The Moon, Mare Tranquillitatis, 2072: An Excerpt from ‘Gunpowder Moon’
Fiction by David Pedreira
Dechert stood at the crater rim and looked down. Dionysius was a monster — two miles deep and wide enough to swallow the isle of Manhattan — and with the light from the setting sun coming in too shallow to illuminate its depths, it looked as black as a well. What had Fletcher told him when he was training to take over the station? Oh, yeah:
Panic will kill you — and make you look like an asshole in the process.
Bold words, but Fletcher had never strapped a six-pack of thrusters to his spacesuit and jumped into the open mouth of a crater.
No one ever had.
Dechert clenched his toes to push blood into them, but pinpricks of frostbite continued to spider up his feet. He fiddled with his oxygen mix and stamped his legs and tried to digest the void beneath his boots.
“All right,” Quarles said into his helmet.
“Nothing. Just warn me the next time you do that.”
“Okay. How do you want me to warn you?”
Dechert gritted his teeth. “Never mind. What do you want?”
“I was going to say things are looking good. Jets are in sync and ready to fire. Fly-by-wire and telemetry are online, angle of attack eighty-four degrees. You got your lamps on?”
“Yes.” Not like it matters.
“Good. Let’s make history. Forty seconds on my mark. And . . . mark.”
Forty seconds. Dechert took a dozen clumsy steps back from the rim wall, counting off the paces. He was afraid for the first time in a long time and the sensation wasn’t pleasant — a coppery taste in the mouth, a rush of awareness that reminded him of war.
“This better not be a feed error, Quarles. If I find that drill still eating rock down there, I’m going to throw you out of an airlock.”
“Copy. Twenty seconds. Everything looks nominal.”
Blood rushed through Dechert’s ears. Nominal. What the hell does that mean? Is there a worse word in the English language? The fear held him now and he grasped for mental distractions, old pilot tricks, anything to stay focused. He skimmed the highlights of his career, checking the bullet points of his résumé as if they were flashing across the heads-up display in his helmet: six first flights through the mountain ranges rimming the Moon’s central maria, two lunar traverse distance records, command of a Level-1 mining station, a Silver Star for combat valor in the Bekaa Valley back on Earth. Was this the pedigree of a coward, some Terran tenderfoot? Could anyone doubt that he had the balls to make this jump, whether he was huffing too hard for air or not?
And yet here he was, doubting himself.
A muted alarm beeped in his helmet and Quarles’s voice poured into his headset, coming out of the ether from five hundred kilometers away: “Okay. Counting down from ten. One-zero, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one . . . mark. Step, and step, and firing.”
He needn’t have worried — as soon as Quarles said “firing,” Dechert was taking three running hops through the Moon’s microgravity. The thrusters on his suit lifted him from the crater wall. He looked beneath his boots at the blackness and drew his head into the back of his helmet.
“Three hundred meters and climbing,” Quarles said. “Ten seconds to apogee, twelve seconds to reverse thrust.”
The last dayside views of the Sea of Tranquility appeared as he ascended above the rimrock surrounding Dionysius. The vertical impact cliffs of Ritter and Sabine gleamed with ribbons of white ejecta to the southeast. The darker volcanic flatlands of the surrounding mare stretched to the horizon like dead African plains. He closed his eyes and waited for the heat of the sun to be taken away from him. It was a childish thing and he was angry as soon as he did it.
“Reverse thrust on my mark,” Quarles said. “Mark.”
Dechert fell. Lightness in his gut signaled the descent, a feeling that his body was dropping while his critical organs remained hovering above. He sucked in air and kept his eyes shut to escape from the flight and from the Moon itself, but it only increased his feeling of disorientation. Disembodiment. He focused on the sound of his breathing, the hiss of the regulators echoing in his helmet like a scuba diver finning through a current. Quarles wouldn’t need to read the biotel to know he was scared. He’d only have to listen. The Moon is soundless, and the air coming in and out of Dechert’s lungs rang with evidence against him.
“How we doing?” Quarles asked.
“Don’t throw up in your helmet.”
“No problem. Four-zero seconds to hop one. Still looking nominal.”
They had selected Dionysius for Drill Station 7 because it had decent water trace, but also because it was accessible. It was relatively small and uniform for a lunar impact crater, an infant cosmic bullet strike of only a billion years or so, with a floor as smooth as a North American salt flat — or so the selenologists had promised. Of course, those selenologists were reading topo-maps back in New Mexico, so Dechert wasn’t overly comforted by their assurances.
He could have gone down to DS-7 in a shuttle with the extra security of a reinforced titanium seat and two tons of superalloy surrounding him, but the jetsuit had to be tested in a live mission, and he didn’t like putting his crew in prototypes. Anyways, it wasn’t the method that was important now. It was the mission. There was a mystery down in the crater black and a crisis that had to be resolved. The drilling station’s water rover had gone silent fourteen hours ago without any warning. There was no telemetry before the crash, and no data dump to the hydrogen reduction reactor or the station’s central computer. DS-7 provided a quarter of Sea of Serenity 1’s fresh water and oxygen. Its failure wasn’t catastrophic, but the circumstances of its demise — and more important, the timing — filled Dechert with dread. Why wasn’t there any telemetry before a total blackout? Quarles couldn’t figure it out and neither could Thatch, and they knew those systems better than they knew their own fingernails. The only plausible explanation was a micrometeor strike, but the chances of that happening were statistically negligible. It was as if a plug had been pulled . . . but plugs don’t get pulled on the open surface of the Moon.
Cold enveloped him. He opened his eyes in Moon shadow and had to blink to make sure they weren’t closed. On Earth, shadow isn’t much more than shade, a patch of cool retreat from the constancy of the sun. On the Moon it’s a pure black that can’t be described, and at the bottom of a shadow-sided crater you might as well be at the starless edge of the universe. The plasma lamps on his helmet cast pinpoint beams of white that did little to obliterate the nothingness. Numbers flashing on the inside of Dechert’s visor told him that the crater floor was getting closer. The altimeter dialed backward like a clock flying into the past. He couldn’t see anything. I am a coward, he thought, pushing back a wave of low-g nausea. All the crazy shit I’ve done before, I was just trying to hide the goddamned truth.
“Why do I always get the first crack at your chickenshit prototypes?” he asked Quarles, needing to break the silence even though he knew the answer that was coming.
“Because you’re the only one who gets paid enough to risk explosive decompression. Also, you volunteered.”
“Remind me not to do that again.” Dechert looked around. “We shouldn’t have tried this without infrared.”
“You told me to rig the helmet without FLIR so we could simulate blackout conditions,” Quarles replied. “Look down and make sure Alpha is clear. Radar’s not picking anything up, but we’re gonna need at least twenty seconds to change your trajectory if there’s terrain below.”
Dechert craned his neck so he could see beyond the lower lip of his helmet, hoping that concentration on a task would ease the vertigo. Pilots aren’t supposed to get sick, he thought. But pilots are usually inside a ship, instead of free-falling in the dark. Steam from his breath left a halo of fog on the bottom of his faceplate. His headlamps moved through the surrounding blackness as he rotated them in a slow arc, but the beams were too narrow to renew his sense of up and down. He widened the circles of illumination and saw the ground. There was only fine lunar powder in the place where he was supposed to land, regolith pounded into dust by eons of cosmic barrage.
“Looks like nothing but reg,” Dechert said between breaths. “Small boulders, breccia I think, about a hundred meters to the north and a wrinkle ridge to the east, but Alpha looks clear. Remind me again what the hell I have to do on impact.”
“Impact? Jeez, boss, have a little more faith. The thrusters are already slowing you down. Should be a featherbed landing. Take two steps like you’re dunking a basketball and punch reengage.”
“How often do you think I’ve dunked a basketball?”
“True enough, white boy.”
“Yeah, you’re white, too, Quarles.”
“Well, you’ve seen guys do it, right? Anyway, the launch sequence will start automatically and the computer will adjust the jets for orientation. We’ve got you set for fifteen hundred meters on the next hop. DS-7 is only two hops away after that.”
Two hops away if something doesn’t go wrong and I end up flying off into space, Dechert thought. He hated physics even when he wasn’t in a panic and didn’t have the mental energy needed to compute escape velocities, but he did know two things: If the minijets didn’t shut down at the right moment on the way up, he could keep going into space, and if they failed to reignite on the way down, even the Moon’s weak gravity had enough of a pull to make him hit like a snowball on concrete. The shutdown of DS-7 would have to be investigated by someone else.
After they collected his frozen remains.
“Two-zero seconds, reverse thrust at eighty percent, rate of descent one meter per second,” Quarles said.
Dechert refocused and saw the illuminated rounds of lunar surface had grown into finer definition through his faceplate. Specks of color at the sharp edges of his field of vision had turned into ejecta boulders; hairline cracks, into deep, rocky rilles. His breathing quickened. The heads-up display flashed with numbers and a blinking quadrant of arrows pointed to the place where he would land. A muted alarm began to beep.
The steps on the powdery crater floor came quickly and with surprising anticlimax and then he was spaceborne again, climbing from Dionysius’s bottomland as thrusters on his boots, shoulder harness, and backpack hissed propellant and the heads-up display in his helmet registered the ascent with a jumble of red and green numbers and attitude markers.
“One hundred meters and climbing,” Dechert said, scanning the data as g-forces pushed him into the back of his suit. “Oriented at seventy degrees and in the pipe.”
“Roger that, boss,” Quarles replied. “Fly-by-wire is a beautiful thing. Three-zero seconds to apogee; two-six seconds to reverse thrust.”
“How we looking for radiation?”
“Sun’s asleep and you’re shielded by angles anyways. Safe for six hours at least. Looks like a beautiful day on the Moon.”
He landed at Drill Station 7 ten minutes later. It was Bible-black and cold. The water mining grid and the hydrogen reduction reactor should have been illuminated with a perimeter of blue triliptical lights. They weren’t. Dechert turned up his lamps and took a few cautious steps to ease his body out of vertigo. He inched his way toward the rille, which snaked northwest across the crater floor like a finger pointing to the deadness of the Mare Vaporum. He scanned the pit’s monochrome grays for several seconds before catching a flash of white.
“Okay. I’m here. I can see the sifter about twenty meters below me on the eastern wall. It’s down. Doesn’t look damaged. Just off-line.”
“Copy. What about the command deck on the reactor?”
“Everything’s off. No illumination. Making my way there now.”
Dechert scrambled up the spine of the ridge to the reactor’s operating shack, which looked for all the world like a telephone booth plopped down on the belly of the Moon. He could tell before he got there that nothing was on. He reached the structure and wiped a coating of dust off a hardened plasma screen. Blackness looked back at him. As he moved closer, his foot knocked into something and he glanced down at his boots.
“One of the power cells has been pulled out of the chassis. It’s sitting here on the ground.”
“You mean it’s physically pulled out?”
“Hold on. A6.”
“Is it damaged?”
“There’s gotta be dust intrusion, but otherwise it looks okay. I’m not sure I should put it back in. Recommendations?”
Quarles was quiet for a few seconds. “Blow it out as clean as you can with compressed air and reinsert it, carefully please. We’ll probably have to go back and replace the drive anyways. Let’s see if that’s the main issue.”
“Copy. Reboot in one minute.”
Dechert blew as much moondust from the triangular power cell as he could and jammed it back into the rack. He flipped the breaker and green and red dots flashed into life on the plasma screen. He could sense the xenon mining lights charging up behind him, blooming one at a time.
“She’s recharging.” He walked around the shack. “I don’t get it, though — why didn’t we receive telemetry when the cell was pulled out?”
Quarles hesitated and Dechert could almost hear him thinking. “I’m not sure. It’s a variable frequency drive and it’s got advanced cell bypass, meaning if one power cell fails it gets automatically isolated, and the others pick up the slack. But it also means the other cells burn out quicker.”
Dechert continued to walk a widening circle around the shack. “So whoever did this knew it would slow-bleed the sifter, but we probably wouldn’t be alerted?”
“That’s right,” Quarles said. “And they knew not to pull the cell at the star point of the configuration, which would have shut the whole thing down immediately.”
“Well, whoever did it left footprints all over the place down here, and they aren’t ours.”
“Okay, are they alien or human?”
“I mean they aren’t American, smart-ass. Treads are different, and I don’t recognize them from anything I’ve seen on Luna. Taking pictures now. Tell Vernon or Lane to cross-reference the soles and look for a match.”
Quarles was silent for several seconds. “Okay. So what the hell’s going on, boss? Is this someone’s idea of a prank?”
“Making us do an EVA in a shadow-sided crater is no fucking joke, Quarles. Neither is screwing with our water supply. Someone’s sending a message.”
“Great,” Quarles said. “What language do you think it’s in?”