The taste of the stale calorie bar still lingered in Viktor Sharapov’s mouth when the ship began to tremble.
His eyes shot open.
“Whoo boy,” Jimmy said. He was two seats down, and his voice sounded muffled. “Now it’s a party.”
Viktor realized why his voice sounded strange: it wasn’t coming from the receiver in his helmet. Because Jimmy wasn’t wearing one.
It sat in his lap, quiet and unused.
The trembling grew stronger, wobbling Viktor’s seat.
“Jimmy!” Viktor yelled. “Put your helmet on!”
The kid picked up his helmet, but not to put it on. He held it to his ear to use the comms, like a sphere-shaped telephone. “What’s that, Vicky?”
“Put your slagging helmet on!” Viktor looked around the launch hallway, at the handful of other miners who hadn’t bothered to follow protocol. The vibration in his seat bones increased.
“All of you. Do as I say. Connor! Do you not feel this?”
The ops manager twisted in his seat. “Relax. The ship isn’t exactly new. Always some bumps. If the engineering team signed off on the launch…”
A sudden jolt threw everyone’s heads forward.
The room spun. Everything was wrong. For a brief, horrific moment Viktor was certain his head had been sliced off and was now tumbling across the room independent of his body.
But it wasn’t just his head. The entire seat had become dislodged from its base, sending him in a slow arc through the air, tugged by the miniscule gravity created by the Kerwood’s thrust. Viktor bounced off the far wall gently. Two screws and a hexagon nut hit the wall within his view. From the seat mounting.
Cheering echoed in his helmet, and in the muffled air on the other side of his visor. He looked around the hallway as his seat rotated back into view.
The entire mining crew was whooping and whistling, clapping their gloved hands together. Only Jessica didn’t join in the cheer, and leaned back in her chair defeated.
“I do not understand,” Viktor muttered to nobody in particular.
“Of course you’d be the one,” Jimmy said. “Luckiest Russian that ever lived.”
“The fun seat,” Jimmy said, as if that were explanation enough. When it became clear it was not, he added, “We’ve been taking bets on when it’d finally go. I put a week’s pay down that it would happen on launch. Jessica took the bet.”
Jimmy reached across another miner to playfully shove Jessica. She blew a puff of air that tossed a blonde lock inside her helmet.
“Another wager.” Viktor was up near the ceiling, bouncing between two walls. He fumbled with the straps of his harness. He tried to make his voice as scolding as possible. “This is unacceptable. Connor, when we get home…”
Jessica leaned forward. “Oh, lighten up, Vicky. I’m the one who should be mad that–”
Her head disappeared as the bulkhead exploded.
Pure light blinded everything.
Viktor flew backwards into open air, then struck something. Hard. Even with the chair strapped to his body the force knocked the wind from his lungs. Light danced across his vision like shooting stars. Something rang in his ears, foreign and cloudy.
Then the screams began.
He heard them twice, on the radio in his ear and muffled outside his suit. Surround sound panic. Something was wrong with the launch hallway, but no matter how much he blinked he couldn’t get his vision to focus.
For the next ten seconds it took all of Viktor’s willpower just to coax air back into his lungs.
Everything came together as he began breathing. Sound became more distinct: a woman screaming, a man praying. A third voice calm and orderly, which was somehow more horrifying than the rest.
Slowly, the blinding light left Viktor’s eyes. He saw the inside of his helmet, but the glass was clouding along a lightning-shaped crack down the front. He could only make out bits of grey wall outside. Soon that faded as the cloudy condensation spread.
“What has happened?” he asked his helmet, hollow and helpless.
Nobody responded. The woman screamed louder.
But of course Viktor knew what was wrong. The pressure within his suit and without were equal at launch. A crack shouldn’t have created a rush of equalizing pressure.
Unless the ship, or more specifically the launch hallway, was losing atmosphere.
His helmet’s heads-up display confirmed it a moment later. The letters were harsh and red:
EXTERNAL PRESSURE ANOMALY
SUIT INTEGRITY COMPROMISED
INTERNAL PRESSURE INCREASED TO COMPENSATE
Viktor allowed himself a moment of panic. I’m going to die. I’m already dead. My grave will be the black, and Helena will never have a headstone to place her flowers.
Then the moment was gone.
He tuned out the sounds coming over the radio and focused on his immediate problem. The helmet, yes. But beyond that, he was still bouncing around in his chair, striking the walls. The chair had far more mass than he did. He needed to get out of his harness to get control of his tumbling.
He felt around for the straps. They made an X shape across his chest, but the gloved layer between his fingers made touch-feeling difficult. He wished he could see. His seat struck a wall, knocking Viktor’s skull against the inside of the helmet. One of the red warning messages disappeared. It came back a moment later with two new ones. One of them was a number, a percentage, rapidly decreasing. He ignored it. The lightning-shaped crack in his helmet began to hiss.
Focus, he told himself. One brink-of-death problem at a time.
His gloved fingers found the seam of the strap, raised slightly above his launch suit. He followed the strap until it reached the buckle connecting to the top of the harness, metal and rigid.
Viktor gripped the buckle between his thumb and index finger and squeezed. It did not eject the way it was supposed to.
Of course, the harnesses were made to engage the strap locks when a crash occurred. To prevent the very scenario Viktor was encountering: someone bouncing around the ship uncontrollably.
Fun seat indeed.
He slammed into something softer than a metal wall, and the morbid part of Viktor’s mind knew it must be a body. He’d struck it hard. He said a quick prayer that they were already dead, and then felt shame for wishing such a terrible thing.
He ran through his launch training, like watching an old home movie. All launch suits had a utility pocket down by the thigh with emergency supplies. His hand found it by touch, felt the bulky contents pressing against his thigh. The velcro came open and he grabbed the first thing he touched.
He held it up to the sliver of helmet that wasn’t fogged. It was a five centimeter knife, folded in half to protect the blade.
Viktor used both hands to unfold it, then fumbled at his harness. Eventually he got his fingers under a strap and stuck the knife underneath. Pointing the blade away from his body, he began sawing at the fiber, praying it was made of cheap material like everything else on this cursed deathtrap of a ship.
He sawed, and floated, and tensed as he bounced against a wall. Then he sawed some more. The hissing in his helmet sounded farther away. His ears popped. He could feel the strap coming apart, the tension shifting to the remaining threads.
The knife broke through the final piece with sudden ease.
Viktor tried to squirm his way through the harness, but it wasn’t enough. He’d need to cut another.
He began on the second strap more fervently. His suit politely declared that his heart rate was elevated, his breathing erratic. He wished the voice were a person, and not a computer, so he could curse at them in Russian.
He cursed at them anyways, if only to hear his own voice.
The knife was halfway through the second strap when he bounced against a bulkhead. His elbow was extended because of the sawing motion, and took the brunt of the force.
Which is how Viktor stabbed himself.
The rush of air across his belly masked the pain, a strange sensation like having someone purse their lips and blow across the skin. Then he moved his arm, and with it the blade, and fire ran across his gut like water. He wasn’t sure what he should do, but instinct made him pull out the blade in one quick motion. A drop of blood hit his helmet, faintly red behind the fogging air.
Viktor ignored the dozen new warnings in his suit. Already he was feeling dizzy with each turn of his head.
He found the strap again and resumed his sawing. It came away quickly. Viktor pulled the severed harness over his head and then he was free.
One problem solved. Two new problems created.
He steadied himself with his hands, grabbing onto the familiar shape of a hand-hold in the wall. Through an ever-receding clear spot in his visor he saw that he was in a completely different room than the launch hallway. A bigger room, with crates of supplies along the wall. A problem for later.
Judging by the pitch of the hiss in his helmet, the room pressure was continuing to drop. Following that thought to its logical conclusion, he would be in a vacuum soon. He could either try to find a room with stable atmosphere, or get control of his suit pressure.
The Kerwood had experienced an explosion. Some rooms had lost pressure. Maybe all of them. And even if some were stable, in an emergency most rooms would be airlocked to contain the damage.
Viktor looked down at his belly, imagining he could see the puff of oxygen floating away. The smell of blood and something nastier permeated his suit. Better get that under control first.
He reached down and grabbed the second item from his utility pocket: a plastic tube as long as his finger. Emergency sealant. It was nothing more than industrialized super glue made to quick-dry in vacuum or semi-vacuum environment, but it would get the job done. He’d hold his suit at the cut at his belly and glue it shut. Then he’d slather it on the helmet crack.
He clung to the plan. A simple plan. Fix the problems, one at a time.
Something felt wrong with the sealant. He held it up to his visor, squinting through the fog. The tube was shriveled and flat, long since expended. He flipped open the top and gave a test squeeze anyways. Nothing came out.
He screamed in rage, at the glue-heads who’d probably used the sealant for a quick intoxication, and at the corporation for not checking the supplies regularly. He was going to die because of them.
The screaming made him feel better, but it left him more lightheaded than before. The edges of his vision were already beginning to darken, and it had nothing to do with the helmet fog. His suit wasn’t replacing the oxygen fast enough.
Feeling around the wall, he got his bearings. He pushed over to where the door ought to be. Surprisingly, he was right, the metal outline of the hatch happily beneath his fingers. He tried the door latch. Unsurprisingly, it would not open.
He’d expected that, since the room’s atmosphere was compromised. Oh well. Worth trying.
He pulled himself to the right, to the emergency box that was mounted in each room. He knew it had more tools than his utility pocket: small rivet gun, carbon mesh rolled like black gauze, industrial solvent applicator for burning it in place. All of it made to repair a major hull breach, not a launch suit. An ounce of the solvent would probably burn all the way through his suit rather than melt it together.
Good thing it was his only option, or he would have agonized over it.
The sounds of the ship were distant, nearly mute.
Viktor felt around until he found the handle of what he hoped was the solvent applicator. He couldn’t be certain: the dark continued spreading at the corner of his vision, and even the simplest thoughts were difficult to grasp. They kept floating away when he tried to latch onto them with his focus.
Oxygen. Hypoxia. Death. Helena.
He gripped the solvent applicator and pointed it at his helmet. It clinked against the glass. For a split second he imagined he’d grabbed the rivet gun by mistake. He pictured a thick bolt shooting through his helmet and skull.
He pulled the trigger anyways.
There was no gunshot-like blast. Instead, in his fingers he felt the soft buzz of liquid spraying from the applicator. When he thought he’d sprayed enough he stopped, and waited.
Something queer happened to his helmet. The fog still remained on the inside, but behind it the clear material seemed to warp and bubble. Smoke drifted outside his suit. The lightning-shaped crack on the visor cleared, then distorted, then fogged again. Not the fog of condensation on the inside, but the fog of a perfectly transparent material becoming grey and cloudy.
Viktor made himself look at his heads-up display. Suit pressure still dropped, but slower than before. At least, he thought so. It was working!
The solvent continued bubbling, and soon Viktor could hear the hissing noise it made. The fumes were inside his helmet, stinging his eyes. Fire scalded his throat with each breath. He clenched his eyes shut but couldn’t hold his breath, not while already so oxygen deprived. He continued gasping for air, desperate for the tiny fraction of inadequate oxygen in each breath.
The burning is good, he lied to himself. The pain goes away only when you die.
Pinpricks on his cheeks meant the solvent had gotten inside his suit. It bubbled like acid. He could smell his skin burning before he could feel it, the sensation either incredibly hot or incredibly cold, at one end of the spectrum but too extreme for the human nerves to discern. He kept his eyes clenched and suffered the rising pain and prayed the solvent would harden.
Twenty seconds lasted an hour. The bubbling sound stopped.
Viktor opened his eyes.
The crack in his helmet had morphed into a bulbous splotch, like he’d sneezed inside his helmet and rubbed the mucous all over the glass. It obscured a third of his vision, the third directly in front of him, but it had done the job. The fogging had stopped and he could properly see!
The hole at his gut, however…
He turned the solvent applicator toward his belly. Each breath took momentous effort, like his lungs–and only his lungs–were being squeezed by a python. He tilted his head to see out the left side of the splotch. A four inch cut marred his suit. Blood dribbled out in time with his heartbeat, tiny red marbles which froze before they were a hand-length away from his body.
The only sound was his hollow breath inside the helmet. The black continued creeping in from the sides of his vision, surrounding him. Death, closing in.
Too groggy to think of any other option, he aimed the gun and sprayed the solvent around the cut. Then he used his other hand to pinch it all shut.
Heat sizzled inside his suit, a match lighted and dropped, wedged against his belly without extinguishing. He gritted his teeth and welcomed the rush of adrenaline, clearing his thoughts. The burning spread to his gloved hand. Unlike his cheek, the nerves in his fingers had no trouble interpreting the sensation. Agony enflamed Viktor‘s fingers. He sucked air through his teeth and squeezed his hand tighter, praying that the solvent at least closed the breach. The suit pressure indicator blinked insistently. It seemed to match the throbbing in his hand.
The solvent burned, and hissed, and melted, and hardened.
And then Viktor’s suit pressure warning disappeared as if it had never been there at all.
He barked a cheer, which turned into a wince of pain. Contracting his diaphragm caused his hand to move. Carefully, he tried pulling his hand away from the breach. That tugged on the skin of his belly. He tested moving it in all directions before coming to the realization that he’d melted his hand to his gut, suit and all.
He was a teapot. A big, Russian teapot.
A problem for future Viktor, if he still lives.
He took a few deep breaths–the air tasted so clean, even with the smell of blood!–before finally eying his heads-up display. Suit pressure held fine, but the air outside was full vacuum. Not a surprise, but it was a jarring reminder of the greater problem.
Looking around the room proved difficult with part of his visor smeared. Since the splotch was in the center of his view, it kept his eyes from seamlessly blending their respective views together. Instead, each eye had an independent view of the world beyond his visor, which his brain struggled to accept. It made him dizzy. Viktor ended up closing one eye to peer around.
He was definitely in one of the supply rooms, based on the marked crates bolted to the wall in neat rows. His launch chair–the fun seat–drifted near the ceiling to his left. It took him several heartbeats to remember he’d originally been in the launch hallway with the other miners. The departure from Egeria-13’s child-like gravity.
The wall to his right explained that. A hole three meters long gave a view of the launch hallway, the metal curled inward like wax.
With a voice command, Viktor turned on his local comms.
Several noises buffeted his ears at once. The crackle of static. A steady ping, ping, ping, sound. Mumbling.
I have three good limbs, at least, Viktor thought. He pushed off the wall and floated through the gash in the bulkhead like a bird with a broken wing.
Red emergency lights bathed the launch hallway in a harsh glow, reflecting off the dull metal. It also glinted off suit helmets, marking each thing that would have been a person.
Many of them were wrong. It took Viktor a long moment to realize why.
The first floating thing was only half a person, their suit ripped away around their belly button and black snakes drifting out the bottom. The glare kept Viktor from seeing the face; a blessing.
A hand floated across his view, ungloved. It ended at the wrist. The black skin meant it belonged to Nakomi or Kulo. The hand rotated and a wedding band glinted into view. Nakomi, then.
Many more miners remained strapped into their launch seats. The few careless ones who hadn’t worn helmets. Several more who had followed protocol, only to be impaled by a cluster of metal rods sticking through the wall. One body bore no visible damage except for a shattered visor, revealing the face behind.
Viktor floated to that body first, using his free hand to stop himself where he could peer inside the helmet.
Connor’s face looked cold, as if it had been frozen for years. His Irish eyelashes seemed darker than usual against his pale face, and his eyes stared straight ahead in confusion.
Viktor wanted to close the ops manager’s eyes, but the jagged edges of the helmet made it too risky. He said a short prayer and pushed away.
He could still hear mumbling over the radio. Painful incoherence.
“Hello?” Viktor asked.
The mumbling stopped.
“You are not alone,” he said, looking up the launch hallway. Searching for movement. “I can help. Tell me where you are.”
Three short breaths, then a woman’s voice, each word bitten off painfully: “Aft. Airlock. Please.”
The mumbling began again.
Viktor used Connor’s body to twist himself around. The hatch to the aft airlock glowed red at the end of the hall. Floating bodies littered the distance between.
The airlock. It was one of the few rooms that wouldn’t become locked-down in an emergency. The airlocks were accustomed to dumping and filling all the oxygen within seconds. Smart.
“I am coming,” Viktor said.
Hand-holds were mounted in the ceiling at convenient intervals. Viktor grabbed the closest one and gently pulled himself down the hall. He felt like a one-handed monkey swinging through the jungle. Though it was a painful exercise, he paused at each body he passed, searching for any sign of life.
Carter’s face was twisted in a silent scream, and when he twisted him around Viktor found a hole in the back of his suit caused by a piece of metal.
Isabelle, the chesty Spaniard who flirted with Viktor on the outbound trip, had lost her left arm at the elbow. Her brown hair swirled around the inside of her helmet like seaweed.
There was Nakomi, wedged halfway through the wall by one of the launch chairs, eyes white and bored. An arm was outstretched as if reaching for help, the hand missing.
Viktor was beginning to lose all hope when he came to Jimmy.
The kid from Brooklyn sat in his launch seat like it was a throne, stiff back and hands gripping the armrests. He’d gotten his helmet on, though it didn’t seen to matter. His eyes were closed, for which Viktor was grateful. He didn’t need another pair of unseeing eyes haunting him later.
He shook his head, feeling a moment of shame. Jimmy was dead, and Viktor’s first thought was about his own emotional response?
Stop it, he told himself. Focus on the tasks before you. Survival now, blame later.
He gave Jimmy’s body a pat on the knee and began to twist away.
Jimmy’s leg flew up, kicking Viktor in the gut where his hand was fused to his suit.
Viktor cried out as he flew backwards, bumping against the far wall. Excruciating pain spread around his gut, forcing his eyes clenched and nearly causing him to vomit. Slowly, it subsided. He opened his eyes and stared, confused, at Jimmy.
The kid’s eyes were open. He was shouting inside his helmet.
Viktor shook his head and tapped the side of his own helmet. Jimmy stopped yelling, then issued a voice command to turn on his comms.
“Holy shit, Vicky,” he said in Viktor’s ear. “I mean, holy shit. You scared me near to death, which isn’t very far right now, let me tell ya.”
Viktor couldn’t help but smile at the sudden life in the hallway. He felt a fraction less alone. “I thought you were dead.”
Jimmy rolled his eyes. “You and me both. Something blew up, and everyone started screamin’. There was so much smoke I couldn’t see nothin’, and the screams weren’t helpin’ my heart rate, you know, so I shut off my comms. Not that it would’ve mattered. Been stuck in this damned seat the whole time. Harness locked. Front row seat to the carnage, only it ain’t a show I exactly wanted to see.”
Viktor pulled the folding knife from his utility pocket. “You could have cut your way free.”
“Hey, I know I’m not the smartest rock-hauler on this ship, but I’m not that dumb.” Jimmy patted his own pocket. “Mine’s empty. No tools at all. I reached into Izzy’s–rest in peace–but all she’s got is a tube of glue.”
Viktor grimaced. “Good thing I’m here, then.” He floated his knife to Jimmy.
Jimmy caught it in a gloved hand, then opened the blade. “I’m guessing the reason there’s blood all over this is the same reason you’re holding your arm like a cripple?”
Jimmy looked like he wanted to make a joke, until a piece of an arm floated across the space between them, red tendrils of flesh drifting behind.
He quietly sawed away at the harness.
“Is it just us?” he asked.
Viktor heard the fear in his question. “A woman is alive, in the airlock. I think it’s Jessica.”
Jimmy looked up from his work and grimaced. “Yeah, uhh… I saw Jessica. During the commotion. Somethin’ took the top of her helmet clean off. Blood everywhere. She was squirming down the hall when I lost sight of her in the smoke.”
He cut through the second strap and drifted above his seat.
“Let’s find out,” Viktor said.
They moved down the hall, checking each body along the way. Viktor made sure to shake them, though none jolted awake the way Jimmy had. Most had suit punctures, presumably debris from the explosion.
Jimmy remained silent during the task. Viktor had never been around the kid like this. His somber mood affected Viktor more than the gruesome hallway itself.
The airlock control panel glowed with life. Viktor steadied himself above it with his good arm. The airlock was currently pressurized and stable. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Until he realized the problem.
“Hello?” he asked. “Can you hear me in there?”
“We need to open the airlock door to get inside. Since the launch hall is a vacuum, that means dumping the atmosphere from your room first.” He paused. “Can you tell me if you’re wearing your suit?”
Silence, except for Jimmy’s breathing.
“I cannot open the door unless I’m certain you are safe from vacuum.”
“If she’s dead…” Jimmy said.
Viktor gave him a harsh look. “If she’s unconscious outside her suit, and we cycle the air, we could kill her.”
“We can’t help her from out here,” Jimmy said. “And the only way inside is to cycle the air.”
“If you can hear me, make sure your suit is on.” Viktor took a deep breath. “We’ll give you a minute.”
“Boss…” Jimmy said.
“I want to make sure she has enough time.”
“It won’t matter if she’s dyin’ in there.”
Viktor knew he was right. Why was it so hard to accept?
“Okay,” Viktor said.
Jimmy raised his voice, as if that would help the woman hear. “Hey, lady? We’re comin’ in now. We’ll fast-dump the atmosphere and be quick, alright? If you don’t have your suit on, keep your eyes shut tight. It’ll be… unpleasant.”
He tapped at the control panel. A bar graph showing air and pressure levels quickly shrunk, changing from green to yellow to red.
“Get ready, boss,” Jimmy said.
The air dump completed. The door opened like a vault.
Jimmy pulled himself through first, with Viktor one-arming behind him.
It was only a secondary airlock, which meant it had been built large enough for a few suited workers to pass through. It was immediately crowded by their entry.
At first, Viktor thought there were two people floating inside. Then he realized that one was a person, and the other was an empty spacesuit. Its helmet floated nearby, the top of it shaved away cleanly as if by a laser, edges stained red.
Jimmy went straight to the interior control panel to restore atmosphere, so Viktor floated to the suit that had a body inside. A glance confirmed it was Jessica, her blonde hair visible behind the visor. Blood matted her face, and her eyes were closed.
Viktor grabbed the wall for stability. “Jessica? Can you hear me?” He tapped the visor with his knuckle.
Her eyes fluttered behind their lids. It looked like she was breathing.
With one leg brushing against the wall, Viktor felt the airlock door close rather than hear it. Then the pressure pressing against his suit began to change as the atmosphere poured back inside the room.
Jimmy flashed him a thumbs-up, then tentatively removed his helmet. He reached out to help Viktor’s off, and the big Russian didn’t protest.
The air smelled too clean, like chemicals and ozone, but he drank the cool air like a starving man.
Jimmy removed Jessica’s helmet, then gasped at what was underneath.
Her eyes fluttered open.
“Hey,” she said. “Don’t look at me like that. Feels worse than it is.”
Viktor gave a pained smile. Jessica’s skin ended at her hairline. Her dome was dark red after that, with bits of white skull showing through. The hair she still had floated around like a yellow halo.
Somewhere, Jimmy had found a white cloth. He dabbed at her head gently. “I think… you’re okay. I mean. Not okay okay. Nothing about this is okay.”
“Jimmy…” Viktor said.
“I don’t see any skull fracture. You just lost some skin. Scalped like in a Western.”
Viktor didn’t know what that meant, but he nodded. Her head did look reasonably intact.
Jimmy rummaged around in a white bag. It had a red cross on it. “Got some gel stuff I can put on it, with bandages. Does it hurt? Think you can suffer that?”
Jimmy nodded, then hesitated. “Hey, Jessica?”
“I’m sorry you lost the bet. For the fun seat.”
She closed her eyes and began shaking. It took Viktor a moment to realize she was laughing.
Jimmy grinned. “We’re gunna make sure you get through this so you can pay me. Alright? You don’t get to weasel out of it on account of nearly getting your head sliced off.”
She rolled her eyes toward Viktor. “I wouldn’t’ve taken the bet… if I had known… Vicky would take the fun seat.”
“I assure you,” Viktor said, “it was not a fun seat. Not fun at all.”
That made Jessica laugh harder. Soon the two men joined in, even though it made Viktor’s gut ache. The sound echoed inside their little bubble of protection, with the endless black on one side and the crippled Kerwood on the other.