by Chris Thompson
Refuge, and a chance to endure, is found within gravity’s firm embrace….
I was seated at the main control panel, blowing on my steaming hot coffee and pouring over a mornings systems check when it happened. I was so wrapped up in my routine, so absorbed in the monotony of running a ship that the rhythmic blinking of the indicator light escaped me, allowing several moments to pass before I turned my head and gave it my full attention.
The flashing red light’s significance gave me pause, freezing me in place, causing the pages of the systems checklist to fall carelessly from my grip. The thin, flimsy pages of the systems folio drifted languidly in the ships low gravity as I stared intently at that red blinking diode, its hollow light splashing rhythmically across my unshaven face.
A good twenty seconds passed before realization set in and my mind came up to speed. My skin went flush, paralleling that realization and my heart rate spiked as my mind prepared my body for action. An intense wave of nervousness bordering on fear washed over my body, its flinty taste heavy on my tongue as its cache of hormones crystallized a single apprehensive thought in my newly anxious mind.
Holy Shit! I thought. This is it! The alarm’s going off! It’s actually going off!
As this notion forcefully echoed throughout the confines of my still-reeling mind, a series of warning klaxons suddenly erupted, causing me to spill my coffee and littering the quiet calm of my tiny spacecraft with its deafening boom.
“Contact!” The tinny voice of my ships warning system blared. “Enemy ship detected, bearing 3-0-4, mark 2-5-6.”
Quickly I jumped into action, flipping my trusty ball-cap on backwards and focusing my gaze on the instrument panel before me. The ships computer had provided me with a preliminary bearing which was a start, but it was my duty to take it from there. Avenues of training driven deep into my subconscious lit up, guiding my actions without thought. I sprung to my feet, muting the klaxon’s ferocious sound and threw back a series of overhead levers, causing the thick shields of my ships forward viewports to open. Turning to face the curving windows, I rocked anxiously back and forth on panicky feet, my hands tapping nervously on my thighs. My teeth gnawed randomly on my dry lower lip, the long seconds ticking slowly by. The hard count, I thought.
Hurry-up! I lamented, as impatient as a child waiting for dessert. Faster, faster, c’mon! I pleaded with the shields, banging my fist impatiently against the cold metal of the ships thin hull. The sound reverberated across the ship, dislodging a dull residue of dust and grime accumulated from a ship too many years in service. As the cloud of twisting dust drifted lazily by, I sneezed, scattering the sooty contents in a thousand directions. Right, I told myself. best to not do that again.
As the thick metal doors completed their slow yawn open, I was treated to a sight that to this day still amazes me–the infinite blackness of space and the overwhelming power of its darkness. I had set my ship on a slow-moving rotation and as it turned about its axis, the cloudy blue marble of Earth drifted sluggishly into view, its cerulean magnificence dominating my ships twin viewports. Earth was a big blue exclamation point in the surrounding darkness, a measure of reassurance for my troubled mind, anchoring me to my duties, reminding me that what I was doing out here, so many miles removed from normal was important. It was my beacon in the dark. My celestial lighthouse.
“You are our first line of defense, cadets.” Lieutenant Hoshie’s short, halting voice spoke to me from the mossy fathoms of my mind. “Eyes and ears open at all time people. Everything you see out there is of significance, no matter how small or out of the ordinary. Our enemy is smart. Our enemy is devious. Our enemy is patient. Investigate everything. Be suspicious always. Act logically, trust in your equipment and relay your findings to Command. The combat patrols will take it from there.”
Beads of perspiration began to form on my brow as I stared intently out the open viewports. My heart and thoughts commenced to beating as I swung wildly my eyes, trying to get a visual on the enemy ship.
“You are the unblinking eye that sees through the darkness.” Lieutenant Hoshie continued. “Our first line of defense. Our sentinels of the dawn, the keepers of the watch. Be bold, rise to the occasion and rest assured grand things will come to you cadets!” He bellowed, clapping his colossal hands together for emphasis.
As the memories of his words faded, I powered up my ships long-range optics, superimposing their telescopic views upon the viewports before me. Instantly the entirety of open space before me became dynamically magnified.
“Step one: Identify target visually.” I said out loud, remembering my cadet training. Flipping a series of large relays before me, I activated the viewports touch controls. Placing my hands on the thick glass, the viewports conductive elements scanned my handprints, transferring control of the long-range optics to manual. Like a maestro before an orchestra I conducted a thorough examination of the open space before me, methodically cycling through each quadrant, zooming in and out, searching for anything amiss, any movement or changes in brightness that would indicate the presence of an enemy craft.
I had just about finished my sweep of the space before me, preparing to move on to another sector when I found it–the enemy ship. It was a Dusk-class Raider, fast moving, like a flattened pyramid painted black and I would have missed it entirely if not for the faintest flash of sunlight reflecting off one of its control surfaces. Found you, I thought, a shiver of excitement running down my spine.
As soon as I had a read on the ships telemetry I sent a burst report off to Command, noting its heading, range and speed–making sure to include the series of images I had taken of the stealthy craft. Let Command decide how to take the ship out, I mused. I may be the eyes and ears of our Fleet, but they are the fists. But before I could finish the thought, square myself with my role in things, I saw a flash erupt from the enemies’ front gun-port.
Instantly a glowing blue sphere appeared, making its way towards me at an alarming rate. It was a missile, ship-to-ship I reasoned, and its size was growing in the viewport with each passing second. As it hungrily devoured the distance between us I stood motionless, frozen in place with fear. I had no weapons, this was a sentry ship, and I was as good as dead.
“Incoming enemy missile.” My ships warning system boomed, jarring me violently from my stupor. No shit, I thought nervously.
“Evasive maneuvers!” It bellowed. “Impact in five seconds.” It offered, counting down the scant moments before contact.
“Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuck!” I yelled, eyes wide, looking frantically about the ship. There was nowhere to go, no sanctuary to be found. I was trapped, caught in a cage, but in that instant a thought suddenly blossomed in my mind.
“Ok, I need to time this right.” I said aloud as my training once more kicked in. “Computer, fire countermeasures!” I barked. “The thermals only, this missiles gotta’ be heat-locked.” I reasoned. “And give me a full spread too, everything we’ve got!”
I felt the ship shudder as it fired its countermeasures, a brilliant halo of white-hot incandescence encircling my ship.
“Hard bank on two.” I cried, jumping into my pilots seat and locking down its web-like harness.
“Bank!!!!” I screamed, punching the aft thruster powerfully with the flat of my fist. The roaring of my pulse thundered deafeningly in my ears as I awaited the ships response. Newton’s Third Law of Motion–for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction–played out beautifully before me. Regrettably, it was I who was experiencing it. The ship spun wildly, its tiny mass swinging across two hundred and seventy degrees almost instantly. The violent wheeling of the stars gave me vertigo and the rapid increase in gravity drove me painfully into my chair, pooling the blood in my feet and teetering me on the verge of passing out.
I was screaming the entire time, a dark and animal sound, until there was no more voice in my throat and my lungs were dry. Gasping for air I managed to reach my arm up and protect my eyes a split second before the missile detonated, its harsh light painting my world in vicious shades of saturating white. Then all went black.
When I came too all was silent as if nothing was amiss. But I knew that couldn’t be the case. System failure alarms were going off, flashing throughout my ship but their sounds escaped my deafened ears. Everything from life support to attitude control was off-line, blacked-out. But I was alive. My ship was intact, and giving myself a once over, I determined that I was too.
Unbuckling myself from my harness I pulled myself on aching muscles to my feet, aided graciously by the ships low gravity. As I made my way to the ships monitors I caught my reflection in a blacked-out, damaged screen. I looked like hell. Like I had just been put through the spin cycle. Dark red blood was slowly crusting as it trickled from my nose and ears. Probably a concussion. I thought, Great. I wiped my face on my sleeve as best I could, brushing the blood-tinged sweat from my swollen eyes and began to assess my situation.
My antenna was fried, which meant my communications were out. No way to call for help. Shit. Life support was off-line too, but a few workarounds and I had it back up and running. Dodged a bullet there, I thought. Attitude control was gone too, which most likely meant that my main thrusters were damaged. I looked over to the viewports, craning my neck painfully to see if I could make out the ships engines. Sure enough they were gone, jagged shards of twisted metal and wires indicating their brutal demise.
But that wasn’t the worst of it; finally getting a bearing on my position caused me to suck in my breath. I was adrift, heading on a trajectory away from the Earth with no way to stop my progress. The force of the missiles blast had knocked me out of orbit. “Fuck!” I swore.
I angrily pulled-up a map showing my position relative to the Fleet on the ships navigation displays. There were no ships nearby that I could signal, no one that I could notify for help. I was all alone and heading out into open space. Pouring over the maps I frantically weighed my options, playing out scenario after scenario in my head, all of them ending in the same tragic manner: me, dead. I’m fucked, I thought, pounding my fist on the ships console.
Looking to the map once again I noticed a small yellow dot, blinking rapidly, that had escaped my initial scrutiny. It was a Lagrange Point, L5 actually, and a slow smile began to spread across my damaged face as the beginnings of a plan formed hastily in my mind. You brilliant bastard! I congratulated myself silently.
The voice of Lieutenant Hoshie echoed once again in my mind. He was standing before a map of the Sun-Earth-Moon system. “Lagrange Points cadets.” He barked loudly, the concussive whap of his pointer echoing as it struck the map, rousing several dozing cadets from their sleep. “Pay attention turkeys!” He continued.
“Lagrange Points are essentially gravitational parking lots in space. Places where the gravitational relationships between the Sun, and Earth cancel each other out. They are points where a ship or satellite can be parked without drifting away into space, where an object can stay stationary without the need for thrusters. There are five Lagrange Points, L1 through L5 and they all have uniquely defining characteristics. L4 and L5 though,” Lieutenant Hoshie continued, again loudly pointing out their positions on the map, stirring the dozing cadets yet again. “Points L4 and L5 are unique in that they offer stability. And in the sensitive vacuum of space, where small actions have huge consequences, stability is everything. Think of these two points as a ball at the bottom of a bowl gentleman. The smallest perturbations will move it out of place, sure, but eventually it will drift back toward the bowl’s center, stable and safe. But points L1 through L3 are not as stable. Like a ball balanced on the tip of a pencil. The slightest perturbation, the smallest bump will toss it out of equilibrium, sending the ball careening off into space. Remember this cadets, it may hold importance someday.”
The way I saw it I had one shot to get it right. My trajectory had me passing close by L5 and if I timed it just right, somehow managed to push my ship in its direction, I would be caught by the points gravity well, circling in until my ship became that ball sitting at the bottom of Lieutenant Hoshie’s bowl, resting as he said; stable and safe. It was worth a shot.
My ship’s main thrusters were toast but I still had the control thrusters at my disposal. Left and right, up and down were all they gave me but maybe that was enough, I reasoned. Running the numbers through the ship’s navigation computers showed me that I had a forty one percent chance of being caught by L5’s gravity if I fired my control thrusters in a tightly coordinated series of burns. Double-checking the numbers, I entered the solution into my ships course-plotter, leaving my future to the hands of fate. I strapped myself into my pilots seat and rested my weary bones as the ship began its first series of burns.
I kept my eyes on the ships navigation map the whole time, watching intently, beads of perspiration pooling on my forehead and running into my red swollen eyes, as my ship limped toward the Lagrange Point. A glowing red circle indicated the boundaries of the point’s gravity well and as my ship voyaged on it inched closer and closer to the edge of that point. Eventually I had reached the point of no return, the moment where I would either continue on into oblivion or begin the sharp curve inward as L5’s gravity caught me.
I held my breath, my eyes merging with the blinking green light of my ship tracing its path across the map. When the green dot began to curve in, began to drift slowly inside the red line I roared with joy. “Yesssss!!!” I screamed, kicking my arms and legs about in excitement. When I looked back up at the map I had almost made a complete circuit of the L5 point. It was only a matter of time before my damaged ship circled rapidly inward, eventually coming to a rest at the center of the point.
I had made it! Had ensured that I wouldn’t be consumed by the infinite blackness of space and I was overcome with relief, great salty tears streaming down my cheeks. Getting up from my seat I drifted awkwardly over to the small latrine nestled in the corner of my ship. I soaked a cloth in warm water and wiped it across my soiled face, washing away the accumulated grime. When finished I limped slowly over to my bunk and folded the bed down from the wall. I kicked off my boots and climbed into the soft folds of my sleeping shell, zipping it up almost to my chest. The rescue teams would arrive. I surmised, it was only a matter of time I told myself. I was safe. I had ample supplies, plenty of air and a locker filled with books. “I’ll read Moby Dick” first I whispered aloud.
My last thought before I drifted off to sleep, before the effects of my injuries caught up with me was of Lieutenant Hoshie. “Thank you Lieutenant. Thank you.” I said breathlessly, falling deeply into my hard-earned slumber.