S a m B a r o n e
Jettisoned - a Sci-Fi novella about murder, mutiny, and survival aboard the inter-planetary cargo ship Lady Drake
The sound of his death came right through the space suit. Part of Peter Tasco’s mind dismissed that as impossible, so it took him nearly three seconds to recognize the unfamiliar sensation rising up through his boots as the reverberation of the ship’s fusion engine igniting. It took those same three seconds for Peter to realize that his crewmates, safe inside the Lady Drake, had condemned him to die, death by abandonment into the empty reaches of space.
By then Garcia’s panicked shouts threatened to pierce Peter’s eardrums through his helmet’s headset, but he ignored the painful noise. Heart pounding, Peter knew he had only moments to save himself. He could feel the Lady Drake moving, reacting to the powerful thrust of the ship’s fusion engine. To Peter’s relief, a yellow anchor ring projected from the hull less than a meter away from where he stood. He grabbed the white safety line attached at both ends to his suit’s belt, and unhooked one of the carabiners. Grunting with the effort needed to resist the growing acceleration, he bent down, the quick connect D-ring in hand. Despite his dread, he snapped the tether’s clasp onto the safety anchor on the first try. His boots, encased in the magnetic straps that held him to the ship’s metal surface, started sliding along the hull of the Lady Drake. Meanwhile, the acceleration continued to build, the cargo vessel’s enormous mass no match for the hellish fusion reactor.
Already Peter had slipped two meters from the safety anchor. He whipped the white nylon cord around his arm once to shorten the slack and gave it a good jerk, to make sure its clasp was secure. To his horror, the rope snapped immediately, parting cleanly about a meter from the anchor point. Panic rushed through him.
Without the rope to hold him, Peter continued to slide, slipping another meter farther down the hull. The magnetic straps on the soles of his boots didn't have enough strength to hold him in place against the steadily increasing thrust from the ship's engine. Just as he felt himself about to be flung loose from the hull, his left boot caught against the raised lip of a service repair access cover. Peter stopped sliding, but he could feel the acceleration increasing, compelling him to lean forward against the inexorable force. That intensified the strain on the one leg and foot wedged against the access panel. In another few seconds he would be torn loose and spun off into space, deserted by his crew members and left to die.
The other end of the safety line remained attached to his space suit. Moving as quickly as his thick gloves permitted, Peter gathered up the loose end of the cord and wrapped it around his left forearm twice, overlapping the strands as he did so. The pain continued to build in his left leg and he struggled with all his tenacity to remain upright against the ever-growing acceleration. Leaving some slack between his hands, he wound the rest of the rope around his right arm. Gripping the rope tightly with both hands and using the last of his strength, Peter flung himself down toward the Lady Drake's hull.
His foot came loose at the same time and he nearly missed hooking the rope around the corner of the access panel. In an instant he lay parallel to the hull, his feet flailing out. Peter tried to bring them up under his body, to help fight against the remorseless force that wanted to tear him loose from the still-accelerating vessel. The rope tightened on his arms as the safety line sank into the suit's material, but he kept his grip and concentrated on bringing up his right foot. Peter had to force it down, then move it against both the acceleration and the magnetic force to position it underneath his body. Then he brought up his left foot and repeated the process.
When both boots had gripped the ship's surface, Peter found himself in as much of a squatting position as the suit's flexibility allowed. The magnetized boots prevented his feet from whirling about, but only the length of nylon rope between his hands kept him connected to the ship. The tightness on his arms turned into pain and he wondered if the fabric might rip from the friction. Not that there was anything he could do if it did tear.
It seemed to be holding, for now. He opened his mouth to call for help, then closed it again. Garcia's demands to stop the ship, now mingled with curses, still blasted in his ears, but another sound stopped Peter's own pleas from joining Garcia’s. The raucous laughter that might have been there all along, the mocking by a maniacal man enjoying Garcia's terrified appeals.
For a moment, the pain disappeared as Peter realized that he and Garcia had been deliberately and coldbloody abandoned to their doom. The ship's engine hadn't fired by accident. And Peter’s safety line hadn't just broken - someone had sabotaged it. There would be no help from anyone inside the vessel. If he called out, Captain Camenson would know Peter was alive, possibly attached to the ship. Then he would be dead for sure, even if Camenson or one of the crew had to come outside to finish the job as soon as the engine burn ended. Or they could simply leave him out there until he exhausted his air supply, after dogging the hatches from the inside so that Peter couldn't get back in.
The painful throbbing in his arms returned, and he could see the length of nylon between his hands beginning to stretch. If it broke . . . the nylon rope would soon be straining against three times his body weight, plus the suit and its air tank. Peter recalled some long-ago safety lesson that said the five millimeter thick nylon had a tensile strength of over a thousand kilograms. He tried not to think about how many years ago this particular nylon cord had been manufactured, nor how often it had been exposed to the frigid vacuum. It should hold. If it didn't . . . one way or the other, he'd find out when the ship reached its programmed acceleration of three gravities.
With a shake of his head, Peter pushed that thought out of his mind, concentrating on the engine burn. The course correction wasn't scheduled for another two hours - he and Garcia had been ordered out to inspect the hull and engine nacelles in preparation for that upcoming maneuver. Before leaving the Lady Drake, Peter, as Navigation Officer, had programmed the ship’s mid-course correction, setting the burn time for two hundred and twenty seconds. Nearly four minutes of full thrust would subject the Lady Drake and her crew to the force of three gravities, increasing the vessel’s speed by thirty meters every second. Afterward, the ship wouldn't need her engine until the vessel reached lunar orbit.
How long had he been outside the ship, he wondered? For the first time Peter checked the gauges inside his helmet. One showed forty-one minutes of air remaining. The other gave the ship’s current time as 16:32. The burn had started thirty, forty seconds ago. Maybe longer. He hadn't looked at the display. Think, you fool. What are you going to do next?
Peter clamped his mouth shut. With his suit microphone on, if he didn't keep quiet, they might hear his breathing through the open channel. Garcia’s entreaties for help continued to blast loud and clear in Peter’s ears, as if the screaming engineer stood right next to Peter. But the man’s pleadings would soon fade, as the ship added more distance between itself and Garcia, now helplessly tumbling through space behind them.
The laughter from inside the ship had stopped. Peter reminded himself to take slow, deep breaths. He had to hope that, even if they turned up the volume and did hear him breathing, they might think it was mere background noise. Think, his mind shouted, think. Why do they want me dead? What the hell was going on?