The alarm woke Maria up in the bottom bunk of the Deep Space Exploration Vehicle. Technically the only bunk since the top one had a plate wielded over it. The sleeper unit had been appropriated from a decommissioned module of the ISS-V. One of the many ways the builders had saved time during construction. She got up and slapped the control panel on the wall to stop the alarm.
She padded barefoot into the living area of the ship, a five by twenty foot corridor with an airlock at either end. It was lined with storage compartments and various hard mounted pieces of “living” equipment. Almost everything was second hand from one space station or another. It had almost taken too long to build just the essential systems, like the power plant and engines. Little time had been left to custom build “redundant” systems, like the living quarters.
From the dishwasher embedded in the wall she pulled a bowl and spoon. She got a package of instant oatmeal from a compartment on the other side of the corridor and added water from the sink set in the wall. The microwave was mounted in the wall over the foldout table and chair. She turned on the entertainment system and queued up the next episode of the family comedy she had watched as a kid.
In theory she had access to hundreds of tv shows and movies to stave off boredom; in practice the screen had been mounted such that the only place it was clearly visible from was directly in front of it. She mostly used it for background noise. The microwave dinged. She stirred her oatmeal while listening to the antics of the family’s kids. She wished she had a window back here.
Log #15: “I’ve arrived at the first comet on schedule. The twins are mining ice to refill the fuel tanks. It’ll probably be two days until I can begin sectioning the comet. While I wait I’ve been surveying the comet and studying the stress analysis the computer has come up with. And I’ve been looking at the stars. The stars are so bright and clear out here, even clearer than from the moon. The sun is barely brighter than the other stars. It’s breathtaking. I know I say this all the time but I really do like the view. I wish you were here to see it.”
The tv returned to the selection screen after the show’s credits. She rinsed her bowl and spoon before putting them back in the dish washer. Nine a.m. according to the control panel. Time to go to work. She had a schedule to keep even if no one was watching.
At the forward end of the living area was the airlock leading to the cockpit. Once through the airlock, she climbed a ladder from the lower deck, that housed a pressure suit and emergency equipment, to the command chair.
“Time to save the world,” she said to herself as she settled in.
“We have some bad news to tell you,” said one of the men wearing suits. They were in an interview room; white walls, metal table, uncomfortable chairs. The two men sat opposite Maria.
“Personal or work related?” Maria asked.
“Global,” the second man said. He placed a folder on the table a slid it to her. She took it and started flipping through the contents. Color gradient images. A report on comet cluster X3673457. She skimmed through the report. Number and size of objects in cluster. Composition of objects in cluster. Trajectory of cluster. Conclusion. She read the conclusion again.
“Is this real?” she asked.
“It has been verified as accurate,” the first man said.
Maria stared at the two men, “Why are you telling me this?”
“An international initiative is working on a solution–”
“What kind of ‘solution’ is there for eight extinction event size comets heading for Earth?” she asked loudly.
The second man smiled, “Ordinarily there wouldn’t be a solution. It’s an impossible problem to solve. We should be working on accelerating our Mars colony program getting as many people off planet as possible and building bunkers underground… but if you get enough rocket scientists together, sometimes the impossible becomes possible.”
The first man cleared his throat, “You’re on the short list of candidate pilots for the mission.”
“What’s the mission?” she asked.
“Save the world,” the second man said his smile widening.
The first man glared at the second man before continuing, “A space vehicle will be sent out to intercept the comets before they reach the solar system and reduce them in size. A combination of the solar wind and Jupiter’s gravity will steer them clear of Earth.”
“How are you going to reduce the size of the comets?”
“The ship will be armed with an experimental laser to carve them apart,” the second man said, “It’s very scifi.” The man’s eyes twinkled with mirth.
Maria looked at the first man and asked, “We have a ship that can go out that far?”
“It’s under construction.”
Maria strapped herself into the command chair and looked out the main window. Ahead of the ship was the latest target. A solid mass only dimly lit by her ship’s lights. She watched stars wink out as they slipped behind it.
“Are the twins back inside?” she asked the ship’s computer.
“Harvester units are unloading,” a robotic voice said.
“Lock them down until further notice.” She flipped a switch activating the heads up display overlaying an image of the comet in greater detail and highlighting target sites. The comet rolled slowly, its lopsided shape wobbling through space. After aligning the ship with the first target site, she fired the laser for two minutes. A plume of gas and water vapor vented from the laser site. Adjustment to correct for comet rotation followed by a three minute laser pulse. Stress readings spiked into the red. She might be able to crack this one today.
A light touch on a control stick, maneuvering thrusters fired around the ship and it rose relative to the comet giving her an angle on the next target site. This pulse grazed the thinnest part of double bulbous comet. Slowly she guided the laser against the comet for five minutes. She stared at the scared surface, consulted the stress analysis overlay. A slight correction of the ship’s position before firing again. She aimed now at a weak section and fired for seven minutes. The surface around the laser site cracked. She smiled for a second before looking at the new assessment of the comet. The comet’s uneven rotation would finish breaking it in half over the next several hours. The two halves were still large and would need to be reduced further before she could move on to the next comet in the cluster but it was progress.
Maria sat at the bar, swirling her drink and contemplating the end of the world and her future role in perhaps averting it. She wasn’t drunk, just buzzed enough to take the edge off the feeling of impending doom. Was she the right person for this mission? She wouldn’t have been brought into the loop if someone, a lot of someones, thought so. And it wasn’t like she was the only one being brought in. She might wash out and one of the other nine would go instead. She couldn’t decide which was worse being responsible for saving the world or waiting for someone else to save the world.
“Hey, spacewoman why so glum? Your flight get scrubbed?” a woman said cheerily, interrupting Maria’s thoughts.
“No. I was told… um… I got some bad news earlier.” She had been nursing on her drink a little heavier than she had thought.
“What kind of bad news?” The woman leaned against the bar next to her.
“Can’t say. It’s classified.”
“Super secret stuff, eh? I get it. I just thought the end of the world might be getting you down.”
“What?” Maria tried to hide the shock she felt.
The woman lend close and whispered, “I helped select the candidate pilots. Let’s grab a booth and talk.”
She had drained the laser batteries just into the red by the end of the mission day. The ship’s generators would charge them overnight. She reactivated the ice harvesters and chose points on the comet pieces for them to mine ice from before calling it a day.
It was an exercise day, so she folded out the various exercise machines. She blasted rock music to keep her pace and heart rate up. The rowing machine couldn’t be fully folded out but it was still usable. The treadmill scrapped against the far wall but reached a level position.
Afterward, she showered and ate a freeze dried dinner, while a comedic animated film about a dog and cat played.
Log #17: Hey Mom and Dad. Thought about you today. The mission is going fine. I’m on schedule to ‘save the world’. It’s even less exciting than it sounds. Anyways I’ll try to get some pictures we can look at when I get back. Love y’all. Bye.
Maria stood from the bar stool and wobbled in place for a second. She caught the attention of a bartender, got a lemon-lime soda, and headed to the booth the other woman had sat down in.
She slid into the booth and sipped her soda. “So, what’s this all about? Should we even be talking about this?”
“I recognized you from your file and you look like you could use someone to talk to. We shouldn’t be talking about the mission but if we don’t get into specifics it’ll be ok.”
“Who are you?” Maria asked.
“My name’s Hailey Wen. I’m part of the engineering team overseeing crew selection and training for the mission. We’re all supposed to meet Wednesday but I saw you at the bar and…”
“Yeah it’s a lot to take in. It’s the end of the world but no one knows it. Except we do know it and we can’t do anything right now about it.” She paused staring into her soda, “Oh, um I’m Maria Flores.”
“I know. I read your file,” Hailey said.
“Right. I have a file? What am I talking about of course the Agency has a file on me.”
“You want to get out of here?”
“Out of here?”
“It’s still kind of early we could catch a movie or something; to get your mind off ‘the end of the world’.”
Maria stared into her soda some more. “Yeah,” she said, “Let’s go to a movie.”
At eleven p.m., she went back up to the cockpit to check on the ice harvesters. She changed a couple of mining sites and looked out the window. The comet had rotated halfway around and partly torn in two. By morning it would be two separate pieces surrounded by debris.
Maria returned to the ship’s living area and walked back toward her bed, turning down the lights and resetting her morning alarm on the way. She laid down to sleep, pulling the blanket over her. The whir of the circulation fans. The distant thrum of the generators and ice processing plant.
Log #24: Hailey, I miss you.
They stepped out into the fresh air outside the bar, Maria with a slight wobble to her walk. “You should probably ride with me. Do you have a car?” Hailey asked.
“I have a motorcycle,” Maria said while glancing up at the stars.
“Of course you do,” Hailey said with a smile, “Is it going to be safe here?”
“Oh, sure sure.”
“Ok, then we can go in my car to the movie,” she said leading the way to a white compact car.
In the privacy of the car, Hailey began talking about the Deep Space Exploration Vehicle. She talked about the ice harvesters and the processing plant in the ship that breaks down the ice into oxygen and hydrogen to use as fuel. About the experimental G-drive and laser system. Maria listened silently to her and to the whir of the air conditioner, the hum of tires on pavement. After a few minutes, she closed her eyes against the gentle strobe of freeway lights being passed.