In space, you make do with what's available
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That's right, I'm Katharina Hart. And sure, I'd be happy to talk to you about the old days. What say I tell you how Kat-Balls got invented?... Don’t bother with the jokes: I’ve heard them all, and I know you already heard the story when you asked about those weird lumps Velcroed to the sides of your spacesuit, probably the first day of EV training. But not this story, not the real one. Truth is, would've been too embarrassing to write up what actually happened at the time. Now I'm old and sick, and embarrassment is what life is mostly about. So, whenever any young spacer does drop by, I tell a tale or two: hoping they'll come back, I guess.... What? What's that?... Oh, sure. Go ahead, tell anyone you want. Probably only make a damn fool of yourself, though. Nobody'll believe you, but I swear it's all true.
Well now, starts out like you heard, with me earthbound from the routine Mars run after dropping off a load of supplies at Marsodine and picking up lowgrav refined ore plus a bunch of artifacts and digital recordings of some of the more delicate soundsculptures – so complex transmitting them would tie up the whole highfreq spectrum for months. Interplanetary ships used to be substantial things that actually landed on planet surfaces, not like your modern Rube Goldberg flimsies that would crumple in a light breeze. What? Rube Goldberg? Oh, just an old expression for a kluge-rig.
Anyway, about three hours from atmosphere, coasting in on a minimum energy transit, I started running through the approach checklist. That's when my deep space antenna cluster wouldn't retract. Shipcomp cycled it in and out three or four times, but no go: it came in about halfway and stopped dead.
Now, the ironic part is, it really didn't make much difference. Nothing on that cluster operated inside moon-orbit anyway. If it didn't retract, it'd simply get burnt off during re-entry. But repairs would cost a few thousand and delay turnaround a couple of days, and that hurt the profit-sharing. Besides, with plenty of time, curiosity about what messed it up overcame my questionable good sense, so I decided to take a shot at fixing it. Honestly, young and foolish then, I jumped at any excuse to get outboard. Seeing everything else green, I told shipcomp to try retracting the cluster automatically at ten minute intervals and headed for the suit locker.
Outboard, I stood staring at the Earth. Even now, that sight's what I miss most. Still can remember the view that day: the dusk terminator cut through Europe and the center of Africa. Over the central Mediterranean, the setting sunlight caught the very top of a small, fierce storm whose base already hid in darkness and, just for a few fantastic seconds, lit it up like a huge luminous crimson rose opening on a black velvet background, a fluorescent florescence. "Beautiful" doesn't even come close.
Finally tore myself away and headed for the cluster, forward and aroundship from the airlock. I watched until the next auto retract cycle, then spotted the problem. A small, shiny gouge on one of the slender ultra-high frequency rods kept it from sliding into its sheath, which in turn prevented the entire Chinese puzzle from folding up properly.
Extended again, the gouged place stood over two meters out, so I detached my magnetic boot-plates and unhooked the tether – too much chance of it getting tangled in the antennae forest when the retract cut in. I gently worked my way to the spot, careful to keep clear of the antenna path to avoid getting caught if it suddenly decided to work. Seemed like a micro-meteor had grazed the rod, plowing a shallow groove with a slight raised ridge, just enough to jam the opening of the tight-fitting sheath.
I decided not to waste time going back for a full tool kit and got the file from my belt-pack, then, waiting until after the next retract attempt, gently smoothed the ridge away. The metal wasn't too hard, but that file had seen its day: small and old and dull, it did a pretty rough job. Still, as long as the rod fit back into its sheath, it would do till maintenance could replace it.
Drifting alongside, I turned away from the ship to watch the stars while waiting, pushing off gently on a rod to start a slow spin, so I'd be back facing the antenna by the next auto cycle. Timed it pretty well, nearly directly face-on when my watch showed the next attempt due. Right on schedule, the rod withdrew up to the groove, hesitated a second, then slid fully into its sheath and the entire cluster folded and retracted smoothly into the hull.
Leaving me floating about a meter and a half above the ship. I hung there for a few minutes, rotating at a barely perceptible rate, just admiring the view. Now fully in the Earth's shadow and with my back again to the ship, the stars blazed so bright they nearly burned my eyes despite the filter. When I swung back toward the ship again, regretfully, I touched the controls for my thrusters. Nothing. Not a blast, not a sputter: nothing! I double-checked the fuel gauge, full. Reserve, full. Popped the power off and on a few times, then tried again: same results. Something took out both damn igniters at once!
It took a moment for the seriousness of the situation to penetrate. Then I stretched and contorted and gyrated frantically, but couldn't reach any closer than twenty centimeters to the hull. I grabbed at everything in my pack, all with their nearly unbreakable co-mo tethers which nothing with me could cut, not in a hundred times as long as I had left. I tried shoving all the tools as far from the ship as their tethers would go, but that still only brought my outstretched hand within about five centimeters.
I'd rotated past the ideal position, and tried to calm myself during the eternity until the next pass. I told shipcomp to extend the antenna array again, but it wouldn't budge. Then I twisted and stretched my head and feet and left arm as far away from the ship as possible – damn near dislocating every joint – and extended my right arm fully. I could've touched, just barely, the cross bar on top of my left boot-plate.
I actually could have touched the damned thing! But I knew better. Any contact, even the slightest nudge, would only push me further away unless I could grab or pinch something to pull myself in. No way could I reach that extra centimeter or so to curl one finger around the bar or squeeze it between two fingertips. That made it harder, you know, being so close I could touch it. Took all my self-control not to, even knowing that would only send me drifting away.
Tried every tool, but none of their short tethers, made for close-in work, lengthened my reach. It's a weird feeling, being dead. Half inch from safety, but dead as if it were a million klicks... What?... An inch? Oh, an old-fashioned term for two-and-a-half centimeters, about this much. Where was I – oh, yeah: dead. And to make it worse, I had a couple of hours to float there and think about it, before hitting the fringe of atmosphere and contributing myself toward infinitesimally brighter sunsets to gladden lovers' hearts for the next few years. Kind of a microscopic Krakatoa. There's supposed to be solace in such noble thoughts. There ain't. As for my brief, flashing streak across the heavens, my reckoning put that near twelve hundred hours local, lost in the sun and denied even that small touch of glory.
Useless or not, I frantically checked every tool again. Maybe, just maybe, something magnetic got in by mistake. Nope. I debated leaving a forever-unsolved mystery as my sole legacy, kind of a spaceside Mary Celeste (I'd even left a hot sipper of coffee inside!), but duty won over pride. Knowing it wouldn't do any good, except possibly to save some future idiot from the same stupid mistake, I told shipcomp to emergency link to Ground.
Ground Control could provide me with loads of sympathy, but little else. I already knew as much. A ship fueled on the pad with her pilot already aboard still couldn't have reached me and matched trajectory and velocity in time. And an unmanned rescue pod from the old Goddard Station would have taken even longer since it orbited geostationary almost due opposite my position, over sixty K-klicks in a straight line and nearly twice that by the fastest intercept trajectory. Mostly, emergencies in space are either resolved in milliseconds or else you've got days; nothing is geared toward handling two-hour situations.
Ground did offer to patch me through to the priest, minister or rabbi of my choice. I passed: didn't know a single one could fix a shorted igniter in person, let alone over the radio. Suit speakers didn't have very good fidelity, but I'll bet I would've drowned in the sorrow pouring out if they hadn't known the ship could land herself just fine without me. Losing her would've wiped everybody's profit-sharing for the whole year. My ship would get down in one piece, missing only her most easily replaced component. Her pilot would get down too, in the form of a slowly-settling dust cloud over the next couple of centuries. Without anybody special to tell goodbye, I asked Ground not to call back unless they could help and broke contact. Not sure enough of my nerve to want any eavesdropping on my final moments.
Now, right here's where the official story and the truth take divergent vectors. You heard that I took my little file and sawed away like a fiend at the coherent-molecular tether to my wrench, cut it through just in time, and then simply tossed the wrench in the opposite direction from the ship and drifted home by the reaction, right?... Wrong! You ever try to file one of them co-mo tethers? Trust me, you can work on that baby for days with an ultrasonic diamond-dust grinder, and you'll barely be able to see a scratch. Go on, try it sometime. And you think I cut it in two in a couple of hours with that lousy old, worn-out file?
What really happened is that I, always calm and reasonable in the face of calamity, and realizing the rationality of stoically accepting the inevitable, spent about an hour creatively cursing everything in the known universe, with special emphasis on one insignificant and soon to be extinct moron named Kat Hart. Every so often, usually as I rotated toward the ship, I'd take a break from the heavy-duty swearing and work logically on my problem. Tried the thrusters again just in case, for the first time in history, a shorted igniter cleared itself. Sure.
OK, defining the problem seemed simple: move my personal center of mass and the ship's a couple of centimeters closer to each other. I could have shipcomp make the ship do a lot of things via voice-control, but that didn't include moving sideways gently enough not to knock me into lunar orbit. That's even a bitch to do manually, which is the reason for magnetic docking probes. That left moving me. According to the immutable laws of physics (I forget which one, but unlike human laws, forgetting don't make 'em any easier to break) my center of mass would move only if something else moved in the opposite direction. Since there didn't seem to be anything around to push against or throw, that left moving some part of myself or my suit.
Now, everything on a spacesuit (with the exception of thruster exhaust) used to be designed specifically to prevent detachment. The small pieces of myself that I'd have sacrificed gladly (whatever cellulite they could lipo from my butt and thighs, excretions, hair, a toenail; Hell, a toe or even my left little fingertip: all right, the whole damn finger!) all resided snugly within that suit, and opening it in the vacuum of space, even if possible, would render the entire project somewhat academic. Therefore, my center of mass would remain at precisely the same distance from the ship's. At least until the first whiff of atmosphere pushed me away and I sailed off to disperse in flaming glory over the whole damn planet. Hence, I was going to die. Soon. QED. Cause of death: terminal stupidity. Resume cursing.
Of course, I did make a few practical experiments, like trying to file the edges of my tools, hoped to push the filings away and thus obtain a little momentum. That accomplished nothing except polishing the super-hard tool alloys. Any dust produced was too fine to see, let alone push.
Next I drew back my left pinky, then pulled the end of the finger of my glove out as far as possible and wound the file tether around it tightly, making a small balloon. Using the tang of the file, I tried to poke a hole in the balloon, hoping the burst of escaping air would shove me toward the ship. The damned auto-sealing fabric worked exactly as advertised, undoubtedly for the first and only time ever! Tried another finger, with the same results. Not a puff.
Then I started to wax philosophical. Not a bad way to go, all things considered. Appropriate, sort of, for one who loved Space and Earth equally. Never did hold with burying bodies in sealed coffins. Figure we only borrow our components from the Earth; seems downright ungrateful not to return 'em when we're through, preferably by dropping the unprotected remains into a hole and letting nature reclaim whatever it wants. Since that's frowned upon in our "enlightened" society, cremation's the next best way to repay the loan. But, somehow, I'd always presumed the sequence would be death first, then cremation.
Each rotation, I stretched out again just in case I'd drifted closer. To the contrary, it appeared the distance increased very gradually. Or perhaps my cramped joints simply could no longer extend as far. The fifth or sixth cycle, it became obvious that the next pass, or at most the one thereafter, would be the last that I could touch my boot-plate at all. The irrational temptation grew to reach to the limit and shove off with whatever force I could muster. Somehow, the waiting wouldn't be quite so agonizing without the safety of the ship so damn close! I fought that compulsion to a draw.
I continued, naturally, rotating slowly, about one revolution every ten minutes. Alone in the universe, turning like some tiny satellite of the ship. Suddenly that triggered an old memory: Chuck, back at space academy. Now, how to describe Chuck? Well, try to picture one of those guys who always stays flabby, no matter how hard he exercises. He passed the training, even more rigorous then with the military still running things and the academy serving primarily as a dumping ground for their more sadistic drill sergeants. He had to be in pretty good shape, but never could lose his beer belly and that soft look all over. The food in space never has been very good and nullgrav plays hell with the digestive system, and, well, to be delicate, flatulence was endemic. We didn't have any gaseater pills and induced gravity then existed only in Kamirski's dreams, so take current conditions and multiply by one hundred a few times and that'll get you a first-order approximation.
Of course, we all shared the affliction, despite my Mother's belief in ladies' inherent immunity to such indignities; but then, Mamma never experienced explosive decompression. However old Chuck, he raised it to an art form. He could let one on demand – any time, any place. And he had unchallenged, academy-wide possession of every frequency, volume, duration, and potency record; wouldn't be surprised if they stand to this day. Ship air exchangers have improved a lot since then, but some things still linger. In our day, it got downright rank with Chuck aboard.
Now, if anything is possibly worse than a prolonged gas attack in a ship, imagine one in a spacesuit. Well, fortunately, somebody did, even before my time, and invented one-way "Pressure Release Balance" valves to exhaust such noxious effluvia into vacuum: gives real meaning to the term "Space Pollution," hey? Some joker originally suggested the name "Polluted Hyperbaric Atmosphere Release Triad" valves, but that got squelched real quick officially, so naturally everybody called 'em that, or an appropriate acronym.
Before catalytic cleaners got small enough, tubes from a rather intimate hookup I'd prefer not to dwell upon connected to three valves on each suit, one to the rear and one on each side a hundred twenty degrees away, balancing the "thrust" from the escaping gas so the force netted to zero.
During isolation tolerance training, before our group's twenty-four-hour, somebody took a little leak-sealer and put a dab on the exit ports of each of the valves to Chuck's suit. Figured to really give him a taste and scent of what he gave everybody else. Only that somebody did a rush job and the rear valve didn't get completely closed off. A tiny gap in the sealer deflected the thrust to the left. So the reaction pushed to the right. Since they dropped Chuck off last, the rest of us had already been picked up, after our full day in a spacesuit floating a billion klicks from anywhere, as we homed in on Chuck. And there he spun, twirling like a top!
Twenty-four hours, alone in the universe, whirling a little faster every few minutes. The suits all had emergency radios, but Chuck never called for help. And then, in his report, he admitted being a little careless reinforcing a seam in his own suit. Hell, that didn't fool the brass any, but they let it go. Quite a man, that Chuck. Ever hear of Spaceadmiral Chung Su-Kwan? Old Leadnose?... Yep, same guy!... Huh? Oh, no! No, not because of that... What?... Oh yeah, he sure did take the academy middleweight title, two years in a row as a matter of fact, but he didn't get the nickname from boxing either. Weirdest damn accident, happened a couple of years later – but that's another story. Tell you next time maybe, if you get a chance to come back.
Well, anyway, I remembered Chuck and realized that, if I blocked off both side ports and faced the ship while letting one go, the exhaust from the rear port just might start me drifting closer fast enough to grab my boot-plate before I hit atmosphere and turned into a giant one myself.
Let me tell you, I gulped air like a beached fish till my stomach threatened to burst, strained and pushed and flexed belly muscles I didn't know existed, would've given anything for Chuck's spontaneous talents. I tried harder than a kid making bubbles in the bathwater, harder than male cadets after a beer party trying to light 'em, I mean I damn near turned myself inside-out! But not a hiss, not a whisper, not a pop. I got religion: "Get me through this, Lord, and I'll never eat anything but burritos and hard-boiled eggs, never drink anything except beer." "Honest, Jesus, I won't crack another joke about anyone's personal problems long as I live." Didn't discriminate, begged every deity from Ahriman to Zeus – not about to overlook nobody at that stage!
Then a little gurgling, high up in the center of my stomach. Remembering the large intestine ran up on the right, across, and down on the left, I tried to contract my abdominal muscles rhythmically in the same pattern, massage it out. Probably looked like some spastic belly dancer in a straitjacket.
Finally, a little more gurgling and I jammed a finger over each side port and twisted my legs so I faced straight at my boot-plates, and... success! Well, a minor success, but no obvious change in position. Continued panicky gyrations, a couple more insignificant results that would've shamed an anemic mouse, and then, at last...
A forceful rumbling and sudden turbulence foretold the imminent arrival of my deliverance. As luck (my luck) would have it, at precisely the moment the pressure peaked nearly beyond endurance, my short day ended. Without ceremony, the local ship-sun set as my rotation gently but irresistibly faced me toward the blackness beyond, not Sun nor Earth nor even Moon visible, the cold pinpricks of the uncaring stars deepening rather than relieving the unending empty darkness.
Twist and contort as I would, I could not orient myself facing toward the ship and reach both side vents simultaneously: blocking only one vent would reduce the effective force to less than half. All my desperate efforts accomplished nothing except to escalate the convulsions within to truly excruciating heights.
I clamped down. I clenched so tight it made my teeth ache. Somehow, the seconds of my life seemed to be running out faster than the seconds of my rotation, but I forced myself to relax save for that one small muscle wherein focused all my concentration and energy. My vision blurred, sweat dripped faster, overloading the dehumidifier, as my determination grew and ebbed with the spasming urgency. Be damned if I'd let a simple lack of intestinal fortitude be my executioner!
And then, at long last: never, on any world in any universe, rose Sun more glorious than that starlit ship-rise over my left shoulder! For a moment I simply floated lost in rapture; the longed-for sight, so welcome, eclipsing the reason. Even the internal pressure eased. I recovered and frantically maneuvered into position, terror-stricken lest the delay had dissipated my salvation, or let the bastard sneak off undirected. Gone?... No, it remained!... Oh, Yes: There! A real ripper! Would have registered an easy six-point-eight, maybe even seven on the Richter scale if I'd been on Earth. Right up there with old Chuck's best: Mother would've disowned me!
The gap narrowed noticeably now, but tempus fugited swiftly, and I estimated less than twenty-five minutes, scarcely two revolutions, before atmosphere and barbecued Kat. (Sounds like the special of the day at a third world restaurant, doesn't it?)
Well, needless to say – since I'm here telling you this – I did make it, with a couple of minutes to spare. (Ever notice how old people tell you something don't need to be said, and then go right ahead and say it anyways? Old folks, lawyers, and politicians? God, ain't that a sorry club to end up a member of!)
I'll tell you, I flew into that airlock and yanked the hatch shut so close behind my backside, it shut on the tether to one of my tools caught outside. No way would I open that hatch again, just wiggled out of the suit and left it hanging there by the cord, still attached to the outboard wrench. Naturally, the wrench got burnt clean away during re-entry; that's really how I lost it, but I figured it made a better story than… well, you know. Still too much my Mother's daughter to write about it then.
Once aground, the very first thing, after shamelessly making love to the runway concrete in front of God and everybody, I headed for the nearest sporting goods store and bought a dozen golf balls. Never went out again without a handful in my pack, and my incident report included an official suggestion that they be made standard issue.
The administration did follow my recommendation, in their usual, economical fashion. After all, why use what you can buy off the shelf when you can spend millions on a research and development project to design an adequate substitute that only costs a hundred times as much? Remember, the government still made the rules. Ended up, about three years later, with those small, detachable chunks of inert heavy-plastic as standard equipment on all spacesuits. Official name is "EEMUs" for "Emergency Expendable Mass Units" but most everybody still calls 'em "Kat-Balls" in spite of them not even being round, so I guess I did get my place in history after all. Good thing I fudged the report, too. If you think "Kat-Balls" is a dumb name, think what they could've been called – if I'd told the truth!