• Published 13th Apr 2017
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Fate of the UNS Moon Dancer - Shrink Laureate



New frontiers aren't always safe.

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Chapter 1

6th January, 2433
Ægir

Sunset Shimmer drifted. There wasn’t much else to do.

If she had a radio, then she could talk to the crew of the UNS Moon Dancer – what was left of them – and coordinate a rescue. As it was, all she could do was wave her hands and hope somebody on the ship could see her.

If she had thrusters, or even just a bag of air, then she could adjust her trajectory to intersect the Moon Dancer.

If she had a computer, she could do the calculations to work out what trajectory she’d need to adjust to in the first place.

If she had a telescope she could at least see where the damned Moon Dancer was now.

If she had a spacesuit then she wouldn’t have this damned headache, she wouldn’t be boiling hot on one side and blistering cold on the other, her lungs wouldn’t ache from the lack of air, her mouth wouldn’t be cracked and dry from the lack of saliva, her stomach wouldn’t ache from the lack of acid, or of the food she’d vomited up, she wouldn’t feel like she was constantly on the verge of a nosebleed, her vision wouldn’t be filled with random flashes and twisty lines, her veins wouldn’t be bulging from her skin, and the blood pumping through her brain with every pulse wouldn’t be so damned loud.

What she had was herself. Her uniform, what was left of it, minus most of the spacesuit. An antique pen, that she kept in her pocket.

On one level, she knew that she was blessed to be immortal. No other person or creature could hope to survive the vacuum of space. Despite the discomfort, she was in no immediate danger. She would simply drift out here forever. Blessed. Right.

As she slowly turned, her face pointed again towards the star. Epsilon Eridani, one of the nearest stars to Sol with its own planets. It was just ten little light years from Earth. Sixty trillion miles. That was nothing, really, in the scheme of things. The universe was far, far bigger than that. Even compared to the local star cluster, that was no distance at all.

But it was also more than twice as far as any human vessel had ever travelled before. The Moon Dancer’s mission was groundbreaking – meaning there was no rescue on its way, no backup. This far from home, U.N. Fleet ships had to be their own backup, which is why they had so many redundant systems. Eventually, perhaps, the U.N.F. would raise the funds and political will to design, build and launch another expedition to this system. Though depending on the fate of the first one, that could take decades. And the chance of some future expedition even finding her when they got here? Slim. She was a single tiny dot lost in a void that made all the oceans of Earth look small.

She turned her face away from the star, tired of the harsh glare. To her other side – down, presumably, though that was a matter of perspective – was Ægir, this system’s largest planet, a gas giant slightly larger than Sol’s Jupiter. It certainly looked big from here. She didn’t know how her immortality would stack up against the heat of a star, or the crushing pressure at the heart of a gas giant, and she wasn’t planning to find out.

She was in a high orbit around Ægir. So was the Moon Dancer, somewhere, though she had no way to see it. It would take her months to circle around the planet, and the ship a similar time. The chances of them running into each other by chance were… so low as to be not worth measuring. Some part of those months she would be behind the planet, shielded from the heat of the sun. She was not looking forward to that. Even her current hot-cold rotation was better than the days of unrelenting cold she’d be trapped in as she sailed behind such a massive sunshade.

Ægir also had an eccentric orbit. That meant that one end of its six-Earth-year-long orbit was closer to the star than the other, and therefore also a little hotter. It would take Sunset a few years to fully experience that effect, as she was dragged along with it. It would probably be beautiful, in an abstract way.

Of course, eventually she might hit one of the dozen or so icy moons. That would be interesting. More likely she’d pass close enough to one that its gravity would spin her out into space, giving her a slow tour of the universe as she sailed away.

As she turned again, she caught sight of a glint of something. It didn’t look the same as the optical illusions that radiation was producing in her eyeballs. It looked small and sharply defined. She squinted, shielding her eyes with one hand, trying to identify it. It certainly wasn’t the Moon Dancer, of that she was certain, but it could have been some of the equipment from the same airlock she’d been in.


The inner door slammed shut with a solid thud, followed by the noise of internal bolts screwing into place, sealing it tight. “Inner door locked,” said Starfinder through the intercom.

There was no actual window through to the control room, but the semblance of one was provided by a screen filling one curved wall that showed Starfinder sitting at his desk, keeping an eye on various controls and readouts. He could see the occupants of the airlock in the same way.

“Confirmed,” said Sunset Shimmer. She shifted the bag on her shoulder.

“We’re ready,” said Solar Flare.

“Final check of suit integrity,” said Starfinder.

Sunset checked the equipment readout on her wrist. “Looking good here,” she said.

“All clear,” said Solar Flare.

Starfinder gave her a thumbs up. “Decompressing in three, two, one,” he said, followed by the hiss of air being pumped out of the airlock.

“Wait!” called Solar Flare, looking at the instrument panel. “I see a red light!”

“Shit!” shouted Starfinder.

They were interrupted by a brief, loud crunch of impact, a rush of air and then silence as the contents of the airlock were ripped out into space.


Sunset didn’t know what had caused the fault. Before she had time to ask, explosive decompression had forced her, Solar Flare and all their equipment out all at once. It had torn her space suit to shreds, smashed her helmet, sent her careening through space. It had nearly ripped her own arm off as equipment and sharp pieces of bulkhead tried to escape, leaving it hanging from her shoulder by tendons, though that had healed over the subsequent painful half hour, leaving her a little light-headed from the lack of blood. That too would pass.

That had to have been more than just an airlock decompressing. It had felt like half the ship had slammed into her. Had something punctured the pressurised air tanks next to the airlock? How many other crew had been caught up in it? Was the whole ship lost?

They had been scattered in all directions, but it was possible one of the other objects had ended up on a similar path to her own. As she turned, Sunset caught an irregular flickering. Something, she couldn't tell what, was close by. Whatever it was, it probably had more technology than she did, and so represented her best hope of getting out of here. She needed a way to reach it.

The first step was to stop her turn. She needed to get her bearings without being constantly disoriented. Controlling your movement in microgravity was something they taught at the U.N.F. Academy, and Sunset took the classes again every few decades to make sure she didn’t become a fossil. She’d never expected to have to do it in the vacuum of space, where you’d normally have thrusters available, but the technique was the same.

Physics does not like an object to change its angular momentum, but there are ways around that. A ballerina is able to make her turn faster by bringing her arms and legs in, or slower by sticking them out. A cat uses the same effect to land on its feet by twisting its flexible back, letting the front and back turn separately. Sunset simply needed to mimic the motions of a cat. She pulled her arms in close to her body, stuck her legs out at an angle and twisted her torso, then pulled her legs into a crouch and stuck her arms out while she untwisted. She was no cat; her efforts provided only paltry effect. Her muscles burned at the sudden large motion so soon after losing blood, and there was an insistent ache in her left shoulder where it had been nearly ripped out. After a few tries and adjustments, she corrected her motion until it was relatively stable.

Next she needed a way to propel herself. There was nothing to push against, of course, no ground, no air, no water. She had no breath left to blow. The only way to push herself was with an equal and opposite force. In theory she could have used her own blood as propellant, what little she had left, but she had no knife with which to cut herself, and even if she had it would be terribly imprecise, more likely to go wrong than not.

She took the pen out of her pocket. She took it with her on every mission. It had once been used to write the words, “Dear Princess Celestia,” but the metal tip was rusty now, useless for anything. There was no ink, of course, and if there had been it would have evaporated into space. It could do her just one last favour. Checking over her shoulder to make sure of her direction to the object, she threw the pen forwards as hard as she could.

The pen didn’t weigh very much, compared to a human being, so while it sailed away at high speed, the difference it made to Sunset’s own momentum was barely a crawl in comparison. She tried hard not to feel insulted as she watched it disappear. It was also hard to get any idea of speed without something to measure it against.

Looking over her shoulder again, she confirmed she was moving slowly closer. Wriggling herself around in another series of cat-like twists, she faced the object. As she slowly approached, she was finally able to identify it.

It was Solar Flare.

She was dead, of course. Her helmet was missing, as was her left leg. The blood had quickly drained from her body through the wound, leaving her skin pale. The water in her tears had all evaporated into space, leaving just a faint crust of salt on her face.

Solar Flare was tumbling backwards, most likely propelled by the blood pouring from her leg. Sunset approached slowly, unable to control her movement, until finally she passed close enough to reach out, grab her suit and hold on. Now they were both spinning but more slowly, and she had to hold on tight or risk drifting away.

Clambering up to Solar Flare’s face, Sunset mouthed, “I’m sorry.” No sound came out, of course. The movement made her lips crack, but they healed up straight away.

Aside from the missing leg and helmet, most of Solar Flare’s spacesuit was intact. Sunset twisted round to access the controls on the suit’s wrist. There were a dozen flashing red warnings that she dismissed. She paged through to navigation.

According to the readout, the UNS Moon Dancer was a hundred and thirteen kilometres away, and that distance was increasing with every second, but it wasn’t accelerating. Not as bad as she’d feared, then. At least it wasn't a moving target. It was, roughly speaking, down – which is to say, towards the planet – but even knowing that she still couldn’t see it with her own eyes. A helmet would have augmented her view with helpful labels, but neither of them had one. She tried to contact the ship, and got nothing, not even a ping. Most likely the spacesuit’s radio was damaged, and that was buried among the many warnings.

She checked the suit’s propellant levels and found they were good. She tried a very quick burst from each of the suit’s thrusters, holding on tight to make sure she wasn’t dislodged. All but two of them were functional. She told the suit to compensate for that, then nudged gently with the thrusters one way then another until the two of them had stopped turning and were pointed at the Moon Dancer. Checking the direction one more time, she burned the thrusters to accelerate. After confirming that the motion was correct, she ramped the thrusters up to high. After a few seconds, their motion relative to the Moon Dancer settled then began to drop.

This was good. She was going in the right direction now. It would only take her a few days to reach the ship at this speed, and that E.T.A. was dropping every second. Of course, when she arrived she’d have the opposite problem: slowing down. She didn’t particularly feel like hitting the hull like a meteor, so she made sure to stop burning when there was still enough propellant left to reverse her motion, and coast the rest of the way. She cut when the needle hit 55%, checked the E.T.A. again and found it had dropped to just under nine hours. Much more reasonable.

Nine hours coasting through space, watching the ship get slowly bigger. Just herself, her thoughts, and the dead body of a friend she was clinging to.

As long as the Moon Dancer didn’t move in the next nine hours. Then she’d be screwed.


“Hi!”

The girl jumped. Or rather, flinched, let go of the hand-hold, pulled her arms and legs in and started spinning away. She waggled both hands at the hand-hold, trying to catch it again, but found her body moved back as she thrust her arms forwards, making the wall seem to dodge her grasp.

Sunset offered the girl her hand. She took it, and Sunset pulled her back upright. “You need to be careful of hand-holds. Don’t let go. Without them you won’t be able to move.”

“Thanks.” She took a moment to catch her breath. “Um, I guess you’ve done this before, then?”

“A little,” confirmed Sunset. “And it was quite a long time ago, so I’m fairly rusty.”

The girl furrowed her brow. “How come? Did you grow up on one of the stations?” Given the high cost of lifting mass into orbit, even now, it was rare to meet somebody who’d lived in space.

The instructor called out, “Okay, everybody, we’ll leave the plating on for five more minutes before giving you a break. Remember to stay in control of your turning. Use the hand-holds, keep your speed low, and use the absolute minimum of force. And try to avoid the patch of vomit over there,” he said, indicating the corner where one boy’s breakfast had been deposited. The other students variously shuddered, laughed or making puking noises. “All right, all right, settle down. It always happens to somebody in the first class. You get over it.”

The girl prodded her feet downwards as if trying to touch the bottom of a swimming pool. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to this,” she confessed quietly.

“You will, I promise. Everyone does, eventually.” She let go and floated to the opposite wall, grabbing a hand-hold to steady herself. “Now push yourself gently towards me.”

The girl nodded and shoved on hand against the wall, sending herself hurtling head-first into Sunset Shimmer’s arms. She’d been expecting that, though, and caught her. “Use a little less than that, I think.”

“Sorry,” said the girl, looking up at her. “I didn’t think it would be so much.”

“It’s okay, just keep the movement small and controlled, keep a level head and push away gently.” She guided the girl’s hands back to the hand-hold, then swapped walls again. “Okay, come to me.” The girl pushed off again, much more gently and sailed across the gap to grasp Sunset’s outstretched hand. “There, much better.”

“I was still turning,” she said. “Like I was falling over. How do I stop that?”

“You need to push from lower down, near your centre of mass. Like this,” she said, lowering her hand to stomach level and giving the wall a gentle nudge, sending her smoothly over to the other wall. “Now you.”

The girl mimicked her motion, sliding her hand down the wall to stomach level before tapping it into the wall. She moved across the gap at a reasonable speed, and daintily took Sunset’s hand at the other side. Her ginger hair floated around her like a halo, and she had a big grin on her face.

“Thank you!” she said breathlessly, gripping Sunset’s fingers with her own.

“Nothing to it,” replied Sunset with a smile.

“Oh, I didn’t catch your name earlier. I’m Solar Flare.”

“Sunset Shimmer.”

“Oh, were you named after the Admiral?”

Sunset chuckled. “Something like that.”


She’d miscalculated. As the spacesuit’s propellant level approached zero, the pressure dropped, reducing the force of the thrusters. That meant she needed to fire the thrusters for longer to achieve the same effect. There were systems to compensate for that by adding pressure, but they weren’t perfect. This was never normally supposed to happen.

She'd intended to cancel most of her motion as she approached, then coast slowly for the last few hundred metres. Instead she was pushing the thrusters as hard as she could, and hoping it would be enough to prevent her colliding with the hull. She would not have the freedom to manoeuvre around the outside of the ship by thrusters.

Now they were close enough to see it, the Moon Dancer itself was clearly turning. This was not a good sign. The crew would have corrected that straight away if they could. The burst dorsal airlock slowly passed by beneath them, giving her a view of the tangled mess of warped metal. It looked like one side of the cylindrical airlock had been sliced open with a breadknife, and the air tanks behind it had definitely burst, which would explain some of the force with which they’d been ejected. But that tangled maze of sharp metal would not be her way in.

Ships of the U.N.F. are built around redundancy. They have multiple of everything, separated into isolated sections. The Moon Dancer had two bridges, a dozen engines, three F.T.L. field generators, twelve fuel tanks, eight water tanks, nineteen life support systems, thirty-six magnetic bottles of antimatter and four external airlocks. When the nearest help is sixty trillion kilometres away, you bring your own reinforcements.

Sunset wanted to reach the ventral airlock, on the opposite side of the ship from the damage. That had the most chance of escaping whatever had damaged the ship. As the ship drew closer, too fast for her liking, it turned and she caught sight of her target. Nearby she saw another hole in the hull. This one looked to have been punched in rather than out.

Their relative motion had slowed enough to avoid an outright collision, but Sunset would still hit the ship faster than she preferred. On this course they would simply bounce off the hull. Instead she needed to reach one of the ladders that wrapped around the outside of the ship.

So she leapt. A dramatic leap of faith, made less cinematic by the fact that it took half a minute to reach her destination. She grasped hold of the handle on the side of the ship and held on tight as her body whipped past, fighting her own relative momentum.

The metal hull was cold to the touch, in the way that space isn't. Space isn’t actually cold, because it’s so empty. There’s nothing for the heat to transfer to. But the surface of the ship was cold, and Sunset could feel the chill creeping up her arm as she held on. She wished she at least had some gloves.

Once her motion had settled down, she started slowly climbing the ladder, hand over hand with her legs sticking out into the void. It was slow movement. The slow turn of the ship lent her a centripetal force that wanted to cast her back into space, and she knew if she let go for even a moment she’d be lost.

Eventually she reached the ventral airlock. Waving her hand over the controls, she briefly panicked when they took several seconds to flicker into life. She tried the buzzer first, but there was no response. That meant there was nobody manning the airlock controls. There was no fingerprint sensor on the outside, of course, and the camera didn’t recognise her. The system wasn’t made to expect somebody to approach the door without a spacesuit. She had to tap in a depressingly long sequence of passcodes to persuade the airlock of who she was, then give it the override code to open up.

There were a few seconds while the attachments holding the door shut were unscrewed. She’d have been able to hear them, if she could hear anything beyond the regular thud of her own heartbeat. Once that was done, the two sides of the outer door slid slowly open.

Inside it was dark. That wasn’t a good sign.

Author's Note:

Purely for educational purposes, and because it's relevant to the story, here's a video about the physics of how cats land on their feet.