Part 7: End of a mission
Osondu got up from the pilot’s seat and tapped on Van den Berg’s shoulder in order to get his attention.
“Come, I need you to tether me to the ship,” he told the Sergeant, who then left his seat to follow Osondu to the rear compartment.
The pilot stood in the centre of the dropship’s cargo hold, waiting for Van den Berg to unveil the small winch that was hidden away behind a panel in the bottom of the ship. He unwound about four meters of the thin but sturdy carbon-fibre cable and hooked up the end to the front of Osondu’s vacuum suit.
The Sergeant then proceeded to inspect his colleague’s suit, making sure that every part was in optimal condition. Finally, he took an EVA-pack from the overhead storage rack and latched it onto Osondu’s back. This module, often referred to as “jetpack” by flight crews, would allow its wearer to manoeuvre in the vacuum of space.
“You’re good to go!” said Van den Berg, giving Osondu the thumbs up.
“Alright then, let’s get this over with,” said the pilot.
Osondu then turned around, facing the aft door, waiting for Van den Berg to vacate the rear compartment. Once the Sergeant was back in his seat, he closed the hatch separating the cockpit from the rest of the interior and pumped the air out of the cargo hold. After establishing a vacuum in the hind section of the ship, First Lieutenant Osondu opened the aft door and pulled himself along the handrails until he reached the edge.
Before stepping out into the interplanetary abyss, Osondu stood in the door, taking in the view.
Proxima Centauri’s weak light barely reached this far out into the system. At this distance, the M-class star appeared barely brighter than Sol, even though the cradle of humanity was just over four light-years away. He sighed briefly at the thought of the distant planet he called home, then gently pushed off the edge of the ship.
He said, “I’m off. Make sure the winch is released, otherwise I’ll be yanked back against the hull.”
“Winch is released, you’re good to go,” Van den Berg replied from within the dropship.
“Copy. I’m circling around the starboard engine pod now,” Osondu said.
“Take it slow. Would be a shame to be stuck here without a pilot,” the Sergeant laughed.
Releasing short bursts of propellant into the vacuum, First Lieutenant Osondu moved around his mangled ship, trailing his tether behind him. He inspected the starboard side of the small craft and, after being satisfied with the results, propelled himself upwards relative to the dropship in order to reach the other side.
As the port side came into view, the full extent of the damage was revealed. Osondu stared in shock at the multitude of impact craters on the thick hull plating. The armoured plates were littered with shrapnel, causing a surreal display of shadows to be cast by the dim light of the red dwarf.
Though the damage was extensive and could not be disregarded, there was nothing that the pilot could do about it at this time. The dropship would need to be taken apart and put back together again. Instead of worrying about this, Osondu focused on what he could do.
He quickly manoeuvred closer to the port engine pod to examine it in detail. He activated his boots’ magnetic anchor, securing himself in place, retrieved the multitool from his belt and began to open the access panel that protected the propulsion system.
Osondu was relieved to see that the complicated mess of conduits and wires that surrounded the port plasma injector was not damaged. He disconnected the shielded pipes from the manifold and, with steady hands, pulled out the injector itself.
The metre-long cylindrical object was a precisely balanced and calibrated piece of technology; even gently hitting its casing would render it utterly useless and strand them out here.
Once the injector was removed, Osondu gave it a quick visual inspection, making sure that no harm had come to it. He then proceeded to insert it back into place, making sure that the safety valves were open and would not impede the plasma flow.
The task seemed to take ages and he had to pause repeatedly to catch his breath. Due to the intensity of the situation, the pilot was so focused that he inadvertently forgot to let oxygen flow into his lungs.
Eventually, the plasma injector was back in place and Osondu could reattach the conduits to the manifold. He then made sure everything was connected properly and called the ship via his comm.
“Van, are you there?” he asked.
“Where else would I be?” the Sergeant replied sarcastically, “What do you need, Boss?”
“Run a pressure test on the plasma conduits. First port, then starboard.”
“Copy, give me a minute,” Van den Berg confirmed the order and went to work.
The Sergeant climbed into the pilot’s seat, pulled up the diagnostics menu on the central display and ran the required tests.
Within seconds, the systems that Osondu had been working on were flooded with inert gas in order to check for potential leaks. After the computer had determined that the port plasma distribution system was working properly, Van den Berg repeated the same process for the starboard side.
“We’re looking good on both sides,” Sergeant Van den Berg reported via comm.
“Wonderful,” Osondu said, sounding genuinely relieved, “I’ll have a quick look around the nose. Maybe we can salvage some of those manoeuvring thrusters.”
“Copy. Let me know if you need anything from us,” the Sergeant replied.
First Lieutenant Osondu disengaged the magnetic anchor and gently pushed off from the dropship’s hull. Using his EVA-pack’s thrusters, he turned himself towards the front of the ship. As he rotated through space, he thought that he saw something sparkle in the corner of his eye. Osondu paid no further attention to it. His gaze swept over the ship’s hull and took in the extent of the damage once again.
As he proceeded towards the cockpit, he had little hope of finding any external elements still in working condition. The few manoeuvring thrusters that had not been ripped off completely had been shredded by incoming shrapnel.
He pushed back from the ship a little, in order to see the bigger picture. The hull plating was a mess but was still holding. Since they did not have to worry about any kind of atmospheric re-entry, the state of the dropship’s outer layer was of little concern at this time.
Having determined that there was nothing else that he could do from out there, Osondu decided to return to the ship. He turned, aiming past the dropship’s engine pods, in order to end up behind it once again and get to the aft door that had remained open. As he moved through space, he noticed the sparkling effect that he had observed before.
Intrigued he called his navigator via comm, “Figueroa, run an active scan, low yield, three pings.”
“Copy, I’m on it,” she replied quickly and activated the corresponding sensors.
A moment of silence went by while Lieutenant Figueroa observed her displays being updated. Her eyes widened in shock when she realised what was about to happen. With panic in her voice, she called Osondu via comm, “Boss, get back inside! Now!”
The urgency of the instruction convinced the pilot that this was not the time to ask for more information. He opened up the throttle on his jetpack, making a wide arc around the dropship’s engine pods. As he turned to head towards the access to the rear compartment, he saw what had caused Figueroa’s panic.
A cloud of debris was racing towards them, most likely originating from the Tarhinan ships that had been destroyed earlier. By the look of it, the incoming particles were too small to endanger the dropship. They would, however, tear through Osondu’s vac-suit like a laser-drill through butter.
Osondu headed for the aft door, trying to put the ship between him and the debris cloud. He would rather be hitting the hull too hard, maybe breaking a bone or two, than risk being riddled with shrapnel travelling at interplanetary speed. When he estimated that he was safely in the shadow of his dropship, he thrust in the opposite direction, slowing down his approach and avoiding the collision.
At that moment, the debris reached the dropship. As expected, the tiny shards bounced harmlessly off its hull. The situation was unnerving for the two crewmembers in the cockpit. Figueroa and Van den Berg stared out of their viewport, trying to catch a glimpse of the debris. They barely saw anything, as the bits and pieces were travelling too fast to properly register.
Just before Osondu made it safely back inside, a fist-sized chunk of space junk was deflected by one of the engine pods, splintered into smaller pieces and headed straight for him. His reflexes honed by years of training and experience, he thrust upwards in a desperate attempt to avoid the incoming shrapnel. It was too little too late. Seconds later, First Lieutenant Osondu felt a sharp pain in his left leg.
The head-up display that was projected onto his helmet’s visor turned red, informing him that the vacuum suit had been breached. Luckily for the pilot, the suit had been designed with such an eventuality in mind. Osondu felt the self-sealing foam being injected into the suit, sealing the breaches as well as his wounds.
His vision started to become blurred and he felt that he was slipping towards unconsciousness. He tried to speak but as the adrenaline in his system receded, the pain became overwhelming. All he managed was an audible grunt as everything turned black before his eyes, his mind shutting down, providing an escape from the pain.
His last conscious act, in an effort to get to safety, was to grasp for the tether attached to his suit. Moments before being unable to act, he gripped it firmly and pulled with what little strength remained in him. He slowly began to drift towards the dropship’s rear.
At that point however, his mind had already relinquished control.