It was dizzying. The stars swirling as though diamonds in a mixer as the module rotated, a spinning tin can immersed in the vast cosmic black. The docking port approached. He held fast to the armrests, bracing himself against contact as the two spacecraft drifted ever closer, his module carried forward perpetually by momentum. There was a barely perceptible thump. The module shuddered slightly, then appeared to drift off course. Bad contact. A moment for calculations and the autopilot resumed maneuvering, realigning for a second attempt. This time the ports slid together perfectly. Interlocking seals from both spacecraft closed upon one another as hands lacing fingers, forming a welcoming embrace. As the magnetic calipers latched, there was a soundless jarring, followed by a barely perceptible hiss of flowing air from the airlock.
Releasing his restraints, he tucked his legs and pushed off gently from his armrests. Rotating in slow motion he flipped toward the airlock behind him, pushing off with his arms, and floated toward the heavy hatches. The hatch rushed open in perfect time with his approach, and he slid through without slowing. Ahead, a short umbilical terminated at the station’s main hatch. The years had not been kind to Eea; her outer hull was pitted and scored from micrometeoroid impacts. He could only hope that the pressure envelope remained intact. And the radiation shielding.
As he approached the hatch he reached out, taking hold of gunnels on either side to steady himself as he reoriented, planting his feet on Eea’s hull as he surveyed the hatchway. Feeling around the edges of the iris, it appeared the atmospheric seals had held, and scans from his handset soon confirmed breathable air beyond. Temperature appeared nominal. No gravity, but that was to be expected. It was the best situation he might have hoped for. There was no time to lose…his module’s air supply was finite; its life support systems extremely limited. Wedging his feet into the lip of the hatch, he reached forward (or perhaps down?) and wrapped his chapped fingers around the manual release.
He’d known the station remained pressurized, yet still the gust of air shocked him, nearly blowing him back as the iris shot open, its segments retracting far too rapidly for human vision. As he regained his senses, he opened his eyes and peered through the hatchway. The darkness beyond was impenetrable and betrayed nothing. This was hardly a surprise, and to prevent any surprises ahead he’d brought something along from the module. Now he reached down to the pouch at his right thigh and withdrew a small sphere, its smooth surface gleaming beneath the umbilical’s lights. At his touch the device hummed to life, small indicator lights across its surface glowing a deep, soothing blue. Extending his arm towards the hatchway, he gently released the orb, leaving it suspended in the air. Under its own power at last, the device turned to face him, its tiny thrusters hissing until its massive camera eye peered directly at him.
He gestured toward the hatchway and, without a moment’s hesitation, the device spun back around and proceeded into the darkened station.
“Good luck, buddy,” he said after it. The device’s lingual programming was rudimentary at best; he doubted it could actually process his words, much less understand their meaning. It mattered little; he’d lived his entire life with robotics and machines, depended on them to protect him and keep him alive even as they depended on him to keep them operating. Anthropomorphizing the devices he relied upon had become an odd habit of his, one that proved difficult to break and, now, one that somehow helped him feel less alone.
After giving the orb a minute to assess its surroundings, he withdrew his visor from the breast pocket of his uniform, clasping the band to the back of his head and carefully adjusting the eyepiece to focus properly. Syncing with his handset, he blinked hard as the visor illuminated, and at once the view of the umbilical wall was replaced with the harsh blues of the orb’s FLIR sensors. The view panned and spun rapidly, at first making him nauseous, yet he quickly adjusted out of necessity. The orb knew what it needed to do…what he needed from it…and was going about its task far faster than humanly possible.
To his relief, there was no apparent damage as the orb sped silently down the long-abandoned corridors of the great station. Everything sat neatly in place, preserved by years of artificial environment. Not so much as a single stray meal pack could be found out of place. It was as though the station had been freshly-constructed, and lay dormant, waiting. The wait was over. After an eternity of winding through darkened corridors, the tiny machine’s journey terminated at a small service panel. In the darkness it would have presented itself as but a nondescript patch of titanium plating, yet caught in the orb’s FLIR it glowed as a sunset kaleidoscope. The warm light radiated from a central source, a white-hot ring with five spokes. It was concealed behind the panel, invisible, inaccessible…to a human, at least.
Keying in commands rapidly on his handset, he directed the orb to focus its attention on the source of heat: the station’s battery backups. They wouldn’t last for long: battery power was designed to operate all vital systems for four hours maximum. Long enough, designers likely theorized, for the station’s crew to spin up the backup generators. He wasn’t sure how much fuel the generators had left. For all he knew, the cores had been ejected long ago, leaving nothing but bare traps bands and lithium tracks in the power deck. Four hours was all he would have. Hopefully that would be all he needed.
The orb isolated the backup’s control circuits, then transmitted the startup commands. Nothing. Frowning, he directed the orb to transmit the startup protocols in full, hoping the snag was a simple matter of the command sequence being corrupted. Again, nothing. With effort, he fought the urge to panic. The heat signature was unmistakable: there was power. The batteries were functioning. Core memory might have been dumped, taking all emergency cold-start protocols with it. The energy was back there. There must be a way. He hadn’t gone through all of this trouble, all these years of work, just to freeze or suffocate in orbit. This is not the end.
Inspiration struck. He had one shot, but it might work. Keying in a few commands, he deployed the orb’s arc welder. It was designed for spot repairs, but its charge would be enough to jump-start emergency power…or fry the circuits, stifling all hope and dooming him to die in space. It hardly mattered. Nothing else had worked. It wasn’t as though he had a choice. He carefully modulated the welder’s charge, overrode numerous safety protocols, and, at last, commanded the device to fire the arc. On the screen, the coursing electricity crackled, white-hot and blinding. He shut his eyes, wincing at the sudden flash, and after the instant had passed he hesitated to open them again. So long as he kept his eyes shut, he could tell himself it might have worked…wouldn’t know that it hadn’t. Still, he could not keep his eyes shut forever, and not looking would not affect the outcome. Grimacing, bracing himself for the worst, he slowly opened his eyes.
To his elation, he found that the glowing ring had been joined by numerous glowing tendrils snaking out at squared angles through the corridor walls. Soon the corridor was illuminated, the glow rising slowly, and the orb deactivated its FLIR upon sensing the rising light levels. Oxygen. Warmth. Light. He had all he needed. Only time remained in short supply. So he quickly pocketed his visor before pushing off from the umbilical and slipping gracefully through the airlock.
As he entered the abandoned halls, the air remained stale. Temperature and lighting were slowly rising but, for now, navigating the empty corridors was not unlike floating through some ancient crypt: a dark, dusty place of death that hadn’t known a human pulse for untold ages. It was foreboding yet, somewhere within the crypt, he would find the key to his survival. It was his last chance. How had it come to this?
As hard as it was to believe, it had been twenty years since he’d traversed a bridge of light and vaulted across the galaxy. A journey of thousands of light-years had taken an instant and he and his fellow colonists had emerged in orbit of another Earth. It was a virgin world, unspoiled and pure. It was a sheltered system, a planet protected by bloated gas giants that diverted asteroids. It was blue and green and teeming with life. It was perfect. He remembered the smiles of those early days, the grit of hard work caked onto his fingers, the satisfying crust of salt on his forehead, the cooling sensation of the evening breeze drying his sweaty clothes. Those had been good days, filled with sun and optimism. Now…
The lighting had nearly reached optimum, the rise in temperature had grown noticeable. As the air flowed, he at last found his goal. A few commands keyed into a control pad and the hatch ahead of him drew back, revealing the station’s primary command center. As he drifted through the hatchway, ancient machines hummed to life, knobs and switches twinkling bright red, green, and yellow. Ahead, the vast, endless starfield was broken by the curve of the planet below. It had been his home once. Now it was home to no one. Fighting back tears, he struggled to remember the vital paradise that once was. The green plains, the crystal oceans that sparkled in the sun…
It had been the dead of night when it came. Everything started with a rumble that shook the house. He’d nearly fallen from his bed, struggled to pull on his pants and shirt before stumbling out into the cold night. There, night turned into day, as his eyes joined several thousand other pairs, each trained upward, gaze transfixed on the massive object thundering toward the western continent. As it fell, the quaking intensified until, at last, it hit. It was the loudest sound he’d ever heard. His ears popped, his head spun, his vision blurred. Then, for a moment, silence. Then, for a moment, ringing.
When at last the moment had passed he’d pulled his hands from his ears. He’d never seen the impact, yet even from so great a distance he knew it must have been awesome. Far beyond the western sea, a great plume of ash and dust rose high into the night, murky gray and roiling as electricity coursed through the billowing mushroom cloud. In that instant, their world had changed forever. In an instant, everything was taken from them. The outer planets, they’d been told, would protect them, diverting all large asteroids. The outer planets had missed one.
Now, their pristine world of green and blue was gone…in its place, it appeared as though someone had left a burnt porcelain pot drifting in space. A poisoned gray marble, it stood like a headstone laid atop their aspirations, marking the place where the next great human civilization might have been. It was too late for regrets and he fought to shake the pain from his mind. The images of devastation, of starvation and disease…of death. He didn’t know how long he’d been staring at the ghostly planet, but it had been too long. He’d come here for a reason, and now he realized he could not accomplish his goal in the command center. The ERB controls were somewhere below.
Precious seconds passing, he tore off toward the central axis, prone and streaking like a missile through the ancient halls. At the axis, a hatch withdrew opening into a long, narrow tube that ran the length of the station. Carried through by momentum, he spun as he approached the far side of the axis, grabbed a hold, turned, and propelled himself down through the heart of the station. A short time later he arrived at level 15. Stopping and pivoting, he flew off toward the level’s access hatch, passing through as it opened. He floated quickly down the narrow corridors of the station’s claustrophobic bowels, frantically scanning for the proper control room.
It had taken him years to find enough fuel. He’d scoured settlement after abandoned settlement. He’d found few survivors, witnessed so much starvation and suffering. He’d dug too many graves for one lifetime. Through it all, he’d thought only of escape, of leaving his dead world for somewhere, anywhere that offered anything beyond loneliness and famine. The more he’d thought about it, and he’d had time to think in abundance, the more he’d realized there was but one such place he knew of: their point of origin. It had been so many years since Odyssey had arrived in this alien star system, ushering them to their paradise that was. Now, he could only hope that the device that had conducted him there might return him to the only home he had left.
At last, he found the ERB control room. It took a few moments to pour over the manual on his handset, but he needed only a cursory knowledge of this device to operate it. A few clicks, a few swipes at tactile interfaces, a few switches flipped and buttons pressed, and he succeeded. He looked up and, beyond the viewport ahead, a great ring hung in space. It remained there, motionless, a massive hoop, dark and silent, until a tiny distortion appeared at its center. It morphed, spun, and bubbled; the space around and behind it stretched and skewed and lensed until, at last, a stable bridge had formed. It wasn’t perfect; the aperture appeared to shift and stretch at random, but it remained well within the margin of error. The station’s power reserves were nearly depleted by the effort. He had no time to lose. Minutes at most.
Soon after he was back at the controls of his ship. He’d pulled free of Eea – surely for the last time – and pushed his module’s thrusters to their limits, straining to reach the event horizon before the ancient station died and the bridge collapsed. As he approached, the stars behind the aperture shimmered and quaked, shifting like pebbles in a current. He felt as though there should be sound, but there was only silence. Beyond the roiling horizon, somewhere across untold tracts of space and time, was Earth. So many years after Odyssey had made her historic journey through the aperture, now he would bring all things full-circle by doing so in reverse.
The tears came at last as the module approached the aperture, the gravitational effects intensifying, drawing out this painful moment. Unable to resist the urge, he took one final, fleeting glance at their dead world. There would be other colonies, no doubt. By now there might be hundreds…maybe even thousands. It didn’t matter. Only one of them was home, and he could never go back.