Marc Calvecchio had to kill someone. The port side thruster on the lifeboat, attached to the belly of the research ship, was stuck on full thrust. It was rotating the ship in a ponderous loop, further and further out of the moon’s orbit. Three members of the crew had volunteered to go aboard and detach the shuttle, and they were all friends of his. Pete Black, Hazel Docherty, and Bryan Mason. Nevertheless, Marc still had to kill one of them, and there were no straws. “Pete,” he began, “you’re a damn fine geologist, but you aren’t a great shuttle pilot. It’s going to be one hell of a ride for whoever takes that shuttle and the last thing I need is it coming back on us and doing more damage. You’re out. Go to deck three and see if you can’t help Shorty fix that damn leak in the starboard side oxygen tanks will you?” Marc didn’t wait to see him vanish through the plastic lined tunnel. “Hazel,” he started. “Marc I know what you’re going to say,” she began, raising her hand in protest, “but I’m a damn fine pilot and you…” “If you know what I’m going to say then shut up, and let me say it!” Marc interjected hotly. Hazel stopped with her mouth still open with a look of mild shock and surprise on her, normally laughter-lined, face. “Hazel,” he continued, “I need you on board. I need good people who can keep their heads in a crisis. Pat is hurt, how badly we don’t know yet, and Steve is knee deep in reactor fluid. I need you to deal with the scientific team while I work out the mechanics of keeping this ship together.” Tears welled in her eyes. She turned and embraced Bryan before she, too, disappeared through the docking tunnel. Bryan looked Marc in the eyes. “What do you want me to do, boss?” he asked. “When you’re all set, you’re going to need to give it one short, lean burn on the main thruster,” Marc replied. The shuttle had taken a house brick sized lump of comet debris in the fuel tank and fuel was leaking from the damaged panels. “If you burn too long, and that fuel tank goes up, you’ll blow yourself to smithereens and a hole the size of a bus in the side of The Sargasso!” Marc continued. “Now you’re going to have to watch her! As soon as you disengage that magnetic lock, the jammed thruster is going to kick with a bit of force. Don’t let the momentum slam you into the ship.” “Don’t worry Marc, I won’t cock it up,” Bryan replied. He shook hands with Bryan. They held each other’s hand briefly, firmly, before they separated. Marc returned through the tunnel to the airlock door while Bryan clambered into the shuttle. As he closed and sealed the door, he could see Bryan fixing his EVOsuit helmet in place. The airlock door hissed as its locks slid into place. Marc poised with his hand over the controls watching Bryan pull the shuttle door shut. Once Bryan was inside, Marc activated the controls that cycled the decompression procedure and decoupled the docking tunnel from the two craft. The locks were cleared and the shuttle was free to go. It was all in Bryan’s hands now. Marc waited. The docking ring flipped open at exactly the same time as the shuttle thruster fired. A jet of thruster fuel, splashing off the side off the ship, temporarily obscured Marc’s view from the porthole window. When it cleared, he saw that the main thruster had failed to fire properly. A thin jet, about 50% of normal thrust, was struggling against the rotation caused by the jammed port side thruster. Marc could only imagine the struggle Bryan was having with the controls inside the cramped shuttle cockpit. Gradually, the shuttle seemed to be making progress and began drifting towards one side of the ship. The shuttle inched away from the ship. Marc was about to heave a sigh of relief when the main engine failed. The port thruster continued its ceaseless venting but Bryan had bought some life saving distance between the shuttle and the ship. Marc watched, frozen, as she listed over and struck the belly of The Sargasso. The shuttle scraped along her flank, shredding particles of the ship’s outer skin into space like confetti, before rolling up her side and disappearing from view. Marc hurried, weightlessly, through the central access riser, pulling himself along on hand supports. So much had failed since the comet had first assaulted them. He passed into deck two and the main research area of the ship where Hazel was organising the junior science team. Hazel caught his eye as he pulled himself into the chamber. She paused momentarily, with a look of grief on her face. He broke the tension. “Status report Hazel?” She shook the welling tears from her eyes. “Emmm,” she stuttered trying to gather her thoughts into a coherent whole. “Emm, the main...the main...” “Take your time,” he began. “I just need the facts?” She took a deep breath, and let out a rattly sigh. “Yes Marc, Sorry. The main structure seems intact. There’s only some minor damage to the heating system in research pods one through five and in pod seven. We have sealed them off and re-directed the heating and power systems away from those sections. Pods six, eight, nine, and ten are all intact and functional. “Make sure you seal off the remaining pods!” he replied. “But what about the projects, if we lose power in those areas then we might…” she began. “Seal them off Hazel,” he reiterated. “I don’t want to take the risk of another breach. Until we get an EVO team out to take a look at the pods, we must assume that they have all been compromised. Seal them off and re-route the life-support to the main ship, we might need it.” “Yes Marc,” She replied, but he was already pulling himself through the access riser to deck three. Shorty was the tallest of the crew: 6’ 6” tall, and thin as a beanpole. Shorty had one arm and shoulder deep in a section of the sub structure underneath a damaged facing panel, while Pete was holding a wrench hard against an exposed pipe junction. A clanging and banging emanated from the reactor chamber further along this section. Marc had to raise his voice, nearly to a shout, to be heard. “Status Shorty?” “The control manifold for the starboard O2 tank’s wedged behind this damn panel. If I can get it shut off I can stop us losing any more O2!” “How’s the port side tanks?” Marc asked. “Intact and functioning.” “You need anything here?” “No thanks Boss!” Marc ducked under the exposed pipe work as he pulled himself into the narrow reactor access tunnel. The ceaseless banging emanated from the reactor core ahead. Marc came to a stop at the access hatch and peered into the chamber beyond, through the water-condensed pane of the viewing porthole. The barrage from the passing comet had been small, initially. The first micro meteors had pinged and crackled off the ships protective outer panels. However, as the iron-cored leviathan passed by, the larger fragments trailing in its wake, like seagulls behind a trawler, started to hit the ship. The shuttle took the first moderate sized chunk, but a basketball-sized lump of ice quickly followed which careened into the engineering deck and the reactor core. Marc couldn’t see much inside the gas-filled chamber. Hydrogen and oxygen were condensing into water vapour in the chamber, which then hung suspended in small silvery droplets in the air. Marc could see Steve, the chief engineer, in the corner of the room, a mere shadow amongst the billowing clouds. At the top of the chamber, the roof had been split open like a wound and steel pipes, supports, and panels banged and thrashed in the jets of gas escaping from the internal cavity. The door was sealed. Marc activated the intercom unit attached to the wall. “Steve?” “Hang on…” came the reply. The gas escaping from the ceiling slowed to a dull hiss and then, eventually, stopped. The clattering and banging, from the panels, also stopped. Steve came over to the door as the billowing water vapour began to dissipate. “You get the shuttle off?” He asked. Marc could barely make out Steve’s face within the helmet of the battered and beaten looking EVOsuit. “We did, but her main engine failed. She slammed into the ship!” “Damn it to hell! That’s what that thud was?” Steve replied. “What’s the status of the engine?” Marc nodded towards the reactor. “The hydrogen fuel tank is at about 40%. I’ve stopped the leak, as you just saw, so we won’t be losing any more. The water jacket’s gone…” he passed a hand through the air to indicate the water droplets floating through the room, “the second, fourth and fifth injector ports are jammed, frozen or otherwise busted, and there’s a hole in the floor somewhere that’s venting to space.” “Can we get power to the main engines?” Marc asked. “No. At least not full power.” “I just need enough to stabilise our position before we drift any further off orbit. What can you give me Steve?” Steve turned and surveyed the room. “Gimme twenty minutes and I can get you, maybe, 10%!” he replied as he turned to face Marc. “Good enough! You need anything else in there?” “No, just get up to the bridge and be ready to go when I tell you. I’ve no idea how long I can give you that 10%! Might be five minutes, and might be two. Whatever you’re going to do, you better do it fast!” The forward section of the deck above housed the living quarters and had escaped, reasonably undamaged, from the encounter. Most of the crew had been in their bunks at the time the proximity alert went off, with the first impacts occurring less than 25 seconds after that. If this section had been among the first hit then many lives would’ve been lost. Sharon Weir, the ship’s medic, had commandeered the section, and transformed it into a makeshift triage area. There had been eight casualties so far, including Pat Winchester, Marc’s 2IC. Pat had been seriously wounded when he took a heavy blow to the head trying to secure a bulkhead. Most of the injured crew in the bunks were conscious and Marc acknowledged them as he floated past. They in turn acknowledged him with nods and grim smiles. Sharon was strapping up a broken collarbone when he reached her side. “What’s the situation Sharon?” he asked. She turned. He noted the drawn expression in her face as she folded her arms across the front of her green smock. “One broken collarbone, two broken arms, one laceration to the leg, and four concussions, including Pat. All in all, we’ve gotten off pretty light I think!” “How’s Pat?” Marc asked nodding in the direction of an unconscious man in a bunk. “Still out for the count, Marc. He’s showing no signs of intracranial haemorrhaging at this stage but I’m worried about fluid build-up leading to an epidural haematoma. I’d like to see him regain consciousness real soon or I may have to take some drastic steps. Otherwise, his pulse is a bit thready and weak but he’s stable.” “And the rest?” Marc said indicating the other bunks. “They’ll live!” She replied. Marc had no doubt that Sharon was in control of the situation here. Deep furrowed wrinkles and a tightly drawn mouth were her usual trademarks, but she was ex-military and had been through ten times worse than this. The casualty situation was firmly under control with her in charge. If only I can get this damn ship back under control? he thought to himself as he made for the bridge deck. “Marc?” she called from behind, as she pulled herself through the air to meet him. He stopped with a questioning furrow on his brow. “Who was in the shuttle?” she asked quietly. “Bryan.” “He did what had to be done Marc.” She said putting an arm on his. “I know,” he replied softly, but her words didn’t make it any easier. The deck above was sealed and had been evacuated shortly after impact. A large meteor fragment, probably as large as a refrigerator, had torn a huge chunk off that section of the ship. It was primarily a recreation section, but it also housed some stores and food supplies. The bulkhead doors leading from the main access riser had shut automatically upon impact. Thank God, no one had been in there at the time. The corridors and rooms beyond were in darkness. Marc emerged onto the main bridge where the remaining flight crew were strapped into their seats and wrestling with the control systems. Marc slid into the Captain’s station and fired up his view screens. Three large, dark panels flickered into life above his head. The main view screen showed the space dead ahead of the vessel where he caught sight of the retreating comet. Its silent progress carried the monstrous leviathan away from the ship at an unbelievable pace. He could hardly imagine that only forty minutes had elapsed since he had been rudely awakened by the proximity alert. Seen from this angle, he was surprised that it hadn’t caused more damage. Oddly enough, it had been a stroke of luck that the shuttle’s thruster had fired when it did because the sudden push had changed the orbit of the ship. Without that, they might have been at the mercy of a good deal more of the comet’s tail. As it was, they had suffered only a vicious sideswipe “Sit rep people?” he barked. “By the numbers. Engineering?” “Main Reactor still down chief, artificial gravity generator is functional but won’t operate without the main reactor engaged. Fuel supply at 40%, positioning thrusters off-line.” “Life-support?” “Functional through 50% of the ship, oxygen at 65%, CO2 levels rising, automatic scrubbers are damaged, transferring to manual.” “Transfer all life-support from the damaged sections to the main decks,” Marc replied. “Affirmative Chief!” “Navigation?” “Fifteen degrees off orbit and moving by zero point five degrees every seven minutes.” Marc was about to reply when he caught sight of something in his starboard screen. It was the shuttle. She was drifting slowly away from the ship but she was already a good few kilometres away, a thin silvery slice against the stars. He imagined Bryan looking back through the shuttle porthole at the diminishing ship, helpless. With no power, he couldn’t even use the radio. An automatic SOS beacon was the only signal that testified to his presence. The bridge was silent. “Bridge this is reactor room?” Steve chimed in over the ship’s intercom. “Go ahead Steve?” Marc replied, snapped from his thoughts by Steve’s voice. “You’ve got your 10% power,” he replied, “but don’t plan anything too extravagant with it. I haven’t a clue how long it’ll last!” “We’ll make it work Steve, great job!” he replied. “Engineering, plan a 5 minute burn on main thrusters to stabilise our orbital decay. Navigation I want an orbital intercept trajectory to avoid that comet debris.’ “Aye Chief,” they replied in unison. “Attention crew!” Marc called over the ship’s intercom. “We’re going to attempt an orbital re-insertion, hang on!” He studied the faces of the associated crew on the bridge deck momentarily. “On my mark,” he began. “Three…two…one…mark!” At first, there appeared to be little effect on the slowly rotating ship but, gradually, a shudder ran along her length. The Sargasso juddered, the sub structure rattled, and the fittings banged and jostled in their place as the main engine made its presence felt. Even at 10%, it was still a powerful force. “Navigation,” Marc called out, “I want a countdown of our relative position!” “Aye Chief. Ship’s rotation has stabilised, fifteen degrees off orbit…thirteen degrees off orbit…twelve degrees…” The ship was slowly inching back to its orbital position. “…Ten degrees…eight degrees…” Marc was willing the ship back into position, his knuckles white against the hard black plastic arm of his chair, when there was a sudden bang and a jolt of force that drove him back into his seat. The control units blacked out, leaving the bridge in utter darkness. “Bridge to engineering, come in?” Marc hit the intercom. “Bridge to engineering?” “Engineering?” Steve replied. “What just happened Steve?” “The effort was too much for the injectors. Two injector ports jammed open before the safety cut-off kicked in. Hang on…I’m bypassing them now…you should get power back on the bridge, but I’m not so sure about the main engines!” As the ship’s power was restored, the control stations flickered and hummed into life on the bridge. “Navigation?” Marc asked anxiously. The navigation crewman was suspiciously quiet and stared blankly at his console. “Saul?” Marc asked more forcefully. “What’s our situation?” Saul did not turn his attention from his screen. “We must’ve got a nasty kick from that sudden jolt. We’re heading away from the moon. Twenty degrees…thirty degrees…forty degrees…” “Steve?” Marc called on the intercom. “Chief?” “We need power NOW!” There was an ominous silence on the end of the line. “Steve?” Marc called again. There was resignation in his voice when he replied. “I can’t give it to you. The main circuit is fried and there are only two functioning injectors left. I need to strip and rebuild the engine intake components.” “How long Steve?” There was a long uncomfortable pause. “About two hours,” Steve replied flatly. The collected crew on the bridge looked, first to one another, and then to Marc. He knew exactly what they were thinking. In two hours, they would be so far from the moon that it would take most of their remaining fuel to get back into orbit. Then what? Once in orbit they would have little or no fuel left to achieve the necessary velocity to get back to earth. “Navigation, drop a marker buoy,” Marc began. “At least let’s make sure we’ve left enough breadcrumbs to find our way back!” “Aye Chief!” the crewman replied hitting a button. The button jettisoned a marker buoy. Marc didn’t want to run the risk of being adrift with no frame of reference. “Drop a buoy every thirty minutes until we run out,” Marc continued. “Okay people! We aren’t dead yet! Check your systems and give me a run down of our status. Navigation, I want you to continue plotting our trajectory, determine if there’s anything in our projected path I need to worry about!” “Affirmative chief!” “Engineering, get the secondary systems secured, I want to know we aren’t going to run out of auxiliary power until we get this damn reactor over-hauled?” “Aye Chief” “Life-support, get those scrubbers online and get that damn CO2 concentration down to safe levels, I don’t want people passing out on me?” “Chief!” “I’m going to engineering.” When he arrived, he found that Steve had vented the chamber and secured the leak. The door to the reactor chamber was open while Pete, Steve, and Shorty were tearing panels off the reactor. “What do you need Steve?” Marc asked. Steve looked up from his work, his face sweaty and streaked, and his blonde hair billowing oddly, a halo around his head in the zero G. He had removed his helmet but was still wearing the bulky, grime and water covered EVOsuit. “Time,” he replied with stoicism. “Steve,” Marc replied with a sigh. “It’s going to take as long as it takes. We need that engine functional. If you replace the intake injectors, will that get me a working engine?” “She’s taken a bit of beating, but…yes…that will get us, maybe 50%. It’s the best I can do without a dry dock and about fifty new spare parts.” “Then I’m just going to have to make it do.” # Four hours later Marc addressed the collected crew in the makeshift triage area of the crew’s quarters. “The ship’s main engine is repaired but we can only get 46% of full power and the fuel reserves are at 32%. We have re-routed life-support to this deck and the bridge, and sealed off all other sections. As you are aware, we have drifted away from the moon for some considerable time and are currently 2500 kilometres from our orbit.” There was a collective intake of breath. Not all the science crew were aware of quite how bad the situation had become. He surveyed the sea of concerned faces. Pat was, thankfully, awake, but not in any real condition to physically assist, despite his efforts to do so. Marc continued, “We’re going to chart an intercept trajectory with the moon for one sustained burn. We believe there’s enough fuel and power to make it.” “Believe?” Sharon asked. “Yes,” he replied. “The last time we tried to fire the main engines they blew their injectors. Even with repairs, we can’t be sure that the same thing won’t happen again. The damage to the reactor appears too extensive to track down every fault while in space. We’re hanging on a fair bit of good luck here, I won’t lie to you.” Heads and eyes dropped from his gaze as he looked around the room. “What happens when we reach the moon? We won’t have enough fuel for a slingshot burn?” one of the research scientists asked. “That’s correct,” Marc replied. “To reach the moon we have to use up all our fuel reserves. Once there, we would be marooned in orbit until the rescue teams arrived and, to my knowledge, the closest potential rescue vessel is The Indemnity, and she’s nearly six month’s away. I don’t know if we can survive that long on the oxygen and power we have left.” “So what are we gonna do?” someone asked from the back. He had a fair idea how they would take this next part of the plan. “Well…” he began, “we aren’t going to go into orbit around the moon because we’re going to traverse straight into an orbital slingshot and use the combined momentum to catapult us towards Earth.” Well, that set the cat among the pigeons. Marc let them clamour and argue because there was little point trying to stop them. The tension, the adrenaline, the fear, and anger; it had been building up since the accident and it was better to let them vent some frustration now than try and hold them all in check. Eventually, Pat grabbed a wrench and banged it against the steel support structure repeatedly. The stark noise drowned everyone into silence. “Now listen up!” Pat shouted, his head still swaddled in bandages. “Give the chief a chance to speak!” He nodded in Marc’s direction. “Go ahead boss!” Marc steadied himself against the structural supports as he addressed the crew. “No one has ever tried to make an orbital slingshot maneouver at this speed before but I wouldn’t be here, talking to you, if I didn’t think it was our best, and only, hope of getting back to Earth in one piece. I’ve lost one good man today and I’ll be damned if I lose any more! I wouldn’t be contemplating this unless it was the only option left, so unless any of you have missed something that the combined command crew haven’t considered, you better get yourselves strapped in somewhere safe because it’s going to be one helluva ride!” Pat stared down every challenger to the plan. In the end, they all accepted that, unless they wanted to drift in space for the rest of what might prove to be a very short life, they had to make some attempt to get on a trajectory back to Earth, and possible rescue. # Marc sat on the bridge listening to the countdown. Bryan’s shuttle had long since disappeared from view. Unlike theirs, his trajectory was never ending. His freezing capsule would, eventually, leave the solar system and begin the vast journey across space between our solar system and the next. Perhaps, one day, he would enter another solar system, or perhaps he would fall into the gravitational pull of a comet and become a frozen chunk of ice trailing the path of a wandering leviathan, endlessly crossing space in a vast elliptical orbit. Only an automated SOS transmission indicated he was out there at all and, one day, it too would fail when the emergency power supply that fed it, dwindled out. “T minus One Minute!” “Double check your stations people!” Pat called from his seat. Marc would’ve had to knock him unconscious again to get him off the bridge and anyway, he was glad Pat was there. “T minus thirty seconds.” Marc punched the intercom. “Attention all crew, secure for engine ignition!” “Ten…nine…eight…seven…six…five…four…three…two…one…ignition!” The ship juddered and rattled as the main engines fired. The shaking intensified until it seemed to be forcing the air from Marc’s lungs. He prayed that the damaged sub structure could withstand the force. “T plus one Minute!” engineering called over the noise. Only a minute? Two more to go. “T plus two minutes!” Suddenly the life-support siren began wailing. The crewman at that station hurriedly punched some buttons, and the alarm became silent. “T plus three minutes! Cut Engines!” They throttled back on the main engines and the ship was quiet again. They were now hurtling towards the moon, some several thousand kilometres distant, and closing fast. It was fifteen minutes from engine shutdown until they made the attempt at orbital insertion. There were three possible outcomes from this maneouver that Marc had envisaged. In the first, they entered the moon’s orbit too shallow, they would fail to get any pull from its gravity and simply skim off its thin atmosphere and continue into space. In the second scenario, they entered the gravity field too deep causing them to meet an abrupt and sudden end as they smashed into the moon’s surface. The third, and hoped for scenario, was that they would enter the gravity field at the correct angle, make a single revolution around the moon, picking up speed as they did so, and accelerate out of it’s orbit on a trajectory towards Earth. # During the long flight to the moon, some of the crew prayed to whatever god they believed in. Some of them scribbled down their last will and testament on bits of plastic or anything else that might survive an impact. Marc watched and waited. The moon grew ever larger in his viewer. He had run out of things to say, things to do and things to worry about. He had gone over every scenario, every possibility, in his head. There was just enough energy in the reactor to fire the directional thrusters, which they now primed for the burn that would guide the ship into a slingshot trajectory. They would fire all four dorsal thrusters at once, for a burn of exactly two point seven seconds. “Purging dorsal thrusters!” Pat said. An alarm rang out. “Fail on thruster number four!” “T minus two minutes until orbital insertion!” Navigation called. “Engineering, status report?” asked Marc. “Failure in power relay number seven!” “Can we bypass it?” Pat asked. The engineering crewman unbuckled from his seat and ducked beneath his station as Pat pulled himself over to assist. “T minus ninety seconds until insertion!” “Talk to me Pat?” Marc asked hurriedly. “Gimme a minute!” “You don’t have a minute!” Pat punched a few buttons on the engineering control station. There was a flash and a spark from beneath the unit and the crewman bounced out from under the desk, cursing. “Purging!” Pat called as he fired the thruster purge button. “All thrusters purged!” he exclaimed at last. “T minus thirty seconds!” “Get back in your seats!” Marc shouted. “Prepare for orbital insertion!” “…two…one…firing thrusters!” The Sargasso slid soundlessly across the expansive face of the moon, moving at several hundred kilometres every second, streaking across the lifeless icy surface, a small shooting star against the darkness. On board, the crew began to feel the effects of the moon’s gravitational pull. Floating debris, screws, pens and detritus, so random and erratic in zero G, began settling towards the bottom of the ship. “Navigation?” Marc called out. “How do we look?” “We’re in the orbital path chief!” As they accelerated around the moon, they would pick up nearly ten times their current speed, but every increment of velocity meant a greater chance of flying out of the orbital path. It would take twenty long minutes to complete the planned orbit during which navigation kept a running record of the ship’s progress. Everything was going according to plan until the eighteenth minute. “We’re drifting chief!” called out navigation. “How much?” Marc replied “Half a degree.” Half a degree doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re nearly 400 million miles from Earth, that small amount can be a huge distance when you’re trying to get home. “Not much we can do about it now!” Marc replied. The effects of the moon’s gravity finally eased, before disappearing altogether. The debris and flotsam that had been so stable while in orbit, returned to its apparently random Brownian motions. “We’re out of the slingshot!” Pat remarked. “Navigation, how far off course are we?” “Point eight six of a degree.” “What does that equate to when we reach Earth’s orbit?” Pat asked. “Don’t tell me!” Marc interjected. “I don’t want to know! We’ve got what we got and let’s be thankful for it. Considering the possible outcomes, we came out pretty damn good if you ask me. Let’s count our blessings!” “Aye chief!” Pat replied. “Set the automatic SOS beacon chief?” “Yes.” Marc switched the main view screen to aft. He watched Jupiter’s icy moon retreating in the distance. Their three-year mission had been cut short and they had lost a lot of what little data they had gathered, and one good man. It would be months before they approached Mar’s orbit and their first real chance of rescue. He wasn’t sure they had the food, the water, or the oxygen to make it. He wasn’t sure of a lot of things at this point. He was sure of one thing; he had no intention of dying out here.