Split Decision


Day nineteen of the A-to-Z challenge. S is for spacesuit, a special suit designed to keep astronauts alive in space. This story is a continuation of Countdown to the Comet and Killing Blow, regarding an antimatter comet threatening to destroy Earth, and a secret conspiracy to stop it.

Against the backdrop of stars, Comet Spencer Jones glowed like the surface of the Sun. Giordano knew this was an illusion: her spacesuit HUD interfaced with the shipboard computer to project a false-color image. Though the comet shone brightly in gamma frequencies, it was dark as the black sands of Maui in visible light. She tried to focus on calibrating the railgun, rather than the eerie glow that constantly hovered in her peripheral vision.

“Your heart rate is increasing once more,” her mission commander’s dull voice came through the headset. “One-hundred-and-sixty-five bee-pee-em. Elapsed time is now seventy-five minutes.”

“Roger that, Commander,” responded Giordano, trying to hide her exasperation. “Everything under control.” After passing six months in the claustrophobic (but efficient) Japanese-built habitation module with her two shipmates, Giordano needed some space. Now during this spacewalk, she found that even infinite space was not big enough for her to escape Commander Shergill.

In theory, astronaut Bailey Giordano knew that this mission represented the pinnacle of international cooperation. A command module built by the Indian Space Research Organization, docked to a Japanese transhab, and launched into an intercept trajectory atop a Russian-built Orion nuclear pulse rocket — built with decommissioned Cold War weapons, no less. All to get this cold steel American weaponry into range of Comet Spencer Jones.

And every one of those countless secret man-hours of international effort, as Shergill reminded her at every opportunity, had been directed by the British monarchy. Once the mission had successfully diverted the antimatter comet, Shergill would no doubt credit His Royal Highness rather than her righteous marksmanship.

“Blood pressure now rising,” advised Commander Shergill. “One-five-oh by nine-oh.”

“Chann!” she snapped. “Commander… could I please have radio silence? I’m at a crucial stage of the railgun startup.”

“Of course.”

The sound of the radio was replaced by the sound of her own breathing within the spacesuit helmet. As the railgun computer came online, she began to program the firing sequence that would launch over two-hundred solid steel rods toward the comet.

Upon collision, the matter in the projectiles would annihilate with the antimatter that composed the unusual comet, resulting in a tremendous energy release. The first volley would form a crater, serving to focus the energy of the later volleys to create a (very inefficient) rocket cone. With E=mc^2, even small rocket efficiencies were significant: Comet Spencer Jones would be nudged off course, and the world would be saved.

“If this doesn’t work,” Giordano muttered after making sure her headset mic was turned off, “there is no Plan B.” She rechecked the firing sequence.

Her headset speakers suddenly emitted a staticky buzz. She keyed her mic. “Chann! Radio silence?!”

“Aye, Bailey, but I am nae that dolt Chann.”

“Rabbit?” With the ship already positioned for firing, there was no need for the pilot to be in the command center. She expected that Rab Duncan would be in the habitation section, far away from Commander Shergill. “Why are you on this channel?”

“We need to have a wee word in private, Bailey,” said Rabbit. “Ye see, the boys back home have come up with an alternate firing solution.”

“No.” She shook her head within her helmet, though she knew Rabbit could not see her. “I’ve checked and re-checked these calculations a hundred times. This is the correct firing solution to knock the comet away from its collision course.”

“Aye, but have ye considered just how valuable this lump of antimatter would be? Not just for physics, but for the energy crisis? For a world on the verge of war?”

“This has come up numerous times,” she told the pilot. “Any attempt to capture the comet into Earth orbit is just too dangerous to attempt. A mistake could wipe out humanity.”

But Rabbit was insistent. “Back home, the world is on the brink of collapse! War, over energy! The ony reason that we are nae already fighting is that the Crown has collaborated wi’ all the other world powers to pull off this mission…”

“I’m not a diplomat. I’m just here to follow orders.”

“Ach, away with ye! I’ve seen the way Commander Shergill gets under your skin, just as he gets under mine.” There had been plenty of tension between the two during the mission, but Giordano knew too little about the politics of the UK and Free Scotland to understand the animosity. “Bailey, there are nine billion people back home, just waiting on ye, and whatever ye decide. If we do this right, we can usher in a new age. An age free of fossil fuels and energy shortages. Just have a look, would ye?”

A new firing solution displayed on Giordano’s helmet HUD. She reviewed the numbers and studied the charts. “Well… it looks like a solid firing solution,” she said hesitantly.

The radio clicked again. “Lieutenant Duncan! You treasonous Scot!” Giordano sneered at the British pronunciation of Duncan’s rank, but was impressed that something had finally broken through Chann Shergill’s infuriatingly calm facade. “I’m placing you under arrest!”

“Aye, commander,” taunted Rabbit. “Ye have my word I will nae leave this spacecraft.”

“Astronaut Giordano,” the Commander said, trying to regain his composure. “HMS Stalwart remains a British vessel. As her captain, I order you to input the firing solution approved by His Majesty, and divert this comet away from Earth.”

“Ye short-sighted twit! Civilization is on the verge of collapse. This comet is an answer to our prayers!”

The two continued to argue over the radio. Giordano remained silent, instead reviewing both firing solutions in her helmet HUD. After quickly deliberating to herself, she loaded one of them into the railgun and started the countdown.

“Fire in the hole!” she announced, double-checking that she was securely anchored to the ship’s hull and gripping the handholds tightly. A ten-second countdown flashed in her HUD — and in the command module and the transhab displays as well, she knew. As the timer reached zero, the thunderous rumble of the first volley of massive steel projectiles reverberated through her spacesuit. The radio was silent.

Bailey Giordano knew that whatever the outcome, she would have to live with her decision for the rest of her life. “I wonder if I’ll ever see Maui again.”

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