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Story 2

Gloria Oliver

Gloria Oliver is a writer with a good sense of humor, which makes her a fun writer to work with.

Windows is her debut story for 4 Star Stories, and it’s a goody.

In Windows Gloria presents us with a strong, everyday hero drawn from the same mold as Alvin York or Samwise Gamgee. The kind of hero who keeps on plugging away at his job until something extraordinary is required of him, and then, he does that too. Only in this case the "he" is a "she", and a most unlikely heroine at that.

4 Star Stories is delighted to present for your autumn reading enjoyment, Gloria's story Windows.


"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 darkness outside.

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 went dead.

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 well?"

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 point.

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 window.

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 floated past.

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."

"Roger that."

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?

"Control! Emergency!"

"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 emergency frequency.

"--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.

To her….

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 by.

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, breathing heavily.

"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 done.

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 this rate."

"Roger." Ivan’s clipped answer indicated his concentration.

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 say.

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 forth.

"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 atmosphere.

"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 view.

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 of oxygen.

She needn’t have worried. The moment the cycle was done people piled into the airlock to help with her gear.

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 onto it.

"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.

The End


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