Chapter 15: Shielding Patch

As the lift rose up, I watched Lindsi, her face etched with fear and strain. We were moving quite fast, but it felt like it was taking forever. She kept scrubbing a hand over her face, like she was trying to hide behind it. I knew that neither of us would feel it even if we were getting irradiated, but I still kind of felt like my skin was tingling. I could only imagine how she felt.

The Ship said your rating was correct, I whispered, maybe even more to reassure myself than her. She glanced at me, fear and tension in her eyes, and they almost seemed to shimmer in the light.

“It had better be,” she whispered back.

I stepped closer, my feet soundless on the floor they didn’t really touch. I trust the Ship. Besides, it needs us. It can’t afford to lie.

“I hope so. I don’t even know-” She was cut off as the lift stopped, wide doors opening to reveal a vast open space stretching away ahead of us, filled with columns. We were in the centre of the spire, so I guessed that made sense. In order to get out from underneath the Main Reactor, we’d have to walk.

Lindsi dragged the complaining trolley out, and I followed her. We could still hear the Ship repeating its endless announcement, although it had at least added that a maintenance team had been assigned. I’d have felt better about that if I didn’t know it was us — which really meant Lindsi.

About ten paces along, Lindsi stopped again. She raised her left arm and lifted her right hand to her wrist, then frowned, holding still.

What is it? I asked her.

“It’s as if I have a faceplate on,” she said slowly. “I can see diagnostics and the map information I was about to try and pull up. Can you see anything?”

I shook my head, looking at her seemingly unprotected face. There was no sign of any kind of information projection, but her eyes still seemed to shimmer a little oddly. I leant closer, but it didn’t help.

There’s nothing. Your eyes look very slightly different, maybe. That’s all.

“Radiation leak,” the Ship said again, repeating its message over and over. Lindsi shut her eyes and shook her head.

“We’d better hurry. I can see where we need to go.”

I could see her pressing back everything else that was on her mind, and I realised we both needed to. I forced myself to do the same. It was too late for worries and doubts, too late to second-guess ourselves or the Ship. Lead the way!

Pushing the trolley ahead of her, Lindsi picked up the pace until she was running, and I ran at her side. Considering the protesting noise the trolley was making, I was kind of surprised she could move so fast, but it really wasn’t the time to think about it. The cavernous space around us was eerie even well-lit, empty and alone save for Lindsi’s footsteps, the malfunctioning trolley, and the unceasing emergency announcement. Above us, the slightly curved ceiling passed by, plate after plate interlocking much like the one Lindsi was pushing would. I hoped we wouldn’t have to replace one of those: I wasn’t even sure how we’d get up to it.

How much further? I asked, thinking for a fleeting moment that I probably should have been panting by now.

“Along and up,” Lindsi answered. She was starting to breathe a little harder, even if I wasn’t. “It’s on the lower side of the curve. We’re going to need a-” Just like that, she cut herself off, as if something had updated on her display. “This way!”

We skidded through a nearly ninety-degree turn, the trolley making an unfortunate grinding sound, and ran over to one of the support columns. Lindsi dug her heels in and still slid across the floor as she tried to stop dead and the trolley’s momentum dragged her on, stopping a little beyond the column. She let go and turned around, heading right for something that had been tucked away behind it. Another cargo platform, this one was heavier-duty, and had an extensible lift arm beneath its platform, a driver’s seat positioned at the front. Lindsi jumped in and the controls came to life, motor humming gently.

“Finally, something that works!” She flicked one of the switches, then took the wheel, switching into reverse and backing it up towards the broken trolley. I backed further away. Maybe the heavy machinery couldn’t hurt me now, but I’d been taught to be careful around it my whole life.

I felt slightly useless as she got off again and ran around to the piece of plating, lifting it with some effort and getting it onto the cargo platform. Once again, the little vehicle sagged slightly under the weight. I looked up at the ceiling above us, still gently curving away: endless plates of radiation shielding, blank and uninformative from the outside. The Ship’s announcement still repeated, background noise keeping urgency foremost in my mind.

“All aboard!” Lindsi called, pointing to the platform. She’d got back into her seat in the moments I’d been looking away, and I did what she said, climbing up — although I don’t suppose it was really climbing. I put my hands ‘on’ the edge and imagined boosting myself up, anyway, and that seemed to work. There were straps and handholds, and places to clip a harness to, even a couple of harnesses waiting to be used. I automatically reached for one, but passed right through it, then found myself moving as the lifter began to move. It was an odd feeling: I didn’t rock with the motion, didn’t feel that starting jolt; I just wasn’t moving and then suddenly I was. The curved plating did rock slightly, tipping a little as we got going, and I hoped it wouldn’t fall off.

We sped along faster than we perhaps should have and slower than either of us wanted to with the Ship still repeating its emergency announcement all around us. The roof was curving away really visibly by the time we slowed down again, and another, vertical wall was rising in front of us, a ramp leading up to its top. This empty space was stepped to fit in more rooms, I figured: the shielding was what was needed to protect us from the reactor, after all. Lindsi stopped before the ramp, veering to the left, looking up occasionally at the columns and curving shielding above. All at once, something seemed to register, because she brought us to a dead stop and locked the brakes.

“Right above us!”

I looked up. The empty space in here was fairly well-lit, but it was still kind of eerie, a metal spiderweb of supports and anchors, no sound but ourselves and this weird kind of hum that had to be the reactor. Then, suddenly, I was rising up towards the curved ceiling above me. Lindsi must have activated the lift platform!

“Radiation leak.” There was a pause, and the Ship added a new component to its announcement. “Maintenance team presence detected. Initiate reactor damping and power diversion.”

The Ship knows we’re here! I called back down to Lindsi. It wasn’t surprising, but I was still relieved.

“Yeah,” she called back, stopping the lift to do so. “Keep an eye on the roof, okay? I don’t want to hit it!”

I looked up again as I started slowly rising once more. There should have been safeguards built into the lifter, but it was still a whole lot better to have a second eye on things. Closer… closer… and right as I was about to call down again, the platform stopped.

“Are we there?” Lindsi shouted up to me.

Yes! I told her, peering down over the edge. She scrambled out of the driver’s seat and looked up at me, her shock of silver hair standing out against the deep blue of the rest of her.

“Good! Now, can… oh.”

I realised what she meant. I couldn’t do anything with the reactor plating — she had to get up here! But I wouldn’t have been able to raise the platform, either.

“Nothing for it!” she called before I could think of a way around it. “I’m going to have to climb!”


Lindsi stepped forward and, from my point of view, vanished under the platform. She had to be planning to climb the lifting arm itself! There was no way that could be safe… but I couldn’t think of a better idea. I lay down and stuck my head over the edge so I could see her, slowly climbing up. The squat lifter had extended heavy clamps to brace itself against rocking, and her climbing wasn’t really having much of an effect. Before long, she’d made it up to just below the platform, and reached out as far as she could for some handhold on its underside — then she found it, and let go with the other, and for an instant she was hanging by one hand over the long, long drop below, before she brought her other hand up to grab something else and somehow pulled herself up to climb around the edge. I stared at her as she knelt there for a moment.

That was scary!

“How do you think I felt?” Lindsi stood up, dusting her hands off, and looked at the section of plating beside and above us. If that was the one we wanted, she’d been perfectly on target. “Okay… never done anything like this on my own before…”

For once, I couldn’t really help her. I know in general how the Main Reactor works, it’s a spherical tokamak design for nuclear fusion, but I didn’t really know anything about how its nuts and bolts went together. Except that I rather hoped it wasn’t just held together by nuts and bolts. Me neither.

“Here goes nothing, then, I guess.” She reached up and touched the shielding plate, then brought her right hand to her wrist as if to input commands. I didn’t quite see what she did, but the nearest Ship speaker responded, the others continuing their announcement off in the distance.

“Power diversion enabled. Radiation shield emplacement commencing. Preparing to disengage shielding interlock.”

Lindsi watched the plate, and listened to the sounds of mechanisms moving somewhere inside. Nothing happened for nearly a minute, then:

“Radiation shield placement complete. Shielding interlock disengaging.”

There was a heavy clunk, and the plate we were looking at tilted slightly so that its rightmost edge was raised and the left indented. Moments later, it began to slide out towards us. Lindsi caught hold of it, but it was moving on sturdy runners, and didn’t seem to need much balancing. Eventually it was almost all the way out, and she studied it for a little before working out how to lift it off the runners, getting it awkwardly up and swinging it around, the platform sagging slightly as she did. I ducked as she nearly hit me with it, although I suppose it would really have just gone straight through me, and she set it down with a clang.

“That wasn’t so bad,” she said surprisedly. I didn’t answer, looking at the plate she’d just set down. The interior half looked… odd, almost kind of melted. I looked up at the hole it had come from, but because of their overlapping design, I could only see the inside half of the plate to the right. Lindsi didn’t waste time asking what I was looking at, she just picked up the replacement, and, with a bit of a struggle, managed to slot it back in place. It retracted on its own, folding into the wall and leaving the endless shielding plates looking almost perfect again.

I guess we’re lucky it wasn’t one of the internal shields.

Lindsi clearly agreed with me, hugging herself with an exaggerated shudder and making a noise of distaste. “I don’t envy the guys who have to replace those.”

“Shield interlock engaged,” the Ship announced, over all its speakers this time, replacing the emergency announcement of before. “Radiation shield returning to standby. Preparing to re-initiate Main Reactor. Stand by for power diversion.”

“Looks like we did it.” She blew out her breath in a long sigh, and sat down on the edge of the platform, at the end with the rail and the harnesses, her legs dangling. “Let’s not do that again, huh?”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Let’s not!

< Chapter 14 | The Fused | Chapter 16 >

Creative Commons Licence
The Fused by V. L. Bending is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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