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Losers in Space

by John Barnes

Excerpt from Chapter Five of Losers in Space:


April 25, 2129. On Virgo's pod. 149 million kilometers from the sun, 166 million kilometers from Mars, 3.7 million kilometers from Earth.

I STAGGER TO my feet, bumping into Emerald, almost falling across Glisters, who is on his hands and knees; we're standing on the tail-end bulkhead of the Pressurized Cargo Section, way down at the crew-bubble end of the pod. We slammed down hard; this sudden new gravity feels like more than the moon's.

My vision starts to come back through the red and orange blur; I see Fleeta, who is standing in front of me and moving her mouth. Sounds are muted; I'm deaf from that immense boom. After long seconds, her shouting, "What happened?" penetrates through the ringing in my ears. Emerald is shouting, "I don't know."

Glisters's voice starts to penetrate. "Grav is about one-fifth g and I think we're turning over in less than two minutes, so that makes it, um... um..." I realize he's talking the problem through, turn and see him punching away at his wristcomp. I join the shout fest: "Everyone shut up and listen to Glisters!"

I'm pretty sure no one has ever even thought that sentence before, let alone shouted it. Maybe that's why Glisters is standing there with his mouth hanging comically open. I try to reassure him with a smile and a wink, styling Best Bud Chick; the way he looks back at me, I must be styling Crazy Spastic Zombie.

At least I can hear a little now. "Loudly and slowly, Glisters, and start from the beginning."

He takes a deep breath. "We must be tumbling end over end pretty fast. That's why the grav is toward the tail bulkhead. It would take something ultra huge at one end of the pod to make that happen this fast. That big flash and boom must have been either a huge explosion or a huge impact, maybe both—"

"Aunt Destiny!" I run to the nearest hatch into the tail disk, which was a swim-through wall hatch moments ago and is now in the floor. When I open it, it swings down away from me, then sways back and forth across the opening.

Beside me, Glisters pushes with flat hands against the hatch cover, steadying it. "Is there a way to climb down?" he asks, just before I jump.

I hit the tail disk bulkhead hard; the 10-meter drop isn't a gentle float anymore, more like dropping from my own height on Earth. Gotta remember now falling means going splat.

"Aren't we supposed to stay in hiding?" Fleeta asks.

"That's all changed," Emerald says. "We have to know what's going on, and Susan has to know about her aunt. Go, Susan, we'll find a way to climb down and join you."

"Thanks." I stagger along a corridor at what seems to be a weird angle pulling me to the side. When I reach a sealed emergency airlock, nothing will let me open it. The next lock is also closed, also sealed. When I lift the emergency phone beside it, there's no sound.

"We're finding all the airlocks are slammed closed, too," Glisters says, behind me. Emerald puts her arms around me, hugging me from behind. "And the pressure indicators show nothing on the other side."

I hadn't thought to check those. The display is flashing red: EXT PRESS 0.00 MP.

I'm almost curious, but my mind won't say what that means.

Emerald explains, "Glisters found a hatch right by the hull, and we used the handholds on the hull to climb down."

Glisters adds, "There are windows in the outer edge of the tail disk. We should probably find one and try to see what's going on."

Every lock is slammed closed. Every emergency phone is dead. Every pressure indicator shows 0.00. Then about 30 meters beyond the crew bubble's attachment, we come to a big window. Through the 2 meters of water and the outer window, I see the stars wheel crazily like a formation-flying swarm of bees.

From way back in my brain, Crazy Science Girl kicks in. "We're spinning on an axis through about the center of Auriga."

Glisters says, "Yeah. Okay, there goes Pisces—36 seconds for the window edge to cut through Pisces, now—mark..." Lost in thought, he holds still, staring at his wristcomp. In a burst of ultra loserness, I wish I wore a wristcomp, too. He marks the moment. "39 seconds for Aries. Figure each constellation is 30 degrees—"

"What the sheeyeffinit are you babbling about?" Emerald says, "I don't even know what kind of astrology that is. I never heard of a sign called Oregon, either."

The sneer in her voice reminds me of the way my mother used to sound during my Crazy Science Girl days, so I style some real condescension to show her how it's done. "Auriga. Name of a constellation. The 12 signs are constellations all along the solar equator. They each take up about 30 degrees of a circle across the sky—there's 360 degrees in a circle—"

"All right, Susan, you're as bad as he is. What's all the babble about?"

"He's figuring out how fast we are spinning—"

"Seven and a half minutes per revolution, in the tumbling end-over-end rotation," he says. "Plus we're probably still rotating around the coretube too. So the total—" "Oh, my god," Fleeta says.

We look out the window. At first it looks like a gigantic gray metal funnel with a piece ripped and twisted almost off with tin snips. It is rotating at about three times a minute, and surrounded by tiny shapes glinting in the sun on one side and lost in shadow against the black on the other. Less than 20 meters from our window, a toilet spins by; not far beyond it, clothing swarms around a tennis racket.

"Oh sheeyeffinit, it's the crew bubble," Glisters says. "We've separated."

The tumbling of the pod takes the crew bubble out of sight. More stars streak by. Glisters points out that besides rotating, we're precessing; our axis of rotation is now running through the head of the Great Bear. I'm numb, but I can appreciate that he's trying to talk about anything except the obvious until we can see the crew bubble again, and I'm grateful for that.

When the bubble comes back into view, the distance between the main piece and the big broken-off piece around the narrow part has widened to what I guess to be a 100 meters, bridged by a tangled wad of pipes and cables. I see now that the engines on its tail end are now a cluster of twisted and melted stumps, warped into a lumpy braid.

Things are still tumbling out of the gap between the pieces, which are twisting the knot of pipes and cables in opposite directions, like two hands wrenching a paper chain apart. All in dead silence—no sound in vacuum.

To the right of the torn crew bubble, there is a warped, slanted pinwheel of white dots around a fuzzy sphere. "Iceball," I say. "Maybe something hot is buried inside it? Maybe something big enough to pierce a 200-meter ball of ice was still going fast enough to smash the crew bubble when it went through."

"If that's what happened, it cut through the crew bubble and kept going," Glisters said. "There's another iceball much farther away, down and to the right, see?" The tiny spiral cloud trails a braided contrail. "Spewing a lot more. But the farthest one away doesn't seem to be leaking—"

"They were still bringing that one in," I explain. "So it wasn't on the ship. It's intact, but it's not going to do us any good way out there. I suppose that must mean we have one iceball still left on the ship."

Fleeta says, "Shooting away like a little galaxy. I know it's ultra bad, but it's pretty."

She's right, I think. The crew bubble has rolled out of view. "I was so busy watching the iceballs," I said, "that I didn't look at—"

"I wish I hadn't," Emerald said, "and I don't think you should. We should try to be somewhere else before it comes around again."

"But I need—" "I saw bodies, Susan. Not in suits. Floating out through that big rip in the middle. I counted nine that I saw, but I'm sure there are a lot more still in the wreckage, or flung so hard they're already out of sight. I don't want you to look—"

A hairy thing the size of coffee table passes by the window, about ten meters away: a dog, legs splayed, body distorted by escaping gas and air, ruptured eyeballs and something bigger than its tongue hanging out of its mouth, it must have been one of the pets for the onboard school, wonder if that little girl I saw yesterday—as abruptly as a door slam I understand why Emerald is trying to get me away from the window before the crew bubble is visible again. "We should go to the auxiliary cockpit," I say. "We can send a distress call from there."

"How do we get there?" Emerald says. "Come on, let's go."

I still remember the way from yesterday, but it's a little confusing because the tail disk bulkhead is now the floor.

I bounce the way you do on the moon, careful not to bang my head. Glisters's little "ow!" as he hits the ceiling the first time gives me a smug feeling, considering he's the only other person here—

Who knows what he's doing. Hmm. Second thought, be nice to Glisters.

"In case you bash your head on the ceiling, Susan," Emerald says, "where are we going and what will we do when we get there?"

I tell her, but it's a maze of corridors and surfaces to explain, and I keep stopping and correcting myself because having the gravity be stronger and in a different direction makes it so much more complicated to explain. Halfway through I realize she's just giving me something to think about besides the obvious, and I'm grateful, but I give up, and she doesn't ask.

Glisters bounces a little too high again and catches himself on the ceiling with his hands. I avoid noticing; a few levels up with less of the new gravity, and more of the old fighting it out, it is like being on a carousel on the Moon with a bad ear infection.

"I sure hope when we get there, there is a big button that says STABILIZE SHIP for us to push," Emerald says.

Glisters says, "There probably is a STABILIZE SHIP button, or more likely a utility in the operations software. I would bet they designed the emergency systems with the thought that after an accidental jettison, tourists or little kids might be the only ones in here. So if there are still working thrusters and engines, we can probably just tell the control system to stabilize us."

"In that case I'm also going to wish for a screen saying LIVE HUMANS DETECTED IN POD—SPACE PATROL NOTIFIED AND WILL ARRIVE WITHIN 24 HOURS."

"Well, for sure there will be a way to call for help," Glisters says. "Unfortunately, the Space Patrol you're hoping for exists only in meeds. The real Space Patrol only has nine ships, which are parked in Earth, lunar, and Mars orbit, not patrolling. They don't fly five real missions in a decade, and besides they're like any other spaceships—they don't move much faster than the planets themselves do, so it takes months to get anywhere. Their real job is just to arrive wherever something happened a while ago, take some pictures, fill out the paperwork, and stand proudly behind the SecGen at the memorial service."

"You sound just like Aunt Destiny—" It hits me that she's gone. I can't breathe through the tears and mucus. Fleeta tackles me in a hard, tight hug that feels really good, and for a blessed moment it's like having my best friend back, till she says, "I wish I could cry with you, but mostly I just feel happy that I'm here to hold you when you need it."

That snaps the spell. "Thanks," I say, softly. "Now come on. We have to get to the cockpit."

Glisters awkwardly squeezes my arm; Emerald says, "Right with you."

The hardest part is opening doors in what are now ceilings. At every level we have to find a door we can climb or jump to. After a few levels, the tailward gravity is lower, but now the shifting ratio of hullward and tailward gravities throws us off balance constantly, so that we have to keep hands on grips all the time.

The auxiliary cockpit door is sideways, which is at least easier to climb in through than overhead.

Glisters climbs to the main seat, straps himself in, and plays on the keyboard. "Found it. Hold on."

I grab a handhold. The cockpit tilts and wobbles madly for less than a second, then settles, right side up, gently rocking, as if it were floating on the ocean or bouncing on the end of a spring.

"Was that the STABILIZE SHIP button?" Emerald asks.

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