Just out of reach.
Trying to manipulate the engine drive component in gloved hands with no magnet to hold anything where it needed to be was a pain in the ass. It was impossible.
The Space Driver, the name they gave to a glorified screwdriver designed for use in outer space on spacewalks, floated just out of his reach. He shifted his position slightly in the harness that held him to the space station and was able to barely grasp it — clasping a tether cord to the errant space driver. He let it float while he finished working on the maintenance hatch. Closing it, he collected his tools, the wandering Space Driver being the first one in his bag. He attached a certificate of approval seal over the seam of the hatch door, saying that he had inspected the insides, and all was well.
But he couldn’t find anything wrong in the settings or control panel under the hatch. So, he signed off on it.
Commander Rogers entered the space station, then returned all his tools to their respective cubicles and got out of the spacesuit. As he placed the Space Driver in its case, he realized that if what he suspected was true, a screwdriver, even a specialized one, wouldn’t fix what was wrong.
Something was off on the space station. Things had been not right for some time, and recently, it had gotten worse. Various systems failed for no apparent reason and suddenly started working again. There were other little things, like small objects moving around, that puzzled him.
Everything floated up there if not secured, but the stuff always secured somehow wound up in odd places.
So far, no injuries had occurred on the station, but it wouldn’t take much for an essential system to fail, or at least act up, and the result could be fatal.
He was trying to avoid that, especially for himself. He wanted to get back to Earth as soon as possible, and this wasn’t making his job any easier.
He was the space program’s ace troubleshooter, and he wasn’t shooting this trouble.
In all of the other cases, he’d found something small that no one noticed, a bug in the code, a faulty switch, or an incorrectly set up system. What was going on here was not hardware related. It was the virus. The same virus that had caused several other ships’ crews to become incapacitated, eventually turning them into virtual zombies and shutting down their systems. They all died.
He’d been up here a week, going over the ship’s systems. From life support to water and waste disposal to entertainment, he found nothing. Nothing. Everything was as it should be. He did do a couple of upgrades, but nothing important or mission critical. What he was doing while doing routine systems checks was to see if he could find the source of the virus and, if possible, the transmission path. He found no trace of the virus, only the results and symptoms of it. The crew was not behaving as they should, not remembering what they did, and not being able to explain why they couldn’t remember moving stuff. The lack of memory was one of the first recognizable symptoms of the virus.
Circling back to his cabin, he stopped at the main control center of the station. Checking in with the commanding officer, he learned everything was as it should be. But he knew better. There seemed to be something slightly off about the way he addressed him. Nothing obvious, but a pattern of speech that was different than it had been all along. Talking to some of the other officers on the deck, he got the same vibe from them. They acted as if they were all right, but they seemed slightly unfocused as if drugged. When he talked to them, they snapped back to a version of reality.
He checked their medical records. Everyone checked out with no issues, either physically or mentally. Especially mentally, they didn’t need a captain going crazy on the bridge of the space station. But he suspected that it was happening, and not just the captain, but most of the crew.
Going down to the mechanical systems room, he looked around. He’d been down there before; it all looked the same as it had before. The reading on the charts all was within specifications. So, he talked to the chief engineer. He got the same response as he did on the bridge.
Something was affecting the crew. It was now more than just unexplained occurrences. He did not doubt that the virus was affecting the crew.
The progression of events was identical to the situation on a space station blown up by the action of a crew member years before. A space-borne virus had infected the entire crew. The virus drove them insane and wreaked havoc on their bodies. For the few that survived the blast by making it into escape pods, they had become little more than zombies that stared at the walls and made slow muttering sounds. Within a week of rescue, their bodies shut down, and they died of an uncontrollable infection. The only salvation at the time was that the survivors were in quarantine and the virus didn’t spread.
If this virus ever got to Earth, he realized that within several months at most, the entire population would be dead. So far, they had no idea of the mode of transmission, or if there was a treatment for it. Distress calls led to the discovery of several ships adrift in space, the entire crew dead, and the virus suspected to be the cause. They still could not locate the virus’s source.
Back in his cabin, he communicated with his superiors back on Earth.
His supervisor was concerned. “You sure you haven’t been infected?”
“Yes. I’ve managed not to eat or drink anything here, brought emergency rations with me. I’ve been careful about not touching anything. I’m wearing gloves at all times.” He had been using emergency stores that he had brought with him when he boarded. He noticed they didn’t properly search his packs when he arrived. A lack of interest also pointed to the virus.
“When I spoke to the crew, they were acting just like the crew did on the old space station a few years ago.”
“Okay, this is it, we have to contain the virus.”
“So that means…?”
“Yes. Blow it up. Whatever this is, we can’t risk it getting back to Earth or one of the colonies. The only way to make sure it doesn’t spread is to destroy the station.”
His next stop was the commanding officer of the space station. It was difficult to explain to the commander that the virus had infected him and most of the crew, and what the prognosis of the infection was. They were all going to die. Because they still didn’t know the transmission method of the virus or what catastrophic effects it would have on Earth, they could not risk letting anyone back to Earth. The commander accepted their fate and he decided against telling the crew. Best to allow them to live their last moments in peace.
The transport shuttle was about halfway to Earth when the space station blew into a million pieces. He watched from the cockpit as the debris field spread, almost reaching him as the small ship approached Earth’s atmosphere.
His heart ached for those who perished, but he wondered only one thing. How much time had he bought for Earth?