Last Shuttle Down
by Michael J. Albers
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Put as a choice between screaming at open spaces and dealing with Dalgren’s Star, there was no choice. My future now contained a crash agoraphobia conditioning program.
The room reeked from my dinner splattered across the floor. Avoiding the mess, I stuffing a few mementos and a change of clothes into the small shuttle bag. From a shelf, I lifted a steel rod, a heavy heft in my hand. A mix of different surface textures covered the cylindrical surface. The finishing work piece from my apprentice days; the only piece I had kept. I couldn’t leave it. Still holding the bar, I glanced up and down the empty passageway and pulled the door shut behind me. Let Dalgren’s Star clean up the mess.
Blue Texas sector was close to the forward wall and halfway around from the main Dalgren’s Star area. The trip from there to the stairs up to the shuttle bay was a short walk. Some of Kirby’s friends had lived in that sector, and we had eaten with them regularly. I don’t think I’ve been there in forty years.
The centerline light faintly glowed at full night dark. My next sunrise would be real. That image of a sun clearing a distant horizon turned my legs to jelly and slammed into my stomach. I lurched off the road and grabbed the back of bench. I forced long deep breaths to calm my rolling stomach. This was not going to work, I thought, I just couldn’t do it. Dalgren’s Star can’t be worse than this. No, I’m going back to my room. My trip downstairs was over.
Decision made, my stomach relaxed, but still ached. On shaky legs, I walked slowly back up the road, eyes half closed, oblivious to everything except the long slow breaths filling and emptying my lungs. I was almost to the stairs down to my unit when two men in blue shirts came up the stairs and stopped in front of me. Where they the same ones I had overheard?
“Where are you going?” There was no hint of friendliness in his voice.
“I was out for a walk before bedtime.” My voice sounded strange, pinched. “I’m going back to my unit. I... I don’t think supper agreed with me.”
“Oh. We need to check your bag.”
“No!” I realized I said that stronger than I should have. I clutched the bag and my fingers tightened around the bar.
The closest one reached out and grabbed the shoulder strap. I wrapped both arms around the bag. He tugged and I stumbled toward him.
I jerked back. “No, spin it.” I swung the bar, smashing down on his arm, twice. He let out a howl of pain and backed away, cradling his arm.
“You bitch!” His partner rushed at me.
I whirled to defend myself. The outstretched bar caught the guy in the stomach. I shoved hard, driving the bar into him. With an outrush of air, he collapsed, a blood stain forming around his mouth. My years as a mechanist had given me extremely strong arms, especially for an 82-year old lady. I ran one level down the stairs and sprinted along the passageway toward the Blue Texas sector.
I didn’t run far before I was breathing too hard to continue. Leaning against the passageway, I gasped for air and wondered if my pounding heart would explode. Could they track where I was going? I didn’t know if the cameras still worked in that area or on this passageway or if they could monitor them.
“TeeLynn,” I muttered, staring at the bar in my hand, “you couldn’t leave this thing behind and now it delivered you directly into a lit exhaust nozzle.” My fate was sealed; I had to go downstairs. I had seriously hurt both of them. Once a fellow machinist had gotten smacked in the gut by a rod and required surgery. From what I had seen, Dalgren’s Star justice system would never accept self-defense against one of their own. But toss them into the Big Fire, those jerks deserved it.
Chest still heaving in ragged breaths, I walked past a few people leaning up against the passageway walls and eyeing me closely before I reached the Blue Texas cafeteria. I noticed my stomach hadn’t tightened; I guess it realized there was no choice, too. A door guard gave me a retina scan. People stood in line before three tables lined up with the door. Several scales sat on the tables. Behind the tables were piles of bags and assorted stuff.
“Bag goes here,” a lady told me, pointing to a scale. “You only get 5 kilos. You are right at the limit. That bar is too heavy.”
“I’ll drop it when we get to the shuttle. Until then, it might be useful to send a message to some Dalgren’s Star guy.” I smacked the bar in my hand. “I needed it just getting here.”
She frowned before slapping a tracing sticker on it. “Okay, but this keeps it from crossing the boarding platform. Don’t try to sneak it on. We’re already overweight.”
I nodded and walked off.
A large crowd was clustered around a couple of people standing on a table toward the back. I collapsed into a chair, shaking from overexertion and too much adrenaline. I forced my thoughts to stay focused on boarding the shuttle, not its eventual landing.
A few more people entered, and one of the door guards waved to the men standing on the table.
“Okay, everyone, listen up. Sorry about the abrupt notice. Dalgren’s Star plans to stop us. We have to load quickly. The pilots are already doing pre-checks. We are all going to walk down the passageway and up the stairs to the shuttle. The elevator is only for people who can’t walk the stairs. All of them should already be onboard.
“You are allowed one bag. We are overweight, so sneaking in something extra could cause a crash. If you can dump weight, dump it now. If it can be replaced downstairs, dump it. Don’t bring it with you. When you get on board, move to the back, fill every seat, and sit down immediately. It doesn’t matter who you sit by. Hold your bag in your lap. We can rearrange after launch. We need to load and launch as quick as possible. Got it?”
There was a murmur of assent.
I ended up toward the back of the crowd, moving at a fast walk. Suddenly there were shouts of “Run! Dalgren’s Star’s figured it out. Move it!” Several blue-shirted men appeared out of an intersecting passageway. One of them grabbed the arm of the woman in front of me. With a snarl, I smashed my bar down onto the guy’s shoulder, which gave a satisfying crack. He dropped to the floor screaming in pain. A boot slammed into his chest and someone stomped his hand. The other Dalgren’s Star men went down under a flurry of punches.
We broke into a slow run, the press of bodies prevented faster movement.
A loud boom sounded behind me. Someone screamed. Another gun? How many did they have? I didn’t dare look back for fear a stumble would get me trampled.
We rushed through the doors of the forward section. A high folded tower of stairs stood before me. The shuttle loading area was almost at the center line, 800 meters above me. A long climb, but the gravity would drop off quickly as we went up. A couple of men stood by the door with chains. Pressed in tight, the flow of people moved upward. A slip could risk being trampled to death.
From below, I heard a loud bang and a yell: “Doors secured. Let’s move, people. We don’t have much time until they break through.”
The mass of bodies carried me up the rest of the way. As the gravity decreased, I was able to grab the railing and clear multiple steps, as did everyone around me. Loud banging sounds came from below. Finally, we poured through a door and half-floated into the loading assembly area. A couple of men hung by the door and urged people to move onto the shuttle quickly.
Behind me, the doors slammed shut. I stepped out of the flow and handed my steel rod to a lady wrapping a heavy chain to secure the door. “Here, put this through the handles.” She stared at it blankly for a moment before wedging it into the space between the pull handles.
“Everyone! In the shuttle! Now!”
We hurried through an airlock door, across an access tunnel, and onto the shuttle. I plopped into the middle seat of five in the second row from the front. I let out a long breath. The row in front of me filled, and the shuttle door slammed shut.
Monitors mounted in the seatback showed an empty assembly area. The image was silent, but suddenly, the assembly area door started shaking.
“Everybody, fasten your harness across both shoulders and lap. Outer doors open in a few minutes with launch soon after. If you don’t have a harness on, you will get tossed around. Put your bag down in front of your feet.”
I watched the waiting area door bulge in and relax several times. My bar fell aside and the chains stretched, creating a gap. A breaker bar appeared in the gap, bending the door, and ripping the handles loose. The doors flung open and a group of blue-shirted men, two with guns in hand, piled into the room.
They jabbed at the control panel for the airlock door. Someone in the row in front of me said, “We wedged the outer door open so the inner door will not cycle.” Giving up on the control panel, they started ramming the door with the breaker bar. In the low gravity, it was almost comical watching them work to get leverage. I shivered when I overheard: “if they manage to hit our our hull just once, we’re stuck here.” The bar punched a hole through the door, and I heard the announcement: “Shuttle door open sequence started.”
Red pressure-loss lights started flashing in the waiting area. I couldn’t hear it, but I knew there was an alarm. Oxygen mask lockers popped open. People scrambled to pull them on while others ignored the alarm and kept prying at the door. A cheer went up in the shuttle as one guy collapsed and then boos when a mask was slapped on his face. Masked men took over working the breaker bar. The door crumpled as they forced it open.
A loud low horn sounded. “Launch. Launch.” I was shoved back in my seat and shaken violently for several seconds. A couple screams of pain sounded behind me. Then the pressure went away and I floated, held in place by my harness, shoulders tender and bruised.
“Attention everyone. Hope you enjoy your trip. We’ve got three days to landing. There are three food boxes under the seat in front of you. This is the only food you get. Plan your eating accordingly.”
The monitors switched to show the end of a large gray cylinder, growing smaller. “Goodbye, home,” I muttered. “Goodbye.”
I closed my eyes and settled back in my seat. I imagined standing in the grass belt, arms held high overhead and sweeping out to my side. “Open up. Unpeel and go flat.” In my mind, I watched the cylinder unfold. My body trembled, drawing nasty looks from the people beside me. Deep breath. I hoped they had good drugs downstairs. Focus on this nice closed shuttle, not the landing. Deep breath. Forget downstairs, I needed those drugs now. Deep breath. Three days to landing. I can’t use drugs forever. Deep breath. Three days to convince myself that I loved flat open space.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael J. Albers