Stranded in a Foreign Land
Chapter 14: A Long Walk Alone in the Dead of Night
Copyright© 2014 by Vincent Berg
Entering the shuttle, Josh closed the door right away and quickly sat down. "Up" is all he said.
"Up?" the craft responded, not understanding the request for the first time. Josh realized that every time he'd used it before it took him into the overhead clouds, and there were only scattered clouds today, which the ship might not consider reliable enough at the moment.
"Outer space," Josh insisted. "Take me to your ship."
"Ship?" it asked, seeming especially cranky today.
"The main ship, the master ship, your home base." However nothing he suggested generated much of a response. Finally he repainted his original drawing, from all that time ago, although it was only slightly longer than a single week. He drew a small Earth, a smaller moon, a shuttle and as accurate an interpretation as he could recall of what Barbara had drawn for him. The craft immediately gave him a new name for it. He tried to memorize it and then simply told it "Go".
Again there was no indication of movement and Josh wasn't silly enough to turn the display on knowing that 'up' and 'go' weren't as simple a command as they sounded. However, after several minutes he asked for their progress to be displayed, expecting to see the marvels of outer space. Instead he saw blue sky obscured by haphazard clouds, even though there had been only a few scattered clouds overhead.
"What happening?" he asked, trying to use easier to use language structures.
"Waiting for passing aircraft," it informed him. With that Josh started studying the sky above him, expecting to see some sign of an aircraft. Suddenly his perspective changed radically multiple times in only fractions of a second. Holding his hand over his mouth and feeling like he was going to throw up, he noticed contrail tracks off to the side, barely perceptible, having already moved well away from a position to see the aircraft. However, the contrails told him it was no simple commercial airlines the craft had been avoiding. They were military jets still searching for him, or any observable signs of the alien technology they could pick up. Josh was exceedingly glad the ship was so careful and knew when to pay attention to him and when not to.
The blue sky quickly gave way to dark blue and then black, the ship continually changing directions in a willy-nilly process, but with distance between him and what they were flying past it wasn't quite so disconcerting. However, when they escaped the atmosphere it wasn't all that much better. The craft jumped all over the place, clearly trying to avoid monitoring equipment like telescopes below and satellites above. It would also shift unexpectedly to avoid small obstructions, like nuts and bolts or abandoned heat tiles from long-retired space shuttles. Josh reflected that humans left a lot of crap behind wherever they went.
"Start ship?" the craft asked, this time clearly referring to the ship he wanted to access.
"Yes, Barbara asked me to activate it," he explained. It took a while to explain who he meant by 'Barbara' and what 'activate' meant, but once they'd worked that out it launched into a new discussion.
"Many tasks, quite difficult," it advised him.
"How so?" Josh asked warily, noting that Barbara hadn't thought to warn him of any dangers.
"Ship voided contaminated air into space, all unlocked cargo ejected, some of it quite sharp. Most well away from ship, but still danger," it warned. Josh nodded that it was clearly something to be cautious of. He knew how thin the space suits they'd worn earlier were and realized how easily he could be exposed to three-degree Kelvin temperatures. The shuttle didn't give him much time to consider it, though. "Ship large. Limit air. Long trip through ship."
It displayed a complicated schematic of the ship, showing a slowly moving white line moving through the ship in a fairly complicated pattern. Josh paid close attention to it, trying to count turns, corridors and any possible obstructions.
"No gravity, must propel self, no power, no service. Must reach central command center here," it said, highlighting a recessed panel.
"Wouldn't Barbara be better equipped to do this?" Josh asked, mostly out of frustration at what was looking to be an incredibly complex mission which seemed as likely to fail as to succeed.
"She doesn't have authority to reactivate ship. You, as the ship's commander, are the only one authorized to do so," he was informed.
"Yeah, I figured as much," Josh grumbled under his breath. He considered what this trek would entail. A long journey through a cold desolate dead ship filled with a variety of things which could kill him instantly if he couldn't avoid them, plenty of places to get hopelessly lost, and him without the ability to read any of the many ship's labels or warnings.
"You have only limited time. Once you reach the command center you have to activate these controls in this sequence. These power up the ship which will have to begin recharging. The ship will close all its access panels and will begin producing air. You'll then have to return by the same route with little time remaining before your air runs out. You'll have to go through additional procedures to exit the ship. Any unnecessarily delay could mean you won't make it, but if you don't, no one else will have the authority to access either the ship or this craft."
"If I don't make it back, could someone else—say someone from the Earth—access the ship?" Josh asked with concern.
"There are numerous safety protocols, but with a prolonged effort and no authorization to defend itself, they could gain access."
"And the ship can't defend itself?"
"Only once it's fully powered up and authorized."
"Damn, that's what I was afraid of. I can see every country in the world fighting over who can make it there first, each one risking life and limb to secure secrets for themselves which would unfairly twist the balance of power that keeps governments in check. Damn, I guess I can't afford to get myself killed.
"OK, show me what I need to do once again," Josh instructed, cognizant of the fact that any mistake he made would not only mean his death and that of each of his alien 'friends', but could also result in untold strife for millions for at least the next century.
The trip out took a long time, relatively speaking. It only took them about a day—slightly longer than a full day—but it would have taken a ship from Earth years, at the very least. But the travel time gave Josh plenty of time to contemplate what he was up against. Rather than fret, he applied himself to memorizing the route, studying what he was facing and anticipating potential problems. He also had the ship cancel its artificial gravity so he could prepare for traversing both space and the ship in zero gravity. Thus, when they finally neared the ship he was both nervous and a little relieved.
Examining it from a distance, he could easily see why it had been difficult to describe the shape as it looked like every time they thought of something, they'd simply tacked it onto the side. It certainly didn't look like the slipstreaming faster-than-light ships from the movies. It wasn't exactly a thing of beauty, but it had a certain imposing structure all its own. It was very utilitarian. It was built to do a job, not just to impress people. And it stood as a testament to that job and to the single-mindedness of those who built it.
Despite the blackness of space surrounding them, Josh tried to see signs of the jettisoned contents of the ship, including the multiple carcasses he knew were out there, but he couldn't discern any. He knew as they approached they were too far away to see anything, and as they finally drew near they were then too close to see the items which had time to drift away, but he'd been anticipating the detritus of the ship and was a little disappointed to see nothing at all. It looked like a giant tool, left lying out to rust in the yard at night.
Josh once again went through the procedure of putting on his space suit with its backpack of air required for survival. As he lifted it, he tried to gauge just how long it might last, but with no common time reference between them, it was hard to get a direct answer from the shuttle.
Exiting the fitting room, he was offered a small hand-controlled object to propel himself through both open space and the gravity-free ship. It was a small device that shot out jets of compressed air, but it required him to carry yet another large container of gas—he didn't want to ask what kind of gas. He wondered whether he'd be able to breathe it if his limited supply of oxygen ran out, but since he wasn't instructed on how to do it, he figured it wouldn't work in any case.
"Use carefully," the ship instructed him. "Save for emergency. Give short burst then float through space. Only use again to change direction. Use muscle when possible, muscle doesn't run out."
It also supplied him a wrist mounted flashlight, which made him wonder why humans hadn't invented such a device yet, since it seemed like such a logical tool.
"We can't communicate once you enter the ship," the shuttle informed him, which caused Josh to jerk his head back in shock.
"What do you mean? You mean I won't have any assistance if I encounter something unanticipated?"
"Yes," it responded matter of factly. "Each of our ships is designed to hide from and constrain radio signals so they cannot be detected. That is why your earthbound systems can't detect this craft. It's also why you can't communicate with me while you're inside. Once you enable the power you will be able to, but it will take some time for the ship to fully power up, as the communication facilities throughout the ship are one of the last services to be activated."
"So I've got to navigate my way through the ship, a ship I don't know and am not familiar with. I've got to find this 'command center', activate the ship, then make it all the way out and exit by deactivating the system's controls, and if I get lost or confused you can't help at all?"
"Correct," it replied.
"Damn, this is going to be tougher than I'd anticipated," Josh swore to himself. "Listen, if I don't make it, could you send a message to my family via Barbara?"
"Speaking of which, the ship will slowly power up and begin generating oxygen. However, if you die before you reach this shuttle, the ship will immediately know and without anyone else on board to assume command it will assume it's a derelict ship and shut down again, leaving it adrift in space. Since the airlocks will be closed and no one else has access to command the ship, no one will be able to enter the ship to recover your remains."
"Thanks for those words of encouragement," Josh complained. "In short, everything depends on me and if I screw up, not only will no one know, but there's no hope that anyone can rescue me."
"Sorry, I can't understand what you said," the ship responded, choosing that moment to not understand him. Josh sighed, finished readying everything. He recorded a quick message to broadcast in the case of his death—which the ship would only know if he didn't arrive before his air ran out—and prepared to exit the ship.
Finally ready to face the great unknown of space, Josh signaled the shuttle, not quite knowing what to expect. Instead of merely opening the door, which Josh knew would eject him from the craft at a high rate of speed in an uncontrollable trajectory, the ship slowly evacuated the air, at which point his suit automatically turned on its own air supply. Once the air was gone, the gravity in the shuttle was turned off a little bit at a time so the effect wasn't too jarring. Securing himself to prevent drifting, he commanded the door to open and his first view of the vast openness of space stretched out before him.
It was awe inspiring and more than a little intimidating. Aside from the shuttle and the larger ship in the distance, he realized there were no signs of life within hundreds of millions of miles. Well, aside from the hundreds of dead carcasses floating away from the ship, he reminded himself. Not only that, but even if anyone wanted to reach him—and could figure out how the hell to find him—it would take years to reach him. He was truly alone, and while he had the support of Barbara's personal shuttle, once he stepped out that door even that support would be behind him. He was cut off from all of humanity for the first time in his entire life.
Taking a last, largely symbolic, breathe of air, he propelled himself out the ship, slowly twisting in space so he was facing the shuttle craft. Pressing the controller on his propulsion unit, he gave himself a last boost to speed him a little faster toward the ship and then twisted around again so he could watch the massive ship slowly near.
The shuttle explained he couldn't carry more accurate controls or additional tanks of oxygen because it would throw his balance off, making accessing the ship extremely difficult. Normally, this task would be undertaken by a large team, with one person opening the ship and the rest of the team carrying supplies over. But since Josh was on his own, attempting to carry too much would prevent him from accomplishing even the very first step. As it was, the shuttle had instructed him on minimizing his motion so he wouldn't tumble uncontrollably.
The propulsion unit was tricky. It had to be held with both hands—to prevent it from jetting off in odd directions, and it had to be held close to the body to minimize rotation.
It seemed to take forever, his progress seeming minimal, but he realized it was largely because of the massive distance involved. He knew better than to check his watch, which still worked within his transparent suit, because he'd been informed that each movement was likely to disrupt his trajectory, requiring him to use his limited supply of compressed gas as well as wasting valuable time. He'd already wasted enough of both by twisting in place simply to get the hang of using the equipment.
Josh guessed it took only five to ten minutes to cross to the ship, though it felt much longer. The shuttle had gotten him as close as it could, but since he measured the space in terms of his own body, the distance to cross seemed immense. Without the larger ship's cargo bay being powered, the shuttle hadn't been able to enter where it would normally be stored. Instead Josh had to enter the large bay on his own power, crossing the large empty space, maneuvering himself slightly near the end of his journey to align himself correctly, and then desperately grabbing onto the open hatch.
He slammed into the hatch with a jarring collision. His propulsion immediately shoved him back, and it was only by holding on with all his strength that he avoided being cast into space. Josh realized if he had been carrying extra equipment he'd never have been able to handle the seemingly simple procedure. Accessing the ship would normally have been much more graceful, but he needed every bit of compressed gas to navigate the ship, and thus couldn't afford to waste any easing his impact. Josh realized that if he hadn't been able to hold on, he'd sent flying through the large docking bay, likely to strike any number of obstructions at a high rate of speed. Even if the shuttle could rescue him, which it couldn't, he'd have lost the only tools available to maneuver through the ship. That thought certainly cemented just how dangerous the entire mission was and how delicate his tenuous grasp on life was. The slightest misstep or miscalculation would mean death, and would result in the inability of anyone he'd worked so hard to save from ever returning home. It was that final thought that motivated him more than any other. His own death would be relatively quick, after all, he only had so much oxygen, but he couldn't imagine surrendering all he'd fought so hard for and everyone who's lives he put in danger to throw it away out of carelessness in the last mile of his journey.
Taking a second to reorient himself, he crawled into the ship. The central corridor was large, so he could easily imagine how everything inside had been sucked into space, but there were a number of random items floating near the entrance, apparently blocked as the air had been sucked from the ship. He couldn't even identify what most of the items were, but he was careful to avoid them, not wanting to risk an unexpected sharp edge.
The sight of things floating inches from his face reminded him he was in a gravity free vacuum of space, and he wondered how he wasn't freezing. With only a thin transparent layer separating him from the near absolute zero of space, he couldn't figure out why he hadn't already died. Glancing briefly at the suit, he noted that aside from being extremely thin, it was actually made up of thin layers with a fine electronic mesh running between each layer. Apparently the mesh contained wires so thin they were virtually invisible, but he could see that the assembly created an insulated membrane between himself and the cold of space a fraction of an inch from his skin.
Using the ship's lock to propel himself, he shoved off with his legs, shining his wrist light while holding his propulsion unit ready in his left hand. As he silently rocketed down the hall, everything was moving much faster now that he could actually measure his progress by the doors scattered along the hallway. He noted that each of those doors stood gaping open, the contents of the rooms long ago ejected into space. But he didn't have time to examine them, though he noted curious details as he shot past. The color combinations seemed odd, though Josh wasn't sure whether that was due to the alien's color choices or his only observing them with his peripheral night vision as he shot past.
He only needed a few minor course corrections until he reached a four-way intersection. Knowing he needed to take a left, he twisted around as he neared the corner and kicked off the nearby wall, propelling himself perpendicularly. However, he still wasn't accustomed to weightlessness, never having been trained for this, and thus couldn't control overspinning and bouncing off the far wall. He winced in pain as he ricocheted off in a rapid spiraling motion.
His first concern was whether he may have punctured his suit, but feeling no pressure changes he assumed if he had the suit would warn him if something was wrong, if only seconds before he froze to death. He tried to work out exactly how to constrain his wild spinning motion, but was at a loss over how to do so. Deciding to save his compressed air, he made another grab at a passing doorway, wrenching his shoulder as he twisted at a weird, almost upside down angle. He didn't manage to stop himself, but he slowed himself enough to catch the next doorway, after having to reorient himself with another push off the ceiling.
Grabbing onto the open door frame once again he yanked his already sore shoulder, sending a racking pain through his arm, but at least he managed to stop himself. He took a moment to steady himself and then shoved off again using both feet, using a free hand to correct his forward momentum and moving him in the correct direction.