Life in a Gas Cloud – a short story
I had the delight of being on a panel about the possibilities of megafauna in space, at Dragon Con this year alongside Dr. Pamela Gay and our own Emily. With a little help from the audience we speculated on the extremes that physics and biology could allow. I took a few notes as we went and have attempted to translate some of what we discussed into fiction. Also, a special thanks to Treelobsters who also attended the panel and provided the cover image.
I’m not sure about the title, suggestions welcome.
Life in a Gas Cloud
“Detouring through a nebula?” Corporal Wilkins shouted in disbelief as they looked over the new flight plans from Central that they’d just been handed.
“Nothing to be done about it.” sighed Captain Sethi wearily. She’d had this conversation three times already and had saved her pilot for last, anticipating pushback. “We’ve some odd readings and we’re to investigate.”
Wilkins was having none of it. “Why not send a probe in? We’ve got more than enough.”
“We did send a probe,” interrupted Dr. Lee as he stepped in to join Wilkins and the Captain at the table. “Two, actually. Same readings from both and neither make any sense. I’ve been up all night talking with Central and they want us to go in and get some return samples.”
“What’s so damned fishy about this nebula?” Wilkins grumbled, trying to stay appropriately surly, though a spark of curiosity crept into their voice.
“Organics,” Lee said flatly.
“And?” Wilkins scowled. “We find carbon on every second rock we pick up. If we pulled over every time we detected…”
“Oxygen,” Lee interrupted.
Wilkins threw up their hands and stomped a few steps away.
The Captain was enjoying this. She wished that there were popcorn for the show. Dr. Lee was playing with Wilkins’ patience on purpose, letting them flop about on the line before reeling them in.
“A star exploded!” Wilkins fumed. “Of course there’s some oxygen. There be gold in them gas clouds, too. Are we gonna to mine that?”
The corner of Dr. Lee’s mouth twitched up a hair. The Captain could see that he was having trouble holding in his punchline. “Methane,” he said, his voice starting to waver with excitement.
“Sorry, what?” Wilkins’ aggravated pacing stopped.
“There’s methane, Wilkins,” Dr. Lee started to bubble. “There’s methane gas in there, in significant quantities, and there’s more!” He pressed a button on the ship’s intercom and a faint ghostly song filled the room.
“What in all the hells is that?” Wilkins said quietly, trying not to speak over the quiet, haunting chorus.
“It’s FM radio,” said Lee gleefully. “Something in there is broadcasting.”
“Can’t be natural?” Wilkins’ eyebrow arched.
“Incredibly unlikely. Narrow band, consistent but irregular frequency shifts, several independent overlapping sources.”
The pilot’s surly demeanor had almost vanished. “Intelligent?”
“That’s…” Lee trailed off with calculated cruelty.
“Nebulous.” The doctor smirked.
Wilkins scowled, and something more occurred to them. They looked to the intercom panel, where a single press of a ‘general attention’ button had summoned the ghostly broadcast. “How long did it take for you to rig that up?” Wilkins demanded.
“About twenty minutes,” said a small, sweetly malicious voice from the doorway. Lieutenant Park had been eavesdropping. Both her and Lee were grinning like idiots.
The Captain had to hide her amusement. It was time to play commanding officer again and interrupt the fun before it got messy. “Wilkins,” she started “if you would be so kind as to point us in the right direction before we miss our stop, I’d be much obliged.”
“Aye Captain,” they sighed resignedly, and started off to the main cabin.
“And you two,” the Captain scowled at the pair of pranksters, “Get my comms back to normal before breakfast or I might have to dust-off the regulations on conjugal relations between crew members.”
“Aye Captain,” they mumbled in unison.
The Captain left her engineer and science officer to undo their damage, and headed off to find her astrophysicist. He’d doubtless be in the astrolab.
“Attah?” she said, poking her head up into the darkened chamber.
Dr. Attah was there, intensely focused on a large holographic display in the centre of the room. “Captain…” he acknowledged distractedly.
“What are we looking at?” she asked, climbing the rest of the way into the chamber.
It took nearly a minute for the physicist to answer, but she was used to that. She had worked with deep thinkers before, and Attah was the deepest.
“If I’m right…”
He always was.
“This is a very strange little nebula…”
“A little more detail, if you have it, Doctor.” The Captain sighed, settling into the seat beside Attah.
“Oh! What? Sorry! Hello.” Dr. Attah snapped out of his calculatory trance and was surprised to find another human in the room with him.
“The Nebula,” the Captain smiled forgivingly at him. “If you please.”
“Oh yes, well it’s quite old, you see. Very odd,” he stammered.
“How old does a nebula need to be to be odd?”
“Well…” he double-checked some notes before answering. “About a billion years. Parts of it anyway. It looks like a supernova kicked the whole thing off, and then left a binary star system behind.”
“Billion?” the Captain said in disbelief. “Billion, with a ‘b’?” That would be orders of magnitude older than any nebula she’d heard of.
Attah nodded. “Plus or minus a hundred million… yes?” He seemed uncertain, and checked his figures again.
“How?” she probed cautiously, hoping that she wouldn’t have to pull out her graduate studies notes to understand the response.
“Well…” he began ponderously before accelerating precipitously into his explanation. “The binary system is the source. The whole nebula should be dense enough to collapse, possibly even form planets again, but there’s nothing much bigger than a small moon. The widely elliptical orbit of the two stars keeps a cohesive disk from forming. Moreover, the white dwarf star is syphoning material from the red giant causing a recurrent nova cycle, which heats, disrupts, re-spheroidizes, and redistributes the matter in the system on a two-million year term.”
That was an unusually coherent explanation from Attah. It was a cloud of dust and gas with a pair of orbiting stars acting as blender, keeping it from clumping up, and a beating heart at the middle, regularly pumping new blood and warmth through it. She considered sharing the analogy but thought better of it. Attah frowned on metaphor, he considered it too imprecise.
The pair spent some more time going over the numbers before the com speaker, blaring with Wilkins’ sardonic voice, interrupted them. “One hour, forty-seven minutes until we transfer to normal space. Everyone not inclined to be turned inside out should make their way to a deceleration tank. “And apologies for the late warning,” they added unapologetically “for some reason, the comms weren’t working properly.”
As the broadcast cut out, the Captain reached for the com panel beside her to include a precautionary addendum to the broadcast. “One person per tank, Park! I don’t care what your calculations say or how hot you think it would be.”
She put on her tank suit and made her way to the deceleration chamber. She’d done it dozens of times, but it never improved. Having your nose, mouth, lungs, and every other orifice and crevice of your body filled with non-Newtonian fluid was bad enough, but returning to real-space felt a lot, to her, like being vomited into a flushing toilet.
The hour or so she was stuck in the tank, though, gave her time to think. The strange little nebula they were going into had been obscured from earth by the disk of the milky way. They were the first expedition to ever even notice it, and, if the readings were to be believed, there was something alive in it. It was unprecedented. She speculated excitedly at the microbes that might be drifting around in the rarified gas of the nebula, the tiny creatures that might survive in the irradiated wasteland of dust surrounding a repeatedly exploding star, and maybe, just maybe, something intelligent enough to be broadcasting.
Even the inelegant process belching up the opaque slime that kept them three-dimensional in the deceleration process did little to dampen her childlike anticipation.
She saw Wilkins squelch over to a panel to check their position. “Ten hours till we hit the edge of the nebula,” they read out for the other four crew members, “and probably four more after that till it gets dense enough to be interesting.”
“Okay kids,” the Captain called the attention of everyone. “Let’s get ourselves cleaned up and rested. I want everyone at their best for this. We’ll have less than a day in there and I don’t want to miss a thing.”
She followed her own orders and lay down for as much sleep as her unquiet mind would let her. Six hours later though, she was sneaking her way to the geolab to start prepping tests. She was not the first one there, either. Lee and Park were busily arguing over how best to take samples and what experiments could be run on board.
“Sleep well?” she asked with a raised eyebrow, startling them both.
“I’m offended at the tone of your voice, Captain,” replied Park. “We are consummate professionals and wouldn’t risk such an important opportunity with bunktime shenanigans.”
“You’re not wearing pants, Park.”
The engineer flushed slightly. “I was, perhaps, overeager to get started. I’ll be back in a minute.” She gave a quick peck on Lee’s cheek, and scuttled off to get dressed.
In her absence, the Captain turned to Lee. “So Doc, how does it look?”
“Not bad,” he replied, as he prepared specimen vials for the isolation chamber. “We’re not kitted out properly for biologicals, but we have the standard ‘just in case’ supplies so we can do some pretty solid preliminary work on board, and we have the accumulator funnels all queued up to do collecting runs once we hit gas.”
“And the ship? Is she safe?”
“Park said something like ‘99.9% sure it will be fine.’ The particle density is low enough that if we slow down a bit, the worst that will happen is our decals will get a bit weathered. The ceramic plating shouldn’t even get scuffed.”
As if on cue, Wilkins’ voice cut in over the com, “Grab your spoons and empty your mugs, folks. We’re starting our entry burn in two.”
There was a quick scramble to get everything in drawers before the burn. Wilkins was a hell of a pilot, but their skill could only compensate so much for Newton’s laws.
The rumble of the engines started to vibrate through the ship, and the room lurched. The simulated gravity generated by the spinning outer ring of the ship twisted and spun. The Captain held on tightly to nearby rails as vector calculus did cartwheels around her. A few moments later the ship stabilized, the room rotated to compensate for the changing momentum, and Lee put his head in a bin while he evacuated his stomach.
“Most people get used to that,” the Captain said through a sympathetic smile.
The doctor just gave a thumbs up to indicate that he was fine, and the Captain left him to finish his work.
The next few hours were an agony of anticipation. The first samples had been collected and the whole crew of five stared anxiously at the spectrometer as it slowly spat out exactly the numbers and graphs to be expected from the diffuse mist of basically nothing they were drifting through.
“Hydrogen, Helium, elemental boredom, and trace amounts of disinterest,” moped Lee. “Same as the last one.”
The third sample was more promising. “Methane!” the crew exclaimed unison, and they fought to peer at the little display on the spectrometer. Several more promising results scrolled across the display: O2, O3, CO2, H2O, all present. They were vanishingly small traces, but there they were, unmistakable indicators of life.
The crew was getting giddy by the time the fourth sample was pulled in. They waited impatiently for the little robotic arms in the isolation chamber to finish packaging, sealing, and storing samples for analysis back home. The process was insufferably slow, but it finally moved to inject the last little puff of gas into their onboard machine that would tell them if anything more complex than water was floating out there.
They all held their breaths.
“Injection Error?” Lee moaned, deflated. “Seriously?” He tapped furiously at the controls trying to coax the device into cooperation. Frustrated, he moved the nozzle in front of the chamber camera for inspection.
“It’s…” Lee trailed off.
“Wet.” Attah continued.
“Clogged.” Wilkins corrected.
The Captain felt her heart thump in her chest as the possibilities of what that could mean washed over her.
Her crew were equally stunned. They stared dumbfounded at the slimy little nozzle in the camera.
Lee was the first to find his composure. He started to work the controls to bring the collector container into view. It was a multi-levelled bucket with increasingly fine filters meant to catch interstellar particles and gases. As he pulled it apart, the screen found the lower filters empty, as the upper layers had been entirely clogged with a blue mucus-like slime.
Cheers erupted and he smeared some onto a glass slide to put under the microscope.
Lee, Attah, and Park pressed in to see what the scope would reveal, but Wilkins pulled back and caught the Captain’s eye. “I’d better go check on the ship,” they said in a concerned tone, “this goop isn’t quite what we were expecting.”
The Captain nodded and moved to prod Park into similar action. Park however was distracted by something quite other than the image coming into focus on the microscope monitor. She was staring, immobilized with fear, as one of the finer, stainless steel mesh filters collapsed, and its fine filaments dissolved into the ooze, now a deep red.
“It’s eating the steel…” She said to nobody in particular, her thoughts were coming straight out her mouth.
“What?” asked Lee, not listening. “Nevermind! Look!” He pointed excitedly to the monitor. There were several clearly defined blue blobs with long hairlike structures flowing out in all directions.
“Life!” he shouted, “nebular life! We’ll be famous! We’ll get Nobel Prizes!”
“It’s eating the steel!” Park insisted and physically grabbed Lee’s head, shoving it to the other screen to show him.
The second of the steel mesh filter was being rapidly dissolved and the chamber lining beneath was starting to etch under the corrosive juices of the microbes.
There was a moment of frozen uncertainty before the Captain found her composure. “Lee, flush that chamber before there’s nothing left to flush!” she ordered. “Park, I need to know what this is doing to my ship, and fast. Attah, get a message out to Central, let them know what’s going on.” She slammed her hand on the communication console. “Wilkins, get us the hell out of this soup.”
The crew flew into action. For all of their backtalk and tomfoolery, the Captain had never flown with a more skilled and dedicated crew. They hadn’t even cleared the room, though, before Wilkins voice rang over the com.
“We have two bad choices, boss!” they shouted louder than necessary. It sounded as though they were wrestling with controls. “I can crank her up to 2G and pop right back out where we entered in about two hours, or take my foot off the gas and just drift out the other side in about six.”
The Captain processed for a moment before responding. “What’s so bad about the first, and why would we do the latter?”
“Well Cap,” Wilkins answered a little awkwardly “our ass-end is already pretty well coated in that stuff and I’m losing sensors all over. If we change direction, we’ll lose front-facing sensors and be flying blind in both directions.”
“Attah, Park, thoughts?”
Park was first to respond as she did most of her thinking out loud, “The ceramic hull should be fine. The microbes shouldn’t be able to touch that, I don’t think, but I can’t be certain. The engines, though, they’re an iron alloy. I don’t know how fast this guck eats, but I worry that it’ll mess up our control surfaces.”
Attah appeared to add her comments to the calculations running behind his eyes. “Keep the engines hot…” he mumbled, “maintain orientation… no sensors in direction of travel,” he added and started writing in unseen ink in the air with his finger.
The Captain and crew knew better than to interrupt this process. Wilkins, however couldn’t see it happening and blasted over the comms, “Holy mother of… Everyone get to a viewport now!”
The lab had no window, so Lee and Park bolted one direction, dashing to the medical bay, as the Captain scurried the other way, hopping through the door to the tool room, leaving Attah in the lab, still lost in thought.
At first the Captain only saw the faint, luminous reds, blues and violets of the nebula. It was beautiful and serene. Under other circumstances she would have deeply enjoyed soaking-in the view. However the situation had become too urgent for sightseeing, and she was about to find a com panel to demand an explanation from Wilkins when she saw it.
It was a fish.
Or it looked fishlike anyway. It had a long sleek body with beautiful, scintillating fins trailing behind it, like sheer, glittering silk scarves drifting in the wind. It was swishing its tail back and forth as if in slow motion, drifting peacefully through the sparse mist of the nebula. Its wide mouth was agape, probably gathering nourishment. ‘Likely feeding on the microbes that were ruining her ship,’ thought the Captain.
There is a problem when looking at things in open space, that there is very little to use as a reference. This issue of perspective was brought into startlingly sharp focus as the ship shot past another one of the silky-finned fish, but much, much closer.
It nearly filled the Captain’s viewport as its metallic skin sped past, looking like liquid silver. Its shimmering tail swept past as well, nearly transparent from this distance. The whole thing must have been over a kilometer long, maybe more.
“Are we transmitting?” the Captain demanded, leaping to a com. “Tell me we’re broadcasting this.”
There was a moment before her pilot found the words to respond. “Yeah…” Wilkins replied shakily. “Yeah, as loud as we can. You should see it from here, Cap. There’s a dozen of them. They’re bigger than my hometown, and the radio is going nuts. I think it’s them. I think they’re singing to each other on FM 96.7. I used to listen to that station. It was country music.”
“Are we going to hit one?”
“No way to know,” replied Wilkins in a daze, “Our rear sensors are completely gummed up with the sludge. I’m basically flying blind. Don’t much think they’d notice if we did. We’re little more than a spitball to them.”
“Very comforting! Thank you!” Park interjected. “Sorry to ruin a moment, but do we have a plan for not dying in here yet?”
“Yes…” came Attah’s hesitant voice. “I believe I have…”
Whatever Attah might have had would remain a mystery. The ship shuddered violently and the Captain was slammed painfully to the floor. The doors slammed shut automatically and the room went black.
She sat motionless for a moment, listening for the hissing of decompression that would tell her she only had moments to live.
Emergency lights flickered on… a good sign.
She drifted weightless from the floor… a bad sign.
That meant that either the engines were off, or the habitation ring had detached from main body the ship. She kicked off and drifted back to her viewport. She could see the cause of the damage immediately. Drifting rapidly away was a massive, green, mossy-looking mat with a small puncture in it, where they must have punched through. It looked like a pond scum, floating free in the nebula, its surface turned to face the distant red star for warmth and energy.
The main body of the ship would have shot through like an arrow. The hab ring, where they were, would have put up a lot more resistance. The difference must have sheared the two apart. The ring was meant to be detachable in emergencies, but the crew was ideally meant to be on the main body when it happened, the part with power, and engines, and air.
“Shit.” she said aloud.
She found a com panel and mustered enough optimism to open the line. “Report,” she groaned.
“Report,” she repeated.
“Ting, ting, ting,” the response was not from the radio, there was someone knocking on her door.
She hauled on the lever to release the seal and swung open the door to the lab to find an apologetic looking Attah staring back at her. “I’m not sure my new flight plan will work anymore,” he said.
“We’re not dead yet. You might get another chance,” the Captain said, patting her defeated looking astrophysicist on the shoulder in an attempt to rally some optimism. “Let’s check on the other two.”
She pushed herself back into the lab and over to the far side. She knocked on the door to the med-bay and waited.
They knocked back.
She started to pull on the lever to open the door, but had it yanked from her hand as it slammed back into locked position of its own accord.
She banged on the door again.
A rhythmic tapping came as a response.
“A – G – Q – F – M – M – M,” spelled Attah aloud. “What does that mean?”
“It’s not Morse,” replied the Captain grimly “It’s a song: Barely Breathing.”
“That’s not good,” Attah acknowledged, crestfallen.
“No, but it is quite popular.” The Captain smirked. She had a plan. It wasn’t a very good plan, and only served to prolong the inevitable, at this point, but it was something to cling to. If she and Attah sealed themselves in the tool room, Park and Lee could use the lab like an airlock. She just needed to signal them when it was safe to enter.
She pounded out her best rendition of “Come When I Call” on the sealed med-bay door and waited.
Three loud bangs were her response and she desperately hoped that Park had understood.
She and Attah launched themselves back into the tool room. Once inside, she threw two large wrenches as hard as she could at the med-bay door to signal Park and Lee, and shut the tool room with a slam.
The two pressed their ears to the door to listen. They heard a whump of gas evacuating the lab, a clattering of instruments caught in the current, and the faint thump of a closing door. There was an uncomfortably long pause before a weak thumping vibrated through their door.
They pulled open the seal between the chambers carefully and a rush of air swept past them, refilling the lab. Their ears popped but the wind settled as the pressure equalized between the rooms. They had lost several hour of air in the rescue, and had likely infected the lab with some of the iron eating microbes, but she had her Engineer and Science Officer back, even if it was only to share her final hours with.
The Captain rushed to her recovered crewmates. Park looked well, considering, but Lee was in rough shape. His eyes were unfocused and he was holding a wadded bundle of gauze to his head, already soggy with blood. Both had medical breathing masks over their mouths and O2 canisters in their hands.
“You look pretty good for decompression,” quipped the Captain as she rushed to check on her two crew members. “How bad is the damage?”
“The whole room cracked in half,” replied Park, rubbing her eyes and taking a few deep breaths. “We were open to the nebular atmosphere. Luckily, the gas is relatively warm and thick around here; you could almost breathe it if it were made of air. Burns the eyes something fierce, though.”
She turned to Lee to check on his condition. “Let me see, honey,” she said, gently pulling away the bandage. “He broke my fall. A true gentleman.”
He winced a bit as she began to wind the gauze around his head properly. “Next time, it’s your turn,” he slurred out.
“Concussion?” asked the Captain.
“Fabulous.” She faced her three lost looking subordinates and mustered the resolve to act captainly. “Let’s take stock: comms are down, emergency power is up. Not sure how many pods are still accessible, so that’s the first order of business. Attah and I will get on that. We’ve no way of knowing where the main body of the ship is, or if Wilkins is even alive. Park, I need you to start working out a survival plan. Rescue is unlikely but…”
“That’s not entirely true.” Lee interrupted, blearily.
The other three turned quizzically to the concussed doctor.
“We might be able to contact Wilkins,” he said earnestly.
“How?” asked the Captain, trying to peer into the opaque thought processes of the
“Barely Breathing… songs… not actual songs… I mean…” Lee struggled to form a cogent thought. “We know what radio station he’s listening to.”
Hope is like candy in desperate situations and the others devoured the idea like children.
“Park, find us a radio and get us some whale songs playing. Attah, with me, let’s see what we’ve got left.”
A quick search informed them that there wasn’t much. They were in half of a slowly tumbling doughnut. The other half was drifting away from them on its own doomed pirouette. There were only four connected rooms with pressure: the lab, tool room, waste processing, and toilets. No food, no fresh air, no heat. They had five or six hours at best.
The Captain tried to keep a brave face when returning to Park and Lee, but Attah had the reality of the situation written all over him.
Park had dug out a pair of two-way radios from the tool room and already had them and a couple other devices in pieces, trying to find the parts to tune them to the right frequency and boost the signal. They explained the situation but Park wouldn’t hear it. They had enough air to finish what she was doing and that was enough hope to keep her going.
Half an hour ticked by as the engineer furiously tinkered, shouting orders to the other three to hold various bits in place and to stop them floating off. Park’s vigorous enthusiasm kept the others hopeful.
The Captain could see, though, that Lee was fighting to keep himself awake and they were both working to keep Park from noticing. They needed her focused.
Almost an hour later, she was tuning in a signal, and Lee’s eyes were drifting closed. A soft ghostly song began to fill the tool room.
“Testing testing 123! Are you reading? Over?”
Nothing but the soft moans of their FM ghosts.
“Ground control to Major Tom. Can you hear me Major Tom?”
A tiny, quiet bit of noise, almost drowned out by the phantom chorus trickled in.
“…ello… are… there…”
“Wilkins! Yes, we are here! We are all alive!” Park blurted into the handset.
The Captain grabbed the radio. “Are you in a position to stage a rescue?”
“I… ink so… eed a steady… ignal to… iang… ate on.”
“He needs a signal. Park, will this work?”
Park nodded. “I can get it to blast out a standard tone. They should be able to triangulate on that to a few hundred yards… assuming the antenna is still in one piece.
The Captain returned to the radio. “Wilkins, we’re sending out a signal on this frequency.”
“…eading it… loud and… eta… ifteen minutes.”
The Captain smiled inwardly. Fifteen minutes. The loyal idiot had already been heading back to get them. Not much time to form a plan, though. No suits, no jets, no way to get from here to there.
She jostled Lee awake and addressed the team. “Okay, we have fifteen minutes till our ride gets here. He’s probably flying blind and we can barely talk to him. I need options.”
Lee tried to mutter something but it was coming out slurred. Park fuss over him, checking his pupils and reactions, squeezing his hand and stroking his face comfortingly. The Captain tried to bring her attention back to the bigger issue. She needed calm heads. Lee’s was a bit too calm, and Park’s panic wasn’t going to help him. He needed a med-bay, soon, and one with air in it wasn’t going to show up inside of this nebula.
“If they park close enough…”
Park and the Captain stopped and turned to Attah.
“Less than a kilometer… less than that and we can do it.”
“Do What? How?” The Captain tried to pull Attah out of the mathematical trance he’d descended into. “Explain. Do we live at the end?”
“Probably not, no,” Attah began. “But I don’t think there’s a better way. If they stop within a kilometer we should be able to jump.”
“Jump?” asked Park dubiously.
“Being shot would be more accurate, but I thought jumping sounded,” Attah explained. “We can use the pressure release from a blowing a hatch to fling us in the right direction with careful timing.”
“What about breathing?” asked the Captain.
“Park and Lee already solved that problem.” He gestured to the two oxygen canisters that had been rescued from the med-bay. “Lee will likely need his own, as he can’t be trusted to control his breathing, but there should be enough to keep us conscious for the trip if we share the other.”
“This is insane. What about exposure?”
“We have already tested the theory. Ms. Park seems no worse for her few minutes in it. Lee would be fine if not for the initial fall.” Attah responded in his impenetrable calm manner. “If we tie ourselves together with some bedding, keep Lee in the middle, and time the expulsion well, it should work.”
“Park?” asked the Captain hoping for a better alternative.
“He’s not wrong,” she said dismally, as she worked to keep Lee from floating into anything dangerous. “I don’t like our odds, or the use of the word ‘expulsion’, but I don’t have a better plan. That timing’s going to have to be really good, though.”
They prepared themselves as best they could. They stood Lee in the middle and strapped a mask over his face. The other three put their backs against him and wrapped themselves in sheets, like roll of sushi.
They floated in quiet anticipation and watched out of the spinning porthole for their chariot to arrive. At first it was a glimmering speck, on the next spin of the broken ring, a bright dot. On the following rotation, it had become a solid object, but they also noticed several others following in its wake. There was a school of the giant fish creatures following behind the ship, heading their way at speed.
One final rotation and they could see their ship, stopped and waiting, speckled with blue slime and sparking where the arms to the hab ring had sheared off.
“Five… four….” Attah was counting down. “Hold your breaths!” he shouted and reached to blow the hatch.
“Are you sure we’re pointing the right way?” the Captain wanted to shout, but it was too late for that. She gulped the biggest breath of she could, as all of the remaining air in the ring blew them out the hatch and into open nebular space.
The Captain’s fears were briefly forgotten as she was engulfed in the radiant nebular sea. The tiny viewports in the ring had not done any justice to the majesty of the gaseous world they had invaded. As they tumbled towards their ship, her eyes hung on the the dozen town-sized fish and their gossamer fins. She could see small asteroids, hollowed out and used as shells for a pair of tentacled monsters as big as a house, belching out gasses to push their stolen homes around. In the distance a translucent blob of jelly drifted on the barely existent winds within the nebula, long tendrils flowing behind it gathering whatever other life it must feed on.
The air in her lungs fought to escape and the gas burned at her eyes, but she forced them to stay open. This was why she was out in the stars. This was the moment she’d dreamed of since before she knew the words to say it.
It was spectacular.
Three times, Attah Handed her the cannister and she took a deep breath from the mask before passing it on, barely noticing her own actions, unwilling to miss a moment.
The ship was growing, however, filling her vision as they tumbled closer. But it wasn’t in their path. They were going to miss it.
She felt Park beside her start to tense and then struggle. She craned her neck to see. It looked like Attah had grabbed the O2 back from Park but wasn’t putting it to his mouth. He had yanked the tube off of the regulator and looked to be counting.
Suddenly the small breath of air she had in her lungs felt very small indeed as Attah fully opened the valve. As the small jet of their precious oxygen joined the nebular gas, she felt a gentle change in their trajectory.
The push had corrected their course, but they were all running out of air. Attah had taken the last gulp from the now spent cannister. The Captain looked to Park, and the engineer returned her fretful gaze, both wondering how long they could hold out before stealing the air supply of the unconscious Lee.
The gleaming, white ceramic wall of the ship loomed large and they crashed gracelessly onto its side. Each scrambled to find something to hold on to as they tumbled along its slowly rotating hull.
The Captain managed to grab a protruding transmitter, but her lungs gave out and her grip slipped. She fought to not breathe back in, unsure what a lungfull of nebula might do to her.
She felt them stop tumbling and begin to move with purpose. Park had found something to hold and was hauling them collectively to the doorway.
The Captain was not going to be of any help. Her vision was fading to a dark tunnel and she involuntarily scrambled to grab Lee’s air, but it was already gone.
Her eyes rolled back in her head.
She breathed deeply, again and again until she felt sick. Her sight returned and through burning eyes she saw a familiar airlock interior around her.
“Brace for some bad dancing,” she heard her pilot’s voice saying. “We have some very large company coming to join us.
The three of them grabbed rails and held tight to Lee as the ship started to wheel and lurch repeatedly. Impossibly huge shimmering bodies swept past the small window of the airlock.
“I think they heard our radio signal.” Wilkins said tensely as they maneuvered the remains of the ship out of the path of the giants. “And I think it made them curious. Hold on, I’m getting us out of here.
“Wait!” shouted the Captain. “Follow them!”
“Say what?” replied an incredulous Wilkins.
“Follow them. I think they’re eating the blue slime. They should leave a clearer trail for our exit. Follow them as close to the edge of the nebula as they’ll take us.”
“You’re the captain,” replied Lee, and they felt the engines ease off.
The four stripped and decontaminated as fast as possible, rushing Lee to the emergency medical area. They strapped him down and bandaged him as well as they could with their limited supplies.
In the calm that followed, Park fell very silent and curled into a ball. “What if he dies… what if I killed him.”
The Captain went to comfort her. “Lee’s doing okay. He’s breathing. He wakes up when we make him… He’s got time. We can get him somewhere proper.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Her voice caught in her throat. “I… I stole his air. I was selfish. He could die now because of me.”
The Captain drifted for a moment, taking time to address her own guilt. “So… so did I… you just did it first.”
Park looked up at the Captain, eyes wet.
“You saved us.” The Captain assured her. “You saved all of us. You did what you had to. Would you have been able to grab the ship and pull us all inside without that air? I couldn’t. Lee would have told you to if he could.”
Attah, in a very small voice added his piece. “It wasn’t your fault… it was mine. I miscalculated.”
The Captain laughed out loud, though her lungs still hurt to do so. “You shot us out of a spinning airlock into open space and feel guilty about missing a target, that was nearly a kilometer away, by ten meters?”
“It won’t happen again,” he assured her, earnestly.
“I should hope you never have the opportunity to redeem yourself.” She smiled.
She leaned on the com to the cabin. “How does it look, Wilkins?”
“Majestic, boss. Fucking majestic. Finest back-ends I’ve ever chased. We’re gonna be okay, I think. Settle in kids, we’re getting out and I just got word from Central that help is on the way.”