"Priyanka, honey, please let me in,” Pari said, as she tapped on the door. The girl had long-since stopped reading her political screed, and could be heard sobbing on the other end of the radio. “It’ll be ok,” Pari lied, “No one else needs to die.” What she actually thought was more along the lines of ‘I’ll choke the life out of you, you crazy kutiya.’
After what seemed like hours of cajoling, the girl said, “I can’t let you in. There’s no air out there.”
“There’s an airlock at the top of the shaft. I’m in it already. All you need to do is open it.”
“Ok,” the girl sniffled. The inner hatch opened, but only a foot or so. “That’s as far as I go,” she said. “I don’t trust you.” Priyanka could see Colonel Singh’s turban unraveled and floating about the cockpit, his topknot come undone, and his long Sikh hair and beard now formed an unruly cloud around his head. There was a lot of blood up there, too. She was disgusted. Singh had been her friend for a lot of years. He’d always been so meticulous. To see him so disheveled in death….
“How can you not trust me? I love you,” Pari said, and instantly regretted it. The lie seemed to revive something inside Priyanka, and she hurled something at Pari’s head. It caromed off her helmet with an alarming clang.
“Don’t try to play me,” she screamed.
“Ok, ok, I’m sorry,” Pari said, “I’m just really, really scared.” That much at least was true, and this, too, seemed to connect with the terrorist in some way.
“Me too,” she whispered.
“Take off your helmet,” Priyanka said.
“I’ve got a gun. I don’t know if the bullets can get through that thing – your helmet – I’d feel safer if you took it off.” Pari reluctantly did. As she set it on the lower hatch of the airlock, she noticed the object Priyanka had whipped at her had been a sextant. All spacecraft kept them on board for emergency navigational purposes. It was a tradition from the earliest days of spaceflight, and an occasionally useful one.
She didn’t really have a plan, but an idiot hope struck Pari. “I brought you a Coke,” she said, and showed the darker of the two bottles cinched to her belt. “I thought you might be thirsty.”
“Hand it up slowly,” Priyanka said, and Pari did. Priyanka stuck the bottle to an adhesive board by one of the windows. “I’ll drink it later,” she said. “Thanks,” then floated directly between it and Pari. There was another awkward silence. Pari decided to just keep her talking.
“What’s this all about, anyway? Why are you doing this?”
“What, no ‘honey’?” Priyanka said.
“I already told you that, told everyone that: I’m with the Sri Lankan Liberation Army.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t make any sense,” Pari said as she eased the other bottle into her throwing hand. “I mean, firstly, Sri Lanka begged - begged – to join the Republic fifty years ago. Secondly, you’re not even a Tamil, are you? I mean, you don’t look at all like one.”
“YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND AT ALL!” The girl stormed closer, then realized what she was doing, and stopped short of the airlock hatch. She was still partially blocking a clear shot at the coke bottle.
“Ok, so make me understand,” Pari said, mentally willing her to move just a few inches in any direction.
Priyanka took a deep breath, and sighed, which rotated her ever so slightly. “It’s just so wrong what we did to them…” Pari took the shot, whipping the second Coke bottle at the first. Her aim was off, however, and it struck Priyanka hard on the shoulder, deflecting off and shattering on another control console. A noxious smell filled the cabin.
“Oh, naraka mem yaha saba lanata!” Pari exclaimed.
“THAT’S IT?” Priyanka yelled? “That’s it? That’s your big plan? Throw a bottle at me? And what’s that smell? Is that acid? Were you trying to poison m…you stupid kutiya vesya!” She kicked over to the far wall and hit a button that started the airlock hatch closing again. There were little globules of a sizzling liquid drifting all through the cabin. Now Pari had a clean shot at the first bottle stuck by the window, but nothing to throw!
The powered hatch closed more, more. Pari tried in vain to push it open, but she knew it wouldn’t work. When it was about to pinch her arms, she gave up and pulled them back in. The opening grew smaller, smaller if only –
She remembered the sextant!
In one uncharacteristically fluid motion, she swept up the thing, and hurled it boomerang-style through the shrinking gap in the hatch, directly at the other Coke bottle.
“Oh, and what’s that supposed to…”
Priyanka was incinerated instantly
There are two kinds of chemical rockets. The more common type uses a fuel, and an oxidizer, and some external force to actually start the ignition. This is generally an electrical impulse – a spark – but really anything will work, even a fuse lit by a match.
The less common type uses chemicals that automatically explode on contact, without the need for any kind of ignition. The advantage to these “Hypergolic Rockets,” as they’re called, is that they’re very simple, require little maintenance, and tend to be very difficult to break. The disadvantage is that they’re either on or off, with no real throttleability. As such, Hypergolics tend not to be used for brute propulsion, but mostly in rough-and-ready systems like the tiny thrusters used to orient a spacecraft on it’s X, Y, and Z axes in space. Arav was easily able to siphon some of this stuff out of the ship’s reaction control system. The first Coke bottle had been full of Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine. The second bottle had been full of Nitrogen Tetroxide, a combination that had been commonly used in RCS systems since the 1960s.
It hadn’t even been necessary for the fluids to actually touch. The moment there mere vapors connected in the cabin atmosphere, they burst into invisible flame, and everything combustible inside was engulfed.
The first thing she did was have a smoke. Skru the rules, she’d earned it! It was difficult to light one, but by keeping cigarette and lighter moving, she was able to spark one up just long enough to get it to her lips, where she sucked the whole thing down in one drag. Then she had another. Then she noticed her hair was singed – apparently a little flame had gotten in before the hatch was fully closed – and decided that was enough smoking for the day.
The upper hatch wouldn’t open, so she went through the lower. A passenger was there with a tablet that read “How do we go to the bathroom in these things without soiling ourselves?” Pari laughed. She snatched the tablet, and typed, “You don’t. They’re disposable. Enjoy yourself.” She showed it to the passenger, but didn’t give the tablet back.
She made her way hand-over-hand outside to the cockpit. The windows had been blown out by the blast, so she clambered in, and unlocked the inner door to the airlock. She then sent a distress call to the ISRO, and explained the situation. They explained that regardless of whatever she’d told the passengers, Priyanka had made it clear she’d intended to crash the ferry into Strongarm City, killing as many people and destroying as much of the place as she could in the process. Two ISRO cutters, and a Russian one had been holding station about a thousand miles away, waiting for the situation to resolve itself one way or another. Had nothing else happened, they were going to blow it out of the sky in another six hours.
Instead, they sent one of the ISRO ships to rescue the passengers, and get them to a hospital on the moon ASAP.
Most of the controls in the cockpit were trashed, but the damage was superficial. The systems were working, and in fact the Uttarkhand was in pretty good shape, apart from the hull being blown out. By the time the cutter arrived, she’d managed to appropriate six tablets from shell-shocked passengers, and jerry-rig them into the ferry’s mangled systems, bypassing the control panels almost entirely. The ferry was flyable, though not exactly safe. She had a mission, and was determined to see it through after all the death and destruction and betrayal. Someone still had to get this thing to the moon. Stopping it out here was almost as difficult as landing would be, and anyway, leaving it drifting out here would be a hazard to navigation. After a brief confab with the colonel of the Cutter, he agreed with her. Jal elected to stay behind – with a decent space suit on loan from the cutter, and they were joined by an engineer/co-pilot, just in case anything else went wrong.
They less than a half-day out from Strongarm when Jal came into the cockpit. Their new engineer was tinkering with something aft. Evidently Arav had re-sealed the hypergolic fuel lines with duct tape, which wasn’t exactly the safest fix.
“How’s the tin man?” She asked.
“Fine,” he said, “All the needles are still pegged.”
“All of them? That’s a little odd. I’d have thought…” Jal had gone bleary-eyed, literally moonstruck by the view. She waved her begloved hand in front of his helmeted face. “Earth to Jal. Earth to Jal, come in Jal, do you read?” He blinked, and came back to reality.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m still blown away by it, there’s so much traffic.” Pari nodded, which was impossible to see in her suit.
“Yup. Hundreds of freighters and ore-carriers and factories and you-name-it. All mass-producing solar panel satellites and hauling them to the La Grange points. It’s where ninety percent of earth’s energy comes from. So obviously it’s a pretty huge industry.”
“They convert the sunlight to microwaves, beam it to earth, and then it’s converted to electricity?” He asked.
“Close. They beam it to satellites in geosynch, and those beam it to the ground. It’s safer that way, but, hey, you’re learning.” He smiled. He took a spare tablet and typed “Can we speak privately?” She nodded reflexively, and switched the settings on her suit radio. Then she reached over and adjusted the settings on Jal’s suit as well, since he had no idea how to do it.
“What’s up?” she said.
“Can the engineer guy – “
“ – Right. Can Kumar hear us?”
“No. What’s up?”
He explained that this was a big deal, and there were bound to be security issues, an inquest, the surviving luggage would be undoubtedly checked for contraband, explosives, and other things. There’d be armies of security. Added to which, there’d be a huge to-do with reporters, since Pari was now a big bo-honkin’ heroine. The flurry of activity could last for days.
“So we don’t have days. Tin Man is running out of air. If we go through proper channels, I imagine he’ll be seized and examined by people who don’t know or care what the sacred embers are, and even if they survive that….”
“Right. I get it.”
“So is there something we could do to avoid it all? I’d hate all this to have been for nothing. I’d hate to have to do it again.”
“So would I, but there…ah, naraka.” She thought it over for a second, then switched the suit radio over to the general channel. “Kumar?” she said.
“I’m thinking the Uttarkhand is probably a little too rickety to land at the primary or secondary sites. If we wreck, it’ll mess up traffic for days. Just to be safe, I’m gonna’ land in the wilderness, say twenty-five miles northwest of Strongarm.”
“If you say so, boss.”
Eleven hours later, while emergency vehicles, the Indian army, a legion of reporters, and scores of others waited in in a remote hunk of airless countryside, Pari reported an ‘accidental’ problem with the guidance system, and that she’d have to land the thing by hand. She ordered Kumar to stay by the engines while she ‘attempted’ to fix it, but it looked pretty bad, and she’d probably have to go in by hand.
“Once they get a chance to poke around this thing, aren’t they going to know you were lying about that?” Jal asked.
“Let ‘em try to prove it.” She yanked the tablet that was functioning as a jerry-rigged guidance control panel free of its moorings and chucked it out the window. “Now, where’s this temple of yours?” He pulled up a schematic of the southeast quadrant of the station, then zoomed in on a smoker’s lounge only a few hundred feet from an airlock. “Yeah, we can do that.”
Apart from the unnerving aspect of landing a ship while literally sticking her head out the window to eyeball the distance to the ground, it was an unremarkable landing. They touched down with no one around, though it tripped every warning sensor in the base. “Kumar, you stay with the Uttarkhand. Jal and I are going to go inside and call for help.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Kumar said.
The two of them wrestled Tin Man to the ground, and bounded gracelessly over the lunar soil. There wasn’t much dust in the area, owing to years of civilization. Still, it was slow going.
“I need a second priest for the ceremony. There’s one working as a miner over in Chalpana town. I talked to him before we left earth. He’s got an arrangement with his boss, and he can be here in forty-five minutes once he gets the call. Once he’s here, I can start the ceremony, and invoke clerical privilege. That’ll prevent security from hassling us until everything is done. Unfortunately, I can’t have you in the temple for that part of it.”
“That’s fine, I understand. As soon as we get in, use the public com lines. I’d prefer to use the radio from out here, but that’d expose our whole tissue of lies.”
“Agreed,” Jal sighed.
Five minutes later, they were still a quarter mile from the airlock. It was very slow going.
“’Strongarm City’ is a really strange name, now that I think about it.”
“You want to play tourist trivia now?” Pari asked.
“We, this is taking forever…”
“Fine. It’s named after the first person on the moon, like almost two centuries ago. An American. Neil Strongarm. Or maybe Nigel. Or Ned. I can’t remember.”
“I know, crazy, right? Who’d believe it?”
Once through the lock, Jal excused himself to find a public phone booth while Pari manhandled the tin man to the smokers’ lounge-cum-fire temple. When Jal met her there, was half-out of her suit, sucking down a cigarette. He scowled.
“What? I’ve earned it!”
“Whatever. Let’s get this guy open. We don’t have a lot of time before security gets here and makes things awkward.”
They cracked open the tin man, pulled away the inner cover for the hamster wheel, and found it still spinning. Both of them sighed relief. Carefully, Jal removed the wheel, and dumped the sacred embers into a specially consecrated vessel that had been waiting for them in the room.
“Oh no,” he said.
Pari had noticed it, too. “Jal, aren’t embers supposed to glow?”
“How the naraka could it have gone out?” he cried. Pari was startled. It was the first time she’d heard the young man use any profanity.
“I don’t know,” she said, “The needles are all pegged, still. Everything looks fine. In fact if anything the O2 looks a little high…” she tapped the gauge. The needle immediately fell away to the opposite end of the scale. “Oh,” she said. It looks like the readout got jammed. I told Arav these old fashioned gauges were unreliable. It probably went out, I don’t know, it could have been days ago.”
Jal was soundlessly crying. He’d taken his glove off and buried his fingers in the fistful of ash, desperately looking for any sign of heat. There wasn’t any.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“There’s nothing to do,” he said.
“So we’ve failed.”
The young priest was silent for a long moment. He took a deep breath. With his clean other hand, he wiped away his tears. He stood up straight, his face took on a resolve she’d never seen there before, and said, “We have not failed, so far as anyone else knows.”
His next words confirmed her opinion of the boy, and cemented their life-long friendship: “Give me your lighter, and don’t tell anyone.”
Copyright 2013,2014 Kevin Long
(Written between October 20th and September 8th, 2013)
Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who’s fourth book is called “The Bones of an Angel,” and it just came out this weekend! (Check it out herehttps://www.smashwords.com/books/view/433927 and here http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00K348VGI ) and he’s written three full-length anthologies. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here and his Smashwords pagehere. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his older books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support!