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Chapter XLVI

“So, let me get this straight,” said the technician, wiping a grubby, oil-stained sleeve across her brow. “You want us to let you into the control room. You want us to activate the over-pressure release command, while simultaneously shutting main valves B, C and E. Then, and this is the part that I really want to be clear about, you’re ordering us to stand back while the reactor overheats, melts down and carries the station down with it. Have I understood what you’re saying completely?”

“Crazy orders, huh?” Col. Chapmann said, winningly.

“There’s crazy and then there’s just plain insane. Who wants this done?”

“The Command Director of the Anti-Cerebrists.”

“He wouldn’t be able to get this past the executive committee. Who else?”

“Sanislov Jarowski, Manuut Noruto, and Kethlen Von Delt.”

“You’re just rattling off names.”

“They’re the right names.”

A voice came from further in the rattling clamor of the engine room. “Karla, does he have a work order?”

Karla turned around. “He has two, one for each step.”

The other technician barked out something obscene and resumed work behind a curtain of steam.

“Okay, let’s get it done.”

Col. Chapmann gestured to gaunt, haggard looking man escorted by two brain jobs.

“This is Agent Spaceman, he’ll be supervising the rest of the exercise.” Karla gave the agent a quick appraisal and gestured for them to follow. The four of them descended the long, narrow series of stairs leading to an observation room suspended far above the reactor. The water tank, used to trap and contain excess neutrons, glowed an unhealthy blue-green. The Spaceman appeared happy to put as much distance between the window and himself as he could.

There wasn’t much room in the control room for anything besides a long bank of dials and meters. All of the needles hovered within their expected ranges. She moved to a small gray box mounted on the far wall. A key, produced from her blue jumpsuit’s hip pocket, opened the box, revealing four toggles and one master switch. She was about to flip the requested switches when the gaunt man, who Chapmann had named ‘Spaceman,’ cleared his throat.

“Yes,” Karla looked almost amused.

“I’m just curious,” this Spaceman said. “I came in here with two work orders and a set of instructions that you yourself recognize means the destruction of this station.”

“That’s how I see it, yes.”

“And yet, you are all set to throw the switch.”

Karla betrayed no emotion. “That’s right.”

“Why?”

She removed her hands from the box. “Then this was a test, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but I’m troubled you had such little doubt following my set of instructions.”

“Spaceman, I’ve been here two years. I was supposed to be here three months. In that period of time I’ve had plenty of opportunities to doubt the orders, directives, missives, manifestoes, and direct commands I receive every day. I have barely enough funding to make this reactor functional and not enough staff to keep up with a tenth of the repairs. To be honest, blowing this place up seems like the best idea I’ve heard in months.”

“Why not leave?”

“Great question, why don’t I leave?” Karla said something Espanola that Spaceman wasn’t meant to catch: “Why do I talk to people that could get me lined up against some wall and shot? Why do I spend everyday wearing myself out trying to keep this place afloat?” then, returning to Russian: “Why do I do any of what I do? Here’s a question, for you? If this is a test and I’ve obviously failed, why not get on with it?”

“Who said that you failed the test?”

“I don’t know how much more bullshit I can take right now.”

“Can you get out of here? Do you have a way to evacuate the station?”

“There are plans somewhere, why do you ask?”

“I need you to pull those switches.”

Karla looked at him a long time, then, just as she said she would, she flipped the override commands and locked the required valves. Karla closed the lid to the command box, her heart pounding. She was about to open her mouth to say something to the agent, but he had already vanished with his escorts. Well, that was it then. She had used her keys and had turned the switches with her own hands. Two years she had exhausted herself trying to prevent this exact moment only to be instrument of its destruction.

The first of the alarms were starting, her crew wouldn’t have much time to escape. She had better warn them.



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