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Okay. I can deal with this.

The Courageous AI doesn’t have a voice or any voice recognition capabilities. I have no idea why. It’s common technology, available in every home and most public places, and I’d have thought that it would be a really useful feature for the crew, rather than them having to use a computer terminal whenever they wanted to talk to it. But it doesn’t, so as I stand in Pod Launch Ring 2 and put my helmet on, there’s dead silence on the radio. I’ll be doing this crawl completely unassisted.

This is such a bad idea.

The space suit’s internal environmental controls engage, and for the first time since waking up I’m spared the stench of blood and rot. The suit has a lot of controls and systems that I don’t really understand, but the design is familiar enough that it shouldn’t be any problem to use. It’s a pressurised bag shaped like a human to put a person in. Shouldn’t be any trouble. I just need to get to the other part of the ship in it, not do anything fancy. Of course, I’m not trained in the emergency protocols and failsafes in this suit, but that won’t be a problem if nothing goes wrong, right? So. Nothing to worry about.

I glance around the pod launch ring. As one might expect, it’s full of descent pods, ready to take colonists and supplies to the planet surface. According to the computer, these vessels are stored inside the ring so as not to compromise the ship’s aerobreaking shape, and when it’s time to deploy them, the entire ring will act as an airlock, pumping the air out and going vacuo before opening the drop hatches. But there’s a small service airlock in the floor, for the engineering team. (Not that the engineering team would be expected to exit the ship at PLR2. PLR1 and PLR3 are near sensors and engines, but this one is only here because the pod launch rings were made to be identical. Lucky for me, or I’d be exiting at the back of the ship and have to crawl all the way to the front.)

I find the hatch in the floor and kneel down next to it. My left leg gives out at the last couple of inches and I slip to the floor with a grunt. The computer had told me that I had mild muscle atrophy and I, like an idiot, hadn’t asked specifically which muscles to worry about, or what the system considered ‘mild’ – was I merely weak and unfit, or was there real damage to worry about? I should probably go back and find out. Maybe start physiotherapy, come back and do this when I was stronger, when it was safer…

But I can’t do that. Physiotherapy takes weeks, and delaying that long puts the ship at risk. If I’m going to do this… now is the best time to do it. And I’ve already decided to do it.

So I open the hatch, and drop down into the airlock.

It’s tiny. With the bulk of me and my suit, there’s barely any air left to pump out. With my back pressed against the far wall, I can feel the reverberation of the air pump as much as I can hear it – more than I can hear it, as the air is sucked away, removing any medium except the wall through which to transmit sound. The operations panel blinks at me, indicating that I’m now in vacuo and the outer door is unlocked. I clip one of my safety tethers (I brought five, because why not) to the anchor point on the wall of the airlock, reach down to the floor, and open the door. I grip the frame of the door and drop out, into the vacuum of space.

And realise that I have made a quite serious, incredibly stupid mistake.

I don’t spend a lot of time in space. By which I mean, I don’t spend any time in space. I’ve spent most of my life on Earth, and the limited time when I was off Earth was spent inside ships and living domes, like a sane person. I’ve watched videos of people working in space, of course, drifting about ships dangerously but peacefully, floating in the soundless, gravity-free void. I’d kind of assumed that, when I opened the door and dropped out into space, it would be kind of like that.

It is not like that. It is absolutely nothing like that.

What I’d forgotten was that the inside of the ship was also a gravity-free environment. I hadn’t experienced gravity since leaving Earth’s gravity well, an experience for which I was unconscious. The force pulling me to the ‘floor’ that was the curved surface of each ring at 1g was inertia, caused by the spinning of the ship. Like clothes in a dryer. But here’s the thing.

When I’m outside the ship… it’s still spinning. If I’m holding onto the hull, I’m still spinning.

Exiting the ship doesn’t put me in a weightless environment. I’m still experiencing 1g. (Well, not quite 1g, if I’m remembering high school physics correctly, since I’m a little bit further away from the centre of rotation, but the difference is slight enough that I can’t tell.) The big difference is that I’m not standing on a floor any more.

I’m hanging onto a ceiling.

And below me, in the unlit void (the outside of the ship has no lights and my helmet light is pretty weak), I see only stars.

So I give up. Immediately. No one could blame me, right? I mean, this mission is literally impossible! I have a whole ship full of people to save, and yes, there are nearly nine hundred people in Chronostasis Ring 1, but it is simply not possible to make this journey across the hull, so what’s the point of being out here? All I’ll do is die, and the ship will have to wake somebody else, and they’ll have even less time to turn the engines on and they’ll detach CR1 instead! What would I be dying for?

I should have just listened to the computer and authorised the ring detachment in the first place. I start to haul myself back into the airlock. It’s not an easy manoeuvre; I woke up from chronostasis just a few hours ago and I’m using my arms to drag my whole body, in a heavy space suit, up through a hatch above me.

So of course I lose my grip immediately and drop into space.

I have just enough time to wonder whether the tether was designed to take this kind of force before I bodily slam into something solid, hard enough to knock the wind out of me. I instinctively wrap my arms and legs around it just as my helmet light winks out and my electronic feeds go dark.

Okay. So. I’m on some kind of long bar. I can’t see anything except stars. I didn’t fall that far; my 3 metre tether still has some slack in it. Given that I tethered it inside the airlock… maybe a two metre fall? Thereabouts?

The suit’s air pumps still hum in my ears, so whatever killed my electronic feeds hasn’t killed me, at least not immediately. Physically, my ribs hurt, and my arms and legs, gripping the bar, are already cramping. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I notice a very faint sort of blue glow around them.

Oh! The ship’s shielding! I’m holding onto one of the metal bars that support the electrostatic shield. The slight glow is random bits of space dust being eaten by the field. That’s probably what’s cramping my limbs, too; I don’t know how these fields work but it knocked out my radiation-shielded electronics so it’s not impossible that it might be doing weird things to my muscles.

Okay. I’m way out of my depth, but I’m not currently dead. There’s a way forward, here.

I was facing towards the front of the ship when I fell. So, lying flat on this bar, I’m still facing towards the front of the ship. The bars form a lattice around the ship, with parallel bars three and a half metres apart, minus the width of the bars themselves. (I was so, so lucky to have hit one. I was so close to death. I can freak out about that later.) I can crawl forward along this bar until I reach the front of the ship, and then figure out how to get back inside when I get there. No problem.

Bad news: I’m going to have to do it without being able to see what I’m doing. Good news: the bar is beneath me, so I can crawl on top of it instead of having to hang from anything. This is… this is a better plan than moving along the hull, actually. Assuming I can get my limbs to obey me. And that the shield isn’t giving me some kind of weird health problem.

It’s not like I have any choice, anyway. The hatch back into the ship is two metres above me, and I am not standing up on this bar and reaching up over my head to reach it. That is simply not going to happen. Even if I did, I’d already proven that I don’t have the strength to pull myself in, and that was when I was already partially in the airlock and my limbs weren’t all cramped. The external airlock in Pod Bay 1, up the front of the ship, is positioned with the expectation that engineers would need to come in and out occasionally, so there’s probably a ladder or something. Making it to the front of the ship is safer, really, when you think about it.

Very carefully, I pull one arm up off the bar, out of the field. I shake it a bit, and it stops cramping. I reach for a tether.

Feeling anything through the gloves of a space suit is tricky, but I manage to find a tether. There are no tether points on the bar beneath me (why would there be?), so I loop the tether around it and lock it onto itself. Then I find the tether connecting me to the airlock and disconnect it from my suit.

I start to crawl forward.

With my muscles cramping in the field, progress is agonisingly slow. I’m not worried; my space suit has hours of air. I keep moving until I hit the metal of another beam crossing mine at a right angle, very carefully climb over it, attach a tether to my beam on the other side and detach the previous tether. With one tether abandoned in the airlock, I have four left, and I only need two, alternating them for each section of beam like this.

Once I’m used to it, the journey’s not all that scary. The beam is solid, and there’s no real chance of falling if I don’t do anything stupid. I can’t feel much through the space suit, and that detachment alone creates a barrier, a feeling of safety. The field of stars below me is breathtaking, a carpet of light more intense than anything viewable from Earth or Luna, where electronic lights and atmospheres and shielding get in the way. The only thing between me and the stars is the visor of my helmet and the very faint blue of random particles getting caught in the shield. And maybe it’s an effect of the shielding or something, but there’s a distinctly rainbow hue to the stars; those up ahead of me are a blue-violet, those behind a pale red.

The field of stars rotates under me as I move. (Well, actually it’s the Courageous that’s rotating, but it’s easier to make my way along the ship if I imagine that it’s stable and the stars rotate around me, like a small child imagines the sun going around the earth.) Darkness begins to creep into view on my left, still spattered with stars here and there, as the ship spins me away from the centre of the milky way and out towards intergalactic space. I reach another beam crossing mine, reach a hand forward, and can’t find the other side. It’s not a beam, just a flat panel, blocking the stars beyond.

I’ve reached the solid shielding at the front of the ship.

I crawl onto the flat surface, grateful to be out of the muscle-cramping shield, and immediately run into a fence, presumably designed to stop stupid engineers from stumbling out over the edge. There’s no obvious gate, but with a little effort, I climb over it. According to the ship maps, this should be a sort of blunt cone, connected to the ship at the front around the main engines, and fanning out to create the two metre space between the hull and the electrostatic shielding along the tube. There are lights up ahead – not enough to see by, although I’m sure there’s a control somewhere to turn those lights on so that the engineers can work. The lights on right now are very dim safety indicators, lighting up nothing but themselves; two short strips of white lights leading two metres up, to a red square.

I head over and feel around. It’s a short ladder, leading to the airlock. Very convenient. I let myself in, sit back while it pressurises, and finally, finally relax.

“Okay,” I mumble to no one. “Let’s have a look at this engine.”

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9 thoughts on “004: TRAVEL

  1. YEAHH Aspen did it right! I’m proud of them! They should rest now please?

    “It’s a pressurised bag shaped like a human to put a person in.”
    – Intuitive, I guess

    “I’m not trained in the emergency protocols and failsafes in this suit, but that won’t be a problem if nothing goes wrong, right? So. Nothing to worry about.”
    – They should be a bit more anxious

    “The computer had told me that I had mild muscle atrophy and I, like an idiot, hadn’t asked specifically which muscles to worry about”
    – poor idiot

    “I clip one of my safety tethers (I brought five, because why not)”
    – “Why not?” is a very good reason indeed

    Okay. I’m way out of my depth, but I’m not currently dead. There’s a way forward, here.
    – They should be a bit more anxious x2

    (I was so, so lucky to have hit one. I was so close to death. I can freak out about that later.)
    – please, do freak out Aspen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There are definitely many things in this story that Aspen would be justified in freaking out over but “while crawling on a bar and protected from falling into space forever by a thin cord” seems like a bad time to do it.

    How is he going to get back if/when he ever needs to get back through that ring, though?
    …let’s call that a problem for Future Aspen to deal with, preferably after he’s actually gotten some rest. And figured out if he messed up his body by being within that shield. And hopefully gotten them on track for the planet. And ideally figured out if he can trust the computer. And… well, there’s a lot on Future Aspen’s to do list.


    1. Of course that assumes “getting on track for the planet” is a goal they should be aiming for. My random theory with no evidence is that the crew realized the planet wasn’t actually capable of sustaining life (or perhaps the ship was called back to Earth for some reason), so they tried to change course, but the computer was programmed with the goal of ‘get to planet’ so it killed the crew to prevent them from aborting the mission. And then it opted to wake up as few humans as possible, as late as possible, to get them on course for the planet.

      Also just realized that I used he/him for Aspen above but I think they use they/them pronouns? Oops. I take it there isn’t an edit button?


  3. And we’ve got success! Only a few moments of utter terror.
    The lack of voice recognition is interesting. To give the crew a feeling of privacy? Suspect there’s more going on.


  4. Lots of worrying details in the first few paragraphs.

    The ship computer not having voice recognition or speakers could be due to the tradition of never trusting new tech in spacecraft, but if they’re using chronostasis, which is presumably a little more advanced than voice recognition, it begs the question for sure. Is the computer lying/decieving Aspen? Is it the real computer, or a rogue subsystem that ‘can’t access the rest of the ship’ because of an airgap countermeasure? If not, did the engineers intentionally design it analog to avoid some kind of security breach?

    Then there’s the spacesuit. Last chapter’s discussion, I defended the sinuses explanation as likely since Aspen walked through a greenhouse full of overgrown lavender and wild honey without noting a change in the smell of blood and rot. But now, they put on a suit and the smell disappeared with the atmo scrubber. That’s a scary detail, if it’s not an oversight; that means the smell is literally so overpowering that it’s inescapable in the areas they’ve been in.

    Of course, all of this is speculation, and could be nothing, but better to have them in mind going forward, right?


  5. [I’ve watched videos of people working in space, of course, drifting about ships dangerously but peacefully, floating in the soundless, gravity-free void. I’d kind of assumed that, when I opened the door and dropped out into space, it would be kind of like that.

    It is not like that. It is absolutely nothing like that]

    This. THIS is what I fuckin’ love about hard sci-fi!!! Rational, realistic, deeply unexpected ripple effects. Massive shifts in perspective, turning assumptions that you didn’t even realize you had, completely on their head. This is what it’s all about!

    The shock of the realization that she was still under 1g and now hanging from the ceiling. The rainbow hues of the stars from the near-light speed travel (would that be the doppler effect, or is there a more apt word?) The body horror of the smell of rot, potentially coming from 15 year old decayed blood in her sinuses. The clue in the fresh smell of the EVA suit. The fact that these things are all happening whether or not Aspen notices or understands the science. The way that context is given slowly, not through thinly veiled monologues.

    A++ writing, an absolute delight!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ooooooohhh, so um, i didnt realize that Aspen commented that the bloodrot smell disapeared when the air supply was renewed until someone else pointed it out, which, uh, i dont think should happen if the smell is coming from your nose?? So thats concerning! The AI not having voice controls is a bit weird, but we successfully made it through the space walk! Jordan! Hopefully the engines aren’t too hard to turn on


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