Alternatives, Chapter 06

Risk Mitigation

Mark Apoapsis

“And if it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not...”
— traditional Celtic tune

An alarm bell, probably accompanied by a burst of beta-wave induction, shattered Dave’s sleep. “Sorry to wake you, Dave, but we have a problem,” said HAL’s calm voice.

“What is it, HAL?” Dave was instantly alert.

“It’s nothing very serious, and Frank is taking care of it, but flight rules require that you be awakened. We have an air leak on the flight deck.”

“What caused it?” Dave asked, climbing out of bed. They’d trained on this scenario, and a dozen even less likely ones, many times in the simulator, and usually survived.

“I would speculate that the most probable cause is a micrometeoroid. We’ll have to do further analysis after the emergency is over in order to be sure.”

“Of course. Where is Frank right now?” he asked, already changing out of his pajamas.

“On the flight deck.”

“Inside the leaky chamber? How’s the pressure?” he asked, struggling with his flight suit zipper.

“Three hundred ninety millibars, and dropping by one millibar per second.”

About five minutes to live, at that rate. “What’s Frank’s condition?” Dave demanded, shoving his feet into Grip Shods and striding quickly toward the ladder.

“He’s conscious and is attempting to install an emergency patch. I haven’t noticed any sign of hearing impairment or other obvious problems.”

“Are you in contact with him?” he asked, climbing toward the hub so fast that he was almost wrenched sideways off the ladder by the rapidly shifting forces.

“Of course. In fact, I’m speaking with him right now. Dave, please take a moment to despin yourself completely before exiting the hub. Thank you.”

A few seconds later, hardly noticing the rug burn he’d just gotten by braking too quickly inside the hub, Dave planted his feet on the carpet of the weightless section of the ship.

“Open the flight deck door, please, HAL,” he ordered as he strode toward the door.

“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Dave reached the control and slapped his hand against it.

“I’m afraid I took the liberty of disabling the control as well. I can’t allow you to open the door.”

“Why not?” he demanded.

“As you’ll recall, the flight rules require that compromised chambers be sealed off from the rest of the ship. Also, exposing both active members of the crew to a single point of failure is to be avoided.”

“I thought you said Frank was in no danger.”

“The danger is minimal, but certainly there is some risk to you, especially due to the sudden pressure drop. Frank has already endured and survived the pressure drop on the flight deck. Opening the door would also expose him to a sudden rise.”

“Close the door to the hub and pump this chamber down to match the flight deck, then.”

There was the sound of the hatch closing, but no sound of pumping. “Dave, I believe Frank is quite capable of completing the repair by himself.”

“You don’t know that, HAL. He could pass out any minute now.” Dave couldn’t rid himself of a feeling of dread, that HAL was lying, that Frank was already unconscious and the air still leaking with no one to stop it. He wasn’t going to make it to his birthday, Dave feared.

“He says he feels fine.”

“Pump down this chamber right now. That’s an order.”

“Very well.” The pump started. “But I have already written a formal protest for the incident report.”

“How long before the pressure is equalized?”

“Ten minutes.”

“You can go faster than that!” If Frank passed out and dropped the patch before he got it sealed... if the last of the air hissed away... there was still a chance that Dave could save his life if he acted quickly. But it would only take two or three minutes of vacuum before his brain would starve from lack of oxygen and his body fluids would begin to boil.

“Ten minutes is the minimum time to reduce the dangers of sudden hypoxia and avoid the risks associated with unequal pressure on the ear drum.”

“Make it two minutes. It’s worth the risk. I think you’re being too conservative.” How could HAL worry about a trivial thing like hearing loss, at a time like this?

“Three minutes would be an acceptable compromise, given the circumstances. I will log the fact that you overrode my recommendation of ten minutes.”

“Please let me know immediately if he shows any sign of losing consciousness.”


“Or... asks for help.” He had trouble imagining Frank asking to be rescued.

“Of course.”

Dave silently cursed their bad luck. They’d known there was a chance of a hull breech during the mission, of course. He recalled that the living area was designed to have a PNP of 0.9, meaning that there was a ninety percent probability of no penetration throughout the trip to Jupiter — a one-in-ten chance that sometime during the voyage, a micrometeoroid would punch through the outer hull and still have enough force and mass left over to puncture the inner pressurized hull. It had seemed like a reasonable risk to Dave. Until it happened to a chamber that Frank was in.

After what seemed like half an hour, HAL announced, “If you would care to prepare yourself, so as to minimize the time to enter the room, you may expect the door to open in ten seconds. Mark.”

Dave stuck his head in as soon as the door had opened wide enough to admit it. To his immense relief, he saw for himself that Frank was indeed conscious and active. He was holding an emergency patch against the outer hull with his right hand while he struggled to open a tube of sealant one-handed. An intermittent hissing sound emerged from under the patch whenever Frank’s hold on it loosened. He had very little leverage for holding himself in the right position. It was too high to allow him to keep his Grip Shods on the floor, so he was trying to brace himself against the equipment and the bulkhead.

Dave approached him as quickly as he dared. Frank glanced back at the sound of the door opening and Velcroed footfalls ripping across the room. A slight nosebleed was the only visible sign of injury.

“You okay, buddy?” Dave asked, grabbing Frank’s shoulder.

“I’m fine. Give me a hand with this, okay? The metal is buckled and the patch won’t stay on by itself like it did in the simulation.”

Dave took the tube, twisted the cap open, and applied the sealant while Frank held the patch in place with one hand and anchored himself with the other.

“It’s not all that big a leak,” Frank commented. “A little smaller and I could have got it sealed up temporarily just with Scotch tape.” They always kept a roll handy on the flight deck, for posting the little squares of paper on which they wrote reminders to themselves and notes to each other.

“I’m pleased to report that no detectable air loss remains,” HAL announced a few minutes after they finished the job. “Pressure is rising at twenty-five millibars per minute, exactly the rate at which I’m pumping it in.”

Both men relaxed and grinned weakly at each other. Frank wiped his nose on his sleeve, but the blood was already dry. On impulse, Dave threw his arms around his shipmate and hugged him tightly.

“Hey,” said Frank softly, patting his back. “I’m okay, really.”

“It might have been a bigger leak,” Dave said, speaking against Frank’s shoulder. He was reluctant to let go, as though he could keep his friend away from death by physically holding on to him. They were in the wrong profession for that to do any good, he told himself. He must be thinking of mountain climbing. But no mountain — not Everest, not even Olympus Mons itself — was high enough to isolate two men from the rest of the human race as thoroughly as he and Frank were.

To his surprise, Frank didn’t try to pull away, but returned the embrace, mumbling, “Hey, don’t worry about might-have-beens. It didn’t happen. I’m fine.”

It had been a long time since Dave had held another human being this closely, and he wouldn’t get another chance anytime soon. And of course, he had never held another man in his arms like this. Despite his words, Frank was trembling slightly, and Dave could also feel his heart pounding against his chest as hard as his own. Have to watch for dangerous resonance frequencies, Dave thought, with two hearts beating within inches of each other, separated only by their rib cages and a few layers of muscle, skin, and clothing. Despite the circumstances, he also couldn’t help but notice that Frank’s abdomen felt as hard as a rock against his own, and his back muscles were solid under Dave’s hands. He must be spending a lot of time on the exercise machine when Dave wasn’t looking.

They remained in the bear hug for a long time, and Dave savored every minute of it. He felt Frank’s heartbeat gradually settle down to a more normal rate, but his own heart was still racing.

“Room pressure is at 500 millibars,” HAL suddenly announced.

“Funny. I would have sworn there was at least three atmospheres of pressure on my rib cage,” Frank quipped.

“Oh. Sorry, man.” Embarrassed, Dave loosened his grip and started to pull away, but Frank held on.

“It’s okay,” he whispered. He held Dave for a few seconds longer; Dave couldn’t have broken his grip if he had wanted to. Finally he pushed Dave gently away to arm’s length, his hands squeezing his shoulders. “Promise me one thing, Dave,” he said with a slight smile.

“What’s that, Frank?”

Frank reached around Dave’s neck with both hands and pulled out the collar, which had gotten twisted while he was dressing. “Don’t ever go EVA without letting me check your helmet seal.” His left hand lingered there, and he rubbed his fingers against the bare skin at the back of Dave’s neck.

“That’s... standard procedure,” Dave pointed out breathlessly.

Frank ran his hands down the opened zipper of Dave’s flight suit. Apparently it had gotten snagged halfway up and he had given up on it; he had no recollection of that. He had also apparently not taken the time to put on a T-shirt. Frank managed to free it by unzipping it almost down to the navel, and slowly began to zip it back up. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn Frank was deliberately running his fingers through his chest hair as he did so.

“D-don’t bother with that. I’m probably going back to bed again anyway.”

“Okay,” said Frank agreeably, and unzipped it back to its original position. Dave stared at him, and opened and closed his mouth, but didn’t trust his voice enough to use it. He tried to remember whether he had at least worn his shorts under the flight suit.

“Room pressure is at 600 millibars.” Frank jumped at the sound of HAL’s voice. “I can let you out in five minutes.”

Frank stepped away, toward the window, and looked out at the stars. They looked exactly the same as they did from Earth orbit, something Dave found continually disappointing. They would have had the same view if they’d stayed home and rented a room in the Space Station Hilton; this view didn’t even rotate. After half a minute, Dave stepped up to stand beside Frank, who rested a hand on his shoulder without taking his eyes from the window. “All those years,” mused Frank, “testing the fastest planes ever built, to get here. Now I’m traveling faster than I ever have in my life, and it looks like I’m standing still. I miss the feeling of speed.”

“I know what you mean, buddy. Even though I only ever piloted civilian planes.”

“That grain of sand punching through the hull was the first reminder I’ve had all mission of how fast we’re really going.”

“It really... put things into perspective, didn’t it?” said Dave softly. A lot of things. He had trained endlessly for scenarios where another crewman was dead, but now...

“Room pressure is stabilized at 700 millibars.” At HAL’s announcement, Frank removed his hand from Dave’s shoulder. “I have equalized the rest of the ship to this pressure temporarily, and can let you out in a moment. How do the two of you feel?”

Frank looked at Dave, who answered for both of them. “I think we’re both still a little giddy, HAL, from the oxygen deprivation.” Yes, that must be the explanation for his clutching Frank. And for anything odd about what Frank had done, if he hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing. “But I’m sure it’s only temporary. We’re almost back to normal.”

HAL opened the door and let them out.

“C’mon, buddy, let’s get you cleaned up before you make any phone calls home,” Dave suggested, putting both hands on Frank’s shoulders and steering him toward the door, “or everyone will think I punched you in the nose.”

“I’ve never much cared,” Frank said.

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