The heat bit the back of her neck as licks of flames rose higher spinning past her cheeks. Grasping wildly at the steel bar, she twisted it as fast as she could tangling her arms around one other with each turn. The flames still reminded her of the danger of her surroundings, this small hollow didn't used to be so hot. She didn't have to worry about being burnt to a crisp—she could have seen her daughter again, just letting herself go.
It would have been easier. The O2 levels were dropping slowly and unlike nearly hyperventilating in her suit, in the pod she would have drifted off and suffocated peacefully. She'd be with her daughter now. Then damn Kowalski had to get in the way. Or maybe he just got herself out of her own way. The landing jets had been stuck in the back of her own mind, she was just too focused on getting her own suffering over with to dig deep enough in her subconscious.
Now instead of safely drifting off peacefully into the next life she was stuck in a pod burning alive trying to get the damn door open. Damn it, Kowalski! And a click. The bar stopped spinning, but nothing happened. The air pressure inside the hatch should have—no, that was in space, in zero Gs. This was Earth, she was back. The hatch didn't fling open because the air pressure on the outside matched that on the inside. She pushed against the hatch. Water poured in through the cracks, scratch that, the water pressure was want held the door closed and now that it was opened . . .shit. She didn't get a chance to finish the thought as the fire was quickly quenched behind her. One destructive force only to be assaulted by another.
Panic began to set in. She pushed away from the door as her back was flush with the opposite wall. There was no shortage of oxygen in the pod, but that wasn't what was causing her to breathe so hard, it was her own conclusions. Her conclusion that after all this she would drown in the middle of the ocean. After fighting through oxygen deprivation, loss of atmospheric pressure, a fire on an orbiting satellite, she would drown like a common fisherman.
No, no. She thought of what Kowalski would say, she didn't have time to hallucinate him. He would laugh, make a joke and then get the two of them out of here. But what was she supposed to do alone?
The water rose higher as the air diminished with each passing breath. The words popped into her head. Kowalski would have said them with a lighter tone, the only way she knew how was to spit them out. Now or never. She saw his face for one beautiful second. He might not have had those baby blue eyes, but the browns sufficed. She took one last breath.
The water was no longer pouring in and with nothing to fight against she easily escaped the confines of the pod. One small step for man . . . she was dragged down. The metal in the suit tore her body through the water. She fought. Swimming was the one area NASA didn't train you in before thrusting you into the harsh environment of space.
Her arms whipped wildly as her legs fought the sheer weight of the suit. She sunk until she felt her feet land on an uneven surface. The rocks at the bottom. She thrusted off the rocks, flailed wildly before the suit dragged her instantly back down. No, it wasn't going to end this way.
Forgoing the swimming for a moment, she attacked the straps holding her into the suit. One, two, then three, just enough surface area split apart to slide out of the top. Her feet caught in the fabric for a moment, but without the extra weight she felt a new force of pure energy rocket through her. Kowalski was right, she was going to make it.
The words sole survivor flashed through her mind just as her lips brushed the water's surface. Breaking the plane she felt the Earth's air fill her lungs and quiet any remaining doubts she had. She was breathing air, real air, not from a canister or artificially cycled through the shuttle's ventilation systems. It was sweeter, fresher. A life blood that she promised herself she would never go without again.
Opening her eyes the sun nearly blinded her, but the sweet heat that bit into her skin was well worth the discomfort. Her eyes took a moment to adjust as she lowered them seeing the fuzzy green outlines of the environment surrounding her. First good piece of news all day, she wasn't in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The outlines came into focus and the beautiful hills spread out through her entire line of vision. She didn't know where she was, but anywhere was better than suffocating in an escape pod wearing some Russian's space suit.
Her legs began to fail her as she remembered the medical effects of spending a week in space. She had done her exercises on the shuttle, much to Kowalski's amusement, but her muscles still atrophied. Her arms worked a little better as she choked down some water in an attempt to progress her way toward the shore.
She felt the shoreline slowly emerge underneath her thighs until she was resting flat on the sand facedown still almost completely emerged in water. The tide flowed in and out as she took a few tiny breaths ensuring for herself one last time that Kowalski was right. She was going to survive, sole survivor.
Laying her head down on the wet sand, she let the coolness soak into her skin. Little bits of sand exfoliated as the water brushed the sand lightly in and out of the creases in her face. She laughed. Everything that had happened, everything that brought her to this moment. All those nights spent driving from the moment she answered the phone call to hear her little girl had passed, all the time working with NASA on her research, research that eventually led her into space. The last five hours of her life had been proof that Murphy's Law existed and even after that she made it to the sandy shores of wherever the hell she was. Again she laughed, it wasn't funny being lost in a strange place, but after hours of being in a strange place not of this Earth, it felt so good to be home.
Dr. Ryan Stone, Mission Specialist of the Explorer, was going to make it. Back on Earth. Standing up tall she once again took a moment to take in the sun around her. Closing her eyes, she smelled the breeze coming off the hills and then a familiar beeping sounded impeded her hearing.
It was odd, but she must not be as far off the grid as she originally anticipated. Something was beeping around her. Someone had technology she could use to get home, to her true home. Opening her eyes the standard yellow tint of the sunlight had gone red. Just lightly at first, a soft orange gleam, and then a stronger and much more intense red.
This wasn't right. Everything around her seemed out of place suddenly. The hills were too green, the water too wet as it seemed to stick to her skin. Feeling the back of her neck, the burns from the fire had vanished as if they never existed.
Existed. It was a funny word. What truly exists? Can anyone ever tell? With these two questions her lungs caught themselves. Wrapping around her throat a sudden jolt brought her back. But she wasn't on the beach standing in her underwear, the sun didn't radiant off her skin anymore. She was shaking. Near uncontrollably.
Opening her eyes revealed the water gone from her feet, hills abound vanished into thin air. The beeping sound was nothing more than the oxygen tanks depleting themselves and the ever reddening sun was just the emergency lights alerting her to what she already knew.
There was no body of water, just a Russian escape pod out of fuel. Looking at the controls, the O2 levels had sunk below 5%. Another hour or so and they would be gone completely. She could be asleep before the CO2 levels reached high enough to choke her.
A hand reached over and took hers, Kowalski was back, "It's been an honor serving with a Mission Specialist like you doctor."
Ryan just smiled. She knew he wasn't truly there, but the words were comforting anyway. Closing her eyes one last time a laugh burst from her lips, she was going to see her daughter. Her little girl.
The O2 levels diminished over the next fifty minutes, the beeping and flashing lights only grew more intense. But Ryan didn't notice any of it, she dreamed of her daughter. Every day after work they would drive. Ryan would drive with her daughter riding shotgun until she was thirteen. By then they would find abandoned back country highways for her daughter to try out the steering wheel. She was an expert by sixteen. Ryan watched her daughter graduate from high school, college and then wait a solid decade before even considering marriage. Ryan spent the last hour of her life seeing exactly who her daughter was and who she was going to be. This way, once the final breath of air left her body she would have one hell of a story to tell her daughter when she saw her again.