Trial By Fire – Snippet 20

Trevor aimed behind, fired two last times, pushing him forward as the command section’s wider aftward surfaces rotated under him. It was a tricky maneuver. If he fired too soon, one of the sharp angles of the prow might slam into him as it completed its arc, doing so with enough force to shatter every bone in his body. Coming in late wasn’t quite so bad; in that event, Trevor would land a few meters off-center and aft of the command section, but that also meant a few more seconds of exposure. Caine squinted. The whiteness of Trevor’s suit had blended with the whiteness of the spinning wreck, obscuring the outcome of his final approach to contact.

But just before the top surface of the prow rolled out of sight, Caine glimpsed a flash of movement on its surface: two quick, wide-armed waves. The first confirmed that Trevor was safely down on the wreck; the second meant that it was now Caine’s turn to jump.

Caine clipped a waiting electric lead onto the end of the tether. He thumbed a stud on the lead’s handgrip. A short burst of high voltage current coursed through the reactive-composite tether, converting its malleable pith into a rigid core. He looped his suit’s mooring lanyard about the now-stiff line, clipped the end of the lanyard to a ring on his own utility harness, and exhaled. Time to go.

He leaned forward, pushed his feet back against the interior hatch, aligned himself so as to be parallel to the tether. Space loomed large above his head. He bit his lip hard and kicked.

The airlock walls rushed past and were gone. In their place was blackness and slowly wheeling stars–which were all at once directly overhead yet also beneath him. All at once, both he and the universe were tumbling uncontrollably. He tried to focus on the one object with a constant relative bearing: the enemy wreck. However, he was approaching it too swiftly according to his inner ear, even though he was closing far too slowly according to his dosimeter. The radiation icon became red.

He inadvertently blinked. When he reopened his eyes, it now appeared that the wreck was rolling toward him. The sudden change in perception brought up a swirl of nausea-inducing vertigo, just as the wreck’s cockpit blister started coming around again. But still no sign of Trevor. He closed his eyes and bit down harder on his lip.

When he opened his eyes, he forced himself to see the wreck as stationary and himself as approaching–and discovered that he was more than halfway down the tether. And had still not initiated the one-hundred-eighty-degree tumble which would turn him around and position him for a feet-first landing upon the wreck. Trevor was rising into sight again, making fast, angry circles with his hand.

Caine kicked forward slightly, felt his body begin to rotate backward, watched as the wreck seemed to fall down, beneath his feet–and was distracted by a glimmer of light just above his field of vision. He craned his neck to get a look at the source of brightness.

Caine started. A titanic hemisphere of white, ochre, and pale blue striations wheeled, wobbly, above his head. Whereas the slow rotation of the starfield had been modestly disorienting, the drunken oscillations of Barnard’s Star II were stupefying. The gas giant brushed the stars aside, half-filled his visor, seemed ready to swallow the module he’d jumped from like a whale’s maw poised to swallow a lone krill. The mammoth planet’s atmospheric turbulence sent whorls and spirals streaming into each other in slow motion, murky fractals eternally evolving. Silvery flickers backlit the clouds, telltale signs of lightning storms more extensive than the entirety of the Eurasian landmass. Caine swallowed, fought through a rush of vertigo so powerful that he felt he might spin down into a single, contracting point and vanish–

“Caine! Grab the tether! NOW!”

Caine started violently as Trevor’s voice blasted out of his radio receiver. He looked down past his feet. Only six meters below, the aft end of the wreck’s prow was rolling past. He choked down a rush of bitter vomit, grabbed at the tether, lost his grip, grabbed again, caught it only a palm’s width from the end. At this close range, the wreck’s roll rate seemed to have increased, with Trevor rotating closer at a fearsome speed–

–But I don’t have time to fear, or even think. I have to act.

Time slowed and the gargantuan emptiness of the universe seemed to shrink back–enough so that Caine could assess how much sway his frantic motions had imparted to the tether, could watch Trevor rotate past underneath him, and could gauge the best moment to “jump down” to the wreck. He felt more than calculated that moment and pushed off the end of the tether, bending and relaxing his knees, eyes riveted down between his feet.

Four meters, two. He kept his focus on the closest part of the wreck, scanned peripherally. There was a small angular protuberance rotating past, just to the right of him.

Contact. As his knees absorbed the shock, he felt the wreck rotating out from under his feet, trying to shove him away. Caine kept his knees loose instead of bracing them, let his body continue to sink toward the hull, felt it bump his buttocks as he leaned to the right and grabbed.

His hand closed around the protuberance he had spied: a curved bar. Probably a mooring point. He twisted in that direction, threw his left hand over to join his right on the bar. Caine felt pressure mount in his joints as the inertia of his old vector argued with the rotational force, the combined vectors tugging his body away from the wreck and turning it around in space until, finally, it relented. He checked his chrono as he pulled his body back into contact with the wreck and gathered his legs beneath him. Ninety-eight seconds since Trevor had started over. How time flies when you’re having fun.

There was a light bump against his head; Trevor had crawled over and tapped helmets. His voice was quiet, tight. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay, now,” Caine answered, pretty sure he was telling the truth. “Let’s get going.”

Trevor nodded, and set out on a drifting crawl to the rear of the wreck’s command section, where he pointed to a small oval recess surrounding a slightly convex section of the hull. Caine felt the edges of the recess, discovered deep, wide grooves. “Airlock?”

Trevor nodded. “Might be. Look for a maintenance plate or manual access cover.”

Caine pushed himself back carefully with his right hand, then his left–and stopped; something was under that palm. It was another, much smaller oval recess with a convex interior, the center of which was pierced in a quatrefoil pattern. Caine grabbed hold, tugged: nothing. He tried turning and then pushing it; there was a moment of resistance, then a short downward release before the cover swung back easily.

Trevor was already beside him. “What have you found?”

A cruciform knob stared up at them. Trevor reached in, turned it, watched the large convex panel that was probably an airlock. No discernible change. He turned the knob again, again, again. Slowly, the airlock door began to slide aside and farther away, deeper into the hull. Trevor braced himself and began cranking the knob rapidly with both hands: the portal widened more rapidly. He nodded for Caine to lean closer; their helmets touched again.

“Take the gun. Safety off. Cover the entry while I finish opening it.”

Caine detached the weapon’s lanyard from Trevor’s harness, attached it to his own, and slid the gun out of its holster. He crawled to the edge of the opening airlock and aimed the weapon inside. His visor’s red radiation icon began to flash; they had exceeded two minutes of exposure. Not good; not good at all.

The airlock door slid away, apparently retracting along a curved pathway. When it was about half open, the movement stopped. A second later, Trevor was alongside Caine, touching helmets again. “I’m going to shine a light in and take a look. As soon as I do, you lean in with the gun. If you see anything suspicious, nail it. Understood?”

“Understood.” Caine exhaled. After tumbling through endless, enervating space, this activity was reassuringly finite and concrete.

Trevor scuttled around to the other side of the opening, activated his helmet lights, nodded to Caine, and looked over the edge. Caine leaned in with the gun on that cue.

Trevor’s lights illuminated a tiny cubicle, smaller than the airlock on their Auxiliary Command module. At the bottom was another oval portal, flanked by a modest control panel. Small lights, most of which were yellow-green, stared beady-eyed back at them from its surface. The vehicle still had some sort of power, even if it was only emergency batteries. Otherwise, the airlock was empty.

Caine looked up; Trevor pointed at himself, at Caine, and then down into the airlock. Caine nodded.

Like a snake sliding around the corner of a rock, Trevor slipped over the rim of the hatchway and down into the airlock. Caine double-checked that the pistol’s safety was off and followed.