Nick could feel his hands sweat, pulse pound, and breath quicken as the adrenalin poured into his body. The start of each recovery mission was the same. Nick would hold onto the rungs at the airlock, waiting to enter the unknown. He felt an intense ambivalence where fear mixed with excitement at what might be on the other side.
He had donned his suit earlier, with the deep black form fitting suit outlining his muscles, which were not yet atrophied from permanent residence in space. The translucent membranes enclosed his face, and small oxygen lines ran to the re-breather and liquid oxygen strapped his back with a bag for his tools. Those gave him a good 24 hours of air. More time than he would need regardless of what he found.
The ship landed on the habitat with a deep thunk that he felt more than heard. The airlock cycled to green as a seal was formed. Nick directed a quick mental command at the airlock and went through the now open panel. Through the airlock was the dull gray of the habs’s hull. Shiny streaks of silver glinted where micrometeorites has gashed the hull.
The chip behind Nick’s shoulder pulled up the blueprints from the construction of the habitat and overlaid a green outline where cutting would create a breach in the hull. Looking back to make sure the airlock was closed behind him, Nick grabbed the portable cutting torch from his pack. After the first puncture of the hull there was a swift rush of air inward as the pressure equalized. Nick’s overlay showed him the atmosphere composition: 74% Nitrogen, 25% Carbon Dioxide, 1% Oxygen and a temperature of -15C. Relieved, he kept welding. There would be no survivors left to deal with so little heat and Oxygen.
Sparks flew as Nick mindless worked to cut his entrance, and like most operations since the Illness, he cut into unknown territory. The worst operations were when there were survivors. Nick had to calm everyone down so he could feel back out the hatch and reseal the hole. He hadn’t had to kill anyone, not yet anyway, but every time he resealed the hull he felt as if he resealed the lid on a coffin.
Closing the loop with the torch, the section of hull drifted free. Nick pushed through the hull and floated through the dead habitat. Somehow, all the Oxygen in the habitat had been exhausted. Nick shuddered; in his worst nightmares he became trapped in a dark corner and suffocated on stale air. Grabbing the handholds, Nick moved down the utility corridor, the years of practice in weightlessness showing. The corridor was lined by dim emergency lights, which cast long shadows everywhere. Following the arrows in his vision, he headed for the main control room.
This salvage was of the Elysium, which had been a hydroponics farm. The dull metal corridors belied what originally would have been the bright lights and greenery on the other side. By now, surely everything on board was dead, frozen solid.
Nick made a final turn and reached the underside of the control room, feeling lucky to have not stumbled across a single body yet. He opened the gray hatch and pushed off the floor, flying into the nerve center of the Elysium. Like the everywhere else, the control room was dead, illuminated only by the dim emergency lights. White light with a soft blinking of red highlighted the disarray of the control room. Someone had definitely been here after there was no longer gravity. Bedding, food wrappers and an empty suit floated about the room. A few plants, frozen solid and glinting in the dim light tumbled around him. Nick’s vision led him straight to the black box port.
Each habitat had a black box with enough shielding to withstand destruction of the entire habitat or an EMP, and they held the structure’s log. The log would let Nick’s employers know if they could use the wreck for salvage, and what goodies might be on board. Approaching the data port, he saw a paper manual strapped to the wall over the data port to the box. Nick shook his head. Why anyone would insist on having paper manuals was beyond him. He hadn’t read anything on paper since he was a small child. Yet every structure had a store of bound manuals, just in case. The manual was held in place with duct tape, left there for whomever came after the ship’s log. The original title read “Optimal seeding techniques for hybrid wheat in zero gravity.” This had been crossed out, and in an uncertain hand had been written “For my role as Pandora, I’m sorry – Grant Fletcher.” Nick removed the duct tape, and opened the manual. The margins were filled with the same scrawl as the front. Seeing the scrawl unleashed competing emotions within him. He felt dread in the pit of his stomach and a powerful curiosity. The last year had been witness to many atrocities, both intentional and accidental, and Grant was dead. Curiosity won and Nick placed the manual in his pack.
The data port was now accessible. Nick plugged himself in and downloaded the log. His mission complete, he turned and left the ship the way he came. Back at the airlock, he went through the decontamination tent set up in his absence. He stripped out of the suit and threw it in the incinerator. Everything else, including his skin, got a hefty dose of UV light, sure to deepen his tan one more shade. The tools were thrown into an autoclave. The manual was scanned, uploaded to his personal storage and incinerated. While he waited in the purple glow, Nick sent the log to control.
Certified clean, Nick pulled on a pair of jeans and a loose shirt and headed for him bunk. Laying down on his bed, Nick closed his eyes and pulled up the manual. The display on his retina started scrolling. “You’d never guess that I caused all of this destruction, but I had to play at being Pandora and open the box…” Nick relaxed, dispelled the dread creeping over him, and started reading.