Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XII

This is Part XII, the final part of the fourth chapter. Start at the beginning.

Spencer hesitated, then blanked the computer screen. “Sure thing.” He didn’t wait for her to come in. “Listen, I was really careful back then. I want you to know—”

“No, stop. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I didn’t give you any training at all,” she flipped on the light and stood blankly for a moment, puzzled at the ceiling lights’ ineffectiveness. “I put Jean-Paul in charge of vitals and I’ve been pushing you to the side since the beginning. I recognize that, and I apologize.” Her blue eyes looked like strange fire in the odd reflections and plutonic colors of the room. Her features, normally rather severe, looked almost inhuman with the wild shadows in the room. The combined effect was something of a polygonal monster, despite her kind attempts to apologize. Spencer sighed. She had saved their lives after all. He should at least give her the benefit of a doubt.

“Look, it’s OK. And I’m sorry too. I was so scared. I was so scared by that whole thing. I thought I was gonna die. I almost did die.”

“About that. I screwed up twice. First, by lighting into you for barfing, and second, I shoulda checked your decompression to see if anything went wrong. You looked fine, so I didn’t worry, but that’s the exact opposite of all my training. I totally ruined that. Come on outside for a second.”

Spencer reluctantly stood up and left the quarters.

“Jean-Paul’s in the cockpit,” Zephyr gestured to the top of the cockpit door, where a mass in a sleep sack could be seen, heaving, clearly out for the night. Spencer was tired, but nap-tired, not sleep-tired. He stayed on Mountain Time for most of his space trips. It offset him quite a bit from most people, but unless both parents were at Shackleton at the same time (as they were now), and he was planning on being there for a number of weeks (not the case now), the jet-lag was insurmountable. Zephyr was back in the too-big magsuit, her hair back in a ponytail fastened both close to the scalp and close to the end. “So, you’re tired and you have a headache, right?”


“Any pain in your joints?”

“No, not really.”

“Any hearing loss? Chest pain? Changes in vision?”

“Ears are fine, chest is fine, but I felt like I had tunnel vision there for a little while.”

“Itching or swelling?”

“I didn’t notice any itching, but I felt like I swelled up a lot.”

“I’m going to need you to take off your shirt. Promise this isn’t awkward, I’m a medical professional.”

Spencer blushed hard, then took off the magsuit, and the sweat-damp black tee underneath. He floated for the first time since boarding. It felt like waking up. He hadn’t spent a lot of time in zero-g or microgravity, but for the first time since his earliest flights, it felt good and natural. He pushed up to the ceiling with his feet and back down with his hands, and bounced like his body was a solid, straight, jointless object.

“Hold still.”

“OK, sorry.”

“Yeah, no pitting edema, no discoloration or raised areas. Hmm...”

“What’s the ‘hmm’?” Spencer put his shirt back on, but left the magsuit stuck to the ground in a clump, squashed by the false gravity.

“The ‘hmm’ is ‘if you had decompression sickness at all, it was a very minor case. A deep-sea diver coming up from a dive has it worse than you. You were nowhere near getting spaced.’”

“No offense, but what I felt was real. I really was about to die.”

“Hey, hey,” said Zephyr, stepping away. “I never said you weren’t in danger. I just said that you weren’t getting spaced. Your oxygen problem? That was real. And whether that low pressure reading in the cabin was real or not, you were in danger both from the oxygen, and honestly, from the thing that kills more people in high-speed machinery than any other single factor. You know what that is?”


“Stress. That’s the killer. It makes you do stupid things. It makes you freak out. It makes you give up. It can even make you hallucinate. But I think you did a damn good job for a fourteen-year-old kid on his first pilot gig pulling double-duty as EVA tech.”

“Thanks,” he said. Saying the word felt like releasing pressure of his own.

“So the problem with the tank was the sensor was dislodged, which fed the enviro computer bad data, which made Tank 1 shut off. At some point the sensor must have read ‘empty’, and that triggers a tank shutoff. I just reattached the sensor and manually opened the valve. And then you rebooted the enviro computer.”

“‘I pressed it!’” said Spencer, imitating his dopey voice from before. He immediately felt sick again, but fought it back.

“That you did, kid.”

“So, here’s something I haven’t had time to look up, but I think is really important.”

“What’s that?”

“Where are we going?”

“Oh, oh. Yeah, of course you might want to know that. Ha ha. I set the first course I could think of, but I’ve talked it over with Jean-Paul and we agree. We’re headed to Shackleton. It makes sense—it’s the largest facility on the Moon, it’s where your folks are at, and it’s got people that can do an in-flight dock with us and drive us in. See? That saves us having to do manual landing.”

“Hmm,” said Spencer, floating glacially slow, backwards.

“You don’t seem thrilled.”

“No, I’m just tired,” said Spencer.

“Well, you go back to sleep. I’m going to take a turn at the controls for a while. When Jean-Paul’s awake, he’ll take his turn, then it’s back to you. I hate to bring this up right now after that terrible event, but we may have to do another EVA before we get there. As far as I can tell, the sensor on Tank 2 is also acting up, but not exactly in the same way that Tank 1 was. Since the sensors are lying to us, we can’t know for sure if that tank is on or off until we use up Tank 1. That’s going to happen in thirty-two hours at the earliest. I assume we can’t get to Shackleton in less than forty-five hours from right here.”

Spencer motioned for help with the heavy magsuit. Zephyr pulled the collar apart and stood up easily. He fumbled into the suit.

“I think you could shave two or three hours off of that. This is a racing ship, you know.” Spencer considered saying more, but shut his mouth. He zipped his suit and turned to quarters. “Good night, and thanks again. Oh, and I’ll probably just be taking a nap. I’m UTC minus six right now.”

“So you’re two off of Shackleton and six off the platform? What is that?”


“Good night!”

Spencer pulled the accordioning door, and sat back down at the computer. His head hurt and his mind ached. He desperately needed sleep. He wandered over to the mattress-thing. It was a charcoal gray, and had what appeared to be a built-in pillow. He walked to the head of the bed, where there was a small space between the synthetic fabric of the mattress and the joint where the plastic of the mattress joined with the metal of the fused frame. He had seen something like this before, when he had had an overnight layover on JDSP, and he recalled a lightly magged sheet that went over top and was fused to the unit at the side wall. He hated sleeping without covers, and he wasn’t bullish on the idea of a pillow he couldn’t rotate in the night. It’s just a nap, he thought. Could be worse, could be dangling from the cockpit ceiling. He got himself into the bed, which felt like a normal inflatable mattress.

He was drifting off when he remembered the media drive. He staggered out of bed, removed the drive, and this time managed to get it into his pocket, not sticking on the velcro strip on his pant leg. He returned to bed and fell into a fitful sleep. His dreams were fragmented and incomplete, but involved variously: his body expanding to fill the entire quarters, getting into a fistfight with his father, Zephyr drifting off toward the moon without a spacesuit, and hanging from the top of the Sandia Man Cave out in the New Mexico countryside.

The lights were still on in quarters when Spencer awoke. They were so useless, Spencer hadn’t even noticed them as he drifted off. Finally, he thought. Let’s take a look at this data. Maybe I can figure out what’s happening here. He re-inserted the media into the laptop, and a window popped up with a group of file folder icons inside of it. They were labeled “Hawaii”, “Shackleton 5”, “Peary”, “Germany-Austria”, “Long Shadow”, “OLOCon”, and “DC”. Hawaii and Germany were obvious. Shackleton and Peary were bases on the Moon. DC might have been Washington? OLOCon was some kind of meeting for space administrators—his mom had given the keynote at OLOCon Science 3 back when she and Dad wrangled their first tours together at Shackleton. He remembered because he spent a lot of that weekend sending emails back and forth with Dad, hands sticky from syrup and belly reeling from the sheer volume of pancakes and horchata he’d had at Grandma’s.

Long Shadow sounded pretty creepy. That would have to be the most interesting for sure. He drilled down into the directory structure and found a labyrinth of oddly named text files, files with unfamiliar extensions, and folders whose only labels were bizarre strings of numbers and letters. He tried to open one of the files labeled “ops”.

Error: This file is *nix-incompatible, corrupted, or has caused Sernix to behave in unexpected ways.

“Aw, hell,” said Spencer. He right-clicked on the file for more information, forced it open in a text-editor (where it revealed garbled text and alien characters), and opened up his web browser to do some research. The dialog popped up to connect to a network, and this far out in space, there was only one choice: DTN (or Spacenet, as almost everyone called it). This brought up a second dialog to connect to a number of internet services, including the video chat client, the text messaging client, and the voice client. He connected to voice and text, but he was too far away for any video with the Moon.

Spencer’s contact list exploded. He had made a huge mistake.