فصل 15

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فصل 15

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15

Sanchez peered at the emergency air system. She wore goggles and a breather mask. Apparently a little chlorine gas didn’t scare her. Dale, halfway down the inflatable, gestured to the rover. “Come on, Jazz! Let’s go!” “Loretta Sanchez is in there!” “What?!” I pointed to the airlock window. “She’s just wandering around like she owns the place.” “She does own the place,” Dale said. “Let’s get out of here!” “We can’t leave her there.” “She’s a smart woman. When the meltdown starts she’ll leave.” “Where will she go?” I demanded. “The train.” “The train left.” “The air shelter, then.” “That won’t protect her from molten steel!” I turned to the hatch. “I have to get her.” Dale stomped back toward me. “Are you out of your mind?! These people tried to kill you, Jazz!” “Whatever.” I checked the tape on my mask and goggles. “Get to the rover. Be ready for a quick exit.” “Jazz–” “Go!” I snapped.

He hesitated for a second–probably to decide if he could physically force me back to the rover. He wisely chose not to and headed down the inflatable. I spun the hatch valve and stumbled back into the facility. Sanchez didn’t notice me at first–her attention was on the emergency air system. Probably trying to figure out why it wasn’t cleaning the air. How does one introduce herself in a situation like this? I don’t think Emily Post covered “saving an enemy’s life during industrial sabotage” in her etiquette books. I went with a tried and true method. “Hey!” I yelled. She whipped around and grabbed her chest. “Goodness!” She panted a few times and regained her composure. She was a little older and more weathered than the pictures I’d seen of her. Still, she was spry and healthylooking for a fifty-year-old. “Who on God’s gray moon are you?” “That’s not important,” I said. “It’s not safe here. Come with me.” She didn’t budge. “You’re not one of my employees. How did you get in here?” “I cut a hole in the wall.” “What?” She scanned the walls to no avail. The hole was on the other side of the smelter from her. “You put a hole? In my factory?” “Why aren’t you on the train!” I demanded. “You’re supposed to be on the train!” “I wanted to see if I could fix the problem. I sent the others to safety and–” She stopped and held up a finger. “Hold on a moment. I don’t have to explain myself to you. You have to explain yourself to me!” I took a step toward her. “Listen, dipshit. This whole facility is about to melt. You have to come with me right fucking now!” “Language! Wait…I recognize you. You’re Jasmine Bashara.” She pointed an accusing finger. “You’re the hooligan who ruined my harvesters!” “Yeah,” I said. “And I’m the hooligan who sabotaged your smelter. It’s going critical as we speak.” “Nonsense. I designed it myself. It’s infallibly safe.” “The heater’s on full, the thermal system is hacked, and I welded a steel plate across the melt plug.” Her mouth dropped open. “We have to leave!” I said. “Come on!”

She looked to the smelter, then back to me. “Or…I could fix it.” “Not gonna happen,” I said. “Do you plan to stop me?” I steadied my stance. “You don’t want to mess with me, Grandma. I’m half your age and I grew up in this gravity. I’ll carry you out of here if I have to.” “Interesting,” she said. “I grew up on the streets of Manaus. And I used to mug men twice your size.” Okay, I wasn’t expecting that. She lunged at me. I wasn’t expecting that either. I ducked and watched her sail overhead. Earthers always underestimated how far a jump would take them. So it was easy to– She reached down, grabbed my hair, and slammed my head into the ground with her landing. Then she straddled my chest and reared back to punch me in the face. I kicked up, bucked her off of me, and got to my feet. Before I could get my bearings, she was on me again. This time she attacked from behind with a chokehold. I have many flaws, but machismo isn’t one of them. I know when I’m outclassed. Turns out Manaus is a much tougher town than Artemis. This woman could pummel me in a fair fight. That’s why I avoid fair fights. I reached over my shoulder and pulled off her air mask. She released me immediately and backed away. She held her breath and fumbled with the dangling mask. That gave me an opening. I spun around, ducked down, and grabbed her by the legs. Then I hoisted her into the air with all my might. She flew a good four meters straight up. “Can you do that in Manaus?!” I yelled. She flailed in the air and reached the top of her arc. I grabbed my acetylene tank from the ground as she began her trip down. She had no way to avoid what came next. I swung as hard as I could. I made sure not to hit her head–I didn’t want to kill her. I ended up tagging her left shin. She cried out in pain and landed in a heap on the ground. But, to her credit, she got right back up again. She started toward me. “Stop!” I held out my hand. “This is ridiculous. Your smelter’s getting hotter and

hotter. You’re a chemist. Do the math. Will you just come with me?!” “You can’t just–” She stopped. She turned slowly toward the smelter. The lower half of it glowed dark red. “Oh…my God…” She spun back to me. “Where’s that exit again?” “Right this way,” I gestured. Together, we ran to the hole. Her a little slower than me because I’d just smacked the shit out of her shin. She dove through and I followed her. We scrambled through the air shelter and into the connector tunnel. I closed the hatch behind us. “Where does this lead?!” she demanded. “Away from here,” I said. We ran down the connector. Dale peeked his head through the rover airlock. He’d taken off his EVA suit. Sanchez leapt into the rover and I followed immediately after. I slammed the rover hatch closed. “We still have to detach the inflatable!” he said. “No time,” I said. “We’d have to suit up to do that. Drive away at max torque to rip the tunnel.” “Hang on,” Dale said. He punched the throttle. The rover lurched forward. Sanchez fell off her seat. I kept position at the rear window. The rover had insane torque, but there’s only so much traction to be had on lunar regolith. We only got a meter before the tunnel jerked us to a stop. Sanchez, just getting up, fell forward onto Dale. She grabbed him around the shoulders for support. “We have to get away from here,” she said. “There are methane and oxygen tanks in there–” “I know!” I said. I shot a glance out the side window. A sharply sloped rock got my attention. I vaulted to the front of the rover and clambered into the shotgun seat. “I’ve got a plan. It’ll take too long to explain. Give me control.” Dale flipped a switch in the center column to give my side priority. No argument, no questions, he just did it. EVA masters are very good at being rational in a crisis. I threw the rover into reverse and backed up four meters.

“Wrong way,” Sanchez said. “Shut up!” I turned toward the angled rock and put the rover into drive. “Hang on to something.” She and Dale gripped each other. I threw the throttle to full. We lunged at the rock. I steered the right front wheel over it and the whole rover bounced up at an angle. We hit the ground on the rover’s left side and rolled. We gave that roll cage a workout. The cabin was like a tumble dryer–I tried not to puke. Here’s what I thought would happen: The inflatable would get all twisted up, which it wasn’t designed to handle, so it would rip. Then I’d use reverse and forward motions to grow the rip all the way around. Then we’d be free. Here’s what actually happened: The inflatable took it like a champ. It was designed to have human occupants, so by God it would protect them no matter what. It didn’t rip. But the connection point to the rover airlock wasn’t as strong. The torsion from the twist sheared the bolts clean off. The air inside the tunnel explosively burst forth, blowing the rover farther forward (note: lunar rovers aren’t designed to be aerodynamic). We skidded on our side for another meter, then fell ponderously onto our wheels. We were free. “Holy shit!” Dale said. “That was genius!” “Uh, yeah.” I drove us away. Whump! The muted rumble lasted a fraction of a second. It was one of those sounds you feel more than hear. “That was loud,” Sanchez said. “No, it wasn’t.” Dale pried her arms off his shoulders. “I could barely hear it.” “She’s right.” I kept my eyes on the terrain ahead as I drove. “That sound traveled through loose soil, up through the wheels, and into the cabin. The fact that we heard anything at all means it was loud as hell.” I checked the rear camera feed. The bubble was intact, of course. It would take something nuclear to crack that open. The surprising part was my air shelter. It was right where I’d left it. I slammed on the brakes. “Holy crap! You see that! My weld held up against the explosion!”

Sanchez scowled. “Pardon me if I don’t pat you on the back.” “Seriously?” said Dale. “You’re going to brag right now?” “I’m just sayin’. Hell of a weld.” “Goddammit, Jazz.” He flipped the control switch back to his side. He drove us back toward town. “You should call Svoboda and your dad to let him know you’re okay.” “And you should call a lawyer,” said Sanchez. “I’ll see to it you get deported to Brazil to face charges.” “Think so?” I pulled out my Gizmo and called Svoboda. He didn’t answer–it went to voicemail. “Uh-oh,” I said. “Problem?” Dale asked. “Svobo’s not answering.” I called again. Voicemail again. “Maybe someone got to him?” Dale said. I turned to Sanchez. “You got any more goons in Artemis?” “I see no reason to cooperate with you.” “Don’t fuck with me on this. If my dad or friend gets hurt I’ll send you back to Brazil a piece at a time.” “I don’t have goons’ at all. Those types don’t answer to me.” “Bullshit,” I said. “Your nose is so far up O Palلcio’s ass you can see teeth.” She scowled. “They’re the ownership. I’m not one of them.” “You’re partners!” “The bottom fell out of the aluminum market when Artemis stopped building new bubbles. I needed funds to continue. They offered rescue financing. I took it. They do their thing and stay out of my way while I run my smelter. A smelter I poured my life and soul into, which you just destroyed, you reckless puddle of exudate!” “Don’t think I won’t look that up!” I dialed Dad’s number and held the Gizmo to my ear. Each successive unanswered ring raised my blood pressure. “No answer from Dad.” I drummed my fingers on the control console. Dale drove with one hand and pulled out his Gizmo. “Try Lene, I’ll try Bob.” I called Lene’s number. It rang and rang. I hung up when it went to voicemail.

“Nothing,” I said. “Bob’s not answering either,” Dale said. We exchanged nervous glances. “Maybe Rudy caught wind of it and arrested everyone….” I pondered. I hovered my thumbs over the Gizmo and pursed my lips. Calling the police in the middle of a heist wasn’t the best plan. Logically I should have waited until we were back in town–they’d be just as arrested then. But I couldn’t wait. I called his number. Four rings and out. I hung up. “Jesus,” I said. “Seriously?!” Dale said. “Even Rudy’s not answering? What the hell’s going on?” Sanchez pulled out her own Gizmo and tapped at the screen. “Hey!” I grabbed at her Gizmo, but she pulled it away before I could get it. “Gimme that!” “No,” she said crisply. “I need to know if my people got back safely.” “Bullshit! You’re calling for help!” I lunged at her. She dragged us both to the floor. “Knock it off!” said Dale. She tried to swing at me but only had one hand to work with–the other had a death grip on her Gizmo. I blocked and slapped her across the face. Oh God it felt good to get a hit in. “Stop that shit!” Dale yelled. “If you idiots hit the wrong button we all die!” “You told that harvester to kill me! Admit it!” I swung at her. She dodged to the side and hammer-locked my arm. “Of course I did! How dare you try to destroy my life’s work!” “Goddammit!” Dale skidded the rover to a halt. He waded into the fray and pried Sanchez and me apart. Despite what you see in action movies and comics, bigger really is better. A six-foot man just has too much of an edge over two slim women. “Listen, assholes,” he said. “I’m too gay to enjoy this catfight. Knock it off or I’ll bash your heads together.” “Language.” Sanchez resumed dialing her Gizmo. “Would you stop her, please?” I said to Dale. “If she can reach anyone I’ll be happy.” He let us both go, but kept a wary eye

on me. Somehow he assumed I was the aggressor. Just because I wanted to claw that bitch’s eyes out and shove them up her urethra. Sanchez listened to the Gizmo for a response. Her expression grew fearful by the second. She hung up. Dale looked to me. “Now what?” “Since when am I the leader?” “This whole heist is your deal. What do we do now?” “Uh…” I flipped the radio frequency to Main. “This is Jazz Bashara calling any EVA master. Do you read?” “Yes!” came the immediate reply. “This is Sarah Gottlieb. I’m here with Arun Gosal. We can’t reach anyone else. What’s going on?” I knew both of them. Sarah was a master and Arun was a trainee. We’d put that Queensland Glass fire out together a few days earlier. “Unknown, Sarah. I’m in a rover outside and unable to get any response from town. What’s your location?” “Moltke Foothills harvesting ground,” she said. I muted my mike. “Oh right. They’re guarding the harvester from me.” “Kind of irrelevant now,” said Sanchez. “But it’s nice to know the EVA Guild took the contract seriously.” I turned the mike back on. “Can you make it back to town?” “We had planned to ride the harvester back to the smelter and walk from there. But we can’t reach Sanchez Aluminum to ask them to send it home.” “Probably best to start walking,” I said. I tried not to catch Sanchez’s glare. “Negative,” said Sarah. “This could be a distraction to draw us away. We’re staying right here.” “Copy that.” “Hey…you’re still a trainee,” she said. “You shouldn’t be outside on your own. Is there a master with you? Who’s with you?” “Uh…you’re breaking up…” I switched the radio back to our private frequency. “That’ll take some explanation later,” said Dale. “One fuckup at a time,” I said. “Let’s go to the Port of Entry and see what’s going on there.” “Yes,” said Sanchez. “That’s where the train will be–where my people will be.” Dale took the driver’s seat and got us rolling again. Sanchez and I sat in silence, avoiding eye contact for the rest of the trip.

Dale drove at breakneck speed back to town. As we approached the Port of Entry, we could see the train docked at its airlock. Sanchez perked up. “How do we get in?” “Normally you radio the EVA master on duty at the freight airlock,” Dale said. “But since they’re not answering I’d have to suit up and use the manual valves on the outside.” “Check out the train,” I said. “We’ll be able to see into the port through the train’s windows.” Dale nodded and drove us across the well-trafficked terrain. We passed the freight airlock and stopped at the docked train. The windows were considerably higher than ours. All we could see from our vantage point was the ceiling inside. “Hang on, I’ll get us a better view.” Dale tapped at the controls and the cabin began to rise. Turns out Bob’s rover had a scissor-lift as well. Of course it did. Why wouldn’t it? It had every other feature you could want. We drew level with the train windows and Sanchez let out a gasp. I would have too, but I didn’t want her to see me do it. Bodies lay in disarray–some in their seats, others piled atop each other in the aisle. One had a pool of vomit around her mouth. “Whu…” Dale managed to eke out. “My people!” Sanchez frantically shifted around to look from different angles. I pressed my nose against the glass for a better view. “They’re still breathing.” “Are they?” she asked. “Are you certain?” “Yeah,” I said. “Look at the guy in the blue shirt. See his stomach?” “Michael Mendez.” She loosened up a bit. “Okay, yes. I see movement.” “They dropped right where they sat,” I said. “They aren’t crowded at the airlock or anything.” Dale pointed to the hatch connecting the train to the port. “The train airlock’s open. See the Kenyan flag in the station?” I furrowed my brow. “The air,” I said. Sanchez and Dale looked at me. “It’s in the air. Something’s wrong with the air. Everyone in the train was fine until the conductor opened the hatch. Then they passed out.” Dale wrung his hands. “Right when we fucked up the smelter. That can’t be a coincidence.”

“Of course it’s not a coincidence!” Sanchez said. “My smelter has an air pipeline directly to Life Support in Armstrong Bubble. Where do you think your air comes from?” I grabbed her by the shoulders. “But your feeds have safeties, right? Valves and stuff?” She slapped my hands away. “They’re made to stop leaks, not stand up against a massive explosion!” “Oh shit oh shit oh shit…” said Dale. “The explosion was contained in the smelter bubble. It didn’t have anywhere to vent. You made your weld too good. The air pipeline was the only place for the pressure to go. Oh shit!” “Wait, no,” I said. “No, no, no. That can’t be right. Life Support has safety sensors on incoming air. It’s not like they pump it straight into town, right?” “Yes, you’re right,” said Sanchez, calming a little. “They check for carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. They also check for chlorine and methane, just in case there’s a leak at my smelter.” “How do they check?” I asked. She walked to another window to get a better look at her fallen employees. “They have liquid compounds that change color in the presence of unwanted molecules. And computer monitoring to react instantly.” “So it’s chemistry,” I said. “That’s your thing, right? You’re a chemist, right? What if the explosion at the smelter made something else? Something Life Support couldn’t detect?” “Well…” She thought. “There would have been calcium, chlorine, aluminum, silicon…” “Methane,” I added. “Okay, add that in and it could make chloromethane, dichloromethane, chlor– oh my God!” “What? What?!” She put her head in her hands. “Methane, chlorine, and heat will make several compounds, most of them harmless. But it also makes chloroform.” Dale sighed in relief. “Oh thank God.” Sanchez put her hands over her mouth and suppressed a sob. “They’re going to die. They’re all going to die!” “What are you talking about?” I asked. “It’s just chloroform. Knockout gas.

Right?” She shook her head. “You’ve watched too many movies. Chloroform isn’t some harmless anesthetic. It’s very, very deadly.” “But they’re still breathing.” She wiped away tears with a trembling hand. “They passed out instantly. That means the concentration is at least fifteen thousand parts per million. At that concentration they’ll all be dead in an hour. And that’s the best-case scenario.” Her words hit me like hammers. I froze. I just plain froze solid. I shook in my chair and fought back the urge to puke. The world grew foggy. I tried to take a deep breath. It escaped as a sob. My mind went into overdrive. “Okay…um…okay…hang on…” Assets: me, Dale, and a bitch I didn’t like. A rover. Two EVA suits. Lots of spare air, though not enough to feed a city. Welding equipment. There was also an additional EVA master and trainee (Sarah and Arun), but they were too far away to do any good. We had one hour to solve this problem, and they couldn’t possibly get back in time. Dale and Sanchez looked to me with desperation. Additional asset: the entire city of Artemis, minus the people inside. “O-okay…” I stammered. “Life Support’s on Armstrong Ground. It’s right down the hall from Space Agency Row. Dale, dock us at the ISRO airlock.” “Roger.” He threw the throttle to full. We bounced over the terrain and skirted the arc of Aldrin Bubble. I climbed to the airlock in the rear. “Once I’m in, I’ll haul ass to Life Support. They’ve got tons of reserve air in the emergency tanks. I’ll open all of them.” “You can’t just dilute chloroform,” Sanchez said. “The molarity in the air will be the same.” “I know,” I said. “But bubbles have overpressure-relief valves. When I blow the reserve tanks, the city air pressure will go up and the relief valves will start venting. The good air will displace the bad.” She thought it through, then nodded. “Yes, that might work.” We skidded to a stop just outside the ISRO airlock. Dale threw the rover into reverse and performed the fastest, most skilled docking procedure I’ve ever seen. He barely slowed down to mate the two airlocks. “Jesus you’re good at this shit,” I said.

“Go!” he implored. I put my breather mask on. “You guys stay here. Dale, if I fuck up and the chloroform gets me, you have to take my place.” I turned the airlock crank. The hiss of equalizing air filled the cabin. “Sanchez, if Dale fucks up, you’re next in line. Hopefully that won’t…” I cocked my head. “Does that hiss sound strange?” Dale shot a look at the airlock door. “Shit! The rover airlock’s damaged from ripping the inflatable tunnel off! Close the valve, we need–” The hiss grew so loud I couldn’t hear Dale anymore. The airlock was failing. My mind raced: If I closed the valve what would we do next? Dale and I had EVA suits, so we could walk to the ISRO airlock and use it normally. But that would require us to leave the rover, which would mean using the rover’s airlock, which would kill Sanchez. The only solution would be to drive the whole rover into town through the freight airlock at the Port of Entry. But no one was awake inside to let us in. We’d have to open the airlock manually, which would mean leaving the rover, which would kill Sanchez. I made a snap decision and cranked the valve to full-open. “What the hell are you–” Dale began. The rover rattled from the force of escaping air. My ears popped. Bad sign–the air was escaping faster than the rover could replace it. “Close the hatch behind me!” I yelled. Four doors. I had to get through four fucking doors to get into Artemis. The rover’s airlock had two and the ISRO’s airlock had two more. Until I got through that last one, I’d be in danger. Dale and Sanchez would be fine as soon as he closed the first door behind me. I opened Door Number One and hopped into the rover airlock. Door Number Two was the one trying to kill us. Ice condensed along the edges where a steady stream of air escaped. Just as Dale predicted, the aperture was warped where the inflatable tunnel had been attached. I spun the crank and yanked on the hatch. Would the door even open in its fucked-up state? I prayed to Allah, Yahweh, and Christ that it would. One or more of them must have heard me because the hatch inched open. I used all my strength to widen the gap and finally opened it wide enough to slither through. Sometimes being small is awesome. I’d made it into the collet–the one-meter tunnel between the two airlocks.

Both the rover outer door and the collet had been badly warped. Both leaked air like a sieve. But at least there weren’t any big holes. The rover’s air tanks were keeping it pressurized for the moment, though they were losing the battle. And if you’re wondering about my breather mask: No, it wouldn’t help in a vacuum. It would just blow oxygen onto my dead face. I cranked the ISRO outer hatch handle and threw it open. I stumbled into the ISRO airlock and glanced back to check up on the others. I’d assumed Dale would already be closing the rover’s inner hatch. I’d assumed wrong. If he’d closed the hatch, my air supply would’ve been gone until I got into Artemis. Was that on his mind? Was that idiot being noble? “Close the fucking hatch!” I screamed over the wind. Then I saw them. They both looked pale and woozy. Dale fell to the floor. Shit. The ISRO airlock had chloroform in its air. In the heat of the moment and all my deep planning I’d forgotten that little detail. All right. One thing at a time. First, get the last door open. The rover had limited air, but Artemis had plenty. I spun the final hatch’s crank and tried to push it open. It didn’t budge. Of course it didn’t. The rover was at lower pressure than the city because of the constant leak. “Fuuuuck!” I said. I cranked the hatch’s central valve to equalize the airlock with the air on the other side. The ISRO equalization valve battled the leak. Which one had a higher airflow rate? I didn’t wait to find out. I braced my back against the airlock outer wall and used both legs to kick the hatch. The first two attempts jarred it, but didn’t break the seal. The third did the trick. The hatch clanked open. A whoosh of air rushed into the airlock and rover beyond. I wedged a foot in the opening to keep the hatch from closing against the airflow. Dale and Sanchez were saved…sort of. If you consider breathing poison gas in a leaky pressure vessel to be “saved.” My back hurt like hell. I’d be paying for all this tomorrow. If there was a tomorrow. I pulled off my shoe and left it in place to keep the hatch open. I returned to the rover. Dale and Sanchez were completely unconscious at this point. Goddamn. Note to self: Don’t take the mask off.

Both of them were breathing steadily. I closed the rover’s inner airlock hatch to seal them in, then returned to the ISRO inner door. I shoved it open again (much easier because my shoe kept the door from re-sealing) and fell into the lab. I retrieved my shoe and the hatch shut automatically against the rushing air. I was in. I sat on the floor and put my shoe back on. Then I checked the seal on my air mask. It seemed good. And I wasn’t puking or passing out, which I figured was a good sign. The ISRO lab was littered with unconscious scientists. It was an eerie sight. Four of them had passed out at their desks, while one lay on the floor. I stepped over the one on the floor and made my way to the hall. I checked my Gizmo. It had been twenty minutes since the chloroform leak started. So, if Sanchez’s estimate was correct, I had forty minutes left to fix the city’s air or everyone would die. And it would be my fault.

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