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The Second Worst Sound

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Oct 14, 2019.

  1. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
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    The Second Worst Sound

    [A/N: This story is intended to emulate in style the science fiction of the old masters; Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke.]

    Do you know the second worst sound you can hear in a space suit? Let me tell you a story.

    This happened back when we were still constructing the L5 megaplex, long before it was sealed and aired up. I'd been in orbital construction almost from the day it became a thing, so I ended up as a leading hand. We had construction going on twenty-four-seven, with three rotating crews; Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. I was with Alpha crew.

    We were using the Stillwell variant of the Bordon EVA suit; simplified for ease of use, it was basically a bag of air that was cinched in at places so we could bend our arms and legs, and with a radio that transmitted nonstop from the moment you put the helmet on. Even if we ran out of oxygen, the suit itself held a good ten minutes worth of air. This had saved more lives than I could count, back in the day.

    The very worst sound you can hear in a space suit is the hsssssss of escaping air. It echoes weirdly, but you always recognise it immediately. And you can tell where it’s coming from, because there’s a cold feeling in that area. Not from the ‘cold of space’—anyone who uses that term has never gone off-planet—but from the drop in temperature associated with a lowering of pressure. Pure physics.

    If you hear that noise, you’ve got between ten seconds and a minute to get into pressure, or to get a buddy with a patch to slap it over your leak. We all carried patches all the time, despite the fact that we couldn’t reach seventy percent of the vulnerable areas on our own suits. Your patches could save someone else’s life. I had occasion to use mine on more than one occasion, and I was damn glad I’d made sure they were there.

    What's this got to do with the second worst sound you can hear in a space suit? I'm getting to that.

    On every work crew everywhere, you’ve got the asshole. You know the one I’m talking about. That guy. The one who gets on everyone’s nerves, but doesn’t quite cause enough discord to warrant firing him. It didn’t help that we had a pitbull for a union rep at the time. Working construction at the Lagrange points was a huge boost to the paycheck, and he was bound and determined to make sure nobody got fired without an absolutely vacuum-tight reason. Useful to the rest of us most of the time, but just this once we’d have been delighted if he looked the other way for a while.

    On Alpha crew, the asshole was … well, he’s still around, so let’s call him Lennie. Lennie was a friendly guy, liked to get along with everyone. That was actually part of the psych profile to work deep-space orbital construction; we were packed together like sardines when off-shift, so we couldn’t have any grumpy loners. But Lennie was a back-slapper, everybody’s best buddy. The trouble was, he also liked a little excitement, and he liked to prank people. He always passed it off as ‘just joking’, but the look in his eyes made it clear that to him it was a subtle dominance game. If he could pull off a practical joke on someone, he’d won. The worst bit was, every month we could each order one item from Earth, massing exactly one thousand grams or less. So every month, he’d have a new practical joke ready to play on us.

    Most of the guys on the crew weren’t on their guard; all their vigilance was spent watching their backs out in zero pressure, making sure that one of those big girders didn’t pop their suits open like a jelly donut in a moment of inattention. Everyone has seen stuff like that happen, or knows someone who has. You spend your shift with your head on a swivel, so when you get back in pressure again, all you want to do is relax.

    It was a perfect hunting ground for Lennie; once every rest period, or maybe two, you’d hear cursing from one guy or another who’d been caught out with something minor. And Lennie was always right there, grinning and talking nineteen to the dozen. Half the time he didn’t even deny it. And half the time he was caught, he talked the victim around to being his buddy again. Everyone had a sociable personality, after all, and he was more sociable than most.

    But then there was Tam. I was never quite sure where Tam’s family originally came from; he was a little on the swarthy side, but that could have made him Inuit, or Filipino, or even Maori. Nobody asked, and he didn’t volunteer the information. He was friendly enough—I got along with him quite well—but he had a quiet nature. And, apparently, he was an absolute prodigy when it came to avoiding being pranked.

    Lennie tried; oh, how he tried. But no matter how he attempted to set Tam up, the slender young man never quite fell for the trick, or had a spare towel, or whatever. After a while, it became obvious that Lennie was getting more and more aggravated by his repeated failures.

    And then the normally-reticent Tam made an error of judgement. His birthday was coming up, it seemed, and he was getting his favourite dessert sent up in the monthly delivery, made over into the squeeze-tubes that we all used for food. Breaking the habit he’d maintained thus far, he confided with more than a few of us how he’d been missing food from home, and how much he was going to enjoy his birthday.

    You can guess what happened next. Lennie learned about this, and by one means or another he managed to get his hands on the shipment before the rest of us. By the time Tam got his package, it contained a basic everyday squeeze-tube, not the special dessert he’d been sent. The look of dismay on his face when he tasted the contents was almost comical, and then he turned to look at Lennie, who had just pulled out a different-looking tube.

    “Lennie, you should give that back to me,” Tam said. “It’s mine.”

    “Looks like it’s mine, buddy.” Lennie knew Tam wasn’t going to physically attack him. That would be grounds for instant dismissal from the crew. He twisted the cap off and took a taste of the contents. “Damn, that’s nice.

    “Do not eat that, Lennie,” Tam warned again. “You should not be eating it. Give it back to me.”

    “I think I’ll have some more of my dessert,” Lennie decided, and sucked down almost half the tube in one swallow. “God damn, that’s good.”

    I’d been in another part of the barracks satellite, and I entered the common room just in time to see and hear this bit. Looking at the attitudes of the two men and the triumphant look on Lennie’s face, I connected the dots in a moment. “Lennie,” I said flatly. “Hand it over now, or I will be pulling your name for theft.”

    Lennie rolled his eyes. “Yes, Dad,” he said mockingly. Putting the lid back on the tube, he tossed it toward Tam. “I was about done with it anyway.”

    He left the compartment, and I went to Tam. The young man was looking at the depleted tube in his hand, with an unreadable expression on his face.

    “Hey,” I said. “You okay?”

    He raised his head to look at me. “My sister made this for me,” he said flatly. “For my birthday. Lennie really should not have eaten it. I told him not to eat it.”

    I took a deep breath. “If you want to put in a complaint about him, I’ll cosign it. But you will not take matters into your own hands. Is that understood?” Having a grudge on a groundside worksite would be bad enough. If two guys working orbital construction decided to have at one another at any time, people could die.

    He shook his head. “I am not a vengeful sort of person. I wash my hands of him; let Karma do what she will.”

    Which lined up with what I knew of him. All the same, I made a mental note to have him swap with Davidson from Bravo crew for a week or so, until whatever temper he had cooled down. It was natural to feel anger about that sort of thing, but in the long run, what did it matter?

    I’d almost forgotten about the incident when Alpha crew went out on shift next. Lennie was right there alongside them, making jokes and pulling his weight. I had to give that to the man; prankster or not, he could do a full shift of work.

    But then, just as I was passing on instructions on where to swing girder G-38, I heard an odd sound over his radio.

    I frowned, trying to figure out what I’d heard. “Lennie, what was that? Sounded like a malfunctioning pressure valve.”

    “Nothing,” he said shortly. “I’m good.” Then I heard the noise again, louder and more protracted. It was both familiar and alien; I’d heard sounds exactly like it, back on Earth, but never in the tightly-packed canister that served us for construction barracks. All food tubes were specifically formulated to minimise bacterial gas production in the gut, for obvious reasons.

    A few minutes passed, then it started up again. By now, everyone else had started to pay attention and cross-chatter was building up. By contrast, Lennie was saying nothing verbally, but he was starting to emulate a faulty internal combustion engine attempting to start on a cold morning; that is, lots of minor eruptions and explosions.

    I don’t know who started laughing, but it was contagious. In seconds, the whole crew was helpless with mirth. The only two people not laughing were Lennie and me. I had no choice but to call a ‘tools-down’; nobody was paying attention, and Lennie seemed to be building pressure rather than releasing it.

    “Everyone stay exactly where you are. Lennie, with me.” I guided the stricken worker back into pressure, accompanied by the ongoing chorus from his radio. It was lucky that the Stillwell variant prevents the user from removing the helmet while there’s a pressure mismatch, or Lennie may well have attempted to do that before the airlock finished equalising. As it was, when he did remove the helmet to take a deep breath of air, I had to step back from the stench that gusted up from the neck of his suit. An air-contamination alarm on the bulkhead nearby began to shrill; I slapped the mute button on it.

    I got him down to sickbay, where the medic put on an air mask to examine him, and prescribed a treatment that would calm the ongoing chaos in his guts. In the meantime, he was going to be quarantined from the rest of us; at least, until he ceased producing noxious gases.

    Afterward, I confronted Tam. “You said you would do nothing to him,” I stated. “What happened to him was hardly ‘nothing’.”

    “When you spoke to me, I promised to do nothing,” Tam countered. “And I did nothing. What happened to him was the result of what he’d done earlier.”

    The pieces fell into place with a clang like a clumsy docking operation. “The tube. Whatever was in it disagreed with him.”

    He nodded earnestly. “I told him not to eat it. Several times.”

    Cynically, I raised an eyebrow. “You knew that would egg him on.”

    He looked back at me innocently. “I knew no such thing.”

    “And where is the tube now?” I asked.

    “I recycled it,” he replied. “My sister is sending me another one.”

    Of course he had. And I would’ve bet my life savings that this one would be perfectly normal. A tidbit popped up in my head, from the conversations I’d had with him. “This would be your sister, the biochemist?”

    “Why, yes,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

    I shook my head. “No reason.” Leaving him to it, I headed back to my office.

    When Lennie came out of quarantine, he put in a request to transfer to the L-4 operation. This didn’t surprise me much, especially as I knew that the entire inside of his helmet had been papered with air-fresheners for him to find when he went back to his locker. It appeared the prankster couldn’t take a joke at his own expense.

    L-5 was finished on schedule, and Tam went back down to Earth. I’ve encountered him again, from time to time. We reminisce about L-5, but never about Lennie.

    But to answer the question; what’s the second worst sound you can hear in a space suit?

    It’s not the noise of escaping air. It’s the noise of escaping gas.


  2. alethiophile

    alethiophile Shadowed Philosopher Administrator

    Apr 26, 2013
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    Hah. This is pretty great.

    Reminds me a bit of some of the Troy Rising books.
  3. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

    Jan 3, 2014
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    I see what they were building. One massive fart joke.
  4. Death by Chains

    Death by Chains За родину и свободу!

    Feb 17, 2015
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    Lennie should thank his lucky stars that it wasn’t worse. If Tam had not gone to his sister for specialist assistance and plumped for something a little simpler to get, like the sugar-alcohol used in Haribo Sugar-Free Gummi Bears, well... I don’t know what waste-disposal arrangements are like in the Stillwell suit, but if they got, erm, overwhelmed, Lennie could’ve easily drowned in his own shit and it would’ve nobody’s fault but his own.
    Scopas, bearblue, Alexcorvin and 4 others like this.
  5. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
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    Tam wasn't that vindictive.
    JamesEye, Nyarl-sama, Scopas and 3 others like this.
  6. Sockmonkey

    Sockmonkey Know what you're doing yet?

    Dec 2, 2016
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    Farts are flammable. The real danger wasn't choking, the atmospheric scrubbers in his suit would have taken care of it in time to prevent him from passing out. The danger was having an explosive gas mix in an airtight space containing electrical equipment that could spark.
    One-who-reads and Ack like this.
  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
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    He didn't release enough gas to make for a potential explosive hazard. Just enough to make the interior of the suit thoroughly unpleasant.

    If there was enough gas to make it able to explode, he'd be dead.
    Prince Charon likes this.