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.
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.”