“How many left to board?” Jun said into his radio.
“About a thousand,” Sister Emily-Francis said.
“Can you move them along any faster?”
“Are you ready to launch?”
“Yup.” On his dinky little 2D radar scanner, he watched the two surviving ships approach. The lead ship was eight thousand kilometers out. Seven. Which one was it? The surviving PLAN fighter, or their friend?
“What are you doing out there? Stargazing?”
Jun breathed deeply. The air in this communally owned EVA suit smelled like stale ramen. Like the vents behind the recycling facility his family used to own. Like home. “You caught me. Guess I just wanted to say goodbye.”
“Oh, by the way,” Emily-Francis said, “that robot of yours has gone down-rock. Running like the devil was on her heels. I called out to her, but she didn’t stop.”
“Not my robot.”
“No? I guess I was just imagining that you were treating her possessively.”
“I was going to dismantle her for parts. Ushijima convinced me that wouldn’t be such a good idea.”
“What a shame that would have been, when she’s so pretty.”
“And baptized into the Faith, too,” Jun said. “Forget the robot. Just keep ‘em moving.”
Jun and Father Hirayanagi had not told anyone that they had detected the PLAN’s approach. It would only terrify people, and it wouldn’t alter the number of Galapajin who could fit through the cathedral airlock at one time.
“Is everything all right?” Emily-Francis said perceptively.
“Everything’s fine,” he said, and then the night sky lit up so brightly that for the first time in his life he seemed to be seeing lightning. The asteroid bucked, tossing him into space. His tether snapped taut. He was blind. His breath rasped in his ears, too fast. He hauled himself hand over hand back towards the airlock.
His radio sputtered. He heard a scream. He thought it was Emily-Francis. Then the channel went quiet.
Find airlock. Release handle. Lift hatch. Into chamber.
Just before he jerked the hatch shut, his faceplate, which had automatically gone black on detecting the flash, started to detint, and as if in deep twilight, he saw a shard of rock with a hydroponic tank attached shoot past him and shatter against the cathedral.
He also saw that half of the asteroid was missing.
“Nooooo,” Petruzzelli screamed. “The metalfucker got them.”
“But maybe it didn’t get the people!” Elfrida shouted. “They were going to evacuate! They might all be safe in the cathedral!”
“Until it doubles back and throws another nuke at them,” Petruzzelli said. “It’s burning out on a tangent, figuring we’ll chase it, but won’t be able to catch it. Well, it’s wrong. Strap in, everyone.”
“No,” dos Santos panted. She and Elfrida were sealing themselves into Space Force EVA suits.
“Well, hurry up!”
Elfrida floundered across the bridge. “I can’t believe I’m about to risk my life to cover Dr. Hasselblatter’s ass,” she groaned.
“Welcome to your career,” dos Santos said.
The airlock was big enough for a platoon. Elfrida tumbled into the chamber.
Hopped up on morale juice and desperation, Lieutenant Kliko launched himself off his couch, shedding bungee cords left and right. He crashed into dos Santos and locked his arms around her.
“No! I won’t let you do it! You’re crazy! I don’t want to die!”
The two of them spun together into the web of grab cables. Kicking and punching, Dos Santos shouted, “Drop-off window’s closing, Goto! Go!”
Elfrida floated in the airlock chamber, transfixed.
“Well, Goto?” Dos Santos flashed her a challenging grin, her face jammed between Kliko’s side and his bicep. “Are they training you kids properly these days?”
Elfrida drifted out of the Cheap Trick’s airlock, into a serene silence. Petruzzelli had finessed the ship’s delta-V to less than 1% of max, working against the combat program. The Cheap Trick was still moving at several thousand meters a second, but Elfrida had inherited that velocity and was moving at the same speed, for now. The ship seemed to float stationary above her like a giant refrigerator wearing a tutu of radiator fins.
The Space Force logo frowned at the sun:
“What are you waiting for?” Petruzzelli shouted in her ears, shattering the peace. “Get out of the way!”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Elfrida shrieked, with a horrible sense of déjà vu.
Petruzzelli waited until Elfrida had fired up her mobility pack and buzzed away from the ship. Then she re-engaged the main drive. The refrigerator farted out an infernally glowing cloud of waste gas, illuminated for safety purposes, and shot away so fast that Elfrida lost sight of it almost immediately.
She puttered towards 11073 Galapagos, trying not to think about what she was doing.
In the far distance, a spot of light streaked across the black.
“Are you OK?” she screamed.
“Fine,” Petruzzelli grunted. “Just switched into plasma exhaust mode.”
“Is dos Santos all right?”
“Yeah. Kliko isn’t. She’s thumping his ass. I need to concentrate, ‘kay?” Petruzzelli cut the connection.
Elfrida swallowed, which made a loud clicking noise in her ears. She checked her HUD and the backup display on her forearm, just to make sure they both said the same thing. This suit was a spare one belonging to the Marines, and as such it was well-equipped. She had enough oxygen for days. She had emergency rations. She had a smart diaper strapped between her legs. She had plenty of battery power. Her mobility pack, which resembled a small backpack strapped onto her suit, utilized electrically powered control moment gyroscopes; it was not as powerful as Yumiko’s integrated thrusters. 11073 Galapagos approached slowly.
She had plenty of time to take in the damage that the PLAN had done.
The large end of the asteroid was gone. Vaporized, as if a cleaver had whacked the octopus in half. The sun-tube hung out of the open end like a broken spine, still shining.
Since the Cheap Trick had matched the asteroid’s velocity before dropping Elfrida off, landing would be a snap. Her suit pinged, registering low-velocity impacts from particles dispersed by the explosion.
Out of nowhere, a bus-sized fragment plummetted at her. She instinctively threw her weight to the side. The suit picked up on her intent and carried her out of the way, just in time. The fragment hurtled past her and lost itself in space. It looked to have been a piece of the 11073 Galapagos schoolhouse, decorated with children’s murals of the saints.
“Oh God,” Elfrida whimpered, not even realizing that she was saying God rather than the correct inversion. “I don’t want to die.”
Unconsciously echoing Lieutenant Kliko, she dived towards the asteroid. She just wanted to get into shelter, out of this volume that—she now realized—was lethally riddled with debris.
The shell of the asteroid, ranging from 50 to 100 meters thick, had been shot through with passages and mini-voids, all sealed with splart. A few of these still had containment. Buzzing into the open end of the asteroid, Elfrida glimpsed private homes and verdant grottoes, each nestled in its own bubble—an affluent dimension of Galapajin society that Yonezawa had not seen fit to include in his guided tour. People pressed their hands against the epoxy, signalling desperately for her attention. So there were some survivors. “I can’t do anything for you right now,” she muttered, knowing they could not hear her. “I’ll come back, I promise!”
The sun-tube had come loose from its moorings and crashed into the city. It would have started a conflagration, if there had been any oxygen left in the habitat. Elfrida threaded her way between floating trees, dead birds, and pieces of houses. Slowly, the wreckage was drifting into clumps. The asteroid would soon be a rubble pile again. But this time the rubble would be made of people’s lives.
Of course, she was no stranger to wrecked asteroid habitats. As a veteran of numerous evacuation jobs, she had presided over the deliberate razing of houses, gardens, factories, mosques, castles, farms, and so on and so on. The main difference here was an order of magnitude. And of course, there were no robots scrambling around to salvage the recyclables. Also, this particular calamity wasn’t UNVRP’s fault.
Her thoughts were interrupted, as she neared the cathedral end of the habitat, by corpses floating in her path. They drifted in stiff poses with open eyes. There were dozens of them. Hundreds. Parents still holding children, couples embracing, all flash-frozen like a harvest of fruit plucked from some strange orchard.
Elfrida wept in horror. She kept experiencing the same psychological short-circuit she’d felt in the lifeboat on Botticelli Station. Want to log out → can’t log out → this is real → want to log out … Her breath rasped in her ears. Her suit told her she was hyperventilating.
“Give me something,” she gasped. “You’re military-issue, you must have stuff you can give me!”
“Based on your telemetry,” the suit said, “I’d recommend an injection of Nicozan. That’s a mild tranquilizer combined with a harmless stimulant to boost your alertness and energy.”
Elfrida giggled wildly. The suit’s serene male voice reminded her of her hair stylist in Rome. I’d recommend some subtle bronze highlights … “OK, hit me up.”
“It’s just the injectable version of what the Marines call ‘morale juice,’” the suit confided, as it poked a needle into her thigh.
“What? Ulp! I hate that stuff!”
Too late. As before, a feeling of calm potency pervaded her. She straight-armed a corpse out of the way and arrowed towards the cathedral airlock.
It was only then that she remembered she was supposed to be looking for Yumiko.
Well, she wouldn’t have been vaporized, or blown into space. No, she’d be in the cathedral, hoping to escape by blending in. If it was dark in there, and / or she wore a spacesuit, she might manage it.
A drift of frozen corpses hid the airlock. In the last terrible moments, as the air rushed out of the asteroid, they must have grabbed onto anything they could hold, including each other. Shuddering, Elfrida picked them up and flung them away into the vacuum.
Soon the airlock was exposed. It was the old-fashioned hatch type. She flung it open and buzzed into the chamber. She watched her HUD, waiting for the chamber to be pressurized.
“Starting launch countdown,” Jun said into a microphone that would carry his voice to the people crammed into the cathedral. “Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.”
“There’s someone in the airlock!” Father Hirayanagi interrupted him.
The old priest pointed at a grainy black-and-white image of a person standing in the chamber of the airlock that led to the habitat.
“Launch countdown suspended,” Jun said, and threw the microphone onto its cradle. “Is it Emily-Francis?”
“I can’t tell. Was she wearing a spacesuit?”
“No. Yes!” Jun clicked on his radio. “Emily-Francis! Do you copy?” Nothing. “Emmy! Emmy! Do you copy?” He raised his head. “Of course her radio’s not working. She was out there when the nuke hit.”
He zoomed out of the bridge.
The interior of the cathedral was, literally, no longer visible. All he could see was people. He ducked and dove through them, pushing off from their bodies to gain momentum. There was a bad smell. He dodged not a few wobbling globes of suspect-looking liquid. Their evacuation plan did not address the minor problem of lavatories for thirty thousand people. It wouldn’t matter, as long as they survived.
Not everyone had made it into the airlock in time. It would be a while before they knew exactly how many, and who, they’d lost. But Jun knew of one. Emily-Francis. Unreasonable hope tore at him.
He pressurized the airlock by hand and cranked it open.
Out jumped, not Emily-Francis, but a Marine in a form-fitting spacesuit with a personal mobility pack. The Space Force logo glowed on her helmet. He didn’t see a weapon, but no doubt she had some kind of bad-ass firearm stowed in one of her cargo pockets
People stared and whispered. Jun shoved the Marine back into the airlock.
“Do not,” he gritted into her faceplate, “show yourself to my people unless you’ve come to help. Have you?”
The Marine fumbled with the catch of her helmet. She seemed to have trouble working it. Perhaps she was overcome by the horrors she’d seen. Perhaps there were some good people in the UN, after all.
“I mean, welcome and all,” Jun said. Words which pliers could not formerly have torn from his lips now came easily. “You’re the best thing I’ve seen all day. Where’s your ship? Is it big enough for all of us? It won’t be,” he answered himself. “But if you can give us some consumables, we’ll manage. That’s all we really need. Hell, you shot down those PLAN ships. You saved our lives! Thanks.”
The Marine finally got her helmet off. She did not look much like the Marines in the vids. Long, dark brown hair floated in the vacuum. Her face was round, and might have been sweet if she weren’t grimacing in embarrassment. “I’m not a Marine. I just borrowed this suit.”
“Uh … great.”
“You must be Jun Yonezawa. Nice to meet you, I guess.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Long story. Oh dog, this is going to be tough to explain. I’m Elfrida, by the way. And I have come to help. We will get you all out of here alive. But before we can do that, I have to find that bleeping phavatar.”