Out on the edge of perception, Captain Ortega could sense something out of place. Something felt wrong enough to stir him from his light sleep. He sat up in his bunk, looking at the empty berth next to his where there would have been a second crewman if he had needed one. His vast experience and “Master” grade ratings on nearly every type of orbital craft precluded him - even if unofficially - from the regulations requiring a copilot on any craft which was capable of seating one. He liked to fly solo, sometimes, even if it was just to avoid being called “Grandpa” by the other crewmen, a nickname he had picked up several years earlier when a station control officer planning Ortega's flights realized that he had, in fact, been trained by the man he was planning for.
The feeling hit him again. He couldn't qualify it, exactly, but something was definitely amiss. It was just a feeling, but after you'd spent as much time up the gravity well as he had, you learned to trust your feelings. Sometimes they were more reliable than the most finely-tuned instruments. He didn't realize what was wrong until it was far too late, and considering the speed at which things move in high orbit, that wasn't long at all. The impact sent a dull shock through bulkheads, like an angry god had reached down and swatted the ship. The noise was tremendous. He had no frame of reference with which to compare it except for the sound a bad auto accident made, but then, not a whole lot of people remembered when cars still crashed. He was old, even by modern standards; it had been two decades since the last of the automobiles, and Ortega even remembered when they still burned gasoline. His grandchildren didn't even know what gasoline was, and would have found the idea absurd if he had tried to explain it.
Ortega pulled on his one piece jumpsuit and his soft ship boots after wrestling himself out of the primitive elastic webbing that kept him in his bunk. It made him nostalgic- but then, everything on these older ships did.
He made his way to the bridge so he could check the monitors and get an assessment on the collision. That something had hit him, he didn't doubt – only what. Alarms began to sound, the coded beeps and chirps telling him that there was severe hull damage - which was to be expected in any orbital collision - but also that the ship had managed to seal itself and air pressure was steady. He would do a manual check of hull integrity later, but for now he felt the computerized check was sufficient. The high, angry-insect whine of the engine warning klaxon told him the ship wouldn't be going anywhere under its own power, at least for a while.
Three hours later, after stabilizing the last of the ship's systems that hadn't fixed themselves, he had nothing to do but ruminate on the causes of the collision. It had either been an unmanned object, or whoever was piloting it was dead due to the impact. Possibilities reckoned from vast experience ricocheted through his mind. Had it been a rogue transshipment pod pulled off course somehow? Had an unannounced third-world launch somehow escaped detection on the station monitors? The forward cameras only showed a cloud of shrapnel and dust rapidly expanding away from the ship. The rear cameras were non-functioning, presumably ripped free. Ortega knew someone was going to fry for this one, and hoped it wasn't him.
There wasn't much left to do except a manual hull check. After finally figuring out where a real paper copy of the ship's diagrams was kept, he tracked methodically through the narrow corridors, trying each hatch and marking it on the chart with a pencil until he finally came to one that refused to open. The panel next to the hatch informed him with a soft red glow and a rather brusque voice that safety protocols were preventing the hatch from opening due to at atmosphere differential of 1.00. Ortega licked his dry lips, grinned at the panel and muttered to himself.
“Why can't you just say there's no air on the other side, you dumb boat?” he said with what any casual observer would have mistaken for frustration and circled the entire aft 50 meters of the ship on his diagram with one fluid stroke, representing the portions he assumed were now either completely or mostly gone.
“¡Madre de Dios!” he shouted at nothing in particular, reverting, like almost all polyglots, to his native language in times of stress. “English was just fine for technical work,” he had been known to say, “but it's no good for real swearing”.
He had no way to communicate with the station to let them know his situation, or to obtain official permission for an EVA, since his broadcast equipment had also gone with the apparently missing half of the ship. The small, low-power transmitters in the suit helmets were useless this far from any communications satellites. Their relatively weak signal would be swallowed by the background radiation of the unshielded Sun.
Station control wasn't going to like an unauthorized EVA at all, but the grey in his hair had done nothing to tarnish the gleam in his eye. Even a doctorate in Astromechanical Engineering wasn't going to help him stick the engines back on, but he wasn't about to assume there was nothing he could do. He wanted a visual inspection of the damage in any case. Besides, he figured, what else was he going to do for three days while the rescue crew shuttled out here?
He suited up carefully, checking each gage and seam three times, a habit he had never lost from his first days in space, back when it had taken help from at least one other person to get you into your suit. He exited through the midships airlock, two bulkheads forward of the last intact hatch.
Four days later the rescue crew reported him as missing, and presumed dead. The
remaining intact portions of the ship were towed back to the station for analysis and later salvage. The debris took several weeks to fully clear from the various orbits it had been shot into, mostly because there were so few people trained for the task, collisions being as rare as they were – especially collisions with an untracked object large enough or fast enough to do that kind of damage. In the following investigation, station control placed the odds of that type of collision at billions to one.
Neither Captain Juan Emanuel Ortega, nor his suit, were ever recovered. It was assumed he fell into atmosphere and burned up, but the orbit-prediction simulations showed the odds of that at billions to one. It was never noticed, or officially recorded if it was, that his personal effects were missing from his quarters.
Three years later, when the others made first contact, linguists and analysts put the odds that they had
learned the Spanish language purely from stray radio broadcasts at billions to one.