By Curtis C. Chen
Space is not as exciting as most people think.
That's okay. Most days on the El, you don't want excitement. You want things to go smoothly, because every minute your train isn't moving cargo from Earth to orbit, it's bleeding company dollars. You want a good record if you ever want to graduate from scaffolds to spacecraft. That's still maintenance, but at least you get to fly, maybe even out to an asteroid...
I've always wanted to fly. Into the black, slip the surly bonds, all that buzz. And when Haley Wu became the first human on the Red Planet—and a woman too, I've still got that "Comet Hits Mars" t-shirt from fifth grade, threadbare and unreadable now but I'll never throw it out—
Anyway. Boring is good. Do the work, have a few drinks, dream of a better life.
This was not one of those days.
Things go wrong all the time on the El. Little things, usually; some idiot doesn't secure a tether or forgets to tag out a panel. The problem is when several little things conspire and hit you all at once.
The first thing was the micrometeoroids. Nothing unusual; just some disintegrated space junk. Might have orbited the Earth for decades before hitting us.
I was EVA, and Rick was in the pod, and we both hunkered down, waiting for the dust to pass. Damage wasn't an issue, but you can't work with tiny rocks battering your helmet and gloves and equipment.
My radio squawked. "Sierra Niner, Gladstone. Got a weather update for you, Sierra."
Rick coughed, then replied, "Gladstone, Sierra, copy that. We almost done with this rock concert?"
"No idea," the Mission Control voice said. "I'm uplinking a solar activity alert. SOHO predicts M-class flares within the next hour."
I toggled my transmit switch. "Rick, let me see that?"
"Coming right—" He coughed again. I looked into the pod and saw his forehead glistening with sweat.
"You okay, Rick?"
"I'm fine," he said. "Sending now."
My helmet display lit up with the weather advisory. There was major gamma radiation coming our way, more than my suit was rated for.
"Okay, I'm calling it." I unclamped my tether from the El and snapped it back on the work line leading to the pod. "Prep for ingress."
The micrometeoroids were still serenading me with white noise, so it took me a few seconds to realize that Rick hadn't acknowledged. I turned around and saw his arm floating above the control panel, limp.
"Rick!" Nothing. I toggled my radio to the control band. "Gladstone, Sierra. I think my operator just passed out."
"Sierra, Gladstone, what do you mean, passed out?"
"I mean he's unconscious!" I looked up and down the El, estimating. "I can't get inside without blowing his air, and if that alert is kosher, I don't have time to reach a storm shelter."
"Stand by," the controller said. "Sierra, Gladstone, we have an update on those solar flares. The one-hour estimate was inaccurate."
"Thank God," I said.
"You've only got twenty minutes."
Image: Space Shuttle -- December 1993 by NASA, July, 2008