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I'm working on a passage of my SciFi novel where my current primary character is escaping from a highly secure, enemy military, space station. I would like him to cause some sort of catastrophe to both cover his tracks and cause significant damage.

The damage does not have to be explosive, but I have already explained that there is no way to sneak any explosive or contraband into the station. I have been struggling to think of some way that he could compromise the life support because it is a large station with independent sections. The same issue is in the way of explosive decompression as sections are easily sealed off.

I then thought some sort of reactor meltdown would work, but my civilization primarily uses fusion reactors which, after doing some research, can't really meltdown and the closest they get to an explosion is more similar to the explosion of an MRI machine (not so impressive). A radiation leak might be a good compromise, but I am not sure how exactly that might happen.

How he can cause a catastrophe to cover his tracks and cause significant damage on the space station?

Edit: More details on the space station. It is suppose to be the center of military intelligence and functions essentially like a cross between CIA headquarters and the Pentagon.

Excerpt: "The station was essentially a stationary drum encased by four, counter-rotating rings. What could be considered the base of the drum faced away from the planet and acted much like a massive satellite dish. The other end of the station directly transmitted information to and from the surface."

My character is currently located in a service corridor within the last ring, furthest from the planet. He was not expecting to need immediate escape as his mission was intended to be long term insurgency.


Addition:

For anyone interested, here is a link to an early version of the chapter. It has been edited a few times and some parts have been changed to improve the flow of the story, but it's roughly the same for the most part. The part where this event takes place is at the end of the chapter, but please read the whole thing and let me know what you think.

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    $\begingroup$ What things can your character access? I'd look at electrical conduits - perhaps create some short circuits, maybe even get a fire going. It would still be difficult, because there would be firewalls, etc, in place, especially in a military installation. $\endgroup$ – Tim Sep 6 '17 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ for those mega structure in space usually made use of modular construction concept meaning you cannot cripple the system as a whole by an unauthorized individual, only viable option is to hack into the system and this requires someone/something probably friendly A.I. who is familiar with the O.S. Basically you need an insider! $\endgroup$ – user6760 Sep 6 '17 at 5:01
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    $\begingroup$ You could find a particular poison gas agent that was not detected by the normal monitoring of the station. Nitrous oxide (N2O) might be interesting as it would incapacitate crew but it's unlikely that there would be sensors to pick it up. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Dodds Sep 6 '17 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ "higly secure, military space station" This doesn't exist in reality, so you have to explain what that is. "large station" needs to be defined as well. Space stations usually are quite tiny. You are basically asking us how to damage something that you invented but gave us absolutely 0 information about other than that it has some kind of fusion reactor. Btw, they don't really exist in our world, so you have to explain that one as well. Keep in mind this is sci fi, a fusion reactor can be different in the future ... $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Sep 6 '17 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ How realistic? There are hundreds of thousands of perfectly mundane sounding but life threatening incidents that happen on real space stations. $\endgroup$ – sdfgeoff Sep 6 '17 at 7:44
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Your space station needs a few things to function properly. There is energy, which is needed for everything, but most of that can be gathered via solar panels and of course your fusion reactors.
But then there is the need to eventually change the location of the station. You need to compensate for mass changes, for example. That means, your station will probably have maneuvering thrusters, and those most likely need fuel.

If your character could engage one of those thrusters to force the station into a spin, or even into a deteriorating orbit, and at the same time use up or vent the fuel reserves for the thrusters, that should have a decent chance to endanger the entire station and cause enough chaos to allow him to escape.

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    $\begingroup$ plus - if everyone on the station need to evacuate in a hurry - he is more likely to escape... $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Sep 6 '17 at 10:36
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  • Last-ditch firefighting procedures probably include venting the atmosphere from affected sections. Can he fool the sensors?
  • The station probably has pre-planned "abandon ship" procedures. How much permanent damage this causes is unclear, but it will muddle tracks. Which shuttle did the fugitive take? There won't be many buttons to trigger the alert. In the control room? In the commander's cabin? So it probably involves hacking the computer net, unless there are extra buttons in special places. A hazmat lab? The reactor room? Can he reach those? Or the commander's cabin during work hours.
  • If the computer system is hacked, other things might be possible. Override airlocks and section doors?
  • Assume the station is relatively large, spins for gravity (a Stanford Torus) and docks shuttles on the rim. Then it must have a system to compensate for mass and momentum changes, e.g. trim tanks and "maneuvering" thrusters. Can those be hacked to cause mechanical resonance in key structural parts?
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  • $\begingroup$ If the rings of the station are rotated via massive mag-lev rails, would it then make sense to reverse the magnets? The idea would come to essentially the same result I'm hoping, since the rings would slow (losing gravity) and the base of the station would suddenly start rotating from momentum (gaining irregular gravity). $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Sep 9 '17 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ @TitaniumTurtle, much more fun to reverse half the electromagnets only. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Sep 10 '17 at 9:15
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You want this to be something cool, so the movie will get made. If you can come up with space station specific things more power to you. Three ideas I have:

1: Hack the gravity. Turning the gravity off is fine. Everything floats around, very nice. For more destruction, turn the gravity up. Way up. Furniture collapses under its own weight. Massive objects are pulled through the floor, and then the floor below that on the way to the center of gravity. If your gravity is produced by futuristic gravity plates, fine. If your gravity is produced by spin, things on the outside of the station will begin to break off and shoot away as it spins faster and faster. Humans are crushed to the floor, unable to breathe because of the weight of their chests. If someone thinks fast and can increase air pressure the crew could still breathe but they will lie there unable to move.

  1. Release monsters. Han Solo did well with this strategy in The Force Awakens. Rathar monsters You can make this approach your own by making the monsters different.

  2. Third party. Suppose there are other things in orbit - derelict stations or capital ships, old junk. I like the idea that your hero visits one of these sites first. By placing thrusters or other maneuvering capability, he sets one of these (at some distance) on a collision course with the enemy station. That gives him a limited amount of time before he completes his mission and leaves. The enemy will see this thing bearing down on them and will be distracted.

I like the idea that the hero could leave something on the incoming derelict that would broadcast something to the enemy crew. But the only thing I can think of is this. you didn't say the magic word https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfcH5S95KQA

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So, you need a solution that will not put everything into lockdown. The bulkheads need to remain open, which rules out explosive decompression, localized fire, releasing all the convicts from the prison and the like.

It would be nice to have a hectic evacuation to really mess things up. Something deadly and fast enough that he could steal a uniform and no-one will bother with ID checks.

Real (or simulated) radiation leakage from the reactor: unlikely, as any competent designer would put the reactor outside the station, on the end of a long beam...

Killing the power: a military station would have redundant systems and backups, thus unlikely. Also he will need power to escape, open doors, etc.

Disseminating a pathogen through the air circulation system: this could work, but would most likely result in quarantine.

Have all the life support systems fail at the same time. This would be highly suspicious, but immediate evacuation would be required. "Haven't you seen the product recall? The air scubber model XYZ that we use has been found to fail catastrophically when a certain product is released in the air..."

Now, considering it is a "huuge" military space station, it is bound to have tons of weapons onboard, perhaps nukes, also hangars with space ships in them...

I would suggest simulating a meltdown in one of the parked ships, preferably one which is in maintenance and unable to take off. Perhaps the one he came in, he could have done something to the ship, planted a bomb... Or perhaps fake abnormal readings from rhe nukes in storage. Start a fire in the missile bay... rocket fuel doesn't require oxygen to burn, so venting is useless, but everyone will run for their lives.

Or hack the radar and have a simulated cloud of meteorites appear from nowhere.

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Fusion reactors take a lot of energy to start. If he can shut down the fusion reactors, people will be pretty busy trying to get them restarted.

Also, if he manages to break the plasma containment, that could destroy the reactors meaning that they will be on very limited power until the reactors can be replaced. The plasma will be hot enough to damage most of the reactor room. If the builders are smart, they would have built the room with an external shell that can withstand the heat/pressure of the plasma once it has had a chance to expand. Otherwise, nearby parts of the station might be damaged as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ How might I go about disrupt the reactor? I understand the basic concepts of the reaction and basic info about the internal construction, but I'm not sure what that might look like or how it would be accessed as obviously real fusion reactors today are experimental prototypes. $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Sep 7 '17 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ @TitaniumTurtle, anything that disrupts power flow to the magnetic containment of the plasma will cause the plasma to exit containment and snuff the fusion reaction. How much damage that causes depends on the design of the fusion plant. At the very least, they will need an enormous amount of electricity to restart the reactor. They might have that stored in batteries or capacitors. Shorting those out to remove the restart energy could also cause damage. That much electricity being let loose will cause a lot of localized damage. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Sep 7 '17 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ Would it make sense then to somehow blow the super capacitors (Im not sure at all if they work like fuses) in a way that would simultaneously disrupt the reactor as well as send a sort of power surge through the station? And would it make sense for a fusion reactor to be installed on the rings of the station? or would it have to be solely in the stationary sections? $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Sep 8 '17 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ Unless the designers of the reactor are morons, blowing up the capacitors should not disrupt the power plant. So, I would think that you would need to sabotage both the restart capacitors and the power plant. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Sep 8 '17 at 22:52
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Attack the reactor's electric generation system

Lets assume you need electricity to power your ship. A fusion reactor creates heat (a lot of it!), but you don't want heat. In fact, heat is dangerous for a space ship since it is hard to get rid of. What the ship needs is some way to convert heat to electricity.

In modern nuclear power plants, this is done via steam. A hot reactor exchanges heat in a steam generator, high pressure steam flows into a turbine, the turbine spins a generator, and electricity is the result. Steam in space is unlikely, at best, but a different thermodynamic cycle might be used: the Brayton cycle.

A jet engine runs on an open Brayton cycle. Air is sucked in a compressor, the compressor increases pressure and blows it into the combustion chamber where jet fuel is added and burns. The now much hotter gasses blow over a gas generating turbine, which powers the compressor and then out the back. You can turn this into a closed loop system by adding another power turbine, then sending the exhaust air back into the compressor. The power turbine will then drive your electric generation systems.

In space, the combustion with jet fuel would be replaced by heat exchangers with the fusion reactor. The reactor would heat up a special tungsten/ceramic/some superalloy to 2000 C +; this would then exchange heat with the working fluid inside the Brayton cycle system. The working fluid no longer has to be air, which is fully of nasty corrosive things like oxygen. Instead, replace that with a nice, heavy inert gas like krypton or xenon.

Sabotage to this system isn't as scary or serious as a 'reactor meltdown,' but it will cause a lot of damage. First off, an expanding cloud of 1500 C gas is nothing to laugh at, especially since it is Xenon and will suffocate anyone caught in it (even if it has already cooled down). Second, if the fusion reactor's heat is dissipated in the heat exchanger, you have to drop the power output of the fusion reactor, quickly. An overheated fusion core could damage itself, and that would be very bad. Engineering personnel would train for exactly this sort of catastrophe.

Start a boring old fire

Ultimately, it is highly unlikely that your character just wandered into the engine room and found an unprotected Xenon gas pipe...and that he could even damage it. They don't keep extremely high temperature gas in plastic tubes, you probably couldn't cause a leak with axe even if you tried. You'd actually have to get to the control room to really sabotage it.

A more practical way to start a calamity is just to start a boring old fire. Fire on a space station is bad! Fires eat up oxygen, which people also need. Unlike on Earth, there isn't a near-infinite supply of the stuff, so you have to act quickly to stop the fire and then restore oxygen (and get rid of carbon monoxide and stuff).

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  • $\begingroup$ This is super late since I posted this question last year, but I like the idea. Something to keep in mind for another catastrophe. $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Sep 19 '18 at 13:11

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