فصل 14

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فصل 14

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I adjusted the gas mixture until I had a long flame. I picked a spot on the wall, dug in, and held the torch as still as I could. The massive heat plus the ready supply of oxygen dug away at the metal, boring a deeper and deeper hole. Finally, it broke through. I can’t tell you exactly how I knew. I just knew. Maybe it’s the sound? The sputter of the flame? Not sure. In any event, the cut had begun. “No airflow in or out,” I said. “Looks like a pressure match. Good job, Dale.” “Thanks.” I moved the torch along at a deliberate pace and cut along a meter-wide circle. I beveled the edges so the plug could fall out a little easier when the cut was complete. “Running a little behind now,” said Dale. “Copy,” I said. But I didn’t speed up. I was already going as fast as I could. Trying to go faster would just screw up the cut and end up costing me more time. I finally completed the circle and the plug tilted forward. I turned off the torch and hopped back as an avalanche of gray regolith flooded into the chamber. I threw off my welding helmet and pressed the breather mask hard against my face. I sure as hell didn’t want to breathe that dust. I like my lungs without barbed death particles in them, thanks. My eyes stung and teared up. I winced in pain. “You all right?” Dale asked. The mask muffled my voice. “Shoulda worn goggles,” I said. I reached up to wipe my eyes, but Dale caught my arm. “Don’t!” “Right,” I said.

You know what’s worse than having barbed rocks in your eyes? Grinding barbed rocks into your eyes. I resisted the urge, though just barely. I waited for the dust to settle. Then, with stinging eyes and blurry vision, I stepped toward the hole. And that’s when the electric shocks sparked off my body. I yelped, more out of surprise than pain. Dale checked his readouts. “Careful. The humidity is nearly zero.” “Why?” “No idea.” I took another step and got another salvo of static discharges. “Goddammit!” “Are you capable of learning?” Dale said. “Aww shit,” I said. I pointed to the slowly growing pile of regolith in front of the hole. “It’s the fill material. Artemis air is humidified, but the air in hull compartments is bone dry.” “Why?” “Water’s corrosive and expensive. Why would you put that in your hull? That dirt acted as a desiccant and yanked all the moisture out of the air.” Dale detached the water-storage unit from his suit, opened the canister, and pulled out a quarter-filled plastic bag. He ripped the corner off the bag and pinched it with his fingers. It’s amazing how much manual dexterity a true EVA master can achieve with those clunky gloves on. He squirted me in the face with the water. “What the fu–” “Keep your eyes open. And look into the stream.” I did as instructed. It was hard at first, but the sheer relief at having the dust rinsed out kept me going. Then he sprayed my clothes, arms, and legs. “Better?” he asked. I shook my head to clear water off my face. “Yeah, better,” I said. Our ad-hoc wet T-shirt contest would protect me from any further discharges. At least for a while. Of course, dust collected on me and became a disgusting gray mud. I wouldn’t be winning any beauty contests, but at least I was comfortable. Next step: I had to dig the fill material out to expose the pressure sensor and, more important, to get at the inner hull. I pressed my finger to my earbud. “Svoboda and Dad: I’m going to be digging for a while. I’ll call back in a bit.”

“We’ll be here,” said Svoboda. I cut the connection. “Give me a hand digging this out,” I said. Dale held up a shovel. “There’s two kinds of people in this world: those with EVA suits, and those who dig.” I snorted. “Okay, first off, if we’re doing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I get to be Clint Eastwood, not you. Second off, get your lazy ass to work and help me!” “I have to be ready to drag your sorry ass back to the rover if things go wrong.” He held the shovel out to me again. “Accept your inner Eli Wallach and get digging.” I groaned and took the shovel from him. This was going to take a while. “We’re running behind, you know,” he said. “I know.”

Right around that time, Bob was being a pain in the ass, as usual. But this time he was doing it for me instead of to me. I wasn’t present for any of this. I was busy digging dirt out of a wall. But I heard about it all later on. Sanchez Aluminum owned dedicated train tracks from the Aldrin Port of Entry to their smelter. Three times a day, the train loaded up twenty-four employees and headed out to the facility. The short, one-kilometer trip only took a few minutes. They switched shifts, and the previous shift returned to Artemis on the same train. I’d timed my little heist to coincide with their shift change. But I was running behind. I needed to be inside the facility before the train got there. And I still hadn’t cut the inner hull. The Sanchez workers conglomerated at the train station. The train had already docked and its hatch stood open. The conductor pulled out her Gizmo scanner in preparation to take fees for the ride. Yes, Sanchez Aluminum charged Sanchez Aluminum employees to ride a Sanchez Aluminum train to the Sanchez Aluminum smelter. Your basic 1800s-style “company store” bullshit. Bob walked up to the conductor and put his hand on her scanner. “Hold up, Mirza.” “Problem, Bob?” she asked. “We’re doing a freight-airlock leak inspection. Safety protocols say no one can operate another airlock in the port while that’s in progress.”

“Are you kidding me?” Mirza said. “It has to be right now?” “Sorry. We detected an anomaly and we have to run the test before tomorrow’s lander.” “For chrissake, Bob.” She gestured to the assembled crowd. “I’ve got twentyfour people here who need to get to work. And twenty-four more at the smelter waiting to come home.” “Yeah, sorry. The test ran long. We thought we’d be done by now.” “How much longer?” “Not sure. Ten or fifteen minutes, maybe? I can’t make any promises.” She turned to the crowd. “Sorry, folks. We’ve got a delay. Get comfortable–it’ll be around fifteen minutes.” A collective groan arose from the crowd. “I’m sure as hell not staying late to make up for it,” one worker grumbled to another. “Sorry about this,” Bob said. “Let me make it up to you: I’ve got three tickets to the Artemis Acrobats show at the Playhouse. They’re yours. Take your husbands out and have a good time.” Mirza’s face lit up. “Wow! All right then. All is forgiven!” A ridiculous overpayment, if you ask me. Those tickets cost 3,000 slugs each! Oh well. Bob’s money, not mine.

After an eternity of digging and a great many profanities, I finally cleared out the dirt in the hull compartment. I flopped onto my back and wheezed. “I think you invented new swearwords,” said Dale. “Like…what’s a funt’?” “I think it’s pretty clear from context,” I said. He loomed over me. “Get up. We’re way behind and Bob can only delay the train for so long.” I flipped him off. He kicked me. “Get up, you lazy fuck.” I groaned and got back to my feet. I’d found the compartment’s pressure sensor during the “dig a hole to China” phase of the operation. (Yes, that idiom still applies on the moon. I felt like I’d just

dug a 384,000-kilometer hole.) Our little “fool the pressure sensor” game had worked till now, but as soon as I breached the inner hull, the pressure on our side would go up to Artemis Standard. Then the sensor would say “Holy shit! Twenty-one kPa air! There’s a hole in the inner hull!” The alarm would go off, people would freak out, and the EVA masters would come take a look, and we’d get caught. Dale and Bob would get drummed out of the guild, but I wouldn’t live long enough to see it, because loyal Sanchez people would have stabbed me in the face. Oh? You don’t think a bunch of nebbish control-room nerds would do something like that? Think again. Someone at Sanchez tried to kill me with a harvester, remember? The sensor itself was a metal cylinder with a couple of wires attached. The wires had a fair bit of play, which was handy. I pulled a steel can with a screw top out of the duffel. I’d modified it earlier for just this purpose by putting a little notch in the lid. I put the sensor in the can and slid the cabling into the notch. Then I screwed on the lid. After that, I put six layers of duct tape over the point where the wires entered the lid. I didn’t feel great about that part. Only an idiot relies on duct tape to maintain a pressure seal, but I didn’t have a choice. At least the higher pressure would be on the outside so the tape would be pushed against the hole. “Think that’ll do it?” Dale asked. “We’ll know in a minute. Take us up to Artemis Standard.” Dale tapped his arm controls. Of course Bob’s rover could be controlled remotely. If it was a luxury feature, Bob’s rover had it. Fresh air echoed down the inflatable tunnel, and my ears popped with the slight pressure change. I watched the can intently. The tape over the hole bowed in slightly, but otherwise held. I pressed my ear to the inner hull wall. “No alarms,” I said. I called Svoboda back. “Yo!” said Svoboda. “Criminal Support Team ready and waiting.” “I’m not sure I like that title,” said Dad. “I’m about to make the inner hull cut,” I said. “Any last-minute advice, Dad?” “Don’t get caught.”

I flipped my mask down. “Everybody’s a comedian.” I got to cutting. The inner hull was the same as the outer hull: six centimeters of aluminum. And just like the outer hull, the cut only took a couple of minutes. This time I beveled the cut so the plug would fall outward instead of in. I didn’t have a choice on the outer hull, but as a rule I prefer flesh-boilingly hot metal to fall away from me. I waited for the plug to finish its slow fall to the ground, then peeked inside. The factory floor was a large hemisphere full of industrial machinery. The smelter dominated the center of the room. It stood a good ten meters tall, surrounded by pipes, power lines, and monitoring systems. I couldn’t see the control room from my vantage point. The smelter was in the way. That wasn’t a coincidence, by the way. I picked that part of the hull specifically because it was in a blind spot. No matter how absorbed the staff might be with work, it’s unlikely that twenty-four people would all fail to notice a flaming hole in the wall. I poked my head through the hole to get a look around. Without thinking, I put my hand on the edge for balance. “Fuck!” I snapped my hand back and shook it. “Welding torches make things hot,” Dale said. I grimaced and checked for damage. My palm was a little red but it would be fine. “You all right?” “Yeah,” I said. “I just wish you hadn’t seen me do that.” “We saw it too!” said Svoboda’s voice. “Super,” I said. “And on that note, I’m hanging up. I’ll let you know when the deed is done.” I cut the connection. I stepped through the opening, being very sure not to touch the edges again. Dale handed my duffel through. But when I tried to take it, he held on. “You know,” he said. “This hole isn’t big enough for me to get through with my EVA suit on. If something goes wrong, I won’t be able to help you.” “I know,” I said. “Be careful.” I nodded and pulled the duffel away. He watched from the hole while I snuck

over to the smelter. The unit itself wasn’t much to look at. Just a big block with heavy metal pipes leading in and out. A bucket conveyor rose through a hole in the floor and fed anorthite grit to a hopper atop the smelter. Inside, a maelstrom of heat, electricity, and chemistry turned rocks into metals. But the outside was calm, slightly warm to the touch, and had a gentle hum. I sat on the ground and peeked around the corner. The control room looked out over the facility. Through the large glass windows I could see the staff going about their workday. Some sat at computers while others walked about with tablets. The entire back wall was covered with monitors showing every detail of the facility and its process. One woman was clearly in charge. People came to her, spoke briefly, and she gave quick answers. That’s a boss. I estimated her age at around fifty, and she had a Latino complexion. She turned to speak to someone and I finally saw her face. It was Loretta Sanchez. I recognized her from the pictures I’d seen online while researching the company. She was the one who designed the smelter. She’d started Sanchez Aluminum. And she was so thoroughly owned by O Palلcio, she might as well have had a collar on. Interesting that someone like her would be in the trenches with her employees instead of in a comfy Aldrin office. The other employees were just…people. No horns or black capes. No cackling with steepled fingers. Just a bunch of working schmoes. I crawled to the other end of the smelter, but that was as far as I could go. The thermal control systems were visible from the control room. I called Bob on my Gizmo. “Go,” said Bob. “I’m in position. Release the train.” “Affirm.” He hung up. I waited behind the smelter. After ten minutes of impatient fidgeting, I finally heard a clunk echo through the walls. The train had arrived. Right now, the outgoing shift was bringing the incoming shift up to date. I had a short window– maybe ten minutes–before the train loaded up and left. I still had the breather mask and portable oxygen supply. But now I added a pair of goggles from the duffel. They’d be important for what came next. I duct taped both the mask and goggles to my face–I needed an airtight seal this time.

So now I was a mud-covered freak with random shit taped to my face. I probably looked like something out of a horror movie. Oh well. I was about to be horrible. I pulled a cylinder of gas from the duffel. I gripped the valve, then stopped and did one more check on my duct-tape seals. Okay, everything was all right. Back to the valve. I gave it a quarter-turn. The bottle released pure chlorine gas into the air. Chlorine gas is lung-dissolvingly dangerous. They used it as a weapon in World War I, and it worked very well. Where did I get ahold of a tank of compressed death? I had my pal Svoboda to thank for that. He stole it from the ESA chemistry lab. The FFC Cambridge Process involved a bunch of molten calcium chloride. In theory it was all safely contained inside the sealed, extraordinarily hot smelter. But just in case the smelter had a failure, the facility had chlorine gas detectors all over the place. Very sensitive ones too. They were designed to raise the alarm well before the toxic gas could harm people. I left the valve open briefly then sealed it again. Within seconds, the chlorine gas alarm went off. And my, what a show! Yellow lights flashed to life in twenty different places. An incredibly loud alarm blared throughout the facility. I felt a breeze. The emergency circulation vents had sprung to life. They would replace all the air in the facility with fresh oxygen from an emergency reserve. In the control room, the employees scrambled to safety. Normally, their procedure would be to get into the air shelter in the back of the room. But why would you do that when there’s a train right there? It’s much better to be in a train that can go back to town than sitting in an air shelter awaiting rescue. It didn’t take them long to make their decision–they piled into the train and sealed its hatch. It was probably cramped in there. Both shifts were sharing the train–a total of forty-eight people. I snuck a peek at the control room and fist-pumped when I saw it empty. They’d done exactly what I wanted. Obviously, I had to get everyone out of there before making the smelter melt down. I could have let the pressure alarm go off when I was cutting the inner hull –that would have made people skedaddle. But a pressure leak would bring emergency crews to the hole in the wall. That’d raise a few eyebrows once they saw

the rover, makeshift airlock, an awkwardly blushing Dale, et cetera. A toxic gas leak was much better. That was a purely internal issue. I opened the valve to the chlorine tank again–just a trickle. That way the ventilation system couldn’t clear it out. And as long as the chlorine alert blared, the workers would stay in their train. I didn’t have to hide anymore. I walked around to the front of the smelter. Then I shimmied underneath it and into the catch basin below. As a last-ditch defense against meltdowns, the smelter had a copper plug at the bottom of its tank. Copper has a higher melting point than the operating temperature of the bath, but a lower melting point than steel. So if things got too hot (1085°C to be exact), the copper would melt. The superheated salt bath would drain into the cement basin below. There’d be a hell of a mess to clean up, but the smelter itself would be saved. Can’t have that! I pulled the welding equipment and my duffel into the pit with me. Once again, I would be welding upward. Sigh. And this time I was joining steel to steel with steel rods as stock. So, in case it wasn’t clear: steel. Yay. Well, at least this time I wasn’t in an EVA suit. Any molten steel that hit me would just disfigure me for life instead of killing me. So I had that going for me. I got to work. I stayed well to the side as I joined the plate to the underbody. I admit I lost the bead a few times, sending a blob of flaming death to the ground. But I kept at it. After fifteen minutes, I had a solid steel plate covering the copper plug. I wasn’t sure what grade of steel the smelter walls were made of, but most grades melt at or below 1450°C. So, just to be safe, my plate and stock rods were Grade 416 with a melting point of 1530°C. The smelter would melt before my patch would. The patch was thin, so you’d think it would melt first, but physics doesn’t work that way. Before the temperature could get up to the patch’s melting point of 1530°C, everything that could melt at a lower temperature had to melt first. And the melting point of the smelter walls was 1450°C. So, even though the patch was thin and the smelter was thick, the bottom of the smelter would give out before the patch got anywhere near its melting point. Don’t believe me? Put ice water in a saucepan and cook it. The water temperature will stay at 0°C until the last ice cube melts.

I crawled out from the pit and checked the control room. Still empty. But not for long. The train had left. With all that chlorine in the air, it made sense to send the workers back to town. But once they got there, a bunch of hazmat-suited engineers would board and come right back. I had ten minutes for the train to get to town, call it another five for the changeover, then another ten until the enemy cavalry arrived. Twenty-five minutes. I hurried to the thermal control box. I unscrewed four bolts and took the access panel off. I yanked out the thermocouple management board and produced a replacement board from my duffel. Svoboda had spent the previous evening piecing it together. Pretty simple, actually. It acted just like the normal board, but it would lie to the computer about the bath temperature, always reporting it low. I inserted it into the slot. For verification purposes, Svoboda’s replacement board had LCD readouts showing the actual and reported temperature. The actual temperature was 900°C and the reported temperature was 825°C. The computer, believing the temperature was too low, activated the main heater. There was an audible “click” even though there was no relay. The power conduit –thickest power line I’d ever seen, by the way–actually squirmed for a moment when the current began. So much electricity flowed through that cable, the resulting magnetic field made it bounce around while it ramped up power. It settled down once the current got to full amperage. I watched Svoboda’s board. Soon, the actual temperature clicked up to 901 degrees. Then, in far less time, it rose to 902. Then directly to 904. Then 909. “Shiiit,” I said. That was way the hell faster than I expected. Turns out a massive power line carrying the bulk of two nuclear reactors’ output can heat things up pretty quickly. I left the access panel on the floor and ran back to my private entrance. Dale waited for me in the inflatable connector. “Well?” he asked. I shut the air-shelter door behind me. “Mission accomplished. The smelter’s heating up fast. Let’s get out of here.” “All right!” Dale held up his gloved hand. I gave him a high five (can’t leave a fella hanging). He bobbled down the tunnel toward the rover. I took one last look at the air-shelter hatch to make sure it was sealed properly.

Then I turned back and started down the tunnel–wait a minute. I spun back to the hatch. I could swear I’d seen movement behind me. The hatch had a small, round window. I drew closer to it and looked through. There, inspecting equipment along the far wall of the smelter bubble, was Loretta Sanchez. I put both hands on my head. “Dale. We have a problem.”

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