Angie blinked as she stepped from the lift into the observation tower--first to assure herself she was fully awake, then again, rapidly, to activate the distance grid in her telescopic implants. The eastern sky was much too dark for this early morning hour.
"Spit on the lines," she muttered. The darkness wasn't part of any night sky. It was smoke! There was a fire in Sector Five.
She strode to the control console at the center of the tower and keyed a system-wide alarm sequence.
"Fire Control," she said into the opened mike, "this is Central Forest Preserve. We have a primary alert in Sector Five. Repeat. Serious burn in Sector Five. Please order a full fire crew to the site stat. Put secondary lines on standby. I'm transmitting fire coordinates now."
She keyed in her visual estimates of the fire's location and dimensions, then focused the lookout tower's cameras on the site and activated a continual-update order. Her own estimates remained a steady orange glow at the top of the monitoring screen, showing that the computer-assisted camera system had verified them as accurate.
"Central Forest," the control watchman's voice drawled through the tower speaker; he sounded irritated, as if he'd rather not be disturbed. "Double-check your sighting and coordinates."
"They've been double-checked and more, Central," she said, a little sharply; she paused to steady her voice. "Please enter an immediate scramble order before this gets out of hand." The smoke had become a billowing silhouette against the rising sun.
"Scrambling a full crew's pretty costly, lady," the watchman said. "I'll need an okay from Warden Dinsman before I can proceed." She could almost hear his slow grin. He would be up for a bonus if he could talk her out of the full crew. The forest preserve ranked low on the Company's list of priority expenditures. The only reason they supported it at all was because of pressure from the U.N., and even that was waning with the continued food shortage. The watchman probably had orders to stall or even deny all but the most serious fire calls from the preserve.
Well, two could play the bonus-and-deduction game. "Log your name and your credit number, Watchman," Angie said. "You're talking to Warden Dinsman."
There was a pause--to pull his feet off the desk, no doubt--then, rather hesitantly, a name and number appeared on her recording monitor.
"You got my crew ordered yet, Mr. Hansen?" she asked.
"Order confirmed," came the instant reply.
"Good. Tell 'em to pack their shovels. This ain't no picnic I'm invitin' 'em to." It was an old fire-liner's joke. The watchman wouldn't understand it, but it served to take the edge off Angie's anger and her growing concern.
There was way too much smoke out there. It was spread over too great an area to have been started by a lightning strike during the night. And it was directly east of Tower Five. Even with the satellite alert system off-line, it should have been noticed and called in an hour before.
Angie's right shoulder tingled as the sector lookout crews began checking in. As usual, Tower Two, far to the west, was first to make contact. Then Tower Four. Then Three, with a triple buzz, to remind her that Gates and Abada had a trainee on-site. She pressed the individual locator implants along her upper arm to acknowledge each call. The tingling stopped.
Come on, Five, she urged silently. Where the hell are you? Wake up, Chandler!
Chandler was alone at his station. His partner had been flown out with a broken ankle two days before, after stepping into a fireloving gopher hole. Angie pressed a finger over the Tower-Five implant, activating a search signal. A faint itch brushed her shoulder, telling her that Chandler was out there, just not responding. She keyed the alarm inside Tower Five again.
Finally, reluctantly, she tapped the alert that would wake her own partner. She and Nori had been up most of the night repairing the grav plates on their flitter. When the jury-rigged job was complete, Nori had insisted they stay awake awhile longer to celebrate. Angie smiled slightly as she recalled the direction the celebration had quickly taken. Nori wasn't much of a mountain man, but he knew how to show a lady a good time. It hadn't been easy to leave his warm bunk when the time had come for her dawn watch.
Angie turned away from the black smudge of burning forest and stood to walk a routine watch around the tower's perimeter. This wasn't the day to risk a trash fire in the backyard.
A seemingly endless blanket of evergreens stretched in all directions from the tower. Acre upon acre of forest land. The trees grew too slowly for the preserve to be classified as an active CO2 farm. But the Company-owned property fell under the U.N.'s Earth Preservation Service guidelines nevertheless, simply because it was one of the very few stretches of indigenous forest left in the Northern Hemisphere. All other arable land, most of it owned or controlled by World Life, and regardless how marginal, was used for food production.
The importation of a partial protein-conversion enzyme from the newly discovered waterplanet, Lesaat, had eased the problem somewhat. But the supply of the life-saving digestive enzyme was limited. Widespread famine still plagued Earth's ever-expanding population.
A wisp of smoke in Sector Three caught Angie's attention. That would be the Company-run rest lodge on Lake Wendell, filled to capacity, she was sure, with well-fed World Life Company executives on holiday.
"If they spent as much effort feeding the rest of the world as they do themselves," she muttered, "I could retire and spend enough time up here to see that days like this never happen." She glanced back across the tower at the rising smoke. This unexplained fire in what she considered her home territory made her angry. When she was here, she was supposed to be able to relax.
As an environmental anthropologist Angie spent most of her time troubleshooting under a U.N. mandate to protect the planet's ever-diminishing food supply. During her twelve years of active duty, she had helped to solve everything from tree blight on the great South American tree farms to creeping forest fires in East Africa, from workers' disputes in Canadian canneries to relocating rebellious New Guinea tribesmen.
In the last case, much to the Company's dismay, she had used laws more than a half-century old to provide a way for the indigenous tribesmen to retain at least a portion of their own land. Her rate of success in preserving natural resources and thus assuring Company profits elsewhere, however, was such that even the most conservative administrators were willing to pay her deliberately exorbitant fees.
In between jobs, though, she always came back to these high, dry mountains. She much preferred the patient, whispering pines to the explosive growth of the tropics where most of her troubleshooting work was done. Her parents had once owned a small ranch adjoining this preserve, and she had spent most of her youth hiking and camping in the nearby mountains.
Her decision to become a troubleshooter had been based primarily on the knowledge that there were so few such wilderness areas left on Earth; she wanted to do what she could to save them. She had realized early on in her work that saving natural human resources, despite Company opposition, was equally satisfying.
Still, Angie treasured the scattered days and weeks of isolation from human conflict that her interim fire warden's job provided. Her current two-month stay at Tower One was as long a continuous stretch as she had ever managed. She would have liked to believe that the long break in the need for her crisis-intervention services indicated some small improvement in the world situation, but she suspected it was just a fluke.
The lift door hissed open as Angie finished her circuit of the lookout tower. Nori fumbled with the Velcro fasteners on his shirt as he stepped from the lift. His ordinarily well-groomed hair stood on end, and his eyes, for once without their fine shadow of makeup, were red rimmed from lack of sleep.
"What's going--" He stopped when he saw the smoke. His already pale face turned paler.
"Sorry, Watchman," she said as she returned to the console. "Looks like we should have made it a shorter night."
He laid a warm hand on her shoulder. "A difficult thing to do with a woman of your talents, Warden. I'd been warned about troubleshooters' stamina, but--" He blinked rapidly, then keyed a set of visual coordinates.
Angie's original estimates maintained their steady glow at the top of the screen. Nori's flickered near the center, just below those of the computer-assisted cameras. They were close, but not exact.
"You called it right," he said. "As always."
She smiled. "I told you that last visual implant would make a difference."
"Humph! A lien on half your lifetime's savings and a ten-year mountain service indenture, all for a few meters' accuracy. What's it good for?"
It was an argument they had had before, and one that she was weary of. The reminder that he had accessed her personal financial records irritated Angie as it always did, but because she had deliberately structured those records to be misleading, she addressed only the second part of his complaint.
"It's a simple contract extension," she said. "To make sure this mountain post stays open for me."
"Your talents are wasted out here in this wilderness," he said. "With your genotype and your training, you'd qualify to work anywhere in the Company system--on Earth or off. You could have any administration job you wanted."
"Work in admin? I'd rather shovel dung on Mensat," she replied. "Meaning no offense to your own ambitions, of course."
"Of course," he said dryly.
Mensat's primary industry was the mining of giant guano deposits; assignment on the odoriferous planet was considered the most degrading of all forms of employment. World Life had purchased immediate use-rights to Mensat when it was first discovered, and had learned too late that while humans could survive there, they could do so only in very small numbers and in very great discomfort. The only financially viable product Mensat offered was its natural fertilizer, and it would be centuries before the Company recouped its original use-rights investment. Dedicated Company men like Nori did not like to be reminded of that crowning example of Company greed.
Still, he persisted. "I've heard they're about to start producing a new total-conversion enzyme on Lesaat; the algae farms are bound to need new recruits. You could--"
"Oh, Nori," she said. "The Company's been trying to pass off that rumor for as long as I can remember. You know better than to try it on me."
Nori watched her for a moment, then smiled slightly and shrugged.
"I'm not interested in going off-planet," she told him. "Not even to a place that's being touted as 'Earth's new South Pacific paradise.'" Nori had shown her Lesaat's most recent recruitment brochures just the afternoon before. "Nobody's going to turn me into a squid just to--"
"The job I'm talking about is different," he said quickly. "They need a ranking troubleshooter to--"
"I'm not interested." Angie suspected that the Company had already approached the other ranking shooters about this job, and been turned down. She had made it clear for years that she was not open to such requests.
"But this is only a temporary--"
"Give it a rest, Nori. We've been over this a hundred times. I do not want to leave Earth."
"Well, I wish you would at least consider--"
"What are you trying to do?" she snapped. "Get yourself a recruitment bonus at my expense?"
His touch disappeared from her shoulder. "You're a stubborn woman, Angie."
Angie sighed. She had heard that before, too. She indicated a flickering digital gauge. "Wind's up a bit."
"Towers check in yet?" he asked.
"All but Five."
They both lifted their gazes to the fire.
"Must have been multiple lightning strikes," Nori said. "Burn's too big for just one."
"You hear any thunder last night?" Angie asked.
He shook his head.
"Neither did I."
She stood. "Take the deck. I'm going to go see what's going on out there." Crossing to the lift, she kicked off her moccasins and stepped into one of the readied fire suits.
Nori slid into the control seat. He touched in the change-of-deck command and activated the tower recorder--a Company man's move. "Fire Rescue is already on its way," Nori said. "There's no reason for you to go out there."
"I can reach the tower at least ten minutes sooner than the rescue bus," she replied. She sealed the heat-resistant coverall across the tops of her thighs and in a slightly off-center line down her chest. "If Chandler's in trouble, it might make a difference." She bent to pull on double-soled boots.
"The leading edge is damn close to the tower already, if these readings are right," Nori said. "Let Rescue do its job, Warden."
Sure, she thought, by the book, regardless of the possible consequences to the guy in trouble. Nori was a Company man down to his socks. She paused just long enough to meet his gaze. "Let me do mine," she said.
He frowned and turned back to the console. She snapped on the fire suit's hood, a little surprised that he had given up so easily.
"Nori," she said as she stepped into the lift. He was still for a moment. Finally, he turned.
"Wish me luck?"
"You're a damn fool, Angie, why can't you just..."
She sighed again and punched the lift doors closed. "Never let 'em get too close," she muttered. Nori was a competent enough lineman when it counted, and he had been good company during his stay at Tower One, but his Company line and his constant attempts to recruit her for off-planet work, not to mention his veiled overprotectiveness, were becoming irritating. Despite her fondness for him, Angie was looking forward to the time when his field rotation ended.
Never get too close, yourself, she mused.
Angie pushed the flitter to full power as soon as she was aloft. As she drew closer, the smoke in Sector Five appeared darker, angrier than before. It blocked the rising sun's direct rays. She activated the cabin radio.
"Tower One, this is Tower One Flitter," she said. "I'm about to cross the sector line."
"Are the grav plates holding level?" Nori responded.
"Plates are okay, but the hatch is still sticking. I damned near broke my wrist getting it closed."
"It's the pneumatic springs," he replied. "There's nothing we can do without replacements. Supply says they can't get new springs from the manufacturer until the air cargo strike is settled."
Angie sighed. Unlike the total cooperation she received while on troubleshooting assignments, supply problems were a way of life here on the preserve.
About ten years before, World Life Company had agreed to maintain the area as an ecological preserve in return for full title to it and the adjoining downslope farm and industrial lands. Aside from their own rest lodge, however, they did little to keep the preserve's support facilities in good repair.
It was rumored that the multinational World Life Company had been created by former members of the South American drug cartels around the turn of the century. As their illicit drug markets shrank and the danger of being killed or prosecuted rose, they dropped out of sight and began quietly investing in legitimate industrial and agricultural enterprises.
The resultant, highly profit-oriented World Life Company soon became recognized as a growing force in the international money market. Other businesses, particularly large insurance companies and banks, scrambled to include themselves within its ranks.
It was widely believed that the Company had, in those early years, encouraged the fundamentalist fervor of the times, particularly as it related to outlawing abortion and artificial birth control in many parts of the world. By doing so, they created a desperate, demanding, and entirely legal market for the carefully controlled food resources the Company was soon able to provide.
After nearly seventy years of maneuvering, World Life controlled almost all of Earth's resources, including this high mountain forest preserve, and it was Angie's opinion that the morals of the Company founders had been passed on directly to their successors.
Angie focused and refocused, searching for the touch of fluorescent yellow that would pinpoint Tower Five. She had paid for the paint herself, after becoming disgusted with the administrative hassle of getting the Company to do it. They'd be just as happy to see the whole forest burn, she thought. Then they could turn their terraformers loose and turn it into a fireloving farm.
"Idiots," she muttered. She had told Company Admin that many times, to their faces, but it never made a difference. They just paid her ever more exorbitant fees and continued to lease her services from the United Nations. She keyed an update of her position and the fire's movement.
"Okay, I see the tower," she said finally. "Twelve degrees left of the main smoke column. Looks like the front edge is very close to it. There's too much smoke to see clearly. There's a lot of deadfall in this sector. The fire's going to be burning hot. Warn the crews, and enter an order for clearing crews to move through the rest of the sector as soon as the fire's out."
"Bookkeepers'll squawk about the cost," Nori replied.
"Bugger the bookkeepers," she said. "I'll send them a bucket of ash."
The flitter bucked slightly. "I'm hitting heat drafts now." She kept her voice steady despite her rising adrenaline.
"Fire-rescue flitter is ten minutes off the Tower Five bearing." Nori's voice, thick as it was with underlying tension, was an irritant in the flitter's small cabin. "They request you hold your position until their arrival."
"Bugger them, too," Angie muttered. The flitter bumped hard again. She fought the controls and adjusted the pressurized grav plates until the flitter steadied.
"The flit's fireloving jumpy," she said. "Grav plates seem to be holding, though. That makeshift intake valve is letting smoke into the cabin, so I'm shifting to suit transmission." She flipped her faceplate closed and tongued on the oxygen intake and radio switch. She activated the auto-exhaust, and the pall of smoke cleared quickly from inside the flitter.
"I have the tower in sight again," she said. She pressed the implant on her shoulder. A strong itch responded. "My locator spots Chandler right at the site. Why the hell doesn't he get out?"
Nori said. "From here, it looks like the front edge is about to run right over the tower."
Angie blinked twice. "It's about a hundred meters off. I'll circle--"
Suddenly a klaxon blared. Angie jumped and swore. She slapped the keyboard to turn off the siren.
"Tower One Flitter, this is Fire Rescue." The rescue pilot's voice was almost as loud as the klaxon. Angie winced.
"Pull back from the fire zone, Flitter One. Repeat. Pull back from the fire zone."
"Turn down your fireloving volume, Rescue," Angie snapped. "We're on a radio line. You don't have to scream to be heard."
"Oh..." A pause. Then, some decibels lower, "Sorry." The pilot's voice was young, excited, inexperienced. Angie groaned quietly. Trouble always came in bunches. She could still taste the smoke on the back of her tongue.
"That's better," she said. "Now, why the hell did you trigger my alarm?"
"You've passed inside the fire safety zone, Flitter One."
"I'm aware of that, Rescue."
"You're too close to the leading edge. Pull back from the zone immediately."
"I have crew in the tower, Rescue," Angie said, trying to maintain patience. "He's not responding to the alerts."
"Move back, Flitter One. We'll get your man out. That's what we're trained for."
"What's your ETA?"
"Seven minutes thirty seconds."
"Not good enough."
"Damn it, Flitter One! Move back. That's an order."
"Suck ash," Angie replied. She fought the bucking flitter closer to the tower.
"Angela, love." A new voice, calm, controlled--blessedly familiar--interrupted the pilot's unintelligible response. "Get your pretty ass away from that fire."
Angie grinned. The knot in her stomach began to loosen. "Sally Goberlan," she called. "What are you doing back on the line? I thought you got kicked upstairs." She had partnered with Goberlan many times on troubleshooting assignments. There was no question of inexperience here.
"Just passing through on a routine inspection when your fire call came in," Goberlan said. "Rescue was short on supervisors, so I accepted their request to come along. Seemed like a good way to see you in action on your own turf. I see what you mean about Company support up here. The equipment on this bus is archaic. I've had access to better in the New Guinea Highlands."
Angie laughed. They had been caught in a collapsed highland cave once with only a flint knife between them. It had taken them seven days to dig and scrape their way out. They had become good friends along the way.
"You're dealing with a training crew, by the way," Sally added.
"Spit," Angie muttered. "Well, tell 'em from me that this is not, repeat, not a training run."
"Heard and understood," Goberlan said, "but let's play it by the book if we can. Give the kids a proper lesson and all that. You know the procedure. If your man's still in the tower when leading edge hits sixty meters, we'll let him ride it out. It'll be hot, but if he's suited up, he can survive."
"Yes, Mother," Angie said. She swung the flitter in a careful curve around the tower, then caught her breath as the external ladder came into view. "Forget the book, Sal."
She began a fast descent. "Chandler's not in the tower. He's on the outside ladder, not moving."
"Our ETA is five minutes." Rescue's pilot was back on the line. "Please pull back."
"Leading edge is closing fast," Angie replied. "You'll never make it in time."
"We get no life readings but your own from the tower area, Flitter One."
Angie brought the flitter as close as she dared to the tower. She blinked rapidly, trying to establish extreme close focus on Chandler's still form. Black smoke billowed across her field of vision before she could tell if he was breathing.
"There's no point risking your life for a dead man." The rescue pilot was pleading now.
"I'm foaming the ladder." Angie leaned forward as far as her helmet and the flitter's viewscreen allowed and counted softly as a cloud of white, anti-incendiary foam sprayed from the flitter's port nozzles. It pushed through the smoke-and settled. For an instant, Angie had a clear view of Chandler's body, frosted white against the brilliant yellow of the tower ladder. She blinked, and blinked again, before the smoke poured back.
"He's alive, Rescue. But just barely. I'm going down."
"There's no way you can tell--"
"I can see his chest moving, damn it! I'm setting down at the base of the ladder and will climb directly--"
"Negative! Negative! Do not attempt ground landing!" The pilot was shouting again, her voice shrill and frightened.
Angie forced her own voice to stay calm. "Five's flitter is aflame on the tower roof, Rescue. There's no other way to reach him."
"The flames are gonna hit that tower any--"
"Goberlan?" Angie said as she fought the flitter to the ground.
"I'm with you," Goberlan replied instantly. Her voice was as calm and measured as before. The pilot protested in the background.
"I'm going to need a foam dump as fast as you can get it here," Angie said. "I'll only have one shot at him."
"Roger. We have the tower in sight."
"Angie, be careful--"
"Nori, get off the fireloving line!" Angie shouted.
"How far up the ladder is he?" Goberlan's smooth voice pulled her back to calm.
"Just below halfway. His right arm and leg have slipped through the rungs. That must be what's holding him up there."
"Are you on the ground yet?"
"I'm opening the hatch now. Damn these fireloving springs! Nori, I want a complete overhaul on this crate the instant this is over. I don't care how many admin heads you have to bash to get it done. That's an order!"
The hatch slammed open, clanging against the flitter's side. Instantly, the cabin was filled with smoke--and the roar of the fire. Angie tongued her suit's auditory dampers to muffle the din.
"Leave the hatch open if it's giving you trouble," Goberlan said. "Keep the auto-exhaust on full. It'll clear as soon as you're back inside. How's the foam on Chandler? Holding?"
"Too much smoke to tell. I'm on the ladder and climbing. It's bloody hot out here, Sal."
"Suit coolants on full?"
"On overdrive. The ladder rungs are warm even through my gloves. Why the hell is this fire so hot?"
"See your man yet?"
"I can't see a damn--" Angie's hand met an obstruction. "Wait ... Okay, I've got him. Spit, his suit is as hot as the ladder."
"Can you get him down?"
Angie attached two lifelines to the ladder. She hooked one to her own chest harness, then moved carefully up the ladder until she could feel the utility belt around Chandler's waist. Fumbling in the smoky darkness, she attached the second line to the rapid-descent loop at the back of Chandler's belt.
"Talk to me, Angie," Goberlan said. "What's happening?"
Angie climbed another rung to where she could see the faint outline of Chandler's helmet. "Lifeline's attached. I'm trying to free his arm ... Oh, damn ... How close are you, Sally?"
"ETA, two minutes."
"I need foam right now. His faceplate is open. Jammed. I can't move it. He must have been climbing up when he passed out, because he's been in the flames."
"I hear you. We'll alert the burn center in Denver and foam on arrival. Can you get him off the ladder?"
Angie yanked an emergency oxygen canister from her belt and pressed it over Chandler's mouth and nose. "Stay alive," she whispered.
Aloud, she said, "I'm freeing his leg now." She leaned her shoulder into Chandler's waist and climbed another rung. The man's full weight sank into her shoulder. His leg caught, then released suddenly from where it had slipped through the rung. Angie clung to the ladder with one arm while she grasped Chandler tightly with the other.
"Okay! I've got him!" She was startled at the intensity of her own relief. "I'm sending him down on the lifeline." She checked to be sure Chandler's line was clear, then slid him off her shoulder. Suspended by the lifeline harness, he hung facedown, bent at the shoulders and waist.
"I need foam, Rescue. He's burning up, and I have no way to cool him." She glanced down. "The grass is aflame at the edge of the tower platform. It looks like the platform is burning, too. Note that, Rescue. Something smells real bad down here, and it's not just the smoke." Bracing Chandler's line away from the ladder, she activated a rapid release. His limp form slid swiftly toward the ground.
"ETA, forty-five seconds, One. Front line is at twenty meters. Flitter on tower roof is fully engaged. We'll only have time to foam you once and get out. There's no way we can make a lift."
"We can't go in--" The pilot's voice was silenced abruptly.
Angie stopped Chandler's descent when the line count showed him to be within two meters of the ground. "We'll ride it out in the flitter," she said. "I'm descending now." She activated her own line, pushed away from the ladder, and slid in a blur to Chandler's side. When the line bounced her to a stop, her feet were centimeters from the ground. She had the line disconnected and was reaching for Chandler before her boots hit the deck.
"Foaming, Flitter One."
Angie ducked instinctively as a white cloud suddenly engulfed her. The temperature dropped instantly. She yanked away Chandler's lifeline, slung his limp form over her shoulder, and sprinted through the snowy foam toward the flitter.
"Front edge is on you, Flitter One." Goberlan's voice continued, as cool as the foam. "We're moving back. We'll cool you down and lift you out as soon as the line passes. Good luck, Angie."
Angie stuffed Chandler headfirst through the flitter's open hatch, then swung herself inside. She reached back to swing the hatch door closed. "If you've made it this far, Chandler, you're going to make it all the way," she called out.
The hatch door didn't move.
She yanked again on the hatch handle. Flames licked across the opening; the brilliant orange startled her after so long in the smoky darkness. She could feel the heat intensifying, even through the insulating layer of foam. Chandler could never survive the heat of the fire in his open suit. She wasn't even sure she could. She had to get the hatch closed.
She leaned out into the flames, grabbed the door's edge with both hands--and pulled. "Move, damn you!" she yelled. The door shifted.
"Move!" The hatch swung half the distance before sticking again. Flame, jagged streaks of yellow and orange, sliced across her vision. Her hands and arms felt as if they were scorching. She braced both feet against the cabin wall and yanked with all her strength.
There was another instant's hesitation, then the hatch slammed shut. The flames disappeared abruptly, and the roar of the fire changed to the sudden scream of the auto-exhaust. The smoke was so thick that Angie could barely see past her faceplate.
"Angie! Our life monitor shows you back in the flitter. Are you all right? How's Chandler?"
Angie tried to blink away the smoke. There must be something wrong with the auto-exhaust. It was supposed to be silent. The darkness had grown opaque.
"Talk to me, Angie."
Why was it so hard to breathe?
"Smoke," Angie forced out, "The smoke won't clear." Her legs felt like rubber.
"Did you get Chandler into the flitter, Angie?"
Sally Goberlan's voice.
What was she doing here? Suddenly, Angie felt very cold. "Goberlan?"
"Did you get Chandler inside the flitter?" Goberlan insisted. "Answer me, Angie."
The smoke was condensing inside her helmet. Angie shook her head to clear it, then blinked to snap her nictitating membranes into place. "I can't..."
Her vision cleared. "Oh, mother of mountains," she breathed.
"Angie, what's going on down there?"
Her hands, both of them, had been caught across the palms by the slamming hatch door.
"Talk to me, Angie." Goberlan's voice had taken on the dead-calm tone of one who knows her listener is in serious trouble. Angie had used the tone herself often enough to know. She tried, but was unable to disengage her close-up focus.
"We estimate seven minutes to lift out, Angie. We'll try to get close enough to foam you in five."
How long does it take for a person my size to bleed to death? Angie wondered. Her mind kept sliding away from the problem.
"Hold on, Angie."
"Holding," she whispered.
It was a long time before she was able to close her eyes.