Rick forced his eyes open. Everything was red.
He gasped, choking on nothing. His brain fumbled with thoughts. There was nothing. There was no air! He clawed helplessly at the crash jelly, his arms leaden in the thick substance. How could he feel for the emergency latch when his fingers could barely move? His hands tried to claw desperately to no avail, his body an animal acting on its own. Air! I need air!
“In case of an emergency, remain calm,” the instructional video had said. Rick tried to take a deep breath and failed. Fuck calm. Smiling, the actress dressed as a space explorer had waved her hands in a useless pantomime: “Find the emergency release lever…”
“…three feet from the foot of the pod, near your right hip…”
His fingers found metal, beautiful cold metal.
With a hiss the lid of the crash pod slid open, and Rick clawed his way out. He fell to his knees, gasping for air.
Everything was red.
“Oh no,” Rick whispered.
The dim crimson emergency lights cast deep shadows on the other crash pods, occupants still, heart monitors flat. Without oxygen they had blacked out, and suffocated in their sleep. But something had woken him.
“Daddy!” It was his daughter’s voice, begging him to stay, her arms and legs wrapped around his leg.
Rick shook his head to clear it. Hypoxia could cause hallucinations, and he needed a clear head now more than ever.
“An emergency has occured, but stay calm. Please enter your assigned crash pod in a quick, orderly fashion.” It was an automated message, the voice of the woman from the instructional video. Rick eyed his dead companions in their crash pods uncomfortably. Laura, Paul, Peter, Hooch… Systems chief, atmospheric specialist, pilot and biologist. He was a mathematician pretending to be an engineer! How was he going to fix the ship?
“No!” Rick slapped himself. “Stay alert–”
“Daddy!” His daughter clung to his leg. “Please! Let me go with you!”
Rick picked the little girl up and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “You’ll make a brave explorer one day. When you’re old enough. But for now–”
He had to go. His launch was in ten minutes. Xerxes-9, first and only space station in sector 85.42.10.07 was out of air, and if his team did not succeed they would all die.
Rick set his daughter down. “When you’re scared, close your eyes and breathe, honey, and imagine me walking through that door. Hold that thought in your mind, and I promise, you’ll see me again.”
She fell to the ground cross legged and threw her hands to her eyes. He kissed her on the forehead and walked away, but she did not move her hands.
“Bye honey,” he whispered.
“An emergency has occured, but stay calm.”
Rick snapped to. He had to figure out what was wrong with the ship. It was an emergency shuttle, not meant for these speeds and distances. He tried to remember the list of possible disasters Laura had outlined before the launch.
“Please enter your assigned crash pod–”
Hooch’s pod! The monitor was flat, but the pod was empty!
“–in a quick, orderly fashion.”
Rick raced to the door forcing it open as the ship shuddered. To his left, the red rimmed airlock remained intact: a yellow button to seal the passageway, and a red button to open the door into the dead coldness of space. To his right, flames licked the ceiling of the tiny passage beyond. A charred welding device slid down the hallway as the ship lurched, as did Hooch’s charred body. Rick’s heart sank.
He racked his brains… “In case of a fire–” the actress in the instructional video had said.
“In the control booth!” Rick murmured. Pulling his shirt over his nose, he plunged into the burning passage. Smoke and sweat burned his eyes, the heated door to the control booth burned his hands. The fire extinguisher!
“Not now!” he mumbled to himself. Coughing uncontrollably, his eyes shut, he sprayed the flame retardant wildly into the passage. He heaved and hacked on the floor, relieved to feel the sweat cooling on his ash-covered face. So little air, and most of it smoke.
A soft hiss made his heart sink even further, and suddenly Rick understood what had happened. “The biggest danger,” Laura had explained, “is that we have no debris shields.” A tiny piece of space trash had cut through the hull blocking the lines that supplied the crash pods. And Hooch…. “The welding device is located here,” Laura had said, “but never use it to patch leaking oxygen or fuel.”
“You idiot.” Rick wanted to cry. He knew in a panic he might have made the same mistake. He frowned as a gentle hiss signaled the air leaking from the shuttle’s cabin. There was no need to fix the oxygen lines to the crash pods now. But what had Laura said about oxygen leaks? He fumbled his way back to the control booth and found the resin gun. Within moments the patch was sealed.
He took a deep breath. A deep, smoke-filled, low-pressure breath. Dread returned. How much oxygen was left?
Rick was nearly blind with panic as stumbled his way into the pilot’s chair in the control booth. He flipped through screens until he got the oxygen monitor. Mumbling under his breath he did the math. Rick breathed a sigh of relief. Barely. Just barely. Any less and….
There was enough air, for now. Why was he still hallucinating?
Rick frowned. The others had remained asleep but something had woken him up…. He counted his breaths per second, calculated the oxygen depletion over the last minute and–
“Honey!” Rick shrieked, leaping out of his chair.
The vents. Her voice was coming through the vents. “Honey!” he shouted. “Honey where are you!”
Rick was back where he started, eyes high and low searching for the air vents. Tiny fingers stuck out, near the floor in the wall behind his pod. He grabbed a the screwdriver from the kit frantically removed the grate. He pulled his daughter into his arms, bawling as he did it. He delicately brushed a strand of her hair out of her eyes, careful not to touch the bruise on her cheek.
“Please don’t be angry daddy!”
His daughter had stowed away during the launch. She must have snuck in before Paul sealed the vents. Outside of a crash pod, the turbulence could have killed her! Rick’s eyes fell on the crash pods, acutely aware of the irony. No, she had saved his life. Maybe all of their lives.
Rick kissed his daughter, silently crunching figures in his head. “I’m not upset, baby. I’m just… so happy to see you.”
“Then why are you crying?”
Rick set his daughter down. “I need to show you something.” He walked her to the control booth and sat her down in the captain’s chair. “This is where an explorer sits.”
Her eyes widened.
“And you, sweetie,” he gently tapped her nose, “are old enough to be the bravest explorer of them all!” If his calculations were correct, they only had a few minutes, but he kept his voice clear and steady.
Delight flashed across her face.
“In just two hours, when the shuttle lands on Ceali-7, this screen is going to tell you what kind of air the planet has.” His hand trembled ever so slightly as he pointed.
“Really?” she gasped in amazement.
“And when you push this button, you can send a message back home to Xerxes-9 and tell them all about it!”
“Me? I can do that?”
“Absolutely. But there’s one more thing.”
Rick’s daughter nodded attentively.
The automated message repeated once again. “An emergency has occurred, but stay calm….”
“Daddy… has to go somewhere.” I’m sorry honey. I did the math.
“No, Daddy!” she shouted, clinging to him. “No!”
“…Please enter your assigned crash pod in a quick, orderly fashion.”
Rick carried her with him out of the control booth and down the tiny passageway.
“You’re the bravest explorer I know. But when you’re scared, close your eyes and breathe, honey…” He set her down near the end of the passageway. “…and imagine me walking through this door.” His eyes fell on the buttons: one yellow, one red.
She fell to the ground cross-legged and threw her hands to her eyes. He kissed her on the forehead and walked away, but she did not move her hands. He stepped over the red line, into the airlock chamber.
“Hold that thought in your mind, and I promise, you’ll see me again.”
He watched her nod, eyes closed, and he pushed the yellow button. A door slid between them, sealing the passageway from the airlock. Everything was red.
“Bye honey,” he whispered.
Rick pushed the red button.