2948-06-16 - Tales from the Service: The Dirtiest Job
“Skipper, we’re almost through the door. Is this section of sealed off?”
“Affirmative, Chief. Adjoining sections have been evacuated and atmosphere withdrawn.”
“Stand by to open the locks in this section as well.” Chief Damage Control Technician Lucian Pohl-Androv glanced down at the life support monitor readouts on his wrist display as two of his subordinates cut into the hatch with suit-mounted arc-cutters. Both men inside were still alive, but he knew there wasn’t much time left. Even if the automatic life-support functions of their uniforms extended by atmospheric canisters in their multi-utility belt packs, the pair of unfortunates were in serious danger.
“Ready at your call, Chief.”
“Mr. Boone, Mr. Funar. Don’t know if you can hear us in there but we’re almost through the door. Hold on.” The request fell flat even to Lucian’s own ears. There was nothing the men could do but try not to think too hard about what they were marinating in. The raw, partly digested sewage runoff of the ship’s entire compliment was only the beginning of their distress – the varieties of bioengineered extremophile microbes which were used to digest this waste material and the various odd chemicals used to keep them operating at peak performance were far more dangerous. With the microbial colonies going haywire and filling the entire compartment, there was every chance that the sewage inflow and nutrient trips would be insufficient to satisfy the microbes – if that happened, they would start trying to digest somewhat less ideal foods, such as smart-cloth, artificial polymers, and human flesh.
Even if the microbes didn’t digest the two men from the outside in, they would colonize the two technicians – first by anchoring forests of microbial strands to their skin, and then eventually by gaining lodgment in their digestive tracts. If left submerged in the noxious bath for for too long, the men might end up with sewage-digesting microbes replicating in their blood-streams – a recipe for almost inevitable, and agonizingly protracted, death.
“Ten seconds, Chief.” One of the men ahead at the hatch called out. “Brace yourself.”
The two men with the cutters, wearing heavy hazardous-environment suits as they were, were prepared for the explosive release of slimy liquid when the hatch was breached, but Lucian, wearing a far lighter suit variant, quickly latched two safety lines to tie-down points on the bulkhead to avoid being washed away. “I'm ready.” All three suits and the maintenance tunnel had been coated with antimicrobial sprays but everything touched by the errant sewage microbes would still be ejected into the void of space the moment they were removed – it was cheaper for the Navy to replace than to decontaminate its equipment. Unfortunately, clumsy repair technicians were another story.
“Three. Two. One.” At the count of one, Lucian heard metal creaking and pinging. If the junior tech said “breach complete,” the words were drowned out by a crash as the severed hatch tore inwards and a gurgling roar as a wave of gray-brown sludge erupted through the opening, washing down the corridor.
The wave hit Lucian hard, and if it had not been for the safety lines he would have tumbled backwards down the hallway. As it subsided, the filamentous goo rose to his knees. “Find them both and let’s get out of here.”
The two technicians in the lumbering suits didn’t need the order; they were already wading into the fouled chamber. Around their shoulders, Lucian could see stringy brown biomass hanging from the bulkheads and overhead catwalks like a wet, shaggy rug. Shuddering, he unhooked his safety lines and waded forward himself.
Within two steps, Lucian’s foot came down on something harder than the goo, but more yielding than the deck plating. Reaching into the opaque slime, he pulled up a shaggy, microbe-strand covered figure, limp and unresponsive. “Got one out here.” He pinged the unrecognizable form with his suit radio. “It’s Funar. Unconscious but the sensors say he’s still alive.” Hurriedly, Lucian pulled a sprayer from his utility belt and began to coat the unfortunate in antimicrobial chemicals. Immediately, the strands began to break up and fall away, revealing the flimsy dome of an emergency uniform pressure helmet. The uniform had gone hermetic at some point – there was some hope he’d avoided the worst effects of exposure.
Unfortunately, the helmet bubble was itself filled with gray-brown slime. The man was still alive, but if the microbes were inside his hermetically sealed smart-fabric uniform and were attacking his body, he was in serious trouble.
“I’ve got Boone. Looks like he got his helmet up in time.”
“We’re done here. Skipper, open the locks.” Lucian sighed as he hooked in his safety lines once more and attached Funar’s lines as well. If Mikhail Funar died, Boone would probably wish he had as well. The Navy would do everything possible to make an example of Boone for his lethal mistake.
As officers on the bridge opened the airlocks, the sea of microbial soup bubbled, then rushed greedily out toward the void of space along with the fouled atmosphere. The strands too firmly anchored to surfaces to be pulled out withered and turned to powder almost as soon as their moisture had finished boiling off.
“Situation under control, Skipper. Get that medical team in here.”
Last week, in Tales from the Service: A Dropped Spanner, the consequences of Technician Ronan Boone's simple mistake began to take shape. In this second installment of the same story, told from the perspective of a damage control specialist on the same ship, we see the lengths the crew went to to recover Boone and his assistant, Technician Funar. The bill for the equipment contaminated beyond recovery in this rescue effort appears to have been quite extensive, but the Navy shouldered the financial cost without hesitation.
After the two men were recovered, however, an inquiry into the cause of this expensive mishap was initiated, and to my knowledge it is still ongoing. Tech Funar did not survive (and perhaps mercifully remained unconscious until he passed), and the human toll combined with the fact that a warship was taken out of service for repairs during wartime seem to weigh more heavily on the Navy officers involved than the material cost of equipment damaged or destroyed.
I do not know whether it is just for Boone to be cashiered or incarcerated for his mistake - that is up to board of inquiry. Unfortunately, no matter what the verdict, there will probably be a family that thinks it horribly unjust.