Stranded in Space
Hori Akira Translated by Okayasu Tomoko
The spanner is floating five centimeters or so from my outstretched toe. I have stretched my right foot to the maximum and my toe is fully extended. The spanner is the closest object to my body. But it's not within my eyesight. I had to turn my head in the opposite direction to let the toe extend the utmost toward it. So the five centimeter distance between the spanner and the toe is just my estimate. Perhaps it may be a bit less -- even a few millimeters. But I cannot verify this, because if I turn to look, my leg will inevitably swing away from the spanner. I grudgingly realize that I can only rotate around my own body -- to be more exact, the center of my body has become a pivot, and I cannot move it elsewhere. There's a tiny space between my toe and the spacesuit. I wonder if the toe would stretch another few millimeters if I move my body within the spacesuit. But no. This is impossible, because the spacesuit is tightly fit at the waist. I measure the remaining air in the tank. It holds up to five hours of oxygen. I still have more than three and a half hours to go; but the situation hasn't changed for the past hour. It's pretty likely I'll remain like this for the rest of the three and a half hours: a few centimeters to the nearest spanner; just over two meters to the wall in front; three meters to the wall behind; four meters to the door above; and six meters to the door below leading to the corridor at the ship's stern. I'm floating right at the center of the cylindrical vacuum. Perfect!
If this were during outer-space operation . . . I might be without a life belt, but I would never go out without a reaction blaster. And the life support system would be completely different. It would come with an extra air tank -- I can use this as a blaster in an emergency. Moreover, I would have the transceiver to call instantly for help. Even now, there should have been some kind of a signal within to indicate my slight displacement.
There's really no way to let anyone know I got stuck in this mess. I do not have any means of communication -- yet I'm at the center of the ship! -- in a cylindrical sphere five meters in diameter, ten meters long. There is a door at each end of the cylinder. Behind the door above -- the ship's fore -- there are living quarters, communications room, and pilot's cabin. The door below -- the stern -- leads to the cargo cabin and the engine room below that. Hardly anyone except me, an engineer, ever comes as far below as this.
This cargo ship is in its long, inertial flight. The top part of the ship -- beyond the top door -- is rotating slowly, generating gravity. But this cargo cabin and the connecting parts do not rotate. It's a zero-gravity area. This cargo ship, more than five hundred meters long, is moving along the Hohmann orbit through the asteroid belt. The auto-pilot controlled most of its flight. Its control was perfect. Somehow, something -- probably some tiny debris flying by -- caused the auto-pilot to shift the ship just two meters to avoid collision. Just a tiny relocation, considering its size of five hundred meters. But this tiny shift made the distance to the doors remote.
I detected the lowering of pressure in the cylinder connecting the corridor. There seemed to be an air leak. The cylinder was seldom used, and only when there was a need to go to the engine room was it filled with air. Although this leak was on my mind, I had ignored it up till now. The only reason I decided to repair it now was just out of a whim. I entered the cylinder with the light feeling of a person setting out to paint or carve out a sculpture out of boredom. It would take only thirty minutes. There was no need to wear a heavy outer-space suit.
I wriggled my body through a side door into the cylinder. There were four pipes acting as a guiding rail running vertically on the sides of the cylinder. One of them was shaped as a ladder. However, this ladder was the farthest from the leak. I shifted my body holding the rail, and when I found a small cut in the wall, I closed the door and emptied the air out of the cylinder. The cut was so small that the only repair needed was to pour resin into it.
I placed all my tools in space a small distance away from my body. There were five tools, the likes of spanners and screwdrivers. I laid them neatly in space about two meters away. This was my habit. I often do this even in outer-space operations. When I operate in non-gravity, I let the tools float around me. I take care to place the tools in a static position, so that they would not fly about (by the time you realize it, they're miles away). When you get used to it, you can let the tools leave your hands, and they stay in practically the same spot without wondering away. The more you experience outer-space operations, the more tactics you come to use. In my case, I have the habit of laying the tools in exactly the same, fixed position. I'm very good at it. They don't shift an inch no matter how many hours pass. Of course, in actual fact, the tools are flying at several thousand kilometers per hour in inertial flight along with the spaceship.
In the current operation, there was no need for tools. I laid the tools two meters away from me, so that they would not get in the way of the resin injection. It was only later that I realized this act determined my fate.
It happened just after I had finished injecting the resin and smoothed the surface with my fingers. I had no tools on my hands, and I was not holding the pipe: I was rubbing off the sticky resin on my hands. I was so immersed in removing the dirty resin off my spacesuit fingertips that I didn't realize my body had moved to the center of the cylinder.
The jet engine at the side of the cargo ship had turned on, and, after shifting the ship two meters to the side, made a slight counter-emission. That was all. If this were a major change in direction, there might have been a back-fire to put the ship back on its original course. But this was a very tiny shift. Only two meters -- yet this made the distance to the door immeasurable.
When I realized, my body and the tools, laid out two meters below me, were floating in space the same distance away from any of the walls. If had been holding a pipe rail, or if the cylinder had been filled with air, or if I had been wearing an outer-space heavy suit -- I would have realized the ship's movement through vibration, or sound of the engine, or through voices from the transceiver. Or, if the shift had been in a different direction, I might have bumped myself onto the wall, but I would not have moved to the center of the cylinder.
It didn't take five minutes to realize that I could not escape from this position by myself. There's nothing to touch even if I stretched my arms as far as I could. Outer sound is completely shut out. If it were not for the lights coming from both ends of the cylinder, I would have been in complete darkness, a darkness even deeper than outer space. Luckily, the lights are on. But when I close my eyes, there's nothing to tell the difference from being in outer space. The only difference may be that I can move my body more freely in this lighter space suit. But however hard I struggle, I can't change my location. I can only bend my arms and legs more freely.
It is possible to rotate my body a little at a time. This is the only positional change I can make. First, I stretch my arms and legs outward as far as I can, and turn my head to one side: the torso rotates a little in the opposite direction to the head. Then, I close my arms and legs, and turn my head to the other side. The torso will rotate back. And since the rotational moment is smaller than when the arms and legs are outstretched, this backward angle becomes larger, so that the whole body rotates a little. The principle is the same as when a cat falls down on its back. It turns its body in the air to land on its feet. I can rotate my body sideways by repeating this movement. Likewise, it's not very difficult (but may be slightly more awkward) to rotate vertically by stretching my arms upward and legs down ward, and flinging my head back a little; I then bend my arms and legs and straightening my head. But whichever way I rotate, I can't shift my location. I can't escape from the circumference of my outstretched arms and legs.
For more than an hour, I struggle to rotate in several different angles, only to realize that no part of my body ever touches any walls or pipes. The only hope is the spanner, which lies a few centimeters away from my toe. But this distance seems unreachable whichever way I rotate.
I stop and try to think. I check my suit to find if there's anything I can take off. Anything will work. If I throw it, my body will surely move in the opposite direction with the same speed as the thrown object, however slow it may be. I have an ample three hours remaining to reach the wall four meters away.
I'm getting sweaty. My mind is getting numb. Four meters in three hours . . . a little over a meter per hour, slightly less than 0.5 millimeters per second. Even with my space suit, I won't be weighing more than eighty kilograms. I will only need to lightly throw a ten gram object to get to the walls. The object need not even weigh this much to reach the pipes two meters away. If I can reach the pipes, I can easily move toward the door. But there's nothing I can take off from the spacesuit. If I can catch a small nut or a screw -- but however I stretch, I can't touch the tools. I think about tearing off the air tube. But it's too risky. I'm not sure if I can open and shut the door in just a few seconds with a single hand.
The only possibility, again, is the spanner lying a few centimeters . . . or it may even be lying less than a centimeter away. It's enough just to touch it. I can get sufficient initial speed just by kicking it with my toe. If the spanner bounces off the wall and passes close by again, it's even better. If I can catch it with my hand, that's practically the same as reaching the rails. Now, for the umpteenth time, I stretch myself, and swing my toe in an arc. But there's no sense of touch.
The word "castaway" flickers in my mind. Am I a castaway? Of course, I'm cast away in space, floating several billion kilometers from Earth without any hold. Around me is vacuum. Only, I'll never be found because the walls of the five hundred meter cargo ship are surrounding me. What a silly accident. As an engineer who rose in the ranks, I'm prepared for all sorts of risks -- dangers in vast, empty space where one error could speed you toward infinity. But not in this closed, cylindrical sphere enclosed by the walls of the spaceship. It's like drowning in your own bathtub. It may make no difference whether you drown ten thousand meters under the sea or two meters under inside an aquarium. But the water has a "feel." You can try to swim to resist drowning. Even in air you can make some kind of resistance. In vacuum there's none.
I look at the resin left on my hands. It has dried up. I might have been able to take off the resin just after the repair. I might have rolled up a few milli grams. Then I would have . . . already I'm almost too exhausted to even calculate.
I swing my toe in circles once again in a futile struggle. Perhaps this time, I might touch the spanner. But the toe only kicks the vacuum. Perspiration appears, and I feel suffocated. But there's still enough oxygen left. Probably, I made too much bending and winding with my body. My helmet becomes murky from perspiration and sigh. I feel pain in my gut. Suddenly, something turns within me. A sharp nausea thrusts up through the gullet. I can't hold it any longer.
Involuntarily, I start to bend myself to take the posture for vomiting. But I hit upon an idea and I force my body to straighten up. I raise my head and thrust up my jaw. It comes rushing up all at once. The substance gushes out into my helmet. It entered my stomach only a few hours ago and is still not fully digested in non-gravity.
I fling my legs in agony . . . for a fraction of a second, I feel something hard bounce against my toe. My sight is robbed by the puke. It's intruding my eyes and nose. I can't possibly keep my eyes open. I can't wipe my face with my own hands. I can only swing my head to shake the puke off my face. But the reaction on my toe is more important now. Is my body moving? I open my eyes. I can't confirm it. The inner side of the helmet is covered with brownish liquid; what's more, my eyes are blurred from tears.
But I feel certain that I kicked the spanner. It was lying only a small distance away. The spanner must have been floating within the tiny distance that the body moved to annihilate the reaction caused by the vomit in the small space with in the helmet -- the puke had smashed into the inner side of the helmet.
I feel something bumping lightly on my sides. It's not the spanner. I grope with my hands, but already it's gone. Most likely a screwdriver or a wrench -- one of the tools I laid out at the beginning. The spanner may have scattered them about like a billiard ball. I fling my arms about madly. I only need to catch one of those tools.
It's suffocating within the helmet; there's a feeling of muck filling up the whole helmet. I can see very little, and gastric juice is entering my nose. The circulation tube may be clogged. My eyes are dimmed from tears and gastric juice. I try to open them to find out where I am. The misty surrounding does not seem much different from before.
For a minute, in front of my eyes, I see the screwdriver passing slowly by. I stretch my arms. But I miss it by just a few centimeters. The screwdriver now looks like a gigantic spaceship flying away, leaving me behind. Far away, I can see a vague shape of the door handle. The journey to that handle seems as infinite as an odyssey to the outer planets.