"The screams grow along the walls. Green and black ice. They are thicker every day, every hour. Soon it will not be possible to prevent them soiling the pristine white of the pressure suit kneeguards as I dab my way along the main connector in my watch-by-watch commute from T-module to Command, to keep my vigil - to light the fire in the brazier for the dead."
LCdr Virgil Everard, USN (Det.)
Blue is the color of Uphill. Blue is the color we can see of the world we leave. Blue is the goal. Blue is the joy. Blue.
White and gray and black and blinking phosphor is the cradle and the life. Smudged nonstick, quartz glass and acres of plastics, dinosaurs escaping the world millions of years too late to avoid the extinction event. Right seat. Right seat. 6DOF controller resting lightly in my circled hand, the padded metal of the rest alongside my arm, holding it vertical.
Leaving programmed hold. T minus eight-fifty-seven. No unplanned events. Continue count.
I can't look left, where Ayako is sitting. She's calm. I know she is. She always is.
SRO, status confirm?
Roger, thank you. Continue with director. Environmental...?
Light the fires. Kick the tires. Burn the wires.
A litany of fever, green for go. An army of men and women and aluminum and chemistry and physics and aerodynamics and money and politics and fear and sweat and toil, all poised in the starter's block; enough raw power to level a small town caged beneath my feet. A match handed to a giggling computer.
The blue is interrupted with a trace of white; a small wisp of cloud moving across the sunsplashed windows of the flight deck above me. I can hear my voice responding in trained, crisp affirmatives; watch my hands moving switches and tapping command sequences into the flight computer. Ayako and I switch off responding to Flight as the veteran she is and the professionals we both are. Somewhere behind and beneath us, I can feel the Payload getting nervous - this is really going to happen, really today. We're past the critical five-minute-block; the computers are happy, which means the bird is happy - the most complex machine ever built thinks it's not broken and it wants to go. The dangerous bits (ha!) start to flow past now.
Cee-dee-are (that's Ayako, Commander, CDR) APU start is go, confirm.
"Flight, this is CDR, APU start acknowledged." Ayako flips the toggle she's been resting her finger on, nods at me; I flip mine. Somewhere deep in the belly of the bird, among the myriad sources of noise and clangor, a whine builds and makes itself known. A row of readout blinks thoughtfully on the OPSCON and goes green in satisfaction as all of the APUs switch into the mains and the bird shoulders the load. "Flight, Atlantis, APU start is go, over."
We're burning hydrazine now. Shutdown gets harder. I think we're going to go.
T minus thirty-one seconds. Gee-Ell-Cee handoff complete. Atlantis, you're on your on-board computer, over.
"Ground, Atlantis, we're on our onboard computers, over."
oh my god, we're going
-go for main engine start-
...four, we have main engine start, one, and...
-LIFTOFF! LIFTOFF OF THE SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS AT...
and like that, we're gone.
* * *
"The International Space Station is the focus of the world's attention on manned space stations. It is, however, not alone in Earth's low orbitals. There is at least one other duty post up there; one that is much less observable and has been there for quite some time longer. It is in fact more than twenty-five years old, and would be quite familiar to any space aficionado, since it was constructed using the unknown-to-the-public third hull of the Skylab program. The second hull sits in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC; the third sits some four and a half thousand miles over the Earth in a circumpolar orbit. It was placed there in the very late 1980s, using a hastily-resurrected Saturn V launch vehicle, the last of its kind; it was boosted into a high orbit using thruster packs brought up on Department of Defense Atlas and Delta missions, controlled by military astronauts - milnauts - transported originally to its initial low orbit by the nascent Space Shuttle program. The first few Shuttle flights had a very light official crew roster - but not in truth."
-VAdm. John K. Shaefer, NRO
* * *
The Tank separates with a slight jolt. I use the hand controller to give us a small translate so as to allow the cameras mounted on the orbiter's underside a good picture of the tank falling away, as per the mission profile; it begins its long fall down to the Indian Ocean, and we prepare to burn the OMS to circularize our trajectory into an orbit. Ayako gives me a thumbs-up, and resumes talking to Ground via the Jakarta downlink.
I have seventeen unused seconds to sightsee as we roll the bird to align the OMS pods. Home is beautiful and blue.
The OMS burns, a sharp blare of white noise that cuts off abruptly with a computed pat on my back of approval; we're in orbit. There is a moment of silence, and then a cheer erupts from the Payload behind us. Ayako grins at me. We're the Crew; this is just Business to us. We unstrap and begin to release the Payload from their seats.
Space is everything I'd thought it would be. Busy, sweaty, incredible, crowded, and silly. It's kindergarten in a 737 with no seats. Everything is that flat aluminum and plastic and has been used by seventy-nine people prior to you; at least, in here, you know the ground crew did a damn good job cleaning the john.
Now we just have to convince the multiple-Ph.Ds to do the same when it's their turn.
The moment comes all too soon.
"People." Ayako has the Command Voice on. Everyone quiets, turns towards her in the Interdeck access. It's day three, nobody bounces off a surface while turning. "People, as commander, I'm invoking Case Exodus. Is that understood?"
There are several disbelieving stares. Case Exodus? It was a contingency plan, right? Never to be used? What the hell...
"People, you have one minute. Get moving. I am not kidding, and I am counting." Command voice had acquired steel. Steel is harder than aluminum. No-one wanted to let it near the hull. People moved. I wanted to move, but I didn't; I was already at my duty station, near the mid-bay lock. Within fifteen seconds, the payload was back in their seats, strapped in. I nodded to her, opened the lock, and stepped inside. She closed it behind me. I turned to face the back, took a deep breath, and opened the outer door.
* * *
Case Exodus is intended to ensure the safety of Shuttle astronauts in the event it becomes necessary for the flight crew to perform an emergency EVA. In the event of Case Exodus, all non-flight crew must return to their launch stations at once and strap in in case of vehicle movement. You may hear crew members leaving the shuttle. Do not converse with them, nor ask questions; this is for your safety. They cannot afford the distraction. When the emergency is over, you will be fully briefed. A Case Exodus means that the crew has determined that there is a situation which does not endanger personnel inside the Shuttle, but requires immediate response in order to secure the safety of the vehicle. Any attempt to disturb flight crew procedures during a Case Exodus is punishable with extreme measures. If you feel you cannot perform these emergency procedures, please notify your qualification officer before proceeding to this phase of payload training.
Flight Training Emergency Procedures (Classified)
* * *
The Crew Transfer Vehicle was locked to the floor of the Cargo Bay. I stood over it in my MMU and carefully undogged the turnbuckles holding it down, then moved to the main feed panel and disconnected the consumables and electrics. Seven minutes since entering the MMU where it hung, back pane attached to the airlock. Ayako's voice. "How's it looking, Virgil?"
"Looks broken, Commander."
A laugh. "That's not a very precise sitrep, Commander."
"Sorry. Uh...really broken."
"Okay. I'll tell the folks." I heard a click as she switched to the general crew frequency, preparing to give them the cover story. "Folks, this is your captain speaking." I could imagine the chuckles, wrung from the Payload as much by tension as by the weak joke. "We appear to be having a small problem with one of the bay door motors. The indefatigueable Commander Everard has determined that in order to properly access the motor, we'll need to move up the launch of our satellite to this orbit; removing it from the bay will allow him proper access to the motor diagnostic panel. There's nothing to worry about; even if the motor is malfed, we can disengage it from the geartrain once the sat is out of the way. If the other motors aren't enough, Virgil will be sent out to help manually crank the bay doors closed when we need to close 'em for re-entry; we've practiced this. As for our payload, we're already in the proper orbit; we're just going to launch it on this go-around instead of waiting for you folks to finish several planned experiments. Okay, more as it happens. Virgil, go to it."
"Roger, Commander." I moved back to the CTV and punched the 'READY' sequence into its external arming systems; the status lights winked green over the keypad. "Booster pod is armed. Prepare to extend the arm."
"Extending arm." Ayako's silhouette in the bay window ducked slightly, and the robotic arm moved the CTV's angular length out of the bay, slowly shoving it into clear space. I hung onto the grip near the lock and watched it go; safety violation for NASA to be outside, but critical for CTV ops. If anything went wrong, the two men cocooned in that coffin-like device would have only me to respond, and the ten minutes of airlock cycle time might be too long.
The CTV hung some few yards away, its small engine bell aimed clear of Atlantis, as the arm retracted. The countdown timer spun in my faceplate display, moving past fifteen seconds-
"SHIT! Virgil, priority, check your right boot, NOW."
I looked down. There was a fine glimmer of light circling the right foot of the MMU, spiraling off into space. What the hell? "What the hell is that?"
"I have no idea, but it's headed out towards the payload. Disengage it or abort abort abort."
"I can't abort, Ayako, it's locked..." I struggled to get my arms free of the MMU's control braces, but it was already too late. There was a silent flare of light above me as the CTF's engine fired; it moved away out of my faceplate's field of view. I was spinning slowly by now as I tried to reach my right boot.
"That's a negative, Commander." My voice had gone the extremely flat and precise tone that meant imminent disaster to any pilot. I managed to get my right arm free, reached down- my fingers struck resistance near my ankle. Something very thin, thinner than cord or rope, but before I could try to disentangle it, there was a jerk and I was spun upwards away from Atlantis in the CTV's wake. "Ayako, I'm gone."
"Roger." Her voice was matching mine. I could hear Ground babbling something over the background. "I'm switching you directly to Cheyenne Ops."
"COMMANDER EVERARD THIS IS-" there was a quick burst of static and then the voice came back, mercifully lower in volume. "-this is Cheyenne ground ops, do you copy?"
"I copy, Cheyenne Ground, this is Everard." I was no longer spinning, but being towed by my ankle. The thrust was an apparent half-G or so, about what the CTV was rated for. I was glad it had apparently compensated for me; if I had kept spinning, I would have been in serious danger of aspirating my subsequent sick.
"Everard, what's your status, over?"
"Cheyenne Ground, I'm somehow tangled with the CTV. An unknown line has my right boot tangled; the CTV has commenced burn and I am in tow, over."
There was a brief silence. That didn't make me feel good. "Roger, Everard. Don't panic, son. We're all going to get you out of this, over."
"I know, sir." God, that was a lie it hurt to tell. "Over."
"CTV status is nominal. Burn is within limits, fuel consumption is within limits, according to FIDO. TELMU says your MMU status is green, and you have enough consumables to make Nightpost One, do you copy, over?"
A rush of relief swept over me. "Cheyenne ground, I copy CTV burn nominal, TELMU says my MMU will get me to Nightpost One, over."
"Roger that, Everard. Just hold on. The burn should last another few minutes, over."
The burn did last a few more minutes. When it stopped, I began spinning slightly. When I could see the dark shape of the CTV, I started hand-over-handing up the mysterious line; a few minutes later I was snugged against the underside of the CTV. The line turned out to be what looked like a tie-down cable, attached at the CTV end to a quick-release, which I quick-released. I reported this to Cheyenne, who acknowledged and thought that was a good plan, and advised me to stay off the radio to conserve MMU power. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I signed off and tried to stay as close to the CTV's surface as possible by attaching the MMU's utility clamps to a pair of grips I'd found.
A few minutes later, I became aware of a tapping noise. This made me as afraid as any unexpected noise in a spacesuit could. It took a few minutes to realize that it wasn't coming from the MMU, but the CTV, and that furthermore, it was in Morse. I waited, listened-
I thumped the CTV twice with my right gauntlet. I'd forgotten all about the poor bastards sealed in the CTV, living in luxury coffins for the three days of our flight so far. They, apparently, had been told about my plight. The thumping resumed.
What? Oh. Feeling silly, I reset the MMU's comm gear to shortrange VHF on 121.5 MHz, emergency frequency. "This is Everard."
A staticy voice. "Everard? This is Gonzalez, Major, USMC. You out there with us?"
"Yeah, Major, I am. Not my idea."
"I was tangled in some kind of line. No idea where it came from. It caught my right boot during boost."
"Has Cheyenne got a plan for getting you inboard after docking?"
"Not yet, why?"
"The only available lock on Nightpost's docking adapter is going to be occupied by the CTV. The other will have a crew escape vehicle on it. We're going to have to get you in somehow."
I hadn't thought of that. "Shit."
"Yeah." A quick laugh. "Good thing we're geniuses, right?"
"Major, we get me in there, I swear I will never badmouth the jarheads again."
"Commander, if you buy the beer, you got a deal."
"A whole fucking brewery of it, boot."
"Okay, gimme a few. I gotta talk to the boss in here, he doesn't have VHFcomm."
There was a click as Gonzalez went off the air. Then I was really, truly, alone.
That let me start thinking, which didn't help. Nightpost didn't exist, of course; other than to a tiny minority of military space personnel and NCA types, as well as NRO muckymucks who funded it, the ISS was the only space station. That meant problems for me. The Payload didn't know about it. So where was I?
I was outside Atlantis, dealing with a broken bay motor. But I wasn't. As soon as Ayako released them from their seats - and she'd have to any moment now - they could see with their own eyes that I wasn't out there. I was lost. That meant I had until the original duration of my MMU stores to get back to Atlantis before hard questions would be asked.
That wasn't going to happen. The CTV was a one-way trip. Return from Nightpost was done using capsules launched to its orbit empty by EELVs, their small onboard fuel supplies. This much I knew, and not much else; I had no need to know. All I did know-
-was that I was now officially dead. There was no way I would return to OV-104, and a story would have to be concocted to explain what had happened to me - and there could be no happy ending without divulging Nightpost's existence.
Nightpost had silently killed three men that I knew of so far. All had died in training crashes, aboard jets that were never found in the depths of the Pacific. One of them was ashes in the atmosphere; one had burned to death on the destruction of an 'unmanned' launch, and the third - I didn't know what had happened to the third. We didn't ask.
Now there was a good chance I would be the fourth. Even if I made it to the station, I couldn't think of a way to get inside. The two hatches were not full airlocks, meant only to dock transfer vehicles; there was one small airlock, I thought, but I didn't know where on the station it was. I kept thinking how much more convenient it would be if I never made it inside, and felt the temperature in the MMU dropping.
"Everard?" It was a new voice.
"Yessir!" Whatever the new voice was, it had command snap. That yessir was completely involuntary.
"Everard, this is Colonel Aikers, Christian Aikers, FLIGHTCOM CTV."
"Listen close, Everard. Turn your MMU to sideband seven, and make sure you're on minimum transmit power, you got that?"
"Aye aye, sir. Switching now." I did it. "Everard here."
"Okay, Commander, here's the situation. Stay shut up until I'm done, because I don't care how bad it looks from out there, it's worse. I'll tell you when to talk. Gonzalez and me, we're relief for Nightpost. I know you're briefed on the Post, you were our launch support, correct? Respond."
"Okay. What you weren't told, and had no reason to know, is that we're relief early because the current crew has stopped calling home. Everything we send up instructions-wise gets done, we're still getting the take, but nobody's answering the phone. You get me?"
"No sir. I mean, yessir, I understand, but-"
"Okay, skip it, I get you. Right, nobody else does either. The Major here is a boarding specialist and he's armed. I've seen the elephant and I'm armed as well; I'm also certified on most of the 'Post's systems. You, son, are a problem."
"I figured that, sir. I guess I'm dead, now."
"Yeah, well, we'll work that out later. You may be dead for real if there's actually something screwy up here. We know that voicecomm is working. Most likely scenario is one of the three crew went bugfuck and we've got a Sole Survivor scenario, you reading me on this? Albatross Soup?"
"Oh, Jesus." I was reading him loud and much too clearly. "You're serious."
"As a fucking heart attack, sailor. Get a grip. Welcome to today, it's a lovely fucking war. Look, crazy as it sounds, you may be our ace in the hole."
"You're not part of the mission plan. But you're out there, and you're going to make it to the Post with us. Best we can calc, you're going to have something like twenty minutes of stores when we make hard seal with the Post. You'll also be able to see into the docking module, there are ports in it for alignment. You'll be able to see what's going on. If something - if things go badly wrong, and they might, because Gonzalez and me've been lying on our asses for three days now, remember, you're our only shot."
I didn't say anything for a second. "Sir, how am I going to get in?"
"Okay, that's the other thing I called to tell you about. I know you weren't briefed. Do you know the basic outlines of the Post?"
"Okay, listen carefully. We're going to be coming in at one end, and docking on the end port of the docking adapter. Looks just like the original Skylab design. There's another port at ninety degrees to ours, that'll have the current re-entry vehicle docked to it. The windows are in the docking adapter module itself, outboard of the airlock. Now, where the solar observatory was on Skylab, there's a stores and battery module, with an inflatable storage area where the antennas were on Skylab. Okay, with me so far?"
I was frantically trying to picture the Skylab module in my head. Thinking about it in the countless pictures around Johnson Space Center, about the walk-through second hull in the Smithsonian. "Yessir, I'm pretty sure."
"Good. Now, the other end, the meteoroid shield, that's gone; there's a connector there that links up to the main machinery and storage module. That's an old Shuttle main tank, the only one we managed to lift without coating. Off either side of that, there are two solar panel arrays. At the base of the Main Tank module, there's a meteoroid shield since it's the largest surface, and it's up-orbit. Where the Main Tank - that's called T module, the skylab hull is K module - is attached to the connector, there's an adaptor module. That module has the airlock in it, you copy?"
"Yessir. K module is the skylab, T module is the tank, junction of the connector and T has the airlock. Sir, what face?"
"Good catch, commander. Same facet as the K module's storage and inflatable extension. Now, off the two sides of the T module not containing solar panels, you're going to see large modules. Those are the sensor modules, so don't bump 'em, okay?"
"Yessir. Any on K module?"
"Yes, but they're the ones that can take vibration, since living quarters and control are in K."
"Okay Colonel. What's the plan?"
"Gonzalez and I make entry after docking. If all goes well, we'll signal you by flashing a light - two shorts, two longs, two shorts - out the windows of the docking module. If not, you head directly for the airlock. One more thing."
"Before you cycle the lock, you'll need to break seal on the airlock module. That will both seal it from the rest of the Post and ensure that the lock will open to the outside."
"Won't that depressurize the whole thing?"
"Not if they've followed procedure. The airlock module is never supposed to be opened to the rest of the station except to allow passage."
"But Colonel, if you're in there-"
"Son, if we don't flash you that light within thirty seconds, you can assume Gonzalez and I are in no shape to care what happens - or if we are, we'd prefer you opened the damn station, you copy that?"
"Okay then. There's a dump valve on the outside of the airlock. It's got the usual warning bullshit on it, and you'll have to break a soft metal seal to use it. Make sure you're not in front of it when it goes."
"Once you're in the lock, if the module still has seal from the rest of the station, cycling the lock will close the valve and start repressurizing it. At that point, my only recommendation to you is to cowboy the fuck up and get yourself into the T module as fast as possible, and remember what I'm about to tell you."
"I'm listening, Colonel."
"There's a destruct switch in T. It's against the base wall, near the heat shield. It dumps the reactant tanks on all the thruster packs, and sets off explosive bolts on all the major station connectors. You'll know it when you see it. If you need to, and I'm not about to tell you what will constitute that need, use it. I'm recording this order into the CTV systems; if the station goes, the CTV recorders will probably survive re-entry."
"Second, and less apocalyptic. In the T module, look for signs for 'Camera Maintenance.' There's a small compartment which has tools to perform basic module repair on the sensor modules. When you find it, look for a latched drawer marked 'Cable Ties.' It has a false back. Do you get me?"
"I get you, sir."
There was another silence, then a heavy sigh, weary. "I'm sorry as hell, boy. You didn't even get a chance to volunteer for this shit."
"No sir, but it looks like it's my only ride home."
"True that. Okay Everard, get your ass off the air and save power. We have what looks to be an hour and twenty-five minutes until docking, and Gonzalez and I are going to do our damndest to get some rest. I suggest you do the same."
"See you inside, sir."
"See you inside, Commander."
There was a click as the channel cleared. I looked out the faceplate at the metal surface of the CTV, numb. Any moment now, Ayako would punch my shoulder, and I'd wake up to see the smudged flight deck windows. Any moment now.
An hour and thirty minutes later, during which I was forced to use the MMU's sanitary deconveniences, a dark shape had risen into view - Nightpost, covered in low-observability materials. Occasionally a wink of metal or lens showed, and on the side opposite the Earth I could see two or three lights, but other than that it looked black, cold and dead. I knew that was intentional, but it still made me shudder. I clicked the VHF back on.
"Colonel? We have the Post in sight."
"Roger that, Commander. Silent running."
I clicked off. The CTV had been performing small deceleration burns for some time, and by the time we edged up to the side of the Post, relative motion had nearly been cancelled. I could tell when the quick rhythmic jets changed to longer, less regular ones that one of the two humans inside had taken control. We drifted towards the docking adapter. I scuttled as best I could away from direct sight of the Post; it was easier now that the engines at the back of the CTV were silent. I moved the MMU around to the back edge of the craft, making sure not to cover a thruster nozzle, and hung on, latching the MMU's utility clamps to the tiedown hooks where the CTV had been attached to Atlantis.
Eight minutes later, there was a slight sideways lurch and a CLACK transmitted through the aluminum frame of the CTV. I presumed that meant we were docked. Moving around the side of the CTV that was in shadow, I made my way forward, checking the MMU's status readout. I had deliberately avoided looking at it until now; it read sixteen minutes of air, and was blinking all manner of orange and red icons at me. I ignored it resolutely once more and dabbed my way forward, a trip made more difficult by the lack of decent handholds on the CTV. I didn't want to use the MMU's jets this close to the Post's hull, since the lash of ice crystals would most likely be noticed.
I made it in time, though. A couple of minutes later, I was holding on to a tubular support structure of the Post itself, which caged the docking adapter in its heart. I could see, through the small quartz glass ports, that the hatch into the CTV had not yet opened. As I watched, the status lights alongside it went green, and the hatch shuddered as one of the occupants shoved at it.
There was, as yet, no-one in the adapter to meet them. My angle was poor, since from where I was perched I was looking mostly towards the CTV, but I could see a couple of yards in from the hatch. After a couple of seconds, the hatch lock wheel turned, and it opened into the space. A dark-haired head poked out, which I presumed to belong to Gonzalez. He moved slightly awkwardly into the docking module, looking around him, which I presumed meant that there was no one to meet him.
A drop of sweat came loose around the padding in the MMU helmet and drifted outwards to splash against my faceplate, blurring a spot on my field of view. I shook my head in annoyance, but there was nothing I could do about it save try to calm my racing heart. That failed miserably.
Gonzalez turned to say something back into the CTV. He apparently got an answer, because he leaned back into the hatch to either respond or to hear better - if the Post was anything like Atlantis, the noise of systems was likely fairly awful.
I didn't see it start.
All I knew was that before I could shout in surprise, Gonzalez was drifting with his head inside the hatch and his arms limp, gripshoes loose from the deck, and a figure in Air Force Blue was kneeling on his back to look past his head into the CTV. The figure tensed and threw back its head slightly, in what was unmistakably a scream of some sort, and a greenish tinge suffused my view of the docking adapter. Although I recoiled as the arched head came back and the eyes looked out the window, there was no way the other could have seen me other than as a silhouette occluding stars; I was unlighted in the station's shadow, and the adapter itself was brightly lit inside.
The eyes were shining with a light of their own. They were glowing orange.
I turned and began pulling my way along the outside of the Post, swearing monotonously under my breath. I had no idea what the hell was going on, but I knew - knew - that Gonzalez was dead, and if Aikers wasn't sealed in his suit and damn well protected in the CTV, he was either already dead or likely to be soon.
That left me, and my now thirteen minutes of air.
The exterior of the Post was weathered with pitting, legacy of its years in space. I passed alongside one of the extended solar panel 'wings' and made my way past the base of the K module. As Aikers had said, a roughly cylindrical connector stuck out of the middle of the base. At the other end was multihedron of a module with the enormous looming shape of an External Tank just past it, visible despite its low-observable overspray. And on the 'up' side of the module-
There it was. A hatch.
I grabbed frantically at whatever protuberances I could find, and swung myself to a stop before the airlock. There was a glass-covered panel next to it with a T-handle behind the shield; I punched my gauntlet through the glass and tugged the handle. Nothing happened. I pulled my gauntlet out and got a grip on myself, remembering two things; one, Aikers had said the valve was sealed, and two, there was no way the whole MMU was going to fit in this airlock.
Methodically, I started removing the maneuvering unit from the support suit I was wearing. That took four precious minutes, and I lost a good percentage of the propellant before fumbling the seals closed, but eventually got it clamped to a handhold next to the airlock. Then I looked into the handle again and saw the band of soft metal holding the handle up. I grabbed one of the few remaining shards of glass still in the frame, drew it across the band of what looked to be aluminum or lead, and felt it crunch into splinters in my hand. Deliberately opening my gauntlet to avoid embedding them, I waved it a couple of times, watching flickering reflections leaving my hand and spreading into local space - then reached back in and pulled, hard, gripping with my other hand to avoid being levered off the station.
The band broke. The T-handle moved 'down' smoothly. As it did so, a shield opened beneath it to expose a round port, and I tugged myself aside as a torrent of ice crystals - the internal atmosphere of the module - came flooding out. I felt a series of soft 'thuds' through my gauntlet - I figured that was likely the adaptor module sealing itself.
After a minute or so, the airflow ceased. I unlocked the door, and it swung easily; I pulled myself inside, sobbing with relief, and closed it behind me. I spun the lock bar, felt it clang shut as the seals mated, and felt/heard a deep HHSSSSSSSSSH as air rushed back into the lock.
There was a ten-second pause after the noise stopped.
Then a green LED came on over the inner door. I spun that bar. It opened, and I swam through into chaos.
The module had not been empty; rather, it had apparently been in use for storage. A welter of small items and paper floated haphazhardly through the small space, thrown there by the sudden cyclone of escaping air. I closed the lock behind me and sealed it. I was about to remove my suit when suddenly I remembered the greenish tinge in the docking adapter, and something stopped me.
Eight minutes left.
I opened the door nearest me. Only after it was open did I realize that it had 'K' stencilled on it. The hatch swung open, and a contorted face with glowing orange eyes thrust at me from the other side as the hatch pushed back against me and knocked me across the adapter. I threw my arms up in front of me to catch the hands of the creature - I couldn't call it a man - clawing at my face, but in the pressure suit I was far too clumsy. He - it - had both hands against the sides of my helmet and was face to face with me, mouth open, too wide for a human without a broken jaw. His eyes were glowing, I could see reflections on my faceplate, and as he opened his mouth wider, a vile green miasma rushed out of it, over my faceplate and around me. I screamed, kicking off the wall, but he had both hands around my helmet and was locked to me.
There was a jolt as my shoulders hit the adjoining bulkhead. The shock knocked him - it - over my head and into the wall above me. I took the opportunity to wriggle 'down' and kick off 'upwards' past him as he recoiled slowly into the middle of the module, with no handgrip. Reaching the bulkhead opposite the one I'd bumped into, I kicked back off for the adjoining one - the door opposite the door I'd originally opened, which had 'T' stencilled on it. I caught the hatch bar as I spun past, wrenching my left shoulder but stopping my progress still attached to the lock. It took a moment to plant my feet for leverage, but then I spun the lock bar and opened the hatch.
The sounds I could hear were mostly my own pants and screams. The helmet was deadening all sound from outside, and as I swung through into T module, closing the hatch behind me, I realized that whatever the other had done to Gonzalez hadn't happened to me because I was apparently still on internal oxygen - the green evil was an airborne killer. But my suit thought I only had five minutes of air left, and it hadn't counted on panic breathing or heavy exertion.
There were stencilled signs on a central passage connector as I entered T module. The fifth one down read 'CAMERA MAINTENANCE - PURPLE' and a purple line extended from it down a passageway between what looked to be prefabbed divider modules. I grabbed at a handy bar hold and launched off down the passageway. It twisted and turned several times, following the geometry of whatever had been installed inside the Tank rather than a set plan, but after perhaps twenty meters I came to a hatchway with a purple sign on it. I snatched it open and ducked in - it wasn't airtight.
Moment of panic in utter darkness before sensors noticed me and brought up the cold-cathode lights, agonizingly slowly as off-the-shelf and overage exciters kicked off.
Drawers - the damn place was nothing but drawers. It took every bit of willpower I had not to panic but to simply start running my hand down the labels. It took two more precious minutes to find CABLE TIES and yank the drawer out to full extension. It was latched into the rack. I reached in and yanked the restraining web out, sending a cloud of plastic Zipties billowing into the compartment; but my gauntlet wouldn't fit into the back.
Praying that the wrist seal would hold, praying that whatever the shit was it had to be breathed, I unlocked the right gauntlet of the suit, spun it, unlatched it, and pulled it off. Another minute and a half.
With it tucked into a belt clamp, I reached into the drawer. I had to push as hard as possible to get my fingers to the back, the wrist seal banging against the edge. I could swear I could hear thumping out in the corridor maze. I reached out behind me and made sure the hatch was closed, but the damned lights weren't going to go out so long as I was in here moving. I swore once, with feeling, and shoved. Something gave. I poked my fingers at the bottom of the back edge, and it gave again. I pulled on the drawer a bit harder, and realized it was the same aircraft-grade stuff as lived in Atlantis; with a hope that I wouldn't lose the back half, I yanked, hard.
The drawer came out of the rack with cracking noise. The back of it was closed by a woodgrain panel. I dug my fingers underneath it and ripped upwards.
Underneath was a familiar shape - a U.S. military Beretta 92F. There were four magazines next to it, colored bright red. I snatched the gun out, then pulled a magazine out. Holding the gun in my gauntleted hand, I slid a magazine home, then racked a round by pulling the gun against the gauntlet-held slide. It loaded easily; I'd have to hope it would fire. Stuffing the other three mags into a utility pocket, I turned and pulled my way out the door, pistol in my ungloved hand.
I had time to hope the red magazine meant the loads weren't going to go straight through the hull, but not a lot of time, because my pursuer was only a corner back. As I came out, he turned those damnable eyes to me. I had time to read his nametag - LCOL MILLER USAF - and the jaw sank down again, too far. Greenish mist was beginning to spew from his mouth, and this time I heard the hoarse thin scream begin, but I was moving towards him. I grabbed his neck with my gauntlet as he grabbed my helmet again, and stuck the Beretta up under his chin and pulled the trigger.
There was a muffled, flat PAM. His face wrinkled on the left side, as if someone had taken hold of it above his left eyebrow and pulled hard upward. A splattering sound came from the ceiling, and suddenly everything was green. My right hand was burning like hell. I re-aimed the gun into his chest area and pulled the trigger again, twice.
The body jerked twice, and the hands fell away from my head. I shoved, reflexively, and it drifted away from me, apparently lifeless except for the obscene light still coming from the eyes. The top of the skull had bulged, and viscous gray and green matter was oozing out. As it spun, I saw bulges in the back but no exit wounds; frangible bullets, apparently.
I swam frantically out of the T-module, back into the adapter, through it and into the K-module.
It was a mess. There were two bodies in bunks, their chests and arms missing a deal of flesh with what looked like bite marks around the edges of the denuded areas. I continued forward to the Docking Adapter. Its hatch was closed. I tugged at it, but it wouldn't open. I looked through the access panel next to the hatch, and it was clear why.
The CTV was gone. There was an open hatchway where it had been. Gonzalez' body was nowhere to be seen.
A fluttering noise announced the imminent end of my oxygen reserve. I screamed, in frustration and fear, and frantically screwed my gauntlet back on. It sealed on the first try, miracle of miracles, and I stuffed the gun into the utility pocket. Making my way aft again, I stopped in the adapter module, closed the hatches, looked around until I found the inner dump valve, and yanked it.
There was an immediate flare of cyclone lights and a blizzard of loose items as the atmosphere in the adapter module, for the second time, blew itself out the dump valve.
I sat against the wall, waited for it to end. My helmet air was going stale. When the storm ceased, I closed the dump valve and looked carefully at the panel. There was a control that read "STORES REFRESH". I punched it. Nothing happened for a moment, then air flooded into the bay.
I took the helmet off and watched my breath freeze in the sub-zero hell.
* * *
I'm still dead, though. Aikers must have gotten the CTV into some kind of emergency re-entry mode; it would have been programmed to splash down near Pearl Harbor, from what I've found in the Post's procedures. I managed to get the Comms up and running, but Cheyenne Ground won't talk to me, much, saying they want to talk to Aikers. I try to tell them he's not here, that he and the CTV re-entered, but they seem adamant. I didn't understand it, until I noticed on one of the camera modules that Pearl Harbor is burning.
I can't get anything from Big Island or Oahu on the airwaves. What I can get out of the rest of Hawaii sounds like a bad movie - glowing eyes, vampires, cannibals, ghouls, what-have-you. The worst part is that the creatures won't stay dead.
I could have told them that, if they'd listened. I've had to shoot Miller twice, after he regrew his skull. Finally I hauled him and his crewmates outside and lashed them to the outside of the connector without a suit. I screwed up, though; his face is visible from one of the connector ports when I go through it. Every time I go past, he screams at me in slow motion.
California has reported strange things happening near LAX. I don't know what that means. Worst yet, Atlantis is home, and I'm 'missing, presumed dead.' Cheyenne Ground still won't talk to me, but there appear to be preparations underway for another 'unmanned' launch. It's not on the schedule, though, so I can guess what that means since nobody's admitted to the Post's existence yet.
I estimate I have another couple of weeks before they show up. I hope they manage to find the CTV recordings before then. I hope they manage to get a grip on whatever made it down with the CTV before then. I hope Aikers made it, although it doesn't look likely.
I have the Beretta with me at all times, now, especially as I listen to the news of my dying planet up here in my penthouse. The last few times I've gone through the connector, I've noticed a film of green ice on the wall near where Miller is tied to the outside, and I've started to wear the pressure suit and keep the connector sealed, but I don't know how effective that will be if it's making it through the hull. My right hand itches.
There's always one bullet in this gun, and I know where the dump valves are.