Today’s story is a hard SF tale. A Nice Day for a Walk originally appeared in the August, 2009 issue of Tales of the Talisman. It weighs in at 4400 words and is a bit darker than the humor I posted earlier. It is my 32nd published story.
A NICE DAY FOR A WALK
It’s funny how everything seemed so peaceful as the timer counted down to flip-over. I sat in the pilot’s chair, like I had so many times in training and every day since I woke up for my shift. Now, the moment of truth would arrive, and my shift would end. That’s the way we practiced it. That isn’t how it happened.
Charlie and Ryan, the two engineers I woke up just a few days ago, sat in their seats behind me.
“Get ready, darlin’,” Charlie said in his raspy voice. Charlie always called me darlin’, but my name’s really Darlene.
“I’ve got the front seat, Charlie.” I had the best view of the countdown on the computer terminal. Charlie nearly hyperventilated. I suppose engineers dream of computer controlled spacecraft maneuvers, and this maneuver held all our fates, but the computer would fire the attitude control jets, flip Deepspace 2 end-over-end, and that would be that. We spin her back up, then fire up the main engines to ease our way into Tau Ceti. And then I go back to suspended animation. Our two engineers would check out the ship and wake the new shift before they go to sleep, too. Easy, right?
I looked at the terminal and watched the numbers count the seconds down from 30. Tension filled the control room as the timer ticked off the seconds…23…22…21….
I heard heavy breathing from behind, and turned my head to look. Ryan leaned forward against his harness, almost out of breath. He settled back as I stared him down. When I turned back, the counter read 7…6…5…4…3….
“Here goes,” Charlie said.
I could feel the aft thruster through the hull. Pilots get that kind of sense over their spacecraft, but the fore thruster remained closed. Red lights lit the control panel. Without balanced thrust, the single firing thruster merely pushed Deepspace 2 sideways. “We’re not rotating,” I said.
“Shut it off!” Charlie shouted. “Shut it off!”
I scrambled to invoke the manual override, then shut down both thrusters. “They’re off.”
Charlie released his harness and floated over his seat. “Come on, Ryan,” he said, looking at the other engineer. “Let’s go see what’s wrong.”
“Remember our time budget,” I said. “We only have two hours slop.” This stage of the mission couldn’t be more critical. Miss that two hour window and we would scoot past the fuel drone at Tau Ceti and lose any hope of going home. That’s why the mission plan required two engineers awake at turn-over. Any engineer could competently pilot the ship, but no pilot could make all conceivable repairs at this critical juncture.
As he unfastened his own harness, Ryan said, “We’ll get it working. It’s probably just a frozen valve.”
Charlie grabbed a handhold attached to the ceiling and propelled himself aft. “Come on, Ryan. Don’t waste time explaining.”
Ryan shrugged, then propelled himself in the direction Charlie went. I watched them vanish into the main body of the ship. When they passed around a corner and out of sight, I turned about to see what I could learn from the instruments. That turned out to be not very much.
Still, I kept the intercom tuned to the fore thruster engineering area. I wanted to learn what I could about the situation. Charlie’s raspy voice made it easy to distinguish who spoke. It started innocent enough.
“Check that line,” Charlie said. A moment of silence followed, and then Charlie added, “Better bleed it first, it might still be pressurized.”
Ryan’s voice came back. “Good idea.”
After that, neither spoke. All I could hear was the clinking of tools against metal. One of the men grunted, as if with physical effort.
Ryan said, “It won’t bleed.” Just as he finished speaking those words, a loud hiss erupted over the intercom, joined quickly by screams of agony and the sounds of panic. What just happened down there?
I mashed the button to speak. “Charlie? Ryan? What’s happening?”
I released the button and listened. I heard coughing and moaning. The hiss remained, but seemed to be lower in pitch than it had been a moment ago. Finally, one of them spoke.
“Help us, darlin’.” I think it must have been Charlie’s voice, but I did not stop to think about that. As soon as the word help entered my ears, I released my own harness and propelled myself aft.
What could have just happened? It sounded like a leak. What if the hydrazine line burst? Better grab an oxygen tank.
I stopped in a storage locker and took the nearest bottle. I grabbed a mask and fastened it to the bottle, then strapped the bottle over my shoulders before continuing downstairs to thruster control.
As soon as I got downstairs, I began to cough. Hydrazine must have filled the air, because breathing became incredibly difficult. I pulled the oxygen mask over my face and continued. I heard no more coughing from ahead. I decided that to be a dire sign, and hurried ahead, pushing myself off the handholds as fast as my arms would allow.
When I reached the door to the thruster control room, it stood open, but what I saw inside made me want to retch. Spherical droplets of blood floated through the door and attached themselves to the wall or simply hung in place. Pieces of human tissue spun in an elegant dance, bouncing off the walls to continue in a different direction. I did not want to see what happened inside, but the fate of the ship rested on my shoulders if neither engineer survived. I didn’t know what else to do.
Inside the small room, Charlie floated gently near the ceiling. The blood seemed not to come from him. Ryan’s body had become wedged face-first between some pipes and duct work in the corner of the room. I couldn’t see his face, but blood from somewhere on his front side had seeped around to his back.
Along the bulkhead, a one-inch diameter pipe that once led to the hydrazine tank had been ripped away from the valve that held it in place. Now, the damaged end dangled free. Whatever happened here happened with swift violence.
If ever I had been in a triage situation, this was it. I pushed myself up to Charlie and spun him about. He still had shallow breathing. He had lost consciousness, but his eyes remained open wide, as if in terror.
I pulled Charlie out of the room to the stairs, then went back for Ryan. I had to tug his body free from the pipes. Once I got it free, I spun it about and screamed, for his face had been torn from his head. I must have panicked, because I pushed Ryan’s body away from me, scrambled in the weightless environment to get out of that room as quickly as possible, then I closed the access door, which snapped shut from the ceiling.
I took several deep breaths, then pushed myself back to Charlie, who floated in seeming peace near the ladder to the main deck. I removed the oxygen mask from my own face and placed it over Charlie’s, then I pushed off the floor with my feet to propel us both upstairs.
Charlie recovered quickly, and when he did, he tore off the air mask and grasped his leg, screaming in agony. “My leg, it’s broken,” he said.
I hadn’t noticed in the confusion, but his right leg had been snapped, bent into an unnatural position.
“I’ll wake the doctor,” I said.
Charlie grabbed my sleeve. “No. There’s no time. No doctor, no Captain.” He gasped, each breath shuttering with the pain. “We’ve got to flip or we can’t start breaking. You can wake everyone after we flip.”
Even in complete agony, Charlie kept a level head, and he was right. The lives of everyone aboard depended on our actions in the next hour. Our margin of error began razor thin, and that margin had steadily eroded since the computer-controlled maneuver failed.
I exhaled a frustrated sigh. Charlie’s eyes gave me a piercing stare. Even in his mangled condition, he startled me. I thought me might slap me, but his face relaxed.
Charlie straightened himself into something near a standing position, something he could do only because we had the ship spun down. “Pull yourself together,” he said. “You have a lot of work to do, darlin’.”
A look of confidence had returned to Charlie’s face. We needed opposing thrust to flip. With only one thruster, the ship would simply move to the side. With the fore thruster out of commission, I had no idea what kind of scheme had entered Charlie’s mind. Whatever he came up with, it better work. We wouldn’t get another chance.
“You’ve got an idea?” I asked.
He nodded his head. “Yeah.” He took a deep breath. “You’re going to have to go outside.”
“Outside?” I couldn’t believe what Charlie just said. Go outside? Didn’t he realize that Deepspace 2 was traveling at just a fraction below the speed of light? Nobody had ever done a spacewalk at anywhere near that velocity. “I’m not going outside,” I said, my thoughts in denial of relativity.
My left brain told me that I had nothing to fear, but my right brain wouldn’t believe it. Inertial reference frame, it’ll be just like standing still. Just the thought of walking at this relativistic speed made me queasy. “I can’t do it, Charlie.”
Charlie turned away. “Then we’re finished.” He used such a somber tone of voice that it made me feel guilty, thinking of myself in this situation instead of my ship and my mates.
I started to speak, but Charlie had more to say. “If I could do the spacewalk myself, I would.” He looked at his mangled leg and appeared to choke back a scream. “I can’t do the spacewalk, but I can still pilot the ship.”
I felt that pang in my chest, the one where it finally sinks in that you are about to do something you really want to avoid. I would make the first relativistic spacewalk in history. Lucky me.
“What will I be doing outside?”
Charlie’s eyes fell from my face to my shoulder, the same shoulder the hose from the air tank still hovered over.
“I don’t understand,” I said, then I followed his eyes and understood what must have been going though his mind. My eyes fell on the valve of the oxygen tank. “Charlie, no.” I turned my head back to him. “An oxygen tank?”
I noted a faint smile on his lips. “We need opposing thrust. You can carry one of the big tanks out to the bow, lash it to the hull, and open the valve when we’re ready to fire thrusters.”
My eyes went wide. “That’s crazy,” I said, but I knew it had to be done. I could think of no other way. “What about the timing? I can’t control a valve efficiently in a vacuum suit.”
He shook his head. “You don’t have to. I’ll fire the aft thruster and control the timing with that.”
I understood. Firing a single thruster would only force a lateral move, and a negligible one at that, when compared to the forward velocity of nearly the speed of light. Only when the hydrazine thruster fired would the ship rotate.
“Of course,” he said, “you’ll also have to unlash the tank and flip it around to stop the rotation of the ship.”
I could see many problems with this idea, not the least of which would be the lack of real control over our final orientation. “We won’t be able to align ourselves properly.”
Charlie drifted toward a wall, nudging himself back with a finger. “I think we’ll be okay if we can get within ten degrees. It’ll only take a few days to make proper repairs to the thruster, and then we can correct the course. We just have to start the braking as soon as possible. We need to kill this velocity.”
It made sense, just buy some time so we could wake more of the crew and get a real damage control party going. “Okay,” I said. “I have no choice. I’ll do it.”
Charlie grinned as I gave in. The first relativistic spacewalk–I couldn’t believe what I was about to do. My mind kept dredging up scenes from really bad sci-fi movies, where people got sucked into hyperspace or went on a spacewalk inside a wormhole. Pull yourself together, Darlene. Inertial reference frame. Just like a spacewalk in Earth orbit. Only faster.
“You’d better get moving,” he said. “Retrieve the tank before you suit up. I’ll be in the control room.” He turned to go, but I called after him.
He looked over his shoulder at me. “Yeah?”
“What happened down there? Why did the hydrazine line blow?”
He scratched his above his right ear then shook his head. “Our equipment was built by the lowest bidder,” he said. “It’s something that’s bothered me the entire mission, especially after ground control lost contact with the first Deepspace.” When he finished speaking, he spun about like an ice dancer and disappeared toward the control room.
Lowest bidder, a comforting thought before the first relativistic spacewalk. I shouldn’t have asked.
With the ship spun down, bringing the large oxygen tank to the airlock proved to be easier than I had feared. Ten minutes later, I had the tank in the airlock and started to don my vacuum suit. Despite my haste, I made certain to follow the checklist. No sense in killing myself before I could even try Charlie’s plan.
Finally, I put on my helmet and tested the radio. “Charlie, can you hear me?”
No response. What if he passed out from the pain? I might be outside with the tank, moving at this ungodly relativistic speed, and waiting and waiting for a command to open the valve that might never come. I tried again. “Charlie?”
The radio remained silent, then just as I began to doubt I would ever hear Charlie’s voice again, he replied.
“Sorry to keep you waiting. I went for some morphine to dull the pain.” His raspy voice stopped and I heard a grizzled chuckle. “Wouldn’t be good if I passed out during your spacewalk.”
Mind-reader. I hoped Charlie wasn’t one of those people who went completely batty on pain meds. “I’m opening the airlock.”
“You have the cable?”
Good thing he said something. I had the cable, but I would have left it hooked around the end of the bench. “Got it,” I said, glad to have Charlie watching over me.
“Good. I’ll talk you through it, but we’re running out of time.”
That did it. I punched the button and the air hissed away, the roar of moving air and gurgling pumps fading as the pressure dropped. The red light over the door never turned off. It stayed on, glowing red with the dire warning not to open the door. I almost said something to Charlie, but the green light finally went on as I opened my mouth.
Jitters, Darlene, it’s just jitters. I tethered my belt to the hook inside the airlock, then I grabbed the cable and tank, and reached for the door. I stopped as I realized my hand trembled.
The time had come for the first relativistic spacewalk. What would it be like? Would the face of God stare into my helmet? Worse? The face of demons or some unexplained power in the universe? Safely inside the ship it never bothered me. Now, when that door opened, nothing would separate my body from space save a thin layer of air-tight cloth. I closed my hand to control the shaking.
Charlie’s voice came over the radio and knocked me back to my senses. “Is something wrong? You haven’t opened the airlock door.”
“I’m okay.” To prove it to myself, I punched the button and the door slid open, revealing the cold and hard vacuum of interstellar space. I drifted toward the opening and realized I hadn’t turned on my magnetic boots. I wanted to slap myself, but instead, I just reached down and slapped the controls on my boots.
With the cable over my shoulder and the tank in my right hand, I stepped out onto the hull of Deepspace 2, taking great care not to tangle anything into my tether. I managed to get both feet onto the hull and stood, taking the time to steady the tank in my right arm.
“Congratulations on the first relativistic spacewalk,” Charlie said.
I wish he hadn’t said it. It took me out of my mindset and I looked out at the stars. Every direction I looked was up. Vertigo began to creep into my head. So very fast, nearly the speed of light, even though it looked as though we weren’t moving at all. Trying not to hyperventilate, there I stood, on the outside of the spacecraft. Standing with magnetic boots on the hull with a tank of oxygen under my arm. Even the merest grain of dust might obliterate my body were it not for the deflection magnets. I couldn’t go on.
“I can’t do this, Charlie, I can’t do it, the stars, we’re so very far from everywhere and so fast, so fast–“
“Get hold of yourself. You’re panicking.”
Charlie’s raspy voice gave me something to grasp, a tendril of reality to keep me alive.
“Breathe slowly, Darlene.”
Darlene? He called me Darlene, not darlin’. That little thought, that little distraction of my real name from his mouth probably saved me from delirium. I tried to slow my breathing by inhaling deeper and fuller breaths. Finally, I felt ready to try my task.
“I’m okay now, Charlie.” I took a step toward the bow, keeping my eyes low to avoid the sensation of falling. It felt like trying not to look down from a high place.
“You’re doing fine,” he said.
Step by step, I inched my way toward the fore thruster. I could see no damage from outside. Perhaps the thruster truly could be fixed in a few days. Maybe this plan could really work.
“I’m at the thruster, Charlie.”
“Good,” he said. “Now, line the tank up so the valve opens in the same direction as the blue thruster nozzle, then lash the tank down with the cable.”
By keeping my eyes on the hull, I could function. I didn’t dare look up, and up was everywhere but the hull. The blue nozzle faced away from me. I approached the thruster and lay the tank on its side.
The engineers had some foresight. Tether loops, hand-holds, and tie-downs had been attached in seemingly random locations, though the engineers surely had some reason behind the pattern. I looped the cable around the nozzle of the tank first, then pulled the cable through one of the tie-downs. Just that much made me feel better. That small action ensured the tank wouldn’t float away from me, and I could get busy lashing the tank into position.
“How’s it coming?” Charlie had been silent for so long that his voice startled me.
“Almost got it,” I said as I tucked the tail of the cable under another loop to form a clove hitch. “Give me a minute to line it up.”
Charlie sounded impatient. “Every minute is precious.”
“I’m going as fast as I can,” I said, losing my patience with his urgency. I knew the situation. I took the time to ensure the valve opening faced as close as possible to the direction of the blue nozzle. When I finally satisfied myself I could do no better, I said, “Let’s go.”
“You’re aligned with the blue nozzle?”
“Yes.” That came out sharper than I had intended. The stress must have been getting to me, and I knew Charlie would rather be out here himself.
“No need to snap,” Charlie said. “Open the air valve. Open it slowly and keep your body out of the way. Let me know when it’s open.”
I reached out with my glove and tried to turn the valve. It wouldn’t budge. I tried the other direction and the handle moved. Figures I would turn the valve the wrong way. That’s why pilots don’t spacewalk, I suppose.
As I opened the valve, I could see the oxygen stream out in a white jet. “The valve is open, Charlie.”
“All right,” he said. Hold on to something. I’m about to fire the thruster.”
I bent down to grab one of the handholds jutting from the surface of the spacecraft, and I did it just in time. As I closed my hand around the metal ring, I felt the entire hull vibrate. The stars began to move. The vibration in the hull continued and the stars moved faster. Just as quickly, the vibration stopped, but the stars still moved.
Charlie did it. His idea worked, and the all-important flip-over maneuver was finally underway. I chanced a look up at the sky, fighting the feeling of nausea for the opportunity to see interstellar space at a relativistic speed with my own eyes. I couldn’t believe I was moving at nearly the speed of light. With the stars so far away, it seemed as if the ship were not moving at all, and the rotation caused by Charlie’s thruster just for show.
Charlie’s voice over the radio brought me back to reality. “Turn off your tank and flip it around, darlin’.”
I crawled to the valve and stopped the air flow. Flipping the tank over should have been a snap, but I couldn’t get the cable loose.
“Twenty seconds to thruster,” Charlie said.
“Wait. The tank is stuck.” I had to get the tank turned around in under twenty seconds. I tugged at the cable to free the end from the clove hitch, but it wouldn’t budge.
Charlie’s voice came across the radio again. “Are you ready?”
“I can’t get the tank loose.” I tried, but I just needed more time. After all this, failure.
“Keep trying,” Charlie said. “I’ll let the ship make another full rotation, that will buy you more time.”
Of course, so simple I should have seen it, and as a pilot, Charlie would never let me live it down. A half rotation and one-and-a-half rotations were equivalent. We didn’t have forever, but we did have more time than those twenty seconds.
I went back to work on the cable, but I still couldn’t get the tank to budge. If the tank wouldn’t move, maybe the valve would. I maneuvered myself to the valve end and tried to rotate the fixture. It wouldn’t budge at first, then I looped my feet under a couple of handholds so I could get a good grip. I leaned into the valve with all my might, and it finally moved, slowly at first, then easier. I turned the valve so it faced in the opposite direction as it had begun. I just hoped the tank didn’t leak from the seal.
Time to give our good engineer the news. “Okay, Charlie,” I said. “I couldn’t move the tank, but I managed to rotate the valve. We’ll have to try it that way.”
“Good enough,” he said. His raspy voiced seemed filled with a bit more optimism than the last time he spoke. “We have about forty-five seconds until I fire the thruster.”
“That gives me a chance to open the valve slowly. I may have breached the seal.” I didn’t care if the valve leaked, just so long as it produced a force opposite Charlie’s red thruster.
“Roger,” Charlie said.
I reached out and opened the valve, slowly at first. The white jet emerged, and two smaller leaks appeared where the valve screwed into the bottle.
“Twenty seconds,” Charlie said.
I opened the valve completely. The main jet seemed to be in order. The two leaks sprayed lines in odd directions, but seemed small enough to ignore.
“Hold on,” Charlie said. “Here comes the thruster.”
I still had my feet hooked under the hand-holds. I grabbed another with both hands as the hull vibrated. The motion of the stars slowed. Gradually, gradually, they slowed, until I couldn’t tell whether they moved or not. Finally, the vibration in the hull stopped and Charlie’s voice came over the radio one more time.
“We did it, darlin’.”
“I’ll turn off the oxygen bottle.” I reached toward the valve, hesitant as the leaks grew worse. I closed the valve as quickly as I could, then moved my hand away just in time. The valve blew off the bottle, and I felt the hull lurch in the opposite direction.
The bottle shook violently as I backed away, trying not to panic. Finally, the cable snapped and the bottle shot off the hull into the vast unknown. I watched as it exhausted its fuel, its compressed oxygen, and became just another lifeless piece of space junk, traveling at nearly the speed of light. I wondered if the bottle would ever hit anything.
“Darlene, are you okay?” Charlie’s voice never sounded so good.
What could I tell him? I nearly had my body ripped apart by an exploding valve. “I’m fine, just had a bit of a scare.”
“Get back inside,” he said.
I don’t know how Charlie managed to fire the thrusters at all, much less for the calculated durations necessary to successfully complete flip-over. When I arrived back inside, I found him slumped in the command chair, unconscious. He must have had some incredible will-power to stay awake long enough to complete the maneuver. Charlie needed the doctor, but the job here wasn’t finished yet.
I verified the orientation of the ship. Charlie did well. We’d need some minor course corrections before too long, but we were surprisingly close to the correct orientation.
With the press of a few buttons, I fired the main thruster and started our deceleration into Tau Ceti. With that obligation completed, I picked up Charlie and floated him down the corridor toward the clinic, allowing the .15-g acceleration to do most of the work for me. When we got to the clinic, I strapped him into one of the cots.
Time to wake the doctor. And the Captain. Let them deal with this mess. It’s past my bedtime.