“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!”
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.”