SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 53:
As soon as they were in, Kretz activated the closing switch. Glacially, the door began closing. The sirens were really on top of them now. The door closed just as tires screeched outside. Lani breathed a sigh of relief.
And then the door began to open.
Frantically Amber opened her portable and entered numbers.
The door began to close again.
Someone shoved a nightstick into the crack.
The stick crushed. Lani sat down, tension easing.
"Seal cannot be achieved," said a mechanical voice. "Inner airlock seal must be achieved to commence lock sequence.”
"What does that mean?" asked Lani.
"It means that the airlock is inoperable," said the alien. "If it is like ours, one door won't open if the other is not closed. We are trapped here."
Lani looked around at the chamber. Including a small alcove it was about ten meters long. "Can't we break open the outer door? Or… isn't there a manual over-ride?"
"Probably," said Amber. "But that will kill everyone in Diana, even if it’s only a slow leak. I'm not prepared to do that. I've altered the access codes, and made this an entry-code required door. We're safe enough for now. But we can't go anywhere."
Lani felt remarkably foolish. She knew what space was, after all. She'd seen pictures and read about it. Living inside the habitat, she had just forgotten.
Howard was on his hands and knees, studying the end of the nightstick. He tugged at it. The high-impact plastic had not broken, just crushed down into filaments. You could vaguely hear hammering on the door.
"Can they possibly break it down?" he asked.
"I doubt it," Amber replied. "Eventually lack of food and water will force us to go back, though."
"If it were opened a fraction I could remove this," Howard said.
Lani shook her head. "If we open it a fraction, they'll put more in. And then, if they can get it to open more than a bullet-diameter, they'll just call in a weapons team and let the ricochets take care of all of us." It was grim, Lani found, being on the wrong side of her own profession. "In fact, I'll bet the firearms squads are on their way right now."
"Hmm." Amber looked thoughtfully at the door. "If we could get them to back off, we could snatch the obstruction in and close it."
"And how will we do that?" asked Lani. "We can't even talk to them—not that they'd listen to us telling them to back off."
"Even though they know we're armed? If we said we were coming out, shooting, and they'd better get out the way…" The scientist started typing in to her portable again. "I can access a speaker outside the airlock door. And we can count and position them onscreen."
Lani pursed her lips and nodded. "You're going to have to do some tricks with that thing to get it all done fast enough."
Amber pulled a face. "I'll set up the opening and closing sequence to one key-stroke macros. You want to talk to them."
"Okay. When you're ready," Lani said. "Howard, will you pull it in? Kneel next to the door. We won't get more than one chance."
He nodded, took up his position and a grip on the end of the stick.
"Ready," said Amber.
"Let's just move back from a direct line of fire." Lani pointed to the wall. "Right. What do you want me to say? Will we be able to hear them too?"
"Can set that up. Hang on… Okay. Say whatever you think will get them to back off. Speak to the portable's pickup. You're live… now."
Lani cleared her throat. "Hear this! We're coming out! We will come out shooting! Back off!"
A pause and then someone yelled. "Let the hostages out and you men will be well treated. No harm will come to you if you lay down your arms."
Hostages? The only “hostage” they had the police were welcome to. They wouldn't consider him one anyway. They must assume Amber, at least, was a hostage. There was no sign of movement from the screen. "Back off and we'll let the hostages out!" said Lani. "We don't trust you. Back off first."
"We are," replied the officer on far side of the airlock door, a statement belied by the screen. They were bunching to rush the door. It was exactly what she would have done, had she been on the other side of that door. There must be mechanical pick-ups in more places than she'd ever dreamed of.
"I can see you," said Lani. "Move away from the door."
"Speak up. Sorry, we can't hear you clearly." Negotiating technique. Keep them talking…
Lani saw how a sudden brightness leapt into Amber's eyes. "Heh! Thank you!" She hastily opened a screen window. "Wav. File generator. Block your ears, all. They say they can't hear us. Let them hear us. At full volume."
Even on the other side of a meter-thick door, the shriek was penetrating. By the scattering of people indicators on-screen, on the other side of the door, it was intolerable.
"Now!" The door began opening.
Howard twitched the nightstick inside. And the door… closed.
"Seal achieved," said the mechanical voce from the speaker-box. "Depressurization will begin in ten minutes. Please don your suits and run through pre-vacuum checks. Depressurization may be interrupted by pressing the red buttons, at any point. To re-initiate the sequence press the green button on the control console."
Behind them, the burned bridges fell.
Howard sighed with relief. Yes, it meant going out into the vastness of space again. But that was a less frightening place to him now, compared to coping with a female-dominated world. He breathed a little prayer of thanks. Why God saw fit to send not one, but two, of these women with them, he did not know. Part of him admitted he was glad Lani was here. Another part rejoiced because he was going to don clothes again, even if they were heavy, bulky space-suits.
He smiled at the two women. It was a minor pleasure to feel that for once he knew more than they did. "The suits, helmets and boots are in alcove-cupboards. Let me show you."
"Clothes?" said Lani, warily.
The other woman—the one Lani referred to as Amber, laughed. It was a little tinged with hysteria, but it was still laughter. "Skin may be beautiful and natural, dear, but it doesn't deal well with vacuum. We're going into space, remember."
"How do we get out of here?" asked a scared voice from the huddle in the corner.
Howard had forgotten the man. "What do we do with him?" It was rather their fault that he was here, he supposed.
Lani had also obviously forgotten his existence. "Damnation, what the hell did you run in here for, Perp?" she snapped.
"It was you or the cops," he said defiantly. "And if they catch me, I'm dead meat. Or I might as well be."
"You might as well be dead as here too," said the Amber woman. "We're going to have to get him out there."
"Can't. I'll bet they have ear-muffs and are just about solid at the door. If we open it, we'll never get it closed again," said Lani, decisively.
Howard remembered the bones in the airlock on New Eden. "We can't leave him here," he said with equal firmness. "He will die."
Lani scowled. "And the world would be a better place without one perp. What else can we do with him?"
"At least help him into a suit," said Kretz "Vacuum will kill him."
Howard nodded. "He can wait here and go out when the hue and cry has died down."
"That could be difficult," said Amber. "I have reset the doors so they will not open without a pass-code input direct to the computer. We don't dare change that. I wouldn't put it past the matriarchy to try and follow us. I could maybe set a time delay and he could sneak out later, I suppose. Long after we've gone."
"After this, there'll be guards on the airlock doors until doomsday, I reckon." Lani scowled. "You're going down, you little perp scumbag."
He stared in defiance at her, but said nothing.