Fire. The two-edged sword. Our ancestors thought they’d tamed it when they started using it to cook their food and to drive the darkness back from the cave-entrance. (There’s an irony for you – all they really succeeded in doing was creating shadows, but that’s another story). Fire is never as tame as we think though, and we forget that at our peril. It’s never good when fire gets out of control and you can pretty much guarantee that if you manage to get away from wild-fire with your life intact then you should thank your lucky stars and think about ways to stop pushing your luck. If you are on a ship, or an aircraft, then not only is the situation likely to be an order of magnitude worse but there are fewer ways to escape the situation. It’s easy to say that the automatic systems are going to be correspondingly better, but sometimes that just isn’t enough, and sometimes the automatics are the first things to fail… And when you are on a spacecraft, then things get an order of magnitude worse again.
The automatic systems were amongst those that had been knocked out, but in that whole realm of perversity where you’re never sure whether something is counter-intuitive or not, being in space, whilst making many things more difficult, was going to make putting the fire out a veritable cake-walk. Sort of. And yes, there are a number of factors that I’m failing to mention.
One of the first of many drills that those going into space must learn to do in their sleep is to get into their space-suit as soon as they hear any one of half a dozen warning sirens. I was terribly – nearly terminally – slow getting into my suit. A disgrace to my tutors and more importantly it nearly cost me my life. In my defence, things had been a little…trying of late, although this is not an argument that I would want to make to St. Peter, or more likely a bright red chap with a pitch-fork. Suffice it to say that I had been running a ship that the Board stipulates should have a skeleton crew of three (and deep-space operations are never carried out with skeleton crews), on my own, for over…oh by now about 100 hours.
I’d thought that I’d got things onto a fairly even keel, and taken the opportunity to catch up on some sleep against the time (which I was fairly certain was coming) when I’d need to be back at full alert. Such as when something (I’ll probably never know exactly what) ended up working a little too hard, sending a shower of sparks over something else already at a critical level and leading to the most recent of my problems.
Should there have been enough of my mortal remains left to find at some stage in the future, the pathologist would have had a tough time choosing a cause of death. Since fatigue never actually killed anyone except through the kind of circumstances where a man is struggling to put his suit on in an emergency, they would probably have gone for smoke inhalation. Just before the point where that would have been the only decision left to make, and after all, one that was out of my control, my hind brain realised what was going, and gave me a swift kick in the form of convulsive coughing. I dragged myself into my suit and felt the cooling flow of air as I sealed the helmet. There was a worrying moment as my fume fogged brain searched for the leak which my nose said had to be somewhere since I could smell and feel the biting, acrid smoke drying out my nose and throat. As the oxygen cleared my head I realised that it was simply that the filters of the recirculating system were struggling to cope with the smoke that was clinging to my ship-suit and hair – it had been that close.
As has already been intimated, many of the automatic systems were down – the fire suppression system being the one that I was currently missing the most. Bits of damage control were still up. In theory it should have sealed the compartments automatically, but obviously hadn’t. I said a brief prayer (scripture actually tells us to ask for things – we might not get them, but it’s ok to ask) as I bypassed the subroutine and keyed the doors to close: the alternative was that I’d have to close the doors manually. There were two things wrong with that. One I probably wouldn’t have enough time before the fire spread. Two I wouldn’t be able to get to the other side of the compartment that was merrily ablaze to close the other hatch. I’d be in danger of losing half the ship including access to the power and propulsion systems. I punched the button and mercy of mercies the hatches closed.
Have you ever come across the triangle of fire? Basically it states that for combustion to occur there must be three ingredients: a source, fuel and oxygen. Remove any one of these and the fire will be controlled, contained and (hopefully) put out. It is something that is true for all fires, even those that occur in micro-gravities (and therefore obey obscure physical principles not seen in the general course of life planet-side).
It was slightly drastic, but as I’ve already said, I was on my own and to avoid some of the big risks I was willing to take a few (reasonably) small ones. I bypassed various connections to the air conditioning system and created a direct link between the department that was being toasted and the nearest airlock, which I vented, removing the air from the compartment and snuffing out the fire. I resealed the airlock, but left the compartment under vacuum. Safer, in the long run, as it would allow me to ensure that the fire was fully out. You’d be amazed at how long things can smoulder for, and residual heat can be a real problem. Not to mention free radicals. In ancient times hunters and the like would carry a piece of charred wood, usually still smouldering, in a special container since it is easier to (re-)ignite than even dry wood because the free-radicals reduce the energy required to start the oxidising reaction. Not that there is that much wood on a spaceship, but the science holds for other polymers of which there are several tonnes worth on even the smallest of spacecraft.
I was in big trouble. FTL was out of the question and even the ion drives were going to be temperamental at best. Long range comms were patchy. I was hoping that my AI companion was still mentally in one piece and that it was just having trouble talking to the ship’s computer. It would be a while before I could sort that problem out, so for the time being I would ignore it. Ok. What are the positives? Well, for a start I’m still alive…
© David Jesson, 2017