John E. Stith's RECKONING INFINITY Excerpt

Reckoning Infinity Copyright © 1997 by John E. Stith. All rights reserved.

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Chapter 1


Indications of pending disaster can be as clear and personal as the approaching squeal of tires, or as generic as a distant alarm buzzer and the muted thuds of running feet. The Tokyan Station alarm buzzer certainly wasn't nearly so direct as opening a fortune cookie saying: "Lieutenant Commander Alis Mary Nussem, you are going to have a terrible accident today. Yes, you, Alis," or even a horoscope telling her: "It's a good day to stay in your bunk."

Flashing cabin lights and a pulsating buzzer muffled by a bulkhead pulled Alis out of a deep sleep and put her on edge. Groggy, she realized she'd been asleep only a couple of hours. Was this a drill or the real thing? No way to tell. This was the month for a surprise drill, what the bureaucrats called a "planned non-scheduled drill," so the odds were high that this was the drill. And naturally it would be during her sleep period. Murphy's Law had been written before humans began living in space, but Murphy's ideas dated no faster than Leonardo da Vinci's.

Her feet hit the Persian rug beside her bed. Four steps brought her to the closet, and she popped an orange emergency suit loose from the overhead compartment. The plastic suit felt cool as she thrust her bare legs into it, and she wished she'd clipped her toenails more recently. Her hands reached the thin gloves at the end of the sleeves, and seconds later she pulled the zipper along the curve from hip to neck.

Despite her trim figure, the suit fit so tightly it showed her panty lines, and she could still feel the texture of the rug on her soles as she moved toward her compartment door. She checked an indicator beside the door and left the balloon helmet disconnected, hanging loose at the back of her neck. She might need it later, and she wouldn't want to waste her oxygen in a corridor that was still pressurized with safe air.

She released the door lock and slid the door aside just a centimeter, on the off chance that the indicator had been wrong about the pressure. Someone ran past the slit, and footsteps thudded down the corridor. Alis must have been the last one up. She slid the door all the way open and moved into a territory filled with controlled anxiety.


ISA Lieutenant Karl Stanton was in a shuttle on his way back to Tokyan Station when he heard a soft ping from somewhere. This first sign of trouble was tangible, but it still seemed innocuous. A moment later a warning indicator at the edge of his peripheral vision began to flash red.

A heat exchanger on the sunward side of the shuttle had failed. Vaguely puzzled that the equipment had failed without spending any time in a degraded condition, Karl took no action when the shuttle's auto-support system indicated that it was shutting down the unit, reassigning functions to a backup unit, and finally inserting entries in the failure log and the required-maintenance journal. Maybe he'd suffered a hit from a micrometeor large enough to punch through the shuttle's defenses.

For a moment, he wished he were a shuttle mechanic or a pilot rather than a biologist. This was supposed to be just a routine flight, one that would bore a pilot silly, and one well within the capabilities of anyone with the requisite short training course. For missions more complicated than a quick run of a few kilometers, trained pilots were always used. He wished one were here now.

Seconds later the indicator showed the backup unit functioning normally. On the main screen, Tokyan Station loomed, the enormous disk slowly spinning about a docking-station axis that pointed at the sun. Behind the station, the Earth's disk was dark, with just a thin luminous nimbus to mark the boundary between dirt and vacuum.

All looked calm.


In Tokyan Station corridor C-8, the buzzer was much louder. A recorded voice repeated, "Please evacuate this corridor." Alis closed her cabin door and turned on the unoccupied indicator so no rescue effort would be wasted there. A man and a woman ran past her, and she followed, jogging. The man hadn't donned his emergency suit. If this was a drill, he might gain points by reaching a safety area early, but he'd lose points for no suit. If this was a real emergency, the penalty for making the wrong decision could be higher than he'd want to pay.

Alis supposed the lack of emergency suit meant the man had been in the woman's cabin and had chosen not to wear a one-size-fits suit. She pushed aside a twinge of jealousy. Being a good ISA Tri-Service officer took too much of her time to allow diversions, but she had convinced herself that would change when she reached the next rank. In fact, she was so good at convincing herself to wait, she had done it twice. Two different boyfriends had patiently explained that she worked too much and they weren't getting enough of her time to stay involved.

She flashed past a series of cabin doors already set to unoccupied. She hadn't been as fast as she thought. Ahead of them the corridor curved gently upward. The pitch of the buzzers increased, and a huge emergency seal began to slide closed automatically. Beyond the seal stood a large group, milling in the hallway. The pair in front of her wasted at least a second or two in trying to decide who would go through first, finally settling on the woman, and the man squeezed through a gap in the seal that was hardly bigger than he was. Alis reached the door just as the seal closed in her face, and the two of them looked back apologetically through the hardened window. Behind them in the crowd were a few familiar faces.

Feeling sorry for herself wouldn't help anything, so Alis just turned away from the seal and started for the nearest set of double seals leading to corridors on both sides of hers. She could use the exercise anyway. In the absence of obvious air leaks and secondary warning indicators, she was more and more convinced this was the promised drill.

She retraced her steps through the deserted corridor. The beige passageway curved up and out of sight ahead, and color-coded tubes of red, blue, green, and black hugged the ceiling between two larger pipes, both beige. Alis sped past a you are here sign that said more about where she wanted to be.

Her path now carried her opposite the station's spin direction, so she felt fractionally lighter. Her shoulder-length hair bounced with each stride. She felt lucky that her body hadn't complained much about going straight from sleep to heavy exercise.

She settled into a rhythm, wondering why drills came during sleep shift and why she only met attractive men when she had temporarily sworn off relationships.


Karl reset the shuttle alarm indicator associated with the malfunctioning heat exchanger. Five seconds later it tripped again. Tokyan Station filled half the view screen already, and he couldn't afford to keep his attention focused on that single failure. He reset the alarm and deactivated the control bank that included the malfunctioning equipment and four other pieces of low-priority gear.

His current course had his shuttle headed five degrees away from the tip of the docking axis. The navigation system warned him of an upcoming course correction. Without taking his eyes off the view ahead, he said, "Do it," and allowed the nav system to proceed.

The burn pushed him back and sideways for almost five seconds.

Subconsciously he knew something was wrong even before the display verified it. The course correction thrust computed by the nav system was completely wrong. It had somehow been calculated 180 degrees off. Instead of heading more precisely for the docking axis, he was now heading directly toward the living quarters.

Karl's pulse accelerated. Sweat formed on his forehead, and he wished even more firmly that he were a pilot. What was happening here?

From somewhere behind came a pop that he felt more than heard, and suddenly a third of his instrument panel went dark. Just as quickly, it flashed back to life and then died a second time.


In a semi-dark exercise control room near the central axis of Tokyan Station, Albert McIntyre and six other people watched displays showing the results of the drill in progress. The primary hologram showed the layer-cake image of the entire station, with each layer made up of concentric rings, each one a different circular corridor.

Portions of six adjacent corridors were highlighted, indicating the portion of the station being drilled. The six corridor segments formed the outermost layer of the station, stretching about a third of the way around the station's perimeter.

Up to that point, the exercise had gone strictly according to plan, but now a new warning indicator started to flash.

"Crap," Albert said. "This is early, isn't it? I'm showing an object entering zone three. Who the hell checked the mission plan?"

"I did," said Lori Wend, a redheaded woman wearing a lab coat. "That shouldn't be in there for another five--five and a half minutes."

"Well, just go ahead and let it run. But be more careful in the future."

"I was--right, I'll do it." Lori touched a few panels on the console, and a flashing red light turned to a solid pink.

A comm panel buzzed, and the face of a man in his forties showed on the screen next to it. Red Adams was calling from the main Tokyan Station control center.

"Yes," Albert said irritably.

"We're showing a shuttlecraft in zone three," Red Adams said. "We need to cancel the drill."

"That's us. That's part of the test data. I don't know how it happened, but the test plan calls for that to happen in just a few minutes. Somehow the test event got shifted forward. We'll take a hard look at it when we're done."

Red glanced away for a moment and then back. "How sure are you that--"

"I'm sure; I'm sure. What do you think--that the first stray in ten years would happen within minutes of the time the test plan calls for it? We've just got a glitch in the timing."

"Well, I don't like it. Next time, make damn sure all your test activities are flagged that way. This one's showing up as a live event, and I've got a couple of people here about to wet their pants."

An anonymous voice called from the background. "Too late."

"You got it." Albert sent an angry glance toward Lori. "Sometimes it seems like if anything can go wrong, it will."


Karl's pulse quickened and his face grew warmer. He touched the comm panel and said, "Tokyan Station, this is shuttle 142. I've got an emergency. I'm presently on a course intersecting the station itself. I've had a control system failure, and I'm now trying to change course."

Karl tried the thrusters again. Still dead.

The comm speaker remained silent. Karl tried again. "Tokyan Station, do you read me? Tokyan Station, do you read?"

Silence. Karl couldn't tell if he had just a receiver failure or if the whole communications system had fallen victim to whatever equipment failure had blown out a third of the console. He locked the comm switch open and started a steady commentary of where he was, what had happened, and what actions he was now taking.

The station kept growing larger in slow motion. He couldn't even read the relative velocity, but it had to be big enough that the shuttle was going to do some serious damage. For an instant he considered abandoning ship, but he couldn't--not as long as there was a chance of stopping the shuttle. Besides that, he might not have time to avoid hitting the station anyway, and he'd be better off inside the shuttle. He tried not to think about what the crash would do to him. At least he had a cushioned flight web and the protection of being inside a large mass.

"I'm still on the way in," he said. "For God's sake I hope you can hear me. It looks like I'll probably hit two or three corridors up from the southern rim. I would have tried to go outside and manually fire one of the thrusters, but I'm so close already, there's no time."

The station was near enough to entirely fill the view screen. As the station's spin became more and more obvious, Karl realized that the rotation rate would contribute to the damage.

Another huge section of the instrument panel went dark.

"Tokyan Station, do you read? Answer me, damnit!"


Alis hadn't seen another person for over a minute. Probably the people who had originally started for other exits were already out. She sped past compartment after compartment displaying unoccupied indicators. The pulsating buzzer seemed to fade into the background, as if it had become just another station noise, just one more ingredient in the collection of normal sounds that might in another time and place have included chirping crickets, rustling leaves, and a squeaking screen door.

Far ahead, so far that it was concealed by the upward curve of the corridor, lay one of four connection points where Alis could move either to an adjacent corridor or upward to the next interior corridor. For the moment, she felt good, her body moving in an easy rhythm. She felt fit and alert now that the minor adrenaline surge had swept away the effects of sleep. She no longer resented the drill, and a second later she realized that it shouldn't have taken a drill to get her mind temporarily off work.

She smiled suddenly at the notion that a brisk run would trigger a reaction that told herself she needed to slow down. She was aboard the Tokyan Station, for crying out loud. She was in space, living her dream. She should be savoring this a little more, and being a little less single-minded about her job. She certainly didn't want to slack off in her duties, but work didn't have to consume all her off hours. She wondered how long it had been since she'd gone up to the low-gee observation lounge and just watched the stars for an hour. She would do that at the end of today's shift, no matter what.

Alis suddenly felt more alive than she had in months. She had worked tirelessly in graduate school in Houston, spending hours upon hours in simulators and sometimes going with so little sleep that she felt perpetually light-headed. She'd been on scholarship, one of just five in her graduating high school class in El Paso who not only wanted off the ground but also tested high enough to have a chance. All that work, just so she could be here.

She made herself promise she wouldn't back out of her commitment to go to the lounge tonight, no matter how much more she could get done if she stayed late at work. She thought about some of her old classmates, destined to see the stars only through the dirty lens of the Earth's atmosphere, trapped forever at one gee, never even to see the far side of the moon. Yes, this drill had come at exactly the right time. This was a signal to shift her priorities.


As Tokyan Station grew large in Karl's forward view port, what used to look like small vague shapes resolved into huge expanses of bulkheads, antennas, safety tie-down loops, maintenance lamps, emergency access panels, and networks of welding scars.

At another time, Karl might have marveled that the transformation in view was like looking at something familiar under a high-power microscope. Right now, he was as near panic as he'd ever been. The instrument panel was completely dark, so he couldn't try to minimize the damage by adjusting the shuttle's attitude to make sure he hit with the largest possible profile.

He was fully suited, breathing his personal air supply. The emergency beacon should be on, but he had no way to verify its operation. All he could do was wait.

Suddenly overpowered by frustration, Karl pounded on the dark control panel. It stayed dark.

He recalled a winter day on Earth, on a steep, icy hill, on a cold and overcast Minnesota morning. Even the anti-lock brakes were virtually ineffective as his Intruder slid down the hill. That morning he was able to maintain a weak sense of control by turning the steering wheel. Today he didn't even have that.


The comm panel near Albert McIntyre's fingertips buzzed again. Red Adams's face appeared.

"Can't it wait?" asked Albert.

"No," said Red. "We've really got a problem."

Albert moved his gaze from the drill displays to Red's face on the screen as Red continued speaking. "There really is a shuttle out there, and it's really on a collision course for the station. You've got to terminate the exercise."

"Oh, come on. We went over this. What you're seeing is exercise data that's incorrectly flagged."

"Wrong. We backtracked, and a science shuttle was on the way in before you guys started up."

"And you expect me to believe--"

"I expect you to react!"


Alis felt good. Normally one didn't run through the corridors. The exercise areas were available twenty-four hours a day for running and other conditioning. Unfortunately, Alis had conditioned herself to feel she was working when she went there. Here in the corridor, running was somehow fun, a little like breaking the rules.

The series of closed cabin doors gave over to a longer expanse of solid corridor wall as she reached one of the high-gee sick bays. The one low-gee infirmary was much closer to the station's spin axis, and reserved for only those patients whose condition required low gravity for recuperation. As she passed the first door, she relaxed further as she saw one more indication that this was, in fact, just an exercise, not a real emergency. The indicator next to the door said: occupied.

The sign made sense, Alis decided. There wasn't much to gain by moving injured people during a routine evacuation exercise. She kept moving.

At last she came within sight of her goal: the cross-corridor hatch. On her left was a recycling bay. On her right was still the sick bay. And not thirty meters away was the hatch. All she had to do was get through it.

Alis's exhilaration lasted less than a second. The floor shuddered under her feet, and suddenly, only ten meters in front of her, the steel floor buckled upward like a newly forming mountain range. Fissures formed. Bulkheads crumpled.

Alis stumbled as the shock wave hit her, and the blast of noise sounded like an explosion. This big a shock would have people on the far side of the station saying, "What was that?"

The air filled with a metallic crunching noise, as if some huge piece of machinery had been placed between two powerful vise jaws. There came an aftershock, or a second impact, and the sounds of destruction vanished, to be replaced by the hiss of leaking air. Within another second, the hiss became a roar.

Coming out of shock, Alis tried to back up. Already the blast of air threatened to sweep her bodily toward the damaged area and its jagged edges of curled metal. Her grasping fingers finally made contact with a recessed safety rung high on the wall.

Just in time. Her body blew at a forty-five-degree angle as the air from the corridor blasted through the hole and into space.

The pattern of the buzzer changed. The regular series of buzzes was replaced by a new code of long-short-long-short. A calm recorded voice began to repeat, "Hull breach. Please move to a higher level." Alis didn't need the extra encouragement. The sound volume already seemed to be tapering off as the air pressure fell.

She wouldn't have air much longer. Dangling by one hand as her body was buffeted by the escaping air, she tried with her free hand to pull her balloon helmet over her head. Her ears popped and her vision took on a faint red tinge.

The scene took on a nightmare quality as Alis dangled from the rung, her body whipped by the wind. The station designers expected occasional micrometeor impacts, but this was horribly wrong. Nothing the size of a pebble would do damage like this. This looked like some idiot had driven a shuttle directly into the station.


Karl almost blacked out on impact, but the webbing had helped absorb the worst of the shock. Immediately after the abrupt stop, he felt a sideways lurch. For just that second or two, the shuttle was stuck to the skin of Tokyan Station, like a piece of mud on a tire. But as soon as the station's spin had a second or two to act, the shuttle was cast loose, and Karl was in free fall again.

The only good news was that if he'd been flung off the station like mud slinging off a rotating tire, the one thing he couldn't do was cause any more damage to the station.

He wondered where he was heading. The impact had given the shuttle a several-rpm spin, and the only thing he was sure of was that Tokyan Station looked a little smaller each time it passed his field of vision.

In the silent, power-dead cabin, the slowly spinning star field generated a false sense of serenity.

Karl hoped they'd find him before his air ran out.


"Now do you believe me?" asked Red Adams. His expression in the comm panel showed more satisfaction in being right than worry about damage to Tokyan Station.

"Okay, okay," said Albert. "We felt it, too. We're shutting down the exercise. But why weren't you able to talk to the shuttle? Nothing in the test setup disturbs communications."

"I don't know yet. But we did have a small bit of luck. The impact is in the area that was already evacuated for your test. Crews are on their way now."


Alis was a doll in a tornado by the time she finally managed to get her balloon helmet secured. She grabbed a different recessed rung and let go of the first one. The hiss of internal suit air was a welcome sound. Seconds later the clear bubble around her head snapped outward from the pressure. A faint vibration came from the air exchanger on her back.

The flow of wind buffeting her was slowing. Almost all the air in the corridor was gone now.

She grabbed another rung and held on with both hands as she turned to survey the damage. Several jagged slits like knife wounds showed black. She could see through to the blackness of space, but the corridor lights made the adjacent ripped surfaces too bright for her to actually see the stars spinning past.

Whatever had hit the station was big. The walls on both sides of the corridor showed damage. Even the heavy frame that surrounded the emergency door between her and the next section of the corridor was crumpled at the bottom.

The air was finally almost gone, and she hung limply from the rungs. Alis let go and stood up. Her legs felt shaky at first, but her strength was returning. She moved forward to the door, avoiding the sharp edges of metal that had been pushed up through the floor.

The door was jammed shut. Through the portal she could see workers on the other side starting repairs, but the work was obviously going to take a while.

She looked back down the hall toward her cabin. She'd have to go all the way back to the other end to get out. Surely they'd unlock it; they had to realize by now that something really had gone wrong.

As she moved back through the damaged area, she noticed for the first time the tiny jets spraying condensing atmosphere from the pressurized sick bay into the vacuum of the corridor. Damn! The patients left in sick bay almost certainly wouldn't have been put in life-suits or pressure-protection bags just for what had started as an exercise. Alis ran to the nearest emergency panel, popped it open, and searched in the locker for something to deal with the leaks.

She fetched a set of generic patches, ones that could be used for a leaking life-suit or anything else. As she pressed a few into place and stopped the biggest leaks, she realized that the leaks indicated good news and bad news. The good news was that the sick bay still held enough pressure to leak this vigorously. The bad news was that if the room was leaking into the corridor here, it could also have slow leaks to the outside. She had to get into the sick bay to patch the leaks there.

Think, she told herself. She couldn't just slide open the door and walk in. She'd lose too much air too fast.

She turned and ran back to the emergency locker. She could hear her labored breathing inside her helmet, but nothing else. The emergency buzzers had long since been squelched by the vacuum. The emergency panel held a blocker that she could use to seal the corridor, but she needed two of them to isolate this section of corridor. She pulled out the blocker and dumped it on the floor. She ran the twenty meters to the next emergency panel and grabbed a second blocker. She lugged it to where she'd need to activate it, and then returned to get three air tanks. She'd need all the air she could manage. When an air tank hit the floor, she felt the impact through her feet.

A meter from the sick bay door she stopped and knelt beside the blocker. She double-checked her plan, and then pulled the cord and stepped back.

The blocker inflated quickly. In an atmosphere, it would have gone more slowly and would have made sound. Here, the folds of material just snapped silently in place as the huge shape inflated. Within seconds it was a large ball almost as wide as the corridor. As it expanded, Alis moved to activate the second blocker.

This one was trickier. She needed it to be on the other side of the damaged part of the sick bay wall, but she needed to avoid the sharpest slices of damaged metal. She picked the spot carefully and pulled the cord on the unit.

A few seconds later, her horizons had compressed to a corridor only ten meters long, blocked at both ends by the two huge, inflated balls that had by now firmly wedged themselves into place. She twisted the nozzle on one of the air tanks, and then another, letting air spill into the sealed section of the corridor. While the corridor section slowly filled with air, she grabbed two more air tanks from the emergency panel that she still had access to, and piled her supplies just outside the sick bay door.

Alis tried to gauge the ambient pressure by the snugness of her life-suit. When finally her balloon helmet began to sag slightly, she figured it was close to normal. She slid the sick bay door ajar and stuck her hand in the gap. The airflow seemed to be pulling her hand gently inside.

Good. At least she hadn't made the situation inside even worse. She slid the door wide open, and her balloon helmet stretched a little tighter.

She grabbed some of the supplies stacked on the corridor floor and carried them into the sick bay waiting area. Three quick trips later, everything was inside the sick bay, and she closed the door again. She turned off the flow from one of the air tanks and left the other running. Nervously she cracked the seal between her helmet and collar. Enough air escaped to pop her ears again, but the pressure was adequate. She pulled her helmet back off her head and shut down her air supply. Air was also flowing into the room from overhead nozzles, but their flow was meant for circulating fresh air in a pressurized environment, not for replacing air escaping from an unexpected leak.

Alis took some of the patch sealer and moved into a corridor that paralleled the main corridor. She passed an empty office and a deserted surgery room. The first patient room was unoccupied, but the second held a comatose, bedridden man with a couple of monitors nestled against shaved spots on the side of his head. The trace lines on the monitoring panel made it seem to her untrained eyes that he was in roughly the same condition as he had been in before the exercise started.

She continued down the hall. She found another empty room, and then another patient. This one was a young girl, maybe ten or twelve, awake and wide-eyed, in bed and trying to sit up.

"What's wrong? What's happened?" the girl asked.

"I don't know for sure," Alis said. "But I'm sure things will be getting under control soon. Anyone else besides you and the guy back there in here?"

"I don't think so." The girl was obviously afraid, and obviously reluctant to admit it. Apparently she had a broken leg. Her right leg was constrained, and the casing sprouted several monitoring transducers, each no doubt transmitting data to the control panel. The girl looked tiny in the huge bed.

"Good. Look, I've got to patch a couple of slow leaks. The station suffered some damage, but more help is on the way. You going to be all right?"

The girl nodded quickly, then pushed a lock of hair away from one eye.

Alis moved back to the hallway and headed toward the damaged area. She passed a series of empty rooms and reached the end of the corridor. The corner where the corridor met the far wall was the focal point of the damage, and crumpled metal showed a series of cracks in the floor and both walls, as if the corner of the room had been crushed inward.

From this close, Alis could hear the hiss of escaping air. She retrieved a patching kit, including flexible squares of tough material, and slapped three pieces on the most obvious holes, two on the floor and one on the far wall. The worst of the risk was probably over. With internal air pressure working with the adhesive to push the patches firmly against the edges of the gaps, the leaks should be easily controllable.

Alis grabbed a spray can of mist and filled the corner with fog. A couple of smaller leaks showed up instantly as the fog funneled into the tears in the metal. She covered those leaks, too, and then sealed another smaller leak. Now the fog gradually dissipated in the room instead of leaking out. Considering the damage, she had been extremely lucky these leaks were so small.

She finally let herself start to relax as she took the last step. She took out another spray can and gave all three damaged surfaces a coat of gap-sap. The aerosol glue should form a rubbery layer over the whole surface and take care of even microscopic leaks until a repair crew arrived.

The girl looked very happy to see Alis return.

Alis set down her repair kit. "I think everything's under control. You're sure you're all right?"

The girl nodded.

"Okay. I'm going up front to find a comm panel and find out how long it'll be before we get some help."

As she walked to the waiting room, Alis remembered one more precaution she should take, just in case the damaged area were to suddenly rupture. She found a supply closet and grabbed an air ball.

Back in the girl's room, Alis unsnapped the loop that held the fabric tight and began to spread it out. "Have you seen an air ball before?"

"Yes. Every few months they show us."

"Good. I want to get this one ready for you, just in case we have any more air problems." Alis spread the material under the girl's body and pulled a section up and over her leg. When inflated, the air ball would form a meter-wide ball with a contained atmosphere. Moments later, the girl lay almost enclosed by the material, and her hand held the interior zipper, ready to zip the bag closed if need be.

"I don't think you're going to need this, but I'd rather be safe," Alis said. "I'll take care of the guy in the other room if you can zip this up for yourself."

"Yes. I can do it."

"Good. I've got to make some calls. You're sure you're going to be all right?"

"Yes, thanks."

Alis smiled. After she did what she could for the man, she moved to the small office next to the waiting room. The comm panel was built into a desk that was in turn built into the wall. She tapped the icon for the operations center and waited for an answer.

The panel lit up and showed the face of a man she vaguely recognized.

Alis spoke carefully. "This is Lieutenant Commander Nussem. I'm in corridor C-8, in sick bay. We had a loss of pressure in the corridor, but the two patients here are safe as long as the air leaks don't get worse."

"Excellent. How are you doing?"

"Just a little shaken up. The corridor floor damage is just this side of the main doors. I inflated two blockers, one near the damaged area and one on the opposite side of the sick bay door. Between them is atmosphere. The rest of the corridor is still vacuum, I assume."

"Right. That's what we show here." The man looked away from the screen and up at someone standing next to him. Seconds later he was back. "Look, we've got another problem. A shuttle rammed into the side of the station. We're getting bad readings from the recycling station across the hall from you. There must be a rupture, because we're sensing a steady loss of gas. Apparently we're venting a huge amount into space. We're trying to get a crew on it from the outside, but meanwhile we've got to try to do it from the inside. Obviously we've got a problem on our hands. I'm not ordering you to go in there, but if you were to volunteer--"

"I can't just walk away," Alis said. "Anything special I should know before I go?"

"Don't think so. Just use your own judgment and give us an assessment when you get in. If there's anything obvious you can patch, great. We've got a team on the way, but it might be ten or fifteen minutes."

"Will do."

Alis stopped briefly at the door of the girl's room. "We've got some other damage I need to take a look at. You going to be all right?"

"I think so. Yes."

Alis flashed another quick smile at the girl and left. In front of the door to the corridor, she put her balloon helmet back in place. The sound of her breathing intensified, and she took a deep breath that almost sounded as if she had just emerged from one of the underwater training sessions back in Houston.

She slid the door slightly ajar. Air rushed neither in nor out. She slid the door open, stepped through, and shut it behind her, grateful that the sick bay would probably hold up just fine until the others arrived.

The two inflatable corridor blockers were still in place and doing their jobs adequately, or there wouldn't have still been air in the corridor. She moved down the hall and stopped in front of the door to the recycling bay. She realized with surprise that she didn't want to go in, and without the slightest effort she instantly traced the reaction back to Texas.

Growing up in El Paso, she and a group of the neighborhood kids had played hide and go seek. It was a game Alis played not because it was fun, but because she wanted the companionship and didn't want to be an outsider. Almost invariably one of the boys would hide in the boiler room of the apartment complex. From that time on, Alis disliked spending time around large machinery. She just hated creeping through that maze of huge refrigeration units, water tanks, dripping pipes, and creaking metal, worrying that one of the huge water tanks would choose that moment to explode and knowing that at any instant one of the hiding children might leap from a dark corner and scare her so badly, her heart sounded like a drum.

A game like that made her think she could understand how some people could look at Russian roulette as a game, but it still couldn't make her understand how they might think it was fun. And yet here she was living in space, surrounded by machinery.

Alis shoved aside the memories. Wary of a vacuum beyond the door, she leaned away from the side of the door she intended to open and pulled the recessed handle. The door would not budge.

She moved her head closer to the panel next to the door. The indicator said the door was locked as a safety measure because vacuum was reported on the other side. She entered the emergency code 9911 on the keypad, and a warning light bright enough for a foggy runway began to strobe. A horn began to scream. She pressed her fingertips against the door, and soon she felt the click as the computer released the lock.

She pulled the door open a few centimeters, and air began to screech through the gap. Damn, now there would be that much more gas lost in space. Her bubble helmet stretched tighter, and the noise from the air loss started to wind down as the pressure fell. She pulled the door farther open and tossed a couple of air tanks and a repair kit inside. She left one air tank to refill the segment of corridor, then closed the door behind her. The regular overhead lighting had failed inside the recycling bay, and the masses of equipment were garishly lit by wall-mounted emergency lamps. Vacuum intensified the contrast along the edges of shadows.

Back in the maze of machinery, numerous emergency indicators independently flashed on and off, creating a constantly changing patchwork of illuminated surfaces, an ant's view of the interior of an old-fashioned pinball machine.

Alis left the air tanks near the door and grabbed the patch kit. She realized her heart rate was up as she moved into the maze, walking carefully along a narrow corridor. She wished her emergency suit had a radio. A calm voice in her ears would be welcome.

The corridor turned ninety degrees, traveled a couple of meters, and then split into two branches. She took the one on the right, the one that led toward where she guessed the damage lay.

Another ten meters brought her within sight of the impact area. The damage here was worse than in the corridor. A hole almost a half-meter across showed in the floor, as if a huge blunt knife had ripped into the outside shell of the station. The patch material wouldn't do any good here.

Gas steadily jetted from a ruptured pipe, part of it turning to mist in the cold and funneling out the hole in the hull. For all Alis knew, that could be oxygen that was being wasted. Whatever is was, it was completely unrecoverable.

Alis moved to a nearby equipment cabinet door. She opened it, snapped two catches loose, and lifted the door from its hinges. She levered the door into place over the hole in the hull, making it into a giant patch. The raised lip of metal around the hole in the hull kept the door from lying flat against the floor. With one foot on one side of the door, she kicked down on the opposite side, wishing she were heavier. After several blows, the door bent slightly over the damaged metal of the hull, and the gaps between the edges of the door and the hull grew smaller.

She dug out the biggest patches she could find and started applying them to the perimeter of the door. After about a minute, she could see sections of the material starting to bulge outward. Good! The hole to the outside was growing smaller. She kept applying material, and seconds later completed her circuit of the door. So far the material was holding.

She sprayed mist and followed its path. At first it was hard to see in the shadow, but soon she saw that a hairline crack between two bulkhead plates was still letting gas out. She sprayed the length of the seam with gap-sap, and then sprayed all around the material surrounding the door. Suddenly the center of the door buckled outward with a twang that she could hear. The atmosphere was building up. Finally!

The pressure increased to the point that her bubble helmet no longer stretched tightly, and the door held. Next she had to repair the burst pipe or find a way to shut off the flow. She spun a valve handle a couple of meters from the broken section, but the flow continued. She traced the pipe on the far side of the break.

The pipe vanished behind a bay of cabinets. She raced back to the damaged section and tried to wrap patch material around it. She couldn't get a good seal. The surface next to the pipe was oily, and so was the pipe. Besides that, this time the pressure was working against the seal instead of with it.

She hurried back to see if she could trace where the pipe came out after going behind the bay of cabinets. At the end of the bay was a bulkhead wall, and she had to backtrack along the corridor to the branch and follow the other corridor.

Finally she came around to the far side of the cabinets and the stubby support bulkhead. There was a pipe--three pipes. She picked the one with the same diameter as the other section, and she traced it along a section of corridor, past another small maze of huge containers, and finally she found another valve. She closed the valve and finally started to relax.

She stayed in that semi-relaxed state only another ten seconds or so, because as her gaze followed the pipe to where it split into two paths, she saw a label on the pipe: Hydrogen.

Oh, God. That meant this entire bay must be full of hydrogen by now. And she had plugged the leak to the outside. A rescue crew could be coming along the corridor at any second--along a corridor now filled with oxygen.

She had to keep them from opening the door. If those two gases were to mix, and there were to be a spark, say caused by a metal boot scraping against the corridor floor or, worse yet, someone with a welding torch--

She ran. She sped along the narrow corridor. She careened off an instrument panel at a sharp bend in the corridor, and her feet pounded against the hull beneath her. Her breath was ragged inside the helmet.

She was within sight of the door. It was still closed. Thank God. She raced the rest of the way and slapped the lock into the on position. That had been way too close.

But the danger wasn't over. The emergency crew could override the lock. She had to get word to them.

She flipped on the comm panel next to the door, suddenly even more angry that emergency evacuation suits didn't have radios.

The light on the comm panel lit, indicating someone was on the other end. Alis took a deep breath and quickly removed her helmet.

"Don't let anyone in the recycling bay down here. It's filled with hydrogen!"

"Is this Alis Nussem? In the damaged section?"

"Yes. I've got the door locked, but the emergency crew will override it." Alis had to take a breath. "You've got to tell them--" Alis stopped. Her voice had turned into a cartoon squeaky voice. It was the hydrogen. She put her helmet back on and took a couple of deep breaths to fill her lungs with oxygen. Once again she tore the helmet off, and she said, "You've got to tell them not to open the door."

"Nelson is calling them right now. Good work."

Even as the words came over the comm speaker, Alis heard a thump on the door. The emergency crew was already here. She grabbed the recessed handle and held the door closed.

Whoever was on the other side had already overridden the lock and was sliding the door open. A tiny gap opened at the side of the door.

Alis pushed as hard as she could to keep the door from opening farther. She was starting to grow light-headed from lack of oxygen, but she couldn't put her helmet back on without reducing her pressure on the door. She was acutely aware of the grim irony that on the other side of the door she was trying to hold closed was plenty of oxygen. If only the person on the other side of the door would get the word before she lost consciousness.

Through the gap came a narrow metal pry bar. The lever forced the door open almost as if Alis weren't making any effort at all.

"Keep the door closed!" she yelled. The pry bar kept moving, as if the suited worker couldn't hear her.

She gave up trying to hold it closed. As soon as the door had opened far enough for her to see someone in a full EVA suit, she gestured to indicate the door must close again. She yelled, "Hydrogen! Shut the door!" but her last breath of hydrogen again turned her voice into the high-pitched squeak that was neither very intelligible nor commanding.

The suited figure stood there motionless for a second as though dumbstruck by the spectacle of Alis struggling with her helmet. The person turned suddenly, as if to look back at someone else in the corridor, and the tip of the pry bar stuck the edge of the door frame.

Alis didn't even have time to blink. The explosion was a bellyflop from the high dive. She pinwheeled backward into blackness, unconscious even before she hit the recycling center bulkhead.

End of Excerpt