This story is by Odet Aszkenasy and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“This is mission control. Are you receiving?” Captain James Young opened his eyes, blinked. He gazed through the small porthole. Looking outward to the blackness of space sprinkled with a universe of lights. Emptiness . Below their ship, planet Earth beckoned. A panorama of brilliant deep blue oceans, shot with shades of green and gray and white – atolls and clouds, a thin halo of blue and then the infinite black. In his brief but deep slumber he had been back down on Earth, at home with his darling wife and four year-old daughter Katie, sitting on the swing in their porch. Soaking up the warm evening sun, cool beer in his hand and Katie standing barefoot on his lap, her sweet voice close to his ear as she curled his hair with her finger the way she always liked to.
The oxygen alarm chimed in his helmet and forced him to realise once again his and Chief Officer Simon Stewart’s predicament.
“James, this is Louisa at mission control. We calculate that you have ten hours and six minutes of oxygen left. You need a minimum of 11 hours and 1 minute to make it back with zero margin of safety. Is there any way you can conserve more oxygen?”
They had been on the last leg of their homeward flight from a six year tour of duty on Mars. Close to home, only 372,000 miles from Earth, their ship had been struck by a shower of micrometeoroids. Travelling at 22,000 miles per hour and weighing less than a gram each, they were undetectable by their radar. Hundreds of them had silently tunnelled holes less than a millimetre each in diameter, like a neat microscopic Swiss cheese, through the ship’s main and back-up oxygen supply. Within minutes all their oxygen had vented into the absolute vacuum of space. All they now had was in the emergency supply for their space suits. Neither James nor Simon had slept for the two days that they had been working to find a solution.
“I don’t think so , we’ve done everything you asked”
“James, we appreciate that, but you’re respiration rate is too high. Just try to relax, we’ll find a way to get both of you home”
“I know you’re doing you best, but unless you can get a ship up here, we’re dead meat, and we both know it.”
“James, if this weather clears we’ll get the shuttle up to you, but that hurricane is not allowing anything to move right now. It could be another three days.”
“Can I speak with my wife?” He felt his heart pound. Deep breath. Maybe she wouldn’t see his moist eyes over the low resolution video.
“I’ll put her on”
“Suzie, is that you?”
“Yes honey, I’m here. Louisa says it’ll be alright”
“I know, I know, but it’s not looking good. I just want you to know that I love you. Try to be strong for… “ Voice faltering, he hesitated, “try to be strong for Katie if I don’t make it.”
Suzie was determined to hold back the tears, but couldn’t. “I’ll be strong Jim. I promise. I love you.”
“I know. I’ll always be with you.” No more words. He closed his eyes and thought, if only he could feel her face on his, kiss her beautiful lips, one last time. Suzie was ashen as she handed the microphone back. Louisa held her arm to steady her, sat her down gently before she fainted.
“James, here are our instructions. We would like you to lower the temperature of both of your suits to minus twenty degrees centigrade just before re-entry. You will both have a hypoxic cardiac arrest but with the low temperatures there’s a good chance that at least one of you will make it. We have a calculated trajectory that will allow the ship’s autopilot to safely land.”
“Right. And who is going to land the ship if it misses your planned trajectory due to instrument damage that the micrometeoroids have probably caused? We’ll both be unconscious in deep freeze.”
“That’s a chance we’re going to have to take.”
James turned to Simon.“What do you think?”
“It’s our best chance. Let’s do it.”
James nodded. Simon reminded him of his best friend, Chuck Riddell. A brilliant astronaut, they had gone through training together. Chuck had a wife, Joanne, and a young daughter, Christina. It was nearly thirty years to the day that James was due to go on one of the early missions to Mars. Only he had perforated his ear drum during a scuba-dive a week before lift- off. James had often thought about the decision to go scuba diving with Chuck that weekend.
They were both experienced divers. James had never had problems with his ears, but on that day as they descended he couldn’t clear his left ear. Chuck had already gone down further and was looking up at him. James gave him the OK sign and continued to dive, even though his left ear was still hurting. Suddenly there was a loud high pitched “wee’ as if a balloon was deflating. He felt the coldness of the water flooding deep inside his left ear. The pain was gone as the pressures had now equalised but he knew that it had perforated. Naturally, the doctors picked it up at the pre-flight medical. Chuck was offered the chance to take his place for the mission. Of course, he took it.
James remembered the evening when he got the call. He had seen the launch on TV and knew it was coming. Chuck had died during the launch. After the Challenger space shuttle disaster this was supposed to never be able to happen again. But it did. A hydrogen leak from the main engines into the command module where the astronauts were, had ignited. The intense inferno, fed by the high concentration of oxygen in the capsule, had swept through killing all three astronauts in a matter of seconds. They had asked James to tell Joanne that he had died.
“It should have been you! It should have been you!” she had screamed, and tried to hit him. He held her hands until she sank to the floor, weeping. He could remember every detail like it was yesterday. Her bedraggled thick blonde hair, every tear track down from her beautiful deep brown eyes.
Expert psychologists had helped James and eventually he got clearance to go back to his duties. But he couldn’t forget. He knew it was irrational, he knew it was stupid, but somehow he always felt that it really should have been him in the capsule that day who had died. Not Chuck. And night after night the same dream. Fire in the capsule, everyone out. And he always saved Chuck. Then he would wake up, cold sweat would pour, heart thumping, as he realised once again that it wasn’t so, and could never be. From time to time, when Christina was older, she would come to see him to talk about her father and learn more about him. Often James wished that it had been him that was consumed by the fire that day.
James decided. No more time for thinking. Heart pounding, he switched off the radio, disconnected his own oxygen supply. Maximum one minute thirty seconds and he would lose consciousness. He found the piggy-back port on Simon’s oxygen supply and pushed in the hose from his. Zero gravity made every movement so slow. Wouldn’t stay in. “Shit!” One minute ten seconds. His vision was blurry now, chest aching, yearning to breathe. Pushing harder this time, he got the reassuring click as the seal was made. Simon looked at him, wide eyed “What the hell are you doing?”
“Please don’t fight. You’ll use up more oxygen. This way, one of us will make it. I’m the captain.” James gasped. One minute twenty five seconds. As he started to lose consciousness an overwhelming sense of peace came over him. In saving Simon’s life he was at last able to let go of his guilt for Chuck’s death. Slowly but clearly he whispered, “It’s my decision.”
“James, please, there’s no need for this. We could both make it. Let’s do what mission control said.”
“Emergency. Captain James Young has a cardiac arrest. Asystole. Commence resuscitation immediately” announced the computer as the ear-piercing alarm sounded.
“No!” shouted Simon. Without the force of gravity his attempts to pound James’ chest were ineffective. Without any oxygen left in his suit there could be no hope. Still he continued. Finally, exhausted, sobbing, he slumped back. The line on James’ heart monitor stayed flat. Simon switched the alarm off.
The sun’s brilliant white light poured into the cabin as their orbit brought them out from the Earth’s shadow. Simon turned and saw the calm smile on James’ motionless face.