“Bionic Frontier” by Robert E. Hampson

“Hey, Shep, great to see you again!” Jakob Novikoff and Victoria Horst met Glenn “Shep” Shepard in the entrance lobby of the Jack Steele Center for Bionics in San Antonio. Jakob and Shep had been fellow patients at a rehabilitation center for amputees not far from their current location. Vicky had been a later addition to the patient population. The common thread linking them was that each had received bionic replacements for their missing limbs, and were re-entering the workforce.

“Have I got something to show you! Take a look at this,” Jakob continued with enthusiasm. He held up a pair of bionic limbs that looked like legs with considerable modifications.

Glenn took a limb and examined it. It had the usual magnetic bearing at the knee, but the lower leg appeared slender, with a less pronounced heel and longer, more flexible toes. “Those look almost like hands,” he said wonderingly.

“Got it in one. We’re calling those ‘tingers.’ The whole structure is a ‘foothand’ although some of the techs shorten that to ‘fands,’” Jakob told Glenn. “They’re for use in zero-gee environments.”

“Who came up with this, you?”

“Yeah, there was a book I read from the late Twentieth. Genetically engineered humans with four arms and no legs. They were designed as slaves for zero-gee work. Artificial gravity made them obsolete, and the owners were going to eliminate them, but were stopped by a slave revolt.”

“I hope that’s not a prediction for how things will go.”

“No, but it’s not a bad analogy. Instead of being a burden on society, bionics allow me to be a very productive member of space-based society.”

“I notice you’re wearing regular legs right now, though.”

“Sure, I refuse to be defined by my injury. Land, sea, air, or space, I can do any job I want.”

“Good for you, Jakob. Good for you.”

“I had a good example, Shep.”

Shepard turned and looked at Vicky, who had extremely obvious augmentation. “I’ve read that book, Vicky. I know where you got the idea.” Unlike Jakob, Vicky’s legs were completely natural, but prosthetics replaced both of her arms. Her left arm was artificial from the shoulder down and was bulky, more than twice the diameter of a flesh-and-blood arm. Her shoulders weren’t completely lop-sided, but it was clear that the bionic rebuild on that side extended into her shoulder, collar, and back. The right arm looked relatively normal, but it bifurcated at the elbow, becoming two limbs, one with grasping appendages, and the other with fine manipulators and instruments.

“These are my working arms,” Vicky told them. “Yes, I do have normal looking ones—for clubbing and dates. Unlike Jakob, I figured I’d actually wear mine and show you how they work.” She held up her right arm and demonstrated the powered drivers, cutters, welders, and clamps she could utilize in place of fingers.

“So, on the one hand you can hold something, and work on it with the other hand . . . ”

“ . . . and on the Gripping Hand, I can keep myself in place in gravity or not. I’ve been reinforced all the way across the shoulders and into both arms.”

“Cool! Are either of you coming to Mars with me?”

“I’m working on ship construction for now, but got my sights set on the asteroid mining project they’re getting ready to launch,” said Jakob.

“I’ve been detailed to orbital station expansion,” Vicky added.

“Oh, God, no. Not another Asimov Station, please,” Shep pleaded.

“Nope, this is the Heinlein Station refit. Strictly a Space Force operation,” she assured him.

“Ah, better. Just beware of panicking civilians. You’ll still have a few of them at Heinlein, but the Guardians are good folks.”

* * *

Six months later:

In the middle twenty-first century, two primary designs had been adopted for deep space stations: Rings and free-floating modules. The first long-term space habitats, Russia’s Mir and the International Space Station, were collections of tubes and blocks, connected to a “truss” of solar panels. It was not until replacements for the ISS were constructed that other designs were considered. The Clarke and O’Neill space habitats constructed at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points L4 and L5 were the first stations to be constructed as rotating rings, as depicted in over a century of science fiction.

Other designs, such as the tubular habitat proposed by Gerard K. O’Neill, or the inflatable barrel shape of the ill-fated Asimov Station, had been tried and rejected, despite the appeal of continuously variable spin-induced artificial gravity afforded by the hollow structures. They simply presented too much empty space to pressurize, not to mention the potential for loss of life and equipment in the event of damage. The major ringed stations created different gravity environments by having additional rings at different radius points from the common center.

Heinlein Station, at the L2 Lagrange point on the far side of the Moon, was the exception. Instead of concentric rings around a relatively small core, Heinlein had a long, wide spindle, and was designed to have a series of rings lined up in parallel along that hub. The original ring, Ring One, was short and wide and only produced one-half-gee of spin-induced gravity. Until two months ago, it had been filled with offices, personnel quarters, and limited visitor facilities for Space Force lunar operations. The newly completed Ring Two had a larger radius, but still sported the wide, flat rim of Ring One. Heinlein’s inhabitants were happy to finally have a one-gee habitat, but would have been happier to be able to occupy both rings. Unfortunately, flaws in the “commutator”—the interface between rotating ring and fixed hub—of Ring One required it to be emptied so that the construction crew could modify it before finishing construction on Ring Three.

The plan for the final ring had been changed from the original specifications. It would be much more like a thick disk with a hole in it than a ring. The habitat would consist of multiple decks ranging from zero-point-eight to one-point-two gees. That ring was still a few years from completion, but when it was, it would include research and training support for Space Force operations off Earth, as well as an extensive rehabilitation hospital in both the low and high-gee regions, in part to facilitate the type of rehabilitation required for recipients of bionic augmentation.

Even partially completed, Heinlein was a busy place. It was the headquarters of the U.S. Space Force Space Mobility Command. Whereas USSF mostly provided the crews for other stations and vessels, SMC owned Heinlein. It was headquarters, operations, logistics, and barracks, all-in-one. The L2 space station had all the features of a military base, and was a city unto itself, lacking only the families of the deployed Guardians.

The experience of Asimov Station had taught the world that space operations required a corps of professional spacers. That grand experiment had been the first foray into space tourism beyond one-off passenger rides to orbit and back. Asimov had been a celebrity destination with features of a posh hotel and health spa. However, a station emergency had demonstrated that few of the rich and pampered were capable of rational actions during a crisis. The hospitality workers and medical personnel were overwhelmed and undertrained. All of the celebrities were evacuated—often alone in life pods built for twenty or more, with flunkies and bodyguards blocking access by anyone else. More than half of the medical and hospitality staff had died.

International space agencies agreed that space was too harsh to be left to amateurs. A professional crew was needed to handle operations, maintenance, and emergency management for every station and every ship carrying civilians through space.

The Astronaut Corps needed to evolve into the equivalent of military transport, Merchant Marine and Coast Guard, all in one.

The USSF SMC offered to take on the job. On the surface, it might appear that the United States was claiming the solar system as its own, but in truth, Space Mobility Command operated under treaties and cooperative agreements with most of the space-faring nations, and several that weren’t—yet—but wanted to be. They needed a base and a place to live and train with their international colleagues. Other stations had dedicated purposes: O’Neill and Clarke were science outposts on their way to becoming space colonies as workers brought their families with them. Verne, in Earth orbit, and Wells in lunar orbit, were the equivalent of airports, transfer points for cargo and personnel headed elsewhere. They were full and filled with civilians.

So, Space Force built their own. Heinlein.

* * *

Victoria Horst was uniquely qualified to be shift lead on the multinational—and multi-service—Heinlein construction crew. The warrant officer had been a helicopter pilot, flight instructor before her accident. She had an International Relations bachelor’s degree—common among experienced soldiers working closely with foreign military. The opportunity to earn a master’s in mechanical engineering had accompanied the instructor rating and CWO-3 rank. Her capstone project and thesis, however, were on adaptation of rotorcraft systems to extremes of temperature and air pressure. She reasoned that if helicopters could be adapted to extreme atmospheric pressure and temperature, they could be modified for exploration of Venus and Mars. To do so, they’d have to transform from “a thousand unrelated parts flying in formation” to “a million unrelated parts sharing the same orbit.”

Helicopters were unforgiving beasts, and there was no bailing out in an emergency. When she’d had her life-changing accident, she’d flown her broken Lakota-neo to a landing she should have walked away from, if not for a fragment of disintegrating rotor hitting her exposed arms. Her rehabilitation was long, and she hadn’t gotten fitted for bionics right away. But the delay gave her the time to complete a second masters in biomedical engineering, with a thesis on human—and bionic—factors integration in space construction.

Now she got to put it into practice.

Heinlein had been commissioned five years ago with its first ring, a compromise between the planned three-ring structure and the need for immediate occupancy. Ring One was smaller than intended, its short radius limited the artificial gravity and personnel capacity. The flaw in the commutator only appeared much later. Like bearings on an axle, the commutator allowed for smooth rotation while maintaining electrical, and communications wiring, along with leak-proof connections for air and water. Ring One’s commutator started to break down much faster than anticipated. Repairs had become a constant and critical challenge.

Now that Ring Two was open, offices, labs, and support functions from Ring One had been moved into the new section so that the old commutator could be refurbished. It delayed the expansion plans but was necessary for safety. The unofficial motto of Space Mobility Command had been borrowed from USAF Search and Rescue: “So that others may live.” SMC safeguarded the lives of humans off Earth—they could do no less for their own.

Completion of Ring Three and reopening Ring One was necessary, however. There was simply too great a need for the facilities they would house. As a result, two constructions crews worked simultaneously on Heinlein. A Brazilian orbital construction firm was building Ring Three, while Global Dynamics, a company with a long history of military development, spearheaded the commutator refurbishment.

CWO-3 Horst had never been medically retired, unlike the very famous case of her friend Glenn Shepard, who had been forcibly retired even as he fought to return to duty following bionic augmentation. She was still a reservist, and Space Force co-opted her as a liaison to the Office of Scientific Integration, tasked with supervising the commutator refit.

It was her dream job, but not without its own challenges, equal to the problems she’d faced learning to use her own bionics. It might seem trivial to many people, but before she even reported for duty, Vicky and her doctors had to decide whether her unusual bionics would be covered by her pressure suit, or whether to have her limbs and suit adapted to wear the arms on the outside of the suit.

Her answer was “why not both?”

“Expense” came the answer. GD would only pay for one custom exosuit. Thus, for travel and routine transfers through low pressure zones, she used a generic pressure suit modified only to accommodate the increased bulk of her left arm and shoulder. She couldn’t use it for construction work, though, since the suit material would be easily damaged if she had to apply her bionic strength.

She insisted, and GD eventually agreed (with Space Force applying some subtle pressure as well) that she needed a custom exosuit based on Glenn Shepard’s Mobility in Limited Environment Suit. The original MILES was practically a wearable spacecraft, while Vicky’s variant was only a bit larger than her Space Force suit. The MILES customizations allowed her to control vacuum-adapted versions of her two-arm prosthetics attached to the exterior. She had all the options of her three-handed configuration. It was ideal for a worker who might need to hold themselves suspended from the outside of a spinning habitat under full gravity, while securing and manipulating a repair with two other appendages.

* * *

Most shifts were routine. Work in vacuum suits—still termed “EVAs” for “extravehicular activity”—was limited to four hours. Maintaining six EVA shifts in a day was a strain on personnel and resources and increased the risk of fatigue-related accidents. It was a major reason why Vicky had opted to work with GD; their construction schedule included an eight-hour period each day with no exterior work, even though there was no “night” in space. With EVAs limited to sixteen hours a day, the eight-hour “night shift” was devoted to rest for the entire GD team. Each shift crew worked one EVA and one inside shift, in addition to a two-hour commitment to exercise and physical conditioning each day. Decades of experience had shown that prolonged exposure to low or no gravity degraded the human body—even with bionics—so the exercise period was mandatory for all station occupants.

Vicky was First Shift Lead for GD. She chose to spend at least one hour of her mandatory exercise period before suiting-up to head outside. The job also meant she was nominally responsible for the other three shifts; therefore, after her EVA shift, she’d be in an office throughout most of second and sometimes into third shift. She found that the frustration of dealing with paperwork was best relieved by another hour of exercise, which was why she split her scheduled time before and after her work shifts. To make matters worse, she’d had to interrupt her exercise this “morning” due to a change in today’s task schedule.

One of the radiator fins on the outside of Ring Two wasn’t working, and a whole section of Ring Two was overheating. Heat management was a problem in closed systems, and vacuum was the perfect insulator. It wasn’t as simple as turning on an air conditioner, since there was no air to conduct heat away from the station; however, heated fluids could be pumped through fins attached to the outside of each ring. The fins had a black side and a reflective side and rotated to allow the black side to face away from the sun and radiate excess heat into space. Vane R-Two, S-Four-Alpha either had a problem with the coolant line or wasn’t keeping the reflective side facing the sun.

Technically, Ring Two wasn’t their problem, but the station maintenance crews were pitching in to get the construction completed as fast as possible without resorting to dangerous round-the-clock EVA operations.

The vane repair was disruptive to the schedule, and an absolute pain in the ass for Vicky, since it would fall during first shift. She had to pull two workers out of the schedule and dedicate them to the vane diagnosis and repair. She’d also need two workers inside to check coolant flow, test valves, and guide the EVA crew toward additional problems associated with the vane. She could pull those two from third or fourth shift, but of course that disrupted their schedules as well.

The worst part was that she’d have to split the attention of her safety monitoring personnel between the hub of Ring One and the perimeter of Ring Two. Even worse, Ring Two was rotating, while Ring One was not. One or even two safety observers were not enough to keep track of two sites that were constantly moving with respect to each other.

The only solution would be for Vicky to step in as safety officer for the vane repair. It was time to suit up, and head outside to start what should be an uneventful shift, just . . . complicated.

* * *

Personnel had arrived on Heinlein to occupy Ring Two before the decision was made to shut down Ring One for the commutator repair. That meant that the habitat areas were nearly at capacity; accommodating two construction crews stressed that capacity. Vicky’s status as a reservist and liaison earned her a shared junior officer cabin on the perimeter of Ring Two. On the other hand, she’d befriended the shuttle pilots as a fellow aviator. They invited her to share the roomier accommodations next to flight ops in the spindle. Frankly, she found it easier to suit-up in zero-gee, and the central location beat having to EVA just to get to breakfast.

Morning briefing was conducted over dedicated comms with most of her assigned crew. Their suits and tools were stored near their assigned quarters, and it wasn’t feasible to get everyone into a single space just to hand out assignments. The vane crew would need to collect specialized tools, though, so Vicky summoned them to the spindle and briefed them on the upcoming job.

“Okay, Ad-hoc, Z-man, you’re on EVA for the vane repair. We’re tasked with the first analysis of the problem; it came up during the down shifts. No-one even bothered to check if it’s an inside or outside problem, so Half-check, Patsy, you’re on interior diagnostics.”

“Suited?” Wolfram “Half-check” Hlavacek asked.

Lea “Patsy” Patrice was already looking up plumbing and circuit diagrams for the vane and just glanced up briefly.

“Suited for now. If you have to disassemble the coolant run, you may have to depressurize.”

The two workers “borrowed” from third shift nodded, and Half-check moved to look over Patsy’s shoulder at the specs.

“Just to clarify, Two’s going to be under spin the whole time? We’re expected to stand on our heads for this?”

“Well, you can always hang like a monkey, Zahir,” said Adriana “Ad-hoc” Hockaday.

“Very funny, Adi. I get headaches when I have to hang inverted,” replied Zahir Khoury. “If it turns into a full-blown migraine, I’ll have to spend tomorrow sleeping.”

“Remind us again how you qualified for EVA construction, Z-man?” asked Half-check.

Zahir muttered something under his breath.

“I didn’t hear that.” Patsy held a hand next to her ear. “Did you say your mam changed the test scores?”

Zahir turned red in the face. “I said . . . I invented half the tools we’re using out there.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess that’s okay then.”

Vicky was about to step in and stop the ribbing, but Ad-hoc stepped up and in a loud whisper, told Z-man, “Ignore them. They’re just jealous you even have blood flow to your head in zero-gee!”

The two shift-mates laughed, and soon there were smiles all around, although Vicky did hear a very faint “firsties” and a snicker from Patsy, but shift-based rivalry was normal. These people were professionals. Once the work started, all rivalry was put aside.

“Okay, up and out, crew.”

* * *

The vane repair started out routine. There was a problem with the rotation stem which kept the reflective side pointed toward the sun, and the radiative side pointed away. However, once that was fixed, Half-check reported that the interior was still not cooling. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse.

“I can’t see anything obstructing the coolant line out here. How about inside?” Ad-hoc asked over the comm.

“Nothing here,” responded Patsy. “Half-check’s reading high pressure on the coolant system, but it’s not flowing.”

“And yet we have no pressure out here. Is there a valve anywhere in there? I don’t see one on the specs, but it wouldn’t be the first time one was installed as a workaround for some other problem.”

“Not that we can see unless we disassemble the bulkhead.”

“Where are you? What’s inside from here?”

“Waste water storage. There’s heads on either side, and a freshwater tank to either side,” Vicky cut in. She was tethered to the nearest spoke on Ring Two, where she could also see some of the work teams on the hub of Ring One. “Are you thinking of sealing off and opening up?”

“It depends.” There was a note of humor in Ad-hoc’s voice. “Whose head?”

“Mine, actually, or it would have been if I had taken the berth in junior officer country.”

“Ooh, Fresh-faced lieutenants who will be so thankful I saved them from overheating!” retorted Ad-hoc. “At least, until they heat up on their own!”

“Wait? What were you doing in officer country?” came another voice. “You’re a warrant!”

“Space Force doesn’t have warrant officers, Half-check,” Vicky said. “Pilots are officers; they accorded me an honorary O-2 rank.”

“Lieutenant Bosslady! Yes, ma’am!”

“Enough of that.” Vicky told him. “There’s no quarters, no critical infrastructure under the vane. If you need to open it up, you can do so, but I need to notify Ops so they can sound the decompression alarm and not catch anyone in the head.”

“Y’know, if we vent atmo, it’ll get rid of the heat in here,” said Patsy.

“And unbalance the ring, idiot.”

“Ad-hoc’s right, no venting, although once we pump down, it’ll take the heat out anyway,” Vicky admonished them. They knew it anyway. This was simply stress-relief banter.

“And make it someone else’s problem. Yay!”

“Can we get on with this? The suspension harness is great, I don’t have to hold myself on the ring in full-gee, or hang upside down, but I’m still getting a headache.” Z-man’s voice had taken on a whiny note. “Maybe I can swap with Half-check if we’re opening up the hull.”

“Not a chance, man. Besides, there won’t be enough room to fit through.”

“Then can you send some spare oxy out? I turned mine up to stave off the headache.”

“Whine, whine, whine. You want some cheese with that, Z-man?”

“You should have stacked a spare bottle, Zahir. I did. I figured hanging off the rim under rotation would increase muscle exertion.”

“Gee, now you tell me, Adi . . . ”

“Cut the chatter. Make the call, Ad-hoc. Z-man, the sooner you get to it, the sooner you can get back inside.”

“Right, Bosslady. Okay, have Ops tell the louies to use the heads in the Commons. Half-check can verify the pressure-tight doors while we wait on the pump-down, and Patsy can start pulling off the interior panels. Z-man, get the exterior access panel off.”

* * *

Sure enough, the problem was evident as soon as they could disassemble enough of the bulkhead to visualize the complete length of the coolant line. There was no valve, nor obstruction, but what there was . . . was a crimp. The line carrying hot fluid out to the vane passed through a small gap in the main structural bulkhead. Instead of a simple bulkhead fitting, a through pipe was welded to the pressure-tight plate. It was firmly sealed against air leaks, but it required separate couplings inside and outside of the hull. Apparently when the interior coupling was attached, the through-hull tubing bent and collapsed on itself, drastically reducing the flow and slightly cracking the welds. The narrow section of pipe eventually became completely blocked, and Sector R-Two, S-Four began to heat up. The fact that there was also a miniscule air leak masked the problem until Ring Two was fully occupied.

Once identified, the repair went quickly. Half-check cut out the old pipe and installed a new bulkhead coupling with integrated heat and pressure sensor to monitor for leaks. Patsy and Z-man then replaced the coolant line couplings while Ad-hoc reassembled connection to the vane.

At this point, the repair was going smoothly . . . 

 . . . until it didn’t.

* * *

“Hold it right there, Zahir. I need to come around behind you to get on the other side before I tighten the bolts down.”

It was the final stage of the repair, putting the disassembled hull plates back in place. Z-man had adjusted his position and was using a three-point tether to hold himself up against the one-gee centrifugal force trying to pull him off the hull. Ad-hoc has loosened her own tether to move around Z-man and the vane so that she could get to the other end of the hull plate to align and fasten it in place.

“Why are you using your maneuvering jets, Adi? Just walk around.”

“If I do that, idiot, I’ll be hanging upside down. You always complain about it; why would you think I want to do it?”

“But that’s too much thrust,” Z-man told her.

“Yeah, I —” Ad-hoc cut off as her thruster switched from intermittent puffs to full thrust, pushing her out away from the station. “Z-man, help!”

“I got you, Adi.” His co-worker’s tether passed over his own, and he grabbed it to start pulling her back against increased gravity and outward thrust. “Ungh. Heavy.”

Neither of them saw the tether wrap over the edge of the vane, causing a small cut into the braided polymer. Z-man pulled on Ad-hoc’s tether, but every time he tried to shift his grip, the tether slid back through his hands, putting stress on the weak spot.

“Chief? We’ve got a situation, here.”

“I see it. Don’t try to pull her back in, you’re not strong enough. I’m bringing a construction tether.”

Vicky knew that a problem like a stuck thruster was self-solving problem as long as the tether held. For that matter, even a broken tether wasn’t a big problem; construction tugs were on standby to retrieve stray parts and drifting personnel. Given time and sufficient air, they could wait until the thruster ran out of fuel and tow Ad-hoc back in. She used her own suit thruster to drag a heavy-duty construction tether out to the rim, intending to attach it to the dislodged worker.

Z-man kept trying to pull his co-worker back, but he couldn’t overcome the outward forces. Worse yet, every time he lost his grip, the tether snapped tight and rubbed on the edge of the vane. If that wasn’t bad enough, Ad-hoc had now begun to spin on the end of the line, with the thruster introducing even more oscillation.

“Z-man! Quit trying to pull her back. You’re making it worse—I’ll be there in another minute!”

“I can do it! Just let me try.” He heaved on the tether, and managed to get more slack, but couldn’t hold it. This time when it snapped back, the tether parted and the free end snapped against the back of his suit. The release of tension also propelled him back against the base of the vane. As her tether came loose, Ad-hoc began to drift outward from the station and off to the side as the ring rotated away.

“Dutchman, dutchman, dutchman! All hands, this is not a drill. Dutchman off Ring Two.” Vicky used the emergency channel to announce the universal code for uncontrolled EVA. At the same time, she used her shift-lead override to force Ad-hoc’s suit transponder to squawk an emergency locator. A tug should be able to pick her up, but they likely wouldn’t approach until the thruster ran out.

There was one other thing Vicky could do. Her own maneuvering jets were taking her head-first toward the outer rim of Ring Two, close to the base of the vane. If she could flip over to face opposite to her direction of travel, she could kick off and send herself out toward Ad-hoc, or at least in the direction of her retreating tether. Grabbing the tether would be worse than what Z-man had attempted, but she had an advantage.

A bionic advantage.

The rim approached, and Vicky used small thruster bursts to change her orientation. She could have tried to calculate it, but fifteen years as a rotary wing pilot had given her an instinctive sense of rotation. She landed and kicked simultaneously, changing course to chase after her dutchman.

Despite books and movies to the contrary, flying through space on suit thrusters just wasn’t that fast. It felt as if Vicky was just drifting as she slowly caught up with Ad-hoc’s tether. She still had one end of the construction tether, but would be running out of room soon. She’d have to collect enough slack to tie a strong hitch between the larger and smaller diameter lines, and somehow absorb enough of the tension to keep it from breaking again.

She had a solution for that, though, but it was going to hurt like hell. Her bionic rebuild had replaced her left shoulder blade and collar bone, with additional strengthening of her spine and across to her right arm. It not only enhanced her lifting ability, but also served as strain relief for forces across her shoulders.

Vicky would grab each tether and take the strain across her own reinforced skeleton.

“AAAAHHHH!” she yelled, treating it much as a “ki-yah” in martial arts. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but it felt good to let it out. The sense of being pulled apart was brief, and at the end she could feel rebound in the tethers giving her enough slack to tie them off. Her head’s up display had a warning light for several magnetic bearings in her right arm, so she’d need to power-cycle those before trying to do anything else.

“Ad-hoc! Adriana. I’ve got you now. Can you shut down that thruster?”

“Damn. That hurt! I banged my head inside my helmet,” she heard over the comm.

“Um, no sympathy here, Ad-hoc. I buffered a few gees across my shoulders. Don’t whine or we’ll start calling you Z-man.”

“Don’t you dare, Chief! Uh, anyway, the thruster is stuck, but I should only have a few minutes left.” It was a good thing. Ad-hoc was still twisting at the end of the tether, and the whole thing was trying to pull out of Vicky’s grasp. “Speaking of, how’s Z-man?”

“Ah.” It wasn’t that she forgot, but Ad-hoc was drifting further out. Z-man was still attached to the station.

“Suit leaking,” came a thready voice. “Got hit right in the collar. Hurts like a sonofabitch.”

“How bad a leak? Can you seal it?”

“Can’t move my arms very well. I think it’s the neck ring; helmet’s got a crack down near the edge.”

“Shit, okay. With Adriana tied off, I’m coming back to you. I can be there before anyone else unless Half-check or Patsy are in position.”

“Negative, Bosslady, Patsy and I are in pressure suits, but not exos. Besides, we have to wait out repressurization of the compartment before we can move toward the airlock.”

“Acknowledged. Call in to cancel the dutchman and redirect the rescue to Z-man’s position. We can reel Ad-hoc in from there if we have to.” Vicky turned and pushed herself along the tether back to the base of the vane.

Z-man didn’t look good. The slight cloud of vapor around his helmet indicated more than one leak. There was a smear of blood inside the visor, and another on his forehead. His skin had taken on a grey pallor, and one eye was swollen shut.

“Hold on, Z-man, let me take a look at your suit.” She could see condensation at several points along the seal between helmet and suit, including one point where the neck ring appeared to be crushed. “Yeah, it’s the neck ring. Suit Goop won’t be enough to seal it. I’m going to have to cut in and straighten the ring, then apply Goop.”


Vicky took a moment to check his suit status.

Oxy at eleven percent and dropping.

That wasn’t good at all, she would, indeed, have to hurry. On the other hand, they could buddy-bottle once she got the leak patched. There was enough oxy in her own suit to share with him.

Unfortunately, in the time it took to use her bionic right arms to cut and remove the crimped neck ring, straighten a segment to fill the gap, and apply vacuum sealant to the whole thing, her own oxy was dipping into reserve. She hadn’t grabbed an extra bottle, either.


“Ad-hoc! What’s your oxy status?”

“Twenty-five percent, plus reserve.”

“Okay, I guess I’m reeling you in after all. Has that thruster stopped yet?” Vicky looked out across the taut safety line to see Ad-hoc still rotating in a circle at the end of the tether.

“Not yet. It should have run out by now.”

“I need to start pulling you back anyway. It just means I have to be prepared to slow you down and catch you as you go past. Once the thruster cuts out, you’ll be moving too fast.”

“Bosslady, rescue says not to risk pulling Ad-hoc back in. They’ll retrieve her once the thruster runs out. They can be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Negative, Half-check. Have them meet us here. We need Ad-hoc’s extra oxy for Z-man.”

Half-check started to protest, but Patsy’s voice cut him off. “I told them that, Boss. I told them our own superhero had it covered. Just ignore them. I’m moving to the airlock to help bring you inside. Half-check! Come with me or get out my way!”

Vicky suppressed a laugh and just continued to pull on the tether. She felt the tension release and the line start to accumulate slack. Now she had to coil up the tether and make sure she didn’t speed up Ad-hoc any more than she already was.

Ad-hoc was getting closer. Fortunately, she wasn’t heading directly at the vane, but slightly to the side. Vicky continued to pull in the slack. As the other suit passed alongside, she’d brace herself and absorb the deceleration strain across her shoulders.

Three . . . 

Two . . . 

One . . . 


* * *

“By the time I got the two suits hooked up, Zahir was down to two minutes of air. I had my reserve, and Adriana’s was more than enough to give them both twenty minutes. Lea was stationed at one of the emergency airlocks in the ring, but I didn’t want to traipse through half the hab, cross Officer Country, and still have to head to the spindle for sick bay. Better to wait five more minutes for the rescue tug, and take them both in via the hangar deck. I stuck around to finish securing the panel, gather their tools and coil up the tethers. Once I was able to head to sickbay, they were both sitting up and joking.”

“You stayed out there alone? Did I not teach you better than that?”

“Um, bad example, Colonel, you might want to rethink that. You always do things yourself.”

Shepard grunted over the comm. “Anyway, how are the arms? Any damage? Marty will have both of our asses if you have to go back in the paint and body shop.”

“No damage, and just a bit of muscle soreness. Doc Ling says the strain-relief reinforcements did their job. The only thing I had to do was reset the mag bearings afterward.”

“Good.” He paused for a moment. “Good work, Chief Warrant Horst. You’re continuing a great tradition here.”

“Of being the right . . . bionic . . . man for the job?”

“Bionic woman, I believe, Vicky.”

“You believe? You don’t know?”

“I leave that to Jakob. Oh, by the way, did you hear what he did? Scrammed an engine test and shunted a potentially fatal overload? All in zero-gee, doing a job that required four hands.”

“So those extra ‘fands’ and ‘tingers’ came in handy?”

“Ugh. ‘Handy.’ You’re as bad as General Weber with the puns. Anyway, Boatright’s over the moon, so to speak. His first three bionic astronauts, and every one a hero.”

“It’s truly a bionic frontier, Shep. The stars are ours.”

“That they are, Vicky. That they are.”

* * *

Copyright © 2024 by Robert E. Hampson

Dr. Robert E. Hampson is a neuroscientist and author. By day, he is a professor in the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. By night, he writes military, adventure and hard-science science fiction as well as nonfiction articles explaining science to the general public.

Robert Hampson's 2023 novel The Moon and the Desert, builds on his forty-year scientific career to update the 1970s classic TV program The Six Million Dollar Man. His SF writing career began with "They Also Serve," a short story in Riding the Red Horse, published in 2015. That story became the foundation of his first solo novel The Human Side, in 2020. He has three collaborative novels with Sandra Medlock, Chris Kennedy and Casey Moores in the "Wrogul's Oath" arc of the popular Four Horsemen Universe, has co-edited two anthologies, and published more than 25 works of short fiction (some written as “Tedd Roberts”). He is also a regular contributor of nonfiction articles for science fiction readers, with more than 15 articles published.

Dr. Hampson is a professor of regenerative medicine, translational neuroscience, and neurology at Wake Forest School of Medicine; a teacher; a scientific journal editor; a reviewer for dozens of journals and research agencies; has been interviewed on his research by newspapers, radio and TV; and a consultant to TV and game producers, defense contractors, and authors. He has published more than 175 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

His website is http://REHampson.com.