Short story: The Men In The Moon
THE MEN IN THE MOON
by B. J. Deming
Fridan, it’s a little difficult to take you seriously this close to the end of class. Everybody here has heard my story a hundred times before. Why don’t you tell us instead why it gets dark so early at this latitude of Earth during autumn?
Well done, young man. Any questions, anybody?
All right, then. I suppose there isn’t too much for any of us to do between now and suppertime, anyway. Those were the last days of mankind’s occupation of the Moon, after all. Though none of us really came off looking very good overall, except….
That’s the Harvest Moon up there tonight. Isn’t it beautiful! A soft, misty ball of white clouds hung in such a clear, crisp evening sky. It was my birthplace and my home most of my life, and I never knew it as it truly was.
Yes, the Man in the Moon is indeed Mitchell Thompson, the same one who designed the engine that everybody used to travel between the Moon and Earth. With De Winton, he invented the atmosphere regenerator, as well as many important things by himself – tracks and other parts of the roving mini-bases, some mining equipment, specialized bots, electrofilters and some parts of the mass driver.
Fridan, what is De Winton most famous for?
Yes, she is the architect who built the main lunar base, Conrad Base Alpha in Mare Cognitum, quite a while ago now. That’s right – no one expected Thompson to still be around.
Well, yes, Fridan, he did also find a way to make alcohol on the Moon. It was different. It had quite a strong …well, never mind. Mitchell Thompson was a tremendously smart, energetic man, even in his old age. I met him. All the Four did, of course.
It was the five of us back on board the Rover Tau. Some of us are well known now, down here, but no one was impressed by us at Base Conrad. We were just Blendings.
The Pure Ones…well, it was much the same as down here. On Base Conrad Alpha, we called them Lords, but they were of the same stock as your Pure Ones down here: European, Asian, African and so forth.
They couldn’t tell us Blendings apart, even though there was a little bit of all of them in each of us. They called us “mixed breed” to our faces and other, worse names when they thought we weren’t around.
You think it’s the way of the world when you’re born into it. You just try to get by, like everybody else, but it makes you very aware of what kind you are. Them and us. Though on Base Conrad some other Blendings were a problem, too. Some of our own Euclides clan even had it in for the Rover Tau crew.
Why? It was nothing personal – we were excellent workmen, or we wouldn’t have been sent on a roving mini-base. We were just a waste of food, water and air – that’s how the younger ones saw it.
It was that way for every Blending who got old. The vital supplies were always a little hard for Blendings to get sufficiently – the Lords rationed us once we became adults and left the Garden. It’s hard to blame the younger Euclideans.
The four of us – Rumble, Laughing Man, Cooky and me – were nearing the end of the useful cycle, after all. Not Nix. She was much younger than us and had been assigned to us as punishment, though we weren’t supposed to know that.
Rumble – that’s Euclides Son of C – and I were the same age and the oldest of the crew. Rumb was our Leader, and reported to the Lords. He was our pilot, too, although….
What? Never mind what Nix was being punished for! You go ask her tonight when she brings the workers up the canals and see how you like the answer you get!
Anyway, Rumb was more of a mechanic than a pilot. No Blending could truly pilot the vehicles, of course; the Lords operated Tau remotely. Someone still had to watch us, though, as well as keep an eye on the signal boards. Otherwise, small problems could turn into big problems.
That was the sort of thing Rumble did. He wasn’t the worst leader I’ve ever had.
What? We called him that because his voice was very deep. The rest of us behaved ourselves most of the time. He hardly ever had to raise it.
Nix is an old Earth word of some sort. It’s not her real name, any more than my name is really Clarity. On Base Conrad records, I’m…I was listed as Euclides Daughter of B. Nix was Euclides Daughter of K. Two different families.
Yes, I do mean B and K – only the Lords were allowed to use the Greek letters. We’re really getting off track here.
Fridan, has no one told you it’s impolite to ask a lady how old she is?
Oh, I couldn’t say that without laughing. You happy children of Earth have much more to show us than we four Moon survivors could possibly teach you!
We were all in our late 30s, except Nix. Anyway….What’s that? Speak up, back there – I can hardly hear you!
I was 39 terrayears old when it happened, a tad over 40 New Years old. Those are from the metric system one faction of Lords set up after the war on Earth. They got it made into law, because for a while, everybody just was horrified by what had happened up there, I mean, down here.
Sorry – different reference points. All these questions….
Anyway, you had to use New Years while those Lords – they called themselves the New Lunarians – were in power. Of course, in your mind you were always on Earth time. It’s something deeply ingrained in all of us humans, over many millennia and not so easy to overcome.
Terrayears and New Years are almost the same thing, really. Here’s how the conversion….
Well, it is important, Fridan, even if no one lives on the Moon now. It’s a nice demonstration. Look: Base Conrad was in Mare Cognitum, at a lunar latitude where the night lasted….
They’re nicknames. No, not Nix-names. Be serious now!
If anyone asks another question, we will all stay late and work out two proofs of the Sinisky-Thompson Paradox tonight, no matter how long it takes. I’m game!
All right now. No more questions.
Did I say we had been out a long time on that run? Well, we had, although of course that’s not a hardship in a mini-base. We had come up empty-handed, though, despite a prospecting route so long it took almost a full lunar day to traverse. No results meant reduced rations for all of us over the lunar night. We had done our best. That’s how it goes; sometimes the stuff just isn’t out there where you expect it to be.
Then we got delayed even more. Base Conrad was still beyond the horizon when the Lords told us to go check a possible temperature anomaly at the Bradbury rocket storage facility.
Of course, our surface bots could get there quicker and more efficiently, but no one ever actually used them on the lunar surface. We had to go in the mini-base. Anyway, night was coming on, and no bot was built for long-term exposure to those conditions.
The new orders meant that we wouldn’t get back to Conrad now until after dark, and that was annoying, since linking up would be a tricky because of changing thermal responses. You have to power down the base almost completely so that everything outside is as cool as possible, or connecting up can be extremely difficult.
Why did they ask us? We were the only rover still out, since our run had been such a long one. The rocket facility was also close, not far off our present course.
We got there quickly enough and could maneuver around because it was out on a plain. The old supply rockets had been stored many terrayears ago, back in Thompson’s day, near some unnamed small rille where they would eventually be dumped.
Then Thompson had had that accident while out mapping, and in the resulting free-for-all for control of Base Conrad, the Lords and just about everybody else had forgotten about them, except us miners who occasionally passed nearby.
Nobody had ever noted an anomaly out there until now. The facility’s readings were nominal, too. Some glitch on a supervisor’s software, probably.
On our view screens, the Bradbury’s looked brand new, although they had sat out here, neatly lined up in three rows of six each, exposed to lunar weather for several decades now.
In spite of night approaching, we were thorough about it. We had to be, since it was so hard to concentrate all the time. Did I mention the drugs?
Anyway, the data checks were nominal and no disturbances registered on the visual scanners. Of course, we didn’t know then about Dr. Thompson’s….
Fridan, you’re pressing your luck. What?
That’s why they called me Clarity. The drugs didn’t affect me as much as they did some of the others. I was the track master, so the Lords did that on purpose. Rumb’s job and mine kept the mission going smoothly, and so we were allowed more ability to concentrate than Nix, Cooky or the Laughing Man – that’s what we called Euclides Son of D; he was our geologist.
I know he and Cooky took Earth names when they married down here and then joined the Survey and sailed off to Anchorage, but I still think of him the old way. He’s just as somber here as he was on the Moon…The drugs? I don’t know what they were.
There was only an odor or taste if you were being punished. It was in everybody’s water and air, and maybe the food as well. They told us it was immunizations and medicines that we needed, saying that without it, we Blendings would have all died before we reached 20 terrayears. That’s how sickly we were, starting at birth.
I don’t recall any of that. None of us did…the Lords handled reproduction and birthing. None of us ever saw the children afterward. The Lords raised them in the Garden, and then returned to us as adults.
I vaguely remember childhood as a happy time, of light and colors, not much more than that. Then those all just sort of faded away, and then they brought me to Euclides Hall.
The Garden? It was in the middle of the base and had plants and animals, and a little water lake. Yes, of course they were there when Base Conrad exploded – there always were children in the Garden. It had a separate section for the young Lords, too.
The end of Base Conrad Alpha and man’s settlement on the Moon was sad for many reasons.
The Lords lived in Circle City around the edges of base and we Blendings lived closer to the center, near the maintenance section. No Lords ever came there, except the police; of course they flew in and out frequently and had their own air supplies.
Sometimes you got sleepy for no reason, and other times, simple things that you should know about were confusing. Sometimes you would trip over your own feet. It varied – different things at different times. Some said it came from the machinery nearby, because they felt better if they went to Circle City on an errand, but I didn’t think so, even then.
Now, I know why, of course: it was the Lords and one of the ways they controlled us.
We could work, but we really had to focus on it. Near the end of the shift, you started getting very tired, and usually a heavy sleep came over you soon after you finished a shift. You woke up not long before it was time to work again. Sometimes, though, when the workload was heavy, we didn’t need sleep for terradays on end. Many’s the time I’ve sat in my chair half a lunar day or more on a busy run.
Why did we put up with it? Well…there’s no way a base Blending would have had a thought like that. It’s just the way things are, and life is easiest if you just go along. Everybody knew that.
It could be quite nice, really. You didn’t have to worry about things. Most of the time when you weren’t working, you slept, and the dreams were good, unless you were being punished. Our life was simple, just like the Moon out there, all in black and white, all one thing or all the other. No unpredictable variables like there are here on Earth with your – excuse me – our free-flowing water and atmosphere.
But it made it very hard to express love, somehow. The good thing about that was that you didn’t have hate, either, but somehow it all ended up as just feeling irritated and useless most of the time, except when you were at work.
Your only friends might be some work mates, but that wasn’t encouraged. Rumb didn’t like it all. He was always watching us for too much familiarity going on behind his back, and that made me unpopular sometimes with the others because he spent some time with me.
It didn’t mean anything. We didn’t talk much. We just sat there and watched the surface of the Moon slowly creep by as Rover Tau traveled along. That’s how we spent our waking time off work, pretty much.
How beautiful the simple contrasts of the Moon were: clear-cut outlines of whitish gray hills against the black sky; the sudden change from bright sunlight to dark earthshine in the valleys; the distant points of starlight in the black vacuum of sky during the two-week night!
We ignored the Earth, though of course it was still up there, a dirty cloudy ball looming over you all the time, with its dirty brown clouds and gray/black smoke, and the horrifying glimpses of fires and glow near the surface that you could see sometimes. That was after the Last War, of course. Before then, it had been beautiful.
Anyway, we were all on deck that last day as we circled the rocket facility. I was on the tracking screen, as usual, and Nix was monitoring base operation parameters. Laughing Man was our main prospector and there was nothing much more for him to do just then. Rumble had him vacuuming the air in the library that led off behind the main deck.
Cooky – that’s Euclides Daughter of F – was in the back corner, setting out our meal containers. These always included a few illegal treats that only Cooky knew how to get, especially real carrots, which were Rumb’s favorite, even though it was Lords’ food. She was very clever for a Blending and took care of all the odds and ends around Rover Tau when we were out on a run.
We all jumped when the emergency tone sounded. The Laughing Man tripped as he ran out to join us and almost fell down.
No, Fridan, of course he couldn’t float. Nobody ever floated on the Moon (except the police and one other). Floating’s very bad for your heart and bones and internal organs, they told us. We wore gravitywear – it was heavy enough to simulate Earth-like gravity all the time, even while sleeping.
Where was I? The emergency tone surprised us. It was followed by a call coming in on the nonsecure channel that was open to everybody.
That call was from Conrad, but the audio was very spotty and garbled. Rumble put on his headphones but then shook his head; they didn’t help.
I actually knew the caller. It was poor Darling (Lansberg Daughter of E, the only one of that clan I ever liked). She said “trouble” clearly at least three times, and something that might have been “they’re coming,” but the rest was gasps for air intermixed by a rapid jumble of words and sounds. Then it stopped.
Nothing more followed, although Nix flipped things on her console, and Rumb kept calling, trying unsuccessfully to reestablish contact.
None of us knew what to do or say, it was so totally out of our routine. Base Conrad Alpha was still off our view screens, but we stared out anyway, wondering what was going on. Everything out there looked the same as always. Nix finally gave up, but Rumble kept working at it.
“Meteor strike,” he muttered. “I can’t get Tau to slow down. Nix! Clarity! Help me with this.”
Rumb turned to say something to Cooky and Laughing Man, but then jerked his head back around to look at view screens again. We all did. They had flickered.
It happened again, twice, and then every screen went grayish white. All we could see was a swirl of little gray-white particles.
Rumble seemed to realize he still had the headphones on and took them off. He looked tired. We all were, this close to an unsuccessful mission’s end, and with two terraweeks of short rations to look forward to. We didn’t need technical trouble now.
Then a new audio came in. It was on an official channel, a man’s voice, very faint, and with lots of crackles in the background and sudden silences.
“That can’t be digital,” said Nix.
It sounded like the man was shouting. “You there! You out there! What the devil do you call yourselves?”
It was a capital offense for any Blending to make unauthorized communications, but Rumble responded anyway. “Roving Base Tau, Euclides clan. Who are you?”
“Euclides…Euclides….” There was a long silence after that, and after a while we went back to looking out the windows again. It was hard to concentrate. The strange particles continued to stream past the view screens.
Then Laughing Man said, “That’s regolith dust.”
I recognized it now. This was bad news.
Dust gets into everything and is very gritty. Once you stir it up, it will stay suspended and in your way for a long time. That’s why electrofiltration units, regolith-packers and other such equipment were second in importance only to life support systems at Conrad Base Alpha.
Something big had happened. Maybe it was an impact somewhere far enough away so we only could see the dust raised by its ejecta. There was so much of it, Conrad Base might even have to reschedule runs after night ended. Now my adrenaline was flowing, and that counteracted the drug effect some.
The crackles and faint voice came back on. “I’ve got you now. Blendings, and lucky ones at that. Where’s your control code?”
He was still shouting and still very faint.
Rumble responded. “We are not authorized to…”
Even as leader, he was wrong to do that. As faint as the voice was, there was a note in it that would brook no challenge. Whoever this was, it was a Lord.
“Shut up.” The stranger said much more than that, but you couldn’t hear it clearly. The crackles drowned out the rest, or else it was dropped in the gaps.
“That’s a Lord,” I said.
“Hope so,” said the Laughing Man. He was a theoretical sort and had never had much contact with them really. No one felt like telling him now that there were Lords and then there were Lords, but it was true. Some could be rougher than others. The change to a new master was always a little bit scary.
“Where’s your code? I’m in your main but I don’t see it.” The voice sounded irritated but also worried. “Hurry! The shrapnel will be here soon!”
Rumble told him how to find the locked directory – we all knew where it was, though of course none of us could access it. We didn’t try. The airborne punishment for that involved seizures.
“… more complicated than a regular base!” There were a couple of what might have been curses and the communication ended.
Almost immediately afterwards I saw a change in our tracking coordinates. Everybody but Cooky, who seemed hypnotized by the swirling dust outside, came over and stood behind me, watching our course changes. There were several of them.
“What do you think?” Rumble asked me. I shrugged. This was beyond my experience.
“Well, we’ll find out,” he said, and then louder, so everybody could hear him, “We’re going into a new mode, people. Just waiting for orders.”
“We’ll probably have to go outside somewhere and clean out a ton of dust.” Laughing Man sounded glum.
Rumb shot him a look, and the geologist made his face expressionless and settled down into a nearby seat. He crossed his arms and said nothing more.
Cooky set down her tray and started to move toward him.
“Cooky, go ahead with the table. We’ll grab a quick bite now and eat the regular meal later on.” Rumble’s voice had that flat and final tone that was not to be challenged.
“Of course, Rumble.” Her tone was smooth and very agreeable, but after she went back to work, we heard every little click as she locked utensils and serving plates into position on the table.
Time went by, with no more calls.
“It’s ready,” Cooky told us after a while, but nobody felt like eating.
I put different map layers on my screen, trying to follow the course changes but they were too small. It seemed to be close, wherever this Lord was taking us.
Rumb went back to the central console, and just stood there, waiting.
Nix asked, “What’s shrapnel?”
“Non-impact-related ejecta,” said Cooky.
Everybody turned and looked at her. She was like that, and still is – full of all sorts of odd piece of knowledge.
“It’s what we would turn into,” she told us, “if the reactor shielding failed.”
Then it’s not a meteor, I said to myself. Something’s blown up. It was comforting to know a Lord was aware of it. This was totally out of our zone of responsibility.
“What if it hits us?” Nix was asking. “The shrapnel, I mean.”
Rumb thought about it for a bit. “If another roving base exploded,” he finally said, “and we were next to it, the big pieces would smash us. Not stuff coming from a distance though – they’d cause some outer damage, and we’d probably lose power to some nonessential stuff, but that’s all.”
“Yeah.” Nix understood. “So why does he sound so…?”
She was interrupted by a sudden bump. It didn’t feel like much, but a stylette on my desk fell onto the floor. Of course, we all looked at the view screens again, but there was just the same gray-white swirl out there.
I looked at the tracking screen and announced, “We’ve stopped.”
Then the faint voice and loud crackles sounded once again. “You there! Roving Base Tau! Did you just feel anything? A jolt or something along those lines?”
“Yes, sir,” Rumble answered.
“Good! Good! You’re right over me. I’ll get the side hatch ready. You leave everything alone up there and get into your surface bots. Hurry! I’ll guide them in from here.”
“Sir.” We all looked at Rumble in surprise. His voice had cracked, and he had to try again. “Sir, if there’s been an explosion, won’t we be safer in here?”
He could surprise you that way, our leader Rumb.
Still, this was hardly the thing to say when a new Lord controlled Rover Tau. Some Lords would have called it rebellion and sent us all to the recycler.
Sudden laughter poured out of our speakers – the last thing I expected to hear. It quickly stopped.
“Oh, you’re a choice bunch. The best of the best! Don’t you know what’s happened?”
“Well, I have some bad news for you then, and no time to be anything but blunt. Your base is gone. Conrad Base. They blew it up, the fools.”
It’s really true – your spine can feel like it has turned to ice at such a time. I remembered Darling’s frantic call and how it ended suddenly. They’re coming, she had said.
“Who?” I said it aloud without meaning to, but the strange Lord was already talking.
“I’ll tell you all about it when you get in here. Don’t look for me, I’m underground. I’ve powered on your bots. Just get ready and get in them. Move!”
We all moved, though slowly and a little clumsily – that was as much the shock as it was the drugs. I tripped a few times.
The bot hangar was not far from the bridge, fortunately, and it didn’t take too long to get there. Rumb said to forget about the suits. We’d take the two bots that had the newer Thompson engine/atmosphere regenerator combo so we could stay in them as long as we had to. They could be used outside, though no one ever used bots anywhere but in airless portions of the base.
Nix and I got into Bot 1 with Rumble, while Laughing Man and Cooky took Bot 4, which was parked next to it. We exited Rover Tau side by side, leaving bots 2 and 3 behind, running.
Those bots no doubt were destroyed along with our mini-base when fragments of Base Conrad Alpha came through a little while later, just after sunset. Some of the biggest pieces crashed all around us, and this caused a big problem later on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The air was bad in our bot, or else all the excitement and activity made me nauseous. I did no tracking and just sat with my head in my hands during that excursion over the lunar surface. We could only see dust outside. It was a very short ride.
The Lord didn’t open communications with us again, and none of us said a word until we felt the bot tilt forward.
“There,” Rumb said after a while, pointing at a slightly darker line in the dust ahead of us, too straight to be anything natural. “It’s a road.”
“We’re going underground,” I said.
Just then the bot went into stepper mode. This meant the sloping roadway that we couldn’t see must be either at a sharp angle or not very smooth. The bot’s movements were okay, if I closed my eyes. Our seat strapping held us tightly.
Then Nix threw up. That was too much, and I heaved, too. It was the worst ride I’ve ever been on.
At some point during our descent, a big red light started to flash on the console. Two more lit up and several others turned orange.
“Looks like a little dust got into some valves,” Rumble could read the console clearly from his seat.
I found out later that he had minimized things. Even with that short exposure, the lunar dust had fouled our external regenerator ports. It got into the exchange system, too, and the lights were flashing because of that and also the low air reserve it caused. Laughing Man and Cooky were in a similar predicament, but at least neither one of them had upchucked.
“Good, good!” The voice of our new master was back and louder now. We could hear it much better now. I was too sick to recognize it right away. Rumb did, but he kept it to himself at first.
“You’re almost in. Just wait…almost….” The Lord muttered like this for close to 20 minutes as he guided us in.
There was sudden darkness outside and our outside lights came on, though the whitish-gray dust just reflected the brilliance back at us, blinding us.
We stopped almost immediately after the lights came on. Had night come, or were we in the Lord’s landing bay?
“Turn it off!” Nix had one of her migraines now. “The lights. Off now. Please!”
“Hang on,” Rumble told her. “The dust – it’s going away.”
He was right. The glare all around us was fading. Eventually you could begin to see a steady, moderate brightness off to our left. Its definition slowly got better and better, until we could see the bank of lights and decon cones over there.
We didn’t need botlights now. The outlines of Number 4 next to us started to appear, too, and beyond it we could see another row of lights and cones.
“We’re inside.” It was obvious, but I was excited, trying to see more details through the thinning dust. Even Nix was leaning forward now.
The Lord’s voice boomed in our ears. “Got suits?”
“No, Dr. Thompson.” Rumble’s reply startled us all, but as soon as he said it, I recognized its rasp and the famous booming energy behind it – who wouldn’t! But Thompson had died terrayears ago.
What was this?
The Lord spoke again, using a tone I had never heard any of the Pure Ones use to one of us.
“Very good. Very, very good. And what am I to call you, young man?”
“Sir! Euclides Son of C, Sir!”
“Oh, blow it out the airlock! What’s your real name, son – your nickname? I know all you Blendings have them.”
This casual intrusion into our private lives shocked us all.
Suddenly a lot of tense thoughts poured into my mind. Why did he care about us anyway? Why had he gone to all this trouble, saving our lives even after he knew we were Blendings? Perhaps he had some awful work that no one else could do.
In any case, now we had nowhere else to go. Maybe there was no one else left on the whole Moon….
I had a sudden, vivid image of our other clan members. They had been seated at table and just starting dessert when we left Euclides Hall for this mission. Everybody had waved and called our names…no, this was more than I could handle. I just stopped thinking about it and listened instead to our Blending and that famous Lord talking together.
“I’m Rumble, sir.”
“Makes sense. That’s a lovely baritone you’ve got there, Rumble. All right, you rushed out without air suits. Probably not a bad idea, given the time constraints. I’m surprised that you thought of it in that polluted air. The…uh…let me check, yes, here comes the shrapnel now. Goodness, some of it is low!”
We only felt the bot shake from what seemed to be a couple of heavy impacts. Rover Tau somewhere above us had to be gone now.
Thompson had saved us all, and that counted for something.
“There. Well, that’s it. Now, how are we going to get you out of those tin cans? You can’t just hold your breaths and walk to the small air lock. The big lock should work, if you go in one at a time. Rumble, you are the leader?”
“Yes, sir. Our track master and base operations manager are here with me.”
“Good, you can go in last. You there! Number 4! What name do you answer to?”
“Eucli…They call me Laughing Man, sir. Cooky is here, too – she’s our…what’s your job title?” He had forgotten to mute his channel.
“Never mind,” Thompson said. “We’ll have a big penny social later on, if I can get you all in here alive. Yes! We’re not through yet! Pay attention now. This is going to take a little work.” His voice sharpened a bit. “All of you, both bots, working together, if your addled brains can handle that. Hear me? You’re going to have to move to a new tunnel. I hadn’t counted on that. We can do it, though. Just do what I tell you. First, power down the emergency indicators. No, don’t ask questions. Do it! Both of you, number 1 and number 4! Good! Good! Now…”
He went on with what quickly turned into very complicated instructions.
I was grateful to get orders of any kind. That was what we were used to and it calmed us down, although Thompson soon had us putting the bots through tasks and movements none of us knew the machines could even perform.
It certainly wasn’t an open road to the other tunnel. Dark enveloped us after we moved away from the decontamination area in that bay. Our botlights just showed the tumbled basalt boulders that littered the floor of this old lava tube we were maneuvering through.
It was very hard for any of us to concentrate, and not just because of the drugs, either. Our emotions were surging every which way, and it didn’t help that Dr. Thompson went a little too fast at times and had to repeat himself.
We just did what he said and finally entered another bay. He turned the decon equipment on again, but this time, kept us moving forward. We passed through several zones and finally came to a big airlock.
Number 4 went in first and the door closed behind them. After several minutes, Laughing Man and Cooky called to report that they were inside and everything was okay. Some time after that, the big door opened again, and we rolled into what turned out to be a wide metal chamber. We parked near in the middle. There was no sign of Number 4.
We had already turned the emergency indicators back on. When all lights became green, Rumb pressed a switch that opened the bot door. None of us felt like moving much, but outside air poured in and revived us quite a bit. It was still a little difficult to climb out of our seats and then to exit the bot.
The three of us held hands as we walked over to the entry door that our new Lord had directed us toward. Oddly enough, the walking seemed to make us stronger instead of making us tired.
The entry door was made of the same metal as the rest of this bay. It was set into the usual valve and gasket construct but had what looked like several lasers intermixed in an unusual but regular pattern. The door slid up as we approached.
I felt a tingle when we were about a half meter away. We were walking through a laser field of some sort. The exposure cleaned us up a little as well as removing the last vestiges of dust we might still be carrying.
The tingling sensation lasted until we were well inside, and then it stopped. The door slid down behind us and there we were, in fairly big lounge. I realized later that it was only the standard-size lounge for a large inflatable habitat, but at the time we really felt dwarfed by the size of this huge room. It was bigger than Euclides Hall back on the base, and everything looked brand new despite styling that definitely was old-fashioned. Different colored seats, chairs, tables, rugs and walls were all around, and the whole effect was overwhelming gaudy at first.
Everything was very, very quiet.
Groupings of chairs and couches spread out on either side of us. Ahead of us was an open meeting area, with a couple of couches in the middle and two lines of those geometric cluster seats that were popular 20 terrayears or so ago.
These were grouped around the biggest Earth globe I had ever seen – almost as wide and high as we were tall. It was the old Earth, before the War, beautiful and finely detailed. It sat on the floor inside a beautifully carved framework that looked like oak, and it was so perfectly balanced Cooky and the Laughing Man, who were examining it, could each turn it with just one hand. They weren’t aware of our arrival.
“Leave it alone, you two!” The acoustics were very good throughout the lounge, but Rumble’s voice still sounded too loud in the stillness and he lowered it some. “He’ll be here any minute now. Where did you get that?”
Cooky had a big chunk of wrapped candy in one hand. I recognized the paper at once, because Blendings with no marks on their record got a little tab of wrapped candy once each year. This piece was incredibly huge, and certainly meant for a Lord.
She shrugged. “There’s a bowl with lots in it over there,” she told Rumble as she stashed her find in one of her cargo pockets, making sure it didn’t show. No one, not even Rumb, would turn her in because she always shared her loot.
“Where?” Nix asked.
Memories of the yearly treat made my mouth water. I wondered what a bowl filled with such huge pieces of candy would look like.
“Earth sure was pretty back then,” Laughing Man observed. “Too bad the Old Ones ruined it.”
It was the usual thing that gets said when a picture of old Earth is shown. He was just trying to make things more casual. Ordinarily, this would have led to us saying all the usual platitudes about it, but Rumble was in no mood for that now.
“We’ll wait.” He said it abruptly and with a bit of a harsh tone that always crept into his voice when things started getting out of hand. We knew, even Cooky did, that it was one of those times when silence and quick obedience was the best policy.
We stood in a circle and assumed the position of waiting. Quite some time passed.
Out of one corner of my eye I could see the Earth, but I kept looking straight ahead. Still I couldn’t help noticing that the light tans and greens and golden colors of the lounge and its furniture no longer seemed gaudy but really were rather attractive. They matched the blue and white globe perfectly. For some reason, I thought of the Garden.
It got more and more very difficult to concentrate. I wondered what the candy tasted like, and if it had peppermint. I love peppermint. Nix was standing next to me, and she smelled terrible. Probably I did, too. Laughing Man was opposite me, and for the first time I noticed that his hair – of course it was the same dark brown/black color that all Blendings have – was a little longer than regulation. Rumble must not have noticed it yet, or he would have ordered it all shaved off. That was the rule. Certainly the Leader would notice it now. What would he say later on?
Was everybody having the same difficulty keeping their minds on track that I was? I realized later – we all did – that it was the first part of the Awakening, that wonderful rediscovery of our senses that clean air allowed us. At the time, though, it was a little scary.
There was a hum and the outer door swished up again. A Lord came in. He was tall and wearing a heavy G-wear work coat and headpiece, but we could see his eyes. His dark eyes aren’t…weren’t as disconcerting in person as they look in his pictures, perhaps because the thinning hair and bushy eyebrows that framed them were mostly gray now. But it was more than that. In person, everything he was seemed to shine out of those eyes, and his personality was even bigger than his body.
Dr. Thompson waved to us, and then turned to remove the work clothes.
We were felt terrified, of course, to be accountable to perhaps the greatest Lord of them all. What was that he had said about blowing people out of airlocks? Had he counted the candy? It was the Lords’ Air that had made us do it. We shouldn’t have breathed it so deeply. It took us back to our Garden days and we got above ourselves. It would never happen again!
Then he turned back to us and studied us a while before he spoke. “I can see this isn’t going to be an easy.” The famous voice sounded much more pleasant than when he had been calling us at Rover Tau. Of course, he had been shouting then.
That’s when it first started to hit me – Tau was gone, Base Conrad was gone…our people….just in a matter of minutes.
Wait. Was Dr. Thompson floating now?
Without the heavy work clothes, he was quite bouncy. The old-fashioned one-piece blue work suit and matching boots that he wore looked a little like gravitywear, but then I realized its extra size wasn’t actually weights. It was him – he was quite rotund, unlike other Lords I had seen on the screens and in person.
“Relax! Relax” He smiled at each of us as he maneuvered around us. The low gravity gave his movement an exaggerated pomposity that he seemed to find funny, but he couldn’t make us smile.
“Who’s your leader, now, that Rumble? Which of you two is Rumble?” There was a slight hint of a brogue, although we already could see he was a Lord of European stock. He had short, well-trimmed gray-brown hair and when he smiled, his whole face took part in it. His eyes peered out at us under big bushy eyebrows, and while friendly now, they also seemed terribly sharp. I wouldn’t have wanted to have to look at them when this Lord was angry any more than I would have enjoyed hearing Rumble’s deep voice as he chewed us out for some stupid thing we had done.
When neither of the man answered right away, Mitchell Thompson shook his head. “The best of the best,” he said with a sigh. “Come on.”
He waved us forward over toward the open area by the globe. It was evidently meant to be an speaking area of some sort, though I hadn’t known habitats had ever come with such expensive accessories.
We walked over there in a row and meekly took the seats on a couch that he indicated for us as he carefully bounced by. It wasn’t so easy for him to maneuver in such close quarters.
Dr. Thompson stopped himself in the space between the end of another couch and a nearby chair, turned to look at us and just beamed, without saying a word. None of us could have realized at that time how much he was having to control himself to play this role of host and benefactor.
His silence just made us uncomfortable, and when it became clear after a while that he wasn’t going to issue us any orders right away, one of us spoke.
“I’m Rumble, sir.”
The strange Lord had apparently been waiting for something like that, because he immediately started to talk. “Ah, yes, that’s a lovely voice you’ve got, Rumble. No, sit down. I don’t stand on ceremony very much, as you’ve probably noticed by now.”
He gave a bit of a jump and went up a meter or so in the air, and then guided himself back down with little leashes on the furniture that we hadn’t seen him holding on to.
“Helps my arthritis to stay light,” he told us with a chuckle. He spoke in the old fashion, longer winded and seemingly unable to avoid saying whatever thought came to mind. “With your baritone and my tenor, Rumble, we could put on quite a concert if this old lava tube had air in it. I checked it for volatiles, just in case we could spare air to check the acoustics, but it has none. Oh well. Have to save the air for Base Thompson. There’s plenty of it.” The Lord gestured around to indicate that this was his name for the habitat.
Then he changed the subject. “Did you know that both your bots were almost out of air?”
We all maintained ourselves with propriety, but the question caught Rumb a bit off guard. He sounded a little surprised when he answered.
“They were getting low, sir.”
“Why didn’t you say anything at the time?” It wasn’t an accusation, which was what we were expecting, in preparation to the inevitable heavy criticism session. Dr. Thompson seemed more puzzled than upset.
“Well, uh…” Rumble tried again. “Well, sir, you were leading us, sir. Well, I just….”
“Never mind, boy. I know. Put your trust in the all-knowing people who hold the power of life and death over you, even if it kills you. The old mindset. Well listen to this: We’re human, us Lords, just like you Blendings. Strange as it sounds. Anyway, I did not know about it and congratulate you on your survival. We have succeeded, and the bots are in Maintenance now – I’ve made a few additions to that task area and expect they’ll get cleaned out and repaired well enough.”
He let himself drift between the chair and the couch for a few minutes, remaining silent, and then affected the manner of a teacher addressing his class.
“You’re probably wondering what has happened to Base Conrad Alpha, as you knew it. To me it will always be Moonbase One.”
He paused, and obviously was having a hard time finding words. Then he went on. “For it to make any sense, I’ve got to start from the beginning. Try to relax. It’s what the back rest is for, y’know – you lean back onto it. Good, good. Now listen.”
It started out like ancient history, and at first what Dr. Thompson told us did involve things that every child and adult on the Moon knew by heart, as you might expect. Soon, though, as he got to more recent times, it became all too immediate and real.
As he talked, he divided his time between standing and gently floating between the ends of a chair and another couch. It wasn’t distracting; actually it kept our minds focused on what he was saying. This great man knew all about public speaking and how to control an audience. I think the motion helped him, too. Now I understand how it pained him at first to have to tell us.
Later on, as he began to focus more on himself, some pride crept in, of course, but even Mitchell Thompson had difficulty getting started with the sad tale. I can’t remember his exact words now – it took almost half the lunar night before I was myself again.
In brief, what he told us was that the troubles between Lord factions had been worse than we Blendings knew. It sounded a little like what had happened on Earth.
At first, Thompson, of course, had been head of the lunar government and was reelected over and over again, but that had annoyed some Lords. He retired from government – “my biggest mistake,” he told us many times – but his enemies increased in number and got stronger, so he decided to make a “hidey-hole,” as he called it, in a small closed lava tube he found one day while out mapping.
Well, the rille was small for the Moon, but of course it dwarfed most of its cousins on Earth. We were in it now, of course.
I don’t know how he managed it, but somehow he smuggled one of the older 150-man inflatable habitats out of the base and installed in here. His fondness for lunar gravity had also helped him on the few occasions when base police had almost caught him; each time, he had outrun them each time without being officially identified, but of course word soon reached people in places.
Even though they watched him more closely than ever, Dr. Thompson told us, he still managed to get the entire habitat and its supplies out here, under cover of more and more mapping runs. He chose to install it in a part of the rille near the old rocket storage facility.
“What if they started a disposal operation?” Nix asked him. “You would have been found out then.”
“Well, you see,” the great man said with a knowing look, “I was the one who had the rockets stored out here, not dismantled, in the first place. Then I made sure everybody was busy with some other area on the surface. Options. Always keep an option at hand.”
None of us realized what he was talking about at that point. We didn’t even ask him about details like powering up the habitat and maintaining it. This was Mitchell Thompson, after all.
He did tell us, that although he kept it at low maintenance level when not in use, Base Thompson’s large environment, food and water supplies, once activated, would last one man a very long time.
“I had no reason to expect any company,” he said rather grimly.
He had no friends he could trust, and no family with him on the Moon. Of course, we four have since spoken many times with his descendants here on Earth.
Dr. Thompson still lived openly on the base for a while longer. Instead of questioning the increased frequency of his mapping run, his enemies used his absences to consolidate their forces.
He had expected that and watched them do it, once his hideout was in shape for it. He set up a commo system that would allow him to stay in touch with important events on Base Conrad.
“It’s only a one-way system.” He sounded rueful over that. “Couldn’t think of a way to shield it from tracing. That devil Tze….” We had no idea who he meant. “Tze was always just a hop, skip and a jump behind me, and once I was off base for good, the hiding features would become static and eventually out of date. He’d get through eventually and track me down. So I made it one-way and have been a silent witness to the great tragedy of Moonbase One, as we used to call it, not a participant. I suppose that’s a blessing, really, but…well, we had such big hopes early on. Never again, we all said after the Last War. It can’t happen here, we all said. Ha! We brought it with us!”
Dr. Thompson became lost in thought and didn’t speak for so long that we looked at each other.
“What did happen?” Rumb was braver than the rest of us.
“Oh, they tried to kill me. A few different times.” He said it quietly, and when we started to ask questions, told us, “No. No. Not now. Obviously they didn’t succeed! Relax! This is all going into the history books, or at least I hope it is, and I’ve got it all written down, chapter and verse, stored in hard copy as well as software all backed up. Everybody will know all the details. Later. Not now. Let’s leave it with me seeing it coming and skedaddling out of their traps and finally having to fake my death during a particularly earnest attempt to do away with me. Oh, they told everybody I was out mapping, didn’t they? No, I was running for my life and would have lost it, if not for this little Moonbase Thompson here.”
He looked around with a sort of pride at the lounge.
“As for what happened to Base Conrad Alpha, I did not sabotage it!” Dr. Thompson seemed to be talking, now, not to us but a greater audience who wasn’t there. He sounded a little defensive about it.
“There was a whole sector of technicians I had personally trained to manage the anti-dust measures, and as things started to get worse for me, I also made sure hardware and software was all in good order before I had to leave. Silly me! I just thought they wouldn’t upgrade their things for a while. Who would have thought they’d execute most of the only people on the base who could maintain the system, fearing they were traitors? What a shame – most of those kids were no more political than you Blendings are. Or as I am. Oh, I’m good at academic politics, but this was on a whole different level. I was out of my league, for once, and I just barely escaped with my life. The Dust Muffins, as I used to call them when we all kicked back over drinks on Friday nights – those poor kids had nowhere to go but into the recycler.”
He fell silent for a moment or two. Then with a long sigh, he continued. “Of course, it wasn’t long until dust was leaking through everything – the roads, the mass driver complex, storage fields – everything! Shipments got erratic and then stopped. They had to shut down the driver. They had no choice. It was shortly after that that the big war happened on Earth.”
“Cause and effect,” said Laughing Man. We were all caught up with this story now – it was our history, after all. There also was something about this Lord’s demeanor and the frank way he addressed us as equals that made this all seem like a conversation, not a lecture.
“Not necessarily,” Thompson told him. “I don’t have the data to say…just the same sight as everybody else had of the fires breaking out everywhere, the terrible bright lights like lava, and then the clouds…all in the first few days. I made sure there was a telescope here, of course. Then the dust blotted out everything. That was a blessing really. Lately, though, I’ve been calling….”
“Why is there dust out there now?” Rumble asked. “It was there before the shrapnel got here. That doesn’t make sense.”
He was right. I hadn’t thought of that.
“I have just told you.”
“Oh no, it was clear when we went out,” I said, “and all during our run, too.”
“That was 30-some terrayears ago!” Laughing Man wasn’t buying it any more than I was. “There is one-sixth gravity here. It would settle.”
“Perhaps,” the Lord allowed, “depending on the event. A very small one, perhaps. How much dust did the driver kick up with each firing? They couldn’t afford to wait 30 years between payloads. And what exactly is the rate of change for dust leakage over each of the many heavily used roads as near your base, the securing systems being to fail and the material starts to loosen up?”
Thompson waved a hand at us. “You see? No data. Well, very little. I tried to follow it, but there wasn’t good instrumentation. What could I have done anyway?”
Rumb had been thinking and now said, “The view screens….”
Dr. Thompson was right on that. “What did you see there at the end, Rumble?”
“They flickered a few times and then we saw the dust.”
“Well, it’s clear enough what happened,” I noted. “Tau’s power supply hiccuped a couple times, and by the time it came back on, something had kicked up dust outside.”
“The lights didn’t flicker,” Laughing Man noted, more to himself than to us. “It wasn’t our power supply. Just the screens….”
“It was a movie,” Nix said in a flat tone.
“What?” Rumb hadn’t quite caught what she said, so she repeated it.
“Precisely,” Thompson said as if that made it obvious for everybody.
Rumb might be nodding his head now, but it still made no sense to Laughing Man, Cooky or me.
“A movie?” I asked. “Whose movie? Who made it and why?”
“Who controlled your base, Clarity?” Dr. Thompson asked.
“The Lords did, of course,” I told him. “Back at Conrad.”
Rumb and Nix said nothing.
Dr. Thompson saw he would have to fill in the rest of the blanks for everybody. “Oh, a lifetime of habit is a tough thing to get over! Nobody likes to admit they’ve been hoodwinked, either, I suppose. All right. You see, after the dust shut down the mass driver, the Moon’s economy just collapsed. That’s all they had. Now, if they had listened to me, and put equal effort into getting us set up on the side as a way station…but no, that was too theoretical! The profits were coming in from the driver now and should be poured back into increasing its productivity. We had the technology, but they used it to trick people and keep things under control after disaster struck.”
“What disaster?” I asked him.
“All these years since the dust rose,” Thompson told us, “Moonbase One, all right, Base Conrad – anyway, it has been able to maintain its life support and other basic systems, and that is all it has been able to do. Fortunes were lost. Life on Earth ended in the Last War, or at least got bombed down to the amoeba and cockroach level. Return there was no longer an option. The panics started, and the rioting and fights. The Guardians took over – that was the last faction. They’re the Lords that you know today – it seems they killed off most of the rest. ‘Hard people for hard times,’ they said, quite truthfully. ‘Survival of the fittest.’ That was their motto”
The Lord said this last as if it was a bad thing. We looked at each other. Wasn’t this the idea behind the whole idea of recycling? What else could there be on the Moon?
He hadn’t noticed and went on talking now as if it were a weight on his chest. “The worst of it happened right about the time I suppose you were kids, playing in the Garden. Still, the crackdown kept things together a surprisingly long time, really. It was too late, but they established a vision – a base on Mars – that at least gave everybody something to work toward…I’m sorry. By everybody, I mean the Lords. You Blendings were kept well out of it throughout.”
“Why?” Rumb asked.
“The base depended on you all for labor, you see. They would just keep you working, no matter what. The Lords were afraid of you, since you’re best able to tolerate life in space.”
“No!” I said.
“We’re the weakest of all!” Several of us corrected him about that, but he overruled us.
“I repeat, you have the blended genes of all humanity, and those of you who made it to the Moon were the best of all humanity’s best.” Dr. Thompson suit was flexible enough to allow him to slump down visibly, as long as he held on to his tether. He sighed again as he went on.
“We all had great hopes for you at first,” he told us, “but then the race business started, as it always seems to. Everybody took sides. You Blendings had the worst political representation I have ever seen in a very long and eventful life, and so you ended up with the short end of everything. Base Conrad Alpha, as the Guardians named it, absolutely depended on your work both in the present and for the future. If you had known what state it was really in, you might have revolted, or at least organized and protested. So they took the technology I had designed and misused it in order to trick you. You were already isolated physically on the base. All they had to do was heavily shield everything from the dust when you went outside. They still had to send you out to work, after all. Easy enough! Don’t bother to upgrade the surface bots, so if any Blending did go out in one and saw what the surface looked like, breakdown would occur before they could spread the word. That happened a few times, let me tell you! With the old mapping files available – many of them mine – the only real concern was to time their playback in such a way that you always got a visual to match what your instruments were accurately recording as your rovers rolled along. It wasn’t easy, but you can always find people energetic and ingenious enough to surmount any problems, when given an opportunity to put one over on their fellow beings. They managed to exceed even my low expectations.”
We were all silent, and Nix was rubbing her temples now that her migraine was starting up again.
Rumb and I looked at each other. All those hours spent admiring the landscape from the Rover Tau lounge – we had been watching movies, not a reality that we were a part of. That made a big difference.
“You had to take their word for it.” The Lord sounded very sad. It made me wonder what might have happened if he had stayed in power. He seemed to be kind as well as smart.
“Didn’t you ever wonder why all they ever sent you Blendings out in were mini-bases? That was enormously expensive, of course. No – your doped-up brains wouldn’t think of such a thing. I imagine it was hard enough just to get through the daily heavy workload they made sure you had.”
Rumble took a deep breath. His face was grim. “So, when that movie ended…when the screens flickered…that was Conrad blowing up.”
It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” said Mitchell Thompson.
The way he said it made me feel numb. I didn’t really hear any more after that, though he continued to tell us about other factions forming to resist the crackdown, and the in-fighting among the Guardians – all of that ugly stuff. He had followed it pretty closely from his hideout.
I guess violence broke out, and then more violence. Someone did something drastic to stop it, trying to rein in the insanity, as Thompson put it; but instead they triggered a physiochemical chain reaction at the base that no one could stop.
You have heard similar things, too – it’s the same old story, Earth and Moon, I guess. Just slightly different details, different names and faces.
At some point in the middle of his description of mankind’s last days on the Moon, I got up and started to walk over to the Earth globe. Its colorful surface may have been gone forever, but still it was nice to look at the colors in this cold, impersonal Universe of ours.
I just wanted to touch it.
Rumb came after me and brought me back to the others, but Dr. Thompson said, “That was the right thing to do, Clarity.”
I didn’t understand him then. None of us did.
“Come on,” he said. The lecture was apparently over, and now the great man turned to cross the lounge. We were all aware of feeling absolutely worn out, but we still got up and followed him without question. I think the talking had tired him, too, because he bumped a few things as he took his careful Moon strides.
We made it to the nearest end of a lounge, where there was a small open archway. Beyond it was a hall, where the Lord turned right, walking past several doors. He stopped by a big green door on the left.
“Our medical bay,” he told us, with a proud wave of his hand. “It’s automated, luckily. I don’t know the first thing about medicine. I’ve loaded up all the food lines and so forth – I hope you like action movies and old books. It’s all I brought with me. There now, all of you. Get in there, do what the bots tell you and just relax, if you can. We’ve got all the time in the world…well, two weeks anyway. It’s night now, so rest. Here’s to Earth!”
Rest at night, he said, as if the lunar night didn’t bring with it the worst conditions of all for a two-terraweek survival trial!
But none of us said a word. Dr. Thompson opened the bay door and handed each of us a small drink packet as we stood outside.
“Drink it all down,” he said. His container was much bigger, and he drained it down with one long sip through the straw. We did so with ours, too, and then wondered why he had poisoned us after bringing us all this way.
There was a terrible taste like cleaning fluid in our mouths; it burned our tongues and throats and got us coughing until there came a tingling warmth in our bellies and down our spines that was quite enjoyable for a moment.
“Good! Good! In you go!” With that, he left us.
What, Fridan? Yes, it was alcohol. He called it brandy.
When we went into the medical bay, the bots interpreted it as poisoning and treated us accordingly, before starting the longer, interactive routines that over the next terraweek or so guided us into recovery from at least some of our stresses and the airborne poisons our systems had grown used to over our entire adult lives. The Awakening continued, although some unpleasant things had to be gone through, too, of course.
The most vivid thing I recall from that time was pleasant. It came early on. A container of tea tasted absolutely delicious one terramorning. Oh, it was synthesized of course, and nothing to compare with the real tea that we have down here, but it was as though that particular serving of Moon tea was the first I’d ever had – me! Old Clarity, who had always used to have a container of tea handy in the old days, even on duty!
Cooky and Nix and I were together at the table then, and it turned out to be the same for them as well. We tried sweetener and milk, and then different tea flavors, like children in the Garden who had just been given a new toy. I liked the Ceylon, Cooky the orange spice and Nix chose Earl Grey, and these are still our favorites here on Earth, where we can get the real thing.
I don’t know it was for the men, but Rumb and the Laughing Man surprised us one day. The two men were on their way to the kitchen, taking a shortcut to the kitchen.
They paid no attention to us three women exercising at one end of the medical bay’s long hall. We listened as the two men talked about the habitat while they walked across the other end. They didn’t seem to even know we were there, but it was the first time I had ever heard Rumble doing something other than issuing orders or bawling us out.
Nix and Cooky and I just looked at each other in surprise. We all quietly kept on working with the machines so they wouldn’t notice us.
“…not in a lava tube. Most likely, I think….” Laughing Man hesitated. I stole a glance at him and noticed his hair was long enough now to puff up in a little wreath around his face. You have to remember that there is less gravity on the Moon.
When the geologist didn’t continue talking, Rumb asked. “What?”
“Well…um…even if it was open, the radiation would still build up here. The rocket pad was shut down and it’s gone now anyway. If you ask me, and it’s just a guess, I think he tapped into Conrad’s power supply somehow.”
“Yeah, I thought of that, too,” Rumb answered, “but it’s more probably the microwave beam. That’s what the base was using. I know…the dust…but I’ve…well, I’ve seen a few things. Base Conrad was definitely on the microwave somehow.”
The microwave, of course, was the energy beam from the big solar satellite in orbit high above.
“They had a few small fusion power facilities, sure,” Rumble said, “but that was for business. Anyway, Dr. Thompson wouldn’t tap into the base and give himself away. It would be too big a drawdown.”
Laughing Man agreed quickly. “Yeah, with a 18K area to maintain….”
“Well, he could power down parts of the habitat, and just bring them online as he used up stores.”
“True enough,” the geologist said. “There’d still be a wicked delta T, though, even insulated ….”
They passed through the kitchen door and out of hearing.
“Wow!” said Cooky.
“Did you see his hair?” I asked Nix. “Back in the old days, Rumb would have been all over that.”
It immediately felt like the wrong thing to say. About the old days, I mean. It was the first time any of us had referred to the overall situation out loud, and it wasn’t pleasant.
You see, we were alone in a way none of you on Earth can comprehend. Up there, after Base Conrad went there was no one else left but us five and Dr. Thompson on the Moon. The whole Moon. It’s a small thing in the sky now, but large if there are just a few of you, hiding underground from the terrible night. We had no way of knowing how long six human beings could last there.
Granted one of us was Mitchell Thompson. That was encouraging, though if we had realized how precarious things actually were, we would all lost our minds with fear.
That day in the medical bay, we three just went back to exercising. The new days were too uncertain to talk about just yet.
Memories were the most difficult things we had to face during that wonderful terraweek in the medical bay. I often had dreams about Euclides Hall. Even now it hurts – if only we had known, that last departure, that we never would see them again!
Sometimes during the day I would break into tears. We all did, except Rumble. He would just sit there and listen as one or the other of us talked our way through to some semblance of calm again. His silence was more comforting than anything he might have said.
This quality of his surprised us all. I think it was good to know that we still had our Leader, and he was responsible for us. I suppose you’d have to have been raised on the Moon to understand.
He also probably felt the same things we did but didn’t know how to talk about it with the rest of us. Anyway, he helped the four of us through our hard times when these came along.
One terramorning, our meal kits were spread out as usual, but the bots didn’t appear after we were done with breakfast. Rumble hadn’t heard about any change of schedule, but as we all talked it over, a message appeared on the duty board screen: “Meeting in lounge by the globe. Thompson.”
“It’s graduation day, people!” Rumble told us, and he immediately started to clean up his kit. The rest of us just sat still for a minute. Looking back on it, I can see now that we weren’t ready to leave the bay yet. It had become a refuge.
We probably would all still be sitting up there – and not long afterwards I found myself wishing that we had all stayed in the bay – but Rumb said, in something like his old exasperated tone, “Come on!”
We moved. After cleaning up, we each signed out of the bay and followed him out into the hall. The green door clicked shut behind us.
The long, gray hall had very poor lighting, I now noticed. It stretched away on either side of the medical bay door before disappearing into darkness, and it was, well, too quiet. Perhaps the perfect stillness to the air was a result of its being, as what we later learned, one of the main halls, running the entire length of a nearly empty Base Thompson.
At that moment the corridor’s chilly dimness reminded us that we were underground. Not far overhead, just a few meters above the relatively thin roof of our little inflatable habitat, frigid night enveloped the Moon’s surface, darkening the dust that shrouded everything and hiding even more effectively the littered ruins of Base Conrad Alpha that were scattered everywhere.
I made myself concentrate on finding the right way down this hall, not on thinking how cold it was. There were no obvious landmarks to go by, but something told me to turn right. After a few steps, just as I realized that no one else followed, Rumble asked, “Where are you going, Clarity?”
Without thinking first, I answered, “It’s up here.”
“Oh, no, it’s this way.” Rumble sounded quite certain. I had never challenged him before, but this time I was sure that this was the right way. He would have been open to reason, but I had none to give him. It was just instinct.
I couldn’t think of a thing to say and just stood there, feeling very strange inside.
After a few moments, Laughing Man said quietly, “Well, it’s a 50-50 choice. What say we follow Clarity down a few doors? We can always come back again if nothing shows up.”
I don’t know how our leader responded because he didn’t say anything and I didn’t dare look at him. I stared at a little electrical connector down near the floor of the hall, wondering how where all this difficulty had come from so suddenly.
When first Nix and then Cooky agreed with the Laughing Man, their voices seemed to come from a distance. Then Rumble stalked past me, not saying a word to anybody. My face burned, but I fell in behind him and heard the others moving behind me.
A light suddenly appeared not too far ahead of us on and Dr. Thompson bounced out into the hall. His dark eyes took us in, and he waved.
“Why all the glum faces? You got high rehab marks. You should be in the very pink of health! Thought you might have taken a wrong turn. Come on in.”
Rumble quickly replied, “We just got a little confused, sir. Here we are.”
He followed the great Lord into the lounge, and I heard Laughing Man, who was right behind me, mutter “It wasn’t us who was confused.”
“Shhh. Oh, sorry!” Cooky had accidentally elbowed me instead of him.
In the resulting little melee, somehow Nix ended up ahead of me and entered the lounge first. She told me later that Rumble fixed her with a mean stare but then saw who it was and smiled back at her. Good! He wasn’t all that angry then…at least not at the whole crew. I didn’t dare look at him the whole time we stayed in the lounge then.
If Dr. Thompson noticed anything, he didn’t let on. After we were all inside the lounge, he led us over to the big globe and had us sit down on the same couch again.
“I like habit,” he told us. He was still floating but this time he seemed a little off balance.
“You all look wonderful!” he told us. “Good!”
We thanked him, each of us. He looked ill, I thought. There was a little film of sweat on his face, and even in 1/6 G, he now got a little short of breath most every time he moved. His voice was still strong, though, and his eyes as sharp as ever. A homemade sling encased his left arm.
He started to wave his free arm, but it threw him off balance. He turned the movement into a little tug on his hand-held tether to keep him relatively stable.
“Nothing but a strain.” He considered his arm worthy of no more attention than that.
“There’s plenty of work to be done, but we’ll have a little party this evening. How does that sound?”
“Good,” I murmured out loud along with everybody else, but I really thinking that perhaps a visit to the medical bay would be a better for Dr. Thompson. There was a gray tone to his face, and he was bulkier than when we had seen him about 10 terradays earlier. His work suit was a different color, dark green, and therefore a different size.
While he kept talking, I tried to remember what size dark green was – nobody used those old things any more.
“First I’ll need to get a better idea of what you can do.”
He seemed less inclined to be expansive just now and quickly got to the point. “Now’s the time to tell everybody’s job description. Rumble, if you will.”
First Rumble, and then each of us in turn told him what our training had been, and our jobs on Rover Tau. Upon hearing that the Laughing Man was a geologist, Thompson laughed and said, “A fellow spirit!”
However, it was on me that he focused first.
“A track master!” He had this habit of repeating out loud the specialist titles some of us had. “Good! Good! We’ll start with you first. Come with me. The rest of you, wait here. I’ll be right back. Help yourselves to some candy.”
He beamed at Cooky, who smiled politely back at him without saying anything. On our last visit there, she had managed to snag a couple more of the big chunks of candy somehow, and we all had enjoyed them as treats in the medical bay. Well, even though he was a Lord, he didn’t seem angry about that.
Dr. Thompson led me back to the hallway we had just been in, and again we turned right, but this time he stopped quickly and opened the first door on the left that we came to. There was a lot of equipment in there, and most of it seemed to be in operation.
It was a large room. There was a base tracker system set up in one corner, and this was where we were bound. He asked me to sit down in the main chair.
“Does that look familiar to you, Clarity?”
It did, though the layout was a little different. It wasn’t as old fashioned as I thought it would be. Dr. Thompson had apparently done a few upgrades of his own.
He now showed me the tracking screen menus and then flicked through a few of them himself, stopping a screen with 18 icons, set up in three rows of six each.
“That looks like the Bradbury rocket storage facility,” I said.
“Good! Good! Now here we are,” and he moved a few screens around, identified our site, which was perhaps a little less than 3 km away. Then he showed me how to work my way back and forth, and a few of the other screens and functions.
“You’re a quick learner! That’s good, too! Now, just sit there for a little bit. I want to see how well you can set a track on a new course. You wait here, and I’ll go to my main and set up an obstacle course for you. You are here,” and here the Lord pressed some key, I didn’t notice which one it was. A bot appeared on the screen. “That’s on the surface, of course, almost overhead. It’s at the bot hangar, actually, outside. You are to lay out three tracks: one to the storage depot itself and one each to the two rocket icons that are either completely open or only have very little debris on top of it. I warn you, it won’t be easy. Are you game?”
“Yes, sir!” Inwardly I was pretty nervous. What would old Euclides daughter of P, my teacher, have said about a student of hers working under the great Mitchell Thompson? She probably would have cuffed me one and told me not to mess it up.
Dr. Thompson left. I was alone in the room. I ran my hands gently over all this equipment, getting familiar with the unusual parts of the functional design. I tried to focus my mind on every little thing I’d learned over the years at tracking school. It was a long wait. There was nothing in the room but three long banks of equipment. The main must be huge. Thompson had had many terrayears to build all this, and I wondered just what the extent of Base Thompson’s computer architecture might be.
It was a long wait, but then thirty-two obstacle icons were there on my tracking screen.
He certainly was giving me a tough test. At first it looked like an impossibly dense pattern between me and the Bradbury facility, with most of the obstacles many times the size of my little bot icon. Most had radiation hazard signs, too. Then I saw a way it might be possible to work through a field of particularly large obstacles.
It took several terrahours, but I laid a track to the rocket facility. As it turned out, that was the easy part, although Dr. Thompson tried to make it as difficult as possible by suddenly changing soil depths and other little surface factors that were quite challenging to cope with.
As I said, though, I got to the storage facility, but unfortunately every rocket icon had an obstacle on it. I managed to find a track to what appeared to be one of the least covered icons, but it was messy. Was he timing me?
Finally, I reached that point where you can’t do anything more without truly messing things up beyond hope. I could only find that one. There was another one, further away, but it was next to impossible to get to. The bot couldn’t fly, after all.
Would be acceptable? How was this test graded, anyway? There was no way to sign off after finishing and no sign of a response from the Lord for quite a while.
The wait was even longer than I had endured before the game. Eventually, though, the door to the room opened. Dr. Thompson walked in and, you won’t believe it, but he actually patted me on one shoulder! Mitchell Thompson, himself!
“Very good indeed!” He sounded quite pleased. For the first time I noticed there were others out in the hall. There was Rumb – he was smiling broadly and waved at me. Just a brief tingle of guilt about something passed through me and then I smiled back.
“Come on, Clarity,” our Lord said. “We’re late to dinner.”
But Thompson had already turned and was heading out into the hall again. I quickly followed and joined my fellow Blendings as we traipsed along the hall behind our guide. I was so flustered by his praise at the time that I can’t remember now if we turned right or left.
We chattered as we walked along. It was all very exciting. All of us had apparently passed similar tests in our own areas of expertise – Rumble and Nix with systems operation on board vehicles and the Laughing Man with what he said were quite rigorous tests about impact ejecta and their effects on lunar soil.
“Wait a minute. Vehicle systems, ejecta blankets….” Nix was the first to start putting the larger picture together.
Unfortunately, I interrupted her just then. “Where’s Cooky?”
None of the others had noticed her absence until then, either.
Dr. Thompson seemed to be enjoying the timing of the moment, for just then he stopped in front of a door on our left, opened it and managed a bow as he held onto its knob. A delicious aroma of mixed foods came out of that room, and we hardly waited for his invitation before going in. We immediately stopped at sight of a Lord’s Room – that is, with wood paneling on the wall, rich furniture and carpeting and small, and in this case, a fully set up dining table.
The great man behind us bumped into Nix, who was at the rear, and he laughed. “Go in! Go on, get in there! Don’t be shy! Let’s not stand on ceremony. Get moving!”
What with his jolly-sounding orders, and the tempting odors ahead of us, promising Lord foods such as synthetic roasts and a wide variety of delicately blended biotics, and even what smelled like real vegetables, we did indeed move.
After he showed each of us where to sit, our host turned to a wall panel near one end of the table, pressed something with his hand, and the panel slid up. He stepped inside there and disappeared. Cooky came out shortly after that with a tray of appetizers. Then Dr. Thompson came back out, bringing each of us a drink container.
“Don’t wait on ceremony,” he told us, but as hungry as we were, we certainly waited as we were served by a Lord as well as another Blending. It was an occasion unique in all Blending history on the Moon, as far as I knew.
After Dr. Thompson and our friend had brought out several carts’ worth of food containers, setting some of them upon on our round table and leaving the others nearby, they sat down together with us. I noticed that a chair had been left empty next to Laughing Man for Cooky.
The Lord took the other empty chair and beamed at us as he detached his drink container and raised it up. We did the same with ours, though I made a mental note to just sip lightly this time.
He was quite solemn for just a brief moment as he surveyed us. His eyes stayed that way for some time afterwards, until he got busy eating, but he did crinkle up the rest of his face in a smile as he made the toast.
“To hope! May it always spring eternal! Now let’s dig in.”
The alcohol this time was much milder. He called it wine, though it bore little resemblance to any of the natural fruit and grain products brewed here on Earth. It was pleasant enough, though, and I continued sipping on it as we started eating.
Oh, what a feast that was!
Cooky told us that Dr. Thompson had basically given her the run of a kitchen fully equipped for 150 people, just telling her when everything would need to be ready for serving. The microorganisms were already prepared, she said, and the synthesizers warmed up and ready to go. There was even enough of an abundance of water to make not only soup, but even to try her hand at blip cooking. It may have been the first time she or any Blending had done it.
What’s blip cooking? Oh, I can’t think of the technical name for it now. You know what I mean – that special zero-G style they came up with. It was for low-orbit Earth space tourists first. Only special Lords could get it on the Moon, because gravity there did require special equipment to simulate zero-G.
No? Well, I guess you wouldn’t have heard of it while growing up here during the hard times.
I do miss it now. Lunarian-style blip cooking used to be quite popular everywhere off planet because we could make special ingredients for it in low gravity that only needed the sudden, brief burst of heat and fluid that happens when water is boiled to shape up quite nicely into all sorts of lovely things.
It’s quite dramatic, so it was shown on cooking shows a lot. Cooky said later she would have served it at the table but didn’t want to take any chances. She needn’t have worried. Her blipped gelled salad during dinner and the sweet pudding afterwards were both delicious.
Besides those and the roast and biotics casseroles and other dishes, she had also made a special plate of baked caramel carrots for Rumb that he insisted on sharing it with everyone.
We ate it all up as if we hadn’t had a bite of food for weeks. That strange wine also went down more easily, the more of it you had.
It was wonderfully delicious and merry, that last meal any of us ever had on the Moon. But we Blendings always remembered whose presence we were in, and we conducted ourselves accordingly for most of the meal, although Dr. Thompson was happily drunk by the time Cooky brought out her blip-cooked spice pudding. He led us all in a big cheer that surprised and embarrassed the poor woman, but pleased her, too. I think our geologist would have kissed her right there at the table when she sat down beside him, if the Lord hadn’t been there with us.
It was during dessert that the trouble started. Dr. Thompson had just finished telling us how the Earth globe had gotten out here.
As it turned out, habitats aren’t furnished with those; they’re quite expensive and that one was his personal property. It had stood in the Great Hall outside the parliament chamber at Conrad even after he had resigned from government, but he took it with him when he fled the base for good.
“I don’t know why I keep it out in the lounge now. As a monument of sorts, I suppose. Let’s adjourn out there now and admire it!”
“First,” Rumble’s deep voice made the slight slurring of the word noticeable. He tried again more successfully. “First, Dr. Thompson, can I give a toast?”
This seemed to fascinate the Lord as well as delight him. “Absolutely, my boy. Go ahead.”
I was wondering what Rumb would say; after all, he had pretty much always gone by the books and not said much socially during all of the time any of us had known him.
I didn’t blame him for staying seated. After all that rich food and the wine, none of us was really looking forward to having to get up in our G-wear, let alone walk anywhere in it.
“Well, first off, I just wanted to say thank you, Dr. Thompson, for this meal and well, for everything. And Cooky,” Rumb turned to her next, “thanks for the carrots and all this. And, well, everybody – thanks for putting up with me sometimes.”
We all felt a little self-conscious, remembering how he had helped us in the sick bay and wondering if maybe he had heard some of the things we used to say about him when off work and in our bunks, back on Rover Tau. We all laughed, though. After all, we were together now in this strange new world.
Then our leader raised his drink container and the five of us around the table did so, too.
“To life,” he said.
Dr. Thompson sighed and nodded. “Here, here.”
“To life,” each of us murmured, and then we drank down the rest of our wine.
There was still quite a bit left in my container, and the resulting slow burn was distracting. When I was able to pay attention to things again, Cooky was speaking.
“…and how did you know when supper would be served?” she asked Dr. Thompson.
The great man was famous on Earth and the Moon for his tact and social skills, so I don’t believe he would otherwise have answered her as frankly as he did. It was the wine talking. Of course, we had had some, too.
Anyway, Dr. Thompson said, “Well, the level of difficulty inherent in each task was enormous, of course, but it could be assigned a numerical value. I had to extrapolate quite a bit but plugged what I believed to be fairly accurate numbers into the Blending equations and it worked out. Voila!”
“What are the Blending equations?” Nix asked.
“The ones used to assign you people work, course.” Something about the way he said “you people” made us all bristle a little. Unaware, he went on. “Since you five were put on the crew of a long-distance rover base, it was quite clear that some of the highest values were to be used. As always, they worked out accurately.”
“As always,” Nix murmured to herself.
The warm glow of the wine I had taken was gone now. “So any Blending could have done the test as well as I did?”
“Of course not, Clarity!” Thompson seemed surprised. “Don’t be silly! For what it’s worth, your work was the most problematical, and you not only found a solution, you found it more quickly than anyone else, even a Lord like me.”
“It’s not silly.” I said it quietly, though, not wanting to talk about this more with any Lord. Just wait until later, though, when we Blendings were by ourselves! I would have plenty to say then.
“You make do with what you’ve got.” There was some sort of a warning in Cooky’s tone, though she was looking down at the table and not addressing me or anyone else.
Laughing Man beside her was ready for his turn, though, and turned to address Dr. Thompson, who had gone quite still and looked completely flummoxed.
“No, it’s not silly.” After pausing as if he couldn’t believe he had just said that to Mitchell Thompson, the geologist threw all caution to the winds and went on. It was personal with him. “A kindred soul, you called me. Where’s the numbers in that? It was just as hard as Clarity’s work….”
“Of course, you all did your best.” Dr. Thompson was trying to manage a situation that had clearly he hadn’t expected. “No single one of you…”
“It’s not that,” Laughing Man flatly, in a tone I’d never heard him use before. “It’s not jealousy or stuff like that. It’s…you…we…we’re not numbers. That’s what you said.”
The great Lord gave a snort and shook his head. “I never…this is not right. You’re reading something that isn’t there into what I told you about the equations. Everybody uses them.”
Nix’s eyes flashed at that. She started to say something, but Rumble cut her off. “It’s free will, Dr. Thompson.”
“What?” Thompson sounded surprised again. Rumb repeated himself.
“Free will. We were all, well, kind of scared to work with you at first – you’re so famous. And we did all right. We’re all humans, you said. How would you feel? For us, it was the first time any of us really had done something difficult on our own, and then to get praised by Dr. Thompson – wow! Maybe it went to our heads, but how would you feel, going through all that and holding your head up high and then hearing that numbers predicted what you’d do? How would that feel?”
“Oh, I see. Well…oh.” Thompson actually blushed and seemed, for the first time we had met him, at a loss for words.
“I see,” he said again. “Well, yes, there’s a just a little misunderstanding here. You can have both statistical analysis and free will, Rumble. Individually, people will always surprise you, but in a group, yes, even one consisting of only five of you, certain things are predictable. I shouldn’t have put it that way. I’m sorry. Certainly, the tasks you did today – Clarity, your track finding; you, sir, your excellent interpretation of very scanty data about the status of the lunar surface; Nix and Rumble, the vehicle systems analyses and the very workable plans you drew up for a long-term low-power operation; Cooky, this marvelous meal….”
I was feeling much better by now, and Laughing Man looked distinctly embarrassed.
Cooky though, without raising her head, just said, “Don’t, Nix.”
Rumb also said something, but this time Nix charged ahead. What made it worse was that she was sitting next to the Lord, on his left.
“You’d say or do anything to keep us working, wouldn’t you? Dr. Thompson? Wouldn’t you?”
She turned to the rest of us, ignoring Rumble. “Don’t you see it’s real out there? Just like the dust was real and they didn’t tell us. He couldn’t tell us and thought ‘us people’ would never put it all together.”
“You tricked us, Dr. Thompson. None of you Lords can be trusted.” After that, Nix just sat quietly, waiting for him to lash out at her. She was sitting next to his free arm, after all.
For a moment or two, things were very quiet. Dr. Thompson’s face was quite red now, and he seemed to be trying to control himself.
I felt quite shocked. It just hadn’t occurred to me before now that this wasn’t be a simulation. I supposed it was all the stress we were under, but it did feel like he had tricked us, just as the Lords at Conrad Base had tricked us.
Great anger swept through me, not really at poor Dr. Thompson, but at all the Lords for everything – just everything. It was quickly followed by the realization that he had been trying to find a way through debris out there to a usable rocket.
Dr. Thompson was planning to use the rockets to escape the Moon.
I looked at him again in sudden wonder, but his heavy brows were lowering so I quickly looked away. Rumb was trying to get my attention, seeking an ally perhaps, before he spoke. What could I help him with?
Laughing Man erupted without warning. “What’s all this, Doctor?” It was almost a shout.
“Ten.” Dr. Thompson surprised all of us with this nonsensical statement, but Laughing Man quickly picked up where he’d left off.
“Why couldn’t you just tell us what the situation was? I was a fool not to see it right away.”
Thompson just said, “Nine.” He was looking down at his hands, clasped tightly in his lap, so Nix answered the Laughing Man.
“It would have changed the equations, don’t you see?” Her voice dripped sarcasm and some sizzles of deep hate. “Blendings – us people – must live and die by the numbers, or the whole universe will collapse.”
This brought Cooky out. “No…Nix! The rockets were destroyed by debris just like Tau was!”
“No! Yes!” I was confused. Nix’s anger was contagious. “He lied to us!” That was something to hold onto. It helped me through the confusion.
“People…” Everybody ignore Rumb.
“We don’t need to be doing this right now. Listen to me.” There was an edge to Rumble’s voice now, too.
“I should have known….” Laughing Man sounded bitter, but Thompson interrupted him with a roar.
“Sevensixfivefourthreetwoone! Sweet Jesus!”
All of us immediately cringed and fell back into the old way of thinking again. Had we been insane? It was true. Blendings just couldn’t handle freedom. Talking back to a Lord was a capital offense, and here we were at his table, too!
Mitchell Thompson didn’t say anything for quite a while as he again tried to master himself. He kept his hands clenched together the whole time, though it must have hurt his injured arm in the sling.
Rumble had his head in his hands, but the rest of us were sitting bolt upright, staring straight ahead, each watching our master surreptitiously.
Nix was between me and him. When he was through with her and came after me, where could I go? It was his base as well as his table. Just like the old days.
And he had lied to us, just like the old days. Anger and fear fought for control of me. It was a relief to forget them both briefly when Dr. Thompson spoke again.
“I have not ever taken abuse lightly,” he began, speaking slowly and lingering on the “s” a little.
After a pause, he carried on. “You, none of you…Blendings….”
Here, he couldn’t restrain himself. “Yes, Blendings!” he shouted at us. “If you want to reforge your shackles and put them back on, I won’t stop you. Attention! Eyes forward!”
We were on our feet before he could finish, hearts pounding in fear.
“None of you know what you almost provoked just now,” he said fiercely. “You think you do, perhaps. You would be surprised. But this is not the time or place. Time…ha! We haven’t got much left of that!”
He surveyed us all from his seats and hissed, “Orders you want? Orders you’ll get.”
His face turned quite gray then and a sudden sweat gleamed on his face. He paused quite some time, and then resumed in a different, calmer voice. “I owe it to myself, not to any of you ingrates, to explain to you what you will be doing and why. At ease!”
We relaxed our stances a little bit, eyes still straight ahead. Dr. Thompson took a deep sip on his container and found out it was empty.
“Blast it! I wanted to do this out by the globe after a couple songs.” He interrupted himself here to sing something that sounded like, “It’s a long way…to tip a rarey.”
Then he stopped singing, and without a pause, started talking again. “It’s not something a man wants to order another man to do, jump off into the unknown like that. I made sure you’d be healthy and in a well-fed, happy condition to make your choices – free will! I know what that is! But since you have demonstrated your complete slavery to habit and stupidity, well, you leave me no choice and therefore you yourselves will have none.”
It was terrible, the way he said that, but he didn’t pause. “Down at the very end of that hall out there – the one I’ve been leading you up and down as if you were honored guests, the more fool me! – down at the very end of Base Thompson on this side, you will find a door, and beyond that, you will find a rocket hangar. That’s a custom job. I’ve spent most of my time out here building it and the machinery that could lower those Bradbury’s down here, in case someone at Moonbase One found me and started firing.”
Several minutes of quiet went by after that. Without turning my head, I watched him help himself to Nix’s drink container. That was empty, too. He seemed to be having difficulty breathing, but none of us dared move.
“There,” Dr. Thompson finally said. “Mouth gets dry easily these days. Oh yes! I never thought they’d fire Blendings at me after they apparently spotted my test. Oh, yes! I tested the mechanism after it was obvious how things were going at the big base. They sent you out to investigate. Well, never mind now. Listen up!”
He started to gave us our orders. “There’s air in there, but you’ll have to suit up. The dust control isn’t very good. Good enough for one shot, though. We have enough power for another 15 hours anyway, including suit recharges. The big batteries will take that, plus one rocket firing. I’ve made some little tweaks of my own, you know. After that, no more power. For anything. I lost the base, you see. And with the dust up there, no energy renewal. Oh, it was my own fault. Never was a big fan of nuclear powering, and so I made some tweaks to get around that here without having to use the dirty stuff. That was lack of foresight. Now, the smoldering remnants of, among other things, the last nuclear plants on the Moon are scattered all over the landscape up there…useless!”
Thompson inclined his head up toward the ceiling. He obviously was getting tired now, but his dark eyes still flashed angrily as he looked at us.
“You Blendings will spend the next 11 hours moving certain things from rockets 1, 3 and 6 to rocket 9,” he told us. “In that order: 1, 3 and then 6. To rocket #9. You will then await further orders. No, don’t look at me like that. I’m not going to leave you to die of cold and air hunger on a darkened Moon! What kind of monster do you think I am? Oh, that’s right, I’m a Lord. The worst kind of monster in the universe to you people.”
He sighed and muttered something to himself. The man needed to lie down, but he wouldn’t relax as long as we were there. He gave us specific orders, quite formally, Lord to Blendings, and soon afterwards, we started on the longest and most difficult work shift I have ever endured.
First, there was a large multiple-seating framework in #1 that we had to move to rocket #9, and that took most of our time. The seats had already been detached and the frame partially shifted, but it all was hanging there loose when we saw it. Then there were many, many containers of electronic files and a few books and even some handwritten notes in the other two rockets that had to be moved.
We were on our own. Thompson left us alone out there, and he didn’t poison our air to make us compliant, but we still worked diligently, never saying a word to anyone.
It was a huge bay, big enough to hold the heavy equipment he had used to carve it out of the basalt as well as the 18 rockets and a few oversized storage bins. The lighting was chemical, I think, but adequate. The bay’s floor was perfectly level and smooth, but the walls were roughly, except near the storage bins. In the rocky roof were smooth inset circles of complex design, 18 in all; each sat just a few feet away from the nose of its matching rocket.
What? We called them Bradbury’s because they were built with the old supply rocket design, standing vertically.
Well, the Blending equations weren’t correct that time, because we were still busy off-loading #6 as the 11-hour mark approached. All of us were very tired.
Then the base door opened up and Dr. Thompson joined us. He was also in a sealed walking suit and wearing the G-wear work coat and hat he had on when we had first met him. It was a little hard to see his face but he seemed pleased.
We didn’t expect him to say “Good!” again, and he didn’t, but he was reasonably decent to us, not angry, as he checked our work and had us line up by the #9 ramp. Then he ordered us in, one by one. Rumb was first and had to climb up into the cockpit; hen Nix joined him up there, while the rest of us climbed up over the seating frame, with Dr. Thompson bringing up the rear.
“Lie down now, each of you. You really shouldn’t have gravitywear on, but there was nothing else for it.”
“There now.” I could see his face clearly as he strapped me into a seat. He looked quite calm and never paid me the least attention, other than a brief, “There you go, Clarity,” before he moved on to the Laughing Man. When the three of us were strapped in, I thought he would climb up to the cockpit, but Rumble climbed back down instead.
“She’s strapped in up there then?” Thompson asked him.
“Come with me then.” The two men crawled back down away from us, and though none of us could see them now, I heard bumps and thuds and some muttering back there. Then the door closed behind us and Rumb crawled up, greeting each of us in turn.
“Did he say where we were going, Rumb?” Laughing Man asked.
It was the first time I thought about it. Dr. Thompson had so scared me and then gotten us so busy, I just hadn’t been thinking clearly.
He paused before climbing into the cockpit.
“Rumb! There’s still debris out there, on top of the roof, I mean.” I tried to gesture but the straps held my arms in.
“Oh yeah. He’s moving it now.”
Rumble then climbed into the cockpit to have a few words with Nix before he scrambled down past us one last time, not looking at any of us.
After a little bit of bumping and thudding, I heard the door close behind us and then the seals click in and the hydraulics whooshed, meaning that meant we were closed up for flight. There were a couple empty seats below us, but I couldn’t tell which one Rumb chose. He could be very quiet when he wanted to be.
“What about Dr. Thompson?” I asked him. “He has to get in the cockpit.”
Rumb didn’t answer. In fact, he didn’t say a word during the next two hours, as we just lay there and wondered, first to ourselves and then in a group discussion over the com links, about what was happening and what would happen next. It was scary.
Nix joined in briefly, saying that she was waiting for Dr. Thompson to call in. She had to say it a few times.
It seemed like forever before we heard his voice in our ears. Now it was immediately recognizable, though once again it was quite faint and crackly.
“Drat! Can you hear me? Hello?”
He just wasn’t that good on commo protocol, I guess. Nix handled the communication.
“Yes, doctor. We can hear you just fine. Where are you?”
“There’s been a bit of a problem, I’m afraid. I’m up above you, in your bot #1. I’m stuck!”
“What’s he doing out there?” Laughing Man asked right along with Nix, who said in surprise, “What are you doing up there?”
“Well, somebody had to move that bit of debris – I can’t see what it is. It’s sitting on the cover. Can’t open up with that there. You may have to power down. It’s not that big, I think I could …. Who the devil is that? Who hit me?”
“It’s a long way to taper airy….”
Rumb was singing! Then he said, “Exercising free will and the laws of physics, hopefully. Please hit the juice, doctor. Please. That’s it. Keep the momentum going. I can’t stop now.”
“Taper airy! Merciful…All right, I’m moving now. Thank you. Over here.”
Rumb was in #4. Out there on the lunar surface. At night.
All three of us in the passenger compartment called his name, while Dr. Thompson started singing that crazy song with him.
Thompson knew the words, but Rumble kept up his part, too, going “la-la-la” after the first sentence or so. The breaks in his voice told us how much maneuvering he was doing at the console while he sang. One person can run a bot, but it’s not easy.
We all quieted down and just listened to them. Nix broke in on our headphones.
“He knew what he was doing,” Nix told us. “Rumb thinks the two of them can do it, but one couldn’t do it alone. He showed me what Dr. Thompson had taught him about flying this thing; it’s the same vehicle Thompson tested us on. I’m your pilot now.”
“To where?” I asked her.
Cooky freaked out, and I think we all did a little bit, too.
The two men out on the surface must have been listening in because their songs stopped and Dr. Thompson quieted us down with a combination of verbal bullying and cajoling and so forth.
“Good! Good!,” he finally said when he could eventually hear himself over our wailing.
“I didn’t want it to be a surprise anyway. I was saving it for our talk at the globe. Seeing the globe would have made it easier for you. I’ve been calling Earth, you know, every now and then, but I couldn’t use much power, or they would have picked up my signal at Moonbase One. I can’t get a reply, but well, there are a few signs that the atmosphere is clearing there. I wish we could see it, but the dust is too thick above us. Once I thought I heard some broadcasts, too. That never would have reached us if the skies weren’t clearer. There is some life on the Earth now. I just know it. Some chance they survived anyway. There’s no luck left here on the Moon any more. Not now. You five, no, four – you’ll have a chance. Rumble! You fool! Wait a moment, did that thing just move?”
“Yes, sir.” Rumb started singing again.
“Hush!” That’s all there was for a while, as the two men worked in silence. They must have been able to see what each of them was doing, because neither spoke a word. I looked at the clock in the tray in front of me. The base had to be out of power by now. Enough left for 15 hours plus one launch, the Lord had said.
“There!” The two men said it together, then Dr. Thompson added, “Hurry, lad. Push now.”
After a few moments, Rumble called in. “Nix! Now’s the time. Good luck!”
“Good luck, Rumb,” she murmured.
“Lad, it’s Tipperary. Say it after me. Tip-er-ar-ry.”
“That’s right. Sing it now after me. It goes like this. ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go.’ That’s right! ‘To the sweetest girl I know….”
After humming a few bars, he worked Rumb through the whole tune, while those of us inside felt the first little tremble and thrill that ran through our vehicle and made the seats quiver.
“It’s working,” I heard Nix say and then she much have gotten very busy, because she said nothing more for a while.
All of us wanted to say something to Rumb, but we couldn’t. Thompson wouldn’t let us get a word in edgewise.
He had been right, both about how well his tenor and Rumb’s baritone sounded together, as well as about power left for the launch. Our rocket’s must have cleared the dust without fouling once it lifted off. We kept moving, though only Nix could see what was happening outside.
“Goodby Leicester Square! It’s a long way….”
We could still hear them singing, getting more and more faint, when Nix shouted, “Earth! Earth!”
An image flickered on the screen next to the clock in front of me. A live image of Earth, and I was wordless for a while.
Gone were the fires and black smoke. The surface of that globe was almost pure white now, but we saw blue and brown colors through breaks in the clouds here and there.
Of course, we now know how our planet’s complex systems cleansed the worst of the war’s residuals from the skies, at least, fairly quickly. When we first saw Earth, though, it was a most beautiful and unexpected sight!
“I thought I was going to Hell,” Cooky said in a hushed voice.
Right about then, we all realized at the same time that the Men in the Moon had stopped singing, or else the bots were too far out of range now to be heard, because all of us started crying at once.
That’s leaves a terrible mess in zero-G, of course. We had to unstrap to clean it all up, and I found the note Rumb had left me.
I learned many things during the trip to Earth. There was plenty of time to fill before our rocket reached its pre-programmed destination, here on Kodiak Island, and we all got into a few of the books and files that Dr. Thompson had stashed aboard.
Those were only the ones he considered the most important, of course. Laughing Man had heard him tell Rumb that 10 rockets’ worth of notes, records and other important things were going to be left behind.
The mathematics files were the most interesting to me. I had noticed the name of Euclides among them, and for the first time discovered that it wasn’t just a crater. It was a human being’s name. It changed me in some small but important way to know my clan, our clan, wasn’t named after a lunar landmark but instead after a very famous Earth man. There was just a spark of kinship born then that has since grown into a warming fire.
How fortunate we were to land here, where mixed settlements are the rule and people are open minded!
Yes, Fridan, we landed lightly enough at the old spaceport, which wasn’t too heavily damaged in the war, but Earth’s gravity immediately broke three of my ribs when I tried to sit up. Cooky broke her arm. We were all very dizzy, too, and needed a long period of recovery afterward, but there’s no time to tell of it now. There go the dinner bells. We’re late.
What? Will we go back? Yes.
Should we, you ask. Well, that depends on what we choose to take with us. It’s not going to happen again for a long time. Maybe mankind will have learned enough by then to make better choices.
One thing only is certain – next week, first period: a comprehensive test on this week’s lesson, including one proof of your own choice and two of mine. Class dismissed.
© B. J. Deming, 2011.
All rights reserved.
Resources used for the science part of this story include: