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8.


Micro, outside the Cargo Deck. 3:42 A.M.

Charlie pushed past the hatch, slipped into the airlock, and collapsed. He was breathing hard, literally panting, fogging the bag. He released the paper clip again, cautiously, remembering the warning about nosebleed. The bandanna was drenched.

Saber was right: It felt like a sauna. That was odd. He'd always assumed space was cold.

There was a status display on the bulkhead, and it had power. He found the white presspad, took a deep breath, and pushed. To his delight, the inner hatch opened.

Lights were still on inside.

Bigfoot's body, clothed in the p-suit, floated near the ladder, to which it was tethered. The suit looked broken and there were globules of blood drifting through the chamber. Charlie realized that every time Saber ran the engine, the body was slammed against the ladder.

He'd have liked to stop and secure it. But he felt extraordinarily weary. His bag wouldn't clear up, so he was having trouble making out details around him. And he suspected some of the blood was inside the bag.

It was hard to concentrate. Something touched his arm and his hair stood upright.

Bigfoot's helmet.

His hand closed on it and he had to think.

Hold on to it.

The locker. Where was the locker? He tried to remember. The part of his mind that remained clear seemed to be shrinking into a corner back in his head somewhere, somewhat like the effect that nitrous oxide produces in a dentist's office. He tried to fight it off. It occurred to him that he could no longer see the outside warning lights. But Saber could use the intercom to speak directly to C deck.

Right?

But there was no air. No medium to carry the sound.

There were three lockers, she'd said. It was in the middle one. He pushed past tanks, cables, shelving. Feeling his way.

He turned a corner. Drifted off the deck. Found a handhold, the side of a storage bin, something, and pulled himself back. And in this tortuous manner, half-blinded, operating out of a state that was neither rational nor deluded, he found the storage cabinets.

He opened the middle one and felt the suit. And another helmet. Take both. Bigfoot's might be damaged. Wouldn't want to have to do this again. No sir. This was too much even for the vice president of the United States. He wrapped the helmets in the suit.

He got back to the airlock, pushed the presspad, and watched the inner hatch close. He settled in to wait, and a minute went by before he realized he didn't need to bother because the outer hatch was already open, had been open.

Make sure you've still got the suit.

He did, and he felt for his ladder up the face of the moonbus. He didn't need it really. He could just lean out and launch. (He giggled at the thought.) Grab the hatch as he went by. Nothing to it.

In fact, he wasn't sure which way was up. The ladder went in both directions. Which way was the passenger cabin and which way the treads? He went back inside the airlock-better safe than sorry-found the control panel, wiped a smeary arm across his bag-helmet, and tried to read the markings. But he could see nothing.

Which way?

Then he remembered the airlock benches. They were for sitting, so they had to be near the floor. Down. He wanted to go the other way.

He found the benches, returned to the outer hatch, and checked the p-suit again. God help him if Saber had to start the engine. He seized a handhold and started up.

It had been a mistake not to count the handholds coming down. He thought there'd been eight or nine. Or maybe thirteen. (He chuckled again.) But he was counting now as he climbed, and at six he began feeling for the hatch to the passenger cabin airlock, although he knew it was too soon. At thirteen, he still hadn't found it. He considered tearing the bag off so he could see.

Exhale.

What would happen if he missed it? Did the handgrips go completely around the bus? He visualized himself climbing forever, going round and round.

Take off the bag. Roll the dice and settle it.

Could he get inside before the vacuum killed him? Who knew? Certainly not Vice President Charles L. Haskell. He wondered what Sam would think if he could see him now.

And his fingers closed around the hatch.



BBC BULLETIN. 8:21 A.M. BRITISH SUMMER TIME (3:21 A.M. EDT). | The Moonfall | TRANSGLOBAL SPECIAL REPORT. 3:53 A.M.