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.