I’ve never experienced an explosive decompression, and I hope you haven’t either. I obviously know people who have survived them, and I’ve known people who were killed by them. Despite all the safety systems, the mircofilament pressurization bags that deploy from the linings of our clothes, and the generally good safety record for human space travel over the last century, they still scare me. They still scare everyone who lives and works in the vacuum… or, at least, they should.
But I’m going to sound like one of those annoyingly positive people now: we should all feel so lucky that we live in the Earth Empire. Because explosive decompressions for people working in space for other governments… that’s a whole other level of terror.
I’ve come to truly understand this because of where we start this book: with a nineteen-year-old girl desperately hanging onto the railing on her ship’s ‘bridge’, as all the air evacuates in an explosive fashion.
If you’ve seen a movie, you know how this looks… and while I usually pan movies for getting things wrong, in this case, aboard this ship, with this girl, the scene was truly dramatic. She was being stretched out horizontally in mid-air, as all of the atmosphere from the whole ship raced past her. She was screaming, exactly as she should have been, but the sound would have been impossible to hear – first because of the rushing air, and once the atmosphere finished venting, because of the vacuum.
When her knees slammed into the deck, she was staggered first by the impact, and then almost immediately by the cold. Those of you who were along for the reminiscences might remember: the point of microfilament bags deploying around your head (and any other exposed extremities) during a decompression is to buy you time. They keep atmosphere in, but they can’t change the fact that a vacuum is cold.
Even as the chemical heaters in her uniform kicked in, this girl knew she didn’t have long before ice crystals would start filling her blood stream. Fortunately, she had a pretty clear idea of what to do. Unfortunately, she was the only one left to do it.
As she started crawling across the bridge floor, she found the fact that there was still gravity to be almost insulting. Of all the critical systems to stay online, why had gravity survived, instead of the automatic pressure doors? Why hadn’t all the hatches slammed shut as soon as the hull was breached, to save the rest of her bridge crew?
Because, to be candid: her ship was old, and it had been a piece of shit from the day it had been built.
So she had to scramble to the rear hatch and slam the manual closing button. Twice. Then a third time. Then the damned thing actually shut.
That improved the situation, but not by much; the temperature was still nearly absolute zero, and she was still running out of air. She scrambled back across the dark bridge, lit up only by a handful of red, battery-powered lights, and found her console. She had been running the ship’s helm, which probably saved her life. When the decompression happened, she’d been right at the front of the bridge, meaning she had farther to fly and more to reach out for on her way towards the exit, and whatever oblivion lay beyond.
From that helm console, she flipped some switches – and I do mean switches – that fired up the bridge’s emergency batteries. More red lights activated, followed by a hiss as air was restored to the compartment, and heaters started.
Maybe that sounds pretty standard, but here’s the thing: on this ship, the bridge was the only compartment with such emergency systems. Every other compartment? Good luck.
This nineteen-year-old helm operator had good reason to think no one else had survived on her ship. Forty-seven volunteers could all have been sucked out into space… but in case they hadn’t been, she hurried to the operations consoles.
Flipping more switches there, she started backup batteries – which had not automatically activated, because this ship truly was garbage – and got emergency systems online. A crude schematic of the cutter’s compartments appeared on her screen, and she found that the breach had happened in the main cargo bay – a veritable cavern at the bottom of the ship, with no subdivision and wide access ports that hadn’t shut themselves.
Fortunately, the doors isolating the cargo bay seemed to respond manually when she keyed them, and when the board went red (not green, as it would on a Defense Command ship) she flipped the repressurization switch.
At that point, she’d done enough so that she could be sick. There’d been four people with her on the bridge when a six-meter dagger made of iron had struck her cutter, and all of them were gone, so she pulled open the seams on her microfilament bag, staggered to the corner, and voided her stomach of the meager breakfast she’d consumed.
After that, she staggered back to the operations consoles and tried the intercom – hoping to hear that more people had survived.
Some had, of course, but only sixteen… and the whole engineering crew had been sucked out into space. Her cutter was salvageable, maybe, but how that was going to be managed was a daunting question.
And as she finally collapsed into the Captain’s chair, Ensign Aileen O’Thomson knew it was extraordinarily unlikely that they’d get the ship running again in time to prevent total disaster… not that they’d had much luck before, when the shitty little vessel was crewed and functioning.
This was what the Imperium had been counting on. This was how to kill nearly one million people.
Unless there was help. Unless, for instance, there was an old Defense Command corvette in the neighborhood, on its way to being turned into a museum at Belt Two, but still able to fight the good fight one more time.
Wherever might we find such a ship?
In the next chapter, where pathetic rhetorical questions go to get answered.
Copyright © 2016 Kenneth Tam