LXXXII

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Submitted Date 09/15/2022
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Pelar Fitts was inching his way down the ladder when the annunciator in his suit's left arm pack vibrated, and then there was a soft voice in his ear: Adolfo Perez, priority four.

He held on to the ladder with his left hand, reached over with his right to press the Ignore panel on the wrist of his suit's left arm, and started back down the ladder.

He had just started back down the ladder when the pack vibrated again. Adolfo Perez, priority two, the computer announced. He pressed the Answer panel. "What do you want, Al?"

"Why are you still on the ladder?"

"I'm still on the ladder because I don't want to get killed doing a board replacement job. Where are you?"

"I'm watching you take forever to get back down here."

"Well, if you'd stop bothering me, I could move faster."

In Bay 4, Adolfo and three other men were standing at the window looking up at the satellite that hung frozen above them while the stars beyond wheeled slowly past. The ladder extending down from the bottom of the satellite was plainly visible, as was the spacesuited figure on it making his way down, and if a more detailed view was needed, a small telescope was mounted to the floor adjacent to the window. "Push off from the ladder and you'll float right down to the top hatch," Al said.

Pelar's voice crackled from the overhead speaker in the bay. "Or I'll drop down to Africa."

"You won't drop to—oh, Christ," Al turned to one of the other men. "Bobby, can you talk some sense into him?"

Bobby Scintar rolled his eyes and stepped over to where he could speak into the microphone. "Pel, can you hear me?" There was no response. "Pelar?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm not pushing off. Look, I'll be there in 20 minutes, why don't you guys go do, I don't know, go do whatever it is you do when you're not bothering the help."

Bobby shrugged and stepped away from the microphone.

Al leaned into the microphone. "Come to my office when you get here. You hear me?" He stormed away, slamming the bay door behind him while the other men continued to watch their colleague make his way down the long ladder.

"Oh, he's going to be fifteen minutes or so at least," one of the other men, Phil Franklin said to the other one, Kenny Smits. "Let's go see if the Rangers are done yet."

"Yeah, okay," Phil said. The two of them strode off toward the passage and had actually opened the door when Bobby, who was still looking out of the window, gave a yell.

"Whoa! What the hell is he—"

Phil and Kenny stopped and turned. "What?" Kenny had managed to get out—and then there was an explosion outside the window.

When explosions occur in space, there is no noise, but Phil and Kenny both saw the bright and surprisingly sustained flash of first white and then increasingly yellow light outside shining in through the window. It illuminated Bobby, who stood with his mouth open, and then he noticed a large piece of shrapnel approaching the window. He ducked and it struck; it shattered the exterior layer of plexiglass resin, causing the entire window panel to craze, and then there were overlapping voice alarms over the speakers: three computerized voices competed with each other for attention with 'Exterior explosion detected,' 'Depressurization in Bay 4,' and 'Annex depressurizing.'

Kenny waved for Bobby to follow the two of them into the passage and when the three of them were out of the bay, he slapped the button to close the door. "What the hell happened out there?" Kenny asked.

Bobby ignored him and manipulated the small communicator he pulled out of his jumpsuit pocket. "Parts Four, Control. There's been an explosion on the Annex, Bay 4 is sealed."

"Explosion on the Annex, Bay 4 sealed," the station's controller, a Simon Wetware VII artificially intelligent computer responded calmly. "Teams deployed to rescue crewman and effect temporary repairs."

"Yeah, it was Pilar out there," Bobby continued. "He—" Bobby wiped a hand across his face as he debated with himself whether or not to say what he thought he saw out there just before the bomb or whatever it was exploded. "Control, I think something in his suitpack blew up."

Two weeks later, the recovered pieces of Pilar's suit were laid out on a large table in a large hangar on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. Around the table were several figures in what appeared to be hazardous waste suits. Cameras fed various views of the table, its contents, and the occupants to a conference room in which Bobby and Kenny sat with the team investigating the incident. At the head of the table, a woman in the uniform of an Air Force major general keyed the microphone that stood on a stand in front of her position. "Mike? Give us the sound up here."

The answer came over speakers mounted in the tabletop surface. Yes, ma'am. Then there was a crackle and then the hangar audio was heard. The general allowed it to go on for a few moments, and then she pressed the talk switch again. "Okay, Mike, that's enough." A moment and then the speakers were silent. The general scanned the faces around the table. "So, that's where we're at, folks. Big explosion, dead crewman, a screwed-up annex, and no real understanding of why."

"The explosion was entirely external to the annex," one of the men around the table snarled. He was unshaven, wearing an ill-fitting suit, and looked uncomfortable in the chair he was sitting in. "Something approached and blew up, or maybe Fitts set something off, or maybe—"

"Fitts didn't set anything off, Stanley," Bobby said. "He was the most cautious guy on the team. That's why he was on the ladder in the first place. Any of the rest of us—" he motioned to Kenny, who was nodding "—would have just pushed off and floated on down."

"Yeah, that's right," Kenny added. "Pilar's the last guy to have an accident."

Stanley held his snarl. "Maybe it wasn't an accident."

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