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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Sun Oct 29, 2017 5:11 pm

Chapter 27- Rocky return

 

            Inside the vacuum no sound transferred to the three refugees. Had they been touching some surface, they may have felt the vibration of a bullet impacting the metal wall, or Klein’s body bumping softly nearby. Steve waited a few minutes before pressurising the airlock again. When the level was at equilibrium they removed their helmets and looked at each other.

“What now Mr Steven James, now that you’ve saved the world?” Kelly smiled gleefully and kissed him on the cheek. She then hugged Jodie and Steve hugged them both. Jodie smiled at the consolation contact and proffered her own comment.

“Well, Mr Steven James? What now?” And there was a touch of mockery in her parroting Kelly.

“Mmm, well for one thing, I can’t believe we’re still alive.” He halted briefly and his expression grew serious. “But I’m afraid we’re going to have to face Mr Ernest Klein (he continued the parody); if only to try and convince him that his plans are finished.”

“Do you think he’ll give up?” Jodie queried.

Kelly chipped in. “I can picture my father adjudicating, ‘I don’t think surrender will mitigate his crimes.’” Kelly managed a husky tone for her fanciful quote.

            Steve warmed at the relaxed atmosphere, but was still apprehensive about what lay ahead.

“Who knows what he’ll do. But we can’t stay here forever and wait to see what will happen. He may have a Plan B.”

            They waited in the airlock for some time speculating on what was occurring up front and wondering why they hadn’t left lunar orbit yet.

“Okay, assuming that no one has come into the back here, and taking into account that we’re still alive, it should at least be safe to go out there.” Kelly was obviously getting tired of waiting around.

Steve shook his head. “Let’s not assume anything. You’re right. I think we should go out and see what’s going on, but it’ll be safer to use the suits. He put his helmet back on and Kelly and Jodie did likewise.

“You ready?” he said over the suit radio.

            Steve opened the airlock and flinched with fright as he almost immediately collided with Klein’s floating body as it loomed up behind him. Both girls tensed as they heard Steve gasp. Instinctively he shoved it away and it spun off to the other side. Turning away from the macabre aerial pirouette of the dead body, Steve saw Shelley’s crumpled form floating across from him. It didn’t take long to determine that Klein and Shelley had become victims of their own brutality; although it would be some time before they tried to reconstruct the violence that had left both of them dead.

            The open hatch suggested that the whole area had become contaminated. Steve now worried whether the suit air supply would last long enough to render the organisms inert. Moving to the control room they passed the lifeless bodies randomly spread in the passenger area. A few were still strapped in. The forward section was open too. Steve suddenly felt his stomach churn with awful anticipation. Ahead the cockpit was quiet. Not for the first time he felt he was in some third rate movie. Inside, the two space pilots were strapped in... but they too were victims of the plague. A red flashing message stated;

‘AWAITING CONFIRMATION FOR IGNITION’

            His next comment he later tried a number of times to attribute to some hysteria induced insanity. But was more than likely his incurably warped sense of humour. He called back, (forgetting that the helmet transmitter carried his voice) “I think this is where I ask, ‘Does anyone know how to fly this thing?’”

Kelly edged her helmeted head around him to see. “Oh no!”

“What’s wrong?” asked Jodie from farther back.

“No, I think you’re supposed to say, ‘I’ve only had a bit of experience, but on a much smaller spacecraft.”

            Steve hit a red button labelled ‘cancel’.

“What did you do?” Kelly was anxious.

“I cancelled the rocket burn. We don’t want to head back to Earth do we?” He turned to face the other two.

“What do we want to do then?” Jodie was seeking clarification as Earth sounded pretty good to her.

‘Well, I’m thinking a bad landing on the Moon might be much better than a bad landing on Earth.” Steve reflected that the comment sounded a bit supercilious. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to sound condescending. It’s just that a sixth Earth’s gravity gives us at least some chance of a soft landing.

“Makes sense to me,” piped up Kelly. And, to Steve, it seemed as if they were ganging up on Jodie.  He turned to catch sight of Jodie, who hadn’t responded, disappearing into the passenger cabin.

            Steve and Kelly began to remove the pilots from their seats and secure them in seats in the control room. Glancing back he could see Jodie strapping in bodies. Kelly went back to assist while Steve sat in the pilot’s seat with some difficulty, due to the large back pack on the suit. He tried to come to terms with what was required to land Transit 1. Below him the cratered, stark beauty of the lunar surface passed by. He was aware of it through the thick windows in front of him, but it was much clearer on the video screen to his left.

            He checked the computer screen. Clicking the curser on the ‘menu’ button caused the screen to provide a series of options. ‘Landing programs’ stood out like a beacon to him. Could it be that simple? Selecting the ‘Landing Programs’, Steve followed the digital pathway to ‘Moon Base’. Once this was opened he selected ‘Automated Landing’. The screen displayed a ‘Loading’ message. Then a message tag, ‘Awaiting LPS data’. Steve sat and waited. Nothing happened. He looked at the menu. Nothing suggested a course of action. Jodie came and sat down next to him.

“How are ya doin’?” She gave him a smile which was barely discernable behind the polycarbonate visor.

“Not sure...” Uncomfortable now, Steve back pedalled to his gaffe. “Look, I’m sorry about that comment before. It sounded a bit...” She cut him off.

“Do you think I’m offended or something? After all these years, you don’t know me very well do you?”

            Steve looked at her in the half light of the cabin, her face quite indistinct inside the helmet, and shook his head thoughtfully. “No, I don’t know you very well at all...” The ambiguity of the statement made Jodie hesitate.

“Look, you said what you were thinking. That’s fine by me... it always has been.”

Steve considered all the times they sniped playfully at each other. Something had changed.

            Steve clicked on the help menu.

“I was wondering when you’d do that...Won’t ask for help, but always digging through help menus.”  

Steve grinned to himself. He typed in LPS. A number of dot points appeared on the help list: ‘Using Lunar Positioning System (LPS), Detecting Lunar coordinates, Inputting Lunar coordinates,’ and a number of other points less relevant to what he wanted to know.

            Following the procedures described, Steve had Jodie turn on the LPS first, reversing the process the pilots had carried out of turning LPS off and engaging navigation for return to Earth orbit. Once on, it took a couple of minutes to link to Lunar Positioning Satellites and then began scrolling coordinates. His next step was to synchronise with the computer.

            Suddenly the screen changed. A large label read ‘Reading LPS Data’, Then; ‘CONFIRMATION OF LUNAR LANDING PROCEDURE’ flashed. Steve looked at Jodie. “Easy hey!” He moved the curser to ‘YES’ and pressed ‘enter’.

            Immediately the system made the computerised announcements that also fed through the spacesuit audio system. A message informed them that the craft was approaching the entry window. The Transit 1 began altering its attitude. Kelly drew near after closing the passenger cabin connecting hatch.

“I hope you don’t mind. I closed the hatch because of all the bodies in there.”

“That’s okay. You’d better get strapped in.” The landing sequence had started with a time announcement for the burn from the plasma engine. Steve turned to watch Kelly sit in a nearby seat in the control room section.

            Over the next few minutes the computer displayed the progress of the landing procedure and the calculated ETA. Announcements immediately preceded the engine ignition. One minute into the burn the computer sounded an alert. The screen flashed: ‘Course deviation detected! Course correction commencing.’ The side thrusters fired briefly. After another minute the main rockets ceased, but simultaneously the alert was repeated and followed by a burst from the side thrusters.

            Already the descent had begun. Steve monitored the video screen to watch the moonscape rapidly slip by. When the warning was repeated a third time, followed by the requisite ejection of propellant. Steve saw lights starting to flash and cast a worried look around. His expression was wasted inside the helmet so he elaborated verbally.

“That can’t be good.”

Jodie responded on her radio. “What? That message and the course corrections?” 

 “That! - and those flashing lights,” Just then a warning sounded and the computerised voice proclaimed: ‘Pressure loss rear pressure module; Pressure loss central module’. Then the warning flashed again: ‘Course deviation detected! Course correction commencing.’ Subsequent to the course correction the computer reported serious gas depletion from port side thrusters.

            Buzzers and flashing lights added to the pandemonium. ‘Pressure suits required in rear pressure module; Pressure suits required in central pressure module.’ The computer was in the process of presenting its conclusions – ‘Conclude pressure loss due to venting.  Pressure hull compromised.’  Both Jodie and Kelly started asking what was happening... what, if anything, were they going to do?

            The lunar horizon began to show on the right side of the cockpit window. Again the course correction spiel was replayed but the inverted posture of Transit 1 wasn’t attained. Instead, an alarm sounded and the digitised voice informed them that port side thrusters were inoperable; fuel was spent. The automated pilot instigated several short plasma burns to slow the craft down for landing.

            ‘Warning! Course deviation uncorrected.’  The expressionless announcements were almost continuous now. ‘Alert! Attitude unsafe for landing. Abort! Abort!’ The computer was now struggling to maintain control of the descent. Short blasts of plasma now repelled Transit 1’s rate of fall to the Moon, but also increasingly nudged it askew and away from the base. Slower and slower, but not slow enough they dropped Moonward.

            “Brace yourselves!” Steve yelled, too loudly over the intercom as the moonscape filled their view to the right side. One last burst of thrust suddenly gave them hope of a safe landing. Everything slowed. Time seemed to hesitate. Then crunch, it was grating, grinding and lurching. The shuddering impact was bone jarring but minimal compared to an Earth crash landing. Silence followed the initial collision of only one of the three landing pads on the surface. Briefly the Transit 1 teetered, then it fell sideways. 

 

            The collapse was languid, like a felled tree still attached at the roots. Inside the crunching, scraping and tearing of metal reverberated as electricity failed and smoke started to spread. By the time Transit 1 stopped rocking in a prone position across a small crater, the three survivors had managed to extricate themselves from their seats. Unused to the sudden darkness Steve had tumbled, disoriented to the left side of the cabin; the side on which the space craft now lay. Jodie had similarly tumbled out of her seat and slid inelegantly against Steve.

            While they disentangled, Kelly was climbing into the cabin. The reflected sunlight glowed through the cockpit windows but smoke increasingly obscured their vision.

“Stay there Kelly, we have to climb out that way.” Steve called, before realising that the radio didn’t require him to raise his voice; then to Jodie, “Jodes, stand on my hands and I’ll give you a boost.” He cupped his gloved hands under her booted foot and heaved a little too energetically as he tried to give Jodie a leg up. She flew from the bolster and just caught hold of the opening to slow herself, gripping the edge so she could steady before moving herself into the other section.

            When Jodie disappeared, Steve stood on the back of the pilot’s seat and pushed himself toward the opening. He tumbled through the opening. Then flailing with suited arms, he just managed to catch onto the edge and prevent himself from falling down into the control room. The smoke became denser and he could hardly see the white space suits of the other two. A glow to his left caught his eye. Wiring seemed to be smouldering. With a sudden flash it burst into flame and a pall of black, noxious smoke billowed up.

            “We have to get out!” Steve shouted and clambered down. The three managed to crawl through the less murky air at the bottom of the compartment, where the side of the vessel was now their floor. Steve and Kelly cracked helmets together.

“Sorry, I can’t see,” apologised Kelly. Steve nodded uselessly then responded verbally.

“Don’t worry. I can’t see anything either.”

“I’m glad we don’t have to breathe this stuff,” commented Jodie who had joined them at the dividing wall to the passenger compartment. “We had better get out quick,” she chided.

             Steve thought of the acrid fumes of burning plastics as the flames flared anew. ‘They were protected’ he thought, ‘for now.’

A female voice broke into his thoughts:

            ‘You have four hours air supply left.’

Steve was nonplussed. He hadn’t used six hours of air had he? How much time had gone? The timer on his suit showed three hours of use. Perhaps his extra exertion had depleted his reserves. Or, he thought gravely, his suit was leaking. Without saying anything he scaled the instrument panel against the wall and disengaged the hatch. The darkness of the lowering smoke enveloped him as he tried to pull back the seal.

“The pressure’s too great,” he called. “I think it’s totally depressurised out there.” Steve grunted with the effort. Jodie struggled up to a narrow panel next to him and they pulled with all their might. There was no room for Kelly to join them. So after a few minutes of futile straining Jodie swapped places with Kelly. But their efforts were without effect. The hatch wouldn’t budge.

            The radiant heat from the spreading fire was now becoming noticeable. Sweating in his suit, Steve applied every ounce of force he could muster. Tearing at the obstinate hatch, both he and ‘one handed’ Kelly, with feet planted astride against the wall, wrenched as hard as the bulky suits allowed. It still didn’t give.

“What are we going to do?” panted Kelly feebly.

Steve could hardly see her, only centimetres away, through the thick smoke. He was at a loss. Surely they would get this far only to be incinerated so close to safety.

He prayed.

            It was a simple, heartfelt, plea for deliverance.

There was a burst of light. Bright spluttering burning drops of flame only just missed them as some flammable molten synthetic material added to the nightmare.

“You okay Jodes?” Steve breathed heavily realising that she was completely obscured by the sooty smoke.

“I’m fine, ...just below you...”

Before she could finish a small explosion shook the cabin and a shower of burning debris had them slapping at their suits. All at once a screaming sound and a rush of smoke swirled around them.

            Suddenly realising what had happened, Steve called, “The hull’s been pierced. We’re venting our air.” The screeching air tore away the smoke and threw a jet of flame out through the perforated metal. The shuddering Transit 1 rocked precariously on its side, then slowly fell over on its back, upending the hapless captives into a tangle on, what was, the roof of the craft. Encumbered with suits and life support systems, it took a little time to help each other up.

            The cabin atmosphere had evacuated. It was clear, but quite dark because of the inverted position. Steve breathed a ‘thankyou’ as he noticed the hatch no longer clamped by the pressurised room.

“What did you say?” Kelly responded to his murmur.

“Just being thankful for an answer to prayer,” Steve explained.

“You and me both,” added Jodie.

Pulling back the hatch they stepped through into the gloom of the passenger compartment. Bodies hung eerily from above, laced with seatbelts their arms and legs drooped morbidly.

            When eventually they had opened the side access, Steve lowered Kelly and Jodie onto the lunar surface, grimacing as pain shot through his lacerated arm. He waited briefly to let the pain ease before dropping onto the dust covered rock. As he gained his balance an ominous voice sounded in his headset:

  ‘You have three hours air supply left.’

He knew he wouldn’t survive long at this rate. ...some malfunction, maybe a slight puncture somewhere in his suit. He had lost an hour’s air in less than half an hour! Steve looked around. Jodie said what he was thinking.

“Where do we go?”

“Why don’t we climb up there? Maybe we can see which way to go.” Steve was indicating a rise to the edge of the small crater. Kelly set off straight away and Jodie and Steve followed her up the incline.

            At the top they were confronted by the sight of steep crater walls of a much larger crater surrounding the small crater that Transit 1 came to rest on. The low sun accentuated the utter contrast between shaded and sunlit moon surface. The blackness of space only revealed small dots of stars through tinted visors when they raised their gaze above the horizon. The openness made Steve shiver with a vague sense of acrophobia.

            Looking back at the craft, he faced in the opposite direction to the way it seemed to be pointed, “I think we should head that way,” he suggested, and then raised his arm belatedly. He didn’t explain his idea that the spacecraft had probably fallen away from the direction it was meant to go because of the tilt caused by the venting. It was speculation anyway. He had no idea of the resultant vectors of force caused by the vented gas.

“Why don’t we split up and check out three different directions.” Jodie was again being logical. “We still have plenty of air left.”

“I have a slight problem there,” Steve admitted.

“What?” both girls responded almost simultaneously.

“I’m down to about thirty percent. I think I have a slow air leak somewhere.”

“I have seventy five percent.” said Kelly, checking her readout.

Jodie chimed in, “I have about the same.”

“So, we better get moving if we’re going to keep you alive,” Kelly offered in a matter of fact voice.  
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