Boundaries

by

Rob Bignell




"Some people glorify our expedition to Pluto, say weíre at the solar systemís frontier," Commander John Domine dictated to the computer, preparing his speech for the Oceanic Astronomical Conference in Melbourne. "We humans, however, never have had a good sense of boundaries, of what truly belongs to us. Weíre just at the edge of the tiny area mankind has explored. From billion of miles away, icy comets dart in and out of this planetís orbit, forcing us to look inward as well as to what encircles us. It is --"

The alarm klaxon peeled, harsh and loud.

Domine glanced at the red light flashing over his office door, and his stomach tightened. He pressed the comm button. "Mecanico, this is Domine. Whatís wrong?"

"We momentarily lost our readouts to the fusion reactors, "his chief engineer said in a Spanish accent, "but theyíre back up now. Iím sending Anwar to the systems junction now, but thereís no indication that the reactor itself is misbehaving."

Domine sighed. The alarms automatically went off whenever readouts stopped. "All right. Keep me apprised." He turned back to the computer screen, but the alarm had broken his ability to concentrate.

Might as well begin the morning routine, Domine told himself. He believed his daily a tour of the post helped him address in advance the small staffís unique problems; only nine of them lived at the distant Tombaugh Research Station, beyond which the great Oort Cloud stretched a third of the way to the next star. Given how far out they were, a single, seemingly insignificant mistake could lead to their deaths, and months might pass before anyone knew they had perished. He decided to make the power plant his first stop.

Through the UV-blocking aluminum oxynitride windows lining the long passage to the power plant, Charon loomed in the sky as the planetís two asteroid satellites glimmered farther off. Frozen white methane brightened Plutoís surface, reminding Domine of a moonlit desert night. The panes gave way to gray wall as he entered the power plant.

"Systems operating at normal," Mecanico said as the doors swished behind Domine.

"Give me a chance to say good morning, first," Domine said, gave his engineerís shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

"The readouts are up now. Anwar should have the diagnostic done shortly."

Domine nodded. The station ran on two fusion reactors, which like little suns in a bottle gave them light, heat and energy. "Any link to a reactor malfunction?"

"It seems to be a computer problem. The readouts show no change from before to after the failures."

"Maybe we should get Soroban down here to take a look."

"We can handle it for now."

"The computer center is my next stop. Iíll mention it to her."

As Domine left engineering and crossed the promenade overlooking the green area, he contemplated the stationís extraordinary design. A one-year assignment, the agency had given them a small Eden, a three-acre enclosed ecological system replete with jungle, desert, savannah, marsh and a deep pond they called an ocean. It provided the base with real food, drink, oxygen and whenever they started missing Earth a green space to stroll. Long after them, the post would be expanded to serve as a distant colony and perhaps even a launch point for unmanned probes to Proxima Centauri. Their main missions for the moment, however, were to explore the iceball and chart the outer solar system. He knew everything would turn out fine if he just let his station team do their jobs.

####

Soroban rose as Domine entered the computer center, which overlooked the ecological section. Of all the stations, it offered the most luxuriant view.

"Youíre early, sir; my check isnít complete yet," she said, her fine-boned oriental cheeks swathed in the computer screenís blue glow. "So far, 60 percent of reviewed systems indicate normal functions."

"No need to apologize. Has there ever been a morning when I havenít interrupted your checks?"

She smiled.

"Mecanico was having a readout problem with Reactor No. 1. Could you punch that up?"

Soroban tapped a few touch-sensitive keys. The screen blackened for a fraction of a second until blue rolls across it. "Thatís odd. There are no readouts."

Domine fidgeted then pressed an intercom key on her work panel. "Mecanico, Iím up at the computer center. Weíre not getting any readouts on the reactor. What have you got there?"

"Nothing, either. This is what happened earlier, except then the loss was only for a second or two."

"Iím sending Soroban down. Get me Anwarís status. Domine out."

"Want to contact Earth?" Soroban said.

"The reactor seems fine. Besides, Earth is more than five hours away by radio. What could they do?"

The pair walked out of the center. "Iím certain itís nothing serious," she said.

"Letís hope so. Iíd hate to cut my tour short."

Soroban grinned and turned down another corridor.

A womanís voice echoed from the opposite end of Domineís corridor. "Iím certain Rusty wouldnít mind if you did." Terreno, the stationís slender and young planetologist, approached.

"Youíre not outside yet, Terreno?"

"Itís too cold," she said then chuckled at her own joke. "Did I overhear thereís a problem?"

Domine shrugged. "Not much of one. Weíve lost readouts on a reactor."

"Maybe one of Rustyís goats got into a piping and wiring trunk, ate some fiber optics."

"Maybe."

Terreno and Domine headed toward the biosphere, where Rusty maintained the stationís ecology. They found Rusty kneeling beneath a goat, pulling its teats and squirting milk in a pail.

"Lunch?" Domine asked him as stepping down a slight slope from the tropical region, with all its chattering birds and spongy soil, into an open barn.

Rustyís pinkish face, rounded with gray locks boasting a few tinges of auburn hair, looked up. He seemed to growl without even moving his mouth. "Well, Terreno, youíve finally decided to come here and study a real planet with life?"

"Iím actually off duty right now and am taking up a new hobby: studying history -- ancient history -- so donít stop. Milking by hand is a bit quaint, donít you think?"

He carried the pail toward a pasteurization tank. "All those milk devices take more time to set up than itís worth. Besides, real farming takes a loving hand, not the callous coldness of stainless steal."

Terreno and Domine grinned as Rusty poured milk into the tank.

"Now take that mother goat over there -- wonít eat, and goats will eat anything, even old copper wires," he continued. A full-grown browncoat sat with her head resting outward on the dirt. "She lost her kid a couple of days ago. Know why sheís got her head down?"

"Why?" Terreno said.

"Depressed. Sickened by the loss. Thereís not a nanoagent yet designed to cure that." Rustyís eyes fell as he kneeled before the goat and pet her cheek. "Just my loveís gonna nurture her."

A whistle rose from a nearby intercom.

It was Mecanico. "Sir, Anwar is back. We think thereís a line breakdown in piping trunk B. Weíll have to access a panel from outside. Heís suiting up to make the check."

"Iíll watch from the observation post. Domine out." He turned to Rusty. "Say, make sure youíve got all your goats here." Rusty looked quizzically at Domine as Terreno laughed.

####

Terreno accompanied Domine to the observation post at the top of the tropical sector. From there, the crew could see most of the ecological sections from above treetop or look out onto the twin reactors and the thin tunnels leading to them. Charon, 10 times the size of the moon in Earthís sky, hovered over the distant mountain range. The two made small talk as they watched Anwarís puffy figure trek across the grisly, white surface. With a gravity of only 0.04, he easily moved along the tunnelís outside railing to his destination, two-thirds of the way from the reactor. Outside, one could leap several feet into the air; inside, gravity plates kept the crew bound to the deck.

"Wu has just finished some infrared readings of comets in the southern sky," Terreno said. "Our revolution will push us out of viewing that region for the next three days."

Anwar slid open a panel and stuck his head into it.

"Iíll have Al run diagnostics on the multispectral thermal infrared scanner."

"Heís down in the robot bay. Some new problem has come up with the repairers."

Anwar thrust his entire torso into the opening.

Domine scowled. "Those repairers never have work -- "

Debris and Anwar simultaneously shot out of the tunnel. Terreno screamed, grabbed Domineís arm. "This canít be happening, this canít be happening!" she screeched between sobs.

Domine shook her loose, ran for the intercom panel near the entryway, watched Anwar roll like a leaf in the wind. "Mecanico, whatís going on?"

Sorobanís shouts come from the speaker as Mecanicoís voice strained. "Commander, I canít get him on the comm link! Anwar, come in! Anwar, are you there!?"

"Terreno, suit up and get him!" She hesitated a moment then took off. Domine pressed the intercom button for a new search order to the computer. "Dr. Arzt, medical emergency. Report to the power station airlock."

A tired womanís voice answered. "Arzt here. Whatís up?"

"Anwarís space suit may have been punctured. Heís still outside."

She gasped. "On my way."

Domine ran toward the airlock. At best, the explosion only knocked Anwar unconscious. But heíd also seen the debris firing out with him, knew theyíd likely hit his face shield, that theyíd likely killed him.

When Domine arrived at the airlock, Soroban, Mecanico and Arzt stood waiting for Terreno to return. They did not speak, but each could hear the otherís beating hearts.

"Thereís no reason for it to explode," Mecanico finally said.

"Maybe an overload in his mending tool," Soroban said.

"The circuit would cut out first."

"Unless thereís an oxygen leak in there. The charge could ignite it."

"That means the whole panel is gone."

Arzt pressed his face to the porthole. "Theyíre coming in."

The outside door opened, and Terreno pulled a semi-floating Anwar behind. They poised themselves at the entry, impatient for the outside door to close, for the airlock to pressurize. Their entrance finally opened, and they lunged in. Arzt kneeled at his body.

Terreno lifted her helmet. Tears were strewn across her red cheeks. "His face shield -- "

A bean-sized hole glowed in the shieldís lower corner; Anwarís face had frozen still and blood covered the inside of the helmet. Soroban turned away as Mecanico prayed in Spanish.

####

"It appears an automatic shutoff went into effect on the oxygen line as soon as the explosion took place," Soroban said from behind her computer center console.

Domine shifted uncomfortably. Normally, a crewmemberís death took priority on any mission, but he knew there was a more serious problem. The explosion probably meant a permanent loss of reactor readouts. Without that data, they had no idea if they were even in control of the reactor. Should control be lost, it could go critical within just a few hours. "That means no oxygen in the reactor control room," he said.

"We donít seem to have any command of the reactor," Soroban said. "No diagnostics will go through beyond the explosion site. It must mean the whole control system is down."

"Weíll have to shut off the reactor and go to No. 2."

"Somebody will need to suit up and do it manually, at the reactor."

Domine punched the intercom key. "Al, give me an update on the repairers."

"Two are down, but oneís up as supposed to be. I wouldnít much trust it, though."

"Weíll have to. I donít want to send one of us out there. Should there be another accident -- "

"Iíll ready it for you."

Domine turned to Soroban. "Tell Mecanico our plan. Once we get the reactors under control, weíll need an analysis of that line and a proposal for getting it up again."

####

In the medical center, Anwar lay in an airtight bed as Arzt, Rusty, Terreno and Wu, the stationís astronomer, stood over it, very quietly. For a moment, Domine stood silently with his crew, but as Wu trembled, he cleared his throat. "Anwar was a fine officer," he said. "I remember when he came here, so full of excitement, so alive at the thought of being part of this historical mission."

They nodded. For a moment, Domine felt relieved. Most of his decisions to that point had been administrative -- who gets to use which resource when, which repairs needed to be made where. He hadnít needed to be an inspiration.

"We are just part of a vast chain," Rusty said solemnly. Arzt whispered what sounded like a prayer in German, then said, "Sein zum tode." Quiet returned.

"Doctor, Iíll leave it up to you to arrange a memorial," Domine said. "It canít be held until weíve come through the reactor problems, however."

Arzt and Rusty snapped their heads up, tried to speak at once. Rusty won out. "Commander, this is a fellow crewmember."

"The situation is very serious," Domine said. "We canít break away now from our duties or there may be nobody around to give a service."

Rusty started to speak, but Wu gripped his arm. "Commander Domine is right," she said. "The reactor must be our priority."

Domine stepped into the corridor, intent on going to engineering from where the repairer would be controlled and the shutdown initiated. Wu followed, quick stepping to catch up.

"Here we are, great conquerors of the solar system, yet death once more reminds us of our limitations," Domine said after a moment.

"Perhaps it is the survivorsí feelings toward death that is truly undefeatable."

"What do you mean?"

"Death is a part of life, it defines each of us. We expect death."

"We just donít like being reminded of it?"

"Yes."

"Thatís hardly an Eastern view."

"Thereís more myth than anything to the notion of some Asiatic approach. During the last three centuries of Westernization, the so-called Ďancient viewsí have disappeared."

They followed a tunnel splitting the ocean and tropical regions. "How so?" Domine asked.

"Western thought long has emphasized that there must be a meaning to death. That idea penetrates us with despair, though, when we realize every life is unique, with its own meaning. What saddens us the most is the understanding that in death one never recovers his stroke, that we may not fulfill this Ďmeaning.í It is the phase of life in which we can no longer choose how to live."

The doors to engineering parted. Mecanico and Al eyed a screen with a picture of the airlock exit.

"The repairer is ready to go," Mecanico said.

Domine nodded and Mecanico pressed a panel key. The airlock doors opened, revealing a thin greenish haze with pinpoints of yellow stars behind it. Mecanico steered the repairer by voice command, and it followed a slow but straight line toward the distant reactor. The gray piping trunk stuck out at the screenís left edge while a flat, crystallized white surface passed below. The temperature outside fell to -230 degrees centigrade, and the image of Anwar simultaneously suffocating and freezing to death ran through Domineís mind.

The reactorís airlock doors opened, and the repairer moved inside, then temporarily stopped. A lemon glow beamed through a small portal from the entrance. That soon opened, flooding the screen with a golden light.

"What exactly is wrong with them?" Wu said.

"This is the first mission this particular type has been on," Mecanico said. "Corp punched them out more for show than to actually work."

"Part of our assignment is to test them for corp," Al said.

Domine glanced at Wu. "Itís nothing to worry about. We can fix anything manually."

"The repairers just took away some duffle bag space, thatís all," Mecanico chimed. "Damn, it wonít go forward."

A computer console filled the monitor screen. Mecanico spoke into his intercom, but the picture did not change.

"Damn," he said, still punching but getting more frantic with each attempt. "Itís stalled. And weíre right in front of the console."

"Any chance of the other repairers working?" Domino said to Al.

"Maybe four or five hours and Iíd have one of them up."

Mecanico turned around. "That wonít be enough time. Look at the screen."

They closed tightly around it. A series of numbers and charts scrolled across a blue video display captured by the repairerís camera.

"Somehow the automatic function program was disconnected when we lost control of the reactor," Mecanico said. A sweat drop glistened on his temple. "The magnetic shield is decreasing. Sheís going to melt."

"How soon?" Domine said.

"Maybe an hour -- at best."

"Can it be stopped?"

Mecanico looked back at the screen, squinted to catch the readout. "Maybe."

Wu swallowed hard. "The escape shelters?"

Domine nodded. "They should hold us until the next spacecraft reaches us in a few weeks."

"Helium-3 packs a hell of a lot of energy," Mecanico said. "Theyíll be able to see us glow on Triton."

Domine turned to Al and Wu. "Organize the others. Prepare to enter the shelters."

The two officers left.

Domine turned to Mecanico. "One of us will have to go in and shut it off."

"Thereís just one problem, sir. If the reactor melts, whoever goes wonít make it back to the shelters in time. Neutrons will flood the station immediately after the breach. Only the shelters have a self-generated magnetic shield strong enough to stop them."

"Iíll go in. Explain the shutdown procedure."

Mecanico grabbed his arm. "I know the procedure better."

"Youíre not going to sacrifice yourself. Besides, we need you to ensure systems in the shelters stay up."

"Thatís nothing Soroban couldnít do."

Domine raised his voice. "Do you not understand you orders, Lieutenant?"

Mecanico rumpled an eyebrow. "This is what you must do."

Domine quickly memorized the codes. "Stay in voice contact with me in case we need to go to other options." Then, as Mecanico turned toward the airlock, Domine grasped his arm. "If I donít come back, youíll need to be more than an engineer." They stared at one another. "There is no good advice when it comes to command," Domine said. "You simply learn it as you go along."

"You matured rather quickly then, sir."

The corners of Domineís eyes crinkled as he smiled.

The intercom whistled, and Mecanico keyed a picture of the assembled crew from the computer center.

"Commander, weíre ready to go down," Wu said.

"Thereís still a chance we can stop the reactor," Domine said. "Iím going inside it. Until I come back, Mecanico is in charge. Heíll join you momentarily. In the meantime, start entering the shelters."

Soroban pushed her head to the front of the screen. "Sir, you say thereís just a chance? If that reactor goes, you may not make back it in time." The rest of the crew murmured as surprise overtook their faces.

"Mecanico and I already have discussed this, Soroban."

"All of us can hold out in the shelters until the next scheduled craft gets here," she said.

"Iím not going to argue this, Lieutenant. Weíre wasting valuable time. Domine out."

Mecanico opened the spacesuit closet and began fitting Domine with the heavy material. The engineer seal-latched the gloves onto the suit sleeves, but he hesitated snapping on the helmet. "Take comfort in knowing that every manís death resembles the way he lived," he said.

"Youíre too gracious with your words."

"Iíll say a rosary for you on my way to the shelter. Youíll be back in time for a lunch of Rustyís damned goatís milk and chicken." He latched helmet to the body suit and gently guided Domine toward the airlock.

The inside door slid apart, and Domine stepped into the bare air lock. The doors closed, and he waited for the vents to suck out the oxygen. His thickly gloved hands reached for the tether rope that would keep me from floating away in Plutoís light gravity.

####

The exterior hatch parted, revealing yellow and red pinpricks across the vast blackness. Lack of any downward force took Domine by surprise, even though he knew it was coming. His body rose higher off the ground then usual as he stepped out. He glided to a guide rope and gripping it, baby-stepped toward the reactor.

Though the reactor was only a hundred meters away, Domine found the walk taking longer than it should. All he heard was his own breath, the pattern eerie as the feeling that someone is following you. Though an air conditioner kept his suit from overheating, it couldnít prevent him from perspiring. What was it Wu said about death, Domine thought, we believe there must be meaning to it? Saving the crew sounded meaningful enough to him, and he discovered a certain satisfaction in knowing that he was responsible for his own death -- not the act of becoming deceased but for the way he chose to die. Still, a certain impulse in him wanted to run for the shelters, to not bother with the risk of neutrons pickaxing his body. Being a coward, though, wasnít the way of a commander, he decided. Itís the life I chose, and now here is the duty before me.

Plutoís ice glowed with a tinge of green. A low, extremely bright sparkle sat just above the horizon; how the distant sun could provide any surface light this far out always had amazed him. The sunís heat did not last, though, as the planetís gasses long ago had frozen into rock hardness.

Domine passed the panel Anwar had been lost at. A shiver wrinkled through him. One moment ago I was too hot, now Iím too cold. Guess thoughts about death do that to a man. Domine sensed he should not feel afraid, told himself that death awaited everyone. Besides, it may not come during the next few minutes. The program likely will work, and in another hour or so my relieved crew will salute me at a lunch table. He shivered again. Such gratitude is not what I came out here for. This is simply a matter of survival.

Charon hung white as bone in the sky above him. Certainly itís just a matter of defeating time, he thought. Besides, death isnít a great unknowable; if we die, Iíll never realize it. All that really counts is what I do to avoid death -- or to meet it. This death has become mine.

Domine said Mecanicoís name, hoped the comm link in his helmet worked. Mecanico could already be in the shelters and out of reach.

"Yes, Commander?" said Mecanico, clearer than Domine expected.

"Iím nearing the reactor. How far are you to the shelter?"

"Close. Iíll talk you through this."

"Neutrons donít slow down for altruism."

Mecanico didnít respond, probably hoping if heís silent I wonít order him to go below. But Domine also knew down deep he wanted his engineerís help.

Pushing the airlock entrance button, a hatch in front of Domine opened. A tether rope drifted out at him, and grabbing it he entered the airlock. Air shot out the vents, and a heaviness overtook his body as it readjusted to the gravity platesí pull. His heart beat with the force of a bull bashing the boards when a matador skips behind them. Finally, the reactor doors opened, and he stepped inside.

Directly in front of him stood the repairer, blocking the computer console. The computer screenís blue hue washed across the room. From this small area, he could manually control the reactor; such a machine, however, largely relied on computers to adjust and fine-tune its second-by-second operations. The consoles primarily were meant for the crew to run diagnostics and emergency operations. A portal window showed the magnetic field containing the fusion reaction. The shield scribbled and pulsed on the other side, still intact. A high-pitched, alternating loud and quiet whine penetrated the window, though.

Domine raced to the console, pushing his way between the computer padboard and the warm but still repairer. Though tight, his body found enough space so he could see the keys. His fingers pressed the first instruction, then the second one. The readout numbers changed, and different console lights shined. He tapped in a third instruction, then the final one, which would set the entire shutoff sequence in motion.

Eyeing the readout, Domine waited. The numbers returned to a steady pattern. Nothing seemed to happen.

"Mecanico?"

"Still here, sir." His breathing sounded shallower.

"Iíve punched in the commands. There was a fluctuation, but the magnetic shield level continues to decrease."

"The instructions should have separated the reactants and submerged the core into a shielded area. Anything on that?"

"No. The readout says nothing happened."

"Damn. It could be anything. This whole station is falling apart. Maybe Rusty is right about machines."

"Lieutenant, get into the shelter. Iíll start making my way there."

Domine thought how Soroban would have been the best person to talk with, but she got too technical for his own good. As commander, he knew where everything was, but his power was recognizing everybody elseís strengths and organizing those disparate talents. Leaders werenít any good at tearing apart machines. He turned for the airlock.

The sudden realization he probably would die during the next few minutes rippled through him. Domine gripped the console panel, nauseated. An anger rose from his belly. "No!" he shouted. "Think through this, damn it. Refuse to give up!"

The problem was easy to identify, he told himself -- the reactor computer wonít take manual instructions. He speed read the screen: Power output was normal, the magnetic shieldís shutdown sequence was underway. Somehow, program instructions for the shield were faulty or the manual keypads were malfunctioning, he surmised, the reactor process itself seems to be fine. Then the solution struck him. Cut off the program initiating the shieldís shutdown.

Now, whereís the circuit?

"Mecanico?"

No answer.

"Mecanico?"

Silence.

Must be in the shelter. Domine looked around the console, trying to find controls for the shield. A series of shaded pads were for each major unit: reactants on right, core in the center, power readouts below, shield on the left side. If he could figure where the instrument panel led to, maybe the controls could be rewired.

A fast pounding sound swept up behind Domine, interrupting his thoughts. Pushed by a great force, he fell to the floor.

So this is how neutrons kill. Wu was right -- in the end, one is at the mercy of natural forces.

Domine looked upward, determined to die with his eyes open. Above him stood someone in a spacesuit, hands in an open panel. It ignored him, then gazed at the readout. Numbers flicked in new patterns.

The suit looked down at Domine. Behind the face shield was Mecanico.

Domineís eyebrows drew down. "You were told --"

"Sorry, sir," he said. "It struck me that if the console were knocked out, all one had

to do was hit the switches at another part of the circuit."

"I was coming to that conclusion."

Mecanico helped Domine up then pointed a finger at the readout. "Sheís going down now. Reactor Number 2 will carry us until we can get these units working again. I suppose I should submit myself for disciplinary action?"

Domine grinned. "This time, Iíll let you off."

####

An hour later, Mecanico walked up to the already full lunch table. "Goats milk again?" he said half-sarcastically.

Rusty grunted. "You can drink some of that tasteless reconstituted milk if you like."

"Itíll take a few days to make the repairs," Mecanico said, sitting down. "Without Anwar, everything will go a bit slower."

Domine smiled and waved his hand in understanding.

"About Anwar -- I thought a memorial service tomorrow would be appropriate," Arzt said. "It would give everyone a rest after todayís events."

All of them nodded.

"A dayís break would be good to regain our composure," Domine said. But he knew 24 hours likely would not be enough time to recover. There was no boundary for that.

THE END



© 2006 by Rob Bignell

Bio: Mr. Bignell says, "Iíve been an Army grunt, a middle school teacher and now a newspaper editor -- in short, jobs in which oneís clients delight in taking exception to you."

E-mail: Rob Bignell

Website: Rob Bignell

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.