Last week, I posted the first installment of "Impulse," a science fiction short story inspired by the shuttle Discovery launch (now postponed until November 30), the humanoid robot it's delivering, the International Space Station's tenth anniversary, and research into new engines. Did you know the U.S. will have a new rocket ready for testing by next year? Thankfully, that engine is not like the one I imagined in this story.
When we left our intrepid crew, their exploration of the Martian terrain had been interrupted by a message from Katya, the astronaut who manned their orbiting nuclear engine: “The engine’s sustained propulsion is inoperative. We cannot change altitude. And pressure is rising.”
Albert bit his lip and tasted blood, the metallic flavor matching the red dust and glint of the engine. It was almost overhead.
“I’m starving,” Katya mumbled.
And Albert ran to the ship, away from Jim and the astronauts, who stood in the dust and sand and looked up. “I’ll control the robonauts remotely,” he said. “Katya, you direct.”
“Robots don’t solve everything,” Bill snapped.
“It might help,” Katya said.
Albert cursed the heavy suit and slow airlocks and Omar, who tried to decontaminate the suit, and he dropped his protective gloves onto the floor so he could slide his hands into the robonauts’ controls. A motion in the portscreen caught his eye: Jim running back to the ship, his metal feet digging into the sand and sending up sprays behind him. He passed through the air locks, his green light flashed, and he vacuumed himself while Albert listened to the uploaded message asking for instruction. Albert ground his teeth. There was nothing Jim could do, because he had wanted the best robonaut on the ground.
“Katya, what do I do?” Albert said.
“God, I’m so hungry.”
The explosion overhead rocked the pod.
He thought he screamed but he couldn’t hear. Black spots floated in his vision, as if he’d stared too long at the sun. He fumbled for the headset, yelling for Bill, but he heard nothing.
“Go to Bill,” he yelled to Jim. He blinked his eyes, and as they cleared, he saw dust clouds rush by the portscreen and Jim disappear into them. He tapped into Jim’s sight and saw three astronauts sprawled on the ground. He heard nothing but the ringing in his ears; felt nothing but his heart pound as Jim bent to examine Bill.
Bill struggled to his elbows. Albert in Jim’s body grasped him under the arms and pulled him to his feet. He ordered the other robonauts to help Bill and Vladimir to the pod. Hayes did not move; rocks punctured his suit and his helmet was dented but, thank God, not cracked. Jim lifted him in a fireman’s carry.
Albert did not weep for Katya. He did not worry for the others. He was Jim now, mechanical and efficient, hauling Hayes back to the ship and preparing for decontamination. He watched Omar, dressed in a Hazmat suit, take Hayes from his shoulders, strip him, and bathe his skin. They did not talk, they cleaned; they ignored the meteorites striking the ship, the debris that had been their hydrogen cells, their reactors, their quarters, and their friends. No, Albert thought, the explosion vaporized Katya. A small mercy.
Omar removed pills and needles, vials and cups from the medical compartment. He measured milligrams, verified dosages, injected each one, starting with Hayes and ending with himself, and commanded they swallow pills that would flush radiation poisoning from their bodies. Jim waited inside the robot bay and watched through the glass.
“What can Jim do?” Albert asked as he ripped open sterile bandages to cover Hayes’s leg.
Omar looked up from Hayes’s ankle. “Did you program him to pray?”
Hayes vomited before Omar put a bag to his face. It dribbled down his chin onto his suit, and Albert heaved. Omar cradled Hayes’s head against his shoulder, positioning him so he wouldn’t choke, and wiped his chin. “Don’t bother,” Hayes croaked.
Omar dabbed the cloth over Hayes’s lips. “You’ll be well for the trip home.”
When the others quieted, Albert followed Omar to the toilet, where he bent to retrieve the emergency diapers. Albert caught him beneath the arm. “You think we can get home?”
“It is possible.” His head twitched and he didn’t meet Albert’s eye.
“How?” Albert squeezed. “The pod is damaged. We have no communication. If we calculate launch and trajectory and clear the atmosphere without collision, we’re out of fuel.”
“I know that.” Omar pulled his arm away.
“We’ll poke along toward Earth without constant propulsion. Instead of getting there in three weeks…”
“Seven months,” Omar finished. He jerked the diapers out of their cabinet and kicked the door shut. “Before you say it, I know we don’t have enough food.” He turned toward the door.
Albert blocked the doorway. “If we limit our rations?”
Omar’s jaw clenched and his throat worked as if he struggled to swallow. “Current diets meet our needs with nothing to spare.”
“We’ll starve to death,” Albert said. Omar nodded and crushed the diapers in his hands. “If some of them die?”
“They won’t,” Omar said and focused his eyes behind Albert. “But if they did, all of them, you and I wouldn’t have enough.”
“That’s all I needed to hear,” Albert said and stepped back to let Omar pass. He didn’t offer to help Omar get the diapers onto Hayes and Vladimir and Bill; he had to check the robonauts.
“Albert,” MASA’s voice cut into his earbud as he examined Jim. Albert ran his fingers over a ligament Jim strained lifting Hayes; he could run a diagnostic to determine if it needed to be replaced, but he liked the personal time with Jim, it kept his mind off the smoldering debris outside and the crew inside.
“Yeah,” he said. “What the hell took you so long?”
“Albert, I need you to assess the situation.”
“The robonauts functioned well,” he said. “Jim—GM—responded quickly and returned Hayes to the pod. Damage sustained in the rescue is minimal.”
“What about the humans?” MASA said.
“Call Omar, he’s the doctor.” Albert straightened. He thought he saw Jim’s temple flicker, but no data appeared on his computer.
“I want your opinion.”
Albert turned away from Jim. He’d programmed tone and expression recognition to enhance Jim’s understanding of the crew, but it wasn’t optimal, and he didn’t want his skyrocketing stress to confuse Jim. Albert stared through the porthole into the cabin where Omar wiped Hayes. Vladimir and Bill napped, their faces pallid and pinched. “They look like hell.”
“Will they survive?”
“I’m not a medical doctor.” He snapped the hooks on his toolbox.
“Yes,” MASA said, “but Omar isn’t saying.”
Albert grimaced. He met Omar when the doctor came to MIT to study primary care in space, and he respected Omar’s passion, his pigheadedness. Most of the time. “He says we’re all coming home.”
“Of course you are,” MASA said. “The next of kin will want the bodies. Answer the question.”
Albert looked up from his toolbox. He saw the light again, but nothing appeared on his data feed. He sighed and ran the diagnostic. “What did you say?”
“Are people suffering?”
He watched Omar carry a bag to the biological waste receptacle, and he could not tell if it held puke or crap, but blood stained the sides. His stomach rolled. “Yeah.”
“Radiation poisoning causes a painful death.” MASA paused, then said, “There are cyanide caplets locked in the medicine cabinet.”
Albert squeezed his eyes shut. “Jesus.”
“If the situation worsens, we want you to--”
“I won’t do it,” Albert said and pressed the earbud to disconnect the call.
Jim’s diagnostic said nothing about an upload malfunction. Probably a bulb damaged in the explosion. He ran his fingers over Jim’s arm. He would replace the ligament, make Jim as good as new.
Thanks for reading. I'd appreciate feedback. If you're interested, please email me at fantasticspatula.kristi (at) gmail (dot) com.