Log Entry 17:42:12 – 01.22.2186

It was a terrible, sickeningly-loud noise. Impact! The alarming sound of metal meeting metal, as the Evac suit slammed into the side of the SM5. My chin and mouth smashed into the inside collar. My upper torso lurched violently forward against the interior of the chest plate. I let out a burst of breath and spattered the inside of the helmet with blood and saliva.

For a moment, the blow left me stunned. I couldn’t breathe. Suddenly, everything went black. Complete darkness. I panicked, shuddered and forcefully drew a deep breath. The pain in my chest was terrible, a stinging red burst across the entire chest wall. Then, there was a brief flickering light. I saw the blood on the helmet and movement outside.

Damaged by the impact, three of the four headlamps on the exterior of the helmet had gone dark. One lamp at the top left of the helmet was flickering erratically. In the brief glimpses of light, I could see that I was sliding, ascending the side of the ship. I still had momentum from the approach and was now completely out of control. I heard loud scraping and thumping, as the Evac suit battered and tore across the exterior of the ship.

In a complete panic, I struggled to stop my movement before I reached the extent of the curvature and slid off into space. I didn’t know if the suit had power enough to maneuver, as the helmet display had gone dark. I wasn’t about to take any chances. I reached out, flailing for a handhold. The momentum was too great. I had no power, no strength to hold on to anything. In my scrambling, I managed to snag a vent extension with the large hook from the safety tether assembly. With the line lock engaged, I snapped to a sudden halt and smacked the exterior of the ship again. Jarred back to life, the helmet display lit up, awash in red graphics and text.

“Suit status, damage report,” I ordered, still spitting blood. There was no reply.

“Status report, respond.” Nothing came back from the AI. No noise, no static, no signal. I was alone.

I reached out with the secondary hook and locked in. I was secured.

Now, I just had to get to my feet.

[Communication sent: 22JAN2186 Shinkai Maru 5]

Log Entry 17:35:43 – 01.23.2186

I didn’t want to move. I felt strangely safe, spread out across the surface of the ship, tethered to a couple of vents. I was breathing heavy, gasping. My heart rate was elevated. Stinging sweat rolled into my eyes and blood was still pouring from my mouth. I lifted my helmet and glanced around, checking my location. The helmet display was blood spattered, nearly unusable, but from the impact site to this location, I knew that I was still starboard. I could make it to the crew airlock from this position. I estimated a distance of forty-five meters.

Get up.

How much air was in the reserve tank? Thirty minutes max? I tried to guess how much time had elapsed since I switched tanks. Fifteen? Twenty? I had to slow my breathing down. I had to get inside the ship and out of this wrecked Evac suit.

Move!

I gripped the line from the safety tether assembly tight and moved my left knee forward. I couldn’t get to my feet. My right knee and leg were locked, seized in an expanded pressure containment blister.

For the most part, these suits can sustain crippling damage and remain puncture resistant. The greatest fear, in regard to suit damage, is always breach and decompression. Where my right knee joint struck the side of the ship, it didn’t hit hard enough to compromise the integrity of the suit, but the impact sensor units detonated the inflatable decompression prevention bags nonetheless. This is a common Occupant Protection System meant to cushion violent impacts and seal potential suit punctures. The suit engineering jockeys back at JAXA refer to these components as “smack packs.” They work well at keeping Evac occupants alive, even if it means hampering mobility.

Focus!

The helmet display went dark again. No more systems updates would be available. No way to tell if suit systems bordered on complete failure. The lone headlamp flickered more erratically. I felt that the worst was about to happen. I had to get inside.

Crawl!

Using the hooks from the safety tether to secure my every movement, I crawled slowly toward the outer hatchway to the crew airlock. As I made my way, meter by meter across the surface of the ship, I wondered what I would find on the inside. If Spegg or… someone else was in the interior the ship, I had certainly spoiled my chances for a surprise entrance.

My chest ached. I was sweating profusely. My arms felt like lead weights. But, soon enough, I found the hatchway. From the exterior, it’s a nearly-seamless oval shape with a small port. Since there was damage to suit communications and the AI link was unresponsive, I couldn’t call for assistance with the hatchway. I had to manually open the ship from the exterior through the hatchway controls access panel. Working quickly, I began dialing in a manual override sequence. After the override was accepted, I could vent the interior and push the hatchway back. Breathing became suddenly difficult. The reserve tank was nearly depleted. I worked quickly. Almost there.

As the vents evacuated any atmosphere inside the airlock, I found myself staring through the port, past the airlock and through the monitoring port on the opposite side. I could see into the aft end of the ship. Something was wrong. Horribly wrong. The interior color… it was… green?

[Communication sent: 23JAN2186 Shinkai Maru 5]

Next Chapter: 9. Encounters Abroad

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transmission details:

A communications specialist in the year 2185 is abandoned in deep space by a deranged Living Modified Organism, setting up a series of events that lead him back in time to a ruined home world ruled by a wealthy eccentric, a scientist playing God, and the very creature that first stranded him in space.
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