فصل 05

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فصل 05

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Chapter 5


I’m stil cowering in the rover, but I’ve had time to think. And I know how to deal with the hydrogen.

I thought about the Atmospheric Regulator. It pays attention to what’s in the air and balances it. That’s how the excess O2 I’ve been

importing ends up in the tanks. Problem is, it’s just not built to pul hydrogen out of the air.

The regulator uses freeze-separation to sort out the gasses. When it decides there’s too much oxygen, it starts colecting air in a tank

and cooling it to 90 kelvin. That makes the oxygen turn to liquid, but leaves the nitrogen (condensation point: 77K) stil gaseous. Then it stores the O2.

But I can’t get it to do that for hydrogen, because hydrogen needs to be below 21K to turn liquid. And the regulator just can’t get

temperatures that low. Dead end.

Here’s the solution:

Hydrogen is dangerous because it can blow up. But it can only blow up if there’s oxygen around. Hydrogen without oxygen is

harmless. And the regulator is al about puling oxygen out of the air.

There are four different safety interlocks that prevent the regulator from letting the Hab’s oxygen content get too low. But they’re

designed to work against technical faults, not deliberate sabotage (bwa ha ha!).

Long story short, I can trick the regulator in to puling al the oxygen out of the Hab. Then I can wear a spacesuit (so I can breathe) and do whatever I want without fear of blowing up. Yay!

I’l use an O2 tank to spray short bursts of oxygen at the hydrogen, and make a spark with a couple of wires and a battery. It’l set the

hydrogen on fire, but only until the smal bit of oxygen is used up.

I’l just do that over and over, in controled bursts, until I’ve burned off al the hydrogen.

One tiny flaw with that plan: It’l kil my dirt.

The dirt is only viable soil because of the bacteria growing in it. If I get rid of al the oxygen, the bacteria wil die. I don’t have 100

bilion little spacesuits handy.

It’s half a solution anyway.

Time to take a break from thinking.

Commander Lewis was the last one to use this rover. She was scheduled to use it again on Sol 7, but she went home instead. Her

personal travel kit’s stil in the back. Rifling through it, I found a protein bar and a personal USB, probably ful of music to listen to on the drive.

Time to chow down and see what the good Commander brought along for music.


Disco. God damn it, Lewis.


Wel I think I’ve got it.

Soil bacteria are used to winters. They get less active, and require less oxygen to survive. I can lower the Hab temperature to 1C, and

they’l nearly hibernate. This sort of thing happens on Earth al the time. They can survive a couple of days this way. If you’re wondering how bacteria survive long periods of cold on Earth, the answer is they don’t. Bacteria further underground where it was warmer breed

upward to replace the dead ones.

They’l stil need some oxygen, but not much. I think a 1% content wil do the trick. That leaves a little in the air for the bacteria to

breathe, but not enough to maintain a fire. So the hydrogen won’t blow up.

But that leads to yet another problem. The potato plants won’t like the plan.

They don’t mind the lack of oxygen but the cold wil kil them. So I’l have to pot them (bag them, actualy) and move them to a rover.

They haven’t even sprouted yet, so it’s not like they need light.

It was surprisingly annoying to find a way to make the heat stay on when the rover’s unoccupied. But I figured it out. After al, I’ve got nothing but time in here.

So that’s the plan. First, bag the potato plants and bring them to the rover (make sure it keeps the damn heater on). Then drop the Hab

temperature to 1C. Then reduce to O2 content to 1%. Then burn off the hydrogen with a battery, some wires, and a tank of O2.

Yeah. This al sounds like a great idea with no chance of catastrophic failure.

That was sarcasm, by the way.

Wel, off I go.


Things weren’t 100% successful.

They say no plan survives first contact with implementation. I’d have to agree. Here’s what happened:

I summoned up the courage to return to the Hab. Once I got there, I felt a little more confident. Everything was how I’d left it (what did I expect? Martians looting my stuff?)

It would take a while to let the Hab cool, so I started that right away by turning the temperature down to 1C.

I bagged the potato plants, and got a chance to check up on them while I was at it. They’re rooting nicely and about to sprout. One

thing I hadn’t accounted for was how to bring them from the Hab to the rovers.

The answer was pretty easy. I put al of them in Martinez’s spacesuit. Then I dragged it out with me to the rover I’d set up as a

temporary nursery.

Making sure to jimmy the heater to stay on, I headed back to the Hab.

Buy the time I got back, it was already chily. Down to 5C already. Shivering and seeing my breath condense in front of me, I threw on

extra layers of clothes. Fortunately I’m not a very big man. Martinez’s clothes fit over mine, and Vogel’s fit over Martinez’s. These sh@tty clothes were designed to be worn in a temperature-controled environment. Even with three layers, I was stil cold. I climbed in to my bunk and under the covers for more warmth.

Once the temperature got to 1C, I waited another hour, just to make sure the bacteria in the dirt got the memo that it was time to take it slow.

The next problem I ran in to was the regulator. Despite my swaggering confidence, I wasn’t able to outwit it. It really does not want to pul too much O2 out of the air. The lowest I could get it to was 15%. After that, it flatly refused to go lower, and nothing I did mattered. I had al these plans about getting in and reprogramming it. But the safety protocols turned out to be in ROMs.

I can’t blame it. Its whole purpose is to prevent the atmosphere from becoming lethal. Nobody at NASA thought “Hey, let’s alow a fatal lack of oxygen that wil make everyone drop dead!”

So I had to use more a more primitive plan.

The regulator uses a different set of vents for air sampling than it does for main air separation. The air that gets freeze-separated comes in through a single large vent on the main unit. But it samples the air from nine smal vents that pipe back to the main unit. That way it gets a good average of the Hab, and prevents one localized imbalance from throwing it off.

I taped up eight of the intakes, leaving only one of them active. Then I taped the mouth of a Hefty-sized bag over the neck-hole of a

spacesuit (Johanssen’s this time). In the back of the bag, I poked a smal hole and taped it over the remaining intake.

Then I inflated the bag with pure O2 from the suit’s tanks. “Holy sh@t!” the regulator thought, “I better pul O2 out right away!”

Worked great!

I decided I not to wear a space suit after al. The atmospheric pressure was going to be fine. Al I needed was oxygen. So I grabbed an

O2 canister from the medical bay. That way, I had a hel of a lot more freedom of motion. It even had a rubber band to keep it on my face!

Though I did need a spacesuit to monitor the actual Hab oxygen level (The Hab’s main computer was convinced it was 100% O2).

Each spacesuit knew how to monitor its own internal air, of course.

Let’s see… Martinez’s spacesuit was in the rover. Johanssen’s was outwitting the regulator. Lewis’s was serving as a water-tank. I

didn’t want to mess with mine (hey, it’s custom fitted!). That left me three spacesuits to work with.

I grabbed Vogel’s suit and activated the internal air sensors while leaving the helmet off. Once the oxygen dropped to 12% I put the

breather mask on. I watched it fal further and further. When it reached 1% I cut power to the regulator.

I may not be able to reprogram the regulator, but I can turn the bastard off completely.

The Hab has emergency flashlights in many locations in case of critical power failure. I tore the L.E.D. bulbs out of one and left the two frayed power wires very close together. Now when I turned it on I got a smal spark.

Taking a canister of O2 from Vogel’s suit, I attached a strap to both ends and slung it over my shoulder. Then I attached an air line to the tank and crimped it with my thumb. I turned on a very slow trickle of O2; a smal enough that it couldn’t overpower the crimp.

Standing on the table with a sparker in one hand and my oxygen line in the other, I reached up and gave it a try.

And holy hel it worked! Blowing the O2 over the sparker, I flicked the switch on the flashlight and a wonderful jet of flame fired out of the tube. The fire alarm went off, of course. But I’d heard it so much lately I barely noticed it any more.

Then I did it again. And again. Short bursts. Nothing flashy. I was happy to take my time.

I was elated! This was the best plan ever! Not only was I clearing out the hydrogen, I was making more water!

Everything went great right up to the explosion.

One minute I was happily burning hydrogen; the next I was on the other side of the Hab and a lot of stuff was knocked over. I

stumbled to my feet and saw the Hab in disarray.

My first thought was “My ears hurt like hel!”

Then I thought “I’m dizzy,” and fel to my knees. Then I fel prone. I was that dizzy. I groped my head with both hands, looking for a head-wound I desperately hoped would not be there. Nothing seemed to be amiss.

But feeling al over my head and face revealed the true problem. My oxygen mask had been ripped off in the blast. I was breathing

nearly pure nitrogen.

The floor was covered in junk from al over the Hab. No hope of finding the medical O2 tank. No hope of finding anything in this mess

before I passed out.

Then I saw Lewis’s suit hanging right where it belonged. It hadn’t moved in the blast. It was heavy to start with and had 70L of water in it.

Rushing over, I quickly cranked on the O2 and stuck my head into the neck-hole (I’d removed the helmet long ago, for easy access to

the water). I breathed a bit until the dizziness faded, then took a deep breath and held it.

Stil holding my breath, I glanced over to the spacesuit and Hefty bag I’d used to outsmart the regulator. The bad news is I’d never

removed them. The good news is the explosion removed them. Eight of the nine intakes for the regulator were stil bagged, but this one

would at least tel the truth.

Stumbling over to the regulator, I turned it back on.

After a two second boot process (it was made to start up fast for obvious reasons) it immediately identified the problem.

The shril low-oxygen alarm blared throughout the Hab as the regulator dumped pure oxygen in to the atmosphere as fast as it safely

could. Separating oxygen from the atmosphere is difficult and time consuming, but adding it is as simple as opening a valve.

I clambered over debris back to Lewis’s spacesuit and put my head back in for more good air. Within three minutes, the regulator had

brought the Hab oxygen back up to par.

I noticed for the first time how burned my clothing was. It was a good time to be wearing three layers of clothes. Mostly the damage

was on my sleves. The outer layer was gone. The middle layer was singed and burned clean through in places. The inner layer, my own

uniform, was in reasonably good shape. Looks like I lucked out again.

Also, glancing at the Hab’s main computer, I see the temperature rose to 15C. Something very hot and very explodey happened, and I

wasn’t sure what. Or how.

And that’s where I am now. Wondering what the hel happened.

After al that work and getting blown up, I’m exhausted. Tomorrow I’l have to do a milion equipment checks and try to figure out

what blew up, but for now I just want to sleep.

I’m in the rover again tonight. Even with the hydrogen gone, I’m reluctant to hang out in a Hab that has a history of exploding for no

reason. Plus, I can’t be sure there isn’t a leak.

This time, I brought a proper meal, and something to listen to that isn’t disco.


I spent the day running ful diagnostics on every system in the Hab. It was incredibly boring, but my survival depends on these

machines, so it had to be done. I can’t just assume an explosion did no long-term damage.

I did the most critical tests first. Number one was the integrity of the Hab canvas. I felt pretty confident it was in good shape, cause I’d spent a few hours asleep in the rover before returning to the Hab, and the pressure was stil good. The computer reported no change

pressure over that time, other than a minor fluctuation based on temperature.

Then I checked the Oxygenator. If that stops working and I can’t fix it, I’m a dead man. No problems.

Then the Atmospheric Regulator. Again, no problem.

Heating unit, primary battery array, O2 and N2 storage tanks, Water Reclaimer, al three airlocks, lighting systems, main computer…

on and on I went, feeling better and better as each system proved to be in perfect working order.

Got to hand it to NASA. They don’t fu@k around when making this stuff.

Then came the critical part… checking the dirt. Taking a few samples from al over the Hab (remember, it’s al dirt flooring now), I

made some slides.

I took them over to the microscope and checked up on my beloved bacteria. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw healthy, active

bacteria doing their thing.

Then I set about cleaning up the mess. And I had a lot of time to think about what had happened.

So what happened? Wel, I have a theory.

According to the main computer, during the blast, the internal pressure spiked to 1.4 atmospheres, and the temperature rose to 15C in

under a second. But the pressure quickly subsided back to 1atm. This would make sense if the Atmospheric Regulator were on, but I’d cut

power to it.

The temperature remained 15C for some time afterward, so any heat expansion should stil have been present. But the pressure

dropped down again, so where did that extra pressure go? Raising the temperature and keeping the same number of atoms inside should

permanently raise the pressure. But it didn’t.

I quickly realized the answer. The hydrogen (the only available thing to burn) combined with oxygen (hence combustion) and became

water. Water is a thousand times as dense as a gas. So the heat added to the pressure, and the transformation of hydrogen and oxygen in

to water brought it back down again.

The milion dolar question is: Where the hel did the oxygen come from? The whole plan was to limit oxygen and keep an explosion

from happening. And it was working for quite a while before blowing up.

I think I have my answer. And it comes down to me brain-farting. Remember when I decided not to wear a spacesuit? That decision

almost kiled me.

The medical O2 tank mixes pure oxygen with surrounding air, then feeds it to you through a mask. The mask stays on your face with a

little rubber band that goes around the back of your neck. Not an air-tight seal.

I know what you’re thinking. The mask leaked oxygen. But no. I was breathing the oxygen. When I was inhaling, I made a nearly

airtight seal with the mask by sucking it to my face.

The problem was the exhale. Do you know how much oxygen you absorb out of the air when you take a normal breath? I don’t know

either, but it’s not 100%. With every breath, I was taking in oxygen, my lungs grabbed some of it, then I was breathing it out into the Hab.

Every time I exhaled, I added more oxygen to the system.

It just didn’t occur to me. But it should have. If your lungs grabbed up al the oxygen, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation wouldn’t work. I’m

such a dumb-ass for not thinking of it! And my dumbassery almost got me kiled!

I’m realy going to have to be more careful.

It’s a good thing I burned off most of the hydrogen before the explosion. Otherwise that would have been the end. As it is, the

explosion wasn’t strong enough to pop the Hab. Though it was strong enough to almost blast my eardrums in.

The Water Reclaimer did its job last night and puled another 50L of water out of the air. Long ago before hydrogen became the focus

of my life, my problem was the 60L shortfal in water production. 50L of it is now in Lewis’s spacesuit, which I’l cal “The Cistern” from now on because it sounds cooler. The other 10L of water was absorbed by the dry soil.

Lots of physical labor today. I’ve earned a ful meal. And to celebrate my first night back in the Hab, I’l kick back and watch some

sh@tty 20th century TV courtesy of Commander Lewis.

“The Dukes of Hazzard,” eh? Let’s give it a whirl.


I slept in late today. I deserved it. After four nights of awful sleep in the rover, my bunk felt like the softest, most profoundly beautiful featherbed ever made.

Anyway, I dragged my ass out of bed and finished some post-explosion cleanup.

I moved the potato plants back in today. And just in time, too. They’re sprouting. They look healthy and happy. This isn’t chemistry,

medicine, bacteriology, nutrition analysis, explosion dynamics, or any other sh@t I’ve been doing lately, this is botany. I’m sure I can at least grow some plants without fu@king up.


You know what realy sucks? I’ve only made 130L of water. I have another 470L to go. You’d think after almost kiling myself twice, I’d stop screwing around with hydrazine. But nope. I’l be reducing hydrazine and burning hydrogen in the Hab, every 10 hours, for another 10 days. Let’s hope I do a better job of it from now on.

I’l have a lot of dead time. 10 hours for each tank of C02 to finish filing. It only takes 20 minutes to reduce the hydrazine and burn the hydrogen. I’l spend the rest of the time watching TV.

And seriously… It’s clear the General Lee can outrun a police cruiser. Why doesn’t Roscoe just go to the Duke farm and arrest them

when they’re not in the car?

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