Jia’s stomach burns and she jolts awake. She flails against the suffocation as if she can beat it away with her own two hands. Tears well in a weightless film across her eyelids and she scrubs the back of one hand across her face while the other fumbles with the harness release. Her head throbs. When she sets her hand to the site of the pain, it returns sticky and red. Thoughts spark and fizzle in an overlapping jumble of competing primal urges. Air. She needs air.
Stop. Right side, right side. Her right hand slides down, finds the emergency kit. The breather feels cool against her palm, then she has it, bites down like a scuba diver, and there’s a hiss as liquid O2 expands. The first breath hurts her chest like January air, but it’s a sweet pain and she closes her eyes for a moment to just breathe. It’s like a drug, electric, hyper-sensitizing. Neurons fire through the haze. She blinks and assesses the room.
Emergency lights trace psychedelic patterns in the zero gee drifting smoke. Bits and pieces of chair foam, loose fasteners, and pieces of soot coast by. Each casts a long, moving shadow, a dark tail like an inverse comet. Ethereal amber light shifts with scrolling alerts.
She inhales deeply from the breather, pops it out of her mouth. “Ship?”
“Ping? Are you there? Ping, respond.”
An explosion somewhere and her head whiplashes. She keys icons for damage assessment.
Battery three is gone, fire suppression is depleted. Engines are offline. There’s damage everywhere. It’s her fault.
Ping. Ping was down there.
She’s about to unclick her harness and stand when a pulsing red smudge catches her eye. She wipes the fire suppression snowfall and her finger shakes. Orbital diagrams spin on the display. Uranus is an infinite sky stretching in a plane parallel to the ship. The Prosperity plows through the upper atmosphere.
Her stomach drops. She tries to send power from the remaining batteries to the shredded engines, but there is no response. Her pulse races and a clawing digs within her chest, then she remembers the breather, bites down, takes several breaths, pops it back out and opens the emergency channel. Nothing. She slams her fist down on the workstation. Think.
She’s out of the chair and diving down the transit tube. The wind picks up mid-tube, whistling, and she looks over to the comms room. Scorch marks stain the pressure seal and a dozen holes make the metal look moth-eaten. Blue sunlight shafts connect the trajectories of each hole with a matching breach on the far wall. Her ears and eyes hurt.
She descends deeper until she comes to the core junction. To the starboard, the emergency area beckons, a fully self-sufficient life pod with its own RF drive, food, water, air and medicine. Get Ping, get inside, jettison it, climb to a stable orbit and activate the beacon. Rescue in twelve days.
Jia ignores it and descends to the aft door. She hooks on a rung, stretches, and keys in the override. Red lights strobe and the seal flashes open, then she’s fighting against the wind as she climbs down the ladder head first. When the door slides down she takes the breather out of her mouth and gulps atmosphere. It tastes bitter, acrid, like burning plastic.
The hangar houses two aerostats shaped like giant Apollo-era capsules. The first is fully extended on its tracks at the edge of the hangar door. A large red number one is printed on its nose. Ping is not here at aerocon, but a slate drifts by and Jia grabs it, tucks it into her belt, then watches the pattern of drifting debris to find an opening before pushing off towards the next room.
Extravehicular Prep. The air here smells strongly of solvent and tickles her throat. Ping is here drifting helmetless in a red spacesuit. Jia kicks off the entrance and collides with him. She takes the breather from her mouth and works it into his. “I got you, Ping.”
The slate recommends airway anti-spasmodics, increased suit oxygen, drugs to counter the volatiles from the battery fire, and inhaled nano-cellular therapy. Some of that is here at the emergency EV station and she presses an injector to his neck. She takes the breather back, places her hand on his cheek, then snaps his helmet on.
Several red EV and blue PLEX suits are here. She slips into the red suit nearest Ping and the slate’s display fizzes over her faceplate as she tethers to his suit’s carabiner. “Okay, we’re getting out of here.”
Something huge rips off the Prosperity and crashes into the starboard hull. Jia can’t tell if she is spinning or if the room is turning around her. She reaches out, curls her fingers around Ping’s chest handle and pulls him into an embrace. Her back bounces off the ceiling.
“Jia?” Ping asks, eyes half parted. “Tried to…tried to get to you. Fire in the battery room.”
“Ping! Hey, stay with me. We’re getting off the ship.”
Jia pushes off the ceiling and navigates Ping back to the core junction. A blast of air and they’re through the door, but her eyes are dark adjusted and the hall is filled with intense light. She hooks a rung and they pendulate for a moment.
The junction is different. Chaotic bursts of yellow firelight spear through the comms door holes and a dazzling shaft of aquamarine carves a luminous corridor bisecting the hall. Sunlight reflected off Uranus.
Jia’s voice cracks. “No!”
She pulls Ping up to the lifepod window, squints and peers inside. There should be the welcoming glow of the lifepod’s interior lights through the airlock, but instead there is no lifepod, no airlock, just ripped, bent metal splayed open like a flower. As she watches, more pieces of the umbilical twist, snap and streak away awash in flames.
“That is not good,” Ping says, coughing.
Jia wants to cry. She puts both hands on Ping’s faceplate, tilts her head forward and makes contact with his.
“How long?” asks Ping.
Her response is nearly a whisper. “Minutes.”
“Have an idea.” Another cough. “You’re not going to like it.”
“Back down, back down, to the hangar.”
She searches his face and her brow tightens. “Oh.” She shakes her head. “Oh, no.”
“Yeah, yeah. We can make it.”
Jia grabs Ping’s suit handle and they emerge from the hangar ceiling. Flames flash in sparking globes from EV Prep.
“Needs to be Aero One,” Ping says. “It’s all set up.”
She brings them down right beside the red number one on the aerostat’s nose. The screen illuminates and Jia pairs her slate to it. Startup icons scroll by. A whine of servos and the capsule’s middle unfurls like a metal blossom.
They slip inside. It’s tight in here, designed for maintenance access only. Sitting cross-legged she taps the slate and the six panels seal them in. Ping’s face is lit underneath by his helmet and her own glow spills warm light on his suit.
“I’m going to try and equalize the bay,” she says.
The klaxon sounds before the air hisses away. Jia taps another icon and the bay doors slide open.
Ping reaches up with both hands and anchors on the steel framework.
She eyes his hands, reads his expression. “Ready?”
“Not really, but, yeah.”
Aero One lurches as the track extends outside the door. It’s a four-thousand-kilometer drop underneath them. She reads off her helmet HUD. “Here we go. Five, four, three, brace, brace.”
The clamps disengage and the thrusters fire with an ear-numbing blast. Her teeth clatter from the vibrations of the shimmying walls.
Ping looks at her and she hears his rapid breaths over the comm. He nods. They are free, free of the dying ship and flying and falling, both at once.
She remembers the slate and pulls it out, linking into the aerostat’s externals. Ping leans forward as she shares the screen with him.
In the aft camera, a gossamer ring bisects the sky, icy white against a powder gradient fading to ultraviolet. A few pale stars dapple the top of the screen. The Prosperity falls behind them. It sputters and flickers, a great blinding meteor in a cyan haze. Sparks shred off the front and veer away like missiles, each tracing its own path.
Tears well in Jia’s eyes as the fireball divides, splits again, until all that remains of the Prosperity is a rain of fire in a cloudless sky.
* * * *