Thursday, July 09, 2009

Station to Station

They call it the dark side of the moon, but that’s a misnomer. It’s the side perpetually facing away from the earth, and thus receives no glow of reflected earthlight, but it gets as much sunlight as starlight, and the shadows only grow deep when the earth eclipses the sun.

The terrain is more rugged than the earth-facing hemisphere, however, with more impact craters and fewer wide, smooth “seas.” So you’ll understand why we use “hoppers” to cross the distance between the stations, rather than the old rovers.

Why am I telling you this? That’s a reasonable question. Just be patient. I’ll get to that.

Not that you’re supposed to know about any of this. Far as anyone back home is concerned, we’re not even up here. I mean, it was something like 37 years ago that Apollo 17 called it a day, folded up shop and went home. I wasn’t even born then. That happened more than three years later, Summer 1976, after Station 1 was fully operational and the go-ahead was given for population growth.

I was supposed to be a symbol or something. A Bicentennial moon baby, born on the Fourth of July on our nation’s 200th birthday. It was all carefully planned, and when I was late, they brought me out by caesarean. Someone thought having a symbol of our colony’s success might be important someday, even though the mission was a secret; someday the nation would know about us, they figured, and my birth would have meaning, give them hope.

Whatever. I’m 33 now, and only a few other people ever cared that I was alive. And God only knows where they are now.

I make this trip between the stations every month. Basic maintenance. Cleaning CO2 scrubbers, trading out water filters in the recycling sumps, and fixing minor glitches in the solar panels. Department of Air, Water & Light, that’s my gig. The hopper makes the trips easy, floating low over the craters on its retro rockets, but I have to be careful not to break radio silence while en route or get my picture taken by some rogue satellite. We track all the space junk, and there’s a blind spot programmed into the official orbiters so they don’t see our landing platforms, but you never know when something could go wrong.

Like today, for instance.

Station 3 was dark when I arrived. No radio contact, of course. The five stations communicate with each other via phone cables buried in 1974, during the excavations for the initial construction. All the stations are buried under the lunar rock, covered with powder, with only small landing platforms for the hoppers to dock. Stations of the Cross, I call them, though we have only five rather than 14. But seen from above, if they were at all visible, they form a cross with one elongated leg reaching to Station 5 on the edge of the Aitken basin. Google it, if you’re curious, if they have Google whenever you are. I have time to wait.

The docking airlock opened for me, since it draws power from the hopper. It’s a security feature. Ensures only hopper personnel can access the stations. That way no pesky Chinese cosmonaut comes knocking down the door uninvited.

It wasn’t until I was inside the station that I realized something was wrong. Main power was out. The corridors were lit by battery powered lights, and the place was absolutely silent. Not even the air units hummed. The atmosphere was getting stale. I didn’t take a look around or head to the control center to ask questions; I opened a floor hatch, slung my tool kit over my shoulder, and took a ladder down two levels to check out the generator room.

Everything was intact. Someone had just turned it all off. I switched it back on, waited for the computer to reboot, and watched the indicators as it cycled through its diagnostics. Nothing was wrong anywhere in the system. The automatic controls reset and the air started cycling again. A breeze moved against my face and the lights came up.

I tried the intercom, but got no response. I tried the phone by the entry, but there was nothing but static, so I rode the lift back to the topside level to check in.

There was no one in control center. No one on monitor duty. I tried the phone again, with the same result. I opened the intercom to all levels and did an all-call. Nothing. No departments checked in. I was nervous now. I had seen all the sci-fi films you’ve probably seen. I never considered aliens, but it was entirely possible that someone had gone nuts, managed to fashion a weapon of some sort, and herded everyone into a room somewhere and killed them.

I didn’t have anything even close to resembling a weapon, just the low-power tools in my kit. I settled on a wrench, and held it in one hand as I called the other stations.

No one answered.

Let me make this clear: None of the stations answered. None of the department heads or grunts at any of the numbers I regularly call. My parents didn’t respond. My girlfriend. My wife. Nobody. I broke protocol and used the scrambled channel to call Ground Control, but no one responded. The channels were open; I got the ping back that indicated my calls were being received. It’s just that no one picked up and said hello.

I clutched that wrench and walked through the station, opening every door and locker and hatch as I went. It took me hours. I stopped to eat at one point. I stopped to throw up. I used the waste recycler. I stopped to cry like a lost child. I passed out. I slept. I woke up and ate again. I showered and changed into someone else’s abandoned clothes. I searched again. Got to keep searching and searching.

There were no bodies. No sign of a struggle or damage. It looked for all the world like everyone had vanished into thin air. Or they'd gotten a call to abandon the base, and they'd turned off the lights before they closed the doors.

I gathered some supplies, just in case the other stations were in worse condition than this one. Food and water, extra air tanks. I loaded them into the hopper. I went back to Station 2, where I’d come from last. There I found the same thing. Empty rooms. Power switched off. I restarted the power and searched the empty rooms and moved on to the next station of the cross, and the next, and the next.

I’ve been driving like a demon from station to station for days now. I’ve combed every inch of our little part of the moon. And I’m the only person I have to talk to.

Yes, it has occurred to me that I am not well. That none of this is really happening. That I’m actually lying in a hospital bed somewhere, making all this up in my head. That these are the things of dreams. That men don't really live on the moon. Should I believe that I’ve been stricken? I don’t know.

Maybe the others will return as mysteriously as they left. Maybe I’ll awaken from this dream.

I have considered equipping a hopper with extra fuel, somehow, and driving to the nearside. Trying to catch the eye of some watcher on the earth. Setting off an explosion at one of the Apollo landing sites. Trying to signal someone on the International Space Station. But I suspect that no one is there to see me or hear me. It’s too late for that. It’s too late.

But with the stations remaining operational, I can hold out for years, so long as I keep them maintained and the hydroponics farms running. I’m no farmer, though. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I will record these messages to whoever might find me here, or so I can remind myself why I’m still trying, one small step at a time.

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(c) 2009 by Tony Simmons
T-minus-15 days
Somehow inspired by this song, and intended as part of my 'Paradox Kid' comicbook project, retasked for '366 Days' instead.

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