Chuck Wendig, who is working his bearded fingers to the bone with his new YA novel out, has this week dropped an odd Flash Fiction Challenge on us like a ton of bricks. He has given us a picture of the cover on the re-issue of “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”
and correctly pointed out that it must be for the wrong book! We’re supposed to write the story that the cover is really for.
Challenge accepted! But I almost forgot that today was Thursday and posted something completely different here, so that gave me the title to go along with the picture. Two points make a line, three non-linear points a plane, and four non-planar points a space, so to get to the point, let’s write a space story…
I REMEMBERED IT WAS THURSDAY
It had really been nuts, between the CO2 scrubbers shutting down and then the coolant loop pumps failing. Murphy’s Law had followed us off-planet, not that there had been any doubt it would, at least among those of who lived one bad break away from a quick death. I had my hands full.
I had just managed to troubleshoot the scrubber problem to find where the fault was when the alarms went off for the coolant system. GRACE had followed protocol and started shutting down systems and shedding load to keep critical systems operational, but some of those “non-vital” systems were needed to bring the scrubbers back up. I was being painted into a corner.
Of course, the best part of it all was the way everything started cascading just as I was about to go to sleep. Nothing like going into a real-life emergency drill with half your brain shut down to begin with. Adrenaline – ask for it by name.
After an hour it became pretty obvious that GRACE wasn’t going to let me re-activate the systems I needed until I first got the coolant problem solved. Manual overrides can’t be done on some key systems in situations where GRACE has taken over. I understood the logic of that. Hell, I’m one of the guys who designed the system. If we lived, we would have a new data point to consider. Perhaps a minor tweak to the system might be called for.
I tried to get GRACE to at least open up one comm link back to home, but that was deemed non-essential as well. Rather than argue with her, I grabbed a portable data recorder, put on a medical sensor shirt, linked them, and started a running commentary. If I didn’t make it, at least someone would find the data eventually and figure out what happened. I hoped.
I had to keep moving. GRACE had kept a minimal number of fans going to keep the air circulating, but if I got into a tight space and wasn’t moving around, a bubble of CO2-rich air could build up around me like a halo, knocking me out in minutes. As it was, with the scrubbers offline, I only had a few hours at best. I thought about putting on a suit, but it would have been way too clumsy to work while wearing it. Instead I grabbed an emergency O2 kit intended for use if there was a toxic leak.
Down in the engine room it was cramped and already getting seriously warm. I got to work on the cooling system, setting my watch alarm to go off every ten minutes so I would remember to check my vitals. About the time the really bad headache started I found the ammonia flow valve controller that had locked up.
The only good news was that I could bypass the problem without having to go outside. I really didn’t have the time to do that. The bad news was that it was going to take too long to fix from inside. I set my alarm to every five minutes, started taking hits of O2 with every check, kept up the play-by-play to my digital sidekick, and pressed on.
I was getting close to finishing the bypass couplings when the O2 tank went belly up on me. The nearest replacement was a deck up and two sections over. I made a note for the record that we needed to have O2 in every compartment in the future, then pressed on, the muscles in my arms and hands starting to spasm and my nausea growing rapidly.
I don’t remember being surprised when I heard Violet’s voice. I hadn’t expected to talk to her again, not at this point in the mission, but she sounded as sweet as ever.
I turned about and found Violet sitting on her mother’s lap. Rose was dressed in one of her stupid retro-70’s pop art miniskirts, but she was silent, staring off into the distance beyond the bulkhead. Whatever she was mainlining today, she wouldn’t be joining us for lunch.
Violet was dressed in her favorite tea party getup, pink and purple, a pink bow in her long, golden hair with that monstrously huge feather boa coiled around her. Her unseeing eyes stared at nothing, as always.
“Daddy, why didn’t you come? I’ve been waiting all day.”
“I’m sorry, Violet dear, but I’m busy now. Can I come in a little while?”
“No, Daddy, I need you now! Mr. Furball is going to get away and then we’ll never be able to have tea today.”
“Is today tea day? I’m sorry, I don’t feel good, Violet. But it’s going to be okay. Now I remembered it was Thursday, and we always have tea on Thursday, right?”
“Yes, but first you have to save Mr. Furball, Daddy. Why aren’t you helping me?”
“What’s wrong with Mr. Furball? Isn’t he in his castle?”
“He’s running around in there but Brutus has smashed the tubes again. When Mr. Furball finds out he’s going to get away and then Brutus will eat him!”
“How many tubes are broken, honey? Can you show me where they are?”
“Three of them,” she said, holding up her baby fingers to show me. “They’re right there but you have to fix them right now before Mr. Furball gets here. He’s coming!”
“I don’t know if I can, Violet. I’m very tired and I don’t feel good. Maybe after I take a nap I can get it done. Would that be okay?”
Violet’s face never changed, but tears began to run down her face. “No, Daddy, you have to do it now, not later! It will be too late later. If you don’t do it for me right now Mr. Furball will get away and Brutus will eat him and I’ll never speak to you again!”
“Okay, dear, I’ll try to do it now. Please don’t cry. Let me see what I can find.”
It was almost impossible to see with all of her toys and dolls all over, and Rose’s complete inability to help didn’t make things any easier. Everything was getting fuzzy and indistinct, shifting, moving when I hadn’t moved them. I could hear Violet crying harder, sobbing, wailing warnings at Brutus to stay away.
I had to concentrate, but it was hard and harder. I just needed a little nap, just a few minutes. After that I could get it all done in a jiffy.
I awoke stuck to an intake screen on the ventilation system. My head was splitting open and my vision was blurry. But the air was moving, holding me to the screen. I pushed away and looked around for Violet.
Of course, she wasn’t there. I checked and saw almost twenty minutes had gone by, but I was alive because the cooling system was running again, as were the CO2 scrubbers.
I managed to double check the three jumper lines I had connected and made sure they were secure. The last thing I needed right now in my condition was an ammonia leak. Then I headed back up to the bridge.
As I floated through the corridors, I grabbed the first fresh O2 bottle I saw, turned it on full, and started to take deep, slow breaths. It didn’t do much for my stomach or my headache, but at least the cobwebs started to clear between my ears.
On the bridge I found that GRACE, once the coolant loop came back on line, had executed the procedures I had entered to turn the scrubbers back on. There were more permanent repairs to be made, but I would be able to take care of them after I got some sleep.
Strapping myself into the command seat, I fell asleep almost immediately, still alive and kicking as the captain and pilot of the Violet B, outward bound toward Epsilon Orionis VI at 0.95c with her cargo of 12,413 colonists.
My blind and precocious daughter included.