Drifting

Drifting

“Alright crew. We’re about to head out on the largest spacewalk in history.” Aiden heard his C.O., Zeb Porter, say through the comms in his helmet. “I know you know this already. I am telling you again so you know the importance of what is going on. Keep a close eye on your buddy. It will be disorienting when you first climb out of the airlock, but your lives depend on each other. Stay focused. Understood?”

“Hooyah!” Everyone said in response.

The group–collectively known as “The Crowd”– were a mixture of military and civilian specialists. All members had been hand-picked by the governments and private companies that make up the “Deep Space Alliance,” or DS-A, and survived the rigorous two and a half years of training.

Over the last two weeks, the DS-A crew assembled at an engineering marvel. A massive structure built entirely in space by autonomous drones from materials mined on the Moon.

Over the past decade, the member countries of the DS-A have been working in secret, spending trillions to build a space station to be the launching point for solar system exploration. State of the art unmanned mining, construction, and smelting equipment was sent to the Moon with the goal of building the structure now known as the “Deep Space Gateway” or DS-G.

The drones had been mining and smelting aluminum non-stop for eight and a half years. Thick sheets of aluminum were flown from the low gravity surface of the Moon to an orbit between the Earth and the Moon where the DS-G had been constructed.

The Crowd’s job was to take the DS-G the final mile. They were tasked with getting life support operational, computer systems installed and running, and ensure the structure would support the hundreds of people waiting to make the journey.

Everyone crowded into the small airlock. Zeb gave the command and the Mission Pilot, Nako Mukai, started the sequence that would close the group off from the relative safety of the ship and open the outer door to the vacuum of space.

The crew floated shoulder to shoulder, packed in like floating marshmallows waiting for their first glimpse of the blackness of space.

On Earth, the sensations of being in space were described and studied, and training was done in an attempt to help prepare the group–but nothing compared to the real thing.

Aiden and his EVA buddy, Abril Soto, were second to last to leave the airlock. They watched as their crew members clumsily clawed their way into outer space and latched themselves to the hull of the ship. The sole reason for this spacewalk was so the crew could get used to moving in zero gravity. The bosses on Earth called it “Translational Adaptation.” On Earth, the crew trained in massive pools to get a small sense of what it was like to move without gravity, but water still has a viscosity that provides resistance. In space, there is no resistance. With the smallest flick of the wrist, you start to turn. This was a training mission to learn how to stop that turn.

Aiden intellectually understood everything about to happen, but forcing his body to react was going to be a different story. Aiden and Abril were tethered–where one went, so did the other. The safety systems had redundancies built into the redundancies. Aiden had a tether sewn into his EVA suit with a locking hook on one end clipped directly to Abril, and she had the same. In addition, they also had two tethers each would attach to the hull of the ship. Of the four between them at least two had to always be attached. Any sort of movement required heavy communication and teamwork. They had to work in sync, always.

These procedures were practiced thousands of times on Earth in every scenario the instructors could throw at them. Aiden and Abril were able to move as a single smooth functioning unit.

What they could not prepare for was their reaction to being in space. The blackness of space is not a two-dimensional blackness. Unlike a painted wall of blackness, it was a three-dimensional blackness. Almost a liquid, palpable dark blackness. Disorienting to look around and see the vastness of everything, the black void engulfed the group and their ships. There was no preparing for the sensation.

Out of the airlock, Aiden instantly had a feeling of falling. He was startled, like you do when you are just about to fall asleep and you fall. His brain was telling him one thing, yet his body and surroundings were telling him something totally different.

“Do not throw up in your EVA suits,” Zeb said over the group channel. “Having a bunch of puke floating around in your fishbowl helmet will not be fun, plus it could suffocate you.”

Aiden and Abril moved along the hull of one of the transport ships–their home until the DS-G was habitable. Everything went smoothly. They took their time adjusting to the surroundings, figured out how to properly control their bodies in the zero-g, zero resistance vacuum, and completed their practice tasks without any issues.

“Let’s wrap it up,” Zeb said. “Time to get back inside.”

Aiden was ready to call it quits. As incredible as it was being on the side of a spaceship between the Earth and the Moon, it was exhausting moving around in the suit, making calculated moves with everything he did.

Five meters from the airlock door Abril interrupted their normal procedural chatter–required chatter to move in sync–and said to Abril, “This was magical. So incredible.”

Aiden turned slightly to look at her in agreement, to show his happiness with the moment too, and he saw her drifting away.

“Abril! Abril! What happened?” Aiden said. He switched to the group channel as quickly as he could. “Abril is loose!”

Zeb spun himself around to locate Aiden and followed his gaze to where Abril was quickly getting smaller and smaller.

“Abril, you have reserve power in your suit that can get you close to the ship. I will come out and meet you.”

“Not anymore,” she said. “I’m sorry Aiden. I’m sorry Zeb. I’m sorry everyone.”

She made no visible effort to get herself back to the ship.

“Nako, can we move the ship and catch up with Abril,” Zeb said over the group channel.

There was an uncomfortably long silence as Nako ran the calculations.

“We will–,” Nako cut herself off. She switched off the group comm channel and spoke directly to Zeb.

“Everyone, get inside as quickly as possible,” Zeb said. It was obvious by his tone he was upset.

Aiden floated, tethered to a locking point on the hull, in shock. Watching his friend drift away, he couldn’t bring himself to continue the climb to the airlock door. He played the scenario over and over in his head. How had she gotten so far away without him realizing it? What did he do wrong?

“Sergeant Sanderson. Sergeant Sanderson! Aiden!” Zeb said.

Aiden snapped out of his daze.

“Aiden, get inside now!”

Aiden pulled himself down into the hull and climbed the last few meters. Zeb followed in behind–always the first one out and last one in–and started the sequence to close the outer door.

“Are we going to get her?” Someone said. Zeb never responded.

Once inside, Aiden floated alone, dazed in his EVA suit as the gear of the crew was stripped down by their EVA buddies. There was no way to get out of the suite on your own.

He noticed Nako saying something off to his side but couldn’t hear anything. It took him several moments to realize she was talking to him, snapping her fingers in his face.

“Aiden! Are you with us‽” she said. “What happened out there? How did Abril get away from you?”

Aiden didn’t have an answer for her. He couldn’t figure out what happened. They did everything they were supposed to do, everything they were trained to do.

“Are we going to get her?” Aiden asked.

Zeb heard his question and stopped removing his suit with half of his torso exposed.

“Listen up everyone,” Zeb said. “We are making some course adjustments to catch up to Abril. We are adjusting our orbit just enough to catch up to her.”

Sounds of relief spread through the crew. Zeb looked at Nako and paused.

“But we will not catch her for another six hours,” Zeb said.

It took a moment for the quick calculations to be done in everyone’s head, and then they realized it.

Abril would be dead by the time they caught up to her.

“There has to be something we can do!” Someone yelled from the group, Aiden was in too much shock to care who.

“We’ve run the calculations and so has Ground Control. We are maxing out as it is to get to her in six hours. There is no getting to her sooner,” Zeb said. “Sergeant Sanderson, get out of your gear. Ground Control wants to talk to you.”

Aiden nodded to his C.O. but didn’t move his body. He knew they wanted a reason why he failed his primary job on the first day of work. They wanted to know why they spent millions of dollars on this crew member to have her only drift away and die.

After getting Zeb out of his gear, Nako helped Aiden strip out of his EVA suit. The rest of the crew was unsure how to respond, so they avoided Aiden altogether.

Aiden went to the main communication station and typed in the command to connect with the Flight Director.

“Sergeant Sanderson, sitrep now.”

Aiden did his best to snap to attention in the zero-gravity when the face appeared on the screen. In doing so, he began to drift out of view of the camera and swung his foot to catch the small handle below the screen to stabilize himself.

“Colonel Graves, sir. What are you–where is the–are you the new flight director?” Aiden asked. He had not seen the Colonel since he’d agreed to join SpOC at the Colonel’s request over three years ago.

“No, son, I’m not the flight director. I’ve been brought in to aid in the situation. What’s going on up there?” Colonel Graves said.

The Colonel had aged since Aiden last saw him. Still fit, with a rigid posture, but his salt and pepper hair had turned completely white and the wrinkles in his face had grown deeper and more pronounced. Despite–or maybe because of–his age, the Colonel intimidated Aiden. Physically, Aiden was capable of taking care of himself, but the look in the Colonel’s gray eyes set off every flight response Aiden’s body could muster. The Colonel was not a man to mess with.

“Uh, sir, well…” Aiden started.

“Get it out Sergeant, I don’t have all day. Your expensively, well-trained work partner has drifted off into space and will be dead in the next hour or so. You had a responsibility to keep each other safe, and she somehow managed to get out of several safety redundancies and away from you. Was this an accident? Was this a lover’s quarrel and you took the coward’s way out? Or was this a suicide? These are questions I have been brought in to figure out,” Colonel Graves said.

“Sir, Abril and I were not–I did not kill her,” Aiden said.

“I believe you, but this is a scenario that must be investigated. You’re grounded until further notice. We are working to get a replacement for Specialist Soto, but it will take time to ready a launch and align it with your orbit,” Colonel Graves said.

Aiden had been speaking with Colonel Graves through the terminal external speakers and microphone; everyone within range could hear what was being said. He heard a shuffle behind him and turned to see several of his crewmates listening but trying to be inconspicuous like they were hanging out nearby.

Colonel Graves saw Aiden look away from the screen and said, “We need to speak privately. Put on a headset.”

Aiden put on the headset and adjusted the microphone.

“Do not respond to anything I am about to tell you, understood?” Colonel Graves said.

Aiden nodded and adjusted his foothold to be closer to the screen, blocking the view of his crewmates.

“I have bigger concerns about this entire situation than someone dying on the first day of work. I do not trust the replacement they chose as your work partner, and I believe Abril was forced into killing herself so this replacement could be sent to the DS-G. I’ve tried voicing my concerns, but they have fallen on deaf ears. Watch yourself Aiden. If I am right, you have bigger issues coming your way than trying to build a space station,” Colonel Graves said.

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