7 Minutes Missing
“This is the Skylark. Can you hear me? RADIO NOT RESPONDING. Communication system failing to activate. Unresponsive signal. I repeat, UNRESPONSIVE SIGNAL.”
Mia replaced the battery of AX-5 and Rv-3. Still nothing happened.
Skylark was enveloped in silence except the monotonous drone of the devices crammed end to end. She waited. There were faint murmurs on the radio that gradually became clearer.
“H-e-l-lo, Skylark! Go-o-d mo-rn-ing. Looks like you are on schedule.”
“Good morning, Everton!” She answered enthusiastically.
“You are twenty five minutes from entry. Hope you’ve had your breakfast! From the inputs we receive, all stats are perfect. Requesting Mission update.”
“Payload status and controls green. Running on ninety-five percent avionics. On schedule. Expected arrival at Base on time.” Mia answered with a hint of pride in her voice.
13th February, 2060: Mia Maria, lone astronaut aboard Skylark, was coasting along on the silent, Tartarean, nothingness. Twinkling fireballs on the edge of Space-time—future anchorages of humankind—teased. This was her third time in a space mining sortie, all aboard the Skylark. Deep Space Mining Inc.’s two bulk carriers—Skylark and Emergence—were ferrying refined Titanium, in tandem, from Asteroid Aegean, which was at its closest in two hundred years—a little more than a million kilometers. On the last leg of its journey back, Skylark was navigating towards the azure dome of life.
Mated to Skylark and secured to its superstructure, the commercial payload of top grade powdered Titanium, was in a separate module. A tunnel provided access to the highly inflammable but precious cargo. The Robotic Arm that transferred the Titanium from the in-situ refinery on Aegean to the Bulk Carrier SPV idled by the side of the superstructure, unpowered.
Mia, having just emerged from the Sleep Vault, was excited on the morning of touchdown. Inside the crammed Module, floor to ceiling Data Banks gleamed with multiple colored lights; wires, cables, devices and materials, stacked-up like Legos.
Ahead of her, several screens glimmered. Images drifted.
Skylark’s nine-meter long solar arrays made it closely resemble its namesake bird, flying through the infiniteness—a proud flagship of ingenuity and enterprise. Speeds of 20,000 meters per sec did not register in the cabin. It felt like a slow languorous pace, the kind that Mia thought was reassuring. The flight deck display clock showed 11:53, 600 kilometers from touchdown.
Mission Control wanted to go over the details.
“If you’d like to go over your entry times, I’ll update them for the various altitudes. Over.”
“Okay. Go ahead.”
“Okay. Your EI minus five is at 12:15 at 170 kilometers, Entry interface is 12:20, at 135 kilometers. Entry flight control is to be maintained with the Aero jet DAPS, and RCS jet commands to control and stabilize the vehicle during its descent from orbit. Approach and landing begins at the Approach and Control Zone, an altitude of 3.048 kilometers. Over.”
“That’s – 12:20 for 135 and 12:15 for EI minus five.”
Mia read the data from flight control system, looking for a confirmation.
“Mia, that’s it. To maintain present attitude, you are to use commands from rate gyros and accelerometers. Body flap can be switched to its Manual Mode at panel C3 by moving the toggle switch from auto slash off, to up or down for the desired body flap position. Okay?”
“Right… worried about the Comm., though… At the moment Skylark’s transmitting at 50 megabits per second, X-band, frequency 8 gigahertz. Antenna seems to be okay after the disruptions.”
The voice was dwindling. Mia punched a few codes. Mia sounded slightly apprehensive, “I assume that. I did go over the avionics right through. The EPS, ADCS are perfect. We have no issues with the power and Attitude Control. But the Comm. is troubling me right through.”
She hit a switch to her right and the audio of Mission Control sounded clearer.
“We’re trying to fix it. Meanwhile, data tells me the weather’s holding fine at touchdown. It’s about 1500 scattered, high scattered, favourable. You get that clear, right?”
“That’s affirmative. See you then, tonight!”
“Lovely! Drinks to celebrate?”
“Just remember what I prefer!” Mia said teasing, “And of course, on you. Until my share off this.”
“You’ll get what you contracted for. Could be a few days late though, that’s all.”
“Late? I’m getting married, Everton! You know that.”
There was a full-throated laughter at the other end.
“Really, boy, I mean it. This is the last time I’m seeing of ALL OF YOU. I am sick of THIS. And lonely….” Her voice trailed off wistfully.
“You—just—need a few days off, that’s all. Off to th—e mou—nta… May—be….”
“I am not so sure, Everton. Anyway, like to make a mention. For the communications, shifting to switch S-band Omni C. I just had a loss of signal a minute ago, and that’s the fourth time since yesterday.”
“Go-ooo ahe—ad and try-yyy it now that you—rrre in attitude.”
The voice at the other end was still making a commentary but it was inaudible. Mia flicked the switch once again but the audio did not improve. She hit several toggles.
“Everton are you there?”
It was answered by only a faint rumble at the other end. The voice died down replaced by the hiss of static.
The communications had been a spot of bother throughout the trip. Mia began fretting. She tried a Comm. Card reboot. The system did not come to life.
Outside, the B-330, International Space Base, rapidly turned and crossed over the horizon, the size of a large apartment, but vanished like a spec over the blue atmosphere. At the moment, six men from four different nationalities were aboard it. The crew quarters were an inflatable habitat like a huge balloon with a thick skin, about a foot wide, to withstand pressure in excess of five g’s.
She looked out of the porthole and drew a deep breath, as if absorbing the blackness between her and Earth. The Earth looked like a serene, magical bride veiled in blue. A serene veil? Serene, indeed! Mia thought of all the rumblings under that veil—swarms of breathing bustling, life; cacophony; voices of people; all bursting at the seams with energy! And still so calm and beautiful on the outside….
Mia would be a bride soon. She could imagine the anxiety under that veil! Viv would be waiting…. flowers in hand….at the end of the aisle….Mia paused and sighed.
A call from Emergence startled her.
“Good morning, Skylark.”
“Good morning, Asonil.” The Emergence Commander was a fellow trainee.
“Emergence is facing issues with the primary aperture at Camadona yet again. Can you suggest measures?”
“Mission Control was appreciative of the need to replace the P2 altogether after it was hit by the solar wind last week. For the interim have you considered replacing the panel and using the RA23?”
“Assistance appreciated. Will follow up as suggested. It’s been a difficult time on this Mission, Mia. I have a most unusual feeling!”
“Me too. Can’t wait to get back.”
“Good luck, Mia.”
Mia was thankful the signal hadn’t failed, this time.
Camadona was the refinery on site, from where the refined ore was passed through the valve into the SPVs. Camadona itself was winched to the surface of Aegean via a harpoon like cable. It would remain in-posit for the duration of many such ore hauling sorties.
The Robotic Arm was maneuvered electronically for lifting and compaction of the refined ore from Camadona to the SPVs.
Mia hovered to the porthole. The Earth was still distant; Aurora Borealis was on a spree, enthralling the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere. She was spellbound!
Mia shook to free herself from the enchantment.
Restore-L Robotic Space Service Station was at 400 kilometer altitude. Polar low Earth Orbit, clearly visible. Mining Bulk Container SX-9 of the European Union was docked to the aft port of the Station’s P2 service Module for refueling.
Mia returned to the console.
Her eyes focused on the screens in front of her. The clock was reading 12:00—Minutes away from Entry Interface. All the controls are green. The Skylark was on autopilot, cruising to its destination. The cargo of Titanium was safe in the hold. All safety hatches were in place.
She began to hum a tune—a reverberating tune, like the cascade of a mountain spring, echoing from the backs of icy slopes.
The first time they were together—Vivian Mathew and herself—not as friends, but as mates at the Cadet Camp, she had heard Vivian sing this folksong of the mountains he grew up in. She didn’t know the language, or the meaning of the song, but felt she had known the song all her life. They became friends, then lovers. In spite of the overwhelming distractions of an electronically wired world, tiny vibes of a sentient heart had reached out to one another.
Tonight, she would be returning to that warm human embrace. Funny that she should sing the tune now; having sung it so many times in her life! Only this time, so far away, alone and lonely, as she hummed it, she felt that it perhaps related to loss and longing.
How’s he? St. Peter’s Cathedral, Vivian with flowers in his hand, Mia walking along the aisle, her steps coy and measured….
Beyond her ghostly windows, spread the magnificently secretive darkness and rapidly expanding blue dome. Mia dreamt of giving all this up for a love nest with that one person and one person alone in that swarming morass of people down there.
Suddenly a crackling sound came from the radio.
“Captain Everton? You are back. Can you hear me? Do you copy?” The enthusiasm was unmistakable in her voice.
Fragmented words came through the static. Mia turned a few more switches.
“There’s a….FIRE. A—fi—rrr—in—your—hold. Attention…”
Mia looked at the screens—this time paying attention. The screen times were still at 12:00, SEVEN MINUTES AGO. The clock on her console was however reading 12:07. The images hadn’t moved for seven minutes! AND SHE HADN’T NOTICED!
In technical parlance, this is called perceptual blindness; when even very smart people, sure that they are paying attention can miss what is right in front of them.
In the missing seven minutes, the CDH System had failed, taking down with it all subsystems—the Avionics, and major portions of the EPS. The Comm. Antenna was in limbo, modulating only at 5%. The systems had lost power for seven minutes and the screens had stayed static. Cabin lighting and systems had remained unaffected on backup power.
Red lights of alarm were flickering across the module. A violently blinking light indicated a fire in the payload module strapped to the Skylark.
As she punched frantically, the screens returned to real time. On the closed circuit cameras of the payload module were tell-tale images of the blue flames of Titanium licking the hinges of the metal paneling. It took a second for Mia to realize that it was a case of exposed wiring; because of repeated use of the faulty valve over time, during hauling of the refined Titanium ore.
Mia looked at flames spreading beyond, to the sides of the metal container containing pure powdered Titanium. The signage ‘HIGHLY INFLAMMABLE’ glowed.
Everton at Mission Control was shouting,
“Mia, are you there? Can you hear me? Copy that!”
“I’m—AT—IT—right away, Everton. Get back to you.”
Mia toggled a number of switches that were in-built to activate the automated fire extinguishers. Sharp blue flames continued expanding. Fire Fighting System was unresponsive— the damaged wiring was not carrying the commands.
She floated to the wall of the CSM and snatched a dry powder fire extinguisher. As she moved the lever of the hatch, her fingers were shaking. Opening the hatch, she darted through the tunnel. Tiny lights in the Access Corridor were blinking violently against its walls stacked with equipment and wiring. Without slowing her momentum, she floated to the opposite side and held onto a handle. She pushed some buttons and twisted at a lever, already heating up. The air locked hatches do not come off. It wouldn’t be possible for her to reach the fire. By now, the alarms were blasting to a staccato, emerging from the control module and ringing through the tunnel.
Mia made a last ditch effort. Her skin, exposed, but for a Tee and shorts, was burning. Moving the lever to the farthest, she realized that the pressure building up inside was jamming the door. She turned in a split second and returned, in one swift movement, back to the CSM, latching the door behind her furiously. She floated through, as another door auto locked behind her.
The closed circuit screens were still showing the horrifying images of the blazing fire. As Mia looked on terrified, the fire made a final burst before it exhausted, having propagated with merciless swiftness within a short time.
Payload Module had been pressurized with pure oxygen just as the Access Tunnel and CSM. Fire behaves weirdly in zero gravity. In spite of the third generation automation, they had missed the basics.
Mia hadn’t succeeded in saving the payload.
She made an attempt at engaging with Mission Controls for directions.
“Skylark calling Base. Can you hear me? Everton… EVERTON! There’s a mishap… I can’t describe what I see…”
She paused to catch a breath. There was silence at the other end. But she didn’t seem to notice.
“A FIRE IN THE HOLD THAT’S GORGED ON THE TITANIUM…. The Module’s almost gone. The door wouldn’t come off…. Sealed tight with the pressure… The heat has fused the lining of the tunnel. The wires are stuck to the body of the fuselage and I see parts of it melting.”
No sound. The communication indicators were red. She hit the switch to her right with force but there was no audio. Mission Control was not responding back.
“Damn it. Everton! Everton! Are you there? Skylark calling Mission Control.”
Mia was beginning to panic.
“Everton, Skylark Comm. failing. Can you hear me? Say something! ANYTHING!”
All was silent except the radio static.
In front of her, screens were still detailing images of the damaged and melting tunnel. Readings for both Cabin Pressure and CSM temperature were going southward.
Now, Skylark itself had to be saved.
Mia was murmuring to herself, ‘I can do this. Mia can do this.’ Frustrated, she thumped the paneling of the control deck. She closed her eyes and rubbed them with her palms. In the next instant her jaw line firmed up and she punched codes to make another effort.
“Answer me Everton. Am I on course? ANSWER ME! The Module’s vibrating wildly….”
Her voice was wavering. Nothing. Absolute silence. A silence comparable to a necropolis. She mumbled in frustration, followed by cursing under her breath.
Her eyes began to well up. The screens were moving like flipping pages of a book, but it was all blurred in her vision. She looked around teary-eyed, like asking for help. Multi colored lights blinked; the panels stacked with instruments loomed over her, dwarfing her tiny frame.
She floated to the Porthole, like asking for assistance, for solace, for warmth, for comfort.
In spite of the Skylark’s furious pace; accelerating Space-time; the fiery Sun; at this moment, she felt frozen in time, and static.
In a split second the Command Module shook. The mounting pressure inside the Payload Module had split its door and the heat was darting through the tunnel towards the Command Module with tremendous velocity. Mia was thrown against the opposite wall.
She crashed against her spacesuit neatly hanging on the wall and was left shocked and numb. The alarms had gone off again and rising to a deafening din.
Mia scrambled to her seat and strapped herself ferociously, then hit the alarm switches to silence them. She needed peace to think straight.
Mia must act. NOW.
She punched some codes when another blast was heard; the sound waves tore through the tunnel and bang against the closed hatches of the Command Module. Mia realized, quite regretfully, that the condition of the Module and the Mission was precarious. At some level, her mind, was giving up on it. She had to keep fighting, irrespective of what her mind was telling her.
“You know, Everton, I have always been lonely… and afraid.”
She paused, imagining a reaction of shock from an attentive listener.
“You’d never guess so, but that’s because I show up as all tough… one of the boys… taking on anything thrown at me….”
She watched, teary-eyed, the twinkling stars winking at her.
“Mother said father had become a star…a twinkling star. Aren’t they beautiful? I look up and they’re there. I’d spend the nights, you know, looking up for my father. I’d wonder if he’d come visit us….
“I never saw him, you know. I was still in the womb when his fighter plane on a regular sortie fell off the clear blue skies. Just plucked out like that….”
Mia sobbed faintly. She was keeping up the communications with Mission Control, ignoring the unresponsive signals.
“On really dark nights, I’d cling to Mother and she’d hold me to her breast. Then lying in bed, we’d see the stars. When one fell off the darkness, we’d know father loved us back…
…Then mother too became a star. I went to the Home of the Holy Mother. At nightfall, they’d turn off the lights early and I’d be scared of the darkness. I’d search for the warmth of an embrace from the light of the distant dim stars… Are mother and father looking after me from the stars, Everton? Tell me! I don’t want to join them tonight, not now….”
Mia cleared her throat.
“Can you hear me Everton? Of course you can. It’s just that I can’t hear you, isn’t it?”
Silence. She turned different switches. Still no sound.
The module rolled over. She pressed a button. Additional thrusters came into effect. The spacecraft stopped spinning and returned to its ‘upright’ position. Skylark itself was now in control and responding to her maneuvers.
“Everton, say something! SAY ANYTHING! I need to speak.”
A hissing static silence. Mia watched the screens in horror, eyes dilated. Closed cameras of the tunnel showed a breach the length of a ruler, expanding every second. The blast had fractured it. The module bolted to the superstructure was coming off— independent of the command module.
At Base, Everton was shouting, “No contact with Skylark. I repeat NO CONTACT WITH SKYLARK. She’s 50 kilometers and two minutes from the Entry Interface. There’s an accident on board. Emergency Services alert. Move into position. RIGHT NOW.”
On Skylark, Mia was still speaking,
“Everton, the speed reading is 18. Payload is dangling by the debris of the tunnel. If it drifts off, it’s essentially a missile on automation—weapon gone rogue, isn’t it? You can’t help, can you?”
Another rumbling was heard. The side paneling of the Payload Module had disengaged. The cabin shook as it hit the solar panel, and then flew away, diminishing in size until it was only a dot. Mia watched it through the porthole in stupefied silence until it disappeared into the vivid nothingness.
The mission had been mired in multiple glitches throughout. Early in the Mission, while Skylark was docked to Camadona, the Asteroid Robotic Arm (ARM) suddenly developed a snag. It was drilling holes by using a patented technique called Optical Mining, concentrating solar optical energy on the regolith. Mia had carried out a low orbit emergency diagnostics that revealed its primary aperture had been hit by solar dust. As Mia carried out repairs, the operations were halted for seventy- nine hours. Resuming operations, Camadona suffered another snag in its Passive Thermal Volatile Collection and Dust Separation Technology. That delayed the Mission by another three days.
The lights in the cabin flickered and shut off. Mia gripped her seat involuntarily with both hands; her silicon tipped hand gloves pressed into the armrest. Except for the glow of the screens in front of her that ensconced her in a magical halo, the Command Module was in complete darkness.
Still more fragments fell off the payload and spun away. The breach in the tunnel was now a gaping hole. Strangely, Mia felt no more afraid of the nothingness. She closed her eyes and waited.
The Skylark jerked violently and then settled down; lights in the cabin returned.
At the base:
“Still no contact with Skylark. No update on condition of crew or craft. Recovery chopper 1 and 2 deputed and Rescue Vessels are at the Cape of Agulhas. Skylark is expected radius ten kilometers around the area. Requesting Emergency Services on maximum alert.”
On Skylark, Mia was maneuvering the Robotic arm.
“Everton! I can do this. The darkness, the silence, suits me. I have always been a loner. YOU KNOW THAT. Of course I can do this. I am not letting it fall off over Cape Town.”
Using a set of commands, she lifted the Robotic Arm and maneuvered it to the end of the dangling module—now just a two ton mammoth piece of debris. With another set of commands she set off a series of motions—very slowly—until the Arm grabbed the piece of metal and pulled it to the CSM.
She was sweating but the maneuver was successful. The cabin was under stress from the excess load but the damaged module was secure. Small pieces of debris from the free hanging remnants of the tunnel were still cutting loose and flying away—scraps of metal tiny enough for the atmosphere to burn off.
Mia released a long suppressed sigh. She sat strapped to the console, transfixed at the computer screens.
Minutes trickled away. She felt thirsty but was unable, or unwilling, to move. Licking her dry lips, she looked endearingly towards the life full collective—entwined and together in a voyage through space. For her, at this instant, it only symbolized a bouquet of promises. Mia unstrapped, rose with some effort, and floated to the cabinet grabbing a drink with both hands. Audible sounds emerged as she gulped it down greedily.
Then she made a dash to her seat, strapped herself and prepared for touchdown.
At 135 km above the surface, the return reentry speed of Skylark was 12,000metres/minutes. In spite of Comm. failure, and Skylark itself under enormous stress, the OMS rockets fired in the direction of motion slowed it down by hundreds of meters per second.
The nose of the Skylark had been pulled to an angle of attack of about 40 degrees. It was now, effectively, a flying brick with thrusters at the mercy of the Earth’s gravity.
The module positioned itself belly down, nose up. Down below she could see the stark indigo of the Indian Ocean.
For the first time, in a very long and troublesome Mission, she felt calm, like home!
HOME! Ah! The caressing crucible of life! The Planet, an ever changing mosaic of blues and whites, browns and greens, faintly peeped through shreds of white muffin clouds.
At the Base, Everton was ecstatic.
“Tactical Aircraft I/A-18 has reported visual contact of Skylark. Marvelous! I repeat, visual contact established.”
He hissed under his breath stifling a muzzled crackle of relief.
“I/A-18 has reported two sonic booms. We are just four minutes to splashdown.”
At Skylark, Mia was still having that imaginary link to Mission Control. The ploy had worked to give her strength. Having that mirage was kind of reassuring.
“Everton, I can see the waters clear; only a hundred kilometers to there. Here! I can see the east-west swath of the southwestern Indian Ocean. There’s Possession Island and East Island! There’s a V-shaped train of waves that the Islands have set up, like bow waves, as the air flows over the Islands from the west…Now they go under the low cloud deck…..I hope the weather’s holding. Coming at you….”
Mia yelled, “Remember about the bonus, will you?”
The backup emergency OMS Rockets released. With a hypersonic missile dangling behind her, the Skylark needed to slow down as much as she could.
Through the porthole, Mia marked out the Cape of Good Hope. She was off target by several kilometers. The stress on the Robotic arm was showing. With gravity taking effect, the weight of the dangling metal could barely be held.
Mia switched the Skylark to CSS and applied body flap and speed brake in Manual modes. Using commands, she adjusted the Skylark’s drag acceleration.
The Skylark was now entering the lower atmosphere. 70 km above Earth. It freefalls at 9.8 meters per second and the first of its parachutes released. Still it was a steep ballistic descent. She could see the City Bowl of Cape Town, flanked by the Devil’s Peak, and the Lion’s Head.
A strip of thin cloud, known colloquially as the ‘tablecloth’ could be seen on top of the mountain. The ‘spine’ of Cape Peninsula was jutting 40 kilometer southwards into the Atlantic Ocean, meeting it at Cape Point. Were the tons of damaged metal to disengage now, it would head straight to the city of Cape Town—a hypersonic missile dangling from the Skylark, tethered only to the Robotic Arm which was never designed or meant to carry this sort of load.
Mia sat stiff at the Console in spite of the Cabin temperature being far from desirable. The air pressure was compromised but Mia was ignoring it.
At 10 km above the ocean a second set of parachutes opened; the expanding canvas spread into the air.
At a kilometer above the Cape of Good Hope, she could see the iconic buildings of Cape Town—Portside Tower, the MetLife Centre and Triangle House. The distinctly rocky ragged beaches of Cape Town were alluring.
She was presently over the False Bay tethering dangerously near the edge of land.
Commander Mia tapped a few keys, and in an intelligent maneuver, managed to shift the course of Skylark at the last minute.
At Mission Control, a relieved Everton announced,
“Skylark has been successfully flown past the Cape of Agulhas and beyond into the vast indigo waters.”
The vehicle turned the southernmost tip of Africa. As it approached its splashdown point, it was decidedly beyond of endangering any inhabited terrain from the dangling metal.
Mia exulted, raised her arms off the console and waved in joy.
Skylark began to glide smoothly along a diagonal path. With the city firmly out of her way, she decided to release the pressure off the Robotic Arm. The behemoth piece of scrap fell off consequent to her commands, making a loud splash in the indigo waters.
At 10 meters above the seas, the Skylark’s Landing Engines ignited. The downward thrust cushioned the fall.
It hit the water and began to sink almost immediately. For an instant, she fumbled to un-strap herself. With the nightmarish experience behind her, she was both shocked and disoriented. She scrambled to the hatch and pulled a lever. The hatch broke off and brine rushed in. The ocean was beginning to gulp down the cabin. It was a rush for survival. Mia emerged, wrestling successfully with the waters, shaken, but alive and in one piece.
A fortnight later
The dawning skies were a riot of colors—salmon, scarlet, even a hint of lavender; the ocean, a delectable ivory and peach. Silhouetted against the ethereal celebrations of the planet, was St. Peter’s Cathedral. Asonil was one of the first to arrive. Emergence had returned from the Aegean just yesterday. All eyes were on Mia as she walked the aisle in a shade of white that can be described as the essence of a hundred Gerberas, or the petals of a thousand Daisies. Her bridal veil, with tiny beads, trailed her like stardust.
Vivian held a bunch of white Chrysanthemums, which Mia had said reminded her of her mother.
Vivian Mathews and Mia Maria were pronounced Man and wife. Loud cheers reverberated. The stained glass frescos of the Cathedral, illuminated by sunshine, obliterated all the silences and dark nesses of Mia’s life.
Somewhere in the black infiniteness, a star fell off the skies.