Viktor drifted through his cube-shaped bubble of atmosphere a few millimeters per second. Such slight movement was practically still relative to the walls, but the airlock was small enough that within seconds he neared the ceiling. He reached up with his good hand and let his fingertips absorb the inertia. The result was that he began floating back the way he’d come, a fraction of a degree slower than before.
There was a comfort, there. Whatever disaster had befallen the Kerwood, the laws of physics still applied. A reminder that they were still in the world of the living.
He couldn’t muster the energy to do more than float back and forth. He couldn’t muster the energy to care. Once the adrenaline from the action had worn off extreme exhaustion had taken its place, like he’d worked a double shift in high-G with no calorie break. Simply floating there was a soft, calm luxury.
When Viktor was a child, his father had taken the family on a trip to the Caspian Sea. The people in the markets there were exotic compared to the stoic Russians: they called their wares in high-pitched, almost singsong voices, pointing out strangers and gesturing wildly to attract attention. One rotund man sold blown-glass ornaments, small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, intricate and precisely crafted. Viktor had never seen glass with colors swirled inside, greens and reds mixing and dancing like water. He’d begged his father to buy him a glass figurine of a ballerina, leg extended and dress blown out in a swirl. Of course they could not afford it, and Viktor’s father had been angry at the request.
The man selling the ornaments had smiled sadly at Viktor. What he remembered most about the man was that he wore a white turban around his head, tightly wrapped like a cloth beehive.
The gauze wrapped around Jessica’s head wound reminded Viktor of the glass salesman. A big, swollen, turban.
Jessica occupied the wall opposite him, looking alarmingly like a dead body, though he knew she lived and could see her chest rise and fall. Despite what she said, the pain from her scalping had become too severe for her to suffer. Viktor shot her up with drugs from the medical bag before wrapping her head in gauze. They clipped Jessica’s tether hook onto the wall to keep her in place.
Viktor envied Jessica her unconsciousness. He wanted to curl up and sleep. Not in his Kerwood bunk, but in a real bed, with the warm lump of his wife an arm’s length away. A warning indicator on the wall next to Jessica changed from green to yellow with an emphatic blink. He knew he should be thinking about what to do, but he couldn’t bring himself to focus.
Jimmy smashed the comms button again and spoke louder, as if volume were the reason nobody was responding.
“Hey there boys and girls, it’s your friendly precious mineral extractor here. Still here. In the airlock. Waitin’ for death. We’ll be here for–oh, I don’t know. A few more hours, depending on how much O2 I consume speaking into this squawk-box.”
“Actually, we’ll be in here longer than a few hours. We just won’t be alive after that. Because of the impending death I mentioned. It’d be super terrific to avoid that, so if anyone wants to take a stroll and help us out, I’ll give them a big ‘ol kiss on the lips.”
“You are wasting your breath,” Viktor said. A moment later he thought, our breath.
Jimmy ignored him, focusing on the terminal as if he could make someone respond by willpower alone. Finally he pushed the button again.
“You know, maybe it’s silent on account of I’m the one talking. I mentioned Vicky and Jessica are with me, right? They’re pretty well-liked around here. So if you’re leaving me to die, just remember you’re leaving them too. And Jessica could use some real medical lovin’.”
He let go of the button dramatically. “I swear, if this is a prank…” He eyed Viktor. “You don’t think it’s a prank, right? Cause I don’t like it. I never done nothing like this, you know?”
Viktor gave a noncommittal shrug with his good arm.
They’d been in there half an hour. Their suit transponders were functional–he’d checked. Jimmy shouldn’t have even needed to radio anyone. Ship sweeps should have happened by then.
Unless everyone else was dead, of course.
The thought floated across his mind. He tried to grasp it, focus on it and think harder about the deeper implications, but it drifted through his fingers like mist. Why was it so hard to focus? Why didn’t he care? Maybe he’d lost more blood than he thought.
“Okay,” Jimmy told the comms, “how about this. What’s the difference between jam and jelly? It’s my best, most dirty joke. And if you want to know the punchline, come on down to the aft airlock and I’ll tell you in person.”
“You’ve told that joke a hundred times,” Viktor said.
Jimmy let go of the comms button. “Shh! Maybe someone hasn’t heard it yet, and the curiosity’ll get the better of ‘em.” He tapped the side of his head as if the plan were cunning instead of ridiculous.
“Maybe so, Jimmy.”
Viktor watched Jessica’s face, frowning and cold. He didn’t know her well, but he felt a workman’s compassion for her as one of the few other miners who pulled more than their weight on the job. He hoped she wouldn’t die. If she could die, it meant he could, too.
It should have been obvious, with the hallway full of dead miners on the other side of the door, but his brain had compartmentalized that. Tucked it away into a box, closed the lid, and placed it in a closet for later examination. He wondered if that’s why he felt so cavalier about their situation. Some human defense mechanism dating back to when they used sticks and rocks.
The warning indicator on the wall began blinking. Viktor closed his eyes too it, annoyed at anything trying to occupy his attention. Then curiosity began to take hold. Blinking might be bad, but it also–improbably–might be good. He mustered just enough energy to push off the wall with his feet and float the two meters toward it.
He frowned at the small LED and the letters stenciled into the wall.
He tapped at the screen as Jimmy approached. The kid sighed at the info.
“Nice. The airlock scrubbers are pulling a lot of xenon. That’s just fantastic.”
Viktor squinted a question at him.
“Xenon’s inert, right? A safe, stable way of fuelin’ the ship? Well, it turns out that don’t mean shit when it mixes with O2 and becomes xenon tetraoxide.” He made an exploding motion with his cupped hands. “And right now the airlock air scrubbers are mixin’ it all together like a bowl of cake batter.”
“Xenon tetra…” Viktor tasted the word.
“Combustible above a certain temperature. Bad shit. Might be nothin’, might be more than nothin’,” Jimmy said. “Way I see it, we’ve gotta assume it’s more than nothin’.”
Viktor cocked his head. “How do you know this thing?”
Jimmy shrugged awkwardly, then covered it with a grin. “I’m not the idiot you all think I am. Sometimes I learn about other ship systems. For fun. Hey, it’s helpin’ now, right?”
“Right.” Part of Viktor was suspicious, but it was drowned out by the other part that screamed staying alive is more important.
“So, yeah. We’ve gotta get out of dodge like it’s yesterday,” Jimmy said.
The immediacy of their problem helped Viktor focus. He nodded. “Move somewhere else in the ship. Away from the problem. Find some more air.”
“If there is any to be found.” The silence of the inoperable comms hung in the air. “If not…”
“Then we die,” Viktor said with a shrug.
Something changed on Jimmy’s face as he stared at the airlock. There was none of his usual charm, now. “We need to go outside. Outside,” he added for emphasis.
Viktor opened his mouth to ask why, then closed it again. If they returned to the interior ship through the launch hallway, which was in vacuum, all of the interior doors beyond that would be locked-down against the vacuum. Even if they came across a functioning part of the ship, they wouldn’t be able to enter without exposing it to vacuum. Not without double-door airlocks.
They would need to enter through one of the external airlocks similar to what they were currently in. Which meant exiting the ship and crawling around on the outside. Without any safety tethers.
Viktor looked at Jessica’s unconscious bulk, then down at his own teapot arm.
“Oh,” he said.
“Oh,” Jimmy agreed, wide-eyed and manic. “Oh fricken no.”
“So what do we do?”
“Dumping the air the normal way would stir the air tanks. Might be a bad idea. We can manually eject the hatch instead of suckin’ all the air out, but the air scrubbers’ll still do a little dance. We better hope all that stirring-up doesn’t make it explode a little.”
“Maybe. Or a lot.”
They put on their helmets, twisting to lock the seal. Jessica’s helmet proved tougher to connect with the swollen beehive of gauze wrapped around her head. In the end they removed a few layers–already yellow with pus–and squeezed the helmet overtop. She never so much as flinched, and several times Viktor had to make sure she still breathed.
The medkit had adrenaline inside. Jimmy and Viktor spent a few moments discussing waking her up. In the end they decided it was too dangerous. Which meant they’d need to haul her like a load of minerals.
Since he had two good arms, Jimmy was the one to pull the manual airlock clutch, with his other arm tight around a handhold. Viktor held onto another as if his life depended on it. Which, in reality, it might. They left Jessica clipped to the wall.
Jimmy pulled the lever.
The square door fired away silently, there was a soft rush of air against their suits, and then the muted silence of the black.
From their angle he couldn’t see Egeria-13, or anything else. Only the stars. Maps on earth showed the asteroid belt as being chock-full of rocks, but in reality most clusters of atoms larger than a boot were spaced millions of kilometers apart. The darkness of space seemed to drink the light from their airlock. It pulled at them like a whirlpool.
Looping his foot around a hand-hold for stability, Viktor used his good arm to unclip Jessica from the wall. He waited for Jimmy to move outside the ship, but the kid didn’t budge. Viktor turned on their direct suit comms.
He flinched as if he’d been scared, then turned and gave a thumbs-up. “Yeah. Totally ready.”
He still didn’t move.
“I’ve never, well, done an EVA before.”
“Not for real,” Jimmy said. “In a simulator on Luna, sure. But always with walls on four sides.”
“We drilled on the surface of an asteroid a hundred kilometers wide,” Viktor reminded him. “You were fine, then.”
“That’s different. Ground underneath my boots. Real ground, rock and ice, not metal. Up here… ohh.” He clutched the handhold inside the airlock and recoiled from the open door.
“Jimmy, we need to go.”
He didn’t move.
“Jimmy, do you need me to go first? Would that help?”
“I… maybe. I think, yeah, it would.”
Viktor sighed, but his renewed focus kept him from dwelling any longer than that. “I’ll get in position, then you send Jessica to me.”
With the nudge of his toes Viktor drifted toward the black square. He grabbed a hand-hold near the door, which pivoted him around to the outside. His feet bounced off the hull of the Kerwood, absorbing enough of the inertia to nearly stop him. The maneuver also banged his left elbow, sending a jolt of pain through his gut.
Hand-holds like giant staples ran across the ship’s exterior. Crew were supposed to use safety tethers, clipping along every few meters as a backup mechanism, but they didn’t have that luxury then. One mistake…
“Okay Jimmy,” he said, looping his boot underneath a hand-hold. He felt stable. “Send Jessica my way. Slow.”
The woman’s body floated out the airlock like a sack of potatoes. Viktor grabbed the hook on the back of her suit and pulled her around. His foot creaked against the metal hand-hold as he one-armed Jessica to his chest. He held her close. He wished they had a length of rope to tie the woman to his own suit, to free his hand, but if they were wishing for things he might as well have wished for a fully functioning ship.
“I am needing your help, Jimmy.”
Ten seconds. Jessica’s bulk blocked most of his view.
“Did a little explosion get you?” he asked, hoping it sounded like a joke. He listened to his breath echo in the helmet, once, twice, three times.
Viktor was beginning to get worried when he felt Jimmy banging along the hull. An invisible hand pulled Jessica away. He let it.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Totally fine,” Jimmy said. “100 percent, no, 110 percent fine.”
“In case you get not-fine,” Viktor said, “keep your eyes on the hull directly in front of your face. One step at a time, yes?”
“Sure. One step at a time. Like climbin’ a ladder.”
“Just like climbing a ladder.”
Jimmy breathed into his microphone. “Not a problem.”
Unburdened, Viktor moved along the row of staples that curved underneath the ship. That’s where they’d decided was their best chance: the cargo trunk that ran the entire height of the ship. It had access to most of the Kerwood.
That route would also keep the ship between them and the sun. The cheap launch suits had enough insulation and temporary chemical heaters to keep them warm in the darkness, but they weren’t sun-grade. A minute or two of direct sunlight uninhibited by an atmosphere would roast them like turnips.
Viktor took a deep breath. Just a short stroll. He’d done it a million times.
He climbed along the staples for two meters, as far as he could go and still touch Jessica. He stopped, hooked his foot into another hand-hold, and grabbed a handful of Jessica’s suit and pulled her forward. To his relief, Jimmy followed.
They continued like that, moving like an accordion keeping Jessica between them, just in case something unexpected happened. Even with all his decades of experience, there was something unnerving about doing an EVA without a tether. The tingle of danger, like playing Russian roulette, except instead of the randomness of a bullet’s location they played with the seemingly random nature of kinetic energy. The slightest unexpected shift in the Kerwood, whether from an exhaust or if the engines were tested, could send them hurtling off into millions of kilometers of vacuum.
An unexpected ship maneuver seemed more and more unlikely, though. With every passing second Viktor began to dread that he, Jimmy, and the lump of muscle that was Jessica were the only ones alive.
At a glance, the underside of the ship looked undamaged. Viktor rotated a mental image of the Kerwood, picturing where he thought the explosion had occurred. Near the engines? That made the most sense. Especially if there was a xenon leak.
But had the xenon leak happened before the explosion? Or as a result of it? He thought about asking Jimmy–how did an uneducated miner know so much about chemistry?–but then stopped himself.
Focus. No slip-ups in the black.
They moved like an inchworm across the hull, one Jessica-length at a time. Eventually, the grey shape of Egeria-13 appeared in the false sky, like a rising sun. It surprised him, because they were already underneath the ship and moving along a flat section. No longer curving. It took Viktor a long heartbeat to realize what that meant.
The ship was rotating, very slightly.
And if the ship was rotating, soon they would be in direct sunlight.
He didn’t dare tell Jimmy, for fear of panicking him. Instead, Viktor said, “Feels good to stretch our legs, huh?” and moved a little bit faster.
“Yeah,” Jimmy said, concentrating too hard to make a joke.
In the distance, near the front of the Kerwood, a long shadow stretched from an instrument antenna, the area around it brightening as if someone were nudging a dimmer light switch. Viktor pulled Jessica’s body forward, unhooking his foot from a hand-hold at the same time, cutting corners to save a few seconds.
“Almost there,” he said. “Gunna feel good to get back inside. Eat some more hardened food paste.”
Jimmy laughed, a ridiculous sound with so much immediate danger about to crest the edge of the ship.
Viktor floated the last few meters to the airlock, grabbing a handhold and swinging himself to a stop. To his relief, the computer panel on the side glowed green. He punched in the standard access code and prepared for the door to open.
Instead, it flashed red.
He punched it in again, slowly this time to make sure he didn’t fat-finger it. Again, the panel flashed in rejection.
“It broken?” Jimmy asked from Jessica’s feet.
“No.” Viktor frowned at the screen. If it was inoperable, that would make sense. But for it to be functional, and not allowing him inside… He switched his comms to a different circuit, hoping it could connect this time.
“Kerwood, this is Viktor Sharapov, along with two others, attempting re-entry at the lower escape trunk. My standard code is not being accepted. Need immediate assistance, if anyone is up there.”
Jimmy said, “If this door’s not working, there’s the cargo airlock twenty more meters forward. We can try that. It’s not so bad out here, you know, once you get used to it. Don’t know why I was ever afraid…”
Viktor looked in that direction. The shadow from the instrument antenna was moving across the hull. They had no time to continue forward, and not enough to go back the way they came.
He knew he failed at keeping the panic from his voice, but just then he didn’t care.
“Kerwood, this is Viktor. Myself, Jimmy, and Jessica are attempting re-entry at the trunk airlock. Ship has a slight corkscrew lilt, and within seconds we will be sunward and exposed. Need immediate entrance.”
Over the comms, Jimmy gasped.
The corona flickered into view at the front of the ship like a flood light coming on. Viktor’s faceplate automatically tinted. The barest amount of protection his suit would offer.
He hammered on the airlock with his fist, risk of suit puncture be damned. Jimmy appeared next to him and began banging on the door too, screaming into the comms for help, even though he was still on the direct connection with the Russian alone.
They were going to die. They were going to be cooked alive in the vacuum of space.
Viktor pulled back his arm and sent an especially hard blow into the metal, enough to propel him backward. His boot slipped, his arm flailed, and then the ship was moving away. Grey metal spreading out.
He was floating backwards into open space.
He kicked, and instinctively tried reaching with his left hand, feeling the fused skin tear against his suit. He was only two meters away from the ship, moving at a few centimeters per second, but for all it mattered he might as well have been kilometers away.
He screamed in earnest into the hollow helmet. Jimmy watched helplessly, crying a wordless cry of help over the comms. He waved at Viktor as if the big Russian needed to be made aware of his situation.
Surprisingly, calmness doused Viktor like coolant. He saw the situation with sad clarity. What had he expected, banging on the metal? An equal yet opposite reaction, and all that. The simplest of physics concepts. He took no solace in knowing it wouldn’t have mattered anyways. That dying on the side of the Kerwood or a few meters away made no difference.
The calm feeling disappeared, replaced by a sensation along his left side like scalding steam. Direct sunlight bombarding his suit, radiative heat transfer converted to convection heat. He closed his eyes against the air. Sweat immediately appeared at every pore. In moments he would be roasted like a good piece of meat.
He wished the cheap launch suits had a way to record a quick message. For Helena.
He prayed to saint Sergius, mumbling words he’d memorized as a child. Something in the nostalgic Catholic fear made the words come easy. He pretended the prayers were comforting. The scalding air tore at his throat, but he spoke the words all the same.
Viktor had begun the third prayer when he was struck in the chest.
He opened his eyes but couldn’t see anything in his steamed visor, and the sweat stung his eyes anyways. He felt like he was being grabbed by a giant claw in one of those old earth arcade machines, pincered around the waist and retrieved for collection. He wondered if there were angels in the black. If so, how could they carry him up to the heavens when he was already there?
The angels sang to him over the comms, and he closed his eyes and waited to see the face of God.
When his helmet came off, and the cool air chilled his sweaty face, all Viktor saw was Jimmy. He stared down with his child-like grin.
“Vicky, you crazy sonofa bitch.”
They were inside the airlock–and they was now a crowd. Several people floated a short distance away. With his eyes still stinging, Viktor couldn’t recognize the faces behind helmets.
Jimmy was still talking, he realized. “…finally opened, and floated out on a jury-rigged tether to grab you. Like a cobra strikin’ a rat. Ballsy shit. Wait, do they have cobras in Russia?”
One man took off his helmet and floated to Viktor.
The fat miner gave an uncomfortable smile. He used a pair of copper shears to cut away at Viktor’s suit. He stopped when he reached the gut.
“An accident,” Viktor said.
“Sir, I see that, but…” he trailed off as he tested the give of the suit. Viktor’s skin pulled painfully. A moan escaped his lips before he could stop it.
Besides Siebert and Jimmy, everyone else floated around, watching. Their stillness was wrong. Something had happened. Something more than just the ship explosion.
“What’s going on?” Viktor managed to say.
Jimmy watched the others as he hovered protectively over Viktor.
Finally two of them took off their helmets. A man and a woman. Names failed to bubble up to Viktor’s focus, but he knew they were engineers.
The woman turned to the man. “Ask him. Ask him.”
The male engineer eyed her for a moment before turning his gaze to Viktor. “We saw the airlock open at stern. What made you do an untethered EVA?”
The woman nodded accusingly at Viktor.
Viktor blinked away his sweat, confused. Why did it feel like they were being interrogated?
Siebert reached behind Viktor to remove part of his suit, and as he did he put his lips close to Viktor’s and said, “She didn’t want to open the door. Wanted to let you die out there.”
A cold chill went up Viktor’s spine, and it was more than just the air hitting his exposed skin.
“Well?” said the woman, crossing her arms. Adelaide. That was her name. Unpredictable fire shone in her eyes.
“Answer the question. Answer it!”
Viktor looked around the room. He, Jimmy, and Jessica were against one wall. The others all floated against the other wall, like policemen about to make an arrest. Siebert drifted sort of in between the two groups, a chemical welder on his hip. He looked like he was trying not to choose sides.
Viktor opened his mouth to say something, then promptly passed out.