A Bad Day for Sarah
by D.J. Belt
Disclaimers: Copyright D.J. Belt, Nov, 2006. Original story and characters. Nothing in here that’s NSFW, so you can read it when you’re supposed to be doing something else. (Go ahead, you know that you want to!)
Comments: I’m at email@example.com. This was written long ago and rejected by several sci-fi mags. I’m glad I saved it for you. It’s my humble offering for the 2017 Valentine’s Day/April Fool’s Day Invitational at Royal Academy of Bards. Hope you enjoy it, and thanks so much for inviting me to participate.
“Space Station Twenty’s on the fritz again, Bob.”
The chief of the Control Room leaned over his associate’s shoulder and studied the computer monitors. “What’s the matter with that thing now?”
The engineer shrugged. “I’m getting malfunction codes from the weather camera computer.”
“Can the robot fix it?” Bob asked.
“Are you kidding?” the engineer said. “The robot’s a government employee.”
“Yeah, built by the lowest bidder, too. See if you can get it to at least give us a problem report. I’ll alert the repair technician.” He lifted his coffee mug, stopped short of taking a sip, and contemplated the inky liquid. “This stuff will probably give me a heart attack,” he said.
“If this job doesn’t first,” the engineer mumbled.
Bob snickered. “Be in aerospace, my old man said. Easy money, my old man said.” He left the control room, walked down the hall, and banged on a door.
“It’s open,” a voice called out.
Bob stuck his head into a tiny lounge and looked around. A figure was sprawled on a beat-up military cot. Sock-covered feet protruded from the legs of a faded one-piece Earth Aeronautics flight coverall. A cheap paperback novel hid the technician’s face. “I need you, Sarah,” he said.
“You bad boy,” the voice behind the paperback said.
“Not that way. We have a mission for you.”
“Now? Hey, wait a minute. It’s April Fool’s Day, right? You’re really cutting me loose early?”
“Yes, it is,” Bob said, “and no, I’m not. Up and at ‘em.”
The paperback lowered, and a pair of alert eyes peered over the top of the book. “You’re serious?” She watched Bob nod wearily. “Wait a minute, don’t tell me. Station Twenty again? Man, that thing’s the station from Hell.”
“You’re telling me. Come to the control room, will you?”
At her nod, he allowed the door to creak shut and began walking down the hall. Feet scuffed down the hall behind him; in a moment, Sarah caught up with Bob. He glanced down; she was wearing a pair of huge, fuzzy pink bunny slippers, a ludicrous sight when held in counterpoint to her flight suit. He considered the slippers for a moment, then the hairstyle that she’d chosen that day. “Pigtails and bunny slippers?” He gave her an indulgent smile. “Channeling our inner child today, are we?” he asked.
Sarah’s expression twinkled at his reaction. “So who wants to be a grown-up? Not me.” She pointed at his coffee cup. Her eyes widened in mock surprise. “You’re actually drinking that stuff?” she asked.
“I’m into self-abuse.” He waved her into the control room. In a moment, they were hunched over the engineer’s shoulders. “What’s the status on Twenty?” Bob asked.
“I got the robot to run a diagnostic,” the engineer said. “The camera computer’s fried.”
“Is everything else working okay?”
“Yeah, so far.”
“That’ll change,” Sarah said. The engineer snickered in agreement.
“You cynics,” Bob said. “I suppose you’d better get ready for a flight, Sarah. You’re heading up to replace the camera computer.”
She pouted. “Aw, come on, Bob. I’ve got a hot date tonight.”
“Yeah, with Twenty.”
“Can’t we do this tomorrow? I’m off shift in a couple of hours.”
“No. It’s tracking a forming hurricane. It needs to be replaced now.” He watched Sarah adopt her ‘pitiful’ expression, and he softened. “You’ll be back for your date this evening. This will be easy money for you.”
“Yeah, maybe you’ll get lucky after all. Huh, Sarah?” the engineer said.
“Not up there, I won’t.” Sarah thumped him on the back of his head. “Come on, get that useless robot to fix it, will you?”
“Ow!” The engineer rubbed his head, then pushed his glasses back up on his nose. “It’s no use. I’ve tried.”
Bob hung up the telephone. “The shuttle’s going to be on the runway in fifteen minutes. Get your gear together, young lady.”
“Aw, bugger!” Sarah muttered. She commenced a fast bunny-slipper shuffle toward the control room door, keeping time to her footfalls with a repetitive, “Bugger, bugger, bugger...”
As she scuffed away muttering vulgarities, the engineer noticed Sarah’s bunny slippers and snickered. “Now that’s funny,” he said, as he returned his attention to his monitors. “Weird, but funny.”
Thirty minutes later, Sarah was strapped into her seat as the silvery, wide-winged shuttle lifted from the runway and pointed its nose toward the sky. She glanced at the pilot. “How long until we get to Twenty?”
He shrugged.“Oh, two hours, give or take. What’s the matter? You got someplace else to be?”
“As a matter of fact, yeah.” She unzipped a leg pocket and pulled out her dog-eared paperback. “Don’t blabber, will you? I’m just getting to the spicy part.”
Some time later, he tapped her arm. She awoke, rubbed her eyes, and blinked. “Where are we?”
“Outside the atmosphere, approaching Twenty.”
She looked around the cramped cabin. “Where’s my book?”
He tapped several buttons on a console. The paperback, which had been floating near the ceiling of the cabin, was gripped by the onset of artificial gravity. It bounced off her head and landed in her lap. She shot him a disgusted look. “Thanks, I think,” she said.
“Don’t mention it. Better check your gear.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She unbuckled her seat belt and rose. “I need to use the can, anyway.”
“Don’t forget to flush, right?”
She ignored the comment. “I hope you didn’t leave the seat up again.”
“Hey, I’m a guy. I always leave it up. You got about ten minutes.”
She squeezed through the hatch into the cargo compartment. Next to the atmosphere suits, she located her tools and the replacement computer. A quick check of her atmosphere suit showed that its air tanks were charged and it was ready to be donned, should the atmosphere in the station be unacceptable. She hoped that wearing the suit wouldn’t be necessary; it was cumbersome and difficult to work in. She stuck her head through the cabin door. “Are we there yet?”
The pilot smiled. “Now you sound like my kids. No, not yet.”
The shuttle executed a slow turn and floated alongside the cylindrical space station, whose bristling array of antennae and wide solar panels gave it the appearance of a strange insect in flight. The shuttle rotated, and its side hatch mated with the entrance compartment on the ugly, squat station. The clank of metal meeting metal reverberated through the craft. At the sound, Sarah tapped the pilot on the shoulder. “Docked? Airtight entry?”
“Yeah. Do your thing, Sarah baby. I’ll be right here.” He picked up her paperback and began thumbing through it. “Where did you say the spicy part was?”
“Page fifty-four, you perv.”
“Hey, it’s your book.” His expression grew serious. “Holler if you need anything.”
She smiled at that. “Thanks. See you in a while.” With that, she retreated into the cargo compartment and locked the double hatches to the cabin. When she perused the control panel on the shuttle’s wall, she noted that the atmosphere within the station appeared acceptable. That was a good sign. No atmosphere suit was necessary, she decided. Next, she inserted an earpiece into her ear and zipped the transmitter into a pocket. “Ground, this is Sarah,” she said. “Can you hear me?”
Bob’s voice crackled in her ear. “Five by five, Sarah. Get going.”
She released a sigh of resignation as she collected her tool bag and the replacement camera computer. The shuttle hatch swung aside, and the tunnel to the station’s entrance loomed before her. Sarah crawled inside, shut the shuttle hatch behind her, and opened the station’s hatch. Away from the shuttle’s artificial gravity, she floated to a panel and began tapping switches. The lights in the station grew brighter. Slowly, an artificial gravity assumed its pull on her body, and her feet settled onto the floor.
She looked around at the station’s interior. Its cylindrical body was about eight feet in diameter and perhaps thirty feet long. Instruments and computers lined both walls. On a track in the center aisle, a robot was positioned to run the length of the room, its squat body and snaky arms poised to tend the instruments in the station. To her right, next to the shuttle, a wide window faced toward Earth, allowing an array of cameras to study the planet’s surface.
She plugged her hand-held computer into the robot, then began reading the information scrolling across the screen. In a moment, she muttered in disgust and unplugged the instrument, then sought out the camera computer and plugged into it. She tapped her earpiece. “Ground Control, this is Sarah.”
“Ground here, Sarah,” Bob said. “What’s going on up there?”
“The camera computer’s fried, all right. I’m going to exchange it, then test the new one.”
“Understood. Keep us informed.”
She rummaged in her tool kit and found a screwdriver, loosed the computer from its moorings, and unplugged it. Just before she set it aside, she looked it over and puzzled at it. It had a hole in one side of it. She turned it over, and there was an identical hole in the other side, except that the jagged edges of that hole protruded outward. “What the hell?” she said aloud, then tapped her earpiece. “Hey, Ground. There’s a hole right through this computer.”
“Yeah. Looks just like somebody drove a large nail through it.”
A pregnant pause filled her earpiece, and then Bob’s voice assumed urgency. “Sarah, check your cabin atmosphere readings. Do it now.”
She placed the computer on the deck, rose, and examined the wall panel. She tapped at several switches. “Pressure’s okay, Bob, but the stored air’s being eaten up at a fast rate.”
“Meteoroid strike, Sarah. The hull’s probably compromised by whatever went through the computer. Get out of there as soon as you can.”
Her blood ran cold at the words. “Hell,” she said, then knelt down and looked at the hull behind the damaged computer’s bay. There was a hole in the hull, and she could hear the high-pitched hiss of escaping air. She tapped her earphone. “Something went right through the station, all right. I’m changing out the computer now. Give me five minutes, and I’ll be out of here.”
“Do it. Keep in touch, will you?”
Sarah laughed. “Yeah, I’ll call you in the morning. It was good for me, too.”
Bob sighed. “Sarah, you’re a naughty girl.”
“I try.” She lifted the new computer into place. It lit up and began running through its test program. She watched the information flow across its screen, then tapped her earpiece. “Ground, the new computer is testing okay. Give it a try.”
“Camera’s online. Good job. Looks like you’ll make that date tonight, after all.”
“I’m closing shop, Ground. I’ll call you from the shuttle.”
With that, she collected her tool bag and the useless computer and turned toward the hatch. A high-pitched ping sounded, and the computer dropped from her hand. She glanced down at it, then picked it up, and her face fell in an expression of horror. A second hole, about the size of the first one, had appeared in its case. Another ping echoed through the station, then another. A crackle and a shower of sparks rose from one of the electronics boxes near her. More pings echoed in the station, resembling the first drops of rain on a tin roof. Her hand went numb, then felt on fire. She screamed in pain, and she glanced down. Her hand was swelling, and blood pooled in her palm. Drops of her blood splattered on the deck around her and across her feet.
She gripped her wrist with her free hand and crawled into the hatch companionway. With a quick motion, she ripped the first-aid kit from the wall and tugged it open. Its contents spilled onto the deck. She tore open a plastic pouch of bandages with her teeth, slapped several onto both sides of her hand, and pressed it against her chest. Then, with her free hand, she opened a rolled bandage and wrapped it tightly around her hand. By the time she had sealed the bandage, a splotch of red was already soaking through the cloth.
Several more high-pitched pings echoed in the station, and another shower of sparks erupted from the electronics. She cursed liberally as she tapped the switches on the wall next to her. The cabin pressure was dropping, but the atmosphere was still oxygen-rich enough to start a fire. Her free hand shook almost uncontrollably as she powered off the damaged electronics one by one. Eventually, the showers of sparks ceased.
A dull thud resounded through the station. She looked up. Through the expansive port window, she could see one of the wing-like solar cells come apart, its fragments silently floating away from the station. Alarms flashed on several instrument panels. She rose, looked out the window, and tapped her earpiece. “Shuttle, what’s your status?” she asked.
“I’m aborting this mission, Sarah. We’re out of here, and I mean now. Get your ass back aboard.”
Bob’s voice broke in. “Shuttle, Sarah, this is Ground. What’s going on? We’ve got alarms all over the place down here.”
“Meteoroid strikes,” Sara said. “They’re going through this thing like it’s paper.”
“Abort! Leave now! Shuttle, Sarah, do you two hear me?”
Several more pings echoed through the station. At the last one, Sarah screamed and fell to the deck. Her leg throbbed. She gripped her thigh and glanced down. Her flight suit was torn, and the deep gash beneath the rip began to ooze blood.
“Sarah, what’s the matter?” Bob asked.
“One just went through my leg. God, it hurts.”
“Can you make it to the shuttle?”
“Just try to stop me.” She gripped a hand-hold and pulled herself erect. When she looked out the port window, she saw a fist-sized hole appear in the shuttle’s cockpit window. A second later, another hole appeared in the skin below it. A scream sounded in her earpiece. She watched as the explosive bolts flashed and the shuttle’s nose separated from its body. It began floating toward Earth, turning and exposing the escape capsule’s heat shield.
Sarah’s knees buckled. She felt as if she was going to be sick. “Oh, my God,” was all that she could say.
Bob’s voice was roaring in her earpiece. “Sarah, what the hell happened to the shuttle? Our alarms are going crazy.”
She attempted to speak, but couldn’t. Her eyes watered, and her throat closed. Finally, she squeaked out a reply. “It just got riddled with meteoroids. The ejection bolts blew. The nose separated. It’s gone.”
“It’s freaking gone, Bob. The shuttle nose is gone.”
“Shuttle? Shuttle, this is Ground. Come in.”
The only response was silence. After a moment, another ping sounded in the station, and then several more. Electronics sparked, and alarm lights flashed on the screen near Sarah’s elbow. She felt her legs give out. She collapsed on the deck, pulled herself into a tight ball, and covered her head with her hands. She could hear someone weeping. After a moment, she realized that it was her. An eternity of time passed her by in a few seconds; eventually, no more pings echoed inside the station. She tapped her earpiece. “Ground?”
“Sarah? Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay! Is there any more of this coming?”
“Radar indicates that you’re through the meteoroid shower, as far as we can tell.”
“Oh, that’s nice, Bob. That’s really peachy. You guys didn’t see this coming?”
“We can only track the big ones. It’s the little stuff that’s getting you.”
“No kidding! Get me off this thing, will you? I mean now!”
“Get hold of yourself, Sarah. You’re getting hysterical.”
“I’m hurt, Bob. I’m bleeding all over the deck, and I’m scared. Come get me.”
“Oh, God.” Bob’s voice struggled to assume a slow, calming demeanor. “Calm down, Sarah. Now, listen to me. Check your atmosphere. Do it.”
She fought down another wave of searing panic, then dragged herself to a wall monitor screen and began tapping switches. “I’m losing pressure fast. I’ve got maybe an hour of atmosphere left, at this rate.”
“Sarah, can you patch the holes?”
“No, I can’t patch the goddamned holes. There’s too many to count. I’m Swiss cheese up here.”
“Okay, okay. Look, the backup shuttle’s taking off now. Hang on.”
“Hang on? It’ll take them over two hours. I’ve got an hour of atmosphere left.” She stifled a sob. “I’m going to die up here, aren’t I, Bob?”
“No, you’re not, Sarah. Let me think. I’ll call you again in a couple of minutes.”
She muttered a profanity, then leaned against the bulkhead. Her leg burned, and her hand was throbbing. She squeezed her eyes shut, and involuntary tears tracked down her cheeks. She was going to die. Ground couldn’t help her. Nobody could. She didn’t want her life to end like this, alone. Two hours, she thought. That’s all it would take to save her. Two hours that she didn’t have.
Bob’s voice echoed in her earpiece. “Sarah, Ground here. The shuttle’s on its way. At max speed, it’ll still take a little over two hours. Check the atmosphere again.”
She tapped at the monitor buttons. “Less than fifty minutes.”
“Is your atmosphere suit intact, Sarah?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s in the shuttle, and the shuttle’s junk now.” Her gut twisted as if she were punched, and her voice shook. “Well, that’s that, isn’t it? I’m going to die in fifty minutes.”
A long silence followed. Bob’s voice finally came back to her. “Sarah, is there – is there anyone you want me to call?”
Again, she squeezed her eyes shut. “Do you know Michelle, in Dispatching?”
“Sure. Close friend, is she?”
“She’s my sister.” Sarah wiped her eyes with her bandaged hand, leaving a streak of blood across her cheek. “Our folks are dead. She’s all the family I’ve got left.”
Another silence followed. The chief engineer’s voice was soft. “I’ll talk with her privately.”
“Not now. Wait until – ” She had difficulty speaking the next words. “Wait until it’s over with, will you?”
“Thanks, Bob. You’ve always been a pal.” She swallowed hard. “I’m gonna miss you.”
“Hang on, please. Don’t give up yet. There’s got to be something else that we can do. What’s your cabin atmospheric pressure now?”
Sarah glanced up at the screen. “Ninety percent and dropping fast.” She choked down a sob. “What’s going to happen to me?”
“You’ll get – ” The voice cracked. “You’ll get light-headed at about eighty percent. Short of breath. Goofy, like you’re stoned. Weak. At about sixty, you’ll pass out.”
“There’s worse ways to go, I guess.”
“Please hold on, Sarah. I’ll be back, I promise.” The earpiece went silent.
She glanced toward the closed hatch, and a sudden thrill of hope coursed through her. Slowly, painfully, she pulled herself to a sitting position and glanced out the port window. The remnants of the shuttle, mostly the cargo area, were still attached to the station’s entrance hatch. She tapped her earpiece again. “Bob?”
“Tell me about the shuttle’s cargo bay. I mean, it’s self-contained, right?”
“Yeah. Why?” There was a moment of silence, and then the voice in her ear became enthusiastic. “Of course! If it hasn’t been compromised, it will have its own atmosphere. We can’t check it from ground. Can you?”
“Wait one.” She eased herself to a squat and crawled into the entrance tunnel. She tapped at a monitor on the wall by the hatch, then huffed in frustration. “No readout.” In a split second, she made a decision. “I’m going to crack the hatch and look.”
“Sarah, you can’t do that. What if there’s no atmosphere in there?”
“Then I’m dead. But I’m dead anyway, aren’t I? I’ve got nothing to lose anymore.”
“Sarah, please think before you do this.”
“I’m through thinking. Wish me luck, Bob.”
She grasped the hatch handle and twisted it. It unlocked. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and pushed. The hatch swung open. Slowly, she released her breath and opened her eyes. She didn’t know exactly what would happen, but was surprised that nothing had changed. The cargo bay loomed before her, dim in the light of the emergency lanterns. She gasped in relief, then began weeping in giddy elation. She crawled into the cargo bay, pulled herself to a standing position, and tapped at the monitor panel on the wall. The atmosphere was below seventy-five percent. Her chest tightened in panic as she noted the rate of atmosphere depletion. It was even faster than the station’s atmosphere. There was no way that she’d last over two hours in the bay.
She screamed a curse and slammed her fist against the monitor screen. It cracked and dissolved into a multitude of lines. Exhausted and in pain, she collapsed to the deck. Her chest tightened as she gasped for air; her head spun, and she began giggling uncontrollably.
Her earpiece crackled with Bob’s voice. “Sarah, what’s going on? Are you all right? Where are you?”
“In the cargo bay.”
“What’s the atmosphere like in there?”
“Seventy percent. Crappy, but still cooking.” She giggled again. “Just like me, huh?” Her gaze traveled up and locked onto the atmosphere suit in front of her. “What’s– ?” She wheezed, then concentrated on speaking. “What’s the maximum life of the air tanks on the atmosphere suit?”
“Four hours, Sarah. Do you see the suit? Is it intact?”
“I don’t know.” Again, she fought down the impulse to giggle, and she crawled across the deck of the cargo compartment to the place where the suits were hanging. The gash on her leg left a streak of blood across the deck plates, marking her trail. “How far off is the shuttle?” she asked.
“Two hours. Can you get into a suit?”
“Not sure.” She pulled herself to a sitting position, then attempted to stand. Her legs gave way and buckled. Again, she attempted to stand, groaning with the effort. Hand over hand, she pulled herself to a standing position by grasping the storage shelves near the suit, then tapped a switch on the wall. The suit fell forward and thumped onto the deck. She collapsed near it, pulled the opening in the suit’s torso apart, and slowly wormed her body into it. As her injured hand squeezed into a glove, she screamed in pain.
“Sarah, it’s Bob. What’s going on? Did you scream?”
“Why? Did the neighbors complain?” She desperately wanted to laugh, but could only manage a hoarse wheeze.
“Are you in the suit?” Bob asked. “Sarah, talk to me, for God’s sake.”
“I’m – in. Got to – ” Her voice was thin and weak. “Seal it.”
“Close the suit, Sarah, and turn on the systems. Do it! Listen to me. Concentrate, will you?”
“Nag, nag. Jeez, Bob.”
Her gloved hand worked its way up her body to the suit’s opening, and she pulled on the sliding fastener. When it connected with the base of her helmet, she sought the panel of control buttons on the suit’s arm. Her vision was cloudy; she could not read the labels. She chose a button from memory and pressed it, then felt herself surrender to oblivion. Just before she lost consciousness, a strange, fearless euphoria gripped her. She wasn’t afraid any more. She didn’t hurt any more. She felt good. Is this what it feels like to die?
Bob’s voice sounded far away, a feeble echo. “Sarah? Sarah? Talk to me, Sarah.”
She wouldn’t die alone, after all. Bob was there. Good old Bob.
Gradually, she became aware of a bright light, painful to her eyes. Its whiteness overwhelmed her. She attempted to look away from it, but couldn’t. A voice whispered her name. It sounded familiar, almost – angelic? In the white light, a vague form hovered over her. She couldn’t recognize it, but she somehow knew that it loved her. Its voice was tender, soft, reassuring. “Sarah?” it said.Sarah reached toward the form. “Momma?” she whispered. The form grasped her hand and squeezed it.
A deeper voice joined the first one, also speaking her name. It sounded strangely like Bob. That’s hilarious, Sarah thought. God sounds just like Bob. I wonder if he looks like Bob?
The deep voice spoke again. “She’s had a close call, Michelle. The doctor says that she should be okay, though. I’ll leave you two alone now, and I’ll be in the waiting room.”
–djb, November, 2006. Revised March, 2017.