The Third Law
He felt like an inverted Atlas- the ragged contours of the continents raced above his head while his feet jutted awkwardly into the abyss of space. Around him suspended debris of every conceivable shape and size, present in such an enormous quantity that they literally obscured the stars. Dozens of tractors prowled his immediate vicinity, sweeping away scraps with their laser brooms' potent yet invisible beams while manipulating larger, recyclable chunks with their multi-jointed claws. Even to his unimaginative eyes they resembled prehistoric crustaceans, looking more at home in the murky depths of the Precambrian sea than the hard vacuum of interplanetary void.
A rapid burst of his maneuvering jet brought him within arm's reach of his target- a jettisoned water canister of a cargo ship that was too large to be handled by a tractor's appendage. Sun light gleamed so harshly off its polished aluminum exterior that his polarized face plate seemed to offer little protection. Half blind, he tentatively ran his gloved hands down its smooth surface, groping for the star-shaped valve protruding from the tank's side.
"Found the little gremlin," he exclaimed unknowingly as his digits located the protrusion. "I guess I oughtta run my tether through the hole and let you do the rest, Tom."
"Permission granted, Willy," affirmed Thomas Langley's cool, lunar accent. "Be sure not to overexert when you do that, Spacer, your heart monitor is a little funky."
"You can bet on it," he suppressed a chuckle as he gently tugged the valve to bring himself closer to the canister…
A ballast of steam caught him squarely in his face plate, causing him to tumble out of control while the tank rocketed beyond his reach. He valiantly held off vertigo as the in-suit guidance computer slowed the spin with puffs of nitrogen gas. Several fragments whizzed past his helmet and a sliver of broken glass managed to puncture his suit before the maneuver jets brought him to a halt. To his relief the computer wasted no time patching the leakage with a quick spray of synthetic sealant.
That damn valve must've gotten loose, the thought flashed through his mind as the steam-driven water canister became just a dot in the sky.
"You are one lucky bastard, Will."
Junkman Will Slayton busily wolfed down what was left of his grilled scallops. Having lived off nothing but freeze-dried junk for the past eight months made this feast exceptionally enjoyable.
"Guess you are right, Gerald," replied Slayton while the waiter proceeded to laden his plate with another serving of smoked salmon. "Almost didn't get to see my 'retirement' cause of a leaking water tank. That friggin valve just snapped like a twig and the tank's residual water turned it into a friggin rocket… Guess I should've taken a bit more precaution. Just goes to show that how much the elementary stuff can matter even you are an old space dog like me…"
"Enough business, my friend. How do you like your meal so far?"
"Its interesting how a spacer like me could appreciate seafood so much." He gave the filet a curious stare before indulging in another mouthful.
"Blue Danube's the finest," remarked Gerald Hamilton, sipping martinis as he patted his Victorian dining chair appreciatively, "and I mean the best in the entire solar system. I'd kill to learn how they kept their alcohol from spoiling during the commotions of take off." "Hard to believe that you'll be gone next week," he added sullenly, lowering his glass. "You are only 48, Willy. What do you exactly plan on doing with your life after you leave this job?"
"Probably start a boating business in the Pacific with my savings," answered Slayton whilst stroking his prematurely grizzled hair. "Preferably Tahiti, but any island with an exotic name would be fine. It'll be nice resting my space-legs on a sunny beach after twenty years of tugging spacecrafts and lasering garbage."
"I'm afraid that you'll have to enter the good old vacuum for just another time, Will."
"You've got one more mission scheduled, yes." said Hamilton apologetically. "Having worked with you for 15 years before becoming CEO, I knew that no junkman is more qualified than you are for the coming assignment."
"Why didn't you tell me this earlier…?"
"I am very sorry, but it's a last minute decision," replied Hamilton somewhat impatiently. "You don't suppose that a cruel, greedy fool like me would've backed away from 15 million bucks, do you? Is my apology accepted?"
"I'm glad that's settled."
"So what's old Willy up to this time?
"Have you ever heard of Space Station 3?"
Slayton almost gagged on his salmon.
"You mean that old thing that Virgin Galactic launched in the 30s as a supply depot for space-planes?"
"You oughtta be a historian, Will," commented Hamilton snidely. "You really ought to consider it as a backup for that funky boating business of yours…"
"Sorry, but I think I'll be earning more as a junkman. So what do you need me to do, send that 50 year-old derelict crashing into the Indian Ocean so it won't clog up the traffic?"
"On the contrary, you'll be needed to salvage the old derelict."
"You've got to be…"
"No, I'm not kidding," Hamilton interjected, his voice once again tainted by impatience. "As you know, the broken down space dept had steadily lost altitude following decades of negligence and if it weren't for the fact that it was such a popular space-walk site we would've scrapped it for titanium a long time ago. The problem is that the Martian historical society has expressed interests in procuring the space station and it has taken them three months to get through Virgin Galactic's red tape."
"How long do we have till reentry?"
"We've got fourteen hours starting from now. Like I said your experience in low earth orbit and more importantly, your skill with a tugboat cable would be invaluable for the mission."
"That," muttered Slaton gloomily. "And a hell lot of luck."
The irritable chimes of the pressure gauge gradually faded as the vacuum pump siphoned away the last traces of nitrogen-oxygen mix. William Slayton felt ominous as he rocketed out of the airlock with a ferocious squirt of his maneuvering jet. He took a deep breath as the opulent azure of the Mediterranean Sea dominated his field of view. From a height of 97 miles he could easily discern the indigo "V's crisscrossing the pacific waters, testament to the virility of the European shipping industry. Even more spectacular were the aquatic cities, steel mega-structures that rivaled their land-bound counterparts in size but remained just points of light when viewed from orbit. They resembled stars despite the backdrop of a bright blue sea, giving one the surrealist impression of a star-strewn morning sky.
He found it difficult to unglue his eyes from the fabulous panorama and when he finally did he felt ashamed for having wasted five precious minutes Earth-gazing. Slayton made a 90 degree swivel to confront the inelegant bulk of Space Station 3, a massive yet seemingly careless mixture of solar panels and tattered cylinders messily joined by titanium trusses - a far cry from the elegant, gravity generating centrifuges of his time. With the exception of two torn solar panels and a nastily battered storage module, however, the whole station looked remarkably new for something assembled fifty years ago, much to Slayton's surprise.
"You can lower the cable now," Slayton radioed as he searched for an anchor spot amidst the jumble of structures. It didn't take long for his expert eyes to choose the cables tethering the seven external water tanks to be a promising location due to its proximity to the structure's center. Although the attachment of a reeling cable could be a tough task for most junkmen, his twenty-year experience guaranteed him immunity from any foreseeable problem.
What about unforeseeable ones? He shuddered at the thought of being sliced in half by the razor sharp hyper-filament trailing behind an out of control tugboat. Yet he scarcely had tie worrying about cable-attachment when the anguished announcement of Thomas Langley struck him like a space-liner.
"Bad luck, Will! Sorry but an emergency just occurred near the lower junk belt. An Orion passenger plan collided with a piece of debris and its engine is crippled. The tugboat is on its way…"
"Can't you just spare two seconds so I could finish my job?" he asked placidly despite the unpleasant synthesis of panic and distraught gnawing at his mind.
"… sorry but we've got to haul them out of lower orbit right away or the 30 passengers will reenter," Continued the transmission. "Human lives must take priority over archaeology. It looks like we have to go with plan two."
To hell with plan two. Slayton found it harder to suppress his furor and disappointment with each passing second. He almost died laughing when the Martian eggheads suggested reactivating the space station's altitude jets as a backup plan. However, it now seemed that the professors had their last laugh. Being the dedicated employee of the Interplanetary Orbital Maintenance Company that he was it appeared that he had no choice but to do as instructed.
"So you are suggesting that I climb into a cretaceous era space station and hope that its altitude thrusters are still in working order," he feigned wistfulness before adding sarcastically. "I though human life took priority over archaeology…"
"We've got no time for this Will! Although I am concerned about your safety I still think that you should give it a try. The station's orbit is rapidly decaying as we speak and we'll lose the opportunity once we drop below 90 miles!"
"Thought humor might lighten the situation a bit," replied Slayton in his signature hyena cackle. "I'll go in and see if the prehistoric jets are still any good."
To his exhausted mind almost an eternity had elapsed since he last dined in the elegant setting of the Blue Danube. The claustrophobic environment of the station's command module resembled hell almost as much as the Blue Danube had paradise. Furniture and scientific instruments viciously dislodged by souvenir hunters clogged the already cramped quarters of the ill-lit room, forcing him to remove his navigation pack so he won't get stuck moving from one end of the module to the other.
A well directed kick against the airlock door sent him drifting towards what he believed to be the ceiling of the module. He cushioned the collision with an outstretched hand and almost recoiled in surprise as his fingers brushed against the quartz surface of a computer screen. Above the screen hung the control panel, the primitive appearance of which was greatly enhanced by the rows of rectangular tabs lining its surface. Slayton corrected his orientation gracefully and swooped into one of the seats still anchored to the module's floor. Securing his hips to the seat so he wouldn't float across the room as he manipulated the controls, he gazed at the panel skeptically before radioing for assistance.
"I'm at the control panel. Tell me how to operate this junk."
"Look for the activation button on the far left of the panel," Langley replied. "Dr. Chandler, the chief Martian Archaeologist, is providing me with the information right now." He quickly reassured. "It's large and purple and should be relatively easy to find."
A detailed three-dimensional rendition of Space Station 3 now dominated the screen's center. Continuously updated information regarding the vehicle's cargo, life support, and altitude (which had unfortunately dropped to 95 miles) occupied the fringes and Slayton found the sporadic flickering of the numbers to be intensely hypnotic. Luckily, a follow-up message woke him from his catatonic state.
"You should be able to find the altitude jets, its lime green and is next to the life support… Do you read me, Willy?"
"I read you." a laconic reply. "My turn to be sorry."
"Would you elaborate on that?"
"All seven jets are in working order, surprising considering just how badly those tourists mauled the command module. The only problem is that we've got no propellant in the tank. Time for plan 3, if you've got one."
"We can attempt propellant transfer."
"I doubt our nozzles are compatible. Docking is out of question for the same reason."
Slayton evaluated his circumstances in the ensuing silence. No ordinary man would've agreed to salvage this pile of decrepit hardware without a tugboat. Although his skill and audacity well surpassed those of an ordinary man the fact remained that he, as a mortal human being, was incapable of moving a propulsionless craft.
Yet he couldn't force himself to acknowledge defeat, at least not yet. Two decades of orbital maintenance made him tough as nails and on the downside, intransigent as mules. The fiasco of the previous mission only accentuated his despondence. He once again pictured the accursed container, residual steam issuing from its broken valve, sailing into the abyss of space like a token of his incompetence…
Perhaps I am too modest labeling myself a mortal human being! Though Slayton pleasantly, his hands convulsing due to his excitement at his sudden revelation.
"The water tanks," he shouted, completely ignorant of his quivering voice. "I've got a perfectly workable plan!"
"Are you alright, Willy?"
"That, and better!" Slay rumbled, sounding angry rather than jubilant. "The seven water containers are still full according the instrument panels and the water is kept liquid by the station's heating system…"
"We'll use them as reaction motors! All I have to do is to turn on the facets and the water escaping through it as steam would push the station into a higher orbit! It's a crude but effective application of Newton's Third Law, my dear Thomas Langley!"
"I doubt that your steam jets would provide enough thrust, William Slayton. "
"Just how different do you think they are from the real thing? Let me have a try, Tom!"
"Not before you promise to get out of that junk once we drop below low earth orbit."
"Alright!" Slayton consented reluctantly, irked by but at the same time grateful for his co-worker's excessive concern for his well being. "I'll do as you say. Now give me the damn instructions."
Slayton's initial elation quickly evaporated as he struggled to carry out the plan. His unfamiliarity with the antiquated controls was further exacerbated by the cumbersomeness of his gloved hands. Perspiration pooled upon his prominent forehead as he painstakingly aligned the water nozzles and set the valves to open in unison. He worked enthusiastically despite the intense physical discomforts but good work ethics didn't prevent him from pushing the wrong buttons. Once he accidentally activated the ventilation system and almost busted his face plate when sudden drafts of air sent the furniture flying in every direction.
"I think I'm ready to go," he declared triumphantly but his heavy, intermittently breaths betrayed his inner anxiety.
"Good luck Will."
He gave the computer screen one last check before poising his finger over the large, red switch that would activate the seven makeshift jets simultaneously. A second later his finger connected solidly with the button.
He yelped in surprise as the sensation of weight crept up his legs. He watched gleefully as furniture and bits of hardware tumbled to the floor, filling the cabin with a shrill cacophony that was music to Slayton's ears. The number on the altimeter quickly gained a third digit and Langley's congratulation boomed in his helmet.
"You did it, you lucky bastard! You are shooting up faster than a friggin Constitution!"
"I did it," Slayton mouthed the words while Space Station 3 continued to rise, ascending towards the sanctuary of a higher orbit.
"Say something, Willy! We've got to commemorate this! You've just done the impossible…it's the most spectacular salvaging mission in the history of man!"
And who can argue? Slayton thought lazily. He rummaged his tired mind for a sophisticated quote, one that could effectively capture the drama and intensity involved in this most unusual salvaging operation…
"I'm tired, Tom," he finally said. "It looks like I'll be needing a really long break after this. A REALLY long break…