The Orbit

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I was dreaming about our new home-to-be on Nine World. Trying to imagine just how fast our spaceship was traveling, and how long it would be before we got there, when Dad woke me.

"Son," he whispered, "we've got a problem."

I sat up in my bunk and rubbed my eyes. "Problem?" I asked. "What kind of problem?"

"Son, I want you to listen real close. I wouldn't ask this of you if it wasn't absolutely necessary, or if I thought you couldn't do it."

I eased my legs out over the edge of my bunk and let my feet dangle. Something in Dad's voice frightened me a little.

"The ship has lost entry power," he said.

"Entry power?"

"That's right. Remember what I told you about this trip?"

"About how we would travel faster than light speed till we hit the Seashell Galaxy?"

"That's right, David. And if you remember, I told you that we would have to cut below light speed upon entering the galaxy so as not to overshoot our destination. We would then proceed to Nine World at a normal cruise speed. Remember?"

"I remember, Dad. We're supposed to orbit Nine World till we get the radio go-ahead to break into the gravitational field and land."

"That's right. That's the problem."

"The radio is out?"

"That and one other thing. Something more important. We've lost power to enter into the gravitational field. The main computer controlling entry jets has malfunctioned."

I tried not to gulp. "You mean we're lost in space?"

"Not quite. We know exactly where we are, but we can't land or even contact Nine Base and tell them the problem. Right now we're orbiting. And without main power, we'll continue to orbit. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Dad. But what can I do?"

"That's what I'm coming to, Son. When we switched from faster-than-light speed to normal cruise speed, an error in the computer led us into a minor collision with a meteor."

"I didn't feel anything."

Dad shook his head. "Neither did I. It didn't make that great an impact, but it did cause some serious damage."

"The loss of entry power and radio communications?" I asked.

"Exactly. You're old enough that I don't have to sugarcoat the truth. Right now this ship, the lights, the anti-gravitation and the oxygen supply are working off the auxiliary emergency unit. Auxiliary power is restricted to the forefront of this ship. The passenger and the crew section. It's not enough to bring us into port. It will roughly supply twenty-four hours of power. After that…"

"It's quits?"

"Correct. That's where you come in. "

"But what can I do, Dad?"

"Get dressed, quick, and come with me. I'll let the captain explain. Be as quiet as you can. Your mother and the kids don't know a thing about this. It's best we keep it that way, for now."

I climbed out of my bunk, got dressed, pronto. After that I went quietly with Dad to the Control Room. It was the first time I'd ever been inside. It had always been off limits before. The view glass folded around us to show a wide shield of black space, twinkling stars and a huge, red planet called Nine World. The world that was to be our home. Maybe.

The captain—a tall, thin man with graying hair—walked over to me and stuck out his hand. I took it and we shook. I knew it must be something that depended on me pretty bad. Usually all I got from the captain was a pat on the head. The captain squatted down so that he was face to face with me. He put his hands on my shoulders.

"David. Your Dad explained the problem?"

I nodded. "Yes, sir."

"We've thought this thing out backwards and forwards," the captain said, "and I'll be honest with you. It doesn't look good. We know you're young, but your dad says that you can do it. Of course it's up to you."

I tried not to let my voice crack. "What is it you need me to do?" The suspense was about to do me in.

The captain stood up, and with his hand on my shoulder, walked me over to the view glass. Looking out into space was like looking down into a bottomless well sprinkled with glitter. It was beautiful, and breathtaking. It was frightening too. I felt like the smallest speck of dust in the universe.

"Look," the captain said and he pointed a finger. He was gesturing at the very edge of the view glass. I had to lean forward some to see it. A ship half the size of ours, probably a planetary transport, was floating along side us.

"Our speed," the captain said, "is matched with that ship, The Fortune."

I was confused but I didn't say anything. I knew time was growing short and that the captain had to be building up to something. Dad came over to stand with us.

"A year back," the captain continued, "I was commander aboard that space transport. We had a similar problem, only it was a malfunction of a different sort, an explosion.

"It might have been the end of us if not for radio contact with home base. They sent a rescue ship out to pick us up. We can't do that now since our radio is out."

I was beginning to see what he meant. "But the radio onboard The Fortune works?"

"It should. It's been some time, but unless something came along and knocked that out of whack, it should work. It's unlikely something has."

I didn't say that it was unlikely that a meteor would have come along and knocked our computer out of whack either, but I thought it.

The captain continued. "The Fortune's explosion, and this problem of ours, are the only two major accidents that have occurred since the homesteading of Nine World began."

Dad cut in now. "The problem is, Son, that the main cargo hatch is jammed shut. The rest were automatically locked when the explosion occurred, and the Control Room hatch did the same after the crew of The Fortune made their escape through it."

"It's sort of a safety device," the Captain said. "When the explosion blew out the back, the upper half locked off to maintain oxygen and anti-gravitational power. We've already been out there. I took a lifeline over and tried the door. A laser torch might do the job if we had one. We don't. There's just one possibility. When I paced our dying ship alongside The Fortune, I never expected to be asking you this.

"You see, that explosion blew a small hole in the ship's side, and that hole opens into the air-conditioning ducts. They lead to the central cabin."

I thought I knew what they wanted me to do. "You're trying to tell me that I'm the only one small enough to get through the hole and crawl down the air-conditioning tube."

The captain nodded. "That's exactly what we're saying. We tried. Each and every one of us. We need to get someone through that hole and into the central cabin. From there he only has to open the door that leads to the Control Room. The radio should still be operative. I hate to put it to someone as young as you, David, but you're our only hope."

I looked at Dad. He was nervously opening and closing his hands. Very slowly he said, "David, can you do it?"

I looked out the view glass, leaned over so I could see The Fortune. Somehow it didn't look so close anymore.

"I can give it a try," I said.

"This suit will be a little big on you," the captain said as he fastened on my helmet, face plate up. "The bad thing is we can't communicate with you when you leave the ship. We don't even have short-range radio power, and because of that we need to go over your instructions carefully. Can you repeat back?"

I was suddenly very weak and my voice was squeaky.

"I'm to go out the emergency hatch and let my lifeline drift me out far enough to touch The Fortune. I'm not to drift too far so I won't be in The Fortune's path and get hit, or get my lifeline snapped.

"When I get it in sight, I'm supposed to use the belt booster to propel me towards the ship. Then once I'm in the hole," I stuttered over the last part, "I'm supposed to unclip my lifeline. That should leave me enough oxygen in my reserve tanks to send the radio message.

"After that I'm to take the lifeline from the storage compartment of The Fortune and clip it in the central compartment, then to myself. Then I go back up and out the air-conditioning duct. The line should give me enough slack to make it back here."

The captain nodded. "Very good. Now remember: when you go inside The Fortune and unclip your line, you'll have to use these magnetized gloves to keep you from floating. Be sure and turn them on the second you're inside that hole. You got all that?"

"Yes, sir."

"Son," Dad said bending down to look at me. "I'm proud, very proud, and I know you'll do your best. Remember your instructions and be careful."

"I will, Dad," I said, and I pushed down the dark face shield so Dad couldn't see the little tears that were starting to form at the corners of my eyes.

The first mate came in. "Time in thirty seconds."

"Let's do it," the captain said. He hooked the lifeline clip to my belt and checked the spindle that would feed me the slack. He gave me the thumbs-up sign and then Dad did something he'd never done before. He shook my hand.

They went out of the hatch and left me alone with my thoughts. I didn't have time for many. The airlock whined tight, the exit hatch iris-ed open, and all the blackness of space was ready for me.

With only the sound of my breathing apparatus in my ears, I eased out among the stars and started letting my line adjuster out. I won't kid you. I was so scared I could hardly get my fingers to work.

The Fortune moved toward me like a slow-motion movie. I let out some more line, and realized suddenly that I was feeding too slow. I let out more and moved within range, used my belt boosters.

Close up the hole showed jagged edges that wouldn't do my space suit any good. I got hold of the edges of the opening and pulled myself to it, slipped a leg inside. I switched on my magnetized gloves, then, very reluctantly, unsnapped my lifeline.

Looking back I saw it hang like a thread on black water, drift strangely and move out of reach.

I turned and started down the vent.

It was a tight squeeze but I was making it. I kept inching my way till I came to the grill that had to lead to the central cabin. There was no other way. The duct narrowed in front of me to a size that would have been a close fit for a mouse on a diet.

The grill lifted out easily and I made my way through. The lack of gravity would have started me tumbling and bouncing off the walls, but I used my gloves to go across the ceiling and down the wall like a fly. Any other time, under different circumstances, it might have been fun. Right now I was all business.

I had a little trouble with the Control Room hatch, but after a minute of struggling, got it open. The panel in the Control Room was lifeless. No lights. Nothing. Only the cold blackness of space against the view glass. Using my gloves, I eased around the wall and up to the panel. I found the switch the captain had told me about.

I held my breath and flicked it.

Nothing happened.

I flicked it back and tried again. This time there was a hum and the lights on the panel lit up like a Christmas tree. I almost cheered. I flicked on the main transmission switch like the captain had showed me and started the message I'd memorized.

"Mayday. Mayday. Marooned. Set fix on this signal. Mayday. Mayday. Leaving channel wide open. Repeat. Mayday. Mayday. Set fix on this signal."

I left the switch on and the channel open like I had been told. Fixed it so it would record my message minute after minute. I would have liked to hang around till the base responded, but I didn't have the time for that. I started back to the storage area for a lifeline.

I tried the storage hatch. Jammed. I had a sudden queasy feeling, but I braced myself and tried again.

No go. It was lodged shut. I tried it till I was breathing hard, and that reminded me of something else: a limited oxygen supply. Things looked exceptionally bad for the home team.

I went back to the Control Room and checked out the view glass. I'm not sure why. Maybe just to convince myself that our spaceship was still there. It was, but somehow it looked miles away. This wasn't doing any good.

I made my way back to the central cabin, up the wall and into the air-conditioning duct. By the time I started crawling toward the hole I was feeling very cold and numb. My hands felt like stumps and my breathing was coming in uneven gasps. I was losing not only the pressure in my suit but the temperature regulator as well.

When I got to the opening I had to stop, take some real hard breaths and hold them in.

I could see our ship, The Bova, so close, yet so far away. I didn't like the idea, but my oxygen wouldn't last forever. I braced my feet and pushed out into the deep blackness of space.

Using the belt blaster, I gave myself enough power to reach The Bova, but it was moving away fast. If it should get away, that was the end. It, as well as The Fortune, would fall away, and away, and away. And when it made this position again in orbit, it would be much to late.

There was cold sweat on my face and against the facemask. I gave the belt blaster another jolt and saw I was going to make the ship. That was when a horrible thought struck me.

The side of The Bova was slick, nothing to hang onto. Without a lifeline to guide me into port I didn't have a chance. I would merely hit and bounce off into space. Like a rubber ball—off and out forever.

The Bova was in range and I was closing. There was one possibility, I thought. The Bova was almost within my reach. Six feet away. Five. Four. Three. I switched the magnetized gloves back on and palmed them both against the side of the ship. I stuck like a fly in syrup.

It was time to take some breaths again. I was sapped. My oxygen was going fast and my head was starting to swim. The blackness of space seemed to be closing in on me, smothering me, draining me.

Right hand then left, I started moving toward the escape hatch. The dizziness continued. I suddenly felt like I'd taken a plunge into the pool back home and had been under too long, needed to come up for air. But there was nowhere to come up and no air. My fingers felt like ice, and even though the magnetized gloves were holding me, as my grip weakened, so would the pressure I was applying with my palms. The gloves worked fine as long as I put out a little effort, a little tension. But if I should pass out, drifting and my body grow slack, then my drifting weight just might conceivably pull me loose from The Bova.

I moved on. Right hand then left. Slower and slower yet. My chest hurt. I felt as if I were drowning.

Then my hands grew limp and I felt as if I was falling, falling into the depths of a bottomless well.

"You're all right," Dad said.

I took a breath to make sure I wasn't dreaming. It felt good. I was warm. I lifted up on my elbows. Dad, Mom, the captain, the first mate, even my little brother and sister were there.

"You were very brave," Mom said and she pushed back my hair with her hand.

"I don't remember anything after getting back to The Bova," I said, and I was surprised to find my voice so weak.

"That's because you were unconscious, David," Dad said.

The captain smiled. "We saw you drift off from The Fortune without your lifeline and guessed your problem."

"To tell the truth," the first mate interrupted, "we thought you were a goner."

"That's right," the captain said. "When you came in contact with the ship we were unaware of it. No radar to pick you up. We figured. . . Well, we were pretty sure that you hit and bounced off into space. Except your Dad here. He knew you better than that. He dressed out and went outside, took a lifeline and got you. It's a good thing you remembered the gloves. That was fast thinking."

Dad agreed. "You were hanging by your hands. The rest of you floating in space. I almost lost you when I pulled you free. Even unconscious you were pushing those gloves against the side of the ship with all your might. You were quite a hero."

"Some hero," I said. "I had to be rescued."

"But you did set off the radio message," the captain added.

"How long ago?" I asked.

"About eight hours," Dad said.

"Eight hours! How much time do we have left?"

"All the time in the world, Son. The rescue ship made it three hours ago. Look around you. We're onboard."


"Hang in There" was originally published in 1997 in The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent, a collection of Lansdale's short stories published in a limited-edition hardcover by Subterranean Press. "Hang in There" © 1984 Joe R. Lansdale.


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