Originally published August 1, 2013
In all likelihood, they would all die sometime within the next fourteen hours. Some would last longer than others, but when the last dredges of emergency oxygen had been depleted, and the carbon dioxide levels in the remaining cabins reached thirty six percent, they would each have maybe a few minutes of slowly diminishing consciousness with which to think their final thoughts and speak their final words.
They were spacefarers in the 23rd Century. They knew nothing awaited them after that.
Before the explosion, the ship, named Heyst, was comprised of five tube-like cabins linked end-to-end—command, living, recreation, science and engineering —wearing a belt of eight impulse boosters. An airlock at each end provided access to and from the ship. Pressure doors could be closed to seal individual cabins. An elaborate computer system monitored and maintained the various other systems necessary to carry out the Heyst‘s mission.
Afterward, half those impulse engines and large portions of the outer hulls of the science and engineering cabins were spiral galaxy arms of glittering debris and whipping cables and hoses radiating from the remains of the hull. The explosion had crippled the fragile vessel, destroying communication, propulsion, sensors and life support, leaving it as little more than a pressurized chain of cans floating in the void.
The Heyst had been making best speed when the explosion occurred, and was still hurtling through the void at an unfathomable rate at least in the general direction of Earth. Without their navigation system, the crew could not tell how severely the explosion had affected their heading. They knew it really didn’t matter. They were six days out.
They were starkly aware of all of this as they stared at one another, conscious of their breathing, conscious of their movement without resistance towards a home that, at best, would appear as a small pin-prick in the unfathomable distance, only distinguishable from all the other pin-pricks of light by the fact that it was their pin-prick, the one they knew they would never reach.
Now there were six of them left out of a crew of nine. Jacobson had died in the explosion. Sato and Conley had died by choice; after admitting and consummating the love they had hidden from no one but themselves, they opened the outer doors of the forward airlock and drifted out to decompress and freeze. That left Reeves, the captain everyone hated and surely wished dead so at least they could spend their last half a day without following his barked orders; the two engineers, York and Mueller, who were drunk off some spirits they smuggled aboard or managed to brew in their cramped engineering cabin; and the science team, Liu, Medellin and Smoltz, who, as civilians and not members of the United Service, lacked the training to deal stoically with such a situation.
“Carbon dioxide levels at twenty three percent,” spoke the computer in its soothing and condescending voice. “At current consumption rates, emergency oxygen reserves will be depleted in approximately twelve point six-four hours.”
Liu began to whimper. Smoltz placed her hand on his knee. York nodded to Mueller who produced a bottle of clear alcohol and offered it to Liu. Reeves stared hard at the engineers and whimpering scientist and opened his mouth to speak, but reconsidered and held his hand out for the bottle that Smoltz was upending instead.
Medellin looked around the room, her eyes going from fearful to amazed to irritated. “Well, fuck this,” she said as she stood up, remembering to stoop so as not to bang against the low bulkhead.
They all looked up at her, Reeves with the bottle halfway to his lips, Liu sniffling and wiping a tear from his cheek. Short and squarely built, she still seemed to tower over them in their cramped, padded, wire-infested tube. Sneering, she shook her head and squeezed between them towards the aft of the command cabin.
She stopped by the sealed hatch that led to the living cabin. “I don’t want to die out here,” she spat, “not like this, not with you assholes.” That took them aback. Reeves made as if to say something, a reprimand perhaps, but she wasn’t part of the military crew, and there was little point. Instead, he took another sip from the bottle.
York rolled his eyes and shook his head. “There’s no way, lassie,” he said in his thick, affected brogue. York was from York, the great city of northern England, but he swore he and his family were Scottish and made sure his accent supported his claims. “The lines were cut by the explosion. There’s simply no way we could seal and re-pressurize the two cabins and reconnect all the systems. We just cannot do it.”
Liu, Smoltz, and Reeves nodded somberly at his assessment, but Mueller surprised them all by shaking his head. “You have a difference of opinion, tech sergeant?” Reeves asked him, seeing an opportunity to reassert his command and regain his confidence.
“Tech Sergeant York is correct in his assessment of the damages, sir,” Mueller began in his clipped German accent, “but as usual, he draws an incorrect conclusion from the present information.” York’s glare was disarmed and turned into a chuckle by Mueller’s smile. They often teased one another, and despite the gravity of their situation, Mueller was not about to stop their game.
“Okay mate, what did I miss this time?” York asked, playing along, happy for any distraction from his grim thoughts.
Assuming an air of pomposity, Mueller explained how he believed they could salvage the crippled vessel and regain control of most if not all of their systems. “We will have to sacrifice the science cabin of course,” he concluded with an apologetic glance up towards Medellin.
“Fine by me,” she said.
“What about my experiments?” Liu asked.
“Fuck your experiments,” Medellin answered. Liu sobbed.
Smoltz shot her a glare. “They’re already gone,” he corrected. Liu nodded and sniffled, placated.
“Carbon dioxide levels at twenty six percent,” spoke the computer in its soothing and condescending voice. “At current consumption rates, emergency oxygen reserves will be depleted in approximately ten point eight six hours.”
And with that they began to work. Mueller had made the plans, but Reeves directed them. No one complained about his barked orders or the strange and difficult tasks they were asked to complete. Even Liu seemed filled with purpose. Despite his puffy eyes and his red and sniffling nose, he worked with the same sense of determination as everyone else.
The first hour was spent cobbling together vacuum suits from what few supplies were available in the command, living and recreation cabins. Insulated jackets, gloves, and coveralls were stitched together with line from the table tennis net. A bowl that usually held small treats was cut in two and became the face plates for a pair of helmets made from pressure cookers. Luckily for the crew of the Heyst, nearly everything aboard that was subject to use and wear was made from the same diamond hard and ultralight alloy as the ship’s hull.
Next, it was necessary to construct a tether with which to tie the engineering cabin to the others while the remains of the science cabin were jettisoned and cut apart to make a hull patch. They unwound their hammocks made from a strong and flexible synthetic fiber and tied them together into three thirty meter lengths, just long enough to span the gap that would be left by the jettisoned science cabin.
“Carbon dioxide levels at twenty nine percent,” spoke the computer in its soothing and condescending voice. “At current consumption rates, emergency oxygen reserves will be depleted in approximately 8 point four seven hours.”
There work outside was not without danger. Smoltz nearly lost an arm to a whipping power cable, and Mueller’s leg was crushed when they brought the engineering and recreation cabins together. Everyone who worked outside in those frantic hours—that is everyone but Reeves and York who busied themselves cutting, rewiring, and reconfiguring the control modules in the command cabin—suffered some amount of cosmic radiation burns that would leave permanent polychromatic scars across their arms and faces. Liu’s gloves leaked, and Medellin, acting as a sort of medical officer because of her training as a biologist, was certain that he would lose at least two fingers to frost bite.
Yet despite the dangers and despite the many improvisations the work required, they were able to finish in impressive time. They gathered, all together, in the recreation cabin at the portal that now led to the engineering cabin, waiting for Reeves to turn the crank that would release the magnetic locks and either flood the engineering cabin with pressurized atmosphere or expel what little pressurized atmosphere they had left.
“Carbon dioxide levels at thirty five percent,” spoke the computer in its soothing and condescending voice. “At current consumption rates, emergency oxygen reserves will be depleted in approximately one point one two hours.”
“I hate that fucking computer,” Medellin grumbled. A chuckle passed amongst the remains of the Heyst’s crew; even Liu managed a smile. They looked to Reeves. He nodded and strained against the crank. Veins bulged and muscles strained in his arms. The magnetic lock was stuck. A sense of defeat flitted amongst the remaining crew. Liu whimpered.
“Bang her open,” York said, and they scrambled to find a hammer or sledge that they had not lost or incorporated into their repairs. Finally, fed up, Medellin locked a set of heavy lifting weights on the end of a barbell and passed it to York. “It’ll have to work,” he said as he took a wide stance, spit upon his hands for added grip, and squared up against the portal.
“Carbon dioxide levels at thirty six percent,” spoke the computer in its soothing and condescending voice. “At current consumption rates, emergency oxygen reserves will be depleted in approximately point two three hours.”
York swung the makeshift hammer with a bang that echoed throughout the pressurized cabins of the Heyst. He swung again. On the third swing, they heard a soft creak. On the fourth, a more noticeable groan, and more significantly, the soft hiss of leaking air. York stepped aside, nodding to Reeves.
“This is it,” Reeves said. He gripped the crank and turned. And what little atmosphere there was left rushed to fill the void.