Chapter 9

The deafening sound of the alarm reverberates through the redoubt.  I jump reflexively, slamming the top of my head against the unforgiving steel.  There’s still nearly a minute to go with the transmission.  Crap.  I’m stuck here holding this incriminating bottle but if I disconnect it now the transmission will be trashed and I will have failed.  I ain’t gonna get another chance at this.  I try to estimate how many seconds it would take for somebody to get from the CM to the redoubt, but it’s gotta be less than the one minute I need.

It takes only seconds for them to start coming.  The circular hatch flings open and Nastez yanks himself in.  He’s been manning the flight deck while I went to restore the network.  He was relatively close so when the gong sounded it makes sense he would be the first to get here.   The others will be coming from the carousels, which will take a mite longer.

The gong cuts off abruptly—thank God—but that just means there’s less to distract the crew from what I’m doing when they arrive.  From the entrance to the redoubt, I am maybe 50 meters deep in—that’s where the fiber junction was located—so Nastez probably can’t see what I’m doing from the entry.  Not yet anyways.  I float my feet up to block his view of my hands—my guilty, shaking hands.  I glance at the bottle; the lamp is still green.  50 seconds to go.

“Hey Straker, did you hear the emergency signal back there?” he yells from the hatch.  He’s got to be kidding—my ears are just about bleeding.  Even his voice is loud back here.  The redoubt is so quiet and the steel walls so hard that his voice is perfectly loud at this distance, like right-next-to-my-ear loud, but the walls also add a strange reverberation that distorts the sound, making him hard to understand.

I look past my feet at him.  “Yea, I heard it, really loud.  But I’m already here, so I figured I’d stay where I am and finish the job I came here to do.”

He nods and punches at the emergency console near the redoubt entrance.  “It’s a micro-meteor strike.  I saw a big cloud of particles coming at us so I hit the alarm.  I think the anti-collision system saw it too, so I can’t be sure if it was me or the computer that sounded the alarm first.  Coming in at about 17 kilometers per second, relative; cross-range, port side.”

“How long till we’re hit?”

“Well, it’s not a sure thing that we’ll be hit at all.  But if we do get hit, it will be in about thirty seconds.”

I glance furtively at my wristy.  45 seconds to go.  The indicator on the bottle is still green.

“Yuuta, have you finished with the network?” asks Nastez.

“Um, no not yet, I was just about to when the gong sounded.  I slipped and hard to start over.”

Within seconds, more company arrives.  Katya comes through the hatch, then the captain, then Louis.  The captain closes the hatch and dogs it down tightly behind her.

“What are you doing way back there?” calls Katya.

“Just putting the network back like it was,” I reply.

“You could have left it the way it was; it wasn’t hurting anything.”

“Oh.  I didn’t know that.”

Her head tilts–she’s getting curious.  “Are you having trouble?” she asks.  She kicks off and starts drifting towards me.

I look at my wristy.  13 seconds to go.  Katya moves much faster than I did.  Her face is curious and she’s looming larger and larger…Boom.  The whole ship jolts.  We’ve been struck—hard.  Louis spews out a few choice expletives; he and Nastez chatter loudly and nervously.  Katya drops her gaze from me and looks back at them.

I check my wristy.  Transmission complete; the green light on the meds bottle has gone dark.  I slip the meds bottle up the sleeve of my coveralls just as Katya turns her attention back to me.  Another loud crack and the walls of the redoubt lurch to the side—we’ve been hit again.  The redoubt reverberates from the impact like the biggest carillon bell anyone has ever heard–sound so low that my ears can’t hear it but so loud that it sets my teeth to chattering.

“I hate this,” Katya says as she approaches.  She stops her forward drift with a deft movement of her hand.  “You never know how bad it’s going to get.  A ship can end up like Swiss cheese after one of these things.”  She looks at the connector in my hand and cocks her head.  “So why don’t you reconnect that fiber and be done?”

“Oh, well, it’s kind of embarrassing,” I say.  “The little plastic thingy broke off.  I don’t know what to do.

She takes the connector from me and examines it, squinting at the tiny, jagged place where it broke.  She don’t seem to notice my hand shaking.  “Oh, don’t worry about it,” she says.  “I break these things all the time.”  She reaches into the left chest pocket, pulls out an identical piece, snaps it onto the connector, and plugs it back in to its proper port.  She looks at me, shrugs and smiles.

I nod, afraid to speak, certain that the quiver in my voice will betray me.  I know my face is beet red and wet with sweat but hopefully the glare of my headlamp is hiding my emotions from her.  Another hit—the ship kicks over even harder this time.  The nauseating bell-from-hell sound is the worst part.  This is what it must have felt like to be caught in a submarine during World War II, like when the British depth charged the German submarine in the movie Das Boot.  Noise and chaos and the constant possibility of sudden death.

We pull ourselves along to join the others, me following Katya, who moves as gracefully as a dolphin in the sea.  I may be a sweat-drenched nervous wreck, but I ain’t so far gone that I don’t notice her gracefulness and dolphinlyness.  Like a work of art, she is.

We get peppered by more rocks.  As we get close to the others, I switch off my headlamp.  We cluster as a group, but in silence now, each crew member nursing his or her private terror. The earlier expletives are not repeated; now each has withdrawn within himself or herself, hoping and perhaps praying to live through the violent fusillade.  Only the captain seems unaffected, her feet hooked expertly into a hand slot to hold herself still, examining her fingernails as if she’s impatient to be served at a slow restaurant.  Nastez stays glued to the radar display on the console, eyes wide, staring wordlessly, stroking his chin.

One of the impacts has caused damage.  The ship starts slowly rocking and turning—stabilizer system malfunction of some sort.  Now we have to put up with seasickness on top of the noise.  Can’t recall when I’ve felt more helpless or enjoyed life less.  Everyone just waits, unsure what will be left once the storm is over.  We’ve all heard the stories of the ships that never came back.  One ship came home to Luna, neatly injected itself into lunar orbit, and remained there incommunicado.  When a team got there to investigate, the entire crew was mummified on the flight deck.  It had been a sudden, massive decompression from a micro-meteoroid strike.

After a few interminable minutes, Nastez announces all clear.

“Give us a damage assessment Katya,” says the captain.

Katya floats over to the console as Nastez pushes over to the side, out of her way.  The ship continues to oscillate strangely, rocking up and down and rolling side to side.  Katya’s face is pale, her lips set in a grim line.  She flips through screen after screen on the console.  “We have an air leak,” she says, “somewhere in the CM.  It also looks like a thruster pod has been hit—it’s the forward-most pod, starboard side.  It’s affecting roll and pitch; thrusters are stuck on.  The flight computer is fighting to compensate but it can’t shut down the broken thrusters.  That’s what’s causing the instability.”

The captain nods.  “Well it could be worse.  Nastez and I will work the air leak.  Katya, you take Louis and Straker and work on the thruster pod—from the inside, if you can.  Go EVA if you have to, but not Straker.  Straker, your main job is to stay out of the way, watch, and learn.”

“Fix the thruster pod, aye,” replies Katya, but her eyes stay set on the console.  She swipes right, then left, then right again.  “Um…there’s something more…the port engine…it’s got a coolant flow problem.”

“Oh God,” exclaims Nastez, his slender face turning white in the dim lighting of the redoubt.

“How bad?” asks the captain.

“Primary turbopump is down, must’ve gotten hit.  Secondary is picking up the slack but it must be damaged too because its temperature is climbing.”  The captain floats over to look over Katya’s shoulder at the displays while Katya points and describes the telemetry she’s seeing to the captain.

I sidle up next to Louis.  “What’s the deal?” I ask.

He looks over at me.  “You know we got nuke engines, right?”

“Yup I knew that.”

“The uranium gas inside them is really, really hot—hot enough to melt anything on the ship: steel, graphite, quartz, whatever.  Plus, it’s at something like 500 standard atmospheres pressure.”

“Oh,” I say.  “That sounds bad.  “So can it…blow up?”

“Not like a fission explosion, no,” he replies.  “But without coolant, it will melt its containment and burst just from the pressure.  It’ll take out the other engine with it, and probably the whole stern of the ship.”

“And then we’d be dead in the water?”

“Yup.  Dead in the water and just plain dead.  No propulsion, no power, and surrounded by a radioactive cloud.  No chance of rescue this far out.”

I visualize that for a moment; the image gives me the shivers.  I take a deep breath and nod.  “OK, I get it now,” I say.

*       *       *       *       *

“One of us is going to have to go EVA,” says Katya to Louis.

We’re floating in the weightless work chamber between the docking portal and the pivot room.  It’s a large, doughnut-shaped space cluttered with stores cabinets, work surfaces, robotic arms, and tools held fast to the bulkheads.  Katya, Louis and I are planted near the large engineering console that dominates one side of the chamber.  There’s a noticeable breeze as all of the air in the ship slowly heads towards the hole in the CM.  Katya’s long hair billows gently to one side as she speaks.

Once Katya discovered the problem with the turbopump, the captain changed her orders.  She and Nastez will go find the air leak, but instead of fixing the attitude control, Katya, Louis and I are supposed to fix the pump problem first.  We can live with a drunken spaceship for a while, but we can’t live without the engines.

“I’ll do the EVA,” says Louis to Katya.  “I’m the logical one.  You need to stay at the console and Straker hasn’t been trained on the procedures yet, like the captain said.  No offence, Straker.”

“None taken,” I say.  I’m not anxious to go out there anyways.  To be honest, I’m not feeling real good.  The ship is rocking and rolling back and forth as the flight computer fights the broken attitude control thruster and that crazy movement is messing with my sense of wellbeing, and by my sense of wellbeing I mean my stomach.  Each time the ship moves, I feel my lunch rise a little higher.  I’ve heard about motion sickness but this is the first time I’ve experienced it.  It’s just as miserable as they say.  I reach in my meds bottle and pop a pill.  Maybe it will help—eventually.

“OK,” says Katya, checking the display to make sure the recorders are listening.  “Let’s review the plan for the log.  The plasma will blow within seconds after the backup pump fails; obviously we can’t let that happen.  We need to dump the plasma to space before it blows and we don’t have much time.  The pressure relief valve is damaged somehow, so we need to release manually.  But manual control isn’t working.”

She points over to a red-and-white striped box with a keyed cover and a big Danger! sign.  The key is in its slot and the striped cover is flipped up, exposing the large red handle underneath.  The red handle that doesn’t work.

“We’ve all tried the relief lever and it won’t budge.  But it’s a simple mechanical linkage so the plan is for Louis to go outside, find the linkage problem, fix the linkage problem, then clear out.   Once the linkage is repaired and Louis is clear, I will dump the plasma from this location.”

“Better pack every tool you can think of,” I say to Louis.  “You don’t know what you’re gonna find.”  I wipe my upper lip with my sleeve; I’m really starting to sweat.  I try not to focus on the bucking walls of the room but there ain’t no stable place to concentrate on.

“Copy that,” replies Louis.  “Is that all?” he asks, turning to Katya.

She sighs and shrugs.  “Yea, I think so.  I really don’t like you going back there.  Wish there was another way.  The cameras on that side have all been sheared off.  You’ll just have to figure it out when you get there.”

“Aye aye, Second Officer,” he says, with mock confidence and a crooked grin. “I’ll plink the link until it’s in the pink.  Then you pop the plasma and all that jazz.  Ma.”

“Get going,” she says.

Louis pivots and pushes off for the dressing area and airlock.  Katya returns to her console, planting herself on the saddle and strapping down.  She looks like she’s riding a bucking bronco, her body staying in lock with the movement, her ponytail swinging up and down and side to side.  I could think of a movie reference but right now I’m too concentrated on the washing machine agitator churning up my guts.

Actually I can’t stand to look at her.  I know I’m turning green.  Acid burps keeping rising up out of my stomach, tasting like sick.  I close my eyes and try to float without touching anything.  In my head I visualize a mine; a nice, stable, mine; not the one that collapsed but others I’ve known.  Solid and stable and immovable, and… for several minutes I try to think of other words for ‘not moving’.  It helps.

“Turbopump is past redline, getting really hot,” says Katya.  “Can’t last much longer.”

I peek out one eye.  The display is split between engine telemetry on one side and video from Louis’s suit camera on the other side.  He’s already out there, dressed and through the airlock in record time, pulling himself towards the stern of the ship, the picture blurring as he whips himself rapidly down the side of the ship in the airless void.  Katya keys her headset.  “Louis, Katya.  How do you read?”.

“Hi Katya.  Read you five by five,” replies Louis, his breathing heavy over the mic.  “I’m following the linkage aft—it looks AOK so far.”

Katya pulls up a diagram of the linkage on the display.  She traces it with her finger.  “Louis, you’ll come to a pivot lever assembly in about three meters, over.”

“Oh yea,” he replies, “I see it.  It’s been hit all right; glancing blow—there’s a long scar on the side of the hull back here. Lever’s bent back pretty far, over.”

“Can you bend it back, over?” she asks.

“I think so.  It’s thick metal but I’ve got a long-handled wrench, just need to work it into position, over.”

I watch Louis struggle with the wrench and the twisted metal lever, while I float, useless as flower in a piss-pot, feeling out of breath.  Even though I’m not doing nothing constructive except holding down breakfast.  And breathing hard.

“Hey, the air in here is getting a mite sparse,” I say.

“Yea, you’re right,” Katya replies, inhaling deeply.  “But Louis should be done soon.  Then we can release the plasma and head back to the redoubt.”

“Want me to go get some breathers?” I ask.

She looks back and inspects me, one eyebrow arched high.  “You look pretty bad,” she says.  “Better stay put for now.  I’m afraid you’ll clobber yourself on a bulkhead.”

“Katya, I think I got it,” interrupts Louis over the radio.  “Try now, over.”

“Clear out first!” replies Stasya.  “You need to be at least half way back before I pull, over.”

“Half way, copy.”

“That cloud is going to bust out of there like a firehose,” Katya continues, “and I’m not sure what it’s going to do.  There may be side lobes to the cloud.  You’re dead if it touches you, over.”

“Repeat, copy that, exiting now.  Quick as I can.  One minute, over.”

“Hurry!” she shouts.  “Pump is burning up!”

I’m so tense I’ve forgotten my sickness.  I’ve never felt more useless in my life.  I grab onto a bouncing handhold protruding from the bulkhead and watch the telemetry display.  I can’t see the numbers from here but the temperature indicator has turned red and it’s blinking frantically.  Katya is more nervous than I’ve ever seen her—she’s panting now too, and fidgeting in her saddle.  Her face looks pallid and her bangs are sweaty against her forehead.

“Any second now,” she says between breaths.  She moves over to the lever and grips it, planting her feet onto the bulkhead on either side of the lever, her chest heaving, her movements clumsy as she tries to pull oxygen from the ever thinner air.

“OK,” comes Louis’s voice over the speaker, “I’m clear.  Release the plasma!”

Katya yanks on the lever, her knees and back straining with her arms.  She grunts loudly from the effort.  The lever does not move.  “I’ll try…again,” she says breathlessly through blue lips.  She’s passing out from the effort.

“I’m getting you a breather,” I say between my own labored breaths, and push off towards the redoubt, where I know there is a stash of them.  I leave Katya struggling with the lever, but within seconds I am headed back with a breather on my face and one in my hand for her.  If she can’t free the lever, maybe I can, but first thing is to keep breathing.  But somehow the rush of oxygen from the breather has brought my sickness back.  I lurch into the work area and see the walls moving, back and forth, up then down, right and left, nothing holding still, every sickening lurch of the walls bringing another wave of burning bile up my throat.

I see Nastez emerging from the docking portal hatchway just as I retch into my mask.  My stomach empties in one big convulsion and the vomit clogs the oxygen; now I can’t breathe.  I lose my bearings and drift close to the wall. I’m preoccupied with clearing my mask.  The bobbing near wall jerks down and then rebounds back up.  A steel cabinet smacks me hard in the face.

I feel blood.  The breather drifts out of my hand.  That’s all I remember.

*       *       *       *       *

I come to, still in the crazy room, but I don’t feel so sick any more.  I can breathe, but everything smells like vomit and my mouth burns with the disgusting remnants.  I see Katya with the breather I brought strapped to her face, floating limply out in the middle of the chamber.  Her eyes are half closed but she is breathing.  Her belt has been wrapped through a handhold to keep her in place.

Nastez is gripping the lever, his face in a breather and his feet planted on the bulkhead as Katya had done earlier.  But the lever has been pulled out and he’s just keeping his position, watching the nearby display.  The screen shows a powerful fiery stream of brilliant violet plasma shooting far out to the side of the ship, blossoming to a glittering mushroom cloud, obscuring the blackness of the space behind it and the stars as well.  There’s a loud continuous groan coming from aft as the superheated plasma plays the relief valve like a spastic tuba.  As for me, I’m duct taped to a bulkhead.

“So.  You’re awake, Yuuta,” says Nastez, turning towards me.  “That was an idiotic move on your part.  You were told to stay out of the way.  You couldn’t even get that right.  You managed to only make things worse.”

“What was I supposed to do, let her suffocate?”  I demand as I pull against the gummy tape.

“Watch your tone, Recruit,” he replies, shaking his head in disgust.  “Remember that I am an officer, and you are not.  And if you’re going to disobey a direct order, at least try not to puke in your breather and get smacked by a bulkhead.”

“It was moving,” I say, “It was an accident.”

“Spare me your excuses,” he says.

“Are we OK?” asks Katya as she regains enough consciousness to be irritated by the argument.

“Yes, replies Nastez, turning to face her.  “The pressure has been released and most of the cloud is out beyond the danger threshold.  As soon as we can maneuver, we’ll push out a little farther and get completely out of the radiation.”

Katya unbuckles from the handhold and drifts over towards the displays.  “Wow, that’s really beautiful.  I don’t think anyone has ever done this before in space.  I wasn’t sure what would happen.  Did the purge break anything else?”

“No,” replies Nastez, “not as far as I can tell.  It all went just as the physicists said it would.”

Katya checks the telemetry and the studies the video again.  Satisfied, she turns around to look at me.  “What are you doing?” she asks, confused.  “Is that duct tape?”

“I think so,” I reply, still pulling off long strips of adhesive and arm hair.  “Looks like I got duct taped to the wall.  Good to see you’re OK.”

“Thanks for trying,” she says to me.

“He was unconscious and floating about in a chaotic and dangerous manner,” interjects Nastez.  “It was an expedient method to get him safely out of the way.”

“Any progress on the attitude control?” she asks Nastez, an amused expression on her face.

“The captain is working on it,” Nastez replies.  “We have a temporary fix for the atmosphere leak.  As for the attitude control, a couple of valves need to be replaced, that’s all.  It would be good for you to go take over for her, when you’re up to it.”

“What about me?” I ask, pulling at the tape.  “Can I help?”

“Sure,” says Katya.

Nastez rolls his eyes.  “Absolutely not.  Louis can help you, Katya, when he’s out of the airlock.  Recruit Yuuta will stay clear of the repair work.  He will help by freeing himself from the bulkhead, removing all traces of his vomitus and blood from himself and from this room, and then getting the hell out of my sight.”