“The Third Law” by Keith P. Graham

Star Battalion, by romeo esparrago

“Emma!” Mike yelled. Emma’s body spun slowly, with one hand stretched out as though reaching for something. The other hand clutched the node of controls at her chest. She did not answer. There were yellow lights blinking along the side of her pressure suit.

The telltale on Mike’s control panel blinked a failure light on the communications device list. The link was down. He clicked the chin mouse and the panel showed a link-connect retry box. His voice comm was down.

Mike’s suit slowly recovered from the shock of the explosion. He watched as systems rebooted, but the comm system remained dead. The back of his arm stung with icy needles. The pressure suit repaired itself and warmed his frozen skin. He saw some of the LEDs on Emma’s suit flicker and turn green.

“Emma!” he called again, but it was no use. Five meters of hard vacuum separated them, and without the radio link there was no way to talk.

Mike was drifting around slowly. His feet came up as he rotated backwards and he could no longer see Emma. The surface of the moon, racing by in a blur, came into view, and then the distant shape of Virginia Lunar Space Station appeared in his field of vision.

Emma came into view again. Her tumbling had stopped. She was facing him, and little spurts of peroxide shot from her jets as the suit stabilized itself. There was a crackle on the comm circuit. The link-control dialog box still showed a pending connection, but the analog circuit had kicked in.

“Mike, I’m hurt. You’ve got to get me to the field hospital.” Her voice sounded small and distant, even though she was only a couple of meters away. With a spit of peroxide, she started towards him. “I can’t move my left leg. It’s cold.”

“OK,” he said to her, “don’t panic. We’ll figure a way out of this”, but she kept on talking.

“Mike, I don’t see the station. Where are we? Where’s the station?” Her voice continued over Mike’s and he realized that she could not hear him. She moved slowly towards him, but at two meters, his damaged radio was not putting out enough power for her to receive his transmissions.

Mike’s own stabilizing jets were offline. He lost view of Emma again as he back-flipped around. Beneath his feet, Mike could see the surface of the moon speeding by. He felt that he could see the distance to the surface decreasing as he watched. As Emma came into view again, she was much closer.

Emma’s faceplate was a dark mirror as she approached, but her frightened voice told him all he needed to know about her. “Mike, are you OK? Mike, why don’t you answer me?” She couldn’t see his face, either. He put up his arms and caught her.

Placing his helmet against hers, he said. “My radio must be out.” She heard his voice conducting through the touching helmets.

“What happened?” she asked.

Mike looked down at the approaching surface of the moon. It was coming up fast. Mike could still see the piece of broken scaffolding that had hit him in the back as it drifted slowly below him. There were other fragments of the construction area around them.

“One of the air cylinders blew. I don’t know how, but I think that the heater must have malfunctioned.” The air tanks had heaters. The mixture of He and O2 was not very dangerous, but any welding engineer knew the danger of gases under pressure. Charles’ Gas Law worked just as well in space.

Mike hesitated. He moved his gloved hand up into her field of view and pointed towards his feet. “We’re going down fast,” he said. She moved her head and looked down. Mike could hear her gasp through the radio as well as through the sound waves vibrating his helmet in contact with hers.

The surface of the moon was rising up fast and he wanted to watch. He did not think that they would hit, but if this was to be his last few seconds of life, he wanted to watch. He was not afraid or even nervous. He should have been frightened after the explosion when he realized he was falling towards the moon. He had been too busy trying to contact Emma to worry how much longer he had to live.

Mike tried to find the Mare Humorum research station. It looked like it might be directly below him. Unfortunately, nothing looked familiar, but the smooth expanse might be the mare that he was looking for. Mike, a welding engineer, had mostly slept though the lunar geography course given at his orientation. If Emma could zero-in on the research station’s communications dishes, she might be able to get a microwave link going.

Mike told Emma to try to ping the station.

“Mayday! Mayday!” He heard her try, as she pointed her helmet at a pile of something that might be a lunar habitat about five klicks below them. The surface was moving so fast, though, that they could hardly focus on it. There was no response.

Mike looked ahead. The horizon of the moon was moving up slowly against the backdrop of stars. He wondered if they still had a chance. The horizon got very close very fast and the ragged chain of sharp mountains came at them at an incredible speed.

“Oh boy” Mike said and closed his eyes and held his breath. He held on tight to Emma and she held on tight to him. They passed neatly between two craggy towers of rock and the ground beneath them started to recede. The piece of scaffolding that was traveling just below them slammed into the side of an outcrop and the shattered pieces bounced back high and away. There was very little left of it. Mike and Emma missed death by only a few hundred meters.

Emma did not let go of Mike. She had wrapped her arms tightly around his body. Mike realized that he was glad that he was not alone. He heard her voice through the helmet.

“Where’s the station?”

“It’s up there and behind us somewhere.” He pointed back towards the Earth. “We just passed perigee.”

“Can they find us?”

“There’s a lot of space out here. Station control might not notice that anything has happened for a while, and by the time they do, we’ll be miles away. We could be anywhere in over a hundred cubic miles of space.”

“How can we get back?”

“We’ll pass Virginia Station on the way back up, in a half-hour or so. The explosion tossed us into an elliptical orbit. I don’t know how close we’ll pass by, but we should cross the station’s orbit.”

Mike could hear Emma’s heavy breathing. “How’s your air? Do you have enough oxygen?” he asked her.

There was a pause while Emma read her telltales. Mike could see feel her helmet moving as she moved the mouse with her chin, navigating through the heads-up menus and checking her status. “I’ve lost 2 liters of O2 and it is still dropping.” Emma’s voice went up an octave, and Mike could feel her fear. “I think there is a rip in my suit below the waist. That’s why I can’t feel my leg.”

“The suits are self-healing,” he reminded her. There might be slow leak, and your leg might be cold, but I think the suit will take care of you.”

“I don’t know Mike. I’m losing air somewhere.”

“Let me take a look. Hold on.”

Mike turned Emma to get a look at her leg. Actually, he turned some and she turned too, as Newton’s three laws of motion kicked in and preserved their angular momentum. He felt along her leg and backside with his hands. “Excuse me,” he said to her in embarrassment when he realized what it must seem like, but she could not hear him through his busted radio.

There was jagged rip in her suit high on the left leg. It was just below and to the side of a seam at the back of the pants leg. The self-healing bio-engineered material of the suit had pulled the rip together. The suit itself was a very specialized living organism. The tear had not healed cleanly and had formed a puckered scar of raw edges in the smooth, living material of the suit. There was a small misting of ice crystals from humid air leaking out of the scar.

Mike pulled a roll of silver tape from his tool belt and wrapped the special tape around her leg. He pressed the special low-temperature and vacuum-tolerant adhesives firmly against the rip, hoping to seal up the hole.

Mike righted Emma and pressed his helmet back against hers. “I fixed it. A small tear in the top layers that didn’t heal well. It was leaking a little. Your leg didn’t feel frozen to me. Maybe the explosion just knocked you good and hard — I know I’m still seeing stars. Maybe the heating units failed for a few minutes and you’re just a little cold. You’re certain to be sore in the morning.”

“It hurt when you pressed on it. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he said. “You’ll be fine. Just a little sore.” He didn’t tell her that her foot looked twisted at an odd angle. He suspected that her leg was broken and that it was a very good thing that the leg had cooled enough to numb the pain. “You should take an analgesic pill,” he suggested.

There was a moment of quiet as Emma moved her head around. He guessed that she was taking the analgesic and was washing it down with water. Mike visualized her face inside the helmet. He had always thought that she was pretty, but life on a station construction team left little chance for socializing.

Suddenly, Mike was very aware that she was still holding on tightly to him. Space was very empty and there was not even the nearby mass of the half-built space station to rest one’s eyes on. She needed him as an anchor. They needed each other. Mike felt very small in the vastness of space. He felt comfort in the press of her body against his.

“I don’t see the station. Where did you say it was?”

“The sun is behind it here. We won’t see it until we’re nearly onto it.” Mike thought about the problem of finding the station. “We’re on a new orbit. When the air canister blew, it acted like a rocket. The scaffolding went shooting off in all directions, along with us. The platform we were working on went down towards the surface.”

Mike craned his neck around to look up and away from the moon. “It stands to reason that we’ll be below the station.” He did not see the station, yet. “But soon our new momentum will catch up with the station and we’ll move out and away from the moon. If our perigee was close to the surface it stands to reason that our apogee will be beyond the station.”

“They’ll never find us.”

“You’re wrong,” Mike assured her. “Our orbit should still be synchronized with the station’s orbit. We should pass right by her on the way out and again on the way in. Your radio is working. Once they get a fix on you they’ll send a jeep out to get us.”

She didn’t answer him right away. They both were searching the field of bright stars for something moving.

“Should I be calling for help on my radio?”

“The signal is not that strong. We need to be close enough to the station to see it before they can hear you.”

“How far away are we from the station?” she asked as she scanned the skies.

“Virginia Station is being built at a lunar altitude of 300 kilometers.” Mike thought a minute. “We passed real close to the moon’s surface about 15 minutes ago. We should be able to see the station soon. Our orbit should be a little over two hours. We’ll pass near the station twice in every orbit, or every hour or so.”

Emma saw the station first. Virginia Station suddenly gleamed in the sun as it rose up above the moon’s horizon, and it looked like they were heading directly towards it. The station’s partially installed solar decking shone mirror-bright. As they watched, the station began to grow in size. It grew slowly at first. As the minutes ticked away, it began to loom up. When, in Mike’s judgment, they were only about 5 kilometers away, Emma started calling for help on her small transceiver.

The station had an apparent motion that was slightly away from the moon, not a good sign. It looked as though the two of them would pass a few kilometers below and beyond it. Emma’s voice was high pitched and panicky as she continued on her endless call for help. As they watched, the station’s relative motion appeared to slow and then stop. Then it began to rise up and away from the moon again. They had passed as close to the station as they were going to get. On the next orbit, it would be further away.

They weren’t close enough. Mike realized that they might not pass close enough for the little radio’s weak signal to connect to the station’s comm system, and they could not get any closer. His peroxide jet was empty and Emma had only a little propellant left, enough to change her trajectory, but not enough to get her moving fast enough to catch the station.

Mike pressed his helmet up against Emma’s again. “Get ready to kick off with your good leg. I am going to try and throw you towards the station.”

“But Mike, that will send you back the other way.”

“I know, Newton’s Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It is the only way. They will never find me unless they know where to look. You have to get to the station and tell them I’m out here.”

“No, you go. You can push off harder with both legs.”

“There’s no time to argue. You have to go now. You don’t have enough air to make it around another orbit. I’ve got plenty. Just tell them I’m out here. I’ll tap your leg three times. On the third tap, kick off. Aim for the station. Make any course corrections as early as you can.”

He unbuckled her tool belt and put it around his own waist to increase his mass and reduce hers. He pulled away from her and moved her so that her body was pointing towards Virginia Station with her knee bent. He held her right foot in his hand against his shoulder. She was ready to kick. The station was moving away slowly.

“Mike” she said.

“Yes, Emma”.

“Good luck, Mike”.

Mike tapped Emma’s calf once, twice and then on the third tap, he pushed as hard as he could on the foot, and Emma shot off towards the station. He could hear Emma briefly over his crippled radio calling “Mayday!”, but her voice crackled and then went out as she moved out of the device’s limited range. Then she was gone and there was silence except for the static in his earpiece.

Mike was slowly tumbling again and it was making him dizzy. It was good that he wasn’t tumbling faster. It meant that the force of his push had gone into pushing Emma forward and not into making him spin. Again, it was Newton’s Third Law. It was a good thing that he was moving away from the station fast because it meant that Emma was moving just as fast towards the station, even faster, because she massed only a little more than half of his 100 kilos.

Mike knew that a person could stop tumbling in space by moving his or her arms and legs. It is like a child pumping a swing to get it moving. There is nothing to push against, but you can translate the angular momentum around until the spinning stops. Unfortunately, Mike had never been able to get the hang of it in the training sessions. He tried moving his body like the instructor had described, but the tumbling did not slow him at all.

Mike had to resort to Newton’s Third Law again. He removed a wrench from one of the tool kits and held it in his hand for a moment. He waited, timing the spins. When his back was towards the moon, he threw the wrench down between his feet as hard as he could. The force of throwing the wrench had an equal and opposite action and slowed Mike’s spin. In fact, he was now turning slowly in the opposite direction. The rate of tumble was small, and by stretching out his arms and legs and then bringing in his right hand and leg close to his body he twisted a little sideways and the tumbling stopped completely. Mike smiled. His instructor would have been proud.

Virginia Lunar Space Station was moving between Mike and the moon. As his orbit reached its highest point, he saw the station gleaming below him. It was almost as striking as the station’s shadow moving swiftly across the lunar surface. As Mike’s orbit moved him slowly above the moon, he almost lost sight of Virginia Station. He could follow the station’s shadow very clearly, though, by looking almost directly below him, but the station itself blended into the silver light of the moon.

Mike wondered how Emma was doing. He hoped that she would make it and tell them that he was out here. At least the two of them had kept their heads. At least he and Emma had tried. They might be looking for him soon. They might see him when he approached the station again. If they were looking for him, he would stick out like a sore thumb on radar, and visually, he would be easy to spot as a moving speck on the lunar face, just as the station had been easy to spot.

The station’s apparent motion was away from Mike, even though he knew he was getting closer. His orbit had hit its apogee and he was getting closer to the surface in an elliptical path, but the station’s orbit was perfectly circular. He was going down and soon would be below the station, but it would appear that the station would be climbing higher above the horizon. There was no sign of rescue. Maybe Emma had not made it back to the station. Maybe they couldn’t find him in his new orbit.

Virginia Station rose up towards Mike, but it was further away than ever. When it passed by Mike, it looked to be more than 10 kilometers away. If not for the sun reflecting off the glossy solar decking, he would not have been able to find it. Mike was now heading down towards the surface of the moon again.

Now Mike faced the next problem. The last time around the moon had been a near miss. He and Emma had only been a few hundred meters away from crashing against a mountain at an impossible speed. Since then, he’d changed his orbit!

Sending Emma towards the station had invoked Newton’s Third Law. When Emma pushed off, she sent Mike in the opposite direction. Mike tried to visualize his position when he had made the move. Would his new orbit bring him closer to the moon or even cause him to hit the surface? His actions could have flattened out his orbit or slowed him down.

Mike tried to remember the rules for changing orbits. One rule was that you slow down to speed up. That means that when you slow down, you drop to a lower orbit, so you are going faster. He had always had trouble understanding this. Which way had he been facing when he Emma had pushed off towards the station? Did it slow his orbit?

He thought of how a change of his orbit would change the perigee. If he made the orbit more circular, he would move the perigee higher, but if the change had been to slow his orbital speed, it would make the perigee lower and he would die when his orbit intersected the surface.

In the two tool belts there were some heavy objects. The heaviest thing on the belt was a set of screwdrivers in a plastic case that he used for adjusting the regulator on his welding torch. He held it in his hand, trying to judge its mass. It could not have been more than a kilogram.

He was approaching perigee.

Mike had several choices. He could throw the box straight down, pushing him away from the moon. This might correspondingly move the bottom of his orbit away from the moon, but somehow, that didn’t seem right.

He could throw it straight ahead, slowing his speed and lowering his altitude. This might make his orbit more circular and could help him avoid crashing into a mountain. He could try throwing the package directly back in the opposite direction of his momentum, increasing his orbital speed. This should move his orbit slightly further out. Did it mean that the perigee would also move higher above the surface? The solution required a computer and the only resources that Mike had were his own guesses.

Mike made a choice, stiffened his body, and threw the box of screwdrivers as hard as he could. One by one, he threw the heavy things in the two tool belts with all the strength that he had. The effect on his orbit was not immediately obvious. He would know, though, within the next hour if he had made the correct choice.

Soon, Virginia Station drifted by in the distance. He started his slow fall towards the surface of the moon. As he approached the surface, the mountain tops blurred by. Mike again held his breath and closed his eyes as he passed within meters of the top of a craggy peak. He tried to think of Emma. He remembered how good it had felt when she was holding him tight. He remembered the sound of her voice when she had wished him good luck.

* * *

When the rescue crew found Mike, he was unconscious and floating about 30 meters from the space station. Mike had hit a section of decking at nearly 70 kilometers an hour and broken both his legs. The search parties were about to give up when one of the work crew spotted him through a cafeteria view port.

Emma came to see him in the field hospital often. Her leg was in a cast, but she was getting around without difficulty in the low gravity of the slowly spinning station. She thanked him, gave him a kiss, and called him “My Hero”, which made Mike blush.

Whenever Mike told the story about using Newton’s Third Law by throwing tools out into space, no one would believe him. Without a computer and accurate instruments, the odds of being able to correct his orbit enough to strike the station were a million to one.

What made things worse was, as Mike related his story, he could never remember which direction he had chosen to throw the tools. When Emma came to visit and sit by his bed, Mike had to agree with her. They were just very, very lucky. When she bent over him and gave him a long and sensuous kiss one night before she returned to her quarters, Mike knew that he was very lucky, indeed. *

About the Author: Keith P. Graham is a computer programmer, blues harmonica player, website developer, and technical editor for web magazine AstoundingTales.com. Recently he decided to write a few short stories. Keith lives in NY State with his wife of 30 years, Erica, and five unpleasant cats.
(c) 2004 Keith P. Graham kpgraham@onebox.com

About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago has been charged for the third time for thrice violating (each) a variety of 3rd laws: Newton’s, Asimov’s, Arthur C. Clarke’s, Thermodynamics’, Kepler’s — you name a third law, he’s broken it. That’s three strikes, you’re out, buddy!
(c) 2004 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com/

2 thoughts on ““The Third Law” by Keith P. Graham

  1. Good story, reminiscent of something Asimov or Clark may have written; I loved the seamless blend of characterisation, a really human plight, with the scientific and technological knowledge and detail. Great use of physics to give the story an excellent sense of realism.

    overall a very satisfying story.

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