~~~~ Act I ~~~~
“That’s an asteroid.”
“Look at this albedo.”
“So, it’s a shiny asteroid.”
“Not. An. Asteroid. Don’t you have something to do?” Jose Soares asked, turning in her seat to give the ship’s junior engineer the stink-eye. She was not a pretty woman, nor slight as fashion favoured, but her eyes could enchant. When she was angry they almost seemed to shine.
“Well, I would,” Pedro Silva explained, “if you would find something to salvage.”
Pedro was tall and broad in the chest. He had to stoop to be on the bridge. He always seemed to be smiling, even when he was angry, which often diffused situations before he knew they needed diffusing. He also hated confrontation, so after his poke at the ship’s spotter, he beat a hasty retreat from the bridge.
“Bah!” Jose groaned, frustrated, as she turned back to her station. She was a cosmologist, and a good one, which was why she received more shares of their salvage than engineers, like Pedro and his older brother.
That’s not a natural object, she thought to herself, even as the ship’s computer displayed “INCONCLUSIVE” at her. Jose was a scientist, and would never admit this to anyone, but she believed she had an edge on computers—the hunch—with which she could see a good salvage, even when the computers didn’t.
Diving into Vega’s gravity well would mean a massive cost in fuel to pull them out again, but that would only be her problem if she was wrong about the target. She made a decision and flipped on the ship’s internal speakers, “Navigation, I need a course change, ASAP.”
After a few seconds a reply came back. “Be there in five.”
“Another hunch?” Captain Luis Beto asked his navigator as she keyed off the comms panel at the door to the mess, and sighed. Luis was average height and build, with a moustache he tricked out with long handlebars. His brown eyes always seemed to be laughing at an unspoken joke. No one who met him would ever guess he held the stressful job of captain of a salvage ship.
“She’s maybe fifty-fifty on those, Luis, and I’m not up for another argument.” As she spoke, Ana Ximenes took her half-eaten meal and dumped it, tray and all, into the recycler.
“I’ll come up with you,” Luis announced as he, too, dumped his tray. They collected their mugs of coffee and headed through the mess hall’s open door. Ana handed her mug to Luis and pulled the heavy bulkhead door shut. She moved the locking bar from “open” to “closed” and they both heard the air-tight seal engage. Luis handed back her mug.
Ana said “thanks,” both for the return of her mug and his support. She was short and slim, but voluptuous where it mattered. People often commented how controlling such a large ship when so slight person made her even more appealing, but Ana was oblivious to any effect she had on admirers. She was in love with space.
Luis shrugged. They continued walking.
“Who knows,” he said, as they came to the end of the hall. A ladder was fixed to the wall and led to a closed airlock door above them. Luis went first. “Besides,” he added. His hands and boots made that ladder sound. “When she hits, she hits.”
The bridge was up one more deck. The pair arrived in five minutes, as Ana had predicted. She pulled open the bridge bulkhead door. They both stepped through. Luis pulled the door shut and locked the seal.
“Brought back-up?” Jose asked, turning in her chair to see the ship’s navigator and captain enter the bridge.
“Peacekeeper,” Luis corrected, taking his chair immediately behind and other two stations. While the bulkhead behind them was covered in equipment and interrupted by an airtight door, the sides and forward section of the bridge saw the floor and ceiling slope towards each other, ending in a series of oval viewports about a meter wide, and half as high.
The captain’s chair was mostly free of equipment. There was a single pad that could be manoeuvred for access by either hand, while the parallel forward stations, Jose seated to the left, Ana to the right, were covered in panels; four at eye level in a grid, and a large angled desk sporting a single, flat, touch surface interface.
Jose tapped several areas on the display on her desk and three of the grid screens before Ana lit up. The captain’s pad also woke up, and he began swiping between its several options.
“Um, that target is near the bottom of the Vega gravity well,” Ana commented, using two fingers to zoom in on one of her display screens. “It’s going to cost a metric shit-ton of fuel to get down there and back out.”
“So?” Jose countered. “We use the planets to pull ourselves out.”
“How do you know it’s not just an asteroid?” said Luis.
“It’s complicated. Another ‘montel’ hunch,” Ana complained. Jose flipped her the bird, which was not well-received.
“Knock it off, you two,” Luis barked. “Ana, what’s the cost to get in there and back?”
“Hold on,” Ana sighed, working at her console. “We can get into the well and alongside the target in a week. There’s a two-week window from that point where we can use the sun and two gas giants and make it back out stellar north in seventeen days.”
“Fifteen to twenty percent of capacity. Leaving us at forty-five to fifty percent sub-light fuel. For an asteroid.”
“It is not an asteroid,” Jose said between gritted teeth. “Its course and albedo say it’s not a natural object.”
Lois rubbed his forehead with his hand. “Okay, Ana, make your calculations and put in the route. I’ll get in touch with Joaquim and let them know to prep the hangar and tighten up what’s in the hold.” He got up from his chair.
“No comms?” Ana asked, apparently already over her frustration.
“Nah,” said Luis. “They love it when I show up unannounced down there.”
Both women chuckled, despite themselves, as Luis left the bridge.
“What size was that last ‘big score’ again?” Joaquim said as he typed at his console.
“What, you mean that ‘score’ of an asteroid?” said Pedro.
“Yeah, that one.”
Joaquim was not as large as his brother, but was five years older. Unlike his younger brother, Joaquim’s face was lined and troubled. He had borne the brunt of the difficulties they’d faced when they lost their parents as children.
“Rounded out to forty million metric tons.”
The brothers were in their office in Engineering, a small room on D-deck, a part of the ship which was their responsibly: engineering, propulsion, and RCS reaction control. They were nominally responsible for all the systems on the ship, but the other crew members would often help out if the engineers were overwhelmed, which was often. They were taking this unusual down time—the ship’s name was apt, Oedipus Wrecks, because it was an old, rusted-out, roaming disaster that was broken more often than not—to get clear up some of their paperwork. The constant repairs needed left little time to eat and sleep, never mind sit in the office, so they were trying to catch up now.
“You writing stories or reading ‘Dear John’ letters?” Luis asked as he come through the open hatch to the engineering office. He turned as he came through, making sure the brothers took note of this breech of regulations.
“I told you to seal the hatch!” Joaquim scolded his younger brother.
“What? You came in after me!”
“Don’t care who, just don’t do it,” Luis said quickly, cutting them off and waving away the issue with his hand. “I bring tidings of great comfort and joy!”
“What’s broken now?” complained Pedro, shutting down his terminal.
“Nothing but your dismal spirit,” Luis quipped. “We will be alongside a target in seven days. I need the salvage equipment certified, docking ports working, and E-deck organized to receive any booty we might find.”
“Engineering, bridge,” came through a speaker near the door to the office. Luis walked over to it and made the channel bidirectional.
“Engineering, how may we be of assistance, bridge?”
“Captain?” came Ana’s surprise.
“Yes. I am giving an object lesson on how to be polite in space. What can we do for you?”
“A-deck environment controls have gone haywire. It’s thirty-five degrees with ninety percent humidity in here.”
Luis glanced at the engineers on the other side of the small office, then spoke into the panel, “Understood, bridge.” He closed the circuit and walked over to the brothers.
“Well, you wanted to know what was broken. Now you know. Get environmental controls working on the bridge. I’ll be in my quarters, expecting to hear they’ve been fixed.”
“Captain,” Pedro acknowledged. Joaquim gave an informal salute.
Luis gave the two men a nod then left the office, sealing the door behind him.
“You’re on environmental,” Joaquim announced, standing up and pulling up the top half of his engineering overalls so he could put his arms through the sleeves. He zipped it up and checked to ensure the overall’s external connections all had their orange protective safety caps attached.
“Come on,” Pedro said. “You know they’ll be all over me up there!”
“Yup,” his brother replied. He tapped the left side of his chest. “Note the ‘Sr’ before ‘Engineer’? Sucks to be you.” Then he walked over to the hatch, opened it, and stepped through.
Pedro watched, annoyed, until it was clear Joaquim was not going to seal the door. Then he flipped the open hatch the bird.
On the bridge, Ana used a cloth to wipe condensation off her console. Both women had taken off the top half of their flight suits, which was against regs, but even in their thin undershirts both were slick with sweat, and miserable.
The bridge was hardened against moisture, so there was little threat of equipment failure, but the internal cooling systems protecting the electrical components caused even worse condensation on the very equipment they had to work with.
Ana touched an icon on her console and said out loud, “course change and point one g constant acceleration in five minutes. Everybody strap in. That’s a course correction in five minutes. Will alert when all clear.”
“How can you even see anything?” said Jose, wiping her displays and wringing out her cloth. A substantial amount of water dripped to the deck as she twisted and squeezed.
“I can’t,” Ana replied. She pulled the restraints for her five-point harness over her shoulders and snapped them into the central hub at her waist.
Jose did the same with her restraints, waiting expectantly for an answer. She had given up on trying to identify their target more clearly because the condensation on the equipment made such work impossible. Now she gave up expecting an answer and put another imaginary negative notch beside Ana’s name.
Ana touched her console and spoke again, “that’s thirty seconds, folks. Thirty seconds to strap in for course correction.” She sat back in her chair and examined the nails of her left hand. Jose noticed they were not very long, but were carefully manicured and looked like passing star fields. As they both watched, the nail on her pinky finger had what looked like a nova explode on it, an animation that lasted for a few seconds before fading away, leaving the original star field. Jose often wondered about things Ana did, like getting her nails done professionally. She wondered what it was like to turn heads. But then, Ana didn’t seem to notice she did. What a waste!
Ana touched her console and spoke again, “that’s ten second, folks. Unless I hear a desperate cry, we are doing this thing.” She then counted down from five, reading from one of her displays showing a countdown in numbers so large the condensation could not distort them.
After “zero”, both Ana and Jose were forced back into their chairs by their restraints, until they were held so tightly their breathing became laboured. At the same time, the ship flipped end for end and fired its main engines. The pair was pushed back into their seats until the ship was at zero relative motion with the Vega system. Then more axis rotation, this time in three dimensions, and the star Vega came into view through the condensation-covered bridge windows. They automatically tinted themselves to protect the crew’s eyes from the naked solar radiation. All rotation ended, and once again the main engines fired, pushing them into their seats once more, but not nearly so hard this time. Finally, the harness straps released their tension as the ship’s engines went cold.
“Next stop, one Vega-orbiting asteroid.”
Once more Jose flipped Ana the bird.
“Or, and more likely, death due to heat prostration!” Ana added, sticking out her tongue.
Luis opened the hatch to the climate control room on B-deck to the roar of rushing air. As he stepped through the hatch, he could see a dozen or so ceiling vents blowing what looked like steam down the wall and beneath the deck plating.
“Close the hatch!” someone yelled from the back of the room. Luis, who was about to close the hatch anyway, felt his teeth come together and grind. He pulled the hatch closed and swung the locking arm. He confirmed a seal before making his way past the roaring vents. He was already soaked by the humidity of the room.
Near the end of the room Luis found Pedro leaning against the bulkhead and holding onto a lever coming out of the wall. He was wearing his waterproof overalls.
“How goes the bridge repair?” he asked over the din.
Pedro cupped his free hand over his ear and mouthed, “what!”
Luis, his teeth grinding once again, moved closer and almost screamed, “the bridge?”
Pedro nodded and pointed to the noisy jets shooting into the floor. “Cycling the … on the … to cond… the …vapour back into …reclam…. … adjust temp… after.”
Luis managed to catch enough of the words to gather the fix was ongoing. “How long?” he asked.
Pedro held up three fingers then made a circle with his hand. Thirty minutes.
Luis nodded and made his way, quickly, if not soggily, out of climate control.
Pedro waited until he saw confirmation that the hatch had been sealed, then he pulled the lever he’d been holding down. The roaring stopped immediately as the vents ceased their spraying.
“Sucker,” Pedro said to himself, then pushed the level back up. Once again water vapour shot from the jets down beneath the deck.
The humidity was back to normal, and both women were grateful to see the temperature gauge slowly tick down towards something reasonable.
“Go Pedro, bandaid rides again!” Ana remarked, wiping her forehead with a dry cloth.
“Why ‘bandaid’?” said Jose. “Is he a medic or something?”
“Ha ha, no,” Ana chuckled. “We call him that because he fixes things just enough so they’ll work again, which means they usually break soon after in the same way. You know, he puts a bandaid on…”
“Right, I get it,” Jose said, chuckling as well. “How does he feel about that call sign?”
“I think he’d say it makes for sticky situations,” Ana replied, then laughed at her own joke. Jose joined in.
“Passing beyond penumbra of gas giant. Line of sight in twenty seconds,” Ana said, returning to her business voice.
Jose replied, “Acknowledged,” as she focused the ship’s main sensor array on where she knew their target would be once the ship moved beyond the system’s inner-most gas giant, which they had been using to speed their approach.
“Got it!” Jose announced, having the return from the telescope display on all three bridge consoles. “It’s definitely artificial,” she added.
Her bridge-mate said “Yes!” beneath her breath.
“I’ve got markings… holy shit, it’s a cargo container from a long-liner, the Osprey.”
“Get me everything we have on that ship,” Luis ordered as he came through the bridge door.
“On it, “Ana replied, working her console.
“Container ID 317-5531” Jose added. “Damn it’s a big one!”
“Okay, long-liner ‘Osprey’ lost in transit,” Ana read out, “November thirty, two years ago.”
“So,” Luis did some quick Earth-standard calculations in his head, “that’s fourteen months. Is there a bounty on the ship?”
“Two million adjusted dollars for information leading to the loss.”
“Two mil… Jose!”
“I’m extrapolating a reverse course. At fourteen months we’ve got a ninety-two percent accuracy within two AU.”
“Bingo! “Luis shouted.
“We’re in the money!” Ana sang, dancing as much as she could in her seat restraints.
“Okay, Ana, get us decelerating and on parallel course with that thing.”
“Jose, collect everything you can visually as we approach, and when we get within range open up our electronics sweep. I want condition, power, the lot. Ana, put the Osprey’s details up on my console.”
After a few touches to her console she said, “done,” then returned to navigation. The Wrecks had already traded its bow for stern and the main engines were firing a deceleration burn.
Lois examined the Osprey’s cargo manifest. Five hundred and eleven trailers, five hundred and ten of which were cargo meant for colony NOR37. One trailer was destined for St. Francis, a medical facility currently stationed near NOR37 to support terraforming and colonization efforts. He dug a little deeper. The loss of the Osprey cargo almost destroyed the colony. Even with a massive humanitarian effort half the colonists perished. The disaster set colonization plans back years. That was why the reward. Authorities were desperate to figure out what had happened. A long-liner of that size had never been lost before, never mind lost without a hint of what happened. But now, thanks to the Wrecks’ crew, they would be able to send a ship from the site of the loss the distance light travels in fourteen months, and watch the accident happen.
Light was nature’s time machine.
“We’ll be alongside in two hours, boss, “Ana announced, breaking his focus on the Osprey.
“Okay. Sounds good. Let’s keep a five-kilometre separation. And put the cargo bay on standby.”
Joaquim and Pedro were sitting in their acceleration chairs in the hangar bay. In front of them loomed one of the ship’s three submersibles, a one-person machine capable of operating in liquid, gaseous, and vacuum environments. This particular unit, the one they had prepped to reconnoitre their salvage, was named Ismene. The other two, currently stowed in their slots at the back of the hold, were Antigone and Priest. The owner of the Wrecks had an affinity for works by the ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles.
The bay’s yellow lights began flashing, and the brothers sighed.
“Two hours until target,” came the Captain’s voice over the ship speakers. “All crew assemble in A-deck conference room in fifteen minutes.”
They looked at each other, then removed their restraints, taking care to compensate for the ship’s constant deceleration dragging them aft. They walked in the opposite direction from the effect, like two men staggering into a strong headwind. The brothers stuck to the starboard bulkhead, using the various straps and latching rings in its surface to help them maintain their footing.
“I suppose I should add,” Luis came back over the ship’s broadcast channel, “we hit the cousin-lovin’ jackpot this time!” Cheers from the rest of the bridge crew followed, until Luis closed the circuit.
“Jackpot?” Pedro said, becoming excited. Joaquim did not reply, but they both began moving faster.
Joaquim and Pedro arrived last at the conference room. When they opened the door they were hit with a foul odour, the cause of which was a cigar Ana was holding. When she saw them wrinkle their noses in disgust, she took a few large puffs.
“I took the liberty of disabling the fire suppression system,” Ana explained, her head almost invisible behind the cloud of smoke she’d produced.
The engineers looked, and sure enough the fire warning was flashing red. The tank of fire suppressor it was supposed to be attached to, however, had been removed and was now held down to the deck with a magnetic strap.
When they looked back, Ana winked.
“Gross,” Joaquim complained, setting the room’s air re-circulation to maximum. The blowers ramped up and Ana’s smog was quickly dragged down through gaps in the deck plating.
Joaquim sat down. Pedro turned a chair around and sat in it backwards. The ship’s deceleration burn was reducing in intensity as the computer followed Ana’s course.
“We have found a habitation container from the Osprey, a long-liner out of Earth, hauling over fifteen kilometres of cargo to NOR37, a newly-established colony. The Osprey was reported lost fourteen months ago when her signals stopped transmitting. The habitat module we found was at the end, number five hundred and eleven. Never mind what the salvage gets us, Jose has extrapolated back fourteen months from the accident and the reward for this information is two million adjusted.”
“Two mil…” Pedro managed, and it was time for the engineers to cheer.
After things quieted down, Luis continued, “So, Jose, tell us all about this container and what we should expect.”
“Yes, boss,” said Jose, waking up her pad. “We’re looking at a sixty-three- by twelve- by twelve-meter plastiform habitat container. Inside are two vertical levels and a three-meter section at the forward end which contains all the infrastructure to maintain the life support: CO2 scrubbing, power, oxygen, food storage, and so on.”
“What are the power levels at?” Pedro asked.
“Zero. It’s completely derelict. This basic info is from passive RFID ping back to the ship’s queries.”
“So, no one alive?”
“Can’t be. The power cell on this model is only good for sixty days. Food and life support could last up to thirty days. The Osprey’s flight plan was a six-to-seven-day slip, to NOR37.”
“Any damage?” Luis asked.
“Nothing. Not a scratch.”
“Wait,” Joaquim complained. “Are we going to find bodies in there?”
“It’s possible. The Osprey manifest lists two inhabitants of the habitat, a mother and daughter, Fatima and Sadie Ali”
“Will that affect the salvage?” Pedro said.
“No,” said Luis. “Human remains do not affect salvage rights, although the salvage crew is to ‘make every effort to return the remains to a government authority.’”
The brother engineers chewed on this information. Finally, Joaquim said, “So, how do you want to go about this, boss?”
“Let’s get over there and check things out. If the habitat is functional, we’ll tow it back with us and sell it. If it’s broken and not worth fixing, we’ll pull any valuable components and toss the rest into Vega.”
“Sounds good, “Joaquim agreed. “I think first steps are to make a recon sweep and poke around the outside and inside. If it’s all clear, take a portable power unit over there and see if we can power the thing up. Grab any logs to pass on to the investigation into the loss of the ship. If the power won’t turn on, then things get more complicated.”
The Oedipus Wrecks was a large ship, but almost eighty percent of its space displacement consisted of drive systems and the power plants necessary to make them work. This meant the livable space on the ship was quite small, and its five crew members had a difficult time finding any kind of privacy beyond their individual sleeping berths. So, when the brothers were presented with an opportunity for one of them to enjoy an extended stay on a two-level habitat container with over seven hundred square meters of floor space, the only reasonable solution was a best three out of five roshambo contest.
“Four out of seven,” said Joaquim, when Pedro won three straight matches.
“No way, handy,” Pedro replied, handing Joaquim the tool he’d been using for the final repairs on the climate control for the bridge.
“Don’t call me that!” Joaquim demanded.
Pedro ignored him. “It’s going to cascade to the entire ship if the repairs aren’t sewn up.”
Joaquim opened his mouth to argue, but Pedro had already turned and sprinted over to the submersible labelled Ismene, and was climbing its access ladder to the cockpit.
“Cousin-fucker!” Joaquim cursed, as the hangar’s blinking yellow emergency strobes began to flash.
“Warning!” the ship’s automated voice announced. “Hangar bay depressurization will commence in one minute. All personnel must exit the hangar bay or don environment suits. Fail-safe override is detecting an unprotected crew member in the hangar bay. Override will cancel depressurization in forty-four seconds.”
Joaquim looked up at his brother, his upper body visible through the submersible’s transparent cockpit. Pedro raised his arms and shoulders in a “now what?” shrug. Joaquim flipped his brother a double bird, sighed, then left and sealed the hangar bay door.
Once free of the Wrecks, Pedro set the cockpit canopy to opaque because of his proximity to Vega, which hung before him like an exploding Titan. He slid the craft’s camera display down in front of his face. The circle of displays allowed him to see three hundred and sixty degrees in a horizontal plane. Using one of his visual control sticks, he could shift this view in the vertical, meaning Pedro could see everything in front, to the sides, behind, and above and below him.
Ismene was the oldest submersible they had on the Wrecks, but it was Pedro’s favourite. The newer models did away with view screens in favour of a VR helmet, which tended to give him eye strain and a nasty headache after a couple of hours use.
Pedro punched in the Osprey container’s location as his destination into Ismene’s navigation, and set the thrust to maximum. He was shoved back into his seat as the submersible’s engines fired full power towards its target. An overlay and audio ping provided clues to the container’s proximity.
After only a couple minutes the acceleration ceased. Ismene rolled on its horizontal axis until it was flying backwards, and Pedro was once again forced back into his seat as the craft decelerated towards the container.
Then, nothing. No acceleration. No vibration from the engines. Only a slow, gentle rotation, and there it was, tumbling slowly in an uncontrolled three-axis rotation: container 317-5531, sporting the name and logo of the Osprey, and the company that owned it.
“First things first,” Pedro said to himself. He extended one of Ismene’s arms and selected its grasping tool. Using the RCS thrusters he matched the container’s tumbling, moved closer, and grabbed one of its handles meant for moving the unit in a gravity environment. Then, with gentle, deft bursts from the submersible’s attitude thrusters, he reduced the container’s tumbling until its rotation was static relative to the Wrecks. Pedro keyed the ship-to-ship communications open. “Target acquired and relative zero. Now proceeding to investigate.”
“Acknowledged,” came the clipped reply.
The submersible’s claw let go of the container and the craft made its way to the emergency airlock on the top. Once Ismene had latched on to the external port, Pedro donned his helmet and checked the display on his arm to ensure his environment suit held a good seal.
“I’m now reading a hard seal with the container and all suit readouts are green. Looks like the container reports pressure at one atmosphere. I am proceeding to open the outer hatch.”
His transmission was acknowledged.
Pedro used the handles on his seat to push it back into the aft wall of the cockpit. This allowed him to glide weightlessly, at an angle, feet first, down and aft to the bottom of the submersible, where the hatch seal of Ismene sat. He checked the airlock’s status. It had extended itself out from the habitat, using the Ismene’s power through their connection. It looked like a giant pop can rising out of the container, with Ismene attached to the top. The submersible still maintained a hard seal with the container’s outer airlock door, so he turned the wheel on the round door until he heard the hiss of the vacuum between the submersible and the container being filled with atmosphere from his craft. Then he pulled the submersible’s airlock up and peered down at the container’s outer airlock door.
Pedro used his hands to glide down to the outer airlock door and peered through the small window. It was completely dark inside, but by angling his helmet just so he could get one of its lights to illuminate the space of the small void below. It was empty, and the inner door was shut. After checking the manual display on the outer door to confirm the airlock was at one atmosphere, he turned the wheel until he heard another hiss, then the pulled the door up into the space between Ismene and the container. The airlock proper was small. Pedro guessed no more than three people could cram into it at a time. Even with his short-duration environment suit on, he took up almost the entire thing. He pulled shut and then sealed the outer airlock door, opened a manual valve to equalize the pressure with the container, then opened the inner airlock door to gain access to the habitat.
After closing and sealing the inner airlock door above him, Pedro found himself in a small area, perhaps a meter square. He could visualize where he was from the plans they had downloaded. This space represented the top floor of the three-meter section of the habitat container, where the oxygen, CO2 scrubbers, food and water stores, and the computer that kept everything running, were stored. Right next to him was a door labelled “Habitat.”
Pedro took a moment to look around the space. He was in a kind of box walled off by some form of chain link fence. With his back to the door his helmet light showed what had to be the computer tasked with maintaining the habitat, and the power supply it used to do this. The computer was completely dark. No power or standby lights were visible. Not even the power source showed any signs of life.
To his left was duct work leading to large boxes Pedro assumed must be CO2 scrubbers. And to his right were several large tanks. He could see the symbol for oxygen on them as his suit light illuminated their labels. Pedro leaned forward until the visor of his helmet touched the pseudo-steel links that made up the walls of the area he was in. All of the manual gauges on the tanks he could see were full.
The bulkhead door was currently in the sealed position. Pedro swung the lever to the right to break the seal. With a light push, using his hand to grip the chain link to compensate for the lack of gravity, he pushed the door inward, then drifted into the habitat proper. Pedro pushed the door closed and swung the lever to seal the door behind him, then consulted the pad on his suit’s right arm.
“I’m inside the habitat,” he said, knowing his suit’s radio transmission would be detected by Ismene and relayed to the Wrecks. “Atmospheric readings are all in the green. No sign of decomp gasses. I’m going to take off my helmet.”
A response came quickly, but was distorted, likely due to the signal being relayed and passed through the habitat itself, “affirmative.”
Pedro took another look at the pad embedded in his suit’s arm, double checking for any sign of decomp gasses. The last thing he wanted to do was take off his helmet, take a deep breath, and get a nice mouthful of rotting-flesh flavour. His concern was well-founded, being grounded in experience not six months ago.
Reassured, Pedro reached under his chin to the quick release on his helmet. There was a hiss as the pressure equalized. His ears popped. Finally, he put his hands on either side of his helmet and raised it up until his face was clear.
Nothing untoward so far, but he kept his hands on his helmet and the top of his head in the hole in case he needed to put it back down and reseal it quickly. He could almost taste rot in his closed mouth as the trauma of past experience resurrected it from his memory.
He blew out the breath he’d been holding from his suit, then took a tiny bit of atmosphere into his nose. Nothing. So he took a bit more. Now he could smell a mustiness. It was a smell of stagnant air that reminded him of drinking water from a glass that had sat out for a day or two.
Feeling more confident, Pedro took a proper breath through his nose. Sure, the air was stagnant and dusty, because the uncontrolled tumbling and lack of gravity kept some of the dust particles from settling, but it was okay to breathe.
Whatever had happened to the denizens of this habitat, they were no longer on board. Pedro could feel the heat caused by Vega’s radiation. The container’s orbit would have made the interior hot like this for weeks. Anybody, in an environment suit or not, would be nice and juicy by this point. And stink to high heaven.
Pedro spent the next half hour working his way through the darkness of the habitat. The upper floor contained four bedrooms and a large kitchen. The kitchen had clearly been used, with some dirty dishes in awkward places where the container’s tumbling and put them. The fridge was a mess. Liquids began to move towards him when he opened the door, so he shut it quickly and dodged the blobs that were now doing their throbbing dance in the open, weightless space of the kitchen. He could smell something rancid.
Two of the bedrooms showed signs of use, while a third looked more like an operating theatre than somewhere to sleep. All around the bed were machines, some meant to monitor, others meant to provide fluids and medicine, yet others meant to support breathing and other bodily functions. Fortunately, like all the appliances in the kitchen and furniture in the bedrooms, these machines were attached to the floor.
The lower floor was made up of living and recreation spaces. The two dens were a mess, although the furniture was attached to the floor and cushions stuck to their seats with straps. Still, it was clear this place had been lived in: pieces from a large jigsaw puzzle were littered everywhere in one den, and scrabble letters, a game board, and the upper and lower box halves of a scrabble game littered the other.
One of the recreation rooms was a small gym. All the equipment was designed to be stored in micro-gravity. In addition to traditional weights, resistance stations of various types dotted the room, using lengths of plastiform of varying elasticity.
Pedro found himself staring at a hoodie that had come to rest beneath an inclined resistance table. It was bright red. He floated over to it and pulled it out from under the workout machine.
It was small. Too small. A little kid had worn this, probably tossed it to the side while exercising when the exercise made them too hot to keep wearing it. Pedro looked around the room again, letting his helmet lights illuminate the gloom as his mind conjured the space fully lit, on its way at the tail end of that long-liner, bound for a medical station.
“What were you looking to find there?” he asked the missing strangers.
“Say again, Ismene,” came the response through the speakers of his suit, but Pedro was not really listening. In his mind he was moving slowly away from the habitat, into the space where it resided. The Wrecks was five kilometres away, not much more than a shiny blob at this distance.
In his mind he continued to move away, faster and faster. Vega, once a star so close it filled the sky, slipped away until it was only another pinprick of light in the cold, empty blackness of infinity that weighed down on him from every direction. He suddenly felt so lonely he could almost taste it on his tongue.
“Strike that, Wrecks,” he spoke into the hollow emptiness of the room. “Inspection complete. Have Joaquim bring over a portable power unit. Oxygen levels, CO2 scrubbers, even consumables all appear to be in the green.”
“We hear you, Ismene, power will be there in fifteen.”
“Understood.” Pedro headed back to the airlock. He felt close to panic now, as if some catastrophic failure on the Oedipus Wrecks might occur, killing the crew and stranding him in this empty habitat. He needed to see the stars again, even if only through Ismene’s small and scratched-up canopy. And even more, he needed to see the Wrecks glinting in the distance, with Antigone slowly growing out of the blackness until he could see his brother’s face looking back at him from the canopy of the other submersible. The emptiness of this habitat had spooked him, and now what he wanted was a tincture of humanity to steady his nerves.
*featured image photo credit: Darya Sheydel