His grandfather had lived out his childhood in a house overlooking a busy railway line. Greg lost count of the number of times he’d heard the story about the night a fire closed the line further out of town.
‘Woke up suddenly,’ Grandpa said. ‘Nine forty-three precisely. The silence woke me – should have been the Birmingham night train coming through. I couldn’t sleep after that, sat up watching the empty lines and knowing there was something wrong.’
Greg had been fascinated to hear the story as a child, moving on to boredom in his teenage years as he heard it repeated. Waking now in the permanent night, he thought of Grandpa.
The silence. He sat up in his bunk. It felt like the ship was listening to him.
‘Hello?’ he said quietly. No answer. Greg felt a shiver of relief, though he knew he was just imagining things. He clicked the light switch by his bunk, and the relief shattered. No light.
In that instant, he realised that the silence and the lack of light must mean that all electrical function had ceased. As he reached for his overalls, Greg thought of the air purifiers and woke up fully. The constant sigh of air passing through vents had stopped.
He arrived on the bridge at a trot. Commander Griff James was tapping at the keyboard, watching the blank screen.
‘What happened?’ Greg asked.
Commander James put a mug on the page to keep his place, and Greg shook his head at the sight of a Mars mission commander reading instructions from paper pages. His father had owned a few paper books, but Greg had never been allowed to touch them. After his father’s death, Greg had washed the dusty books carefully. The pages had glued themselves together and stuck fast when dry, tearing as he tried to open them. Paper was fragile. And now they were more than twenty million miles from Earth and relying on a paper book.
‘Get everyone up.’ James said. ‘Crew briefing.’
Greg reached for the general alarm button. Just as he touched it, he realised that it needed electricity to function, like everything else on this ship.
Rapping on the cabin doors took him back to home life; trying to get his teenage daughter awake in time to catch the school bus.
‘Quit that!’ Lily yelled. Scott groaned from behind his cabin door.
‘All hands,’ Greg said loudly. ‘Bridge. Emergency. Electricity’s out.’
Lily was out of her cabin in seconds. ‘Be ready to put your EVA suit on,’ Greg advised her. ‘We’re not sure what we might need to do to get the power back.’
‘Roger,’ Lily said. She rapped on Scott’s door. ‘Bridge!’ she yelled. ‘Move!’
By the time they had all assembled on the bridge, the air seemed to be thicker. Probably his imagination. They had hours before carbon dioxide built up enough to be a problem, surely? Greg tried to work it out, and shivered. The ship was definitely cooler now. Dammit, the heaters were off too.
‘Power went off at 03.46 Eastern Standard Time,’ Commander James said. ‘Emergency backup power hasn’t fired. Procedures state to check hull integrity first – Scott, start with an external visual inspection. Lily, check the main power train - find the problem, fix it if you can. Greg, run comms for Scott during his EVA and run a check on the backup power train for obvious fixes. I’ll prepare for atmosphere replacement. Without the air purifiers, we have twenty hours before carbon dioxide reaches fatal levels, so we might need an atmosphere replace before we get power back. Temperature – without the heaters, it’ll drop, but we have five days before we’re in danger from the cold. Questions?’
‘Any obvious cause?’ Greg asked. ‘Software glitch, micrometeorite strikes, wire fires?’
Commander James looked to the dead screen and grimaced. ‘No way of checking,’ he said. ‘No warning; everything just went off. Without the computer, the only way to check why is take off every panel on the ship and look.’
Scott rubbed his face. ‘Houston got any suggestions?’
‘Power’s out, Scott.’
‘Oh,’ Scott said. ‘Yeah. No power, no comms.’
‘I did a blind send,’ Commander James said. ‘Just in case there was some power to outward comms.’ He grinned.
‘You didn’t,’ Lily said.
‘Ah did,’ Commander James said in a Colorado hick accent. ‘Ah said… “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a prah-blem here.”’
They all laughed.
‘Okay, let’s get to it,’ Commander James said.
Greg settled the helmet comms unit onto his head and plugged it into the battery pack, thinking of how easy it would be to sit at the bridge console and switch on the main comms unit. Instead, here he was getting rigged up as if he was going out for a spacewalk.
‘Fix the electrics, dammit,’ he said softly.
‘Not my job, kid,’ Scott said in his ear. ‘Hull inspection commencing.’
‘Acknowledged,’ Greg said. He turned his attention to the aux power unit. He began testing each connection with the handheld meter, marking the result on his tiny notepad. ‘How’s the hull look?’
‘Lots of dings and scrapes, nothing serious yet,’ Scott said. ‘I take it air pressure onboard is holding?’
Greg looked at the air pressure indicator over the aux power cabinet door. Blank. Of course it was out. It ran on electricity, like everything else.
‘Well, we’re still breathing,’ he said. ‘Inspecting the aux power train, but no faults found. Closing up now, reporting back to Griff.’
‘All good out here, too,’ Scott said. ‘Moving along to the solar array linkage and that’s… aligned and operational. No damage to the hull in this area. Moving on to the oxygen tank array…’
‘Think you got the boring job there,’ Greg said, walking to the bridge and giving Commander James a thumbs up.
‘Yep, poor me, I must have upset Griff,’ Scott replied. ‘Tank array is… holy shit!’
‘Scott?’ Greg said. There was silence.
‘Report,’ Commander James said sharply.
‘He’s at the oxygen tank rack, sir,’ Greg said. ‘Something just startled him.’
‘Startled, hell,’ Scott said. ‘Looks like someone let off a firework next to the air tanks. Burn marks radiating out from Tanks 3 and 5, strip of wiring hanging off the…’ His voice tailed off.
‘Scott, say again,’ Greg said, and felt the silence pressing hard against his ears. In that moment, he was aware of the isolation – the four of them in a tiny island of safety, twenty million miles from the nearest human. By now NASA would know there was a problem with the mission, but they couldn’t exactly send a tow truck out to get them.
Eventually Scott said; ‘Looks like a micrometeorite strike. Big dent in Tank 7, with oxygen outgassing from it. Tank 5 got a scrape that bust it open, no outgassing - looks like no oxygen left in that one. Tank 3 took a hit straight through the middle and whatever struck it buried itself in the array linkage. Sparks flew, as they say, and with a jet of pure oxygen flying out the tank next to it, must have been like a flame thrower out here. Burn marks across that area of the hull; hull not pierced, but wires severed and floating around.’
‘Do you need assistance to fix?’ Commander James asked.
Scott sighed. ‘Yeah, I’d say. Whoever comes out, bring a full set of spare units for the linkage system. Commencing removal of damaged units now.’
‘You’re up, Greg,’ Commander James said.
On his way to the spares store, Greg passed the main power cabinet. Lily was jammed into the cabinet, her shoulders and head invisible amongst the wiring.
‘Take it you checked it’s not just that the breakers have tripped?’ Greg called.
Lily’s voice drifted back. ‘Do me a favour.’
‘Scott’s found damage to the oxy tanks,’ Greg said. ‘Solar array linkage got severed, so maybe the problem’s all external. I’m on my way out with spares. Need any help here?’
‘Only if you’re six inches wide,’ Lily said. ‘Then you can squeeze in here beside me and tell me what you think I’m doing wrong. Or you could wait there in case I want you to fetch me a left-handed hammer.’
Greg peered in. He could see regular puffs of mist from Lily’s breathing in the dim glow of her snap-stick, and felt again how cold it was. How long would it take for the air in here to drop to a temperature that would kill them?
‘Got a replacement snap-stick standing by?’ Lily asked. ‘Might need it soon.’
Greg pulled a spare stick from his pack and passed it to her. ‘Odds are, there’s no damage in here,’ he said.
Lily sighed. ‘I’ll still check everything,’ she said.
Greg moved on.
Everything Greg did over the next half hour reminded him of how much easier it would be if the electricity was running. The worst delay was the airlock override mechanism, which took six minutes to work through to achieve a result one press of a button would have granted him before. All of it done while squinting like a cross-eyed cat in the dim glow of a snap-stick.
Getting outside the ship was such a relief that for a moment, Greg didn’t register that this was his first EVA of the mission. The series of spacewalks he’d taken from the old Space Station at the end of his training had made that moment of stepping outside the safety of the vessel almost routine. Turning slowly to take in the view and accustom himself to being in zero gravity, he caught sight of the Sun shining. Small and pale as a new brass coin, the sight of it brought home to Greg how far from home he was now. The Earth was out there somewhere too, its reflected light too subtle to stand out against the freckled backdrop of stars.
Greg keyed his mike.
‘This is Greg Matthews commencing EVA at 05.17 Eastern Standard Time,’ he said. ‘Are you receiving? Over.’
‘Received all, Greg,’ Commander James said.
‘Coming up to the tank array now,’ Greg said a few minutes later. ‘That’s… damn.’
‘Yup,’ Scott said. ‘Sums it up. All the fried units removed and bagged. Want the honour of putting in the replacements?’
‘Sure,’ Greg said. ‘It’ll warm me up. Getting a bit Alaskan on board right now.’
‘Slot these in and we’ll be toasty in no time.’
Every unit Greg fixed to the hull was one step closer to getting the ship fired up, and he forced himself to breathe slowly and make the connections good. The burned plastic of the wires and units flaked away as he worked, spinning off into space. Behind him, Scott sneezed.
‘Might have to leave you to it,’ Scott said. ‘Water droplets in my helmet.’
‘Will you make it back okay?’
‘If I can’t, you’ll have to take my helmet off and wipe my nose,’ Scott said.
'Everyone's a joker tonight,' Greg said, as Scott began to pull himself back towards the airlock.
With the last linkage unit bolted into place, Greg ran the new cable to the fuel cell housing and tried to plug it in. At first, he thought he had missed the socket, or that the plug end of the cable was slipping within his bulky glove. When he looked closer, he saw that the plug socket in the fuel cell housing was blocked. He pried gently at first, then with more force. The blockage floated free and Greg caught it instinctively.
In his glove, he held the tiny meteorite that had caused all the problems. The size of a pea, blackened and knobbly, it had brought a multi-billion dollar mission to its knees. Greg stowed it carefully in his tool pouch and inspected the plug socket.
He knew there was no spare unit to replace the fuel cell housing. No chance of replacing the socket. Nothing on board that would replicate this one vital component. If the plug didn’t clip securely into the socket or if there was any substantial internal damage, the fuel cell would not recharge.
‘All you can do, Greg, is your best,’ he thought. His mother’s phrase, talking about his exams, his Air Force entrance interview, his bid to get into the astronaut program; but if she was up there watching him now, that’s what she’d say.
He pulled a section of duct tape out of his pouch and held the cable plug securely in place as he tried to stick his world back together.
Thirty minutes later, Greg climbed back through the airlock.
‘Done?’ Commander James asked.
‘Best I can do,’ Greg said. ‘Some damage to the fuel cell housing. Solar array’s still pointed at the Sun, cell should be charging up right now.’
‘Lily, any charge showing in the fuel cell?’ Commander James asked.
‘Almost none,’ Lily replied. ‘It’ll be an hour before we see any charge building up.’
Greg leaned back against the cabin walls, half asleep with exhaustion and fear and remembering a snowy Christmas walk with his dad. When the breathing mask was strapped onto his face, he dreamed it was his dad wrapping a scarf around his chin.
‘Thanks, Dad,’ Greg mumbled.
Commander James slapped him hard on the shoulder. ‘Breathe deep,’ he said.
Greg opened his eyes to see that everyone else was wearing an oxy mask too. The snowy Oregon trail faded back into memory; he was sitting on the bridge of a spaceship headed for Mars. As a child in Oregon he’d dreamed of being in space, and here he was in space dreaming of walking in Oregon.
‘Want me to vent ship’s atmosphere and replace, Commander?’ Lily asked.
‘Let’s stay on suit air,’ Commander James decided. ‘We might need everything we’ve got in the main tanks on the way back.’
And three of the oxygen tanks were now empty.
‘Well,’ said Commander James, ‘I fully intend to make it back to Earth in one piece, and I hope you have some faith in getting back alive as well.’
‘I was intending to be the first woman to walk on Mars,’ Lily said. ‘Any chance of that?’
‘Any crew member who doesn’t want to go to Mars can hop out the door and hitch a lift home right now,’ Commander James replied. ‘This bus is headed for Valles Marineris.’
‘Need to check the course as soon as the computer comes on,’ Scott said. ‘If Tank 7 was venting slowly, might have pushed us off by a degree or two. Next stop might be Jupiter.’
‘And when that’s done, get the heater back on,’ Lily said.
‘Maybe someone should check the repair is still holding,’ Greg said. ‘The damage to the socket was pretty bad.’
Scott shot a glance at Commander James. They knew, Greg realised. The three of them had discussed it before he’d returned.
‘We’ll run a check in an hour,’ Commander James said. ‘If it’s charging, we’ll be able to read fuel cell status by then. If it’s not, Lily goes out to make repairs and I’ll assist. In the meantime, let’s sit here and work out what we’re going to say to our families when the comms come back, ‘cause whatever NASA is likely to say, your wives are gonna be tougher to deal with.’
‘Lily doesn’t have a wife,’ Scott pointed out.
‘I got a mother who thinks I should have stuck to lecturing at MIT,’ Lily said. ‘Makes me glad she’s twenty million miles away right now. That old comms connection might just break up halfway through if she starts on me.’ Lily mimed flicking off a switch.
Commander James pulled a silver hip flask out of his belt pouch, ‘I brought this along as personal luggage to cheer up the crew if they got down, and I think this might be a good time to pass it around.’
He opened the flask and passed it to Greg, sitting next to him. ‘One sip each,’ he advised. ‘It’s good stuff, and anyone who shows up drunk in charge of a spaceship when NASA calls will find a lifetime ain’t long enough to live that down.’
Greg took a sip and held the liquid in his mouth for as long as he could, feeling that taste of Earth rolling around his tongue. Commander James put a glowing snap-stick in the centre of their circle as he passed the flask to Lily. The four of them sat in silence, watching the snap-stick glow, like cavemen in spacesuits gathered around a fire. Outside the ship the Sun poured its distant rays onto their battered home.