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Tethers by William Ledbetter - Baen Books


Tethers

William Ledbetter


Sievert was a jerk at the best of times, but he was mad at me and that made him much worse. He was tied with Alyona Gusarov at being four hours away from breaking the long standing one thousand hour EVA record. He'd wanted to tell the ground station I was sick so he could go EVA and make the repairs, but I was the mission engineer and had refused. To pay back my insolence, he opened an intra-suit connection the minute I left the ship and hadn't stopped harassing me since.

"You techies make bad astronauts," Sievert said then gave me a long peal of barking, hiccupping laughter. His French accent grew more pronounced when he was angry and it made him sound even more condescending.

"You're too cautious and too timid, Hartman," he said. "By-the-book takes twice as long!"

I gritted my teeth and made another tiny adjustment to my slow, but steady, course toward the malfunctioning orbital fuel depot. Sievert could probably have made the repairs, just as I could fly the Stolid, but it was my ass on the line. Tyco Space Services Corporation had a ninety-eight percent quality rating for its orbital equipment and this was the first time one of these refueling depots went offline. I couldn't screw this up.

I ignored his ongoing abuse and watched the sun rise slowly over the Pacific below. Like every human who left the Earth before me, I never stopped being stunned by its beauty. Since this depot was in geosynchronous orbit, I wouldn't get to see the jewel encrusted night side during this EVA, but that also meant I didn't have to work in the dark.

My focus returned to the task at hand as the depot slowly dominated my field of vision. It was a cluster of round tanks surrounded by steel struts, all interconnected by armored piping and roughly the size of a two-bedroom house. Fueling probes jutted outward in four directions, easily accessible by either crewed or automated spacecraft, and solar arrays sprouted from the top and bottom. Printed in huge letters, next to the Tyco Space Services logo on the wide equatorial band, was the identifier TRD27. Or officially Tyco Refueling Depot number 27.

"Are you too nervous to talk, techie? Do you clench your teeth tight to keep them from chattering?"

"Twelve meters," I answered over the open company channel, but he was right about my being afraid. I just wasn't afraid for me. I had to stay alive for Dad.


My dad stood on the back porch, looking out at the dust cloud above the seventy acres of corn behind our house. Like him, the neighbors driving the combine and pulling the wagons were still wearing their dress clothes from the funeral. When the condolences were given, the food consumed and most people had left, these men had stayed to help with the already late harvest.

He turned to look at me and tears streaked his cheeks.

"Please don't hate me for this, son. I couldn't bear to lose you too."

The statement pulled me up short. "Lose me? I don't . . . "

"Because this is my fault," he said. "You were in space when the goddamned leukemia finally took your sister, but I was here. I was here and didn't support your mother. I went into the fields and the barns. I just . . .  I didn't know how else to deal with it."

I swallowed hard.

"It was a cruel thing I did to your mother. She begged me to stay in the house with her in those days after Dana died. She was in so much pain and so very lonely, but I shrugged it off and went out to work."

Suicides only hurt the living. My mom's pain was ended, but it was the first time in my twenty-seven years that I'd seen my dad cry.


TRD27 loomed larger as the seconds ticked off and Sievert still hadn't shut up.

"It would be sad if you had a problem out there and wished you hadn't wasted that precious oxygen," Sievert said, then made gasping sounds and laughed at his own humor. The gas for my suit's maneuvering jets came from my breathing stock. The minuscule puffs I'd used so far might give me another couple minutes of air in an emergency, but Sievert had ranted on what he considered wasted oxygen many times before.

As the proximity counter dropped to zero I readied myself. When close enough, I grabbed the nearest ring handle and held tight as I thumped down to the primary service platform, then rebounded slightly.

Per the regulations, I pulled the short safety tether from its pouch on my tool harness and connected one end to me and the other to the TRD. Then I detached the line tying me to Stolid and reconnected it to the depot structure. Only then did I allow myself to relax and report that I'd made contact.

Sievert laughed again. "If you get scared or see any alien monsters lurking around Turd27, just call and I'll come rescue you."

He was stupid to use that word to describe a TRD. More than one Tyco employee had been fired for that joke. Agatha Winston-Nguyen took the company's image very seriously. In her mind, the TRD's were a symbol of reliability and quality, but thanks to the acronym she selected, these depots would instead forever be associated with smelly brown lumps.

I pushed my boots into the spring-loaded cleats that locked me down to the platform. Having my feet anchored gave me the physical leverage I needed to use hands and arms during the repair. Then for the first time, I turned my attention to the real problem.

The insulation blanket had peeled away from one of the hydrogen storage tanks. Remote instrumentation indicated the tank's naked skin had heated in the direct sunlight, causing a pressure increase that triggered an automatic shutdown of the fueling nozzles. This was an "out of service" condition that greatly upset Agatha Winston-Nguyen.

I pulled the loose blanket farther away from the tank and moved my helmet lights slowly over the surface. Nearly the entire blanket had detached. From time to time, fasteners would fail—allowing a small gap or a corner to fly loose—but this was very odd. When I examined the blanket's attachment points, the failure was obvious. The blanket hadn't torn loose from the fasteners, because there were no fasteners.

"Come in, Stolid. This is Hartman."

"Reading you, Hartman. What did you find?" Even over the open connection, I could still hear a hint of condescension in Sievert's voice.

What I found would get several employees and probably a few managers fired, so I decided to be careful with my wording.

"Can you check the TRD parts list and find out what fastener we use for blanket attachment? I'm going to need twelve of them."

I hoped he would understand and keep chatter about the failure to a minimum. Accusations and blame should be taken up by the Engineering Review Board, not orbital repair techs.

"Why twelve? Did they all break?"

I took a deep breath and mentally cursed. "No, they're all missing."

The connection was quiet for several minutes, presumably while Sievert discussed it with the ground.

"You're mistaken, Hartman. There is no way this TRD could have been launched with that much missing hardware."

I was shocked and immediately pissed off.

"I'm not mistaken. The grommets aren't torn. There is no hardware in the holes. My guess is that the flap's velcro was sealed for some reason before the bolts were installed. That would have held it in place through the launch, but once . . . "

"You're wrong, Hartman."

I gritted my teeth. I didn't want to argue with him over the radio, but I had to get this damned thing fixed.

"Just look at my video feed, Sievert," I snapped.

"No need to get angry, Hartman. Light plays tricks out there. The video doesn't clearly show the attachment condition, so I'm coming out."

I cursed under my breath. There was nothing wrong with that video feed. Sievert was just being an ass and seizing an opportunity for an unscheduled EVA. Under normal operating circumstances one of us was required to stay in the ship. I wondered if he made the decision on his own or if someone on the ground had classified it as an emergency. Both explanations made me grind my teeth.

Since he was already wearing his excursion suit—also standard procedure when one of us was out of the ship—it took him less than ten minutes to don his helmet and cycle through the airlock. I spent that time getting extremely close video of the insulation situation and making sure it was relayed to the ground station.

Sievert made the leap between Stolid and the TRD without tether or gas jets. It was of course against company safety policy, but he was a macho, hot-shot space pilot and exempt from those silly rules. I could already see that he hadn't even worn his tool harness. He was going to be no help at all.

There were no women or news reporters around to see it, but he couldn't resist showing off. As he neared the TRD, he extended an arm and at the last second, grabbed a strut and let momentum swing him around in a tight arc toward my position.

When I saw his speed and where he would land I panicked. "Sievert, no!"

His armored boots impacted the already stressed hydrogen tank's bare skin about ten feet above me, hard enough that I felt vibrations through the service platform.

The carbon-composite tank deformed in an almost fluid-like undulation, then exploded.

A bright flash flung me backwards. My boots—still locked into the service cleats—acted as an anchor point about which I swung a full hundred and eighty degrees, slamming back first into one of the lower LOX tanks. Fiery pain erupted in my lower back and I screamed as something snapped in both knees.

I must have blacked out, but the cacophony of pain, beeping warnings and incessant radio calls kept dragging me back to consciousness. At first I was confused, trying to make sense of the sounds and strange pains, then the fog in my head started to clear and alarm took over.

My eyes were blurry with tears or sweat and I had to clench my teeth to keep from crying out from the pain in my knees, but I had to focus. First priority was my suit integrity. I scanned the lights on my helmet display. Several yellows, but only one red. My suit exterior had been punctured in several places, but not with enough force to penetrate all three layers. The oily second layer, when exposed to vacuum, immediately hardened and if the holes were small enough, sealed them like a high tech scab. I hoped it would hold.

Beneath the litany of status requests from the ground station, I heard an underlying chaotic string of grunts and cursing. It must have been from Sievert. Was he hurt? For the first time since the explosion I looked past my helmet display and saw the carnage surrounding me. Bits of carbon composite and insulation floated in a hydrogen haze on the lower edge of my vision. When I looked up I saw Sievert's partially shredded boots wrapped in hastily applied leak tape floating above me.

Why hadn't the explosion sent him tumbling into space? Maybe it had and he used his jets to fly back and help me. My blackout must have lasted longer than I thought.

I was about to call out to him when I realized he was tugging on me. With each of his grunts, the top of my utility backpack pulled upward. It took several seconds for his movements to register in my still addled brain. The bastard hadn't come back to help me, he was trying to get my oxygen reserves.

"Stop it, Sievert!" I shoved at him until the tugging stopped. At first there was no reply, then he uttered a low string of curses followed by a quick apology. "Sorry, I thought you were dead."

He was lying. The ground station received a constant feed from my suit's health monitoring system. He knew I was still alive. I kept my eye on him and took a deep breath to help me focus before finally responding to ground control.

"This is Hartman," I said, trying not to pant or groan. "I'm hurt, but my suit's intact. Both of my legs are hurt. Severe ligament damage for sure and possibly broken."

The woman's voice was reassuring and calm. "Good to hear from you, Hartman. We were worried for a while, but your vitals look good. No indicators of severe blood loss. Do you have pain other than in your legs?"

"Some in my lower back, but nothing compared to my legs."

“Any difficulty inhaling?"

"No," I said, and started to wonder just how long I'd been out.

"Good. You're going to have to hang on for a while, Hartman. We have a rescue team prepping to leave Tyco Orbital, but it'll be a long wait."

My brain was still a bit foggy, but something didn't add up. Why were they sending a rescue team? It would take them at least nine hours from Tyco Orbital. And why was Sievert trying to steal my air instead of helping me return to Stolid?

Then I understood.

I saw only a frayed stub of the cable I had used to attach the ship to the TRD, but Stolid was gone. At first I thought the spacecraft had vaporized in the explosion, but that didn't make sense. Sievert and I were both right next to the tank when it blew and were still alive. Then I saw her. The slowly tumbling object just hadn't registered as a ship. It was much too small. Made small by distance.

The explosion shouldn't have been strong enough to push a ship that size. I made myself focus on the Stolid and finally noticed a small plume of gas spewing into the void. Shrapnel from the explosion must have ruptured one of the small attitude thrusters, causing the spin and pushing the ship away.

Was that why Sievert was after my tanks? I did a quick calculation and determined that if I could push off hard enough with my legs, then use my jets to adjust my trajectory, then I should have enough air to reach the ship. My legs were still locked into cleats. I had to act fast.

Sievert chose that instant to strike again. This time he was ready for my resistance. He shoved me backwards, again slamming my back into the tank, then wrapped an arm around my helmet ring, grabbed the TRD structure behind my head and levered me tight against the metal. I screamed as bones and torn cartilage ground together, sending a tsunami of red hot agony through my entire body and swirling spots to cloud my vision.

The radio squawked in my ear "Hartman? Give us a status!"

But, I couldn't breathe or talk, only yank ineffectively at Sievert's pinning arm. He didn't tug on my pack this time, but instead started pounding hard against the side of my helmet.

"Sievert! Get off!"

"Say again, Hartm . . . ," came a partial response from ground control.

"Sievert's crazy," I yelled as I tugged against his arm. " . . . trying to kill me!"

My boots were not only still locked down, but my legs were too badly injured to give me leverage anyway. I was pinned tight. Through my watering eyes, I saw something white, about the size of a tennis ball, float past trailing wires and bits of plastic. It was the transmitter node from my helmet. Sievert had broken it off. Aside from my ragged breathing and thundering heartbeat, my world had grown very quiet.

I started hyperventilating, wasting more of my precious air. If I couldn't talk to the ground, Sievert would tell them anything he wanted. His arm still held me pinned to the TRD and I knew what would come next. He would try to kill me in some way that wouldn't breach my suit and waste my precious gas supply.

I didn't want to die, especially to help keep someone like Sievert alive. I groped at my tool harness until I found the screwdriver, then pressed its point against Sievert's arm and pushed as hard as I could with both hands. I was rewarded by a mist of venting gas. His arm jerked away, nearly tearing the screwdriver from my grip, and momentum carried him out to the end of his tether. He floated there—knowing he was out of my reach—while applying repair tape to his damaged suit. I couldn't see his face, but I knew he was glaring at me and I suddenly knew why.

His suite was patched in various places, even the hard to reach legs. He must have lost a lot of gas right after the explosion and didn't have enough to get to Stolid.

Screw him. Just let him try for my air again.

He pulled himself along the tether until he reached the TRD structure, then moved farther away around the curve of the depot.

Tether? He hadn't used a tether when he came across.

I looked down and saw that mine was gone. He must have planned my demise in great detail and now I would have to be very careful when freeing myself from the cleats. And I had to get loose quickly. Sievert wouldn't give up, so that meant his retreat around the TRD was only a means to reposition himself and come up behind me. It would be easy enough to do with me locked in place.

Normally, a quick push from my heel would have released the cleat's spring lock, but I was already having a hard enough time thinking through the pain and suspected forcing my damaged legs down that hard might make me black out. I couldn't allow that. If Sievert didn't pounce on me I would still lose too much precious time.

I stretched my arm downward as far as I could, but my fingers were at least two feet from touching my heels, so I took stock of the tools in my harness. None of them were long enough to reach on their own, but I also had every astronaut's best tool: suit repair tape. I taped my long screwdriver to the end of my torque wrench, then placed two smaller wrenches and another screwdriver around the first joint and wrapped it as tight as I could. I paused for a second to groan at the nice splint I'd just made for a pair of tools. Maybe I should have splinted my legs instead?

"Probably not enough tape anyway," I mumbled into my quiet helmet. I glanced at my air gauge, noted that I had four hours and twenty-seven minutes left, then looked around for Sievert. I couldn't see him, but I didn't have a good view below me or behind me, so he might still be nearby.

I positioned my makeshift spear against the back of the cleat and shoved hard. The tape held and the spring opened easily, but the downward motion made me curse and add a little more to my liquid waste bag.

My perch was now even more precarious. With the freed leg floating about, but of little use, it played hell with my balance and coordination. I quickly checked the taped joint, it had loosened some but was tight enough. I touched the screwdriver's tip to the cleat and pushed. It didn't open and I felt the taped tools starting to fold in the middle. In a fit of desperation or panic or just plain impatience, I shoved the tools again and shoved down with my hurt leg at the same time.

It felt like super-heated barbed wire had wrapped around the nerves in my leg, and then been yanked out pulling the bones and nerves with it. I swooned, cried out and clenched my teeth against the blackness that threatened to drag me down.


The day after my mom's funeral I woke to the rhythmic clang of a hammer landing on metal. The sun wasn't up high enough to burn off the mist yet and the air carried the sweet musty smell of autumn as I walked down to the equipment barn. My dad stood next to his harvester's disassembled corn head with a cutter blade laid out on an anvil. I could see the blade's edge was bent and chipped.

"Let me guess. Albert Whittle turned wide and got into the fence."

Dad looked up and a faint grin flickered across his already dirty face. "He means well. But it sure would have been nice if he'd told me."

"Need me to run into town and get some new blades?"

"Nah, if I can beat a couple of these flat and resharpen them, it'll get me through these next few days."

He laid the hammer down, leaned on the anvil and pushed his hat back on his head. "When are you leaving?"

I looked down at the ground and focused on a rusty washer near the toe of my shoe. "I've decided I'm going to quit. I'd really like to stay here with you. And help out."

My mom had run the business part of the farm and I suspected that my dad would be lost in the books for a long time, if he ever figured it out at all.

"Like hell you are. You've always loved the idea of going into space and you busted your ass to get this job."

"Yeah, but it's really not all I thought . . . "

"Bullshit. If you want to pile hurt on top of your mom's death, then quit that job and move back here. Make me feel totally worthless. I couldn't save your sister and I failed your mother. I sure—"

"Dad . . . "

"No, you listen to me. You're the only person I haven't fucked up yet. If you quit on your dream because of me then I'll be a total failure."

I swallowed and nodded, but couldn't look at him.

He stood up and crossed to stand next to me. "But if you're going to be here for a while, I'll let you help me fix breakfast. I can rebuild a tractor engine, but cooking anything beyond frozen pizza is going take some practice."


I floated in a groggy haze for several minutes, never really blacking out, but not quite conscious either, before I finally realized it had worked. Both of my legs were floating free and so was the rest of me. I had forgotten that I wasn't tethered.

I slowly extended a hand, but was a foot from reaching the closest handle or strut and was still slowly drifting farther away. I fought down the panic and found my makeshift tool still attached to me via several lanyards. I turned it around slowly and extended it far enough to hook the torque wrench's driver post behind one strut and gently pulled myself in until I could grab the safety ring.

"Dumbass," I growled, and took a deep shuddering breath. Now that I was able to move around, I had options. I stared at the depot's dark, hulking form and felt a glimmer of hope. If I could keep Sievert off my back and had enough time, I might be able to fire the TRD's station keeping rockets to take us over to Stolid.

I rotated slowly to the left and then the right, but saw nothing. When I looked down I caught a glimpse of a space suit. Sievert watched from the other side of a LOX tank. That worried me, but at least I knew where he was.

I untaped my tools and put them away, checked my air—it was down to three hours and forty-nine minutes—then opened the TRD's control panel. Everything inside was dead and dark. The explosion had evidently severed a power line. Which meant I had to be even more careful. Chances of me getting into a grounded situation were much less likely in space than on Earth, but I wasn't thinking clearly so I decided to be extra careful. I closed the control panel and looked around.

From my location, I saw that all six liquid oxygen tanks were all still intact. The irony was almost painful. Like shipwreck survivors who die of thirst while floating in the salty ocean, I had a very good chance of dying from the lack of oxygen while surrounded by tons of the stuff. I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to rig a converter, but it would require more equipment and time than I had. So I looked around again, hoping for inspiration. Ahead of me amid a tangle of piping, lay two large manifolds, one for oxygen and one for hydrogen. Each tank feed pipe had a lever valve in the line just above where it attached to the manifold. And I finally had my idea.

I kept my voltage meter on and the probes at hand to test each metal object before I touched it, then slowly crawled deeper into the pipe maze using only arms. I braced myself and pulled the valve handle. At first it didn't move and I assumed it was frozen open. I immediately cursed the designers, then gave another hard tug and the handle moved. Once I was able to close it completely, I retracted my nasty comments about the engineering staff.

With the valve closed, I pulled a wrench from my tool harness and detached the flange from the manifold, leaving the twelve tethered bolts floated around the flange like Medusa's snakes. I checked my air supply and groaned. Three hours and nine minutes. I also remembered to look for Sievert. At first I didn't see any trace, then saw him watching me from between two struts. A chill trickled down my back. A lot of structure and piping lay between us, but I couldn't forget about him again. He wouldn't hesitate to kill me if he had the chance.

I scrambled up the pipe to the LOX tank, but that wasn't my goal. I needed to get to each of the five points around the tank's equator where it attached to the TRD structure. The only way to reach them without free flying would be to hold onto the cable race on the tank's exterior.

Dragging myself along the three-inch cable box proved easier than I thought, and with only one bolt at each connection, the work was quick, but moving between attachments—free flying along the tank with no handholds or tether—was nerve-wracking. And I realized at some point that I probably hadn't picked the best tank for my improvised rocket. It not only had the ten-foot-long manifold connection pipe sticking out one side but also the spacecraft fueling probe protruding fifteen feet out the other. That meant if I managed to get it pointed straight at the Stolid, I ran the risk of spearing my only ride home.

I looked back along the length of the TRD at one of the tanks without a fueling probe. If I used that one, and accidentally hit the Stolid, it would be a mostly depressurized composite ball hitting the titanium ship's hull. A much better risk, but did I have the time?


It was two in the morning and I was fifteen, standing in the equipment barn, trying to stay awake and waiting for my dad to finish repairs on the tractor. I would never have volunteered to help had I known I'd be up so late.

"Shit!" my dad said. "Hand me the vise grips. The big ones."

I pulled them from the tool box and pressed them against his leg where he could reach them easily, the way I'd been doing since I was five.

"C'mon Dad, let’s save this 'til morning and go to bed."

He pulled his head out of the engine compartment and spun around, pointing the vise grips at me. I knew I was going to get blasted and braced myself, but instead he just stared at me for second, then shook his head.

"Because sometimes timing is everything, Son. Tomorrow is Sunday. I can't go to town and buy the part I need because they'll be closed."

"But you don't work on Sunday anyway," I said, not really caring about the stupid part.

"That's usually true, but they have forecasted showers all day Monday and Tuesday. If I can plant that corn tomorrow, it will get a good soaking. If I don't, then I may have to wait until Thursday or Friday for the fields to be dry enough to not bog down the equipment."

He turned around and dove back into the tractor. "Go on to bed," he said. "I'm not making you stay out here."

I stood there for a minute, my fifteen-year-old brain being slow to process what I'd just heard, then I stepped up close to him.

"I want to help. Is there anything I can do?"

"There sure is," he said. "Hold those hoses out of my way."

About twenty minutes later, while we were wiping down and putting away the tools, he paused.

"Thanks," he said. "You're a pretty sharp kid. You must have got that from your mother."


I decided to use the first tank and not waste more time. After removing the last mounting bolt, I worked my way back down to the closed valve, looked around for Sievert, but didn't see him. I had two hours and forty minutes of air left. I couldn't wait any longer.

I held tight to the valve housing with one hand and twisted the lever about a quarter turn with the other and was rewarded as finely crystallized oxygen jetted from the pipe and I started moving. Looking down, I saw the exhaust dangerously close to my feet, but when I tried to move them pain bloomed in my knees like twin supernovas.

Using only arms, I twisted my upper body to pull the useless legs away from the flow. It worked, for a couple seconds, then just as I was about to clear the TRD truss structure, I was yanked downward and to one side. I glanced behind me and saw that Sievert had looped his tether around the top of my utility pack and was pulling his way up to me.

I immediately shut off the valve. Even though the thrust wasn't powerful enough to pull from of my grip, I needed both hands to free myself from the line. As I struggled with the tether he kept waving at me. Was he making a truce? I didn't trust him and was unsure of his intentions, but there was no reason why the tank couldn't take both of us to the Stolid. The process would actually be much easier if we had one to control the valve and one to see over the globe of the tank.

Sievert gave me a small wave of reassurance when he came into view, then unlooped the tether from my back and attached the clip to a ring on the tank. I motioned for him to mount the tank at its equator, but instead he launched himself at me with a mighty push and squeegeed me off of the pipe.

My arms wheeled, seeking purchase, and finally snagged a hook on Sievert's utility pack. I held tight and the sudden anchor point swung me back, bringing the pipe up between my legs. I screamed as it bounced off of one busted knee, but I clamped my thighs together despite the pain. I knew this was my last chance. If I let go I'd die.

Using my leverage advantage I pulled Sievert over my head as hard as I could and let go. He grabbed at me, but missed and flew away from the tank and the TRD. I moved quickly up the pipe to the valve, expecting to have very little time before Sievert halted his departure, but when I glanced that direction I saw he wasn't using his thrusters to bring him back. He saved his gas, intending to let the tether halt his progress and had already starting pulling in the slack line.

I couldn't let him do that. Hand over hand, I dragged myself up to the tank, detached the tether and tossed the end out into the black. By the time I scrambled back to the valve he had realized his predicament and fired his thrusters to return, but I didn't hesitate. I held tight and twisted the valve fully open.

With a sudden lurch my rocket steed started moving, opening the distance between me and Sievert, but it had continued drifting while we struggled until the pipe nozzle no longer aligned with the direction of forward momentum. The added thrust created a slow conical spin.

As the tank spun, I saw that I had indeed cleared the TRD, but was having a hard time getting my bearings and couldn't see the Stolid. I had no choice but to act fast and get the tank under some semblance of control. With arms wrapped tightly around the pipe, I double-checked the direction of my nozzles, then triggered long bursts of my suit thrusters. The spin slowed, but not enough. I gave another couple bursts, shorter this time and watched in near panic as my air supply dropped below the two hour mark. With no other options, I didn't stop thrusting until the tank spin rate dropped to almost nothing.

Only then did I release one hand from the valve housing long enough to turn my body and look around. This time I was able to get a better understanding of my position. I saw the TRD amid a small cloud of debris behind me, but still couldn't see the ship. I used the cable race to crawl to the tank equator and look over. The ship was roughly ahead but about twenty degrees above me. Then I saw Sievert.

He was on a course that could intercept mine, but he floated like a man face down in a swimming pool, with arms and legs limp and a slight spin that kept turning his back to me. Had he set his course then went unconscious? He probably wasn't dead yet, his suit would have gone into automatic minimum life support mode in order to maximize his chances. It would provide enough air to keep him alive, but not conscious, for about thirty minutes. Of course he could also be faking.

Could I take the risk of trying to save him? And what the hell had he been thinking? He'd been safe. The two of us could have ridden the tank all the way to Stolid and both been saved. Of course then he would have had to explain his actions when I made my report. He would have been fired and probably jailed. Had he actually made getting rid of me a higher priority than even his own survival? Perhaps he expected to die and wanted to be remembered a hero, not a cowardly villain. Jerk.

After tracking him for a few seconds, I could tell we were going to miss each other. He would pass behind me if I kept accelerating. I shut off the valve and estimated the new intercept. We were still going to miss, he was coming in too high. If he were faking he'd have to act soon, but I worried about what I would do if he didn't act.

I counted down, carefully timing his approach, when an alarm sounded in my helmet. I hadn't checked my air in a while and it had just dropped below the forty minute mark. The realization made bile rise in my throat and I had to fight a sudden panic. Then Sievert was upon me, not attacking this time, but about to speed past overhead.

If I stretched my arm I might be able to grab him. Did I dare? Would he try to kill me again? Worse yet, would his momentum break my tenuous grip on the tank and pull us both away from the tank to our deaths?


During my junior year of high school, Dad and our neighbor, Ted, had a dispute over land they both wanted to buy. Greed turned Ted mean. He told lies and jokes about my dad to folks at the co-op, but Dad just pretended nothing happened. It made me furious and embarrassed that he didn't kick the shit out of the loudmouth.

Knowing how much both men wanted the land, the retiring farm owner, Cecil Winn, decided to have an auction and see how much he could get. It poured rain the night before and by the time my dad and I arrived, the trucks and boots had churned Cecil's driveway into ankle-deep mud.

We stood beside Ted and he nodded to us and then turned to give a sly wink to rest of the crowd. When the auctioneer began to talk, Ted spun around too quickly, lost his balance and was falling toward the mud when Dad reached and grabbed one of his flailing hands and pulled the man upright with one powerful yank. He could have watched Ted make a fool of himself without lifting a finger, but instead he made a huge effort to keep the loudmouth from hitting the mud. Then he let the man beat him bidding for the land.

I crawled back in the truck and sulked. I couldn't believe he'd had the chance to pay Ted back—twice—and had let it go. I would have loved to laugh at Ted lying in the mud.

Dad raised an eyebrow and asked what was wrong.

"Why'd you do that?" I said, barely keeping my voice under control.

"What? Let Ted outbid me?"

I had meant saving him from the mud, but before I could answer, he laughed and turned on the truck.

"Hell, I didn't want Cecil's three hundred acres, but I knew Ted did and he had the money to pay top dollar. Of course he wouldn't if he could get it cheap. Cecil needed the money, so I thought I'd just drive Ted's bids a little higher."

I learned things that day. Dad didn't really care what others thought of him. And those men who were standing around smiling weren't making fun of my dad, they were laughing at what my dad had done to Ted. Finally I smiled and settled back in my seat. Dad gave me a conspiratorial wink and at that moment I even understood why he didn't let Ted land in the mud.


I stretched high and tried to grab Sievert's hand, but was too late and just brushed his glove as he slid by. I was about to use my suit thrusters to jet after him and saw the tether, my tether, one end still attached to Sievert, the other sliding along the tank ahead of me.

With a hard pull, I launched toward the rapidly departing line, snatched it with one hand and wrapped it around my wrist. I grabbed a clip ring on the tank with my left hand and gritted my teeth. The yank was more violent than I'd anticipated and a hard pop sent hot pain through my shoulder. I cursed and gritted my teeth, wondering how the hell I was going to handle it. I recognized this injury. I'd pulled my shoulder from its socket before.

The recoil brought Sievert back toward me, but at a more manageable speed. I latched the tether's free end to the tank ring, held on with my injured arm, and slowly reeled him in using my good arm. I clipped him to the ring, then transferred the tether to me.

I checked my air. Twenty-nine minutes for me and I had no idea if Sievert was even still alive. I needed to come up with some ingenious way to pop my shoulder back in place, but sweat stung my eyes and everything hurt. We didn't have much time and I just couldn't think. I drew deep of my precious air and crawled up to the tank equator to get my bearings.

Halting Sievert's momentum had pulled the makeshift spacecraft out of alignment with the Stolid. I mumbled curses and used more of my precious oxygen to turn the tank once again. When close enough, I turned the valve and a stream of oxygen jetted from the nozzle and I began moving in what I hopped was the right direction.

I left the valve open, then deposited myself on the tank's equator so I could make minor course adjustments as needed. I also had to come up with a plan to get me and Sievert from the tank to Stolid.


With Sievert on one end of the line and me on the other, we made quite a nice bolo. Using a couple more puffs of air, I lined us up properly on the narrow service "neck" behind the command module. When we lassoed the Stolid, I had dropped to ten minutes of air. Using only my good arm and a dose of panic, I pulled me and Sievert into the one-person airlock and cycled it. I took time while air filled the small chamber to tie Sievert's hands behind his back using the tether. I wasn't taking any chances.

Once inside, I yanked off my helmet, then Sievert's. He wasn't breathing and was grayish in color. I started mouth to mouth and pulled the medical box from beneath my couch, then rummaged through it until I found the mask. I attached the hose to the interior oxygen panel, pushed it over his face and started defibrillation.

He didn't wake up but started breathing on his own and I finally relaxed. My face was covered with tears and my only useful hand shook as I fumbled painkillers into my mouth. Only then did I notice the radio squawking in the background and replied.

"Good God, Hartman. Sievert told us you were dead. What's going on up there?"

I considered a white lie, telling them he panicked or had space sickness, but then he might go out with someone else and kill them one day.

"Sievert tried to kill me," I said as clearly and carefully as I could. "He destroyed my transmitter, then pinned me down and tied to steal my oxygen. He's in bad shape now. Unconscious. I barely got him inside, but I did bring him back."

There was a long pause on the other side. Who knew what he told them and what they believed. I was just too hurt and exhausted to give a damn.

"Roger that, Stolid. We are inbound. ETA three hours and fifty minutes."

I was starting to feel a bit dizzy from the pain killers and didn't reply.

"Stolid? Do you copy?"

"Yeah," I finally said. "Hey, do any of you know if Sievert's dad is alive?"

When I mentioned his name, Sievert woke up. He turned his head and focused on me, but his eyes held no emotion. I couldn't tell if the old Sievert was still in there or not.

The crew from the rescue ship finally replied. "Tyco Orbital says yes. His father is still alive. Why?"

"Hartman out," I said and signed off.

We stared at each other for several seconds, then I said "I guess you broke the record. Congratulations."

He turned his head away. I checked his bonds then settled into my seat to sleep while I waited for pickup. Before I closed my eyes, I buckled my harness, per the safety regulations.


Copyright © 2016 William Ledbetter


William Ledbetter is a writer with more than forty speculative fiction stories and nonfiction articles published in markets such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jim Baen's Universe, Writers of the Future, Escape Pod, the SFWA blog, and Ad Astra. He's been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his nonwriting career in the aerospace and defense industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of SFWA, the National Space Society of North Texas, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, is the Science Track coordinator for the Fencon convention and is a consulting editor at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He lives near Dallas with his family and too many animals.


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