Read 90_Minutes_to_Live Online

Authors: JournalStone

90_Minutes_to_Live (24 page)

He felt a sudden wave of heat, which passed almost before it could be felt. A flash of white from a nearby monitor caught his eye while a momentary roar of static erupted from the overhead speaker. A radiation alarm began jangling nearby. The General Quarters alarm sounded moments later. Roque nudged his way over to the lab’s central control panel. He pressed his ID bracelet against the reader, registering his presence at his duty station.

On the main monitor screen, a brilliant flare saturated the image of the moon, but it was dying off even as he stared at it. As the glare faded, great masses of debris were seen rising from the point of impact. Roque scarcely noted the silencing of the General Quarters alarm. The speaker above his head clicked on.

"This is Commander Daniels. Something energetic has happened on the moon. I am tying in the feed from the moon to the intercom; you will hear what I hear. I was talking to the
Collins
commander when we were cut off. Ah, he’s back." Once again, she looked into the eyes of her friend, Jeng Wo Lee.

"What happened Lisa? You cut off midsentence." A loud voice erupted from the speaker on Lee’s desk.

"MAYDAY, MAYDAY! This is McCrary on the surface."

"Lee. Go McCrary."

"The surface of the Earth has brightened at least two magnitudes. Something’s going on."

"Collins, this is Chaffee. There’s been some kind of flare on the moon. Our radiation meters are off-scale high, and the flare burned out any sensor pointed in your direction."

Roque stared at his monitor, reading the same data as the Bridge. He could add nothing to the ongoing conversation. Celine Greenfield at Astrogation and Commander Lisa Daniels knew their business. A set of ranging circles, centered on the location of the
Collins,
appeared on the screen. Roque noted with apprehension the appearance of a shockwave at the outer edge of the display.

"You've got about twelve minutes until the shockwave hits," said Celine.

In a daze, Roque listened as the McCrary, chief engineer of the station directed disaster operations on the moon. Decontamination and unsuiting procedures took at least a half hour, so McCrary would not be able to get back inside before the shockwave hit.

"This is worse than any disaster scenario ever planned. If the Chaffee can see the shockwave, we may well be done for. But I have faith in all of you. Suit up
now
. Get in a MoonCan
now
. There are enough for everyone.

"The MoonCans are filling with LOX from the main lines. Plug your suits into the fitting inside the MoonCan, just like in the drills. The shockwave will knock you around a lot and some of you may end up under rock or other debris. Do not panic. Remember, a man in a Can will live for at least a week, maybe longer. Help is coming to dig you out. If you feel yourself losing control, you’ll find sedatives in the MoonCan. Do not panic. This is McCrary. I will come and get you."

"Commander Daniels, you’re next you know," said McCrary.

"Say again," she said. "Next?"

"I suspect that whatever hit the moon was hard enough to throw rock all the way to Earth. The Chaffee will be uninhabitable. Better figure out how to get everyone off."

"Understood. McCrary?" she asked. "Godspeed. You will not be forgotten."

"Commander, I suspect nobody’s going to come back here for decades. Too much rock in orbit." With a start, Lisa agreed. If rock could reach Low Earth Orbit, it was going to be around for a long, long time.

"This is McCrary. I can see the debris plume now. It is like a sparkling curtain rising from the south. It is spreading from one source to extend from horizon to horizon."

"Two minutes, McCrary," said Lisa. "Better get inside."

"One last thing," said McCrary. "This is for everyone. Please relay. One hundred and twenty-four years ago on Christmas Eve, three men rounded the moon for the first time and reported back to Earth. They read from Genesis at the dawn of spaceflight. I read from Revelations.

"‘I looked when He broke the sixth seal and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind.

"‘The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up and every mountain and island was moved out of their places.

"‘Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.’"

McCrary was silent for a second or two.

"And now, our moon is red and we go to hide in our caves. Let this be our final transmission for now: From the crew of the Lunar Colony Collins, we close with good night, good luck and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

"I bid you farewell." The sound of the MoonCan closing was loud on the speakers. Seconds later, subsonic thumps told of impacts around it. On Roque’s main screen, the camera stream from the
Collins
started dropping frames, then stopped completely.

Celine spoke quietly. "All telemetry from the moon has stopped." Chaffee’s external cameras showed the shockwave sweep over the small X marking the position of the UNSOC Lunar Colony
Michael Collins
.

 

*   *   *

 

UNSOC Space Station Roger Chaffee, June 17 2082, 1015 EDT

 

Lisa bowed her head for a moment. She asked Celine for the all-hands channel.

"Attention. This is Commander Daniels. A disaster of unknown origin has engulfed the Collins Lunar Colony. Casualties are unknown. The event that swept over the Collins has thrown a large amount of lunar debris into space. I believe we are in danger from this debris. All personnel are to prepare for immediate evacuation. You will be allowed one standard backpack for personal belongings. Pack now. Department heads, report for conference in five minutes on channel seven. Representatives from all manufacturers are also to join us on channel seven. That is all."

Roque clicked over to channel seven. He floated over to his personal locker. Although he had been originally assigned a spot in the barracks module, he had been babysitting so many lab experiments over the years it just made sense to move his gear into the lab. A ghost of a smile flitted over his face as he opened the locker, withdrawing a small smudged white box.

Floating back to the chair bolted in front of the lab’s central command console, he donned a seat restraint to hold him in front of the camera. He idly held the box a quarter meter above the table and watched as the microscopic tidal gravity gently dropped the box to the surface. He lifted the top off the box, withdrew a clear plastic bag with a lock of auburn hair tied in a ribbon. Kissing it gently, he replaced it in the box.

"Soon, Lynn. I will be there all too soon," he whispered to the memento as he wiped a tear from his left eye. The voice of Lisa Daniels brought him back to the present.

"I will be brief, we haven’t much time. I've been avoiding UNSOC for the past ten minutes or so, since I believe we have to reach a decision here. We’re in deep trouble. When—
whatever
it was—happened on the moon, all of our radiation alarms went off. Medical. Any idea on our radiation dose?"

The young man on the monitor seemed overwhelmed at all the attention. He was a physician’s assistant, since the population of the station did not rate a full-time doctor.

"It’s a little out of my league, Commander, but here’s what I’ve got. The situation is serious but not immediately fatal. Everyone on board has received between one and two Grays of radiation. Say, ten to twenty thousand chest x-rays. Untreated, there’s a good chance about five percent of the folks will die. It’s guaranteed about half will be down with nausea and diarrhea in four to six hours. We have to get everyone into a groundside hospital for treatment."

"Four to six hours?"

"Yes Ma’am".

"Astrogation. What’s the word on the debris cloud?"

"As things stand now, Commander, we can see the first debris hits as soon as we round the Earth, ten minutes from now." A gasp greeted her words. "But it should be the smallest stuff, dust only. The acceleration needed to move something from the lunar surface to Earth orbit in thirty minutes is certainly enough to powder it. And we’re only in real danger when we cross the plane of the moon’s rotation, at least in the short term. I think we’ll get four to five orbits, say six to nine hours, before our position becomes actively dangerous."

"Thank you, Astrogation. Engineering. Can anything be done to lengthen our time up here?"

John looked mightily unhappy. "No Ma’am. Radar shows objects twenty meters long moving fast enough to escape lunar gravity. Big mountains like that would crush us like a bug fairly soon. Worse, the smaller stuff will be flying along three or four kilometers per second, relative to us. Doesn’t take too many golf-ball sized hits to kill everyone on board. We’re going to have to evacuate."

"Anyone else? I want everyone to have their say. Roque?"

"I vote to evacuate. We are sitting ducks up here. The laser I have been working on will do nothing against this volume of space debris."

"This is preposterous!" broke in George Cranston, the representative of ZGCFabricam. "I have a major silicon melt going. We’ve got a large order for the high-Q silicon crystals for the Valley. We can’t evacuate now!"

"How much longer do you need?" asked John, leaning forward.

"Thirty-six hours at the earliest." The thumbnail image of Celine was shaking her head mournfully.

"In thirty-six hours, the chances of one or more collision with a ten centimeter object, rises to eighty-seven percent."

"Overruled George. I’d rather be alive and in court on Earth than free but dead up here."

"I’ve got another two hours until our final production run is up," said Alice Webber of ElectroPore. "We’re running an anti-diabetes drug now. Any chance we can wait until then?"

Celine frowned and said, "We’ll be taking hits but it will be from sub-millimeter-sized impactors. Risky but doable."

"Celine, to clear the air, at what time does the impact threat for a centimeter-sized object rise to one in a thousand?"

"Six hours."

"Interesting coincidence. Right about that time we’ll be woofing up our cookies."

Lisa scanned the images of all the conferees. "Anyone else? OK, here’s what I've decided. We evacuate in four hours. We eat
now
. I want the mess hall closed as soon as everyone is through, or in one hour, whichever comes first. No exceptions. And no hoarding. No apple in the pocket. We’re going to chuck but I want that to be as content free as possible,” she looked around the edges of her conference screen, collecting nods.

"ElectroPore gets their run but all manufacturers will be limited in the product they can ship down."

Kalau Matumbe, head of ExoMat, interrupted. "Excuse me Commander. Ship down in what? There’s no shuttle in dock at this time." A chuckle ran around the conference. "What am I missing? George? Alice? You guys know anything?"

Lisa took pity on him. "Ah, sorry, Kalau. Remember those ‘solar shelters’ we drilled on a few months ago? They are really emergency reentry vehicles. We call them ‘sleds.’ We’re going home in them."

"I never saw anything about such a thing in the UNSOC literature." Kalau looked a little indignant.

"That’s because UNSOC doesn’t know about them." The rest of the department heads muttered and stirred. "It’s time to let the secret out everyone."

Lisa addressed herself to Kalau. "We’ve been petitioning UNSOC for the sleds for the past twenty-five years. We’ve always been told no. Once the Collins colony…" Her voice caught and she had to clear her throat to continue, "The colony was able to ship us materials, we decided to build our own reentry craft. They never knew about it."

Kalau looked around his screen. "Are you guys buying this? Risk our life to some hand-built, untested rattletrap?" George and Alice nodded.

"Kalau, I know you haven’t been up here long, but there’s one thing you have to realize," said Alice earnestly. "UNSOC might be a bunch of corrupt clowns but the astronaut corps is some of the most professional, careful and dedicated people I know. I would absolutely trust my life to them. In fact, we’re doing so every day we’re in orbit." Kalau subsided, troubled.

"Anything else? Celine and I will set the undock time. Everyone will be in the sleds, strapped down, no less than ten minutes before undock time. Nobody gets left behind. Medical, be prepared. We might have to sedate a couple to get them on board.

"Let’s move."

Roque toggled away from channel seven. The off-white box with the lock of Lynn’s hair in it caught his eye. He sighed and grasped the box carefully.

"Sorry to disappoint you Commander Daniels," he murmured to himself. "But I won’t be aboard."

 

*   *   *

 

UNSOC Space Station Roger Chaffee, June 17 2082, 1100 EDT

 

Throughout the
Chaffee
people were zipping about, shutting down systems, powering off experiments, gathering records. Anti-static bags of electronic parts and memory chips floated in the air. Engineering was working overtime emptying the sleds of
Collins
supplies to free up room for items that must get to Earth. Medical sent over all of the anti-nausea drugs they had.

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