STRATAGEM Chapter 4
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
TWO WEEKS EARLIER…
DEAR GOD, DON’T LET ME DIE OUT HERE. Sabine Storm stared at the puncture in her glove which went through the Vectran material. “Vanderberg, this is Storm. We may have a problem.” It’s been said, ‘In space, no one can hear you scream,’ but in fact, everyone on the com would hear her.
“Talk to me,” Connor Walken, ICOMM team lead said, his voice calm. It must have irked all the NASA personnel at Vandenberg that they had to play second fiddle for this mission. But thanks to the highly classified nature of this spacewalk, they had no choice.
“It’s my glove,” Sabine said, imagining the oxygen leaking out of her suit—at first barely noticeable but then without warning, completely decompressing it. “I…I’m not sure. It got caught on a shard and tore.”
“Your suit parameters look fine from here,” Connor said.
Just beneath the surface layer, the Vectran material formed the second of five protective layers and was designed to prevent cuts and abrasions. Did absolutely nothing to prevent anxiety, though. This was just her second spacewalk which upon completion would have brought her extravehicular activity (EVA) record to twelve hours and eight minutes. It was going to be less than that, now.
“Let’s bring you in,” Connor said. “Kimura can complete your portion of the AMS repair.” Similar to the one mounted on the International Space Station, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer—a particle physics experiment module—measured antimatter in cosmic rays, important for studying the formation of the universe and searching for evidence of dark matter. It had been damaged in a meteor shower, so its proprietors sent a specialized team to repair it. Why a military contractor like ICOMM owned an AMS was well beyond Sabine’s paygrade and she had always abided by their own “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy.
“I just need a few more minutes,” Sabine said.
“Negative. We’re not taking any chances.”
“Are you getting sentimental on me, Walken?”
“Keep dreaming. You have no idea how much it costs to train someone new, and get them your level of clearance.”
After returning to the Athena, she stowed her suit for decontamination and damage analysis by the technicians at Vanderberg.
“You all right?” Commander Hendricks said, motioning for her to strap into her seat.
“Just saw my life flash before my eyes is all.” She looked out the window as Sam Kimura completed her part of the AMS repair and gave a thumbs up. “I could have finished it.”
Lucy Washington, the shuttle pilot floated over and patted her shoulder. “Girl, don’t sweat it. You’re the best. They’ll send you out again.”
“Not after today.”
“You think you’re the first astronaut to tear her suit? Wasn’t your fault.”
Sabine smiled in appreciation and nodded. “I’m just glad nothing worse happened.” All she wanted now was to go home, get Hulk back from Derek, and binge on Netflix for the next few weeks.
She shut her eyes for a few minutes, during which Kimura had returned, ribbed her about cleaning up after her, and started his initial debrief with Connor back at Mission Control.
As he spoke, the plummeting pitch of a system-wide power down jolted her awake.
The crew reacted with gasps, oaths and other exclamations.
In less than a second, however, the lights and panels returned to life. All systems appeared normal, as though nothing had happened.
“You see that?” Lucy said.
Hendricks didn’t answer. He was too engrossed in scanning every panel and monitor around him.
“That can’t be good,” Kimura said.
Over the com, Connor said, “Athena, what’s your status?”
“We had a brief power surge,” Hendricks replied. “Everything went dark for a second then returned to normal.”
“We read something like that here too,” Connor said. “How do y’all feel about bumping up your return?”
This entire mission was starting to spook Sabine. Though not given to superstition, an ominous sense troubled her. The debris which had caused the AMS damage didn’t resemble anything she expected. It was minuscule, but its jagged edges looked and acted like the barbs of a fish hook—as though by design. And she only discovered that when she tried to dislodge one from the surface of the AMS…when it ripped open her glove.
Connor repeated, “Athena?”
She looked to the Commander.
“Roger that, Vanderberg. We’re returning now.”
“You’ll lose a couple of hours of sleep,” Connor said. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Hendricks winked at the camera.
Sabine shook her head. “Not funny, Sir.”
Hendricks laughed. “Such a snowflake.”
Hendricks feigned surprise. “Oooh, didn’t see that coming.”
They always joked like that. He reminded her of Dad, with all the corny puns, the no-nonsense, unemotional approach to problems. The ribbing calmed her on these missions and he took full advantage of it—for her sake, of course. “Well, you can sleep when you’re dead. Just stay awake for the landing.”
He clutched his chest. “Ugh…you’re killin’ me!”
The mutual smile signaled that he’d done his job well.
And she actually did feel better. He always knew how to get her through these moments—small comfort since Dad passed away last year.
The entire crew strapped in and prepared for re-entry.
Lucy called back to the crew. “All right, ladies. Let’s go home.”
Vandenberg Air Force Base
CONNOR WALKEN gripped the arms of his chair with such force his hands trembled. Athena was making her landing approach but for the last hour, failed to respond to any form of communication. As far as he could tell, their channels were open, all communication equipment were online. What had happened to them?
On the monitor, the shuttle came into view.
“Athena, this is Vanderberg. Come in.”
If not for the highly unusual situation, everything would have seemed normal—vectors, systems, velocity, all perfect for landing. “Repeat: Athena crew, come in. Do you copy?”
The shuttle touched down without a hitch.
Connor along with all those around him let out a sigh. Perhaps it had been a problem with their communication equipment after all. That, or the autopilot had kicked in and executed a flawless landing.
He picked up the phone and called the recovery crew down at the runway. “I want a visual when you get there.”
Within seconds, their camera displayed on the monitor.
Athena had completed its landing. But it sat there on the tarmac, without so much as a blip of light coming from its readouts.
A minute crept by….
“All right,” Connor said to Garcia, the recovery crew leader. “Go in.”
It took a minute to get the gangway in place. Connor tapped his fingers against the desk repeatedly. The team moved as quickly as they could, but it felt like an eternity.
Finally, the monitor switched to Garcia’s body cam. “All right, we’re ready.”
Up the stairs
Vapors hiss out
The camera goes black…
“What’s happening Garcia?”
He didn’t answer. The faintest hint of a stupefied whisper came over the channel. “What…?”
“Garcia, talk to me!” Connor demanded. “What’s happening down there!”
The camera view switched over to the gray tint of night vision view.
Inside the cabin, all four astronauts sat motionless in their chairs, their limbs dangling lifelessly.
Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
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