Published Saturday, September 27th, 2014
Words by Holly Duerden
The Deadly Kiss
It is a universal truth among the scientifically minded that the Universe is no more than a ripple of events, an inexorable chain of cause and effect. It is the dealing out of random cards in a cosmic casino where the game never ends. But every now and then a wild card is played, a cruel joker, an ace of spades which, as soon as it hits the table, catalyses an unpredictable chain of reactions.
Pavo Lopata pondered all this with idle interest. Musing about the universe seemed a fitting pastime as he sat and waited for the shuttle to reach the International Space Station. His presence had been urgently requested and before he was able to grasp the particulars of his assignment, he found himself traversing the empty gulf of space.
He had never been fond of these long journeys, trapped in the hull’s confines. On Earth, stars provide comfort to lost and lonely travellers, who use them to find their way home. In space, there is no such mercy.
Lopata’s glasses fell to the bridge of his nose as he stared at that royal flush of celestial engravings, etching themselves in the spaces where knowledge and science had not yet reached. Turning from the window, he readjusted his specs and looked down once again at the report in his hands.
He had first received news of the unusual circumstances surrounding the two astronauts’ deaths three days ago. The newspapers said little about the matter, merely announcing that a fatality had resulted from a machine malfunction during tests on the new Gemini Space Suit. Lopata knew this to be partly true. Tests were being conducted – but in a sealed, high-pressure compartment of pure oxygen. However, the part about the malfunction was a fabrication. Since the Apollo 1 disaster, all combustible materials had been removed from such compartments, including machinery and electronics, so that only the two men and their space suits remained. And yet, an explosion had occurred. Lopata could see the fragments of debris orbiting the station. It did not take much to notice the dark charcoal pit where Cargo Bay IA3 had once been.
“Sabotage,” he thought. It was no secret that experiments were being conducted here and, for the remainder of the journey, he amused himself by devising a fanciful story of deceit and espionage.
His train of thought was abruptly broken by the hiss of the air lock.
* * *
“These were the last moments picked up by our closed-circuit surveillance cameras.”
Lopata had been studying the written account of the incident for some time, unconsciously stroking his glasses. Looking up, his eyes met with the ashen face of his interlocutor. Aurora Serdste was a Program Scientist who had only recently transferred to the station. She eyed him sullenly, causing him to turn anxiously towards the monitor.
There was nothing unusual about the clip. The men appeared to be enjoying a friendly game of cards, evidently taking a break from their work. After a short time, it appeared that one of the men won, the other throwing his cards down in defeat. Suddenly, the picture flickered. A blue fog invaded the frame and the screen turned black.
“At least they managed to finish their game,” Lopata observed, trying to make light of what had been uncomfortable viewing.
Ignoring this, Aurora continued her debriefing. “These are the elements that have been scraped from the debris around the airlock.” She began to read a detailed list of chemical compounds, the names of which meant nothing to Lopata. After all, his specialty lay in quantum mechanics and utility systems repair, not chemical analysis.
“You see,” she explained, “the first stage of the explosion was the expansion of oxygen as it ignited, causing a chain reaction. After a period of about five seconds, implosion occurred as the vacuum flooded into the Cargo Bay. We have been unable to detect the cause of the ignition, which is where, I’m afraid, you come in.”
“What of the other Cargo Bays?”
“Well, one of them is being used at this moment for the same experiment. Finding no evidence of sabotage, we found it necessary to continue research.” She turned towards another monitor, flicking a switch. Two men immediately came into view, sitting in a room very much like the one they had just seen.
Like the astronauts before them, these men were playing a game of cards. Want of electronic devices had clearly left them with few entertainment options.
Lopata leaned back in his chair, watching the two men. He had often wondered… was poker a game of skill or just a game of chance?
* * *
After analysing the footage for an hour or so, Lopata sat, dejected. This had not been the exciting investigation he had hoped for and, to be perfectly honest, he was quite bemused by the whole thing. He looked again at the list of chemical compounds found in the debris. There had to be something he was missing. After another few minutes of silence, he resolved to type them into the computer database.
Graphite. Lead. Thermite. He typed in one after the other, to no avail. Carbonate. Adamantane. Nitrocellulose.
A match flashed up between the search terms “ignition” and “nitrocellulose”. Eagerly, Lopata began to read. “1930… Death Row,” he muttered.
At that moment, Aurora re-entered the room. As she came to stand by Lopata, he read aloud the article on his screen.
“In 1930, an inmate on Death Row committed suicide using a pipe bomb made with the red ink in a playing card, which contains the flammable substance nitrocellulose.”
She looked at him with a blank expression, not yet understanding where he was going with the remark.
“Well… think about it. A room with no combustible materials. Two astronauts with the only means of entrance. What is the one thing they were doing before the explosion?!” Her silence only encouraged him to continue. “They were playing cards… there must be a link between this incident and the incident on Death Row… there must.”
There was a momentary pause and Lopata began to fondle his glasses again.
“Tell me,” he said, looking hastily around and fixing his eyes on the monitor where the astronauts appeared, sitting. “What is graphite used for?”
There was another pause.
“Well,” she muttered, trying to recover some knowledge long ago forgotten. “It has certainly been used in steel and carbon fibre production, as well as break-lining materials and such.”
His face fell, and his body slumped back into its previous position at the computer.
“Oh, there is graphite lead of course,” she added, seeing that her demonstration of knowledge had not produced the desired effect. “And ink.”
Ink. At this, Lopata sprang from his seat, and bounded towards the monitor.
“It’s the cards… The cards are the key!”
The look of bewilderment on Aurora’s face forced him to explain. “Now look, under
normal circumstances, nothing would happen to the cards when the nitrocellulose in the red ink touches the graphite of the black. But… put them in an environment of pure oxygen and you get the optimal conditions for combustion. A spark between the two compounds is inevitable!”
“But you are missing something, Mr Lopata. The astronauts in that Cargo Bay have been playing cards for over an hour. Surely something would have happened by now if your hypothesis was correct.”
Lopata stopped for a moment, remembering the last image he had seen before the explosion. One man victorious, one man defeated. He recalled his own comment, “At least they managed to finish their game.” Finish their game… And then the horror struck him. When holding the cards in a game, they all face toward the player – there is no reason for the black ink to touch the red. It is only when the game finishes and one man throws down his cards that the two inks have reason to touch.
“They must not finish their game!” Lopata said in a half-croaked whisper.
At that moment, fortune smiled on one of the men on the screen. The other, clearly irritated by his defeat, threw his cards into the air. As the cards fluttered down together, the Queen of Hearts kissed the King of Spades and their deadly embrace ignited the pure oxygen. The picture flickered, a blue fog invaded the frame and the screen turned black.
It is a universal truth among the scientifically minded that the Universe is no more than a ripple of events, an inexorable chain of cause and effect. But in the long cosmic game, the occasional maverick card will be played.