45,000 feet above the Earth, the capsule hung in the air, Finn’s brain reeled with the calculations. In his go-kart, he could travel eight miles in about eight minutes, in a car even faster.
In free fall, they’d fall so much faster, maybe twice as fast, four times as fast, so maybe they’d fall for only two minutes. Drops of sweat wet his forehead and his armpits.
“Okay, Gabi. Just five minutes, piece of cake. Five minutes and we’ll be on the ground.” Yes, the ground. But would they be in one piece?
To manage that, they’d have to deploy the parachutes. That was their only job, to pull that string. In order to do so, they’d have to stay conscious and that was the tricky part. While falling, it would be easy to spin uncontrollably and black out, from fear, shock, or dizziness. Could they handle it?
Gabi began to cry, silent tears sliding down her little face. Somehow, it strengthened his resolve. Here they were again, thankfully, inside Earth’s atmosphere, where tears could fall. “We’re almost home, Gabi."
The voice of the mission controller, Sandy, startled him. “So, Finn, before the hatch can open, the pressure inside the cabin must equal the very low pressure outside it.”
It was the exact opposite of scuba diving, where as you went deeper, the pressure increased. Here, so high above the earth, the pressure was low and the air was thin— so few oxygen, hydrogen and other atoms, it was almost a vacuum.
“So, you have time,” Sandy continued, “to check your equipment.”
What could he check? Regulator, tubes, tank and gauge—none seemed accessible like dive equipment as they were all inside the backpack.
He struggled to think of any advice he could give Gabi. “Try taking long, slow breaths.”
Gabi inhaled like a smoker taking a deep drag, let it out and took another and another.
“Slow down, girl. I know you’re nervous, but breathing too fast can cause hyperventilation and that means getting faint.”
Yes, this was a lot like diving. In fact, it really was diving, just from much higher to much lower.
The gauges told him the tank was full, which was about a half hour’s worth of air at 100 foot dive depth. A diver used more air the deeper he dove, for example, the same tank might last you an hour at thirty feet depth. So, he consoled himself, a tank of air would last him easily for the next five minutes, and as he got closer to Earth, he would be able to breath regular air.
Sandy spoke again. “Now we’re waiting until you’re over land. We had you scheduled for a splashdown, but you changed the plan on us.”
Minutes passed like hours. Gabi hummed softly, eyes closed. Her song was a prayer. At last it was time.
“Okay, Finn you need to open that door. Remember, I’ll talk you through these next few steps. You’re doing fine.”
I’m so not.
“Release the seatbelts.”
This was huge. Unclicking meant they were, in fact, leaving the capsule. Gabi began shaking her head.
“No,” she whispered.
“Gabi, we’re going home. In five minutes we’ll be there with Mom and Dad. You’re gonna hold onto me and I’ll take care of everything, ok?”
Without waiting for her answer, with shaking hands, he unfastened the belts.
Sandy guided him through the series of steps which allowed him to open the door. Eventually, Finn managed it.
Sandy sounded pleased. “There you go, door is open. Maneuver to the exit door.”
Finn did so and helped Gabi to budge up, too. “Getting there. Roger.”
“You with us, Gabi? You okay?”
Finn looked at Gabi. Her eyes were wide with fear. “You’re okay. Tell him you’re okay.”
She shook her head.
Finn gave her a one-armed hug. “You can do this. Tell him you’re okay.”
Gabi voice sounded strangled. “Okay.”
“Good girl,” said the Mission Commander. “Lift legs onto the door thresh hold.”
“Slide forward.” They did so.
“Attaboy. Slide forward into the rest position. A little bit further forward so we can check your chutes.”
They slid forward.
“Chutes are not deployed. Chutes are in good shape.” Chutes. Important. Need to be in good shape. Finn's throat felt painfully dry.
“Verify cut away knife handle strap is attached and knife is in position.” He gave a thumbs-up.
“Chest pack face plates heat is on. You should see a red light. Ok, good.”
Finn could not speak.
“Disconnect chest pack umbilical.” What did that mean?
“Do you read me on the communications?”
The flight commander waited for a response. “Finn, give me a short count. Stow umbilical. It’s a black hose connected to your chest pack. You need to pull those out before you can go.”
Short count? He located the hoses he needed to remove and yanked them.
“Disconnect both oxygen supply hoses. Give me a thumbs-up. Attaboy.”
It must be time. He felt weak with fear. He remembered that, if he began to spin uncontrollably, if the G-forces are too high, the emergency chute would open automatically, a good thing.
“Stand up on the skateboard. Keep your head down stepping out. Release the helmet tie down.”
Finn stepped out onto a little platform called the skateboard. Good name. He tried to pull Gabi out after him.
But she didn’t want to come out of the capsule. “Let’s just stay here,” she pleaded.
“Gabi, look at me.”
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” Her voice rose higher and higher.
“Gabi, all you’re going to do is hang on tight to me and I’ll get you down. Do you trust me?”
“I can’t I can’t I can’t—“
“You don’t have to do anything but trust me. I’m going, so you’d better come with me.”
Her eyes went so wide, he could see the whites all the way around her green iris. “You can’t leave me here alone.”
She stared a moment and nodded. “God, you look after the little birds. Please, get us down safely.”
Gabi wrapped her brother in a bear hug and whispered. “Amen. Let’s go.”
He held her tightly and did his bunny hop.