(written for the [Fiction] Friday prompt on June 19, 2009, which was “(your character) closed his/her eyes, took a deep breath and jumped”.)
There was chaos.
It had started with an explosion – a loud, fiery explosion – that had violently rocked the floors and the walls, knocking items off of shelves and people from their chairs and off their feet before plunging everything into a dark, terrifying silence. The emergency power took a few moments to recover from being jarred suddenly into life when the main power went out and in the brief time between the main lights going dark and the sparsely distributed emergency backup spotlights beginning to cast long shadows across the floors, people went through all of the emotions ranging from surprise to concern to fear to terror, before their many years of training took over.
At first, Dean stood there, frozen, as he looked at the smoldering pile of rubble before him, what remained of the dining area on the main concourse, the dining room in which he was supposed to be meeting Jenny, his fiancée, for a quick meal. He had been late arriving at the ’round-the-clock eatery, partly because of the crowds in the busy corridor and partly because he was walking slowly, marveling like a tourist at the engineering and artistry around him as he always did whenever he returned after a long trip. He had been gone for a month this time, returning the prior day after the long trip to Earth and back. Walking slowly through the corridor on his way to the dining room, he stared, just as amazed as he had been the first time he set foot on the station, at the way the recessed lighting had been placed in just the right spots in the walls, ceiling and floors such that there were absolutely no shadows or darkened areas to be found. Had it not been for the fact that he had not eaten in the twenty-four hours since his arrival coupled with the fact that Jenny had told him she would only have a few minutes, he might have lingered longer, wandering to other areas of the station rather than trying to wade through the sea of humanity that was swelling toward the same destination as he was. He had messaged Jenny upon his arrival the day before but she had been too busy with work to see him and so she suggested that they meet today at their special table in the corner, the one which gave them a clear view of the stars and, if they were lucky, a view of the incoming cargo and transport ships.
Dean’s month-long trip had been in a dark and dreary, bland and sterile cargo ship, completely devoid of sounds other than the clanging of boots on metal as the few people on board walked about. Meals on the cargo ship consisted of nothing but dehydrated vegetables and a small glass of recycled water. Dean, the Chief Security Officer for the Fleet, was technically allowed to have fancier meals owing to his status in the Fleet, but he never exercised that privilege on any of his trips because he felt it unfair to the other crew members. His trip to Earth was for a security meeting for the new settlement on Mars, but it was cancelled without explanation while he was en route. Cargo and transport ships only travelled with autopilot and once the destination was set there was no changing it (a safety feature created by Dean to thwart the efforts of pirates and hijackers), meaning that Dean had to continue to Earth as planned, then get on board the next ship heading back to the station. Upon arrival at Earth, he did not even leave the space port, for there was a cargo ship departing for the station thirteen minutes after he arrived and he simply wanted to go back home to be with Jenny.
Home. That’s what he considered his little room onboard the largest of humanity’s off-world outposts in the solar system. As familiar and comfortable as it was to him, whenever he returned from a trip off of the station he could not help but feel slightly overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of so many people, the constant beeping and chirping of the high speed elevators along the corridor and the brightness of the lights after living in the squalor of the cargo ships for however long he might have been gone. He loved the station he called home and enjoyed looking at it as a feat of engineering excellence as well as a remarkable work of art. Realizing he had fallen prey to the beauty of the station, he pressed the button on his watch. The bright red numbers lit up signaling “13:13” and Dean let out a loud, impatient sigh; he was already three minutes late and Jenny did not have a lot of time to spare in her day as she was taking over for the chief medical officer on the station while he was helping to set up the medical facilities at the new settlement on Mars. He quickened his pace, hoping that he would make it through the line quickly enough that he could at least see her for a moment before she had to go back to work.
But now, staring at the rubble left in the aftermath of the explosion that had occurred just as he arrived at the entrance to the dining room, all that had changed. He fought the urge to run into the dining area in order to selfishly search for Jenny instead of doing his job. The fearful shouts from the people around him in the corridor, some injured, some simply scared, shook him from his thoughts and allowed his training to kick in. Seeing some of his officers, he instructed them to get the people out of the corridor and to their living quarters. He had to get to the bridge, thirteen decks above him. But Jenny, his thoughts protested as he looked again at the rubble before him. I have to get to Jenny.
The station shook violently again and Dean grudgingly took his mind away from the smoke coming from the mess of metal, plaster and wiring that had been the dining room. The bridge. He had to get to the bridge. On the bridge he could figure out what was going on, could find out what had happened, could communicate with anyone still alive in the dining room. He ran to the nearest transport and pressed the button only to find that it was not working. That’s right, he thought peering into the dimly lit corridor. No power.
He slammed his way through the doorway to the right of the elevator and began sprinting up the stairs. He had a lot of ground to cover to get to the top level where the bridge was. The station was a half mile and twenty-seven decks in height from the top level to the bottommost level, which meant he had a quarter mile of stairs to ascend. He was grateful for the fact that the emergency power systems did not power the gravity generators in the stairwells, thereby allowing him to make the trip faster and with less effort than would normally be required. He found the hand rails in the stairwell and propelled himself upward, hurtling quickly toward the upper decks in the near zero gravity.
Five minutes later, he arrived at the landing in the stairwell for the bridge, grabbing the handrail to stop his upward momentum and landing gently by the door. He pushed his way through the door and onto the bridge, only to find chaos much like that which he had just left in the corridor thirteen decks below. His feet landing squarely on the floor of the bridge, gently pulled down by the minimal gravity that the emergency power provided for the main areas of the station, he walked quickly into the fray.
The bridge was dark except for the few emergency floodlights and the pinpoints of starlight coming through the large windows that encircled it, but there was no smoke here and Dean could see well enough once his eyes adjusted to the lighting. Seeing the first officer, he walked over to him.
“Status!” he barked loudly so as to be heard above the frantic noise.
“Commander on the Bridge!” came the startled, but loud, response. All activity ceased as everyone turned to look at Dean.
“Status!” repeated Dean.
“Sir, we thought that you had been in the dining area and had – well, we thought you had been there. The Captain was there as was most of the crew. And so was –”
“I don’t need a roll call, Scott,” interrupted Dean in a voice he forced himself to control as best as possible. “I need to know what happened!”
“We – we don’t really know, Sir,” said Scott. “There was an explosion –”
“I am aware of that!”
“—in the kitchen and dining area on Deck 14. We think a small asteroid, or maybe just some space debris, struck the outer hull on or near the starboard power generators. The explosion took out main power but did not breach the hull of the station so far as we can surmise. Emergency power is functioning, so life support is on line and we have minimal gravitational support and lighting but that’s it.”
“Have crews been dispatched to the scene? Repair? Search and rescue? Recovery?”
“Sir, communications are out. We have sent people out to go gather crews to assess the situation, but it is all manual and it is all through the stairwells.”
“Good. Time estimate?”
“Twenty minutes, sir. But we have a bigger issue.”
“A bigger issue? What could be a bigger issue than getting the power restored and getting to the people who are trapped or injured in there?”
“Sir, a slimline cargo ship from Earth is scheduled to arrive in five minutes.”
“So?” Dean rubbed his hand across his head, trying not to scream at the officer for worrying about a cargo ship at this point in time.
“Sir, without power, the station cannot communicate with the cargo ship and cannot tell the autopilot to turn on its deceleration jets, nor can we deliver the course corrections to the ship so that it can navigate to the docking port. The last trajectory we had for the ship had it heading directly for the area around the maintenance entrance to the main air circulation tube. That means that –”
Dean interrupted the officer as the gravity of the situation became clear to him. “It means that the cargo ship will strike the station at full speed, directly on the weakest point in the hull.”
“Yes, sir, that is what it means,” came the solemn reply. “Though, the navigation system has been slowing the cargo ship down as it has approached, of course.”
The room was silent. Everyone was looking at Dean, the Chief Security Officer and the highest ranking official on the station behind the Captain who was now missing and possibly dead or injured in the rubble of the dining room on Deck 14.
Dean thought quickly, as quickly as his tired, overly-hungry mind could handle.
“Can emergency power control the navigation systems?” he asked. If power could be given to the main navigation computers, they could direct the cargo ship’s autopilot to change course, steering it away so that it would pass harmlessly into the vast oblivion of space. Sure, they’d lose a cargo ship, but the station would be safe.
“Yes, sir, it can be done –”
“Do it!” barked Dean.
“Sir,” came the loud reply from the navigation officer. “It can be done, but it will take twenty minutes to transfer the power away from life support and lighting to get it to the navigation system. That’s twenty minutes after we get to the emergency power systems down on Deck 2. We have five minutes.”
“Four minutes,” muttered Dean. He walked to the edge of the bridge, to the air circulation tube that circled the station like an envelope, helping to maintain temperature and humidity throughout the station. He stuck his hand out over the railing, feeling the air blow past him, flowing from above him to the decks below. “You said it’s a slimline that’s approaching, right?”
“Yes, sir.” The rest of the bridge crew, having no computers or functioning buttons to press, joined him at the railing.
“And it is heading directly to the service hatch at the bottom of this tube?”
“The slimline is significantly smaller than most of the maintenance ships that have to come into the tube. The air in the tube is blown at fifteen miles per hour on its own. If it comes through the hatch and into the tube, the force of the air will slow it enough that if it makes it all the way up here it will just bump the inner hull. If we are not on the bridge, we will be safe.”
There was silence.
“I need feedback, people!” Dean barked. “Where is the flaw in this plan?”
“Sir,” said the first officer, Scott. “That would all be true if the doors were opened. But with the latches engaged, the doors are structurally sealed to the hull of the station. Shattering the latches with the force that the cargo ship will bring will cause the hull to crack and buckle. Then, the force of the air on the hull will cause it to explode outward due to the weakness of the crack.”
“But what if we open the hatch without purging the air first?” asked Dean, trying to come up with a plan, any plan, that could save the station. “If we open the hatch, and if the cargo ship is heading directly at the opening as the last trajectory implied, then the ship can enter the tube freely and we won’t have the trouble of a cracking or buckling hull. The force of the air escaping will be even faster than the fifteen miles per hour as it siphons off into space and will slow the ship. Once the air is purged from the tube, the spring latch on the door will automatically close again.”
“Sir,” said the first officer, Scott. “Even if this might work, there is no way to get to the doors to open them.”
“And the air only circulates at 12 miles per hour on emergency power,” chimed in the life support officer.
“There has to be a way,” said Dean.
“There are a lot of ways, Sir, but there are no ways to do so in four – um, three – minutes.”
“Damn it!” shouted Dean, pounding his fist on the railing hard enough that his feet left the ground slightly in the reduced gravity. He grabbed hold of the railing and held it, his feet drifting slightly upward and his heart rate increasing rapidly. “Clear the bridge!” he ordered. The bridge was the only part of the ship that was open to the air circulation tube – if damage could be minimized and if the air loss could be contained to the bridge, perhaps they might make it through this.
Everyone began talking at once, trying to understand the command. “Clear the bridge!” Dean repeated, climbing up onto the railing. “And lock the doors behind you!”
Standing up awkwardly on the round, metal railing, Dean closed his eyes, took a deep breath and jumped. He sprawled out as far as he could into the air current, spreading his arms out in an attempt to make his body as large as possible so as to catch the air current. With the wind at his back, he began to plummet rapidly, accelerating to the speed of the air. He did the math quickly in his head. Twelve miles per hour will take me the half mile to the bottom of the ship in… two and a half minutes.
Shouts rang out loudly from the others who had been standing there alongside of him on the bridge, urging him not to jump. Of course, the shouts only came after he had already leapt, but that did not matter to Dean; the voices faded quickly from his ears due to the rapidly increasing distance as well as from the sound of the air rushing past and around him. As he fell, his mind raced nearly as quickly as he himself was freefalling downward. At first he was alarmed by what appeared to be his life passing before his eyes, an event he had heard only occurred immediately before one’s imminent death, but then he recognized that it was not his whole life he was reliving, it was simply the last ten minutes of it. He thought of the brightness of the lights in the corridor, the sounds, the people. He thought of the darkness and the panic and the explosion. He thought of Jenny.
He felt the air rushing around him and realized that there had been no need to hold his breath. Letting it out he gasped slightly as he tried to breathe normally despite the air and the wind flowing around him and the pressure on his face and body. There was even less lighting here in the air tube and that was a good thing. Even in the dim light he could see the decks as he flew by them. He was sure he saw faces of people looking through the portals on the decks, sure he saw life all around him, unaware that life was very possibly nearing a premature end. He closed his eyes again and allowed himself to enjoy his freefall, the rush of the wind in his air, the feeling of freedom that came when one escaped the grasp of gravity. He felt free from the burdens in his life for the first time in his life. Realizing this, he opened his eyes again and tried to focus on the task at hand. He had no time to be distracted; he had to come up with a plan. Panic set in as he thought about what he had done, jumping from the bridge like some fool who thought he could play superhero, but he calmed himself somewhat by reminding himself that if this didn’t work, he would not know it because the cargo ship would smash the station into pieces.
The two and a half minutes passed rather quickly in Dean’s mind and soon he could sense that he was reaching the bottom because the airflow changed from being behind him to swirling somewhat to his left as it turned the corner at the bottom of the station. Squinting, he could see the hatch and the hand rails around it. The air current and his inertia were pushing him rapidly toward the wall, but the freefall was slowing as the air patterns changed and his body got pushed around by the eddies that were formed. Reaching out, he grabbed a hand rail and held on tightly as his body slammed hard against the wall, another hand rail jabbing him in the side.
He was several feet away from the manual latch on the door and began climbing against the wind current toward the lever. There was no gravity in the tube as there was no flooring and the gravity generators were all housed in the flooring of the decks. Despite the lack of gravity, climbing against the air current was difficult.
Dean reached the lever and pulled downward on it, but it didn’t move. He glanced quickly at his watch – ten seconds until the cargo ship was going to slam into the very doors he was standing next to. He climbed up another hand rail, positioning himself above the manual release lever. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath (this time knowing that it would be necessary), he jumped off of the wall, pushing with his hands to propel himself downward and onto the lever.
He felt his feet hit the lever with a painful force and felt the bone in his right leg crack from it sending a nauseating wave of pain through his body. The lever gave way, slamming downward as it released the locks across the doors, separating the doors from the station’s hull. Without the large metal rods holding them shut, the force of the air in the tube pushed the doors open. Dean was slammed against the wall by the force of the air, now traveling out of the station into the vacuum of space. Grabbing the nearest handrail as tightly as he could, he held on for dear life as he looked out to see the black cargo ship brush against the wide open door just as it opened, scraping against the door with a sound that he could hear above the deafening roar of the rushing air.
The ship sped into the tunnel, scraping against the inner hull and bouncing from one wall to the other in the tube as it knocked cables and handrails and other gear from the walls, sending them rushing into space with the rapidly escaping air. Dean’s legs were dangling out of the station as he held onto the rail, getting bumped by the debris that was escaping.
Suddenly the airflow slowed as the envelope around the station’s main decks emptied of its blanket of air. The lower pressure allowed the doors to spring shut, the nearest door slamming against Dean’s already broken leg. The automatic locking mechanism triggered and the manual release lever reengaged, securing the doors to the hull and preventing whatever air remained in the tube from escaping. Dean let go of the hand rail and floated in the nearly airless, gravity-less tube. With an effort he rolled his body over to look for the cargo ship above him. Seeing the ship slowing down as it continued scraping against the wall of the tube, sparks flying as metal scraped against metal but no longer hearing anything through the near-vacuum and the pain exploding through his body, Dean allowed his mind to be filled with Jenny’s bright, smiling face. Tears streaming from his eyes as he strained to continue holding his breath, he exhaled as slowly as he could. As he did so, a freefall of memories and emotions consumed him but all that mattered to him as he finished letting the air out of his lungs was Jenny – his best friend, his fiancée and his last thought before everything went black.