It was nearly two hours later before the Gentleman Scoundrel’s half-blind sensors found PC-1156. The stricken spacecraft was, thankfully, facing the system’s primary, helping resist the worst of the the thermal shock effects of freezing NegMat and broiling matter. The NegMat would continue to cool as its containment absorbed stellar energy until it eventually reached absolute zero. But the remainder of the ship would disintegrate under the stress of embrittlement before then.
“Four more hours. Best case.” Ipa Sam declared over the intercom. “Tell Kura to get his ass down here with my dosiometer.”
“Roger that.” Zag Esseru responded.
The Engineer Ipa Sam was in the Pump House, the power deck of the Merchant, where the NegMat from his nose was pumped into the stern holding tanks for propulsion. The ship was station keeping right now, with the NegMat levels balanced, and maneuvering in his orbit with thrusters. The Scoundrel was tail first to the star, to shade his cockpit. This meant Zag Essuru would be in the Quarterdeck pilot house for the duration, with the viewport shuttered and a dosiometer pinned to her shipsuit.
She turned to Canto Kura, who had decended the ladder to the Quarterdeck. “Ipa says get your ass down there with her dosiometer.” Zag smiled sweetly.
“Ha ha.” Canto handed the pliot her dosiometer first.
“If it turns black, hit the shutters, take the iodine pills, and get out of here - in that order.” Canto Kura said.
“I know basic rad-training, Kura.”
“Force of habit.” He conceded. “I just went through the EVA version with Sagkal and Ruku.
“How’s she holding up?”
“True to her character.”
Zag grinned without mirth. “That bad, huh?”
Canto Kura smiled and, with a wave, left the tiny Quarterdeck. Instead of climbing the ladder back to the crew deck, he left through the hatch and crossed the second-class passenger compartment to the lift tube.
Kura had only seen the Power Deck once, when helping to secure the cargo bay after damage from a missile attack. Ipa Sam had spent hours floating in the dim of Engineering before they could reach her. It was the first time Canto Kura had met Ipa Sam.
When Kura drifted out of the lift tube, he was reminded of why the Power Deck was informally called “The Pump House”. In the center of the compartment was the wide NegMat transfer tube. The perifery of the chamber was lined with additional pumps for the reactors and radiator system. The air was thick with humidity, the consequece of the stellar waste heat passing into frigid cold in the presence of negative matter.
“Got my glow-badge?” It came from behind Canto Kura.
“Oh! Yes, yes I do.” He thrust the dosiometer at Ipa Sam. She hesitated a moment and then took it and pinned it to her shipsuit.
“Thanks?” Ipa turned and went back to what she was doing.
“Uh, Ipa Sam?” Kanto began. “I was wondering…”
Ipa turned to the flustered Medic. “Is this about work?” Her tone suggessted that it should be.
“Yes! It’s about... the containment system. How does it work, exactly?”
“No idea.” Ipa turned back to what she was doing. “No one does. In fact, you probably know more than I do. The Janoi were the ones to develop containment in the first place.”
“Ironic, isn’t it?” Kura, in spite of himself, was relaxing. “It took a weakly god-like AI to develop NegMat into something that could be contained, but they can’t get near it without shutting down. Probably what happned to the Cutter out there.”
“What do you mean?” Ipa, in spite of herself, was getting interested.
“They use these old ones for experiments. The Janoi are always trying to develop a way to survive close proximity to NegMat. New permutations, new containment architecture, new computer designs - they try everything.”
“Containment experiments? It’s a wonder they haven’t destroyed the universe yet.”
Kura looked at Ipa - really looked at her. She was figity, kept looking around…
“Ipa? Just what would happen if the Cutter lost containment?”
Ipa sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, scraped her knuckles on the ceiling, and cursed.
“When pure negative matter is exposed to an electrical field - any field, so much as a single photon, it will cause a run away reaction where the energy is amplified continually until it vaporizes the ship and everything within direct contact. Then the individual particles will repel each other in the direction of the purest vacuum at the speed of light - maybe faster. And each of those individual, subatomic particles will amplify any energy they come into contact with -”
“Pretty much the scariest thing imaginable. Got it.”
“Pretty much. NegMat isn’t that bad, but it’s enough to turn the Cutter and us into a cloud of molten beads.”
Kura smiled at Ipa Sam, though it was a trifle forced. “I think I understand why you’re so serious all the time.”
The very serious Ipa Sam smiled, if only slightly.