Oxygen Leak

Working and living on a Sunrise sat was actually a pretty easy gig. If you could drive a bus—even an automated one—you could fly a sat. Gus had been up here for four months and barely lifted a finger. It was great.

He looked out a porthole. Below, the sun’s last rays cast stark shadows across the Drakensberg Mountains. And behind, an arc of glimmering sats, basking in the sun like golden leaves suspended above the spinning Earth. Up here, the sun was always shining. The sats collected the energy and beamed it down to receiver stations. Point and shoot.

Manning an orbital space laser wasn’t as tough as it sounded. A lot of checklists. A lot of redundant tasks. Flip a switch, take a reading, log it, do it again. And that was just fine with Gus. He wasn’t looking for more responsibility. Just the opposite.

He decided to get high.

He’d figured it out on his own with just a little bit of tinkering. The air on the sat was the same as the air on Earth: oxygen and nitrogen. Pure oxygen atmospheres were a no-no in space because of their predisposition for turning into fireworks displays at just the most inconvenient times. Valves attached to the two tanks mixed the gases at the appropriate ratio while maintain the right pressure. Gus jammed a flashlight into the actuator on the oxygen valve so it was stuck closed.

He brought his face close and sucked in. It was like cliff diving into grain alcohol without the taste or smell. Nitrogen narcosis. His head lolled and he giggled and drooled in zero-g.

The feeling would last a little while. Gus removed the flashlight so he wouldn’t asphyxiate himself, and he heard a snap followed by a persistent hiss. His heart thumped. The oxygen valve was broken, stuck open. Gus sobered up in an instant.

Of all the scenarios Sunrise has trained him on involving oxygen leaks, they all assumed you were losing oxygen. He was about to be inundated. The pressurized tank would vent into the cabin until it equalized. The nitrogen valve, sensing the increased cabin pressure, would clamp shut. The atmospheric composition of O2 would shoot past combustion hazard to combustion certainty. The whole damn sat was a giant box of electric potential, and a single spark would blow him halfway to Mars.

Gus started frantically pulling wires, shutting down every system he could. He’d try to SOS the nearest sat with his flashlight. And if that didn’t work, he’d use the laser. He hoped if it came to that he’d be over the Atlantic by then.

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