Haikasoru

 

Space Opera. Dark Fantasy. Hard Science.
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THE NEXT CONTINENT — OGAWA

by Haikasoru

The evening meal was punctually observed. In fact, this was the only part of the schedule that was. Like clockwork, the five Chinese strictly adhered to the two-hour meal period, but there was no private time afterward. The five crew members never observed the scheduled start of the sleep period at 22:00. Instead of private time, they worked late into the night on facility repairs, harvesting the experiments in the White Tiger module and preparing for the next day’s tasks. Once, around 4:00 a.m., Sohya woke to use the toilet and heard the animated voices of Peng and Cui coming from the White Tiger module, audible over the round-the-clock basso profundo hum of fans that pervaded the base. It sounded more like an argument than a discussion.

And after every task was completed, there was communication with Beijing Flight Control. Cui had constantly checked his wearcom during that first day’s tour―not only to monitor the time, but to send text updates to Beijing. His refusal to do updates via voice link reflected his irritation with having to do it at all. This was not hard to understand. It was his duty to contact Control even when he visited the toilet.

Yet there were times when Cui set aside his usual dour mood. One evening after dinner, Ma suggested they watch a movie together, and Cui revealed another side to his personality.

The movie was not streamed from Earth. Ma had carried it with him on a memory card. It was not the kind of entertainment Beijing would have transmitted via one of their communications satellites; it was an erotic comedy from Hong Kong. Taé averted her face in confusion. Sohya was embarrassed for her, but Cui paid no attention. For a short time, he became a different person, exploding with laughter throughout the film. Still, the rest of the time he remained difficult to approach, while Commander Peng and Jiang were easy to deal with.

After several days, the reason for the irregular scheduling suddenly dawned on Sohya.

A huge amount of the crew’s time was monopolized by repair work. Every crew member was occupied with something during waking hours, but a third of the work was devoted to repairs to the cooling system, the air and water purification devices, and the base power supply. Next in terms of demands on their time came looking after the creatures and harvesting the experiments in White Tiger. These tasks clearly limited the time available for other scientific work, so the only way to solve that problem was to skimp on sleep. Even the crew’s strict adherence to the evening meal schedule was a reflection of the overburdened working day. Without at least having an unhurried evening meal, they would not have been able to cope with the pressure.

It seemed to Sohya that Kunlun Base was barely holding together. A more charitable way to put it was that the base was operating at the limits of its capacity. The coolant leak they saw that first day proved to be a daily occurrence, and a sweet smell wafted throughout the base from pools of ethylene glycol beneath the floor. The solar panels installed outside the modules were exposed to direct sunlight with no intervening atmosphere to reduce its intensity, so the older panels were beginning to sustain damage which sometimes pushed the base’s power supply to dangerously low levels. As an outsider, Sohya might never have noticed this, except for an incident that occurred just after they had bedded down on the fourth day.

Sohya was about to doze off when he heard a crash and opened his eyes. The endless whirring of the purification fans and the droning of the reverse osmosis unit made for a surprisingly noisy environment, and it was never easy to sleep. Sohya drowsily opened the door to his sleep station to find Peng lifting a familiar-looking tank from the floor.

“Still working, commander? Don’t you guys ever get any sleep?”

“Sorry to disturb you. Please go back to bed,” said Peng. He glanced at Sohya and tightened a valve on the tank. Sohya heard a loud click and without thinking, asked, “It says SFOG on the tank. What does that stand for?”

Peng shook his head slightly, looking uncomfortable. “So you noticed that. It stands for Solid Fuel Oxygen Generator.”

“Oxygen generator?” Sohya said sleepily. “Are we short on oxygen?”

“Of course not. Everything’s fine. We do this all the time.”

“Oh, okay…” Sohya climbed back into his hammock and closed his eyes. He needed the sleep.

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