"Pressure suit seals--check." Claudia rolled her
head in a full circle within her helmet, trying to
work out the kinks in her neck muscles. There was
always a bit of anticipation and fear whenever she
suited up. A cut or leak or malfunction not caught
during prep could mean her life.
"Ripkin, what does your med gauge read?" Ivan’s
young, Russian-accented voice came over the suit’s
earpiece. He’d not been here long enough to develop an
attitude towards her, unlike some of the others. "Body
temp just took a spike."
Claudia grimaced. "It’s nothing. Just a hot flash."
She could feel sweat breaking out all over as her body
tried to compensate for the sudden internal change.
She’d long ago tweaked the alarms in her suit to their
extreme range or she’d be blaring several times a day.
Silence met her comment, then the click of the mic.
"What is this ‘hot flash’?"
"Nothing you need to worry about, kid." She wasn’t
sure there was a word for it in Russian and she wasn’t
about to get into such things over an open comm link
in any case--giving ammunition to her ‘betters’
wouldn’t be a good idea. "Just old age. Will be gone
in a second."
Her prep buddy, Jonas, was grinning. Claudia tried
her best to ignore him as she went through the rest of
the final checklist then stepped inside the waiting
airlock. Excitement staunched the fear, her gaze
trapped by the small window showing the star-embedded
Thirty years ago she’d had a dream, a dream to go
amongst the stars. This was the closest to fulfilling
that desire she’d managed to reach. But it was a lot
farther than most people ever made it.
The airlock cycled through and the outer door
opened, revealing the vastness beyond.
After making sure the magnetic boots were on and
working properly, she stood before the doorway just
taking it all in for one too brief moment. Pinpoints
of light flared from all directions, taking who knew
how many untold years to get here. So very many of
them she’d never be able to count them all, though
it’d be fun to try.
She’d barely made it out of college with her
astronomy degree, even after changing it to the less
physics intensive Astronomy-Related Mission Support.
The biggest blow though after juggling work and school
and studying until her brain pureed was when she found
out the market for her field was saturated and no jobs
were to be had.
Claudia grinned as she reached around to snap her
tether to the safety ring outside the airlock. Once
secure, she turned off the magnetic shoes and shoved
out gently into space. As she drifted forward, she
turned around to look at the floating hotel behind
her--at the place which had finally made part of her
dreams come true.
It rose majestically in a grand cylinder, topped by
a huge, domed hydroponics bay and a multiport docking
station at the bottom. Four huge rings extended from
the center, turning independently to generate
artificial gravity for the guests. Originally a
Russian private project to place a hotel in space by
2018, it soon became a joint international venture due
to lack of funds and resources.
In large, gold-tinted letters its name blared for
all to see--COH--Russian for dream.
Crew and staff were pulled from all over the world.
And she was sure it was more her degree rather than
work experience that helped her grab her current
position. Despite the fact the degree had nothing to
do with the work.
"Ripkin, time is money. Want to get on with your
chores or what?"
Her face heated up as she jerked at the unexpected
voice in her ear, this time her temperature increase
having nothing to do with her age. That Masters
deigned to talk to her directly was something of a
surprise, but not welcomed.
Her gaze flickered to the comm data area on her
HUD, checking to see if they were on an open channel.
They weren’t. Hopefully he wouldn’t start in on one of
his diatribes. "Getting on with it now, sir."
Reeling herself back in, she glanced down at the
blue Earth she’d not missed since she left its
confines ten years ago.
"Try to dawdle less than usual, would you? I need
the hull data asap so I can get this week’s reports
off my desk. I have real work to do." The comm
Claudia mentally sighed. The sad part was too many
of the staff on board held to the same bad attitude.
Ivan’s voice rang in her earpiece. "Ripkin, is all
She sighed for real this time, both bothered and
pleased that the new kid was checking up on her,
likely having noticed on his comm board that there’d
been private chatter. She hoped he got a clue before
long for his sake. There were those who wouldn’t take
kindly to his concern for the lower end of the help.
"No. Everything’s fine. Just taking a moment to
smell the roses." She pulled herself back with the
tether and turned the shoe magnets on. "Moving to
sector G1 now."
Trudging perpendicular to the surface of the hotel,
Claudia made her way to the next safety tethering
Getting to where she stopped last shift, she
activated and released a small scanner to float beside
her as she worked along to collect the readings
Masters wanted. Then pulling out a specialized Van der
Waals force clamp for her right hand and grabbing the
cleaning buffer with the left, she made sure both were
still securely attached to her work belt.
Placing the Waals clamp on the edge of the huge
window of the Zero-G game room, Claudia turned off her
boots and drifted slightly out, the clamp keeping her
in place. With the buffer, she started cleaning the
Hotels were all about the view and looking pristine
and being a good value. Nobody realized how much
debris and dust floated around in space. Safety
measures had improved over time, and it was standard
practice to add a thin film of Space Gel between the
outer and inner layers of the hulls of ships or
facilities. The gel’s make up would turn hard when
hit, some reaction to the dispersing physical energy,
hopefully clogging any breaches until someone could
get to it. She didn’t entirely understand the process,
but knew it worked. And after all the money people
paid to stay a week up here, everything had to be made
shipshape twenty four/seven. That’s where she came in.
On the other side of the triple-paned, shatterproof
glass, a group of new guests were going through their
Zero-G basics. A sulking teenager spotted her as she
went about her work and gave her the finger as he
Money sure didn’t assure manners--or gratitude. She
wondered if he’d be so cavalier if he knew she was
also responsible for cleaning the hull and, as backup
for the scanners, checking for micro-fractures and pin
holes from microscopic meteorites and more. The odds
were against it happening, but they were still things
which could mean his life if left unchecked. Probably
wouldn’t make a difference to him at all. And much the
same with just about everyone else who worked here and
dismissed her and her job out of hand.
Claudia shrugged, letting go the old irritant from
her mind, and went on with her work.
Hours later a soft alarm announced the end of her
shift. She pressed the wrist activator for the HUD
display on her visor. Touching the screen from the
outside, she got it to mark her current location so
she’d know where to start from again on her next
cycle. After hitting a software menu change, she
activated her comm manually. "Control, this is Ripkin.
Heading back to airlock six."
Reattaching the hull scanner to her belt, she made
her slow way to the airlock.
As the door cycled to let her in, she turned around
and stared out. From her current position the view was
earthward. The waters of the Pacific sparkled beneath
her in glorious hues of blue and green, the Hawaiian
Islands dark gems in its waters.
About to go inside, she stopped when a flicker of
movement caught her attention. Turning farther to see
what it was, she spotted a supply transport leaving
dock below her. Looked like the Duchess, an
old-timer still sporting the look of the original
American Space Shuttles. She was about to dismiss it
and go on her way when she noticed something that
shouldn’t have been there--a barely visible vapor
trail spreading out behind the ship. Activating her
HUD again, she subvocalized to toggle to the
magnification options and shoved it to max. The ship’s
side grew huge before her as if about to slam into
her, and she had to stop herself from flinching,
knowing it was just the magnification. Using her wrist
mouse to shift the view, she found the trail again.
Her breath quivered--the ship was venting fluid or
gas, maybe even atmosphere. Somehow the safety gel
hadn’t kicked in or the leak was too large to handle
it. Surely they’d retrofitted the old girl, right?
"What’s wrong?" Ivan’s voice came through an octave
or two higher than normal.
"Call the ship that just left, the Duchess.
She’s venting something. Probably atmo!"
She heard Ivan swear on the other end then switch
off. Claudia stayed outside, watching the ship. If
some small meteorite or space garbage had hit the
Duchess, there could be more floating about.
Staying out here was stupid, but she just couldn’t
bring herself to go inside. Not until she was sure
they were turning back.
Maneuvering thrusters kicked to turn around while
maintaining stable orbit but then sputtered out. The
ship continued moving away, but at an awkward angle
and a slower rate, their previous orbit disrupted by
the thrusters’s sudden failure. The amount of venting
gas trickled down, but didn’t stop entirely. If it was
atmosphere and they’d taken the time to top their
reserves and emergency masks at the station, they
might be fine, but if they hadn’t…. She shivered
inside her suit at the thought.
The ship’s orbit would also be decaying. But the
hotel’s emergency drones would surely get to it before
it decayed too far. Claudia switched to CHO’s
"--shit, nothing’s working. We need help here!"
Chief Sorenson’s rough voice rang in her ears. "The
drones are being activated but it’s going to take them
a few minutes to get to you and then fifteen or twenty
minutes to get you back here, depending on the damage.
Will your air supply hold?"
"Don’t…, don’t know!" The captain of the Duchess
sounded panicky, yet struggling to rein it in. "Not
sure we can trust the gauges. We patched the leak as
best we could from inside, but can’t swear we got it
all. Probably didn’t. We’ve got emergency oxygen
packs, but none of them are full."
Claudia watched the thin stream still escaping from
the Duchess. They definitely hadn’t got it all.
And she wasn’t all that sure it wasn’t increasing
again. A cold sheen of sweat broke over her skin. Like
the sea, space was merciless. One mistake, one wrong
move, some bad luck, and it could be over.
She stared at the ship. Their only hope was to seal
the leak now. And it’d have to be done by hand
from the outside. But suit-up protocols took fifteen
minutes minimum. They needed someone already
out here…. She had no emergency training though, not
for something like this. She didn’t even rate getting
a maneuvering pack. She was just a glorified window
washer, as some had made the point to tell her again
and again. And something could happen to anyone who
tried to help them.
Claudia licked her lips; her throat also dry. She
lifted her wrist to look at the air supply gauge.
Thirty minutes of oxygen left, usually a more than
adequate grace period for getting back inside. But
maybe not today.
"Help us please!"
She jerked at the plea, though she knew it hadn’t
been directed at her.
Instead of going ahead and entering the airlock,
she double checked that her magnetic boots were still
activated then reached for her tether clip. Her hand
shook, though the movement was absorbed by her glove,
so anyone watching wouldn’t have been able to tell.
The external cameras and her own feed would be going
through Command’s screens by now. Holding her breath,
she did the one thing drilled into her a million times
never to do even when magnetized--she unhooked her
lifeline while still outside.
"Ripkin! What are you doing?" Ivan’s harsh whisper
poured into her earpiece.
Claudia’s heart pounded in her chest as she
scrunched down and tried to align her body with the
drifting ship. She might not be good at math, she
might not be the best astronomer to ever graduate, or
even a good window washer for that matter, but she did
know Zero G and she was plenty stubborn. She trusted
herself and trusted the emptiness around her.
Switching off the boots, she kicked free with all her
might, and with a slight spin, launched like a
projectile towards the malfunctioning ship.
"What I need to do, Ivan. Making for the Duchess
now." The calm in her own voice surprised her.
A little luck from the universe wouldn’t hurt
either. She would never turn that down.
She was free from Earth, from the hotel/station,
free from all the tethers keeping her tied to others,
to where it was safe. They were gone. For once she was
her own celestial body in the vastness of the
universe. Or so she kept telling herself as fear sang
along with the adrenaline pumping through her veins.
Anything could go wrong out here. Anything. Yet
a part of her did thrill at the challenge. She just
hoped she’d survive it.
The Duchess’s off-white and green body grew
before her as the minutes passed. Getting to the ship
wouldn’t be the problem, never had been--but not
bumping off the hull or skimming off past her would
be. If she didn’t time this right it might even mean a
broken ankle. A maneuvering pack would have made this
a breeze. Damn Masters and his stupid attitude. She’d
just have to improvise.
Claudia increased her spin slightly, improving her
incoming angle on the ship’s side. Grabbing hold of
her Waals clamp at her belt, she aimed it towards the
ship. Spreading her legs and arms, she swung them
forward hard to offset some of her momentum then
plunged the clamp at the side of the ship as she slid
She grunted as the clamp latched on and her body’s
remaining momentum tried to take her past, the
resulting resistance pulling hard on her arm. Gritting
her teeth, she activated the magnets in her boots and
pulled to get her feet parallel to the hull and down.
Her feet stuck to the exterior with a thump she could
feel rather than hear.
Clamped on securely, she sagged for a moment,
"You okay?" Ivan’s tentative question was followed
by a roar from Sorenson. "What the hell do you think
you’re doing, Ripkin? Get your ass back here!"
She’d have been happier if the Chief didn’t know
her name. Masters had probably given it to him as he
speedily disavowed all knowledge of her actions to
safeguard his ass. She was sure this stunt probably
broke a rule or two.
"Can’t…, can’t do that, sir." As Claudia forced her
heartbeat to slow, she listened hard for any signs her
suit’s integrity had been compromised either on the
way over or on reaching the ship. No alarms blared and
she heard no hissing sounds--so far so good.
She was tempted to look at her air gauge, but
decided against it. Better not to know. The point
where she could have backed out ceased to exist the
moment she launched from the hotel. Time to get this
She deployed her scanner so Control could get as
much data as possible and worked her way slowly down
the ship’s side to where she could still see atmo and
possibly more venting into space near the engines.
Turning up her magnification, she slowed near the
damaged area. Micro-fractures showed here and there
along the plastic-metal hybrid exterior as she
traveled. Had they been skipping maintenance? Some
micro-fractures were unlikely to cause damage, but if
more and more of them accumulated over time, they’d
undermine the hull’s entire integrity.
Watching for sharp edges, she finally made it to
the tear. "Control, are you getting all this?"
"We see it." Sorenson didn’t sound happy. She was
sure heads would roll when this was over, regardless
of how it turned out. One of them probably hers.
Something had hit the ship as she had expected. The
point of contact was only a few centimeters wide but
the preexisting micro-fractures had weakened the hull
enough that when the force of the hit dispersed over
the hybrid metal, it caused actual cracks--there was a
rounded web pattern of them spreading like a disease
from the new impact zone. Here and there even small
bits of metal had broken off. The Space Gel had dealt
with some of it, but the hardened areas showed
stresses that shouldn’t have been there. She could
even see tiny glimpses of machinery from inside the
ship proper on high magnification. It looked as if the
Duchess had been damaged previously, the gel
turning hard to compensate, but then was never
replaced and the hull not repaired. Heads were
definitely going to roll.
The ship shifted beneath her as the emergency
drones clamped onto the hull and wings. "Take it easy
with the drones! Her hull integrity is really weak.
The Duchess might end up with more holes at
"Roger." Ivan’s clipped answer indicated his
The compounded issue with the hull created a new
problem, one she hadn’t expected. It would take longer
to get them back to safety. To get her back
inside. Control couldn’t take the risk of placing the
hull under too much stress. Everything would need to
be done slowly and gently. The original fifteen- to
twenty-minute estimate was now totally bogus. Claudia
fought the urge to look at her air gauge again.
If the ship’s crew lived through this, they may yet
thank the day this hole appeared on their hull,
despite their balls being strung off the ceiling. The
amount of damage done by something less than ten
centimeters wide was nothing compared to the stress
the hull would have suffered in reentry. There was a
good chance they wouldn’t have survived it.
But how to ensure all of them made it back to the
hotel alive? She glanced down at her tools and forced
herself to think for a moment then got to work. The
micro-fractures she could ignore. The biggest problems
were the cracks in the hull plating and the previously
hardened Space Gel. Using the small tube of the stuff
she carried in case of emergencies, she tried to be
frugal and utilized it only on the larger leaks. She
then used her spare clamp as a seal, hoping some of
her vague recollection of the theory it was based, on
would help out now. Even her buffer pad came into play
as she crammed it in a space between the cracked gel
and the hull to make it into another layer the air and
moisture must go through before being lost to
space--anything to slow the leak down.
It wasn’t pretty and wouldn’t hold for long, but it
didn’t have to--it just needed to hang on until they
got back to CHO. She glanced in the hotel’s
direction and saw it looming before her, growing
slowly closer. A wave of dizziness twisted the image
and she realized she was taking breaths faster than
she should. That’s when a loud beeping started buzzing
in her ear telling her air supply was gone.
She was out of time. But had she done enough?
"Ripkin, dammit!" Sorenson’s voice rang in her ear.
"Didn’t you check your gauge?"
She didn’t respond. There was nothing she could
She also could do no more. She thought about
latching herself to the ship and praying they got to
her in time and hopefully would suffer little or no
brain damage. Or she could let go and dive down,
letting the Earth’s gravity embrace her and pull her
earthward so the atmosphere could bring her to a fiery
and quick end.
What air remained in her suit grew more stale by
the moment, her breathing already growing short.
Fatigue dragged her down. It would be so very easy to
just let go….
Or she could fight! She’d be damned if she’d let it
all end if she didn’t want it to. The Universe was out
there and she might yet make it deep into its bosom
someday. All she had to do was save herself. But how?
Her gaze fell on one of the emergency drones and
she got an idea. Her heart hammered in her chest, but
she couldn’t tell if it was excitement or just her
body struggling to pump oxygen into her deprived
brain. The rising headache thrumming in her head
argued for the latter.
"Control," her tongue felt heavy, "I need to hitch
a ride on one of the drones. Will it interfere with
the rescue?" She hadn’t done all this just to sabotage
her own efforts. Yet she counted the seconds as she
waited for an answer. Hope and fear flipped back and
"Do it. Ivan is calculating for best location
dispersal and upping power output of the other units
to compensate for the loss. Grab 002 on your left.
It’s the closest one to you."
As she looked, unit 002 let go of the wing and came
towards her. The unit was the size of a barstool, all
engine and maneuvering thrusters and a couple of
remote control arms. Claudia turned off her magnetic
boots and pushed out to meet it. Only then did she
realize she’d miscalculated, the low oxygen affecting
her coordination. She was going to miss the drone.
Twisting to correct her error, she only made it
worse. Panic bubbled behind confusion as she couldn’t
figure out how she’d gone wrong, but knew she had. She
was about to become space debris--an object to someday
be scooped up to be studied and taken apart, if
gravity didn’t take her and consume her in the
"I have you!" Ivan’s accent was thicker than usual.
Claudia doubled in half as the drone’s arm moved to
block her way. Feebly, she grabbed hold before her
inertia sent her backwards. The second arm came up
behind her to make sure.
Then with a burst of thrusters, they spun around
and launched back towards the hotel. G’s pulled at
her, and everything threatened to go black. She
watched helplessly as the Duchess receded from
The drone dumped her into the bottom bay’s airlock.
She tried to reach for the button but her vision was
swimming and her arm wasn’t responding as it should.
The door must have been activated by Control because
it closed on its own.
Air cycled in but Claudia couldn’t manage to flip
the seals on her helmet. She croaked a laugh, thinking
it horrid irony to die of asphyxiation in a room full
She needn’t have worried. The moment the cycle was
done people piled into the airlock to help with her
Her helmet released with a pop, and air rushed into
her starving lungs. She would never complain about
recycled air again.
"Ripkin, are you all right? Ripkin!"
Worried faces hovered over her. People were worried
about her. It warmed her heart in a way she’d
not experienced in a long time. She was glad.
It took her several swallows and false starts
before she was able to ask, "The ship?"
"Almost here, mate. And the chatter says the crew
is still holding out fine." Dr. Mathis, a big grizzly
of a man, shooed the others back. "But you won’t be
here to meet them, I’m afraid. It’s medical for you."
Two medtechs put down a stretcher and lifted her
"Good job, Ripkin." "You’re nuts!" "Got balls."
She couldn’t feel the pats on the suit, but she
heard and saw them. She also heard and saw gratitude,
amazement, and grudging respect as they dragged her
past. Things she knew they’d never connected with
anyone whom they thought of as a mere window washer.
It felt good. Warmth, then heat suffused her, her
hormones seemingly agreeing with her, and reminding
her she was alive. For once, she didn’t mind.