Two female astronauts on a deep space mission to help save earth from alien forces face the loneliness of isolation before succumbing to the ultimate challenge
Angels in the sky
'That's typical ground control' muttered Norvik to Carla on her private personal transmission circuit. She silently cursed her Christmas Day luck while reluctantly donning a transporter suit.
'You wake up from your rest period and find a message waiting for you.
'It's just like the deputy ground controller. Demanding on today of all days we do unnecessary outside final adjustments to the retro rocket's internal navigation system. We could easily do this from the ship rather than take an outside walk. But no she wants us to do it the hard way just because she needs to see a close up hand-held picture confirming the revised settings.'
Norvik and Carla were a unique pair of female astronauts flying the duo crew spaceship about the size of a small shopping mall which was still four days out from CK401, the outermost moon in Pluto's quadrant.
Their mission was to repair and check out the remote moon's instruments which had originally been installed as an advance warning system for stray and errant comets likely to invade mother earth.
After two devastating hits by a combination of space junk and out-of-the-blue icebergs from the farthest reaches of the universe Earth's warring nations finally agreed to unite against a common enemy – an increasing number of lifeless but lethal ice-rocks.
Over many years Earth had installed a ring of remotely-operated automatic pre-warning sentinels programmed to sound alarms against unpredictable comets and other lifeless invaders from the outer reaches of the planetary systems.
After a parting glance to the pair's one concession to Christmas Day – a televisual shot of an artificial fir tree planted in the middle Earth's biggest space station based in Antarctica – Norvik blew a kiss to Carla who then auto-prepared the tooled up mini-floater which would transport Norvik to the uppermost part of the rocket that was in need of attention as demanded by ground control.
Once she'd gone through the airlocks and reached the mini-floater Carla watched Norvik's progress on the cameras. She felt a mixture of anxiety and loneliness. Although Norvik was technically captain, and therefore in charge, the pair had been teamed for so long their relationship particularly over the last 18 months had developed into one which, had the Flight Controller known, would have had them instantly grounded and then separated in the interests of security, efficiency and space crew morale.
They were not only crew colleagues but, over millions of miles of space travel, had become intimate lovers.
The long hours of closeness, both on earth training and then with little to do in the spaceship other than ensure the robot computers were operating to plan had seen two thirty-something women enjoying each other's minds and bodies to a point where their thoughts and feelings had morphed to become no less than a telepathic understanding which had crystallized into one spacial being.
Carla's thoughts of welcoming Norvik back aboard after which should be a routine adjustment were interrupted by ground control checking on her automatic indicators. Once she'd confirmed all was AOK she glanced at the reassuring picture of the fir tree.
How long had it been since she was last at the space station, she pondered?
It seemed so long she'd almost forgotten the events leading up to the present.
Like Norvik she'd reached the rank of colonel in the European Air Force when the pair had been selected for what at the time was described as a special deep space mission.
They would be transferred to the Antarctic where they'd spend a year together on what was described as exploration and maintenance training.
Within a month of receiving new orders they'd found themselves being flown southwards as they wondered what the Antarctic would be like.
She recalled it was her dream to be one of Earth's increasing number of 22nd century space women.
The memory of her first visit though was still with her: flying out with Norvik from northern Europe to the planet's southernmost continent which contained the geographic South Pole.
Obligingly and as part of their induction to the area the pilot flew around the space station's perimeter.
Within the huge expanse and just off the geographic centre was a uniquely developed 500 square mile series of surface and underground buildings, all linked by high speed laser travel units ranging in personnel carrying capacities of between one to 200 people. It represented earth's many countries' combined efforts to colonise outer space.
Easily the most dominant feature of the area were the three launch areas divided in the fashion of an equilateral triangle.
At the peak were a dozen short haul launch pads for flights to the moon and immediate space stations circling earth. The two base points featured half a dozen medium haul launch pads for flights beyond while the third point contained an area comprising three long haul inter-planetary flight launch pads.
'How often do you get a launch,' Carla asked the pilot?
‘Combined we get about three a day take off and landings,' he replied.
'How many people work down there' Norvik then asked?
'About one million' was the pilot's laconic reply.
Carla could only gaze in marvel, especially as she'd soon be one of the countless numbers of assorted nationalities working there.
Anyone visiting the continent for the first time could hardly fail to be impressed by flying over and seeing five million square miles of nothing but ice up to one mile in thickness and the surrounding Southern Ocean. And then from nothing would be human beings’ greatest creation – 500 square miles of ingenious construction and the link beyond earth to the even more limitless space.
A continent nearly twice the size of Australia. Ideal for the newly-composed United Continents' Space Headquarters.
Over the years various Antarctic Treaties to preserve the unique area came to nothing. Then after each of the major powers, dominated by China, had had their fill of the region's natural resources someone suggested every country should make use of the barren location as a headquarters for serious exploration of space.
She recalled the first all-female astronaut training session where she met Norvik and took an instant liking towards her. Both had passed with honours. They'd hardly received their awards when they were told by High Command they were wanted for further training which would lead to going on a special mission: the urgent replacement of equipment on a distant moon in the Pluto quadrant.
Under normal circumstances any repair, service or maintenance work to the outer quadrant ring of sensors would have been undertaken by one or more of the relatively local satellite stations. Unfortunately the nearest had been destroyed by an incoming mega burst of the sun's energy and others put seriously offline. Engineers immediately realised that a ship from earth taking up to 18 months to fix the problem would still be quicker than the time taken to rebuild the burned out satellite station.
The decision to send an all-female crew was queried by the media who concocted all sorts of reported stories. They were quickly hushed by Antarctic's Senior Flight Controller who advised it was not so odd for the following reason.
'Past experiences,' he said at the specially-convened pre-launch media conference, 'found that where we've had mixed crews it's led to problems during the long inter-planetary flights.
'This has been especially evident with the ground-based wives of male crews on hearing stories of unauthorised frivolity and adulterous activities on the part of their husbands with female flight colleagues. Conversely we've also had accounts of ground-based wives doing things which has led to problems in space.
'As a result last year High Command felt it best to segregate the sexes for long flights which is why on this occasion two crew members of the female gender have been selected.'
But why two women rather than two men asked one TV reporter?
'The reason is simple,' explained the Senior Flight Controller. 'From earth the flight out and return duration alone is going to be three years and with up to another year on the CK401 making four years in all. Whoever goes is going to be seriously deprived of basic human needs or, to put it bluntly, sex.'
The mention of just one little three letter word had every member of the media thinking about being deprived of sex for four years and what it would do to them. The media also realised it would be inappropriate and unfair to send a married or family astronaut away for four years.
Until then the names of the two crew members was unknown. Now Norvik and Carla were being paraded before the assembled gathering who looked upon them with intrigued respect. The two female air force colonels who were both attractive as well as being known to be highly qualified. They were regarded as extra special, particularly as they'd been selected for the mission in hand.
Their pre-flight reminder brief was short and to the point.
'Your flight time out will be 18 months and the same for the return,' said the Senior Flight Controller. 'It's anticipated you will need to spend up to a year off-loading and over-seeing the robotic replacement equipment installation and ensuring everything is in working order before you depart CK401. In other words four years of your lives will be devoted for the good of Earth and its people,' he concluded.
Carla remembered the never ending panel of psychologists who had subjected the pair to a range of demanding tests for this trip.
They tacitly agreed that women with a chemically-induced non-existent sex drive inhibitor would serve the purpose better than their male counterparts. They even found themselves agreeing to taking a course of sex depressants and ovulation minimisation while training, not realising that early on they had already been earmarked for the mission.
What no-one, least of all the chemists who created the specially devised sexual inhibition drugs, knew was that while they successfully obviated female desires for the opposite gender they actually enhanced the feelings for same sex needs.
'Approaching rocket drive' said Norvik breaking into Carla's earth-bound thoughts. Her quiet, soft, gently modulated voice always induced a warm glow in Carla's body, which was one of many reasons she'd fallen so desperately in love with her companion. She wanted her now more than ever.
'Roger that' she replied in standard response-talk. She knew that any open transmission between the two of them was always monitored so thy were careful not to arouse any suspicion on the part of ground control that they'd become lovers.
The digital display readout flashing before Carla included a clock which indicated when the women's personal and private rest times were allocated. It would be Norvik's again in another six hours. Carla knew she would enjoy sharing this with her when she returned from the unscheduled five hour rocket recalibration space walk.
Although the Senior Flight Controller originally intended the women should take their rest periods at different times the pair soon found a way to circumvent the system so they could spend time together in each other's arms as they lovingly, contentedly and regularly shared one astronaut couch.
If that was against regulations, thought Carla, I wonder what would be said if they knew we regularly stripped and showered together before lying in each other's arms and even operating naked while off camera and without the fear of peeping toms in outer space?
'We need you to adjust the centre vent by point five of a degree,' intoned the deputy ground controller. Copy?'
'Copy' replied Norvik knowing her reply to base would take up to four hours as she parked the mini-floater alongside the giant retro rocket and prepared to drift out of her bucket seat so she could easily reach the calibration reset dials.
'About to begin a point five of a degree reset,' said Norvik as she tapped a sequence of buttons to raise a protective flap before inserting a sonic spanner into the dial's recessed pointing. 'Turning now. Uh uh it's slightly over-turned. I'll have to run it forwards again which'll take at least two hours.'
Hell, she thought, it's me that's millions of miles out in space and on the scene doing this not her making unscheduled decisions from an Antarctic comfort zone.
'Can I help in any way Norvik'? asked Carla on their person-to-person intercom which ground control wouldn't hear.
Norvik switched off her main voice phone.
'Two's always better than one and I'd love you to be out here for company but I guess you'd better stay on board especially as that bitch of a deputy ground controller is flexing her weight around. It must be hard for the team around her.'
'You'd better give her another progress report to keep the commentary running,' advised Carla.
Norvik switched back on her main voice phone.
'Beginning the clockwise turning cycle.'
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a burst of light which shimmered, dimmed and then flared up causing her face shield to operate to protect her eyes but momentarily distracting her actions with the sonic spanner.
Her voice had a sudden urgency which immediately raised an alarm with Carla in the cabin of the ship.
'What's happened Norvik?'
'The sonic spanner's jammed and caught my hand between the mountings.'
'Set it to reverse.'
'Can't it takes two hands to set a sonic spanner,' she replied. Norvik knew Carla would be aware of this but had unusually made the suggestion impulsively without thinking things through.
'Carla you'll have to leave the ship and join me to help reset the spanner. Put everything onto automatic.'
Carla needed no second instruction as she hurriedly donned a space suit. There was no way her fellow crew member and lover was going to be out there for longer than she could help.
Once aboard her mini-floater Carla engaged the mono track for the personnel carrier to follow the contours of the spaceship. To have flown direct would have been quicker but more risky than actually being attached to the mother ship via a series of complex mono rails strategically inserted and criss-crossing the ship to allow for outside maintenance should it be required.
On arrival 45 minutes later Carla secured her mini-floater, joined Norvik and immediately saw the problem. Things weren't good.
Norvik's hand was trapped up to her elbow between the calibration unit and recessed tunnel. This was partially concealed by the slip-down panel which itself had lowered onto Norvik's forearm. Somewhere inside was the sonic spanner which had to be reset to free Norvik's hand. This was caught between the spanner and calibration dial. The first problem was to raise the slip-down panel so access could be gained.
Carla relayed pictures of Norvik's predicament back to earth as she described what she could see and her assessment.
'We'll try to over-ride the panel's inside computer but it will take a while,' said Carla.
'Control – by my calculations the signals I've sent to you to ask assistance in releasing the panel will take several hours. We've enough oxygen but it's going to be a long wait.'
The two women looked at each other.
'Carla I don't think it'll work. This is something we didn't expect and no-one in ground planning could have foreseen this. If anything happens to me do you think you'll be able to carry on even though the mission is supposed to be a two person job – if only for company?'
Through the tears beginning to form, Carla slowly shook her head as her eyes met Norvik's.
The several hours became ten before both women saw the panel's red light turn to green and the flap began to lift.
The moment of triumph was immediately crushed as Carla looked in to where the sonic spanner had caught Norvik's hand. To her horror she saw the spanner's settings instead of being clearly lit had become invisible. The instrument had lost power due to the length of time it took for the signal to come through to release the protective flap.
Carla's sense of depression sounded in her voice as she reported to the Senior Flight Director in the full knowledge that it would take at least four hours before he would know the situation and at least another four before she heard his reply plus however long it was likely to take to formulate a further solution.
'Control, the sonic spanner's lost power. There's no way it can be reset short of returning it to the ship and I can't even move it. If I wrench it the metal will fatally tear Norvik's space suit,' she said in a voice showing desperation.
In her head she could already hear the Senior Flight Controller's response.
'Carla, Earth is depending on you. The mission must not fail whatever the cost. Do your best to free Norvik. Then you can reset the calibration back on board which is how it should have been in the first place. Do you understand – the calibration must be reset, even if it means she has to be discarded. You're less than three days from touch down. The mission has to go ahead. Is that clear? Copy.'
There was a different scenario in the Flight Control room as the Senior Fight Controller faced his trembling pale-faced deputy.
'That last request of yours to Norvik to leave the ship for re-setting when calibration could be done from the cabin was unauthorised. What were you thinking when you made it?'
'I was just trying to... trying to...' her voice tailed off. She'd never liked Norvik. Even though she'd held down one of the most important and responsible jobs in the space industry she still had a petty minded attitude to members of her own sex.
Inwardly the Senior Flight Controller seethed and resolved his deputy would pay dearly for her actions. But what could he do for the two women stuck out there on their own millions of miles away in space?
With a heavy heart he reluctantly switched to private transmission so only they would hear his message.
'Norvik, Carla I realise words are meaningless in situations like this. Bluntly Norvik you're trapped through no fault of your own. Unless you and Carla can find a way to free your hand, which we can't do from earth, you must face the reality of death. This may be through running out of oxygen, through your space suit being destroyed, self-suit depression or by taking one of the feeder pills that's in your helmet.
'And Carla as hard as this may seem you must continue the mission alone and do both your best and what's necessary.
'I hope you'll be able to copy this.'
Owing to the huge distance and many hours' time lapse it was a last message from ground control – but it was never received or acknowledged.
Carla and Norvik switched to their person-to-person intercoms.
'Carla darling whatever happens to me I want you somehow to carry on. I'm going to take the feeder pill. After I've died cut me free and release my body into space.'
'No way Norvik. Without you I've nothing left to live for. All the time we've spent together has become so special to me that in my own mind I'd already planned what I wanted to do on our return to earth.'
'And what's that?'
' I think you already know.'
'Tell me Carla. Let me hear you say it.'
'Quit being a space woman and settle down with you for the rest of my life.
'Norvik dearest I'm not going to let you go or leave you alone. Damn the mission let someone else take responsibility for it. We've lived well together so let's die together and float forever among the stars with this ship as our memorial.
'But the mission...' began Norvik.
'Wait while I secure my body to yours,' said Carla as she hooked their two spacesuits together.
'Remind me Norvik, how quick are the feeder pills?'
'There's about a 30 minutes' time delay. It's designed so if there's a chance of a last minute reprieve you could always reverse the action.'
'And you know how quick it's if you hit the emergency deflate valve of your space suit?'
'Instantaneous Carla. What are you suggesting?'
'Just the options - die together now or in 30 minutes.'
'Then Carla darling as there's nothing else we can do and if you're sure let's go instantaneously together and be among the stars for eternity.
'I'm sure my love.'
'OK then. Ready?'
Further words were unnecessary as Carla nodded towards her fellow crew companion, best friend and intimate lover.
Carla then made a final check her security ring was firmly in place with Norvik's spacesuit.
The two women embraced for the last time as living beings. They gently touched helmets, blew slow, lingering kisses and fixed loving eyes on each other for a final moment.
'I love you so much Norvik.'
'And I love you too, Carla,' Norvik whispered in reply.
Then assertively she went on 'Let's countdown together,' and at one we'll simultaneously hit each other's emergency deflate valves.'
"Ten... Nine... Eight... Seven... Six... Five... Four... Three... Two... One... ." counted the pair in unison.
At One they mutually over-rode and hit each other's space suit safety valve settings and instantaneously became insignificant and as silent as the space around them.
Several hours later the Senior Flight Controller and his team knew what the two had done as the automatic relays of two loving humans displayed an on-screen flat line going nowhere.
Then the aftermath of hell on earth broke out as the assembled baying media wanted to know what had gone wrong, who was to blame for the mission's failure and why did it happen to earth's two angels in the sky?