Free Fall

Another explosion rocked the station.  Corridors shuddered as a hollow boom echoed through the modules.  The force of the blast threw him into the far wall, pressing him flat, holding him fast.  It was mere seconds.  It felt as though an eternity had passed.  There wasn’t a moment to lose.  He pushed free, then braced his boots against the gunnels on either side of the hatchway, firing himself down the narrow hallway like a bullet down a barrel.  He careened down the corridor, shooting through the terminal hatchway before flipping around, bending his knees to come to a gentle halt.  His feet were planted against a wall covered in knobs and switches, yet his focus shifted immediately to a large glass panel at the center.

He attempted to pry it open.  It wouldn’t budge.  He rapped his fist across the plate a few times.  Still nothing.  Desperate and angry, he tightened his fist and punched through the glass.  A spray of shards rewarded his efforts, and now he reached in and, wedging the toes of his boots into nearby hand holds to steady himself, he gripped the red lever beyond and pried with all his might.  Even with both hands pulling, anchored as he was, establishing leverage in microgravity was difficult, and at first his efforts appeared to be for naught.  After a few moments of straining, however, at last he felt a little give.  Suddenly the lever practically fell out of the wall.  Unprepared, he lost his footing and sailed off toward the far wall with a loud whoop, making painful contact with the bulkhead behind him.

Though he winced from the pain, the grimace gave way to a smile as a low rumble rattled the station.  From all sides, he began hearing telltale metallic thumps; the emergency hatches snapping into place in series.  The sounds grew louder as the closings approached his position, rumbling and merging into a staggered roar before the final three hatches locked into place.  Immediately he could feel the air thicken, and took greedy lungfuls of it before pushing free of the wall.  

Time was fleeting.  Shoving off from the wall, he sailed back toward the control panel.  Next to it a touch interface, cracked but still active, was flashing red.  Almost afraid to look, he touched the screen, his fingerprint unlocking the system.  At once, damage reports sprang up across the interface.  He closed his eyes, looking away, allowing himself a selfish moment of peace before the inevitable; so long as he did not look, it might not be so bad.  It was foolish, he knew, yet after all that had transpired, he held fast to hope.  At last, unable to delay, he opened his eyes slowly, and took in the damage…

Amazingly, it was far worse even than he had expected.  The collision had showered debris across twelve modules on three levels.  Of those, eight were severely damaged, four were depressurized.  One was fully compromised, and that one housed the life support systems.  The systems were still functioning…for the moment.  If, however, they should fail, it would take a perilous spacewalk to repair them.  As if that weren’t enough, the satellites responsible for the collision had been totally obliterated, their wreckage blown across several orbital planes.  That wreckage had the potential to cause secondary collisions, potentially triggering a chain reaction that could lead to further impacts, shredding the station.  

Computer access was limited, and with a depressurized module separating him from the service module and no suit on hand, he had no means of modeling the potential trajectories of the debris fragments, much less predicting any additional collisions.  There was only one way to ensure the station’s survival: he needed to boost its orbit.  Struck by a grim realization, he frantically called up the station’s orbital control status.  At last, a stroke of luck: three of the station’s four orbital maintenance thrusters were operational.  No doubt this would be sufficient to save the station, as well as its remaining crew members.  He counted thirty-seven from internal scans, spread across the habitat modules on the lower tier.  Their lives were in his hands now.  He knew what he had to do.

The hatch ahead failed to open.  Servo malfunction.  Frustrated and fighting panic, he all but pried the hatch open, then shot off down the corridor.  Several additional hatches proved more cooperative, and soon he was floating into the RCS housing module.  From here, he could operate the station’s thrusters.  It would hardly be pretty, but it was the best he could do without reaching the service module.  The lights flickered to life as he entered, illuminating a large module cramped due to the massive RCS magazines at its center, all feeding nitrogen into lines leading to the station’s four orbital thrusters.  At the planet-facing end of the module, a cupola looked down toward the planet below, a small touch interface set beneath it.  Perfect.  

With every passing moment, the risk of collision grew.  He cycled frantically through the interface readouts, until finally he found the RCS controls.  Everything was set.  He set the controls to mix the magazines, agitate the gas for rapid ascent.  Sweat ran from his brow, floating off from his head as tiny droplets.  Another eternity passed before at last the interface showed all magazines fully pressurized.  There was not a moment to lose.  He held his breath, and drove his fist into the controls, firing the RCS.

Nothing.  The thrusters hadn’t fired, the station continued its slow descent.  His heart froze, eyes wide in panic.  He tried again, and this time his efforts were rewarded by the entire interface flashing red, accompanied by a shrill tone.  A warning flashed over the interface:

STATION STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY COMPROMISED

UNABLE TO ACTIVATE RCS

Failsafes!  They didn’t have time for this.  At any moment, the station could begin to shake apart, dooming all surviving crew aboard, himself included.  He needed to act fast.  Fingers working frantically, he cycled through the controls once again, searching for an override.  There was no override to be found; structural integrity was crucial.  A hard RCS blast could potentially compromise the station’s structure, shearing the fragile linkages between damaged modules and opening much of the internal space to vacuum.  Though it was frustrating, it made sense.  His mind spun through options.  Perhaps he could disconnect the most severely damaged modules?  That could work.  The crew was concentrated in the habitats, which no doubt would be relatively intact if they were still breathing.  Again he cycled through readouts, until he found a station schematic.

The news was better than he’d expected: there was but a single module that had sustained severe damage.  The module itself was relatively intact, its pressure envelope remained sealed.  The linkage to the station, however, was badly damaged.  Emergency hatches were in place, and now the module hung by a proverbial thread.  

Flipping around, he pushed off from the interface console, and shot out of the module once again, floating down the corridor toward the other end of the station.  It felt as though he floated forever.  He was keenly aware of every passing second, as each one brought them closer to the point of no return.  Though he knew it was impossible, he could swear he could feel the station falling, slipping slowly out of its orbit and inching closer to the atmosphere.

At last he could see the hatch to the damaged module.  It was sealed tightly at the end of a long corridor, red indicators flashing across its surface, warning that the linkage beyond had been opened to space.  Though the linkage had been damaged, as he approached the hatch he could see that it remained relatively stable, with the hatch to the module beyond clearly visible through a small window.  

Unwilling to come to a gentle stop, he saved time by hitting the hatch full-force, wincing from the pain radiating from his right shoulder upon contact.  The pain would pass; for now, he ignored it, and got to work.  Quickly, he reached for the control panel to the left of the hatch.  Its faceplate remained undamaged, its control interface functioning normally, yet when he keyed in the release code there was no response.  No doubt the damage to the umbilical beyond had severed the electronic connections.  He would have to release the module manually.

He entered a different code, and at once the panel slid upward, revealing the manual release lever behind it.  His fingers wrapped tightly around the lever, he tensed, preparing to pull with all his might, yet something made him pause…

It was at the corner of his eye.  At first, he wondered if he might be seeing things due to the stress, yet he saw it again a moment later.  Looking up, he strained his eyes as he peered through the hatch window, and some distance beyond, through the window into the module, he found his eyes had not deceived him.  It was movement.  Someone was pounding on the window…

He was shocked.  More survivors!  There looked to be two of them: a man and a woman, with the woman pounding on the window and shouting, no doubt hoping to draw his attention.  She had succeeded, but now he needed to find a way to contact them.  The internal comm system was certainly damaged; he’d already established that the control lines through the linkage had been destroyed, which would account for why the station hadn’t detected them.  Thinking quickly, he remembered that the crew’s personal comm headsets communicated wirelessly, independent of the central computer.  Drawing close to the window, he gestured toward his headset.  A moment later, there was the hiss of static, followed by a clear signal.

“He…hello?” it was a female voice, the sounds coming in sync with the movement of the woman’s lips.  He wasted no time in responding.

“I read you,” he replied.

“Oh, thank God!” she replied, her tone caught between relief and elation.

“To whom am I speaking?”  He did not recognize either of the survivors, though from this distance it was difficult to make out details.  Either way, so many researchers came and went on a weekly basis.  It was entirely possible that he hadn’t met these two.

“Taggart,” the woman responded, with a tone of forced calm.  “Doctor Ava Taggart.  I’m an exobiologist.  I’m in here with Doctor Daniel Braun,” she concluded, motioning to her male companion.

“Doctor Taggart,” he replied, calmly, “I’m Commander Ethan Marx, engineering officer.”

“We’re lucky you found us!” she exclaimed, again unable to hide her relief.  “We were afraid no one would know we were in here!  What happened?  We heard something…a loud boom or something.  Then the lights flickered, and the station shook, and the module felt like it was buckling, but the pressure envelope was intact, and we could still breathe, but we-”

“Two reconnaissance satellites collided,” he interjected, cutting her off.  Time was short, and she had begun to ramble from the stress.  “I’m not sure what caused it, but I think one of them was nudged out of its orbital path by the meteor shower.  The explosion showered the station with debris.  We’re badly damaged, and the station is falling out of orbit.  Internal sensors are malfunctioning across large tracts of the station.”

“Wait…” Doctor Taggard now interrupted, as a realization dawned.  “If the internal sensors are down, how did you know we were in here?”

“Well…I didn’t,” he replied, truthfully.

“Then, why are you here?”

Ethan took a deep breath before responding.  “I’m here to detach this module.”

What?” Taggart shrieked.  “My God!  It’s a good thing I got your attention!  As you can see, the damage to the module is minimal.  We still have oxygen, though I don’t know how long it will last…”

“Doctor,” Ethan began, trying to remain calm, “I know.  I was aware that this module was still largely intact.”

“Oh…” she replied, clearly confused.  “Then…why would you need to disconnect it?”

“Because while the module is intact, the control linkage is badly damaged.”

“It is?” she replied, still puzzled.  Through the window, he watched her all but press her face to the module’s aperture, straining to see the umbilical wall.  After peering in all directions as best she could, she contacted him again.  “It looks fine to me,” she offered, unhelpfully.

Ethan tried not to show his frustration.  He’d always chafed at the manner in which others tried to simplify his job.  “The framework of the structure is mostly intact,” he began, coldly, “but the area you can’t see, the umbilical, is compromised.  It is mostly open to space.  Can your hatch open?”

Pausing for a moment, she reached to her left, no doubt attempting to open the hatch.  A moment later, she gave the expected response.

“No…no I can’t open it.  And there are red lights everywhere.”

“That’s because the hatch has been sealed,” he replied struggling to remain patient.  “Doctor, I know from your vantage point it looks like the linkage is intact, but you need to trust me: your module is separated from the station by meters of open vacuum.”

“OK…” she replied, slowly, “but…look, I’m no expert.  I’ll freely admit that.  But if the linkage is damaged, shouldn’t it be repaired?  Instead of just throwing the module away?”

“Under ideal circumstances, yes,” he allowed, “but these aren’t ideal circumstances.  As I said, the station is falling out of orbit.  Our rate of descent is slow…for the moment.  But as we fall, the rate of descent will increase as we slip further into the planet’s gravity well.”

“…and the station can’t survive a descent into the atmosphere…” she ventured.

Ethan shook his head.  “Under ideal circumstances, I mean maybe, though the linkages would be a problem.  But as I said, the station’s badly damaged.  Large sections have been exposed to vacuum, including this umbilical.  If we enter the atmosphere like this…”

“…we’d be incinerated,” she finished for him, correctly.  She may be a biologist, but clearly she understood the physical realities of space travel.

“That’s correct,” he replied, flatly.

“Then how will detaching this module help us?” she asked, growing frantic.  “Won’t the station keep falling anyway?  If the RCS was active, I’m sure you’d have used it by now.”

“I attempted a hard orbital burn,” Ethan replied, impatiently.  “But such a maneuver would be punishing.  It would strain the station’s structural integrity under the best of circumstances.  So, there are failsafes in place, to prevent the maneuver if the station’s structural integrity is compromised.  Otherwise, the burn could cause your module to shear off, tearing the station apart.”

“I see…” the doctor replied, nodding her head slowly.  “Well, then I’m sure we don’t have much time.  How do we get out of here?”

With those words, Ethan felt a lump form in his throat.  He hadn’t expected anyone to be left alive in this part of the station.  Now that he had found survivors, he was forced to admit he had no earthly idea of how to rescue them.  He closed his eyes, trying to slow his breathing and focus.

“Doctor,” he said at last, “I need you to look around the module.  See if you can find any EVA suits.  They should be in a locker marked ‘Emergency Supplies’.”  It was a longshot, but it was all he could think of.

For her part, Doctor Taggart nodded, then disappeared from the window.  Seconds passed, though for Ethan it felt like years.  In truth, few of the station’s research modules were equipped with spacesuits, and though he did not know for certain whether or not this was one of them, the numbers were not on their side.  After an agonizing wait, at last Taggart returned to the window.

“I can’t find any,” she replied.  Her voice sounded fairly calm.  No doubt she was yet unaware of how desperate her situation truly was.  Ethan, on the other hand, was keenly aware, and grimaced at the news.  “Yeah, I don’t think there are any suits in here,” Taggart continued.  “So, now what do we do?”

Ethan sighed heavily, his breath quaking.  He closed his eyes, and though he knew it to be futile now he wished with all his heart that the module had been empty.  Though Doctors Taggart and Braun obviously did not realize it, they had exhausted their few options.  Try as he might, Ethan could find no possible way to save them without likely dooming everyone else to die.  There were so few survivors as it was.  How could he risk 37 other lives in a vain effort to save two?

Though he hated to admit it, hope was not warranted at this point.  While he did not want to share this information with the researchers, to lie to them, give them false hope, would be the peak of cruelty.  If they were to be condemned for the greater good, they deserved to hear the truth.  With a deep breath, he began…

“Doctor Taggart…” he didn’t want to continue.  He had never expected to have to make such a decision.  As a member of the astronaut corps, he’d known it was a possibility, but such circumstances could hardly be prepared for.  No amount of training would ever ready a man for this.  “Doctor, I’m sorry.  I don’t think there’s any way to get you out of there.”

Taggart’s eyes grew wide, her shoulders slumped.  “What…what do you mean?” she asked, both aghast and defeated.  “So we’re all just going to die?”

“Not all of us have to…” he replied, hesitantly.

“What?”

“Doctor, if I leave you in there, most likely you won’t make it.  It’s possible, yes.  But if I detach the module…look, there are thirty-seven other people left alive on this station.  I came down here to detach this module so that the RCS would fire.  We’d be boosted back into orbit.”

“And then…everyone else would make it?”

“Well, there are no guarantees, but-”

“You mean you’d throw away our lives for a chance?” Taggard shouted, anger at last getting the better of her.

“There are no guarantees,” Ethan hissed, indignant, “but it’s the only way that gives any of us a chance!”

“No…no!” Taggart wailed.  “No, it’s not hopeless.  It can’t be!  There’s always a chance!  What if-” she paused, thinking.  No doubt her mind was scrambling through options, just as Ethan’s already had.  After a moment, her eyes grew wide as a thought occurred to her.  “Wait!  What if we just left the module?  A human can survive for fifteen seconds in vacuum, right?  I know that’s right!  Look, we could open the hatch…there has to be a manual override, right?  I mean, there has to be.  That’s what you were going to use, obviously.  So we’ll time it, OK?  We’ll time it perfectly.  The linkage is short enough, I know we can make it…”

“Doctor…” Ethan interrupted.  He knew this was pointless.  He’d already considered it, and now in her reluctance to accept the inevitable, Taggard was placing everyone’s lives at risk.

“All we need is for you to open the hatch!  It will be easy!  We’ll just count it down, and you’ll open the hatch!  And then we’ll just-”

Doctor!” Ethan shouted.

No!” she shouted back, her voice suddenly choking back sobs.  “No!  You can’t just dismiss me!  You have to listen!

“Doctor, it won’t work…”

No!  Stop it!  It will work, just listen!

“Doctor, you listen to me!” Ethan roared, finally losing his patience.  At once she fell silent, though through his headset he could still hear her sniffling, trying not to cry.  Satisfied that he would not be interrupted again, he took a few deep breaths, and began.  “Look, I’m sorry, but what you’re proposing won’t work.  Don’t you think I’d have thought of that?  What kind of monster do you think I am?  Of course I considered every possible option!  I’m not a murderer!  I’m not just going to tell two innocent people they have to die for nothing!”

Taking another deep breath, he continued, straining to lower his voice, to sound calm.  “Look, that module you’re in…it wasn’t designed for EVA.  If it were, there’d be suits.  There’s no airlock.  You see that hatch in front of you?”  He paused for a moment, making it clear that he did, in fact, want her to look at it.  After she backed away from the hatch and looked down, he continued.  “That hatchway is not an airlock.  There is a huge difference.  That hatch isn’t built to let people cross into and out of vacuum.  It’s designed to do one thing, and one thing only, and it’s doing it.”

Sighing slowly, he paused for a moment before continuing.  The conversation was exhausting him, and time was wasting.  “If you open that hatch, it will cause explosive decompression.  Now, that would propel you toward this hatch, yes, but it would also push the module away from the station.  This linkage is already compromised.  You blow that hatch, and the resulting strain could tear this station apart.”

Beyond his window, inside the module, he could see Doctor Taggart nodding her head slowly.  Her face was flushed, her mouth turned down in resignation.  “Even if that didn’t happen somehow,” he went on, “the hatch on my end isn’t an airlock, either.  If I opened this hatch to let you in, I would be opening this corridor to vacuum.  When that happens, emergency hatches will seal off this corridor.  We’d be trapped.  Which means I wouldn’t be able to get back to RCS control.  Our orbit would continue to decay, the station would burn up upon reentry, and we would all die.”

Again she nodded.  Now Ethan, too, was crying, his tears floating slowly from his eyes as he tried to sound composed.  “Doctor Taggart, I am sorry.  Please, please believe me.  I wish you could know just how much I hate to do this, but I don’t have a choice.  There is no way to save you that stands much chance of succeeding, and failure would mean killing forty people, including you, Doctor Braun, and me.”

For a time, Doctor Taggard remained silent.  Eventually, though, Ethan heard her crying slow to a sniffle once more.  Through the window, he watched as she turned to embrace her colleague.  Then, wiping the tears from her eyes, she turned back to the window, and spoke.

“I…I don’t really have…much family.  Doctor Braun has a son.  His name is Trayvon.  If you could…”

Ethan nodded solemnly.  “I’ll make sure word gets to him.  Does he live on Earth?”

“No,” she replied, shaking her head.  “Luna.  The Tranquility colony.”

“Ah,” Ethan nodded, forcing a smile.  “Beautiful place.”

At this, Taggard smiled as well.  “Yeah,” she replied softly, still drying her eyes with her uniform sleeve.  “Yeah the sunrises are really something.  Look, Commander Marx…”

“Doctor, it’s-”

“I’m sorry,” she replied, and she sounded sincere.  “It’s just…don’t let the uniforms fool you; we’re not astronauts.  Not really.  Hell, all we got was two weeks of preflight training, and nobody ever said anything about dying during reentry.  I mean, you always know it’s possible, but-”

“Doctor, wait…” Ethan interrupted, a realization dawning.  It wasn’t much, but he believed he might have one last ray of hope to offer.  “That might not happen…”

At this, Taggart lifted her face, her curiosity piqued.  “What…what do you mean?  You…did you think of something?”

“Maybe…” Ethan replied.  “Look, the danger if this station reenters the atmosphere is due to the damage to the modules, the linkages.  These modules are heavily shielded.  So, once the module’s detached…”

“We could still survive…” she whispered, as though afraid to say it too loudly.

Maybe,” Ethan cautioned, unwilling to raise their hopes unfairly.  “Look, in a minute here, I’m going to trigger the manual release.  The module will detach, and it will fall into the atmosphere.  Now listen carefully: as soon as the module falls away, you need to get to the nearest wall of the module, and get flat against it.  Strap yourselves down if you can…tie yourselves down, whatever, just try to keep yourselves close to the wall.  Research modules like that one are inflated when they’re installed, and they’re designed to re-inflate if the hull is sufficiently stressed without being fully breached.  The module should survive reentry, but after that it’s hit-or-miss.  In the end, it all depends on where you land, and how hard the landing is.”

Doctor Taggart nodded briskly, her spirits seemingly raised by this beacon of hope, however faint.  Ethan took a deep breath, steeling his resolve.  He returned his hand to the manual release lever, then stretched to look once more through the window.  Doctors Taggart and Braun were no longer visible, no doubt having left to find something to affix themselves to the walls.  He closed his eyes, exhaled slowly.

“Commander,” Doctor Taggart’s voice came across the intercom.  “We’re ready when you are.  And…thank you.”

“Thank me if you make it,” he replied.  “I’m releasing the module now.  Get ready, and doctors…”

He tensed his fingers, eyes open to watch.  “Good luck,” and with that, he pulled the release.  To his surprise, it slid easily from the wall.  The station shuddered as the linkage detached, explosive bolts firing in sequence until at last both the linkage and module floated free, the tattered remains of the umbilical tearing off as the module slowly fell.

Ethan closed his eyes once more.  He wanted to believe that Taggart and Braun would make it, but he knew their chances were remote at best.  More than likely, he’d just thrown two people he’d barely known to their deaths.  Yet hope was stubborn in the face of death.  It was the belief that anything was possible that had first propelled man into space, shot him off into the stars on long voyages, leaving his mark on countless worlds.  Ultimately, it was hope that had led him this far.  And now, it was hope that helped him make peace with his choices, as he turned away from the hatch, and returned to the RCS controls.

END

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4 Comments

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  1. I enjoyed this! The station feels realistic and you give a very good sense of the constraints and necessities of the technology at the heart of Ethan and Dr. Taggart’s dilemma. I’m curious as to what planet they’re orbiting, but I get that it doesn’t really matter to the story, and it gives space for the reader to place the scenario at essentially whatever point in future history they feel is right. The setting feels close to modern spaceflight science, but also could theoretically happen at any time. I like that. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Whether Taggart and Braun make it, I still wonder if the rest of the station can be boosted into a higher orbit. I mean everything has gone wrong so far, right?

    Like

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