Back in November of 2003 I had written three or four stories. I was wondering if any of them would ever sell when J. Erwine bought Flare Bound for the Martian Wave. This was my first sale!
By Keith P. Graham
It was Christmas Eve and the alarms were sounding. An emotionless female voice was saying “Warning. This is not a drill. All station personnel are to report to their radiation posts. All passengers are to report to a designated protected area. There are seventeen minutes until dangerous radiation conditions.” The message kept repeating, ticking down the minutes.
The intensity of Solar Flares had been building all year and this latest one seemed to be one of the largest. The passengers on board Virginia Station in low lunar orbit made their way towards common room 4E that was on the inner side of the rim. The common room, shielded by several meters of the station’s water supply in addition to the heavy aluminum bulkheads, was one of the safest places on the station.
McDermott Whitman, correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, wandered in early. As a resident of Virginia Station for nearly a month this was the third drill that he’d been through and he had his bag of emergency supplies packed and ready. Whitman had been waiting for a delayed connecting ship to Ganymede that was stuck at Phobos station. The Flare would be dangerous for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. His bag had a toothbrush, a clean shirt, and a three-day supply of homegrown vodka purchased for an outrageous amount of cash from one of the stewards.
Whitman’s usual table was in the far corner. He could watch the whole room from the table and take notes for an article he would never write about the romance of space travel. His editor were getting insistent in their demands for something from him to justify his salary, but the space station was drab, the fellow travelers were uninteresting, and his recorder was never working right.
One of the stewards brought in a Christmas tree made out of wire and green duct tape. He placed it on a table in the center of the room. A passenger brought in a guitar and sat dangerously close to Whitman who reached into his bag under the table and poured himself a shot. Whitman figured it was going to be a long night and he should start in early on his Christmas cheer. Whitman was a “Bah Humbug” kind of person at heart.
The acoustics of the room were poor. As the alarm began to tick down the minutes and more passengers entered the room, the sound level began to go up. People spoke louder in order to be heard above the background noise and the positive feedback soon brought the noise up to a roar.
A child began to cry near Whitman. It was a whining tone that he recognized from one of his ex-marriages. It was the “I want something and you had better give it to me or I’ll make a scene” cry. He cursed silently because he could see the family that owned the little whiner was heading for a table right next to his. Whitman did not hate kids, he just didn’t like being near them.
McDermott Whitman was a sour faced man with rumpled clothes and a three-day growth of beard who could rely on his looks to keep contact with humanity to a minimum. The room, however, had filled up fast and the tables next to his were the only empty ones left. He burped loudly and tasted the vodka, hoping no one would want to share his table. If he were especially lucky, the family with the kid would not want to communicate with him.
The heavy metal doors to the room slammed shut and everyone quieted down all at once. The voice on the communication system announced “Radiation Storm Protocols now in place. Passengers are not to leave designated safe areas until radiation levels return to safe minimums.” There was a banging on the doors and a steward let a straggler into the room. The conversations began again, but this time they were hushed and subdued.
The kid at the next table whimpered as the family settled in. The child’s eyes roamed around the room in curiosity. She was clutching a large doll with a 3-deo instead of a head, but the three dimensional array was dark. The arriving storm had shut down all net access.
The family consisted of a mother, a father, a child and an older woman. The older woman was too old to be a nanny. Whitman guessed that the parents had dragged Grandma along to care for the brat while they were at work on jobs at the lunar science stations. Although she looked spry and not far into her sixties, Whitman wondered how the family had obtained medical clearance to bring her along.
The common room had a canteen and the stewards were going around taking orders. The family asked for a Christmas dinner of rice and a goulash that the staff had put together from a shipment of soy steaks and some fresh vegetables. By eavesdropping, Whitman was able to learn that the little girl’s name was Susan and the older woman was the child’s Grandmother. Whitman noticed that one of the stewards shook the older woman’s hand while saying a few words that Whitman could not hear. The older woman laughed and nodded her head.
When the meal came, Susan fussed and fidgeted all through it. At first, she refused to eat and then demanded that they leave and go see someone named Janice. The child banged the doll she had against the table and asked her father to fix it. He tried to explain to her that the flare had brought all of the nets down, but she didn’t understand.
Susan needed three trips to the bathroom during the meal and refused to drink her milk without a straw. The child’s poor behavior was embarrassing, but everyone was willing to put up with it. Susan was obviously over-tired from the prolonged travel and Common Room 4E was not really a child friendly place.
After dinner, Susan settled down. The effects of the milk and the dim lighting were helping her to relax. She looked around the room, staring in turn at all of the flare bound travelers around her.
Whitman watched the stewards who were going from table to table with mugs of cider. He caught the eye of one of them. When they came by, he slipped the steward one of his precious bottles of vodka to warm up the cider for anyone who wanted it. The steward smiled and winked as he took the bottle.
Whitman smiled at the child when she looked at him. He must have frightened her because she started up her siren again.
“Shush, Susan” Grandma said, petting the little girl while trying to distract her from the scary man.
“I want my Saji-Kahn” Susan cried shaking her doll.
“It won’t work here. The network is down because of the solar flare.” Grandmother explained. “Nothing will work until it passes.”
Susan just cried louder. Grandma took the Saji-Kahn doll and placed on an empty seat. She then picked Susan up and sat her on her lap. The small woman was not much larger than the little girl was.
“Now hush and I’ll tell you a story about Virginia Station. The story is about a Christmas Eve a long time ago. It is a good story and not many people know it. You should listen because you might have grandchildren some day and you will want to tell them the story.”
The little girl quieted down and leaned against her grandmother. She released little hiccups from time to time as Grandmother rocked her and rubbed her back.
This is the story that the grandmother told:
I worked here before they called it Virginia Station. Its name at first was “The Lunar Low Orbital Station” or LLOS. I wasn’t called Grandmother then. I was called Noriko and I was a junior structural engineer. When I was 29, the Space Authority hired me to work on the station because I am also an expert welder. As a student in San Francisco, I won art competitions with some of the sculpture that I made with my welder. I thought they wanted me so I could make the station beautiful.
When I arrived at the station, I was the only girl in my group. There were twelve welders and they were all older and bigger than I was. I was assigned sleeping quarters in the construction trailer, which was really a temporary station to hold men and machines while the station was built.
The Manager of the construction teams was a former astronaut named Marshall Martine. He was an Air Force fighter pilot and engineer who flew into space three times on the old shuttles. His job was to organize the assembly of the station from the parts that arrived from the Earth and the Moon. My job was to weld them together with my arc welder.
One by one, he gave orders to the welders. Each man got a welding cart and a set of plans with his section outlined. Their orders were to coordinate with the crews of wranglers who moved the girders and plates into position. Each of us was an engineer and had special training on how to weld the station together in the vacuum of space.
When Marshal came to me, he frowned. He was nearly two meters tall and weighed over 100 kilograms while I was only 155 centimeters tall and weighed less than 50 kilograms. He did not frighten me, though and I asked, “Where do you want me to work?”
“I don’t know what to do with you.” He said. “You’d never be able to handle those structural units. They would crush you.” He shook his head.
“I am well prepared to work on the construction,” I said. “The wranglers place them in position. I just make the spot welds. There is no problem.”
“There’s more to it than that.” He said. “I just don’t think that you’d be useful in an emergency. For now, I am assigning you to quality control inspections. I want you to stay in the trailer and prepare an inspection schedule.”
“But I am a welder.” I protested, “I was sent here to weld!”
“I tell you what to do.” He said gruffly. “Read your job description. It says you are a welder, but you are also to work at ‘Related and Lesser Duties’ if I tell you to.”
I was so disappointed. I wanted to work on Virginia Station to build something beautiful. I hoped someday to come to Virginia Station with my grandchildren, point to a wall or a floor, and say to them “See that weld? I did that.”
But, I had very little to do. The inspection schedule was already in the construction plans and my job was to copy it out to a separate document and link it to the production progress tables that the crews updated each day. As each slice of the station was completed, I went out, checked the welds, and measured the tolerances. There were hardly ever any problems. When there were problems, I did not even get to fix them. The men worked twelve-hour shifts and came in very tired. They had little to say to me. I was very bored and very lonely.
Slowly the station came together. Structural aluminum and titanium plating arrived from the moon every day. Supplies, materials, millwork, and tools arrived from the earth every week. Men with new skills arrived from Earth once a month, but I remained one of only a few women on the construction crews and the only woman welder. Marshall Martine would not let me weld, and I hated him for it.
The station began to look like a great wheel. When the spokes and the central hub were nearly completed, I moved to a stateroom in the hub.
Each day I went all the way around the station. I wore my spacesuit all of the time, even in the pressurized sections. The station was not yet spinning so there was no gravity. There were ropes strung through all of the passageways. I flew from place to place like a bird using the ropes to guide me. Virginia Station is a kilometer in circumference and the ring is 400 meters wide. This is a large area and I had to check all of it. I x-rayed all of the welds at least once and checked off on my PIM as I visually inspected each connection on a regular schedule. In space the station gets very hot in the sun and then very cool as it passes through the moon’s shadow. Every few hours the welds are stressed and any weld can break if there is even the smallest flaw.
After about four months, the station shell was nearly complete. It was Christmas Eve and there was a little party in the crew rooms. Someone had made some homebrewed beer and a few of the men were drinking it.
Even though it was Christmas Eve, everyone had to work a full shift. One of the wrangler crews that had sampled a little too much beer was not as careful as they should have been. They lost control of a large bundle of structural aluminum and it bumped the station. It was a very small bump, but the accident made the girders vibrate slowly like a large rubber band. The vibrations moved around the station forming sympathetic vibrations in all parts of the incomplete structure.
This was before the station was set to spinning and it was not as strong as it is now. A small section of the structural metal cracked and some welds failed. As the a section moved out of the moon’s shadow and into the sun, the expanding struts pushed the structural girders out, buckling the titanium and causing loss in air containment in a pressurized area.
There was no one in the section at the time, but the loss of air pressure caused many problems. Part of the design of the station required that the passageways maintain air pressure. This gives them strength the way a balloon has strength when blown up, but an empty balloon is just floppy piece of rubber.
The station lost its stability but most of the welds held. As the station circled the moon every five hours, it would stress itself further by the expansion and contraction of the metal. I had to get out to the outer ring, locate any possible points of failure, and reinforce them.
Most of the men scurried to the construction trailer to wait for the vibrations to dampen down. I, however, went to a materials pile, wrapped a couple of dozen pieces of aluminum angle stock with duct tape, and grabbed a welding cart. The cart and the stock metal probably weighed more than three of me.
I grabbed at the ropes running up one of the spokes to where the computer said the damage was worst and started pulling myself with my load up the passage. I passed work crews rushing down towards the hub to get to safety. Some of the trades were working strictly in pressurized areas. They thought that the suits were optional. Their supervisors had been very lax in letting them work without suits.
When I reached the outer ring, you could hear the station creaking. I grabbed at a joist and held on tight as I stopped the inertia of the metal bundle following me. The structural supports were very strong, but the design was for zero gravity. The station was ten times stronger than it needed to be, but structures were still very thin and light by Earth construction standards. They bent and shivered as the station slowly settled into its new configuration. Each time a bulkhead slipped or a weld snapped there was a crack that sounded like a gunshot and vibrations rolled around and around the kilometer of the stations rim, making it groan like an old man.
The station’s total structural distortion ended up being less than 40 centimeters, but at the time, it seemed like it was coming apart at the seams. I tacked aluminum stock with my welder onto each of the four places where the hub joined to the rim. I made the sure the jury-rigged braces were holding and moved on to the next hub joint. There were eight hubs, each 125 meters apart. I zoomed down the rim at top speed, barely touching the ropes. My welding cart and heavy bundle of stock came up behind me at the same break-neck speed.
I nearly knocked Marshal Martine over when he came along, speeding from the opposite direction. I struggled to stop the weight of my cart and material from dragging me past him. I told him what I was doing. He had had the same idea, but he was moving slower because he had to cannibalize other structures in order to make braces. He had not been able to grab any stock. Together we went to the next spoke and we reinforced the joint. He held the metal in place while I made quick spot welds.
“We’re just about done here,” he said after we worked on two more spokes, “but we passed a buckled section of bulkhead about 200 meters back. I think I should go reinforce that before it looses air pressure.”
He zoomed off back the way he had come and I went after him. I had to go slower because I was towing a welding cart and a lot of mass in aluminum stock.
When I caught up with Marshall, he was pushing hard against a wrinkle in the titanium alloy skin that made up the station’s bulkheads. A weld had failed and the skin had pulled loose from the short structural members that held it stiff. The wrinkle was shiny where the protective paint was flaking off. The stress cracks radiated out from a diagonal line that crossed the whole wall. The thin metal still had a lot of strength, and I was certain it would be able to hold as long as air pressure kept pushing it out against the aluminum joists supporting it.
“Here, give me an angle beam.” He said and I handed him a 3-meter length from the package I had been hauling. He placed it along the corner where the wall meet the floor and pulled out his welder.
“Wait!” I yelled. Something was wrong. The air felt wrong and there was a hiss coming from behind us. I had worked with oxy-acetylene torches and I knew the feel of the air when pure oxygen escaped. I could not smell it because I had my helmet on. Anyway, oxygen does not have a special smell other than the staleness of air that has been in a can for months. I heard it, though. There was a sharp hissing coming from a line hidden somewhere behind a wall. The air had a feel that I recognized. It was a kind of slipperiness. There was a ruptured gas line somewhere and the air supply in the station was oxygen and helium, each in its own line. The oxygen line had cracked!
Too late, Marshall looked up at me to question me. He was snapping the tip of the welding rod against the bulkhead to check for a good ground. The snap of the spark glowed brilliantly white for a moment and the wall burst into blinding flames.
The blast blew us back. In pure oxygen, everything burns. The titanium alloy of the sheet metal glowed in colors from a bright yellow to a pale violet. In zero gravity, things burn hotter because there are no convectional air currents to cool the flame. The flame burns intensely until it uses up the oxygen near it. The hot gases rush out and then cooler air rushes in bringing new oxygen. The flame burned with an enormously loud put-put motor boat sound.
Marshall’s arm caught fire. He waved it around looking for some way to put it out, but it just flared. I leaped on him, knocking him over and away from the flame. We went tumbling down the corridor away from the fire. I wrapped my own body around his arm as best I could, trying to deny the flame its supply of oxygen.
Suddenly the fire burned through the bulkhead and the air rushed out of the passageway with roar. The hard vacuum of space filled the room as the emergency doors slammed closed. Then there was the silence of vacuum. The fire had died as quickly as it had started.
I looked at Marshall. The material of the spacesuit arm was burned away showing raw skin and flesh. The exposed skin was turning dark purple in the cold vacuum. His suite air was leaking out through the rags of his suit. He was unconscious. The emergency sphincter at the elbow was charred and it had failed. The shoulder joint had constricted, but was leaking. The suit was designed to be fireproof, but pure oxygen will always find something to burn if given a chance.
I grabbed my roll of duct tape from the welder’s cart and wrapped it around his arm and hand until the whole roll was gone.
I quickly checked my own suit. There were char marks on the front where the flame had touched it, but the suit was all in once piece and intact.
I checked Marshall’s air pressure gauges on his chest. The tape stopped most of the leakage, but he was still loosing air. His hand and arm needed immediate medical attention if they were to be saved at all. He had only minutes of air left.
There was no way to get the emergency doors rolled back, and we could not wait for a rescue crew. There was only one thing to do. I pulled out the welder and set the voltage to cutting level. I put a cutting rod in the bit and started to work on the bulkhead around the failed point. In moments, there was a gap big enough for me to drag Marshall through.
When we got outside the passage and into space, I could see the moon spinning by at dizzying speed below me. It looked like a giant gray ball, taking up most of the sky, rolling in space. I could see the construction trailer tied to the hub. The trailer had a doctor and a fully equipped hospital designed for just this kind of emergency. The hospital was rarely used for anything except a few bumps and bruises. Marshall had been a careful manager and had had a good safety record up to now.
I pushed off towards the trailer and using the jets in the suit, I easily steered to the trailer’s airlock. As I tried to get the lock open and not loose hold of Marshall, he woke up and I heard through the radio, “Thanks Noriko. I guess I was wrong about you.” He smiled at me through the plastic of the helmet and I smiled back.
Grandma stopped talking and took a sip of the cider that had arrived. The tables around us had grown quiet. She took a larger gulp of cider and smiled at the little girl. All within earshot were listening to her story. The little girl looked at her grandmother with new interest and appreciation.
Just then, the all clear signal rang out, but very few people stood up to leave. The Christmas tree was almost complete and the stewards were stringing popcorn to decorate it. There was a group at one side of the room singing ‘Adeste Fidelis’ very loud and out of key.
“Grandma!” the little girl called out, tugging on Noriko’s sleeve. “What happened to the mean man? Did he get better? What happened to his arm?”
Everyone at the table laughed aloud at this. They had heard the story many times. The little girl looked puzzled.
“Why, don’t you know?” grandma laughed. “He recovered fully and his arm is just fine. While he was getting better, he put me to work supervising all of the repairs and then I did all of the finish welding myself.”
“I changed my mind about him. He turned out to be a very nice person. And you know what?”
The little girl shook her head.
“Well, I liked him so well that I married him. Marshall Martine is your grandfather. You’ll have to call him when we get to the moon and tell him that you like the station we built together.”
When Grandma finished telling her story, all of the tables around them started talking and laughing at once. A few people got up, introduced themselves, and shook Noriko’s hand, telling her how much they liked her story and her beautiful station.
At midnight, the lights dimmed and the homemade Christmas tree was lit up with little red and green LED’s from the station’s stock of repair parts. Everyone sang the old carols like “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “Silent Night”, and “Blue Christmas”.
When Whitman finally left his table, he was a little tipsy and almost tripped navigating through the common room. Out in the main passageway, Grandma and her family were standing together, looking at the wall. Grandma was saying, “See that weld dear, the little line in the wall. I did that. It was over forty years ago and it seems like yesterday.”
Little Susan ran he finger down the fine straight bead of the weld and smiled.
Whitman asked the family to pose for a picture. For once, the recorder seemed to be working correctly. He thought it would be a nice Christmas present for his editor.
“Construction Worker Returns to Virginia Station After 40 Years” The headline would read.
Whitman figured that the old man would go for it. Now that the solar flare had died down, the story might even arrive before Santa’s Sleigh.