فصل 16

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فصل 16

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16

I needed Rudy. Or, more accurately, I needed Rudy’s Gizmo. Remember, Life Support is a secure area. You have to work there to get in–the doors won’t open unless they recognize your Gizmo. But Rudy’s Gizmo opens any door in town. Secure areas, homes, bathrooms, doesn’t matter. There’s nowhere Rudy can’t go. His office on Armstrong Up 4 was just a few minutes’ run from the ISRO lab. And holy shit was that a surreal trip. Bodies littered the halls and doorways. It was like a scene from the apocalypse. They’re not dead. They’re not dead. They’re not dead….I repeated the mantra to keep from losing my shit. I took the ramps to get from level to level. The elevators would probably have bodies blocking the doors. Armstrong Up 4 has an open space just near the ramps called Boulder Park. Why is it called that? No clue. While passing through, I tripped over a guy lying on his side and face-planted onto a tourist holding her unconscious toddler. She’d curled her body around the boy–a mother’s last line of defense. I got back up and kept running. I slid to a stop at Rudy’s office door and barged in. Rudy was slumped over his desk. Somehow he looked poised even while knocked out. I searched his pockets. The Gizmo had to be in there somewhere. Something caught my eye and bothered my brain. I couldn’t figure out what. It’s one of those warnings you get that’s more a sense of “wrongness” than anything else. But hell, everything was “wrong” at the moment. I didn’t have time for subconscious bullshit. I had a city to save.

I found Rudy’s Gizmo and slipped it into my pocket. My inner Jazz made another appeal to me, this time with more urgency. Something’s wrong, goddammit! it screamed. I spared a second to look around the room. Nothing awry. The small, Spartan office was just as it had always been. I knew the place well–I’d been in there dozens of times when I was an asshole teenager, and I have a very good memory. Nothing was out of place. Not a single thing. But then, as I left the office, it struck me: a blunt object to the back of my head. My scalp went numb and my vision blurred, but I stayed conscious. It had been a grazing blow. A few centimeters to the left and I would have been leaking brains. I stumbled forward and turned to face my attacker. Alvarez held a long steel pipe in one hand and an oxygen tank in the other. A hose ran from the tank directly to his mouth. “You fucking kidding me?!” I said. “One other person awake and it’s you?!” He took another swing. I dodged away. Of course it was Alvarez. That’s what my subconscious had tried to tell me. Rudy’s office was the same as I always remembered. But it was supposed to have Alvarez locked up in the air shelter. The whole sequence of events played out in my mind: The shelter had protected Alvarez from the chloroform. Once Rudy conked out, the now-unsupervised murderer had wrenched a meter-long pipe loose and used it to force the hatch handle. The lock and chain on the other side stood no chance against that kind of torque. Alvarez might not be a chemical engineer, but it wouldn’t have taken a genius to work out something was wrong with the air. Either that or he’d spent a second almost passing out before realizing. Either way, the shelter had air tanks and hoses. So he’d rigged up a life-support system. And hey, as an added bonus, the pipe had a jagged, sharp end where he’d broken it off. Wonderful. He didn’t just have a club. He had a spear. “There’s a gas leak,” I said. “Everyone in town will die if I don’t fix it.” He lunged without hesitation. He was an assassin with a job. Got to admire his professionalism. “Oh, fuck you!” I said. He was bigger, stronger, a far superior fighter, and armed with a pointy metal stick.

I turned as if to run, then kicked backward. I figured it would throw off his attack and I was right. He ended up swinging the pipe around me instead of bashing my head in. Now I had his hand in front of me and my back to his chest. I’d never get a better shot at disarming him than this. I grabbed his hand with both of mine and twisted it outward. Classic disarming move, and it should have fucking worked, but it didn’t. He just reached around me with his other hand and pulled the pipe up to my throat. He was strong. Very strong. Even with the injury to his arm he easily overpowered me. I got both my hands between the pipe and my neck, but it still dug in. I couldn’t breathe. There’s a special kind of panic that overwhelms you when that happens. I flailed uselessly for a few seconds, then used every ounce of willpower I had to get myself under control. He’d either break my neck or choke me out and then break my neck. The breather mask was useless–it couldn’t force air through a closed throat. But the air tank on my hip might help. Solid metal blunt object. Better than nothing. I reached down for it. Pain! Taking my hand off the pipe was a terrible idea. It got rid of half my resistance. Alvarez dug it deeper into my throat. My legs gave out and I sank to my knees. He followed me down and kept the pipe perfectly in place. Darkness closed in around me. If only I had another hand. Another hand… The thought echoed in my increasingly foggy mind. Another hand. Another hand. Too many hands. Alvarez had too many hands. What? My eyes shot back open. Alvarez had too many hands! A second ago he’d had the pipe in one hand and an air tank in the other. But now both hands were on the pipe. That meant he’d set the tank on the floor! I summoned the tiny amount of strength I had left, coiled my legs, and lurched forward. The pipe dug into my throat even deeper but that was okay–the pain helped keep me awake. I pressed again, harder this time, and finally brought him

off balance. The two of us toppled forward, me on the bottom, him lying atop me. Then I heard the sweetest sound I’d ever heard. He coughed. His grip relaxed slightly and he coughed again. I got my chin under the pipe and finally my throat was free! I wheezed and took great gasping breaths from my mask. The black fog around me receded. I held on to the pipe with both hands and pushed forward, dragging Alvarez with me. He held on, but his grip grew weaker with every passing moment. I wriggled out from underneath and finally turned to face him. He lay crumpled on the ground and coughing violently. Just as I’d hoped, he’d put the tank down to strangle me. When I’d dragged him forward, the air line had popped out of his mouth. He could either hold on to the pipe or grab the air line. He’d chosen the pipe. He’d probably hoped he could choke me out then get the air back before falling unconscious himself. He reached back with one hand for the air line, but I grabbed his collar and dragged him along the floor. He gasped again and the color drained from his face. I reached down and pulled the pipe out of his hands once and for all. His face fell to the floor–he was finally down for the count. I panted for a few seconds, then stood up. The rage boiled inside. I stepped forward with the sharp end of the pipe ahead of me. Alvarez lay helpless on the ground–a known murderer who had just tried to kill me. One thrust between the fourth and fifth ribs…right into his heart…I considered it. I really considered it. It’s not something I’m proud of. I stomped his right upper arm with my heel. The bone crunched underneath. That was more my style. I didn’t have time to waste, but I couldn’t let that asshole escape again. I dragged his unconscious body into Rudy’s office. I shoved Rudy aside and rummaged through his desk until I found handcuffs. I handcuffed Alvarez’s good arm to the air-shelter handle and threw the key out into the hall. You’re welcome, Rudy. I checked my Gizmo to see how much time I had left: thirty-five minutes. And it wasn’t like I had until 0:00. That was just an estimate. Hopefully a little on the safe side. Nevertheless, with over two thousand people in town, some were sure to die ahead of schedule. I “sheathed” the pipe by slipping it between my belt and jumpsuit. Alvarez was knocked out, breathing chloroform, had a broken arm, and was handcuffed. But I

still wasn’t taking any chances. No more fucking ambushes. I ran toward Life Support. I wheezed harder and harder and my throat swelled up–still pissed off about the recent strangulation. I probably had a hell of a bruise there but it hadn’t swollen shut. That was all that mattered. I tasted the bile on my breath, but didn’t have time to rest. I powered through the obstacle course of bodies. I cranked up the flow rate on my air tank to get more oxygen into my aching lungs. It didn’t help much (that trick doesn’t work when the entire atmosphere is already oxygen). But at least the slight overpressure kept me from sucking in chloroform-riddled air around the edges. That was something. I reached Life Support and waved Rudy’s Gizmo at the door. It clicked open. Unconscious Vietnamese guys lay everywhere. I glanced at the main status screens along the wall. As far as the automated systems were concerned, everything was hunky-dory! Good pressure, plenty of oxygen, CO2 separation working perfectly…what more could a computer ask for? Mr. oàn’s seat at the main panel was empty. I hopped into it and looked over the air-management controls. The writing was in Vietnamese, but I got the general idea. Mainly because one wall showed a map of every pipe and air line in the system. As you can imagine, it was a pretty big schematic. I gave it a long, hard look. Right away, I picked out the emergency air system. All its lines were marked in red. “Okay…where’s the actuation valve?” I said. I traced my finger along various red lines until I found one that entered Life Support itself. Then I found something that looked like a valve icon. “Northwest corner…” The room was a maze of pipes, tanks, and valves. But I knew which one I needed now. The third from the left in the northwest corner. On my way there, I passed Mr. oàn lying on the floor. From the looks of things, he’d tried to get to the valve himself, but hadn’t made it. I grabbed the valve with both hands and turned. The throaty roar of pressure release echoed throughout the room. My Gizmo rang in my pocket. It was so unexpected I drew my pipe, ready for a fight. I shook my head at the silly move and re-sheathed my weapon. I answered the call. “Jazz?!” came Dale’s voice. “You all right? We passed out there for a minute.” “Dale!” I said. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m in Life Support and I just opened the flush

valve. You okay?” “We’re awake. Feel like shit, though. No idea why we woke up.” Sanchez spoke in the background. “Our lungs absorbed the chloroform out of the rover’s air. Once the ppm’s dropped below twenty-five hundred, it stopped working as an anesthetic.” “You’re on speaker, by the way,” said Dale. “Sanchez,” I said flatly. “So glad you’re well.” She ignored my bitchiness. “Is the flush working?” I ran back to the status screens. Each bubble now had multiple blinking yellow lights that hadn’t been there before. “I think so,” I said. “There are caution and warning lights all over the place. If I’m reading this right, they’re probably the relief valves. It’s venting.” I prodded a technician in the chair next to me. He didn’t stir. Of course, even with perfect air, it would take these guys a while to wake up. They’d been breathing nineteenth-century anesthetic for half an hour. “Hang on,” I said. “I’m going to take a sniff.” I pulled the mask away from my face for a second and took a very shallow breath. I immediately fell to the floor. I was too weak to stand. I wanted to puke but resisted the urge. I held the mask against my face again. “…no good…” I murmured. “…air still bad…” “Jazz?” Dale said. “Jazz! Don’t pass out!” “‘m’okay,” I said, getting up to my knees. Each breath of canned air made me feel better. “I’m…okay…I think we just have to wait. It takes a while to replace all this air. We’re good. We’re doing good.” I guess the gods heard that and laughed their asses off. No sooner had I said it than the sound of air through the pipes quieted down and fell silent. “Uh…guys…the air stopped.” “Why?” asked Dale. “Working on it!” I shot a look at the status screens. Nothing obvious there. Then I went back to the line schematics on the wall. The main valve was right there in Life Support and it led to a staging tank in that room. It read empty. “Ugh!” I said. “We ran out of air! There’s not enough!” “What?!” Dale said. “How can that be? Life Support has air to last months.” “Not quite,” I said. “They have enough air to refill one or two bubbles and they

have enough battery power to turn CO2 back into oxygen for months. But they don’t have enough oxygen to flush the entire city. It’s just not something anyone thought of.” “Oh God…” said Dale. “We’ve got one chance,” I said. “Trond Landvik stockpiled huge amounts of oxygen. It’s in tanks right outside.” “That bastard,” said Sanchez. “I knew he was after my oxygen-for-power contract.” I looked over the control board again. Thank god Vietnamese uses a superset of the English alphabet. One section of the schematic was labeled LANDVIK. “Trond’s tanks are on the schematic!” I said. “Of course they are,” said Sanchez. “Trond would have had to collude with them to make sure his air system could interface with theirs.” I ran my finger along the map. “According to this, Trond’s tanks are already connected to the system. There’s a whole complicated set of valves in the way, but there’s a path.” “So, do it!” Dale said. “The valves are manual cranks and they’re outside,” I said. “What?! Why the hell are there manual valves out on the surface?!” “Safety,” I said. “Trond explained it to me earlier. Doesn’t matter. I just memorized the pipe layout. It’s complicated as hell and I don’t know what state the sub-valves will be in. I’ll work out what to do when I’m there.” I bolted out of Life Support into the corridors of Armstrong. “Wait, you’re going out?” Dale said. “Wearing what? Your EVA suit’s in here.” “I’m on my way to Conrad Airlock and I’ve got a big pipe. I’ll pry open Bob’s locker and wear his gear.” “Those lockers are centimeter-thick aluminum,” said Dale. “You’ll never get through in time.” “Okay, good point. Uh…” I hurtled through the Armstrong­Conrad Connector tunnel and checked my Gizmo. We had twenty-five minutes left. “I’ll use a tourist hamster ball.” “How will you turn the cranks?” Goddammit, right again. Hamster balls had no arms, gloves, or articulation points at all. I’d have no way to grip anything outside.

“I guess you’ll have to be my hands. The tanks are in the triangle between Armstrong, Shepard, and Bean. Meet me at the Bean­Shepard Connector. I’ll need your help to get into the triangle.” “Roger. Driving to the connector now. I’ll get as close as I can and walk the rest of the way.” “How will you get out of the rover without killing Sanchez?” “I’d like to know that too,” Sanchez added. “I’ll put her in your suit before opening the airlock,” he said. “My suit?!” “Jazz!” “Fine, yeah. Sorry.” I plowed through Conrad Ground as fast as I could. My home bubble had some of the most Byzantine passageways in town. When you put a bunch of artisans in one place with no zoning rules, their workshops expand to fill every nook and cranny. But I knew the layout by heart. Naturally, the tourist airlock was the farthest point from the Armstrong Connector tunnel. I mean, where else would it be? I finally got there. Two EVA masters lay on the floor in front of sixteen tourists who’d passed out in their chairs. The leak had caught them in the middle of orientation. “Dale, I’m at the airlock.” “Copy,” came his voice. He was far from his Gizmo’s microphone. “It’s taking a while to cram Sanchez into your gear. She’s kind of tall–” “I beg your pardon,” she said. “I’m 164 centimeters–exactly average for a woman. I’m not tall, your saboteur friend is short.” “Don’t stretch out my suit,” I said. “I’ll defecate in your suit!” “Hey–!” “Sanchez, shut up!” Dale said. “Jazz, save the city!” I charged into the large airlock and pulled a deflated hamster ball from its cubby. “I’ll let you know when I’m outside.” I spread the flaccid plastic on the ground with the zip hatch facing up, pulled a scurry pack off the wall, and put it on. Time for some Rudy Gizmo Magic. I closed the inner airlock door, waved the Gizmo across the airlock control panel,

and it granted me access. Next problem: Airlocks are meant to be operated by EVA masters wearing suits with gloves. This was going to take some finesse. I deactivated the computer controls and switched to manual. First thing I did was spin the outer door’s crank. The door (like all airlock hatches) was a plug door –the air pressure behind it pushed it into its seal. So, while I made it possible to open the door, you’d have to be Superman to actually pull it open against the pressure. But I’d moved the physical latches out of the way, at least. I very slowly turned the venting valve. As soon as I heard the hiss of escaping air, I stopped turning it. At full-open, the valve would let all the airlock’s air vent into space in under a minute. But at this rate it would take a bit longer–long enough for me to not die, hopefully. I hurried to the hamster ball and crawled inside. It was an awkward affair, like getting into a collapsed tent, but that’s just how these things worked. I closed the zip seals (there are three layers of them for safety), then cranked the airflow valve on the scurry pack for a few seconds. The ball grew just enough for me to move around. Normally you do this shit when the airlock’s not venting. You take your time, inflate, and wait for the EVA master to check your seals. I wouldn’t have that luxury. The pressure in the airlock decreased, so my ball grew like a balloon in a vacuum chamber. That’s not an analogy. It was literally a balloon in a vacuum chamber. I crawled forward (it’s hard to move in a partially inflated ball) and reached out for the hatch handle. Since my ball wasn’t fully rigid, I could bend the skin just enough to grip the hatch. I held on with both hands as the pressure tried to pry me loose. The ball grew more rigid as the airlock vented, making it harder and harder to hang on to the handle. That rubber really wanted to be a sphere now. It didn’t approve of me wrapping it around a handle. I came close to losing my grip a couple of times but managed to keep hold. Finally, the airlock pressure got low enough that I could pull the door open. The remaining air whooshed out and my ball sprang into full rigidity. It slapped my hands away from the edge so hard I actually fell on my ass. But it didn’t matter. I was safely in my hamster ball and the airlock was open.

I got back up and something scraped against my leg. It was the pipe I’d appropriated from Lefty. In all the excitement I’d forgotten I even still had it. Generally not a good idea to bring a pointy stick into your inflatable life support system, but it was too late to do anything about that now. I tightened my belt to make sure the pipe was secure. Wouldn’t want it slipping out. I checked the scurry pack. All was well. Remember, they’re designed to be worn by tourists. They take care of everything on their own. I ventured out onto the surface. For all its limitations, a hamster ball is great for running in. No clunky boots, no thick suit legs to push around, no lugging around a hundred kilograms of gear. None of that. Just me in normal clothes with a moderately heavy backpack. I got up to speed and rolled across the terrain. Whenever I hit a bump, I bounced into the air (well, not “air,” but you know what I mean). There was a reason tourists paid thousands of slugs for this. In other circumstances it would have been fun as hell. I ran along the arc of Conrad Bubble until Bean came into view. I beelined for Bean, then followed its perimeter. I tapped my earpiece to make sure it was on. “How’s it coming, Dale?” “Sanchez is suited up and I’ve driven us to the Shepard­Bean Connector. About to exit the rover. You?” “Almost there.” I rounded the edge of Bean and saw Shepard come into view. I kept following Bean’s wall to the connector tunnel. Dale, at the wall of the connector, spotted me and waved. Bob’s rover stood parked nearby. Through the windows, I could see Sanchez sitting awkwardly in my suit. I scampered to the connector and checked my Gizmo. Fifteen minutes left. Dale crouched down and put both arms under my bubble. “On three,” he said. I coiled, ready to leap. “One…two…three!” We timed it perfectly. I jumped a fraction of a second before he flung the bubble upward with all his strength. So I kicked against the ground, flew up, and Dale threw the ball to match me. My ball and I vaulted over the connector with ease. Of course, I bounced around like an idiot when I landed on the other side. Dale climbed over the connector with practiced ease by using its many handrails. He landed next to me just as I got back up.

With Bean and Shepard behind us, we faced the smaller dome of Armstrong ahead. The external tanks stood to one side, partially hidden by their complicated network of pipes and valves. “My face itches,” said Sanchez over the radio. “Sucks to be you,” I said. Dale and I headed for the tanks. “This suit is quite uncomfortable,” Sanchez continued. “Can’t I just close the rover hatch, pressurize, and wait for you in comfort?” “No,” said Dale. “Always have the rover ready for quick entry. That’s how we do things.” She grumbled to herself but didn’t press the issue. I rolled to the first line of pipes. Three huge, looming pressure tanks dominated the structure. Each one had LANDVIK stenciled along the side. I pointed to the middle of four valves on the nearest pipe. “Turn this valve all the way off.” “Off?!” Dale asked. “Yeah, off. Just trust me. These pipes have blowout zones, cleaning access, and a bunch of other shit that makes it a mess to deal with.” “Gotcha.” He grabbed the crank with his thick gloves and muscled it closed. I pointed to another valve, this one on a pipe three meters above the ground. “Now open that one to full.” He jumped up and grabbed the pipe with both hands. He monkey-barred to the valve, braced his feet on a pair of lower pipes, and turned the valve. He grunted with effort. “These valves are tight.” “They’ve literally never changed state,” I said. “We’re using them for the first time.” The valve handle finally gave and Dale gasped with relief. “There!” “Okay, down here.” I gestured at a mess of pipes with four valves on it. “Close all those except the third one. That one should be full-open.” I checked my Gizmo while Dale worked. Ten minutes. “Sanchez, how accurate is that one-hour estimate on chloroform toxicity?” “Quite accurate,” she said. “Some people will already be in critical condition.” Dale redoubled his pace. “Done. Next.” “Just one more,” I said. I led him away from the pipe maze to a half-meter-wide outflow pipe and pointed to a valve that controlled it. “Turn this to full-open and

we’re done.” He grabbed the handle and tried to crank it. It didn’t budge. “Dale, you have to turn the handle,” I said. “The hell you think I’m trying to do?” “Try harder!” He turned around, gripped with both hands, and pushed against the ground with his legs. The crank still refused to move. “Dammit!” Dale said. My heart nearly beat out of my chest. I looked at my useless hands. With the hamster ball surrounding me I had no way to grip the valve. All I could do was watch. Dale strained as hard as he could. “God…damn…it…” “Does the rover have a toolbox?” I asked. “A wrench or something?” “No,” he said through gritted teeth. “I took it out to make room for the inflatable.” That meant the nearest wrench was in town. It would take way too long to retrieve one. “What about me?” Sanchez said over the radio. “Can I help?” “No good,” said Dale. “It takes hours to learn how to climb in an EVA suit. I’d have to go get you and carry you here. That would take a long time and even then you’re not very strong. You wouldn’t help much.” This was it. This was as far as we’d get. One valve away from victory, but no further. Two thousand people would die. Maybe we could get back into town and save a few by dragging them into air shelters? Probably not. By the time we got in, everyone would be dead. I looked around for anything that could help. But the surface around Artemis is the definition of “nothing.” Lots of regolith and dust. Not even a friendly rock to hit the valve with. Nothing. Dale fell to his knees. I couldn’t see his face through the visor but I heard his sobs over the radio. My stomach tied into knots. I was about to throw up. I welled up–about to cry. That just made my throat hurt even more. That pipe had really done a number on me and… And…

And then I knew what I had to do. The realization should have panicked me. I don’t know why it didn’t. But instead I just felt a great calm. The problem was solved. “Dale,” I said softly. “Oh God…” Dale rasped. “Dale, I need you to do something for me.” “W-What?” I pulled the pipe from my belt. “I need you to tell everyone I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for everything I did.” “What are you talking about?” “And I need you to tell Dad I love him. Okay, that’s the most important thing. Tell Dad I love him.” “Jazz.” He stood up. “What are you doing with that pipe?” “We need leverage.” I gripped the pipe with both hands and pointed the sharp end forward. “And I’ve got it. If this won’t turn it, nothing will.” I rolled my ball over to the handle. “But the pipe’s inside your hamster ba–oh. No!” “I probably won’t last long enough to turn the handle. You’ll have to grab the pipe and finish for me.” “Jazz!” He reached toward me. It was now or never. Dale had lost focus. I can’t blame him. It’s hard to watch your best friend die, even if it is for the greater good. “I forgive you, buddy. For everything. Goodbye.” I thrust the sharp end of the pipe through the edge of my ball. Air hissed out through the pipe–I’d just given the vacuum a straw to suck on. The pipe grew cold in my hands. I pushed harder and wedged the pipe into the valve handle’s spokes. My hamster ball stretched and ripped near the puncture site. I had a fraction of a second left, at best. With all my strength, I shoved the pipe to the side and felt the handle give. Then physics showed up with a vengeance. The ball ripped itself to shreds. One second I was pushing on the pipe, the next I was flying through the void.

All noise stopped immediately. Blinding sunlight assaulted my eyes–I squinted in pain. The air fled from my lungs. I gasped for more–I could expand my chest but nothing came in. Weird feeling. I landed faceup on the ground. My hands and neck burned while the rest of my body, protected by clothing, roasted more slowly. My face ached from the onslaught of burning light. My mouth and eyes bubbled–the fluids boiling off in the vacuum. The world went black and consciousness slipped away. The pain stopped.

Dear Jazz, According to the news, something’s very wrong with Artemis. They say the whole city went offline. There’s been no contact at all. I don’t know why my email would be the exception but I have to try. Are you there? Are you okay? What happened?

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