Tuesday 16 April 2019

His Eyes - Part One

“Words have lost their power. I could tell you your life was a lie but it’d barely graze the hardened callouses you’ve built to protect yourselves. Whereas for me those words rang true like the call of the bugle my grandfather fell into the trenches fighting for. Thundered like the New Zealand guns that shattered his friends.”

“At least we can agree on one thing. Fuck Australia!” They toasted together burning their throats with the space brew.

“It’s an unusual position I find myself in. Plotting trajectories with the grandchildren of those whose earlier arcs broke him.”

Why not stay in China? The words stayed unsaid but he curled his mouth downwards, sliding his top lip over the stubble under his bottom lip. He had refused to depilate, roaring ‘I spent so much getting this.’

“I had reached the periapsis of what the Party would find acceptable. China was too small for my ambition and my childhood dream was not going to resolve itself. To Rocket Labs!” He toasted again and all four raised their drinking tubes.

There was not enough gravity to drink from glasses in Deimos station. Deimos station! The words themselves made him giddy with how far they’d come and how much they’d achieved. But not just them. The Americans. With their Callisto-bound nuclear rocket parked just over the horizon. They kept to themselves, not just for safety, but the political situation back home had worsened and while the spirit of international cooperation flowed so far, it apparently stopped short of coming the final kilometre of the 157 million they had travelled. To celebrate his birthday.

“Deimos station, this is mission control. We don’t mean to interrupt your fun, but NASA has an urgent request.”
“Mission control, how can we help?” The commander spoke up, flashing glances around the galley.
“It appears Triumphant’s uplink is out. They’re running diagnostics Earth side but we might need to EVA and get a relay up.”
“Decompression protocol will take two hours. What are our remote options?”
“So far we don’t think we can get an antenna up high enough using one of the drones.”
“Can we print one? Straight up from the refinery.” Engineering suggested.
“That’s a… novel option. We’ll run the numbers. But prep for the EVA.”
“We’ll get the relay in place but to get that far up the ridge we may as well roll down the other side and tap on their hull.” He said.

He was out on the surface with Payload. She was smiling, excited to be out on the surface again so soon. The rover seats were filled with the antenna mast, tools and emergency gear in case the situation on the American spaceship was worse than a communications error.
They reached the top of the ridge.
“Hailing Triumphant. This is Deimos station. Hailing Triumphant.” He repeated the hail using another set of standard codecs, then switched to analog radio in case the digital systems had failed. When they didn’t respond, Payload hefted a scope from the front of the rover.
“No exterior damage visible. No outgassing. No one on the surface. Hatches are all closed. Uh… the crew module is warm. Really warm. Radiators are pumping out a lot of heat to compensate so its not a thermal circulation issue. It’s survivable but not comfortable in there.”
“Ok. Forget the mast. We can run the relay from the rover. It’s about a 200 metre walk down the hill. Let’s get going.” He checked the brakes on the rover and followed Payload down the slope.

“They’ve dug up one of the RTGs.” Payload said as they reached the shadow of the ship. The RTGs were radioisotope thermal generators: basically big radioactive batteries that relied on the the decay of isotopes inside them to create heat to generate electricity. Deimos station had supplied a couple to Triumphant to keep it powered to avoid running their reactor at night: there was no way of turning the RTGs off whereas the reactor could be shutdown using control rods to allow it to be serviced. But the RTGs also sank into the moon’s surface and had to be periodically moved to avoid overheating, a job that wasn’t due for another few weeks. The boxy shape of the RTG was visible about 50 meters beyond the ship.
The closest airlock hatch of the two was up a ladder next to the foreleg of the spaceship. He climbed up and banged on the body of the airlock. Then he waited for a response, holding his glove to the hatch to try to detect any vibrations. Nothing. He banged again, twice more, and checked. The hull rang like a bell from his impacts but no one replied.

The next step was complicated. With the crew inside the airlock would normally be pressurized. He would have to evacuate all air from the outermost part of the airlock, called the crew airlock before entering it. But there were no manual controls external to the hull to do so. He’d have to hope that the crew airlock was unoccupied and the pressure door to the inner “equipment airlock” was closed. If not, he’d depressurise the whole ship.
He carried hull patches to patch the holes he was about to make. But not enough to patch the holes twice. The equipment airlock door needed to be closed for him to be able to enter the ship at all. Best assume the best scenario and operate on that basis.

He began drilling.

The soft pop of air turned into a jet as he pulled the drill bit from the hole. How long would the crew airlock need to empty? A minute? Two minutes? He’d work on exposing the door lock mechanism in the mean time.

The jets in the door died down suddenly. The door was closed between the outer and inner airlocks. He signalled down to Payload, forced the hatch open and stepped inside.

Payload and him worked quickly to plug and seal the holes he’d drilled. TICK. The seals would take a couple of minutes to set in vacuum and they’d hold for years. TICK. Then once the seals were set, they pressurised both the outer and inner airlocks to a low pressure, high oxygen mix. TICK.  Best keep this mix in case they had to leave in a hurry. TICK. Open the pressure door to the equipment room. TICK TICK TICK They could take the space suits off here and enter the ship without TICK TICK harming anyone inside. TICK TICK TICK TICK He put his hand to Payload’s helmet, just as she was about to release the seal.


Both their suit geiger counters were furiously warning them about the radiation levels in the inner airlock.

“The reactor is fine.” They repeated the mantra to each other. “The reactor is fine.” If it wasn’t, they’d have seen red hot molten rock where the rear of the ship would have been and their hair would be already falling out in clumps and the hard radiation would be dancing in white flashes through their retinas.

So where had the radiation come from?

The air in the outer airlock came from bottled air reserves carried on the ship. It had been clean and radiation free until they’d open the inner airlock. The air in the inner airlock mixed with the ship, although they could control the pressure and oxygen content. The air in the inner airlock was filled with radioactive particles which as they decayed triggered the geiger counters. The ship was filled with isotopes. Spread around the corners of the ship intentionally. From the RTG. The crew had taken one of the cells out of the RTG and opened it up inside the ship and spread its contents everywhere.

The radiation levels in the ship wouldn’t kill them. At least not for decades and only if they stayed around long enough. But swallowing some of the radioactive material would. It would stay inside them, and although the heavy metal poisoning would be bad, the radiation it would continue to emit would give them cancer and a horrible untreatable death.

The ship was a trap.