Part 4: Shiva - Chapter 13

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Maddy cursed herself for not seeing the problem earlier. It was so obvious, yet so devastating in its finality. She looked out at the small girl standing patiently next to the ship. There was no time now for keeping the truth from her.

'There's no airlock on this ship,' said Maddy. The tiny cabin reverberated with her words. 'And I don't have a space helmet.'

There'd been no time to grab one in the fight, no time to ponder the details of Geranium's rescue, to think of finding a helmet. And now it was no rescue at all. The dinghy was designed for simple transport, not complex rescue operations. There was simply no room in the tiny boat for luxuries like airlocks.

There was only one thing to do. Already Geranium's form appeared brighter, the shadow she cast darker as more of the Earth rose above the horizon. The planet was huge now, no longer a planet but a living world of people. Only one thing to do, and no time to bother with the details.

'I'm going to open the hatch,' she said. 'I'll just have to hold my breath. I can survive a few seconds like that.'

The girl started to protest. Maddy cut her off. 'No! Listen! This is important! You have to get in as fast as possible, as soon as the hatch opens. It's small so you'll have to come in head first. Tuck your legs in after you. Don't worry about finesse, just get in. And here's the thing—I might lose consciousness or be unable to do anything. The AI won't close the hatch by itself, it can't see when you're completely inside. You'll have to close the hatch manually. The lock is a handle on the right side of the door. It's big and red so you can't miss it.'

There was a pause, then Geranium said, 'What about the air? It'll escape.'

'I'm going to create a vacuum inside, store the air. That's what they normally do, make the whole ship an airlock. But usually everyone's wearing space suits. I'm going to instruct the AI to refill the cabin once the hatch is closed.'

'All right.'

At last she was ready. Maddy tucked her body back into the furthest corner away from the hatch so as to give Geranium as much room to manoeuvre as possible. Then she told the AI to remove the air.

As the air was sucked out Maddy emptied her lungs. Her ears popped but she stared fixedly at the hatch. As the last air was removed the pitch of the flowing gas rose, until it faded away into silence. There was nothing at all around her. She clung desperately to consciousness. In her mouth was the bizarre sensation of the moisture on her tongue beginning to boil.

The hatch swung open. The form of Geranium appeared, scrambling inside. Maddy wished she hadn't enforced the need for as much haste as possible now, the girl was moving so quickly she might compromise her suit and that would be the end of her. In a few seconds she'd climbed in, tumbling onto her back as she pulled her legs inside. She twisted around and leaned out to swing the hatch closed, then groped for the red handle. As soon as it engaged the AI's routine clicked in and there came the roar of returning air. Maddy drew in a huge breath.

Geranium clutched at her, pulled her tightly against her body. Maddy reached out and hugged the girl back. But in a few seconds she'd pushed her away again.

'AI! Launch. Take us away from the asteroid.'

Both women were pressed into their seats as the dinghy lifted off, its single lifter pressing hard against the surface of Shiva.

The ship streaked away from the asteroid as its barrelling pear-shaped form tumbled through space. At the far end, the engines installed by the crew of the Shepherd Moon were still firing.

Geranium pulled off her helmet and lay curled up like a baby in her seat. Maddy sucked in air for a moment and checked that the atmosphere was back to normal. The cold that had cut through the cabin when the hatch had been opened still lingered, but she hesitated to turn the cabin heat up: she wasn't sure how much power remained in the dinghy.

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