By Robert Lynch
After finishing a job taking some compromising holos in the Benek system, I found myself on a small orbital station waiting for ship supplies to be transferred to my hold. I ordered the supplies late in the station’s afternoon shift, and I had to wait for the morning staff until the shipment could be finalised. Having eight hours to kill, I did what anyone would do. I headed to the station’s bar.
The little hole in the wall bar didn’t even have a name. A burly fellow poured a shot of something brown into a shot glass and slid a comm reader over to me. I tapped my comm on the reader and paid for the shot then hesitantly sniffed at it. It burned my nose. This seemed more like antiseptic than alcohol, so I decided not to sip it and took it in down in a single gulp. My eyes watered, and my tongue burned. This was some kind of bourbon; if you added a strong unwashed sock aftertaste.
“Well lookee here,” Johan Erikson said from behind me.
I turned, “Johan, what brings you to this oasis?”
“Bounty on a loan fraud,” Johan said. “Not exactly big bucks, but it’ll keep me flying for a while.”
I gestured to the Bartender who poured out two more sock bourbon. “Here’s to staying in the sky,” I said as I passed a shot to Johan, gesturing a toast.
He took it happily and sat down. “And to you, my friend. Had any interesting bounties lately?”
We drank until the wee hours catching up. Johan hit the sock bourbon with gusto, while I was more reserved.
“Aw-right,” the Bartender said, “last drinks.”
“I think I’m ‘right,” I said, “need to get in a few hours kip before they load this gear.”
“Come on,” Johan said, “one last drink.”
I nodded, taking a shot he offered me.
Decompression red lights and alarms sounded. With rehearsed speed, all three of us had unzipped and unfurled the clear polymer hoods attached to the collars in our emergency suits and sealed them, then sealing each hand in similar gloves and attaching chemical scrubber units to our now sealed emergency suits giving us each 8 hours of air. Johan took the longest to seal up, but even as drunk as he was, it took him less than 30 seconds. Anyone who lived in space had practised decompression drills.
Previous times I’d been exposed to vacuum, my suit would pull tight as the pressure inside inflated the suit in the vacuum of space. This time it remained wrinkled. I took my comm and plugged it into the microphone in my suit, “There’s still pressure, why the alarm? Drill?” I broadcast to the local area.
“We don’t do drills.” The Bartender replied using his own comm, “It’s possible a bulkhead closed sealing this section from the breach. The alarm will sound if the section is cut off from air recycler, even if there is still pressure.”
Johan stood up, wobbled and then sat back down on his stool.
I nodded acknowledgement and walked down the corridor, where I found a closed bulkhead. “Seems you’re right. Can you contact the station’s central control and find out how long repairs will be?”
“I’m getting a report from the station network that a ship collided with the station. Emergency staff are still assessing the damage, but current estimates are three days to repair it all.” The Bartender said. “No idea when this section would get fixed in that timeframe, but you boys are better off heading back to your ships.”
“You’ve got somewhere safe to go?” I asked, walking back to the bar.
“Habitation ring wasn’t damaged,” the Bartender answered, “we can nip out the maintenance airlock in the back. Your mate looks like he might need a hand.”
“I got him,” I said. “I don’t know where his ship is, but we’ll skip along the hull to mine, and he can crash on the couch.”
Leaning on me, Johan and I got to the airlock and sat while it sequenced. The crinkled clear polymer hood stretched tight as the pressure inside my suit became higher than the pressure in the airlock. The Bartender let us go first while he locked up. Johan went to sleep in the airlock. I nudged him. “Time for a spacewalk.”
Johan opened only his right eye. “I don’t know about zero-g right now, maybe if we just had a little sleep? We’ve got plenty of air.” He closed his right eye again.
“Emergency suits aren’t so resilient I’d trust having a nap in one.” I clipped my tether to Johan’s, his vitals, connected through the tether, immediately displayed in my HUD. His blood alcohol reading said 0.16, in the next 40 minutes that would continue to rise as we had only just had a drink. At 0.16, there is a major loss of balance and motor control, 0.2 most people are unable to walk at all. My own reading of 0.093 was going to make this walk hard enough; having to buddy Johan behind me would be a struggle. Still, if you let the danger of living in space stop you from having fun, there’s no point being out here at all. “Come on big boy, you try not to throw up in your suit, and I’ll get us to my ship.” Johan was already asleep.
I stepped out of the airlock, leaving the gravity field and tossing Johan gently out away from the ship. With one hand I held onto the handle at the airlock, and the other I stabilised Johan so that he was at a uniform distance from me.
No matter how many times you do them, spacewalks are cool. They are also incredibly dangerous, especially with only emergency suit polymer between you and hard vacuum. Debris from the collision could cut through my suit, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. The polymer used for suits like Johan and I were wearing would not pop, even though the clear plastic hoods looked like balloons, they were made from study stuff. Even so, debris is deadly.
With artificial gravity there is no need to make ringed space stations that need to be spun up, yet humans love to go retro, and this station was a dumbbell-like structure with a docking ring and a habitation ring at either end. From the bar, my ship had been nearly a quarter of the way around the ring, but now I could see that things had changed. The collision had happened near where I was docked. My ship was floating off into space.
“Dammit,” I swore and turned to Johan. “Is your ship still docked?”
Johan was pleasantly asleep. You can’t slap a man through a pressure suit. I tried shaking him, but in zero-g it was very cumbersome. I couldn’t jolt him enough to wake him up.
“Double dammit.” I looked up at my ship as it slowly wobbled off into deep space. I had no MMU; if I tried to jump for my ship I would have no way of manoeuvring, it would be suicide. The next best thing was to climb down the docking ring spokes until I found a place on the other side of the breach where we could re-enter the station. At its current speed, my ship wouldn’t get too far.
Moving hand over hand, Johan and I started to crawl down one of the spokes toward the central shaft of the station. About halfway down the spoke, there was damage to the handholds I hadn’t been able to see from the docking ring. I thought about turning back, but the obstruction was only about two metres wide.
“This day is going from bad to worse,” I said as I pushed off. Floating slowly across the distance, we passed the jagged wreckage where the spoke was damaged. As I reached for the first available handhold, I grabbed too tightly in my attempt to slow down and brought my knee down on some of the damage and tore a hole in my suit.
“Of course that happened.” As the suit identified the tear, it activated a safety measure. The interior of the suit has tiny bubblewrap-like pockets that can be inflated by emergency air from the scrubber. The bubbles all around my knee, from halfway up my shin to halfway down my thigh expanded. My leg snapped straight, unable to move. The small section of skin exposed to vacuum would be fine, maybe get a nasty hickey, but human skin can hold up in a vacuum for quite a while; it’s the soft tissue in the lungs and eyes that can’t handle vacuum well. The bubbles from the suit created a soft seal around the hole. My suit was still leaking, but at a reduced rate. Pressure was dropping, and it would run out. My suit alarms flashed, and a countdown estimation dominated my HUD indicating when the pressure loss would reach critical, and I would pass out. The timer read 40 minutes. It would take 8 minutes for the airlock to cycle, assuming it did not need to be evacuated first, which could double the time.
I closed my eyes for a second. Slowed by breathing and heart rate. I let calm wash over me. The most dangerous thing to do in this situation was panic. Panic kills. I started putting one hand over the other and moving along the handholds. I didn’t rush. Hurrying and making a mistake like slipping from a handhold would not get me to the airlock in time.
Try not to count the number of breaths you have left.
One hand over the other.
It took 24 minutes to find the first airlock. It would have been quicker if I knew where I was going, instead of guessing where the station architect would have put them, but I haven’t spent so much time doing spacewalks that I know every station design from the outside. With 16 minutes left, and my suit pressure below 50% sea level, I couldn’t wait for the airlock to cycle normally, so I hit the emergency cycle system and evacuated the airlock in 1 minute.
It was hard to get Johan into the airlock, my leg was still immovable, and I was getting loopier as the alcohol effect and the loss of pressure were starting to make things difficult. Once I got myself inside, fearing the bends from pushing the pressure going up too quickly, I change the cycle back to normal and started to pressurise the airlock.
Slumped in the corner, I sat watching my air pressure continue to drop for another 4 minutes, then stabilise and start to rise. Once it started to rise, I unzipped my hood so that the pressure didn’t deflate it and suffocate me. Once the airlock finished, I opened the door and crawled out in the corridor, dragging Johan still on the tether. I propped him against the wall and undid his suit hood then lay down and went to sleep.
Johan shook me awake. I opened my eyes one at a time. “Yo man, you alright?”
“Tired,” I said.
“Looks like we went on an adventure while I took a nap.” He said. “Your knee looks hideous. Can I take you to your ship?”
“That’d be great,” I said, “It’s currently over there.” I pointed out the hatch to where my ship now looked very small.
“Oh,” Johan said. “Let’s go to my ship then.”