Space Debris

 

2055 AD

“Hello Houston this is Abraham One,” Jasper said. “We had two exterior alarms and used manual over-ride to cut power. We are fifty minutes flying time from Lunar Station Alpha.”

“Roger , Abraham One. Lunar Station Alpha was monitoring progress. They reported debris floating across your flight path. We had no indication of a contact here.”

“Roger, Houston,” Jasper acknowledged. “If it were contact with debris it could indicate possible damage to a communication module. We are showing more than one system failure.”

“Roger, Abraham One. Please report your local alarms.”

“We are showing two red alerts on starboard side of craft. One relates to outer skin module C432, but secondary damage is oxygen-feed, module OF29. Until repairs are complete, we cannot use docking thrusters.”

“Roger, Abraham One. Module C432 contained the feedback panel. We cannot see any of your alarm systems. The panel is on the blind side of Lunar Station Alpha.”

“We will commence local investigation,” Jasper said. “Abraham One, out.”

*

At forty-seven, Jasper Lee was one of the oldest astronauts still on active duty, but he was competent, and internationally respected. He switched off the transmitter, and turned to address his crew. Jasper had eight successful lunar missions behind him, so was not prone to panic, but he was conscious of the silence around him. The four crew members remained seated and looked from each other to their commander.

“You guys know what this means, so I’m not going to insult you.”

“Time is off the essence,” Sergei Sestakova said. “I will go out.”

“This is your first flight,” Jasper said. “I know you’re eager to prove yourself—”

“Why does it have to be a man, Sergei?”Holly Connor asked, shaking her head. Her short brunette hair was shaped close to her face and barely moved. She squinted and nodded to the other woman as she pressed her point. “I’m capable, and so is Amy.”

“I do not mean to belittle you or Amy,” Sergei said. “We know there are many pieces of debris in this region of Space, so I thought a stronger body might be a better option.”

“You mean a male body—” the Englishwoman started, but was cut off.

“Stop it, Holly,” Jasper said. “Apart from me, the only other one who has made repairs up here is Kenji, and I’d like to hear his thoughts.”

“Thank you sir,” Kenji said. “My Japanese ancestry urges me to do the honourable thing, just as Sergei’s Russian ancestry must do.” He turned to the two women. “We must all perform as required for the greater good.”

The flight commander and the other crew members gazed at the man, who over many months had earned the nickname, Philosopher.

“We have little time,” Kenji said. “There is a perceived personal and national honour for the person who goes outside in these circumstances. We are all trained to the same level, so we are reduced to that most basic desire—survival.” He paused and his head turned slowly, as he engaged each pair of eyes.

Amy Harris, the athletic-built, South African nodded. “We all have skills, and want to survive Kenji. This is not the time for a riddle.”

“It’s not a riddle,” Kenji said. “Whoever goes outside must be capable, but must do so in the knowledge of the danger. If one of us is subjected to injury by a piece of debris, we must be capable of continuing with the repair. “

Holly said, “Are you suggesting a woman might not manage the repair, and condemn the crew?”

“No,” Kenji said. “Even with our exceptional personal fitness it must be recognised that Sergei is our strongest crewman, and he has a longer reach than any of us. In emergency circumstances like this there is also a secondary issue.”

“We’re listening.” Holly acted as spokesperson for herself and Amy.

“I’m saying that whoever we trust out there must have complete focus if they suffer injury from debris. You will remember we have all sustained injuries during training, but even with a fractured arm, Sergei completed his tasks. Nobody was aware of his condition, and he did not report it until after his role.”

“One other point to remember,” Jasper added, nodding towards the Russian. “May I remind you other guys, our colleague Sergei lost his wife and child only two months ago, but he’s worked tirelessly to ensure we maintained our flight schedule.”

“Sir,” Sergei said. “We have all worked hard for over three years to accomplish this mission, and I cannot allow my personal feelings to affect team success.”

“I apologise, Sergei,” Holly said. “I sometimes jump in without thinking—I know.”

“There is one other issue,” Jasper said. “The hydraulic arm is connected by electronic relays to the communications module, so it is inoperative.” He looked at each member of his crew, and continued. “It means whoever goes outside will be using tethers, and while weightless, it might require brute strength to deal with the damage.”

Kenji nodded. “Whoever attempts the repair will have little time, so must work against the clock. They will be labouring in the knowledge that they are coming back to share a trip to the lunar station, or a place inside a death-trap.”

Holly’s gaze went everywhere, except towards Kenji. Amy shook her head at Holly, and her lashes were fluttering rapidly. Both women were highly skilled, but neither were more than half the size and strength of the cosmonaut.

Sergie stood. “Sir, unless there is good reason for me not to go, I would like to deal with our problem. Time is of the essence.”

Jasper caught an imperceptible nod from his Japanese officer. “Okay team. Let’s get this guy kitted out for a Space-walk.”

“Kenji,” Sergei said as he stood up. “Please calculate our oxygen levels and how much time I can afford outside?”

“I’m already working on it my friend.” Kenji gave a rare smile.

Jasper and the two women began assisting Sergei into his multi-layered Space-walk suit and helmet. Dressing their colleague would create a meagre saving in the little time they had, and a three-person team had been rehearsed often in training.

The Japanese engineer was working with a remote screen in order to brief his colleagues. He touched his small tablet several times in quick succession as he assessed the data, and looked up, his features once again impassive.

“We are losing oxygen in a slow, but steady leak,” Kenji said. “We require enough for all of us to last the final short distance to the lunar station.”

The other four turned to look at the diminutive man seated to one side.

Kenji glanced at his data, and then at Sergei. “If the rockets fire efficiently when we provide ignition, we must allow forty-five minutes for the flight, and a minimum of fifteen minutes for docking procedures. To allow for removal of your suit afterwards, you will have an allowance of twenty minutes my friend.”

“That’s not a lot of time Sergei.” Jasper continued the drills to strap the Russian into his suit. Holly and Amy worked silently, double-checking each other in their suiting-up drills.

“I know where the exterior tiles are which cover the oxygen supply, sir,” Sergei said. “I will get there quickly, and work with precision and haste.” He extended his arms to the sides to allow micro-cables to be fitted for his small, but essential oxygen tank and radio.

Jasper nodded. His deep-tan gave the impression of a hardy, outward bound type, and his normally steely gaze exuded self-confidence, but at that moment, his eyes betrayed his concern to the cosmonaut. Jasper knew when the time came to worry.

*

Sergei stepped into the claustrophobic airlock and turned in tiny steps to face his colleagues. He reached forward and pressed the intercom.

“I’ll work quickly. Do not worry, my friends.” His deep voice reverberated around the main cabin from the multiple speakers. The mirrored screen on his helmet visor eased down slowly and clicked into place.

 “Hey, Sergie.” Holly moved closer to the tiny window of the airlock. She stared at her reflection in the cosmonaut’s visor. “I’m sorry about earlier. You be careful out there, okay.”

“I will, English Rose,” Sergei said, using the nickname he gave Holly at their first training session so long ago. He reached left and pressed a large button. A flashing amber glow illuminated the airlock, and the crew saw the outer door open. Sergei had clipped himself inside the airlock with his red tethering cable. He stepped back and reached outside to connect the blue cable. Once connected, he reached in, disconnected the red and held it as the outer door slid home and the flashing amber light ceased.

Apart from the extending arm to hold an astronaut who was working outside, the damaged communications module also governed the controls of the Exterior Activity Recovery, known affectionately as the ‘outer EAR’. It was a small, but usually efficient safety device which Space-walking astronauts could use to propel themselves back to the craft over a short distance while in Space. Now, it wasn’t an option.

The commander and the two women watched through the portholes, as the Russian secured himself, using one cable and then the other to the sunken anchor points on the skin of the craft. In a slow and steady journey, Sergei unclipped the red cable and reached it further forward to secure it again. He unclipped the blue cable and moved it forward.

“Five minutes used,” Kenji said into the microphone which extended on a telescopic arm from the ceiling.

“Roger. Five minutes used.” Sergei’s voice boomed over the speakers.

The red cable stretched past a porthole and went taut, followed by the blue cable. The red cable was disconnected and moved forward. Red, then blue, red then blue, slow, but sure.

“Eight minutes used.” Kenji remained calm, and glanced at the data.

“Eight minutes used,” Sergei repeated. “I have sight of our problem.”

“Go ahead,” Jasper said into the microphone. “How severe is it Sergei?”

“There is a section of outer skin damaged, sir.” In a pause of a few seconds, which felt like several minutes, the large white suit outside floated away and back towards the craft. The red and blue cables both became taut, and Sergei’s arms flailed briefly. A large piece of molten metal rolled away from behind him, having already injured him on its pointless, endless journey.

Sergie,” Jasper whispered. “Are you okay?”

“I’m good, sir.” The white suit obscured the view through two of the portholes. “The hole in the craft’s skin is large enough for me to see the oxygen tank storage. One tank is punctured, so is either leaking or empty.”

“Ten minutes used.” Kenji saw both women turn to look at him, as if he had some control over the proceedings outside.

“Ten minutes used.” Sergei confirmed he heard the call, even under such pressure.

“What’s the situation with the other tank?” Jasper asked.

“The supporting frame is damaged and the tank is coming loose. I will reach in and check if the feed cable is secure.”

“Sir,” Kenji said. “We’re coming up to twelve minutes, and Sergei needs—”

“Be calm, my friend.” Sergei’s voice boomed around the interior. “I have a plan.”

“What the hell is he doing?” Holly said. “He’s unclipped the red anchor cable.”

The end of the red cable passed a porthole and was caught by a large white gloved hand. A metallic grinding sound could be heard inside the craft.

“Oh no, Sergei,” Amy whispered, her face pressed against the second porthole. “Sir, he’s unclipping the blue anchor cable.”

“Sixteen minutes used.” Kenji realised the other three had turned to look at him, sitting there, impersonal and relaying the passing of what might be the end of their lives.

“Got it.” Sergei gasped. “Sixteen minutes used.”

Sergei’s body floated out from the craft, but there were no signs of tether cables. He was no longer anchored, and could only be holding to the damaged section with his hands inside the massive white gloves of his suit.

“Sergei,” Kenji said. “You are on eighteen minutes my friend. We are in danger of having insufficient time to make it to the Space station.”

“You will have time to spare my friends.” Sergei said. “I have secured the oxygen tank with the tether cables. I will be with you in spirit.”

“No, Sergie!” Holly screamed. “Get back inside, please.” Her sobs were matched by those of Amy, who had collapsed into her moulded seat.

“Thank you, Sergei.” Kenji whispered as tears streamed silently down his cheeks.

Jasper Lee stared at the white suit close to the outside of the craft.

“I have one favour to ask Commander Lee.” The mirrored outer of Sergei’s visor slowly rose up to show his impassive expression.

“Name it.” Jasper’s eyes were glazing over.

“When I am clear, let me see the thrusters take you on your way.”

“Sergei—” Jasper couldn’t conceal the hoarseness of his voice. “We can’t fire up the thrusters while you are—”

“Please, Commander, it is my last request—besides, have we not witnessed that there is already too much debris out here. Goodbye, my friends.” The white suit floated a short distance away from the craft.

“Strap in everybody, now!” The commander pulled his cross-over belts down and buckled himself securely before turning to the controls.

“But sir—” Holly cried.

“Secure yourself, Colonel, or that man’s sacrifice is for nothing.”

Deep clunks sounded around the inner cabin as crossover buckles were fastened.

“Thrusters engaged, now.” Jasper pressed four large red buttons, ensuring they sunk into the console, and the corresponding lights glowed. He glanced to his left at the white suit floating nearby. The commander raised his right hand in a salute to the Russian hero.

The cosmonaut’s right arm moved up in a salute, and the fingertips of the hand touched the clear, inner visor. The dark outer visor lowered slowly.

Five seconds later, the craft trembled, before being thrust forward with a powerful kick as massive tongues of flame shot from four massive jets at its rear.

Sergei witnessed the thrusters light up—if briefly.

As the craft surged towards the lunar base, the only thing left behind was a small cloud of grey smoke where there had once been a white suit. The smoke drifted as a harmless cloud in Space and dissipated, leaving no debris.

***

 

 This story is a selection from The Welcome: and other Sci-Fi stories.

 

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