Friday, June 26, 2015

The Orbitals, Part XIX

This is Part XVI, the third part of the sixth chapter. Start at the beginning.

The bed was always cold. It was the nature of its construction. Spencer was dreaming that he was buried in the lunar soil, cut off from the light of the Earth and Sun and stars by a thick layer of dust. He could sense that he was near a station, and his mind told him it was Peary, at the north pole. He could hear the hum of a buggy zoom past him, then he could hear the sound of it backing up, beeping madly. His brain told him he wouldn't be able to hear that beep through his suit and the almost non-existent lunar atmosphere, but his mind heard it all the same. It was slowly retreating toward him, toward him, until sound was on top of him. He felt the soil pack tighter and tighter around his helmet until he heard a crack. Then another. The beeping was violent. Insane. Murderous. His head felt like it was going to explode. Implode.

His eyes opened. There were orange lights in his room that he hadn't noticed before. They were flashing. The beeping hadn't stopped—it had become the ship's alarm. The clock said 05:38, and it felt like everything was on fire. He jumped out of bed. His door opened before he reached it. It was Zephyr, fully suited for the walk and floating.

"Come on, something's wrong. We're going to need you in the cockpit."

Spencer mumbled. Zephyr grabbed his hand, but could not pull him, as she was no longer magged to the ground. He walked to the hallway, and Zephyr followed like a helium balloon.

"Looks like Tank 2," she said.

"I knew it," he said.

"Yeah, we can have 'I told you so' time later. We're going to need to fix this right now."

"Why does Jean-Paul have the pre-breather?"

"Because he's going to have to come out," she said. And with that, she reached for her helmet. She popped it on and twisted it with a click. "You go to the front, and we'll coordinate while I get to Tank 2. Jean-Paul is going to fix the comm." This last bit was very muffled, but he got the gist.

Spencer tried to shake the sleep from his head. He felt instantly like he was going to retch. He had no time to think, much less gather his thoughts, so he ran to the captain’s chair and fired up the comm box. His head was ringing with a sleepy headache, his eyes were thick and puffy and his sinuses and throat were stinging with the sensation of waking up again in the dry air. He grabbed a silvery water pouch, not caring who had written their name on the side of it, and squeezed as he sucked the straw. The water did not sit well with him. He stood up, thinking now would be the time to go to the lav, before Zephyr did the airlock, so as not to abandon his post. He turned to the hallway and the airlock door was shut. He knew there was an override to the pilot’s airlock control that could be done from the vestibule, but he was right there and could have initiated the procedure the right way if asked. Spencer swallowed hard. As he headed toward the lav, Jean-Paul removed the breather and said, “She said to give you this and to ask you to go back up front.” It was a black sick bag.

In the captain’s chair again, Spencer read the left display panel. It was a de-press confirmation for the airlock. Zephyr came over the comm box. “OK, ready for you to do final confirm on airlock.” Spencer pressed Confirm.


The airlock door opened and Zephyr was in space once more. “OK, here’s the deal. Jean-Paul, do you have your helmet on?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said through the box. Spencer craned his neck and there was Jean-Paul with his helmet on, floating to him. He handed Spencer the breather, then pushed off again to aftward.

“OK. I am headed toward Tank 2. Jean-Paul will head toward the Comm Link Juncture. We need to complete both tasks within thirty minutes and return to the ship.”

Spencer felt the bile rise again. “Last time to completion was over two hours, Zephyr. Jean-Paul’s never done an EVA before. Is this going to work?”

“It has to work, Spencer. We have one hour and seventeen minutes before we have to begin our approach burns. We don’t have a lot of time. Can you confirm my mechanical assist?”

“Confirmed. Head to port and down to find alpha sierra romeo dash two. Then the same fore maneuver as last time to sierra tango romeo tango dash three. Then Tank Junction Two.”

“Copy. Jean-Paul, get ready to tether in the airlock.” Jean-Paul floated to the vestibule.

“Zephyr, can you give me a hint as to where the tether point is?”

Spencer immediately stood up to walk back. He paused, then grabbed the handset. “Zephyr, I’m leaving post to make sure Jean-Paul gets a correct tether.”

“Copy. And that’s a good idea.”

Spencer fitted the tether hook from Jean-Paul’s suit into the right eye in the rear of the vestibule, then hurried back to the front. “Jean-Paul, are you ready for blowout?” he asked. His stomach felt like it was about to blow out, too.

Spencer reached for the black plastic bag, hesitated, belched, and returned it. This was going to be a long walk. He tried to reuse his "get through it" mantra he was repeating during the first flight, but it was absolutely ineffective. He desperately tried to focus on the displays. He reached over to the co-pilot's display, and fumbled around the user interface for two minutes, wandering down dead ends, pausing to remind himself what he was looking for, pressing buttons he didn't mean to.

"Spencer, can you confirm?" said Jean-Paul's voice in the comm box.

"Confirm what?"

"Confirm my readiness for the spacewalk. I said I was good to go. Remember you have to press Confirm twice?"

"Right, right," said Spencer. He raced through the panel topography on his own display, until he found the airlock controls. "Yeah, there you are. I thought I had already pressed it," he lied. "We're going for blowout in," and he pressed Confirm the second time.

"Merde! Oh God oh God oh God!" came the comm. Spencer could not determine what Jean-Paul was screaming about, as he wasn't ready with the locator screen, which he had intended for the middle display panel. "I'm floating out! I missed the hold!" he shouted.

"Jean-Paul, you're okay. You're okay," said Zephyr's calm voice in the comm box. You just press the assist button. That's the big red button near your tether point. It should pull you back in."

"I can't...I can't..." he panted.

"Yes, you can," said Zephyr. "Spencer, see what you can do to help."

Spencer worked back through the center panel controls to the EVA menu. He had not been planning on using this until the end of the walk. He showed two mechanical assists active in the tethering system. He pushed Tether 2 Retract. Zephyr's voice came through.

"That's me, that's me Spencer. Stop!"

Spencer pressed the button again. He pushed Tether 1 Retract, and said, "Jean-Paul, I'm pulling you back in."

Zephyr's voice: "You grab on to the handhold as soon as you can see it."

"I'm coming in backward!" he shouted.

"That's okay. When you feel the ship, push off with your...left. That should send you to the handhold."

"Okay, it. I got it." Jean-Paul's heavy sigh and deep breathing were very audible on the comm box. He held on for a minute and a half.

"Alright, Jean-Paul. Alright. There we go. Spencer, how are vitals?"

"He's...doing alright. They're okay."

"Jean-Paul, are you ready to get back out there? Do you think you can do it?"

"I...I am trying to do it. I think...I think...I'm alright. I'm alright." Somehow, he swallowed audibly over the comm. "I can go now."