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Null and Void
Posted By: J. D. Ford<fordyman@comcast.net>
Date: 19 November 2009, 6:07 pm

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"Null and Void"

J. D. Ford

      Everyone knows space is cold. Everyone knows it's dark and silent. Airless, merciless and inhospitable to life. Human life, at least. That's common knowledge...has been since man first sent a balloon up to the edge with some poor bastard strapped to it. But that almost universal understanding doesn't really compare to the stark reality...when you're finally faced with the yawning, empty maw of hard vacuum.
      It. Is. Terrifying.
      They put you through so much training to prepare you for that moment. You know how to access the emergency locker. You know how to prep the pressure suit, check the O2 levels and seals. Stick your feet in the boots that never fit right and pull the thin fabric up around your body, despite your shaking hands. That's just the adrenaline, they say. It's not supposed to be fear at that point—you've been trained for this. Over-trained. At least, that's what you think, until it actually happens.
      Yeah, they stuck your ass in a vacuum chamber at the Academy and gave you thirty seconds to seal the deal...but you knew it was only training. It wasn't like they were gonna let you suffocate in there if you got it wrong.
      I'll be honest with you. When the real thing happens, you're scared shitless. Beyond shitless. You feel like your stomach is going to crawl up your esophagus and take up permanent residence in your mouth. Or reach out and slap you across the face for good measure. It's not fun. Worse, if you give in and puke.
      The alarms sound first. They wail, and it's not a baby's wail. It's something between a dying elephant and a tone-deaf bugler. The emergency lights strobe yellow, not red. The color yellow is supposed to grab your attention more insistently than any other hue. Seems to work.
      You've got less than a minute to get to the nearest lockers, and if there are too many people there before you...better hope the same isn't true of the next set. It's not supposed to work that way, but well-laid plans are often the first things to go out the airlock.
      It's windy, if you're close enough to the breach. Like being planetside, on a high plateau or something. Problem is, you've only got your ship suit on and the damn thing doesn't help against that kind of sudden cold. The heat vanishes really quick. You can see your breath in a few seconds. And it's loud. Like a dropship flying through a closet. People are yelling at you, maybe six inches away, and you can't hear a damned thing.
      Then you pull that suit on, shivering badly now, and seal it methodically. If you don't you'll die. Horribly. I've seen it happen. But the cold doesn't get shut out, even by that magically sheer super-fabric. Even after you've locked your helmet and cranked up the built-in heaters. By that time the compartment is damn near 200 below. Anyone not in a suit is a popsicle, or well on their way. You can try to help them seal up...hope the heaters and internal med systems can bring 'em back, but it's usually too late by that point.
      Staring into someone's face as they die is more unpleasant than the cold. Less painful, physically, but you can forget pain over time. You never forget watching a friend's eyes glaze over in death, then freeze over like they were dunked in liquid nitrogen. Their last breath is mostly ice crystals. They hit your faceplate and shatter. If the gravity goes out, the frozen particles just float away like pixie dust.
      I used to have a friend on deck twelve...Thomas Grahn. He got his suit on, sealed it up right, but the manufacturer hadn't held up their end of the bargain. We found out later that a hole smaller than a pinprick killed him. Slowly. I used to think about looking up that manufacturer when we got back, with a few Marine buddies of mine.
      Yeah. This has happened to me before. Twice. The first time I was an Ensign, and the breach was pretty far away. A few internal pressure hatches failed to close, and we were ordered to suit up and return to our posts. I was stuck in that plastic bag for twelve hours. What can I say? It was an old ship, and I heard the damage she took should have taken us out. The Covenant play rough.
      The second time was worse. We took a glancing blow from a plasma torpedo. Burned through our armor and punched holes in the inner bulkheads like they were made of anything but impossibly strong metal. I lost a lot of shipmates...most of them crushed by the impact or burned alive as plasma splashed through tears in the pressure hull. Some died from exposure. That was bad. I guess I was lucky.
      Not this time.
      It's weird, actually. Knowing you're going to die. At first there's a kind of panic that takes control. You freak out, waving your arms and legs, punching shit. Screaming your head off. You don't think about using up all your air at the time, because you're fucked anyway. In my case, the limb-flailing didn't really have an effect. Null gravity's such a killjoy.
      After that, you're calm. You listen to your breathing return to normal. I'm in pretty good shape, so it didn't take long. Then you realize just how quiet it is. There's no air around your suit to transmit sound. You're hurtling through space at thousands of kilometers per hour, but there's no reference point, so it doesn't really seem like it.
      The only upside I can think of is I've got a great view. Between the battle still raging in front of me, and the stars all around, it's not the worst thing to see before you go. I could do without the tumbling—these suits don't have maneuvering jets. But it's slow enough that I'm not getting sick, and I get the occasional glimpse of the Covenant tearing what's left of our fleet apart. Unpleasant on one level, and strangely beautiful on another. Like a ballet of death in space.
      We fought hard. Took a lot of the bastards down with us. My ship is a few hundred thousand klicks away now. I can't see it anymore. She broke in half not long after I went through a breach so wide you could drive a Scorpion through it. And I wasn't the only one.
      Jerry from Engineering...he got sucked out with me. I saw him for the last time about half an hour ago. Nina got hit by a slab of debris travelling faster than a bullet—there wasn't much left. Shame. She had such a beautiful smile. And a nice ass. I'll miss both.
      I think a few others managed to hang on to something, but the demon probably got a few more. It's always hungry and infinitely patient. The perfect killer.
      No one is responding on the COM. I've been scanning emergency frequencies since I punched out. Nothing, not even static. Maybe my unit's shot. I don't know. My beacon's active, I think. Not that anyone's left to pick it up.
      I'm a dead man. And for some strange reason, I'm okay with it. I mean...it sucks, but I figure there are worse ways to die. My cousin was killed and eaten by Jackals on Paris IV.
      It's getting cold. My heaters are running full-tilt. I should probably conserve power like I'm trying to conserve oxygen. They teach us to slow our breathing down and enter a sort of meditative trance. I was never very good at it. Eventually, the suit's med systems will put me under. Almost kill me, really. In fact, I think I feel it starting now. Getting tired. The idea is that you can survive for weeks with your biofunctions suppressed. Not exactly like cryostasis, but it's close.
      Doesn't matter. It'll take longer than that for the UNSC to realize what happened here. Much longer to send a rescue ship, and by the time they spot my tiny little beacon I'll be little more than a freeze-dried mummy in this suit. If they spot it at all.
      S'okay. I've accepted it. I'm not afraid anymore. The terror kinda wears off after you've had some time to drift alone in the void.
      I'm writing all this down because I want someone to know what I'm experiencing. Hopefully they'll find my body at some point and download this message from my implant. In fact, I'm counting on it...so listen up, Mr. Navy Forensics Guy. I have a few gripes about this whole "dying alone in the darkest reaches of space" thing.
      I won't say it isn't peaceful, but I wish you guys would build a music library into the suit interface. You won't let us store any on our laces, so this just seems a bit cruel. I'd rather go out listening to some tunes than talking to myself...or not talking to myself.
      Secondly, the suit's a bit tight in the crotch. If I'm going to die in it, I'd like to be reasonably comfortable. That's a little hard when your testicles are smashed up against your right thigh by an elastic strap from hell. It's like wearing Satan's favorite g-string.
      Finally…oh, hell, I don't know. I'm just tired and cranky. Perhaps a bit hysterical, but I guess that's to be expected. Maneuvering jets, maybe. Nothing fancy, but it'd be nice to feel like I'm in some semblance of control over which way I'm pointing when I give up the ghost. I could pick a nice constellation. Or something.
      Really tired now. The drugs are definitely kicking in.
      That patch of stars looks like Nina's face. She'd probably...like to know...I was thinking of her.
      That makes me feel...a little better.
      Damn, I'm hungry.
      So cold.
      So tired.
      This sucks.