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?”
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 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.”
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.”