IMPACT: T Minus 9 Hours
Time: 4.4 1943 Hours
I felt a shivering, bone-chilling cold when I woke up. My responses were slow, like wading through thick molasses, heavy and sluggish, unable to break free from my mental lethargy. For a long moment, I couldn’t grasp where I was, my mind a foggy maze of confusion. Then, like a dim light slowly brightening in a dark room, realization dawned on me—I was inside my hibernation cocoon. Something yellow dangled in front of my face, and I squinted my eyes, trying to make sense of it.
“That’s not supposed to be there,” a vague recollection whispered in the recesses of my groggy mind. My teeth chattered uncontrollably, the bitter cold seeping into every fiber of my being within the cocoon tube. Hibernation sleep lowers one’s body temperature by ten degrees which feels like an arctic breeze enveloping me. My thoughts move with the speed of mud but I knew I had to act.
I reached out with clumsy hands, my fingers grazing the yellow object with numb tips. Slowly, my memory started to piece together the situation—the Mars V lander, the mission trip, the emergency oxygen air-mask. Unlike the last three times I woke up from hibernation, this was not a drill. The emergency air-mask in front of me deployed within the tube automatically in the event of a loss of cabin pressure inside the Mars V ship.
I fumbled with the mask; my movements still sluggish as if trying to navigate through a dream. One only has eighteen seconds to get it on before unconsciousness occurs followed by death if the cocoon has also lost pressure. Time seemed to stretch as I finally secured the mask over my mouth and nose. I then jerked the clear, plastic tube running to it, activating it to release life-saving oxygen.
Finally, on pure oxygen my mind started to clear, and I could proceed with the next steps—donning my spacesuit. One has to put it on inside the cocoon as you’d die putting it on outside the cocoon in a vacuum. So they store it with you. Already cramped for space, the cocoon, my sanctuary for peaceful rest, had transformed into a claustrophobic coffin, suffocating me in its icy grip of isolation. Normally, the pieces of the spacesuit are neatly organized in the order of putting them on. Yet now they were scattered about everywhere—scattered chaotically. My hands groped about as I awkwardly searched for the necessary pieces. I fought against the disarray and lack of room, trying to find the first piece to put on.
Owing to this delay, it took me several wasted moments to fumble about to find and put them on in proper order. The diaper goes first, followed by the liquid-cooled jumpsuit, and then the “snoopy” communications cap worn over the head with its earphones and microphone.
This is all done while breathing pure oxygen from the mask in case the hibernation cocoon has lost air. So one puts the mask on first before putting on the spacesuit so one doesn’t pass out. That’s the eighteen-second rule. One wrong move could mean life or death. I couldn’t afford any mistakes.
Once I pulled the bottom half of the hard body spacesuit up around my waist, I temporarily removed the oxygen mask, then wormed my way up inside the top half of the hard suit, replaced the mask, and connected the communications cap plugins. Next, turn on the suit’s oxygen, discard the temporary face mask, and put on the helmet. The cotton gloves and then the outer gloves go on last.
Finally, fully suited up, I turned on the suit’s radio. Immediately, I heard other voices over my snoopy.
“What are you bitching about?” someone said.
“What happened? Have we got an air leak?”
“Are we there?”
I reached out for the handle and opened the sealed door of hibernation cocoon #7. I found myself staring out into utter blackness. Except for my cocoon’s dim battery lights for suiting up, the ship itself was in total darkness.
The others were waking up and opening up their cocoons, too. We turned on our helmet lamps to illuminate the inner ship, which normally resembles a five-seat wide jetliner except for having no seats, more sections, and more equipment. Yet right now though, it looked and felt like the inside of an abandoned submarine on the bottom of the ocean. No lights were on anywhere—not even a digital clock. By our helmet lamps, a reddish dust floated in the air.
Meteorites average 90,000 miles an hour and will go right through a ship and cause it to lose cabin pressure. This causes the oxygen masks to automatically deploy in the hibernating crew cocoons to wake the crew up, let them suit up, find the leak, and then fix it. Most meteorites are only pebble-sized and the hole usually repaired by the crew with glue and gauze. The repair is usually pretty routine. At first, a meteorite hit did seem to be what happened here, the meteor being vaporized on impact into the reddish dust. Except why was the ship dark?
None of us expected to find everything in such total blackness. That never happened in our repair simulations as a golf ball sized object could hardly take out all the ship’s power. The ship had backup power and redundancy systems for everything. Yet no lights came on when we tried them. Except for the battery-powered cocoons lights, we had no power in the ship at all—none. Under our helmet beams, I could make out amongst all the equipment strewn everywhere that the faint trace of reddish dust floating in the air drifted from the aft section. The escaping air of the hull breach was sucking the dust back out towards itself.
That would put the hole ahead near my duty station. I turned to move there in my bulky, slow-moving suit. Two other crew members were trying to move past me aft to theirs and I waited for them to get by. I could hear the nearly inaudible hiss of more cocoon doors opening as the rest of the team joined us, their helmet lights flickering on to life, casting eerie beams of illumination as they too assessed the grim situation. It's not supposed to look like this.
I explored my surroundings with my own light, with wide eyes and an open mouth. Utter chaos reigned around us. Loose items and equipment were strewn about haphazardly, evidence of a violent impact. My mind struggled to comprehend what size meteorite could have possibly caused such devastation.
“Vat is this?” I heard a Russian voice over suit radio ask of the mess.
I recognized Lieutenant Commander Roberta Toner climbing out of cocoon #2 and met her. “We have a loss of cabin pressure,” I told her over my helmet communicator. “Cause unknown. I think it's forward.”
She nodded inside her helmet and stared apprehensively at the drifting dust in the air. Hull breach simulations were etched into our memories, but none of them prepared us for the actual reality. Somehow, this seemed far worse with all this amount of dust and disarray. And none of our hull breach simulations included a power loss.
I then heard her answer. “Report to your station. Find the leak. I'll join you.”
No such order was necessary. We were all doing so automatically out of conditioned training.
As the ship’s 2nd lieutenant in charge of communications and navigation, my station was in the aft bridge just behind the cockpit. While I made my way ahead to join Captain Hatton for further instruction, Second Lieutenant Woravka, our flight engineer, moved by me, headed towards the stern section to reach his own station. In these suits, our pace was slow. That reddish dust still floated in the air from aft. To be that much, the ugly realization hit me—the ship had suffered a catastrophic hull breach. No pebble did this.
Our lights revealed the aftermath of the chaos. To be without power, our ship would be left stranded in the cold, merciless expanse of space, with no way to call for help, and possibly with no way to fix the damage.
The unspoken uncertainty as everyone moved to assume their stations spoke volumes, their helmets turning left and right to take it all in, searching for answers. This was definitely not good. But we had no time to dwell on those feelings. Survival became our priority, and training was automatic. We had to act quickly and efficiently if we wanted to repair the leak.
Lieutenant Commander Roberta Toner, joined me in the dark, eerie interior of the bridge section. Her duty station was in the cockpit just ahead and likely the site of the breach. Like me, she expected to find Captain Hatton here, but he had not yet arrived. Fortunately, we did not need him to find the breach and patch it. We were all trained for it.
My own bridge station appeared intact. There was no hole but nothing worked. The hull damage was not here. As I stood there, Lieutenant Commander Roberta Toner moved past me to enter the cockpit. Above the door, someone had painted the words Lady be good in pale yellow. Suddenly, she halted, then turned back to face me, her gloved finger pointing silently into the cockpit, indicating that I needed to see something inside.
Moving over to see what she pointed at. I expected to see the leak. Instead, I saw something... someone in there—a body. Whoever he was, he was dead, smeared all over the bridge. Blood was everywhere.
I failed to recognize him. He looked like he’d been hit by a train. He wasn’t even wearing a spacesuit.
“Captain Hatton, to the bridge,” I called to notify him. “Repeat! Captain Hatton to the bridge.”
Something had bent the cabin floor and twisted it at an odd angle—up and to the left. What could do that?
“The hull breach is forward,” I told the others listening. “Repeat! The hull breach is forward. I am in the cockpit.”
I gave the warped deck another lookover. Definitely a bad sign, yet I still saw no leak. I went back to find Captain Hatton when he didn’t answer. He must have gone aft with the others.
“Captain Hatton? Woravka here. I am at my station. We have a serious problem.”
Woravka must have discovered the reason for the power failure.
As soon as I exited the bridge, and navigated my way through the galley, I entered the midship bay area. By the light of my helmet lamp, I noticed one of the science team members, Vernon Moore, hurrying by me, his eyes wide with fear as he moved in the opposite direction.
Science team members are not part of the crew and so have no duty stations. Their duties begin once we land on Mars. Basically, they are to stay out of our way until we get there. Then we stay out of theirs.
In the eerie silence, I peered ahead at the incoming source of the dust. I could see Woravka there but I didn’t see Hatton. Yet what I saw then made my mouth dry. In stunned disbelief, my pupils widened. I could see the back half of the fuselage was gone. It had been completely torn off. The fuselage ended with nothing but a perfectly big, round hole. One big enough, and wide enough for three people to walk through. Through that hole, the red dust still drifted in from outside to slowly settle at our feet. I stared at that gaping hole. A problem? Woravka called that a problem? We were a wreck! Glue and gauze would not fix this.
“Is that the captain?” Roberta’s voice of wonder now came through my helmet, her words revealing her own surprise. She must be referring to the dead body before her.
I said nothing back. I was still staring at that hole. Half the ship had disappeared!
“Jesus Christ! What the hell happened?” someone demanded.
“My God! Look at that hole! How can we fix that?!”
“Where are we?”
“Hatton’s dead! He’s smeared all over the cockpit!”
“What do we do?”
What do we do? I knew what we were going to do. The wave of helpless defeat that swept over me told me as I struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster. Outside of a miracle, we were all going to die out here in space. We could not fix this!
But why? What had happened here? And why was Captain Hatton out of his suit at the controls?
“Diary log; Time: 4.4 1943 hours Mars. Landing pretty well mixed up. We crashed. Can barely find what’s left of Hatton. All others present. No one else badly hurt.”