Dr. Henry Walden once said: “Gravity can be a real letdown.” Prophetic words from a man who inhaled oxygen and exhaled bad puns.
As Ava Walden’s eyes cracked open, her father’s old joke reverberated in her brain like a faint echo. All she could make out were blurry shapes—an abstract portrait of destruction and mayhem. Her head throbbed in tune with the blaring alarms. She forced her eyes to focus. Little red droplets floated in front of her. The little red droplets fused together, becoming little red marbles, which in turn fused into little red golf balls.
A long, cylindrical corridor stretched out to either side. Embedded rectangular lights flashed white, then crimson. Dark shapes hovered eerily in the zero-G. Some looked to be bits of luggage. Others, Ava realized, were human bodies. Apparently there had been some kind of accident.
She tried to recall where she was, or how she’d gotten there, and to her fright, found a big fat blank spot in her memory. Brain damage? It wasn’t out of the question. Hypoxia? Maybe. She knew she was aboard some sort of spacecraft, and if the artificial gravity had failed, depressurization wasn’t unlikely. Her heart began beating faster, and she felt blood rushing to her head. She forced herself to draw long, deep breaths. Relaxation was key. She took stock of her surroundings.
It was a solar train, she recognized that much. She had vague memories of riding one as a child; her father had brought her to some science conference on Mars. The event stood out in her mind, for it had been one of the few times he had let her tag along with him on one of his trips. For a man whose life’s work revolved around interplanetary travel, Dr. Walden had always detested space. She remembered him telling jokes to ease both their nerves. “What did the astronaut get for reaching Saturn?"
"...A constellation prize!”
Ava felt a smile dart across her lips, before realizing how inappropriate it was given the current situation.
She tried to maneuver her body but found herself restrained by bands of black polyester—a crash harness. More of them lined the walls, but they were all unoccupied. Apparently, none of the other passengers had gotten to one in time. She deduced that something, perhaps a collision of some kind, had led to mass deceleration aboard the train. Any passengers not strapped in would’ve hit the walls like fleshy ragdolls. That was one thing she owed to her father, he’d always told her that no matter what, she was never to leave her harness while onboard a spacecraft.
However, this was an exception. Whatever had happened was over now, and she got the sense that if she stayed put, she would soon be just another floating corpse.
She unbuckled the black straps one at a time and prepared to push off. Looking up the corridor, she saw several square computer terminals lining the far wall. Most of them appeared to be cracked beyond repair, but one, at the far end of the car, still looked intact. She did her best to aim her body, then kicked off. With no maneuverability, she was destined to encounter collisions with some of the floating debris. That’s what she called it in her mind. “Debris.” Still, it was hard to keep her composure as a ringed hand brushed her shoulder. She shut her eyes for a moment, drifting in blackness, before forcing herself to open them. She reached the computer terminal and anchored herself by a small handhold jutting out from the wall beside it. There were no buttons on the terminal, so she guessed that it was voice activated.
“Status report?” It was all she could think to say. The computer blinked to life, and numbers that Ava could not understand began scrolling across the screen. She feared that it was broken like the others, but after a few moments, an electronic female voice chirped up.
“Hello, I am Soledad, The Jupiter Express’s onboard virtual assistant! It would appear the train is currently experiencing severe systems failures. How can I be of assistance?”
“Tell me what’s going on,” Ava demanded, then, realizing the harshness in her tone, added: “Please.”
There were a few moments of silence, as more numbers scrolled across the screen. “It would appear the train has suffered a serious collision. Artificial gravity systems have failed. Cars four and five appear to have suffered the most damage, but life support systems are critical in all cars, including this one. If my life sign readings are correct, you appear to be the only surviving passenger in the front section of the train.”
Ava swallowed hard. “And the crew?”
Ava felt her pulse racing. Deep breaths, she told herself. “Any other amazing news?” She forced herself to ask.
“The train is off course and drifting dangerously close to Jupiter. In addition, a power surge caused by the collision has activated the rear thrusters. They are still in the process of heating up, but acceleration will soon become exponential.”
That was not amazing news. Solar trains were designed to move at a constant speed, tracing a set course through the solar system. Passengers were offloaded by carriers from whatever planetary object they were visiting. The thrusters were only meant for emergency maneuvers. If acceleration was increasing, that meant G-forces were too. It would be like a steadily increasing artificial gravity, only instead of pulling Ava down, it would pull her backwards. Progressing through the train would quickly become like trying to scale a very tall tower. If the G-forces climbed high enough, she would lose consciousness, higher still, and she’d suffer a stroke.
She looked back. Already, she could see… debris… beginning to congregate at the back of the train car. Ava herself had begun to drift in that direction. She held firm to the handhold.
“If I could get to the control car, would I be able to correct the train’s course?”
“You do not have the proper training—”
“I majored in applied astrophysics; I understand the basics of interspace navigation. You could talk me through the rest. Is it possible?”
“Theoretically yes. However, to reach the control car you would need to pass through cars four and five, which are currently depressurized.”
“Which car am I in now?”
Okay, Ava thought. She allowed herself a brief glimmer of hope, before returning to pragmatism. “Are any of the computer terminals in car six still active?”
“Alright, open the doors and meet me in car six.”
She shifted her positioning, aiming toward the front of the cylindrical hallway. A pair of interlocking doors slid apart, revealing the next car. She pushed off into it.
The scene in car six was much like the one she had just come from— red droplets, floating debris. She saw that at least a few passengers here had managed to strap themselves into harnesses, but that, apparently, had not saved them. Collisions by any of the untethered objects in the train would’ve proved just as deadly as the ragdoll effect. So, I guess I just got lucky.
She made her way to the end of the corridor, using unoccupied harnesses as grips to propel herself forwards. She could feel the tug of G-forces beginning to intensify. She reached the next set of doors and anchored herself with a pair of handholds. There was a small, circular window which looked out into the next car, and she stole a glimpse through it.
Her breath caught in her throat.
She saw crumpled metal. The left wall of car five was completely gone, exposing it to raw vacuum. Any passengers inside would’ve been sucked out into space the moment it depressurized. However, the even more awe-inspiring and terrifying sight was that of Jupiter.
It loomed like a colossal titan, so huge that she could only make out a section of it through the hole in the train’s hull. She could see its twisting orange gases swirling so vividly that she felt she could reach out and touch them. They were dangerously close. She swallowed hard. One problem at a time.
A computer terminal sprang to life on her right. “How can I be of assistance?” came Soledad’s voice.
“I need a vac suit.”
“Unfortunately, the only functioning vac suits were stored in car four.”
Ava felt a rush of white-hot anger pulse through her. “Protocol dictates that all cars come equipped with vac suits!”
“You are correct. Unfortunately, I am merely a computerized system, and not able to correct for breaches in protocol.”
If by any chance the captain of this wreck was still alive, Ava would kill him herself. However, much as she tried to cling to anger, she felt it quickly giving way to cold fear. She’d been terrified that it would come to this, but now… she had no choice.
“Okay, here’s what needs to happen. On my command, you’re going to vent the air from this car as quickly as possible. Then, you’re going to open the doors.”
A red warning light flashed on the computer terminal’s screen. “Entering a depressurized area without a vac suit is extremely hazardous! You will be fully exposed to the vacuum of space. This can cause—”
“I know what it can cause!” Ava snapped. “Just… do as I say.”
She had already begun running the mathematical calculations in her head. Estimates were that a person could last ten to fifteen seconds in the vacuum of space without a suit before suffering loss of consciousness. Based on the length of the train cars, and with G-forces as they were, she guessed that with a solid jump she could clear one car in about seven seconds, assuming she didn’t bump into anything that would cause her to lose momentum. Soledad had said that car four was also depressurized, which meant she would have to pass through two cars. All in all… fourteen seconds.
She sucked in a breath. “Okay Soledad, I’ll need you to open the doors between cars four and five, as well as the doors between cars four and three. Once I’m inside car three, I’ll need you to quickly shut the doors and restore oxygen. I’ll likely be unconscious, so you’ll have to do it automatically. Can you do that?”
“Yes. But I’m warning you again—”
“Don’t worry about me. If this fails, I’m dead anyway.”
Ava began taking long, deep breaths. When the time came, she would need to release all her oxygen, otherwise her lungs would explode. Her father had taught her that. “You know what they say about space. It’ll take your breath away,” he’d joked.
She was aware of the potential long-term effects of an unshielded spacewalk as well. Without protection, the solar radiation would be intense. Cancer later in life was almost a certainty. She could be cutting her lifespan by a decade, maybe two.
Again, her father’s voice sprang up in the back of her mind. “A day without radiation is a day without sunshine kiddo.”
She smiled a grim smile. Thanks for the encouragement dad.
“Okay, I’m almost ready. On my count.”
“Three… two… one…”
There was an immediate whooshing sound, as all the oxygen was vented from the car. She did her last exhale, maybe ever. Then the sound gave way to silence. The doors opened.
Using the handholds to propel herself, she pushed her way through, before ramming her feet down on the edge of the doorframe to give herself the thrust she would need. She shot forwards, straight for the door to car four.
Almost immediately, she felt the effects of the vacuum taking hold. Despite the radiation bombarding every molecule in her body, her skin burned cold. At the same time, her saliva began to boil. It felt like someone was frying bacon on her tonsils.
Stay focused, she told herself, but already her head was getting fuzzy. A shape whizzed by about an inch from her left flank, but she didn’t see what it was. As she reached the door to car four, things were already going black. At the last second, she remembered to kick out with her legs, pushing off the doorframe as she had with car five.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed bits of foreign metal embedded in the walls of the train. They looked like the remnants of some sort of probe—or maybe a satellite. She guessed that it was the object that they’d collided with.
She looked up at the door to car three and realized with horror that she was off course. She would miss the opening by several feet.
On her left, a dark, humanoid shape drifted in her direction. She was so loopy by that point that she momentarily mistook it for some kind of alien. Then recognition dawned. A vac suit!
It was just within reach. She grabbed at it, but her fingers had swollen to the size of sausages. She just managed to get a grip on the outer mesh, and in the last seconds before blacking out, loosened the pressure gauge on the oxygen tank and vented a spray of compressed air, pushing herself back on course. Then everything went dark.
When Ava Walden finally came to, she was paralyzed. Her arms or legs felt like they were made of cement, and her vision was black. Oh god? What happened? Did something go wrong? She felt terror burning through her like wildfire. She couldn’t think of a worse way to die than this, trapped in her own skin, stranded in total darkness.
However, after a few seconds, she felt her toes beginning to twitch, and moments later, some of her vision returned. She was breathing, she knew that much at least. Around her, she saw a familiar sight: the flashing red lights, the cylindrical walls. She’d made it to car three.
The first thing that came as a shock to her was that she was lying down. Not drifting in the fetal position—no—she could feel cold metal pressing against her left side. Looking at her skin, she saw that it was bright crimson, although the swelling had begun to die down. She sat upright, having gained back enough muscular strength to accomplish that much. She had been resting on the entrance door to car three.
If G-forces had already climbed to almost Earth levels of gravity, and they were increasing exponentially, then she knew she didn’t have long to reach the control car. She forced herself to get to her feet, every muscle strand in her body screaming like she’d just run a marathon. The cylindrical hallway rose up perpendicular to her. She would need to climb.
Using the harnesses that lined the walls like a ladder, she began her ascent. She realized she could feel the gravity increasing—every inch she rose it became harder and harder to move forward. She managed to clear car three, but by the time she’d started up car number two, she felt like she had three-hundred-pound weights hanging from her body. Sweat dripped from every pore. Just holding her head upright was exhausting. She stopped, gasping for air.
“Acceleration can be a real drag sometimes,” She heard her father say.
Her father. He loved her so much. She could almost see his smiling, bespectacled face. If she died here, she’d never forgive herself. She gritted her teeth and began to climb once again. Her vision was growing dark around the edges. She could hear blood pumping in her ears. Once again, she felt herself nearing unconsciousness. Above was the control car. She pushed towards it.
The control car was different from the others, spherical rather than cylindrical. Blinking panels ringed the exterior, and a large window occupied the front section. There were no more harnesses here, and Ava had to improvise, using bits of equipment as hand and foot holds.
The crew were clearly dead. She saw a couple of snapped necks and a fair bit of blood. It looked like none of them had been strapped into their seats properly. She noticed beer bottles and playing cards strewn in loose crevices. Ava unbuckled the captain, and unceremoniously pushed him out of his seat, taking his place in front of the controls.
“Soledad, are you here?” She gasped. She felt like there was a washing machine resting on her chest. Every breath was a shaky struggle.
A computer terminal sprang to life on her right.
“How can I be of assistance?”
“I need to decrease thrust!”
“The panel to your left.”
Ava found the lever and pulled it back, not all the way, she knew she would need some thrust if she was going to maneuver the train. Immediately she felt the pressure on her chest lessen.
She sucked in a volley of sharp, heavy breaths. “Alright Soledad, tell me our trajectory.”
“The train was originally headed for Ganymede, but now that we are off course, Jupiter’s gravity has begun pulling us in.”
Ganymede? Why would Ava have been going to a moon of Jupiter? Again, she became aware that she was suffering from partial amnesia. The blank spot was likely the result of a concussion sustained during collision. She set her questions aside for the moment. “How long have we got?”
“Six minutes to stratosphere.”
Ava bit her lip. It was worse than she’d thought. Jupiter’s atmosphere would rip the train apart like tinsel. “Alright, how do I right our course?”
Numbers blinked across the monitor screen. “Impossible. We cannot escape Jupiter’s gravitational field.”
Ava gritted her teeth. Think! There had to be a way out of this.
All around her, warning lights were beginning to flare. Through the front-facing window, Jupiter’s big red spot stared at her like the eye of a hungry cyclops.
“What if I used Jupiter as a slingshot? Hugged the gravity field and swung us around it.”
“That would be a high-G maneuver. I estimate a very low chance of success.”
So did Ava. Maneuvers like that were the stuff of legend, and Ava Walden was no legend. Still. “If I could thread the needle?”
Ava felt sweat beads gathering on her forehead. Thread the needle. More like threading the massive spaceship through the colossal gravity well while accounting for neutron thrust and a dozen other unpredictable variables. Ava hesitantly began pressing buttons and turning dials. Her hands were shaking, and she forced herself to steady them. She reached for the thrust lever, then paused.
“Soledad, I need to know why I was going to Ganymede,” She said, surprising herself.
“I can consult my databanks. What is your name passenger?”
Ava realized she’d never properly introduced herself to the computer. “Ava Walden.” At least I remember my own name.
There was a pause. Ava held her breath. She suddenly had a heavy feeling in her stomach, like someone had crammed a lead brick into her small intestine. She wanted to take the question back, but it was too late.
“It looks like you were traveling without a ticket. Instead, you were granted an emergency visa by the Planetary Sciences Division of The Federation. The reason given: your father, Dr. Henry Walden, passed away on Ganymede twenty-seven hours ago. I’m sorry for your loss.”
All at once, memories came flooding back, threatening to crush Ava like an emotional tidal wave. She suddenly understood why her father had been at the forefront of her mind all this time.
She shut her eyes. Stars twinkled in the darkness, and meteors streaked across her cheeks. She felt her father’s weathered hand on her shoulder, and remembered the rhyme he’d said to her as a child, every night before she went to bed:
“You light up my life, and make my sky bright. During the day, and even at night. Wherever you are, I’ll be there too. You are my star, my world revolves around you.”
Ava pushed the thruster. She was going to see her father. One way or the other, she was going to see him.
She took a moment to wonder if there were any surviving passengers in the back section of the train. If there were, she hoped they were strapped in.
Alarms blared, and warning lights flashed. Ava’s hands flew across the controls, dancing over buttons and dials, as she put to use everything her dad had ever taught her. The train’s hull creaked and moaned, and G-forces began to climb once more. She was pushed back against her seat, and had to fight to remain conscious. Every second was vital. One wrong move and they’d be a fireball.
As she arced the train through Jupiter’s gravity, fighting every force known to man, she heard her father’s voice, one last time:
“You got this kiddo.”
He was right.
Ava Walden threaded the needle.
When, hours later, she awoke from unconsciousness, it was to the garbled voices of the rescue team speaking through their vac suit communicators. “We’ve got her,” one of them said, as they secured an oxygen mask around her face.
Through the front window, she saw a million blinking white stars. She’d successfully navigated around the gas giant. She barely even remembered doing it.
“It looks like she’s conscious again.”
With zero-gravity restored, one of her rescuers drifted around in front of her.
“When we heard Henry Walden’s daughter was onboard this wreck, we got here as fast as we could! We’ll get you to Ganymede as soon as we finish securing the other passengers.”
“By the way, good work Ms. Walden. You saved eighty-seven lives.”
Ava Walden smiled but gave no reply. She didn’t speak much at all, even during her debrief on Ganymede. It wasn’t until she was standing in the church, looking down at the face of the man who’d raised her—who even in death, had given her the strength she needed to succeed—that she finally thought of something worthwhile to say.
“Hey dad, what did the sun say to the moon as it passed behind the earth?”
“See you on the other side.”
About the Creator
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