In the sable gloom that was the boarding chamber to the fourth capsule, the astronaut waited for the capsule door to thaw enough to be opened. By Christ, he swore inwardly, he felt as if a ravenous dog was tearing at his ears and fingers. Millions of tiny needles pierced his extremities. His toes were already numb to the piercing agony of frostbite.
Like the spinning needle in a compass, he floated without weight, rotating continuously in the tenebrous cylinder. Curled in a fetal position he was as still as a corpse. And soon, he thought, he would be a corpse. He was freezing to death. No, not to death he hoped, but to endurance. Freezing to the ultimate point of human endurance, and if he past that point, he was better off as a frozen statue. It was better than the alternative. The only thing that outnumbered the stars in which he had lived for two years, was the number of ways to die amongst them.
Before him, set within the capsule wall, were two minuscule, illuminated buttons. One sky blue, the other fiery orange. He tried to focus on the welcoming blue and sunset orange, hoping if he concentrated hard enough he could gather some bit of heat from the tiny circular LEDs. He would have given his left hand for that tiny bit of warmth. Better yet, his toes, for they were already frozen.
Chuckling sardonically at his own wit, he started to reach out his gloved hand, to touch the beautiful orange light, his little beacon, his little sun in the blackness of space. His mind shrieked in anger, at the realization of his growing senselessness, and he yanked back his arm. Were he to touch the tiny glass, the cold would instantly freeze his finger into a solid icicle. Still air conducted heat or cold very poorly. However, the metal surrounding the small bulb, and the glass itself, would transfer the heat, or rather the immense lack of it, very quickly. The very beacon of hope for the astronaut would suck the warmth right out of his finger like some greedy vampire, his entire hand and forearm, reducing it to a frozen, brittle mass of glass-like flesh.
In a flash, he thrust his hand back under his arm, and immediately regretted moving in the first place. He felt that either his body just lost the last little bit of heat he had conserved, or the movement served to awaken the deadened nerves in his arms and shoulders. Either way he began to ache again and his teeth began to chatter uncontrollably.
And it would get colder. Much colder.
The chamber door would soon grind open into the darkened capsule, and then he would know the meaning of ultimate cold. Minus-one-hundred-and-seventy-eight degrees Celsius, the temperature of outer space. He floated currently in perhaps, a balmy minus- fifty to seventy, or so. Shaking slightly, he closed his eyes. These eyes which would weep from the pain or from regret, if it were possible in the utter chill. He thought to himself, "And it's my fault."
His eyes now closed, it was all the easier to imagine his crew mates. Huddled back in the command capsule, clutching on to the various consoles, like beetles in the dark, nothing but the multitude of coloured lights to see by. All five of them mesmerised by the black-and-white monitors. If they were conscious they'd be wide eyed, watching their friend, watching him freeze to death for his mistake. He remembered how they had argued:
"Are you a madman, Nickolai?" Thomas had growled, his grey eyes flaring. His slick dark hair was long in the back and would have hung down to his shoulders if there was gravity to hang it. Instead it flared out as if he was full of static electricity, like some exotic coat collar. "Thomas, I am telling you it is the only way." Nickolai had replied curtly. His arms were crossed over his chest defensively as he floated with his back against the beige, plastic wall as he hovered above the others. His hair reached out like Thomas's, as if he was the son of Medusa.
Thomas yelled so hard that he had to grip a handle embedded in one of the walls to keep from being propelled away from the force of his own breath. Besides, he never backed down from a good argument, "You will freeze to death in minutes, you idiot. And if you touch anything, even to push off, you will harden and shatter as if I dumped a bucket of liquid nitrogen on you!"
"Not quite. Liquid nitrogen is at about minus two hundred, the capsule is only at about minus one eighty."
"Oh, shut up. This is no time for jokes." Thomas nearly let go of his hand hold in frustration, being used to talking with his hands in gravity. If he didn't watch his waving hands he'd spin all over the place and would look pretty stupid, trying to argue with Nickolai while he was spinning around helplessly like a fresh cadet.
"I am serious." Nickolai responded matter-of-factly, "And I won't push off of anything with my hands, I'll use my boots. They won't freeze, at least," he paused, "not right instantly."
The was a slight groaning of pain coming from below the two of them. They both stopped, like two angry parents who did not wish their offspring to hear them fighting, and yet, it was in vain.
"What are you yelling about?" a voice squeaked out in the gloom.
Thomas spun around with an amazing display of zero-gravity gymnastics, and hooked his slippered foot into the same hold, so that he could reach their wounded comrade. Below the two of them, suspended onto the wall by a blue velcro sleeping bag, was the third member -- much younger, and slighter of build, than the other two. His name was Mark. He had a white bandage, spotted with patches of deep red, wrapped tightly around his shaven head, and terrible purple and yellow bruises on his brow and face. Reaching down Thomas lifted one of Mark's dangling eyelids with his finger, seeing a rolling white sphere beneath he spoke in a hoarse whisper, "His concussion is still as bad."
"What was that Tommy?" Mark mumbled, drool dripping and floating away in tiny spheres in random directions. "Why are you angry at me Tom?"
Thomas frowned and shook his head, "I'm not angry with you Mark, it's just that Nickolai is an idiot."
Mark pulled his cracked, bruised lips into a grin, "Tell me something I don't know." There was a moment of silence while the trio floated in the dark before Mark continued, "What are you doing Nick, that is pissing Tom off?"
Nickolai replies nearly immediately, "I'm going to turn the heating modules back on in 'four'."
"Turn em' back on -- why were they off?" Mark mumbles, managing an excellent impression of a drunken slur.
"I turned them off. To save power, and oxygen, after we collided. And to give us time to sort things out."
Mark opened one eye, yet lazily, to peer at Nickolai as he responded, "What the hell did we collide with?"
Thomas answered before Nick could, "We hit the fuelling satellite from NETWORK. There was some glitch in their firing rocket, or steering, we don't know."
"That's how you got your bumps, and a concussion." Nickolai chirped sarcastically after Thomas.
"Oh." was all Mark had to say in response, as internally he struggled to recall even a glimpse of the station colliding with anything. But it was so hard to think with such a throbbing headache.
Still seeing the blank expression on Marks face, or perhaps just to hear himself rationalize it once more, Nickolai spoke, "When the satellite hit us, we lost capsule two, and the emergency protocols shut all of the chamber hatches automatically." He sighed and continued, "Me and Thomas tried to override it, but the controls were froze, pinned actually, because 'two' was crushed like a beer can. So, to save us sometime to get it fixed, I shut off all non-essential services, including the heat and O2 circulation to 'four' and 'three'. And we did get it fixed, after we dealt with you and the others--"
"Where are the others?"Mark blurted out.
"They're down in 'one', secured. They didn't do as well as you." He continued in a cautious tone, "Were not sure if they will remain conscious for long." Nickolai decided not to mention his doubt that they would make it at all. Thomas simply watched the command monitor blankly, seemingly deep in thought.
Nick continued, "What I didn't realize, is that 'four' would cool down so damn quickly. It's already at space temperature. It has air in there still, but it might as well be open space."
"It's a hull breach." Mark said flatly, still amazingly able to function even though his brain had been rattled around pretty badly. Something that Nickolai had always admired about the young man. "You've got a hull breach, it shouldn't lose heat that quick."
"That's right. Computer shows a minor fracture in the inner hull, allowing heat to escape quickly into the interstellar gasses surrounding us, coming off of Europa. Apparently, the computer reads atmosphere is intact, just real damn cold."
Mark held on to the top of his head as if it would come flying off, "And I see your problem." he said in a sarcastic voice, "You need to get in that chamber to get a suit on, to go space side to fix the damn breach, but you'll never be able to just go and get a suit on in time. You've got to heat the capsule up first." He shook his head and grinned, "Then you get to pick little pieces of NETWORK's satellite off of the outer hull with a pair of tweezers."
Thomas chimed in a tone as full of mirth as Mark's, "And all the suits were in capsules two and four."
There was a silence again, broken when the thunderous roar of the synthetic air vents came to life and droned throughout the crippled space station. Until Mark broke the silence again, "So. What were you arguing about?"
Nick rubbed his tired face before answering, "I'm going to go out there and patch in the backup heating system."
"What!" Mark shrieked, "Why ? Do it remotely!"
"We can't." Thomas cried.
"Why the hell not!" Mark ranted, his voice growing agitated and had risen an octave or two in pitch, "Do it from here, from the command console." He motioned toward the collection of blinking lights behind Thomas.
"The console is useless, it's shot." Nickolai shouted, "There must be some failure in the lines between here and capsule four."
"Probably that hull breach." Thomas mused aloud.
"No." Mark said bluntly. "If the breach was big enough to disconnect the wires, even the width of a hair, the whole hull would rupture and tear the station apart." He rubbed his sore head as he continued slowly, "Chances are the fracture has left a wide enough gap in the UV shielding and there is enough EMI getting in to interfere with the data on the cable--"
"Whatever," Nickolai cut him off, "we can't do it from here. We already tried, and we don't have time to fool around. I'm going to go in there. We can open the hatch remotely, we can even open the cover to the back-up system controls remotely, just not the system itself."
"How do you like that?" Thomas growled again baring his teeth like some rabid dog, "I'd really like to bury my slippered foot up the engineer's ass who designed this station."
They floated gently in silence again. All of them looking at the walls as if some last desperate idea would come to them, until Mark spoke once again, "You'll never make it. The anti-chamber to 'four' has got to be bloody cold by now too. You'll freeze before you get to the button, even if you don't touch anything." Mark paused for affect, "Even if you do manage to get the back-up system online, you'll pass out before you make it back into the command capsule."
Nickolai stared back at the two of them with his dull brown eyes, "You better hope that I do it." And that was all he had to say. Because they all knew he was right, they wouldn't last another two or three days if they couldn't mend that breach, if they didn't freeze to death first from capsule four's great cold, slowly but surely freezing the rest of the station.
And that's why Nickolai found himself floating in the black, biting coldness of the anti-chamber to 'four'. He opened his eyes again to see that the lights were on. The abrasive, fluorescent lights illuminated the anti-chamber and the capsule, which Nick could see through the tiny porthole recessed within the chamber hatch. It looked bright and welcoming, as if there was not an invisible force, a field of deadly air inside which would suck the very life from his body as he drifted within it. He could see no breach, or even ice crystals. He knew that this was because there was no water vapour in the capsule, or that it was so cold that it had completely disintegrated all the water from the room. Regardless, he prepared himself to enter the capsule, as he told Thomas to turn on the lights only seconds before he opened the latch.
Peering within he felt as if tiny malicious poltergeists were scratching at his cheeks and nose. He spied his target. A plastic bubble which encased a single yellow, plastic button. All he had to do was flick the inner casing off of the button and press it to activate the back-up systems. Even as he watched, the outer bubble popped up, and snapped off. Thomas must have activated it remotely from the command capsule. It snapped off, and started to float in the capsule interior, but then just shattered, exploded into a thousand little sparkling pieces of plastic. All due to the impossible cold of the capsule. If Thomas opened that outer bubble, that meant he was keying in the command to open the inner hatch as Nickolai was thinking of it. It was time.
Trying to ignore the malevolent chill, he tucked his booted feet under his body and readied them to propel him into capsule four. He flexed his fingers in his black cotton work gloves, which he used to fix the two small motors which sometimes malfunctioned in the station. The gloves were only thin cotton, yet it was better than bare skin. He was amazed that his fingers actually responded, although sluggishly. Before he was even done this he heard a groaning sound. The grating of metal against metal, and the circular portal, to the fourth capsule, rolled to the right and out of the way. Without delay, and his own display of proficient space movement, he thrust his feet out and vaulted into the lit chamber like a phoenix taking flight.
If only he was truly a phoenix, and had a sheathe of blessed fire to hide in, for now he felt the terrible chill of the void. It was like being set alight. His vision swam and he almost passed out as he drifted slowly into the room. Time seemed to stand still, or even stop. There was only the cold. Harsh and terrible and omnipotent freezing cold. It struck him in the face like the satellite from NETWORK. It crushed his limbs and torso. It pierced into his very eyes and nearly blinded him. He felt as if the very flesh on his face had hardened like a blue shell, cracked, and had shattered off to reveal his egg white skull, which was so cold and brittle, he was sure his teeth were about to explode into a million little shards from the cold. He was so cold his tongue was being pierced by those little demons that had already claimed his hands and feet.
In a flash his thighs seemed to blaze with pain and then went numb, his arms up to his shoulders were seemingly set alight by a terrible blue force, until they too had been left senseless. He couldn't tell if he was getting any closer to the button, that glowing yellow
Hopelessly, he stretched out his arms as if to will himself forward, but to no avail. His lungs felt as if he was about to burst. But he knew that if he took a breathe he would freeze his lungs solid, or at least it would certainly feel that way. He felt the burning pressure enveloping his torso now, attacking his sides, turning his very rib bones into long curved pieces of ice. The rest of his body was that throbbing numb that only great cold could bring on. He looked back at the button, but it did not grow any bigger. He was perhaps ten feet from it, and he wasn't getting any closer. He hadn't pushed off hard enough or, his boots had stuck to the metal for just an instant. Long enough to steal sufficient velocity from his push off to strand him there, floating in the middle of what might as well have been deep space.
"I'm going to die."
All caution frozen in his mind, he frantically reached out and gripped a corner in the metal floor with his left hand that was below him. He grabbed it and pulled himself forward in a quick movement, and it sent him drifting forward, slowly. As he went to pull his left hand away from the metal interior of the capsule, he felt no pain. Only an odd sensation like that of an electric shock running up his forearm, and then a certain tugging at his fingers and thumb. Then as he drifted towards the button the pulling stopped abruptly. His mind began to drift, as he looked down at the floor and saw little spheres of hard red stuff like blood, floating around. All different pretty shapes and directions. Must reach the button, he raged in his mind. As if he were standing inside his own head, yelling at his brain at the top of his lungs. What the hell is wrong with you! Concentrate! The rest of the crew is counting on you.
Ignoring the spheres of blood that had taken flight with him, he looked up at the button as he slowly was drawn towards it, as if it had an auto-landing beacon and it was drawing him inexorably nearer. It drew closer, and closer. Until it was right in front of his face. Perhaps a foot from his nose. He stared at it in all it's might and beauty. It had some words written on it in tiny, mesmerizing black letters. Letters he did not have the mental capacity to read, or much less cared to decipher at the moment. It was God-like, shining like the sun, it was all that he could think about. The shiny, yellow beacon of the gods. Slowly, all that was left in his mind was the button. As his eyesight failed, darkness swam in like inky clouds from the corner of his vision, leaving only the round button. Which he now thought was the sun. Slowly his body began to sink to the left because of a slight draft from the internal air jets above and to the right of him.
He wasn't even looking at the light of the sun-button anymore. He didn't have to. It was in his mind. He could feel the lovely warmth on his face, smell the ocean breeze. He could hear the laughter of his friends, and the washing of the waves from the sea. His friends. Tommy, and Mark. They were there with him on the beach. They were all drinking margarita's, and laughing under the hot sun. It was burning Nick's face it was so hot. It was there, all yellow, and had some weird sun spots today, looked kinda like the words "Back-up generator" or something like that. Back-up? Thomas was yelling at him, "Don't go Nickolai!" What was it he was saying? "Push the back-up!" Mark was screaming. . . .or was it the waves, or seagulls perhaps. Yes seagulls. Flying high in the sky, so beautiful. Graceful. As graceful as Nick's body as it floated just centimetres from the inner wall of the capsule.
"Nickolai!" Thomas screamed again, and again. "Hit the button ! Touch the back-up!"
Touch the button? Nick looked up at the disc of golden fire. Touch the sun. Yes. Caress the warmth of the sun. Kiss the lovely surface. . . .Must, touch the sun.
Slowly, as his body brushed against the surface of the metal, Nick's right arm reached up and hammered down his limp hand into the yellow button, shattering not only the clear inner plastic cover, but the yellow plastic of the button itself. Although he could not hear it, there was a slight rumbling of the back-up generator kicking in, and grinding to life. The recoil of this movement pushed his body away from the wall a few inches. As he bounced back his right hand tore away in pieces, breaking brittle black fingers off, some stuck to the hand, others stuck to the wall and shattered button. One even spun off on it's own chaotic direction. This time no blood bubbles out into the open air as it had before, for it had frozen solid in his hand's veins long ago.
The sun was extinguished, but Nickolai didn't care or even know. As the sun burned
brightly in his own mind. He sat on the beach, with sardonic Thomas and young Mark. He
felt the wind blowing through his hair, he felt the sun on his face. It began to grow dark. And
they all watched the sun set, together.
© 1998 Josh Bachynski, all rights reserved
appears here by permission