Aphelion Issue 296, Volume 28
July 2024 --
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Rite of Passage

By Robert Moriyama

Based on art by William R. Warren, Jr. as well as characters and situations created by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, and N.J. Kailhofer

Some of the individual versions of the stories in this series were written for forum flash challenge contests to help create this "world." As such, stories may not match the characters or settings of the continuous version of the story, which blended all the entries together.

Aphelion One, Day 172

Godlumathakathi Zwelitini -- "Gode" to his crewmates on Aphelion One -- normally enjoyed the prospect of an EVA. His life under the limitless skies of South Africa had been poor preparation for six months inside a spacecraft whose interior seemed barely larger than a big bus, and being outside -- even swaddled in a bulky vacuum suit -- felt like emerging from a cramped cave into daylight. But this excursion was different -- there had been little time to prepare or plan, the task at hand was urgent, and he had less than an hour before the charged particle front from the predicted solar flare was due to arrive.

Just to make things perfect, today was his 41st birthday. Zulus didn't celebrate birthdays the way umlungu -- Europeans -- did, only taking special note when certain milestones were reached. But the crew had insisted on baking -- well, thawing -- a cake for him, or what passed for cake in the ship's stores, as they had for everyone else whose odometers had clicked off another year. He'd even had to share some of his precious store of popcorn!

"Clock's ticking, Gode," the Captain prompted. "If you can't unjam the protective shrouds, the solar panels and exposed comm gear will get toasted for sure." As usual, Alexander Curtis was standing by in the airlock in case something went wrong -- as it had for poor Ophelia over on Aphelion Two.

Gode raised his right hand to his helmet in acknowledgment and let go of the handhold closest to the airlock with his left. Swinging his left arm smoothly backward imparted enough momentum to pivot his body and his right hand back toward the hull so he could catch the next handhold.

Now floating parallel to the ship, he checked to ensure that his safety line was firmly clipped to the lanyard and began to "climb" toward the panels that concealed the umbrella-like shroud intended to "shade" the solar panels from the storm of radiation that would erupt from the surface of the sun in -- twenty minutes?

On Earth, haste makes waste -- in space, haste kills, he recited.

"Gode. Are you okay?"

"I'm -- I'm almost there," Gode replied. And then he was there, and he could see the dented panel that had prevented the shroud from opening on command.

"Looks like we took a hit from something," he said. "One of the breakaway panels is bent..."

"Can you fix it?"

"One second," Gode grunted. He reached into the toolkit velcroed to his chest and pulled out a long screwdriver. It was the closest thing to a pry bar he had -- so it would have to do.

He tightened his grip on the handhold and braced himself, then thrust the tip of the screwdriver into the gap between the dented panel and its neighbor. It took all his strength to keep his body stationary and still apply any leverage at all...

The panel popped open suddenly, and the screwdriver sprang from his hand and tumbled away into the blackness.

"Got it!" Gode exclaimed. "Send the command again and let's see if we're in business."

A moment later, a ring of panels extending around the circumference of the ship bent back on themselves, and something that looked like a fine silver mist -- actually metal mesh -- bloomed outward on a complex scaffolding of hair-thin tubes. Hard to believe that can make any difference, Gode thought. Of course, once it's charged up, I guess the magnetic field does the rest.

"Time's up, Gode! We have about five minutes to get our asses into the storm cellar. Let go of the handhold -- I'll belay you in with the safety line!"

Startled, Gode did as he was directed, and felt a sharp tug start him floating back toward the airlock. Curtis had emerged from the airlock and clipped himself to the hatch, and was pulling Gode's line in, hand over hand.

"Oh, this is going to leave a mark," Curtis said, just before Gode collided with him like a slow-moving freight train. But the Captain had obviously executed similar emergency retrievals in the past -- he absorbed much of the momentum with his bent legs, pivoting so that both men tumbled into the airlock. Curtis slapped the emergency pressurization button as he caromed off the wall and back into Gode again, and the outer hatch closed. The interior of the airlock filled with fog as the moisture in the stored air condensed in the chill surrounding their suits.

Curtis shed his own helmet and left it floating in mid-air. "Leave your helmet here and move -- we'll have to shed the suits just outside the storm cellar!" Then he dived headfirst through the inner hatch and ricocheted his way through the ship toward the service module.

Muttering a prayer, Gode did likewise. He crashed and rebounded from hatch frame after hatch frame until he reached the entrance to the radiation shelter at the center of the service module, bruised but mostly intact. He clambered out of his suit and dived through the storm cellar hatch just as the radiation alarm began to wail, and someone slammed the hatch behind him.

"The shroud deployed," Gode gasped. "Did it power up okay?"

Chang Wei nodded, consulting a flatscreen inset into the far -- all of two-point-five meters away -- wall. "So far, so good -- no major spikes in any of the systems." Then he frowned. "What is that smell? Gode -- is that you?"

Gode grinned apologetically. "I was very nervous," he said. "I sweat when I am nervous."

Penny Jones sighed. "I would have brought some aromatic herbs if I had known."

"On the bright side," Curtis said, "We'll only be stuck in here for -- a couple of days."

I suppose this qualifies as a milestone in my life, Gode thought. My most embarrassing moment. Ilanga elimndandi kuwe --Happy Birthday, old man.


2009 Robert Moriyama

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