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Under Pressure

kelson.philo's picture

Alrighty, my first short story for the oort-cloud. Share and enjoy and let me know what it's missing, peas & queues.

***

The compressor growled louder and louder. Maximum pressure was at hand and soon the eardrum torture would finish. Life would resume normality. The process of filling the three go-tanks took only about two minutes, but the last thirty seconds was the longest as the turbo machinery struggled to pump more air at pressures just under liquefaction levels into the relatively small containers.

“Come on, Meathead, hurry it up already,” called a voice from behind Zac.

The voice belonged to Beth, ‘Beth the Busy Bljad’, as Zac liked to call his sister. Behind her back, of course. She was three years older than he and all she ever talked about was boys. It was boring. Her big ambition in life was to sit through online classes until she didn’t have to anymore and then go to work for Grandpa’s Company. That, and have as many boyfriends as possible. Oh, and perpetually torment Zac. That was about it, though.

Right now Beth was under the buggy’s chassis, double checking the radio frequency identification tags on the buggy’s overflow protection system, placing her right next to the go-tanks. Zac idly played with the notion of suddenly increasing the compressor’s pressure limit, causing the tanks to explode, sending shards of carbon fiber shrapnel off to slice poor Beth’s body into disagreeable sausage links. He, of course, would be dazed but left relatively unharmed.

“Sorry, Mum, sorry, Dad. She died a good death,” he would say, “Her last wish was for me to have her room.” A larger room meant more space for his rocket projects. No more filling up the closet with scavenged junk. No more using his bed as a workbench. It was just a dream, though, as, even if filled to the breaking point, the go-tanks would not, could not, explode. Instead they would only crack under the stress and strain. Sure, there would be a loud bang, but no evil-sister-killing bomb. More’s the pity.

“Zac. Hey, Idiot,” the voice was right in his ear, startling him out of his short reverie. Beth hit the ‘Stop’ button after watching Zac fall out of sweet daydream and into unsettling embarrassment. “Goodness, Farkface, what are you trying to do, blow the tanks? Mum and Dad would have to sell you to R&D just to make it back up to the Company.”

“Shut up, they would not!”

“Ha! Would too. I overheard them night before last. They were saying if they signed you over to Research and Development, they’d be able to get a larger dwell space, which suits me fine. I could use the extra room.”

“That’s because you’re so stupid! And fat.”

A chase ensued, the two running around the cavernous garage, knocking over boxes and cargo containers and toolkits. It was broken up by the dockmaster, a burly man in his fifties who didn’t like kids. After advising the duo that he didn’t care how respected their family was around the colony, he explained that he would space them for sure if they kept this crap up, and then recommended on no uncertain terms that they had best get going while the getting was good.

The children mumbled apologies and went back to the buggy. Zac worked on disconnecting the go-tanks from the fill station. The bulky air hose connection was awkward and difficult for his small frame to unhook and after long seconds of twisting and squeezing the interlocks he was rewarded with a click, a short hiss and a free hose, which automatically snaked its way back to the compressor bay. Sighing from the exertion, he took a gecko pad out of his suit's thigh pocket and lightly wiped the perspiration from his brow. The pad’s microfibers wicked away the sweat and quickly evaporated the liquid, leaving behind a trace of salt that could be reclaimed at a later date. It was also handy for cleaning surfaces through pure adhesion and was forever reusable. Looking up, he saw Beth shaking her head and rolling her eyes at him. He returned the non-verbal taunt with a rude hand gesture and stomped off towards the back of the garage. Beth was a necessary evil for this trip as Zac wasn’t old enough to be out in a buggy alone.

While his sister ran a last minute checklist, Zac turned to look with some resignation at the buggy, a two seated, four wheeled little go-mobile with a platform over the rear wheels for cargo and a small gold mesh satellite dish mounted on a tripod for communicating with the Lunar Positioning System. A long, ten hour ride was ahead of them. It would be bumpy and slow and annoyingly circuitous. Not to mention he was leaving behind all his friends for who-knew-how-long. Mum and Dad were in charge of the survey team which was scoping out the terrain between Copernicus Crater and Glorious Beginnings, the Chinese colony at the lunar South Pole. If all went according to plan, after the survey team completed their operations, work would start on the Lunnel, the great Lunar Tunnel proposed to link the two colonies. Big enough to hold a two–way maglev and pedestrian thoroughfare to boot, it would mean the end of messing about with potentially dangerous surface buggy trips or fuel–costly converted ore hoppers, fun as they might have been.

This was all supposed to be great, of course. Zac knew this in a distant, logical sort of way. His heart strings sang a different tune, though. In the first place, the survey work would take months, six at the bare minimum, and they would be so far from Copernicus for most of it that commuting wasn’t an option. The family would move with the survey team and that was that.

In the second place, Mum and Dad’s work placed them in direct confrontation with Grandpa Pendleton, Zac and Beth’s paternal grandfather, who also happened to be the president of The Go-Buggy Company, the principle supplier of surface transport on the moon. A maglev connecting the two colonies would put a sharp damper on Company profits already experiencing pressure from mass produced nano-foam supercapacitors. Arguments between Grandpa and Dad had reached the boiling point. Though Zac and Beth weren’t privy to the debates, it seemed clear that a big part of their leaving was due to Dad and Grandpa’s falling out.

The back end of the garage offered a panoramic view of the Copernicus Crater colony. Lost in his thoughts, Zac took in the impressive sight, only partly finished as it was. The crater was over twelve thousand feet deep and more than fifty-seven miles wide, as if the Grand Canyon back on Earth had been teased and morphed into a god’s cereal bowl and painted very, very grey. At its center stood mountains reaching to nearly four thousand feet, created by the same impactor that blasted out the crater in the first place all those hundreds of millions of years ago. These had been turned into living quarters and offices and laboratories for the colonists and were very spacious and comfortable. Green and blue was starting to snake its way around the mountains and spill out onto the flat crater floor below them. Armstrong Reservoir grew bigger each week. The beginnings of the terraforming process were evident, though it would be generations before the crater was completely full of life.

Covering this expanse was a great dome, made from lunar titanium and several layers of very expensive smart silicon and carbon polymers. Between those layers was squeezed enough water shielding to provide the hydration needs for many times over the number of colonists that currently resided on the moon. Space is harsh, though, and lacking the atmosphere that Earth had in abundance, the colony needed all that water to shield it from cosmic rays and solar storms.

Copernicus was a work in progress, but a very comfortable work in progress. Where Zac and Beth were heading would not be comfortable. The roving, pressurized cylinders that housed the survey team would be crowded and annoying and probably even smelly. Worse still, it would be boring. To be sure, there would be his online tutors to work with. He could message and vid his friends from time to time as resources permitted. He’d get some good observational work in for his astronomy club. There’s just something about being able to exist in a shirtsleeve environment, though, that was so much more appealing then being crammed in an aeroponically enhanced tin can.

“I don’t understand why they can’t just send a ‘bot,” Zac whined, fidgeting with his suit’s helmet seal.

Beth looked at him and, for a moment, the ever present frost in her gaze melted, just a bit. “I know, Zac. But you know how Dad feels about ‘sending robots to do precision work’.” She said the last in mock-father-tones while re-adjusting Zac’s helmet for him. It locked into place and a little green light blinked on for a few seconds. Beth’s sudden kindness brought a slight, though short-lived, smile to his face.

“It’s so unfair!” Zac continued on the intersuit radio after Beth had sealed her helmet. “Sci-Camp starts this week. Now my projects are all locked up in storage.”

“That’s nothing, Farkface, I had just got this date set up with Vlad Dmitriev...Oh, he just rules my world and now–nothing; I’ve got to drag your baby ass over stupid moon dirt.”

“Hey! I’m no baby, you bl –”

“You two!” Boomed a voice in their ears. Zac and Beth whirled around to their right and left and finally saw the waving figure of the dockmaster up on the garage's catwalk. “What? Do I need to start charging rent? Move it or lose it.”

The two siblings stopped bickering and strapped themselves into the buggy seats. The dockmaster glared at them a final time, gave them a questioning “thumbs up”, waited for a return signal and then opened the inner door of the garage’s air lock. Beth drove the buggy inside the lock and the door sealed behind them. They heard pumping noises for a minute or so and once the sound died away the outer airlock door opened and they were confronted with a long tubeway, and though the road edges were lit with rope lights, the end of the tunnel was pitch black. Beth started the buggy along the tube and Zac could feel anticipation welling up inside him. Despite the sadness of moving away from Copernicus, there would be one small shred of silver lining to the cloudy ordeal, the view from crater-side.

Only in space could one effectively step from one world to another. Leaving the confines of the tube, their view exploded in volume. In front of them was the ramp that led down to the plains of lunar regolith that extended to the horizon, less than two miles away. The short horizon and lack of atmosphere made extensive radio communications very difficult past distances over a mile and a half. When coupled with the fact that Luna had no magnetic north worth speaking of, thusly had the Lunar Positioning System been set up to aid travelers in their surface journeys. After verifying that the LPS uplink was active, Beth drove onto the top of the ramp and Zac’s view was now split in two: stupid poorly lit gray below, glorious starscape above.

Glorious might have been an understatement. With no atmosphere, there was no haze to block starlight. Even with a waxing crescent Earth bounding up over the horizon and the bright reflections of the orbital mirrors behind him in the sky, brighter than Venus but focused precisely on the colony, there was enough relative darkness to have a view of the stars unattainable on Earth. When you were on the surface of the moon you knew that space was big. There was no way to ignore it.

The grandeur was compounded by the weirdness of having a short length to the horizon. Any sort of elevation at all made you think it wouldn’t take much to fall off the edge of this small world and with the garage’s exit opening nearly halfway up the three thousand foot crater wall, Zac had to forcibly put aside feelings of vertigo. Somewhere in the development plans of Copernicus were notes for a roller coaster. At even the pedestrian speeds of the go-buggy, Zac didn’t think much of the idea, but knew somebody somewhere would love it.

Catching some movement out the corner of his left eye, he saw that Beth had her arms and hands waving above her, driving with her feet. An alarmingly loud “Wee!” resounded through Zac’s helmet. Obviously Beth would be one of those people.

He looked away in disgust and grabbed his arm rest a bit tighter. Zac let his gaze fall off to the side, towards a glimmering on the maria. A huge rectangular plot of lunar dust had been cleared away, heading off past the horizon, the sure sign of strip mining for helium-three. The successful fusion of helium-three back on Terra put an incredible amount of safe, clean power in humanity’s hands. Thirty tons of the stuff could supply the energy needs of North America for a year. The reaction produced no spare neutrons, so heavy (and eventually dangerous) radiation shielding was not necessary. The catch: it wasn’t available on Earth.

It was barely available on the Moon, even. Half a million tons of lunar dirt had to be processed to get that thirty ton payload worth so many times its weight in gold. The potential profits were so huge, though, that eventually a consortium of businesses and private investors came together to fund mining operations on Luna. The Go-Buggy Company was one of several smaller outfits present, along with all sorts of entities from the rest of North America and Europe and Russia. The end result of all this fiscal activity was the colony in Copernicus with a throughput of just under seventy tons of helium-three a year and climbing.

Not to be outdone, the Chinese stepped up their own lunar exploration efforts and landed personnel in Shackleton Crater just weeks after the western colonials reached Copernicus. While they also had an interest in helium three, their operations focused on extensive water mining in the South Pole’s Aitken Basin, in areas where the sun’s deadly heat could not reach due to shadow. Water, while not being very expensive on a hydrated planet such on Earth, was nevertheless quite valuable on the parched recesses of the Moon, and rumor had it the Chinese had struck big. The potential for them to become a Force To Be Reckoned With was now so great that the Lunnel had been proposed as a means of avoiding future conflicts. The Chinese government put forth no obstacle towards the project’s completion.

“I don’t want to learn Mandarin,” Zac suddenly whined. Even though the inhabitants of Copernicus Crater were international in nature, most everyone used English peppered with Russian asides just to make things easier. And while you still heard other languages in homes and clave’s throughout the settlement (Zac’s pet name for Beth being an overheard example), the Chinese were rather stubborn about keeping to Mandarin as their language of home and business.

“Bi zui! Ni shi bai chi,” Beth snapped.

Zac shut up for a moment and then asked, “Did you call Mum and Dad to tell them we left?”

“Oh, snap,” Beth cursed.

“Ahhhh, you’re gonna get in truh-bull.”
“Farkface, so help me, I am going to drop you off the first crater ledge we come by if you don’t shut your mouth for the rest of this trip. I promise you.”

“Whatever, you’d be in sooo much trouble.”

“Oh, really? I’d just tell them your mind went wandering and your body ran off trying to find it. There was nothing I could do, like the last time you zoned out and almost killed everyone in Copernicus.”

“Shut up, Beth! That’s not true! You shut up, right now!”

Despite his attempt at sounding tough, Zac was subdued to the point of being quiet. Once, while mixing some chemicals on the outskirts of Copernicus City, he had accidentally ignited one of his rocket project’s spare fuel reservoirs. Zac’s rocket was made from scavenged scrap metal and he had filled it to the brim with a solid fuel recipe picked up off of the Net. The missile got an extra boost from the reservoir’s subsequent explosion and ignited, zooming fifteen thousand feet to the dome that kept the atmosphere in, vacuum and hard radiation out. Instead of bouncing off, the lunar titanium nose cone went right through the dome’s skin, through the forty feet of water shield and on into space. Within seconds, the dome had sealed itself with emergency goo, and miraculously no one was harmed, though Zac’s little stunt had caused quite a stir, not to mention incurred some expense for his family.

Needless to say, thanks to him anyone experimenting with rockets inside the crater was now required to first obtain a license.

“I hate you,” Zac mumbled.

Beth only laughed as Zac shut off his radio. Victory was hers.
* * *

Zac dwelt on the stars. Hanging a hand’s width above the horizon was the thin crescent Earth, a blue and white sideways smiley that signified the first part of lunar night. The length of day and night on the moon is just short of fifteen Earth days long by about six hours each. This meant that there were three hundred and fifty four hours of darkness wherein solar cells would not charge and plants would not photosynthesize. Concerning the colony, that problem was solved by placing large mirrors in the first and second Lagrange points in lunar orbit. Those mirrors received and redirected light at the colony for the entirety of the nocturnal fortnight, while a polarized filter in the dome’s skin regulated the day and night cycle inside the crater quite nicely.

Geologists had a field day with Copernicus’ inner walls, a large twelve thousand foot slice of the moon’s surface, affectionately referred to as layer cake, and from the studying of all those layers of compressed moon stuff it was found that once upon a time, Luna was subject to a rather intense bombardment by water ice comets. Though the volume of ice was almost trivial compared to terrestrial standards, it was more than adequate for filling the dome’s water shield, while also providing the colony with ample rocket fuel once cracked into hydrogen and oxygen which also had use in fuel cells. Armstrong Reservoir was seen as a testament to the abundance of water if one was willing to dig deep enough to get it. As long as you stayed in Copernicus, your needs and wants, at least at the most basic level, could be provided for rather easily.

All that changed once you left the crater’s cozy confines, however. Smaller outfits, such as moon buggies and ore hoppers and space suits, still presented certain technical challenges. If you did anything by day, you wound up with a tremendous amount of heat that needed disposal, and electronics (not to mention organic tissue) do not like large amounts of heat; never mind the increased risk of radiation complications to boot. The world record holder for lunar day endurance was still alive; though he had some spectacular melanomas preserved on his home’s mantle.

So then there was lunar night. This meant two weeks of not being able to charge anything with solar power. Fusion reactors were still house-sized, so that was out. The orbital mirrors were fine for a large, stationary target like Copernicus, but for small, one or two person transports, this meant hauling a lot of hydrogen and oxygen around for use in a fuel cell for any length of time of over forty hours or so. Batteries, even the advanced polymer varieties, got heavy very quickly and were extremely costly as well. The nano foam supercapcitor technology still wasn’t of practical size for the needed amount of power, but was developing rapidly. A long term nighttime power supply was needed. So it was that Zac’s paternal grandfather had, a long time ago on a planet not too far away, devised a solution to the mobile power problem.

One of the many by-products of mining for helium-three is oxygen. In fact, there is so much oxygen locked in the moon’s crust that it’s the only volatile that doesn’t have to be imported from Earth, unlike, say, nitrogen. Copernicus was lucky with finding its ice comet layer, but it still had to be very careful in maintaining the nitrogen cycle for its closed circuit ecology.

Grandpa Pendleton figured out that if you took all this extra oxygen and compressed it at really high pressures into specially made containers, it could be slowly valved off through a smallish lunar titanium turbine to spin a generator. That generator would then power the buggy, and anything hooked up to it, for a very long time. The performance and cost versus weight ratios were so favorable to batteries and fuel cells that Grandpa made quite a bit of cash which he used for all sorts of things, not the least of which was in getting Mum and Dad on Copernicus Crater’s roster. This was something Zac was not supposed to know, but he’d been reading between the lines of adult conversations since he was seven. Now at fourteen, he had honed the skill to near perfection.

Zac checked the LPS’s travel clock readout in his helmet. Gads, a whole half hour had passed. Nine and a half silent hours to go. Protocol denied the use of EMF for entertainment purposes while out on the ‘lith. Therefore, no music, no podcasts. Well, there was always stargazing. Zac sighed.
* * *

At four and a half hours Zac first saw the glint of gold. If he could have rubbed his eyes he would have. He opted, instead, to wave his arms in front of Beth’s faceplate. The buggy stopped as she maneuvered to slap the side of his helmet. Zac flicked his radio on to catch the tail end of Beth’s rant.

“...and if you don’t, so help me I’ll –”

“Beth, shut up and look! There’s something over there!”

“Over where? I don’t see anything.”

“You’re not looking. It’s gold, see! It’s gotta be a spacecraft!”

Beth gazed where Zac was pointing and sighed. Sure enough, that was gold and that meant the possibility of a manned craft in trouble. Protocol dictated they take a look and render any assistance they could. Beth wheeled the buggy in the glint’s direction.

“More than likely it’s space junk,” she said, unable to resist a barb in Zac’s direction. “You know that stuff is all over the surface: spent probes, lost robots, industrial blah blah blah. Get back in your seat and shut up.”

Zac ignored her attempt at lighting his ire, sat back in his seat and reveled in the anticipation of what might come next. He secretly hoped that it wasn’t someone in distress. That would be annoying and scary. Beth would inevitably assume her Take Charge attitude which always left him feeling inadequate for some reason. His mouth instead watered with the prospect of what kind of junk the shimmering gold might be. Fantasies of finding long lost secret Russian probes or even bits of Luna 2, the first hunk of human built stuff to smack the Moon’s surface way back in nineteen fifty-nine filled his mind. Or, what about one of the six Apollo lunar ascent modules that were deliberately wrecked on the surface? That would be fantastic! What if, no, it couldn’t possibly happen, but what if this was the remains of the Apollo 15 LM? Now that would be the find of a lifetime. Whoever retrieved Falcon’s pilot box, with its various and sundry mementos ranging from flags to gold coins and medals to day of issue postal envelopes and even funky plastic shamrocks, would be set for life. Say goodbye to bedroom-as-workshop, say hello to full-blown laboratory!

They arrived at a small outcropping of rock and regolith heaped up, dune fashion, on the surrounding mare. At the center was the glint of gold, grown larger, nearly the size of the buggy they sat on. Beth brought them to a stop and Zac stood up in his seat.

“I’m not getting any RFID signal, so it’s nothing from Go-Buggy, and there’s no hopper transponder signal, either.” Beth said.

“Yup, and it’s an impact crater all right; you can see the sunken ‘lith behind this pile in front of us. This thing hit hard.”

“Fine, fine,” muttered Beth. “Go snap your vids and then get back here.”

Zac bounded out of the buggy like a puppy first discovering the food dish. He turned on his helmet cam when he reached the gold shimmer. He noticed on his helmet display with some glee that Beth had opened up a vid channel as well to see what he saw. She was curious after all.

The long, thin, torpedo shaped outcropping of gold twinkling brightly under Zac’s helmet light was actually larger than the buggy and upon closer inspection it became apparent that it was part of something even bigger. The regolith around the six foot wide projection was loosely packed and easily pushed aside. Under the loose material were blackened glassy shards – remnants of the impact this machine must have suffered. The more Zac dug, the more pieces of wreckage were uncovered until–

“Oops!” Zac skidded to his knees from tripping on a large chunk of something and rolled onto his belly, causing a small landslide that tipped the golden spire to the ground while dislodging more space junk.

“Cool...” breathed Zac. The torpedo was no longer attached to anything, the same with the rest of the scattered debris. Odd coils and lengths of metal, mostly charred black, cracked and broken, lay before his feet, his camera zooming in and out like a toddler high on soda pop.

Beth, who had been very nearly bored to death before was suddenly very anxious the moment the golden spire had toppled over.

“Zac,” she urged, standing in her seat, “Let’s get going and leave this stuff alone.”

“But, Beth,” Zac stammered, “This is amazing! I can’t find a trace of identification on anything. It’s like all the parts were custom made or something! What’s left of it anyways...It’s...Really weird.”

“Ja, ja, ja, I’m sure, but let’s get going. Now, OK? We’ve got the LPS coordinates, we can come back later –”

“Ahhhh, you know that Mum and Dad won’t let that happen without some sort of proof, some bit to show that something weird is going on–oooooooooh, what’s this?” and amidst Beth’s protests, Zac went back to digging. What he uncovered was a small silver rocket nozzle attached to a roughly trapezoidal gray box with a mess of tubes and cables and many jagged bits of silvery metal sticking out of one end. It was heavy and very awkward to hold; the metal shards looked quite sharp. It must have been a navigational thruster, thought Zac. I wonder what it used for fuel, peroxide? Hydrazine? LunarO2?

“This is perfect,” he said, turning towards Beth, whose hands were firmly on her hips, helmet cocked to one side. He was in trouble, no doubt about it, but she’d forget about it, right? They still had six hours to go so no worries, right? And just look at this magnificent find, what a treat it would be to take it apart and set it to good use, a perfect activity for the hours of countless boredom that lay in front of him.

This was the last thought Zac had before tripping over the something again and falling with his beloved treasure an arm’s length in front of him. With his center of gravity already off kilter from carrying the artifact, what should have been a slow fall was turned into a fast one instead. He hit the ground with such a smack that his face snapped against his faceplate. Blinking away pain that was already receding thanks to dermal medicine patches controlled by his suit, he realized his hands were no longer holding the mystery object and that the outside of his faceplate was covered with some kind of bizarre condensation.

“Ugh...Beth? I think I smashed my nose in,” but there was no answer. “Beth?”

Panic was grabbing at Zac’s chest, squeezing hard on his heart.

“Beth?”

Scrambling to his knees, Zac rubbed his gloved hands over the suit’s faceplate, succeeding only in smudging it. He remembered his suit training and reached for the pocket that contained the gecko pad. Working with maximum elbow grease, the pad did its job well.

Too well. What Zac saw made him scream.

The buggy had been tipped over, a gnarled mess of metal. He didn’t see Beth at first, but as he rushed over, he saw her a few yards from the buggy, a crumpled mess lying on her side. Zac turned the gain up on his receiver and could barely make out a rattling, wheezing intake of air. He was next to her now and saw that her suit was ravaged by a powerful force, large slivers of metal that were once part of his treasure were now embedded in Beth’s suit, protruding out into vacuum. Her suit’s safety layer had gone to work overtime, sealing the gashes with the same kind of gunk that had saved Copernicus Crater.

The realization of what he’d done came crashing in on him, like the feeling of suddenly being on Earth after years of being on the Moon. You desperately want to flee the heavy gravity, to go back to where you can move and breath again but the field is too strong, too encompassing, you can’t escape it on your own.

“Beth, oh Beth, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry,” he sobbed and then chided himself for bawling. He had to trust that she was still alive – he could still hear her faint breathing, he had to trust that her suit’s dermal patches were providing her with some comfort, but she needed medical help and she needed it now. How to get it?

A red light was flashing on his helmet’s display; the LPS uplink was offline, the equipment ripped apart when the buggy was overturned, the wire-mesh satellite antenna’s shape mangled and footings torn loose. He managed to flip the buggy off its side, but the frame was twisted and bent and the control console wouldn’t light up. Even if he could get it functional again, the ride back to Copernicus Crater was still four hours away and he was quite sure Beth wouldn’t last that long. The actual damage wasn’t beyond repairing – if it were in a properly tooled garage. The suit’s communicators didn’t have the range to contact a base, so he sat on the ‘lith next to Beth and mulled over his options, listening through the available radio frequencies, hearing only static. Frustration was mixing with panic and he stomped away from the wreckage in anger, cursing as he did so.

A short distance away, he saw skid marks in the ‘lith leading to the remains of his “treasure”. Anger and fury welled up in Zac’s chest as he bounded over to where the contraption lay and kicked it with all he had. It moved about a foot and for his trouble, Zac again lost his footing, cartwheeling head over heals in comical anger, landing flat on his back. Deep, heavy sobs wretched his body, blurring the crystal clear starfield. “It’s so big,” he thought, “And I’m so small and it doesn’t care and Beth’s going to die and it’s all my fault and I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.”

Letting all the anger out somehow made him feel slightly better. His breathing slowed down. The stars were still there, not twinkling from the lack of atmosphere. Not caring but very cold and very beautiful. Then a star moved into his field of view and continued moving, causing Zac to turn his head to follow it. The star was sinking towards the horizon and, at about a thumb’s width from the edge of the world, it disappeared.

Zac realized it was a satellite, making its rounds about the Moon, providing traffic control for ore and gas hoppers and ferry boats and buggies, dipping out of site as they reached the terminator. It was one out of several dozen, circling in low lunar orbit, mapping the terrain across the whole breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum. Farther out from these were the unseen constellation of satellites that made up the LPS, way out in Lunar Synchronous Orbit with a space station or two. Space was brimming with possible help. If only there was a way of getting just one of those satellite’s attention!

Inspiration struck. He scrambled back to the formerly treasured rocket nozzle and hefted it up. It was quite a bit lighter then last time, what with the lack of fuel and approximately a third of its structure lodged in Beth’s chest and arms. The nozzle proper looked in good enough condition; it’s converging, diverging sections were machined out of one solid piece of metal. If he could remove it from the other bits of junk, he’d have at least this much to work with.

Huffing over to a nearby rock, Zac took the nozzle as an ax handle and swung with all his might. The shock of impact rattled through his gloves and he dropped the assembly. Sadly it was still assembled, but when Zac picked it up for a second try, the nozzle broke off cleanly at its footing. “Success! OK, what next?”

The go-tanks were easily enough reached, though awkward to maneuver. They were modular in design, made to be quickly replaced, though the torque expended by Zac to get one of them free of its harness left him nearly exhausted. Now came the hard part. He had an idea of how he was going to join the nozzle and one of the tanks together, but what to use as a trigger? The go-tank’s valves were rigged to only actuate after being screwed into place. Zac could see the little push button at the valve’s center that would slowly open as the canister was twisted into place, but it was a very small hole, too small for a finger to reach, let alone a gloved one.

There was, however, the stiff wire construction of the broken satellite antenna. The disabled vehicle was equipped with a small tool box, useful for extremely minor repairs. Opening the box, Zac found a pair of wire snippers and a can of WD-40 and a box of condoms with a sticky note reading, “For Emergency Use, Only” attached; some gearhead’s idea of a joke, no doubt. Taking the wire snippers, Zac further mutilated the antenna, pulling from it a thin, stiff rod just small enough to fit in the go-tank’s valve. Now to test it out.

Putting the tank on the ground on its side and holding it firmly down with his hand, Zac took the wire in his other hand and started to work it through the end of the nozzle. Contact was made and Zac could feel the vibration of metal scraping metal, but no escaping gas–he didn’t have enough mechanical advantage. A larger force was required. Perhaps his whole body pushing against the tank as the wire was pushed against something else? Yes. Moving the tank against a rock, Zac pushed as hard as he could and was rewarded with seeing a split second of lunar dust poof into orbit before the go-tank slipped right though his hands and slammed into his stomach, and knocked him over hard on his back.

There was plenty of pressure, that should have made him happy, but getting punched in the gut made him realize there was a severe lack of stability and control. In the silence that followed, a star zipped into view, traveling across the same set of constellations. That was probably the same satellite that Zac had tracked before. It didn’t make sense, though; not nearly enough time had passed for a satellite to complete an orbit around the Moon. Could this star be a ship, a gas hopper? He made a note of the time again and muttered an honest ‘thanks’ to no one in particular. He might not have much control over the rocket, but he knew exactly when he was going to fire it off.

It was a rush job, of course, and hopefully it would make due. Using the remaining scraps of the same wreckage that had shredded Beth, Zac cut along his suit’s legs, just deep enough to extract some gooey sealant. Then, with frenzied motion made ridiculous in lunar gravity, he mortared the nozzle to the go-tank. It was tricky work, having to move very quickly lest the goo solidify, but by being very careful he managed to combine the components in a reasonably straight fashion. Using the same glue technique, Zac fashioned a launch pad of sorts from one of the fallen buggy’s broken wheels and the satellite dish’s support stand. At the tip of all this was the bit of the wire he had just used to test the pressure potential of the go-tank.

Alright. Propulsion section complete. Now, what to use as payload? Taking the snippers, Zac got on his knees and went to work cutting off the small radio frequency ID tags from the overflow protection system. Though seldom used since buggy jaunts were usually pretty short, the go-buggy’s air recovery tanks had an protective device that would pump excess used air into a bag and drop it onto dirt for collection later. The bags were equipped with identification tags so that they were easier to find, triggering a tone in a traveler’s headset whenever a fellow go-buggy came within range. The lucky finder of an airbag received a credit available for when they needed to fill a go-tank themselves, which was a nice arrangement, making sure that nothing was going to waste. Now Zac was hoping on gaining more than just a credit. He glued the tags to bits of salvaged gold insulation. Hopefully, the rocket would reach an altitude where LPS or Lunar Flight Control or somebody would see the flying radio tags or radar reflecting metal on a scope and get curious. Maybe even that fast moving star that was due within minutes. He hoped.

Watching the time clock in his suit, Zac listened for Beth’s breathing, which was steadily developing more of a rattle. She was still alive, though, and as long as that remained true, Zac would carry out his Fool Idea.

“Any second now….come on…..come on!” And there it was, appearing out of the black like a mystery candle and sweeping an arc over Zac’s head. “Five, four, three, two…go!”

Using all his remaining strength, Zac brought the makeshift rocket over his head, aimed and slammed his creation nozzle-first with all his might down onto the launch rod. It went down, contacting the buggy wheel, “Perfect!” Zac jumped back and shielded his helmet with his arms and held his breath and –

–And nothing happened.

It just sat there, not flying into orbit, not saving Beth. Zac’s frustration with life exploded into a tremendous–

“Go!”

–And it went.

Slowly at first, it started to wobble on the pad and then–

Poof!

It was gone.

Zac looked out against the black starry night and screamed, waving his arms with delight.

Then his arms dropped, head still leaning back.

“I should have glued a light to it,” he said aloud.

He could see no trace of the projectile. No glint from the starlight, no way to tell its altitude or trajectory. A thought suddenly stormed into Zac’s head, What if the rocket crashed right back down where it started? What if it lands on Beth?

“No, no, no, no, no you don’t!” he yelled, jumping over to Beth’s body and hovering over her, arms outstretched, ready to block any falling debris.

Something was clicking in his ear. What was it? Laughter?

“Beth?” Zac asked solemnly, kneeling down to peer into her helmet. Its reflective layer was still in place. He saw a brief glimpse of infinite reflections and then heard,

“Zac…You’re. Such a moron…” Her voice was faint, distant, but with the tint of derisive humor about it.

“Beth, oh Beth, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I really am, OK?”

“Zac.”

“Yes?”

“Shut up.”

“Beth, don’t speak, you’ve got to save your strength, alright?”

“Zac, do you honestly think -” There was a barking noise through the radio followed by the sound of fluid hitting glass. Zac fell backwards in fright, and then screamed, “Beth?”

There was no answer. There was no sound at all.

Zac was alone.

He stood up, looking at his sister’s prone form, realizing with every fiber of his being that there was nothing, simply nothing he could do for her. Zac felt cold and disconnected, an icy hand was gripping the back of his neck, stiffening his bones. For the first time in his life his mind became empty, devoid of any nuance of thought. It was an odd sensation that disappeared the moment he consciously noticed it. So this is what Limbo feels like, he had thought, looking down at his sister. Grains of regolith covered her body. For a moment, they were still. In a heart beat’s time, they flew off her body, at first a grain at a time and then ten thousand more as if caught in a strong wind. Wind? On the ‘lith? Zac looked in the direction opposite their travel. There, not a hundred feet distant, a hopper was landing, its retros firing, pushing lunar dust away.

When the Chinese rescue party arrived, they did not expect to find a catatonic boy and his dead sister.
* * *

Zac was again looking down on Beth. This time, however, instead of cold, hard vacuum and impersonal pressure suits being between them, there was fresh, warm circulating air. Beth was lying on an emergency gurney laid out in the cargo hold of the Chinese hopper. She was peaceful and serene and asleep, the only time Zac had ever really seen her as such. The Chinese technician watching her readouts had successfully pulled the shrapnel from her body and stabilized her condition. The rest would be up to her and Zac was not worried about that; Beth was strong, she would pull through fine. It was dealing with his parents that had Zac worried.

Still, though, he was gripped with excitement and elation. He paused for a moment to stare out of the frosty cold glass of a nearby viewport, watching the maria race past below him. In his mind’s eye, he replayed those last few microseconds of the missile heading off into space before finally disappearing in the blackness. It had worked. It had really worked—and this was no longer simple child’s play, no longer a mere hobby. There were too many horrible ways you could die on the moon: from simple asphyxiation to the more complicated horror of being broiled alive when your internal cooling unit went out in the lunar silence. Now there was something new, another tool to stave off death, and it was his creation. Zac felt tingly and reborn, with Beth as living testimony, all because of his rocket.

Zac turned back to look at her. The technician continued to hover over her as the medical scanners whirred and beeped quietly under the dull throb of the hopper’s engines. His parents would probably be furious, his mother especially—she’d probably even try to ground him for going near dangerous space junk, though fat lot of good that would do her in a tin can somewhere in the backwaters of lunar dirt. At least he’d kept them both alive to be lectured, he would say, and that was something she’d come to realize soon enough. Past that came other possibilities, not the least of which was a deal he could strike up with Grandpa. It was a fact the old man had been looking for new ways to expand the family business and this rocket could be just the thing to beat back the nano-foam and the Lunnel for another couple of decades. This could mean a lab with tools and plenty of space to build and no need for mucking about with licenses or the dark, furrowed stares of his disdainful fellow colonists.

Grounded, Mum? Zac thought. Not for long I’m not.

-fin-
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.5

This story has a lot of

This story has a lot of exposition, but I found it very interesting, and it kept me hooked right through the rest of the piece. I especially liked the idea of using water to shield the colony from cosmic rays, and the mirrors set at Lagrange points to collect solar energy. And the account of Zac trying to find a way to signal for help was very well done.

I love the gecko pad! But I would leave out, "It was also handy for cleaning surfaces through pure adhesion and was forever reusable." That's one sentence of exposition too many. Remove it, and the previous sentence explains the main value of the pad, but doesn't really break the flow of the narrative.

While I expected something to go wrong during the journey across the surface (genre being genre, after all), the moment of the explosion was truly a scary moment. It brought into stark relief how serious Zac's and Beth's situation was.

Now, about the follow-up story where we find out what that strange torpedo was...?

kelson.philo's picture

Tanx!

Thanks, Richard, for the kind words and advice. I'll admit it. I'm an exposition junkie. I love info dumps. It's really hard for me to let that stuff go. You should have seen the first drafts....sheesh.

I've been having thoughts on Zac and Beth discovering that the torpedo was a sort of relic, left behind in angrier days. Maybe uncover a plot to disrupt the new peace that was slowly building between Copernicus and New Beginnings. a kind of hardy boys in space affair, perhaps. We'll see!

That definitely sounds

That definitely sounds promising!