21:2 Spacewalk

OUTER SPACE  |  2055

Even with the world’s experts finally coming together with the support of their respective governments, Major knew firsthand how fragile and how desperate of a last ditch effort his mission was. The trip was already off to an inauspicious start as the craft that was to carry them out past Mars and back again had taken a disturbing hit.

An orbiting piece of space junk, perhaps a remnant of one of the Western satellites the Chinese had destroyed in the brief flare of hostilities earlier in the century—which might have had something to do with why Zhang made him a little nervous—tore through the ship’s communications array. It wouldn’t do to be so far from home and not be able to talk to Earth, although, if the mission was ultimately unsuccessful, he wasn’t looking forward to making the call anyway.

On the bright side, Major mused, this would be one of the last opportunities to get some practice operating one of the new generation spacesuits before arriving at the comet five months down the road.

Although rapidly approaching sixty, Zhang could realistically don the bulky life support systems necessary for a spacewalk, after all, John Glenn had gone up in the space shuttle Discovery at the ripe old age of 77. Bjoern, however, had practically leapt at the chance to join the captain at the air lock.

Despite any misgivings he had about Pape or the doctor, at least Major felt comfortable trusting his second in command to handle the mission while he was outside the ship.

“How does it look out there, captain?” Konstantinov’s voice broke Major’s trance. “Can you fix the array, or do we have to take it into the shop?”

“We can fix it, Nika,” Major replied, hoping that merely saying it out loud would help make it true. “Although spending the day drinking burned coffee and reading out-of-date sports articles while someone else does the work doesn’t sound half bad right about now.”

“Copy that, captain. I’ll notify Jiffy Lubrication that we are bringing her in.”

Jiffy Lube? First the bad hair metal tunes and now name checking a long-defunct American auto service industry? I am going to have to take another look at her psych report, Major mused. I would hate to get out by Mars and have Konstantinov start thinking she is Jon Bon Jovi. Whoever that was.

Thomas Major broke himself away from the view and the verbal parry with Konstantinov and accessed the task at hand. A small chunk of flying metal had torn through the assemblage of antennae with such deliberate destruction it looked like it had been murdered with a shotgun.

All of the tiny pieces of junk that orbited the planet traveled at between four and six miles a second, and although the ship’s hull had been designed to absorb such a hit, the intricate instrumentation on the outside of the ship was not as robust.

Major was especially concerned about the gold filigree microwave collector that stood out from the center array and, until it had been destroyed, had pointed down toward the planet like a delicate fern arching toward the forest floor. It now resembled a frond that had been stomped into the mud by a rampaging wild hog.

“Do you have the replacement for this one, Bjoern?” Major asked the Norwegian. The way Earth reflected off the astronaut’s convex mirrored face mask made Major feel he was asking the personification of the entire planet a question.

Ja, captain, it should be here.” Bjoern bounded over to the maintenance hatch for the antennae and reached for its recessed locking handles.

“Easy does it, Bjoern,” Major warned. “Weightlessness is tricky. We’re each actually pushing 600 pounds with all this equipment. You don’t want to burn yourself out. You’ll get there, but you have to be relaxed about it.”

“Sorry, captain,” Bjoern said. “You can’t blame me for being excited. Look at this view! I’m usually stuck inside with my head down in a pile of rocks.”

“Mind on the mission and mission on the mind, Ancher,” Major reminded his overeager crew member, feeling a twinge of guilt for having lost himself for a moment in the same manner.

Major unconsciously held his breath as Bjoern unfastened the maintenance hatch and carefully removed a new array. The only sound in the universe was the reassuring hum of the oxygen recirculating through his suit.

“We had better make this one last,” Bjoern’s voice crackled over the silence.

“Heads up, gentlemen,” Konstantinov warned. “I’ve got a swarm of interference coming up over the terminator.”

Bjoern turned to look toward the demarcating line between day and night that swept across the globe below. His movements, exaggerated by his bulky spacesuit, were a clumsy pantomime of curiosity.

“Eyes on the prize, Bjoern. We have to get that fixed and move this bird out of Earth orbit before we take on more shrapnel than a turkey in November.”

Bjoern’s Earth-reflecting helmet swiveled toward Major for a second then bowed to the task. “I’ve almost got it. Dritt, my leash is snagged on the wreckage. I’m going to have to unhook and untangle this tether.”

“Negative. Belay there, Bjoern. Let me … ”

“Gentlemen! I would hold on to something and try to think un-holey thoughts right now. The swarm is right … ”

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