This is my first story for the “Galaxies” competition. The desire to make it available to the wider public sparked the creation of the blog.
His breath and sweat were beginning to condense on the cylindrical glass wall of the helmet. With all the tech crammed inside there was no space for cooling or dessication, and the two hour oxygen supply made them pointless anyway. Still, the Operator was cursing silently the engineer, manufacturer, and his own boss for having to spend two hours in the sweaty vacuum of the suit.
He raised his hand, clad in a hard and impermeable anti-rad glove, and moved the mechanical wiper. The leaded glass became a little clearer, but his vision stayed as blurred as before. The pressure gauges of the reactor in front of him were still barely visible half circles, their needles – pale phosphorescent spots that appeared when he swiped the UV lamp on top of them. Everything looked normal, with an accuracy of about fifteen percent, just as the protocol required. The Operator turned towards the wall of the reactor on the left and continued his silent litany towards the ones responsible for putting him as close to hell as possible.
In the control room the temperature was much lower, but everyone was sweating like they were personally in the anti-radiation suit. The heavy breathing of the Operator could be heard from the speakers around the room – constant radio connection was required. Actually the word “radio” was not properly used here, because the radiation made actual radio contact impossible. There was a hyper-conductive plate on the floor of the control platform of the reactor core that acted as a communication point. The left boot of the anti-radiation suit was placed on it and transmitted the signal from the helmet microphone, along with the other information from the suit. This was also how the proper position of the most important member of the team was ascertained.
The Technical Overseer was looking at the image received by the camera on the Operator’s helmet conscious of the fact, that he was seeing the reactor ten times better than the Operator himself. He often had to open the feedback channel and guide the hand of the man in the suit if the situation required it. Right now he was considering such an intervention, and he reluctantly pressed the com button.
“Jim, there is a crack forming in the upper right corner of the wall. You have to seal it. I’ll mark the spot on your display.”
The reactor wall formed surface cracks every other month and their removal was a routine procedure by now. Still, the whole team was usually shaking with fear while the Operator on shift sprayed the spot with liquid sealant that solidified from the radiation and kept almost a hundred percent of it back. They shook because, while the repairs were done, the Operator had to move away from the com plate and the control room was “deaf and blind”. No one had anticipated the frequency of cracks on the reactor wall and there was no other com point in place, and there was not going to be one until the regular maintenance shutdown ten years from now.
While in the control room the TechOv was marking the crack on the active screen, down in the reactor the Operator was watching the lines appearing on the helmet display with silent horror. He cleared the glass one more time and the glowing lines became almost sharp. This time the region was big – he had to spray almost half the reachable surface of the wall to ensure protection by the protocol. On one hand this made the task easy and he wouldn’t fret over whether he hit the right spot. On the other hand, however, if that kind of crack was not covered well, it could lead to the wall breaking down in a week, before the next regular maintenance round. In that case everything in a few hundred kilometers would go to hell, and he would be responsible.
The Operator waited for the “Ready” signal from the control room and prepared to disconnect from the com point. Being left alone in the heart of the reactor was a terrible ordeal, and the operators had regular psych exams every other time they had to do it. A lot of them took long breaks after such an occurrence, and they often did not come back to work.
The heavy boot cleared the com plate with a crack of static electricity and the red “No Com” sign appeared on the display. The TechOv’s map of the crack kept blinking in blue and the Operator tried to imagine the invisible lines on the wall in front of him. After several clanking steps along the platform he came close enough to activate the sealant spray. He tried not to think about the terrible energies that raged on the other side of the wall, and measured the surface temperature. Then he set the heater for the sealant and the auto-stirring container started humming lightly. He had to wait for the thick goo to temper to five percent of the degree. Differences in temperature could impede complete coverage and drying… and he would be responsible again.
Suddenly bright light in the colours of the rainbow burst in his eyes and the darkness in the reactor was split in two. The temperature sensor started a high pitched squeal and the mist on the front glass of the helm started drying out so fast that the Operator saw the core on the other side of the wall before he could react. For a moment he stood stunned by the colourful glow and then the alarms going off one after the other wrenched him out of the trance and into wild panic. His hands had already pointed the nozzle of the spray gun forward when the most important task of the operators in case of a breach flashed in his mind – “Quickly close the hole!”. The pressure in the sealant tank shot out a jet of sticky goo at the speed of fifty meters per second, the figure repeated many times during the training flashing like a tiny fish in the ocean of his terror and disappearing again. In front of him the flowing protuberances fought with the sealant and it looked for a second as if they would win. Then the light slowly died down and he realized that his hands were moving in the standard regular area coverage shape. The more conscious the movement became, the more his hands began to tremble and after a while the Operator’s strength betrayed him and he let the heavy spray gun fall down, willing his stiff fingers off the trigger brace. In front of him the wall looked the same as ever, gray and slightly rough. The Operator took a few faltering steps back without taking his eyes off the spot where the colourful lights of the core danced a minute ago, while his vision slowly accommodated again to the darkness of the reactor. He realized his breathing was deep and ragged and his throat was sore, as if he had been screaming. He probably had been.
Unexpectedly the voice of the TechOv sounded in his ear and only the heavy suit prevented the Operator from jumping in the air.
In the control room the tension was building with every second and when the no-com counter reached two minutes it was clear that the repairs were not going as planned. Thirty seconds later all responsible personnel was called on emergency, and fifteen second after that the Director of the power plant was calling the Nuclear Safety Agency to report a possible problem.
Three second later a crack announced the restored communication channel to the Operator. Reports from all stations started raining down on the TechOv, covering the vitals of the Operator, the environment in the reactor, the condition of the suit. On the screen in front of him the wall looked as strong as ever, but the speakers filled the room with the patchy breathing of the Operator, and the TechOv thought with regret that he was up for another psych report and an extended, possibly permanent leave.
The pressure, however, had left the control room like a bird, scared by a dog’s barking, and was rising up towards the blue sky above the plant.
The Magister of the Third Layer scalded the Mentor responsible for the emotional balancing of the departees. This was the most dangerous case since the start of the spiritual transformation program and he was not going to let something like this happen again. Still, the Magister was delighted by the self-control of the Traveller during the meeting with the organic carrier. Most of the denizens of the Layer would burn through the object immediately, and would thus destroy the link with the other Layer. The Mentor’s work was showing promise, but he had to work on the impatience of his subjects. The ways between the Layers could not be opened so quickly and directly.
Finished with his duty, the Magister focused his attention on another part of the Layer where he was needed. On the spot of departure only the colourful protuberances of the Third Layer remained, flowing through the colours of the rainbow, and so bright, that they would vaporize instantly any liquid, should they enter the physical world…
October 15, 2013