Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Orbitals, Part IX

This is a story set in a relatively near future in outer space. National governments have built stations on the moon and private companies have started shepherding asteroids into the lunar neighborhood for mining purposes.

This is Part IX, the final part of the third chapter. 

There was a noise. A scraping, crunching noise like pieces of the shuttle were being gnawed by giants. It emanated through the cabin dully, but it came from just aft of the pilot seat, under the floor.

“Spencer, what’s that?” asked Jean-Paul, brows knit.

“Don’t know,” said Spencer. “It’s probably just Zephyr opening the panel and looking around. Sure sounds weird, huh?” He laughed nervously.

“Weird,” repeated Jean-Paul, with a vacant look.

“You guys still there?” called the radio.

“Sure thing, Zephyr,” said Jean-Paul. “What’s going on down there?”

“I’ve got the panel open and I’m looking at this pipe juncture. I can’t see anything wrong with it, but I need some technical specs from you guys.”

“Absolutely,” said Jean-Paul, who then turned to Spencer. “Do you know how to do that?”

“I’ll pull it up on my display for just a few minutes,” he said. “Don’t want to take our eyes off those vitals.”

“Phew, I’m tired,” said Jean-Paul.

“Me too,” said Spencer. “There they are.” He grabbed the handset, “OK, Zephyr. You should be seeing two pipe junctions. The one on top is...oh, that’s not the one from the ox tank. You need to kinda get under that one. The one underneath is the one you’re worried about. The fore-to-aft part is coming from the tank, the top-to-bottom one is the distribution pipe, and there’s a manual switch somewhere on there too.”

“OK, that somehow doesn’t explain what’s going on. I’m going to try a few things. You let me know if you get any warnings.”

They immediately got a warning. The alarm sound repeated and did not stop. The voice said, “Warning, life support has failed. Take emergency actions. Life support has failed.” Jean-Paul reached for his helmet, and Spencer nodded. He grabbed the pre-breather mask and put it on, tightening the strap around his face. Everything around was now the tiniest bit hazy. Lights had haloes, and his whole field of vision was surrounded by a black band. Even though he knew it was the nature of peering through the material of the mask, it felt like he was just about to black out. He felt like his body was expanding, distending in his seat. He tapped the display to return to the environmental gauges. The pressure level was on the low end of the safe green band. He tried to convince himself he wasn’t decompressing. The oxygen gauge did indeed read a large drop, and was now at the top of the red band that indicated the last, pointless gasp before the black band at the very bottom. The digital needle jumped up, back into the yellow warning band, then back down deeper into the red, like a swimmer gulping air before a dive.

Jean-Paul’s voice came from two places: muffled, from his helmet; and clear, from the backup radio. “Zephyr, we’re out of oxygen.”

“Completely out, or just in the danger zone?”

Spencer reached for the handset and tried hard to speak clearly through the mask. It fogged slightly. “We’re at the top of the red band. I can give you numbers if you want.”

“I can barely hear you. Is that Spencer?”

He spoke louder and paused between words. “I...said...we’re at...the top...of the red band...and...I have...numbers...if you want them.”

“Gotcha. I take it you’ve got your mask on. Good, good. Well, hold tight, and let me know if you lose pressure. You shouldn’t, but let me know if you do.”


Spencer just focused on breathing, taking one breath after another. It’s going to be OK, he thought, Zephyr is a professional. Life support is her specialty. We’re going to be fine. He looked at Jean-Paul, who looked like a machine now, a robot from his grandma’s comic books. The alarm blare sound stopped, as if the computer assumed they were docked, in suits, or dead by now.

“It’s going to be OK,” said Spencer, “Zephyr’s a professional. Life support is what she does. We’re going to be fine.” He was unconvincing and unintelligible. Between his mask and Jean-Paul’s helmet, it was unlikely those words went anywhere at all.

“Hold tight,” went the radio.

The alarm resumed. “Warning: air pressure is below nominal.”

Spencer stopped breathing for a second. There was no additional alarm blast, and the pressure needle was in the yellow. He reached for the handset. The alarm started again. “Warning: air pressure is failing. Depressurization within thirty minutes. Take emergency actions.”