The team that entered the cargo head center lock was a mixed group. Red and Farley, having vac-skin implants, stood with only thermal suits, earplugs and breather masks. One of the quartet of Surface Corps technical specialists did as well, although the fact that she wore a full face mask that plugged the ears and covered the eyes in addition to the nose and mouth indicated that she had only received the first stage vac-skin before she disqualified for Aviator training. The other three were in vacuum suits.
A pair of deckhands stood by at the bottomside secondary airlock to spacewalk a rescue mission through the cargo module’s nose lock, if it became necessary.
Farley was included because, as a support component for his lander, the cargo pod was his responsibility. Back at the base, I had thought PTO Joss had overall responsibility, but it turned out that the lander and cargo pod were Farley’s. Joss strictly had command of the SC troops.
Thus, it was Farley’s responsibility. Although it was riding on Red’s ship, so she had a degree of authority as engineer.
I was watching them on the video monitor on a side screen, and I had a variety of pressure and temperature readouts on another. Most of them weren’t reading yet, because they were waiting for the data hookups to be made from inside the mod. We did have some readouts from our load, using wireless connections, but those were limited to surface readings and a couple simple gauges inside the center section.
“We’re all in. Closing shipside hatch,” Red reported.
I heard the distant clang through the ship slightly after the same sound came across the monitor. The hatch sealed up and Red turned to the panel for the spaceside hatch.
“Pressurizing seal ring,” she stated. A short while later she said, “Pressure to plus twenty percent… and holding.”
I didn’t say anything. I let the report on the good seal speak to Farley for itself. But I noticed something and began zooming the camera in, moving it to center on one crewman’s face.
“Cycling hatch,” she reported, but I slapped the lockout right before that. A buzzer sounded as she tried to unlock it.
“Sorry, Red,” I said. “I only saw just now. The Able Crewman… no, sorry, the Senior Armsman. State your name.”
Surface Corps uses weird ranks. The rest of the ESDF uses ranks based upon British and American Naval ranks, but Surface Corps uses a hybrid version half-way between Navy and Marines. A rank I’ve never seen elsewhere, ‘Armsman’, replaces our ‘Crewman’, ‘Gunner’ replaces our ‘Petty Officer’ ranks, then it goes First Sergeant, Master Sergeant, Sergeant Major. Only the last three sound normal to me.
Surprised, the technical specialist in the full face mask looked up at the camera and said, “Patel, Sir. Sudarshana Patel”
“Patel, reset your mask, please. Red, I asked for full safety protocols.”
She frowned, then, as she realized, responded, “Oh.”
Red, what the hell?
They should have buddied up and double-checked each other’s masks and gear. It becomes second nature for aviators and deckhands, but I guess those who get less vacuum time need to be reminded. Maybe I should have spelled it out, but I expected better from Red.
As Patel removed the bit of hair I had spotted under her mask’s seal and reset it, I heard Farley quietly ask, “It was just hair. That’s just a slow leak. Is the skipper a hardass?”
“It’s not always ‘just a slow leak’,” I heard one of the SCs counter, also in a low voice, in my defense.
The pickups on this monitor are pretty good, guys, I thought at them with a wry grin.
Once everything was clean and I had witnessed them all do the proper drill, I took the lockout off and Red opened the hatch into the ‘tunnel’. That’s the open space inside the seal ring.
I could see it clearly through my camera. The cargo module’s hatch was dead center. It couldn’t be more than a centimeter or two from perfect.
“Looks like a pretty good set to me, Red,” I commented.
I could imagine crickets for several seconds before she replied, “Yes, Sir.”
I was getting crickets from Farley too, I noticed. Although he wouldn’t necessarily have said anything in any case. Until they were in his module and Red had the internal data lines hooked up properly, it was her show. But there was a lack of snark from him.
“Built-in meter shows pressure minus twenty five percent on the other side. I need to drop a few millibars here.”
“Proceed. I want everyone at take-hold when she unlocks the cargo mod’s hatch,” I directed. “No exceptions.”
A short while later, the hatch swung open. I heard a few exhaled breaths of relief when it didn’t bang open due to a rush of air. Hatch pressure gauges can be wrong. The team floated into the module’s access chamber, its center section, and I couldn’t see much anymore, just listen to their voices on the audio band.
“Accessing Hold Number One,” I heard someone report.
I immediately ordered, “Do not open holds until all data lines are set!”
They would be getting sick of my micromanagement, but I had my reasons.
It was too late. I heard a loud clang and swearing come back across the audio circuit. It had been the unmistakeable sound of a vacuum autolock.
“Hatch retort cycle, hold one!”
“Red, I need that data line!” I snapped. Some idiot had ignored protocols and tried to break the hatch seal into one of the holds before I had spoken.
“I’ve got it hooked up, but the module’s main system was offline,” she answered. Her voice was shaking. You can’t hear a retort cycle and not be nervous. An autolocked hatch means that, on the other side of a nearby wall, there is a part of your world which is supposed to have atmosphere but features hard vacuum. She added, “Still booting.”
I was shaking a a bit, too. I never expected anyone would move that fast. I ordered, “Nobody touches a hatch until Red has my data feed running. That is an order, not a suggestion.”
# # #
“You knew about it and didn’t say anything!”
“I guessed it and might have been wrong, Red,” I answered as calmly as I could. “So I wanted you to keep looking until you confirmed it.”
We were inside my little cubby, officially my ‘stateroom’, and the door was closed. I hoped nobody could hear her yelling outside, but they probably could.
“Somebody could have been badly hurt!”
“Why did I ask for full safety protocols, Red?” I asked, continuing to control my voice. “Why do you think I did that?”
She glared at me, then looked away. Finally, with her indoor voice, she asked, “What was your guess?”
Finally, she was thinking again.
I stated, “When the cargo pod dropped, it hit harder than it should have. Something broke at that moment, probably an old battle damage patch. Water came flooding in. There’s almost always trapped air under a load that gets jolted loose, and nobody in the water noticed the bubbles of lost air were worse than usual. The break is near the aft end of the module, so the bubbling stopped as soon as the water level got above the hole. We took on only about four tonnes of water. Or probably little more than that, but it created a four tonne mis-load reading to that side.”
“Water,” she repeated.
“Water. It sloshed around whenever we maneuvered, which made it worse. Once we were out of the atmosphere the air escaped and the water boiled away. The constantly shifting and changing weight was the reason I was having to keep fighting the trim all the way up. I’ve been at constant trim since the water finished boiling off.”
“You should have told me!”
“I could have been wrong. It might have been something else. Maybe we had stuff loose inside Mo somewhere. When we started maneuvering in a fight it would be banging around, maybe punching a hole in our side. Maybe we had some problem I haven’t even imagined yet. So if I was wrong, I needed you to find the right answer. I’m depending upon you to find stuff I didn’t think of, not to just agree that my guess made sense. That’s what I need you for, Red!”
She was silent, but the resentment was plain in her eyes. “Colin is pissed off at us now. He’s close friends with Sergeant Karimi.”
Colin? It took a moment for me to work out that she meant Chief Farley. So she was on a first name basis with him now, huh?
Karimi I already knew, since I checked on him as soon as they were back in the Mo. He had been voice number one, the guy who had tried to cycle the hatch before we had a reading from the other side. A power hatch is strong, so it can open against uneven pressure when needed. Fortunately this time the autolock worked smoothly, detecting in time that the pressure difference was too high, meaning vacuum or something close to it on the other side. The hatch slammed back to closed after opening only a centimeter or so.
So ‘Colin’ was pissed off at us, was he?
I shook my head. “No. Farley isn’t blaming ‘us’. He blames me, specifically, right?”
She looked back at me in suspicion. “You don’t agree?”
“I absolutely agree that if something had happened to Karimi, it would be my responsibility. That’s part of being the captain. Your actions, his actions, everyone’s actions while on this ship are ultimately my responsibility. Which is what makes me such a ‘hardass’, you know?”
She glowered at me, then put her hand on the door latch. “I want to know it in advance, when you know stuff like this.”
I didn’t answer, because she was demanding something she damned well knew she didn’t have a right to demand. She opened the door and left.