|Ordinary Velorians -
Calen was standing in the control room five minutes later, gasping for breath after his sprint down Central. He was staring at the replay from the hardened camera he’d rigged in the airlock. Zarla and Vera had stepped into the containment dome minutes before, and their clothing had promptly flared and caught fire as the god-awful heat washed over them, the ash vaporizing before it could even reach the floor.
He glanced at the temperature readout: 1450°C. Horrifyingly, the radiation was at 30,000 rads now and still rising fast, most of it gamma rays. That was more than three times the insane level it had been when Vera had first entered.
Something was definitely starting to go super-critical!
He felt a cold lump in his throat as he walked over to the engineering console and punched up a diagram of the coolant system. If the displays were to be believed, there was still enough coolant in the reserve system to keep the core submerged. So where was the super-criticality?
He glanced back at the display to see that the rad meter click upward to 32,000. Turning back to the airlock camera, he saw a blinding corona of blue light surrounding both women as they advanced on the reactor.
Had the core already melted?
Vera was only half-way across the room when she staggered and fell to her knees. The horrible radiation was tearing at her flesh, the blue glow surrounding her body several times brighter than it had been last time. She didn't need a radiation gauge to know that the rads were far higher. That meant only one thing. A puddle of plutonium was gathering in mass, tearing the atoms of the steel containment vessel apart as it created a depression in the floor, the flood of neutrons from the pile further exciting it.
She rose to hide partially behind Zarla's body, she didn't seem as affected, and together they moved into direct line with the fissure along one corner of the reactor. The radiation was streaming out even more intensely here, and Zarla's body flared such a bright blue that Vera could barely look through the glare, her eyes burning horribly. What she saw terrified her. A glowing blob of plutonium was gathering in a depression on the reactor floor, just as she'd suspected, the mass already several kilograms, barely below the mass for super-criticality of molten plutonium. But what was worse, far worse, were the dozen rivulets of glowing metal that were flowing toward it.
The core was melting!
Up in the control room, Calen suspected as much despite his gauges. And if there was melted plutonium flowing toward the floor, the mere gravity that sustained them would be enough to complete the deadly process. He dashed over to the power distribution panel and tripped the main circuit that fed the artificial gravity generators. Nothing happened. He cursed, remembering they had sufficient local capacitive storage to run for a half hour on their own.
They didn't have a half hour.
Zarla assessed the situation as well, her training in the sciences sufficient for her to see that an explosion was imminent. She felt Vera hanging on her back, and knew she was being overwhelmed by the radiation that was beginning to tear into her own flesh. With horrible clarity, she knew exactly what she had to do. She had to shield the neutrons from the pile away from the criticality on the floor, and she had to keep the rivulets of molten plutonium from feeding it further. She also knew there was only one way to do that.
A wave of sudden sadness washed over her. The Paix movement, her friends on Aria, she would miss them all. And for what? Saving humans? She debated running for her life, grabbing her father and taking a shuttle as they’d first planned. But there was no time now. Her father’s life, the lives of two thousand humans and one Velorian, they all depended on her.
She had only one moral choice. She had to disperse the melting plutonium that was heating out of control on the floor of the reactor, and her only tool was her body.
Without another thought to the consequences, she threw herself into the fissure, jamming her hands into the fissure. Her back and shoulders exploded into Tset'lar muscle as she ripped the six-inch steel apart wide enough to jam her shoulders into it. She twisted her body to paradoxically widen it further as she wormed her way into the core of the ancient breeder. There she kneeled down over the glowing ball of molten plutonium, brushing the rivulets away with her fingers, digging long grooves in the steel floor with her fingernails to channel it away.
Then, in a last desperate act, she began scooping up the half-molten blob, shaping it into a ball as she wrapped her body around it, shielding it from the neutrons that were exciting it, and containing its own radiation as she did.
Her body flared a violent blue-white, the glow so brilliant that even Vera had to look away. The last thing she saw was Zarla jamming her back into the fissure, the plug formed from her invulnerable flesh slowing the loss of coolant to a trickle.
Knowing she was going to faint in the next few seconds if she didn't get out of there, Vera turned and staggered toward the airlock, collapsing at the doorway to fall inside.
Vera was propped up in a chair next to Calen, hugging her knees as he studied the reactor's vitals. A day had passed since her near fatal encounter in the reactor, and she was still suffering from dizzy spells. Zarla's body was still wedged in the fissure. They had no idea if she was alive or not.
“We’ve lost nearly half the core, but what’s left is under control,” Calen said softly. “She removed at least ten kg's of plutonium from the reaction.”
Vera glanced at the readout showing the radiation inside the core: still ten thousand rads. She turned to wrap her arm around Calen's shoulders. “She couldn’t have survived inside there. No Supremis could.”
“She gave her life for us. But why? To make up for killing Alex? To save two-thousand souls?”
“Maybe she was just thinking of her father,” Calloway mused from behind her. "Never heard of an Arion who'd sacrifice herself for humans."
“What’s the temp like now?” Vera asked tight-jawed. She agreed with Calloway. The Arion wouldn't have given her life so selflessly. She was part Tset after all. That was still scary.
“Down to 600C. Pressure is off the reactor. It should be easy to do a proper job of welding it up now.” He punched up another display. “We’ve got twelve hours before we start to loose life support. You’ve got to get the reactor back up by then.”
"Which means welding her inside it?"
"Her body will reinforce that weakened side of the reactor."
"Assuming she's not just in some kind of coma like I was."
"No lack of energy in there. If so, when this thing melts down near the sun, she might awaken."
"Or burn up in the sun," Vera said dryly.
Calen shrugged. "We can get philosophical, but if we tried to disturb her, we'd lose the reactor. And Corrididor would go with it."
“No problem. I fix things, remember? Your precious reactor is going to keep pumping.”